Well, this isn’t the story of how I died. If it was, I wouldn’t be here to tell it. Maybe Zara would have told it from the best of what she knew, how a frozen body was found, a face distorted in horror, limbs twisted and turned inside-out, wrung like laundry. But this isn’t that story.
This is the story of discovering over minutes if not hours, that I was lying on hard ground, on a prickly mix of pine needles, thistles and sharp stones. There were needles reaching up into my face and it felt as they were being pulsed with electricity. I wanted sleep. I wanted silence. But my heartbeat wouldn’t let up pounding in my ears, and the needles wouldn’t stop with their alarm-clock bursts of electricity.
When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I finally turned my head.
I was lying amongst forest, a mix of trees and ferns and grasping vines, on a low slope, with roots knotted around the earth and wild violets growing at the feet of great tree-trunks.
I could see Karen lying nearby. Or at least I thought it was Karen. It was the human parts of her, Karen without her skin wrapped in whitish-grey scales, but with her head tilted at a nasty angle, and her ears filled with blood that trailed down into the pine-needles and gravel.
My body felt like lead, but I dragged myself over to her and reached a couple of fingers out for her neck. It was hard to be sure of anything, if the warmth and pulse I felt were hers or mine. But she stirred a little bit as I touched her.
Her head turned slowly.
“Hey, hey. Can you hear me?”
“Do you think you’re okay?”
She just stared as if she almost didn’t register the question. “What happened?”
“Well, we’re not as dead as I thought we were going to be.”
“But we killed them.”
“We had to do that.”
“It’s… so quiet…so…”
I realised that it was more than her body that was different. The disconnected expression was gone from her face, and it left behind something more confused than ever. As if her mind was nearly whole but she didn’t know what to do with it, she’d forgotten.
I dragged myself up to my knees and knelt over her, “I can’t really tell if you’re badly hurt or not.” I tilted her head a little towards me, “does it hurt?”
“I don’t… I don’t…know.”
I could kind of understood that, the feeling that ran through every nerve ending both did and didn’t feel like pain. “Do you think you can move? I can help you if you can’t.” Though I wasn’t sure how far my own body would take me.
“Not sure,” she seemed to be struggling now, to make the world make sense. “It’s all gone… it looks… so… dead.”
“They really got into you, didn’t they?”
“I guess they did. I can’t remember things clearly before I started hearing them.”
“It’ll come back.” I hoped. I guessed.
“There’s no more music.”
“Sorry. Hey, we need to go. I don’t know where we are or how long we’ve been here, but I don’t know if they’ll search for us in a hurry, they’re expecting to find corpses. I’m sorry if this next bit hurts us both.”
I managed to get the two of us standing. Karen seemed increasingly disorientated, and I wondered how much of her had died with that nest. I wrapped her arm over my shoulder, and started a heavy trek uphill towards a few slivers of blue between the stripy tangle of foliage.
It turned out the distance wasn’t as far as all that, though further than I had any memory of going in the real world. As we emerged from the trees, I could see that the vehicles were all still parked up near where the gumline had been. There was none of that now. The frosting and earth-bound clouds were all gone, just a layer like soot where all that had been.
It was beginning to sink in at last, that we’d actually won, that I would actually – against all expectation – live to tell about this. And in the dawning of that realisation, an urgent need to find Zara. She had to know I was still alive. I had to let her know that. I was filled with visions of her shooting Seth point-blank in the head. There’s no need for that now. And what if someone shot back?
Karen grunted beneath my changed pace.
“Sorry. I just… Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” she murmured. Her voice sounded so far away I was afraid I might be losing her.
I shifted her weight against me to meet her eyes, “what’s happening to you?”
Her head lolled, “Don’t know. Not really. I think…” but the thought slipped away from her.
“It’s all right, you’ll be all right, we just have to get you to someone who can help you.”
And I just had to find Zara.
But it was she who found me in the end. I heard her screaming my name before I saw her, and then I saw her running full tilt across the grass towards me. There was a small knot of people nearby, and they broke into a run as well. I saw Tristan was in the mix, along with a few of Karen’s people. But it was Zara who was in the lead, and she threw herself into me like a battering ram. I felt the wind get bowled right out of me and I almost lost my footing. I could hardly keep a hold of Karen while at the same time wrestle with Zara’s embrace. Fortunately, Elder and one of his deputies were close behind; I watched from the corner of my eye as they took charge of Karen. After that I could give myself solely and thoughtlessly over to Zara’s arms, bury myself inside her, never come up again for air.
Eventually we walked up to where the cars were parked. I could see by the covered figures laid out in rows on the ground that there had been casualties. There were eight figures, each blanketed, face covered.
My eyes darted to Zara.
“Not us,” she said softly, “a couple of Seth’s, and the other six from the commune.”
Most of those girls had been pregnant. I recalled the bullets slicing that woman to pieces right in front of my eyes. The moment had been too full for that image to fully hit me at the time. “How many were friendly fire?”
She didn’t know.
I recognised Tamsin by the colour of her jersey, lying on the grass, against the shelter of Seth’s truck.
“She’s okay,” Zara said, “she’s cut, but it won’t do her any long-term damage.”
I hurried over, all the same. Greg was sitting over her, gently massaging her shoulder. His eyes widened at the sight of me.
“Surprise. Not dead.”
“That is a surprise.”
“Tell me about it.’
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but how not?”
“I’ve really no idea.”
Tamsin tried to sit up.
I helped Greg press her down. “You’re bleeding. Stay still.”
“But you’re alive.”
“Her too. She’s a bit messed up, I guess. I don’t really know what we did.”
Greg answered, “Well, I think you saved the world.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“We’ll find out in time, I suppose.”
Even if that part was true, we weren’t out of the woods. The genie of street gangs and lawlessness in an overrun world couldn’t just be put back in the bottle. Who was even left to take charge? Did this ‘cure’ even spread that far? This was too much thinking for me, it was too much of everything.
Seth leant against the truck, half smiling. He looked at Zara, “you wanna take that shot?”
She barely acknowledged him.
“How about you?” He held a pistol out towards me. I realised mine was long gone.
Did my hand twitch towards it?
“You’ve earnt it, I guess.”
“Are you serious?”
“It seems fair.”
If there was any fear in him, it wasn’t showing. I actually think I could have taken that pistol, fired a shot into his forehead, and he wouldn’t have so much as blinked. I couldn’t feel any temptation. It was over, I was alive. The only thing I felt any yearning for was sleep.
Zara sunk into my chest, she pressed her head into the hollow between my neck and shoulder, “so, cowboy, when are we going to get married then?”
I wish I could say that this was happily every after. But there is no ever after. The universe is infinite, but nothing else gets an ever. All I can say is that we buried our dead, and travelled in thread-bare convoy back to where we came from. I was waiting all the while for the switch, for the moment when it all came apart, and a new wave of gum came rolling towards us, heralded by racing spiders.
None of that happened.
I stood in the hallway, bags packed, watching as Tamsin leaned against a hallway wall, and Greg leaned over towards her, saying something quiet that made her laugh and blush.
“There’s something there, isn’t there?” I said to Tristan, standing beside me.
“It’s okay,” he said, “Greg’s a good guy. He won’t mess with her.”
“Hey, I know. I know Greg, now.”
“It looks like I’m going to be the single one. Me and Todd. You gotta find me a girl out on our travels.”
Not Karen. She’d returned to the commune. Both Tristan and I had some reservations about that, but they’d seemed adamant, and Karen had seemed – to the degree that she could – willing to return with them. We’d agreed to check on her. We didn’t really know what else to do.
Seth said to me, “you don’t have to go, you know.”
“Yeah, but I think…” I let that hang in the air.
“You’re no more use to me as a weapon.” He was right, the scales were gone, my skin was as smooth as if they’d never been there, almost as if someone had reached back through time and taken them way before they’d even begun to manifest. Nothing left but burst eardrums and a fatigue that echoed through every muscle for the next week or so before it finally let up.
“Still…” it was just hard to lose the image of Seth with his gun to Zara’s head. It was hard to forget that he’d sent me off to die.
“Like I said, it’s your choice. There’s room for us all, but I won’t stop you leaving.”
I figured we’d be all right. We’d find a farmhouse deserted somewhere, we’d set up there, grow crops, maybe trade with the commune for bees and chickens. There was no guarantee of plain sailing, but we could give it a go. “It’s okay,” I said, “we know where to find you if we need you.”
“We owe you one. So, yeah. Maybe by this time next year the world’s back to normal, and I can buy you a drink at the pub or something.”
I wasn’t convinced. The breakdown of law, order and government seemed like a pretty far-reaching thing. I didn’t know if we’d be getting the old world back. Not in its entirety.
I left my short history with Seth. “Maybe someone wants to add to it.”
He shrugged. “Maybe they will.”
“We’ll be back, from time to time.” To trade maybe, and to visit Dinah.
I shook Seth’s hand upon departing, because it seemed somehow fair. Because the feelings stood in danger of festering. And who’s to say if he made the right choice, and who knows how far he would have been willing to go to persuade me. Some such things are better left unknown – perhaps to all of us.
Zara slid into the passenger seat beside me. She waved to some of Seth’s crowd – though she’d never include Seth himself in the gesture. The rest of us moved into our own vehicles. A convoy of three cars. Travel by daylight seemed safest. Automatic weapons in back seats. There was plenty of danger still out there.
And these are the last pages of the brief history of the Camp Foggerty family. I don’t know where we’ll go in the end, or what more will become of the camp. We all hope for normal days, but nobody knows. I still have my girl at my side. A new family. A new hope. And a feeling that I was the one to bring it about. You never really think you’re going to be that guy, and I’m not even sure if I am that guy. Whatever the case, I’m glad to be alive, and I’m glad I can see an end to the dark days.
I never did answer that guy. On the day we set out. World-End or not World-End? Odds of three to four. I don’t know what I would have bet at the time. Now, I know I’m betting against.
So, yeah maybe that’s as good as it gets.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work