The Battle for the Ground Through Fourth Floors.
That’s what I’ve been calling it in my mind.
I suppose it was something that was always on the brink of happening, once the supermarkets and warehouses had been sacked and exhausted, that private homes would start to be next. Self-contained houses for easier targets, apartment buildings like ours for a half decent score.
And our place. It wasn’t fancy, the flats were all pretty little, but the building was old and had once been grand. It was ten storeys high and we were on the sixth floor. We had a clear view out over the street. It was a nice enough place.
And maybe I haven’t been as clear about this as I could have been. We were a community of sorts. It wasn’t the sort of place where everyone knew everyone and everyone hung out, but we had a rough idea who our neighbours were and sometimes someone would knock on the door with a request for batteries or a screwdriver, or with mis-delivered mail, or a petition for the signing. And since the world had gone to sticky white shit all around us, we had all been kinda keeping tabs on each other. We were mostly young and transient, but we were half decent. Mostly.
Maybe that saved us.
Look, it all went down like this: an early morning, just a little before sunrise. I was lying in bed, mostly asleep, when I started hearing the noises. It sounded like crashing and banging to begin with, somewhere beneath us. Not that loud at first, but growing in volume, and then there was shouting and screaming thrown into the mix. A kind of roaring sound. Then the gunshot that got me all the way woken up.
Zara was sat up beside me, “Did you hear that?”
“Yeah. That’s was in the building.”
“We should do… something.” I was shrugging on jeans and a t-shirt, with the intention of going to the window to find out what was going on, when I heard someone thumping on our door.
My first thought: locked. We have locked it? We have locked the door?
The thumping went on.
Zara looked at me.
“Stay there,” I’m not sure I had a whole bunch of hope that she actually would, but I hurried out into the lounge, stopping at the kitchen counter to look at those knives Zara had been contemplating when we went out looking for Mikey. My hand hovered for a moment before I grabbed the handle of one and tucked it into the back pocket of my jeans.
I heard a voice I wasn’t quite sure I recognised. “Let me in! Come on! Shit’s going down.”
I opened the door enough of a fraction to see James Rand from down the hall. He was barefoot, and in his pyjamas, but he was carrying a cricket bat. If it hadn’t been for the look on his face and the escalating cacophony from downstairs, I probably would be have tempted to laugh. But there was nothing comic in that facial expression. I flung the door wide open for him to come in.
“What’s going on, James?”
“We’re being attacked.”
“Is Zara here?”
“I don’t need to tell you… she’s in danger. Well, everyone…”
“Tell me what’s going on.”
“There’s a gang. A whole fuckload of bandits, and they’ve broken down the front door and now they’re working their way through the building flat by flat, taking whatever they can get their hands on and killing and raping people.”
I glanced towards the bedroom. Sure enough: Zara standing there in the doorway.
“They’ll take the whole building,” James said.
I admit this. My first thoughts leapt towards the fire escape.
“They’ve cleared out the first two floors – at least. I’m trying to gather people. We have to take a stand if we don’t want to end up on the streets or worse.”
“The police…” a dim, half-hearted hope, just thrown to the wind out of habit.
James shook his head.
“Okay, okay,” I tried to keep that thrumming, earthquake-like sensation that was my heartbeat from overwhelming me, “what do we do?”
“Do you have any guns?”
I shook my head, “or swords, or crossbows, or a machete.”
“They’ve got knives and iron bars. There’s a chainsaw. A couple of guns.”
I pulled the little kitchen knife out of my back pocket and smacked it onto the palm of my other hand.
“Great,” James sighed.
“Sorry.” I figured I might need something bigger, heavier, but I could only juggle in my head between the mini-fire extinguisher, and a frying pan.
Zara was walking over to the counter to grab the biggest knife.
“Oh no,” I said, “you stay here.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“No, it’s our fucking home being invaded and nobody to save us except us. For fuck sake, Nate, do you think there’ll be anywhere to run or hide if they get to this flat?”
“Let us…” Us men? But I didn’t have time for those kinds of sensibilities right now.
James said, “We gotta go, man. We’re gathering on the stairwell between the third and fourth floors. We don’t have all day.”
Zara was throwing a heavy, buckle-laden jacket on over her nightie. She climbed into a pair of my jeans. “Let’s do this thing.”
“Do not enjoy this.”
But let’s put all our cards on the table, shall we? As we went marching down the hall towards the stairwell, a part of me was enjoying it. A mixture, I guess, of the camaraderie and the danger. This was me: I had never been in a real fight in my life. A couple of school-yard scuffles that were about a decade old now, and literally, that was it. I didn’t know what to do. Not really. And now we were about to be fighting for our lives. I had no illusions about that. People were probably going to die here. People I knew, maybe right next to me, maybe me, or Zara. But I felt almost as high as I felt terrified.
At the stairwell there was a clot of about forty of us. Mostly the young guys like me, but some girls as well and, horrifying, a couple of kids. We were all armed with makeshift household items. It didn’t look like anybody owned a gun. There was pepper spray, some oven cleaner. A couple of guys who were probably still technically teenagers, who stood with bright, fluorescent water pistols.
“Really?” I said.
He patted the barrel. “Pure bleach. It’ll blind them.”
He eyed up my little fire extinguisher.
“Whatever. It’s solid.”
I wasn’t sure at first if anybody was in charge; but then I saw a guy in his forties who I didn’t know, who was organising people into some sort of position. He’d collected a washing basket and it was being filled with small, comparatively heavy objects that could be used as missiles. Packets of marbles, heavy vases, coasters, crockery.
“Good in a fight?” he asked me.
I shook my head.
“Yeah well, it’s a changed world.”
I gestured slightly towards what seemed to be a twelve-year-old boy and a girl not much older.
“Everybody we could drag out in a hurry.”
“Do we even stand a chance?”
He shook his head, “God only knows,” and he held his hand out to me, “Jeff.”
I wondered how long he’d lived here for.
We were crouched in that space for what felt like close to an hour but was probably more like ten minutes, before the noises from below us started getting closer. I could hear them as they wound their way upstairs. Do they know we’re here? Do they expect us to fight?
I wondered if we even would. Would we break and run as soon as blood was drawn, and the first bones crunched beneath heavy iron?
And then they appeared. And I tell you, I think this was the moment. I think it was right then, seeing them come surging into view, I think that’s when shit finally got real for me. This was happening.
I think I was afraid of breaking and fleeing, I was afraid of collapsing in useless panic, or wetting my pants, or throwing up all over myself. But honestly, that lasted a handful of seconds. There was no real time for it. These thugs were a menacing sight, no bloody question: dressed in black and leather, faces covered, bodies studded with metal, with chains and coins. Some of them had symbols painted across their foreheads. They were armed with real weapons. I didn’t see a gun, but I saw plenty of crowbars and industrial-strength knives. A couple of guys had axes. In the middle, and fucking huge – six foot tall and almost as wide – there was the guy with the chainsaw. I knew what that roaring sound I’d heard earlier had been.
When this is all over, I’m going to take up sword collecting.
I probably didn’t think that at the time. I don’t think my mind had room for thoughts, not the kind that are made up out of words at least. I think maybe I pictured a great big medieval broadsword in my hand instead of this compact fire extinguisher; an image of myself with that blade in my hand, in chain mail, with an incongruous motorcycle helmet, the sword almost as tall as I was.
The group charged us. Numbers were even, but they were a lot better at this than we were. I was acutely and wordlessly aware that I was maybe about to die.
And then they were on top of us. I was defending myself against a guy carrying an axe. This was a bigger axe than anyone rightfully needs to chop wood with. This was a fireman’s type axe, good for cutting through doors and walls into burning buildings. For cutting through idiots who throw themselves into the middle of a fight they don’t know how to handle. I barely ducked out of the way as it swung an inch from my shoulders. The guy wielding it was grinning, he was berserk with the thrill of the fight. He was high too, I think, and he was getting off on the mix of adrenaline, chemicals and violence. He shrieked at me as he re-weighted the axe and swung it back at my head.
That probably should have been it. I was too startled and out-of-my-depth to do more than stare. It was only the stream of cloudy liquid that came shooting past me that saved my life. It was one of bleach-shooters, pumping bleach at my assailant’s face. It was a direct hit, and it was enough to make the guy stagger back, his battle-cry turning into a wail of unexpected pain. His backwards stagger took the arc of his blade away from what would have been the side of my head.
The kid grinned at me.
I had to fight to pull myself together. There were people around me here who needed me to step up. There was Zara here, and unless I wanted these pieces of shit to get their hands on her I had to drive them off. I gritted my teeth, stepped forward.
If axe-guy was blinded, he didn’t show it. His eyes looked red and burned – the bleach was the good stuff, apparently – but he wasn’t badly slowed. He was charging at me again. But this time I was a little bit better prepared. I brought the fire extinguisher up in some sort of instinctive parry. The blade hit it, burying deep, going almost right through. White powder sizzled up from where it had been slashed. And then there was this moment where I was eye to eye with him, our weapons buried in each other’s. Weirdly, I came out of it a fraction of a second before he did; I had time to aim a kick dead centre to his stomach, and to feel that brief burn of excitement as it off-balanced him, as he stumbled backwards against one of his companions.
In another instant though I was being grabbed by one arm and yanked sideways. I came face to face with another painted thug. If he was armed, he’d lost the weapon, just as I’d suddenly lost mine. But his fists were covered in thick, metalled gloves. He threw a punch into my face before I had time to see it coming. And the power behind it: I was reeling. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My vision blurred, it went sideways, it pixelated, it nearly gave out altogether. I was dropped to my hands and knees. And while down there I was being pummelled by more than one set of fists. There was too much adrenaline for the pain to really kick in, but there was also a swell of fear, of near-panic, because I couldn’t get up, and I couldn’t think past this rain of blows. I saw the shadow above me of a figure with a long weapon – golf club? poker? pool cue? – about to bring it down on my head. I acted with instinct, because, let’s face it, it’s not as if I had anything else to act with. I threw myself at the pair of legs beneath the raised weapon, and I flung myself with all my strength, barrelling into this guy’s knees.
I was as surprised as he was when the guy went down. And I wasn’t entirely clear on what was happening to me as I clambered up on top of this stranger and started swinging my fists repeatedly into his face. In hindsight I know this was a bearded face of a guy about my own age, with dark, shaggy hair and one missing tooth. In the heat of it all I don’t know if I knew who or what he was or what I wanted to do with him. My fists hurt, they were bloodied, I tasted blood.
“Back! Back!” somebody was yelling.
Yeah, you run. You all go back where you came from.
“Get back! Get back!” But the voice was from behind me, and I thought it sounded like Jeff.
Next moment, a hand grabbed at my collar, pulling me backwards. I could see all those black-clad figures around me. I could see a couple of figures sprawled on the ground who weren’t dressed in black at all and who were streaked with blood. The bandits were in danger of surrounding and overwhelming us. I could see them all-abouts. But I couldn’t see Zara.
“Come on,” a stranger was saying.
“My… my…” I couldn’t get the words straight.
“Fourth floor!” Jeff was yelling.
Yeah, great, give away our master plan.
“To me, to me,” Jeff was yelling, as we all stumbled backwards. I was looking around me frantically, but I couldn’t see Zara anywhere. I was calling out for her, but there was so much shouting and noise.
I think I was pushed through a fire escape door. I think I remember falling on my knees, seeing that door slam behind me. There were others around now, coming to our aid, moving to barricade the door. A hand was helping me up. I didn’t see who was at the end of it, I didn’t register a face. I waved my eyes around desperately, calling out over and over again – out loud, or in my mind, I’m not sure which – “Zara! Zara! Where are you? Zara! Zara!”
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work