The guy sat beside me on the bench reckoned the dog’s name was Scooter.
Not that I believed him. He was an ass hole. His voice grated on my nerves and everything he said ended with “…I reckon.” He couldn’t stop scratching his hair and face, every few seconds a stray hand rose to pick at some invisible itch, or root around inside a nostril.
That day I met some freaked out people but this moron was either away with the fairies or the sanest person on the planet. I listened to him because I didn’t have anything else to do. I didn’t want to believe the newspaper poster that swung in the breeze on the a-frame outside the shop: THE END HAS COME. SAVE YOURSELF.
I hoped Katherine was still alive and I wasn’t kidding myself to avoid the crashing wave of guilt that waited patiently to consume me.
By the time the looters were gone, driven indoors by the heavy rain, I sat slumped on a dirty bench outside an empty supermarket. Rain poured through cracks in the corrugated metal overhang. Getting wet was the last thing on my mind. I sat listening to the drum of the rain all around me, trying to make sense of everything that had happened that day.
The breakdown began in the early hours.
What little news there was came through in bursts. I doubt anyone really knows why and how it all turned to shit so fast. In my skanky motel room I sat on the edge of the bed and watched a middle-aged news caster on TV. She stared into the camera with a frozen smile as she read from the Teleprompter. She didn’t make much sense. Something about bombs and terrorists or a plague that sent people insane. The reception was piss poor and after a few sketchy flashes from a helicopter camera – crowds in the streets, smoke, screaming people, explosions – the anchor looked off to her left with a frown etched on her face.
The camera fell over, or was knocked over, and the feed came to a halt. I didn’t know what to make of it. I tried other channels but it was the same regurgitated junk. Scenes of chaos and panic. Reporters scared witless, unable to do nothing but stare at the camera, microphone gripped tight as if it might shield them from the shit storm raging around them. Before dawn seeped across the sky all channels were down, not even an emergency broadcast message came through.
I guess the end of the news broadcasts was to be expected. For months leading up to that day there had been a recurring theme about one virus or another sweeping through far-reaching destinations. No one took any notice at first. Same shit, different day as they say. I heard someone once say that if you drop a frog into a pan of hot water it will go ape shit and leap out, but if you put it in cold water and slowly heat it up, poor Kermit will sit there and boil to death.
We were frogs. No one listened. No one prepared. Whatever was happening was the result of us frogs sitting and waiting for the water to boil over.
I switched off the TV and stared at the drab curtains of my rent-a-shit hole motel room.
I needed a distraction from the doom and gloom.
In the murky bathroom I splashed water on my face and stared at my reflection in the cracked mirror. My eyes were dark. Haunted. These days I’m constantly surprised to see the stranger staring back at me. A life on the road and too many late nights had taken its toll. I try to avoid looking at the patch of thinning hair on my head, or the lines around my eyes. Life sure has a way of creeping up and biting you in the ass doesn’t it?
I guess we can’t be 19 forever, can we?
Thoughts of Katherine kept me tossing and turning. Our last conversation had ended bad. Very bad. She shouted. I shouted. She cried. We called each other names. I hung up. It was long past due, I knew that. She deserved more than what I could give her but we’re both too stubborn to call it quits. I threw my phone across the room and didn’t care when it broke apart.
We were done.
Before I turned on the TV I realised our once happy life together was over.
Funny how things can change in the blink of an eye.
In the hours that followed the last TV transmission all I could think of was Katherine. When the first sirens sounded in the distance I cursed the world for not letting me have two minutes peace and quiet. On the cusp of dawn I heard people shouting in the car park outside my room. Not just shouting but raging. I peered through the crack in the curtains and saw a gathering of people pushing and shoving.
My hands clenched when I saw a woman thrown against the side of a car.
Men swarmed around her.
My stomach knotted.
Someone ought to do something about that, I told myself. If the TV reports were to be believed I doubted the law would be making an appearance in this shitty part of town any time soon. That left me as the voice of reason. I’m not a hero. I can handle myself but not against that many. No chance. I’d be a patch of red on the tarmac in minutes. Better her than me.
I was surprised when I threw open my motel room door and marched across the car park. I couldn’t believe I was yelling and waving my arms. What was I doing? It must have been one of those moments of insanity I’d read about. A dozen faces turned and pinned me with angry stares. I kept walking. Someone told me to stay out of it, that it had nothing to do with me. Get lost pecker head if you know what’s good for you.
All through my life I’ve had a thing about bullies. I had the shit kicked out of me in school plenty of times. Even my bruises had bruises. It armoured me. Gave me strength you might say. After the issue with Ricky Howells in High School, the other bullies had left me alone. The rumours were enough to scare them away. Don’t upset him, that dudes got serious anger problems. I heard he went psycho on a nurse once. That’s nothing, I heard he beat up his Dad for calling his Mum a pig.
I never corrected them. A reputation is a far better deterrent than actually having to prove you can lose your shit in seconds flat. The men in the car park didn’t know me or my reputation. The bruises on my face and cracked ribs are proof of that. I don’t what happened to the woman. She was nowhere to be seen when I came to and limped back to my room.
Dawn broke with a mass of heavy clouds. They echoed my mood.
In the bathroom mirror I studied my face.
Cuts and bruises. Nothing major. Bruises ran the length of my chest. I touched my ribs, once. Enough to confirm serious damage. My shirt was dirty and blood stained and I couldn’t lift it over my head. I felt guilty for not putting up more of a fight and saving the woman. I imagined her escaping in the distraction. Maybe. And maybe they caught up with her and…
I knelt on the stained carpet and gingerly collected the pieces of my broken phone. The screen was cracked but at least it worked. For once I was glad not to have bought into all that touch screen crap. I dialled Katherine until the answer phone kicked in. I left a message. I was coming home. Stay indoors. Stay safe.
I wanted to tell her I was sorry. I hadn’t meant what I said. I was riddled with guilt. Flashes of the news reports came back to me as I sat on the worn brown carpet at the foot of the bed. Looters running wild in the cities. London was a disaster zone and even the army couldn’t control the chaos. I tried not to think of the outcome should a nut case break into our small terraced house. Katherine was wheelchair bound and an easy target for anyone bent on causing harm.
What I wanted to do was stride to my car, full of purpose and determination, and tear out of this shitty town. Instead I pulled my broken body onto the bed like a toddler learning to stand up. My injuries were worse than I thought. My stomach had received a good kicking and my legs felt like an ice sculpture about to splinter. To add insult to my injuries my car was gone. I stared long and hard at the empty space in the car park. I could have asked in reception if anyone had seen who took it but there wasn’t much point. The reception windows were smashed and the door had been wrenched off its hinges.
I started down the road that led to the town centre. I had no choice but find a rental place or a bus station, if there any still in service. At the time the scenes of chaos on last nights TV failed to connect with the mess in the streets between the motel and the town centre. I figured it was just people rioting. Probably scum bags and idiots pissed of for being marginalised by the government. There’s always something to rage against these days.
The streets around the motel were empty. Burglar alarms clanged. Sirens echoed through the streets. When I reached the nearest residential area the narrow streets were packed with crowds of frightened and angry people. Some fought each other, others hastily packed their precious things into cars and screeched away. A young man in a black sweat shirt, hood pulled low over his face, asked if I knew where the nearest bank was. I shrugged and suggested he try the town centre.
He took off with a smile on his face.
For some reason I didn’t hurry.
I wasn’t infected with the sudden panic like everyone else. Plenty of people asked me if I’d heard anything about the bombs or the virus. Had it reached Dover yet? What was happening in London? Was the Prime Minister still alive? Where was I heading when I got out of town? Did I hear about the Iceland rescue attempt that went tits up?
Iceland what? I knew as much, or as little, as they did, just what I saw on TV. But what did you hear…? They hurried on to the next person when I shrugged. No one knew what was going on. Panic was a plague and it had spread fast since the night before, probably faster than any physical plague and with equally destructive consequences.
In town I walked at a steady pace, my left arm wrapped across my body, wincing at every step. I tried to avoid large crowds or make eye contact with anyone. The weak and feeble were targets for the strong and stupid.
Shops were being looted. People pushed shopping trolley’s packed with stolen goods. I heard the crack of gunfire. I’d heard it before. Most people don’t realise gun shots sound nothing like they do in the movies where sound editors add bass for effect. Crowds dispersed only to surge forward and take down the gun man.
A wild-eyed man in a suit collided with me, almost knocked me over. I grasped a street lamp and grunted as my wounds howled their pain. The man barely noticed me, he bounced away and hurried on. He clutched a large stuffed teddy bear to his chest. It had lost an ear and I realised someone had unsuccessfully tried to take it from him.
Why would anyone want to rob a man of his stuffed toy bear?
There was little time to consider such a bizarre question. A cheer from a group of lads pulled my attention away from the suited man and his precious stuffed bear. At first glance through the crowds I couldn’t understand why there was a burst of happiness amidst the carnage. I followed their upturned faces to a furniture store with smashed windows. When I looked up I felt that same rush and anger I’d felt when I saw the woman being attacked in the car park.
A naked woman with a mop of purple hair filled a narrow window two floors above the store. What I mistook for screams were in fact wild whoops of joy, her ecstasy evident in her broad smile. Her breasts bounced and jiggled and she waved a hand in the air like a cowboy at a rodeo. Over her shoulders was an equally naked man, bright yellow baseball cap on backwards, his arms also in the air and he grinned like a happy fool as he humped away. The couple was obviously enjoying their exhibitionism in the face of calamity. The crowd of lads were loving every moment of the unexpected entertainment. Several snapped photos on their phones.
I had to smile at the ludicrous sight. I shook myself and headed for a car rental place I remembered from my drive into town the day before. Compared to the other shops it was relatively undamaged. The door was unlocked and it was dark inside. I called out for assistance but none came. A massive boom rocked the street outside. I suspected the gas station had just gone up in flames. Even then I felt oddly disconnected with the insanity. I rummaged through a draw and took a set of keys for a Ford Focus. I left my name and contact details on a compliments slip and placed it on the desk.
I stood and watched the crazy people in the street.
I asked myself why I was so calm when everyone else had gone bat shit crazy.
Was it because I simply didn’t care? My world consisted of travel, motel, travel, random phone calls to an ever moody Katherine and little sleep. The few possessions I owned were either in my car or at home. Neither of us had much of value and that included our relationship, such as it was. Regardless of what I had said to her, she was the only thing I cared for and worth protecting.
I had to reach her.
My phone rang when my hand touched the door handle. Through the cracked screen I saw Katherine’s name and pressed the answer button. Her voice was quiet and shaky. She was crying. I could also hear a terrible noise, like an aeroplane landing. I reassured her I was on my way. Lock the doors. Keep the lights off.
Katherine said something about looters. Her sudden scream was followed by a double crack of gun shots.
The line went dead. I tried calling her back but got a continuous tone. I stared at the screen. The signal meter on the little tower went from 5 bars to 1 and then none.
We were cut off from each other for the first time. Our relationship had seen its fair share of ups and downs yet we were never more than a phone call away.
Images flashed through my mind and panic rose in my chest. I had to maintain control. I’d be no use to Katherine if I lost my shit like everyone else. In the car park at the back of the rental shop I pressed the button on the key fob. Lights flashed on a car. I checked my watch. If I drove all day I’d get home by midnight. In the back of my mind I knew what the gun shots meant. I forced myself not to think of the only two potential outcomes.
When I opened the car door something smashed against the roof.
I fell back, searing pain tore through my chest. Glass and dirt landed all around me. A Reebok sneaker hit me in the face. Outlined against the clouds were two figures stood on a roof. One of them pointed at me. The other howled with laughter. By the time I pulled myself up they were gone.
An elderly woman had crashed through the roof of the car. Her body battered and mangled. A reservoir of dark blood pooled around her skull. I stared at her left foot and the one remaining Reebok. Her flower patterned dress fluttered in the breeze. I puked my guts up and wiped spittle from my lips. Anger shot through me. Not only against the fuckwits who had killed an innocent old lady but because for a moment I wondered if the car would still work.
I was disgusted with myself.
I threw the keys on the ground and left the car park.
On my way back to the rental place I saw two more bodies laying in the street. Anarchy raged around them. No one took any notice or stopped to see if they were okay. Fire threw itself against the windows of the rental place, hot red tongues in search of food.
I had to get out of the town. Maybe the army or police had set up road blocks to contain the violence. If I could make it to the outskirts perhaps I’d be able to get help for Katherine. It was a hope I had to cling to for the sake of my sanity. More people rushed up to me, asking questions, crying, shouting, showing me photo’s of their loved ones.
I couldn’t help them.
No one could help anyone. The shit had hit the fan and knocked it over. And no one was coming to clean it up.
My progress through the chaos was slow. My lungs burned like hell and my leg, whilst not broken, felt like it was going to snap any moment. I made it to the edge of town by late afternoon. A new housing estate was going up, nasty red brick buildings, streets of cloned homes without character. I shook my head in bemusement when I spotted a group of people removing furniture from a nearby house.
What was the point? With the world slipping down the pan why would someone want or need to steal a sofa and some table lamps?
I hid behind a bus shelter until they were gone.
New builds gave way to old style architecture. Mail boxes lined the empty road. At the top of the rise I saw a crowd lurch between the houses. Away from or toward something I couldn’t tell. I didn’t want to find out. The first drops of rain began to fall and I knew I was going to get drenched.
Music caught my attention. At the foot of the road an old supermarket huddled against the back drop of new buildings. It looked out-of-place. A remnant of an old community torn down to make way for 24 hour living. Flecks of white paint around the windows whispered in the wind. An A-frame swung back and forth. A poster had been thrust into the plastic cover, a single sentence made me shiver.
The end has come. Save yourself.
Thick drops of rain pinged on the corrugated metal over hang. The music pulled me closer. Unlike the shops and homes in the town this battered supermarket still had power. Through grimy windows I saw pale yellow light over the cigarette kiosk. And that music…I recognised it.
Team by team reporters baffled, trump, tethered
crop. Look at that low plane! Fine then. Uh oh, overflow, population,
common group, but it’ll do. Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its
own needs, listen to your heart bleed. Tell me with the rapture and the
reverent in the right – right. You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright
light, feeling pretty psyched.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.
“Very apt, don’t you reckon?”
A neatly dressed man stood behind the door. He reminded me of a fat Woody Harrelson, more wrinkled around the eyes, and with a knowing smile that instantly put me on edge. His pale jeans had a neat crease down the front and they rested neatly on his cheap shiny black shoes. The deep green pullover didn’t fit him properly. It stretched across his stomach and was too short in the arms.
I backed away from the door. “That’s R.E.M isn’t it?”
“It’s the end of the world,” said Fat Woody.
He caught me looking at the newspaper sign. “Is it?” I asked.
Fat Woody shrugged. “Might as well be,” he said. His voice was thick and wheezy. A smokers voice. “They emptied the shop. Won’t find nothing in there but tap water.”
I held up my hands. “I’m not a looter.”
“You look looted I reckon.”
I glanced down at my dirty shirt and the dried blood.
“Is this your shop?” I asked. “Mind if I help myself to some water?”
“Go right ahead.” Fat Woody brightened up. “Tell you what, I won’t even charge you for it.”
Fat Woody paced to a dirty bench with missing slats in the back rest. He looked out-of-place and I couldn’t work out why. In the shop I gazed at the empty shelves. A few bottles of Heinz tomato ketchup lay smashed on the floor. The lower shelves were splattered with sauce. Three lonely tins of tuna sat at the back of another shelf. I found a small kitchen area through a door marked STAFF ONLY.
The sink was dirty. A collection of sepia rings covered the counter – the result of an era of tea making and little in the way of cleaning. It stank of old wood and damp wash cloths. The cupboards were empty save for two mugs and an empty packet of biscuits. I rinsed a mug and filled it with water. I hadn’t realised how thirsty I was until I felt the cool water glide down my throat. I love that sensation, crisp life saving water splashing down into my stomach. I refilled the mug and knocked back several more. I searched for a bottle to fill. I would need one for the long journey ahead.
I checked in what I assumed was the store-room. It was empty apart from a pair of dirty boots kicked into a corner and a dark stain on the floor.
In the small squalid toilet I took a piss and examined my wounds in the tiny mirror above the sink. The entire side of my rib cage was alive with a rainbow of bruises. I winced when I lifted up my arm. I’d need to find a doctor soon. It couldn’t be healthy to leave that kind of wound unchecked for too long. I splashed water on my face and wrung my hands through my hair. I looked like a shit parade. My eyes were dark and heavy. The nasty cuts on my cheek and forehead were hot but at least they weren’t bleeding.
I was a mess. How was I going to reach Katherine?
I’d figure something out. First I needed to rest and consider my options. A plan would come. Just like Hannibal Smith always says. Maybe I’d listen to Fat Woody’s story. There was something out of sync with him. He was too neat and tidy for an end of the world scenario. I rolled my eyes at my reflection. All of a sudden I was an expert on apocalypses.
In a world that had gone bat-shit crazy, Fat Woody bucked the trend. Why was he still there? His shop was dead so what kept him from fleeing like everyone else? Maybe he didn’t have anywhere to go. Made sense. But the radio, why draw attention to yourself like that? Maybe the next gang of looters wouldn’t leave him quite so unharmed.
I was tempted to slip out through the back door emergency exit but I needed to rest up a while and gather my strength.
Torrential rain was hammering down when I opened the shop door. Small rivers ran in the gutters. The noise of the fat drops drumming on the overhang was a welcome relief to the screaming chaos of the town or the ghostly silence of the new housing estate. Fat Woody was reclined on the bench watching the rain.
He didn’t look around. “Quenched?”
“Quite the downpour.”
I lowered myself on to the bench, keeping some distance between us. “Makes everything seem normal.”
Fat Woody chuckled and rubbed his ear. “For now. The looting and violence will start again when it stops I reckon.”
“Did you hear what happened?”
With a shake of his head he leaned forward. “Not much. Bombs. Lots of bombs. And this virus thingy.”
“Who started it?”
“Does it matter?”
“I guess not.”
“Not seen a sniff of the law all day,” said Fat Woody. He sounded relieved about the statement.
“I heard sirens earlier.”
Fat Woody wedged a finger into a nostril. “Chasing looters I reckon.”
“I need to get back to home,” I said.
“Best get walking then,” said Fat Woody. He examined a slimy dark green booger on the end of his finger. “Or steal a car.”
“I’m not a thief.”
“Sure you are. We’re all thieves now.” He gestured to the empty street. “No one’s gonna stop you.”
“Like you and your shop?”
Fat Woody glanced over his shoulder at the window. He shrugged. “No point fighting looters. Get my head cracked for what? Few tins of tuna and a pair of shoes? Not me matey. I’m a survivor. One on one is fine but a crowd of them? No chance.”
That struck me as odd. It could be said that a survivor would need supplies, a place to hide and a way to defend themselves. Fat Woody had a roof over his head but that was all. I’d be angry that my stock had been stolen. He didn’t seem to care.
“What will you do?”
He rolled the booger between finger and thumb. “Maybe head out some place else. See what I can see.”
“That’s it? That’s your plan?”
“Sure. You don’t got a better one I reckon.”
“I know I’m not hanging around here.” I watched someone climb into a car parked at the end of the street. The head lights beamed through the rain but the car remained stationary. I pointed at it. “Neither are they. Everyone’s upping and leaving.”
Fat Woody laughed. “To go where?”
He had a point. Where do you go when the world collapses? “I have someone waiting for me. Maybe they do to.”
“Sheep. It’s the blind leading the blind, matey.” Fat Woody flicked his hardened booger into the street and leaned back. “Not one of them knows where they’re going. Most will be prey for them what are stronger I reckon.”
“I’ve seen that happen already. It’s like they let all the lunatics out early.”
Fat Woody grinned at this. I noticed a swallow tattoo on his neck and a dot on the back of each knuckle. Compared to the neatly pressed jeans and shiny shoes the ink looked very alien. The more I thought about it the more I saw how his demeanour was very far from that of a small neighbourhood supermarket owner. I’m not much of a people person and rarely ask questions beyond what I needed for my job but I wanted to know what his deal was.
I opened my mouth to ask the story behind his knuckle tattoos.
As my brain worked through the question a black and tan dog crept across the street in front of us. It was drenched and for a second I assumed it was looking for somewhere dry to hide out. Then it stopped and sat in the middle of the road. It didn’t look left or right or acknowledge us.
It sat and shivered in the pouring rain.
“Would you look at that,” said Fat Woody.
My gut reaction was to call the dog over and get it out of the rain. “Poor thing. Why’s it sat there of all places?”
“Stupid mutt,” offered Fat Woody. He stretched out an arm across the back of the bench, closing the distance between us. “Even the animals have gone insane. Probably caught that virus I reckon.”
I shook my head. “I heard it doesn’t carry over to animals.”
“Yeah?” Fat Woody raised his eye brows at me. “Why don’t you go find out. See if old Scooter is infected or not.”
“Sure. Good name for a dog. I had a dog once.” I didn’t like the way Fat Woody smiled.
“Never owned a dog,” I said.
“Now’s your chance. Owners probably left it behind. Don’t need another mouth to feed do they?” He drummed his fingers on the bench. “Go for it, matey. Go drag it back here. The way things are going we’ll need something to eat.”
I stared in shock at Fat Woody. He didn’t look at me.
“Fuck you,” I said and stepped out into the rain.
As Fat Woody chuckled I approached the dog. Ten feet away I clicked my tongue and held out my hand. The dog didn’t move. No wagging tail. Nothing. What kind of trauma had it been through to be become so numb to its surroundings? I stepped closer and when I was a few feet away the dog slowly turned its head. I don’t know shit about dogs but I saw deep sorrow in its large brown eyes. In one look it conveyed so much pain and despair that it stabbed at my heart.
I held out my hand. “Come on fella. You can’t stay out here.”
The dog turned away.
“We’ve got a dry place right down there. Come on. Let’s get you out of the rain.”
I glanced back at Fat Woody. He grinned at me and licked his lips. I wasn’t sure if he was joking about eating the dog but maybe encouraging the drenched mutt wasn’t a very good idea. I stepped around to face it head on. Those sad lonely eyes locked onto mine. I didn’t know what to do or how to help it. It wore a decent collar so I guessed it wasn’t a stray.
“Your family leave you behind? That sucks. My family’s miles away too.” I dropped to one knee and wiped rain from my eyes. I winced when my ribs reminded me they still ached. “I wonder if she thinks I’m coming back, bit like you I suppose. Thinking of her all alone…horrible feeling. Times like these we need friends, right? Someone to look out for us.”
The dog continued to stare at me. Rain dripped from its fur. I wanted to get close enough to see the name on the red dog bone tag that hung from its collar. I expected it to growl when I stretched out my hand. It watched me. I fingered the tag and tilted my head to read the inscription. The smell of wet fur made me feel guilty for sitting under a dry roof while it had been stuck out in the rain.
“Bessie. Nice name.” I pulled my hand away. For a second I was tempted to stroke her head. Fat Woody’s theory that Bessie might be infected made me hesitate. When she pushed her face against my hand I nearly wept. “Hey there girl. It’s okay.”
She nuzzled against me and I smiled when the tip of her tail wagged slightly.
“I won’t hurt you.” I told her. “You really are soaked. Soaked but very cute. How could anyone leave you all alone?”
Bessie let me stroke her behind the ear. She gave a small whine when I moved my hand away. My ribs were on fire and I couldn’t stay knelt down much longer. I stood and she inched closer, pushing her head against my leg. I pointed to the shop.
“Want to get out of the rain, Bessie?”
At the mention of her name she looked up at me. I gave her a pat on the head, slowly pulled myself up and stepped away. She followed me, her eyes flicked from mine to the shop and back again. I got the impressed she wanted nothing more than follow me but when she saw Fat Woody reclined on the bench she hung back.
“Come on Bessie,” I said. “Ignore him. The guy’s just a jerk.”
Bessie whined. I could tell she wanted to come but not with Fat Woody there.
“Hey, Bessie. It’s okay. Tell you what. You wait there. I’ll fetch you something to eat, okay? Then we’ll see about getting you some place dry.”
She gave a feeble wag of her tail.
I hurried back to the shop. Fat Woody gave me a questioning look when I kicked open the door without a word. I snatched a tin of tuna off the shelf, twisted the ring-pull back and tossed the lid on the floor. Fat Woody was on his feet, watching me through the dirty glass door.
“That isn’t happening matey,” he said when I opened the door. “You can’t give the last of the food to that mangy thing.”
“Few minutes ago you said standing up to looters wasn’t worth it.”
Fat Woody shook his head. “Looters, matey. Plural.”
“What’s the difference?”
“You’re just one guy.” Fat Woody checked me over. “Like I said, one on one I can do.”
I was several inches taller than him. If I wasn’t hurting from my injuries I wouldn’t have thought twice about pushing him out of the way. I didn’t fancy my chances if we came to blows and I suspected he knew that too.
“So we’re going to fight it out over a fucking tin of tuna?”
Fat Woody smiled at me. “We don’t have to.”
“Seems like that’s the option you’re giving me.”
“You could put it back. Old Scooter will find something in the garbage I reckon.”
“Her name is Bessie,” I said through clenched teeth.
“That so?” Fat Woody glanced over his shoulder. He obviously wasn’t worried I’d make a move while he was distracted. He laughed and stepped aside. “Looks like your soggy pal has abandoned you.”
The street was empty. Bessie was gone.
Fat Woody turned and nodded at the tin of tuna. “You’ll be putting that back then?”
“Maybe I’ll eat it myself.” Stupid defiance I knew would get me in trouble.
With a half-smile Fat Woody reached out and took the tin from my hand. He dug his fingers into the fishy mush and scooped some into his mouth. I watched him savour the food, our eyes speaking without words. He handed me the tin and returned to the bench.
“Share and share alike,” he said when he was once again reclined.
I looked at the tuna. It was cheap garbage probably from ground up fish heads and tails but I realised I hadn’t eaten since the night before. With Bessie gone I no reason not to eat it. And what if she came back? There were two tins of tuna left and I knew Fat Woody would insist we share them only not with a dog. I almost laughed. There were plenty of other places to find food. The ransacked supermarket and its two tins of tuna weren’t the last scraps of nourishment on the planet. I was being ridiculous. Sooner or later this would blow over. Everything would go back to normal and I’d look back on that moment and laugh.
“Got yourself a real dilemma there I reckon.” Fat Woody continued when I didn’t reply. “Two tins left. One a piece. But do you keep that what you got for a dog that probably won’t come back or scoff it down right now?”
“I’m going to save it.” I nudged the door open and placed the tin on the counter next to the cash register. I took a small note pad and placed it on top of the tin. “Neither of us are starving. I can wait.”
Fat Woody shrugged. “Reckon you could do with more than tuna.” He glanced at the way I held my arm around my waist. “Got yourself into a scrape. Seen people holding themselves like that before. Broken ribs, punctured lungs, internal bleeding. Hurts don’t it?”
“You could say that.”
“For now. Wait till it starts really burning. When you start seeing more than just a few bruises and you feel like puking or passing out. Or the best part when you start pissing blood. That’s a real eye opener.”
“You paint a lovely picture. Thanks.”
Fat Woody smiled at me. “No problem, matey. No point pulling punches now.”
I shuffled across the porch and gripped the wooden post that supported the metal roof. The pain was intense. It was hard to breath, as if something was gripping my lungs. Fat Woody didn’t bother explaining how he knew what was coming and I didn’t ask. I stared at the rain and the empty street. Where had Bessie gone? I hoped she’d found somewhere warm and dry.
We’d been on the porch of the supermarket for a couple of hours and I knew I couldn’t stay there. I had to find a doctor and get home to Katherine. I felt trapped. Did I have the energy to set out again? What if I got so far and collapsed because of my injuries? But if I hung around with the creepy supermarket guy I risked missing the window of opportunity.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“Not made my mind up yet,” said Fat Woody. He mined another booger. “Maybe I’ll stick about here for a bit. Someone else might show up. We could form our own gang and protect our castle.”
“And two tins of tuna?”
Fat Woody patted the seat with the hand that wasn’t rolling a booger. “How about you take a load of, matey.”
“I’m fine right here.”
“Suit yourself. You really want to know my plan?”
“Didn’t think you had one.”
“Changed my mind,” said Fat Woody. He wiped his booger on the back of the bench and twisted to face me. “The world has just taken a beating, right?”
I nodded. “Sure has.”
“Every man and his dog are running around like headless chickens. Pretty soon they’ll be fighting over scraps.” He pointed to the street. “There are predators out there looking to take what they want from the weak. Do you want to be a predator or prey?”
Was he serious? Did he really think in such basic terms?
I frowned at him. “It’s not like that. For all we know this will all be back to normal tomorrow.”
“Fence sitter huh?” Fat Woody rolled his eyes. “What if it isn’t back to normal? What if this is the start of the a new era? Back to cave men, spears, protecting the fire and killing intruders? How do you think most people will cope when the lights go out and they don’t come back on?”
“You really think that’s happening?”
Fat Woody gave me a wink then reached under the bench and pulled out a broom stick handle that had a large carving knife taped to the end. He touched a finger to the end and smiled. I watched him test the weight of the weapon in his hands like a child playing with a new toy.
Two seconds was all it took for him to leave the bench, stride over to me and thrust the tip of the knife against my cheek. I stared at the knife. A dark red water mark stretched half an inch from the base.
“You just became the prey,” he said with a wicked smile.
For a moment I thought he was going to push his theory further by actually cutting me.”Knock it off.”
Fat Woody leaned into me. His eyes were sharp and angry. “I could cut your throat and let you bleed to death right here on the porch. Then I’d have two tins of tuna. I’d hide your body and wait for the next person to show up. Maybe they’ll have supplies, food, batteries, water, women.” He licked his lips. “I invite them to rest a while. Give them a smile or two. Shoot the shit. When they’re relaxed…” he dragged a finger across his throat. “Rinse and repeat.”
He knew I was scared. I could feel him teeter on the edge of pushing his idea from theory to practice. Fat Woody took the spear away from my face and grinned in satisfaction. He returned to the bench and leaned the spear against the wall.
“We wouldn’t kill everyone,” he added. “We’d keep the useful ones. Cooks. Builders. Women especially. Then we send out foraging parties and bring back supplies. Like I said, protect the castle.”
The saliva in my mouth had drained away. I was scared. I stared at Fat Woody wondering if he was all talk – putting on a brave face to mask his fears or was he insane? It took some forethought to craft a spear, especially after only a day of social collapse. I shook myself and cupped my hand to gather rain water. The few drops that reached my mouth weren’t enough. I hobbled across the porch to the door.
“Thirsty,” I replied as I entered the shop.
In the kitchen I knocked back mug after mug of water. Was my dehydration coming from my injuries? I was starting to get very worried. What if Fat Woody was right and if I didn’t get to a doctor I’d be serious shit? In the toilet I flipped open the mirrored cupboard. A pair of nail clippers and a bottle of pain killers with three inside.
It would have to do.
Back in the kitchen I swallowed the pills and splashed water on my face. I was burning up. If I didn’t leave soon I’d be too ill to travel. Fat Woody could sit and stare at the rain forever but I had to leave while I still could.
I pushed the handle down on the emergency exit and gave the door a kick. Pain ripped through my side as I lowered myself down the steps to the weed ridden concrete slab that served as a dumping ground for boxes and pallets. I followed the stacks of boxes to the right, expecting it to lead out into the street behind the supermarket. Dead end with more boxes piled against the side of the supermarket.
I backed up and tripped, lost my balance and fell. Fire seared across my right hand when I grabbed a length of razor wire. I let go and landed face first on the ground. I guess I passed out because when I woke the rain had eased to a light drizzle. I cradled my hand against my chest. Tears of blood seeped through a gash that reached from my wrist to middle finger. I touched it with a fingertip and almost passed out again.
There was no doubt about it, I needed a doctor, fast.
Bravery wasn’t in my nature but I forced myself to suck it up and figure out a way to stop the bleeding. I’d seen people in movies rip off bits of clothing to bandage wounds so I decided to give it a try. With my good hand I tugged at the shirt of my sleeve. It didn’t budge. The jolt made me cry as the pain in my ribs intensified.
I laid there, panting and wheezing like a cancerous old man.
Fat Woody would come looking for me soon. He’d help me back inside and get me patched up. I pegged him for a nut case but I believed his warped plan to protect the castle and that meant having he needed an ally. Problem was did that include a seriously injured man? Would he view me as dead weight?
I looked around for something to stem the bleeding. Soggy boxes weren’t much help. Then I saw a bundle of newspapers poking out of a box opposite me. It probably took a minute or two to pull myself over but it felt like hours. I pulled the newspapers free and pressed a few scraps against my hand. I’ve never known pain like it. I wanted to scream. Instead I kicked out at the boxes and gritted my teeth.
A section of the box wall tottered and folded over.
That was when I saw a wrinkled white hand poking out of the mess.
For a moment I refused to admit to what my eyes told me. It had to a prank. Some kid had left a joke rubber arm for the rubbish collectors to find. I had to find out and put my mind at ease. Carefully I pushed the boxes aside with my feet. The arm didn’t stop half way up like I wanted it to. It continued up and was connected to a shoulder and a body.
I expected some emotion – sadness, despair even revulsion. Nothing came. I was numb. The body was of a naked elderly man, short and slightly pudgy. His skin was puffy and wrinkled from the rain. He had a mole on his left butt cheek and a scar on his hip. Half way up his back was a red slit about an inch long. From my angle I couldn’t see his face and I decided I didn’t want to. Balled up at his feet was a set of light blue overalls splattered with what I assumed was blood.
I figured he hadn’t died from natural causes. Not unless he was a naturist and liked taking naps under soggy cardboard boxes. That meant someone had killed him. But who and why? Was he killed by looters or…
“What you doing out here, matey?”
My head snapped around so fast the bones in my neck clicked.
Fat Woody was leaning against the wall, spear in hand. He frowned at me then raised his eyebrows.
“I thought there might be some food,” I said. I had to be quick. “Something the looters missed maybe.”
“Not likely. Already checked.”
“Oh.” I held out my hand. “Care to help me inside?”
Fat Woody gazed at me. “What happened?”
“Tripped. Cut my hand.”
“I can see that. Not your lucky day is it?”
I started inching toward him. I didn’t want Fat Woody to see I had discovered his murderous indulgence. Once inside I’d tend my wound and say goodbye. I didn’t plan on being Fat Woody’s next victim.
“So what made you trip? Nothing but boxes out here, matey. Don’t reckon they’re much of a threat.”
“No idea. Come on, let’s get out of the rain.”
Fat Woody held out his hand. His eyes went to the body. Using my good hand I pushed myself up onto my knees but I wasn’t fast enough. Fat Woody thrust the spear at me, the knife stopped an inch from my face.
“You found my pal,” he said with a smile. “Reckon hiding him under some boxes probably wasn’t a smart move. Had to improvise when I heard you out front.”
I watched Fat Woody as he looked at the body. I didn’t dare say anything.
“Yeah, nice guy, sweet you know? Quite chatty for an old fucker. You’d have liked him, matey.”
I was terrified, not only from of the knife so close to my face but because Fat Woody was so blasé about the poor old man he’d killed. Like it didn’t matter. Fat Woody was bad news. I should have spotted that the moment I saw him. I read people pretty well so I blame my injuries. That and being distracted by Katherine all alone in the shit storm that had hit the planet.
“I get on with most people,” I said.
“Reckon you do, matey,” Fat Woody replied. He slowly moved his eyes from the body to meet mine. “And that’s a problem. See, you’re not a predator like me. But you’re not prey neither. You’re a Boy Scout. You’ll side with the underdog every time I reckon.” He frowned and closed his eyes. The knife twitched to the side. “And since I’m not the underdog…well, means you’re not gonna help defend the castle.”
I started to speak. Fat Woody prodded my cheek with the knife. I felt the sting and a bead of blood welled up from the cut.
“So where does that leave us?” he asked. “Do we shake hands and part company or do I slit your throat?” He shook his head when I tried to speak. “The way I see it is you’re pretty screwed up. If I let you go you’ll last a day or so before you collapse. On the other hand, if you survive, you might come back with revenge in mind. Or tell someone about my plan.”
“I swear I won’t tell – “
“If I put you down now I won’t have to deal with that problem,” Fat Woody said. He prodded the tip of the knife against my ribs and grinned at my pain. “Reckon I’d be doing you a favour anyway.”
“Suppose this all blows over and they find out you killed two people.”
Fat Woody found this hilarious. He let out a loud honk of laughter. “See them overalls?” he asked when he’d calmed down. “That’s what they give to inmates working in the factory making garden chairs and tables and shit. I was a lifer. Murder most foul.” He leaned over me. “Guilty as charged. Fuckers deserved it too. Over a hundred of us escaped last night when the guards started going nuts and killing each other.”
“So you got a second chance,” I said.
“Sure do.” Fat Woody looked gleeful. If this conversation hadn’t been with me at the end of a spear I believe he would have danced an insane little jig. “Only difference this there’s no around to stop me now.”
“So that’s your plan? Kill everyone you meet to protect your castle?”
Fat Woody chuckled. “Nah. You got me all wrong.”
I wasn’t sure if I understood him but I let out a sigh of relief anyway.
“I’m not protecting no fucking castle,” he said with a hard look in his eyes. “I’m using it as bait.”
It made a creepy kind of sense. The loud music was there to entice people in. The supermarket had already been looted and that gave Fat Woody the chance to encourage people to part with their supplies. Share the load, band together, protect the castle. I had nothing to offer and I guessed the only reason he hadn’t slit my throat when I arrived was because he’d wanted a chat. He enjoyed toying with his prey before the kill.
“Your next visitors might be in a group,” I said. “You said one on one was fine.”
“True. Good memory you got there, matey.” He shrugged. “I’ll deal with that when it happens. Lure them off one by one I reckon. Slice them up out here, watch them squirm a bit then head back inside. Sorry but your friend had to leave. Said he wanted to go home. Some shit like that. Scared people will buy anything.”
“You can’t keep that up forever.” I told him. He was getting chatty, excited about sharing his plans. The spear had moved away from my face as he relaxed against he wall. “Sooner or later they’ll get suspicious.”
Fat Woody mulled this over. “Maybe. I reckon by then I’ll have me a small arsenal tucked away. Enough to tackle the Boy Scouts. Not the women though.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. “What about them?”
“Oh I’ll keep them alive,” said Fat Woody. He gazed thoughtfully at the ground. “For a while. Just for fun, you know?”
That was enough for me. I wasn’t going to let that sick fuck prey on anyone desperate enough to fall into his web. He was a dedicated and ruthless killer. No morals, no ethics. The only thing that mattered was looking after number one and watching people die. He was intelligent but it was the inward looking sort. He didn’t expect to lose and that made him overly confident. His weakness was relishing in his next kill.
“So this is it then? You’re going to kill me?”
“Yes, matey. No other way around it.”
I held up a shaking hand. “I know I’m beat. I doubt I’ll make it to a hospital anyway.”
“That’s the spirit.” Fat Woody gave me a wink.
“One question, please, before you…do it.”
Fat Woody smiled and nodded.
“How long does it take?” I asked. I gestured to my throat. “After you cut.”
“That’s a good question, matey,” said Fat Woody. He gave it some thought. The spear lowered a little more and pointed at the ground. “If you hold still, no struggling, I’d say between one and two – “
I lunged forwards, slapped the spear aside and pushed against the wire fence. I ignored the crack of my ribs and hurled myself at the shocked Fat Woody. The spear tumbled to the ground and I rammed him against the brick wall. The air shot out of him like a popped balloon and I punched him in the balls.
Fat Woody doubled over, gasping for breath. I hopped around him and headed for the emergency exit. I stopped dead when I saw it was shut. There was no handle. I glanced at my would be killer sprawled on the concrete slab and hobbled around the other side of the building. There had to be a way out or another way inside the supermarket.
Relief hit me when I saw an open side gate. I kicked it aside and collided with a recycling bin. Gasping for air and hugging my side I scrambled around the bin. My heart sank when I saw a steel door locked tight. I punched it in anger and looked around for another way out.
In my haste I’d missed a door that had to lead into the supermarket. I tried the handle but it didn’t open. The door was wooden and creaked when I leaned against it to catch my breath. I had one chance. I pulled back and charged. Pain exploded in my arm, my hand, my ribs, pretty much everywhere. I came close to passing out but I forced myself to keep going.
Another charge and the door splintered enough for me to reach through a crack and fumble for the handle. My fingers touched a key and twisted it frantically. I could hear Fat Woody screaming from the rear of the supermarket.
The door swung in and I sprawled on the floor. Pain erupted all over my body. I scrambled on my hands and knees, desperate to climb to my feet. I saw that the shelves were not completely bare. Looters had simply swiped whatever was in view and left a number of tins at the backs of the lower shelves. I spotted a long pair of scissors partly hidden behind a box of Cornflakes.
Behind me I heard Fat Woody crash through the side gate.
I dragged myself up using the shelves as crutches.
When I reached the front door I paused. I couldn’t hear my predator. Not that it mattered. I was out of there. I swiped a hand across the counter and knocked the half eaten tin of tuna onto the floor. Any last effort to help remove Fat Woody from the land of the living.
The tip of the spear missed my face by an inch when I tumbled through the front door.
Where had he come from?
Fat Woody pulled the spear back for another thrust. I had nowhere to go. The next thrust would be fatal. With a snarl Fat Woody lunged at me.
A blur of black and tan fur dashed between us.
Fat Woody landed on the porch with a thud. I heard something crack. He howled in pain and I realised it wasn’t from a broken bone but because Bessie had his forearm gripped in her mouth. She growled and whined, shaking his arm like a bit of old rag. The spear was broken in two. Not thinking I bent down to grab it. Either the pain or sudden loss of adrenaline forced my vision to cloud over. I wobbled and staggered across the porch before sinking to my knees.
Bessie dragged Fat Woody down the steps and into the street. He kicked and punched at her but she wouldn’t give in. Her howls of pain brought me around. I was elated to see her again and stunned she had stuck around to save me. Despite her fierce attack Fat Woody was winning the fight. She lost her grip on his arm and he gave her a severe kick.
Bessie rolled away, whimpering and hobbling.
Fat Woody slid a wet hand down his arm and flicked away the blood from her bites. I tried to reach the spear before he could but my strength was all but gone. He was going to get his way despite Bessie’s best efforts.
He pushed me over with a foot and picked up the broken spear. We were back to square one. I was done.
“I was tempted to keep you around, matey,” Fat Woody said. He was panting and limping. “You could’ve made a useful slave.”
I spat a wad of blood on the ground. “Fuck you.”
With a last effort I thrust the stub of the broken spear into his thigh.
Fat Woody screamed and fell down the steps.
I looked past him at Bessie limping toward me. I waved her off and she stopped. Fat Woody wasn’t done. His insane desire to kill drove him on. With trembling hands he tore the splinter from his thigh. Blood squirted out of the wound and drenched the neatly pressed jeans he’d stolen from the dead shop keeper.
I tried to move but my body wouldn’t respond. All I’d done was delay the inevitable.
Fat Woody towered over me. Snot hung from his nose and his lips were pulled back in a sneer of hatred. He raised the spear and aimed the knife at my chest. I relaxed. No way was I going to die in terror. I wanted to meet whatever came next with peace and acceptance in my heart.
Suddenly Fat Woody slid backwards. Bessie was at his heels, her mouth gripping the soft flesh around his calf. He tried to swivel around and jab at her with his knife but she was too fast.
I couldn’t lay there and watch her die to save me. I had to do something.
I’d read about hero’s who call upon their last shreds of energy, that secret store they keep for last-ditch attempts to save the day. I forced my body to react to my command but the best I could achieve was a half crawl through the door into the supermarket. There had to be something I could use as a weapon. The stub of the spear was useless now.
I crawled between the shelves and collapsed. Fire burned in my chest and my vision was clouding over again. If Fat Woody shook off Bessie he’d likely kill me while I was unconscious. The glass in the door shattered when he threw it open. I twisted onto my back to face him. Bessie was nowhere to be seen.
“Coward.” Fat Woody limped toward me.
He left a trail of blood behind him. More blood bubbled out of the puncture wounds on his arm. I was foolishly optimistic to think we were on level footing. His injuries were severe but where he had rage I had nothing.
He slipped on the wet floor and gripped the shelves to keep his balance.
If he didn’t do it now he would lose his edge. He was losing too much blood and already his face was growing pale. I felt a sudden rush of guilt for being prepared to give in and accept my fate. If Bessie, an abandoned dog I hardly knew, had been willing to fight for me then I shouldn’t give in so easily either.
Fat Woody bent down over me. “I’m sending you to hell, matey,” he said with a cough. “Say hi to Satan for me.”
I wasn’t prepared to move as quick as I did. The pack of Cornflakes shot across the floor when I snatched the pair of scissors. With a shaking hand I flicked them open, brought my arm up as hard as I could and jammed the end into his chest. Hot blood gushed over my hand but I didn’t let go.
Fat Woody’s mouth hung open in shock. He shuddered and tried to pull away.
I twisted the scissors and drove them deeper between his ribs.
The broken spear slipped out of his fingers. Froth and blood bubbled on his lips. He lost the battle against his will and fell on top of me. In the silence I could feel the final beats of his heart against mine.
A final burst of hot breath wafted over my face and he lay still.
I wanted to cry.
I wanted to scream into his dead face. I won you sick twisted fucker. Whatever chaos rages out in the world it’s a little safer now you’re not in it. I was fading. With the help of my furry saviour I had survived long enough to die from my own wounds. I didn’t even have the strength to push him off me. I don’t know how long I lay there.
It was dark when I felt movement.
For a split second I thought Fat Woody had somehow survived and had come around long enough to cut my throat. He pulled away from me…no, he was dragged away. Someone else was there. I tried to speak but my throat was too dry. I didn’t realise how much pressure Fat Woody’s body had put on my chest until I sucked in a stinging lungful of air.
I still couldn’t move. I lifted my chin and saw no looks of concern on the faces of my rescuers, only the panting face of Bessie. She gave me a lick and nuzzled against my head. I tried to move my arm to pat her wet head but I couldn’t. Bessie pawed at me and whimpered.
I swallowed. My throat felt like hot rocks. “I’m done for girl. You need to go. Find someone to take care of you.”
Bessie stood and backed up. She chuffed and pawed my hand.
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
And then she was gone.
It was for the best. “Thanks Bessie. You saved me. Go. Save yourself.”
I thought of Katherine. She would be alone and frightened, if she was still alive. I had no way of knowing. No way of comforting her. I was never much of a God person. I figured there was a chance of something after but I doubted it was fluffy clouds, men with beards, redemption and joy. Whatever happened it had to be sweet relief compared to the agony that still clawed at my broken body.
I faded away and welcomed the blanket of death.
When I awoke it was to the sound of heavy panting. Bessie was sat beside me, tail thumping softly on the floor. I groaned. I wanted her to go and be safe not wait around and watch me die. I tried to speak but nothing came out.
Bessie pawed my face then nudged a white box with her nose.
I blinked and focussed on the green cross.
She gave my cheek a long wet lick and curled up beside me. The warmth of her body was invigorating. After a while she started snoring. She always snores when she’s asleep. After a long day on the road it’s a comforting sound that lets me know we’re safe.
This not so short piece, 10,000 words or so, was partly inspired by Indigo Spider’s Wednesday Writers Group. More specifically the post The Travelling Muse where, at the end of her post, she says:
This week just write. Even if you have no thoughts, just write. No time? Just write. No ideas? Just write. Don’t feel like it? Just write.
If you do not write then you are not a writer.
I found the heart breaking photo of the dog about a year ago in Google. I loved it and loathed it. I knew I wanted to write a story around it but couldn’t figure out how I would ever work such an image of an animal so completely lost into a story without it seeming like clichéd bullshit.
Recently my short pieces of fiction have been based around the events in my novel, The Range, not directly connected with the characters but rather the events that lead up to the start of the story. I started writing this piece about 6 months ago and stopped just after our hero came across Fat Woody. I knew I wanted to work the photo of the dog in there but couldn’t get it right in my head. Apart from the opening line I simply didn’t know how to do it.
Then when I read those final lines on The Travelling Muse Post I thought: “Balls to it. Just write the fucking thing and see what happens. Stop thinking and start feeling it.”
And the rest is history.
Thanks for the kicking Indigo.