It still has no title – I have one in mind, but am not completely sure yet. So, here’s Chapter One.
The winter had been the harshest that mankind had ever seen. No one knew the true origins of the infection, where the place was from which darkness descended onto the world and cast the darkest age that had ever befallen the human race. Rumours stirred stories that the first fallen members of society had been created and released by fundamentalist terrorists wanting to cleanse the world of its sins. Wanting to start afresh with a new civilisation. The aberrations appeared in America, unleashed upon unsuspecting revellers partying as the Halloween season filled the streets with ghosts and ghouls. Amongst such faces, such costumes, the initial flesh ripping and bone breaking went unnoticed. But the isolated incidents weren’t contained, and soon America vanished beneath a sea of blood, cut off from the world, ostracized for fear of contamination.
The days, the weeks, were quiet, until the first disappearances began in London. Until gruesome murder scenes caused steel stomached police chiefs to wretch their guts out and run for cover. Until loved ones and friends became swamped with the growing darkness, until they too disappeared beneath a carpet of raw and bloodied flesh.
Carl had been glad when the spring arrived, bringing with it renewed hope that not everything was lost. Soft breezes filled with warm air tickled his skin, and despite all that had happened, life went on. Plant shoots unfurled, creatures stirred, the culled human population found a new way to survive. It was still early March and the clocks had not yet changed, and as Carl’s squinting eyes began to open, morning light filtered through the gap in the curtains. It was the fresh, almost opaque, spring light that hadn’t fully developed into summer sun, and it dusted the room in a light ethereal glow.
“Crap,” Carl groaned as he realised that whilst the sun brought contentment to his waking form, he’d grossly overslept. He glanced across at the bronze wind-up alarm clock that ticked beside his bed. 10.23am. If the creatures didn’t murder him, his mother would. Yet, still he didn’t move, allowing his head to sink back into the pillow for a few more seconds. He scratched his face and felt that the stubble on his chin was now almost as long as his short cropped hair. He need a good shave.
After one long pause, just long enough to feel his body sinking back into sleep, Carl thrust himself out of bed knowing that the only way was to throw back the duvet and leap from his tomb. The cold air shocked his skin even through the old vest and track pants that he’d been curled in, and with the early spring day finally breathing life into his soul, Carl staggered to the door.
“Mum?” Carl called out, rubbing his eyes as he moved through the corridor and down the softly carpeted stairs. “Mum?”
All remained quiet in the house, Carl’s voice the only disturbance to the stillness of his surroundings. Light filtered through the green and yellow glazed glass panel in the front door, spilling colourful patterns onto the light wooden flooring. The vertical glass window that ran up the side of the frame caused a blue sheen to glimmer. Blue for occupied. Green for vacant. Red for dangerous, don’t enter, proceed only if you wanted your guts ripped out and eaten.
Peering into the living room, Carl saw that it too was empty, devoid of any life apart from the small green budgie that sat and chirped in its cage by the window. It was a vicious little thing, and though his mother adored it, it would try and take Carl’s ears off whenever it got a chance to fly from its cage and gnaw with ferocity. Perhaps it too was infected, diseased. Perhaps Carl should simply reach out, break its neck and save his mother’s constant worry that she wouldn’t be able to find enough seed. He pushed the thought away.
Wandering further down the hall, Carl reached the white kitchen door, its numerous bolts intact, indicating that his mother was not inside. Fumbling with the locks, Carl slowly began to undo each one, removing the chain, using the small key that hung on the doorframe to open the padlock. He reached up and turned the latch at the top, before pulling back the large central bolt with a bang, and pushing open the inwards swinging door with a jolt.
The kitchen, too, was empty. The large room had cupboards and worktops on every side but one, large French doors leading to a garden where steps ran up to a small lawn. The original glass was long gone, replaced several times in the past few months, and now thick bars were cast upon the outside of the doors, preventing anything from getting in. Or getting out.
On the central island a large brown bowl stood. Beside it, a lump of dough sat on the countertop, half worked, but left to rise. Carl looked to the wall besides the cooker, to two thick chains which hung loosely from the tiles. They snaked their way down over the expanse of cream like wrought iron vipers, the interlocking chains caught amongst one another so that they didn’t hang straight. On the opposite side of the room Carl heard a rustle, and he looked towards a shattered window and saw the spring breeze carry a small leaf through the air.
“Crap,” Carl said with far more urgency than his awakening expletive had been. Running to the window, he saw that the glass had shattered outwards, sending shards of knife sharp material scattering over the patio table that lay beneath the sill. The bars that were normally in place to prevent such escapes, dangled below, hanging from the bottom ledge by the remaining two screws.
“Mum?” Carl shouted, as he left the kitchen behind him and raced up the stairs. Without thinking he burst into his mother’s bedroom and saw that she lay quietly in her own slumber. “Sheila’s out again.”
Beneath the duvet there was movement, and his mother’s tired and lined face appeared.
“Carl,” she muttered as she licked her lips in a bid to restore some moisture to her dry mouth. “What?”
“Sheila’s out again,” Carl repeated, a hand gripped around the door as a way to settle his flipping stomach.
“She’ll come back when she’s hungry,” Karen said sleepily. “What time is it? I was having the weirdest dream…”
“Mum, she hasn’t had her shot,” Carl interrupted, knowing the urgency of the situation.”
“Oh, for the love of God, Carl,” Karen snapped, her previously sleepy eyes now fully alert as adrenalin shot through her body. She sat bolt upright, before leaping out of bed and pulling on a turquoise dressing gown that hung on the back of a chair. “I can’t lose Sheila. If she hurts anyone this time, then they’ll never give me another one. They’ll take my allocation away.” She stared fiercely in Carl’s direction, and he felt the burn of her eyes on his face. “You were supposed to inject her last night.”
“I know, I know. I was going to do it this morning, but..”
“But you slept in,” Karen finished. “Do I have to do everything myself?”
The pair hurried out of the room, Carl pulling sneakers onto his feet as he reached the bottom of the stairs. Karen stretched down besides the hall cabinet and pulled out a baseball bat.
“You take the street,” she said, passing the bat to Carl. “I’ll go out back and check she hasn’t climbed three gardens down and eaten the Bareham’s dog.”
As his mother turned and scurried off down the hallway, Carl turned the locks on the front door and rolled his eyes. Sheila wouldn’t eat the Bareham’s dog, not yet anyway. Not until the vaccine that coursed through her veins dissipated and she once again became a ravaged lunatic.
The street was quiet outside, and the breeze brought distant sounds of life. The rumble of a generator, the chatter of voices several roads away, the creaks and groans as faster winds higher up in the sky rattled trees and roof tiles. Carl Kingly and his mother lived in a row of small terraced houses, typical for the London suburbs. Most of the residents had moved towards the city centre, where patrolled residential blocks offered more safety, but his mother had wanted to stay put. To stay in the house that she’d lived in for the past two and half decades, to stay where Carl, too, had lived most of his life. There were a few neighbours who had also felt the draw of their own homes and had made a conscious effort to create some form of community. Some people had stayed in the vicinity, but moved to flats above shops, places that provided a little bit of extra security should the infection rise again. Others, like his mother, stayed stubbornly in their homes, local officials painting bright swathes of blue on their doors to indicate where they lived. An important precaution so that if a rampage did occur, innocent civilians weren’t accidently gunned down. And the others who hadn’t moved away? They were all dead, or worse.
Leaping the couple of steps that led up to the black front door with its bronze knob and inlaid glass, Carl was on the pavement in an instant, scouring the street for any sign of Sheila. There was no movement of any kind, other than a small squirrel that looked at him inquisitively through bright black button eyes. It hung on the oak tree outside the house, its body wrapped around the bark as it camouflaged into the gnarled old wood.
“Sheila?” Carl called as he heard his mother shouting their cook’s name from the garden. He could picture his mother, scrambling over dilapidated fences, offensive weapon in hand, all in a bid to try and stop their cook from devouring the first juicy morsel she came across. Of course, this hadn’t been the first time she’d escaped, Sheila regularly traipsed though the streets that she used to know. Carl didn’t like using the chains, and though they’d been a vital requirement of her adjustment phase, both he and his mother allowed Sheila the freedom of the kitchen at all times. It was safe, bars on the doors, bars on the windows. Seemingly, though, Sheila always found some way of getting out, and this time it wasn’t mid-week, this time there was the danger that her pacification would crumble as her true nature forced its way through.
“Sheila?” Carl called again, looking down the side-passage where he’d found her before, her mouth covered in the rot of decaying vegetables from the bin that she’d overturned. The passage was empty, and Carl moved quickly from house to house, checking that front doors were locked, that whatever the colour on the paint mark, there was no way that Sheila could have entered.
Turning out of Broadmead Drive and onto the main road, Carl looked in both directions, scanning the horizon for any indication of which way Sheila might have staggered. To his left, the road rose up a gentle hill, houses, streetlamps and paving intact, no indication that anything out of the ordinary had ever happened in his small suburb. To his right, the real chaos could be seen. Here, burnt out cars and trashcans littered the street. Crumbling homes, their windows blackened by soot, shed masonry, guttering and roofing onto the pavement and road below. The off licence that stood on the corner of the intersection loomed out of the ground, large gaping windows sucking in light, its red and white torn canopy flapping helplessly in the wind.
The door to the shop opened and Carl heard the familiar bell tinkle as the Singh twins ran out, their arms laden with broken bottles and rocks. They laughed at each other, oblivious that Carl was looking on, before racing out of view and into the street that ran parallel to Broadmead.
“Hey, over here you rotting bitch.”
“How’d you like that? Yeah, bet you liked it hard when you were alive, didn’t ya?”
Carl heard the twins whooping with laughter as they tormented the unseen being. There was the unmistakeable sound of bottles being thrown, and the boys howled with laughter. Carl’s grip around the baseball bat tightened as he strode towards where the teenagers had disappeared from sight, and he rounded the corner to find them standing half way down the street, piles of rocks and bottles by their feet. A large bottle was already in flight, and Carl’s eyes followed as it soared through the air and smashed upon they grey skin of Sheila’s forehead. It shattered into a dozen pieces, sharp shards wedging themselves into her skin, as liquid oozed from the new wound and ran down her face.
Sheila roared as the bottle broke, her eyes wide as she looked vacantly around for where the attack had come from. The Singh’s laughed again, and as Sheila turned away from them, one of the boys picked up one of the larger rocks and launched it into the air.
“Take that, you decrepit old Frother”.
The term was widely used for humanity’s fallen kin, for those that woke to the disease instantly frothed at the mouth like a rabid animal as they sought out their first taste of flesh whilst their body decomposed around them.
The brick flew though the air and smacked into the back of Sheila’s leg with a thud that even Carl could feel. Her knee buckled, and within seconds Sheila’s thin and leathery frame collapsed to the floor, another animalistic cry flying from her withdrawn lips. But the twins weren’t done, and as soon as she hit the floor, dozens of smaller stones and rocks began to pelt down upon the grey flesh, battering the tissues and skin, and keeping the victim of the attack pinned to the floor.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Carl shouted, raising the baseball bat into the air and jogging down the street. “Get away from her!”
The twins looked around, dropping the bottles and stones that were between their fingers as they did so. They laughed again, seemingly not the least nerved by Carl’s hostility.
“Oh, look, it’s that Frother lover. Come here to get your girlfriend, have you? Come to have a go?”
“Yeah, I bet she likes it good and proper, bet you can take her all night.” Both boys laughed again, simulating a sex act as they gyrated towards where Sheila lay on the ground.
Carl swept the bat down, only just missing the boys as they leapt backwards at his approach. They continued to laugh, an unhinged snigger that made Carl feel like Sheila wasn’t the only ravaged monster on the street.
“Get outta here,” he shouted.
“Enjoy your Mrs,” one of the twins shouted back, biting his lip provocatively and grinding his hips again.
Carl raised the bat and the boys scattered, shrieking with laughter and running down the street towards their home. They’d almost certainly regale the great tale to their family, after which they’d be patted on the back and rewarded for their heroics. The Singh’s were a large family, and had somehow managed to escape the global disaster unscathed. Carl’s mouth watered slightly as he remembered the curry’s that the twin’s mother had used to make for the local restaurant. She was a great cook, of that there was no doubt. Still, he detested her offspring, especially the twins.
There was a quiet groan in front of him, and Carl stepped forward and crouched at Sheila’s side.
“What are we going to do with you?” he asked. “You can’t keep escaping like this. Gonna have to start chaining you up again, aren’t we?”
She looked up at him with blank eyes. She saw him, but there was no connection, there was nothing behind those eyes to indicate that any soul was intact. A few people believed that those taken by the infection still had glimmers of their former selves hidden amongst their leathery corpses. That they might be capable of conscious thought or emotion, and not only the residual skills that some individuals had managed to retain. Shadows, people called them. Not Frothers, or undead, or simply ‘the help’, but Shadows. A word indicating that behind the pacified monster, behind the mask, there were real people.
Carl looked at Sheila again, at the face that he’d seen throughout his life. At eyes that had been so bright with life, at a mouth which had always smiled when he’d clicked the door into the local patisserie to pick up a cake. His mother had wanted her specifically. Sheila had been processed, injected, chipped, vetted, and all through the process his mother had been badgering the authorities to get the former patisserie owner. She’d got her desire. She’d got her chef, her cook, but there was no Shadow, there was no Sheila left. There were only skills, skills which had got Sheila into local newspapers, and even a national, for her stunning recipes.
A growl formed on Sheila’s lips as putrid looking fluid continued to seep from the wound on her forehead. It trickled down her mottled face, collecting in the folds of desiccating skin before spilling over into the next wrinkle. A whisper came from her mouth, only it wasn’t the snarl that Carl had expected. Her tongue flicked as her lips moved, and Carl went rigid. Was she trying to say something?
She pulled an arm from the pavement and reached out to him, her three remaining fingers landing on his knee. They didn’t grip like the attack of a monster appearing from a drug induced coma, but simply lay there, patting gently against his trousers. Her mouth opened again, her lips forming an oval, her eyes looking up at him as another incomprehensible sound, word, was uttered. Was there desperation there? Was there a flicker of emotion?
“Oh my God, Sheila? Are you there? Can you hear me?”
There was no time for Sheila to respond, and to Carl it seemed as if her head exploded at the same time as he heard the gun shot. A large hole erupted on her forehead as bits of flesh, skull and brain splattered onto Carl’s face, the three fingers that had been on his leg previously, dropping to the floor as all life left them.
“Where the hell am I going to get another cook as good as Sheila?” Karen said shrilly as she walked up behind where Carl continued to crouch, covered in bits of the pastry chef from his youth who had showered him in cakes, biscuits and buns. He shook her from his T-shirt as he stood, taking in his mother’s scornful look, before looking back to the corpse. Sheila was dead. Again.