Excerpt for Foliage by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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28


McGrigor filled his backpack with bottle after bottle of whisky. He watched the others gather food, whatever they could find in refrigerators and pantries – cheese, biscuits, canned goods. Edibles that weren’t going to rot too soon. McGrigor just brought bottles of Scotch; all the way up that hill he rattled with the sound of clinking glass.

The Preacher gave him long looks of disapproval, making it clear he’d feel righteously indignant when McGrigor asked for food. Except McGrigor never did. Whenever they stopped, he just raised a bottle and poured back another mouthful of brown liquid.

They walked for hours that day, hitting the higher ground. The Preacher led them, and when he spotted the cottage he spun back excitedly and pointed. The Preacher wore a big smile, but a smile no longer suited his face – whenever he attempted one he just looked like a harbinger of death. His appearance was now so tired and careworn that deep grooves replaced the lines on his face.

There were only four of them walking. McGrigor took the rear; it suited him to keep the others up front. The Kid staggered on in front of him in perpetual shock, his emotions as if pressed hard to a cheese grater. He barely spoke, just followed and stared on with confused moon eyes. He’d seen some terrible things. But they all had.

The Woman walked in front of The Kid. She wasn’t that much older than the boy and was holding it together only slightly better than him. A sob or a tearful murmur accompanied every step; a hand constantly wiped her eyes, her nose, her dribbling mouth. Her constant gasps made her forever breathless.

The Preacher – the guy in charge, the guy who so obviously cared – took the lead. He had that do-gooder preacher quality, always leading, absolutely convinced salvation awaited them and that they’d somehow be saved. Forever wittering about right and wrong – as if that mattered anymore.

The cabin was isolated on the rocky terrain, but it was shelter, a place to go. The Preacher smiled that dreadful smile, which whilst sincere was as far away from hope as any smile could be.

“Look!” The Preacher was breathless. “I told you I’d find somewhere safe!”

The Woman cheered at The Preacher’s announcement, a thin struggling sound, like an asthmatic pleased to have finished a race. The Kid just stopped and stared. McGrigor didn’t know if a smile or any other emotion crossed his dazed face.

McGrigor pulled the bag off his shoulder and removed a half-drunk bottle. He raised it to his mouth and poured back a long gulp. The Preacher’s disapproving glare made him lower the bottle. A stiff drink evidentially wasn’t the reaction The Preacher wanted to his news. He wanted joy, rapture, an acknowledgement that he – The goddamn Preacher! – had led them to sanctuary.

In response, McGrigor just took another drink. Why had he even followed The Preacher? He knew it was because he was scared, like a four year old who has lost his mother. For some reason McGrigor had believed The Preacher when he started his tales about a better place, somewhere everything was still okay.

McGrigor had believed even though part of him screamed he was being stupid. And now he had woken up, realised there were no sanctuaries, that they were doomed just like everybody else. It was real nice of The Preacher to find somewhere for the night, a place to keep the cold off, but he wasn’t going to fall to his knees and proclaim ‘Hallelujah!’ for it.

It took them three hours to get there – the rocky terrain, the treacherous path, the fact they were all so tired. For a long time, the cabin remained rooted on the horizon. McGrigor wondered if it was just an illusion, a mirage, a trick played by their wearying minds to give them a false sense of hope.

The Kid and The Woman took turns at stumbling, their hands reaching out to stop their faces from smashing into the hillside. Whenever it happened they looked up quickly, in the direction of the cabin, as if trying to make sure it was still there, that it hadn’t vanished in that instant of distraction.

They reached it just before nightfall, a wood and stone cottage with a couple of rooms – rustic and rural. Once upon a time it was no doubt home to some rosy-cheeked labourer and his plump and fruity wife. Now it stood deserted, now it seemed lost, as if it had wandered away from its hamlet and stranded itself high up in the hills.

McGrigor took a breath – his chest aching, his legs swollen, his brow strained with furrowing. He wasn’t drunk; he’d drunk too much for that in recent weeks. The booze kept him going.

In the spirit of charity he should probably have given The Kid some alcohol, remove that dreadful puss from his face. Maybe The Woman would have appreciated it, to stop her crying, maybe make her really cry so she could flush it all from her system. And The Preacher – let him go crazy, let him indulge, get him paralytic so he wouldn’t be so ridiculously insufferable.

Problem was, McGrigor didn’t want to share. He had a limited supply and didn’t have the strength to stagger back to get more. If only he hadn’t listened to The Preacher, if only he’d stayed in the city and hadn’t been convinced by fairy tales. There was plenty to drink in the city, enough to keep him going – and he’d been stupid enough to walk away.

The Preacher’s smile – tombstone teeth in a dead face – tried to force optimism on them all. He waited for them to catch up; he waited for The Woman. She staggered towards him on unsteady and bruised legs. The Preacher took her arm to support her, to give her little choice but to fall into him. This was no righteous preacher.

With her waist in his clasp, he turned and walked to the cabin. He didn’t wait for The Kid; he didn’t even look at McGrigor. He just led The Woman, dragged her, to the aged safe-house. If he’d had the strength he’d have carried her over the threshold.

“Here we are!” said The Preacher. “Here we are. This should look after our needs for a while.”

It was dank inside. There were three rooms – a front room, what once had been a kitchen and what once had been a bedroom – each with cold stone walls and wooden beams. There was no furniture anymore, it had clearly been abandoned a long time and now mainly functioned as a lavatory for wild animals. The windows were secure, the doors were heavy with big locks, and once inside they’d supposedly feel safe.

The Preacher led The Woman on a tour, like it was their first home, a grin on his face, a sparkle in his eyes – all so distant from the reality of the situation. The Woman snivelled beside him, wanting to sit down, desperate to collapse but too weak to separate herself from him.

The Kid did collapse. He slid down against the wall, his clear blue eyes staring out with no hint of life behind them. McGrigor took another drink, silently toasting what he knew would be his last ever home.

The Preacher let go of The Woman and she fell away from him. An almost faint, her body just remembering it had to bend its legs and drop its behind to sit down. The Preacher looked around at his companions.

“Andrew!” he said to The Kid. “How are you, Andrew? Are you alright? We’re here now. We’re away from it.”

The Kid didn’t even look at him.

“I know you’re scared, I know you’re frightened, I know you’ve seen terrible things – but really, we’re in the best place now. Trust me.”

Again, nothing from The Kid.

“That’s it.” said The Preacher. “You just rest now.” He looked at McGrigor. “You. Are you enjoying that drink?”

“Yeah. Thank you.”

“Do you think there are more constructive things for you to do than drink yourself to death?”

“You really would think so, wouldn’t you? But to be honest I think I’ll just keep on drinking and let death take its chances.”

The Preacher glared at him, and McGrigor took a triumphant sip, careful not to spill a drop.

They each settled into a corner for the night. The Preacher would clearly have loved to slip his arm around The Woman, hold her through the night, soothe her, warm her with the heat from his body – but she whimpered when he came near. He whistled it off, a brief tune of disappointment, and then he settled opposite her, his eyes nowhere but on her. The Kid stayed where he’d collapsed, and McGrigor crouched by the door, bottle in hand.

Night fell and McGrigor tried to get comfortable on the cold stone floor. He drank and calculated how long he could keep drinking from the ten bottles he still had. Seven days, maybe more. He’d lost track of how much he’d already drunk; it was like asking someone how many particles of breath they’d used. He figured about a week and then he’d have to decide what to do, whether he could still get some more.

When dawn came The Kid shivered at the cold and clutched his hands around him, The Woman brought her shoulders together, and The Preacher, after a moment of stiffness – after a moment of nervous shaking where he gave away a fraction of what he really felt – grabbed onto the cold as if it were bracing, as if it were something that would do them good.

“What to do?” he asked. “What to do?”

Of course, there was nothing to do – not really, not that would make the slightest difference. There was a chance they were the last four people alive, the soggy cigarette butt of humanity. There was nothing they could do, no decisions they could take, no changes they could make – nothing. They could just wait and stare or wait and sob or wait and drink.

The Preacher didn’t agree. He’d clearly been one of those people who enjoyed having every moment of his time occupied. The type who revelled in daybreak starts and enjoyed long hikes to some pointless wherever, who once at that pointless nowhere clung to a grim determination to make the best of it.

The Preacher wandered through the cottage, and McGrigor watched him from the corner of his eye, careful not to stare, avoiding eye-contact. The Preacher had an eagerness about him, a desperation to please and be pleased. And even though McGrigor knew it was coming, even though McGrigor saw its arrival, he still greeted The Preacher’s clap of hands with a shudder. It was an unpleasant sound, a burst of thunder when you’re lost in a valley with nowhere to hide.

“Right!” said The Preacher. “We really shouldn’t spend all day idle. There are things to do. I think we’re going to be here awhile, aren’t we? Yes we are. And since we’re going to be here awhile, we have to make what they call the best of it.”

Only The Woman looked at him, and even she seemed baffled.

“I don’t know about you people, but I was cold last night,” said The Preacher. “Actually, I do know about you people. I saw you shivering there, Andrew, there’s no need to pretend to be hardy now. And Linda my dear, I nearly put my arms around you last night to keep your teeth from chattering. And You… Well, how could you possibly get cold with all that inside you?”

McGrigor smiled at the stone floor.

“So, what I suggest is that we get some firewood, some kindling for tonight. There are those trees outside and I think we can take off the loose branches quite easily.”

“Are they trees?” asked McGrigor, still not looking up.

“They’re trees!” said The Preacher. “Do you think I don’t know what trees are? Do you really think I’d lead you elsewhere?”

He waited for McGrigor to meet his eye, then realised it wasn’t going to happen this lifetime.

“So what I suggest, Andrew, is that you go out and get whatever loose branches you can. Either those that have snapped and fallen to the ground, or those you can break off yourself. That way we can make a base for our fire. And – you’ll be pleased to hear – I’ve already taken a look around, and behind this cottage is an axe. It’s old and it’s rusty, but I think I have the smarts about me to sharpen it up. So what do you say, Andrew? You get the easy wood, and I’ll come behind and get the solid fuel. Does that sound like a plan? Does it?”

The Kid said nothing, and The Preacher took that as assent.

“Now then, Linda,” he said, leaning over her, his mouth a few inches above the top of her head. “Now then – what are you going to do? Well, it occurs to me that we have plenty of canned food – and of course our friend there has supplies if we should ever want to throw a party – but it strikes me it would be silliness to come all this way and then die of scurvy. So what I suggest is: there are a number of bushes out beyond this cottage – and they are bushes – and what you could do is take a look if there is anything edible on them. Just go out and pick a berry from each – remembering which you took each berry from – and bring them back here. Don’t eat them, whatever you do, just bring them back and show them to me. I’m not a horticulturist, but I have been on enough nature rambles to have a good idea what’s sweet and what’s not. Can you do that for me? Can you, my dear? Can you?”

“Yes,” she said, with a nod that could easily have been a shiver.

“Good.” He stroked his hand across her hair, resisting the urge to reward her with a kiss.

“And you,” said The Preacher. “What are you going to do?”

McGrigor took a swig from his bottle.

“That’s not very helpful!”

“On the contrary,” said McGrigor. “It’s helping me no end.”

“Staggering about like a drunken bum is helping, is it?”

“Maybe if you play nice I’ll let you try some and see if it helps you, too.” He took another gulp.

“Are you going to do nothing, is that it?” asked The Preacher. His face turned an odd shade of puce, and McGrigor noticed how weary the Preacher looked. “Are you just going to sit there and drink and obliterate yourself? Is that all you’re going to do? Is that all you’re capable of doing? Is it? Is it? I’m trying to help here, I’m trying to make things easier for all of us, and that task would be a great deal simpler if you would get up off your drunken backside and lend some kind of support.”

“What’s the point?” asked McGrigor. “How long do you think you’re going to live? A day? Two days? Do you think our brief time in this old shack will be improved by you managing to hang curtains? What does it matter? Berries? Do you think we have enough time to die of scurvy? Do you really think – all things considered – that the illness we have to worry about is the common cold, the flu, hypothermia?”

The Preacher’s face reddened and his lips pouted; he looked like a child about to throw a tantrum. “Don’t say that! Do not say that! You don’t know how long we can live for up here. We’re away from the city now; we’re away from that-that… that illness. It’s a different air up here; it’s a different feel. You don’t know how long we can live for. We could get better, we can make a new start. If we have some heat, if we have some fresh food – you never know what might happen.”

“We won’t get better,” said McGrigor.

“You don’t know that!” screamed The Preacher.

“We might get better,” The Woman sobbed.

“Don’t listen to him.” said McGrigor. “It’s inside us, in our bones. It’s not about to go away because we’ve started eating berries. Do you understand me? This is it, this is over, this is where we die.”

“Don’t say that!” said The Preacher, taking an angry step towards him.

“Do you think no one lived on a hill? Do you think no one lived on a mountain? Of course they did – they lived there with all the fire and berries they could possibly want – and it got them too. People went to the goddamn hills when this started, they got in their cars and just zoomed. We haven’t heard from them since, have we? Not one of them sent a message back saying its all fine up there, that the human race can be saved with just a switch to higher ground. They haven’t done that, they haven’t made a peep… And do you know why? It’s not because they’re trying to keep all the berries and fire for themselves. It’s because it’s not safe there either.”

Despite the rage popping out in sweat bubbles on his forehead, The Preacher stood a good half a foot shorter than McGrigor, and his eyes darted to the bottle in the bigger man’s hand. He took a wary step back, spluttering and clenching his fists but keeping a comfortable distance.

“So, what exactly are you going to do?” asked The Preacher.

McGrigor shrugged.

“That’s hardly fair.” said The Preacher. “If we’re out there toiling, it’s unreasonable for you to stay in here and just inebriate yourself.”

“Listen Preacher,” said McGrigor. It was the first time he’d actually called him that, and surprised confusion crossed The Preacher’s face. “I won’t eat any of your berries, I’ll keep a respectful distance from your fire, and I won’t take the benefit of any of your labours. You just leave me be, and I’ll let you enjoy your toil.”

“What are you going to do when that whisky runs out?” asked The Preacher.

“That’s the big question, isn’t it? But tell you what, you can let me worry about it.”

“Couldn’t you just help us a little bit?” asked The Woman, her tearful blue eyes meeting his. It was the first time he’d looked into a pair of eyes for what felt like an aeon. He’d kind of lost his taste for them. “There’s a lot to do, and you’re the strongest of us.”

McGrigor looked away. “You’ll manage. If The Preacher is right, this mountain air is so bracing you’ll have all the strength and energy you’ll want in no time.”

“Come on, my dear,” said The Preacher. He wound his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to her feet. “Come on, my dear; let’s leave him now.”

The Woman continued to stare at McGrigor, and he continued to stare away.

With one arm holding The Woman, The Preacher leant down and cupped his hand around The Kid’s jaw. The Kid just stared ahead, seemingly unaware of anything around him.

“Come on then, young man,” said The Preacher. “You can still be helpful. Yes you can. Let’s go outside now, get us some firewood. Don’t worry, Andrew, I know how dreadful it’s been for you, I know how awful it’s been for all of us. But it’s going to get better from now. I promise.”

The Kid staggered up, and McGrigor felt sorry for him – the poor bastard was little more than a zombie.

As the low sun blessed them all, the noise of work began. McGrigor heard The Preacher give his instructions again, and then there was a silent interlude before the sound of lovely hard work beginning. McGrigor guessed The Preacher was sharpening the axe – using stones and swinging the blade back and fore against them. He even heard The Preacher whistling and knew it was entirely for effect; the idiot just wanted to show what a good worker he was, how enjoyable the whole business of labor could be.

McGrigor wondered if anyone else could hear him, and then wondered how far behind the cottage those bushes were. Maybe The Woman was just out of his sight and The Preacher was once again pretending it was just the two of them in a countryside idyll.

Eventually McGrigor straightened his limbs and made it out of the cottage, sitting on the doorstep with the sun’s rays upon him. Of course, in his right hand was a sensible daytime draw of whisky.

He squinted at the view. He hadn’t realised how far up they’d come, how far they’d removed themselves from the city. It was a grey, amorphous mass in the distance. The Preacher had promised to take them away from it.

It wasn’t going to save them, though.

The Preacher had managed to snap The Kid into something resembling work. He slowly bent down and picked up dry twigs and branches and made a neat little pile. He still stared vaguely though, he still looked like he had no comprehension of the world around him. McGrigor heard The Preacher, still sharpening the axe, the repeated sound of metal against rock. The Woman came round the corner. She held the frayed hem of her T-shirt in front of her – a tray for her collected berries – and she hesitated when she saw McGrigor. She stumbled a little, bit her lip, and then perched down next to him.

“Hi,” she said. “Are these berries edible?”

He looked at them, a collection of reds, oranges and greens. “I’ve no idea. I’m not what you’d call a berry man.”

“Oh,” she said.

“Don’t worry, The Preacher will know.”

“Is he a preacher?”

McGrigor shrugged and smiled.

The scream was revolting. They’d heard similar screams, but somehow up here it was much worse. They’d got used to that sound in the city – from friends, loved ones, strangers at the distance – but up here it echoed, up here it was only the scream and a void.

The Kid convulsed in agony. Blood spurted from his eyes and mouth, and he screamed as if his tongue were being ripped loose. His arms and hands writhed at his side, and blood dripped down from his fingernails.

The feet were first to go. The feet were always first to go. He screamed as his toes and heels broke through his skin and attached themselves to the ground. He staggered as the blood spurted from his soles, but he couldn’t fall – he was spiked to the ground by his own skeleton. He tried to pull away, to raise his feet up before they took hold, to snap himself off at the ankles – but he was stuck, caught in agony, and he cried out in desperation.

The bones in his feet took firm hold of the ground beneath him, and then his flesh started to break apart. His shins first, ripping out of the skin and muscle of his legs. The blood sprayed off, both red and green. The shin-bone gleamed in the sunlight, the white of the bone tainted by a plant-like hue. His arms went next, the bones forcing themselves up so that the blood and flesh dropped to the stone below.

The convulsions were extreme, his hips and waist shaking themselves free of flesh – his stomach and colon slipping down as if slurry. They splattered to the ground, rotting almost instantly in the sun. He screamed again, a gargle – as he was now without tongue. What had once been his heart, what had once beat and kept him alive, now burst from his chest. Moments before it had been the centre of a human being, now it looked like long forgotten carrion.

Only the head remained, the final hint of humanity on a twisted skeleton. The skin and tendons and veins and muscles were all torn away at the neck, the face showered and smothered in blood. But despite the tortured expression of terror and pain, The Kid was still recognisable. His eyes still wide.

His head spasmed. Its head spasmed. It rocked back and fore, jerked violently, tried to free itself from the encumbrance of flesh. The rigid skeleton stood transfixed; in a strong wind it would only bend slightly. The head contorted, blood and flesh flew from it, red and green globules thrown through the air, removing the last taint of man.

It only took a moment, but it seemed so much longer because of the sound. Somewhere in that husk of a head was still a larynx, and The Kid screamed – hoping for someone to save him, for the pain to end.

It didn’t last long. Every sinew fell away, and all that was left was a distorted skeleton, a dark artist’s terrible representation of a bare human being, a green twisted sketch of a man rooted to the ground, the eyeballs hanging in their sockets as two shiny flowers.

“No!” screamed The Preacher. He charged forward, the axe above his head, the blade glinting in the sunlight.

The Woman got up, spilling her berries, eager to help. McGrigor grabbed her arm and threw her back, flung her through the doorway to the cottage. She gave a scream and a thud as she hit the floor.

The Preacher made it to what had been The Kid and almost slipped on his blood. He steadied himself – his look of anguish visible from the cottage – and took a swing.

The skeleton was tough; you couldn’t just break it with a swing of an axe. You could pierce it maybe, but you weren’t going to fracture the bone. It shook a little at the blow, but didn’t really move. The flower eyes swung from side to side, staring at The Preacher with cold accusation.

The Preacher tried again, swinging at the leg. This time the handle of the old, neglected, damp axe snapped, and the blade spun away. The skeleton stood, while The Preacher fell to his face on the blood and flesh splattered rock.

McGrigor stepped inside the cottage and looked at The Woman. He shut the door behind them, bolting it as securely as he could.

It started six weeks earlier – people just began to change. A few changed, and then all in their vicinity changed, and soon it was clear that everyone was sick. While there was still a media – when there were still enough people alive to run newspapers and television and the internet – various theories were put forward. Pundits said it was a virus from outer space, that it was a chemical weapon leaked from one of the world’s more aggressive regimes, that it was a sudden step in evolution.

It didn’t really matter, all that mattered was that millions of people were dying, sprouting into these terrible plants.

The Preacher raised himself on slippery fingers, wailing skywards at the horror of it all. He looked at the cottage, and his wail stopped, his righteous fury as to what was happening in the world choked by his immediate fury. He staggered forward, getting his balance, his shirt smothered by what had once been The Kid.

McGrigor grabbed one of the empty bottles and rammed it into the wall – breaking it. He heard The Preacher yelling at him, yelling at them – some garbled rant as he charged towards the cottage.

“What are you doing?” asked The Woman.

“It’s in all of us,” said McGrigor, his eyes not leaving The Preacher. “It’s already there inside us; it’s just a question of when. But if you go near one of those things, if you break it – say with an axe – then it gives off a spray, an invisible scent that speeds up your own change. If you roll around in that thing’s blood, that also accelerates your transformation. That bastard Preacher is so stupid he’s managed to do both. He’ll be gone by morning, and I’m not having him in here when he does.”

The Preacher raced towards them.

“What are you doing?” he yelled. “What are you doing to me? You can’t leave me out here! I brought you here. I made this place. I gave it to you. You filthy drunk! What the hell are you doing? How can you do this to me? My dear, don’t listen to him, don’t listen to what he’s telling you. Let me in there please, you have to let me in. Don’t listen to what he’s saying, just let me in – just bloody let me in!”

He reached the door and started to shake it. McGrigor stood the other side with broken bottle in hand, just in case The Preacher was more powerful than he looked. The Preacher grabbed at the door, rattled it, but got little give.

The Preacher went to the window and McGrigor went with him, holding up the jagged weapon. The Preacher shuddered, unwilling to break his hand through just to have that forced into him. He vanished from sight and McGrigor went to the next window and the window afterwards, and each time found The Preacher on the other side pushing his fingers to the glass.

“Let me in!” screamed The Preacher. “Please let me in. You have to let me in, you just have to!”

“You have to let him in!” yelled The Woman, still on the floor. “Please, you have to let him in!”

“How long do you want to live for?” snarled McGrigor. “Do you want it to be a day or do you want it to be an hour? If it’s the latter, then I’ll unbolt that door right now. Why not? If you want to give yourself up so easily then why don’t we do that? But I figure if you marched all this way, then you’re not that keen on a quick death. And if that’s the case, then shut up and let me do this!”

“Let me in!” said The Preacher, weeping now. “For God’s heart, let me in!”

“Let him in,” cried The Woman, “Let him in.”

“Shut up!” barked McGrigor.

They made it round every window in the cottage, The Preacher’s face becoming more anguished as McGrigor’s became more determined. They did a second loop, dancing together through the stone wall. It was as if The Preacher thought he’d get to a window McGrigor had forgotten, as if he thought McGrigor would keel over drunk. They went round a third time – McGrigor more animated with the bottle, bored of the game, annoyed that The Preacher wasn’t taking the hint.

Evening fell and The Preacher drifted away – he wasn’t at any of the windows, he wasn’t in sight. McGrigor peered out but couldn’t glimpse him. He guessed he was hiding, waiting. McGrigor kept the broken bottle at his side, just hoping his own stock of strength lasted longer than The Preacher’s.

He unscrewed the top of a full bottle and took several gulps. The Woman continued to stare at him, fear in every inch of her.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve just got very used to looking after myself. That isn’t about to change now, and you should feel thankful I’ve saved you too.”

The night-time gloom came on them fast. McGrigor kept vigil, trying to penetrate the dark – but there was no Preacher, no movement. That insufferable bastard couldn’t have changed yet; they’d have heard it. They always screamed, every single one of them screamed.

The Woman brought her knees up in front of her and started to rock backwards and forwards. There were tears on her cheeks, but they didn’t look fresh, they looked like they’d been wept months ago and had stained the skin permanently. She didn’t look at McGrigor; she just looked at that solid stone floor on which – you’d imagine – it would be impossible for any plant to grow. McGrigor paced in front of her, a full bottle in one hand, the broken one ready in the other.

The first rock shattered the glass just as full darkness came. It burst through the front window and landed beside The Woman’s legs. She screamed but seemed unhurt. McGrigor held his weapon up and moved cautiously to the broken frame, he couldn’t see anything.

There was another smash, in the kitchen this time, another rock hurled through the glass. McGrigor ran, ready to confront The Preacher if he came through. Again he peered out and there was nothing. There was no movement, no glimpse of man – only a third smash, this time in the bedroom. The Woman screamed as McGrigor raced past her. Again there was nobody trying to crawl through, no smug face of The Preacher.

The other window in the front room exploded – this time a shard of glass flew by and cut The Woman’s ankle. She screamed and then stopped, clutching it with a pained expression that showed more stoicism than McGrigor had credited her with. Again there was no Preacher, but McGrigor knew what was next and made it to the kitchen before the rock took out that other window, and to the bedroom before the stone removed the remaining pane. He even jabbed at it with his trusty weapon – but there was no hand reaching through, there was no Preacher.

He stood and listened. There were no windows anymore. There was no sound. He wouldn’t have said The Preacher was the kind of man to crawl through broken windows. He certainly wouldn’t crawl through to have a bottle forced into his face. It was all down to waiting again, it was all down to who lasted the longest – him or The Preacher. He took another swig of whisky.

He patrolled the inside of the cottage. It was darker inside than out, but McGrigor soon found a path and even knew when to raise his feet to climb over The Woman’s legs. She was quiet, maybe listening in the dark, maybe dozing.

He talked the whole time, letting The Preacher know he was awake. He invited him in, told him what would happen if he tried to get in. He called him a bad preacher, a worthless preacher, a lecherous preacher, a lonely preacher, a preacher without a flock.

There were no sounds outside; when he stopped his monologue he couldn’t hear a thing. Sometimes he thought The Preacher was near – that he was crouching down just below one of the windows, waiting for his opportunity. He could almost smell The Preacher’s sweat, that disgusting mix of salt water and pollen they always produced at the end. He stayed vigilant, stayed awake, stayed ready. His hands trembled, he knew too well what would happen if The Preacher got in, if he was allowed to change within four close walls. He and The Woman would be gone by afternoon, and he intended to live longer than that – even if he was the last man on Earth.

The Preacher was furtive, The Preacher was quick, The Preacher was sneaky. McGrigor looked out at the darkness and wished it was light, wished there was something to see. His legs ached, his chest was filled with fluid – weighing him down, drowning him.

His throat hurt but he continued to speak: “You alright there, Preacher? How you doing, Preacher? I don’t recommend coming in, Preacher, I really don’t!” He wanted to sit down, he wanted to rest, he wanted to close his eyes for a moment. How could The Preacher have more energy than him? How could he possibly have more stamina? He was sicker, older, wandering around on rough terrain as opposed to the flat floor of the cottage. It wasn’t right he could do that. It was wrong he had so much fortitude.

Then it happened. McGrigor was prowling the front room, while The Woman shivered in silence. They heard the scream; it came from the direction of the kitchen. Both swallowed with familiar dread. McGrigor slammed the kitchen door, bolting it so nothing in there could get out. The scream burst in at them – dreadful, high pitched and accelerating. It seemed to go beyond the range of a human voice box, as if every muscle, tendon and bone was being forced through a grinder to create this scream.

The Woman scrambled to her knees and clutched McGrigor’s legs. The scream got higher – they could hear bones tear through flesh, the limbs of the plant ripping apart the limbs of the man. There was the splat of blood and the slide of flesh and the scream stopped. Somewhere in the dark was another of those plants. The Preacher’s eyes staring out, a sad flower.

McGrigor shook The Woman’s grasp from him and collapsed to the floor, leaning back against the wall and taking another sanctuary bolt of alcohol.

He should never have left the city, but they were everywhere in the city. You’d find them on street corners, in supermarkets; the doors of second floor apartments were broken down and there it was in front of the TV. People cut them – they used knives, they used machetes, they charged at them with their cars.

But it didn’t matter. It was soon clear that if you broke one, something was released that sped up your own illness – so before long you’d replaced it. That was the reason they couldn’t research it properly. No matter how many layers of protective clothing the scientists wore as they wielded their scalpels, it always got through, it always took them. Soon there was no one left to research it, and even the thinnest slice of hope was given up. It got into you, got into your bones, twisted their DNA, made you something that wasn’t you. As soon as it was strong enough, it discarded the flesh and the heart and the brain and stood on its own in the world. It destroyed what was you and then replaced you.

Edgar Speller was the first – he was a nobody, a farmer, a man who’d never done anything interesting in his life. Two weeks later the President of the United States was on television announcing his plans to save the world; in two more weeks there was no President of the United States. Not long after that a band of survivors came together and made a bid for the higher ground. One of them took on the mantle of authority and told them things would be better up there.

McGrigor was sitting in a doorway when they found him. They’d jumped on him, hugged him, held him as a friend. He hadn’t really believed The Preacher, but he had no better idea and nowhere else to go. There’d been seven of them originally, but they’d lost three on the way – one before they even left the city – and now there were only two. Possibly the last man and woman on Earth, Adam and Eve in reverse, soon to leave this planet with nothing but animals and plants.

As dawn came they sat on opposite sides of the front room. McGrigor had let the broken bottle fall, but kept a firm grip on the whisky laden one. The Woman looked as if she was in a trance, her eyes open but nothing there.

McGrigor stood slowly and took a swig of booze. He glanced at The Woman, and then cautiously opened the kitchen door.

There it was, right outside the broken windows, a green/white twisted version of a human skeleton. He stared at it, examining the skull, trying to make out something of The Preacher, a sign it had once been a man. It was clearly based on man, but distorted. The agonies of death had stretched and bent and elongated the skull, so it was now impossible to place a human face on top of it – even if you knew what that face had looked like.

The only humanity was the eyes, the same eyes that had been there when it wore an overcoat of flesh. Now they shone in pain and agony, in astonishment at what had happened, even though they knew it was coming. They were The Preacher’s eyes, but they weren’t. No one’s eyes really look like that except in the throes of torture. Before long the whites would turn green, and then other similar flowers would grow across the bones – green and blue, green and brown, green and green – the fruit of this unusual plant.

McGrigor bolted the kitchen door and sat opposite The Woman – Linda. They stared at each other across the cold floor.

“Do you want a drink?” he asked.

She shook her head.

“You sure?”

Her shake was more of a tremble this time, but still adamant.

“You should,” he said. “It’s good for you.”

He watched her, her hand still clutching her injured leg, her eyes still weepy. He’d never seen them anything other than tearful. When he first saw her, she already looked like she couldn’t walk from sobbing.

“What have you lost?” she asked.

“What have I lost?” he said. “The usual, a few people, a few things – what would basically constitute my life. How about you?”

“My parents,” she said.

“Yeah, I lost my parents too. At least I think I did. They live a long way from here and one day they didn’t pick up the phone. By that point it was just too far to travel, so I had to assume I’d lost them. In a way that’s more comforting, as there’s always that small chance they might still be there.”

“I lost my brother,” she said.

“I think I lost my sister. She lived near my parents. Did you see yours?”

She nodded.

“Sorry.”

“I lost all my friends.”

“I lost both of mine.” He smiled. She didn’t acknowledge it.

“Did you lose a partner?” she asked.

“I lost my girlfriend. We were in the process of breaking up. It had all got very unpleasant and then this happened. Kind of put what went before into context. I don’t regret what I said to her. A lot of it she deserved. I just wish we’d both had that time to move on. You know, that period where you try to meet someone else and the break up doesn’t look so bad anymore. How about you? Did you lose a boyfriend, husband, some dashing fiancée?”

She shook her head.

He took another bolt of whisky.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” she said.

“We were always going to die,” he said. “We just weren’t going to die like this.”

“It’s so horrible,” she sniffed. “I’m going to die alone.”

He laughed. “We’re both going to die alone.”

“I just feel so ill,” she sobbed. “I feel so sick and tired. I feel thirsty.”

“Do you want that drink?”

“Yes please.”

She raised her hand from her ankle and the wound was red and green.

He stared at it.

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s too late.”

He shot across the floor, grabbed her arm and yanked her up. She offered no resistance. He opened the bedroom door and hurled her in. She screamed as she landed, looking at him with hurt and confused eyes. Eyes like flowers. He shut the door and bolted it tight.

She was infected – they were both infected – but she wasn’t far off, and he didn’t want to sit with her as she turned. She used up her last dregs of strength throwing her weight against the door. She screamed, she begged, she pleaded – and then she stopped, the only sound he heard was soft weeping.

There were the windows, of course. They were all broken, but she’d seen him with the bottle and he didn’t reckon she was any more foolhardy than The Preacher. He guessed she’d stay where she was, and he’d stay where he was.

He took another drink. Back in the city he’d noticed how the alcoholics were more resilient to this infection. The drunks in the bars and the winos on the street corners all seemed to be the last to go. There must be something in alcohol that suppressed it, kept it under control. It was only when they ran out of booze that it happened.

He had nine bottles left. Maybe seven days drinking. What was he going to do when he ran out? He knew he’d made a mistake following The Preacher – but despite his cynicism, part of him had believed The Preacher’s sermon, had hoped there’d be a new lease of life higher up. He now knew how wrong he was. His future lay back in the city, near a bar, a pub; maybe with some like-minded dipsos who’d also figured it out.

But what was he going to find if he went back? Would he be the only one, would he wander familiar streets alone, staring at green eyes to try and find old friends? Maybe it was better to accept his fate up here, maybe it would be simpler to find the highest point and throw himself off. He didn’t know what to do – drink himself alive or drink himself to death. He had nine bottles left. He took another swig and thought he’d decide in a day or two.























And now
The opening chapter of F.R. Jameson’s superb novel:

Hell’s Secrets

Available to buy now on Amazon.











Why had he done it?

Why had he said “Yes” to that absurd offer?

After all, he’d felt an intense fear the moment that first email arrived. The portents had been there, but he’d chosen to ignore them.

Mark had got home late that night, having treated himself to a quick after-work pint. Of course it had turned into a bit of a session and three hours later he made it back. He came in, yelled “Hello,” to his flatmate – who hadn’t actually made it home yet himself – and then micro-waved some pasta from the fridge. While it was going round and round he changed into the shorts and T-shirt he always wore to bed and switched on his computer.

At that point all was still okay.

For some reason he wanted to check his email. There was no pressing need, he wasn’t expecting any urgent missive, but since work didn’t allow him access to his personal account he thought he’d take the opportunity. It would all be spam no doubt, a dozen clicks of the delete key and nothing useful for him whatsoever. But still he wanted to look.

Why? That was the question he asked himself later. What had got into him that he was so anxious to see his email that night?

But then, what did it matter? Even if he hadn’t seen it that night, he’d have seen it the day after, or at the weekend, or whenever he next checked it. He’d have looked at it at some point, and maybe he would have responded in a different way then, or maybe he wouldn’t have responded at all. Perhaps he’d have saved himself. But he didn’t know that. He didn’t know what he might have done. It was possible he’d have always replied “Yes” and that all of this was always going to happen.

The microwave beeped before the computer started and he whistled as he went to the kitchen. It was odd, despite the beer he’d drunk he didn’t feel that pissed. He felt merry certainly, but he should have been drunker after what he’d had. Instead he felt good and opened another can, as there was no point ruining that feeling by stopping.

Still whistling he emptied the pasta from the Tupperware container into the bowl. He chucked the container into the sink, where it landed amongst all the other kitchen detritus that neither he nor his flatmate had been bothered to wash up. Sod it! That’s what they made weekends for after all. With an actual skip in his step he carried the bowl and a fork and went into his room to start up the internet.

His world was still fine then, he thought. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it that some more money, the right girl and a long holiday in the sun couldn’t cure.

There was maybe very little wrong with it at all, he realised later. He was being spoilt, pampered. Everything around him was good – not perfect – but good, he had the kind of life that lots of blokes his age would have idly dreamt of. Any whines he had were pathetic.

He’d soon find out how miserable life could get.

With the bowl in one hand he typed his password into Yahoo and waited for it to open. They did have a broadband package in the flat but it was a shit one, they kept meaning to update it – another thing that never managed to get done properly of a weekend.

Finally it opened and he clicked through to his message page. It took a moment to get there, so he grabbed the opportunity to shovel back a couple of steaming forkfuls of soggy pasta. While still chewing he slurped down some chilled lager straight from the can.

At last the page appeared and it was pretty much what he’d expected. A missive from his bank, something from an old friend who was currently bumming around Spain and a load of spam emails offering him credit-free loans and a super hard dick – sometimes in the same message.

But there was something else too.

There was an email he hadn’t expected.

Sometimes when he thought back, he was convinced he’d felt a shudder even as he pointed the curser at that message. It was as if he already sensed trouble. But then he’d had to open it. There was a message from a name he barely recognised, a person that he hadn’t heard from or seen in such a long time and which at first glance he’d just dismissed as spam. Perhaps he did have a slight chill on that second glance when he recognised it, when he saw it was something more than your randomly generated message. Maybe, when he realised that it came from a person in his past – a person he thought was gone for good – then he did have a brief flash of impending horror.

But did he? Was there even a hesitation as he clicked on that message? He didn’t know, he really didn’t. His memory played tricks on him, after all he’d been through how could he not have an imagination that lingered in the darkness? There was no way he could tell anymore what he actually felt at the moment. Maybe he did have a cold sweat that lacquered his entire body, or perhaps the food virtually rotted in his mouth so that he nearly spat it out. It’s even possible he wanted to run screaming into the street.

However, if he was honest, he’d have to say that he wasn’t as scared at that moment as he should have been. There was some trepidation, but any fear he remembered was an artificial memory. Sometimes he thought he’d continued shovelling the food down as he waited to see what this prick from university had written. He wasn’t a man gripped by terror then, not someone who sensed what horrible things were in store for him. At that point he was still a bloke who had a good life, even if he didn’t realise it.

It was only when the message opened that he actually felt a mild choke. That was when the first feeling of terror gripped him.

He stared at it, his jaw hanging momentarily slack.

What stunned him was not the message itself, it was the way it was written. The prick had sent it in the most bizarre font he’d ever seen – not a style normally available on email, or even in Word. It was gothic, but more than gothic. The words came through in a thick and vicious scrawl. The letters all joined together as if they’d been scraped onto paper in a passion of rage. That’s what they looked like. Not that they’d been typed into a computer, but that they’d been carved out and then scanned into the body of the email. It was all perfect jet black, dark and deep, as if whichever fist had committed these words had done so with furious force. Maybe it was supposed to be funny, meant to remind him of artwork from the kind of heavy metal albums he’d listened to at fourteen. Instead, the unflinching black made him tremble.

There was a moment when he literally shuddered. His fork was half-way to his mouth and some of the pasta dropped away to his lap. He didn’t even notice the heat against his thighs. The subject matter was bland, the message itself was curious but innocuous, yet he was suddenly incredibly scared. This wasn’t his memory playing tricks with him, this was genuine. Fear had grabbed hold of his spine.

It was as if there was something in the flat with him, something huge and terrible that his mind couldn’t even begin to comprehend. His eyes swivelled nervously, checking every corner of shadow in case whatever this monster was leapt out at him. It was dark, why was he checking his email after dark? That’s what his mind screamed out, actually berating him for being foolish enough to check his messages at any time other than safe daylight.

Even though he’d been eating, he now felt incredibly hungry. It was almost as if there was something else inside of him, eating everything he’d eaten and soon about to eat him. His hand trembled, almost dropping the bowl, his mind consumed with fears of these creatures that were all around him and inside of him.

What was the matter with him? He tried to be calm, to breathe properly. This was his flat after all, he’d lived there for three years and knew he was perfectly safe. What did it matter if Bob wasn’t in? He still wasn’t in danger in their flat. And for Christ’s sake, what did it matter if it was night? He was a big boy now, it was a long time since he’d been scared of the dark.

The bowl was placed down by the side of the laptop and with a trembling hand he took a hearty gulp of lager, trying to calm himself.

Deep breaths.

It was all okay, everything was fine. This was just a short burst of stupidity. Maybe someone had slipped something into his drink at the pub. Very funny if they had, he’d never give them the satisfaction of mentioning it.

Gradually he calmed, the panic subsided. It was just an email, a ridiculous message from a bloke he hadn’t seen in ten years. There was nothing disturbing in it, nothing to worry about. This bloke had always been a prick, and so of course he was going to do something melodramatic in his “long time no see” communication.

There was no problem, certainly nothing to be scared of, but still he couldn’t stare at it without seeing how creepy it was. It was the way the words were typed – if they had been typed and not scrawled out and scanned onto the screen. But why would the prick do that? Why go to all that trouble? Whatever the reason, it took Mark a few attempts before he could look at it without flinching.

This was an old acquaintance catching up with him. Obviously this bloke had thought about him and gone to the trouble of finding out how to get in touch. But the feeling Mark got from the way the words were laid out was sheer hatred.

The subject line was simple enough, standard Times New Roman text.

Greetings Stranger!” it read.

It was the body of the text that was disturbing – like a party of tarantulas had been coerced into scraping their ink-stained legs into these shapes – making it look as if something disgusting had been written.

But even then, the message itself was fairly innocuous. It said:

Hello Mark Anthony.

I have a proposition for you.

Yours.

Giles White.


He stared at it for a long time. His food got cold, his lager went flat. A voice in his head told him to delete it, to add Giles White to his spam list so that he’d never have to look at one of his messages again. But instead he sat transfixed, simultaneously scared of the words and trying to work out what it was that scared him so much.

Surely he’d never wanted to see Giles White again, so why should he reply to this email? But then, he had a curiosity as to what the man wanted and so a hesitation to delete.

Mark was torn between feeling horrified by the message and somewhat impressed that a prick like Giles could pull off such a reaction. Who’d have thought he had it in him?

His finger lurked on the mouse ready to delete, yet there was an inertia to actually do so.

He might have sat there all night. It was only when he heard his flatmate stumble in that he finally moved. Quickly he switched off the computer and went out to join him. In his shaken-up state he could only manage fake bonhomie, but even fake bonhomie was better than nothing. And gradually as the cans were consumed and the chatter got louder as they watched crap TV, there was a real bonhomie.

They drank a lot that night. Tomorrow was Friday so they could coast.

He drank a lot because he knew that email was still undeleted.

He drank because he knew he’d need something to help him sleep.

But then, hungover the next morning, he couldn’t resist taking another look at the message. He sat back from the screen as it opened in case his stomach churned. His fingers itched next to the keyboard and it was with a deep breath that he began to type out a reply. It read:

Giles

What are you talking about?


His life wasn’t actually fine anymore.


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