EVAN, RICHIE AND SARAH
On the rare occasion that Richie fell for someone, he fell hard and fast, even harder and faster when it felt like he was looking in a mirror. And Evan was such a mirror. A mirror with a vicious streak, but that only made it better.
For three days, they drove and searched and took advantage of abandoned places and abandoned things. It was impossible to avoid the scenes of gut-wrenching horror left behind by those less interested in maintaining their own survival than in preventing other people’s, but Richie was oddly content.
Evan’s growing willingness to rifle through the pockets of the deceased only bothered him the first couple of times before he accepted that it was necessary. This is just the way things are now, he reminded himself. And what they were doing was nothing compared to what they’d witnessed. Neither of them spoke of that though.
Evan didn’t ask many questions and Richie had become more and more comfortable with a general lack of answers, increasingly accustomed to the long silences that filled their waking hours.
I don’t care if I never meet another living person, Richie thought as they set off from the field where they’d been sleeping, wrapped in stolen sleeping bags in the car. But as it happened, another living person was just around the corner and Richie was about to care very much.
“Shit, Evan, stop! There’s a girl!”
Evan screeched to a halt upon seeing the slight figure at the side of the road, changing a wheel on a silver convertible. Another car thief. Another opportunist.
The girl jumped back at the sound of screaming tyres next to her and grabbed a knife from her belt with the hand that wasn’t already brandishing a lug wrench.
Richie opened the window wide, not quite trusting enough to get out of the car, while Evan reached beneath the driver’s seat for his hatchet, not trusting at all. He was curious but had developed what he considered to be a healthy suspicion of the living, even though the last living person he’d met had ended up being better company than he’d expected.
“Hey, first person we’ve seen in a while who doesn’t look like you’re going to kill us!” Richie greeted the girl through the open window. “Where are you headed?”
Evan shot Richie a side-eye that suggested he was being far too immediately open with a total stranger who had a heavy piece of metal in one hand and a blade in the other, but he said nothing.
“Home, kind of,” the girl replied, sharply. She wasn’t as young as Richie first assumed based on her size. Perhaps his age, or thereabouts, with a defensive air that he hoped his smile might melt. God knows Evan’s withering glares wouldn’t do them any favours.
“Where’s home, kind of?”
“A bit down the road,” she said, not hinting at any direction. “Who are you? Where did you come from? Are there others?”
“I’m Richie. I came from…here, or sort of near here anyway. The nearness depends on whether you’re walking or driving. When I was walking, it felt like not near at all. But if you’re driving, I suppose it’s…sorry, Edinburgh. I’m from Edinburgh, but I got out of the city when…” he gestured broadly, “…you know. And there’s just me and Evan. Just us. Please, put down the knife and the car fixing thing.”
“I’m Sarah,” she said, not lowering either of the weapons. “Are you immune?”
“Yes! Or at least I assume so. If I wasn’t immune, I’d be dead, wouldn’t I? We both are. Immune, I mean, not dead. We’re trying to find…I don’t know. Somewhere. Something. Food. And water. We’re nearly out and everywhere we’ve been’s already been emptied, or everything’s gross and crawling with maggots.”
“That’s a pleasant detail to share. Very endearing,” said Evan, quietly enough for only Richie to hear, but accompanied by a facial expression that didn’t go unnoticed by Sarah.
Finally lowering the knife, but keeping it in her hand, Sarah set down the lug wrench next to her car. “Yeah, I know what you mean about the food and water situation,” she said. “It’s pretty grim, right? Especially the water.”
“Yeah, seriously grim. Do you need help with the wheel?”
“I can change a wheel by myself, thanks. I was a mechanic. I mean, I am a mechanic. I guess that hasn’t changed. And I have food. And water. Not much, but some,” she said, softening slightly. “So, on a scale of one to crazed looters wielding planks with nails in them, how likely are you to try and kill me?”
“Zero,” said Richie, sincerely. “I swear, off-the-scale not going to try and kill you. I wouldn’t even know how to, to be honest.”
“I’d know how to,” said Evan, barely audible. It was Richie’s turn to shoot a side-eye until Evan said, “But I’m not going to. Probably. OK, I’m definitely not going to try to kill her.”
“You seem alright,” Sarah said to Richie, “but I’m not sure about him,” with a tilt of her head towards Evan.
Evan leaned over Richie and shouted through the open window, “I’m a fucking delight. And I talk less than he does, so I’ve got that going for me.”
“You do seem delightful,” said Sarah. “And not at all abrasive and low-key threatening. OK, wait until I’m finished with the wheel, then follow me.” She still held onto the knife.
She’ll offer us food and water but she might still stab us, Richie thought. “OK. Are you sure it’s—”
“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ve been on my own for a while, you know? I forgot how to talk to people. Wait. And then follow me.”
Evan grinned at Richie. “Well, isn’t she just the most useful person in the world right now? Shall we?” He sounded almost optimistic. It made a pleasant change.
CHANCE AND JAC
Jac was thankful that the evenings were getting lighter. Not by much, but at least the world wasn’t cloaked in darkness for quite so long every day. They were never sure whether it was safer to travel during the day or at night, so they had been moving at dusk and dawn, staying put through the lightest hours and the darkest.
Jac had seen things they had hoped to never see, scenes more harrowing that any nightmare they had ever had. They knew the world could be a cruel place, now more than ever, but they had wished so often for a friendly face and it always came as a disappointment that the only faces they encountered were ones it was safer to hide from.
To maintain some semblance of normality in spite of the loneliness and lack of direction, Jac had maintained their self-developed exercise programme with a daily work-out conducted mostly in abandoned gardens or empty fields.
When night fell, they slept in their car because at least they could move quickly if they absolutely needed to. They had needed to, more than once, and recently enough to still feel shaken by the experience. They fought their memories and fears with physical exertion, repeating their mantra in time with the crunches they were doing on a blanket on the cold ground. Strong-er, strong-er, strong-er.
Having almost reached a state of calm, Jac noticed a sound they hadn’t heard in days – another engine. Torn between remaining hidden and comparatively safe, and potentially meeting someone else who was just trying to get by, they bowed their head and whispered, “Please God, please let what I’m about to do be a good idea.”
They stood up and took a deep breath.
A black SUV swung through the open gate into the field before Jac even had time to consider how they might signal to someone in a moving vehicle in a way that didn’t make them look like a threat.
The SUV slid to a halt, skidding along the rain-damp grass, and stopped less than six feet from Jac’s own car. Throwing caution to the wind and just about every other weather condition, Jac put on their most convincing I’m not going to kill you smile and hoped for the best.
The door of the SUV opened and the occupant tumbled out, a heap of tattered clothes, emitting curses so eloquent that Jac learned at least five new words in the space of three seconds. Approaching cautiously, and drawing a blank as to how to greet someone who might be dying, or at least seriously injured, they crouched down beside the swearing heap of clothes and asked, “Are you alright?”
The heap of clothes unraveled slightly to reveal a scarred face, pale eyes, and hands curled into fists, shaking. A voice like ice on gravel replied only, “Yes.”
“Are you sure?” asked Jac. “You sort of seem a bit…not alright?”
“Are you hurt? Can I do anything? I have some medical supplies and I don’t really know what to do with most of them, to be honest, but I do have them in the car if you—”
“I’m fine. Seriously. It’s just an…it’s nothing. I’m fine.”
“I don’t mean to add to whatever’s going on with you right now, but you just fell out of a car and you look a bit like you might be having a heart attack. Are you having a heart attack? My papa had one once and I had to call an ambulance, but there were still functional hospitals back then and now I don’t really know what to do if someone has a heart attack but…I’m sorry. I’m not helping. But are you having a heart attack, do you think?”
“I thought I might have been, but no. This is…something else. I’ll be OK in a minute. Nothing’s exploding and nothing’s broken. I’m good. I just need to breathe.”
“Can I help you up?”
“I don’t need any help.”
“I think you do,” said Jac, matter-of-factly. And with that, they carefully lifted the shaking man into a seated position, leaned his back against the SUV, then sat down beside him.
“You don’t need to say anything and I’m not going to ask you any more questions. I’m just going to sit here with you until you’re alright. I’m Jac, but you don’t have to tell me your name if you don’t want to.”
The man uncurled his fists, stretched his fingers, closed his eyes and took three measured breaths.
“I’m Chance. And…what the hell. You’re the only living person I’ve seen in the last week who hasn’t tried to steal my car or kill me. It’s an anxiety attack. Was. Is. I don’t know. First time in about thirty years. Last week I saw some shit I didn’t need to see that was worse than all the other shit I’d seen and it’s been hard to shake it.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Anxiety attacks are horrible. I wish you weren’t having one but I’m glad you ended up right here so you didn’t have to be on your own. There’s nothing worse than being on your own when you’re feeling awful.”
“I’m OK with being on my own,” Chance replied, his breathing slowing to a less frantic pace.
“Really? I hate it. I’ve been so miserable this entire time. My parents are dead. All my friends are dead. Everyone at the gym and the studio and the gallery. Literally everyone. I’ve just been driving around, finding food and water, then hiding until it’s time to drive again. I didn’t steal this car, by the way. It belonged to my parents.”
“I did steal this car,” said Chance. “No idea who it belonged to but he was dead when I pulled him out of it.”
“Oh. That’s…well, it sounds like you’ve had a really hard time of things. And it’s nice to meet you. Would you like something to eat? I have some food in my car. It’s not the best, just chocolate bars and tins of things, but it’s better than nothing. I’ve even got some fizzy drinks. It’s basically all sugar.”
“Sugar’s good,” said Chance, managing to force more of a smile than he’d had on his face since everything fell apart and, if he was honest with himself, a lot longer than that. It might have been the effect of having an anxiety attack for the first time since he was a teenager, but nothing about this encounter felt real.
They ate chocolate and drank cola in silence, Jac sneaking sideways glances at Chance to check he was alright and Chance trying to look less like someone whose body count had reached double figures in the last week alone and god knows how many before that.
If someone had told him an hour ago that he would not only run into a friendly living person but would admit to them that he was temporarily losing his mind, then sit next to them on the ground inhaling junk food, he wouldn’t have believed a word of it.
But here he was. And for some reason he couldn’t even begin to fathom, Jac’s presence felt like a calm ocean on the shores of madness.
“I know I said I wasn’t going to ask any more questions, apart from asking about the food…that was a question. But where are you headed next?” asked Jac.
Chance took a coin from his pocket, flipped it, caught it and looked. “At the next junction, I’ll be turning left.”
“Is that how you’ve been deciding where to go? By flipping a coin?”
“You wouldn’t believe how many things I’ve been deciding by flipping a coin.”
“The end of the world does weird stuff to people, doesn’t it?” Jac nodded, knowingly.
Chance didn’t have the heart to admit that weird stuff had been done to him long before the end of the world. “Yeah,” he said. “It does.”
“What did you do before all this?” asked Jac.
Chance was not at all prepared for this level of conversation, but it was happening regardless, with or without his participation. “I ran a club in town. In Edinburgh.”
“Wow, that’s exciting! Which club?”
“Revolver. In the Cowgate.”
“I’ve heard of it. Never been there though. Clubbing was never really my scene. I was an artist, before. I guess I still am but I haven’t had the opportunity to create much art lately. And I don’t mean artists don’t go clubbing, I just mean I didn’t. OK, I never realised how much I talked before. I don’t think I always talked this much. I think it’s just cause I haven’t had anyone to talk to in ages and now I do and I can’t stop talking.”
Chance forced another smile, mainly because he felt he ought to but partly because he meant it. Two smiles in one day. This was not normal at all. “I don’t talk much.”
“I figured. You seem the strong, silent type. All mysterious and interesting. Was that a weird thing to say? I’m sorry. Anyway, you can totally say no if you want to but when you get to the next junction and turn left, would you maybe like some company? I’d bring my own car. I don’t mean I would literally keep you company in your car or anything, but just that we could maybe go to the same place next or something?”
Chance took a deep breath and before he had an opportunity to change his mind, replied, “Yes. That would be…that would be a thing we could do.”
Jac looked up at the sky and thought to themself, and anyone else who might be listening, thank you for sending me a friend.
Chance looked at his hands, tried not to shake his head, and thought to himself, what the fuck am I doing?