EVAN, RICHIE AND SARAH
“If you two are going to be pussies about it, I’ll go in myself,” said Evan, running out of patience with Richie and Sarah’s excessive caution.
“We’re not being pussies, which is actually a very sexist thing to say,” replied Richie, “but the door’s locked, or at least blocked, from the inside. You know what that means.”
“We’ve been watching the place for three hours and listening at the door for the last hour. We’ve seen and heard nothing, no people, no signs of people. That means if there’s anyone in there, they’re already dead. My head is fucking killing me since I ran out of fucking cigarettes, and we just found a chemist. It’s divine fucking intervention, Richie. God wants me to have decent painkillers.”
“You don’t believe in God.”
“I know. But I believe in painkillers.”
“Maybe he’s right,” interjected Sarah. “I mean, we’ve been here for ages and haven’t seen or heard a thing. I know everything behind the counter’s been taken already, but there’s got to be some more stuff in the back, right? And it wouldn’t hurt to have a better stash of bandages and things too, just in case. Maybe it’s worth at least trying.” She didn’t look completely convinced, though. Yet.
“See?” said Evan, looking pointedly at Richie. “Sarah’s not being a pussy.”
“OK Evan, if I help you break into the back room, will you stop being such an asshole?” Sarah was running out of patience herself.
“Probably not. I’m pretty sure this is just how much of an asshole I am. It’s an integral part of my delightful personality. But you should still help me break into the back room. And if Richie doesn’t want to be useful, he can keep watch. You know, for all the people who aren’t going to attack us cause they aren’t actually here.”
“At the risk of being useful,” said Richie, “You’re both talking about how to break that door down when there’s a wooden hatch right there, behind those shelves, that would be much easier to break. And I reckon Sarah could fit through it, providing she doesn’t mind dealing with the corpses she’s inevitably going to encounter once she gets in there.”
Evan’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Hang on. You saw that hatch, you actually noticed it while we were talking about the fucking door, and you didn’t mention this before, why?”
“Cause you were being an asshole,” replied Richie, smugly.
“Fuck you, Richie.”
“Fuck you too, Evan.”
Two loud crashes in quick succession served as an immediate distraction. Richie and Evan turned to see Sarah standing next to the set of shelves which now lay on the ground, in front of what had been the wooden hatch but was now a gaping hole in the wall.
“How the fuck—?” asked Evan.
“Sledgehammer,” replied Sarah, grinning. “I brought it in from the car when we first got here, or didn’t you notice?”
“I did not,” said Evan. “But well done. You’re refreshingly destructive, you know that?”
“I do. Now, one of you give me a foot up so I can climb in. I’ll try and clear whatever’s blocking the door so you can both get through.”
“Are you sure?” asked Richie. “I know it was technically my idea about the hatch but I have a bad feeling about this now. And there’s a bit of a smell coming from in there, isn’t there?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” replied Sarah. “And it’s fine, I promise. I can’t believe I’m saying this in such a casual tone, but at least if there’s a smell it means there’s a dead person in there, not a very quiet living one. Also, all the ‘I have a bad feeling about this’ stuff is so horror movie cliché.”
“Yeah, but…” Richie’s thought trailed off into silence, unfinished, as Evan leaned over, fingers laced together to create a stirrup for Sarah’s foot. With surprising elegance, she stepped into his waiting hands and then slithered through the hole in the wall where the hatch had been.
Landing on the other side and lighting the torch she’d been carrying in her pocket, she was welcomed by what she assumed had once been the pharmacist, now decomposing, still wearing a white lab coat, surrounded by the empty packaging of a lethal dose of something. The smell was repulsive.
The door between the back room and the rest of the shop wasn’t blocked by anything—it was simply locked, the key still in the keyhole, as if waiting for someone to find their way in and open it.
Evan stepped through the door first. “Well, isn’t this just Christmas come early?” he remarked, opening his backpack and stuffing it with painkillers, antibiotics, allergy medication and whatever else he could get his hands on.
“Why are you lifting antidepressants?” asked Richie.
“In case all this gets too bleak and we can’t cope,” replied Evan.
“It’s already too bleak.”
“It might be, but you’re coping, aren’t you?”
“Barely.” Richie’s mind slid uncomfortably back to the day on the bridge, cold hands grabbing him from behind the railing. Evan didn’t know about that. Neither did Sarah. He didn’t know how to tell them, so he kept it to himself. It didn’t matter anyway, not now. He was still here and so were they. No-one had jumped off anything.
“Shit, there are some high quality opiates on that top shelf,” said Evan, gesturing to the packets above his head.
“Don’t we have enough?” asked Sarah, whose pockets were stuffed with first aid supplies.
“You never know when you’re going to need something strong enough to take more than the edge off. I have professional experience,” answered Evan, dragging a folding chair over to climb on.
“Evan, don’t,” said Richie, looking uneasy.
“Because…just don’t. I don’t know. Leave it. Come on.”
“It’s fine. I’ll just be a minute, then we can go.” Evan opened the chair, put one foot on it and stood up, reaching for the top shelf to pull himself the rest of the way.
Neither Richie nor Sarah were quick enough to reach him as the shelf came away from the wall at exactly the moment the chair’s hinges buckled. Boxes upon boxes of medication fell around him in an avalanche, doing nothing to deaden the sickening thud as the back of his head hit the tiled floor.
Falling to his knees beside Evan, amid the prescription-grade snowfall, Richie heard someone shouting. Only when Sarah pulled him back from the blood as it spread across the floor, did Richie realise the voice he was hearing was his own.
CHANCE AND JAC
The morning light was thin and watery, moon and stars long gone, sun hidden behind bruised clouds. Jac had built a miniature fire pit shortly after they woke up. It made the whole thing feel more like a camping trip and less like the end of the world, and as long as the fire was kept small it was unlikely anyone would notice the smoke. Hopefully.
They warmed their hands by the flames while the water boiled in a stove-top kettle Chance had acquired from the home of someone who was well beyond having any use for it. Even while it was still too hot to drink, the mug of coffee was a comfort. After it had cooled down a little, it was perfection.
Coffee never lost its appeal. Coffee was universal, timeless, just like fire. Just like love. Jac thought of their parents, of all the things they would never get to tell Mama and Papa, of all the ways the world was different now. They bowed their head and whispered, “Keep them in heaven, where they belong.”
Hearing footsteps, Jac forced back tears that threatened every time they thought about their parents and secured a smile on their face before turning round.
Chance returned the smile, something he’d been making an effort to do lately, however unnatural it may have felt. “What are you thinking about?” he asked.
“My parents. What are you thinking about?”
“You want to talk about it?”
“I’m not great at talking about things.”
“I know. It can be good though, if someone really listens. Sit down and I’ll top up the coffee, if you don’t mind sharing a mug.”
“I don’t mind. And thanks. For the coffee.”
“So what’s up?”
“It’s not really…up. I just keep thinking about this kid I ran into a while back at the Forth bridges. I’d gone there thinking even if I had to leave the car I’d get across on foot and find another car on the other side, but then I couldn’t. Get across, I mean. No-one could. It was a fucking disaster and there was no getting past it all. I tried to figure out a way through it or round it, but it wasn’t happening.”
“Yeah, I went there too, in the car. I turned back pretty quickly. It was a mess,” Jac nodded, trying not to remember in too much detail. “I guess too many people must have had that idea. Sorry, I totally interrupted you. What happened next?”
“So I was on the old road bridge. I’d tried the other one first. And the rail bridge…there was a chunk missing part of the way along, but I guess you probably saw that too.”
“Yeah. I don’t even know how…but yeah. Sorry, go on.”
“Then there was this kid, taking his clothes off. Not all of them. He kept his trousers on, and his socks. I stood back and watched cause fuck knows what state anyone still alive around there was in, but something about it didn’t feel right. I mean, none of it felt right, but this really didn’t. I started walking over to him and I kept thinking he was going to notice me. We were the only people there. The only people there still alive anyway. Then he started to climb over the barrier like he was going to jump. I flipped a coin and it came up heads, so I ran over and grabbed him, pulled him back. Then I left. Never saw him again.”
“Wow!” Jac’s eyes widened. “Didn’t you want to find out what was going on with him? Like, how he got there and why he was trying to jump?”
“Honestly? No. I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t even look back when I was walking away and he didn’t follow me, so I don’t know if he jumped as soon as I was out of sight or if he’s still out there somewhere.”
“What was his name?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t tell me. I didn’t ask. He shouted at me for saving his pointless fucking life—his words, not mine—and then he asked me my name, but I didn’t tell him. Truth is, I didn’t know what to do with any of it. I couldn’t think of one good reason why he shouldn’t jump. I couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t either. I didn’t want to deal with it.”
“That’s heavy. L’appel du vide.” Jac poured some instant coffee from an almost empty jar into the mug, then added hot water from the kettle. They handed the mug to Chance.
“L’appel du what?” asked Chance.
“L’appel du vide. The call of the void.”
“Yeah, well, I guess something was calling him anyway. You know, he kind of reminded me of this kid Evan who used to work at my club. His hair was a different colour but he looked kind of like him. It got me thinking about all the people I knew before. I didn’t give a fuck about any of them then and even after all this, I still didn’t. I didn’t miss anyone. And you know the most fucked up thing about it?”
“He’d taken his boots off before he went to jump and his socks were soaked in blood. I guess he’d walked there from wherever and his feet had been bleeding, but he must have just kept walking. Just…what the fuck, you know? That’s what it had come to.”
Chance took a drink of the coffee, looking at Jac over the top of the mug. He’d been trying to figure out how to do eye contact without seeming threatening. He wasn’t sure if he was getting it yet or not though.
“Before you saved him, if you’d flipped the coin and it had come up tails, what would you have done?” asked Jac.
Chance shrugged. He didn’t look away, but he didn’t need to. A barrier went up, momentarily. A thin but impenetrable sheet of ice. It melted as quickly as it had formed, but that particular conversation was clearly over.
Jac changed the subject. “What about family? Your family, I mean. I didn’t want to ask before and you never mentioned anyone, but…I don’t know. Tell me to shut up if I’m annoying you. I feel like maybe I’m annoying you and I don’t want to do that.”
“You aren’t. But I don’t have any family. I didn’t, before, either.” Chance handed the mug back to Jac.
Jac slid their fingers around it, enjoying the warmth. “No parents?”
“Not for a long time. And not even when they were alive, not really. They were…not good people. I had some foster parents, but I never kept in touch with any of them. Then there was Mac. He wasn’t a parent as such but he looked after me, got me into work at the club. But some shit went down and he had to leave, no forwarding address. So it was just me.”
“Were you lonely? Before, I mean? Sorry, that was a weird question.”
“It was,” Chance smiled, reassuringly. Or at least he hoped that was what he made his face do. “But no, I wasn’t. I was alright. Life was what it was, you know?”
“Can I ask you something personal?”
“More personal than the last three questions?”
“I think so. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
“Go on then.”
“OK. The other night when you were taking your sweater off to get changed after the rain…I mean, I wasn’t watching or anything, I just noticed…your back. I saw your back. The scars. How did you get those?”
“As I said, my parents were not good people.”
“Oh my goodness, they did that to you? Wow. That’s awful. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It was a long time and a lot of scars ago. None of it hurts any more. None of it hurt at the time either, or at least not that I remember. Maybe I don’t remember right.”
“I think sometimes people don’t remember certain things because it’s better for them not to. You know, like you can’t fix the messed up stuff so your life is better if you get to just put all that behind you and be who you are now.”
“Who I am now has done a lot of talking.”
“You have. But it’s good though, isn’t it?” Jac nodded encouragingly, like some sort of breakthrough had occurred.
“I don’t know. I’m getting sick of the sound of my own voice. Why don’t you do some talking?” Chance made his best attempt at what he thought was a friendly facial expression, hoping that made his words seem less confrontational. He hadn’t meant them to, but he was realising more and more that most things he said just came out that way. Force of habit.
“Alright. Ask me a question and I’ll answer.” Jac smiled.
Chance wasn’t sure he’d ever met anyone who smiled as much as Jac did. They were very good at it. “You said you were an artist, before. Tell me about that.”
“What about it?”
“Anything. Everything. I’m about as good at listening as I am at talking, so I need to work on that. Give me something good to listen to. Start at the beginning.”
Jac took a deep breath, momentarily leaving the present behind while they gathered their past around them like a soft drift of comfort. They passed the mug of coffee back to Chance.
“So, my mama was a teacher and my papa was a chef. They always said they didn’t know where I got my artistic ability from cause it wasn’t from either of them. I was born on Christmas day so they thought my art was a special gift from God. They said I’d always loved drawing and painting, ever since I was really little, and…”
Chance slid his fingers around the mug, holding it the way Jac had been a moment ago, seeking the same comfort. The air was cold but the coffee was warm and for the first time in as long as he could remember, he was actually listening to someone instead of just wishing the noise would stop.