Alyssa sat, perched a few feet down from the summit of a conical hill – a green pyramid obtusely protruding from the flat vale all around her. Directly ahead, moving on a warm but firm breeze an isolated rain shower, ten or fifteen miles wide, gently drifted towards her like a grey curtain. Villages and farmhouses probably long since abandoned were swallowed up in the drizzle. Idly, she picked at the hem of her second pair of jeans, covered in holes and rips and worn over a cleaner, more pristine pair. Two large and empty jugs sat either side of her; a bicycle lay on its side behind.
The incoming shower was the first for a week as spring looked to be marching into summer. Alyssa couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen another person, but the weather was much the same. In the intervening time she’d trudged through a blisteringly hot six weeks, the dull storms of autumn and a mild, soaking winter. If it wasn’t a year since her last human interaction, it was close.
Huddling deeper into her raincoat, dried blood still flecking the right shoulder, she could feel her skin prickling with goose bumps under her layers. The grass shifted and waved as though warning her to head for shelter, the curtain drew nearer, gliding silently. Now so close as to be indistinguishable on either side, she heard the first pats of rain drops. One torpedoed straight onto her eyelid as she allowed herself to close her eyes for a moment. The reassuring drum of water hit her plastic bottles.
She lay back on the grass and stared up as the sheet of cloud passed over her like a funeral shroud. That same drum had sounded all those months ago. She’d been crouched inside a shelter, buried half underground under sheets of corrugated iron on the outskirts of a forest. The trees, unmaintained, were now encroaching on a nearby town. As a survivor, she’d generated a sixth sense for knowing what constituted a threat or not even before seeing it. The tramp of feet on leaves could be distinguished between the steady stomp of a threat or the graceless tiptoe of a stumbling survivor, exhausted and dizzy from a lack of regular water. Lying down flat on her stomach, she’d burrowed a small tunnel in the ground and inserted a long barrelled shotgun. The barrel emerged inside a pile of leaves pointing upwards at a suitable angle to stop anything that arrived too close. She used it sparingly – the blast would shake the birds from the trees and alert threats to her position whereupon she would abandon the shelter for at least four nights, usually holing up in a nearby unoccupied house. Desirable during the previous society, the suburbs now became essential with their regulated floor plans, big garages filled with garden tools and middle class former owners stocking their cupboards full of dried foods.
The Couple had appeared with a remarkable lack of awareness or care. Sticks snapped under their feet as they walked, heads bowed but still hand in hand. His clothes were dirty, dull with mud and mildew. Some attempt had been made to shave his head, but left him instead with patches and scabs. Her hair was long and lank – as though the sheer weight of it prevented her from lifting her head. Her shirt was open, her breasts covered, and her bare legs in cut off shorts blotched red with bramble scars and nettle stings. They had small rucksacks slung over one shoulder; Alyssa immediately presumed they ‘lived’ locally and were foraging. Not wanting to alert anything to her position, she nevertheless hissed and muttered warnings through her teeth as the group came closer.
When they were fifty yards away, they spotted the shelter – a few moments later, they spotted Alyssa. Breaking their hands apart for a moment, they formed a curious pincer, tilting their heads sideways in disbelief. She kept the shotgun between the two as their arcs reconvened. They both crouched down either side of the narrow opening, looking down at Alyssa’s prone position.
She studied their faces carefully, taking the time as they continued to stare in confusion. Neither had slept in days. Both were malnourished. Their filth seemed to be the passive kind – of creatures in desperation. Alyssa’s mud and stains were badges of her proactivity; she’d more or less dug the shelter using her bare hands. These two had given up. Alyssa recognised them as a different kind of threat – not as immediately dangerous but a slow infection weakening the limbs one by one. She began to raise herself by the elbows as the man held out a hand to shake.
“Trust us”. The girl’s voice was metallic and rasping. Alyssa could see yellow wounds on her arms.
“Please?” The boy’s voice was much higher. She wondered if the two had swapped vocal chords, but not installed his inside her properly. Alyssa withdrew further inside the shelter, like a distrustful stray cat. As she moved, the boy caught sight of the circular barrel inside the pile of leaves. He drew back, out of Alyssa’s line of sight. The girl looked around frantically over her shoulders.
Alyssa crawled back out to the edge with a finger over her lips and a wild look in her eyes. To her surprise they did as told, nodding and then staring at each other like statues – him reclined onto his hip, her legs tucked under, sitting on her feet. Alyssa concentrated at the forest ahead, daring one of them to breathe loudly. Everything seemed calm and peaceful. No bad vibrations in the air, besides the ones generated by the two people around her. She weighed up the possibilities in her mind. These two were not going to leave her alone, that much was clear. They were now a ball and chain attached to her ankles, noisy and cumbersome. However they had survived, either through a hitherto unseen amount of talent, or luck. Alyssa closed her eyes, sighed, and clambered out of the shelter like a trepidatious spider.
On the hilltop she felt herself drifting. Sitting upright, she was now an island in grey fog. The bottles were a quarter full as the rain streamed down, soft big droplets soaking her hair flat to her scalp. Uneasy, she sat up and clambered over to the bike, mounting the saddle. One foot on the pedal, one on the ground, she readied herself for anything that might come up the side of the hill. As she waited, looking for the first chinks of light in the grey, a dull noise drifted through the gloom – something unnatural. Alyssa remained outwardly calm, but her chest thumped as it always did. If necessary she would leave the bottles and hurl herself and the bike down the side of the hill. A cooler breeze kicked up, causing her to shiver. The noise returned, this time closer. Minutes ticked by. A third noise, now faint, was swallowed up. The shower began to lift and the curtain receded again. Slowly, the surrounding countryside appeared. Not far from the bottom of the hill a muddy track wiggled by. Alyssa was certain she’d find footprints if she were to investigate – a foolish idea. She smiled to herself, picking up her half-filled bottles and tethering them to the forks of her bike.
The Couple, Alyssa had quickly realised, were lucky. They’d occupied a house in a neighbouring town. She listened, chewing her lip, as they explained how they’d slept on the ground floors ‘because they didn’t want to be trapped upstairs with no way to escape’, and had filled the house with candles for light. After six months of blithely doing everything Alyssa wouldn’t, they realised the area was becoming uninhabitable. Every night brought prowlers at the bottom of the road, noises and shrieks. They abandoned it and started to hike in the vague direction of the coast. Alyssa didn’t have the heart to tell them they were walking inland.
Together, the three of them found an abandoned survivor’s shelter. The ground floor had been gutted by a fire leaving the windows and doors hollow. Everything inside, including the staircase, had been destroyed. A melted petrol can sat in the middle of the room. They scrambled up the side of the garage and entered through an open bedroom window. The smell still hung in the air and the floorboards suffered under their gentle feet. Alyssa ordered them into separate corners, away from the middle of the room, whilst she sat, straddling the window. They reluctantly complied.
The Couple told stories almost to themselves, neither focused on Alyssa or each other. They had met during the first wave and decided to stick together. They’d hidden, variously, in a school, a fire station and a supermarket before trying to settle in a house. The six hellish months they’d spent cowering in the flickering shadows of their candles convinced them that stability was not a privilege anymore. As they recounted tales of danger and corpses, their eyes glittered in the dim light. Eventually the talk turned to their future. The Couple wanted to be a three, to walk to the coast and bathe in the clean sea. They spoke excitedly about finding a small boat. Let’s try and sail away from the mainland, they insisted. Like the Vikings who crossed the North Sea or the Normans crossing the channel, a small boat could survive. They would find a small offshore island and start again. Grow crops, catch fish. They smiled hopefully as they formed plans in their minds. Alyssa took a deep breath, squirming uncomfortably, anxious to be alone. When their voices raised, Alyssa shot them down. She would leave them in the morning to their own destinies. Point them in the direction of the coast and let them go. There would be no three-way partnership as soon as dawn broke.
Evening became night. Darkness enveloped The Couple as they were absorbed into the corners of the room, invisible except for an occasional stirring. Before long, Alyssa could hear their soft breathing as they fell asleep. She remained awake, staring up at a half moon, always scanning and always looking, trying to fight off the sentimentality and memories that The Couple had stirred in her. To be lost in memory was to be lost in the present. Climbing out of the window, she sat cross legged on the roof of the garage and stared across the dim horizon.
When the sun rose again, Alyssa woke from an unintended sleep, slumped on her side under the window of the house. Sitting bolt upright, she scanned the avenue below, straining her ears for any noise. A few birds chirruping in the warm morning light and a creaking noise, like a tree bending in the wind. A dim shape formed in the corner of her eye. Looking across, she spotted the source of the creaking noise. The young man hung by his neck from the corner of the house, the head despondently pointed to the ground as he rocked gently. Alyssa stood up, creeping to the edge of the garage roof. Another creak behind spun her around on her heels. The girl hung from the opposite corner of the house, her head pointed elegantly to the sky as though in permanent ascendance, her eyes closed to the beaming sun on her peaceful face.
Alyssa put a few miles between her and the house before she remembered her dream – a coastline, a boat mounted by an improvised mast and sails, billowing in the wind as the ropes creaked.
Leaving the hill behind, Alyssa headed for another settlement she’d seen before the rain. When the sky was clear, she’d spotted the long brown tail of a railway line heading for a small town. Picking up a narrow country road she cycled towards it, passing a huge country pile on a hill surrounded by fields of dead corn. The town was set in a valley; the main road plunged down to its centre, where she found the railway station abandoned. Some attempt had been made to turn it into a shelter but it clearly hadn’t seen life for a while. Dismounting, she found a street of terraced houses heading off from the centre, and looked to stock up on food. After the unplanned sleep on the garage roof she could now keep going for at least 24 hours, enough time to find another isolated farmhouse.
Most of the houses were already looted. Some had the remains of pitiful barricades torn down. Something about the town was beginning to bother her. It seemed to faintly buzz, as though an enormous engine whirred under her feet, muffled by several metres of strata. Growing impatient, she stopped at a house that appeared unmolested. The door was shut and the windows unbroken except for a single pane on a skylight. Alyssa prepared to pick the lock with a hairclip but it was already unlocked. Darting inside, she recognised the smell immediately and realised why. The house had been left alone because it was dead. Dead Houses, where the occupants had remained and whose remains polluted in a decayed miasma, were rarely touched by survivors, including Alyssa. Hunger and a desire to leave this small town triumphed. Hurrying past the open living room door, past the dim shapes still in their chairs, she rushed into the kitchen. Three tins of soup in one cupboard, the edges rusted from the damp in the room. The wallpaper was black and fetid, the smooth laminate floor slippery with mildew. In haste, Alyssa stumbled on the treacherous floor. Grabbing a table, she caught herself but couldn’t stop a stray tin falling. She held her breath, wincing at the noise, hoping she wouldn’t hear a noise from the upstairs floorboards. Her ears tuned – she listened for dust falling on a pin prick. The house remained dead and still.
A shaft of light blazed through her mind. By her own rules she’d been stupid. Entering the town, breaking into a Dead House so close to the town centre, leaving her bike outside, making unnecessary noise. Alyssa cradled the tins in the crook of her arm. Outside, she realised she was not alone.
Rushing to the front door, she saw him. A young man, carrying the dust of someone well-travelled so unlike The Couple, was trying to make off with her bike. She tore after him, rage bubbling in her veins both at his thievery and her idiocy. Hurling one of the tins, she tried to make a grab for him as he frantically pedalled, smashing his shins as the chain spun around. She was screaming at him, cursing him with everything she had when a noise sounded high above the pair of them.
Alyssa felt her heart leap into her throat and pulse against her neck. She couldn’t swallow. The young man manoeuvred the bike down a side street plunging downhill and was now at a speed beyond her tired legs. Desperate, she tried to keep up, not to dismount him but to cling on. She was being hunted now and it was right behind her, no doubt sprung out from one of the other abandoned houses and alerted by the commotion. The young man gave her one last look over his shoulder as he disappeared.