– Part I –
The Boy in the Barrel
– Chapter 1 –
It is quiet now.
How can I describe silence when it is only the absence of sound? I might first talk about noise – the screams. It’s like trying to describe darkness. It would be true to say that it is only a place or time without light. But it can be so much more – lurking in the shadows. In the same way, I might ask, how do I talk to you about death? First, I will have to tell you about life.
I was thinking of beginning this book with more of a crowd-pleaser, something user-friendly, like:
Hi, I’m Alex. Welcome to the End of the World.
But I decided to go with the whole silence thing. So deal with it. I will start and end this book with silence, remember that. Two very different kinds of silence. The first one is the kind you won’t like. The kind you know is only a matter of time before it ends. Before it is replaced with its opposite, something loud and terrible. But the last one…
Well, you’ll just have to wait and see.
The street outside the shopping mall is deserted. Smashed shop fronts. Abandoned cars. Trash blowing through like tumbleweeds on a summer breeze. But you can’t help feeling people will come back any moment. The way the car doors hang open. Keys still dangling from the ignition. Shopping bags waiting in open boots. But the blood stain on the road has dried to a brown crust long ago and the body has gone.
Where? you ask.
I lean inside the car for the groceries. Smells like something has died. Yep, the potatoes. Who knew something that looks like a rock could grow arms and legs and make such a stink? I separate the rotting food – vegetables, meat – and salvage what I can. Cans! Thank god for canned food. I never thought I’d say it. The apocalypse is horrible for my diet.
Brody is not helping with the scavenging. He is frozen, scanning the street. He’s getting one of his bad feelings. His chest puffs up and down, getting faster. His eyes sweep the shadows, darting every which way, up and down the boulevard. He looks like a meerkat. A muscly, tattooed meerkat. I’d like to laugh at him – he does look funny – except there’s not much laughing these days. And when are his bad feelings ever wrong? I hurry with packing the cans into my backpack and join him.
It’s quiet, too quiet, silent in fact. There’s that word again. Silence is a funny thing since it’s only supposed to describe when sound is not there. But something is here. Silence apparently doesn’t exist. But it does. It too can come to life. There are so many different kinds of silence. Like the brooding silence when Dad was disappointed in me but had nothing left to say. Or that noisy silence in the quietest places, when the damage I’ve done to my eardrums rings and hums in my head. Or at night, the whispering silence, where my own fears and doubts come to worry my soul.
But this very second, in this empty street outside a ruined shopping mall, the silence is like the world is holding its breath. Not to decide whether it will breathe out again. No, there is no question of that. It will come. Peace and quiet never lasts these days. The noise’ll return, that’s for sure. The dead will come back to life, the empty boulevard will walk again. No, it’s not a matter of if, simply a matter of when.
The silence is deafening. My pulse pounds so hard it’s like a war drum in my ears. I’m afraid I won’t be able to hear them over my own heartbeat. Just like Brody, I’m getting the feeling now too. Like my body knows something before my mind does. My eyes sweep the street. Abandoned cars stand still, broken shop fronts are unchanged, alleys, corners, concrete surfaces, shattered glass. Nothing. I strain to hear what my sixth sense already knows is coming. A sickly electricity creeps over my skin, the hairs on my neck are like needles. Every part of me reaches out into the silence.
And then relief. Because, finally, there it is.
For the tiniest of moments, I hear what I’ve been waiting for. The slightest shuffle, the scrape of a foot dragging along the ground. So brief, that the little, hopeful part of me that’s left these days, hopes against everything that I just imagined it. And for the longest moment, it is silent again. Playing with us. Tempting us to believe that it will remain just so.
But, of course, it doesn’t.
The sound starts again. A scraping foot, scuffing awkwardly. Such a stupidly insignificant sound on its own. But it’s not insignificant these days. It’s the harbinger of doom, the herald of disaster and death. The beginning of the end.
Those first feet are joined by more. A cascade erupts from the stillness. Then a moan, like the yawn of some tortured soul waking from eternal slumber. Its cries bounce off the glass buildings, echoing down the street. In response, a chorus of wails goes up in every direction. We cannot see them yet, but we know all too well what is coming for us.
– Chapter 2 –
Brody just looks at me. Nothing more. He doesn’t need to say a word, I know what that look means. I nod and take the big, blue barrel off my back.
Here we go again.
It’s about to get noisy, so I’ve got to get inside where it’s safe. Problem is, I’m getting too tall these days. I just had a growth spurt before all this apocalypse stuff. It makes me a bit clumsy. My fulcrums are all off. And now I can hear them coming, getting louder, which makes me panic. I glimpse their shuffling movements in the corners of my eyes and almost trip over the lip of the barrel as I climb in. The whole scene must look hilarious – like a lanky, human hermit crab taking its shell off and squeezing himself inside. It would be funny to watch, but as I already told you, there’s not much laughing these days. And the moaning dead closing in don’t really have a sense of humour.
Once I’m inside the barrel, I lock the lid and flick on the flashlight so I can keep writing. I guess this is a good time to explain some things:
A. is for… The apocalypse. End of the World. You probably think you know all about this one. People turned. Now their undying corpses stalk our world hungry for the living. You get bitten by them, you become one. Everybody dead now. Well, nearly everyone. I’ll fill you in later.
B. is for… The barrel. It’s a massive, blue, hard-plastic cylinder, which I now carry around on my back. Brody found it in a warehouse one day, rigged it so I can lock it from the inside and popped some air holes so I can breathe. He even installed a tiny plastic window to look out. And a shutter when I don’t want to see (or be seen). It keeps me safe from what’s out there.
Now that I have explained what the barrel is, I should probably explain the why. Why am I sitting inside it in the middle of the street and my big brother Brody is outside? My “big” brother who is now shorter than me after my growth spurt and who would actually fit in here just fine. Why isn’t he here instead? Good question. There’s an easy answer, but being the apocalypse and all, I don’t feel like doing things the easy way. If this was a blog (or whatever form words took when they were cheap, electronic noise and didn’t have to be handwritten by flashlight while you hid inside a barrel), it would go a little something like this:
Why Bigger is Not Better
(in the Post-Apocalyptic Landscape)
I’m rubbish at hiding (This is an issue of Stealth – Big always gets spotted first). Simply put, I forget how tall I am now.
I have a greater surface area. (Pure Physics – which equates to more area for biting – I call this Bite-Surface.)
My arms and legs extend further away from my body. (Again, a physics issue, but I will call this one Bite-Radius. A larger Bite-Radius equates to more chance of being bitten. I tend to lose track of where my arms and legs are and whether a threat is getting too close to me, and thus entering my Bite-Radius.)
I’m clumsy, I bump into more things (This is another Stealth issue).
Lastly, I represent more of a meal. (Bigger is not better because it means more meat. I’ll call this Bite-Motivation. Unfortunately, this goes for the living as well as the dead these days. Not much food left for anyone, anymore. Thus, I say it again, thank god for cans!)
So there it is. My likelihood of getting bitten is way too high. Therefore, Brody put me in the barrel to keep me safe. He also refuses to teach me how to fight, but I’ll get to that in a moment. I think I was giving him too many heart attacks. Falling over things, blowing our stealth, a walking meat lure following him around. This way, when there is ever trouble, I just jump inside the barrel and ride it out. I have water, snacks and my reading light so I can keep writing in this notebook. It’s quite cosy. This way Brody doesn’t have to worry about me while he does what he does best.
– Chapter 3 –
‘B’ is for Brody
From my little window in the barrel, I can see Brody. He stands calmly in the middle of the street like he’s not in the middle of the apocalypse. Always so calm when bad things are happening. When it is all clear and safe and nothing’s going on, he is a grumpy, bossy, little bitch, snapping orders and always on edge. It’s as if he is just waiting for the bad things to come back. But as soon as they arrive (and I’m safely locked away in the barrel) he is as calm as calm can be. Just like he is now, as he waits for the undying to arrive.
I feel like I’ve been watching him my whole life. When I was little, he was the football star of the school. He still looks the part. Full of muscle. But now he has a few more tattoos. A few more scars. Not as young, not as good looking. And there’s the limp. In his final year of high school, a football injury put him in hospital and out for the season. I didn’t know it then but it also put him out of a promising football career too. He was always the perfect student, liked by everyone, even the teachers. Maybe not so great academically, but with his sports scholarship, he could go to whatever university he wanted. His whole life was set up nicely for him. But after the injury, that all kind of disappeared. And he did too. I didn’t see him much after that. Not until the End. Not until now.
The world outside my barrel, every shadow and surface, seems to come to life and crawl towards us. But Brody still doesn't move a muscle. He is a statue. Only his eyes flick around, sizing up the swarm rolling in. The fact that he is not moving means the undying can't tell if he's alive. His stillness confuses them. So they don't get excited yet, or rush towards him. They just creep out of the shadows with their lifeless, grey skin hanging off their bones, and follow the others. Lurch out of the alleyways, with that shaky, rigor mortis gait. Struggling to their feet from where they had fallen. Ghosts and monsters waking from the rubble. Slack jaws and dead, cloudy eyes coming alive with a demon hunger.
But I’ve seen it all before. For me, it’s as if their howls are only yawns as they shuffle in for breakfast, desperately in need of coffee.
All the while, Brody just waits, seeing how big the wave really is, how many have stirred, called in by the commotion. He lets the first ones come within arm’s reach. The undying are still not sure if he is living flesh or not. And just as they figure it out, as the realisation dawns upon their rotting faces, he springs into action.
With a hammer in one hand and a hatchet in the other, Brody whips into a blur between the dead. Every movement he performs with the utmost efficiency. Precision. One hit for one enemy. No more is needed. Five or six undying have been dispatched before the first corpse hits the ground. Brody weaves through them, beating a steady rhythm. Ducking, dodging, swinging again and again. Moving in a slowly expanding circle, spiralling outwards.
Watching the way he dances around the dead reminds me of the way he would slip and twirl through the defenders on the football field. I remember seeing a game of his when I was really young – watching bug-eyed from the sideline. Even then it filled me with dread – that I could never live up to that. Then he went away and I saw him less and less, and it was impossible to tell if the stories people told about him were really true, or just the way they chose to remember him.
When the rest of the swarm finally realises what is happening and begins to rush, Brody takes a step back and lets the undying trip over their own fallen. In their dumb haste they stumble onto hands and knees, presenting their heads perfectly for target practice. Brody zips from one side of his little clearing to the other, as the dead attempt to climb the wall forming around me in my barrel. Every new undying he dispatches adds another layer, building the wall higher, holding the swarm at bay. Then Brody steps up, climbs the battlement, swinging down on the dead. He certainly looks happiest when he is destroying. Is that a grin of pleasure or exertion on his face as he works up a sweat? For him, I think it is the same thing.
Then Brody’s swing misses for the first time and he grapples with one of the dead. He holds the snarling corpse and its snapping teeth at arm’s length and takes a second, then a third strike before it finally goes down. I can tell he is getting tired now – his limp is showing. But Brody keeps going, holding on until it seems as though the wave of dead is starting to run out.
On the far side of our clear ground, a fresher undying manages to climb over the wall of fallen. When I say fresher, I mean they seem to be more recently deceased. They haven’t started to decay. I’m not sure how or why, but it makes these fresh ones different. They can do more than the average undying. Retain a bit of their former self. I’m making a study, you see, keeping a tally. This one has better muscle control – less wobbly on its feet. What I call a Runner.
Said runner charges at Brody, who has not seen it. One bite is all it takes. I scream out to him from inside my barrel, banging on the sides. And possibly Brody hears me, or possibly he knew all along, for at the very last second, as the undying lunges at his back, Brody turns, as calm as calm can be, and hits a home run.
The last of the dead falls and just like that, the street is silent again. Brody freezes, goes into statue-mode once more, scanning for any undying still to come, drawn in by the noise. He waits, making sure none of the fallen are coming back to life, again.
This whole scene – the piles of dispatched corpses splattered in a circle around us in this post-apocalyptic street – is just another day at the office for Big Brother Brody and the boy in the barrel.