The closer she got to her destination, the more her concentration began to slip like a child on a Christmas road trip. Except that she wasn’t a child, and, on this trip, she couldn’t afford to lose her concentration. She had ridden the white mare up the hill, its mane blurring with the landscape so that it too seemed to be made of snow.
Though it would expose her, she dismounted the horse at the crest of the hill. Behind her, open country rolled, blank and bleak. Ahead, was the thick of the forest, silent as it waited for her. From this vantage point, she couldn’t see the cluster of houses, but her heart ached with the knowledge that they were there.
It was uncanny how familiar the land looked, how the snow made it seem as if the worst had not happened, the apocalypse had never been. If she stood still, she could almost pretend that it was Christmastime.
She had gone on an afternoon walk with her family, her belly full of food, her limbs cold but her heart warm with the possibility of returning to a warmed house, another full plate, another round of board games, another glass of wine, more laughter and love.
When her stomach grumbled, the illusion burst. Not for the first time, she had to remind herself of her own reality. She dug her binoculars out of one of the saddle bags and did a sweep of the land. She could see a few moving figures on the horizon but nothing close enough to worry about. It surprised her how empty the land was, especially this close to the city. She lowered the binoculars and rubbed her tired eyes.
Only when the horse stamped its hoof at her, did she hear the unmistakable shuffle and growl of a dead one behind them. She didn’t have time to raise her scarf over her nose and mouth before she plunged her knife into the corpse’s eye socket. It hit the ground with a thud. There was a pause as she and the horse looked down on it.
Then, gravity kicked in and the body tumbled down the hill, almost comical in its movements. It skidded to a stop at the bottom, a messy punctuation point on an otherwise blank page.
She raced down the hill after the body, slipping and sliding, leaving muddy tracks through the snow. She lost control of her momentum and skidded into the corpse, feet first. The corpse was wearing house slippers and a matching dressing gown. She tried not to register that thought any deeper than necessary.
It was lying face down, its limbs spread at eerie angles. She used the clump of hair that it had left to lift the skull and look into the face. It had been dead so long that she had to scrunch her nose to the smell. Still, she took her time searching the face for anything familiar. When she was done, she lowered the head back to the ground. Then, she flipped the corpse so that she could roll up the sleeves to check the limbs.
She found the bite mark halfway up the calf, what was once the fleshy part of the leg. She cringed at the sight, the chunk of flesh rendered from the body and the sickening sweep of yellow underneath it. But it wasn’t the bite mark she was looking for.
Satisfied, she laid the dressing gown over the face. The climb back up the hill to the patiently waiting horse was slow not because she was tired and hungry – she was used to these things – but because, no matter how hard she blinked, she could still see the baby pink of the dressing gown wavering before her eyes.
She climbed atop the horse easily and they set off down the hill, slow and steady, eyes on the uneven ground. She had planned to reach her destination before dark, but her growling stomach had other ideas. So, she followed the edge of the field, heading for the snow tipped forest.
A flake fell onto her gloves holding the reins. She raised her palm and another flake fell to meet it. Soon, the snow would slick the land once more. There would be no trace of her passage up and down the hill, the corpse slumped at the bottom would disappear into the white, becoming just another roll in the land.
He had wanted to leave at the first sign of snow. But there were always things to hold him here. Endless questions, each one louder in his ear. How will we burn the dead ones? What if they breach the fence?
And the silent question that no one dared to ask, the one that hummed beneath every question: What are you going to do about it?
In the beginning, he had relished the questions. The way that, even when they were spoken aloud to a room at large, they seemed to be earmarked for him. It made him feel strong, knowing that they looked to him to give them answers, to pose new questions. But that was in the beginning. Now the questions were permanent. No one was coming to save him from those questions, no army, no government, no one who knew better. Sometimes, he wanted to scream at them: ‘I’m a bartender. I don’t know!’
Earlier in the year, he had simply taken each question one at a time. But now that winter had arrived, in all her cold unfeeling glory, it was impossible. There were a thousand things that they needed to do to survive, a thousand threats to the precarious balance of their lives. He began to feel the burdens on him like physical things, weighing him down, making every step, every lift of his head heavier, so heavy it hurt. He started to sleep more, eat less, talk little.
By the time he knew what was happening, the darkness had a hold of him. He wondered, vaguely, if this was what it felt like to be bitten. The slow sickness spreading through your bloodstream, sweeping along your limbs until suddenly, you were one of the walking dead, everything you were before gone.
For a time, it was just a comforting ritual, a way to get through the day laden with questions and devoid of answers. He would take the rifle from its place above his bed, he would clean and polish it, count the bullets – bullet, only one left. He might even hum or whistle as he did it, like his life was simple, carefree.
But the fantasies came too fast, too easily. He could see himself walking out of the big house, across the lawn, to the gate that divided them from the woods. He could watch himself walking through the forest, treading over frozen leaves and snow-crusted mud to a quiet spot. He knew the spot well, a small clearing where a fallen tree provided shelter for a fox and her cubs in the spring. He knew that once he arrived there, the nervousness would vanish, numbed by the cold. Laying his pack on the ground, he would empty the contents leisurely, maybe even hum as he moved. All the time in the world.
In his fantasies, there were no dead ones to surprise him, no living ones to disturb him. He would lean the rifle against the trunk, unscrew his flask, raise a silent toast to the world and drain it in one final swig. Then all he had to do was put the mouth of the rifle to his, one last kiss and he was gone.
The first time the fantasy came to him, it was so vivid, rendered in such bright, hard colours that he freaked out. He stuffed the rifle under his bed and slammed the door shut. Spent all day being busy, throwing himself into the business of survival, counting rations, fixing fences, sharpening weapons, anything to stay out of his head and the darkness that prowled about inside, waiting for him.
But once it had come to him, the vision wouldn’t leave – like a persistent cough, it racked his body in his weak moments. When he lay awake at night, haunted by the hurricane of questions whirling through his head, desperate to sleep, it would visit him. Sometimes, it was so strong, he could feel the weight of the rifle in his hand even though it hung above his bed, like a question mark.
Eventually, it came to him every night as he tried, and often failed, to sleep. Then, the dream started to follow his waking steps, a phantom that only he could see. When he counted the rations and worried about how they were going to make them last, he thought about the rifle. When he spotted another dead one prowling about the fence, he thought about the rifle.
When he decided to make it real, to stop imagining it and let it happen, the decision gave him a peace, a clarity that he hadn’t known since Before. Nothing happened, there was no epiphany, no dramatic moment that motivated him. He was just tired. So tired.
He left the house as the sun was setting, staining the sky pink.
The walk from the house to the clearing in the woods was beautiful. It always had been but something about knowing this was the last walk gave it an extra sheen. He crossed the lawn and the path, wandered through the smattering of trees – pines with their woody perfume – to the gate that separated the housing estate from the woods. It had once been a simple wooden gate with a padlock on it to keep the dog walkers off the estate. Now, like every bit of fencing separating the estate from the wider world, it was fortified – embedded with spikes and wire. The padlock had remained.
He punched in the combination and slipped through the gate, careful to lock it behind him. The forest was beautiful too. The canopy was thick enough that the snow had not totally covered the forest floor - a patchwork quilt of snow, frost and mud. The sunset pushing through the trees stained the snow gold and the quiet hushed whatever nerves he might have had left.
The clearing was just as he imagined it. The fallen tree trunk lay waiting for him and he sat on the ground with his back against it. Slowly, like he really did have all the time in the world, He cleaned the rifle for the last time. He set it aside to finish the contents of his hip-flask, some whisky he had pilfered. It warmed his stomach and his cheeks. When the whisky was gone, he picked the rifle up.
Up until that moment, the world had seemed to slow for him, allowing him a little more time, generously. Once he took the safety off the rifle, it was like a switch had been flicked – time was no longer sympathetic.
He heard a noise in the woods. He stood up, raising the rifle uncertainly. A shape was coming through the dusk. It was big and fast and unfamiliar. His finger had squeezed the trigger before his brain registered what was happening. The gun recoiled into his shoulder, the shot ringing out. The shape in front of him reared up, whinnying in fright. There was a shout or a scream, he couldn’t tell. A sickening thud. A white horse shot past him, so close that he felt the heat of its body as it tore by him. He watched it disappear into the dark woods, stunned.
When he looked back, he saw another shape on the ground. The world seemed to wobble on its axis. He dropped the gun in the dirt, and it echoed hollowly as it fell. He rushed over, all caution gone.
He was surprised to see a pair of eyes staring back at him, wide, terrified but alive – a living one. Though they were on their back and clearly in pain, the person on the ground pulled a knife on him. He raised his hands a little, breathing hard. For a moment, the strangers surveyed each other.
He realised that he had shot the rider of the white horse. He also realised that the rider was a woman and judging by the thick line of mud clinging to the hem of her coat, the dirt beneath her fingernails where she clutched the knife with shaking hands, she had been out in the wilderness for a while. He could see a blot of black on her shoulder. He had shot her in the shoulder.
They were both shocked and confused. She managed to speak first, her voice quivering in pain or indignation he wasn’t sure: ‘You shot me.’
She sounded rusty, like she hadn’t spoken in a long time.
‘It was an accident,’ he replied. He lowered his hands and the blade moved closer to his neck.
‘Are you bit?’ he asked. She shook her head. No.
‘I can help you,’ he said, keeping his eyes on hers, refusing to acknowledge the knife at his throat.
‘You shot me,’ she said again but weaker this time.
‘I know but you have to trust me.’
Her expression did not change. Her breathing was beginning to come in shallow pants, like she couldn’t fill her lungs enough.
‘Trust me or die – your choice.’
The woman didn’t say anything but the arm holding the knife lowered, out of tiredness or defeat he didn’t know.
Slowly, with his hands still raised, he stood up. The stranger was wobbly on her feet, though her eyes were hard and fixed as stone. He gestured for her to follow him and then he began walking, not bothering to check if she was behind him. They were at least a hundred metres from the clearing when the stranger collapsed in a heap on the ground, her fall muffled by the snow.
Gingerly, as though he was approaching a wild thing, he slipped his arms under her knees to lift her up. She was light in his arms and, now that he could see her up close, sallow-faced and raw-eyed. She had the look that he had seen on countless faces since the dead came to life, of one who was haunted by things tangible and real like zombies, hunger, cold and lack of shelter as well as the unreal, the unseen – ghosts, memories and bygone days.
She didn’t protest when he picked her up. He had only taken a few steps when he realised why. The left side of her body was wet with blood, stained black. Her eyes were half-lidded, like they were too heavy to open.
‘What the hell were you doing out here anyway?’ he asked, lowly.
She didn’t answer. He shouldn’t have expected a girl who could draw a knife on someone seconds after being shot to be talkative.
He concentrated on the path out of the forest, keeping his eyes on the ground. Though he had been living, walking and hunting around these woods for the better part of a year now, the snow was like a magician’s cloth concealing the truth from him. He flicked his eyes from tree to tree, searching for the ones he knew.
When he next glanced down at the strange woman he was carrying, his stomach curled with fear. Her eyes were completely closed now, her breathing impossible to hear even over the silence of the forest.
‘Hey,’ he said, jiggling her in his arms. She didn’t even blink.
He broke out into a run. Later, after the event, he would wonder why he ran. He didn’t know this woman. Even without the knife at his throat, she was a threat this close to his camp. She might have been one of the raiders he’d heard stories about. Under her thick winter jacket, there could be a bite festering into death. Who knows how many of the dead had heard her horse crashing through the woods? Yet, here he was, wasting time and energy trying to save a stranger’s life.
When he emerged from the forest and into the field, he spotted the roof of the lodge silhouetted against the darkening sky. At this distance, it was impossible to tell if the older woman, the lodge’s sole occupant, was inside. He kept running, his lungs burning with the effort. He didn’t care how loud he was being; all conscious thought had been swept from his mind by the terrifying silence of the girl in his arms.
The field seemed to stretch into eternity. Then, the gate took forever to open and the garden path that wound up to the door of the lodge elongated with each step.
His arms full and aching, he kicked the door of the lodge with his boot, hissing into the dark: ‘Carol! Carol!’
When the door finally did open, he sprinted over the threshold. Carol was matching pace with him, picking up on his urgency. But when he placed the stranger on the kitchen table, the questions came.
‘Who on earth is this?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’ Carol stood at the head of the table, interrogating him.
‘I met her in the woods. My gun went off – I…’ He didn’t have the heart to say he had shot her, so he peeled back the stranger’s shirt to show the bullet hole soaked in blood.
The sight of the blood activated the nurse Carol had been Before and she moved to the kitchen. She came back carrying a sewing kit and a bottle of vodka, her mouth composed in a grim line.
‘You’re going to have to hold her down,’ she said.
He rolled up his sleeves and placed his hands just above the stranger’s elbows, pinning her to the table. Only after the stranger had woken up screaming did he realise his hands were trembling.