When death comes in the darkness it’s important to listen. So that’s what he does, what he has done all night. He strains his ears to pick up every sound.
He doesn’t move. The floor of the shop is covered in the debris of looting; just one shift of his feet will be loud enough that he might miss what he is listening for.
He listens for hope. He hopes he will hear nothing. He hopes for silence.
That silence is hope and hope has been silent for more than three years is an irony not lost on him.
He will hear it, the noise that breaks the hope. He always does. Always has. But that doesn’t stop him listening.
By the time the sun begins to rise and give form to the shape on the floor the pain in his legs and back, in his shoulders and hips and knees has passed from intense to sublime. He knows that when he finally moves it will feel like broken glass grinding into every joint. When he finally tries to rise from his sitting position on this debris-strewn floor, when that little flame of hope is extinguished and he hears the noise and he is forced to move then the pain, physical and emotional, will come close to killing him. He knows that. This simple act of waiting and listening is a risk that could easily kill him. But he waits and he listens for any sound that will come from the shape on the floor. The shadows are still long and for now the shape is just darker lumps within the grey of pre-dawn.
The shop had been one of those mini-supermarkets that had been so common and convenient before the crash. They are still common, he supposes, just not so convenient. He and Kerry had found it the previous evening. It had been a battleground, its aisles and freezers had been fought over, leaving smashed glass and broken ceiling tiles on the floor and a framework of useless, visceral wires and pipes above. Bodies slumped in aisles, laid trapped in long-dead freezers. Some still moved, still clawed at shelves, shifted in their cells, still made their noises, their gasping un-breaths and groans. He and Kelly had finished them all, stabbed them in their heads, she with her knife and him his, the knife he still held in his still hand. Their skulls had been brittle, smashing like cheap bowls from IKEA.
He smiles. In this moment he can’t help it. After the crash it had been a full year until they had laughed together. The sun had finally shown itself through the thick haze of ash that had covered the skies for a full year. The end of the year-long night and they had found a house with no one home and no neighbours, silent or otherwise. It was like a miracle, and Kerry had said, Let’s go to IKEA!
And they had. This was before the gang had taken their solar-powered van (Kerry had been a plumber in the life before and she’d kept the van that came with her job in the re-nationalised energy industry) and so they’d been able to drive to IKEA and fill it with all the things they wanted.
Bookcases! Kerry had shouted. Lots of bookcases. The sun’s back so we can read to pass the time.
Entertainment was best when it was silent.
He had tried to put the bookcases together, had followed the instructions, he was certain of it, even when he had shouted at the silly little sketched man that it didn’t make any sense.
Kerry had laughed at him. And for a moment, just a couple of seconds at the most, he had been furious, as if the rage built up over that year-long night would burst from him and explode in an IKEA-instigated hysteria. And then he’d laughed with her. Hysterically. They’d laughed and laughed so hard that they’d thought they would even wake the silent ones. They rolled with laughter, their mirth bathed in light and warmth from the new sun as it shined through the huge bay windows of their house. They spilled screws and wooden dowels and then laughed more as they retrieved them from beneath the furniture left by a family a long year ago. They laughed as they shared the warmth of their bodies.
The next day, surrounded by bookcases, they had felt that they would be okay, that their nice London house, with its huge bay windows and their room full of bookcases and books would be enough.
He remembers it now and he smiles again in the grey light of the mini-supermarket.
Like that cheap bowl, it hadn’t lasted. Eventually they’d spent their days in different rooms and read different books.
And then the gang had taken the van. He and Kerry had done their best to keep the house secret. They only used the van at night. Thanks to the solar-powered streetlights there was no need for the van’s headlights. It was quiet, even ghostly. They had ranged across the city at night hunting for supplies. It was inevitable they’d be seen eventually.
Before they lost the van and their home they had torn up the gardens either side of their house and grown potatoes and carrots, and for more than a year they had survived. They had begun to assume they would always survive, almost as if the crash had simply changed their lives and not ended them.
But potatoes and carrots, no matter how many they had, and they had very many, had not been enough. Kerry longed for butter, he for cheese. They blamed the cravings for driving them to rows, driving them to their separate rooms in the daylight, but always back together at night to lie in each other’s arms and dream of butter and cheese.
In the supermarket he longs to move, to grind his body back to life, straighten his legs, bend his back and neck and reach out. But he might miss it, the sound that ends hope. While it is silent, while there is hope, he will remain still.
They’d lost the house to teenagers, boys and girls, wild and terrifying, not so much a gang as a pack. He’d not even considered fighting them and they had smelled his fear. Even so, Kerry had wanted to take the books. They’d told her to nag off, they were their nagging books now.
Besides, they had no van in which to carry them.
So they’d fled. The next few months were spent fleeing from one ghostly shell to another. Scavenging, nearly starving, but always together, hating each other, loving each other.
He stares now, stares and listens, hardly daring to blink or breathe. The shadows shorten, the thing on the floor is clearer now.
One of the times that she’d saved him was in a shop just like this one. A body he’d thought was silent suddenly groaned. What was it that made them - that let them - lay silent for so long. That thing could’ve been there days, weeks or months, completely silent and then that groan, firing it back into life like an abandoned car, its engine spluttering, coughing, holding on to some spark of life and then catching, rumbling and gasping to a semblance of life. All in a half-second and then it had him, its clawed hand wrapped around his ankle. He’d fallen like an old lady, jarred his hip, yelled in pain, his shout pathetic, the immediacy of his fear cracking his voice.
Then Kerry had been there, like she was the Cynosure herself, screaming his name, stamping on the thing’s head, over and over, her screams louder and louder, but no more words, his name lost in her incoherent cries, the thing’s skull shattered, a cheap IKEA bowl ground into a thousand bloody pieces.
They’d sat in the stains of its second death and held each other and cried and wished for potatoes.
He twitches at the memory of how she had been just in time and now he had been too late. Just that, a twitch, a tiny movement and the pain in his back and neck and shoulders burns anew, but he ignores it, tries to listen over it.
The shortening shadows reveal the sharp edges of the shelves, the broken ceiling tiles on the floor and the thing that he watches. It is crumpled, wrapped in on itself as if it has suffered and tried to protect itself from the pain, but pain leaves its marks and the crumples, its edges, its peaks and troughs, of the shape of the thing on the floor are sharp and stretched as if they had been electrified.
He can see half of its face, teeth bared, cheek pale as if its blood has fled and her eye wide and still blue, maybe; in the shadow he can’t tell.
The thing that had killed it lays to one side, the sun’s light hitting it first. He had killed it easily.
Both are silent. One will remain so while the other… He waits for the other. Waits and listens. The thing’s blood has dried to rusty flakes and glued the handle of the knife gripped into his fist. It feels like it will never move again.
The shadows shorten and the sun picks out the white paleness of Kerry’s skin. It is was stretched taut across her bones, her jaw, her cheek, her forehead, shining white in the morning sun like a cheap IKEA bowl.
The silence breaks and the darkness returns as Kerry shifts, her eye yellow and staring, her mouth working, her teeth grinding. She knows he is there. The groan. The gasp. The pain in his body as hope breaks. The knife glued into his fist. Without moving, without even raising her head, she lifts her clawed hand towards him.