Prologue: The End of the World
This…might be the end of the world.
What does it look like? Um. It's kind of hard to say.
I can tell you what it sounds like. It sounds like ruddy scouse.
Typical. I should have known the end would come from Liverpool.
"Head up now judy."
Oh alright. It –he- kind of looks like a man in a ski mask, holding a rifle. Clear?
Oh. And the end of the world smells bad. Like, terrible. Not that I'm peaches myself, but this wanker smells catastrophic. If I were feeling more suicidal I might ask him what he's using –if he'd be up for sharing. Sharing caring. Up until now I've just been using dirt and animal droppings.
In truth, at the end of all things, I'm pretty disappointed with myself. I only made it 20 days without a run in -not counting the couple that passed me by while I was taking a shit (sheer bloody luck that was that they didn't see me)- and you'd think I might notice a smell on par with a sewerage treatment plant, headed straight for me.
The real fizzer of this whole situation? I have a rifle too. I have a bigger, better, shinier rifle of sufficient quality to pop a .223 sized hole out the back of this tosser's head. Which is why it's so unfortunate that it's tied to back of my rucksack. And not loaded. Because alright, yes, I was recently using it as a walking stick and I didn't want to shoot my own foot off. Sensibility is a bitch.
"I said head up now judy!" he says with a bit of impatience. His voice is tight; controlled, and he's moved in a few feet closer so that he doesn't have to yell. That's professional. He's well trained enough to know not to yell. Not in a place like this. Things are pretty dense as it is without raised voices echoing about.
I very calmly raise both my hands so he can see that they're empty. I've managed to tamp down the initial shock of being caught and substitute outright fear with blanket numbness. Let's not go to pieces. Let's just gather any information we can, use it and get out of here.
So first off, stance? Well, threatening… but he's not attacked you yet so he's probably not one of them. And he appears not to want to be heard, which means there might not be others. That's good.
But he's not carrying anything. No bags. No water.
He's not a traveller. That's not good.
Maybe he's a scout.
Check his eyes. Not close enough. Get him closer.
"My name is not Judy," I say, real placid-like, "I'm just passing through." I explain.
I keep my eyes lowered, submissive. Hope he doesn't hate me just 'cos I'm posh.
Nothing softens. "Your name is what I say it is. Mouth open. Let me see."
He takes a few wary, measured steps forward. He's wearing a mishmash of clothing. No furs. No jewellery. Good signs. His eyes –barely visible in the narrow strip in his woollen ski mask–they're hazel, maybe green, but it's hard to tell in the dappled light and eyes aren't always such a good indicator anyway. Up close, the smell is almost unbearable. It goes beyond bad and into rancid. It's got to be some sort of animal musk. Brilliant.
He's close enough that I can read the letters embossed on the stock of his gun –Savage. There's also a small scope attached to the barrel, which makes me think maybe he's been stalking me for a while.
I suppress a shiver.
He shifts the muzzle a little bit to remind me of its significance in deciding the exercise of my free will.
I go through the motions -open my mouth, tilt my head back, move my tongue around a bit so he can see everything. I keep my hands up and flat. He's close enough that I might try something. I think I could get an arm on the barrel -enough to give me a chance. But something in the way he holds it –without a tremor, with his finger poised on the trigger- tells me that that would be a bad idea.
He looks at me for a very long time. Deciding. His gaze flickers down my body, taking in my muddy denims, lingering on my pockets and my boots, and the nose of my rifle sticking out irreverently from my rucksack. His eyes meet mine for a tense moment.
"Alright. Clothes off. Quick like. Pack off too."
My lungs creak and I realise I've been holding my breath. I manage a sharp exhale of relief and slide my bag off my shoulders, swinging it along the ground so that it's closer to him.
He's not a scout. Okay. But there is still a fabulous variety of things he could be.
"Trousers," the savage says briskly, gesturing with his gun. I snarl a bit at him. Prick. I undo my belt and shuck my pants off pitifully easy. I'm vaguely embarrassed by my skinny, white, fish-legs with their comically ruddy knees, and my poor excuse for underwear. But at least he lets me keep that on. That's important.
"Chuck them," he says with a glance to the sad pile of clothes at my feet, and then, "Judy," growled warningly when I hesitate.
Very well. I lob him my old clothes and then wrap my arms around me and try to ignore the way the cold sets upon my flesh right away. I shift a bit from foot to foot, hoping he won't ask for my shoes. They're shit anyway, held together by patches of ill-melted rubber, and staples for chrissakes.
"What's in the pack?" he says, nudging it with –I notice with some jealousy- a thick-soled, military-issue boot. I wonder what sad bugger he nicked them off and what kind of a ditch he's lying in right now.
"Canned greens, mostly." He's dead silent so once the tension builds up I decide to just ramble on. "Um, water crackers. Stale water crackers. Soft drinks. Oatmeal, the honey kind. Oh, uh, dental floss. A bic-"
I quirk my head at that. Really?
"Yes. Foster's. Maybe three left."
He twitches in annoyance. "Piss. What about spirits?"
Christ. What a prick. It's not like there's any Dom left in the country. I stuff my hands under my armpits and run through my checklist. No. I finished the pocket-bottle of Wild Turkey a week back. Cold night. There's nothing but rubbing alcohol left, in my medical kit.
"Sure," I say.
His eyes narrow at me but I've got my game face on by this point. MI5 couldn't crack me (giving it still existed) let alone this scousy fuck. After a while of staring at me he seems to give up on the subject. Probably, being on the road is making him just as nervous as it is me.
He keeps the gun steady as he bends and swings my pack up onto his shoulder, my tins and cutlery clanking startlingly. Something scuttles away at the commotion and we both track the brush for a long moment. Then painfully slowly he starts to back up, leaning over to retrieve the pack he'd hidden in the bush by the side of the road –ah, so I was ambushed.
As he straightens up I realise I am quite fond of some of the items in that bag. My compass. My toenail clippers. My music damn it. No. The time for despair and anger will just have to come later. It's far more important that I get my next-to-nude self off this fucking road and into some cover. Presently, it is most important that I do not get shot. Which is still a rather large possibility given that my captor is a faceless, emotionless northy.
Once he's backed up another ten feet the savage says, "What's your name girly?"
For a moment, he's vowels are so mixed up I don't comprehend. And then I scoff. "I am not a girl," I say. That probably made him grin under his stupid mask. The way I sound when I'm offended is probably how the Queen would sound if you pinched her bum. I have every reason to be miffed though. I'm near on six foot and haven't had a shave in exactly 20 days. I pull something out of my arse to give him anyway, like I would any other stranger. Names are important. They never reduced us to numbers, strings of code.
"Valentine," I say. Don't kid yourself. It's the brand name on my gun. Well, now his gun. Prick. He keeps looking at me. That's dangerous. He's cold, that much is obvious. Cold enough to take my clothes and not leave me my lighter; my water. That means he's cold enough to put a bullet in me just to tie off the loose end. In our world, the loose ends come back and bite you in the arse, and not metaphorically.
And in this climate, I am a big, fat loose end. Hell, I'd kill me.
Of course, there are things I could say, things I've learnt in my relatively short time as a transient.
Take me with you.
We can keep watch together just for tonight.
I have a family.
But I can't risk talking to him. There's every chance he's sharp enough to wonder what a lad like myself is doing on the road and so far from the nearest safe point. And just as I think that-
"You're young." Not a question. This exchange has gone on too long. I need out of here before I start to panic. How much time has passed, ten minutes? That's too long for either of us. It's really been too long since I played the game anyway, and the way he glares at me just dries my clever words up on my tongue. He keeps assessing me. It's excruciating.
Damn. He's got an ear for accents. Unexpected. Deal with it. Wind it up. Get off the road.
"London?" It comes out too trite. Stupid. Nobody out by themselves in the woods is that naïve. Now all I can do is beg some mysterious god that he takes my ignorance to be genuine. Put it down to the amnesia. Near everyone has some form of that nowadays.
This time I can hear him breathing while he weeds me out with his eyes. Almost a minute passes in silence save for some scavenging bird chuck-chuck-chucking nearby.
Damn, damn, damn. Of all the people to catch me out it's some nosy fuck. Maybe on the leash and on the payroll. Maybe an interrogator. Hopefully just a paranoid loner like me. Whatever he is, he's a master of making the silence so awkward that I just want to blab my head off. And you know what? I don't think he's buying it –me not knowing what London is.
After an awful amount of time, him standing there with the gun, unwavering, and me doing my best to keep my face blank, he takes a chance and God I wish he didn't.
"It's a good thing you're not from there. I heard it's a real…snake pit."
I'm tempted to give him the standard answer. There's a chance that he's a ghost. A terrorist. An agent of some faction or rebel group- maybe the OSSP- and I could get him to let me go, just on the good grace of us fighting for the same cause. Fighting not being an accurate word per se for opposing the regime but… But no. There's still a chance he's leashed and baiting me, and opening my mouth could mean a nice government approved execution.
So I don't say anything. No sir. I am as harmless as a dove. Just keep blank.
The way he keeps staring at me means he's going to push it but I'm saved by a freak gust of wind, cutting through the trees and up the road with a dull howl, making every hair on my body stand up.
The savage tenses.
I know that he's running through the rules in his head same as I am.
How far downwind are we from the nearest establishment? What were the last coordinates? When was the last water crossing?
He's safe. He stinks. Me? I could be compromised. I might be too clean. If he's not one of them than he can't smell me. And that means I could be perfectly odourless. Or I could smell like a walking hamburger. But he can't take that chance.
"Right then. Turn around-", The bottom drops out of my stomach. End of the world. End of me. Here I go. But then- "and keep walking. If you-"
Oh god sweet relief. My mouth runs itself.
"Make like Orpheus and turn around than you'll shoot me, I know, I know!" I snap, sick with the feeling of near-escape and already walking away with my hands on my head for some reason. Too much TV mum would say. A hundred feet down the road my hands start to shake and my stomach starts churning. Keep walking.
After another hundred feet and around the bend I feel the weight of his eyes lifted off me and know it's safe to stop. I want nothing more than to collapse and wrap myself up in a ball and maybe puke up dregs of adrenaline. My hands won't bloody stop shaking.
But I can't do that. Instead I veer off the road on legs made wobbly with terror, and into the relative safety of the forest to start running through my usual ablutions. Soothing away the toxic fear with the mundane act of smearing dirt and animal matter on my bare skin. I've done this so many times it feels more natural than brushing my teeth.
I have much more pressing problems than falling apart because some wanker put a gun in my face.
With each handful of icy mud I am more and more aware of the cold seeping into my bones, pressing into my pores. Moreover, I now have no tent and no way of making hot water and oh damn- that bastard took the last of my tea as well. So maybe I'll make it through the night. But I won't make it through two. I'm out of choices.
It's time to find a village again.
The very thought makes my eyes sting. Suck it up! I have no one to blame but myself for this. How could I be so stupid! So…so disgustingly lazy. Walking around like a happy little hiker with a jingle-jangling camper bag. Thinking I was safe. In this time. In this country. I make myself sick.
But still. At least I'm alive. Oh god. I'm going to freeze tonight but I'm alive. Alive and soon to re-enter society even though it makes me want to tear my hair out.
I stand up, put my hands in my armpits for warmth and start to brace myself for the coming night.
It will be cold.
It will be long.
It will be painful and dark and wet and exhausting.
I will stumble and trip and cry out and my teeth will chatter so loud that I almost miss the first of the howls.