“Aw hell,” I mutter angrily to myself as another undead pus-bag takes a swing at me. What sort of hellish nightmare is this, and more importantly why hasn’t it come to an end yet? One might assume that an island, such as Australia, might be able to escape a virus such as this, but clearly not. One might also assume that with such a large expanse of the place being scarcely populated, there’d be somewhere to get away.
Clearly, that assumption is an incorrect one. I’ve been everywhere I can think of to get away, and they seem to keep on following me. Or maybe they’re just everywhere, like horse flies, or something equally as annoying. I’ve been in the city, and out of it, and actually, it’s better to be in. At least there’s stuff to eat that I don’t need to kill first!
I smash my lead piping through the dead guy’s head, cold blood splattering all over my face as I do. I hate this part, the cleaning up after a kill, mostly because the lenses on my glasses are starting to have bits of grime, coagulated blood, and very dead flesh caked right into them, and there isn’t anything I can do about that. I can’t exactly head to the nearest opticians for a replacement now, can I? I tried, but my usual place was utterly destroyed, presumably collateral damage in the initial outbreak, so that’s the end of that.
“Idiot,” I shake my head at the dead guy lying at my feet, wondering how he managed to get himself infected. If I’ve been smart enough to keep myself alive, then I didn’t see why everyone else shouldn’t too. There wasn’t anything particularly special about me. Sure I was a ‘jack of all trades’ in life, which made had helped me a little, and I was a massive reader too which means I know a lot, but still. I think common sense is key.
Maybe Australia doesn’t have much of it after all.
I don’t really know where I’m going to go next, I’m getting thoroughly sick of wandering around, trying to find somewhere safe to stay, just for something to happen which forces me to move on. It’s exhausting, and somewhere along the line, everything started to feel a little...pointless. I guess what I really want to do is go to another country, to get away from here. I suppose if I consider it rationally, judging by the fact that no one has come to rescue Australia, this isn’t the only place in the world that’s been affected, but surely there must be somewhere safe? There must be somewhere on the planet that I can go? I can’t keep on doing this forever.
I slump down on a tree stump, blinking my eyes into the intense bright sunshine, wondering what direction I force my weary body in next. The sun rays are sizzling my skin too ferociously to continue worrying about monsters coming at me from every angle, my stomach’s growling too loudly and my parched throat screams are too loud to keep going aimlessly, I feel too weary for all of it now. The whole apocalyptic nightmare is a young man’s game, not for someone like me who just wants to curl up in the evenings with a good book. I would love to find a way to just stop the fighting...
That voice jolts through my system, scaring the living hell out of me, making me jump up quickly like a lunatic. Am I going insane? Have I finally cracked? Has my desperation for human contact sent me around the bend? I move my head rapidly from left-to-right, trying to locate the source of the sound, just in case it is real, but by the time my heart has stopped pounding noisily in my chest I become convinced that I must’ve made it up.
“Help me, please.”
Nope, there it is again!
Oops, I didn’t mean to sound quite so gruff and aggressive then, but it’s been so long since I’ve had to include any politeness in my tone, there haven’t been any humans to require it. That’s suggesting there is one now, of course. I’m not ready to totally rule out insanity just yet.
“Help me, I need help.”
I swing my body around and move my eyes as far as I can see, trying to spot the mirage I’m sure I’ll eventually find. But nothing transpires, there’s no incredible hallucination to keep me amused for a while, just the same trees, buildings, and streets that I look at every day.
“Well, thank you for that!” I scream out to the universe, throwing my hands above my head like a madman. “That was a whole lot of fun.”
“I’m here, please!”
Oh my goodness, there actually is someone. A young girl, trapped in a car, I can see her now. Her face is red and sticky, spots of sweat pour down her cheeks, clearly at some point, she’s gotten herself into something of a pickle, and I’m the only one who can save her.
That makes me feel ridiculously excited, and absolutely petrified all at once.
I don’t like living alone, I don’t think humans are particularly suited to being completely solo, but that’s also the only way I’ve survived this. I haven’t had anyone need me since the end of the world rolled around, and the reality of it is a little strange, to say the least.
Still, I cannot just stand here and stare at her like a fool!
“I’ll smash the back window in,” I declare with gusto. If I can plaster a fake smile on my lips, then maybe she won’t sense the fear that hides behind it. “You duck down so none of the glass hits you.”
Relief crosses her expression for a split second, before she vanishes from view, giving me just one more tiny moment to compose myself. I twirl the lead piping between my hands while I check the perimeter in the way I always do before undertaking a noisy activity, then I crash it into the back window on the left-hand side, causing shards to shatter and cascade everywhere.
“Are you alright?” I call, maybe a little too loudly into the car. “I didn’t get you, did I?”
“No, no, I think I’m okay.” She sits up straighter to glance at me, before pulling a few strands of her straggly blonde hair down over her cheeks. “Is it safe for me to get out of here?”
“Yes, I think so. Do you need a hand?”
She shakes her head and slides towards the window where there’s a space for her to now get out, and it isn’t until she’s clambering through, very ungracefully, that I notice something I didn’t spot before. Something that highlights the terror I’m experiencing and dulls the excitement. Maybe finding someone else to share this experience with isn’t such a good idea after all...
She has a big ball of a belly, a large, hard swollen stomach, which can only contain one thing; the most horrific thing a zombie apocalypse can suffer. A baby; a noisy, screaming, desperate, needy being who will surely get everyone around it killed.
“Yes, I’m pregnant, okay?” she snaps angrily as she spots my wide-eyes staring. “Trust me, it wasn’t exactly in my life plan either. No more than the whole world ending.” As her feet crash to the boiling hot ground beneath her, she folds her arms defensively across her chest. “I suppose you’re gonna run off now, like they all do? See a woman sporting a big ol’ belly and you run away like a cry baby, unable to stand the idea of a baby in this mess? Well, that’s just wonderful, you just worry about yourself, I’ll take care of my baby all by myself.”
“Oh, okay, well I didn’t have any intention of doing that...” I hadn’t even really thought it through, never mind made any real plans. Yes, I’m freaked out, but I’m certainly not cruel. “I was actually thinking that you look very thirsty. Would you like some water?”
I hold out the plastic bottle as a peace offering, and after only a few seconds of staring me down like I’ve been sent to test her, she snatches it from me. From the way she sucks on the bottle like there’s no tomorrow, I can tell it’s been a while.
“So...what happened to you?”
“You mean how did I get pregnant, or during all of this mess?”
“Both, I suppose.”
I can’t help but chuckle at her blunt attitude. She isn’t like anyone I’ve ever met before, all of my friends have always been more like me; my age, my calm temperament, interested in similar things...this young, heavily pregnant girl is my total opposite. There’s no way we ever would’ve communicated if this situation hadn’t arisen.
“Well, I don’t totally know if I got pregnant just before, or just after it all went nuts. There’s no real way to tell, me and Tex were still at it like rabbits in the campsite, living each day like it was our last, and I guess we weren’t really thinking about protection...” She shakes her head, suddenly realizing that this is a little bit too much information. “Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, does it? End result is the same.”
“Where’s Tex now?” And why did I never hear about this camp? I thought I’d explored most of this area. Clearly, my assumption was incorrect.
“Dead.” She shrugs as if she doesn’t feel much about this, but I can see the sting in her eye. “They all are. Whole place caught on fire.”
“How did you escape?” That’s a terrible question to ask, but it fell out of my mouth before I could really think about it.
“I ran, obviously. What the hell was I supposed to do? Stick around and burn? I got out, not because I’m a coward but ‘coz I’ve got someone else to look out for.”
Her hands flutter down to her belly, and as I watch her eyes glaze over, an unexpected protectiveness comes out inside of me. Up until now, this has all been about me. Not intentionally, of course, but because of the situation I’ve been in, that’s just the way I’ve become. I can almost feel my chest expanding as I find room for this young girl and her unborn baby. It’s going to be dangerous, in fact, this is possibly the worst thing I could take on board, but if there’s one thing I’m not going to do it’s turn my back on this situation.
“What’s your name?”
“Why do you care?” The speed her answer flies back at me is full of defensiveness. She has a massive wall surrounding her, which I’m going to have to tear down if I want to look after her. And I do. Up until this point, I’ve been existing. Protecting someone else, preserving the circle of life, that’s the sort of thing I need to be focusing on during the end of the world. At least it proves that there’s some magic left in hell.
“Well, I’m Luke Yates.” I extend my hand to her and she tentatively takes it. “I’m...well, middle-aged. I used to live nearby, but now I exist here, there, and everywhere. Wherever’s safest. When the world turned to hell, I was in my garage, fixing my old bike. I saw one of those monsters staggering towards me so I raced inside to flick on the news, to try and figure out what was going on, but as I’m sure you’re aware from your own experience, in typical Aussie-style, no one seemed to recognise that the end was here until it was too late. The young, blonde female reporter was talking about a forest fire in the outback. I thought I must have imagined it all.”
“Wow.” She nods slowly, her expression turning to one of bemusement as she drinks all of this in. “That’s pretty insane.”
That’s all she offers, no explanation of her own story, so I shake my head and turn to walk. “Are you coming with me then?”
“Why would I?”
“Well, because you’re on you own, because I haven’t seen another living human being for as long as I can remember. And because at some time in the near future, you’re going to be giving birth. I don’t suppose that’s something you want to do by yourself.”
I don’t bother turning back, I keep my feet moving forwards because I know I’ve put my argument forth and that she’ll soon see reason. She doesn’t have much choice, not if she doesn’t want to end up trapped in another damn car.
“Jemma Williams.” I eventually hear her voice shrilly bursting out from behind me. “My name, I mean.”
“Come on then. Jemma. Let’s go and find somewhere safe for you to have your baby.”
She bursts out laughing, a booming sound that comes deep from the pit of her stomach. I turn to glare at her as if she’s gone insane, the sound is the loudest thing I’ve heard in a very long time rear-car-window smashing aside, but then I realize that she’s simply blowing off some steam. Her situation is a crazy one, one that she probably shouldn’t be in, so there really are only two options. Laugh or cry.
I join in, without even really thinking about it, and it actually feels quite good.
“Holy strewth, are you insane? A shopping outlet? Forrest Chase? Doesn’t that, like, spell trouble?” Jemma glances erratically from side-to-side as if she’s looking for an out. “Wouldn’t a campsite be better?”
“Oh right, because that worked out so well for you before.” There’s a wryness to my tone, but it doesn’t land. Jemma genuinely looks freaked out. “Look, it’s perfect. There aren’t any other people hanging about, I honestly haven’t seen anyone for months, and this is well protected. We can keep the doors locked tightly shut, so none of the monsters can get in, we have space here to roam free. Plus, and most importantly, there will be supplies. It may have been pretty ransacked in the beginning, but I bet there’s still some stuff left.”
Jemma’s eyes travel up the building, and I can see a spark of hope arising. This is the sort place I always told myself I’d end up living, but I didn’t get around to it before. There wasn’t ever any reason to, it was easier to keep on moving. But now I have someone else to take care of so the time is upon me.
“Do you know what would be amazing? Electricity and running water.”
“Well, I know how to do a lot of things. Maybe, if there’s some sort of generator I might be able to sort it for you. I’m not making any promises, but we’ll see. I have a lot of knowledge about electrical and chemical stuff.”
“Oh right, was that your job?”
“More just a hobby...but if the equipment is there, I’ll be able to do it.”
“Okay, fair enough. Sold. Let’s go.”
Jemma cowers behind me as we step inside, and it doesn’t escape my notice that she’s got her hands wrapped tightly around her stomach again She might try and act like nothing bothers her, but that life growing inside of her is of utmost importance. And that’s what makes this so essential. I don’t matter, not now, but she does. Jemma is the future.
I swing my bar above my head, and I push on forwards. I don’t even feel afraid of the monsters, not anymore, I’m just determined to make this work.
“Okay, shut the doors,” I hiss behind me.
“But what if...” Jemma starts to argue but thinks better of it at the last moment as I hear the door clunk behind me.
“I’m going to shout now, to draw and lurkers out. It might be a good idea if you hide.”
“Erm, right, okay.”
I feel the heat of her body vanish as she follows my orders. She trusts me, which is a wondrous thing. Now I just need to prove myself worthy.
“Hello?” My voice echoes around the building, bouncing off all the walls, hopefully traveling into each and every nook and cranny. “If anyone’s in here, it’s best if you come out now.”
A resounding silence tears through the place, but I’m not about to drop my weapon, not yet. I’ve been caught out once before by trusting things too quickly. Sometimes the lazier monsters take a few moments to react, and when they do I’ll be ready.
And then it happens.
I twist my body around as I hear a slight wispy sound emanating from behind me. My eyes dart everywhere, trying to locate where it’s coming from. Half the battle is knowing where they are before they descend upon you.
There he is.
He used to be a child, I hate it when that’s the case, it makes it so much sadder. I watch him slide towards me, hungry for my flesh, desperate to consume me, driven by the demon inside of him, and all I feel is sorrow. This child had his whole life ahead of him, he had a future, friends, parents, everything...and now he has nothing. He couldn’t have been more than ten-years-old, and now I’m left to murder him in cold blood. What could be sadder than that?
I can’t let this continue. I can’t this happen to Jemma’s baby. It isn’t right. The country didn’t react quick enough to this virus, things spiraled out of control way too quickly, but maybe I can’t solely blame the people in charge for that. Maybe the rest of the world is in the same boat.
No, there’s no rescue coming, we’re on our own, and children are now more important than ever.
Hoping that Jemma isn’t watching me, I smash the crowbar onto the kid’s head, causing his brains to splatter everywhere. It’s a bloodbath as his broken, destroyed body slumps to the ground. Black clumps of flesh fall down my glasses, I can feel bits of him clinging to my beard, he’s splattered everywhere, all over the ground beneath my feet. It’s disgusting, but just a part of real life these days.
“Can I come out now?” Jemma eventually cries from wherever she is.
I sigh deeply, hating that she’s going to see me in this way when she already has so much on her plate, but I force my head to nod. “Yes, you come out. I’ll get rid of...this. Just be careful where you go.”
As I toss the body carelessly out the door, towards the other end of the street, I recall how busy this area used to be. If I close my eyes for just a second, I can almost hear the constant roar of car engines, the chatter of groups of people out enjoying the wonderful Australian sun, life buzzing past.
I miss that, I miss it more than I ever thought I would. Maybe I wasn’t the most sociable person in normal life, maybe I mostly kept to myself, but I miss watching other people living.
The groan of one of the monsters coming from my left-hand side is a stark reminder that life in that manner isn’t coming back, not soon anyway.
“Are you okay?” I call out as I’m safe back inside. “Jemma?”
When she doesn’t answer, a tight ball of stress knots around my heart, one that strangles my lungs just a little bit. I suck in air, trying to keep myself breathing steadily, but luckily before the panic becomes too much her face comes into view.
“Hey, Luke, I’ve just found a maternity store. I can finally wear comfortable clothing for the first time since I’ve had this damn ankle-biter growing inside of me.”
I let out a laugh, but the sound is much too strained for my liking. The stress is still there, bothering my organs, reminding me that I have responsibilities weighing on my shoulders now. “Well, that’s good news.”
“I’m just going to grab what I can, I’ll be back in a minute.”
While I wait for Jemma to come back to me, I wander around the shopping center, diving in from store-to-store. I tell myself that I’m looking for supplies, that I’m trying to find me and Jemma something to eat, but really I’m checking that there’s nothing else lurking around. I don’t want to be shocked.
Unsurprisingly, I do stumble across just the one, but she’s trapped under a bookshelf. She doesn’t provide any immediate threat to us, but I put her out of her misery anyway because it’s the right thing to do.
“Luke, where are you? I found some tinned food, do you know how to open it? I’m absolutely starving!”
Now that I can do.
We settle into a nice routine over the next few days, exploring the center, discovering all the building’s secrets, creating an area that almost feels a little bit like home…sort of. It’s easy to make beds and chairs when there are stores selling everything you could possibly want.
“You know, it’d be pretty cool if we could actually turn the television on!” Jemma jokes, which causes my head to snap up from the book I’m buried in.
“You’re the one who wanted it set up like your living room at home,” I smirk. “It’s not my fault that’s a massive waste of the limited power we have. Plus, you know, I doubt anything’s being broadcast right now.”
I’ve actually managed to find access to some electricity, but it isn’t much, it definitely won’t last us, and we have another event looming soon that’ll need all we have.
“What’cha reading there?” She grabs the hardback from me before I can even begin to explain myself. “A pregnancy book?” Her face pales as she stares up at me with utter confusion plastered across her face. “Why are you reading this?”
“Well, I mean, you’re going to be giving birth soon.” My face is actually heating up, like I’m embarrassed about what I’m saying which I know it utterly bizarre. “I figure that since I’m going to be your unwelcome birthing partner, slash midwife, I should know at least a little bit of what I’m doing.”
She stands up and moves behind her chair, where she clutches onto it as if it’s the only thing holding her upright. “Of course, the baby. I guess I’ve been pregnant for so long that I forgot there was going to be a baby at the end of it.” A wooziness crosses her expression that has me leaping up to hold onto her. She grips her fingers tightly into my arm, piercing my skin just a little bit. “What am I going to do with a baby?”
“You must have thought about this stuff...”
“Yes, hypothetically. But now...oh my God, now this is going to be real. How am I going to give birth? In here? There’s nothing here to care of me, no medical equipment, no...oh no this is too much.”
“I’m here, I’m here to take care of you. You don’t have to worry about anything. I will make sure that you’re safe.”
She looks up at me with big blue eyes, panic etched into her face. “Will you? Can you? Oh hell, I feel sick. I thought the puking days were over...”
It takes me a while to calm her down enough to start acting normally again, but as soon as she’s sitting, breathing steadily, with a little bit of color in her cheeks, I start on my next plan of action.
“Right, well I’m going to head to the hospital, get everything you need...”
“Yes, I think we’ve established that we need to be more prepared, don’t you? There’s only so much I can learn from books, now we need...what’s wrong?”
She clutches onto her stomach, her face turning all the way to purple. “I...I don’t know, but it hurts.”
“Contraction,” I whisper to myself. “That means...” It could be a false one, that does happen according to what I’ve read, but I can’t be totally certain about that, it’s very possible that I’ve already left it far too late. “Okay, I need to go right now.” Maybe if I run, if everything goes smoothly, I’ll be back before things get too real. It can take a long time. Birth isn’t an instant thing…I don’t think.
“No,” Jemma gasps. “No, don’t go. I need you.”
“But you’ll be okay, I have time.”
“No you don’t, you can’t leave me now. The pain is too much.” Her face confirms this as it twists into an ugly, agonized shape. She grabs onto her thighs so tightly that her knuckles turn a terrible shade of white.
Maybe there isn’t enough time.
“Right.” I nod, determination flooding me. There isn’t anyone else around, there’s no point in worrying about what I should’ve done, what I might need, the time is upon me. I just need to make best of what I have. I need to ensure this works. “Right, okay, so what should I do?”
“Water, I need water.” I grab one of the bottles and hand it to her. “Thanks, okay now...now just talk to me. I need to be distracted.”
“Right, okay, sure.” Distraction, that is one of the things that needs to be done during contractions. “So, what do you want to talk to me about?”
“Tell me about you.” If she needs distraction, then maybe she should be the one who talks.
“Okay, well before the apocalypse I worked in a nursing home. It was okay I guess but...argh God!” I reach my hand out to her and she takes it to squeeze. She causes me pain, but it’s nowhere near what I’m sure she’s going through. “Anyway, it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my education.”
“What did you want to do?”
I’m only half-listening to her story as I run my eyes all over her, checking her, trying to anticipate her needs before she has to vocalize them. Stress balls in my chest, there isn’t any way I’d be able to get through something like this without it bugging me, but there’s a strong sense of calm there too. It’s almost as if my body knows that I need to take charge.
“I wanted to be a lawyer, or something. Stupid, I was probably not clever enough. Maybe this mess saved me from my unfulfilled dreams.” She cackles, but there isn’t any mirth there. “And of course I had Tex.” A pause fills the air, one that I don’t know how to fill. “Damn it, Tex, why did you have to die? You got me in this mess, you should be here to help get me out of it.”
“I’m sure he’s watching over you.”
“Oh, what a crock. He’s monster food, dead, gone.”
“Do you really believe that?” I’ve never been spiritual myself, but if there was ever a time to contemplate stuff like that, it’s now.
“I dunno, it’s just easier I suppose. If I think about him watching over me, I’ll get all sad and there’s no point in that. What can we do these days? There isn’t any time to be heartbroken, we just have to keep on surviving.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
We share a knowing smile, and in that moment I can see she’s glad to have me around. I’m sure she wasn’t at first, her idea of a hero probably wasn’t me, but now having anyone is better than being alone. This might’ve killed her if she had to do it by herself, at least now I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen no matter what.
“So, yeah, me and Tex got swept away in the group of people who set up camp a couple of kilometers away from here.” The group that somehow managed to miss me. “And I figured we’d wait it out until help came. By the time I noticed I’d piled on a ton of weight, it was obvious that help didn’t exist. So, I had to get used to the idea that my baby was going to grow up in,” she indicates wildly around her. “This.”
“You’ll be fine.” I grip her fingers tighter between mine. “I don’t know how we’re going to get through this, but we will.”
“This isn’t your mess,” she shoots back kindly. “I appreciate everything you’ve done for me so far, but I don’t expect you to stick around forever.”
“Oh, nonsense. Of course, I’m going to stick around. This world is ugly, it’s a nightmare. None of us knows what’s going to happen, if the human race will even survive. But I do know that a baby is a blessing, and we need to pull together to ensure that your baby has the best life possible.”
Tears unexpectedly cascade down her, usually tough-as-nails, cheeks, so I pull her in for a hug. Jemma is like my family now, like the daughter I never had, and I intend to do everything that I can to protect her and the baby from everything going on out there.
“Oh God, this hurts. So freaking much. And it’s getting worse.”
“So, what was Tex like?” Keep on distracting, that’s all I can do. Without any pain killers, there’s no other option.
“Sweet, tall, handsome. Oh crikey! I met him in school, and I adored him from the very first time I laid eyes on him. I hope...argh! I hope our baby is just like him. He’s the good one. I’m the useless one, you know?”
“Well, I don’t know Tex, I never had the privilege of meeting him, but I do know you, and you’re not useless.”
“Oh God, I can’t be distracted anymore. It’s too much. The baby...I think the baby is coming now.”
Blood...no one ever warns you how much blood they’ll be when someone gives birth. Blood, and a whole bunch of other things I don’t want to even look at.
Sweat drips from my forehead, my body is weary and aching, I feel like I’ve been punched all over, like I’ve been in the worst fight of my life and I’ve only just survived...
But it’s all worth it.
“What...what are you going to call him?” Jemma might be exhausted, drained, and in a state, but I can barely breathe either. I’ve been through the ringer as well.
“Tex.” The look in her eyes is pure, boundless love. She’s cradling her little one, holding him close to her chest like he’s precious, made of china, and her baby stares back at her with equal adoration. They know each other, he might be new to me but they’ve been connected for nine months, and that shows. “Like his daddy.”
Is that...can I feel tears now in my eyes too? I never typically cry, but this is something else. This is a new start. It’s in the worst possible place, yet still it’s gorgeous.
“Will you hold him?” Jemma looks up at me and indicates towards little Tex. “Just for a moment, I need to see if I can still stand.”
“You...would trust me?” I haven’t ever held a baby before, but I haven’t ever felt connected to one either. This baby isn’t mine, but he holds a piece of my heart in his tiny little fingers.
“Of course,” she giggles a little too brightly for someone who’s just experienced an inhuman pain only moments before. “You protected me and Tex, you brought us this far. We never would’ve survived this far if it hadn’t been for you. I would’ve remained in that damn car until I died.”
“No, I’m sure...”
“Please, just hold Tex, just for a moment. Remember you said you were going to be there to help me? Well, you’re going to have to start now.”
I lean down and she piles Baby Tex into my arms, which makes my heart swell with utter joy. Life is meaningless without moments like this, this is what makes everything worth it. This is what I need to make existing feel worthwhile once more.
I will do whatever I can, I’m even more determined than before. I will give my life for Jemma and Tex, I will make sure that they live.