In the meantime, grab a glass of Christmas Cheer, ease yourself into a comfy chair, and prepare to be thoroughly moved, unsettled and entertained by 'Goodnights to Heaven'.
Don't turn your back on the chimney, though: you never what what might come down it...
Goodnights to Heaven
by Jason Fischer
It was spotting the man on the roof that made her change direction, and probably saved their lives. He was obviously a lookout, some poor frozen bugger lurking in the mess of old chimneys and tiles, anorak up around his ears. There was no other reason for a breathing body to be sitting up there in the cold.
‘Back this way, Toby,’ Mary whispered, pulling the little boy back around the corner, holding him close. Her heart was racing. Were we seen?
‘I’m tired, Mummy,’ the boy whined softly.
She led him away from that reasonable looking street, a row of terrace houses with most of the windows intact. She pictured the untouched larders, clean beds, maybe left over toys and books for her son. And then she remembered that man on the rooftop, and knew that where one man watched, others waited, and that soon enough this place too would be stripped bare.
They trudged back into streets long since picked over, endless blocks of waste, the houses all cracked open like eggs and open to the elements, doors flapping or off their hinges, windows broken by angry starving kids. And always, always the stacks of bodies, thick on the ground here and putrid, but at least they weren’t up and walking about.
The sun was starting to sink through the rooftops, a thin watery orb sliding down that freezing clear sky. With an eye to the remaining daylight, Mary found a semi-detached house, less damaged than its neighbours. Stepping gingerly over an eviscerated corpse, spread out and rotting on the doorstep, Mary took the boy inside, looking at the thick layers of dirt coating the floors, noting how every corner and nook had trapped the autumn leaves, blown in through the destroyed windows.
‘See that,’ she whispered to the boy, pointing at the grimy floors. ‘No tracks, nothing for a long time. We can stay here.’
‘Mummy, I’m hungry,’ Toby grizzled, looking up at her. His eyes were sunken, his cheek bones far too pronounced. She’d dressed him in several layers of clothes and he still looked like a ghost on legs.
The last of their food had been taken from them at knife-point, by a sad-eyed man who tried to apologise for robbing them, even as he was doing it. He’d left them a can of dog-food, which they’d bolted down as soon as he left, Mary gagging on the gelatin slime. Between them they ate every mouthful, scraping the sides of the tin clean.
That had been three days ago.
They looked through the cupboards and shelves, even checking the mess of drawers that had been pulled out and dumped onto the lino floor. The place had been picked over, and good. Feeling around underneath the kitchen sink, she cried out triumphantly. A single can had fallen behind the drain pipes, overlooked by the human locusts who’d last visited.
“Halved Pears in Syrup!” the faded label read. Hands shaking, Mary worked her can-opener, mouth running when she saw the fat slices of fruit, bobbing in thick liquid. Even though her stomach growled, Mary made sure that Toby ate every single mouthful, saving only a little of the juice for herself.
‘My tummy hurts,’ Toby said, a few minutes after wolfing down the pears. He danced on the spot, clutching at his stomach, which gave an ominous rumbling sound. The toilet stank like a morgue, with a rotting body still clutching the bowl, so Mary helped her son squat over a large saucepan, the boy sobbing as his meal ran right through him.
‘My poor darling, my sweet boy,’ Mary said, wiping his brow. They had a little clean water left, and she let him drink it all. ‘I know, my heart, I know.’
They found a thick quilt in the linen cupboard, and slept in the top of the garage, a converted stable complete with the old hay-loft. With the ladder pulled up they were safe enough, if a walking dead thing should sniff them out.
‘I can see the stars,’ Toby whispered, pointing out through the dusty louvre windows. ‘I’m gonna do my goodnights to heaven.’
Mary clutched her boy close, tucking the quilt in around them. The boards beneath them were hard and cold, and the backpack made for a poor pillow. Her limbs ached with exhaustion.
‘Goodnight Grandpa, and Daddy, and Sally, and Moggy. I love you lots and lots.’ He ended the ritual with a blown kiss, the way he’d always done. Cradled in his mother’s bony arms, the boy was asleep in seconds. Stifling her sobs, Mary cried and cried.
‘It’s a special day today,’ Mary told Toby, pointing to her diary. She always recorded temperature, locations visited, numbers of undead seen, her general condition and Toby’s. Bevan had told her she was an obsessive diariser, ‘a mad Samuel Pepys, except you’ve got nothing interesting to write about.’
In the early days of this feral new world, he sure changed his tune as to the usefulness of a diary, and then he was bitten and had to be put down (this event marked in a somewhat shaky hand as having happened on the 5th of February, 2014), marking the end of married life and all of its comfortable nitpickings.
‘It’s Christmas day,’ she said. ‘You might have been too little to remember it, but we used to put up a big tree with lights on it, with presents underneath and everyone would come over for a big roast lunch.’
Toby chewed his lip for a long moment. He always looked thoughtful whenever Mary spoke about the world that once was, as if she was telling tall tales, making things up to keep him cheerful.
‘I do so remember Christmas,’ Toby said. ‘We ate a tin of pudding last year. Daddy put a fire on and he gave me my colouring book.’
‘That’s right. But I’ve got something better for you this year.’
They left the semi-detached, Mary making a careful note of its position in her diary, wrote “A SAFE PLACE?”. The two walked through the streets, pausing only once to hide from a small pack of zombies, leathery corpses weaving all over the street like drunks.
Roughly twelve corpses, when last month they’d run from a mob in this neighbourhood that was three hundred strong. Suits me fine, Mary thought. Move on, you smelly buggers.
They waited in an abandoned combi van for the mob to pass, and Mary tipped a sprinkling of vinegar onto herself and Toby. It would mask their scent, confuse the keen senses of the undead. If they kept out of sight, they would be fine.
We creep through this strange new world like a pair of mice, Mary thought. Licking her cracked lips, she eyed off the vinegar, perhaps two fingers worth left in the bottle, but wrote it off as a bad idea. It will only make us thirsty, and we need every drop of this stuff, need it to move around safely.
When the last faint moan had faded into the distance, they slid out of the van, walked quickly. Once, Mary heard arguing, a man and a woman, and lingered on the corner of main street, wondering if it was worth the risk. It would take them straight to where they were going. A moment later and there was a gunshot, the sharp crack like a fat hand swatting the life out of something.
There was no scream, and the angry words had stopped. Mary scooped Toby up into her arms and ran back the way she’d come, changing streets, slipping down quiet alleyways, doubling back on herself until she was thoroughly lost. The young boy trembled in her arms, and she felt the warm trickle of his urine as it soaked through the seat of his pants.
‘It’s okay mate, we won’t see any of the bad people,’ she said, stroking his hair. ‘We’re okay now.’
The street directory gave her an alternate route, through the old industrial area. They’d passed through about nine months ago (9th November, 2013 to be precise, “STUFF ALL HERE” Bevan had added to her brief jottings), and the place was of no interest to anyone alive – all the fuel was gone, as well as anything useful.
A handful of the rotting walkers spotted them in the old cement plant, and gave limping chase through the tank farms and plant rooms. Mary dabbed on the last of the vinegar, making sure to rub the last few drops into Toby’s face, behind his ears, all over his hands. Befuddled, the slavering monsters shuffled past their hiding spot, close enough that Mary could see the fat bloat of rot pushing at leathery skin from the inside, eyes frosted like a fish hooked and bled out.
Look at them. They’re having trouble walking, Mary thought. Their joints are all fused together or something. A fat chunk of maggot-ridden flesh slid off a zombie’s back, dropping onto the floor at their feet. Gagging quietly, Mary fought the churning rebellion in her empty stomach.
The stink of the undead things washed over them, the decomposed corpse smell that no-one should ever have to breathe in, and that time did not improve. She held Toby close, covering his eyes and ears, barely daring to breathe. Her boy shook, but he was smart for his age, knew how to hide from the undead.
Slipping through a chain-link fence the woman and boy were across a vacant block, sneaking through the car-choked ruins of the old highway, stopping still when the gusting wind rocked a dead car on its springs. There were infected bodies in some cars, too stupid to get themselves out, quiet enough to snatch you should you pass too close.
‘There’s the city,’ Mary said, pointing at the mess of skyscrapers, the glass edifices peppered with broken windows, some of the buildings burnt out in their entirety. ‘I’ve got a nice surprise for you Toby, but you have to keep close and be very quiet. It’s dangerous here.’
‘I know, Mum,’ Toby sighed. ‘I’m not stupid.’
'Look at me,’ Mary said, kneeling down so that her face was level with the boy’s. ‘I don’t mean to nag at you. I just don’t want to see you get hurt, okay?’
‘’kay,’ Toby mumbled.
‘Just keep your eyes open and tell me if you see anything,’ she said. ‘It might be a bit smelly in there, so try to breathe through your mouth.’
Smelly was the understatement of the year. The streets were carpeted with bodies, and little bones crunched with every step. In some places the footpaths was slick with gore, and it was all Mary could do not to slip over. She tried her best not to think about the diseases they were wallowing through, promised them both a bath the moment she could boil up enough water.
Where are all the zombies? she thought. The last time they’d looked at the place through Bevan’s binoculars, it was a hive of dead things, an enormous tomb. Millions of dead things, hungry for human flesh, and no point dropping in to Tesco’s if you didn’t want to be nibbled on.
But now, there were only a handful of zombies walking the street, and they were in bad shape. A body that was little more than sinew and bone was standing in a doorway, swaying gently, and another was in an alleyway, knocking the bins over, moaning in confusion.
‘Look, they’re sick Mummy,’ Toby said. What was once a nun dragged herself down the front steps of a shop, nothing left to her but the top half and a little tail of spine. Its descent was laborious, and when it reached the bottom it lay down with a sigh, eyeing off mother and son with malevolence. But apart from one shuddering attempt to rise, it did not move.
‘That bloody nun should be chasing us to the ends of the earth,’ Mary said. ‘Maybe it’s kicked the habit.’
Toby looked at her with confusion.
‘Don’t worry, it wasn’t that funny. Come on.’
Some minutes later they stood hand-in-hand before a huge shopping complex, the car-parks completely coated with rotting flesh. Ignoring the smell and the flies, Mary led Toby towards an enormous store, with an enormous giraffe mascot blazoned on the side of the building.
The glass sign had been smashed, but there was enough left to spell out TOYS in ten foot high letters. When Toby saw this, a gap-toothed smile shot out across his filthy face, and he darted forward, dragging his mother by the hand, shouting at her to hurry up.
‘Merry Christmas Kid,’ she laughed.
25 December, 2014:
The zombies are dying out, pun intended. Looks like we’re the first ones game to come back here. A horrid smell everywhere, someone needs to fire the maid! Found two cans beans, one box ramen noodles, one can of Glen 20 to disinfect EVERYTHING.
Toby had a V. good day, all the bikes had been pinched months ago but no-one wanted the other stuff. Found a box of batteries and he had the time of his life – I’ve never seen so many robots and dinosaurs walking around.
Turns out that happiness still is a kid in a toy store.