The walk to the New River always filled him with dread.
He made his way along Stanmore Road, his hands gripped tightly around the steel handles of the wheelbarrow. It was a miracle the old thing was still in one piece. The blue paint on the tray had mostly flaked off and the tire wasn’t far from being completely flat. It was long overdue for the scrapheap or at least a major reworking that might give it a second chance at life. It was worth a shot. He’d been spending too much of his spare time staring into space and thinking about the past and his parents. Maybe it was time to do something practical. To be constructive.
He travelled west. The morning air had cooled slightly and he’d decided to wear his dad’s old leather jacket over his usual black t-shirt and jeans. As he walked, he could hear the helicopters in the distance. They were moving towards Central London, which meant that most of the drops in the north had already been made. The supply parcel would be there waiting for him at the river – sitting on the edge of the walkway like it always was. Maybe he’d get lucky and find two of them today.
He cut through the overgrown jungle that was once Ducketts Common. It had once been a well-manicured public space where people had picnicked and organised community fun days – now it was wild and vaguely threatening in its unkempt appearance. The pathway that cut through the common was barely visible anymore. It would probably have been buried underneath the grass altogether if not for his once-weekly visits to flatten it out.
Just as he was leaving the Common, his eye caught sight of something lying a few feet from the concrete, half-buried by a mound of drooping grass.
It was an envelope.
He put the wheelbarrow down and stared at the white paper. It was peering out at him in between the long blades of green grass. He took a look around. Standing still made him more than a little nervous. But curiosity got the better of him like it always did. He walked over to the envelope and picked it up. It felt slightly damp and was tattered at the edges. Although it had looked white from a distance, time had dulled the exterior to a warm shade of yellowy brown.
Tucking the envelope into his back pocket, he looked around again. All clear. He picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and continued towards the New River.
He walked down Hampden Road. It had been a long time since he’d bothered with the local sights and when he passed the old Methodist church on his right hand side, he barely glanced in its direction. Still, on more than occasion he’d felt compelled to go into that place, sit down and see what happened. Not necessarily to ask for a miracle, but ask for something. But he never did go in. It was a large building and there was always the possibility that someone or something was lurking in there.
He didn’t linger around the houses on Hampden Road either. They were still and silent. There was something menacing about them. The gardens were overgrown wastelands with bloated hedges and wheelie bins that were drowning in grass and yet still neatly stacked in driveways. There were no cars on the street. Not surprising, most people had driven out of London back in 2011. It was the surest way of getting out in time and if you didn’t have a car, he imagined that people had begged for lifts off neighbours and strangers, filling the vehicles up until they were literally stuffed with bodies.
He walked faster, making his way to the end of Hampden Road and then towards the grassy descent that led to the New River. Parking his wheelbarrow at the edge of the road, he climbed over a short metal fence and walked down towards the water.
The New River wasn’t exactly a river. It wasn’t new either. He remembered back in 2011 when he’d first moved to London, the disappointment he’d felt upon seeing it for the first time. If it was a river, then it was the skinniest fucking river in the world. It had an interesting enough history – it had been completed in 1613, and it functioned as a water supply aqueduct that brought clean drinking water from Hertfordshire into North London. It was a narrow waterway, barely the width of a small canal, and with a stone footpath running alongside which made for a pleasant walk.
It was upon this stone footpath that he now walked along, his eyes searching for a glimpse of the parcel. In the early years the supply crews had dropped several parcels on this footpath alone and in the neighbourhood as a whole. These were intended for the local residents but the number of people in the area had dropped significantly and many parcels were left untouched. Now there were only one or two parcels at most. That was why it was so important that he showed up at the river every week and why he meticulously counted seven days from each drop to the next – if he were to miss one Drop Day and if the parcel was left untouched then the helicopters would probably stop coming altogether.
He walked along the path. Every thirty seconds or so he’d look back towards the fence, keeping an eye on his parked wheelbarrow. That there was no one around to steal it didn’t matter. The need to protect his property was an urge that he couldn’t shake off, a deep-rooted instinct that belonged to another time.
After a short walk, he found the parcel. It was sitting on the side of the path furthest from the river, close to a fence that blocked off the back of a residential area. Supplies were always dropped in the same large white sacks, which were about the size of a king-size pillow. They looked similar to the type of packaging that he recalled seeing on old news broadcasts in which aid was delivered to Third World countries during the height of a famine.
Squatting down, he picked up the bag and hoisted it over his head. The package pressed against his shoulders and neck. He took a deep breath and secured his footing on the path. Packages were heavy – they were literally stuffed with the likes of fresh fruit, bread, meat, as well as toiletry items including toothpaste and toilet paper. All bundled into one sack and designed to last precisely a week until the next drop. Of course it never did last that long. He never understood why the parcels were always bulked out with large ice pads and absorbent pads, not to mention a shitload of scrunched up paper that was supposed to protect it from damage. But there was a lot of paper. They could easily have done away with some of the internal packaging and put some more food in there.
He looked around for a glimpse of a second parcel. Not that he was feeling lucky but it was worth taking a moment to look. If it were anywhere it would have been dropped further down the path. It would be nice to have it if it was there, to have a little more food in the house for the coming week.
Still holding the parcel over his head, he hurried back down the footpath towards the fence. Once there, he forced the sack through a large gap in between the metal bars and it dropped into the perfectly positioned wheelbarrow with a thud. Then he turned around hurried back down towards the footpath.
Five minutes. But don’t go too far, okay?
By now the sun had come back out and the leather jacket on his back was getting heavier. His eyes glanced longingly at the river. What would it be like to take a dip in there? To soak his skin – would the water feel as good as it looked right now basking under the sunlight? Was this the warm bath that he’d been waiting for?
He stopped walking.
A noise. Behind him. Close – how had he missed its approach?
He spun around and his blood ran cold.
It was a man or something like a man. Staggering towards him. It was wildly bearded with hungry eyes that looked through him. It wore the tattered remnants of what appeared to be a navy suit, its colour and style long gone, the fabric bedraggled and in ruin. Half a tie swung from the collar as if someone had taken a pair of scissors and cut right through it. The red skin on the savage face was a mess – riddled with painful looking sores. Its nose was badly burned at the tip – either the result of excessive sun damage or it had been disfigured by fire. Its lips were dry, with chunks of dead skin attached. In one hand it brandished a filthy looking butchers knife and as it approached, the savage stabbed repeatedly at thin air, back and forth, like some sort of pre-murder ritual.
Seconds later, it lunged forwards.
He only just managed to get out of the way of its attack. He moved his feet backwards and manoeuvred his body out of range of the blade. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard a voice repeating over and over:
‘Distance. Range. Distance. Range.’
The savage swung the blade with little skill, but what it lacked in finesse it made up for in ferocity. It aimed at his midsection. With every reckless thrust, came a primordial grunt that sounded something other than human. He was forced to retreat backwards and at such speed that he tripped and fell onto the grass behind him. At that moment, he was vulnerable. The world was upside down. He fought furiously to regain his coordination, all the while preparing himself for the sensation of a steel blade piercing his skin.
Fortunately the savage had already slowed under the heat. Its ferocious assault was now somewhat laboured and it failed to take advantage of this opportunity to finish the fallen man. It came after him but slower, like a raggedy man plodding through quicksand. It had lost his explosiveness and its breathing was heavy. Still, it wielded the butcher’s knife with the same murderous intent. That look of ravenous hunger in its eyes had not tired.
The savage squatted slightly, as if it was about to leap on top of him. But as it came forward, he launched a vicious upkick from the ground that caught the beast smack on its nose. Upon impact, the butcher’s knife flew out of its hand and the savage yelped and stumbled back towards the river’s edge. It put its sunburned hands over the damaged nose, which was leaking blood at a furious rate.
Quickly he rolled over to his right in order to grab the knife. But the savage was back before he could get there. The thing that was no longer human mounted him and threw down a volley of deranged punches at his face. As it did so, blood dripped from its nose and landed on his face like warm raindrops. It leaned forward, baring its rotten, yellowy teeth and snapping at his face like a vicious dog. Its breath smelt of death.
From the ground, he wrapped one hand around the savage’s throat. Then he pushed its head back with everything he had, forcing those foul teeth away from his face. It wasn’t hard to budge the neck – it felt as if the muscles inside the thing had wasted away, which meant it was running on little else but rage and hunger.
With the other hand, he reached frantically for the butcher’s knife lying at his side.
As he did so, the savage squealed with excitement.
After several attempts, he found the handle of the butcher’s knife. Without hesitation he brought it up and thrust it in a sideways motion, aiming directly at the savage’s brain. He missed the target and instead of going through its head, the blade slashed across its face, carving open a long and deep tear that ran down from the eyes to chin.
The savage screamed. It was a hideous sound. Then it fell backwards, its hand trying to stem the rapid flow of blood that was gushing out of its face.
He hurried to his feet, sensing that this was his chance to finish the job. But to his surprise, the savage wasn’t done yet. It charged at him once again despite the fact that its face was barely hanging on at the side.
It came forward at a manic speed. Fast and yet clumsy, like a throwback down the evolutionary ladder. It screamed, like a squealing pig hurtling towards its own doom.
He thrust the knife forwards. The blade found its home in the upper torso, entering deep into the stomach. There was no doubt now – it was over.
He took his blood-soaked hands off the blade and stepped away, his heart pounding, his lungs grasping for breath in the hot air.
The savage looked down at the butcher’s knife that was stuck in its chest. At the same time its face was still leaking litres of blood. With surprising gentleness, it tugged on the handle of the knife. Then realising it wasn’t going to come out, it let go again. It staggered backwards. The wild look in its eyes became something else. Serene. The fury faded to blackness. It seemed to accept what had happened and perhaps in its final moments, it remembered what it had once been.
It took another step back. This time it tumbled over the edge and fell backwards into the river. There was a loud splash and then silence.
He walked over to the edge and looked down. The body was floating in the shallow water. He stayed there for about a minute, trying to convince himself that the thing down there was indeed dead. That it wouldn’t come after him.
Then he took off, running towards the wheelbarrow.
He lay under the bed sheets for hours. His body shook violently as he saw the rotten teeth snapping at his face over and over again.
He could still its breath in the bedroom.
He’d already been sick six times and it showed no sign of stopping, despite the fact that there was nothing left in his body to throw up. All his strength was gone. Still he went back and forth between the bedroom and the bathroom, dry retching with all his might in an attempt to feel better, to vomit the experience and memory of what had happened.
After the seventh trip to the bathroom, he collapsed on the floor. His chest felt sore and dry. All he wanted to do was to get back to bed and stay there until he felt something other than what he was feeling. He crawled out of the bathroom on all fours into the hallway, steadily making his way to the bedroom.
Then he saw it.
It was curled up, tucked in between the hallway floor and the gap under the door – the door to the room that had been his parents’ bedroom. It was a hair – a simple hair, but it wasn’t his. This one was far too long to have ever belonged on his head.
His mother’s hair.
Gently, he reached out and clamped two fingers around the hair. He brought it towards his face and marvelled at its beauty, like someone with gold fever looking at a pan full of treasure. Such a simple thing. A single strand of tawny hair that shone in the sunlight. It could have fallen from his mother’s head that same morning.
He closed his eyes and tried to remember her face. The little things. How she had looked when she smiled and even the peculiar things, like the way her top lip twitched when she was angry with him.
But he couldn’t see her anymore.
All he could see were a set of rotten teeth, still snapping hungrily at his face.
Mr Apocalypse (Future of London #2) is available at these retailers:
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