The forest around him comes to life, birds fluttering and screaming up from the branches as Evan takes off through the trees. His heavy footsteps thunder through the leafy undergrowth, his backpack bouncing against the small of his back. He slips and slides over twigs and trips over roots, gravity doing most of the work as he plummets down the hill. The ground underfoot gets muddier and muddier as he goes, until soon his trainers are soggy with water, his trousers splashed with brown mud up to his knees.
At the bottom of the hill, there is a road. He’d become so used to the idea of the world as a green and leafy place that he’d almost forgotten that roads existed, and yet here one is.
He steps down from the woodland onto the concrete. It’s cracked and overgrown with brown roots creeping across it from the trees on either side, grass springing up along the edges of the kerb and where the white lines would be painted in the middle. There are pot holes and parts of the road where it has simply given way under the weight of the years, but it is undeniably and unmistakably a road.
Adie is lying on the road, his face pale and slack, his rosy cheeks turned grey with cold. Blood pours from a cut in his forehead and his arms and legs are clearly broken, sticking out at odd angles as though he’s a rag doll, unwanted and simply tossed aside.
Evan blinks, and Adie is gone. It’s just a road, and he is alone.
Where would it take him, if he followed it? He doesn’t know, so he simply crosses it and ploughs on through the trees, sinking deeper and deeper into the marshy mud until he finally discovers why.
At the bottom of the hill there is a river. It’s not just a stream, but a gushing torrent of icy water that ripples and winds its way around tree trunks and lumps of concrete. It stretches several metres across, here and there lumps and lines of concrete caked with green river slime forming bridges and stepping stones across the flow. There are stones and pebbles forming low sloping beaches on either side, giving way to yet more forest stretching up the opposite bank for as far as the eye can see.
Evan clambers on top of one of the drier blocks of concrete. He’s in a low, wide ditch, and though the river doesn’t look deep, it’s fast. Hills stretch up on either side of him as though he’s in some kind of small valley, the river stretching as far as his eye can see to either side of him. You could go round, he thinks, squinting up the length of the stream in search of a bridge, but how long would that take?
Too long, he knows, taking a small, careful step onto the first block of green concrete. He can’t help but wonder what they once were. Was this perhaps once a bridge? But if it was, where was the road leading to it? Perhaps it was a house, but then again there was the issue of a road. It’s only when one of the blocks wobbles that he begins to think that perhaps they didn’t belong here, that they had been washed down from somewhere upstream in some kind of flood.
His foot dips into the water as he tried to regain his balance, crouching low on the wobbling concrete block to avoid tipping into the river. He was a strong swimmer. Once upon a time he had enjoyed surfing, and he’d spend hours in his wetsuit in the icy waters off the English coast, the waves battering him around and pushing and pulling him in all manner of directions. Of course, that was before. This is now, and his arms shake and tremble as he steps onto the next block, his trainers slipping on the algae and threatening to tip him over once more.
He jumps down onto reasonably dry land and begins to hike again, slipping and sliding in the mud on the other bank until he emerges on yet another road. This one is just as overgrown and cracked as the last one, potholes dotting the tarmac here and there like acne on a teenager’s face. He stops here for a drink, dropping his bag onto the road and digging around in it until he produces one of the bottles of slightly warm, stale water. Still, he thinks, looking back down the slope at the gushing torrent of water below and thinking about the dampness of the foot that took an unexpected dip in the stream, at least it’s safe to drink. He sips at it for a few minutes and then sticks it back into the top of the bag, and is just heaving it back onto his shoulder when he hears a snap, somewhere off into the forest behind him.
He snaps around, the shard of glass instantly in his hand. He’d forgotten about it until that moment, and is momentarily surprised that he hasn’t managed to cut himself with it yet. It bites at his palm through the bandages as he crouches at the side of the road, his hand out, waiting. His eyes narrow almost to slits, jumping from tree to tree as they search the woodland for the perpetrator of the noise.
Time passes in shades of light, moving from daytime to the warm, pink tones of early dusk. That’s how he knows he’s been crouched there for too long, without shelter or a fire or any real way of keeping warm. “Fuck this,” he mutters softly, tucking the glass back into his pocket and crossing the road in four long strides. “Find some shelter, get under cover. There’s nobody here except you. Nobody.”
The land beyond the road is flat, the trees thinner than on the other side of the low valley. There are bricks and wires and twisting bits of metal buried in the undergrowth, and Evan trips or slips with every step he takes through the increasing, creeping darkness of night. He doesn’t want to have to sleep out in the open, with insects and animals and who knows what creeping about the forest, looking for food, smelling out his fresh, human warmth.
And so he keeps walking, one hand holding the shard of glass and the other carrying the dull wind-up torch he’d found on the shelves. He winds it as he goes, the whir-click of the gears inside comforting among the quiet of nature. Somewhere in the distance, something howls. He assumes it’s a dog, but it could be a wolf. Would there be wolves?
He freezes. What could have happened to humanity to have created this world in just four hundred years? Surely there would be something left, some remnant of human life this close to London. The thought plagues him as he walks, consuming him and overtaking his mind. He runs through every disaster movie he has ever seen. The Day After Tomorrow? Too cold. Pompeii? Too much lava. Independence day? Too many aliens, and the world was too quiet. World War Z? Too many zombies. He hoped it wasn’t that.
He’d seen many of these with Adie. He tried not to think about Adie, but then found that he couldn’t not. Adie was of course the reason he was here in the first place. Adie was the reason he’d ever done anything.
His stomach rumbles, but he forces himself to wait. Shelter first, then food. Onwards he treks, his head down to push himself forwards, feeling the ache of his heavy backpack in his shoulders and down his spine. “Come on Evan,” he says, panting with the effort of stepping over so many bricks. Why are there so many bricks?
He looks up. A few steps ahead, there is the beginning of what looks like a road. No, not quite a road. A street, red bricks arranged into a smooth street winding up through rows of squat, concrete houses.
No, not houses, he realises with a start.
He flicks on his torch for his last few steps in the undergrowth, then steps up onto solid ground. It’s grassy and mossy like almost everything else in this godforsaken world, but it’s hard and stable and human. Buildings climb up on either side of him, and now that he bothers to look he can see them stretching out amongst the trees too. There are little alleys that wind between them, branching off the street he stands on to join to others lying beyond. It’s a whole town, the last remnants of society forming the very edge of the city. It’s small, but it feels like some kind of success.
Except for the fact that it’s completely and utterly empty. There are no humans in sight, living or dead, and no evidence of any kind of horror or destruction having been wreaked upon the world. It’s almost like they left voluntarily and all at once, he realises, casting his torchlight between the building on his left and the one on his right.
The darkness is falling thick and fast, like a cool cloak dropping down around him, and the darker it gets, the less he can see. Above him, now that there aren’t any trees in the way, he can see the stars twinkling in the clear night sky. The breeze blowing in from the woodland is cool and damp and bites through his clothes and pinches at his cheeks, and he knows he has to find somewhere to sleep.
He knows he’s on a high street. He knows these shops are most probably empty, and that he’ll have to break into at least one of them to find somewhere to sleep, and that he’ll have to do it soon. He also knows that there is a chance he will find supplies here. Though his heart is set on some kind of weapon (he thinks a knife with a proper handle would be much more effective for hand-to-hand combat than his piece of glass), he decides he’ll be happy with some warmer clothes, or a bed to sleep on, or some fresh water or even better, a can of coke. Or a proper toilet. After two whole days of squatting and peeing in frankly uncomfortable and very exposed places, he figures he’d quite like somewhere appropriate to do his business. Then he decides that above all those things and beyond the luxury of a can of sweet, sugary coke or a private place to take a dump, he’d very much like a hot meal or a fire to warm his hands by, or at least something he could use to make a one.
And so with that, he heads towards the best place he can think of that might be able to satisfy at least some of those needs: the outdoor shop.
He looks into every shop window as he passes, shining his torch through the glass into the darkened area beyond. That is, in those few shops where glass remains. He’s surprisingly happy to learn that at least some of the shops have been broken into at some point in the past, no matter how long ago. It’s enough of a hint to tell him that people couldn’t have just disappeared. There’s no time for rioting if you just vanish off the face of the earth.
The outdoor shop, of course, is one of those with the window already smashed. He steps through the hole where the glass would have once been, casting his torch around the dull, wrecked shop beyond.
There are tent pegs strewn across the carpet, odd walking boots and trainers that nobody has claimed lying scattered beside the display shelves. He steps between them, finding seemingly endless amounts of moth-bitten, damp and mouldy clothes piled up beneath display rails. The camping sets at the back of the store have long been picked at by human vultures, desperation clear in the way they’ve been smashed and scattered among one another. There is a circle of blackened carpet where someone has at one point tried to light a fire, and a vaguely human sized flat and furry shape that could be a giant fluffy slug, but is entirely more likely to be a mouldy, rotting sleeping bag crumpled in the shadows.
He steps between the debris and the detritus, picking through the mess like a parent tip-toeing through their child’s messy bedroom. The torchlight picks out dented flasks and shards of glass, broken thermometers and blades that have snapped in half and bits of paper that have melted away to a pulpy grey-white mush. It doesn’t take him long to sweep the entire store, to pick at the feeble offerings left on the shelves or scattered across the floor: he finds a tent that falls apart and crumbles into dust almost the second he picks it up, a plastic bottle of kerosene which had either been emptied or evaporated over the years, and a warm-looking fleece which at first glance appeared to be black but upon inspection turned out to be thick with heavy and thick with damp. “This thing has its own ecosystem,” Evan gagged, tossing it back to the floor and turning in the darkness, searching for something, anything that would be of some kind of help.
He finds a thin foam mattress and tucks it under his arm. Everything else of any kind of use has already been taken, and he feels the hope he’d had coming into the shop ebbing away into nothing. His foam mattress in one hand and his torch in the other, he steps back out into the street. It’s completely dark by now, the moon shining bright and white overhead while wolves or dogs or worse howl loudly in the distance.
There used to be zoos in England, he realises with a jolt. Suddenly the glass in his pocket feels even smaller and more useless than it did before. How much of a match would it be against a lion or a tiger or elephants running free and wild with no humans left to guard them? Was there time to kill them all before they could escape? Or are they out there somewhere, prowling the trees, reclaiming the nature that was once theirs?
Evan shudders. He walks up the length of the street, stepping through knee-high grass poking up through the gaps between the bricks, his torchlight picking out winding roots and new shoots. The urban jungle grows up around him: some buildings are blackened and charred and burnt out, some half crumbled and collapsed under their own weight and the pressure of time. He wants to keep moving, to keep pressing on through the growing, haunting wilderness, to explore the ghosts of a past he left behind, to find Adie and beg for his forgiveness and move on. The feeling of being watched follows him as he steps carefully through the undergrowth, forcing him onwards through the night until finally he has to stop.
He stands in the middle of a large square. Buildings surround him on all four sides, grass and shrubs and trees growing wide in the middle. The moonlight picks out the remnants of a few concrete fountains mixed among the greenery, grey and solid and constant and overflowing with flowers and moss and branches and soil. There are no animals, and even the distant howling dogs have quietened down in the midst of the night. It’s silent and empty and lonely, and he hates it.
Ignoring the burning sensation of eyes on the back of his neck, he picks a building at random. The window is so far unbroken. He changes that fact in a matter of seconds with an almighty smash, slamming brick after fallen brick into the glass until it shatters into a million tiny, shimmering pieces. He climbs inside.
It’s a charity shop.
The space inside is big and open, the second hand goods lining the walls and hanging sadly from the rails left unwanted even by the looters that had so clearly ravaged the rest of the street. The space in the middle of the shop is filled with bedframes and old sofas, cabinets and bookshelves and mirrors and paintings and children’s toys and mannequins and Christmas cards and junk. Clearly people had other priorities when whatever happened, happened.
He weaves his way through the maze of furniture and stacks of junk towards the back of the shop, where there are more mattresses than he can count stacked up against the back wall. The tops and sides are grey and black with damp, patches of orange rust leaking through the padding from the springs inside. It takes ten minutes of searching in the near darkness, the space lit only by the torch balanced on top of his foam groundsheet, for him to find one that looks at least a little bit okay.
It’s heavier than he thought it would be. There are other mattresses pressing into it from either side, and he has to drop his backpack to the floor and squeeze himself between them to reach the far wall and push the mattress from behind. It’d be much easier if he had someone to help him, and for the first time he was starting to wish that whoever it was that might be following him would show their stupid face and at least help him get a decent night’s sleep.
But of course, that would be asking too much.
He shoves and swears at the mattress until it slides free of the stack and flops to the floor. Sweating and panting, with eyes and lungs full with damp and dust, he falls on top of it.
It’s quiet at the back of the shop, and he’s hidden from the view of the street by the clutter lining the rest of the room. He closes his eyes, trying to motivate himself to get up and grab his torch and hunt for a second way out, just in case, but the day has got the better of him. Second by second, he feels himself begin to drift away, until finally he falls away into sleep.