He wakes abruptly in the doorway, blinking into the darkness. Hundreds of pairs of glowing eyes blink back at him, insects and lizards and mammals slinking through the trees and glittering in the undergrowth. They don’t bother him, not at first, but slowly he gets the sense that there is something else out there.
He moves slowly and silently, tucking his cold feet back towards him and into the bunker but not moving his gaze from the black forest beyond. The hairs on his arms prickle in the cold, his spine crawling as though a million ants have worked their way beneath his skin to run across his bones. He’s sure of it now, confident that he’s being watched, sure that if he dares move his gaze from the trees that whatever or whoever it is will pounce on him and pin him down.
The blinking eyes slowly vanish, their owners either scuttling back into the depths of the woodland or curling up to sleep amongst the tangled branches, but still he refuses to move. Instead he fumbles behind him, his fingers curling around an old, crumbling brick. He doubted it would do much damage, but he hoped it would at least confuse his attacker long enough to buy him some time.
But the attack he is waiting for never comes. As the silence of the night draws on, he builds the confidence to feel his way over to the shelves to grab a wind-up torch from one of the boxes of supplies, cursing himself for not thinking to grab one while he still had daylight to navigate by. The first one he tries is broken, the handle snapping off in his hand the moment he attempts to turn it. He has more success with the second one, winding it slowly at first but then faster, until the tiny white-blue bulb begins to flare to life.
The light is little more than a dim glow, penetrating the darkness no more than a metre before petering out into nothing. It catches at the glittering shards of glass at his feet and hints at the edge of the tank to his left, then at the corner of the orange, rust-coated door and the mottled, mossy square of stone beyond. He stands in the doorway, his torch in one hand and his brick in the other, casting the light towards the trees. Beyond his little circle of light, he sees nothing.
But the feeling is still there.
He flicks the light off and pushes the door gently shut, dropping the brick to the ground and sitting down next to it, the strap of the torch dangling from his wrist. His eyes drift closed, tiredness oozing through him, and yet he finds he cannot sleep. His heart thunders away in his chest, his blood liquid electric thrumming through his veins. There is someone out there, waiting for him. The feeling is there in his chest, an unrelenting cold dread like a stone sitting heavy beneath his ribs. It’s a feeling of fear, a twisting paranoia that wells up within him and refuses to retreat.
He grips the torch in his lap, rocking gently in the dark, his mind whirring and jumping back and to between various plans. Should he stay and fight? Should he wait them out? Or should he run?
The sky outside slowly turns from black to deep blue, then lightens through purple, red and pink into yet another golden sunrise. He sits, exhausted, his head lolling forwards onto his chest and then snapping up again to press against the cool rust of the door behind him. Only the rumbling of his stomach is enough to draw him to his feet, his faint and dizzy head just enough persuasion to pull him from his sentry over to the rickety shelves. He scrambles for food, ripping open a packet of something powdery and sweet and tipping it onto his tongue. He chases it down with more stale water, dropping the empty bottle onto the floor and kicking it away from him.
He needs to leave.
Working quickly, he rummages through the shelves, piling water and food and clothes into the middle of the floor. He finds a huge rucksack, almost half his height, and casts it aside. Good for survival. Not so great for running.
He finally finds something smaller, something similar to what he might have used for school, and falls to his knees. His clothes go in first, two sets of t-shirts, underwear and trousers rolled up and held together with pairs of socks. He pours half-full bottles of water together and stacks a couple of full ones next to a mound of dried fruit and meat. Then he tosses the first aid kit and his torch onto the top, zips the bag closed and hauls it onto his back. It’s heavy, but he doesn’t have a choice. He knows there must be water outside somewhere, and food that he could scavenge for, but there’s too much he doesn’t know. Lastly he grabs a sleeping bag from the bottom shelf, one that looks heavy duty and waterproof and warm, and loops the strings on the duffel bag around his backpack to keep them together.
Unease curls within him, coiling like a serpent resting heavy and cool in his gut. He doesn’t even know if there’s anyone else out there.
Because if there was, surely there would have been someone here to greet him when he woke up? Surely they’d have maintained the supplies and kept them as fresh as they could? He thinks of the body lying still and half turned to dust a couple of tanks over. If there were still people who cared, they wouldn’t have died there?
But then there was the matter of the something- or someone- waiting for him outside.
He steps back over to his tank and scoops one of the largest pieces of glass from the floor, testing its point against the tip of his finger. A tiny scarlet drop oozes down the end, forming a fresh red stain over the top of the old rust-brown stain smudging the glass. He tucks it into the pocket of his trousers.
The weight of it is comforting, the cool glass slapping against his thigh as he walks back over to the shelves. He pulls a pair of socks over his dusty feet, wiggling his toes inside the sudden warmth and scrambling through the detritus until he finds a pair of shoes that will fit, internally cursing whoever woke up before him and messed it all up.
Then he stands by the door, a jacket zipped up to his chin and a waterproof tied around his waist. His back aches already under the weight of his backpack, the glass in his pocket pressing dangerously against his thigh. He ducks down, taking his trusty brick in hand, then swings the door open.
Outside, the forest is just as he expected it to be. The mossy stone beyond the door is exactly the same as it had been the day before, the great twisting branches swaying and bowing in the wind. He stands with one foot on the edge of the step outside, his eyes rolling slowly over the undergrowth, every muscle in his body ready to strike at even the smallest hint of movement.
But there’s nobody there. Of course there isn’t.
He takes another step out of the bunker, pulling the door gently shut behind him. The air is cold and earthy and fresh in his lungs, scents of animals and pine curling through it and tickling at his senses. The sun shines high and bright above him, barely penetrating through the patchwork of leaves shimmering and fluttering like butterfly wings dangling from the network of black branches crisscrossing the sky. The heat is there too, wearing at the very edge of the shaded clearing and tingling at his bare scalp. He runs his hands over the pale skin, the brush of sunlight just enough to remind him that he had ever had hair there in the first place.
He stands there for a few moments more, one hand gently resting on the edge of the glass in his pocket and the other on the top of his head. Which way?
You came here with a promise. It’s time to stick to it.
He turns back to the bunker and clambers up the tiger-striped stairs, wincing at each creaking footstep until he tumbles onto the flat roof stretching away at the top. He passes the narrow windows halfway up the grey concrete tower, and above them, a rusted and dented door hanging off its hinges into a darkness beyond that he doesn’t dare venture into.
The flat roof stretches from tree to tree, the narrow clearing all around almost like a moat surrounding his fortress. Shards of shattered solar panels glitter among the moss and grass growing atop the roof, branches and twigs curling like claws reaching up towards the sky from amongst the sun-bleached greenery. The few unbroken panels are mostly covered by crispy fallen leaves and soil from past winters, and the far edge of the building is adorned with the rusty, disused generators sitting silent sentry and looking out over the forest. Beyond these generators, stretching tall and grey above the trees, rises the city.
He drops his bag on the ground and clambers up the side of one of the generators, using the curling metal pipes as footholds to heave himself up. It gives him the little bit of extra height he needs to see over most of the trees, and there he stands, gazing out at the infinite forest stretching towards the horizon. After a point, the trees stop being trees and become a moss-green and viridian blur stretching from one edge of the world to the other, interrupted only by the sprawling, reaching expanse of the grey city in front of him.
It would probably only be about an hour away, if he could drive. If he had a car. If there were roads.
He sighs. How long would it take for him to walk there? What would he find when he did? The skyline looks different even from here, huge gaps marking where iconic skyscrapers once towered up amongst the clouds, and there are new buildings too, ones built after his time that stand either half-finished or half-destroyed, skeletal and black against the distant blue sky.
He drops back to the roof and heaves his bag back onto his shoulders. His back already aches from the weight of it, his feet pinching in all the places he knows will be blistered and raw within an hour. The easy option would be to crawl back inside the bunker and wait there to die, but he knows it isn’t really an option, not really. He didn’t come here to curl up and die. He came here for a reason.
The sun is high in the sky by now, time hovering on the wrong side of midday. He thinks about all the eyes blinking at him through the darkness the night before, the inescapable and penetrating feeling of being watched. “Better start walking,” he says, stepping back onto the rusted, creaking stairs. They bend under his weight, the bolts pulling away from the concrete as he takes the stairs two at a time. He gets as far as the doorway halfway down, and is just considering exploring inside (definitely not just to procrastinate the seemingly infinite trek into London), when with an almighty crash, they fall.