The day I died, I was in the supermarket.
Becky and I were doing the weekly shop. The twins were in their double buggy, gurgling away as nine-month-old babies do. We were standing by the sauces and talking about mayonnaise, of all things. Funny how you remember the little things. I still can’t remember the colour of my wife’s eyes, but I can remember that we were arguing about mayonnaise.
“I don’t see why you’re so fussed about brands,” I said to her. “Mayo’s mayo.”
“That own-brand crap tastes cheap.”
I couldn’t argue; it tasted cheap because it was cheap. But cheap was good. With Robert and Sarah in our lives, and me being the only breadwinner, as far as I was concerned we could do with a few more own-brand products.
“Becky, it’s not as if –”
I gasped as a hot spike of pain shot up my spine and stabbed itself into my head. It was like a poker had been thrust into my brain. My hand shot to the base of my neck, to feel what had happened, but there was nothing there.
“Babe?” Becky asked, her face screwed up with concern. “What’s wrong?”
My eyes rolled up in my head and I died, right there in the supermarket.
Atheists argue that, when you die, you die. Nothing more, nothing less. I’d never really given it much though, truth be told; I was only 32, I had a lot of time to worry about what happened next. But if I died and the atheists were right, then I wouldn’t need to worry, am I right?
Well, I suppose I didn’t need to worry; life after death happened to me whether I like it or not. But it’s not an afterlife like all those godbotherers want you to believe; there’s no heaven, and the hell was right here on Earth. There was an eight hour gap between my death and my … I don’t know want to call it. Some morons called it a rebirth, but I felt just the same as before, so I don’t think I’ll use that one. I woke up eight hours after I died, and I was right back on Earth – although I didn’t quite realise it at first.
It was pitch black and I was lying on my back. I reached out a hand and touched cold metal almost right in front of my face. I felt a surge of panic rise up inside me and threaten to vomit out the contents of my stomach, but I managed to get that first response under control. I needed to think.
I could hear the muffled voices of two people outside. My fists clenched as a surge of irrational anger flooded my body, tensing every muscle. I was stuck in this stupid, sodding box whilst they had their freedom.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Can anyone hear me? You’ve made a mistake, I’m still alive!”
The voices fell silent, and I ground my teeth. I hardly ever got angry – well, I hadn’t done before. I was quite laid-back. This surge of anger was a new feeling for me. It felt … I smiled. My heart pounded with pleasure. It felt good to be this angry.
My left foot smashed against the door. It ploughed through the hard, cold metal like paper and I instantly felt the warmth of the room beyond. As I slid myself out, it looked like the morgues I’d seen on TV shows; blank and clinical, with a couple of tables and collections of instruments dotted around the room. A couple of women were staring at me, their faces blank with shock. I grinned. I felt invincible. I felt hungry, too, and my body instinctively reacted.
My teeth plunged into the woman’s neck and ripped away a chunk of flesh. I barely registered her cry of pain as I felt blood splatter across my face and down my throat. I felt alive. The flesh satiated my hunger, at least in that moment. For that brief, pleasurable instant, I was whole.
I watched the woman’s body drop; she was already dead. That was good; that was easier. The hunger gnawed away at me. I didn’t want to chase my food. I wanted to consume. I knelt down and fed.
Suddenly, I was conscious again. I was me.
Three corpses were sprawled across the floor, ripped to shreds. Limbs were torn from torsos and heads from necks. Two of the corpses were the women I had seen when I punched through the door; they must have been doctors, judging by the white coats. The third person – a man – had some sort of uniform on; a security guard, perhaps.
Is it bad that I wasn’t upset by the sight? In the moment, I didn’t think it was bad; now, I’m not so sure. All it was doing was making me hungry again. I drooled at the sight of the red, coagulating blood and its rich, copper smell. It made me hungry for more.
A moment of self-awareness washed over me as I pulled my gaze away from the beautiful colour swimming on the ground. Where was this craving coming from? I needed to think. I pushed myself off the wall and walked over to the doors leading out of the morgue. They didn’t open. I slammed the doors with my fists, and they folded open without any resistance.
I stared at them. Perhaps they were faulty. Gingerly, I reached out and touched a piece of the door. It felt like metal – cold and smooth – and looked like metal.
Metal it is then, I thought. So how did I manage to punch through it?
I sure as hell wasn’t going to find out by standing there, staring vacantly like some sort of idiot. I forced the doors apart some more, to make a wide enough entry for me to pass through, and stepped into the corridor. I was alone, when I desperately wanted someone to tell me that it was going to be alright.
I chose the right-hand bend of the corridor almost at random and began walking. I peered into every room I found, but everywhere was empty. This was what a proper ghost town looked like, and I felt sick againl; what if I was the only one left? What if everyone else had been incinerated in some apocalypse, and only I had survived because I was in that cold metal tube?
I was talking out of my backside, of course; I had feasted upon the still-warm bodies of three people not ten minutes ago, and now here I was thinking I had become the last example of human-kind. I really could be dense sometimes.
I came across a laundry cupboard, its contents spilling out over the floor. Seeing pyjamas amongst the piles of sheets made me realise that I was naked; I’d been too busy filling my face to realise that I didn’t have a stitch on. I usually got really embarrassed about things like that – I wouldn’t even take my shirt off in the height of summer down on the beach – but today I just laughed; nothing could bother me, not any more. I felt invincible.
I decided to get dressed; if I was going to go outside, I’d need to stay warm – if that wasn’t a factor, I probably wouldn’t even bother. I rooted around in the piles of clean sheets and clothes, found enough that would fit, then pulled it all on as I walked over to the lift and pressed the call button. The doors opened immediately, and I was about to enter when –
Without warning, I was on my back. My shoulder blades slammed into the tiled floor and I cried out in pain. I tried to move, but I was pinned down. All I could see was a snarling face bearing down over my own. I was battered by my attacker’s hands, hitting me across the face and torso, and I roared with anger and frustration that I had been caught by surprise.
I managed to get my own hands around this person’s throat, to stop them getting any closer; I suspected, even in that moment of horror, that I’d have been bitten if I hadn’t acted quickly.
I couldn’t gain the edge, however. This creature was as strong as me. I thought back to the morgue and how I had managed to destroy the doors without any apparent effort.
My god, they’re like me! I thought with sudden exhilaration.
“Stop!” I yelled. “I’m one of you!”
The attack suddenly stopped – and the face changed, became calmer. It was in that instant I realised that my attacker, despite the boyish haircut, was female.
She was shorter than me a foot and slimmer, and looked quite attractive now that she wasn’t trying to attack me. I pushed myself up as she climbed off me.
“Sorry about that,” she said, like we had just done nothing more than bump into each other at the supermarket. “I didn’t realise.”
Despite her aggression a minute ago, I knew – somehow – that I could trust her, and she seemed to think the same of me. The rage, the anger in her face; it had been total and awesome, and I found myself wondering if I looked like that to the people back in the mortuary. The thought excited me.
“Do you know what’s happening?” I asked.
“Not a clue, my friend.” She smiled. “No-one knows why it happened.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why what happened?”
“Why we all died, of course. Where have you been?”
“You’re dead?” I asked.
She nodded. “We both are.”
I’d needed some fresh air, so we went and stood in the car park. The bracing November air whipped around our bodies, but I didn’t care.
“You’re dead,” Alex was saying, as I tuned back in; I had been watching the skyline for a minute. “You’re also stronger, fitter and more self-assured than you were before.”
“Stronger,” I muttered. “Yeah, I’ve already encountered that. It felt…. good.”
“We’re beyond human now.”
As soon as Alex said the word human, I tensed. My eyes darted around the silent car park, checking for invaders.
“All the emotions that clogged up your thinking are gone,” Alex said. “We’re free. We’re the superior ones. We don’t need humanity to survive. Can’t you feel that desire to just rip them all to shreds? They deserve to die.”
I was silent for a long while. My re-awakening had been slowed by the morgue; the cold had delayed my recovery, so everyone else had been active longer than me. It didn’t matter. I was awake now, and I was better than before.
“My wife,” I said. “My children. Where are they?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “They’re probably still human. I’m sure they would have come looking for you if they’d have turned. They’re the enemy now.”
Maybe that should have hurt, the thought that I would never see my family again – my wife and my two children. But it didn’t hurt. I didn’t even bat an eyelid at the thought. My new friend was right. We were better than humanity now. I could feel my strength magnified a hundred times over, and my thoughts were clearer. Humanity were my prey and my food. I embraced the rush and smiled; I was reborn.
Alex and I remained together for the next four months, a pack-hunting duo. Some of our prey – a small minority – put up a good fight, but most cowered. They were nothing more than sheep running from wolves, and all lost. We were a good team.
One day, we tracked a herd of cowering humans to their hiding place; a barn. The landscape was open and clear; there wasn’t anywhere else to hide, so they had been driven here by necessity. Pathetic; last remnants of humanity in the area cowering behind a few wooden slats.
I need to feed, and a couple of barred doors won’t stop me.
We climbed the side of the building silently and quickly; our reflexes having been expanded along with our strength. It was easy to find tiny hand-holds along the wooden slats of the building. We were quickly on the roof and stood over the skylight.
She looked at me. “Ready?”
I licked my lips. My stomach rumbled. The thought of their blood and flesh filling me up excited me.
“Do you even have to ask?”
She and I kicked in the skylight. I immediately heard screams from below; they had forgotten all about the skylight.
I jumped and landed on the muddy ground. Thirty or so humans – cattle – were cowering at one end of the long barn. Oh yes, I was going to feast here.
One of the older men charged forward with a scythe of all things, ready to attack. I deftly stepped to one side and pushed him to the ground. His arms – and the weapon – flailed out as he fell. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my friend drop through the skylight and land on the ground. She didn’t get up again.
The man had a look of stunned surprise on his face. His scythe had a film of blood covering it. It wasn’t until I looked more closely that I realised what had happened. My friend had dropped through the skylight just as the old man had started falling – and the curve of his scythe had cut her head clean off. She was gone. Just like that.
I blinked. My mind went blank. She had been my ally, my sidekick, for the past four months. We had fought, killed, and feasted together. We were the undead – we weren’t meant to die again. We were meant to live forever.
I turned back to the man, still lying on the floor. I could feel my face contort into rage and anger, reflecting the emotions lurching around the pit of my stomach. He crawled away from me as I lunged for him. I missed his leg by an inch and I stepped forward to try again when –
I looked over my shoulder. A woman, in her twenties, called out to me. She didn’t look scared; she looked determined.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” she said.
“You wouldn’t want to fight me, little girl,” I growled. “I will feast on your liver for breakfast.” A grin formed on my lips. “Wait your turn.”
The woman took a step forwards. “I think it’s your turn now.”
I looked behind her; I could feel a shared determination from the food-humans, and the frightened sheep were now shoulder to shoulder. They had seen one of the undead die again and stay dead, and now their attention had turned entirely to me.
I couldn’t fight off thirty humans determined to hurt me – not all at once when they were so unafraid. For the first time in my death, I had to run. I had to leave fresh meat behind and get out of there. I climbed up the wall and pulled myself through the skylight. While they were still pulling the furniture away from the doors, I was already deep into the trees.
Two days passed. I hid deep in the forests; the Scottish Highlands had plenty of them. I hadn’t paid much attention to where I was before now, but the road signs told me how far I had travelled. Occasionally, I would come across a solitary human. I ate them. I savoured their taste and chewed through their flesh bit by bit, keeping my hunger at bay.
I then saw a black helicopter flying overhead. I watched it circle round for a moment and then release a cloud of dirty-coloured gas from pumps in its tail end.
I can’t escape it, I realised. Even if I run, I’ll still breathe it in. Damn. This is how I’m going to die.
Calmly, I sat down on the ground, leaned against a mighty oak tree – and closed my eyes. If I was going to die, I was going to die with dignity.
The Apocalypse ended that day.
I only know some of the story, because I came across a newspaper – I hadn’t read one of them in months, there hadn’t been much need – and read about a group of scientists, working under heavily armed guard somewhere in Kent, who had found the genetic marker behind my death and rebirth. Their vaccine mitigated its effects; it removed our hunger and gave us back our emotions.
It was a cruel vaccine. I wish it had killed me outright. Instead, I lived. I lived and could feel again – feel fear for my family. Where were Becky and the twins? Were they still human? Were they alive?
I hadn’t thought about them in months; I hadn’t had any need to, after all. I had loved my new world, driven on by my hunger.
Now that it had gone, I remembered what my life had been life before my death. I had loved my family, and I wanted them back. I wanted to kiss my kids goodnight and argue about mayonnaise with Becky.
I wanted normality. So I headed home. I stood up and walked to Dover.
I lost track of time.
It must have been months – it could have been longer than that, for all I know – but I knew I’d been walking for a long time. Eventually, the scenery became more familiar and I began remembering portions of my old life. Driving out to my parents’ house, out here somewhere in the suburbs, or going to the out-of-town shopping centre … or just going out for a drive with Becky, back when we were dating.
I’m nearly home, I realised. I’m so close.
I was startled out of my reverie by a cheerful voice from behind me. I checked that my hood was still in place – it was – and turned round. A middle-aged man was walking across the green; a Jack Russell was on a lead at his feet. The dog looked desperate for its freedom. I knew how it felt. The man knelt down and fiddled with the leash.
“E-evening,” I replied. I couldn’t bear to be discovered, so I turned to go.
“Are you new to the village?” the man asked.
“Erm, no, I’m … just a visitor,” I replied before my brain caught up. “I’m just passing through.”
In the rapidly-fading dusk light, I could see the man nod. He walked towards me, and my stomach did a back flip. Quickly adjusting my hood, so that it covered as much of my face as possible, I took a step back and looked down.
“A lot of people do,” the man said. “Visit, I mean. It’s a nice little village – always has been, despite the recent problems.”
Oh god, he knows, I thought.
The man stopped right by me and looked for his dog over the green.
“I can’t see Henry,” he said, peering into the gloom. “Can you?”
I shook my head. I didn’t trust my voice not to quaver with fear.
“It was a terrible time, wasn’t it?” he said. “All those dead people, hunting and killing everyone. We lost more than we should have.”
“Did you lose anyone?”
“Did you lose anyone?” he repeated.
“My wife and two children,” I said. It was a half-lie, but far better than the truth.
“I lost my brother and his wife,” he replied. “They were butchered, just over there by the post office. I didn’t see it happen, thankfully.”
I glanced towards where he was pointing, then quickly looked away. I heard the Jack Russell barking in the distance. The man stuck out a hand.
“Samuel Hiller,” he said. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr …?”
I felt another surge of panic; the second I put my hand in his, he would know what I was. The clamminess of my skin and the missing fingers were giveaways.
I just want my family back, I thought. Please don’t do this to me!
I was saved by Henry. He came bounding back across the green, still full of energy and excitement. Both Samuel and I looked round; the dog appeared from the gloom and barrelled into my legs. He immediately righted himself and began weaving between us.
I laughed at this little dog, full of energy, obviously happy to be back near his owner. I reached out to stroke him. As soon as I touched him, however, he yelped in shock and jumped back, quickly moving behind Samuel’s legs.
“Henry?” Samuel said. “What’s wrong with you, you silly boy?”
He knelt down and grabbed hold of Henry, stroking him to stop the little dog from shaking. Samuel looked up at me and smiled.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “I don’t know what’s got into him. He’s never normally like –”
I instantly knew why he had stopped. Knelt down there opposite Samuel, my hands were visible. Pale white with occasional purple patches showed up even in the darkness of the evening. The ring and little fingers on my right hand were also gone.
Henry the dog, emboldened by being in his owner’s arms, started to growl; his teeth bared and his eyes wild.
“You’re an abomination,” Samuel said. “You don’t belong here.”
“I don’t belong anywhere!” I replied. “I’m scared and I just want to go home.”
“You don’t have a home – except in a cemetery. You belong in hell.”
“Please don’t tell anyone!” I said. “Please, let me leave. I don’t mean you any harm. I just want to find my family.”
“Why shouldn’t I call for the authorities?” Samuel asked. “You deserve to be exterminated.”
I flinched at the word exterminated; it sounded so harsh and final.
“Please. Please, let me go. I’m heading for Dover to find my family. I don’t want to hurt anyone. The cure saved me of all that hate.”
Samuel paused. “Dover?” he repeated. “You’re going to Dover?”
I nodded. “That’s where I used to live. I’m looking for my family.”
Samuel blinked. He hugged Henry close to his chest.
“You … you haven’t heard?” he asked me. There was a quaver in his voice. His fear seemed momentarily forgotten.
“What haven’t I heard? I don’t really keep up with the news!”
Samuel took a step back, his fear showing again.
“Look, I’m sorry,” I said, holding my hands up in a sign of surrender. My voice wobbled with emotion as I went on; “I’m just tired. I want to see my family again.”
“I don’t think you’ll find them,” Samuel said quietly. He glanced away, suddenly unable to look me in the eye.
“What do you mean?” I felt sick as I waited for Samuel to just tell me. I needed to know. “Please tell me, Samuel. What’s happened?”
Samuel glanced down at Henry for reassurance. The dog had stopped growling for the moment, as if it had somehow picked up on my desperation. Samuel looked back at me.
“Dover was hit badly by the virus,” he said. “Over two-thirds of the population were turned. A lot moved out. To find fresh meat elsewhere, I assume. But a lot stayed.”
“I know,” I whispered. “I was one of those that left.”
“The government couldn’t control them all,” Samuel went on. “The army were overwhelmed; there were just too many of them. So they scorched the town.”
My knees buckled and I fell to the ground. The earth and grass were hard, but I didn’t care. I tried to process what Samuel had said, but I couldn’t. “No … they can’t … my family …”
Samuel’s eyes had filled with tears. He nodded
“No one survived,” he said softly. “Anyone trying to leave the town’s boundaries was shot on site. They couldn’t tell who was who. I’m so sorry.”
I barely heard what Samuel was saying. All I could see, in front of my eyes, were my beautiful children screaming as the flames consumed them, held by my burning wife. My reason for living had gone.
I wanted to die. But I was already dead. I had a half-life, and I wanted it to end. I looked at Samuel.
“Kill me,” I begged. “Burn me. Let me die and be with my family.”