Next update: September 19th
After a glance around the open field, Ewan and I ran to the yurts. I snagged a couple of plastic bags – he did the same – and we crammed them full of everything we thought would help make the time we had left more bearable. The way we picked our way across the site you might’ve thought we’d coordinated, come up with some sort of military-grade plan to sweep, assess, and secure. Turns out that mortal fear is a great organiser.
With the coast clear, I chanced a few seconds to dig around Mike’s stuff to see if he’d left behind any baccy. No dice, as it turned out. We’d smoked everything there was to smoke that morning. My lighter would have to keep burning a metaphorical hole in my pocket.
With bulging bags and our underarms stuffed with sleeping bags, we returned as quickly as we could. It was a little victory we could wrap ourselves up in for however long we needed to.
Paul and I picked over the spoils as Ewan set about turning the shower room into some sort of den. It was the most sensible place for us to fall back to. With thick stone walls, no windows, and a good distance away from the door, we knew the creature wouldn’t be able to reach far enough to get us. After taking stock, I took a chance and dragged Gerry out to prop him up where the stags had been sitting between the sinks. No one objected. We were beyond that by then.
For good measure, Paul used the bottle opener and whatever else he could find to jimmy off the toilet cubicle doors. With a bit of help, he wedged them across the entrance using the exposed pipework to hold them in place. It was hardly watertight, but it would dissuade any human-variety monsters from getting to us without making a racket. We’d take as much warning as we could get.
By the time we’d finished making home, things felt a little better. Not perfect, but better. Keeping ourselves busy as the night drew in helped distract us from the sense of impending doom even as we kept empty wine bottles within arm’s reach and froze at every benign crack or bird call.
As night fell we settled back into our nest of layered sleeping bags, dense coats and blankets, ate a few handfuls of trail mix and sank a couple of cans. We might’ve convinced ourselves that we were going to be okay as tight, low conversation passed the time. This was all just a part of the adventure. We were three big kids having a sleep-over in some non-specific relative’s barn. It was going to be fun – think of how jealous all the other kids would be.
It must’ve been gone 10pm when I looked over the dim light of Lucy’s failing mobile phone and saw them drifting off. Ewan had propped his head against Paul’s shoulder and little by little the lines on their faces smoothed out into something approaching calm.
More out of idleness brought about by the false sense of security than anything else, I patted at the pockets of the coats I’d draped over myself. It wasn’t by design that I’d wound up with Jo’s closest. Not by my design, anyhow. The smell of her whenever I shifted brought up waves of confusing feelings. They were feelings I really didn’t want to get into, not after the emotional beating I’d taken in the last few hours. Hell, try the last day.
I felt a guilty little thrill as I touched on something hard and rectangular. Thinking it might be a stale packet of cigs or the like, I pulled it out, wincing at the rustle of stiff waterproofs. It was her purse. I set it to one side and continued my search. Other than some old, crumpled wrappers, loose change, and half a service station sandwich that already looked past its use by date there was nothing. Everyone else whose jacket was within arm’s reach had been smart enough to take whatever they thought could be useful.
Not that Jo wasn’t smart, you understand.
I flopped back against the rough wall and watched my breath rise for a few minutes. I chewed my lip, I picked at a hangnail, and fiddled with my mobile briefly in some vain hope that someone, somewhere, had decided to install a mast in this backwater valley in the last hour.
In the end, I opened Jo’s purse and indulged my morbid curiosity. I’d resisted for all of five minutes.
There wasn’t any cash, there were a couple of debit cards, a credit card, and some loyalty cards for coffee shops with names like ‘Café de la Lune’ and ‘Blue’s Blends’ (the ink stamps were in the shape of saxophones. Cute). Mostly there were photographs. There were more photographs in Jo’s purse than I’d ever thought to take in my life. They were jammed into a small pocket that had split along the seams, a life it to burst. A pressed flower made brown with age and something that looked like a piece of confetti fell onto my lap as I leaned forward to pull the pictures free.
I squinted by the light of Lucy’s phone. There were a few older, more battered ones. I didn’t recognise the people in them, but I’d have to guess they were family members. One of them was definitely her mum. There might’ve been an older sister and a younger brother in there too. They all had the same shaped eyes and slight frame. Then there were the photographs of her and Mike. There were a lot of them – more than anything else. The photos showed the two of them kissing or embracing in the most beautiful and faraway locations I could imagine. The colours were almost painful to look at after a day of browns, greens, and greys. And red, of course.
I tried to remember the places she’d mentioned when she’d talked to me about her travels. I mostly remembered her chiding me about my limited palate. That brought a conflicted smile to my icy chapped lips. If we got out of here, I’d book myself on the first flight to India.
Then I came to the photos from our Uni days. I saw faces I’d long forgotten whose names only came to me after long, hard pauses as the memories lumbered up. There was me and Paul looking younger and less jaded. Well, me at least. Paul had aged well. There was Jimmy, and Jo, Mike and – bugger me – Lucy had been there after all. Geordie Georgie, Matt, Sarah, Loz, Eddie, Emma, Adam – the gang was all there. I held back a chuckle. What a blast from the past. What a bunch of idiots. We had no idea what life had in store.
I glanced up as Paul grunted in his sleep, his head rolling back across Ewan’s.
I guess it hadn’t been all bad.
I returned to a photo I’d flipped past. This one was different. It was me and Jo, just the two of us. We had our arms slung over each other’s shoulders and plastic bags tied on our heads like hankies with tents set up behind us. It was obviously raining, there were spots of water on the lens that made the frame fall out of focus. I was grinning at the camera, holding up a can of something indistinct while Jo was looking at me. Her whole self was looking at me.
I felt my heart clench at the sight of her again. She might as well have stepped right out of that photograph two days ago. Only, of course, when I saw her again her whole self was looking at Mike.
When I put my head back this time it was with a thump. I couldn’t take any more than this. I didn’t know why I was doing it to myself. Jo was gone. She’d been gone for me after I’d failed time and time again to give her what she needed. Even friendship. She hadn’t had Paul’s patience to keep chasing me, and I couldn’t blame her. She’d had other things to chase. Other people, too – people who were only too happy to chase her.
I couldn’t remember if there had been a specific moment when I’d realised she was no longer by my side. I’d brushed it off though, just like I brushed everything off. It was too much effort to care. I’d decided that life was simultaneously too short to dwell and too long to discount possibilities. There were always other men and women out there for me to disappoint. I’d had that little blessing going for me. It usually took people a couple of months to realise how much of a git I was when they got over the constant sarcasm and endless, bullshit commentary. ‘It never stops, does it?’ someone once said to me.
In the times I’d remembered Jo since Uni, it had always been with such gorgeous, nostalgia-hued filters. I’d remembered nights spent under starry skies and days spent under blankets in stinking dorm rooms. I remembered the taste of her – cigarettes and scotch – and an ever-present waft of some floral-scented soap. Lavender and white musk. Somewhere along the lines, I’d let myself forget her gradual slipping away towards others. It had reached the point where I’d barely known her any more. All I’d had left was a phantom stitched together from cherry-picked memories. No screaming matches, no sullen silences with pursed lips, and definitely no willful attempts to steer clear of one another even as we sat around the same small campfire. My ghostly goddess of good times picked out by wood sparks and the wrong side of morning.
I let out a deep, pluming sigh. So many missed chances. Although my heart broke over her death, what ached on a deeper level was that I’d never gotten to know her. She’d experienced so much since we’d last been close. And now, I’d never know.
“‘Bye Jo,” I mumbled.
I didn’t cry. Even a couple of cans hadn’t done enough to rehydrate me. I hadn’t pissed for a day. With over-salted peanuts sat on my stomach, my eyes could just about prickle as I shuffled the photos together and put them back into her purse. After a moment of indecision, I took the one of us both and the one of the whole group out and pushed them into my own pocket.
I was convinced that I was going to stay up – I wanted to keep watch as best as I could from that isolated, closed off little room. I didn’t, even with a million strange thoughts and memories coalescing in my head as I recast everything that had gotten me to that point with new, melancholy realism. My body had had enough. I’d gone nearly 24 hours without sleep, with constant draining terror and physical exertion. What I wanted didn’t matter any more. It never really had. My body needed to sleep. I must’ve slipped off.
Ewan woke me with a rough shake of a shoulder. I don’t know how long I’d been sleeping for. It was still dark out. It was dark inside now too. Lucy’s battery had finally died.
“Be quiet,” the shadow of him whispered into my ear. “It’s outside.”
I felt a series of soft thumps down one side of the building. There was less than half a metre of thick stone between us and the creature.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made sense of vague shapes, fighting to remember what the room had looked like before I’d nodded off. It was a moonless night, but the stars were bright enough to highlight the space even through the narrow window slits.
Paul was crouched at the shower room door with his back to us. He was peering around the corner down the short corridor towards his barricade. Ewan squatted between the two of us, one hand hooked on the waist of Paul’s trousers. He was prepared to pull him back at a moment’s notice.
I clenched my jaw as the clacking of the creature’s spines got quieter. It was moving away.
“How long?” I whispered when I was sure it was beyond earshot.
“Minute or two,” he replied. “Heard it at the tents.”
Was it too much to hope that it had investigated where we’d been sleeping and decided we’d gone? Probably. Maybe if we were quiet enough, maybe if we kept being too much trouble to get, it would go. That would be nice.
We listened in silence, holding our breaths whenever we heard it approach and not releasing until we were sure it was leaving. It got to the point where I was sure our breathing and its movement were somehow synchronised, as though we could summon a god on an inhale. Or perhaps it controlled us. Things got fuzzier with each breathless pass. I lost count of how many times it circled the building, seemed to leave, then returned without warning. My head became lighter and lighter.
I knew on some basic, primal level that it was working us up, trying to catch us out. It was testing us.
Just as I’d resigned myself to the cycle, it broke. Our exhales were stolen by the coarse scrape of long claws against the barricade. Ewan’s left him in a tight, helpless little squeak. The sound was curious – experimental, maybe. Then it grew louder and continuous – it was close, close enough to cut into the precious, safe air inside our bunker.
Paul slid back to press against the wall. He was followed by the sound of clumsy big hands fumbling blindly in the stunted corridor of the outhouse and the dull thwack of large claws tapping against concrete. The pipes groaned in metal as the flimsy barricade was pressed. A thump, a snarl, a whip-sharp crack as something broke, and the air was split by the sound of plywood clattering on the floor. The barricade had broken. Just like that.
The air ebbed and pushed with a series of long, loud sniffs and a rumbling, rippling growl. We heard the thunks of antlers clashing with the door. I squeezed my eyes shut. For a moment – just for a sweet, sweet moment – I felt relief. It couldn’t get in. Its stupid fucking head was too big. Its stupid, terrifying, head. I could’ve howled with laughter.
A long, rasping hiss sucked the borderline hilarity out of me as something was pulled away.
‘Gerry,’ Paul mouthed back to us.
I should’ve known the thing would sniff him out. Maybe that would be a good enough distraction. If we stupid, soft humans with our round teeth and fragile skin could smell death, then maybe it was strong enough to drown out our living scents.
We were treated to the choice noises of the thing eating. I’d love to tell you I was used to it by then, but somewhere in among the mad rush of our escape from the stone circle and the emotional hurdles I’d crashed through since then, I’d manage to press the memory down. I’d only just come to terms with myself. I was a long way off reconciling the fragility of the meat sack I cruised about in.
The nauseating crunch of bone and tears of flesh weren’t dulled a bit by our surroundings. The wet slaps of things that shouldn’t really be seen let alone heard bounced around the space, louder and louder until it filled me. The precious calories I’d taken in before napping pushed up against the back of my throat. The smell was somehow so much worse. I buried my face in my hands and tried to fight back the building sickness with better things.
It would eat Gerry. Gerry wouldn’t care – he was long past caring. It would be satisfied. It wouldn’t smell us – not over the stink of torn apart guts and dead blood. It might sniff around a bit more, not hear anything, and fuck off. That would be great. If it could just fuck off and leave us alone, we could make a break for it in daylight. Dawn couldn’t be that far off, surely. How long had we been in there for?
I’d cheerfully try another dash out of the valley if given the chance. I’d do it right now if I thought I stood a hope in hell. I’d run for the village – fuck anyone who tried to get in my way – and I’d grab the closest phone. I’d call the police. I didn’t know what I’d tell them, but it would be something. I’d tell them a bomb had gone off. I’d tell them there had been an accident. I’d tell them I was going to set fire to a pub and they had ten minutes to stop me. I might do that anyway.
I peeked through my fingers as the noises died down. For just a moment, there was silence.
Then from overhead there was the sound of a car crash. Our heads snapped up to the ceiling for the first time.
I haven’t mentioned the roof, have I? Why would I? We were so concerned with the four walls around us that none of us thought to consider how fragile our cover was. Or, maybe one of us did and didn’t say anything. What the fuck could we have done about it?
Laid out over the top of the outhouse were some heavy duty corrugated metal sheets. They were solid enough, sure, probably held down by sturdy brackets or bolts, or maybe both. Enough to hold out against whatever weather might storm through the valley at any rate. Nothing that any normal person could think to mess around with. But we weren’t dealing with a person. Even in the gloom, I was suddenly, acutely aware of how fragile those sheets looked – so thin and flimsy. They might as well have been painted rice paper. I could see where they didn’t quite match the rough tops of the supporting walls – little cracks where starlight glinted through and cobwebs hung lank in the still air. I could see specks of the night sky where rust had eaten through the metal completely and left holes big enough for a finger to fit through.
The air rang with the hard steps of a huge weight moving above us and shaking down loose dirt. I blinked away a clump of something from my eye, smearing it out with the back of a trembling hand. I didn’t look down even as my eyes burned with dust. Stars were blotted out as it paced over us, circling around the small area, assessing the situation. The metal groaned, the air rasped as it teased at the metal with claws as big as my hand. Any second now I expected the roof straight up give way, sending the thing crashing down onto our heads.
A hand scrabbled in the darkness towards mine and I met it. A squeeze was all I really felt – a hard, resigned vice around my fingers as my nerves were pressed into icy tingles.
That was all that was needed. We didn’t need to talk. We didn’t have the luxury of panic any more. I knew, and they knew it. This was it. The end.
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