He tried to open the door, so I shot him. He staggered back, falling off of the ladder, his face frozen in horror, staring up at me, still and silent.
I was alone.
The scarlet stain spread across his once clean, white shirt, pooling on the floor around his body.
He was dead. Nothing could come in, and nothing could go out. That’s what he had always said.
It’s been three days since the bombs dropped. It felt like it wasn’t happening, like a dream. Dad grabbed my wrist, pulling me down to the garden with a cry of panic. It was just the two of us. I was all he had. He told me so as he finished bolting the shelter door, leaning against it with tears in his eyes.
I was all he had. My Mum was long dead, and they’d never had any other kids. Dad didn’t get out much. He just stayed home when he finished work, watching the news and talking to… her. I used to try and get him out to meet people, normal people, but he just wasn’t the type, and so, it was just me. I was all he had, apart from… them. I always did my bit, helping around the house and trying to keep Dad in good spirits, but it had been difficult.
We lived next door to this family of weirdos. I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s what they were. I suppose it doesn’t matter what I say. The world is… or has ended, and I’m just recording all this, knowing that there is probably nobody out there.
The Campbell’s were weird. Mary was the weirdest, a paranoid, obsessive old woman with all these silly ideas about the end of the world. I know it seems dumb to dismiss her, given my current situation, and also all the things we had lived through, but things seemed to be slowly getting back to normal, so… I did.
They moved in a few months back, and while my Dad wasn’t in a good place before they showed up, they definitely made things worse. He was still struggling with how we lost Mum, and he was vulnerable, so that Mary started filling his head with ideas, and before I knew it, he was helping her equally weird son in law and grandson to build a bomb shelter in our garden. The agreement was that we would share it, and I think they would have let us in too, if they’d have made it to the shelter.
We were so far underground, buried beneath tons of metal and earth, but we could hear it.
The end of the world, again.
I suppose all the fuss that led up to it had passed me by. There’s always bad news, isn’t there? Someone’s at war with someone. Someone else starts another war. On and on.
Dad would watch the news intently every night, hushing me as the day’s comings and goings were read out by a stony faced, stoic broadcaster. He’d been preparing for months now, ever since Mary got her claws into him. I thought that she was trying it on with him, looking for a toy boy or something, but no, she just wanted to spread her contagious paranoia
I know I sound flippant, especially as she turned out to be right, but this is a bad world. Nothing has been right since… the event. I see that now. You know… The virus. Not Covid, but the OTHER virus. The unbelievable one. The one from the movies. The one from our nightmares.
Nobody saw zombies coming, I suppose, and I guess in comparison, nuclear war seems a little tame, but it had been a few years since the grey death, and the world had become complacent again. Except my Dad, and our batshit neighbours, obviously.
He was never really the same after the zombies. Most people weren’t, they just pretended.
Maybe that was how Mary and her family got my Dad so quickly. All he had left was me, and the memory of what he’d had to do to my Mum all those years ago. He was a broken man.
Mary was broken too. She had the remains of her weird little family, but she had lost a lot when the zombies came. Her only daughter was killed, and her daughter in law. She still had her son in law and her grandson, as well as her son Martin, but none of them could really cope with it. They just kept going, tripping and falling into this constant cycle of worry. It was the only real reason they seemed to have to get out of bed.
I used to think Mary was the weirdest, but then I met Martin.
Martin was insane. There is no other way to say it, I’m sorry. He wasn’t around at first. He’d quit his job in the health service and moved across the country to clear his head. Mary would get letters and calls from him sometimes, but he never visited. His wife Ella had died when the virus came, torn to pieces. He never really got over it, I suppose.
He came back about a month ago, banging on about some man with a pumpkin at the cinema. He started talking about these bad dreams and visions, pointing wildly behind him at this alleged man, as if we could see him. He’d obviously gone crackers.
Mary dragged him into the house and managed to keep him calm for a few hours, but in the middle of the night, he just ran out into the street, screaming and shouting as she chased after him. Absolute weirdos, as I said.
He got away. Running off into the night, never to be seen by his Mother again. She just howled, reaching out into the night’s sky as she sobbed. Her son in law came out and persuaded her to come back in, but there was something in her that broke that day.
It was a few days, and then the police came around saying that there had been no sign of him, and that they’d start looking for a body. It seemed quick, but these days, the police don’t have much time for missing people, because everything is just… chaotic. Part of me wishes I’d paid more attention to everything, but I don’t think being as worried as all the adults would have done me much good. That news tipped Mary over the edge, I suppose. She’d lost both of her kids, and all she had left was a son in law she’d never really liked and a grandson that constantly reminded her of the daughter she’d lost.
We found her in the bunker.
Dad sent me back up to the house while he cleaned things up and buried her, and after that, he became obsessed with drills and practising for the next time that the world would end. Mary’s son in law, and her grandson Jude went back to Scotland, and we never heard from them again, so it was just me and Dad on our own.
We didn’t know what was coming but Dad wanted us to be prepared for everything, so every day after school we’d run drills. He pulled me out of school a few weeks ago. He just didn’t want me out of his sight. I suppose it doesn’t matter now. There’s nothing left.
When the bombs hit, we didn’t say a word. We could hear them, faintly, and Dad just stared at me. I stared back. Our gaze remained unbroken as the world fell into silence.
We just stood still for a few moments. It was like everything stopped. Dad reached for my hand as the walls began to shudder. We settled on the sofa, staring around at the small living space and waiting. It wasn’t much, but it would be enough to sustain us. There were several beds, a shelf of books and games, a camping stove surrounded by shelves of foods, and the bathroom.
It sounds stupid, but at that moment, I suddenly began to panic at the idea of going to the toilet. There was a door between the bathroom and the rest of the shelter, so I’d have my privacy, but it was a small bunker, and I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I began glancing around the small shelter, a new privacy induced panic popping into my head every second
Dad snapped me out of it, asking what I wanted for dinner. We both froze for a moment before breaking out into nervous laughter. This was to be our life. Hiding from the outside world, a broken Father and his equally broken but oblivious daughter, playing scrabble and eating freeze dried meals, tinned nonsense and caramel digestives until it was safe to go back outside.
At first, it wasn’t too bad. We had dinner, had a very lively game of monopoly, but then, Dad broke down. He could barely speak for the first few seconds, his breath, hurried and hysterical as the tears fell and he clung to me. It was Mum. She was long dead, of course, as I said, but Dad and I had planted a tree for her in our garden, and he used to sit by it every evening, for hours sometimes.
It was just a tree, but it meant the world to him, and as the dust outside began to settle, and the reality of what had happened began to hit him, he lost control. Tearing up the ladder and towards the door, he was sobbing and screaming her name. I pulled him down, collapsing to the hard ground with him as he struggled.
He just lay there beside me, crying so hard that he shook, and all I could do was wait for it to be over.
The next day was easier. Dad began to adjust, and I felt a little less weight on my shoulders. My life had changed so much in the fourteen years I’d been alive, and since we’d lost Mum, I’d been hurtling into adulthood, as hard as I’d tried to resist. Dad had noticed, but he’d been drowning for so long that it had been hard for him to do anything about it.
We had a good breakfast (or as good as you can have underground), kept ourselves amused throughout the day, broken up by more meals and small talk. It was boring, but it was safe, so I didn’t mind too much. As we settled down to bed later that day, I tried to stay positive, but within minutes of waking up a few hours later, I had no doubt that the bombs would be the least of our problems.
Dad wasn’t in his bed. The shelter was shrouded in darkness, and as I climbed out of my bed and shone my torch around the bunker, I saw him over at the ladder, the periscope gripped tightly in his hands. I called out to him, but he wouldn’t say a word, just staring into the periscope in silence.
I managed to get him down and back to bed, when he finally spoke.
It was Mum. That’s what he said. He seemed so sure, so lucid, but it made no sense. She was dead, at his own hand too, her head caved in and splattered across the pavement. He’d seen it, and so had I, but as he sat on the bed, with a smile, he seemed so sure that she was outside.
I tried to convince him that it was just a dream, but the more I tried, the more upset he became. He started trying to get to the door again, pushing me back and running for the ladder. I chased after him, tackling him to the ground. I held him down, pleading with him to stay away from the door, and after promising that we’d check the periscope together, he calmed down again.
Even though I knew he couldn’t be right, I felt anxious as he leaned to the side and motioned for me to join him on the ladder. My heart was pounding, my mind racing as I wondered, for a split second if he was right.
What if my Mother waited on the other side of the door. Could I see her again? I had tried to forget the last time, remembering her as she was years before, but every now and again, I’d see her in her final moments, lurching at us with a rabid, ripped up face before clattering to the pavement, my father’s shoes lost in the blood and brains she left behind.
There was nothing. Just rubble, dust in the air and silence. We watched the empty night for a minute or two before I managed to coax him down and back to bed. I watched him from my bunk, waiting for him to fall asleep, and as he drifted off, my eyes felt heavy too, and before I knew it, I was asleep.
I don’t know what time it was, but there was loud banging as I awoke. I thought it was more bombs. I scrambled for the torch, my heart racing, the noise constant but clearer as I woke up a little more. Dad was sat up in bed, shaking and staring over at the ladder, a frantic knock repeating again and again from the other side.
Dad was white as a sheet, his hand weak as it clutched mine. I pushed it away, striding towards the door, grabbing Mary’s gun from the top of the shelf as I passed. He called out to me, begging me to be careful, and I nodded, slowly climbing the ladder and grabbing the periscope.
I slipped in shock as my eyes adjusted, grabbing onto the ladder to steady myself as I tried to focus, so sure that my eyes were playing tricks on me.
It was Martin. He was panicked, banging his fists against the door, his screams silent and his skin, scorched by radiation. I felt along the wall for the intercom switch, pushing it and jumping in shock as his shouting flooded the shelter.
“Mum! Let me in!” I watched him battering the cool metal of the door with burned, balled up fists, his face, covered in deep sores that leaked down onto the ground before him.
I turned the intercom off. It had only been a few days since the bomb, and I didn’t know if the radiation would still hurt us. It didn’t do Martin any good, obviously. I know how selfish I am, but I had to be the adult. My Dad was a mess. He had been for years, if I was honest, and so I had to protect him.
He asked who the voice was, what the banging was, but I just told him it was all a dream. He wanted to believe me, I think. It was all too much for him. He lay back in bed, nodding as I lied, closing his eyes as I tucked him in, our roles reversed.
The noises outside stopped, and as I watched my Father fall asleep, I thought about Martin. He had nobody. He’d come looking for his Mum, but she was long gone. The world was changing, breaking apart, and he was all alone.
The guilt got the better of me, and once I was sure Dad was asleep, I crept over to the ladder, climbing up, unsure of what I’d do when confronted with Martin. Maybe I’d let him in? Maybe just explain our situation?
It didn’t matter. I was too late. At first, I thought he had just run away. There was nobody there, and I was about to climb down, when something came flying at the shelter, so fast that I almost fell from the ladder in shock.
I looked down the periscope, his face staring back at me. I held my hands over my mouth, nausea gnawing at me as his glassy eyes bore into mine.
Up ahead, I could see them, white and black striped, with cuts and sores all along their bodies. Their claws shone in the night and they were gathered together. Frothing at the mouth and bigger than I’d ever seen them before, like they’d grown five sizes or something… badgers. BADGERS! Gnashing their teeth and tearing into something… someone… Martin.
They turned to the shelter, their mouths full and their eyes focused and glowing, and I withdrew the periscope, rushing down the ladder and running for my bed.
Martin was dead. There was nothing I could do about that. There were… mutant animals outside. BADGERS! Mutant badgers! What was I meant to do?
I just lay there, for hours, wishing it was a dream but knowing it could never be.
I must have fallen asleep at some point, and I woke to Dad shaking me and shouting.
He was convinced someone was in the shelter with us. Shouting about Mary, about Mum, pointing at the door, the bathroom, under the beds. It was chaos. I got out of bed, trying to calm him down, or even just slow him down as he spoke, but nothing helped.
It was like something in him snapped. Maybe it was a nightmare he’d had, or maybe he hadn’t been as convinced as I’d thought the night before, but there was no way to reassure him.
He was frantic, and that was how he stayed. I tried to keep things as normal as I could, but he’d break out into a panic out of nowhere. He became certain that we had to go outside. I’d pull him back from the door, explaining about the radiation, the fallout, even about the badgers, but he wouldn’t listen.
We managed a few hours before he overpowered me and bolted for the ladder. He was screaming about what he could see. It was under the beds, in the shadows, everywhere he looked, angry eyes, all of these voices, so loud that he couldn’t stand it.
I chased after him, pulling at his legs but he kicked me to the ground, his hands reaching for the locks on the door.
So, I shot him.
I just meant to get his leg, or his arm. I don’t know. I just wanted to stop him opening the door. The radiation would have got in, or worse, whatever had taken a dose of the radiation outside. He fell. It was like time stopped, and he fell to the ground, the gun, burning in my hand as his blood began to flood the floor.
I ran to his side, tearing off my jacket and pushing it against his chest, but the blood poured, relentless and never ending. Soon, we were both covered in blood, my tears fell, and I was alone.
I just knelt beside him, holding my jacket against his wound, knowing it did no good, but not knowing what else to do.
“He was right, you know.” The voice took me by surprise, quiet, right in my ear, so strange. Not familiar, and frightening in a way that I couldn’t describe. I turned to face it, but nobody was there. “You were never alone, Caroline.” My eyes darted around the shelter, desperately trying to find someone, but I was all alone.
I had to believe I was alone. My Dad had snapped, gone mad from the stress, but I couldn’t follow him. There was nothing down here. I told myself that again and again. I covered my Dad’s body with a blanket and got a shower.
I could hear them, over the water, but I just told myself that I was all alone. I could see their eyes and their fingertips under the bed as I walked past. I could feel them watching me as I fell asleep, but I had to believe that I was all alone.
The outside is a wasteland. I stay up on the ladder for hours at a time, staring out, knowing that I can’t open the door and leave, and they watch me do it.
They never leave me alone. Always watching, always whispering. Addicted to my madness.
I don’t know what they are. They want me to go outside. Is there anything to go back to out there? Will they follow me? Will you be waiting outside too? They promised that you would. Mum will be there too. Dad. All my friends. The weirdos from next door. I just have to open the door.
Dad was right… we weren’t alone. Maybe they’re right too?
Shall we find out?