Condemned

                                                                                                             Condemned

 

                                                                (A standalone story set in the Safe Haven/End of Everything universe)

 

"We're down to fifty gallons of diesel for the two emergency generators. Food supplies… we've got ten days if we're steady, but if we bring anyone else in, that goes down. The water is okay, it's been pissing it down for the last week, but there's a bigger problem."  The young man paused. He stood there in his black jeans and t-shirt, waiting for the grizzled figure behind the desk to stop massaging his temples. The pause went on for too long.

"I'm waiting. You've got my fucking attention, don't worry," said Frank as he finally looked up at the messenger.

"Rats."  Another pause. "Rats are becoming a real problem, Frank. We should have dealt with them when we found them on the ground floor, but they're getting more confident... more aggressive."

"Anything else?"

"Erm... no," replied the young man.

"Right, all duly noted. I'll get onto it."

The young man turned and left, shutting the door behind him. The drizzly sky bled through the dirty windows of the small room on the first floor that Frank had made into his office. He reached into the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a half-empty bottle of vodka and a glass. He poured himself a shot. A double. A triple. Then he took a swig. He winced as the liquid burnt his throat, and he sat back in the creaky office chair.

"Fuck!" he said, feeling his age, feeling the responsibility of the two hundred plus inhabitants of Shipley Tower weighing heavily on his shoulders. He took another drink, this time wincing less, and followed it by a deep, shuddery breath. Cold mist shot from his lips like white smoke. On top of everything else, he knew the cold would finish off a few of the older folks, and this was before winter got into its full throes.

"Fuck!" he coughed, pulling out a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. He brought one up to his mouth and lit it with the all-weather lighter he had found on their last supply run. He took a long drag and blew out a plume of rich blue smoke. He drained the glass and spluttered into a coughing fit.

"Fuck!" he said again, this time bringing his hand up to his mouth and wiping away a thin line of blood. He took another long suck on the cigarette and got up from his chair. It coasted over the carpet to the window, and he went to retrieve it, pausing long enough to look out at the grey morning. It looked like any other dull English morning, no different than before the outbreak. The grass was a little more overgrown, and the pavement had wine coloured stains that no rain could wash away, but for the most part, little had changed. Frank looked over at one of the sister buildings. They had been abandoned at the same time. A few months before everything had gone to hell. Their ground floor windows and doors covered by stainless steel shutters making them almost impregnable to outside forces, living or dead.

Frank had been the caretaker of this complex for over twenty years. When the blocks were finally condemned, the council kept him on for a while to help with the closing down, the shuttering up. Everyone had called them deathtraps. Who would have guessed that they would now be the salvation of the desperate? He finished off the vodka and headed for the door. The corridor was dark, but he knew this place better than anywhere. There were still some flats not taken on this first floor, and the doors were left open, allowing a little light to seep in. People thought the higher up they were, the safer they were. Just in case they got in… the Risen. Frank walked into one of the flats. He took a final drag on his cigarette, coughed as he stubbed it out on the base of his shoe and flung it to the floor.

Charlie, the young guy who had just reported to him, hadn’t been kidding. The place stank, and there were even rat droppings on the kitchen work surfaces. He would have to get some poison on the next trip out. It wouldn’t be a problem. When the world ends, the last thing people think about is pest control. How had he let things get so bad? He was the caretaker; he was responsible for everything that went on here, responsible for all these people. Frank heard a sound and turned around quickly.

“It’s just me, Frank.”

“Bloody ‘ell, Liza. What’re you trying to do to me, love?”

“Sorry,” she said, and they both laughed. “I was speaking to Charlie. Sounds like we need to go out on another run.” 

“Yep,” he said, surveying the flat once again.

Liza flicked her long brown hair back and pulled a rubber band from her pocket. She looped it around and made a ponytail. Her eyes met Frank’s, and they both smiled. She sniffed the air. “You been smoking again, old man?” she asked, breaking the moment.

He rubbed his sandpaper chin. “Found one in my jacket. It was a shame to let it go to waste.”

She walked across to him and put her hand out. “Give them to me, Frank.”

He reached into his shirt pocket and handed her the packet. “Fuck’s sake.”

“If you think I’m gonna smooch with someone who smells like an ashtray at the Christmas party, you’re very much mistaken,” she said with a cheeky smile. “How’s the cough anyway?” she asked, her smile hiding the concern that resonated through her words.

“Fine. Colder weather doesn’t help. It’s probably an allergy or something. Maybe there’s some toxic mould under my bed,” he said with a half-smile.

“Yeah,” she replied, “toxic mould my arse. So, you don’t wanna talk about it. Fair enough. How about telling me when the next run is,” she said, the warmth leaving her face.

“It’s just a cough Liza, don’t get het up. And the run… we could do with that ASAP,” he said.

“Ok,” she said, “I’ll arrange it.” She turned to leave. “I’ll get a list together.”

“Make sure you add rat poison and traps on there will you, sweetheart?”

“No problem. I’ll put down cough medicine and allergy pills too shall I, Frank?”  She left before he could reply.

 

***

 

It was even colder the following day. Frank knew he didn’t need to chase Liza to make the arrangements. When he said as soon as possible, that meant the next day at Dawn. She’d have a list of all the urgent stuff, and she’d have a decent crew together for going out. That was the type of person she was, organised. He was already standing by the front door when the torches approached.

“Jesus, fuck!” Liza said, stifling a half scream. “Why the hell do you scuttle around in the dark? You ever heard of a lantern?” she asked, pointing the torch light towards his face.

 

“It’s barely six o’clock, and already you’re nagging. Did I miss something? Did we exchange vows?” Frank asked. The five men and three women with Liza all chuckled.

“Yeah,” Liza replied, “we exchanged vows… in your fucking dreams, old man.”

“Nightmares more like,” he said underneath his breath. “Besides… now you know how it feels when you come creeping up on me.” He smiled and winked. “Right. Who’s the designated survivor?” He grinned, knowing full well that the term irritated Liza.

“Prick,” she replied.

“That’s me,” said a boy, no more than fifteen.

“Okay son. It’s Steven, isn’t it?” Frank asked. The boy nodded.  “Y’know the drill. You stay on guard until we’re back. You don’t leave this position no matter what. You need to take a piss, you use a bucket. You need to do anything, you do it here. You do not leave this position.”  Frank paused. “Now, what did I say?”

“I don’t leave this position,” Steven replied.

“Good lad. Now let’s go.” 

Frank picked up a cordless screwdriver, removed eight screws from four brackets, and with the help of another man, pulled the stainless-steel door shutter to one side. He then did the same with the outer screen. Before moving it, he pulled a slide across, revealing a peephole, and looked out into the dark morning. There was no movement. He nodded to his companion, and the pair each took hold of a handle before removing the shutter. They let the rest of the crew out, then taking hold of handles on the other side, pushed the shutter back into position. They heard the sound of the cordless screwdriver whirr into action, and after a minute, the cover of the peephole slid across. Frank put his thumb up.

“Right,” whispered Liza, “everybody knows the drill.” 

With those words, the entire crew pulled out a variety of weapons ranging from kitchen knives and hatchets to a baseball bat and an ornamental (yet functional) sword. Liza and Frank walked side by side. He carried a 45 cm splitting axe in one hand and a long-handled straight edge screwdriver in the other, while Liza carried the baseball bat.

The group moved along in silence, always wary of their surroundings, always scouring the landscape. They had been into the town twice only. Each time they had lost people. Most of their supplies had been scavenged from houses and local shops, but the wants lists were getting bigger and bigger, and something as specialist as rat poison, well… that was going to require a well-stocked hardware store at the very least.

There was an almighty clatter, the sound of the metal door shutter falling to the ground, followed by a shout that ripped through the grey morning like a rapier through crisp linen.  “Frank!” Nine heads turned back to the entrance of Shipley tower. The young lad, Steven, stood in the drizzle, with a look of panic on his face and the cordless screwdriver still in his hand. Eighteen feet pounded back to the entrance of the tower block.

“There’s a fire,” Steven said as they reached him. “Third floor.”

They ran through the foyer, and could already hear desperate screams from above. Steven and the last man in lifted the door shutter and pulled it back into position, holding it in place, just in case… just in case there were any infected in the area, waiting to compound their problems. The thump of escaping feet resonated throughout the dark corridor as the stairwell door burst open, revealing the first of the escapees.

The rest of the group stayed in the darkness, afraid to climb the staircase, but Frank and Liza clattered up the steps, passing fleeing dwellers as they attempted to reach the source of the furore. As they burst through the fire escape exit, they saw the flames lashing out of the apartment doors and licking the ceiling with fiery tongues. The smoke stormed down the hallway as barely legal insulation combusted in the walls and made toxic vapours plume. Frank immediately began to splutter, and Liza grabbed him by the scruff of his collar and pulled him back through the door.

“That’ll be through this place in no time,” he managed to cough.  “We need to get everybody downstairs. I’ll head up, to tell the others.”

“No, Frank. I’ll go, I’ll be quicker.”

He tried to argue, but Liza was vaulting three steps at a time before he could even catch a breath. Happy the third floor was already evacuated, he headed back down to the lobby. Flickering lights greeted him; Steven had thought ahead and lit a few of the lanterns. Frank breathed a small sigh of relief that at least someone was showing common sense.

Frank heard more running feet behind him as fleeing residents rushed out of the stairwell into the reception area. Screams went up as windows exploded floors above. The sound was followed by the crashing of shattered glass on the pavement behind the shuttered door.

Frank scratched his whiskered cheek as he thought. The group who had been ready to go on the scavenging mission walked up to him.

Charlie said, “People are panicking, what do we do?”

“We can’t fight the fire; we don’t have the resources. We’re going to have to head to one of the other blocks and hope to Christ the flames don’t jump. How the fuck did it start anyway?”  He looked around at the faces. They knew, but they didn’t say. They didn’t want to point fingers. “Not that it matters now.”  He shook his head. “Okay, Charlie, I want two people on the door. The rest of you head across to Bingley Tower. Take the screwdriver, get the shutters off and get inside. I’ll wait here for Liza, and when we’re sure we’ve got everyone, we’ll head across.”  He paused to make sure they were all listening. “Grab what supplies you can from the storeroom before you head out, but everybody here knows what the priority is, yes?”  He looked around, and they all nodded.

He watched as more residents came flooding from the staircase. Panic and agitation were engrained on their faces. Then he watched as the two men on door duty released the handles and the heft slab of metal clunked to the ground as bodies surged out into the grey light. The smell of acrid smoke flooded the air, and Frank looked back to the staircase, eager to see Liza re-emerge.

When the scream from outside echoed through the foyer, he thought someone had been hit by a piece of glass. His head turned to the doorway letting in the pallid light and everything powered down to slow motion. He watched as a woman stopped running and turned towards what, he did not know, for the time being. Her mouth was open ready to scream again, but it was another sound that Frank heard now; the chilling guttural growls of the infected. A beast lunged at her, its jaws moving up and down in anticipation of sinking its teeth into her pink flesh.

The woman, too terrified to do anything, just stood. Frank let out a shallow mutter of sadness as he saw a dark patch form in the crotch of the woman’s jeans. He didn’t know a lot of the people who lived in the tower. Maybe only a handful of the original inhabitants were still alive, but he knew this woman. Because she was everyone. She was everyone who felt love and hate and fear and despair. And in that split second, when she not only knew she was going to die, but she lost her very dignity too, Frank wanted to weep for her... and himself. When the monster finally hit her, it was with a bloody explosion. She collapsed to the ground, screaming, her face fell towards Frank, he couldn’t see from this distance, but he felt her tears of sadness wash over him as the beast ripped into her neck like it was nothing more than grilled meat on a drumstick. Her mouth opened again to scream a final scream, but she was even robbed of that, as her last breath left her.

Frank dropped his head. “Dear God have mercy,” he said as he looked back up to see a fleeing family attacked.

He took a despairing last glance towards the stairwell. There was no sign of Liza. The biggest part of him wanted to head to the staircase to find her, but he knew he had to fight. He had to try and stave off the attack of the creatures, otherwise, none of them would make it.

Frank began to run towards the door when he noticed a sudden backdraft of residents heading in, wondering whether the prospect of asphyxiation was preferable to being eviscerated at the hands of flesh eating ghouls. He barged past a few stutterers and out into the drizzle. He pulled the hatchet from his belt and took a quick survey of his surroundings. Half a dozen of the scavenging group were in a pitched battle with a small flock of undead attackers. About ten men, women and children were on the ground, dead or dying. It wouldn’t be long before they had to be dealt with too.

Always methodical, Frank marched up to where the woman he had seen was transforming. Her attacker was long gone, but the signs of her reanimation were clear as dead eyes suddenly fluttered. He refused to look at those hellish portals to a forgotten soul as he whipped the blade down into her forehead, cracking through the bone like it was an eggshell. A fountain of blood raced the hatchet back out of her skull, but Frank just headed to the next victim. Lying on the ground in the midst of change, or hurtling towards you growling and baring teeth, they were all threats, they all had to be dealt with.

Another window exploded in the tower, showering all of them with broken glass. A sharp stabbing pain shot through Frank’s shoulder. He moved his other hand up to touch it and felt a large shard. The agony intensified as he jerked it out, slicing more muscle and tissue. He growled with pain before erupting into another coughing fit.

“Frank!” a voice yelled.

Frank’s teary eyes shot towards the doorway of the burning building. “Liza! Oh, thank God,”.

Liza ran out into the open. The scavenger group had got things under control. They were tidying up the last of the fallen - ending them before they began. She flung her arms around Frank, and he winced but embraced her tightly with his left arm. She pulled away and saw blood all over her sleeve.

“Oh my God, Frank. What’s happened?”

“Just some glass. I’ll get it patched up in a bit,” he replied.

Liza grabbed hold of his arm. “We’ll get it patched up right now.”

She began to lead him towards the door of their new residence when a sound like a volcano erupting tore through the morning. They both turned towards Shipley Tower. The flames were lashing up the outside of the building.

“Jesus,” Liza gasped as the heat hit her.

There was another muffled boom from inside just as three beasts appeared at the other end of the square.

“Go! Me and the squad will take care of this lot,” he said nodding towards the scavenger team. “You get everybody across to the other building.

“No way,” she replied, “I’m—”

Frank took a tight hold of her upper arm. “Do as I say, Liza. People follow you. People trust you. Get them safe. I’ll take care of the… things.”

This time, she didn’t argue. Instead, she started leading people across. The steel shutter had been taken off by Charlie. Inside, it smelt damp, it looked dismal. There were none of the luxuries they had enjoyed, like a generator or a food cupboard, but at least it was shelter, and it gave them a chance.

She delivered the first group, then sprinted back across the court as she saw Frank and a few others start to hack away at the attacking monsters. She should be grateful it was three and not fifty-three, but she still worried. Many of the people who had run back into Shipley Tower were exiting again, albeit tentatively, deciding they would prefer to take their chances out in the open with the beasts now, rather than inside the blazing building.

“Come on!” she shouted and began waving her arms as people started running. As they saw that the majority of the undead attackers had been taken care of and a small band of heroes were battling the remainder, they were suddenly more inclined to head out into the open. “Hurry!” she shouted again, then mumbled, “you fucking cowards,” under her breath. Men women and children dashed across, fearful for their lives, happy for others to take all the risks.

When there was no one left outside but her and the team battling the beasts, she ran to the burning tower, throwing wary glances upwards to avoid falling masonry and timber. She sprinted into the entrance. There was no smoke yet, but she could hear the fire roaring above.

“Hello?!” When she was sure there was no one left inside, she dashed back out into the open and headed towards Frank and the others, just as the final monster collapsed. “C’mon,” she shouted over the sound of grinding metal girders giving way.

The group began to follow her as they beat a path towards their new home. Then a chorus of growls erupted into the smoke-filled air. A small army of beasts darted into the square and started heading straight for them. Frank realised quickly that the creatures would be on them before they had time to re-barricade the door. He stopped.

Sensing it rather than seeing it, Liza turned towards him. She stopped too. “Frank. Come on!”

“We both know this isn’t an allergy I’ve got, sweetheart. Keep them safe. Keep them all safe. I know you’ll make me proud.” He turned and began to jog towards the small horde of beasts before sharply changing direction and heading towards the burning building. The creatures followed him.

“No! Frank!”

Seeing what was going on, two of the other group members grabbed Liza by her arms and forced her to run. She struggled and burst out crying, but relented. She had been happy to live in denial. She knew Frank did not have an allergy. Her mother had gone the same way. There was no chemo or radiotherapy now. He didn’t have long left. Deep down, she knew it. That’s what made it all the more sad. She had been saying goodbye to him for months, and now she had been deprived of that final farewell.

They were just about to head through the entrance to their new home when she managed to break free. She turned and saw Frank as the clutch of beasts were gaining on him. Another window exploded in the burning tower as he disappeared through the dark doorway. The zombies followed. A chilling dirge of growls echoed over the roaring sound of the inferno, and the chiming of falling glass. Liza’s head fell. Her tears streamed onto her chest, and an arm reached around her shoulder and gently guided her towards the door.

Another window shattered in the tower, but the sound was a little different than before. There was no thunderous whoosh following it, just a muffled clatter. Liza spun around to see it was on the ground floor and a fire extinguisher was coming to rest on the ground outside, as Frank climbed and stumbled through the narrow gap it had created. It was one of the supply cupboards. They never bothered boarding the glass in those, they were too high for access from the outside. He fell heavily, for a moment looking as though he had hurt his ankle, but then he began to run towards her.

She couldn’t hear his coughing and spluttering over the throng of noise, but she could see he was struggling. Suddenly two figures flanked her and began sprinting towards Frank. They were members of the scavenger team from earlier. They reached him, and he gratefully put his arms around each of their shoulders as the three of them headed towards the door. Frank’s feet occasionally stumbled, but the two younger men supported him.

“We’re fine. Get in,” shouted one of the men as they approached.

The small group disappeared through the opening and the two men who were now carrying Frank between them as he coughed and struggled for breath, followed a moment later.

They laid Frank down in the dim foyer as the shutter was bolted back into place. Liza knelt down on the floor and cradled Frank while he got his coughing and breathing under control.

“They’re fast, but not very bright those things,” he muttered between a series of coughs. “I realised I couldn’t go before I taught you the job. Being a caretaker is a bit different now to what it used to be.”

“I’m not letting you go anywhere for a while, old man,” Liza replied kissing his forehead. “I love you, Frank.”

“Yeah, well… you’re only human kid.” They both smiled.

She shoved him playfully. “I mean it, you funny bastard.”

“I know. I love you too, Liza. I always will.”

 

 

THE END

 

© Christopher Artinian 2022