by Sean Deville
Jock awoke to the sound of shouting and the sound of screams and, for a second. he felt as if he was still in his nightmare. His head was pounding from the previous night’s — okay, let’s be honest: previous day’s and night’s — alcohol consumption, and his mouth felt as if it was growing a layer of fur. His tongue seemed to stick to the inside of his teeth, which were clenched with the effects of the silent terror that visited him in almost every dream.
Rolling onto his back, he slowly sat up, pushing the soiled sleeping bag away. He lost control of his bladder so often now he hardly even cared anymore.
At first, he didn’t know if the sounds of human peril were a remnant of his fantasy, or his own personal hell. The terrors plagued him constantly, waking him at night. His breath caught in his throat, his one good fist clenched, ready to strike out at the demons that tried to possess him.
But there never were any demons; just ghosts from the past, who haunted him relentlessly. Until today that was. Now the fiends were far from imaginary because, this time, the sounds of the damned were from the real world.
His head itched from the lice that infested him. He scratched almost automatically, drawing blood, the skin was so damaged. Blinking the sleep out of his eyes, he looked out at the main street from the deeply recessed doorway he had recently claimed as home. He wasn’t quite sure he understood what he saw, but he understood what he heard.
He knew screams; he had lived them during forty minutes of hell on the road to Baghdad all those years ago. A time before now, when his Land Rover had been blown off the road by what later turned out to be some idiotic fighter pilot who couldn’t distinguish a British flag from that of Saddam’s cronies. He’d lost an arm in that friendly-fire incident, along with a third of his platoon and most of his sanity.
Of course, the sanity didn’t leave him straight away. It bled away slowly over the years of what the mind-rapers called post-traumatic stress disorder. The alcohol he used to quiet the noise in his head took the rest. He lost his arm, his career, his wife, his kids. And he lost his mind, all for Queen and bloody Country. Only the Queen didn’t give a damn, and neither did the country.
He had been sent to fight in a rich man’s war and had been maimed for the privilege. And upon reviving after the operation to remove what was left of his savaged and shattered arm, he had known instantly that he would be discarded onto the scrap heap by those he had risked his life for.
“Thanks for all you’ve done, Jock. Now piss off back to civvy street like a good chap.”
They hadn’t even given him a medal. And now here he was to watch the end of the world happen.
The streets had become his home. Quiet begging with an air of respectful subservience kept him fed and kept him in cheap booze, which kept the monsters in his mind anesthetised, kept them docile. At least during the waking hours. And his thousand-yard stare kept troublemakers away. Nobody messed with Jock, absolutely nobody.
Even the police tended to leave him alone so long as he didn’t get too drunk. Because he was strong, and he was dangerous. He still found himself spending the odd night in the cells, but he normally behaved himself so long as he was left alone. And sometimes the cells were his choice, especially in the snows of winter. Sometimes you had to put your pride aside. Sometimes self-preservation came first.
Right now though, the screams of reality grew. In the darkened recess, he went relatively unnoticed by those experiencing the chaos of Scotland’s largest city. There were people fighting, people running and people standing in obvious stunned shock as to what was going on around them.
Instinctively he rolled his sleeping bag up and gathered it together with his rucksack, which contained his few meagre possessions. He badly needed to urinate, but that would have to wait. Jock knew danger when he saw it, and he wasn’t quite past the point where he would willingly wet himself when he was wide awake. He still had enough dignity left to deny such things during the waking hours.
This was more than a riot. Riots generally didn’t have people lying bleeding on the litter-strewn ground, didn’t have children being grabbed from their parents and thrown through shop windows. He flinched when he heard a shot. Looking around the corner, he saw two armed police officers, firing into a crowd approaching them. Jock smiled. This was what he had always known would come.
He spent his days watching humanity, watching the human race slowly degrade into depraved beasts. He saw how people treated each other, how they raced through life chasing the almighty pound, trampling over their fellow humans for the slightest advantage to get that promotion, that new car, that pathetic shiny trinket.
He saw how people reacted to him, mainly with fear, some with pity, some with disgust. Jock didn’t care, because he saw the truth of who they were, saw everything they were afraid to admit about themselves. As the years passed, he found himself glad to no longer be a part of their rat race. Because eventually he knew the rats would turn upon each other.
When he begged, he would sit and watch them, share stories with his fellow homeless, and drink himself into oblivion until the inevitable day when he didn’t wake up. That would be a blessing, but Jock now suspected that day of release from this world wouldn’t come as planned, because what he saw around him was worse than what he had predicted. This was biblical, but it was perhaps fitting.
He had spent hours dreaming of the country’s collapse. Society had sent him off to fight and left him a broken man. And when it had deemed him unfixable, it had abandoned him to live in the gutters and the doorways. If what he was witnessing was what he thought it was, it served the ungrateful bastards right.
With his possessions collected, he fled.
Jock never understood what had happened exactly. He never saw the news reports about the virus, about the way those infected quickly turned against those around them. He had awoken on the street, homeless and alone, only to find the whole world had gone mad. Through an alcohol-induced haze, Jock had seen the infected rip into terrified commuters, overcome the police, fell adults and children alike. He had seen revulsions that would shock the average man.
But they did not shock Jock. When you lose an arm and lie screaming from the pain surrounded by fire for what seems like an eternity, the horrors of the infected hordes didn’t hold much power over you. His own mind held infinitely more abominations than those that now roamed his beloved streets.
What had surprised Jock was his sudden desire for life. He had been slowly trying to kill himself with alcohol for years; he freely admitted this to himself in his more lucid moments. The alcohol calmed the flashbacks and quietened the voices that came to him incessantly, but it also offered the promise of an eventual blissful release.
And yet, when faced with the plague, he had run, had hidden, had survived. Scurrying through back streets and shortcuts only a homeless person would know, he removed himself from his normal begging ground into an area thinned of human population. Several times he came across groups of infected, only to avoid them by stealth and luck.
Eventually he had found himself outside an abandoned off-licence, its doors smashed open. The calmness of the street and the fact that his heart was beating as though it were doing everything it could to escape his rib cage had compelled him to seek refuge.
Holding a piece of metal pipe in his one good arm, his other meagre possessions long since abandoned, he had explored the establishment’s interior and, finding it empty, had brought down the security shutters by using the switch he found behind the serving counter.
Momentarily safe from the dangers outside, he had marvelled at the array of alcohol available to him, an Aladdin’s cave of ethanol and oblivion. Well, if the end had come, it was only fitting he should go out in style. He had no illusion he could survive much longer out on the infested streets of Glasgow.
He was now into his third bottle of red wine. Sitting in the corner farthest away from the front entrance, Jock sang softly to himself, remembering fallen comrades, true friends who he would never see the like of again. That was the problem with war, you made a bond with dozens of people that could rarely be achieved in civilian life. When you fought beside them, when you saved their lives and they saved yours, you got to know and respect people to such a degree that you would die and kill for them. That wasn’t the problem, because as he freely admitted to himself, he had loved war. Up to a point.
The problem was that those people were taken from you by bullets, by bombs and by fire. The resulting chasm in one’s life couldn’t be filled and, whilst Jock didn’t know if others felt the same way, he found himself resenting the very people he had lost. He had found something that made him whole, made him complete, only for that completeness to be rocked by the death of those around him. And he had lost so many, and then had almost joined their ranks.
Then the truth of war descended on him with a greater force than the ordinance that had blown his Land Rover clean off the road. Returning from a foreign land, shattered and ruined, he was abandoned by the people who had sent him to that hot, merciless country in the first place.
He finished the last drops in the bottle and flung it across the off-licence interior, hearing it crash into the far wall. He instantly regretted the action because, within seconds, he heard a shuffling outside on the street. This was followed almost instantly by something slamming into the barriers which, whilst sturdy, rocked and swayed at the assault.
Jock stood gingerly, dizziness and drunkenness hitting him in waves. From his now elevated position, he could see over the alcohol-lined shelves, could see multiple figures through the slats and the holes in the steel shutters. He stepped forward, using the wall to balance him.
“Crap,” he said under his breath.
“Feeeeed,” multiple mouths hissed at him from outside. They knew he was here. How long before the barrier was breached? Could it hold out against their strength and determination? He had seen the power these creatures possessed, had seen one rip a child’s arm clean off. Did he even care? Jock didn’t think he did. There was something almost appealing in the thought of becoming one of them. No more pain, no more nightmares, no more rejection by society.
His drunken and diseased mind began to play out some bizarre utopian fantasy, and Jock walked over to the counter, almost stumbling twice, his shoes crunching on broken glass from the previous ransacking the off-licence had experienced. His good hand latched onto a bottle of vodka on the way, and he now opened the screw top with his mouth, the mobility of his teeth giving a mild discomfort that he easily ignored. Spitting the lid away, he downed a mouthful, safe in the knowledge that his liver was well accustomed to such excessive ethanol consumption.
“You want me do you, eh?” Jock shouted, his words slurred. Should he let them in? They would get him eventually, if he didn’t drink himself to death first. But what was best? A slow death by alcohol poisoning or becoming them, joining them, helping them overthrow a society that had used him and cast him on a dungheap. There was a renewed excitement from outside in reaction to his voice, and Jock found himself smiling.
“So, you do want me? Well, hell, why not?” Taking a final swig of vodka, he walked around the counter and cast the bottle aside. What was the point in carrying on? He had nothing to live for, hadn’t for years. The flight mechanism had saved him when the infection had first appeared this morning, but now, on reflection, he saw the futility of it all. His hand now free, his other lost in a war that nobody seemed to this day to understand, he pressed the button to raise the shutters.
As the metal ascended, the infected poured in, their smell preceding them. There was no hesitation on their part. They were on him instantly, all teeth and claws, their red eyes bleeding.
“Thank you,” he said as he felt the darkness take him, shock hitting his system as wound upon wound was inflicted upon it. He passed out before the virus took hold.
When he finally woke up, Jock was no more, the contagion eradicating everything that had ever made him human. Now he was the hunger, the craving, insatiable gnawing in his stomach, in his mind. Now alone, he picked himself up off the floor, the scent of blood strong in his nostrils. The blood of his prey, hiding nearby. Deep within his mind he could hear the beat of a frightened child’s heartbeat.
Copyright © 2017 by Sean Deville