WALKING MY WORLD

The summer sunlight that slammed through the huge window felt phenomenal on Dylan’s bare back, the rays penetrating deep, brushing against his bones in a steady blast of heat. Above the air-conditioning unit groaned out its near cool air in sporadic bursts, lifting his too long hair from his broad shoulders, holding it aloft until its unreliable power ceased and it died it temporary death. Dylan, sighed, eyes closed he drank in his surroundings, he imagined his every pore a tiny mouth that tasted the air and kissed the warmth from the sun. With a dim click and a low hum that echoed from the tin burrow above him, the air conditioner moaned its disgust at being awoken. Angrily it fought its own rebirth, but the indefinable force of fat persisted. The man’s hair slid across his back like the touch of a lover before ascending into the air.

How long had he sat here? Bathing in the sunlight beneath the comforting unpredictability of the dying machine above? Dylan’s legs were folded beneath him, behind him the little conveyor next to the cash register tumbled along. With his brown eyes closed, the young man could imagine the world of the not to distance past, when the supermarket around him would have been filled with activity.

Suddenly a sheet of noise enveloped him, rusting paper, the beeping of the cash registers, and the combined murmurs of a store full of people assaulted his mind and instantly his eyes snapped open.

The chrome edgings of the shelves glinted blindingly, the worn tiles of the floor clean, but hid beneath scattered items of all kinds. An unravelled toilet roll lay like a fraternity streamer from mid isle to check outs, and, predictably, there was not a soul to be seen. Dylan blinked, the mixed salad of sounds dissipating, leaving dull incomprehension in its wake.

It always happened that way, he would be comfortable, safe, his young tortured mind neither in the future nor past, but drifting in a place of sensations unconnected to the real world. For whatever real meant. Then sooner or later, the past would intrude, visions and sound real enough to shake his sanity washing over him.

Time to go. He slid his long legs from beneath him, the hard heeled boots he habitually wore cracking double gunshots as they connected with the hard tile, barley missing his half empty knapsack. Grasping one of its webbed straps he stalked down the preserves isle, scanning the shelves through his dark veil of wavy hair, the fringe long enough to tickle tiny footsteps across his cheeks. Slowly the black canvas bag began to fill, Dylan working silently, with little thought, his hands well accustomed to his stomachs tastes, not that it was hard to please.

The world turned, heedless to its solitary inhabitant, much too busy enjoying its new-found independence to worry about the remnants of its former master species. Not that Dylan cared, it was the nature of loneliness, the world turned the sun burned, and the walking were no more alive than the dead. Less alive in many cases, the dead burned brighter in Dylan’s mind than the walking shells that occasionally crossed his path.

The boy-man picked his way down the long corridor of cans and scattered debris, as his mind wandered through the debris scattered inside his skull.

Eighteen months ago the world had died, its population signing its last collective breath of though. People slip-sliding into the decease of living death so fast that, by the time the virus had been discovered, there was no one left to fight it, and through it all Dylan was oblivious to his fellow man’s distress.

When he had moved from the tiny hospital room that had been his home for so long, his senses had not communicated the barren wards and the lifeless waiting rooms to his bleary mind. Outside he had fared no better and, as he walked aimlessly, the occasional infected shell he passed hardly impacted on his baffled brain.

Her face burned itro him, the almond shaped brown eyes above their sharp high, elfin, cheekbones, her little button nose and her small, full lips that covered her even white teeth in their kissable cupids bow of flesh.

When the doctors had found the growing mutinous mass of tissue buried deep within her skull, her beautiful, glacial mind had cracked, shedding shards of consciousness as the world moved on around them.

Beside her he had sat, for one long endless wedge of days filled with years, watching her eyes empty and the drugs push her hair out at the roots. Within two months her mind was dead, her body, however, had lingered, dying a cell at a time before his helpless eyes.

Dylan had wandered for almost a day before the addled brained shells he’d encountered had any impact, and had found himself looking at the world around him with barely sane eyes. Carefully he began picking his path back through town, moving down near empty streets that sat at the very heart of the small city, as his course led directly to the hospital where his lover’s body lay. One of its waiting rooms, scattered with magazines and newspapers, gave Dylan all his cold answers, answers that filled him with fearful anticipation as he worked his way up to her room. Each step closer to her blasting ice cold fear within him.

Inside the black backpack the tins rattled faintly, the large empty supermarket picking up the sound, magnifying it, marrying it with its own family of mechanical murmurings, like a bizarre parody of a musical anthem. Dylan’s mind slipped back to the present, unable for the moment to stand the furious cerebral barrage the next memory would produce.

The weight of the ring on his third finger suddenly bore down on him, the weight of shame, guilt and loss threatening to tear joints and rip flesh.

That thought was in his mind the moment he turned the aisles corner and stumbled directly into the shell of an old woman whose hands clutched vacantly at a wire basket. Torn packs of meat lay in the battered chrome metal web, the animal, flesh green, fly blown with age, unknown things moving in black pits dotted about their surface. The woman’s head moved, her eyes tracking up his body, feet shuffling to keep her unsteady torso from tumbling to the floor, her sunken skull face inanimate, blank, less thought than a ghosts commanding her shrivelled corpse-like physique.

Dylan froze, watching the woman’s shell anxiously, seeking out the vacant coolness that he hoped would be in her eyes. Shells would rarely attack, but sometimes, driven by hunger or forces unknown to him, they would, chasing him tirelessly, one agitating others until he was running for his life ahead of a wailing, moaning pack of unthinking flesh machines.

The woman things jaw moved, shrunken lips parting into a sickening oval, her breath billowing over her rotten, broken teeth, tickling his body like maggots. Dylan glanced at the bad meat in the basket, and then back into the creature’s blank eyes, a stomach churning thought rattling through his brain.

Maggoty meat, maggoty meat, that’s all I am to her. Can she see the larvae one me, burrowing into my eyes, eating my guts as my heart still beats warm blood around their tiny, swollen bodies? Would she devour me anyway, my blood gushing over her as the sharp shards of her teeth break my skin, the maggots within me spilling onto her tongue, eating their way in?

The young man shuddered, bile rising, he took a single step away from the woman’s shell, the tins in the bag chiming like muffled bells as his body shook uncontrollably. Dylan’s mind swam, hardly registering the woman’s figure moving past him, toward the checkouts, tumbling along with the gait of a sack of unconnected bones. He stared, wide eyed, through the worn tile covered floor, his consciousness anchored in limbo, his vision a continual blur of images, like the ultimate in subliminal advertising. The mental movie steadied its editing less erratic, settling to the ponderous pace of a hard-core horror hit.

He had stood at the door to her room for an eternity and a day, waiting for his heart to even and his stomach to settle. Earlier, the monitor wired to her had displayed the unbroken lines of a frighteningly calm sea, its high-pitched alarm the shriek of a hundred hungry gulls. But Dylan knew it had lied, and when that door before him opened she would be sat awake, but not alive, waiting with the everlasting patience that only the brain dead can have.

Dylan had prayed, not to any recognised God, but to the only spiritual power he had ever felt. His prayer rose up from him, expanding, seeking out the unnamed Goddess of Love, begging for what he knew to be true to be untrue, before, like viewing another’s dream, his hand reached out and unlatched the clean white door. It swung inward in an agonisingly slow arc, his pen stroke view within the bright-sanitized room broadening to reveal the wilted flowers on the high shelf over the radiator, and the grotesque collection of science fiction gadgetry that led wires to the chrome hospital bed.

In it she sat, exactly as he had envisioned, peering at him with the blank innocence of a newborn baby. Dylan was captivated instantly, all thoughts of vacant minds and human shells blown from his head by her viciously uncompromising beauty, her long illness doing little to alleviate its intensity. The pale skin of her face naturally emphasising her slightly darkened eyes, and the delicate pink of her soft, small mouth above her curve of unblemished jaw.

Mesmerised, Dylan moved toward her, his mouth slack, his eyes coloured in the brush-strokes of need. Through his threadbare blue jeans, the cold steel of the mattresses support kissed his thighs, and he found their bodies no more than a foot apart, easily close enough to feel the waves of heat beating out form her. She twisted her torso, the simple gown she wore pulling tight around her slim waist, pressing the fabric hard against the full swell of her firm breasts. Dylan’s vision blurred as his tears formed a momentary film of cloudiness over his eyes. Before the weight of the salty fluid broke the dam of his lower eyelid, and gushed over his lips and cheeks. Her eyes met his and his body shook in violent waves of fatigue and desire.

The boy’s hand closed the distance to her, his arms encircling her fleshy heat, his lips pushing to her pliant, warm mouth as the eyes of the woman he had once married stared past him with an uncomprehending blank coolness. Dylan kissed her, his overpowering need for her drowning any recognition of the woman’s lack of response.

In the room the boy-man’s mind sank gladly below the waves of his pleasure, as around him the city lay silent as the dark side of a far off moon.

Heedless, the world span around its sun, moving through space to its secret rendezvous.

Dylan’s mind snapped back, slamming into his head like a high calibre bullet, shredding his brain, it sent him to his knees whimpering. Blindly his hands tore through the pockets of the oversized canvas trousers he wore, eventually grasping the handle of the pearl handled straight razor, dragging it from the confines of the heavy cloth.

The images prances at the edge of his consciousness, collecting there conspiring traitorously to drag to the shameful memory of that faraway day. Like whores in a red light district, they paraded their graces for him, enticing him back.

The razor cut, the slim steel slipping deep into the flesh of his forearm, bisecting a city of snowflake delicate scars. Dylan’s stomach slid sideways, his brain humming as, for perhaps half a second, time ceased to be.

What am I doing? He thought dimly.

The world continued to turn, cranking into motion like a rusty music box. Pain slid like hot oil over the insides of his arm as time once again took a foothold, dragging him back from the land of memory. Tight flesh pulled at the fresh wounds edge, exposing the sickly blue-white meat inside. Dylan’s heart thumped, forcing his thick crimson fluid to the raw fleshes surface. Blood split, pooling under him, soaking through his trousers, and stick slicking his knees beneath. Carefully he pulled the hair thin blade from the quarter inch deep cut and watched the dark droplets of blood run its edge, collecting at its squared off tip. One by one the red tear-drops fell to the crimson lake of blood below, its edges eating up more of the pale blue tile by the second. Dylan’s arm burned, a crucible of pain burning away the thoughts in his head, as he watched the fluid escape him in a steady rhythm. The whore visions banished, at least temporarily, his mind relaxed, soothed by the sticky heat that was already drying to a viscous jelly over the skin of his lower arm.

He stood, feeling little cold streams run from his knees down into his black boots and, slinging the bag over his shoulder, made his way out of the large supermarket.

The young man thought, not remembering but contemplating.

Was there a part of the brain that loved? A speck of cerebral tissue that created that wonderful-awful state of being? If there was, could a person reach in, grasping those traitorous cells between thumb and forefinger, and pop them existence like an insect?

Sunlight bathed him, the cool breeze whistling around mischievously as Dylan stepped from the dim building into a picture book perfect summers day. For a moment he stood, looking around lazily, noting the various alleyways to the surrounding housing estates, and the exit to the main road that slashed through the town nearby.

Absently he ran the nail of his index finger down the drying cut, scraping away-congealed blood only to bring forth fresh beads of shiny ruby red.

Adjusting the bags strap, the young man chose a direction at random and began to walk, the boots he wore clunking and scraping over the tarmac, its hot, glistening black surface grasping hungrily at the hard heels. Here and there cars sat idly across the car parks expanse, patiently waiting, their tanks long since evaporated dry, for the shoppers that would never return.

Dylan passed them without a glance, bearing not a thought for the sad monuments of steel and glass, his strides taking him from the supermarkets ground to the warren of the housing estate beyond.

A lifetime ago he had been eighteen and the world had been filled to bursting with people of all kinds. No men with heads and black make-up had brushed shoulders with men who wore their hair long and dyed blue. Families has flown to hot, sun drenched lands on their summer breaks, returning burned, their stomachs sick from rich food and flight sickness. In short, the world had been alive, teaming with so many people it was unthinkable that in less than five years there would be but one left on the planet.

How could any of them feel lonely, Dylan thought as he wove his way deeper into the tract of identical red-brick buildings, when there were so many of them?

Like most eighteen year old’s, Dylan had passed a lot of time drunkenly drifting from bar to nightclub. So it was only natural that he should meet her early one morning, in the final hours of one particularly long night. His friend had known hers and, as the two had chatted and backbit, Dylan steeled a glance across at this strange woman.

She was sat a seat away from his, the vacant chair between them a no-mans-land, a vacuum that separated her from the world. Suddenly bubbly fear had slid up from his abdomen, infecting his head as he realised what he intended to do. Holding his breath he slid over next to her, invading the barrier of nothing, and in a voice calmer than he believed, asked her, her name.

It was inconceivable to him now, after all he had experienced, that so much had grown from so little. The seed of interest had grown to the oak tree of adoration with such speed, he had found himself completely unprepared for the power she had over him. If he had known the intensity of the pleasure and pain he would derive from her, would he have turned away from her intelligent, downcast gaze, and drove her from his mind with all the willpower he could muster?

The sunlight glinted in his tearful eyes as a sad, self-depreciating smile pulled at his lips.

No, he knew that no pain could’ve kept him from her, a thought such as that was idiotic.

The silent streets lay around him, winding through the city like the veins of a corpse, Dylan a single solitary parasite wandering the labyrinth of dried capillaries.

As her gaze had lifted, her smooth curve of chin angling up, the strobe of the nightclubs lights had caught he eyes making them shine. The girl’s eyes met his own, like ice-shards piercing him, her un-glossed lips slowly parting, her brow furrowing in mild distrust. She studied him; fearlessly letting the seconds tick by, in no haste to answer his question.

A smile pulled at her lips and, in a small voice that shouldn’t have carried over the deafening music, she answered.

Tameson, with an “E”, Nineteen years old. Single.

Her name had remained Tameson until the day she was taken from him, even though her surname changed from Ward to Reeve sixteen months later. It took a while for her age to change too, but to Dylan’s delight she ceased being single that very night.

From that moment, hearing her speak for the first time, so many things had changed for Dylan. Boredom, a feeling in which he had always been well versed, never troubled him again; neither did uncertainty. In many ways his life became idyllic, his only concerns being when and where he would see her next. Strangely, the idea that she would not want to see him never so much as crossed his mind.

The hot summer sunlight stung his naked back, drawing sweat like blood, making his body glint. Salty perspiration seeping into the raw razor wound, stinging wildly, burning afresh as Dylan’s legs moved on auto-pilot, his consciousness jettisoned into the wide blue. He trudged along the silent streets; overgrown hedges brushing their healthy leaves against him. Lonely green lovers in dire need of company, clutching at the oblivious young drifter, their flat smooth fingers cool, sliding off him wet with his sweat. Outside the pocket universe within his skull the world turned, its elliptical orbit spinning it close to its sun, bathing the planet in its yearly dose of summer.

Dylan slowed, running his fingers through his long unwashed hair, the sweat sticking in to his head in Medusa strands. Across his back a streak of tender skin burned where the harsh sunlight had scorched its mark.

He stopped. His eyes scanning the surrounding area, measuring the buildings against his internal set of needs, before selecting one and moving toward it over the hot earth.

Inside the unlocked house it was cool, somewhere a window or two were open, a breeze licking over him, soothing his weary frame. The young man’s eyes adjusting to the dim interior, the dark grey-green walls of the hallway sucking up all available light. With barely a touch the living room door swung inward on silent hinges and Dylan peered inside.

Dust had dulled the room, turning the varnished wood of the large wall units into a fine glass paper veneer, figurines stood like tiny people caught in grey snowstorms, and an inch thick blanket covered the rooms big screen T.V. Dust motes danced in the air, caught in the streaks of light from the room’s half open window.

Dylan’s eyes dropped to his feet, the toes of his black boots a few inches outside the boundaries of the lose families front room. The phrase “No-Mans-Land” popped into his head, the image of an empty bar stool filling his mind for a moment, before disappearing as fast as it had arrived. A strange feeling of subtle liquid guilt flooded his system and the young man’s eyes squeezed shut.

There was nod doubt that the family were dead now, dead or worse, and what person would look down on him from Heaven and be angry at his trespass? He was tired and sun scorched, he was lonely for Gods sake, so lonely that his mind was broken, ripped and scratched like a badly stored L.P. Not that it mattered; no turntable had survived on which to play it anyway.

I’m sorry. Dylan thought, please don’t be angry with me, I’m not a bad man. I’m just alive.

Taking a deep breath the young man slowly opened his eyes and let them play over the furnishings he could see through the half open doorway. In the one corner, furthest from the T.V., sat huge beaten leather armchair, the black hide worn grey in places from many years of use. Next to it a pile of magazines stood on a frosted glass coffee table. The little circular table and large chair dominated the room, set apart as they were, and a bizarre, powerful thought occurred to him.

The man who had used that chair had been a pot bellied forty-two year old who had spent almost every waking moment leafing through car magazines and drinking weak tea. His name had been Harold, and when the virus had infected him he’d beaten his eldest son to death with half a pool cue. When his wife, daughter and youngest son had returned home they’d found him waiting for them with his eighteen-inch bar chainsaw. Blood had been spilt, the other son had fallen, belly torn open, guts unwinding like thick black-grey worms, then Nadine, the daughter, had slammed a bread knife between her fathers shoulder blades.

If Dylan had the stomach for it he could go out into the backyard, go out and see the blood and shit that stained the concrete, tiny pieces of Harold and his two sons that had been ground into the pitted concrete slabs. He could go even further if he wished, he could go visit their bloated, rat-chomped corpses inside the oven disguised as a garage beside the house.

Calmly, Dylan leaned forward and vomited over the toes of his steel capped work boots, he heaved an impossible amount of half digested food up, splashing over his trousers and boots, pooling on the deep pile of the red carpet. The small hallway became a test-tube of chemical stench.

Dylan turned from the quasi-liquid star of vomit and slowly climbed the buildings steep stairs on weak, rubbery legs. Each step sending a quick, dull throb of hot pain around the joints of each knee, a pain constantly preoccupied mind had never realised existed. At the top, thirteen steps above the stench below, Dylan faced a tiny landing that held sentinel over four doors, one of which stood half open, a cool breeze emanating from the room behind it. Wearily, Dylan stepped inside.

The light peach painted walls stood in a rough eight foot by nine squares, on the largest wall, above the low single bed, someone had tacked up a huge poster-portrait of Brad Pitt. His hair, a little longer than Dylan’s, half covering his handsome face, the T-shirt he wore barely covering his black and white muscles.

Dylan smiled nostalgically. Tameson’s little sister, Sherry, had adored Brad Pitt, and had the very same poster above her own bed. He knew, he had brought it for her, and had tirelessly helped her decide where to display it.

CD’s lay scattered across the carpet; a column a foot high teetered next to an expansive looking midi hi-fi, its L.E.D. blank like a dead Cyclops eye.

Untying the laces, the lonesome man kicked off the worn boots and dragged off the vomit stained trousers he wore. Wearing only a pair of boxer shorts that would’ve cost half a weeks pay in the old world, he stepped further into the brightly lit room, and made his way around the neatly made bed to glance over the titles that were stacked beside the stereo. He sat, his silk shorts whispering against the cotton bedding, and nudged the CD’s around the carpet playfully.

Boy bands, nothing he found even vaguely interesting.

The drawers of the foot and a half high beside cabinet slid easily open and Dylan rooted around in two of its three until he found what he wanted.

The clasp of the little book was of the lockable type, but presumably having lost the key, someone had broken it off, leaving the strap that secured it dangling uselessly. Dylan opened it to its first page and silently read the large neat script that decorated it.

“That is the diary of Miss Nicola Forbes”, it read; Its I’s dotted whimsically with tiny hearts.

With an almost imperceptible “tap”, a dot of water pattered on the cream paper, darkening it to grey. Dylan’s eyes darted overhead, scanning the ceiling but finding the same unblemished peach as the walls. Brow winkling, he let his gaze move back to the diary he held in his rough, tanned hands. Another dot of moisture joined the first and the phrase “Misery loves company” wandered through Dylan’s mind before he realised they were in tears.

He lay back on the bad, Nikki’s book resting on his chest, and felt the cold trails of tears slide over his face without even knowing whom they were for. Before the tears had ended, long before he knew what caused them, Dylan slept an uneven, Demon plagued sleep.

He awoke sometime after sunset, the stars bright and clear in the summer night sky, the bedroom bathed in a soothing blue-grey glow. Sometime during his sleep his knees had drawn up against his chest, face hidden between his thick forearms. Dylan’s thighs ached, the muscles tight as he stretched his legs straight and rolled upright, the heel of his foot landing on one open C.D. case, the loud crack breaking the silence.

In one strong hand the woman’s book still lay, thumb pressed against its first page, the broken clasp a cold horseshoe of metal pressed to his palm. Slowly Dylan’s consciousness dug its way from sleeps murkiness, leaving visions best left unseen sheathed in his subconscious.

For a long while he just sat, staring through the corpse of the stereo before him, wondering if a C.D. still remained within the dead hulk of metal and plastic.

When Dylan stood and dressed, the image persisted, floating around like the smell of boiled cabbage, irritating but not overpowering. Dylan ignored it, hoping the compulsion to smash the unused Hi-Fi into pieces to see would pass. He filled his mind with the rough texture of the small diary’s cover, slightly bemused to find he still held it in one hand. Sluggishly the need for the Hi-Fis destruction, Dylan’s need to know, subsided leaving dull amusement in its wake.

How easily a minds man…Dylan’s thought stopped dead, its cerebral plug pulled, as he realised what had occurred. Minds man? Was that what he was, at the mercy of his irrational and damning mind? His soul subjugated, beaten to submission by the creature that dwelled within his sticky mass of brain?

The spine of the diary creaked sharply, almost cracking as Dylan opened the hard covered book at random and read the first words his eyes beheld.

“I gave him back his ring, it never really felt like mine anyway, I don’t think it could ever fit me the way he wanted it to. It was like a bribe, he thought it gave him the right to treat me any way he wanted.”

Dylan’s eyes travelled to his own ring, the moonlight making the simple gold band appear dead and grey. After moments contemplation his eyes moved back to where they’d left off.

“And it would be wrong for me to allow that. Mum always told me, this was back when we spoke, that I had to be me first, then find a man who’s personality complements my own. What would be the point of twisting myself into a parody of me, only to get an uncertain future with a shallow man? None, I’d say, and it had to be said, Chris was far less than an inspiration to me, I’m beginning to see just how often he deliberately held me back.”

Dylan squinted at Nicola Forbes’ large swirling pen strokes in the sea of near glowing paper, the black writing bleeding in and out of focus as his eyes fought to see them in the soft light from the moon. No matter how hard he tried, his eyes refused to ratify the existence of any more words hiding in the mystic runes before him. His index finger marking his place, he closed the book and peered around for his ever-present knapsack, finding it propped like a sleepy sentry against the hallways wall. The coarse, thick straps rasped like a nail file over his flesh as he slid one over his shoulder.

Not thinking of why he was doing it, Dylan left the Forbes’ house, Nikki’s book still in his hand.

The nights air was cool, even shirtless it wasn’t cold enough to be uncomfortable, overhead the occasional bat flew, skimming the rooftops.

Once upon a time, on a warm summers night like this one, Dylan would have passed many a nocturnal traveller, there would be groups making their way home from night clubs, often swaying over a good part of the road as they did. Lovers would be swaying down the path too, drunk on something more than alcohol and blatantly oblivious to anyone but each other. Even if, by some miracle, every human had decided on an early night, Dylan would have encountered a social club of cats or a dog barking in the distance, but the virus had taken them all. Dylan hadn’t seen as much as a mouse in over a year. All that remained were the things that lived inside the earth and those that hovered over it.

The only footsteps of purpose were his own.

He had imagined Nikki to be little more than a child when he had first seen the décor of her room, but her written word had painted a picture of a woman in her late teen or perhaps early twenties. Guiltily, he had to admit, the few sentences he had read had intrigued him deeply. Either she was a woman clutching at her childhood or a child being rudely awakened. Which, he could not decide.

Tameson had struck him similarly; she had sat caught in the whirlpool of bodies, on her barstool like an ancient sage with the gift of eternal beauty. Mystery had permeated her and, in all the time he had known her, all he had learned, that dark seductive strength had never abandoned her to the death of mediocrity.

But the virus had though, hadn’t it? He thought; the virus had teamed up with the tumour that grew in her head and had eradicated all that she was. The cancerous jelly had eaten her mystery and virus had prolonged her beauty. Aesthetics without essence, a sick parody of a woman. The last time he had touched her, so blinded by his own sickness of need, he had been heedless to her expressionless submission. Until the sun rose the next day and, in that surreal purity at the dead zone between dream and reality, he turned to the woman lay next to him and shrieked.

Beside her he had sat, watching empty eyes seeing blank walls, his mind slowly putting the gruesome story together. For more than four hours he watched, searching for anything that could be thought of as personality, but finding none. It was then that Dylan’s consciousness began to swim, skipping minutes, then hours, he seemed no longer anchored to the world of the now, but he slid back and forth through time.

Tameson’s eyes never wavered, her chest barely moving with her intake of breath. She was no parody, sick or otherwise, of the woman he’d adored. She was a Frankenstein monster, an abomination that would make Mary Shelley proud.

She had once been such a phenomenon, not even a woman in any real sense, but a magician who had taken all the thoughtlessness and waste in him and turned it all full circle. His mother had given him his body, but Tameson had given birth to his soul.

Slowly Dylan had stood, glaring down at the thing that was so like his wife, a profoundly disrespectful joke. Lovely but blank, shapely but cold.

He slid the pillow from beneath its head and clutched it in claw like hands, his lips drawn back from his teeth in a manic expression of rage. His mind unwound, his guts writhed and squirmed in his belly.

Again Dylan’s mind skipped time, the light pouring in through the private rooms window dimming suddenly. His hands were empty, the pillow torn stuffing strewn about the room.

Tameson’s body lay still, her head tilted awkwardly on he thin neck, her lips, sill plump and pink, parted slightly, showing the tip of her tongue. One look at her open eyes told Dylan the truth, though he had never admitted it.

That truth was a plaything for his nightmares.

Dylan sat on the kerb, leaning back on his palms, his legs sprawled out in front of him, above him the stars spread out like a moth bitten blanket. Bright and acute, perfect dots of purest white, the far off suns span around their galactic centre, as the Earth span around its own pet star. Orderly, never changing, the immense map above him gently mocked the last man, as a parent might a child. Between his ankles lay Nikki’s little red covered book; at least he remembered it being red. In the summer moonlight it looked black, vaguely alien to its surroundings.

Dylan knew that it wasn’t. Neither was it alien nor black, the book was no more magical than the vomit strained boots he wore, it was no more real than Harold the pot bellied butcher.

He sat up, reaching for the book, taking it in his hands. It felt strange, he felt positive that something lay in it, something not scrawled by a young woman haunted by life, but by life through the young woman. A message meant for him.

The book opened, the spine moaning its quiet resisting creak. Pages fluttered open, fanning open, fanning out. Dylan parted them randomly and began to read.

“Work isn’t getting much better, I knew that working on a till all day would be boring, but God! Its much worse than I’d imagined, the whole store seems to be a refuge for incompetence and my workmates (If you could call them that) consist of thirty-year-old schoolgirl wannabes. I don’t know, perhaps they are right, maybe I am a stuck up bitch. The Freakish Femme, as my supervisor (Yeah, right!) Calls me when she thinks I’m not listening, freak I understand, but femme? What does she mean by that? ! (A touch of post boyfriend bitterness?) Actually, they aren’t all that bad, most of them are, but one or two are okay, girls who aren’t a part of the “in” crowd (and I thought “in” crowds only happened in schools). All frustrated anger and bitterness aside, I guess it’ll just take time, but I hope I don’t run out of birthdays before one of them is pleasant to me.”
Dylan paused, glancing upward, the sky had brightened a little it seemed, the words stood out much clearer now, the uneven indentations that the pen strokes made feeling alive under the sensitive pads of his fingertips. He flicked through the slightly crumpled pages, searching for the young ladies final entry, but pausing when his fingers encountered the small smooth square of a passport sized photograph.

It was still to dim to make out colours with any certainty, but it was easily bright enough to see what the picture contained.

He knew the girl in the picture was Nikki instantly, a fact easily confirmed with the flippant inscription on the back, “Me, 19, same as always”.

Same as always, thought Dylan, poor girl, she believed there was such a thing as inconsequential.

Nikki Forbes’ image stared at him from across time, and Dylan decided that “Freakish Femme” actually suited the woman quite well. It wasn’t anything obviously unusual, her long dark hair and pale complexion resurrecting memories of cinematic vampires, and her unsmiling mouth, a little too large and full for any man’s comfort and a hard, foreboding strength. The point laid with her eyes, dark humourless its, frightening eyes that any man would long to stare into. It was only natural that the other woman would find her a disturbing newcomer, clubs hate competition.

Dylan pushed the photo back into the book and continued his quest for the final diary entry, which turned out to be a lonesome double sentence facing a never to be used blank page.

The last man read the final entry, silently staring at the sad words a moment before carefully counting the pages back to where he had left off.

Ninety-four days, not even four months before the end of Nicola Forbes’ world. Did she have any idea how little time remained? From the moment Tameson’s doctor had muttered the word “inoperable” Dylan had known they were all living on borrowed time, he’d known it incontrovertibly. When he had finally stepped out into the ghost town around him, the solitude had meant little to him. It was many months before the impact was fully felt.

When Dylan thought of his friends and family, long since gone, his memory of them had eroded to a senseless dream.

Dylan scanned down the page, reacquainting himself with the diary tapestry, then continued to read.

“I guess it’ll just take time, but I hop I don’t run out of birthdays before one of them is pleasant to me. Stupidly I thought it would be different after college, after getting away from Chris and all his disciplines, but nothing has changed. Well I guess I have Christmas to look forward to.

“21st December. Thursday.

“Meant to have my hair cut on the way home, actually got to the hairdressers then caught sight of myself in the window, like a ghosts reflection. I decided it was staying as it was, long, straight, and brunette. I don’t give a damn about what looks are “in “, I just wish long hair were less of a pain in the neck.

“22nd December. Friday.

“Thank God! Last working day of the year is over, more than a week before I have to sit behind that God-awful cash register again. Have to try to keep busy.”

His face a mask of concentration, Dylan read the self-synopsis of the young woman’s final months. The world around him gradually brightening as he worked his way through some of the entries, from solitary lines to short stories in length. A deep red spreading through the sky that hung just beneath it. Lightly, rain began to fall, a fine, fast shower that turned the grey footpath to a slick black.

The water spotted diary closed and tucked away; Dylan resumed his aimless walk. Identical houses giving way to older, more picturesque buildings, trappings of an earlier age. Sun glinting in their many windows, bricks crumbling under four stories of weight. History, times sole remaining asset, built into their every room.

Dylan felt the cool summer rain spill over him, stinging his burnt neck and running in cold streams down his back. His canvas trousers already sodden through, the heavy fabric hugging his skin like a second skin, constricting his legs with every step.

How could, what could only be described as a beauty, spend nineteen years not knowing it? How many people built a life without understanding what real attributes they possessed?

The older buildings that he passed began to thin, the previously privately owned replaced with the bland uniformity of the chain store. Dylan left the residential area behind as he wound deeper into the soundless city centre, colourfully clothed mannequins staring out at him through the many filthy windows. Above, wing beats fluttered past, followed by a barely datable click of talon on concrete.

The bird, a huge ebony raven, hopped closer, its head twitching and twisting, featureless black eyes peering at Dylan questioningly. The man stared back and, the two species edging past each other, an obscure communication passed between them. The raven’s dead gaze fixed on Dylan’s own, encompassing a cold wisdom, a controlled bleak acceptance.

It clattered closer, feathers ruffled, scythe like beak rose in Dylan’s direction, its eyes speaking a bizarre plethora of intangible ideas.

Dylan moved past it, backing away deeper into the shopping district, the huge bird turning to watch him before uttering a before uttering a single squawking goodbye and taking to the air. The solitary man followed it until it vanished over the tall buildings; Dylan’s eyes playing over the rooftops as he listened to its cries diminish.

It was then that he heard the sombre mournful moan, an insipid echo of both sound and human understanding.

Dylan froze in the steps, turning in a slow, deliberate circle, truly seeing the street around him for the first time. He stood at the junction of a trio of roads, creating a fork, either side a valley of near identical, uninspiring stores, but between the forks tines sat a coliseum of a building.

Above the tall oaken doors a representation of steel letters lay, the artificial chrome word reflecting bright orange-red flames.

The inferno stared sown on him and, in completely vacant shock, Dylan stared back, his mind time twisted, folded and distorted.

He had wandered full circle, against all logic and reason ending back where it all began, The Inferno nightclub, chief nightspot of all small town of Blackbridge, Dylan’s home town.

Around him the groan of the infected shells rebounded off the empty shops, the sound of eerie accompaniment to the image before him, the haunting root of all his dreams and nightmares. Dylan heard his heels crack against the high cement step, a poster beside the door becoming clear as he grew near, his mind filled with far off days. He reached out, testing the door, finding it locked; Dylan looked the poster over as he did. It was an advertisement of coming attractions, listing a long out of date schedule of live acts. Dylan moved past, making his way around to a long flight of steps that led to a service entrance below.

This door Dylan found open, standing ajar, its lock broken, wood splintered, at its foot lay the badly decomposed corpse of a woman, her eyes, lips and ears eaten away, presumably by birds.

Dylan let his eyes wander upwards to the thin sliver of sky above, noting the smears of brown blood encrusting the walls either side of him, before noticing the torn rail that protected passers by from this crevasse of concrete in which he stood. A precaution that, unfortunately for the woman, had failed.

Inside it was dark, forcing Dylan to root around inside the canvas pack he always carried, dragging out his eight cell flash light, the beam cutting through the tenebrous room beyond. Dylan moves deeper, carefully stepped past the partially devoured body, the light from the open doorway growing dimmer.

The circular beam played over the surroundings, picking out hand written timetables tacked to the wall. Dylan read down the silently, a few of the names ringing ancient bells in his spider infested belfry, Sherri Saddler, Kelly Bryant and, a man he definitely remembered, Jack Durrell, amongst them. Dylan continued his half blind trek through the deserted nightclub.

Kellie Bryant was, at least for a time, a notorious member of The Infernos staff, and a quiet girl who, late one November, disappeared without trace, only to reappear a little less than a year later, amid a body count of over twenty corpses. Bryant herself was found in a coma, a bullet lodged in the back of her head. The whole thing was a mystery, compounded by the starling medical report suggesting she had received the bullet wound and amazing two days before she was found.

At the time Dylan, of course, had doubted every word, but now, after all he had experienced, it seemed considerably more probable. Things happened in the world that often had no rhyme or reason, on occasion things that contradicted the laws of reality itself.

Dylan moved through the maze of rooms that constituted the basement of the behemoth of a building, stumbling past storerooms filled with kegs and crates, his route carrying him toward a narrow staircase leading up to the ground floor. In his hand the flash light shifted, the beam sliding across the wall. Dylan paused, half seeing a hand-painted sign pinned to the door beside the stairs. The man adjusted his course, the door clicking open easily.

The generator inside was a huge contraption; thick ventilation pipes snaking away from it, the thing looked like a steel old one from the Love craft books Dylan read as a teenager. He poked around, finding full cans of fuel that hadn’t evaporated in the cool air of the basement, and slowly he discovered the operating procedure of the beast.

The lights above him glowed to life, unsteadily growing in intensity, Dylan blinded a moment before the lights finally settled, the room flaring properly into view. Dylan left, turning the light off as he did.

As he reached the top of the stairs, he paused, his breath echoing along the narrow space, and then pushed open the thick basement door.

It was exactly as he remembered, unchanged by neither man nor memory, the ceiling was just as high, the dance floor just as wide, the bar just as well stocked. The Inferno was a sight to behold, Dylan was unsure if it was a good one, but never the less; it was a sight.

Dylan’s feet clattered across the wooden floor behind the bar, the worn varnish still oddly tacky from a multitude of alcohol spills; the place had not changed. The smell even remained, a strong sweet, musty smell that Dylan had always associated with aimlessness.

Behind the bar was where Sherri Sadler worked, a little rich girl trying to disassociate herself from her fathers money. Dylan remembered her vividly, a tiny lovely woman with close cropped black hair that was always covered by a baseball cap. She was constantly being harassed by one drunken man or another, she attracted men with no effort at all and it was obvious that this was an unwelcome talent. This was where Jack came in; Jack Durrell was the most terrifying man that Dylan remembered from those far off days, tall and broad, with a mane like mass of midnight black hair.

Dylan slid from behind the bar, walking into the dance floors centre, he looked up at the bright lights above, huge skylights beside them.

Jack had been the reason for the places success, recreating The Inferno with his easy smile and large frame, a friend and protector in one.

To the right of the locked entrance was the door to the Red Room, the side bar in which he had met her, its door slightly ajar, a think streak of red inside, like a wound. Which, to Dylan, was exactly what it was.

The Inferno was a huge building; it was also the number one nightspot for perhaps a fifty-mile radius, the only decent competition being the Gehenna, a new joint catering for the more bizarre clubber.

It was a new joint that was, back eighteen months ago.

Dylan moved toward the slash of crimson, the rest of the room beyond hidden by the door, everything that was except the memories.

Jack had been working on the door the night before Dylan’s wedding; Shelly had been working on the main bar. Dylan remembered that both of them had congratulated him, despite the fact neither he nor Tameson had told anyone but their parents. Jack had even brought him a drink.

Dylan’s mother had been a seamstress, and she had Tameson the most beautiful creation to wear on that following day. Naturally it had been white, with all the trappings traditionally associated with this event, but it truly had to be seen to be believed. The whole thing had a tenuous, wed like quality, as if it had been woven complete, by a hundred impossibly talented spiders that followed Tameson’s curves to perfection. As she moved down the aisle the church that was filled to capacity seemed to hum and shudder, like a gigantic tuning fork, with the assemblies collective gasp. She had flowed toward him, an apparition of some mighty Goddess, and when they had touched reality crumbled, and he and Tameson had found themselves blessedly alone.

It had all gone without a hitch, which had not surprised the newly wedded couple but had shocked all the guests to their entirety. The weather, warm but not too bright, had held and not a trace of unrest marred the reception after. In essence, their marriage had began with a blessing and in their happy conceit they assumed it would never end.

Dylan closed his eyes and blindly reached out to the door of the Red Room, as it swung open in the near silence its base scraped across the wooden floor, the sound of a shovel through stony earth. In his self-induced darkness he felt a brief breeze of cool air over him, the static airs resistance to the doors movement, then things were still once more.

Outside, muffled by the thick walls, the dull wail of the vacated human shells grew increasingly louder, a menagerie of agitated, sickened sound.

The last man stepped reverently into the small side bar and opened his eyes. The lighting in this room was always subdued, the red carpeting and walls eating up the light without difficulty. Agonisingly Dylan’s view turned, twisting to see the far side of the room. His chest tightened and his belly underwent its familiar writhing sensation, snakes caught in a flesh sack, as his eyes caught sight of the dead fire opposite a solitary barstool in the loneliest corner of the phantom infested room.

It was an unremarkable item of furniture, legs of varnished wood, seat of rugged crimson cloth fastened with golden studs, unremarkable but for the fact it was the place that Dylan’s life truly began. It was this very place, surrounded by these very walls, with even the same smell in the air.

Dylan, looked down at himself, his sweat stained chest and blood smeared arm, the trousers and boots encrusted with dried vomit. The stool wasn’t the only remarkable thing in this room.

I am no different from the shells that roam the world, Dylan thought, I am without purpose and without destination, a wandering half man, buried in the useless tortures of an unchangeable past, a living creature without equals is a worthless thing.

He moved over he hard wearing carpet, rooting around in his pack, and pulling out Nikki’s diary. It was somehow fitting for the two women to meet, perhaps to exchange stories and share their company in their otherworldly land.

The spine of the book creaked open, Dylan knew for the last time, as he turned to the final entry, the girls photograph placed next to it.

Treat each other well, he told them silently, be kind.

When Dylan returned to the dance hall, the sound of the shells outside as loud enough to penetrate his murky mind. It was more than loud enough actually, it was a torrent of sound, the loudest thing he had heard since this whole nightmare had began. Between the howls and moans Dylan could make out the sound of scratching and thumping of hungry hands on wood.

He looked around; finding a staircase with a door marked “Staff Only” at the top, and started to climb.

Dylan’s thoughts turned uncontrollably to the creatures outside, to their inconsistencies in particular.

Why were they sometimes so gentle and passive, like well care for children, and at other times like this, out for blood? Was it some kind of shift in the surroundings that Dylan wasn’t party to? A social conscience of some description?

The route to the roof was easily found, but the door at its top was not easily opened. It took Dylan more than five minutes to force its lock so he could pass through, five minutes in which the noise outside began to burrow into him, forcing him to listen to its symphony. Words and half words began to present themselves out of the soup of desperate sounds, becoming so clear that Dylan could not ignore them, even if he had the will to.

The door flew open and Dylan found himself with a miniature model of the city below, the model slowly turning into a map as he moved closer to the edge of the flat roof. Below was the scene of a surreal riot, a collection of the most bizarre of people, woman pushing dogs corpses in shopping trolleys brushed shoulders with men in trench coats with bitten, bloody

Faces. It was, Dylan noticed, a parody of the old world, the living one were this mishmash somehow managed to live together in something akin to peaceful.

One of the shells noticed him and, as one, they raised their eyes skyward. Dylan looked down on them, the rightful heir to the world allowing an audience with his subjects. The moan was broken momentarily by a scuffle between two of the kings subjects, the corpse of the woman Dylan had found was being fought over, her poor dead arms torn from sockets, and Dylan realised he hadn’t closed the service entrance.

The shells flooded inside the old nightclub, as they may have in the years gone past, in any of the buildings previous incarnations, as theatre hall, or cinema, or restaurant.

Dylan felt the building beneath him shake with the passage of so many bodies through its artery like corridors. Shells, the blood of the now, the planets sole inhabitants.

He stepped up onto the low wall that encircled the rooftop, looking down the long, high wall that led the way to the ground, many faces upturned below paying homage to the last man.

Dylan closed his eyes and felt the sun beat down on him, his tired body welcoming the warmth, the bellowing sound from below like a strange blanket comforting his lonely mind.

He could almost hear the world again, the cars and radios, the next door neighbours shouting, Tameson’s soft, intelligent laugh, it all flooded back into him, a near real illusion, but only an illusion.

Why cling to the death of the past, what is it in cerebral self-torture that pleases me so? Is it just that pain hides loneliness, the same way loud music can bury sense? I walk my world, a man from another place, a different time. I wander the byways searching for some purpose, or failing that a reason for having none. The shells are now living, and I am the dead.

I died eighteen months ago, the same day I woke beside the breathing corpse of my wife, the day I pressed a pillow to her face and snuffed out her gorgeous life for a second time.

Dylan thought of Nikki’s final diary entry, dated the same day he had murdered his wife.

“I buried my mother beside dad, they always loved each other so very much. Treat each other well, I told them silently, be kind.”

Dylan’s tears flooded down his face, a violent sob erupting from him, on the edge of the roof he quaked with remorse and did the only thing he could.

The air pushed against him, gravity ceased to be, his salty tears was pushed from his face by the force of the up rushing air. Dylan had time for one final thought.

I love you, Tameson.

Then his body slammed through the crowd of shells below, connecting with the tarmac, bones scattering, the happy smile he wore disappearing as his jaw splintered, Dylan’s world went momentarily black, then his body died and Dylan’s soul moved joyously beside Tameson’s in a place beyond time.

Shells flooded forward, curiously examining Dylan’s vacated corpse, around them the world turned, the sun burned and the living were no more alive than the dead.

On the rooftops above, the raven hopped from leg to leg, its huge black eyes fixed on the spectacle below, and it fluttered its wings and took to the air.

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