Murder is an incredibly human concept, when you think of it. All species kill; to protect their young, to cull those unfit, most often in order to stay alive- everyone needs to eat.
And yet, in nature, all causes of death are natural. We exist simply for existence’ sake. All victories, large and small, all worlds we build- everything we do, will die. Of course, it might be remembered, for a little while, by other, equally perishable beings. But, in the end, existence will cease to exist. That is the way of the world. All things come to an end. Eventually.
All ways of life die. Usually, of natural causes, so to speak. Occasionally, then, they die of something other than natural causes. And what is the word we have created, a stand-in for “other than natural causes”?
A stupid word, when you think of it.
But an appropriate one.
The sky was a horribly dull grey-and-navy. The car loomed out of the shadows like some shiny, dusty monster. It was just a little way across the yard. It was the same car it had always been, but tonight it was dangerous. Even worse, it was unavoidable.
This was bad.
This was really, really bad.
And it was a sure thing.
A few months ago, crisis had been far away- horribly frightening, yes, but just another news item – but as the days turned to weeks it had edged closer, first on the news, (‘scenes some viewers may find disturbing’, though it was impossible to look away) – but the scenes of carnage had disappeared from screens once they realized that no solution was forthcoming -, then in rumors, rumors that had travelled, rumors distorted, then in real stories, of cousins and friends who had met their end. Then, it had been scary. It had been lock-your-doors-at-night, don’t-speak-about-it scary. That was because it was real, getting realer. The Internet is a liar, the news too, but what about Sue down the street who bawled in school thinking about her cousins, hoping they weren’t gone? Was she a liar? Were your own eyes deceiving you when you saw a boy little more than a child lose his grip on this life, gone before he could see the deaths all around him?
Oh, this was bad.
Oh, was it ever bad.
And it was happening. Tonight, it was happening.
They couldn’t help what they were about to do. They weren’t given a choice. They were trying to protect their family. They were trying to follow instruction, to do as asked, even if the instructions were coming from the other side.
But were there sides? No, she realized, there weren’t. It was the fire and they were the kindling.
Her uncle, her aunt, her godparents, they were trying to do their job. To protect their kids. They loved her, sure. But in this situation they were like game-show judges, the biggest phonies of them all. They would hate to see her go, but it was something that had to be done. They couldn’t help it.
They couldn’t help it.
She could see the look of desperation in those eyes, could understand it. They hardly believed that, if they did as told, everything would be OK. The villain never plays fair; the mastermind always finds the loophole. Everyone knew that. If comic books and action movies have taught us anything, it’s that the bad guy never plays by the rules. It’s common knowledge, that.
But, in all fairness, what choice did they have? This was no game, this was no movie. And they couldn’t help it. A thing like this, it had to be done.
We are the kindling, the voice in her head whispered.
But, no. They weren’t just the kindling. They were the weapon, too.
Oh, God, is this happening? Can this really happen? Am I dreaming? Am I in a coma?
But dreams scared her, so she pushed the thought away.
Scared of dreams, really? With all I’ve got to be afraid of?
“Ester, honey?” The voice was tentative, apologetic.
Oh, I hope you’re sorry. I hope you’re scared. I bet one’ll get you when you try to leave it’ll serve you-
But, no. That wasn’t fair.
Do you think what he’s planning is fair? What do you think about that?
No, it wasn’t fair, but none of this was.
Get out and run, girl. Take your chances in the wild.
And there would be chances in the wild. She was a strong girl, full of instinct, and the enemy kept to the towns. Oh, there’d be chances. And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t contemplated it, sure she had. It would be simple, easy, even.
But she couldn’t. Leaving would mean sure death for the family. She didn’t really care about the parents, they were mostly dead anyway, just walking shells. But the kids?
They were young, they had a life ahead – an uncertain one, but they had a chance of survival if she did as told.
Oh, she was going to miss them. Luckily they weren’t old enough for her treatment.
Casting call: Ages 13-25. Preferably, doomed.
They probably didn’t even know what was happening. Out here in the country, life continued as usual. They had enough canned goods stockpiled to last them years. It was true, the enemy kept to the towns. It was the threat of their approach that kept everyone subdued.
“Ester, honey?” Tentative, apologetic, irritating.
I hope he gets close enough to think he’ll make it. I hope his head comes clean off in their hands-
No. No, dammit! The thought wasn’t her own, and she knew it. In the last few days she had felt it in her head, her thoughts twisting and sifting. They were bad thoughts. They were angry thoughts, contemptuous thoughts. Worst of all, they were inviting thoughts. Whatever it was, it was in her head, and it wasn’t human. She had realized this, but had never spoken it aloud. Even in these times, the very idea was ridiculous. It was imperative that they maintain a sense of normalcy. If she told her aunt or her uncle, it might be the final straw, they might snap under the strain, and their kids needed them. At least one of them probably wouldn’t come back alive. They could drop her outside the city, but they had to be sure; they had to be positive that she wouldn’t run away-
-that their sacrifice is received
Sacrifice? No. It was wrong to think that, but think it she did, and whether it was her own or not was immaterial; it was in there, it was not to be moved.
She felt her feet shuffle across the rain-sodden yard toward the instrument of her destruction. She swung open the door and threw herself inside. Searched for the belt buckle. Found it. Pulled it across. Clicked it in.
This is the last time I’ll ever do this.
The action seemed to confirm in her head the truth of her imminent death. In belting herself in she seemed to, also, be sealing her fate. She was doomed, and she knew it.
This was bad. This was so, so bad.
The rain was night-time rain, not a fine mist all around, but heavy, separate, definite drops that dive-bombed the car as it pulled out the gate.
The same car, the same gate. All things as they should be.
Tears sprung fresh in her eyes. She didn’t care if he saw her upset anymore. She had been choking emotion down for weeks. She was about to die. She didn’t care if he was slightly uncomfortable. He didn’t seem it, anyway.
His eyes were bright, wide, awake, his grip on the steering wheel tight. In fact, everything about him seemed tight, wound-up,
She wouldn’t allow herself to believe it, and the voice in her head was little more than a hiss, but it was soft and it was seductive; even more than that, even worse than that, it sounded right.
He didn’t look scared, not even upset, and, though he bore no smile, she somehow felt as though the absence of one was little more than formality. Somehow, he had convinced himself that this was simply an evening drive, a trip out for milk or teabags. Maybe he had to, to retain a grip on reality. That was alright; she had convinced herself it was aliens.
The raindrops attacked the sunroof and the night closed in as the small car skittered over the narrow and potholed back road. As they got closer to town, the road widened out, and the bumps became few.
It was disgusting how people continued as normal. Stockpiling food as though there was a severe weather warning. Chatting and gossiping.
They wouldn’t let their children leave the house, but the price of vegetables in Aldi was still the biggest piece of news.
People moving to the country to be nearer relatives that didn’t even exist.
It was all a cover story. It was all a lie.
There was silence in the car. She imagined herself saying something like “Can you believe this weather? In June?” and striking up a hearty conversation.
If I don’t talk now, I’ll never talk again.
But of course she wouldn’t talk. She couldn’t talk. Did it matter? She was about to find out what dying felt like. Another thought came to her, of her screaming “I’m too young to die!” and rattling the door lock. But it wasn’t funny. Under the circumstances, it felt completely horrible.
Then it occurred to her that perhaps it was in his head too. As she thought about it, it began to seem more and more like the logical conclusion. That maybe her uncle was driving along on auto pilot, seeing rainbows and ponies, not in control of himself but not aware of that either. It was nigh-certain that he had lost it. What happened when he got it back? Would he ever feel shame? Would he be plagued by nightmares perhaps? Believing that it was his fault that she would be gone?
That’s because it is his fault.
The voice was back, and maybe the voice was right. All this talk of it being nobody’s fault, it was all over-the-top, soft-serve bullshit, anyway. It’s nobody’s fault if the world ends, sure. The ritual sacrifice of your niece? That’s another thing.
He’s weak. He always has been. They all are. Weak. When the cards are down, they’ll show their true colors. Good for nothing. Weak. Maybe the world’ll be better off without them.
Not them, us, she reminded herself. Not them, us. And it won’t be better. Mass murder leaves a stain on the world. Things are never better. Things only get worse.
Things only get worse.
But, of course, the only voice in his head was his own.
As he took the car over the road, he found himself surprisingly calm. Well, not really surprisingly. It was the most calm he’d been in weeks. And not without good reason, either. Finally, there was something he could do about his family’s situation. The weeks spent idle, fearing but being unable to do a thing, feeling like the worst damn excuse for a man ever created, they had been hell. Whatever they were headed into now had got to be some improvement. If he died, at least he could say he had tried to do something. He hadn’t given much thought to the girl. She had never been the most pleasant of people, and, given the circumstances, she was a small price to pay. She wasn’t his side of the family, anyway. Blood is thicker than water, his mother had always said, protect those you love. That was what he was doing. He was doing his job, the job he’d vowed to do. He had no choice. Now he could do something, and that was a good thing. Maybe, by Christmas, it would all be over. He felt good.
She felt ill. Waves of fear rushed over her. It was the way they walked, lurching, stumbling. Not looking where they went.
The look on each ones face. The look in each one’s eyes.
Not zombies, worse.
Because they had no human master. Because they hadn’t risen – they had never fallen in the first place. As out of control as they were, they were certainly in control. Intelligent. And, most definitely, alive.
As they neared the town, they began to see the first signs of it. The first time, it looked like road kill. Several close-together instances of it. For a while that was all there was. Death. Everywhere along the road. Some still whole by the hedges. Some run over by the influx of traffic tonight. Some-
“They’re not human.”
What do you know, she can talk!
There was no reply from the driver’s seat.
“They’re not human” Her eyes were wide and round, her face pale. She sat bolt upright, paralyzed with fear.
Jesus Christ you said that already.
She was starting to become annoying. He was glad that they were close to the finishing line.
“ Humans… they don’t.. they don’t”
Fuck sake spit it out
“They… they don’t rip, they don’t.. chew”
“You don’t know that anyone is chewing anything” He laughed light-heartedly.
It broke her from her stupor.
“I do know! I know, you self-centred shit!”
“Well,” he glanced at her, a cruel grin playing on his lips, “to be honest, it doesn’t really matter how you die, does it?”
He turned back to face the road, full of satisfaction.
That shut the little bitch up.
She thought she might be sick.
This is happening. This is really happening. But why should it happen? Kill the bastard! It’s easy, I swear!
And the thought appealed to her, it really did. But, what if she killed him, and then died herself, of starvation?
There will be chances in the wild. Chances upon chances.
She didn’t want her final act to be murder. No surer way to get to hell.
Do you really still believe in God?
Well, if there was anything to convince her of the unknown, this was it.
And what if she couldn’t live with herself after what she had done?
You’re running out of time, honey.
She envisioned herself grabbing something- what? She could try and injure him with the belt buckle, or steer the car into a ditch and run away while he either bled to death or tried to figure out what had happened. Under normal circumstances it would be hard for a teenage girl to fight a grown man and win, but these weren’t normal circumstances. She had a feeling her little friend could keep him pacified. Now she imagined herself clobbering him to death while he sat there with a dopey grin on his face, and, while the idea was somewhat revolting, it wasn’t entirely unattractive.
Now they passed the large and dusty-brown sign reading, “Welcome to our town!”, and, in smaller font, “Keep it beautiful!” An illustration beneath showed a cartoon rabbit beside a bin and a smiling child.
And then they came, out of the darkness, delirious smiles painted on their faces, some lurching, wounded and bleeding, but happy nonetheless, some running, leaping, laughing. She saw a pair dancing a stumbling waltz.
They had almost reached their destination.
The packs ignored their car, something she didn’t understand at first; she had expected to be devoured before she ever reached the square. Then she understood.
They recognize one of their own.
They weren’t leaving every car alone, however. She saw a man and a woman cautiously pull out of a driveway, ready to flee if they saw anything. They didn’t see anything. The girls and the boys were on them, wrestling them out of the car (with surprising force for their bony pubescent arms), their eyes alight with glee, looking more ecstatic than ever. What they did next didn’t bear thinking about. The pair didn’t suffer for long.
As they got closer to the square, the fear started to ebb away, perhaps because of the certainty that there was nothing she could do to save herself. That, in its own, strange way, was a comforting thought. And the anger she felt wasn’t so painful, either. It was, actually, rather nice.
He’s never going to make it. Once I’m gone, he’ll never make it.
In spite of herself, she smiled.
The raindrops plummeted to earth still, but the night opened up. In the distance, a large bonfire burned. With it came the smell of burning hair. It emitted a bright orange glow on the horizon.
So, she was going to die. This was the way to do it, wasn’t it? By the fire, surrounded by family and friends? She laughed.
He jumped. The good feeling was gone. His stomach felt sick and full of fear. He was a bag of nerves.
Oh, God, what if I don’t make it, what if I don’t get out alive? The girl’s lost it, she’s lost it, I’m in the car with a maniac, surrounded by maniacs, I’ll never make it, I’ll never make it did you see what they did to them, they’re roasting them, they’re burning them, they’re burning them alive she’s crazy she’ll kill me this isn’t right they promised, they promised I’d…
The car came to a halt. He looked down. Everything seemed to be ok with the car, but the car would not go. Then he noticed the keys in his outstretched hand. Out the window. His hand stretched out the window. He made himself bring his hand back in, then whipped it out and flung the keys out the window.
Oh, God, what have you done?
Then he noticed the cars lined neatly beside him. On one side sat a woman. Her eyes had a deranged look about them. Identical triplets who looked about 14 and bore a dazed and drugged look were strapped to the back seat. Clearly, they hadn’t come so easily.
On the other side, he was shocked to find, was a girl about 17 who sat in the driver’s seat and gazed vacantly up at the fire. The cars stretched out in a line, then the line turned at both ends at a right angle, the completed formation being a square. In the centre, the bonfire blazed. In the centre, the bonfire screamed.
This is it. This is the end.
He looked at the girl, Ester. She smiled at him, a pained, human, knowing smile.
She felt pain. Terrible, horrible, pain. It burned, oh, God, in her bones, in her blood, it burned. The world was all in dull soft-focus. It had taken on an orange-yellow colour. Beside her, the man felt fear. She didn’t have to look at him to know. It was obvious when humans felt fear. You could taste it in the air. They were, by nature, an obvious race. A fearful race, too. She turned; she showed him the look he needed to see. It was small comfort to him, that she knew. Ah, well. Small comfort was better than no comfort in one’s final moments.
He saw the look change, and the fear overtook him. His mind wouldn’t stand the strain much longer.
A new civilization. A young civilization. They would raze this town to the ground. They would raze every city and build anew. Build up out of the ashes.
Ashes of the people who messed the world up so badly that there could be no reprieve, no return.
Someone had to intervene.
Earth’s future was in the hands of the young. The young had to learn.
Learn they would. And they would teach their children a new way.
The fire warmed her, and the fire was good, the fire made her strong. She could fight the pain; she could fight anything. She felt happy, happier than she had felt in weeks, and to feel happy was good. To feel strong was good. To escape was good.
The new world would be free of man’s imperfections. Unified as one body, there would be no wars. Every young brain educated to fully harness the people’s potential. Man was disloyal. The new people were not. There would be no betrayal, because the disloyal had shown their true colours. Had sent their own young to what they believed to be certain death.
They would be punished for their sins.
Not the kindling, the weapon.
She grinned at the man, but he didn’t grin back. It was a shame, it was a crying shame.
This is good.
This is really, really good.
The bodies of the delivery men and women burned in the centre of town.
They had been punished.
At 9.08 that night in June, Ester lost her grip on this life.
He didn’t have time to think that he was going to make it.
His head came clean off in her hands.
The sky was a horribly dull grey-and-navy.
She was the same girl she had always been, but, tonight, she was dangerous.