A Watch in the Night

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story about the end of the end of the world

Submitted: August 06, 2009

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Submitted: August 06, 2009

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A Watch in the Night

 

By

 

Mark Peckett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For a thousand years in thy sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
and as a watch in the night.

Psalm 90-4

 

I

 

The battle for Tesco’s was short and savage.  Darren’s tribe attacked at dawn, swarming across the car park like shadows, hiding behind bushes and old cars.  At a signal they all rose up and charged, screaming, bursting through the barricade of shopping trolleys and killing the lookouts of Rahman’s tribe before they had time to sound the alarm. The fighting, with knives and stones and iron bars, raged up and down the aisles.  Darren’s tribe killed all; there were too many mouths to feed already so none were spared.  Men, women and children all died.

Darren broke his knife killing Shanaz, Rahman’s woman.  She turned aside and his blade snapped on her rib.  He crushed her skull with a rock and now he was picking over the corpses, trying to find a new weapon.  It was then that River, his adviser, came to him.

River was the oldest of the tribe, and looked on with great awe, having already lived two more years than most.  He was twenty three, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, dinner suit trousers tucked into cowboy boots and an army greatcoat.  His face was grim.

   Darren looked up and grunted.  He was hefting a three foot iron spike in his hand.

“It’s bad,” said River.  “Three days’ food – maybe four if we ration it.”

“No.” Darren swung the bar experimentally.  “No fucking rationing.  We need to be strong.”  And he smashed it into a shelf.  Useless things – air fresheners, toilet blocks and floor polish – flew everywhere.

“Then what?”

Darren shrugged.  “Sainsbury’s.  Morrison’s.  Fucking Asda.”

“Then what?”

  “The fuck you on about, man?”

River sighed, said, “It’s all gone, Daz – there’s no food left.”

Darren frowned, thinking.  It was why he lead the tribe.  His mind drove down one track and pulled the tribe along behind him.  But when it ended, he didn’t try and force his way on.  He changed track.  He nodded.

“Ok,” he said.  “What?”

“Come with me.”

River took him up to the roof and they looked out over the ruins.  The car park was full of cars, windows smashed and sagging on slashed tyres.  Some were burnt out and rusting bright orange and black.  There were more abandoned cars in the roads beyond.  The windows of the houses they could see were broken and curtains flapped through the black holes.  Furniture had been thrown into the front gardens.  Broken television sets, sofas with the stuffing ripped out.  Some had been set on fire, by accident or deliberately; charred roof timbers scratched at the sky.  Lawns and hedges were overgrown and spreading everywhere.  Beyond, blocks of flats and offices, windows darkened squares.  Black smoke from a fire in the distance hung in the sky.  There was always something burning.

It was very quiet.  Birds sang.  The wind whistled around them.

“Well?” said Darren.

“What do you see?”

“The city.”

“And that way?” River turned and pointed.

Darren shrugged.  “Nothing.  Trees.  Grass.”

“That’s where food comes from.”

Darren looked at him blankly.

“Meat. Vegetables,” said River patiently.  “They grow out there.  In the country.”  He studied Darren’s face.  He couldn’t see any understanding.  “Food doesn’t come from boxes and tins,” he said.  “Vegetables grow in the ground like grass and trees.  Meat comes from animals like cats and dogs.”

Darren grinned.  “Haven’t seen one of those in a while,” he said.

It was true.  Ten years ago, when Darren was nine, packs of dogs roamed the streets, scavenging, carrying off the weak, the young and unwary from the tribe.  But the last dog had been trapped and eaten long ago, and there were no fish left in the lakes, ponds and reservoirs.  Few pigeons, less eggs.  His tribe was starving.  Something had to be done.

“OK,” he said.  “What’s your plan?”

“We need to leave the city.”

“Fuck off.”

“I’m serious, Daz – there are people like us out there.  Growing food.  We need them.”

Darren grunted.  “We’ll talk to Savannah,” he said.

Savannah was Darren’s woman.  Three years younger than him, mother to his son Luka, and stepmother to his five year old son Tyson by Lateesha, his previous woman.  She had died three years ago and he had been with Savannah ever since. 

She was tending the wounded, washing and dressing injuries.  Luka was crawling around on the floor near her.  Tyson was playing with the other children his age.  They were fighting with sticks.  She looked up, pushed hair off her face.

“Tell her,” said Darren.

River told her walk he’d told Darren.  When he had finished she looked at Darren and said, “What do you think?”

“I think we should do it.”

She nodded.  “All right.  Call the tribe and tell them.”

She sent Conor.  They gathered the tribe all together in the warehouse.  Darren climbed up on a forklift truck and looked out over them.  His tribe.  They were dirty, dressed in what they could find or what they had stripped off the dead bodies.  Their hair was long and matted, their faces pinched with sunken cheeks and large dark eyes.

Darren spoke.  “I know where there is food,” he said.  His tribe stirred, murmuring.  “Not in the city.  In the ... country.  There are tribes who grow food - in the ground – like grass and trees.  They grow meat.  But they don’t fight.  They’re weak.  And we’ll take their food from them!” The murmur rose to a roar, fists clenched, weapons raised and shaken.

“Is it true?” Savannah asked River.

“I don’t know.  My father told me when he was teaching me to read.  And I found a few books.”

“Books?”

“Haven’t seen one of those in a while.” It was true.  What hadn’t been burnt had been used for toilet paper long ago.

“I don’t understand.”

River smiled.  “It doesn’t matter.”

“But we don’t have a choice?”

“I don’t think so.  The tribes have eaten everything.  All that’s left is killing and eating each other.”

“If you’re wrong, he’ll kill you.”

“If I’m wrong we’re dead anyway.”

“He’d rather die fighting than starving to death in the middle of nowhere.”

They watched as Darren shouted, “We leave tomorrow at dawn!” and again the tribe roared, then broke up and slowly drifted away.

They’d follow him anywhere, thought River.  They trust him completely.  And he trusts me – but not completely.  And they don’t trust me at all.  I’m too old.  They’re scared of me.  They’d kill me if they could – if Darren wasn’t there to stop them.

Darren strode up to him.  “It’s done,” he said, and he stared at River with hard eyes until River looked away.  No words were spoken but the threat was unmistakeable.  River had no doubt what Savannah had said to him was true.  Then Darren pushed past him, took Savannah by the waist and left the warehouse, leaving River alone.

At his age, he was used to being on his own.  Everyone he had ever loved was dead.  His father, who had lived to be twenty-five, and the three women who had cared for him – his mother and the woman who had raised him when she had died, and then the one who loved him when he grew up – all dead.  Maybe it would be better if Darren killed him.  No more wondering then when he was going to die – tomorrow or the next day, next week or next year.

   The gloom of the warehouse suited his mood.  He sat down and pulled his coat around him.  It was cold out of the sun and away from the fires but it was better than the silence and the stares of the tribe.  Only Darren and Savannah spoke to him.  Even children were pulled away from him until they were old enough to run.

He thought he might sleep; save his strength for tomorrow.  It was going to be a long day.  But something caught his eye: a patch of white under the wheel of the forklift truck.

It was a piece of paper.  Not smooth to the touch like the books in his bag.  It was coarser and the print on it was larger.  He tried to ease it out, but a corner was trapped and tore off.  He could have wept.  All those words lost.

What was left?  He smoothed it out.  A red square in the corner where it was torn.  White writing, what was left of it, in capitals:

“ – LY

- ROR”

Underneath, part of another word, capital letters, big and black:

“ – RUS!”

He couldn’t make anything of it.  And beneath that part of another word:

“ – illions”

And then the last word.  One he could read:

“Dead”

There were two columns underneath with words he could  read.  Easy ones: “is”, “the”, “and”, “a”.  Then harder ones: “emergency”, “military”, “contingency”.  And this word in capitals: “EODS.” It didn’t look like anything he had seen before.  Not like the books in his bag, with pictures, about Janet and John or the Famous Five and Swallows and Amazons.  He read on.  More words, some he understood and some he didn’t.  And this:  “ ... Early Onset Death Syndrome.”  He recognised “Early” and “Death.” Was that EODS?

He shrugged and folded the paper, put it into his pocket.  It could wait.  He went outside to help the tribe prepare for tomorrow.

 

 

 

II

They left in the pearl-grey light of early dawn, carrying everything they could.  Some were bundled up in layer upon layer of clothing.  They crept from the supermarket down the edge of the road, keeping close to hedges, fences and walls.  They followed Darren and River.  No one spoke, the children were silent and the babies did not cry.  They didn’t like this.  Their world was protected by walls and barricades.  Open spaces scared them.  Their weapons were at the ready, their eyes darted to and fro, and at the slightest sound they all froze.

Darren kept them going all morning.  At midday he found a school and ushered them all inside.  He posted lookouts and wouldn’t let the tribe light fires.  There was some grumbling and sullen stares aimed at River.  Ever since Darren had stared him out yesterday he had felt the touch of death on him.  The rest of the tribe seemed to feel it too.  He went to look for Darren to lift the feeling – the curse - and found him on the roof.

He was with his right-hand man, Cody.  Cody was sixteen years old, dressed in a lilac shell suit, a parka and Doc Martins with a keffiyeh wrapped round his head.  They were squatting behind a water tank, sharing a pair of binoculars, staring intently through them.  They did not hear him until he was right behind them.

Cody leaped to his feet with a curse, his hand darting to the bread knife in his belt.  River backed away, hands raised.  Cody grabbed him by his shirt front and pressed the knife to his throat.

“You fucking freak.  I ought to kill you.”

River could feel the teeth biting into his flesh.

“Daz!” he gasped, looking at him over Cody’s shoulders.

Darren sighed.  “Leave it, Cody.”

Cody cursed again, shoving River in the chest and he staggered back.  Cody stalked back to the water tank.  River touched his hand to his throat and it came away bloody.  He wiped his hand on his greatcoat.  “What’re you looking at?” he asked.

“There’s a tribe out there.”

Darren handed him the binoculars.

River scanned the buildings around the school.  At first he saw nothing, just ruins, broken windows, overgrown gardens.  And then something.  In that dark window.  Behind that crashed car.  The bus shelter.

“We’re trapped,” said Darren.

“Like fucking rats,” said Cody, glaring at River.  “We never should have come.”

“Shut the fuck up, Cody.” He turned to River.  “What d’you think?”

River looked again.  They were strung out along the road, hiding.  There were about thirty of them.  Not enough to surround the school.  They could escape tonight across the fields.  Or they could send some of the tribe out under cover of darkness and then attack with the rest at dawn on the left flank, pushing them down the road into an ambush and kill them all.  Or ...

“Well?” said Darren.

“We could try talking to them,” said River.

They stared at him, Cody’s mouth open and Darren’s shut in a grim line, then they both started talking at once, swearing.

“The fuck you talking about?”

“Think about it, Daz.  They’re just like us.  Tired.  Hungry.  They don’t want to fight.  We should go and tell them that we’re just passing through and we’ll be gone by morning.”

“Are you listening to this shit?”

“Jesus!  Will you shut up and let me think.”

“You can’t be serious!  I say first we kill this fuck – “ he had his knife out again and he pointed it at River.  “ – and then we go and kill all those fuckers out there.” And he waved it in the direction of the road.

“Shut the fuck up, man,” said Darren, holding his hand up to him.  He turned to River.  “You think they’ll go for it?”

“No way!” screamed Cody.  “No fucking way.  He’s going to get us all killed.  And if you listen to him you’re as crazy as he is.” His eyes wild and glaring he swung on River.  “I’m going to fucking kill you.”

He lashed out with the knife and River flung himself backwards, stumbled and fell.  Cody dropped on top of him and raised the knife above his head.  The sun glittered wickedly on its jagged edge.  River brought his arms up in front of his face and the knife slashed down.

There was a sound like a stone landing in a mud puddle and Cody toppled onto him.  He felt very heavy.  Something hot ran onto River’s face.  He thought it was his blood and yet he felt no pain.  Perhaps he was dying at last ...

Then the weight was gone and he could breathe easily.  Darren had Cody by the collar and was dragging the limp body off him.  Blood and brains from Cody’s head dripped onto River and he wriggled away on his back in disgust.  Darren dumped the body and wiped his iron spike on Cody’s parka, leaving dark stripes.  He tugged Cody’s scarf off and threw it at River.

“Clean yourself up.”

River climbed to his feet and dabbed at the red stuff on his hands and face, turning away from Cody’s crumpled body.  He dropped the keffiyeh guiltily.  He turned back and found Darren watching him.  He squared his shoulders.

“Okay?” asked Darren.

River nodded.

“Right, let’s do it.”

They left Cody’s body on the roof – “For the birds,” said Darren – and went to find Savannah.  Darren told her the plan and she glanced sharply at River.

“You better not be trying to get us all killed because you want to die yourself,” she said.

As her eyes narrowed, his widened in shock.  He knew he was waiting to die but until that moment he hadn’t thought he was looking for it.

“Will you shut up about dying?” said Darren.  “There’s been enough fucking death for one day.”

“What do you mean?”

“Cody’s dead.  I killed him – had to.  He challenged me.  The body’s on the roof.  Tell his woman.  We got to go and talk to that tribe out there.  Let’s go, River.”

Darren ignored Savannah’s open-mouthed stare and strode off.  River could not meet her eyes and looked away.  She laid a hand on his arm.

“What happened up there?” she asked.

Still looking at the ground, he shook his head and pulled away, turning to follow Darren outside.  He met him at the door, peering through the broken glass.

“So how does this work?” he said.

“We out with a white a flag.”

“A white flag?”

“It means we’re not going to fight.”

“Do they know that?”

“And we put our weapons down.”

“Fuck off!”

“There are some things you can’t do with a weapon in your hand.”

“I didn’t hear you complaining on the roof.”

River sighed.  “To everything there is a season, Daz.”

“What?”

“I don’t know.  Something my dad used to say ... a time to every purpose – something something – a time to kill and a time to something -“ He shook his head.  “I can’t remember.”

Darren dropped a hand on his shoulder.  “Yeah, well – it doesn’t matter.  Let’s get this done.”

They pushed through the door and Darren slowly put down his iron spike and River shook out the piece of white sheet in his hands. They stood there feeling as big as the school behind them.  It was very quiet.  Nothing moved.

“Now what?” whispered Darren.

“Say something.”

Darren cleared his throat, raised his voice.  “My name is Darren.  This is my tribe.  We don’t want any trouble.” The silence grew around them.  “We’re just passing through.”

They waited a long time, but nothing happened.  Darren scowled at the smashed windows and broken doors, daring something to happen.

“This is a waste of fucking time.”

“Just wait.” River sounded more confident than he felt.

In the silence they could hear their hearts pounding, their blood rushing, their breathing.  The wind, birds, a rattle of stones falling.

A shout, the voice reedy and cracking.

“What you want?”

“Leave us alone.  We’ll be gone – “ Darren glanced up at the sun. “ – in


© Copyright 2017 Mark Peckett. All rights reserved.

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