The Man Who Lived at the End of the World

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Chapter 12

Lucy lay looking up at the stars. The sky here was a huge dome, wrapped around the earth like a snow-globe, not like the borderless expanse in her other world filled with sunlight. Here there were boundaries and walls reaching up to block the sky until it was framed only in small pieces that everyone had learned to forget.

At first she hadn't liked this place as much as the other, but the longer she had lay in the cool grass looking at the stars the closer she seemed to get to their secrets, and now she felt as if they were all reaching down to her invisibly, their light playfully tousling her. She sometimes thought that they were trying to take her somewhere, to see someone, or maybe to lift her to go back home, but she never seemed to be there quite long enough to find out what they tried to tell her. Her eyes would close again and she was in the other place, with its light so bright it pushed the shadows of the night time out of her mind, only letting them return when she woke in her bedroom.

Some nights, like tonight, the stars would whirl and move above her, and she would feel the solace of arms carrying her and warmth against her, a journey that lasted forever. It felt like surrender, a return to being carried in the womb, an unravelling of everything she had become, to remember what she had always been.

Suddenly it all shattered and disappeared as a jolt of panic ripped Lucy back up out of her soft comfort. Her eyes sprang open to see the bright ceiling above her. Patterns of sunlight streamed through the tops of the curtains in oddly-angled shafts and shapes all across it. She frowned at the loud noises coming from outside, harsh engines and footsteps, and voices shouting. She heard her gran's voice joining in from downstairs but could not make out her words, only the tone of panic and indignation.

Then the front door slammed shut and there were more footsteps hurrying up the stairs. Lucy's stomach folded over itself as she knew that none of it would be good news. Her bedroom door opened and in walked her gran, her face creasing into lines of worry that aged her another ten years. She sat down on Lucy's bed and helped her as she struggled to sit up against her pillows, kissing her forehead.

“How are you this morning, darling?”

Lucy was still too tired to tell, and she shrugged. “Okay,” she said.

“Sorry if all that noise woke you up. The army are going through the town.”

“The army?” Lucy began to feel frightened. “What for?”

“They've been announcing about evacuations on the radio,” her gran explained. “I didn't know they were coming so soon. They're taking everyone away today and tomorrow.”

“What about us?” She felt panic rise to join her confusion and fright.

“They said they'd send a special unit in a few days' time to pick up all the sick people who'll need looking after.”

Lucy's heart sank, and she stared down at her hands in front of her. “You mean you're stuck here because of me?” she asked.

She closed her eyes as she felt them welling up, shame and guilt welling up with them, and her gran said nothing as she threw her arms around Lucy and held her tight. She kissed Lucy's head.

“They sprayed a sign on our door,” she eventually said. “They'll know where we are. They'll be coming straight for us soon, to take us somewhere safe.”

Lucy felt a little better, and her gran let her go with a smile, straightening Lucy's hair back over her shoulders. “You'll always be safe,” she said.

She got up and went over to the curtains, throwing them open onto bright sunshine. “And it's time for your breakfast, young lady,” she added with a chuckle.

She left the room and went back downstairs, leaving Lucy to sit in her bed and look out through the newly-opened curtains. She felt like those curtains were the eyelids on the world, and that it was just as surprised as she was to see the faint hope in the glimmering sunlight outside.

She waited for her breakfast, a smile finding its way to her lips as she looked forward to it. Now that she was feeling stronger she found that she awoke feeling more hungry, just like she did before she became ill. The irresistible smells of toast and tea wafted up from downstairs in waves, like playful creatures sent to tantalise her, and after what seemed like an eternity her gran's footsteps thumped slowly up the stairs. She returned carrying the same small tray as she did every morning, setting it down on top of the duvet on Lucy's legs.

Lucy breathed in the scent of the tea as she ate her toast, and her gran sat on the bed with her, absently playing with the strands of Lucy's long hair, brushing them past her ears.

“You went sleepwalking again,” she said. “I don't know how you do it.”

“What do you mean?” Lucy asked, perplexed. This was the second time she'd been accused of something she felt sure was impossible.

“You were sleeping in the garden again,” she said. “I had to carry you in. I don't know why you always end up there, or how you get there. It's like somebody else carries you.”

Lucy frowned. “I thought it was a dream,” she said, more to herself, feeling more confused than ever.

Her gran shook her head and chuckled, an affectionate smile on her face as she arose. “I'm going to keep an ear out on the radio,” she announced. “I'll be back up for your tray in a while.”

Then she left, and Lucy sat eating her breakfast, wondering about all the times she was supposed to have gone to sleep in the garden.

The days after that seemed to pass in a haze, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, but always the same. She slept, dreamed, felt herself carried, and then she woke and watched the sun arc a great loop over the sky, and then it was over and time to sleep again. After all the tremors and noise and panic, nothing seemed to be happening. There was only silence outside now as the evacuated town stood ghostly and empty all around them, and they waited.

Lucy felt restless, but her body was too weak to move and run and dance like she did in her dreams, and as the days went on her gran would bring less and less food until one day she wore a distraught look on her face and told Lucy that their food and water were almost gone.

“The radio says to stay indoors,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed, her hands limp and helpless in her lap. “There are looters, and they're being shot on sight by the army patrols. It's too dangerous out there.”

Lucy didn't know what to say. With an unbearable realisation she knew that the food and water were running out because she had been so hungry and had eaten it all. She felt horrible and selfish and wished she could go back and simply disappear, leaving all that food for her gran. She began to cry, and she curled up and covered herself with her duvet and would not let her gran comfort her.

She only ate and drank after that because her gran begged her to, but just two days later, the sound of hammering at their front door woke them both. Lucy heard her gran rush down, feeling hope rise in her heart. Perhaps they were finally being rescued, taken somewhere safe to be looked after and fed with supplies that would not run out.

Her hope turned to confusion as she listened, however, and was replaced so quickly by another hope entirely that she felt all knotted and mixed up inside herself. As footsteps hurried up the stairs she heard Anna's voice more clearly, and a few seconds later Anna burst into the room breathlessly and broke into a wide smile at the sight of Lucy. She came over and knelt by the bedside, grabbing Lucy's hand.

“Lucy!” she cried, her eyes welling up. “You're okay!”

Lucy struggled to sit up, and Anna helped her and explained about the sign on their door. “The evacuations are finished,” she said. “I'm sorry, but they won't be coming back.”

“Why?” asked Lucy, feeling suddenly devastated, still convinced all of this was her fault.

“It's the army,” her gran chimed in. “Anna says they spray that sign on the door when they don't want people to come with them.”

“It's true,” Anna said, squeezing Lucy's hand, “but it's nothing to do with you. It's the stupid army's rules.”

“But why?” Lucy asked insistently, a tear escaping one eye. “Why don't they want me to go with them?”

Anna leaned over and gave Lucy a long hug, while Lucy felt all resistance melt away and cried into her shoulder until her long white coat was wet.

“We can take you,” said Anna. “I have a car, we can take you, and they'll have to let you in.”

After a while Anna let her go and stood, and Lucy felt better. “We'll need to take as much food and water as we can,” she said, “and the fuel is low on the car, so I'll need to find some before we can go. The nearest camp is a long way off now, they're already moving the temporary ones into a bigger one down by the Peak District.”

“We don't have anything left in the house,” Lucy's gran said apologetically.

Anna thought for a moment, and then, decisively she said, “Come with me. We'll take the car into the town, and you can get food and water while I look for fuel.”

“What about Lucy?”

“We need to move as fast as we can,” she said with a regretful sigh, looking down at Lucy. “If we split up like this then we'll only be gone an hour or two at most.”

“I don't mind waiting,” Lucy smiled, hoping to allay her terrible guilt by helping any way she could.

“They did tell us to stay indoors, away from looters,” said her gran, shaking her head in indecision. “But we have nothing left. We'll have to go.” She stood up straight in her resolve. “It's been quiet outside anyway.”

“The main road is a supply route between military bases,” said Anna, “so any looters will be staying away from there. We'll just have to be careful the army don't see us.”

With that they both left Lucy alone for a while as voices and endless sounds of things being organised came from downstairs, and then they both breezed back into the room, dressed for the outdoors, leaving a plastic bottle full of water and a bowl full of fruit on Lucy's bedside table. They took it in turns hugging her.

“We'll be back in a couple of hours,” her gran promised. Anna kissed Lucy's forehead and told her she'd be safe soon.

“Thank you for coming back,” said Lucy.

With that they left, the slam of the front door signalling a resounding absence. The low vibrating rumble of the car's engine starting outside was barely audible through the walls of the house, and Lucy waited, alone.

The sun went down and left her in darkness, and she felt her eyelids closing, snapping open then closing again. She slept this way all through the night and found herself unable to descend fully into any of the dreams that lay at the bottom, and when she awoke into the pale dawn she felt hungry and thirsty. She ate an apple and a banana from the bowl and drank some water, missing the ritual of her gran coming in and bringing her the tray. She lay a while longer, until the daylight was strong and flooded her room, and then suddenly the house began to move with a loud rattle and a low rumble, throwing her bed from side to side. It was soon shaking the house apart as the ground roared and things crashed loudly all around her and outside.

Lucy hid under her duvet and yelped in terror as the violent shaking threatened to break her bed to pieces, but just as quickly as it had started, the shaking ended, and the terrible low rumbling passed like the scream of a passing train.

The silence that followed stretched out until time slowed down and the sun hung still in the sky, and Lucy called out for Anna and for her grandmother, but there was no answer. She looked around and saw her bedside table thrown over, her fruit scattered across the floor, and her hunger dragged her out of her bed and onto the soft carpet as she crawled weakly on all-fours to collect the apples and oranges that had rolled away.

Climbing back into her bed, eating the fruit only melted the edges of her hunger, and it began to return as the sky eventually faded back into dusk. She tried to sleep but her body cried out and, weak and tired, she pulled away her duvet and swung herself out of bed. Her feet pressed into the carpet as she gradually gave them more and more of her weight, then she stood uncertainly, finding her balance with outstretched arms. She began to walk unsteadily across the carpet, her sleepless night making her light-headed and lending her shadowy surroundings a dream-like unreality that made her steps drunken and uneven. She smiled at the sensation, feeling pleasantly light, and made her way out of her bedroom.

At the top of the landing, she stood and held onto the banister, and she looked at the stairs stretching down into darkness before her like a mountain climber might look up at Everest. It was too daunting to risk in her weakened state, and she felt the disappointment battle with the pain of her hunger as she shuffled off into the other rooms, all of them dark and cool now that the electricity was gone.

A faint residue of daylight still showed through the net curtains in her gran's front bedroom, and Lucy slowly went over and looked out, curious. Everywhere was silent, empty, without even birds, and the houses opposite all had cracked or missing windows. In the road there were rags of muddied clothing and smashed pieces of roof tiles and chimneys, and to Lucy it looked as if the whole street was dying.

She turned away and pushed her tired and hungry body to keep searching, but there was no more water or food to be found in the room, and she staggered into the cramped and white-tiled bathroom, trying the taps on the sink just opposite the door. There was a small trickle of water from the cold tap, and she smiled to herself, thinking she could fill her bottle once it was empty.

Satisfied but exhausted, Lucy made her way out and back onto the landing, but just then she felt a sharp bolt of pain shoot through her bones, and immediately she felt like crying. It was coming back, now that she was prone and defenceless. It was back from the chaos outside to begin anew on a second campaign to reduce her to nothing.

Lucy's eyes filled up, and she let go and cried, feeling her life drain away as more pain flooded in. She turned toward her room but fell weakly to her knees in defeat at the top of the stairs, racked with quiet sobs. She lay down, helpless, watching the last of the light fade into shadows and cool darkness, and despite the agony settling back in she slowly fell asleep on the soft carpet, curled into a ball.

Over the coming days the pangs of hunger sank away as her insides gave up hope and her skeleton burned. She did not remember the small noise that had carried over the still air all of those days ago, the brutal sound of gunfire from a mounted machine gun on the back of a military truck. Fallen, wounded and screaming for Lucy, the two women had been dragged aboard and taken by force to the huge evacuation camp.

Lucy was left behind, waiting and at the mercy of the shadows in her bones, and of the earthquakes that slowly shook the house to pieces around her.

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