The Beginning Of The End
I could remember the day before perfectly. It was a holiday my family cherished as it was another excuse to play board games all day and eat as many picky bits as our hearts desired. Mum always adored Christmas, and New Years was another day to keep the ball rolling. She always bought a huge turkey for this reason, so the leftovers lasted into our intimate family gathering.
I loved everything about it, even the annoying moments when Tilly would scream too loudly or Jake would get annoyed about the rowdiness so early in the morning. On the other hand, it was my scene, if mum ever heard there was a local or school play on, bet I was heading to the auditions well prepped with a costume coordinated to match. Mum always said confidence and first impressions always mattered, you had to know what you wanted and pursue it to your heart's content. I kept those words with me till this day, they were the little bit I had left of her, as sadly, as the days droned on and I grew older, slowly her face seemed to blur further in my memory.
I actually recall that New Years being no different strangely enough. A cheese board was meticulously arranged with Tilly's atrocious plate of grapes and crackers beside our Mum's to match. Lights were strewn across the house and more finger foods were laid out as appetisers for the family. Mum always wanted me to watch my weight so eventually, later into the night and with more prosecco down her, I would sneak some cocktail sausages and rolls in my pockets out of spite. I thought: if she always reminded me to follow my heart, how was my appetite any different? Another tradition then followed, dancing across the house like no one could see me as Mum finished off the final touches. She was a perfectionist to say the least and as time went on, Jake mirrored such habits so fluidly it made me smile sadly, more so as he chastised me.
Jake wasn't a perfectionist for things like New Years or Christmas, no, Halloween was more my older brother's speed. He got the essence of his passion solely from her, while I pranced about she straightened things up and he hid in his room. I always wondered if he felt guilty about always hiding away but I guessed it would only pain him further to ask. But every year, with the same love he held for Halloween, Jake always marked the days until New Years.
As that particular evening danced on, grandma and grandpa arrived with a box of chocolates and Uncle Arnie, his wife and children followed soon after, their bodies shivering from the December air. I always was thankful to have the party at our house after watching my cousins file in every winter, their coats normally soaked through with rain and faces pink from the cold wind, I was never jealous of them then but they always had the newest gadget, a sacrifice my Mum made to curate memories such as these. Looking back, they were worth much more than any gaming console I could've received. We would continue to pop on the BBC1 waiting for the annual London fireworks, laughter flittering through the air as the adults caught up and children ran mayhem across the house, it was picture-perfect domestic life and we never realised how easy we got it until we rolled into 2023.
You could say the world did end in a bang but not the one most would think of. Shrieks were from the children playing, prayers were whispered to welcome in the new year and a bucket list sorted in the hope for the better. The irony filtered through me at the thought, I wondered if maybe, if it did start with the bang we saw depicted in movies, maybe everyone in that room would be alive today. Jake would say every year that dwelling on the thought wasn't healthy but if I didn't give them these moments maybe my Mum's face would distort quicker than it already was. I would wipe away the tears and smile at Jake's advice, never telling him the true reason I spoke endlessly of the times spent with our family way back when, and this year would be no different I supposed but held out hope as I did for the last six.
The next morning is when we truly realised something was amiss. The internet was acting a bit funky and the TV would lose signal now and again but it was put down to the terrible storm we had had the night before. Rough weather explained everything away for our Mum, especially when it came to technology. But then everything seemed to be running a bit slower than normal. Tilly and I didn't mind so much as Jake, who immediately noticed that it wasn't only us 'suffering', as he contacted friends and cousins who couldn't log on that morning for their game. It was only when the power shut out nation wide, cutting off the emergency news broadcast that we all finally got ourselves into a rightful panic.
It was a silent killer what followed. It started with the traffic lights all freezing red, GPS no longer working and signal shutting down, not just in the U.K. Once the power went out in the evening everything finally settled in and the hysteria quickly followed. Food stores were emptied before finally being looted, Mum was lucky to get what she got with Dad always standing behind her, the six foot jarhead he was. I think we wouldn't have got this far if without him. I always did laugh when he threw us all into scouts as kids, prioritising survivalist skills over homework half the time in case of some sign of things going south. Who knew that crazy man could ever be right. Next thing you knew canned food, batteries, tents, compasses, water filters, hiking clothes and boots, survival bags made for each family member were finally pulled from the woodworks with the adamant belief it would only get worse from there. We all wanted to believe he was wrong, but then Grandma's words were repeated by Jake "It's better to be safe than sorry".
It was while walking down a country lane that we found fliers notifying us of an evacuation notice. Evacuating to where, considering the scale of everything seemed ridiculous but no matter how much our Dad insisted on the dangers of a camp full of hysterical people and antsy soldiers.
I noticed Dad looking at Mum blankly then with a conflicted expression marring his face before his eyes dropped to Tilly strapped on Mum's back. She was bit three-years old and couldn't handle the amount walking or the distance we were aiming to cover. Dad thought if we made it to Uncle Arnie's we would be safer in numbers, he knew he and his brother had a plan for something like this- as ludicrous as it seemed in the past.
"Look, we don't even know who posted these fliers, we would be making a total detour" He argued, pointing more aggressively to the ominous yellow and red poster stapled to the wooden pole.
"Who in their right mind would do this just to have maybe hundreds of people show up desperate for help?"
"Maybe some psychos, we don't know Kate! That's the point, we have a plan"
"And what if that plan backfires, huh? What if they've moved on or gone there themselves? If he's desperate he won't be waiting for us on the other side, you protect your own"
"And what do you think I'm doing? It's my job to protect us!-"
"Well this is my family as well and I have a say!-
"Can you please just stop!" Jake interrupted with a sudden exclamation, his body coming between both of our parents as Tilly began to whimper. "We're in more danger if we sit here screaming at each other, we need to be quick and make up our minds, this isn't helping nobody"
We all stood in deafening silence for a moment before the echoes of nature amplified around us.
"Jake has a point" Dad finally exasperated "I just... I just don't think we should be so trusting, we can work from Arnie's house, he would've left a note at least"
"But if he has, we can't risk putting our lives on the line back-peddling. If he has he's doing what we should be now... putting family first" Mum stepped closer and rested a comforting hand against Dad's shoulder, her face pulled into a look of anxiety and fearful anticipation for what he has to say. I could remember looking between them both, my eyes flicking from one parent to the other as my hands grew more clammy and the heftiness of my backpack grew.
"He is my family Kate" he murmured almost too low for me to hear before finally sighing deeply and nodding with a hesitant movement, as if his thoughts were still computing the decision as his head motioned in agreement. And it was with the tearing of the poster from the telephone poll that signalled our redirection East.
All the way to our destination we rotated Tilly between us, our backs aching all the more as we continued onwards to the unknown. Anxiety and fear were constant companion of mine, I would play a cassette on my walkman to sometimes take the edge of or tell a story to Tilly to kill the time and terror-orientated rumination.
"Are you good taking her for a little while?" Jake asks, tapping me on the shoulder to pull me out of the clouds. Sometimes I forgot where we were but he was always quick to remind me, much like Dad.
"You haven't even finished your time" I pointed out with a raised eyebrow, typical of him to pass off his work load onto me.
"I know, but if you do I'll give you my square of chocolate after dinner" Jake then negotiated, his brown eyes wide and hopeful as they looked down on me.
"Anything else?" I tried to pull further from his desperation but with a deadpanned face meeting my reply I simply gestured for him to stop so I could remove my backpack. "How nice of you torture your younger sister in such a way, during the apocalypse no less"
"Stop with that dystopian crap, everything will be normal again soon, you'll see" Jake outwardly hoped, his words quickly catching Dad's eyes, something Dda thought would escape my observations.
"If you say so" I nodded before finally hoisting Tilly onto my back. She starts speaking soon after she's switched over to me, her words fumbling as she babbles on asking why trees are green, the sky is blue, where we're going before asking for a new story when her answers are only met halfway by Jake.
When she finally slept and the sun reached the middle of the sky, Jake finally spoke up from behind me.
"What do you think's going on then?" he wondered, his arms swinging back and forth as he looked around the fields we were currently walking through.
I shrugged as well as I could with the pressing weight on my shoulders, "A big hack, that's my guess or maybe just a once in a millennia shut down what could explain the world essentially going a hundred years back"
"I don't know, maybe it's a government thing, or maybe someone just wanted to quit their job with a statement"
"Ha Ha, like anybody would do that"
We drifted back into an odd silence, like words were still waiting to be said but forgotten once they reached the tip of our tongues. I never really gave much thought into what happened, I don't think I want to after a month of radio silence, what could explain unnatural phenomena such as this? The world hadn't been so disconnected in my lifetime and despite it perhaps being a blessing in disguise I wondered if this was truly it. Something ominous always seemed to be round the corner, Dad had the same idea as his eyes flittered about their surroundings. I wondered if he could see something in the trees I couldn't- maybe a secret that only revealed itself with time. Either way, time wasn't needed to make me a bundle of nerves, anticipating something just itching to jump out.
Thankfully, since winter had already drawn to an end and spring about to settle in, the sun was allowed to remain in the sky for much longer. Dad said they were lucky, it allowed them to travel further without worrying about extending their trip into the night. With a two hours and a bit more time on my hands while following Dad through a forest pathway, I pulled my foraging guide I kept from scouts and kept a look out for any edible or medicinal plants.
"Still studying then?" Mum spoke up from beside me, mutually free from Tilly as Dad carried her up front.
"It'll come in handy" I shrugged.
"It sure will, found anything interesting yet?"
"Besides making young pine cones into syrup and what flowers and mushrooms won't poison us, I'm getting an okay grip on things", Mum's arm soon wrapped around my shoulders with a smile, her strength squeezing me into her side before she spoke.
"I really proud of you y'know"
"Yeah, I just don't think I've said it enough, to any of you" she smiled sadly, her eyes flickering to Jake.
"I think we would know if you weren't Mum, Dad isn't really that discreet"
"You know he means well"
"I guess, at least we're our parents' children, stubborn perfectionists at best" I smiled to have Mum nudge my side, sending our bodies (still hip to hip) left as I swayed aside. At least we could still have casual moments like this despite the circumstances. But something about the volume of conversations akin to this worried me slightly. As if it's done simply in case of emergency. Every word from that moment on felt half heartfelt and half insurance for the worst to come.
We later settled down in a clearing, our fire offering warmth from the cold, something my coat could only do so much about. Fingers finally tingled a strong red as heat came back to them and the tightness in my chest was alleviated. Just being able to kick off my shoes and my dry socks became a privilege rather than a given as we hunkered down for the night. It was while we were resting that Tilly was finally allowed to toddle about and stretch our legs, a leash fastened to a body harness due to the aching in our legs. Mum knew chasing after her would be impossible after travelling so much in one day.
While she played, Mum and Dad continued to plot our route via fire light. Mum's eyes squinted with the low visibility while Dad outlined the roads needed to be taken to make our destination. He'd always been good at stuff like that due to his dad and his dad before him. It was in crazy times like these that the moaning and groaning about being forced to enlist in scouts and cadets really bit me back in the arse.
"How long do you think it'll take to make it?" Jake asked from beside me quietly, picking at the blades or grass from the ground beside him.
"Maybe a day, two, if worst comes to worse" I supposed, facing him to watch his features scrunch against the dim orange light.
"Yeah, like that could happen" he scoffed, his sarcasm followed by a tired chuckle and the shake of his head. I couldn't imagine how he was feeling, and I guessed he felt much the same, so alone while surrounded by those silently drowning alongside him. I wanted to comfort him, wrap everyone up in my arms and just stay here, so peaceful and safe but it seemed Tilly was the only one brave enough to do it. Before we knew what was coming, a small body threw itself onto my lap. One of her front teeth was missing as she smiled up at me and her hair haphazard atop her head from running about the camp.
"Liv, Liv!" She giggled, as she pulled her doll from her side and pushed it into my face. "Look at m-my doll!".
On closer inspection dirt smudged the toy's fabric cheek, covering up the stitched, pink circle sewed on to mimic blush. I was surprised hadn't burst out crying yet but when the other side was filthy to match, she understood how it went unnoticed, especially for a three-year-old.
"What's up Tilly? What have you got there!" I asked with an exaggerated curiosity.
"A bara-bee" She smiled
"A barbie? And is she a fairy?"
"Nooo, a Dora"
"Ecs-spora!", Jake took the doll then from Tilly, aiming to play as I had, standing up and running around the camp with our sister like none of this was real. That was ever she believed was made true as we made believe we were travelling into desert tombs and avoiding booby traps. For once in the last week of travelling on foot, we relaxed and from the look ghosting over our parents' faces, they needed the distraction as well. She needed it, she already cried more than half the time we travelled and without the understanding of what was going on I supposed it was both a blessing and a curse.
It was as the night was crawling on that Jake finally tried to settle Tilly in the tent, you could see from the outside and the battery lamp illuminating the space that he was somewhat struggling with our tantrum obsessed sister. Even during the apocalypse she didn't cease to amaze any of her siblings with such behaviour.
"Going to bed soon poppet?" Dad asked as he approached, rinsing his toothbrush with his water bottle.
"In a bit, just wanted to finish this chapter" I gestured. He took a subtle interest int he cover and nodded appreciatively before I pulled myself from the ground. From a second look I can tell this trip had aged him immensely. Bags were darkening his eyes like aggressive bruises and his skin sallow, extenuating the lines he had before everything turned upside down.
"It's good to see you reading, you're not like me one bit" he chuckled.
"I would like to disagree, I like to think I was better in scouts than Jake"
"Oh of course, when I heard you skinned that rabbit, what father wouldn't be proud", I beamed at him then, feeling my eyes growing with mirth as I recalled the day I sprinted home to tell him about the game I caught.
"It'll be good if you could teach Jake those things, he'll need those skills up his sleeve"
"Well you could always teach him" I prompted to only have Dad go silent before me, his face frozen in a sombre expression. His hand found my shoulders and rocked it, like he was gearing himself up, cranking his thoughts into motion to speak.
"Poppet... I may not always be here-"
"Why are you speaking like that?" I shrugged him off me "Of course you're gonna be here, that's stupid, we can do this, we all know it, you most of all"
"But we always have to be sure"
"Well I don't want to be sure!" I exclaimed while still keeping my voice in a whisper. "If Mum heard you-"
"Mum won't hear me because this is between you and I" He sternly ordered, his gaze intense as he replaced both his hands on my shoulders. "You need to be strong, we stick together and I know... I know you're brave enough to make sure it stays that way. You're so much more than you realise and like Jake, I need you to promise me to look out for your brother and sister"
I stood in anxious silence, my brain ready to burst from my skull as the weight of his words bared down on me.
"Now promise me, you have... you have to say it"
"I..." The words became lodged in my throat. Saying it just put it out in the world, it made his thoughts a possibility and turned my body cold at the thought. Some what ifs were funny, but something like this threatened not just my own life but the fabric of my existence. But he was asking me to say it and whether I believed in what he predicted or not, I knew those two words from mu lips brought immense comfort to the man shaking before me. So with a deep breath "I promise" passed my lips.
When we awoke the next morning Dad debriefed us on our plans. Instead of Aylesbury, Northampton was now our destination, a good twenty-two miles plopped on top of our original route with us branching off from our original plan miles from where intended. Much like Dad, my eyes trailed the map with a terrible gut feeling, like my stomach was slowly digesting itself from the inside out. Something didn't feel right but I brushed it aside, did anything feel right nowadays?
It was when the sun had finally set that we spied a compound wedged in a dip of the land, hidden from view due to the rolling hills of the country. No wonder we couldn't see it from any grounded point. Dad's smile seemed to crack his normally stoic expression while Mum practically bounced on her heels, his body thrumming with excitement- the chance of salvation was so close they could all taste it.
I turned to look at Jake, to meet his relieved eyes almost welling up with tears before he turned to root in his backpack for something. I knew he didn't want to come off as weak but even when you looked at Dad he seemed to sport a similar expression. He soon enough brushed it away like Jake and urged them to come forward with an innate determination they all seemed to possess. Tilly babbled more as we walked and we allowed it, answering back, throwing banter to and fro before we made it to the bush just fifty yards from the evacuation centre. It didn't really seem like a centre of any kind, more like a refugee camp from the chicken wire fencing and shed made from a smooth grey metal. It was in the low light we could see people were sitting behind the fence, clutching their belongings tightly as they talked among themselves. I was ready to get up and go just like Mum but Dad's firm arm across my chest in moments, stopping me from rising up.
"Dad what are you doing?", he shushed me quickly, his eyes growing narrow before suddenly lights jumped awake, beaming down on the people in the camp with an aggressive nature. All the people inside shrieked, at first I thought maybe in delight to see electricity for the first time in months but then as I peered closer I couldn't be any more wrong.
They all shuffled back into one another, no where to go as they tried to get away from the men who exited the sheds, if you could call them men. They were in a large group that surrounded the people indisposed on the ground, their faces stricken with fear as guns were raised up to -what I assumed to be- soldiers. The language they spoke wasn't familiar at all, something trapped between German and Chinese if I took a guess but it didn't matter as much as what these... humanoids looked like. They towered with a fixed scowl marking their grey and discoloured faces. Their eyes were deep black pits and skin stained the colour of a dead man's complexion, all them were abnormally tall and broad and nothing prepared me for when I saw the beady red eyes moving animatedly on their temples. It couldn't be real, it wasn't real.
"What do you want from us!" a woman finally screeched, breaking the unintelligible noise with something that deepened the pit in my stomach.
"Dad..." I peered across to him, his arm now clinging to my shoulders for dear life before he pulled me into his chest and a gunshot rang throughout the air. Screams erupted soon after, ringing out in my ears as we all tried to process what we had walked into. Beside me Mum apologised profusely until it became as quiet as a prayer upon her lips.
"Mum, Mum... It's o-kay" my voice wobbled as we all continued to watch the carnage play out before us. It was when the second sound of bullets exploded from a chamber that Dad quickly tried to push us from the bush and back up the hill and if only that worked. It didn't even take a few minutes of running for alarms to sound and lights turn onto our escaping forms. As I looked back, the men in the camp started filling out, their bodies adorned in neat uniforms as Mum shrugged Tilly off her back and stuffed the toddler under her armpit. Her breaths were even more laboured than my own and it was with the fatigue engrossing itself into her body that found her lagging behind the rest of us.
Dad's promise rang in my ears, like blood incessantly and institutively pulsing in my body. I couldn't just abandon them, so with an inhuman shout I turned back and gripped Tilly into my arms before hell broke lose. The promise was only met halfway as Mum suddenly jolted forward and crumpled at my feet.
"Mum?...", Tilly was screeching in distress as Jake took her from my arms and I tried to drag Mum's body further up the hill. I could do it, I promised. Dad's words from the night before echoed in my head, this couldn't be happening, not so soon, not at the same moment every hope had been trampled before their eyes. "Mum!" I continued to scream, being replaced by my Dad, forcing me aside and up the hill.
"Go! F*cking go!" He exclaimed behind us, his words nearly drowned from the droning alarms as Jake pulled me with his other hand further away from Mum's unresponsive body.
"Stop! Stop! We can't just leave them!" I cried as I whipped my head back as far as I could. She'll get up any moment now, I know it she would-
I could hear distant cheers, so abnormal for a horrid day such as this but when I realised it wasn't the people in the camp but their captures I finally realised what I was seeing behind me as I ran- my Dad's sacrifice.
I don't know how long we walked for after that, everything our Dad and Mum carried were gone forever, never to be seen again along with them. Jake and I didn't speak but Tilly cried like it was that or death. I think eventually we only knew silence because she screamed her voice raw. In some ways it was a blessing but in others a jealousy and grief grew in me as her grief became quiet, just like ours. I think if I spoke a word I would've positively broken down, my legs wouldn't move and mind would grow numb and Jake couldn't carry us both but as he carried Tilly I heard Dad once again, just like I had in that moment. I had to protect them, no matter the cost. Deciding that day I wouldn't hold them back, I would always be the first foot forward and last to leave the room.
I had to do it. for Mum, for Dad, for Jake, for Tilly and most importantly. For me.
A/N: Hello! I hope yoi enjoyed the beginning of this story and wistick around for more!
I look forward to any feedback that can be provided and any likes that you guys leave!