This eBook edition published 2013
Copyright © Jack Croxall 2013
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What follows are the contents of a journal, the journal itself found in a farmhouse cellar somewhere in the English countryside.
I spend all of my daylight hours in this musty old cellar now. It’s woeful, and I bet it smelled this bad even before everything turned to crap. Great. My second sentence and I’ve already resorted to swearing. When I decided I’d start this diary (five minutes ago), I thought it would be my poetic and deeply-moving goodbye to the world. Maybe I’d write about love and loss, or maybe the splendour of nature. Then, if anyone ever found it, at least I’d have left something to be remembered by. As well as my corpse, of course.
This was a bad idea.
Okay, I’m an idiot. There’s nothing else I can do down here. I’ve rooted through every cardboard box a hundred times, organised and reorganised my supplies until I can recite the labels on the cans off by heart, I’ve even built a fort. So, I’m back. Hello. Again.
God, this diary is going badly.
But there’s just enough light coming through the boards I nailed over the cellar’s tiny window to write by. So I may as well write. Stops me staring up at the window just waiting for a shadow to pass by.
Where to start? Well, my name is – actually, I think I’m going to refer to myself as ‘X’. That sounds mysterious. If you’re reading this and want to know my real name, I still carry my purse. Stupid, I know. But my railcard is in there and, if you really want to know who I am, go find me and fish it out. I won’t bite …
So, my name is X and I’m fifteen. Before all this happened, I was at school, doing pretty well. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do afterwards, but I think it might have been fun to do something in the movies. Not act. I can’t act. But I love the sets used in those period movies. I think I might have liked to be the person who designed those. That’s a job, right?
What else? I had a mum, a dad, a sister and there was a boy I liked, his name was Jonah. That’s about it. Or was it, at least.
I couldn’t think of anything else to write so I waited until I came back from my rounds. That’s the stupid name I have for when I go outside at night scrounging for stuff. Drinks are the hardest. I only trust bottles or cans, or did, and I was running out of places to search for them. But I guess that doesn’t matter now.
My leg is doing alright actually; didn’t hold me up at all. I saw Jonah too. He’s looked better, I have to say. It’s strange because this is only the second time I’ve seen him since we came here. Maybe his ears were burning.
Anyway, I found some tinned pineapple in a caravan I hadn’t searched yet. Had to bust the door open with Old Trusty – which I thought might attract some unwanted attention – but it was fine. I’m actually eating the pineapple right now, tastes good. I also found a radio in there. I already have three down here, but none of them work. Not that the caravan radio works either, all you get is static. It’s just nice to collect something. You know, to have a hobby.
I suppose I can’t stay down here eating pineapple and collecting radios, though. ‘Try to think long-term.’ That’s what the careers people at school said. I guess it doesn’t really apply now, but my parents did always want me to listen to them.
I can tell the sun is rising. I managed to sleep for a couple of hours, but I woke up after a bad dream. My sister always said she remembered her dreams, but I never do. I wake up and grasp at them, but I never manage a hold before they fade away. It’s like trying to pinch the corner of a wisp of smoke; the harder you try, the quicker it fades to nothing. I’m just left with a sensation, a kind of imprint which sums up the most intense part of the dream. And a cold sweat. That’s new.
I’ve been through the box of photo albums I found at the back of the cellar again. I’ve looked through them a few times now, but I always notice something new. Or maybe I’m getting so bored I’m finding increasingly boring stuff not boring. Does that make sense?
There’s a photo of this little girl playing with a pretend guitar. I can tell it’s pretend because it doesn’t have strings, only brightly-coloured plastic levers. Kind of like My First Guitar Hero or something. The girl has dark hair and she looks a tiny bit like my sister did a million years ago. I don’t have a picture of my sister. I suppose I could go and get one from my old house, but it’s right in the middle of the village. I’m lucky I wasn’t torn to shreds the last time I went back. So, what I’ve done is put this girl’s photo in my back pocket as a substitute.
I guess I should probably write something about my real sister now. But I don’t think that’s a good idea just yet.
Daylight is starting to fade and I’m getting ready to go out on my rounds. I always take my school satchel with me, but, instead of books and pens, I half-fill it with things that are useful. As in things that are useful to this new existence of mine.
I have Old Trusty (a crowbar) which sticks out of the top for easy access, a small toolbox (full of screwdrivers, tin openers, matches and other handy things), a pair of heavy-duty gloves (there’s a good story about how I got those, I might write that one down later) and a hammer. I carry a penknife I found down here in my pocket, my purse, and a torch in my hand.
I don’t like to use the torch because its battery is running out and there’s always the chance it might attract them. I probably shouldn’t have used it last night when I got back. Maybe I’m starting to enjoy this writing malarkey? I need to be careful with luxuries.
Actually, ever since all this happened, it’s been a lot easier to see outside at night. That seems like a really stupid thing to write but I’m sure it’s true. The light from the stars and moon seems brighter, and I think that’s because there’s no light from the village or any of the nearby towns. I think we humans are more adept at using ambient light than most of us realise. It just takes a few weeks of being back in the Dark Ages to recalibrate your senses.
Anyway, my satchel is packed and I’m ready to go.
Okay, that could have gone better.
Picture the scene: I’m using Old Trusty to try and lever a kitchen window open, when one of them just walks right through the garden hedge. Seriously, straight through it. It’s not the mightiest of hedges but, still, it just appeared like it was walking through one of those Japanese paper walls. My satchel was on the floor, but I legged it anyway. I’m not stupid. I know I can go back for it tomorrow. I felt strangely naked without it on the way back here though.
Like I said before, I need to be careful with the torch so I think I’ll try and get some sleep now.
I slept pretty well last night; no nightmares or cold sweats. Maybe a midnight chase was just what I needed to blow away the cobwebs.
I actually woke up wondering about you. If you’ve found my diary and you’re reading this, who are you? Another survivor of course, but how have you managed to go this long without being killed or whatever? Maybe you’re Army or some such. Maybe you’re just some kid who’s played so many videogames that surviving all of this was already second nature to you. Or maybe you’re like me; living on borrowed time and searching for a good place to die.
Here’s an idea. Maybe you can carry on this diary from whatever page I left it at. God, I really hope this isn’t my last one, although I suppose any page might be. But I digress. If you do carry the diary forwards, and then somebody else carries it on after you, maybe it’ll turn into a grim anthology. Or maybe it will become cursed. Spooky.
I’ve been preparing for my next excursion.
If I know I’m going somewhere I’ll likely run into an ugly, I like to take extra precautions. And I want my satchel back. It was a present from my dad, and I know it cost him a lot of money.
So, I’m taking a pair of shears from the shelf of old tools down here. I’ve used a few lengths of garden string to create a kind of torso-sized loop. Now I can have the shears hanging behind my back. That way, if I lose Old Trusty, I’ll have a backup weapon.
I wonder how you like to kill them? Pretty morbid question I know, but everyone seems to have their preferred method. The last person I saw alive carried a pair of rounders bats and seemed to have bludgeoning down to an art form. He never saw me though, I was watching from a grove of trees as he killed his way along the main road near the village.
That was before I decided to stay inside during the daylight hours. As I was saying before, we can see okay at night. They can’t though. I’ve seen them; they bump into things. It’s pretty funny to be honest. If they hear a noise, they walk in the direction of the sound, never trying to avoid any object in their path. They either bash said object out of the way, or, like that hedge, blunder right through it. Obviously bigger things stop them dead (ha!) though. If that happens, they sort of shuffle backwards and then try again a few times. Eventually – and I’ve seen this too – they just give up and stand there, waiting for something else to attract their attention.
That’s not how it works in the daytime though.
I think it’s about an hour before the sun sets so it’s nearly time to head out. I’m going to change my bandage. One minute.
Okay, it didn’t look that bad really. The original scratch wasn’t too deep and now the wound seems to be doing that scabbing thing I remember from normal injuries. It just doesn’t smell very good. A bit like when you walk past a bin that needs emptying.
Anyway, I’ve applied more antiseptic and redressed it. Time to head out.
That was fun.
There are definitely more of them out there than before. I used to recognise almost every one of them but, now, maybe one in four? And, as I’m sure you know, the more there are the harder it is to deal with them, even at night. It’s not like dispatching two of them is only twice as hard as killing one. I really am glad I had those shears with me.
I got my satchel back you’ll be happy to know. And I got inside that house I’d been trying to break into as well. More through necessity than choice in the end, but I’m pleased I did. I found more batteries! That means I can justify writing at night a bit more.
In fact, the people who used to live there (I think the husband owned the local garage) were pretty well kitted out. There were a lot of tins in their cupboards, and they’d even left a shotgun. It wasn’t loaded though.
Not that I need a shotgun. I didn’t tell you this before, but I have my grandpa’s old service revolver. He always told me and my sister that it was decommissioned, but my dad apparently knew otherwise. I keep it tucked into the back of my jeans at all times. It had three bullets, one of them is gone, so only two left. I’ll only be needing the one of course.
Morning. I’m feeling pretty low today. I think concentrating on getting my satchel back took my mind off things, but now I feel pretty deflated.
Surely that’s understandable? The world I knew and loved has been ripped away and replaced with this sodding hell. I miss my family, my friends, TV and hot dinners and Twitter.
Before all of this I was a pretty positive person. Sure, I had a bit of trouble getting up in the morning, but, once I was up, that was it. I’d meet the day’s challenges head on, try to enjoy myself as much as I could. Not today though.
Maybe if I write about Jonah I’ll cheer up. Not Jonah as he is now of course, Jonah when he was all smooth-skinned, curly-haired and bright-eyed. Now he’s like the anti-Jonah or something. His face looks like it lost a fight with an angry lobster. No, wait, I’m supposed to be writing about Jonah version one here.
He’s one of those people that I can’t remember meeting. My family has always lived around here and so there are lots of people who have just always been, if you get me. I think it was about six months ago that Jonah and I started passing notes to each other during lessons. Just funny pictures at first, but, after a couple of weeks, rude jokes about every staff member at school.
Of course, after lessons he would go off with his mates and I would hang around with my friends. Then there was only ever opportunity to exchange the odd flirtatious glance. I always thought we would drunkenly get it together at a party – that’s what I’d usually do if there was a boy I liked. Classy.
I remember my heart used to beat so fast when Jonah slipped me a note. I wonder if his did too? Even if it did, I guess I’ll never know now.
I’ve perked up a bit. Out of sheer frustration, I went upstairs (naughty, I know) and looked out of a window. Sure, I saw a handful of uglies, wandering aimlessly as they always do, but I saw that the trees are starting to turn too. That means it’s finally autumn, and I love autumn!
My sister and I always used to go out and kick leaves at each other in the autumn. I don’t know if it was because of her low centre of gravity, but my sister was amazing at it. She could somehow whip up a blazing whirlwind of golden-yellow and fire-red, surrounding us both in a leaf storm that I couldn’t help but flail my arms madly at. Then we’d both fall backwards into the leaves laughing, me wondering how on earth what had happened was possible. She was that good.
God, I let her down in the end.
I wonder who you’ve lost? Everyone has lost someone in the last two months. I imagine that’s why rounders bat man was so violent. I bet he was killing as many uglies as he could just to try and get even. I know I tried that for a while, it doesn’t work though.
I think I’ll stay away from the house with the shotgun tonight. It usually takes a day or two for a group of uglies to disperse once they’re all riled up. I could use the rest of that tinned food I suppose, but I’ve got plenty to be getting on with for now.
Instead, I think I’ll swing by another farmhouse I was scoping out before I decided to turn nocturnal. I never met the people who used to live there, but I remember Mum telling me they liked their privacy. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me visiting now though.
Also, there’s a small wood between here and there and I might be able to find some leaves to kick about a bit. I think that would make me feel close to my sister again.
I’ll check back in later.
I’m still alive, but only just.
I made it through the wood just fine (only the odd leaf on the forest floor at the moment though, sadly), the trouble started at the farmhouse. I couldn’t get in – the doors and windows were barricaded – so I tried one of the outbuildings. I think it was a tack room or something posh like that, but it was locked. It had a cat flap though.
My first instinct was to leave it, but then I wondered if there might be something useful inside. Lord knows what thinking about it now. I lifted the cat flap with one hand and shone the torch beam through with my other. That’s when an ugly dived at my pinkies. Luckily, it misjudged its leap and got a mouthful of plastic cat flap instead. As for me, I fell backwards onto my bum.
Next, the damn thing started bashing on the door from the inside. I don’t think it could ever have got out, but the noise attracted more uglies from out of nowhere. I only just managed to outmanoeuvre them and hightail it back into the woods.
That’s not the worst of it though. On the way back my leg started to hurt. A lot.
I woke up this morning and my leg feels a bit better. I’m still walking with a limp though.
It’s funny, Dad had a limp when he and Mum died. It was about two weeks in. He was nailing planks of wood across our windows and doors. That was one of the last things the radio said to do before everything went dead. Anyway, Dad dropped the hammer onto his toe – he always was useless at DIY. I think it was only a couple of hours after that when he and Mum were taken.
It was like a wave of death. No, not like, that’s exactly what it was. A hoard of uglies swept through the village, probably out of one of the big towns. My sister and I wouldn’t have had a prayer if Mum and Dad hadn’t charged down the first few that got into our house. They gave us just enough time to escape, to run away and leave them to die. My sister was screaming all the way and I had to drag her like she was four again.
She wouldn’t speak to me for a few days after that. I didn’t blame her, I hated myself too. But I would have hated myself even more if I hadn’t done what I did next. On my own, I snuck back into our house with a crowbar I found here. Then I dispatched my parents. I can’t bring myself to write it down any other way. It wasn’t like in the movies, I didn’t pound their skulls into mush whilst sobbing, ‘Why?’ over and over again. I just found them, or what was left of them, forced the crowbar through each of their eye sockets, and came straight back here.
Then came the crying.
I haven’t told you about the heavy-duty gloves yet, have I?
After I got back from our old house, my sister started speaking to me again. A shared, day-long cry will do that for sisters. Once we felt up to it, we decided to explore the parts of the farmhouse we hadn’t searched yet. It was kind of fun, but I also knew it was vital if we were going to stay safe: I needed to know for sure that there were no uglies in the house with us.
All the bedrooms were empty, only a few belongings flung about the place (I suspect the previous tenants left in a hurry). The problem came when we investigated the attic. Once we’d opened the ceiling panel in the upstairs hallway, once we’d pulled the compact staircase down, I went in. My sister stood at the top of the hatchway shining the torch beam over my shoulder. And that’s when it touched me. Terrified, I fell to my left, screaming as the thing came crashing down on top of me. I was yelling things like, ‘Shoot it!’ and, ‘Run!’ but my sister was just laughing her head off. I soon realised that my attacker was in fact a shop-window manikin.
I think the people who previously lived here must have been arty (or into some seriously freaky stuff) because the manikin was dressed in scarves, bandannas, ties, watches – loads of things. The rest of the attic was pretty empty but at least we got the manikin’s gloves.
I’m not feeling good at the moment. I’ve started to get a sore throat and I’ve coughed up blood a couple of times. My leg pain is getting worse again, too.
I think if I’d started writing this diary as soon as everything kicked off, I’d have included a lot more about my symptoms and what I thought was happening to the world. The thing is, after a few weeks, it just becomes the new reality, and therefore un-noteworthy. I guess that in itself is significant. Is that irony? I can’t remember.
I don’t think I’ll go out tonight. I have enough tins left and one of them is a Full English In A Can. Sounds pretty disgusting, but intriguing at the same time. I’ve been saving it for near the end. A sort of consolation prize.
The tinned Full English was vile! You’ve got to laugh though, what else can you do?
I suppose if you’ve found my diary, you must have noticed that there are two mattresses down here. Obviously one is mine, and the other one was my sister’s. After she died, I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. I don’t have a photo of her, only guitar girl’s. Her bed is the only thing of hers I have left. And she didn’t even sleep in it that many times.
I’m crying as I write this. Tears of sorrow, shame and regret.
It happened as we were searching a row of houses just off of the main road. We’d used Old Trusty to get inside the smallest, and I’d rushed straight into the kitchen to find the food. We’d run out more than a day before and I was famished. My sister followed me into the kitchen, a wide grin on her pretty little face because I was sitting there with an open can of beans. Then one of them came at her from behind. I must have walked right past it on my stupid way to the cupboards. It bit into her neck and blood gushed over the tiles in a torrent. As she yelled out in agony, I leapt up and implanted the crowbar right into the thing’s skull. It crumpled to the floor, but the damage was done.
‘Don’t let me lose myself.’ That was the last thing my sister said to me before she passed out. Her wound was much more severe than mine is, and much closer to the brain. That seems to make it quicker. I took grandpa’s revolver from behind my back and blew her brains out.
I buried her in the back garden.
After my sister died I went kind of crazy. I took Old Trusty out across the fields and pulverised every ugly I could find. I don’t even remember it that well, it was just, find, kill, find, kill …
We’d only been going out in daylight before then but, in my anger, I carried on through the nights. That’s how I learned about their inability to evade in darkness. Eventually, though, one got me. I found three munching on a dead cow and ran straight at them. Took out the first two easily enough, but the third managed to scratch my leg with a bloody fingernail just before I clobbered it into oblivion. Once I realised its nail had broken the skin, it was like a switch had been flicked inside me. That’s it, I’m dead too.
I lost my bloodlust and came back here. Came back here to die.
If none of this had happened, I think my sister would have eventually gone into medicine. I was doing well at school but she was top of her class. And she had a really kind nature too. She’d never squish any bugs that got trapped in our house; she’d get a glass, scoop the little critter up and seal it inside with a book. Then she’d take it outside and release it, even if it was a wasp.
I’ve decided that here’s not the place. I’m going to do it in those woods I wrote about. The sun is just starting to rise and, if I leave soon, I’ll be able to find a nice spot to sit and stare at the bright autumn colours. I’m going to leave the picture of guitar girl in this cellar, she belongs in this house. The leaves will remind me of my sister more than any photo ever could anyway.
I’ve left out three cans of food I didn’t eat for you. Maybe you’ve already had them. There are lots of tools on the shelf at the back of the cellar too. You never know, one of them may just help you out of a tight spot.
I guess all that’s left to say is thank you for listening.
I know it’s possible that I’m the last, and that no one will ever read this, but that’s not really the point is it?
Also by the Author
(A full-length novel based on the X story/format)
Wye is losing hope. Sixteen and travelling through a rich wilderness with three other teenagers, she should be having the time of her life. And she might be if it weren’t for the thing hunting her; the tireless creature desperate to tear her and her friends limb from limb.
Humanity has spilled out into the solar system, into a succession of giant space stations known as the Relay. Seren Temples is a security apprentice running the Relay’s Anchor Leg. Her ship forced off course, sensors detect an automated distress signal. The ship responsible for the signal is a zero-G graveyard. Inside its vast hold, nothing but a single vial of frozen blood.
‘Don’t let me lose myself.’ Blurb Fifteen-year-old X thinks she is going to die. Shacked up in the cellar of an old farmhouse, she starts a journal to document her last few days. Much less than a few days if the uglies manage to get in. X is a dystopian short story from Jack Croxall, author of Tethers. Praise for X A luminous, captivating tale perfect for giving you one of those reading "moments". – Liz Loves Books I was left with a genuine shiver down my spine. – D.M. Cain, author of The Phoenix Project