It was already going dark when Jared saw the little girl wandering through the streets. A cold December afternoon was turning into a colder December evening, and the sun was getting close to dipping below the horizon. He knew he’d have to be home quickly or there’d be trouble, but equally he couldn’t leave a child - clearly lost and confused - meandering through the road. Especially at this time.
She was staggering slightly, as if one of her legs were injured; yet it wasn’t severe enough for her to stop. She was barely dressed, wearing only a nightie and slippers, and she didn’t seem to be too phased by the temperature outside. Jared, meanwhile, was shivering and he was wearing a thick jumper and a coat, and he’d just walked almost five miles with a full rucksack. The girl was shuffling along at a snail’s pace oblivious to the weather.
He checked around to see if there was anybody else in the street before making a noise. Loud noises weren’t safe these days, especially when the entire area he was in was silent. He didn’t want to pierce through that blanket of nothingness and put himself in danger. There could be anyone or anything lurking around.
The road was empty. He decided to get a little closer and then get her attention.
“Are you okay?” he ventured quietly, when he was almost within whispering distance. He held his breath for a short time while he waited for the response, but it wasn’t forthcoming and she continued along the path she was taking. He thought that maybe she hadn’t heard him, so he tried the same words again - only this time slightly louder.
She stopped dead in her tracks. Jared could feel his heart pounding ten to the dozen and could do nothing but stare at the back of her head. Without moving a muscle and without the slightest hint of emotion, she replied with only one word: “Yes.”
The girl waited a second and then continued to walk, much in the same manner as she was before. Jared jogged to catch up with her and, feeling a little more relaxed, he continued. “Only it’s just that I can’t see your mum or dad around here,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you were safe.”
She stopped again and once more didn’t turn around as she spoke back to him. “I’m fine,” the kid added, much in the manner as she’d talked before. It was blunt and unforgiving, and again she continued to stumble along the road as soon as she’d finished.
Jared caught up to her just as she put her weight onto her front foot and grabbed her by the shoulder, half spinning her around. “Listen,” he began, “I just want to know that you’re going to get safely home before…” He stopped in his tracks as soon as he caught her eye. Her face was ashen and her eyes had sunk deep into her skull.
He let out a yelp and scrambled back from the child, allowing her free from his grasp. She just looked at him, through those cold, sunken eyes, trying to work out what he was doing. After a moment, she let out a wail and began to stagger at him, as he lay on his back in the street - only to find he was too quick for her.
With a sigh of inevitability, Jared pulled a knife he’d stolen from a nearby hardware store only a few weeks earlier from out of his jacket pocket and took it out of the plastic sheath that was there to protect it. As the girl got close to him, he calmly and forcibly slid the knife into her forehead and killed her almost instantaneously.
She fell silent and then dropped to the ground in a heap.
Jared gave it a moment, before pulling the knife out of her head and wiping it clean on her nightdress. It went back into the plastic covering and then straight back into his pocket. Without even a moment's thought, he picked up his rucksack and continued back to his camp.
As soon as the news broke of extra-terrestrial life having made contact with the Earth, Jared was planning for the worst-case scenario. He had always been something of a worrier and, having heard rumours about the impending landings on the radio, he began to plan what he'd need to get underground for a while. He’d arrived home from work at lunchtime on Friday - he always finished early on Fridays - and had immediately set about securing his house. He’d used his garden fence to crudely barricade all of his windows on both the inside and outside of the building and he’d left some back to do the same to the doors.
His next move to was get into the car and drive almost two miles to his local supermarket. There, he stocked up on as many of the basic essentials that he could get into the back of his small vehicle. He'd been courteous and paid for all of the tinned foods, crackers, nuts, and bottled water that he'd thrown into his trolley. They were the main items, but he also picked up a healthy supply of candles and a small camping stove, plus a few other luxuries like handwash gels, toilet tissue, chocolate and a brand new rucksack.
Once he’d got those back home and down into the basement, he made a second trip out, though this time he was going to his local takeaway. If the Earth was going to be destroyed then his last meal was going to be one he was going to enjoy; he'd never been the fittest of people and had always worried about the rubbish food he'd been eating, but he was a single man and sometimes it was just nice not to have to cook. But if the world was going to burn and there were only to be a few survivors, he'd probably lose all that weight he'd been gradually putting on anyway, so one more pizza wasn't going to do any harm.
He ordered his favourite - ham and pineapple - and waited anxiously for it to arrive, as he checked the window for any signs of the apocalypse. As soon as it was put in a box and handed over to him, he threw his money at the server and told him rather generously that he could “keep the change.” He was quickly back in his car, ignoring the parking ticket he'd been given, and on his way home.
Once there, he locked each door and nailed some more of his barricades across them, sealing himself inside the house. After that, it was a matter of getting comfortable; he took the TV down into the basement and struggled with one of the armchairs too, forcing that through the small gap in the hallway floor. He finished it off with a camp bed, some blankets, a change of clothes and, rather crudely, a bucket.
If the world is going to be attacked and he was going to be sealed inside his own home, he was sure as hell going to have somewhere to take a dump.
He did his best to position the hall rug over the entrance to his basement, dragging it up over the hatch as he stood on the ladder. As he closed the door, the small piece of carpet dropped into place behind him. From there, he nailed the final few pieces of wood to the inside and began to set up his new living quarters. Once he was ready, he opened the pizza box and began to munch it down.
Almost six hours later, Jared was beginning to wonder if he’d been a little premature in his actions. He’d always taken a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach to life, but waiting for the impending apocalypse proved to be frightfully boring. His television reception wasn’t brilliant in his basement and he was left enjoying 24-hour rolling news, endless talent competitions and their sister shows, and the delights of commercial channel documentaries - ‘The Boy Whose Body Was A Tree’ and ‘I’ve Fallen In Love With My Furniture’ being two of his personal favourites.
It was just as he was pondering removing the barricade from the basement hatch door and grabbing some films and his Blu Ray player that he thought he might have overreacted slightly. He picked up the hammer and began for the stairs, but he’d only managed to take two or three strides when he was stopped in his tracks. The newsreaders on the TV had a new detail of the story to break.
“Earlier today, we brought you the news that extra-terrestrial life had been in radio contact with scientists at NASA’s headquarters in Texas,” the lady on screen announced, as she returned to the story. “Our US Correspondent Robin Austin is outside the White House now with the latest updates.”
The picture cut to a man clearly in front of a still image of the US President's residence, and he confirmed that the American leader would address the nation shortly. “He’s expected to say that, as bizarre as it sounds, contact with intelligent life from outside the Earth has been made and our sources from within the White House suggest that those life forms are currently on their way to Earth,” the reporter announced. “As yet we aren’t aware of any discussions that are taking place nor can we say for sure what is going to happen in the coming days. We don't know at this stage what they look like or even if communication with these visitors will be possible.
“What we do know, however,” he continued, “is that the scientists based at NASA are extremely excited for the future. One told me they believe advances in fields like medicine and technology could be forthcoming, and they understand the beings are from a society that is much further developed than our own.”
Jared continued to watch the news story unfold over the course of the next few hours. It involved studio discussions between whatever hastily thrown together panels of guests the producers could find at the earliest opportunity and live reporting from both outside the White House and NASA headquarters, all speculating on what was to happen. All the time, Jared remained fixated on the screen and abandoned all ideas of leaving what was effectively his security bunker.
He was glad of that decision the next morning. The American president had never addressed the world; instead he’d been whisked away to safety. Live reporting from the scene was quickly dropped and only the bravest journalists continued to broadcast, as the news broke that the alien spacecraft had landed in various locations around the globe and the creatures inside hadn’t arrived to swap intelligence.
They’d come to colonise the planet.
The White House had issued guidance that the US Army was initiating combat and that all citizens were to defend their homes and their lives “in the most extreme ways possible”. The statement also urged residents to flee if that wasn’t an option. And while that might have been solid advice in a country that allowed its citizens to keep weapons, Jared couldn’t see how it could possibly work in Britain - whose army was also deployed to the front line, with as many residents drafted in as could be at such short notice.
Broadcast news updates stopped shortly after, with the channel reverting to the old test card - something that hadn’t been seen on television for years. Jared spent the rest of the day flicking between that and endless re-runs of programmes like ‘The Man With Three Heads’ and ‘Help! I’m Addicted To Earwax!’ until the electricity finally went down around a day and a half later.
It was at that point when Jared knew there was no coming back from this. While the chances were that humanity, as a whole, was still fighting the invasion, that the key services were beginning to fail suggested that it was a battle they were losing and would be doomed to lose. He wasn’t wrong.
He lit some candles, put them out around the room and set about making sure he could survive in his basement for as long as possible on the food and water he’d brought down with him. He’d always known that he’d have to leave at some point, but he wanted to make sure that was something he’d not have to think about doing for a long while.
After ten days without a shave, Jared’s face was itchier than it had ever been. It was getting to the point where it was driving him wild and he wasn’t able to think about anything else. With nothing to do all day but scratch his itchy beard, he was finding it increasingly more difficult to cast his attention to anything else. His food rations were running short, his water provisions were almost rock bottom and the smell coming from his slop bucket was now at ungodly levels - and yet the only thought that permeated his mind was of how irritating his facial hair was becoming.
It was bristling on his face and it felt like his chin was swelling to twice its normal size. He’d never been able to grow a proper beard, so it was just his luck that when the time came that the human race was on the brink of extinction and neither wet nor electric shaves were top of anybody’s agenda, his genetic make-up saw fit to provide him with the greatest facial hair he’d ever managed.
Perhaps it was all a distraction techniques. Perhaps he was constantly thinking about how itchy his face was to avoid the fact that he knew he’d need to leave his safe haven very soon and he’d rather worry about his bristles than actually consider what the world was going to be like out there. He’d been trapped inside his basement without so much as an outside light source, without power and with only candles to allow him to see, so Jared had absolutely no idea what was going on or even how long he’d been hidden away.
He was very nervous about leaving his comfort zone. He’d heard noises from upstairs over the course of the time he’d been locked away - and he’d always stayed deadly silent while whoever or whatever was rummaging through his house was inside the building - so he was very aware that he could be on the brink of walking straight into trouble. It didn’t help that taking the barricade off the hatch was going to be fairly noisy and practically a dinner bell for any human-eating creature inside or nearby.
As he chomped down on his final portion of nuts, Jared decided it was time. He grabbed his backpack, picked up his hammer and climbed the ladder towards the exit. Once there, he waited for a second to see if he could hear any noises from inside his property.
He allowed himself to breathe once again. Once he’d centred himself and got as calm as he possibly could in the situation, he dug the rear end of the hammer into the nails that only a few days earlier he’d rammed into the wooden frame of the hatch. With a twist and a groan, he flicked the metal upwards and prised each of the wooden boards off the door to the hallway, one by one.
Cautiously - very cautiously - he unclicked the catch and lifted the door up. He was still under the rug, so his ploy to keep the doorway hidden from view had worked a treat. As soon as he got out from underneath the floor covering, he noted that the day - whatever day it was now - was well on its way to evening-time. There was still some light around the room coming in from the outside, but it wouldn’t last for long.
He picked up one of the pieces of wood he’d used to barricade the basement hatch and grabbed it to check whether it was still sturdy enough as a rudimentary weapon. The nail stuck through the end was a bonus, and he held it up as he got to his feet in the hallway.
The very next thing he noticed was that his front door was hanging off its hinges. By the looks of it, someone had shouldered it in to gain access to his home - and that it didn’t close properly was probably why he’d heard so many noises from upstairs while he was in hiding throughout the last few days. There'd been something of a literal open door policy.
He edged towards the front door and tentatively looked outside. His street was a mess; where cars were usually neatly lined up along the driveways and on the road, they were abandoned haphazardly. Jared’s vehicle had gone entirely, the only evidence that it had ever been outside his house was a small pile of glass from what he presumed was the passenger window on his path.
His neighbour’s car told a somewhat sorrier tale. It sat in the middle of the street, all four doors open and keys still in the ignition. On its roof, three suitcases remained and all of them were sealed shut, while a fourth lay open on the floor on the driver’s side. Jared couldn’t tell if it had fallen from the roof rack and split, spilling the clothes and random belongings clearly gathered at the last second onto the tarmac, or whether it had been dragged down and opened by somebody looking for things to loot.
Jared also wasn’t sure whether the blood stains on the road were down to those who had previously occupied the house next door, but it was a fairly safe assumption to say there were. There were signs of a struggle, but he guessed they’d lost in the end. A streak of blood ran along the ground from the four splatters in tandem down the street, until they faded into the distance - he didn’t really want to know what had caused them.
Nor did he want to know what had caused the huge dents to the two doors of the car behind, which was in an equally devastated manner.
Across the way, the Pattersons’ house was still smouldering after what looked like a rather large fire had gutted the premises. Next door to them, where that guy Jeff whose surname he didn’t know had lived and where he'd constantly invited him to (and Jared had constantly declined invitations to) come around for neighbourhood events, there were two vehicles strategically blocking the driveway in what looked like an attempt to stop a third from getting away. It looked like Jeff’s truck that was trapped, but Jared couldn’t be sure at this distance - and he certainly wasn’t feeling brave enough to investigate just yet.
It was as he turned back to take a look down the other side of the street that he saw an even more troubling sight. From his porch, he’d always been able to see into his neighbour Sarah’s living room and he had constantly urged her to fit blinds or curtains. He now wished she had done, as he dreaded to think what she’d seen that had made her think it was a wise move to take her own life.
Her body was motionless, hanged by a length of rope tied to her neck from the ceiling.
Jared nearly threw up. He couldn’t take much more and turned to head back into his house, doing his best to close the door behind him. It wouldn’t click shut; whoever had charged it open had done a very good job of destroying the frame where the lock bolted into place. He picked a chair from the dining room and jammed that up against the door handle in a bid to keep it as secure as he could. It rested in the closed position, but it was far from locked.
He carefully and quietly set about looking at the damage done elsewhere to his house.
There was no reason for him to be given that it was pretty much the end of the line for the human race, but Jared was slightly pleased that his decor was still more or less intact and that there hadn’t been too much done to ransack the property. The vast majority of his belongings were still where he’d left them - though any alien intruders or anyone looking for somewhere or for supplies to survive probably wasn’t interested in his grandfather’s pocket watch or the now-useless laptop computer.
However, he quickly discovered that what remained of his food had been stolen and the apocalypse had laid waste to the water supply. The taps creaked and groaned, but they just didn’t produce a drop. There was nothing left in his fridge but a few mouldy grapes and even his knife rack had been taken.
He found that a little disconcerting; it certainly suggested the world was a much more violent place just over a week after civilisation ended. Jared was a little disappointed at that thought. He’d always hoped humanity would be able to club together in desperate times, but perhaps that was too idealistic for a situation where they feel threatened and everyone is in a bid to save their own skins.
Still holding his wooden plank, Jared made his way upstairs. He purposefully skipped the third and fifth steps of the staircase, knowing full well that too much pressure would cause them to creak loudly, and he checked both directions before carrying on when he reached the top. Only his bedroom door was closed - the bathroom door was pinned back to the wall, while that of the spare room stood ajar.
He edged into the bathroom and tried the taps once more, but again there was nothing in the tank. He was expecting nothing else. A quick scout of the medicine cabinet showed that most of his pills had been stolen, but he scooped what painkillers and antibiotics he had left into his bag and made his way back into the hallway.
Jared gave the spare room a quick check, but knew there was little of value in there. He just wanted to know that it was empty more than anything else.
That left his room. He did his best to edge along the landing without causing any of the floorboards make a sound, but it was a near impossible task. He considered storming in quickly, just in case he wasn’t as alone in the house as he’d hoped in the back of his mind that he would be. He’d have the element of surprise on his side, but he would also have to react to the situation quickly. If he crept into the room, he might alert any intruders to his presence straight away anyway and then he'd have just as little time to react - but he might also buy himself some time.
He opted for the cautious approach and he was thankful that he’d listened to his natural instinct. Inside, a fully clothed man lay on his bed asleep. It looked like everything he owned was either about his person or on the floor beside the bed, as he slept in a thick winter coat and a backpack lay zipped up leaning against his bedside cabinet.
Jared didn’t know what to do. He was half tempted to go on the offensive, but he didn’t really want to hurt the man in question. He’d clearly just been desperate for somewhere to sleep and it was hardly like possessions meant much these days either. He stood over the foot of the bed for a good few minutes before making a move, just thinking through his options.
Eventually, and walking on his tiptoes, he turned to head back out of the room and close the door. He was stopped in his tracks just as he put his hand on the door’s handle, though, and a knot appeared in his stomach very quickly.
“You should have killed me when you had the chance,” the man on the bed said. His voice was flat, and he spoke in a deep and dry manner. When Jared about turned he saw that the figure hadn’t moved. He’d not even opened his eyes. He’d woken up as Jared came into the room, but had kidded the house’s owner into thinking he was still out for the count.
“What?” Jared was confused.
“I said,” the man repeated just as flatly, “You should have killed me when you had the chance.” He still hadn’t opened his eyes or moved from the lying position on his back.
Jared, still with one hand on the door, shook his head slightly. He put his wooden weapon down, leaving it against the foot of the bed, and stared at the man for a moment. “You’re asking me to kill you?”
“No,” came the reply. “I’m just saying you’ve missed your chance to kill me.” The man opened his eyes for the first time and revealed a horrid injury to the one on the left. His right seemingly functioned perfectly, but his left was mainly bloodshot and red, but there were parts that were cloudy and turning black. “I’m obviously not going to allow you to kill me now,” he continued. “I’m going to defend myself if you try anything and, most probably, it’s going to be me that kills you. All I’m saying is that the lesson you have just been told and what you will very quickly learn in just a few minutes’ time is that you should have killed me.
“I was lying here unarmed,” he added. “I was asleep. And you came into the room and didn’t deliver a fatal blow. And all that means right now is that I’m just another person that can end you and then take your stuff. You should have killed me when you have the chance.”
Jared took his hand from the door and leaned down to pick up his weapon. “You said that you were probably going to kill me,” he replied. “Maybe I’ll still kill you. Maybe you’ll find me too much of a match or maybe I’ll just smash your brains in with this board and nail. Maybe that’s how this is going to go down.”
“Is it?” came the man’s somewhat self-confident response.
Jared didn’t move.
“I didn’t think so,” the man continued. He reached into his jacket and pulled a kitchen knife from the pocket. He swung his legs down from the bed, pointing the weapon in Jared’s direction and stood up. He was taller than he’d looked when flat on his back.
Jared’s breathing became a lot shallower and a lot more irregular. He didn’t know what the man was going to do next, as he walked towards him with the blade aimed at him. In a blind panic and with a sudden surge of heroism, he swung the wooden plank in the man’s direction, hoping to catch him with the nail and knock the knife from his grasp.
Instead, the man leaned backwards and left Jared to thrash at thin air. Off balance, he was an easy target. The intruder grabbed his arm and pulled the weapon from his hands, tossing it down onto the bed. In the same movement, he dragged Jared down onto the floor and gave him a swift kick to the stomach.
Jared groaned as he collapsed into a heap.
“Finished?” the man asked sarcastically. As Jared eyed the weapon on the bed, the man simply waved the knife in response to convince him that it was a very bad idea if he wanted to continue existing. For a moment, Jared thought about gambling and making a reach for the plank, but he didn’t want to give the intruder a reason to stab him. At the moment, he was in a bad position, though it might have improved in a few moments' time - and right now he was still very much alive.
At least for the time being.
“Get up,” he demanded, before planting another boot into Jared’s midriff. He grunted at the impact and it left him winded, but that didn’t stop the man from threatening him again. “I said get up,” he repeated, holding the knife down to Jared’s face. “Or I can just plant this between your eyes, how does that sound?”
Reluctantly, Jared got to his feet. As he did, the man put both hands onto his side and shoved him towards the door, almost knocking him back to the ground. He managed to keep his feet, but he cracked his head on the doorframe. He didn’t reach up and touch it, but he could feel the blood leaking from his forehead.
He began to turn back to face the intruder, but he didn’t get a chance. He was shoved once more, this time out of the room and back towards the stairs. “Down,” the man said, nodding towards the staircase and following him out of the room, knife outstretched in his direction.
The pair made their way back to the ground floor and into the hallway. Jared eyed where the basement hatch was under the rug and began to wish he’d stayed down there for another night. He stopped beside it and the man slowly pushed the blade against his back; Jared could feel it digging into the base of his spine.
“Open the door,” the man said, adding a little bit more pressure with the weapon.
Fearful, Jared half looked over his shoulder before he leaned forward and pulled the chair away that was propping the broken door shut, dropping it to one side. It clicked open and came away from the wooden frame slightly, as the top hinge took most of the door's weight. He reached forward and pulled the handle, revealed the sun was setting and darkness was sweeping through the neighbourhood.
“Now get out,” the man said. “And don’t come back.”
Jared turned to face the intruder and made a move that suggested he was about to plead with him to stay, but the man cut him short before he could even speak by stabbing the air with the blade in his hand. The knife swished inches from Jared’s face and he could hear the air move with the speed the weapon travelled.
“No,” the man said. “You can’t stay here.”
Jared looked at him for another moment, working up the courage to speak. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to kill me?” he asked, almost fearing the response.
The man laughed as the situation dawned on him. “You’ve not been outside since this whole thing kicked off, have you?”
Jared simply stared back.
“I am killing you,” the man continued. “I’m just not wasting my energy doing it myself. I’m going to let the world do it for me, while I go back upstairs and get some more rest. If you should survive out there, take this as your lesson - you kill first and ask questions later. You should have killed me when you had the chance and now I've taken your stuff.”
Jared turned tentatively to face the street, as he muttered the words “survival of the fittest,” and nodded. He shuffled the rucksack on his back and stepped out of the house. He stood motionless on the porch for a moment, before beginning to walk down the driveway and into the road.
“Oh, just one last thing,” the man shouted after him. “They only come out at night. So I’d get a move on if I were you.”