Thursday 30 June 2016

His Pale Blue Eyes

This story originally appeared in Bite Sized Horror edited by Johnny Mains for Obverse Books in 2011 and is included in my collection from Shadow Publishing, The Lurkers in the Abyss and Other Tales of Terror (2013). An audio version was made available on Tales to Terrify the following year.

For anyone interested here is the full text of this tale of a small girl searching for her parents in a world overrun by the reanimated dead.


Her parents had told her to stay indoors. But it was dark and scary. She could hear them, the things she thought of as zombies, even though her parents forbad her to use that word. They were outside, groaning, shuffling, sniffing at the walls. They were nearly always there, especially at night. Allison wondered what they looked like. She had only ever seen them from a distance or on the monitor screens of the CCTV cameras that surrounded the building, but the pictures were monochrome and blurred. Her parents always hid her eyes from the creatures when they took her outside. The last time had been weeks ago. That was before her father found the new place. Allison missed their old home, though. She had lived there almost as long as she could remember. The new place smelt musty, and its walls were damp with growths of fungus. It was boring in here. Every room was the same, what windows it had bricked up with breezeblocks. Her parents called it The Bunker. They tried to turn it into a joke, but it didn’t seem funny, even if they were safe inside its thick walls and the stainless steel doors her father had installed front and back.
       Allison stared at the monitor screens. The creatures were still there.  Some of them were staring at the sky or across the grass that surrounded the bunker, where every shrub or tree had been burned by her parents so there was nowhere for them to hide. Allison glanced at the twenty-four-hour clock. Her mother and father had been gone for hours now, scavenging for supplies. They were not usually gone so long and Allison had begun to feel worried. She knew that accidents could happen. They had happened to others. They could happen to anyone.
       They could even happen to her parents, she knew.
      Allison went to a cabinet bolted to the wall. It was always locked, but she knew her father kept the key in a drawer beneath it. She unfastened it and took down a semi-automatic rifle. It felt heavy, but she was used to that. Her father had trained her to use it. He said being able to shoot was a necessary skill these days. She wondered when it hadn’t been. That must have been nice, she thought, though she could not imagine being able to go outside without a gun. Even armed you were not safe. You had to be vigilant too. That was something else her father had drummed into her. Never relax, never stop looking for possible dangers, and never be fooled by how safe things looked.
            She missed the friends she once had. They had lived with other families then. But things went wrong. She couldn’t remember what happened clearly; she had been too young. In any case, she was asleep in bed when it happened and the first she knew that something was wrong was when her parents woke her and told her to dress. They even handed her a gun. She had never been allowed one before outside the firing range.
The settlement was filled with flashing lights, gunshots and screams. A double row of chain link fences, twelve feet high, surrounded the small cluster of houses. Somehow part of the fencing had been toppled and they had got in. Her father shot one of them as it stumbled towards them. It was no more than a silhouette against the burning house behind it.
Her father had already found the bunker weeks before. It was a bolthole, he told her, a place no one else knew about. Now it was theirs.
Allison felt nervous as she stared at the monitor screen, switching from camera to camera till she had looked at every part of the flattened earth that surrounded the bunker. Not the creatures. Not her parents. No sign of anything that moved.
The girl knew she would have to go out to find her parents. They might need her help. But she knew that was dangerous. They were out there. Somewhere. Everywhere. Waiting.
Her father had told her they knew how to wait better than anyone. They didn’t need to eat or drink – though they loved to eat anything that was still alive or freshly killed. It made her shudder to think of it. She could not imagine wanting to eat something that was still alive, something that could feel itself being eaten. That was wrong. Hot spit rose in the back of her throat when she thought of it. She was terrified that one of them would bite her like that, would attempt to eat her - knowing this was no fairy tale but real. She stared at the rifle in her hands, knowing she would shoot anything that tried to do that to her. She would shoot it straight between the eyes like her father had told her to do if she ever had to defend herself.
“Right between the eyes,” he said, his face sterner than she had ever seen it before. “Don’t hit the body. That won’t stop them. Aim for the brain. Don’t forget that, Ally. You have to kill the brain.”
She knew from the way he talked that he found it difficult telling stuff like this to his ten-year-old daughter, as if he knew it was wrong. But he’d had to say it.
Because of them.
“Mum, Dad, where are you?” Allison said in a whisper. “Why haven’t you come back?”
She stared at the monitor, switching cameras till she had again searched every view around the bunker. They weren’t there. Nothing was there. No animals, no birds, no people. None of those shambling, dead-eyed creatures either. They had stopped snuffling about the place hours ago.
Despite her fear, Allison knew it was time to go out and look. It was hours before it would be dark again. Night time was always dangerous. They loved it. They could roam freely then. During the day the sun could burn their skin if it was hot enough. Her father had told her that they couldn’t sweat. When it was really sunny they would get hotter and hotter, and sometimes they’d burst. She’d laughed when he told her, but the laughter died at the look on his face.
“They’re not a joke,” he said. And she knew he still mourned all those people they had killed, people he’d known. She mourned them too, but her memories of most of them were fading now. She’d never really known them at all.
Allison sucked in her need to cry, checked that a shell was chambered in her rifle, ready to fire, and strode towards the door. It led into an enclosed portico. Its windows, like those of the rest of the house, had been bricked up with concrete blocks by whoever had fortified this place, before they abandoned it. A monitor screen showed nothing dangerous lurked outside. Allison unlocked the door and pulled it open.
Fresh air blew into her face. It was so much nicer than inside the bunker. She breathed it in, enjoying the taste of it even though her heart had begun to race at how dangerous it was to venture outside. And for a moment she felt tempted to retreat into the bunker, even though she could hardly bear the idea of not knowing where her parents were.
Don’t be a baby, Allison told herself. She tensed her finger around the rifle’s trigger, then stepped out into the sunlight.
It was early autumn and the sky was clear, a pale luminous blue that stretched before her with breathtaking width after the closeness of the bunker. There was frost on the singed blades of grass. In the distance she could see trees, their leaves turning from red to brown. A town lay only a mile away beyond them. The trees were in Aspin Park. Before everything went wrong she used to go there with her parents to play on the swings or wander round the small lake, feeding its ducks and swans with crumbs of bread. Smoke hung over parts of the town, and she wondered if houses were burning there. Houses were always burning now. People hid inside them. If they were attacked they would set them on fire and make their escape. Fire was one of the few things they feared.
Yesterday her mother told her they would be driving to the supermarket to see if they could find more food.  She said they would only be gone for an hour.
Allison knew where they would have gone. It was the same every time they went out now.
Shutting the door behind her, Allison locked it, then put the key inside a zip pocket. A gravel path led across the grass to a nearby car park. The building behind her had once been the lodge to a country house that the town council had converted into a tourist information centre – which someone had later transformed into the bunker. The tyres on the vehicles left inside the car park were flat. Most of the cars were rusty. Many had had their windows broken. One had the remains of its driver and passengers. Allison kept her eyes averted as she passed it. Its contents scared her, even though they were now no more than skeletons.
Allison watched the vehicles in case any of the dead-eyed creatures were hiding between them, though that was likely. But her father had drummed it into her to keep alert, however safe things seemed. That was how they had survived when others died.
Apart from the wind it was silent. Allison was used to that now. She could hardly remember a time when you could always hear cars or people. What people there were didn’t go around laughing or talking or making much noise any more. They were too busy watching and listening for that. You didn’t call attention to yourself. You didn’t last long if you did. They were always out there somewhere, watching and waiting. They didn’t make much noise either.
On reaching the road on the far side of the car park, Allison stood for a moment as she gazed into town. Lines of houses with long gardens faded into a hazy autumn mist. She didn’t like the road or the gardens. Gardens were dangerous, especially when they were overgrown. Anything could hide between their tall bushes, shrubs and trees.
But the supermarket her parents had gone to was at the far end of the road. If she squinted she could make out its roof in the distance. Not too far to walk, she told herself. Fifteen minutes at most.
It would have taken her parents much less than that in their four-by-four.
Her throat felt dry as she started out. She kept to the middle of the road. She walked around the abandoned vehicles scattered along it, leaving as wide a gap as possible. Not far away several cars and a minibus had collided and burned into a tangled wreck, filled with the cinders of bodies. There was just enough room for a car to drive between it and the walled gardens on either side. Her parents would have taken this at speed in case anything hid behind the wreckage. Allison felt twitchy as she approached it. Her breath came in gasps, making her feel light-headed. She was starting to panic. Which was no good, she knew. She made herself stop and take deep breaths to calm herself down, feeling suddenly so lonely and afraid she wanted to cry. The rifle felt cumbersome in her hands, and her arms were beginning to ache from the weight of it. She had never carried one this far before.
Allison narrowed her eyes.
Was something hiding behind the wreckage? She took small steps towards it. At the same time, she tightened her grip on the trigger. If anything moved she’d fire. She knew she wouldn’t even wait to see what it was.
Metal creaked inside the burned-out vehicles. Allison stopped. Her hands trembled as she gripped the rifle and swivelled it to point towards the sounds. But she failed to see anything, only rusted twists of torn metal. Holding her breath, she scurried as fast as she could through the gap. Her back grazed the edge of the garden wall behind her and a tree branch touched her neck, making her jump. She jerked, staring wide-eyed into the bushes, then hurried back into the middle of the road. Her heart thumped hard inside her chest.
With all her might she wished she could see her parents. For minutes she stood motionless, staring down the road in the hope their familiar off-roader would appear in the distance, thundering towards her. But nothing moved. Nothing at all. Not even the distant shape of one of those dead-eyed creatures. In a way it would have been a relief to see one. She knew they were out there. Somewhere. Not seeing them somehow felt worse, even though she knew she would scream if she saw one now. Allison thought about its rotting teeth biting into her flesh.
That thought made her feel even smaller, more afraid.
Her father had told her what to do if one of them bit her. She didn’t think he should have told her this. Sometimes he told her too much, she was sure.
Allison felt tears slide down her cheeks.
The supermarket was nearer now. Ten minutes and she’d reach it.
A heavy feeling lurched in her stomach.
Despite her need to see them again she was certain her parents would not be there.
But if they were…
Allison made herself stop thinking about what might have happened to them and shut her eyes. She wouldn’t think about that. Her parents knew what they were doing. They didn’t make mistakes. Not like other people. Her father could handle anything. He was strong. He was alert. He knew how to act. He wasn’t stupid. Nor was her mother. They could handle anything.
Anything at all.
Allison started walking again. She shouldered the rifle to ease the strain on her arms. The road was clearer now. There were fewer cars and she could see far enough in every direction that nothing could catch her unawares. Even the overgrown gardens had given way to rows of shops with wide pavements.
Then she heard the shouting. It was panicky. Frightened.
Her heart began to race as she slid the rifle from her shoulder, automatically checking to make sure it was ready to fire, as her father had told her time and again, then hurried forwards. The supermarket car park was only at the end of the block. She could already see its oversized sign. Trolleys lay abandoned around its entrance. None of them had any produce in them. That would have been scavenged long ago.
Allison cocked her head to one side in an effort to work out in which direction the shouts were coming from. Then she saw them. Two boys, one older than her, but the other much younger, perhaps five years old, were running away from the supermarket’s broken doors. The younger boy kept stumbling. He was limping badly and Allison saw what looked like blood on one of his legs.
A man emerged from the doors behind them. He held an axe in one hand, which he was swinging around from side to side in an effort to ward off something inside the building behind him. Perhaps only waiting until the boys had managed to put enough distance between them and whatever was inside the supermarket, the man suddenly turned and started to run as fast as he could after them. Then Allison saw it. The grimy face of the man-shaped creature emerged into the daylight. Its clothes hung in tatters. Allison knew it neither needed nor cared about them. In time they would disintegrate. Allison shuddered at the thought as she hoisted the rifle to her shoulder and aimed. It was a distant shot and she knew she would be lucky to hit the creature at this range. She tracked it as it followed the man, stumbling after him with quick, jerky, ill-judged strides that still ate the distance between them with uncanny speed.
“This way,” Allison shouted. “Come this way.”
The boys heard her first. Hope sprang into their faces, perhaps because they could see she had a weapon. They turned to the man and called to him, pointing at her. But the creature behind the man was already only feet away from him. He stopped and waved the axe in its face, as if he hoped he could scare it off, but the thing was hardly fazed by it. It grasped the axe head in its fingers, then yanked it from him. Taken aback, the man staggered away from the creature, bewildered and scared.
That was one of the boys. The youngest. His cry rose into a high-pitched scream.
Allison fired, but she knew she had missed. Chips of masonry exploded from the supermarket’s red brick wall behind the creature. It didn’t even look. Allison narrowed her eyes, angry she had let herself fire too quickly. Her father would have been furious at her sloppiness. Squeeze the trigger, he would have said. Don’t jerk the thing. Squeeze it. Gently. Gently, you stupid girl. She aimed once more, though the creature was already attacking the man. Its hands had grasped him by the shoulders and it was trying to tug him towards it. For his part, the man had his own hands pressed to the creature’s head and was trying to push it away from him as its teeth snapped at his face. They were so close she knew she might even hit the man if she didn’t aim better this time.
She barely heard the bark of the rifle before blood sprayed from the top of the creature’s head. A huge chunk of skull exploded upwards as the shell impacted above its ear.
The man nearly fell as he pushed himself away from the creature, its blood splashed across his face. He looked confused, as if he could hardly believe his attacker was dead. That he was safe.
“This way!” Allison shouted. She lowered the rifle. She knew the man had to get away from the supermarket entrance. If there had been one of the creatures inside the building, there was a chance there were more.
The man gazed at her, confused. Then, as if collecting himself, he nodded his head, stooped to retrieve the axe from beside the creature’s body and started to lope across the car park towards her. He looked shaken – who wouldn’t be, Allison thought to herself, having one of those things breathing in your face? Already the boys had increased their speed as well. The older reached her seconds later, his face flushed.
“You saved our dad,” he said.
Allison nodded.
“Thanks.” The boy extended a hand. Surprised, Allison hesitated a moment, then took it. His fingers were warm and strong. She felt a tingle of excitement, which she automatically suppressed. She still needed to find her own father – and her mother too.
“That was a good shot.” The man was panting heavily. “Greg Smith,” he said. “These are my boys. Pete, he’s the eldest. And little Mike.”
Little Mike didn’t look like he appreciated the title, pulling his face. Which would normally have made Allison giggle, but she had too many worries to find much humour in anything yet.
“You didn’t see a man and a woman? I’m looking for my parents.”
Greg shook his head. “Only those bloody things. I managed to kill one of them with this.” He held up the axe. “There were too many, though. They almost trapped us.”
“Don’t you have any guns?” Allison said.
“No ammo. We ran out weeks ago.” He glanced at Allison’s rifle appraisingly. “Do you still have plenty?”
Wary, Allison said, “Some.”
The man laughed. “Don’t worry, I won’t steal it. Especially while you’re holding that rifle.”
His laughter sounded strained to Allison, and she surreptitiously tightened her grip on the gun. She could not imagine being without ammunition. Her parents had made sure they had plenty. Ages ago her father took part in a raid on an abandoned army camp. His share of what they’d found had provided them with enough ammunition to last for years.
“I’ve got to find my parents,” Allison said.
“We could help. Couldn’t we, Dad?” Little Mike said.
Greg nodded. “Of course we could. Besides, we’re safer with her.” He glanced up and down the road. “Do you have any idea where they might have gone?”
Allison shook her head. “They said they wouldn’t be long. That was yesterday.”
Greg frowned. “Doesn’t sound good.” He breathed out slowly as if considering what to say next. “They’d have had trouble in there.” He nodded towards the supermarket.
“They had guns,” Allison said. “My dad wouldn’t have been caught by surprise.” Her voice sounded too defensive, she knew. She saw the boys look at her, curious.
“Perhaps they decided to go somewhere else,” Greg said, “somewhere safer.” He jerked a thumb at the creature she’d shot. “With not so many of those things in it.” Allison saw movement beyond the supermarket’s plate glass doors, and knew their presence was drawing the creatures from inside the building. They would have to move soon or be forced to shoot more of them; a waste of ammo when they could avoid trouble.
“We should go,” Allison said.
Greg glanced at the doors and saw what she’d seen. He nodded his agreement. He hefted the axe in his hand. “Where to?”
“There’s a minimarket further up the road. Not far. They might have gone there.”
“Our vehicle’s here,” Greg said. He pointed to a removal truck stood in the supermarket car park, close to the exit. A bull bar had been crudely welded to its radiator and wire mesh had been fixed with screws across its windscreen. Greg led them to it. It wasn’t locked. He hauled himself up inside its cab. Allison saw there was plenty of room inside for the two boys and her. She let them climb in ahead of her, then pulled herself up.
The truck started noisily. Noxious clouds pumped from the exhaust before Greg finally put it into gear and drove towards the exit. The roar from the truck’s badly-tuned engine had succeeded in bringing a couple of the creatures out of the supermarket. One of them limped across the car park on a broken leg, attempting to head them off. A wild grin on his face, Greg steered towards the creature, hitting it with a solid meaty thump with the bull bar. The truck lurched as one wheel, then another ground across it.
“One less,” Greg called. He cast a glance of triumph at Allison. Was that to make up for the one that almost killed him? Unsure whether she liked the man or not, Allison looked away and watched the road instead. Greg manoeuvred the unwieldy truck out of the car park.
“If you spot their car let me know,” Greg said as they headed along the road. “We should team up. The more the better, eh?”
Allison wasn’t so sure. She had been in a large group once before. Most of its members died when their compound fell. She trusted her parents. They weren’t stupid. Most of the adults she’d seen in the compound had been. They’d squabble over everything. No one trusted anyone else. They were selfish and greedy and frightened. Her parents never argued, though. They knew what was sensible. They knew what had to be done and got on with it. She could tell Greg wasn’t like that at all. He wouldn’t have taken his boys with him into the supermarket if he was. Not with nothing better than an axe to defend themselves with. That was stupid. They would probably have been killed if she hadn’t been able to help. She glanced at the boy next to her. Little Mike stared back at her. He had pale blue eyes and unwashed curly hair which should have been cut months ago. There were dirty smudges around his mouth, some of it dried snot. Allison’s father would never have tolerated that. Cleanliness was important. Like those of his brother and father, even Mike’s clothes were grubby. Only the outdoor waterproof he wore on top was clean, and its sharp creases showed it had only just been taken from a shop. He had new hiking boots too.
Greg braked and the truck hissed to a stop. Ahead of them the road was blocked by a mob. Even from this distance, Allison could tell what they were. Beyond she could see the sign for the minimarket. On top of its flat roof were two people. Her heart beat faster as she recognised them. 
“That’s them,” she said. “On the roof.”
“Fuck.” Greg grimaced. He immediately looked embarrassed at what he’d said. “If that’s your parents…” He let the sentence die.
Allison ignored him. She did a mental count as accurately as she could of the mob besieging the shop. There had to be at least thirty, she thought. Too many for her to shoot, she knew. If they turned and charged they would overwhelm the truck before she could take down half of them. Every shot would have to be spot on too.
“You know there’re too many.” Greg’s voice left no doubt he was certain about this.
“I can’t leave them,” Allison said. She reached for the door handle.
“Don’t be stupid.”
Allison flashed him an angry glance before she pushed the door open.
“Come back.”
She felt Little Mike’s fingers make an ineffectual grab at the back of her coat as she let herself fall the couple of feet to the road. She looked up into the cab. She could see Greg’s face as he peered at her from beyond his sons. He looked irritated.
“You’ll get yourself killed,” he said.
“Not if you turn the truck so it’s ready to drive away from here.” It felt odd to be telling a grownup what to do, but Greg seemed too scared to think for himself. As she stepped back to give him room to drive the vehicle back and forth till he had it pointed the other way, she hoped he wouldn’t leave her. But she had the rifle and that, somehow, seemed to give him faith in her. He’d stay.
After Greg had finished manoeuvring the truck, Allison stepped towards the cab. “Is there anything in the back?”
“Some cases of food. Some drums of water. Blankets. Tools. Bare necessities in case we can’t get home before dark.”
“Is home where your wife is?”
Greg nodded. “And our dogs.”
She hoped wherever they were staying was safe. Dogs wouldn’t give his wife much protection against them. They wouldn’t be put off, not by dogs. She knew that too well.
So far the creatures at the minimarket had not noticed them despite the noise of the truck’s engine. But Allison knew that wouldn’t last long, even though her parents were still keeping most of their attention. Her father had managed to free a coping stone from the edge of the roof. Even as she watched he heaved it forwards, then let it fall onto the upturned faces of the crowd. From the bodies strewn about the road she guessed her parents must have used what ammo they had on killing as many of their attackers as they could. There were at least forty corpses, their head wounds clotted with flies.
The off roader her parents had arrived in was parked close to the door into the minimarket. It was also where most of the creatures were gathered. Before her parents could get to it, their numbers would have to be reduced. Another of the creatures fell victim to a coping stone, its head crushed to a gory pulp. As if growing wary of this new danger, the rest of them started to wander away from the edge of the building. Too many of them, though, were still clustered close to the off roader and Allison knew her father wouldn’t want to risk damaging it by hurling any heavy stones nearer to it.
An idea struck her. She felt sickened by it, but the girl knew it might be the only chance she had of getting her parents out of there alive.
Greg had parked the removal truck in neutral. Its engine was much quieter now, just ticking over. Allison moved away from it to the row of shops that led to the minimarket. All the shops had been vandalised and broken glass and crushed produce lay across the pavement, most of the goods weathered beyond recognition. Allison stopped at the end shop and pushed open its door. The interior smelt bad, but was mostly empty. Nothing moved inside it, not even a rat. Then she returned to the pavement, pressed herself tight against the wall and peered round the corner at the open concrete space outside the minimarket. The nearest of the creatures was about twenty feet away. Another coping stone hurtled down but missed its target. It hit the ground with a resounding crash.
Allison glanced behind her. Greg was watching her from the truck, his head craned through the opened window. Which was when she turned and took aim at the nearest wheel. She ignored the protest Greg started to shout at her and squeezed off a shot. The tyre exploded as the heavy shell struck it. Lumps of black rubber were flung through the air.
Immediately, every head turned to stare at the truck. For the merest moment there was a pause, then it started. With stumbling but determined feet, the creatures outside the minimarket began to trudge away from it towards the vehicle. The only sound was the shuffling of their feet. Greg cried out in despair as he started the truck and it snaked forwards, the burst tyre making it skew across the road. Greg applied more power to the accelerator but the vehicle was struggling. Rubber shredded from the burst tyre till its bared wheel rim struck sparks from the road.
Get out of there and run, Allison silently urged as she watched the creatures trudging past, not noticing her in the shop doorway, gun at the ready. Their attention was focused on the struggling truck as it slid at an angle across the road and hit a lamppost.
“Get out of there!” Allison shouted when the last of the creatures had stumbled past her hiding place. One of them turned, staring at her with eyes that were so long dead they were like overcooked eggs, pitted with decay. That it could even see her she was not sure - though she knew it could sense her now that she had drawn its attention. Once it might have been a businessman. Greasy rags of a dark suit still clung to its body, its shirt black with dried blood. Its lips were drawn in a tattered grimace back from teeth like stubbed-out cigarette butts as it swivelled, almost overbalanced, and lurched towards her. Allison wasted no time. She aimed and fired, at this range exploding its head in a spray so rank it almost made her throw up. Then she was on her way, her feet pounding the concrete ground to the minimarket. Her parents had already left its roof. Seconds later the door into the building swung open and her mother and father were racing towards her.
“Get into the car,” her father ordered. He unlocked it remotely with his key as he pushed past to see what was happening up the road.
“They refused to help,” Allison said. “They dumped me, then tried to drive away, but the tyre burst.”
The truck’s cab was already swarming with the creatures. They were climbing all over it, scrabbling at its windows. Some had already pulled the grill off the windscreen and were pounding it with fleshless fists. Their dull thumps echoed down the road.
“I told you,” her father said. “You can’t trust anyone.”
“Yes, Daddy,” Allison said. She nursed the rifle to her chest as she climbed into the back of their off roader. Her father glanced once more at the truck, then turned to her mother and shook his head as they climbed into the front seats.
He deliberately ran down some of the creatures as they accelerated past the truck. Allison averted her eyes from the lumps of flesh that some of them were already thrusting into their mouths. She looked instead at her parents. They were all that mattered in her world to her. Their safety and hers mattered more than anything else.
Anything, she thought.
Even Little Mike with his pale blue eyes.


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