What does that call to mind? An endless desert? Bombed-out shells barely recognizable as buildings? Perhaps hordes of living dead, roaming highways and shopping centers. Shambling or sprinting, take your pick. Most people would have said something along those lines, until recently. If I'd asked any passer-by on the street, most people would have mentioned Logan's Run, Fallout or 28 Days Later. Until recently. Until the apocalypse actually happened.
Not a nuclear apocalypse, nor a zombie apocalypse, but definitely an apocalypse. How so? Let's consider what makes an apocalypse. The nuclear apocalypse and the zombie apocalypse are not so different: They both start with a huge loss of human life and the total breakdown of civilization and society. In both cases, those who are left try to survive in an almost impossibly hostile environment. Humanity is no longer the indisputable dominant species. Food, water and weapons become the only things worth keeping. It's no longer safe to be alone.
Yes, we have definitely seen the apocalypse. The only things missing are the radioactive deserts and the mindless infected dead. I look out of the perfectly preserved windows of my house, which is still standing just as proudly as it did 20 years ago, and I see the same green fields I've always seen. It's not completely the same...I don't see any cars passing by, or even many people. And it's not where I was 20 years ago, but still...
As one may expect, at least from the undead variety of apocalypse, no-one knows exactly how it happened. Some people attribute it to concerted terrorism, some claim the governments betrayed them. I don't buy either of these. What could any government possibly have to gain from this situation? I don't think there even are any governments now. How could any group of terrorists possibly gain the necessary resources and communication network and remain undetected? I've even heard some people say that our apocalypse is the result of direct divine intervention. Those people don't usually live very long, for one reason or another. Still...it's the only theory I've heard that answers all the questions, if the answer is so...well, never mind.
Leaving aside mysteries for now, I'll focus on what few certainties we have. We know that somehow, all our means of communication stopped working. The internet and phones died completely. Televisions and radios lost the ability to receive signal...either that, or there was no signal for them to receive. They died suddenly and, seemingly, across the whole world. Of course, no-one knew what was happening. How would they find out? Most people assumed that whoever was in charge of looking after these would sort it out soon enough. They waited patiently and calmly, confident that this was just another non-crisis of the sort that cropped up every two years or so. People more prone to hysteria panicked and began hoarding food and fuel, as they did every time something moderately scary happened.
After a week and no sign of restoration, even the most level-headed people began to panic a little. With all the world's communications networks seemingly gone, people began to realize how powerless they were. There was no way of ordering food; most of the shops, supermarkets and malls were by now completely bare and no-one knew how to contact the warehouses without an internet connection or a phone line. People tried using the post service, but that soon became so inundated with letters that it stopped functioning.
Fuel became scarce, for the same reasons. With no food and no fuel, just about everything else became worthless. The cities became unsustainable, unable to produce their own food. They say that every civilization is three meals away from anarchy, but to our credit most people went without four or five meals before they started turning on each other. If the people who had been hoarding food could not be persuaded to part with it, they were killed. The looters who killed the hoarders were quickly killed by the mob. The mob turned on itself, and those who escaped with the food or managed somehow to beat down their opposition became hoarders themselves. Many tried to flee the city, but that didn't help them. Those caught trying to take food from the farms were shot or savaged by the farmers' dogs. Even those who managed to pilfer something didn't know what to do with it. You can't stuff a whole cow into a microwave and have something edible come out.
That was the worst of it. But here is the unique thing about our apocalypse - the one thing that truly sets it apart from all our old ideas about the end of the world: After all this chaos, things more or less...went back to normal. There were less of us, but life went on. Of course, it was different. Is different. It has to be, I suppose. We seem to have returned to a kind of medieval way of life; people stick to their small communities, and every member has some function within that community. People not willing to contribute are run out of town, and people not able to contribute...well, I'm sure the more productive villages can sustain one or two of them, but there isn't always enough.
We survive. I don't know how many villages there are like us out there, but from time to time a traveller passes through, or settles in one of the empty houses. We can't afford not to be receptive to strangers. They may be one more mouth to feed, but they're two more hands to work. Sometimes raiders come...bandits, you could say...expecting whatever food, fuel or useful items we have. A couple of warning shots usually send them away without much trouble...usually. We've even got our own generator, so we can use things that run on electricity, sparingly. But there's no phone line. I still check, sometimes, but it's always the same. I dial a number and hope to hear something, a voice, an answering machine...even an engaged signal, but there's always just...silence.
Post-apocalyptic...I suppose, in some ways, what we thought a post-apocalyptic world would be like was actually just the world during an apocalypse. We assumed that, as soon as 'it' happened, whether 'it' was the bomb or the infection, chaos, death and fear would hound us unto extinction. It turned out that it was only that way for a few months. Yes, we're a post-apocalyptic people, with the emphasis on 'post-'. The world, as we knew it once, has already ended, but we continue. Maybe the world will start again some day. Maybe it already has, somewhere.
Galvin put the book down and tried to focus his thoughts, but it was no use. There were too many questions, about the past and about the present, about what was and what would be. He thought about city life. A city was something he knew only as shabby, gray, hollow topography. What would it be like to live there, with thousands of other people? He thought about cars, which he saw every day, silent and motionless except in emergencies. Was there really enough fuel for it to be the norm for everyone to pilot a car every day, once upon a time? Did those televisions once light up and do more than sit and stare blankly at the room? He wondered if people were happy before the 'blackout', as the older people in the village called it.
He leant back in his chair, gazing at the ceiling and running a paw over his white-furred head. There was a greater puzzle to the journal, something that the mere words within did not contain. The journal's very existence was what was really consuming his mind. The writer didn't seem miserable, but he'd gone anyway...the young wolf had a few dim memories, a vague silhouette and kind, firm words. Always gentle, always strong and always a little sad. But then, on some forgotten day which floated around between memories, he wasn't there any more.
Why had he abandoned his family? From what Galvin could remember, he and his mother had loved and been loved by that hazy memory, but that hadn't stopped him. And he was always doing something for the people around him in their little village, and they had looked up to him, but he left them, too. Even the journal. A lot of time and thought had been spent on that journal, but something had made him decide to tear half the pages out and leave the rest. Did he mean Galvin to read them? Was there some clue in the pages left to him? Or maybe the answer lay in the missing pages. Maybe...
A sudden commotion of raised voices and bleating from outside snapped Galvin out of his revery. Familiar sounds, ones which he dreaded and somehow loved at the same time. They meant that village goat was on a rampage yet again, and all good men, women and children were called upon to catch it and convince it to return to a peaceful, productive life. Stowing the journal in its hiding place, he grabbed his old cagoule and stepped outside to join the fray. Perhaps, if he could catch the elusive feral, there would be some goat's cheese in it for him.
Chapter 1: The lively goat and the dead house
Galvin reeled from the blow and toppled backwards. It hadn't been hard, but it had taken him by surprise. Rolling over, he lunged desperately at the mass of coarse, shaggy hair which had bounded over him, but was rewarded only with a kick to the nose. He lay in the moist turf for a few moments, enthusiasm and pride somewhat battered, listening to the mingled bleating, shouting and cursing. No-one paid much attention to the young wolf as he breathed in the scent of mud and grass; their attention was far too focused on catching Lilith, a goat feral and source of milk and cheese to the village.
Pulling himself together, Galvin got to his feet and steeled himself for the next round. Taking stock of the situation, he saw that Lilith, to the bafflement of the villagers, had somehow climbed on to the roof of a disused garage, where she was bleating triumphantly. One or two people were trying to climb up, but they either slipped straight back down again or had their fingers trampled before they could get a solid grip. The garage joined on to a shabby, unoccupied house, whose paint was peeling so much that it looked like it had a particularly unpleasant skin condition. One of the upstairs windows was almost directly over the garage...Galvin slipped away, unnoticed by the rest of the village.
Yes, judging by the teeth marks on the moldy furniture, Lilith had definitely come this way. Galvin padded upstairs, trying not to breathe the scent of decay and abandonment too deeply. Most of the houses in the village were like this; while it had once housed roughly 1,000 furs, now the population was barely more than 80. Galvin had been born in peaceful times, after the panic had waned and people had stopped trying to kill each other, but the scars of the past could be seen everywhere.
Galvin looked out from the window. He could see Lilith below, chewing on a scrap of torn fabric from someone's shirt. The jump looked a lot further than it had from down below...
"Stupid goat..." he muttered, and jumped.
He fell a little heavier than he had intended, and instead of landing gracefully on his feet, he stumbled forward and his shoulder had to take the weight of the fall. He could hear the surprised voices of the others, some held a note of concern, some a shade of mockery. He picked himself up and faced down the feral.
Lilith had dropped her cloth snack in surprise, but this surprise had given way to irritation. Her victory had been taken away from her; her castle had been invaded. She fixed Galvin with a firm gaze, ready to defend her throne to the death. The wolf hesitated. Lilith's escapes and the subsequent chases were a semi-regular event, and he knew what it felt like to be on the receiving end of one of her last, desperate charges. Of course, he was younger and smaller back then, so he'd probably catch her if she chose to fight him, but no-one relishes the idea of that many bruises.
It was academic; Lilith was suddenly disappearing over the edge of the garage roof; a pair of stout, equine arms had wrapped around her haunches and were pulling her down.
"Blehh!" she pleaded, before slipping out of sight.
Galvin stared at the empty space where she had been. After a moment, a chestnut head popped into view.
"Well done, lad!" it said. "Did you hurt yourself"?
Apart from the blow to his face earlier, Galvin's shoulder was aching and he'd twisted an ankle, so naturally he shook his head.
The villagers had used boxes, old dustbins and other debris to create a makeshift staircase. Climbing down, Galvin could hear Lilith's owner, an overweight deer named Sandra, thanking Renaud for the return of her beloved goat. Galvin had only wanted to help the village by catching Lilith, of course he had. But...it was just a bit disappointing that it was someone else who actually caught her, in the end. Just a bit. It didn't help that all the attention was being directed to Renaud, when it was Galvin that had done all of the work.
"Oh, don't mention it", the horse was saying. "You should be thanking young, er, er..."
"You should be thanking young Gavin here, he cornered her".
"Mm", said Sandra, looking straight over Galvin's head. Most of the women in the village had a blind spot when it came to males who weren't Renaud. Galvin was used to it, but he didn't quite understand it.
Renaud was de facto head of the village. People looked to him in times of confusion, trusted him to lead the defense should any threat present itself and usually allowed him to arbitrate their disputes. In Galvin's opinion, the horse was none too bright and certainly not the best choice as a leader, but most people seemed to look up to him. He certainly looked the part, with a broad back and strong arms and a genial, although slightly vacant, smile.
Switching her attention to her wayward goat, Sandra said:
"Lily, you ran away again, you naughty girl!" as if she was lightly admonishing a cub for coming home with mud on its trousers.
"Blehh", replied the feral goat, apologetically.
Seeing that Renaud had left them, and there was only Galvin left to talk to, she tied a makeshift yoke around Lilith's neck and began to lead her back home.
"Come on", she said to Lilith, as they ambled away. "I've got some fruitloaf for you if you behave nicely".
"You watch your language"!
As he watched them leave, feeling somewhat sympathetic to the goat's plight, Galvin realized that someone was trying to get his attention.
"Psst!" came a voice, in a stage whisper that could have been heard from across the street, if anyone other than Galvin had been remotely interested. Three small figures were lurking in the shadows behind the now-forgotten debris used in Lilith's recapture. Recognizing the figures as Dolores, Rick and Cornelius, the village's current crop of mischievous youngsters, Galvin approached.
"Galvin!" hissed Cornelius, as soon as Galvin was close enough to talk to.
Cornelius was a slightly nervous-looking tabby cat, no more than 11 years of age, who would have been the voice of comparative reason in his little group if the voices of Dolores and Rick weren't constantly drowning him out.
"Galvin", he whispered again, apparently not having planned far ahead enough to know what he wanted to say. Dolores elbowed him in the ribs and muttered something in his ear.
"Oh yeah", he said, brightening up. "This is a secret, so don't tell anyone else".
Cornelius looked around conspiratorially, then leant closer and whispered:
"We're going on a raid". When Galvin didn't seem as impressed as he had expected, Cornelius followed up with "You know...in the empty houses. We're"...
"We're going to find loads of great stuff," Rick interrupted, "and we'll probably find loads of jewels and treasure and there might be some dead bodies and I'm going to get stuff from the old days and...".
Rick, a hyperactive raccoon cub, was hopping from one foot to the other in excitement. As the only thing loud enough stop Rick talking once he got started, Dolores cut in.
"Come with us Galvin, you can get to all the places we can't"!
The only daughter of a spaniel couple, Dolores had been brought up by a collection of old jazz records that belonged to her father. The rest of the village pretended not to notice that he was taking energy from the generator to power his ancient record player; the music was all he'd had to live for before the blackout. The village tolerated most of the follies and foibles of its residents, as long as they stayed harmless. Such an upbringing had a strange effect on the young girl, and every sentence she spoke sounded she was channeling the spirit of James Brown.
Galvin shook his head. "You shouldn't be doing that".
"Aw, why not?" protested Rick, pulling a face.
"Because if you hurt yourself no-one will know where you are", replied Galvin, evenly, "and we don't disturb the...the dead houses in this village. Especially not because we're bored".
"It's not just for fun. There's all kinds of useful things in those houses"!
"Lawn mowers", chipped in Cornelius.
"Bombs!", said Rick, contributing the first thing that came to mind.
"No. Sorry guys, I just don't think it's right. We don't need any more stuff, we should just leave the old houses in peace".
It was a kind of unspoken rule in the village. The empty houses were left alone, treated with a kind of distant respect, as if they were gravestones who had no mourners. There was, as those who did venture to enter would attest, a strange feeling inside. A kind of sad, peaceful emptiness, as if the house itself was asleep...or that, after a long time without living souls inside, its own soul had left or died away.
"Maybe he's scared", taunted Rick in a sing-song voice. "Maybe he thinks there's ghosts and the people who lived there will jump out of the cupboards and...bite..." he trailed off, imagination backfiring on him.
"I won't stop you going, just...don't hurt yourselves, okay"?
"Alright. Won't be as much fun with just us three, though," said Cornelius, sadly. Dolores just stuck her bottom lip out.
"Faces...teeth," continued Rick, staring into space.
Waving goodbye to his younger friends, Galvin started home. It was true, the village could be very boring while you were growing up. One could run around, climb things, play games with the other cubs, but that was it. Sometimes the empty houses seemed like nothing more than big, untapped treasure troves just waiting for a bold adventurer to stride in and claim the prize. His mother had stopped him trying when he was younger, giving him the same talk he had just given to the cubs. He'd never had a chance to find out what his father thought about it...
He stepped into his house, mind turning with thoughts.
His mother was there, mending a shirt with a needle and thread.
"Hi Gal," she said, looking up from her sewing. "I saw you jump. Let me see your shoulder".
"It's only a bruise," protested Galvin, lifting his sleeve anyway. His mother regarded it critically.
"Yes..." she said, after a few moments pause. "You'll be fine".
She went back to her needle. And that was it. On the surface, Galvin's mother could appear to be a little callous or unconcerned when it came to her son, but that only applied when no concern was needed. A few years ago, the young wolf had gashed his leg wide open trying to perform some daring, impressive climbing trick and had seen a side to his mother that even he was shocked by. She had quickly carried him home, without panic but with a frightening kind of urgency, staunched, stitched and bandaged the wound with tears clouding her eyes (something that had never happened before or since) and nearly ripped the throat out of anyone who dared to interrupt, which shocked everyone. The pain was just a dull memory now, but it had been enough at the time to tell him he could die from it. He hadn't, though. His mother wouldn't have let him.
Renaud might be a kind of figurehead for the village, but Galvin's mother was the one who really made things work. If someone was in trouble, had a problem, or really needed something, it was her they went to. Pile of rubble blocking the road? Renaud would round up a group of villagers and have it shifted in no time. Neighbour making trouble? Leave it to Renaud to arbitrate a peaceful solution. But if there was illness in the family, a loved one had died or a feral was about to give birth, everyone looked to Galvin's mother to cure them, organize some kind of funeral or make sure that the new mother and her offspring were looked after properly. Renaud could fix a lot of problems, but when it came to life and death,
"Whose shirt is that?" asked Galvin.
"Oh, Hector's. That damn goat bit a hole out of it. This happens every time, if only that stupid woman would get a proper lock for the gate..." she said, savagely breaking off a piece of thread with her teeth. "I don't think I've got enough thread to fix it properly, though. We're running low on a lot of things".
"The old first-aid kit is getting empty...I could make more bandages if we had any spare bedclothes, but we only just have enough for the two of us. On top of that, I can't boil any water because the kettle's broken".
"Right...I'm just, uh...just going out for a bit".
"But you only just got here...Galvin"?
The house sat in its garden, a little bigger and more ostentatious than most of the other houses nearby. The three cubs stared at the front door, thwarted before they had even begun.
"Maybe we can pick the lock?" said Cornelius, uncertainly.
"What...like picking your nose?" asked Rick.
"Urgh...boys!", protested Dolores, calling the universe to witness.
"I know!", said Rick, stooping to pick up a stone. "Let's break a window"!
Rick hefted the stone carefully, and threw it straight at the large window on the front of the house. It bounced off. Rick stared dismally at the fallen rock for a few seconds, before giving a loud yell, snatching it up again and hurling it once more with all the strength he could muster. This time, it missed the window completely.
"This is stupid," he muttered, "I'm going home".
Cornelius and Dolores tried not to look at him as he walked back down the garden path.
"How do you pick a lock, anyway?" Cornelius asked.
"You use a..." Dolores began, determined not to appear ignorant on any subject, "hair clip...and then you bend it so it looks like a key"! She nodded, confident that she had deduced the correct technique for lock picking.
Galvin knew his mother wouldn't like this, but he also knew that it wouldn't make any difference in the long run. She was bound to object at first, but the cooling of tempers and the pressing of need would change minds soon enough. You had to put the necessities of life before high-minded principles...he wasn't sure, but he thought his dad had taught him that, too long ago to remember clearly.
He stopped in front of the terrace of dead houses. No-one was around this part of the village; there was no work to be done, nothing to see. Just the blank emptiness of the cheap brick and smeared glass. Now, which one...
The wolf panicked for half a second before he recognized the voice and the small figure that went along with it.
"Rick? What are you doing out here"?
Apparently too excited to listen, the raccoon started talking at his usual mile-a-minute speed.
"I knew you'd come after all I tried to tell them but they said you wouldn't so I said you would and I came to find you and I was right"! Beaming, glad that he had turned a lonely walk of shame into a righteous quest through the supreme skill of lying, Rick took a moment to look at the delapidated terrace of houses. "You're not going into one of these are you no don't go in one of these we found a better one come and see where we're going come on"!
Galvin sighed as Rick sped away. Well, he hadn't intended to join the cubs, but now it seemed inevitable. If they got found out, he would get no end of hell for 'encouraging' them, but at least this way he could stop them injuring themselves. He followed.
Rick led Galvin to the front gate of a larger, detached house nearby. It had a haughtier look than the cheaper buildings down the road, although just as deserted. It was in a strange place, somewhere that overlooked most of the rest of the village but where no-one actually went. Opening the gate, he saw Cornelius and Dolores trying to shove a stick through the letterbox of the front door.
They looked up, wearing the guilty expressions of children who know that, while they're sure what they're doing is not exactly wrong, it will get them into deep trouble if their parents find out about it. Seeing that it was just Rick and Galvin, they brightened up.
"You came after all!" they shouted.
"Pretty good house, huh?" yapped Rick, skipping around in excitement. "Better than the ones down the lane"!
"Yeah, but..." Cornelius tried, but was interrupted by Dolores.
"But we can't get in"!
Galvin tried the handle and the door creaked open.
"It wasn't locked," he said. This was not as surprising as most people (including the cubs) would think; a lot of the empty houses had been abandoned in a rush and their occupants had no intention of returning. That, or they had been forcibly ejected from their home for one reason or another. In either case, what would be the point of locking up?
The cubs tackled the house quite professionally, taking one room at a time and exploring it thoroughly. Really, most of what they found was quite mundane and nothing they hadn't seen before, but in the strange, taboo atmosphere of the dead house the most commonplace objects became alien and fascinating. An old cupboard yielded two rucksacks, one for Galvin and one for the cubs, perfect for carrying their plunder around. Before long, they had explored every nook and cranny in the place. Galvin had taken a fresh first-aid kit from the bathroom, the kettle from the kitchen and all the linen and fabric he could carry from the bedrooms. Cornelius looted the old bookshelf in the study, Dolores took an odd combination of art supplies and a mechanic's toolkit. Only Rick seemed disappointed, the only sharp things he was able to find being simple, boring kitchen knives.
They gathered in the upstairs hall, having run out of places to explore.
"What now?" asked Cornelius. Dolores shrugged.
"I suppose we go home"!
"No way, that can't be it," rick moaned, "there must be something else here".
"Well, like what"?
"I dunno, just...more than all this stupid, boring stuff. This is just the same as what we have anyway".
"Well what did you expect?" Galvin demanded, "this is just someone's house, same as yours. It's not as if an ogre lived here or anything".
"But, but...we can't have seen all of it, right"?
"Then what's left"?
"I know what!", said Dolores, a grin splitting her muzzle. Her finger pointed skyward, at the ball-pull for the attic door.
The orb dangled from the ceiling, taunting them with promises of mystery, adventure and wealth. Just out of reach...
"One of you stand on my shoulders", said Galvin, crouching down. Dolores clambered up, gripped the ball, and pulled. The ladder unfolded and hit the floor with a dull thud. The air that came from the opening was thick with the scent of forgotten things, even older and deeper than that in the rest of the house. This part of the house had been asleep even when the house below was full of life...
They ascended in silence, the suspense of the unknown once again rising up in them. Quietly, they began to explore the ancient relics, pawing through piles of life's rubble in search of hidden diamonds.
"What the heck is this?" From under a pile of magazines and bits of wood, Cornelius had pulled out a gold-coloured metal implement of indeterminate purpose.
"It's a trumpet!" said Dolores, who had been shown pictures by her father. "You blow in it!"
With a dubious look, Cornelius began puffing experimentally into the flared end.
Rick had found an old deck of tarot cards and was shuffling them around, trying to get them to do something. They looked magical enough, so why couldn't he set fire to things with them? He found the death card and put the deck down carefully, deciding it was best not to mess around with eldritch forces beyond his understanding. The attic suddenly shook with unholy noise. Cornelius had got the trumpet the right way round and, with some experimentation, had been able to produce a note. He dropped it in surprise and terror.
"Let's go home now", he said, weakly.
"Yeah, all this stuff is boring, too".
"My dad wants me to help him fix his turntable"!
Galvin wasn't listening. Idly, thoughtlessly, he had brushed away some old moth-eaten clothes from the top of an open box. Within was yet more forgotten detritus, but something peeked through, at the bottom...without really knowing why, the wolf reached in and pulled, causing a small avalanche of rotting playing cards, children's books and christmas decorations. Something made the cubs turn around and watch. In his hand, Galvin held a hunting rifle.
It caught the dim light in a sullen, threatening way. Galvin hefted its weight thoughtfully. The others took a step back, in unison.
"I th-thought..." stammered Cornelius, "I thought the grownups had all of these..."
There was silence for a few moments. Rick broke it.
"Cool!" He yelled, making Cornelius and Delores flinch in surprise. "Can I have a go on it give me a go on it Galvin can I see it?"
"No way," said Galvin firmly, holding the rifle away from Rick's frenetic arms, "you'll end up shooting yourself in the foot or something".
"No I won't I'm not stupid do you think I'm stupid why can't I have a go..."
"Galvin found it! He gets to use it first"!
"I don't think any of us should..."
"But I want..."
"Anyway, I get the next go"!
The trio continued bickering for a few moments, until a quiet urgency in Galvin's voice made them stop.
"Listen!" The wolf's ears were pricked up. They listened. In the distance, disturbing the new silence, they could hear the low rumble of approaching engines.