THEM • by James Harding

John finds himself in that intangible space that exists between dream and conscious. It is this space that he now, unknowingly, loves more than anything else. Here he is free from the nightmares that terrorise his sleep and free of the nightmares that exist in his waking moments. Here he is capable of forgetting.

As his mind slips towards memory and the full cold force of the waking world, his mind’s eye pictures what life was once like — the once boring daily routine of brushing teeth, bus commutes, office space and mindless television shows. What was once boring, frustrating and pointless has now become his idea of heaven. Nirvana. Peace.

He wakes. Silently, in the dull room, he cries. It is quiet, expect for the odd sound of Them moving outside. No hum from the boiler, no tunes from the radio. There has been no artificial noise since the power died three weeks ago.

With intense concentration he slips from the bed and, as carefully as he can, moves through the dark room. Once on the landing of the maisonette he shared with Sarah, he creeps down the stairs. Sweat is already beginning to seep out of his pores as he ensures, with steely determination, to not make a sound. To draw attention to his presence could be fatal. They can hear and would stop at nothing to get at him if They knew he was alive.

As he slips past the front door, barricaded with what was once his dining room table, the smell from the bathroom hits him. Putrid tentacles of nausea wash over him as the cocktail of un-flushed human waste penetrate his senses. He is tempted to quicken his pace, getting past the room as quickly as possible, but that would not be advisable. Noise is his Judas.

The living room looks dead, grey and wasted. Where life had once existed, now only dust gathers. The thick curtains covering the window have not moved since he frantically threw them together, as the Public Service Announcement had recommended that night. When They first rose. Looking at the pattern of vines and flowers on the curtains, the design that Sarah had fallen in love with, his mind wonders back to that night.

John recognises that luck, for lack of a better word, was on his side. If he had lived on the ground floor he would not be here. However, this fact also seems like a curse. He can’t be sure, but the closing of the curtains may have attracted Them and doomed those below. The neighbours he’d never taken the time to know.

He can still hear the shuffling of Their feet, the smash of the window in the flat below and the screams. The screams that still echo in the darkest slums of his subconscious. The screams that will never leave his thoughts. The screams.

His stomach rumbles as he rests against the beige wall of the kitchen. On the counter sits a collection of empty cans — beans, sweet corn, soup. Even dog food. Despite his best efforts, his supplies have dwindled to almost nothing. He fails to remember the last time he ate. Two days? Perhaps it’s been three? What is more worrying is the water — and the lack thereof. He can’t last much longer. He doesn’t want to last much longer.

Even if help was to come, even if They are pushed back and exterminated, John wonders what will be left of his life? If only he had taken Buddie for a walk that night, instead of Sarah. If only she had come back before They rose. If only he knew what became of her.

Help will come. There is nothing to do but wait. Help will come. To sit and wait. Help will come. To sit and survive and wait. Help will come.

But, the thought strikes him, maybe he could end it. Maybe he could end it all. See Sarah again. His mind recoils instantly. He is too scared. To ashamed to quit when others didn’t have the choice.

He tries to picture Sarah the night she left the maisonette. He can see her long brunette hair, slightly grey, but still full of life. To his eternal dismay, when John tries to conjure up her face it is hidden in shadow. For all his desire, he cannot remember her face.

Quickly, with no thought for Them or the noise his feet are creating on the wooden floor, he darts across the room to the dust burdened bookcase. With frantic hands he grabs at the photo that stands there, forgotten. The room spins and his eyes grow hazy. Holding the frame close to his face John sees his past self — stockier, radiating health and happiness. His arm is wrapped around a woman.

“Sarah?” he whispers absently and strokes the frame, his fingers trembling as they glide over the woman’s face and a network of confusion charts itself across his brow. “I don’t remember.”

He begins to scream. To wail. The picture frame drops. He punches the wall. He kicks the bookcase. Books clatter to the floor. He slams his head against the shelf. Blood drips from his knuckles and forehead, the last of his strength drains. Once again silence engulfs him — the same sickening, rotten silence that has been his companion for too long.

Then he hears it. The shuffling of feet outside. The groans of desire drawing closer. The banging of fists on the door. The creaking of the frame. The snap of the wood as it splinters. The scraping of the dining room table as it slides out of the way. Them. They are here.

John slides down the wall onto the floor and picks up the photograph — free from the shackles of the shattered frame. A smile spreads, cracking his dry lips. He sees her. He remembers.

“Sarah,” he croaks into the darkness, “I’m coming.”

Once upon a time James Harding attended and completed a creative writing degree. Afterwards he somehow he ended up working in a marketing department. He is currently trying to retrace his steps…

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