Chapter 1 - Hell, Home and Henfield
It’s been two months now, since I died. Two months and what do I have to show for it? Nothing but a host of horrors, plaguing my memories, hounding my movements. There has been no hope handed down to me, no sign that this suffering will end. When I reach Mecca, to find rectitude for the challenge this spiteful God has set me, I’ll have His head in Heaven.
Burton’s frailty was concealed by a bulky body-warmer, a tattered woollen cap and threadbare trousers a few sizes too large, barely enough to keep him warm as he looked down the abandoned street. He rolled his neck, grimacing at the filth caking his skin, salt scratching where his sweat had dried, no time to wash it off yet.
Terraced houses lined the road, litter was strewn across it, but there were no signs of life. The moonlight was barely enough to silhouette the shapes ahead, the streetlights long dead, but he stared into the shadows regardless, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. A short distance away, dangling over the curb, he noted a severed leg, dried and shrivelled and decayed.
Burton walked towards one of the houses, dragging his machete along the concrete, its tired edge scratching out a painfully sharp sound. He stopped at the door and took the cigarette from his mouth, flicked it aside, looked up and down the dead road once more. He stepped back, rose a booted foot and put all his weight into kicking the door-handle. After three noisy blows, his grunts growing louder with each attack, the door caved in, the wood shattered, and he followed through into a front room.
I won’t rest tonight. I need to but I won’t. There’s no telling if those demons prowl for night or day, and this place is no safer than the others.
In the opposite corner of the room, another figure stood panting in the darkness, torso visibly rising and falling with each breath, watching Burton’s entrance. Burton straightened up, rose his machete and gritted his teeth, braced for a fight.
A thousand houses in this town, how many are really empty? Am I just drawn to the demons? Is this how it is to always be, Allah? For every step a challenge?
The figure charged at him, issuing a feral snarl and no words. They never offered words. Burton slipped a foot back, twisted sideways and brought the machete up in a swift, savage swipe. The attacker was jumping through the air as the weapon tore across its chest, arms stretched forward and jaws wide to bite. The man was opened like an exploding can of paint, Burton and the room instantly coated crimson. Burton scowled at the liquid, but said nothing, staring coldly at the man he had cut down. His enemy made no more sound as it lay bloody on the floor, a crumpled heap barely distinguishable as human.
There’s more blood for your cause, Allah.
Burton climbed the stairs wearily, taking no care to mask the sound of his approach. The floorboards creaked, his heavy boots thumped, the house seemed to sway around him. But perhaps that was just him; he hadn’t eaten for a few days now. He used his free hand to support himself against the wall, dragging the dripping blade behind him, and checked two rooms before finding the toilet. He approached the sink and propped his machete against the wall, looked into a grimy mirror and clocked his exhausted blood-stained face. The moon let a shard of light through the small window to his left, casting his crooked face and erratic hair in dimly highlighted blue shapes. He was used to seeing in the dark now; he no longer even tried the light-switches of the homes he entered.
It still terrifies me, every step of the way. If God was on my side, he wouldn’t have sent me to this place. I am fighting to prove myself, to a being that does not believe in me. And if I should falter, what happens next? Heaven’s rewards had better be worth this bloodshed, I’m already paying Hell.
He turned the tap, staring into his worn eyes as he let the water run. He took some in his hands and splashed it over his face, leant over and washed some of the blood off. He rinsed briefly before taking another handful and raising it to his lips. On touching his tongue the liquid made him splutter, coughing it back into the mirror with a rumbling sneer of disapproval.
I might as well drink my own piss. When the pipes work they are here only to ridicule me. Fuck this lonely isolation. Fuck your screaming demons and fuck the Devil’s pisswater. What’d I do to deserve any of this?
Burton rested back from the sink and reached under his bodywarmer, taking a hunting knife from a sheath at his belt. He grasped a clump of his beard in the other hand and screwed it up, pulled it away from his chin. With a sawing, uneven motion, he cut through the beard and tossed the matted clump of hair aside.
I’ll shove a blade up that arse that shat disaster on our world for so long. I’ll do to Him what He’s done to us. And while I’m there I’ll give him strong words about smoking causing cancer too.
He picked up momentum, grabbing more hair and hacking through it with the knife, sometimes sawing, sometimes punching the blade through with force. He hadn’t tended to the beard for a few weeks now, and it had started to smell. Cutting closer and closer to his skin, leaving parts of his face masked with dark messy patches, he started to see something resembling his old face looking back at him.
I keep clinging to the things that made me part of the world. Trying to dress normally, trying to keep clean. Two months and I still can’t admit that I lost it. I lost everything. Stupid fool. Why did you have to die?
Burton paused, frowning at the mirror as he saw her standing in the doorway in the reflection. A slender shape, only a silhouette in this light but clearly defined as female, wide hips, long legs, hair flowing over one shoulder. And a gun. A tall gun, propped against her side like a walking stick as she watched him. Burton dropped his last handful of hair and turned slowly to face her, leaning sideways to pick up the machete once more.
“Here’s more blood for your cause, Allah.”
After I died I woke as though from dreaming. There was a mighty crack, a sound of Heavenly thunder that heralded my entrance to the afterlife, and I felt warm liquid spray across my face, baptised in blood on my birth. It took a few minutes to clear my vision, blinking, listening to the stillness around me, trying to understand where I was. A strange numbness left me wondering where I was or what had gone before me. I managed to push myself up, to take in the room around me. The Headless Prophet sat beside me, an old book in his lap and a gun in his limp hand. The message he gave me, with that tome upon him and his blood across the wall, was clear. Death had come for me, but I was yet to make it to Heaven.
It seemed only moments ago I had been killed, but I had a simple awareness that a lifetime had swept from under me. My last memory of being alive is perfectly preserved, the car veering across the reservation towards me in a snapshot scene of horror I could do nothing to prevent. You can drive with all the care in the world, but it’s for nothing when others spit that caution away. My life never flashed before my eyes, I just stared into headlights and thought oh shit. That was it.
It was after I died that I started to think back to the life I’d led. I lay there for some time, knowing that I was dead, thinking of my family, hearing occasional words in a language I did not understand. They were prayers, he was uttering, holy words from the Koran hovering over me like protective charms. I was still looking into the light that had killed me, fearful that it was taking so long to make the transition. Why was I still there? Still trapped in this white abyss?
Sometimes the light abated, and I got a glimpse of the world, as though being dragged back to life, and it made me panic. The same voice that prayed over me urged me to eat, I felt my mouth being filled and was calm again, but the sensation left as quickly as it came. Again I drifted back into the light, dreading that I would be there forever. Then the thunder herald sounded and I awoke to this world, and I knew that the judgement laid on me had been harsh. I had not found Heaven.
As I travelled through this nightmare purgatory I wondered if I had really been that bad a person, and what standards a God might have to plant me here. I lived the usual dream, a wife and child, a 9 to 5 job pushing numbers through the system, a handful of friends and a life of little distractions. I didn’t drink too much, I didn’t smoke too much, I never cheated on my wife. But here I am. I never believed in Heaven or Hell. Maybe that’s where I went wrong.
The Headless Prophet had visited me with the push of the Koran, to show me the true path, and then left with a bullet to the brain. I could not read the Arabic script but I know well enough already the messages that book contains. Some are rewarded by living a good life, by being charitable, and if I had failed in those respects the choices left to me were to fight for my place in Heaven and to show my worth by making the pilgrimage.
It took some time to get used to this plain, to walk and rebuild my strength with what little food was left in the Headless Prophet’s home. The doors and windows were barricaded to the outside world, by wooden boards prevented me escaping until I had regained my strength. There was enough tinned food and bottled water to last me, until I felt ready to tear back those obstacles and embark on my mission. On the very first day, when I let the sun back into that lonely house, the demons came for me.
I was not ready for it at first, I had no inkling that this place would be populated, though it seems obvious now that this is nothing more than a proving ground, and they are but part of the challenges Allah has set me before reaching salvation. One of them charged me with biting fangs, hoping to devour my soul, and I ran from it, afraid. I hid in the house, hoping this beast would pass me by, but it pursued me without relent. I had no choice but to face it. And in the crumbled barricade, where I had tested my strength to begin this journey, I took a plank from the wreckage and brained that monster. From that moment on I knew I had to always face these challenges head on, that I could not run if I wished to reach Heaven.
In the next few days I prepared myself as best I could, collecting provisions and weapons for the journey, and I fought a few more of the demons as I went. Dangerous as they were, I found them to be slow and without intelligence, easy to overcome, especially with their bodies weak as they are. Once I recognised the right path, my strength increased, and I have seldom had trouble with them since. I’ve killed many of them in my wake, and never felt remorse for a single one.
Within a month’s desperate travelling, I had become a machine of justice, forced into agility and strength by my continued determination to avoid these demons’ Hell. I did whatever I had to to stay ahead of Satan. It’s odd to think that I never had to fight so hard to survive when I was alive. I guess death will do that to you. Drop down one rung and you’ll tighten your grip to avoid losing another.
This is the fifth town I have visited along this road. The last one was ablaze when I arrived, on such a scale that it singed my skin me to pass it. A reminder of the hellfire that damnation will offer. I have not seen another soul since I awoke, and did not imagine I would. Yet here you are. To hear your voice is to hear hope, to know that I am travelling the righteous path. I will find Mecca and salvation. That the Lord sent an angel to my side can only be more proof of that. I’m not sure if I have been blessed or you have been damned, but together we shall prevail.
Vita gave him a moment, to be sure that he had finished his tale, then leant forwards, clasped both her hands together as she rested her elbows on her knees, looked him in what part of his eyes she could see in the unlit room, and said “You’re not dead, and I’m not an angel. You need to get a grip, mate.”
Vita watched Burton entering town from her bedroom window. It was not by chance that this house had been fortified, with the hilltop vantage point it offered. She watched him taking in the street, smoking a cigarette. She watched him traipse to the doorway and kick it in. She watched him dragging that blood-stained machete, and carrying that battered daypack on his shoulder. They didn’t smoke, they didn’t use tools, they certainly didn’t know how to kick through doors. He couldn’t be one of them.
She followed him into the house and felt her hopes confirmed when she saw the dead prowler on the floor. They very rarely killed each other, and certainly wouldn’t use a blade to do it. She crept up the stairs to find him in the washroom, and her heart jumped, just a little, to see that he was trimming his beard. They definitely didn’t take care of personal hygiene. Then he turned to her and spoke. But he picked up the machete, and had a dutiful look in his eyes, as he told Allah there would be more blood for his cause.
It didn’t matter. Maybe he was insane, maybe he was violent and dangerous, it didn’t matter. She was thrilled enough by the simple truth, which she quietly mouthed, “You...you’re alive.”
Hearing her speak had the same effect on him that seeing him grooming had on her: his stone expression, reserved for the kill, faded away, and his grip on the machete slackened. She gave him a thin, encouraging smile.
They went down to the living area, where Vita pushed the door shut and invited Burton to sit with her. An armchair apiece, still in the dark, they spent a few minutes just looking at one another in awe. Finally, she asked who he was, and the spiel about being dead and fighting demons rolled out. She listened without comment, stunned that after all this time without company, the first man, the first person who wasn’t one of them, was totally crazy. His voice was gravelly, rough and dry, and he had developed a powerful, self-righteous tone of speech, like a preacher in a pulpit proffering words of damnation. When he finished rattling through his tale, and she told him he wasn’t dead, she spent a few minutes trying to figure out where he was really coming from.
Before all this had began, he had driven into the light, had a car accident it seemed, and been nursed back to health by a Muslim whilst the world fell apart. Presumably the man who had driven the car was the one who took care of him. The Muslim had then chosen to take his own life, either because he felt he had done enough to amend for the accident or because he no longer cared. Burton had risen to a world rendered feral by the plague, believing it was another plain of existence, and had no one to tell him otherwise. That didn’t mean he was mad, Vita told herself, just ill-informed.
“If you’ve only been on the move for two months,” she told him, “Then you’ve missed an awful lot.”
“It has been about two months since I died, yes,” he answered. “I’ve seen two moons. I know this because on the first one things got dangerous. You could liken these demons to werewolves, the way the moon inspired them to fever. I almost died that night, I have a few scars to show for it. They’re not werewolves, though. They’re not zombies, they’re not vampires, they’re not any of that bullshit. They’re the spawn of Hell. They completely lack any rational thought, and exist only to cause harm. You, though, you can command speech, you are capable of thought. You are an angel.”
“I’m not an angel.”
“When did you die?” Burton asked her seriously, leaning forward in his seat.
“I didn’t die,” Vita said, deliberately slow, “Neither did you. We’re not in Hell.”
“I know we’re not in Hell. I also know we can get to Heaven from here, though. You can’t have always been in this place. We will find your seat with the choirs, sure as I will save my own soul.”
“Look around you, this isn’t so different to the world you remember. It’s no afterlife.”
“Indeed this place is strange in its lack of strangeness. But looking back, how could we expect anything else. Why should life and death be so different?”
“It’s not strange because it’s the same place you remember, you loon,” Vita said, and quickly carried on before he could respond, nodding to his machete, “You’ve just been walking around with that thing? That’s the best you could find?”
“Yes. I looked for a gun, when I ran out of bullets for the Headless Prophet’s one. I ransacked dozens of shops and homes in my search, but I had faced so many demons by then it became apparent that a gun would not answer my problems. This has served me well. About now I’m confident to face these Hell spawn one to one. Or worse.”
“Looks like an oversized butter knife,” Vita commented blithely, barely loud enough for him to hear, and found him staring at her reproachfully. His expression was serious, making her sit back in her seat, unsure what to do or say. He spoke first, though, “Do not judge me too severely for my choices, angel, I hope you will be able to trust me. Please believe me, when I say I will not harm a fellow soul like you. I would not touch the hair of an angel. As a man with needs, I can satisfy animal lust with the animals, should I ever give in to temptation. Maybe I am not strong enough to resist it, but I am strong enough to guide it. Allah allows me that grace.”
Where Vita had been undecided about him before, these comments made her crease her face with concern. Not sure exactly what he was eluding to or why he had brought it up, but fairly sure she did not want to know, she glanced from her rifle to his machete and assured him “Don’t worry, I’m not afraid of you. You haven’t met another person out there, I’ve met a few. Like you, I’m pretty used to handling myself.”
She stood up, collected her rifle and went on, “Listen, I know this must all be seriously fucked up for you, but you have to believe me when I say you’re not dead. We’re on the same Earth you were on whenever you think you died.”
“The Headless Prophet told me-”
“We’re not dealing with demons, we’re dealing with people who have lost their minds. It’s a disease, it affects the brain and turns them mad. In a creature like a human, where their primal instinct is dominance, it leads to massive aggression. They’re like wild dogs, but they’re still human.”
“Taking away the conscience is as taking away the soul,” Burton replied, seeming to not fully listen to or care about what she was saying. “They are worse than animals, there is only darkness left in these demons.”
“Whatever the case may be, it’s the situation we’re stuck with, and I don’t think risking your life trying to get to Mecca is going to change a thing.”
“Risking my life? I have no life left to risk. The only risk is losing my soul if I do not make it there.”
“Nice,” Vita sighed at this, seeing she was getting nowhere. She walked around his armchair and stopped by the body of the man he had slaughtered. She said “I’ve been living in this town for half a year now. I drove out most of the remaining prowlers, and they move on when their food runs dry, or they kill one another. How did you know there was one in here?”
“I didn’t,” Burton told her, a little surprised by the question as he followed her gaze to the body. He murmured, “I was looking for a mirror. My appearance is about the only thing that separates me from their state of decay, I have to preserve that part of me.”
Vita stared at his patchily hacked away beard and his dirt-encrusted scraggly hair, as he gave her an innocent look searching for approval. She told him, “You’re doing a shit job of it.” His face fell. She nodded to the door, “Come on, let’s head back to mine, it’s safe there.”
The pair walked down the middle of the empty road, stepping over carrier bags and around fallen bins. Vita indicated her home with her gun, visible beyond the rooftops where it sat on a hill. Finally out in the moonlight, Burton could get a better look at her, seeing that her skin was dirty, like his, her hair slightly shiny, unwashed, and her bulky winter coat had some holes in it with fluff hanging out. She had one hand in a pocket, one holding the rifle to her shoulder, and watched Burton as they walked. He took out another cigarette and lit it, and offered the pack to her. She refused.
“Did you plan on just walking indefinitely?” Vita asked. “It’s a long way to Mecca.”
“I’m heading South, to the coast. I’ll find a boat and continue.”
“You know cars still work, right?”
“It’s no problem for me to walk, I needed to take things slowly whilst I trained myself. Need to be fit if I’m going to make it all the way. Death has not been kind to my physical body.”
“Yeah but this is Henfield, mate. Mecca is practically on another continent.”
“The Hajj was never meant to be easy.”
“Christ. You’ll die if you carry on like this. Stay here with me for a while. I’ve been sending out radio signals, there are bound to be more people out there.”
“Why would we need the company of more doomed souls? Our salvation is our own.”
“Yeah, you’re right there,” Vita said, “No God could bring this on His world. There is no God left on this Earth, not unless you create it for yourself.”
“No of course God is not here,” Burton replied patiently, “That is why we head to Mecca. It seems to me that maybe you are as blessed by our meeting as me. You have become lost here. You must join me on the Hajj. We’ll restore you to your glory, angel.”
“Here, this is the only sanctuary we need,” Vita nodded to her home.
The building itself was the same dull brick structure as the countless terraced homes that flanked it, but stood out as the only one that had been carefully fortified. The ground floor windows were boarded up, front door a large metal bulkhead, chained shut, and barbed wire skirted the base of the building. The upstairs windows were notably clear, and a flagpole stuck out of one of the frames, a simple piece of fabric hanging limp from its end.
“This door,” Vita grinned encouragingly, patting the massive metal bulkhead, “This is salvation.”
She took a key from her pocket and unlocked a padlock, then quickly started unravelling the chain. The links skipped over the metal with loud tinkles, echoing down the road, and Burton looked from side to side, wary of the noise they were creating. When it was loose, Vita wrenched the massive door-lever back and it clunked open. The door swung out with a piercing screech, and Vita saw the look of concern on Burton’s face. She assured, “There’s none of them round here. I make sure of it.”
She stepped into the building and called for him to follow, and Burton gave the road one more untrusting glance before ducking in after her. A moment’s fumbling later, a light came on with a quiet whirr of electricity and the entrance room was lit up. Burton was immediately impressed: the carpet was clean, the armchair intact, a clear polished table even hosted a pot plant. And the lamp illuminated Vita’s inviting face as she stood beaming in front of him, waiting for his praise of her humble but immaculate home. He was nodding before he spoke.
“Truly,” he said, “Truly you are an angel.”
“You need to stop that,” she replied with a smile, stepping back past him to close the door. She paused with her hand on the bulkhead and looked back at him, so happy to finally have a visitor, and the enemy struck. A hand flashed through the gap between the door and the frame, its talons catching onto her wrist, and she let out a short yelp of surprise. Burton moved without thinking, swinging his machete up in a ferocious arch with a warning yell. The blade lopped through the invading limb with barely any resistance, blood bursting up the bulkhead and over Vita’s alarmed face. Burton pushed her back, out of the way, as the severed forearm flopped onto the floor and he drove the machete out through the gap to catch the wounded attacker. He swung the weapon back in, flicking blood the full length of the living room, and pulled the bulkhead to them, slamming it shut with a tremendous bang. He turned to Vita, panting for the sudden exertion, face stricken by the imminent peril, and was about to ask if she was okay when she shouted at him, “What are you thinking? Look at this mess!”
“It was attacking-” Burton began with confusion, but she barraged on, smearing blood off her face, “I don’t cut off limbs in my own home! There’s blood everywhere, I’ve got enough to worry about with mopping this shit up! God, what’s wrong with you!”
Burton waited for her to finish, but his face was unapologetic. He told her calmly, “This is a small price to pay for your safety, angel. And you should not be so concerned for your material home. We will not stay here long, Mecca awaits.”
She gaped at him, arms hanging defeated at her sides, completely at a loss. He offered her a crooked smile, his cracked lips splitting slightly for the effort, and said “Take peace, angel. I will protect you on our journey.”
And with that, Burton walked past her, trudging his filthy boots across her carpet, dragging the dripping machete, heading towards the stairs to try and find somewhere to sleep. Vita watched him go, silent, aghast at the mess he had made.