Authors: Derek Prior
I tore into a plastic bag, spilling its fluffy contents. I rummaged about, looking for anything that might help me see, but it was useless. They were just teddies, my old toys that Mom had put out of the way. I recognized them all by touch, ran my hands over them, worked out which ones they were by the feel of their fur, the size of their eyes. Mr. Penn! I found Mr. Penn, my old green dog teddy and hugged him tight. I let out a big sigh and felt my eyes tearing up.
“No time for crying, Mr. Penn,” I said. “We’ve gotta find some light.”
There was a light switch somewhere near the entrance. I’d seen Dad turn it on when we came up here to play treasure hunt once. With Mr. Penn tucked under one arm, I crawled back toward the trapdoor and felt around in the dark. I found the cold brick wall and ran my fingers along its rough surface until I found the switch. I flicked it and felt a moment’s panic when nothing happened. But then the two strip-lights in the ceiling started to flicker and hum, like they were grumpy about being woken up. With a ping and a flash that had me blinking, they snapped on, casting a dirty yellow light over the piles and piles of junk that we’d hidden away up here.
Apart from my teddies, it was mostly boring stuff near the entrance: bed linen, pillows, ugly patterned blankets. Stacked baskets ran down each side of a central aisle, all brimming with odds and ends that no one would ever use.
There was a canvas wardrobe halfway along, bursting with Mom’s old clothes she wouldn’t throw away. She said they might fit again one day, once she’d lost a bit of weight. I used to think it was a TARDIS when I was little. That all seemed ten thousand million years ago now. Nine was so much older than eight, especially when the world was going mad, and the grown-ups couldn’t help you anymore.
I still felt the tug of the TARDIS, though. Part of me wanted to believe I could squeeze in among all those clothes and escape to another planet. Better still, I could travel back in time and tell Mom not to go shopping, so she wouldn’t get bitten and turn into a zombie. I could tell Dad to tape up the cat flap. Then they’d both still be with me, and we could hide away indoors till the police killed all the zombies and told us it was safe to come out.
Kids are stupid like that. I started to feel warm and cozy. Everything I daydreamed about was real, right up until I gave the TARDIS a good look and saw it was just make believe. I turned away from it and dropped Mr. Penn. I had to be tough to get out of this. “Ain’t got time to be scared,” Dad used to say, when I thought there were monsters under the bed. “Too busy trying to sleep. Ain’t got time to cry,” he’d say whenever I grazed my knee. “Too busy playing.”
Toward the far end of the attic, there was a big fluffy donkey we called Oswald. He was standing guard over the fake Christmas tree, the one we used to bring down to the lounge every year. My tummy twinged when I thought about it. We would have been doing that in a week or so. Now it would just lie there gathering dust.
I made my way along the aisle, careful to keep to the boards so my foot didn’t go through the ceiling. Something squeaked, and I stopped, holding my breath. There was a loud rustle, and I turned to stare as a stack of full black bin liners tumbled down. I strained and strained, but couldn’t hear anything else above the drumming of the rain on the roof tiles.
My eyes were drawn to something glinting behind where the bin liners had been stacked. I grabbed a plastic sack and heaved it out of the way, and then stepped carefully between the others. The glint disappeared as I drew nearer. When I craned my neck to look back, it was obvious why. The strip-light in the ceiling was now behind me. It must have been reflecting from something.
I pressed on into the shadows, one foot either side of the foam insulation between the beams. I was never allowed to play near the edges of the attic, because they hadn’t been boarded over. One wrong step, and I’d break my bleeding neck. Least that’s what Dad always said.
Just thinking of him was like a punch in the guts. I felt all mangled up inside. The tears wanted to come, but I wouldn’t let them. Times like this you need to be strong. No one was coming to save me now. I knew that as sure as I knew Mom would never be stepping through the door and telling me to carry the shopping bags. Dad and I would never form our little chain gang, so we could put the cans away in the cupboards while Mom fixed the tea.
A sniffle escaped, but I ignored it, peering into the darkness until I could make out a shape blacker than the rest. I reached out, and my fingers found something cold and hard. It felt like metal. I crouched down and ran both hands over it. It was a box of some sort, with a lid and handles either side. I took hold of one of the handles and gave it a tug. The box shifted easier than I thought, and I fell backwards. I threw my hand out behind and struck foam. My heart jumped into my throat, and I shut my eyes, waiting to fall through the ceiling. I must have gotten lucky, because nothing happened. After a few raspy breaths, I inched back onto the beams and found the handle again. This time, I took little steps backward as I dragged the box into the light.
It was painted black, but chipped all over. It looked a thousand years old. Maybe a million. There was a tiny key in the lock, with a ripped brown tag attached to it.
Wesley J. Harding
, it said in swirly joined-up writing.
Except for the
., that was my name, but I’d never seen the box before in my life. Then I remembered something Dad had told me when I was really little. I was named after his great, great, great granddad, but my middle name was different. Mine was Xavier, after this saint Mom liked. Dad once told me he was eaten by cannon-balls.
But Wesley J. Harding was real famous in my family. He was in India, they said. In the stories Dad used to tell, Wesley J. was always doing magic stuff, like rope tricks so he could escape from the evil tiger-men. He could even lie on a bed of nails without getting pricked to death.
I turned the key and lifted the lid. It fell back on its hinges with a loud clang.
There was an answering growl from below. It sounded like those things from outside, only it was definitely closer; right underneath me. I closed my eyes to listen better. Someone moaned, and there was a noise like Darth Vader breathing and Dad gargling mouthwash all rolled into one.
“Daddy?” I said, too softly for him to hear. Then a little louder, “Dadda?”
There was an snarl, then lots of smashing and crashing, like someone was throwing furniture about. There was a heavy thud right beneath the attic, and more moaning and groaning that sounded even closer. I yelped in fright as something bashed against the trapdoor and then roared.
My eyes snapped open, and I was staring at an old yellowish photo of a man in a pointy white helmet standing with his foot on a tiger. He had a big gun in one hand, and was smoking a pipe with the other. I knew who it was from the dangly mustache: Wesley J. Harding.
There was more pounding on the trapdoor. It bounced in the opening, and the bolt rattled. I knew I was still safe, though. The trapdoor opened outward, so no amount of hammering was going to help. If it was Dad, he’d know all he had to do was unbolt it and lower the cover.
But maybe it was him, only he might be like Mom had been. She’d looked the same as normal, except for the dribble and the milky eyes. Maybe zombies weren’t too clever. Maybe they were too thick to work a bolt. Even so, I knew I couldn’t take chances. I had to think, and think quick. I needed a weapon.
Next to the picture of Wesley J. Harding there was a wad of cloth tied up with string. I lifted it out, surprised at how heavy it was. I nearly dropped it when the banging got louder and the wood of the trapdoor started to split. I fumbled at the string, pulling it over the edges of the bundle, because I couldn’t untie the knots. As I began to unwrap the material, it suddenly went quiet below. I heard the bolt being turned; heard it snap back. Acid came up my throat, almost made me sick. I dropped the bundle, and it hit the boards with a thud, coming unwrapped.
It was pistol-like thing with one of those chambers like I had on my Nerf gun. It looked really old. Really, really old. There was a strange thrill as I curled my fingers around the handle and lifted it with both hands. How do you open it? I thought, trying to remember what they did in those cowboy films Dad made me watch. I fiddled with the chamber but couldn’t budge it. Would it still work? Did it have any bullets? Would I be thrown back through the wall if it went off, because I was only a kid, and kids don’t fire guns?
Light beamed up from below as the trapdoor fell open. I scrambled back on my butt, holding Wesley J. Harding’s gun so tight my knuckles went white. I inched back further, never taking my eyes off the entrance, heart pounding so loud I couldn’t hear anything else.
A hand reached over the edge, then another. It was Dad, I knew it. I could see his wedding ring glinting in the dirty light. When his head popped up, I nearly dropped the gun and went to him. My whole body ached to be held. Dad must’ve killed that thing down there; must’ve come to rescue me.
But then his head turned toward me, and I saw his eyes. They were just like Mom’s—all white and empty. He roared and sprayed spit and slobber everywhere. He started to drag his body through the opening, hissing and growling. My arms were shaking from holding the gun; my head was bursting with tears and fear and sadness and loneliness.
I squeezed the trigger.
I tried again.
Another click. Nothing. There were no bullets. There was no magic.
I hate you, Wesley J. Harding. I hate you!
I screamed and threw the gun with all my strength. It smacked into Dad’s head and splatted it like a melon. He dropped back through the opening and there was a thud, a crack, and a slosh. I had to see. I had to see what had happened, so I crawled on hands and knees to the opening and peered over the edge.
Dad was lying in a sprawled heap on top of a smashed up chair. There was blood all around his head, and his legs were twisted at a horrible angle. Then I was sick, really sick, when I saw the bone poking through his jeans, the chair leg sticking out of his chest, dripping blood. A stream of my vomit poured down on him, and he growled. His head twisted to glare at me with dead eyes, and his fingers scratched at the carpet. He reached a hand up and clawed the air, roaring at me and gnashing his teeth.
I drew back from the edge and stood. I knew he couldn’t get up, not with his legs all broken like that, but I didn’t want to chance it. I took hold of the canvas wardrobe at the top and pulled. It was real heavy, so I tried again, using more of my bodyweight. It rocked and then tipped right over the opening. Clothes fell out and flopped down below. Dad growled some more, but he was muffled now, buried under Mom’s cast-offs. The wardrobe sagged, but it covered the opening good enough.
I noticed Wesley J. Harding’s gun up against the wall, where it had bounced off of Dad’s head. I narrowed my eyes at it and screwed my nose up. But then I sighed and gave it a nod of respect. It might not have worked, but it had saved me anyway. Maybe Wesley J. Harding was on my side, after all.
I decided, if I was gonna get out of this alive, I needed to do some rummaging. Maybe there’d be some rope so I could do that rope-trick thing Wesley J. used to do. Dad said the rope would go stiff, and Wesley J. would climb right up into the clouds.
I started going through some old suitcases that were stacked along the sides, but they were mostly filled with more of Mom’s old clothes. She had so many clothes, my Mom, but most of them didn’t fit anymore. She did lots of silly things, Dad said, like going to Weight Watchers and then ordering Chinese; or telling Dad to hide the scales so she couldn’t weigh herself every day, and then messing up the whole house trying to find them. She’d moan about having all this junk food in the cupboards because she couldn’t stop herself from eating it, even though she was the one who bought it in the first place.
Tears were pouring from my eyes, and snot ran over my lips and onto my chin. I missed her, my big silly Mommy. I really missed her. And Daddy, my best friend in the whole world—I needed him now like never before. If he’d still been with me, everything would have been all right. We would have found a way to beat these zombies. I know we would.
“Shut up,” I said to myself. “Ain’t got time to whine. No one’s gonna save you, so stop acting like a baby.”
That reminded me of something Dad used to say to me if I was blubbing for no good reason. “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about,” he’d say. It always sounded mean at the time, but I’d have given anything to hear him say it now.
There was a groan from down below, and this time it was answered by growling from outside.
I got closer to the low part of the ceiling and tried to listen. It was still raining, but it had slowed to a steady pitter patter. The thunder had moved off into the distance; there were just occasional rumbles, and they were getting further apart. I couldn’t hear the policemen shouting anymore; couldn’t hear their gunshots, either. Just the horrid wails of the zombies. No one was even screaming now.
I pulled myself together and moved on past Mom’s clothes. I lifted down a cardboard box that had been sealed up with tape. As I did, something squeaked, and I heard the trip trap of tiny feet.