Returned

“You’re probably wondering how does a rock ‘n’ roll man like myself find time to stay sane in body and mind. The answer is vicious masturbatory habits.”

Six months ago, such a card combination would have been followed by raucous laughter, but now it barely elicited a murmur. They were slumped around a game of Cards Against Humanity, unsure what would happen next. Would one of them eventually summon the energy to laugh? Maybe the dusty radio sat on a high shelf would finally say something. Perhaps there would be a miracle, and there would be life after death again. But such hope had been disintegrated by a thousand explosions of searing light, wiping out millions of souls and the virus that bought them back. Each one of them had witnessed the devastation administered so quickly by god-like hands, and they were envious.

Karen was the first to throw in her cards, she’d pulled out another tooth out after lunch, and her softening bones burned from the inside out. Not a word was spoken as she limped to her cot and tugged a small box from underneath. It was her time to pass out of the world, to save the little dignity that had not been stolen from her wretched body. Taking the needle hidden safe inside, she sunk it deep into her arm, releasing the barbiturates with a push of her thumb. As the bitter drug slipped through her veins, she took comfort in the warmth of the companions that surrounded her, that laid their hands on her dying body as they had all done for those who went before her. Although the silence of death ushered her into cold and empty isolation, she would not take the final step alone.

It only took a few minutes for the rush of death to take over, suffocating her lungs and crushing her heart until her soul flew free. No longer held in agonising rictus, the body slumped, jaw hanging open to reveal the maw of necrotic flesh in her mouth that she had kept hidden for weeks now. Not one of them even grimaced as they picked up her remains, each aware of their own living rot.

The door might have only been a handful of feet from the table, but their wasted muscles cramped and cried under her meagre weight. They didn’t bother to don scarfs over their faces as they once used to when going outside. There wasn’t any point when the radiation carried in the eddies of dust also laced their water. It was not far from the door that they dropped the body, unable to care for it any longer, and with it they abandoned the meagre hope that they had carried with them since the world ended. Before the dead returned to walk with the living, before the governments, drowning in moral and bureaucratic fear, had taken to exterminating the virus without thought of consequence, Karen had been a person who blazed with furious life. But when the bombs exploded and the black rains ran, the brilliance had leached from her, the following dust storms scouring away what little remained. The death of someone so saturated in energy, so suited to the second life briefly offered, had eradicated the group’s will to survive. Collapsing into their cots, they each began to embrace the decay crawling through their limbs as if the maggots already feasted.

A hacking cough clawed through the quiet, accompanied by retching as someone cleared their lungs of phlegm. It spattered across the outside of the door. Three tentative knocks followed. One of them, having no fear left, eased themselves up to swing open the door. Karen stood at the threshold wiping the last of the sputum from her chin. A cheeky grin spread across her face as she watched the hope rekindle in the wasted faces before her as she strode in, no pain or exhaustion dragging at her steps.

“I’m gonna let you into a secret. I really shouldn’t be here.”

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