Dad had killed people. Before, I mean. Back when society had yet to go spinning down the drain. Prior to the whole world going insane. Well, going more insane, anyway.
He never really spoke of it, but we all knew he’d spent time in prison. It was common knowledge, but everyone was too afraid to bring it up. He had the tattoos; a teardrop under his left eye, LOVE and HATE across his heavily scarred knuckles, and two spider webs – one on the inside of his elbow, and the other on his neck. I still don’t know what the deal is with arachnids. Dad had the rough demeanour, too. He spoke in short sentences and swore like a sailor, and he’d been known to escalate an argument or two, whilst down the pub. Never one to back away from a fight, my father. Although, I know from experience that he also had a soft centre, too – never forget that.
He was a frightening man. Scary to everyone, including me. He’d always loved me and spoiled me rotten, but I knew there was a darkness to him. He had never hurt me or treated me poorly – in fact, I think being a father was one of the things he was best at – but when he lost his temper, I’d see the shadow of the man he could be, just lingering behind his eyes.
Mum was a strong woman. She had to be, to stay married to Dad all through the years. But apparently, she wasn’t quite strong enough. She died early on. I think that’s a blessing, in some ways. She didn’t have to witness some of the horrors that occurred later. I’m not entirely sure what it was that killed her, but it could have been cancer. It slowly ate her away, from the inside out. By the end, she looked like a skeleton with skin stretched over it. When society collapses, you can wave goodbye to all the technological and medical advancements of recent decades. I often find myself wondering if she’d have lived, had we easy access to things like chemotherapy. But I could also be wrong. It might have been an entirely different beast that took her altogether. Maybe she just gave up hope and faded away.
I had Jeremy when I was just a teenager; barely 17 years old. I never did tell Dad who the father was. I was afraid he’d do something that’d get him locked away again. Some dads joke about murdering their daughters’ boyfriends, but in my household, I always knew that it could very well be a reality. Just as well, the guy didn’t stick around. No surprise there, right? He wasn’t the best bloke ever, and would likely have been a dreadful father, but I didn’t want to see him killed, all the same. I don’t think there are too many people out there who would truly wish death on another person… even if they think they might.
As good as a father as my dad was, he was an even better grandfather. Dad idolised Jeremy, and Jeremy loved my dad. In fact, his first word was grandad. I thought maybe having a grandson had softened him, but when everything changed, I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Jeremy was 13 when planet Earth went to hell. I’m not sure if that’s a good age or a bad age to have to re-evaluate the world and your place in it. On the one hand, you’re not an adult yet, and it’s much easier to say goodbye to life as you know it. On the other hand, you’re still immature, and dealing with some of the new realities can be difficult, to say the least.
“This is all we have,” the man said, tears in his eyes. “We’ll starve without it.” The woman behind him was whimpering, trying to hide.
“Your coats too,” said Dad. Not once did the gun he had trained on them waver.
“Your coats. Did I stutter?”
“We’ll freeze to death!” I could see a potent mixture of indignance and fear swirling in his face.
“If you’re lucky, you’ll starve before that happens, won’t you?” It almost sounded like Dad was enjoying this.
“Dad, maybe we shouldn’t—”
“Hush, Cass, I’m busy,” he said, brushing me off, keeping his eyes pinned to the pair.
Jeremy was stood next to me, watching closely. He didn’t say a word. He just watched, taking it all in.
“You can’t be serious! You’ll kill us! You’re killing us right now; you do see that, don’t you? You do realise that—”
“I’m leaving you with your shoes, dammit!” spat Dad. “I’ve got a daughter and a grandson to look after – they’re my priority. Don’t make me do something I don’t want to do, mate.”
The woman wriggled her way out of her parka. She had only a tank top on underneath, and she was already shivering. “Just give him the coats, Gareth!” she said, sniffing. “Give him them so we can just go!”
“I don’t want to die here, Gareth!” she wailed. “Please. Please.”
Gareth looked from Dad to Katie, then back to Dad again. He cursed under his breath, but began taking off his coat.
“That’s it, easy does it,” said Dad. He reached over and grabbed the jackets. “Cass, get their backpacks.”
“Our food,” said Katie, now unable to hold back the tears that flooded her eyes. “Gareth, what are we going to do?”
“Dad, can’t we leave them something? This is wrong.”
“Dammit, Cass! Jeremy, be a good kid and grab—”
“Don’t bring Jeremy into it, Dad!”
“Don’t interrupt me,” he hissed. “Jeremy. Grab their backpacks.”
“Yes, Grandad,” said Jeremy, in his awkward, cracking voice. I knew he was no longer a kid, and his changing tone really drove home that he was on his way into manhood. Jeremy approached the pair slowly, not meeting their gaze.
“Please,” said Gareth, as Jeremy picked up their backpacks. “We’ll die.”
Jeremy didn’t say anything back. Didn’t even lock eyes. Just picked up their bags – containing all their food, water, and other precious resources – and came trudging back to us. His eyes remained fixed to the ground.
“That’s a good lad,” said Dad. “Now,” he said, shaking the gun at them. “Lie down on the ground. And stay there until we’re gone. If I see you coming our way, I’ll blow you away. Y’understand me? I don’t want to kill you, but I will!”
Gareth looked down at the snow-covered road. It seemed as if he might protest, but then he didn’t. He lay down in the snow, wearing nothing but jeans and a t-shirt. Katie did the same, still sobbing.
“Dad, I don’t feel great about this.”
“Shush, Cass. We’ve gotta survive, don’t we? Do you want your son to die, is that it?”
I couldn’t believe he had said that at all, let alone in front of Jeremy. “No, of course not! I just don’t want to cause other people to—”
“Then let’s go. Tough times call for tough measures. Come on, Jeremy.”
Dad began trudging off, footsteps crunching in the snow. He gave the man’s coat to Jeremy. The thing was miles too big for him, but it did look warm. I didn’t doubt that he’d force the woman’s jacket on me, later on.
I stood there, watching my father and my son walk away, carrying the couple’s clothes and supplies. I looked down at them – they were both staring up at me. Katie’s eyes were red from crying, whereas Gareth’s face was filled with hate and anger… and was that a hint of shame? Shame at not being able to protect himself and his partner?
“I’m sorry,” I began. “I’m so sorry—”
But then Gareth swore at me. “Don’t you dare say you’re sorry.” He swore again. “Just leave us be. You’ve taken all we have, so don’t you dare act like you couldn’t have stopped him. You’re just a coward. So, go.”
The words stung me, and I wanted to defend myself, I wasn’t like my father, dammit, but then Gareth screamed at me. “LEAVE!”
And so, I turned and ran, leaving them lying there in the blizzard. As I fled, I heard Gareth’s voice once more, dripping like poison: “Coward.”
Dad told us to sit tight, whilst he checked out the place. He said it might be dangerous, and if it was, it’d be better if he were alone.
“If I’m not back in half an hour,” he said, “just go.”
“Dad,” I said, “we’re not leaving without you.”
“Cass,” he lifted my chin up with his hand, like he used to do when I was a little girl, “if something in there has killed me, you can’t come in looking for me. I won’t have it. Please, look after yourselves. You’ve got a son to protect, Cass. He’s your number one, not me.”
So, he left us in the alleyway, and ventured towards the warehouse, footsteps crunching on the broken glass strewn in the snow. He turned one last time. “I love you,” he said.
“I love you too, Dad,” I said.
“Love you, Grandad,” said Jeremy, a little bit uncomfortably.
Dad nodded then, then turned and left.
Jeremy and I sat there, on the bins, waiting. We didn’t talk. We hadn’t talked properly in ages. I felt like I was losing him, and I didn’t know how to stop it. It felt like trying to catch water in your hands. The silence that lay over that part of the city was deafening.
I kept my eye on the warehouse, watching for anything. Listening for anything. But of course, there was nothing. Dad slipped around the side and then… nothing. I exhaled slowly, trying to keep my heartbeats steady. I glanced at my watch. Could we really leave him, if wasn’t back after thirty minutes? How exact did he want us to be? What if it got to half an hour, and we decided to give him another five? What if he was just running a bit late, and then came back to find us gone? What if, what if, what if, I thought.
And if we did go, what then? We’d almost ran out of food, and the warehouse looked like the best bet. If Dad didn’t come back, where should Jeremy and I go? Where could we get more supplies? I didn’t know. I really didn’t know.
I was busy mulling this over when Jeremy leapt to his feet. It startled me, as I had drifted off in thought. “What—” I began, but that’s when I saw her. She was scrawny as hell, her hair was ratty and oily – although, I guess mine probably was, too – and her face was covered in grime. She was shaking.
“Do you have any food?” she asked, in a thin, wavery voice. “I haven’t eaten in so long.”
“No. Go away.” Jeremy’s tone shocked me. It sounded as if there was no emotion or feeling in there at all. It sounded cold and robotic.
That’s not my son, I thought.
“Leave, before my grandad gets back.”
“I’m so hungry,” she said, taking a step down the alleyway towards us. I felt for the girl, I really did, but I must admit that she unnerved me a little. I began eyeing the L-turn in the alleyway behind us. Where did it lead? Could we outrun her?
“Please,” she said, voice trembling. “Plea—” And that was when Jeremy shot her. I didn’t even know he had a gun until it was in his hands and firing.
A short, strangled sound escaped her mouth, as she took a step back, hands pressed to her belly. “Guh?” The blood was already soaking into her shirt. There was lots of blood.
I ran forward and caught her, just as she fell backwards. I caught her and slowly lowered her to the snowy ground. There was broken glass all beneath her, but I couldn’t do anything about that. I swept the few shards away from her head; it was all I could do.
I held her in my arms, as Dad came running towards us, gun raised, screaming at us to tell him we were okay. I held her as she died, one hand on the abdominal wound, blood seeping into her flannel shirt. I knew I couldn’t stem the blood flow just as sure as I knew some vital organs deep inside of her had been punctured. But I still held her, telling her to stay awake, to please stay awake. She passed on, all the same. Died in the street, surrounded by broken glass and strangers.
We never did talk about it. I tried to bring the topic up with Dad, but he just brushed it off. “Jeremy was looking out for us,” he said, “just doing his duty as a man.” I’m not sure if he was trying to convince me or himself. I suppose there is a certain logic there, but I know it’s not quite right. That girl posed no threat – no real threat, anyway. Hell, I could have probably taken her. She was just hungry. Is that such a crime? Apparently, it is, in today’s world.
I wish it would stop snowing.
I still struggle to think about it. Struggle to say it out loud. Sometimes I force myself to whisper it, in the pitch black of the night, when I can’t sleep… which is most nights. “My son killed a woman,” I say, my ghostly words floating out of my mouth in a cloud of vapour. “My son killed a woman in cold blood.”
Dad died shortly after.
He developed some lung disease – maybe it was cancer, too? Who knows? We can’t exactly diagnose the individual illnesses anymore. Back before the world turned, cancer was such a big topic. I guess I was so worried about it then, that when the people around fall ill now, my first thought is cancer.
One day, he developed a cough. I thought maybe it was just the constant bad weather, the lack of proper shelter, and that sort of thing. Only, he never stopped coughing. He just kept getting worse and worse and worse, until one day, he started coughing up blood. I think he knew then, although he didn’t let on. Put on a brave face until the last.
I remember the morning that Jeremy woke me, voice trembling with panic. “Grandad won’t wake up,” he said, tears brimming in his eyes. “I’ve shaken him, I—I shook him real hard, but he won’t wake up, he won’t—”
I put my hand on his shoulder, then, and he burst into tears. I joined him shortly after. All things considered; he was still my father. I had loved him, and he had loved me.
We couldn’t even bury him, due to the frozen ground. Jeremy and I tried and tried, but the shovel wouldn’t go into the earth. It kept clanging off the soil as if it were metal. In the end we gave up, worried that the sound might attract unwanted attention.
We covered him in one of our blankets, and we could scarce afford to give that up. But we had to do something, didn’t we? After all, he was family. So, we covered him in a blanket, and made a cross out of planks of wood we found in the cellar of the house we’d been staying in. I don’t even know if he was religious; we never talked about God.
I don’t believe in God. Not anymore. Who could look at the world in its current state and say: Yeah, there’s a benevolent being up there, looking out for us? Not me. Not me.
Jeremy and I have gotten by pretty well since Dad died, all things considered. There’ve been no major accidents.
We steer clear of other people as best as we can. Sometimes we’re forced to interact with other groups, but I try to do the talking and I always aim to keep things from escalating. And I always keep an eye on Jeremy; watching him. To make sure. Several times we received offers to join other groups of people, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered the proposals, but… No, it’s best the way it is. Just us two. Me and Jeremy. It’s safer that way. I don’t want to think, I could have prevented this, some way down the line.
I know now that Jeremy follows after his grandfather. How much he follows after him… well, I’m not sure about that. He did shoot a person without a second’s hesitation, after all. I wish he didn’t take after Dad. Oh, I loved my father, but I wish my son were nothing like him. At the same time, that part of him will keep him safe. I know that. It brings me comfort. A little, anyway.
I know that, at the very least, I won’t have to worry too much about him getting hurt. He can clearly look after himself, in this new world in which we find ourselves living. I know I will die before him, and that is how it’s meant to be – a mother should die before her son. But I reckon it won’t be from natural causes. I think I’ll die because I refused to kill someone I ought to have. This altered planet is clearly filled with two kinds of people: the killers, and the soon-to-be-killed. I’m not sad to know that I’m part of the second group. In fact, I’m glad.
All the same, though, whilst I can… I’ll keep watching Jeremy.
11th October 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest