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The sun is high today, and as I scan the skies for any clouds that may be dawdling within the firmament, their aim to intrude upon the idyllic pastoral scene I see before me, so as to mar the beauty of such a fine day, I see only the one – small, pure and perfectly white, hanging low, in solitude above the wooded hillsides. I note it hovers as though guarding the horizon. From what? I know not.

I’ve walked this winding back path – Hawthorn Lane – a few thousand times, yet never tire of its solid, beating beauty. Leafy boughs, heavy with (a cruel wind calls), the blooms said lane is named for, reach gently towards me from either side over the low wooden fences, shading the myriad stretches of wild flowers nestling below them. The softest of breezes has this verdant world around me animated to perfection.

My task today is to collect some of those wild annuals (the acidic rain stings my eyes), for the kitchen table, and arrange them in my hand-painted water pitcher that sits upon the tablecoth, pretty as a picture, in the centre. Then, we’ll all tuck into lunch, bathing in the flowers’ singular beauty. (The welts on my fingers deepen by the second.). The meal itself is being prepared this very moment by Nate, singing away to himself, I’ll bet, as he cuts the still warm, fresh, farmhouse loaf, (alleys a-heaving with human waste permeate the air with their foul aroma), baked this very morning by yours truly.

I’m a lucky lass, and that’s a fact; how many get to live such a charmed life? Few, I’m sure.

My trug now holds cornflowers, marigolds, (one sharp firefighter’s axe with a splintered, bloody handle), a few bright orange and red poppies, (two dirty bandages and half a bag of beetle-riddled oatmeal), a pretty swathe of forget-me-nots – my absolute favourites! – and several wild English daffs. (A rotting rat, its glistening brains partially exposed, catches my eye from the gutter.) I walk a little faster, not wanting my tardiness to spoil Nate’s culinary efforts.

The heat of the day has my summer dress lightly sticking to my spine; it isn’t an unpleasant feeling; I love the sun. (Rivulets of ice cold rain run their fingers from brow to collarbone and onwards; my arms are screaming in pain as they try to hold aloft the heavy, sodden clothes along with the rough hessian sacks/flicker/trug/flicker/sacks/flicker/trug.)  A dragonfly with a wingspan that of an apple slips past my cheek, its iridescent beauty quite captivating. I stop for a moment to follow its sweeping passage across the rolling fields of green and yellow. (A man appears to my left; he has four, long since deceased sparrows impaled on a skewer. They are half-burnt. He offers them to me for twenty pounds each. No. No. NO.) Lunch awaits at home, with Nate and Sang; it’s a lovely day and…(I run.)

It’s not very far to the cottage now; I can be there in two or three minutes – tops. The lane constantly flashes between beautiful countryside scenes and cold, dark grey concrete. Broken down shelters replace burgeoning hedges; children’s cries along with adult screams of impotence and frustration mute the bird song.

This is too soon. Too soon!

The sky can barely be seen through the bucketing rainfall. In the distance though, I can still just about make out the small white cloud, appearing now to hang directly over the cottage’s thatched roof. (Run, run, run!) Something grabs at my ankle; I kick, hard, ignoring the cry of pain behind me and pick up my pace. (The lovely old brass handle, just below the arched stained glass panel in the aged door is almost within reach.) I fling the wooden gate open, scattering rats and a host of flies from the foul mire of filth that’s stacked around the door to the bunker, crying, shaking violently, and slam my hand into the lock-port.

The grey metal door slides open briefly and I throw myself inside, falling to the hard steel floor and ripping my mask off as pain racks through every single limb; crusted sores weeping, lungs afire. There’s a flicker and (Nate pops his head round the door to the pantry, smiling, his cheeky face full of love – a smudge of mayonnaise has set up shop at the corner of his mouth. He comes into the parlour bearing a plate of fresh sandwiches, and as he places it on the table, I notice there’s a button missing from the bottom of his coat and absentmindedly pluck at the bare threads. He lifts up my chin and tells me I’m the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen in his life, barring the little imp who is playing with the peg basket in the garden. I lean towards him and… ) another flicker and…

…he’s gone.

Nate has been dead for four years now; Sangreal, our little girl, three and a half. She was five when the typhoid killed her. I had to burn their bodies to save them from the rats, from the starving masses. People will eat anything, typhoid infected or not, to survive, and I don’t blame them; I just couldn’t hand the bodies over. Not for anything. It made me very unpopular on the streets. I’m a marked woman now.

I walk to the broken mirror, and raise a hand to my sore, reddened scalp. A few strands of the sparse hairs that remain come away with my fingers. I am thirty eight years old. I look as close to death as a ninety year old. I am not beautiful. Nothing is.

The mirror lifts from the wall easily, hiding the vault access point well enough for now. No one can enter the bunker without my consent, it’s part of the genetic lock setting. It’s all that’s kept me alive. That and The Alternative. The combination is the date I met Nate. I watch the cogs rotate smoothly, and the wall slips open outwardly, slowly, silently.

When I was a young girl the idea of sticking a syringe into my veins would have been a barely imaginable horror. Back then I didn’t know what horror really was though.

Being a scientist had its uses when civilisation as we knew it began to draw to an end. I was already more than a little proficient at producing The Alternative for research purposes, so now I can grow as much of it as I want. The main problem is that successive doses aren’t lasting quite as long. More is less…so it’s likely my brain is adapting to the chemicals, and eventually it won’t have any effect at all. I’m hoping to be rescued before that happens. They say the troops are coming soon. If not, I’ll shoot up an enormous last batch of The Alternative, head for high ground, somewhere I can see the horizon, such that it is now,  and swallow the three Yellow Oleander seeds that sit with several years’ worth of canned food in the back of the vault. My heart will slow and stop beating within minutes; I will fade away painlessly, and then my body shall feed the hungry, and good to them. I have no sentiment for myself.

I keep the mirror for one reason alone – to see The Alternative within my own eyes.

It takes several minutes of painfully applying tourniquets, and some harsh slapping of my grey, skinny, almost bloodless arms to find a wide enough vein – purchase for the incredibly fine needle; then I’m in…

flicker (The smell fades, metal walls become plaster and…) I see the sun has come out again. It streams through the cottage windows, and I feel the warmth of it spread throughout my whole body. Lovely. The weather is so often a joy ’round these parts.

I notice the mirror lying on the table. We can’t have that, so I hang it carefully back on the wall and smile at myself as I tie up my thick, cascading, curls. Long hair is all very well, but in the summer it can get very hot on the neck, so up it goes. I must get Nate to give it a trim soon. I can hear him calling me from the kitchen – the tea is almost boiled. Sang is giggling away at something that’s tickled her, as ever. She’s a funny little thing, and my heart leaps into my throat at times, so filled with love am I that I think I’ll burst.

I’m a lucky lass and that’s a fact; how many get to live such a charmed life? Few, I’m sure.

I think I’ll take my sun hat when I go flower picking tomorrow. Today’s little bouquet is already quite dead in the vase for some reason.

 

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