At Last, Goodbye
The tree we planted still grows there, down by the river, just near the meadow. I think it flowers brighter than the others, though that could be my imagination. It’s the only tree there with a blue blossom; the others are all white or pink. It’s still quite small, if you compare it to the others, but they are hundreds of years old, and our tree is only a baby in comparison.
Its leaves fall later in the year, not by much, but it is noticeable. I used to visit there quite often, you know, before I left this place all those years ago. I used to come here alone sometimes. One day in the late autumn of the last year I noticed that our little tree was the only one in sight with most of its leaves still on the branches. The next week I went and it was as bare as the rest. I never told you about it and I wish I had.
There is something relaxing about the place, but then, you knew that didn’t you? You found the clearing by the river a long time before you showed it to me.
The swing rope still hangs off of the big oak tree just a few yards away, it’s frayed and loose end pointing down to the water at something that only it can see. You would have climbed up and put a new rope there, I know, but I was never the climber that you were, at least I wasn’t back then, so it just hangs there, slowly swaying in the wind.
I used to sometimes sit alone in the village square whilst you were at work, but I never went and sat over by the fountain. I preferred to sit under the archway, on one of the benches, and watch the children play by the fountain, throwing pennies in and chasing each other round and round, just like we did when we were tiny.
When I was sitting there the last time, the first time I met you came back into my mind. It’s hard not to forget it, even though it was so long ago. I was only eight. Hard to imagine isn’t it? It’s so long ago. You were two years and three days older than me, of which you were quite proud.
It was my birthday that day, and I was having the best day, but if you hadn’t turned up and stopped those boys, they would have taken my new cool kids dirt bike, which I loved so much, and it would have been a miserable day. I think it was the way you acted that day that made me like you so much. You weren’t afraid of them at all, even though you were outnumbered at least four to one. Things like that stay, don’t they?
That fountain must have been working my whole life. I don’t ever remember it being broken, or even seeing anyone maintaining it. The stonework has gradually chipped and worn away, and it has definitely lost its sheen, if it ever had one, did I just remember it in a better light?
There are no kids playing here now. It’s all quiet. The park next to it made it such a wonderful place to play, but they’re not here anymore. No one is here anymore. They left with their parents so long ago.
So many years.
I remember clearly the night our whole world began to fall apart. I remember sitting up on top of the hill, by the tree, waiting for you to come and see me when you finished work. I was seventeen and so full up of ambitions and crazy ideas and how we were going to spend the rest of our lives. All those lost dreams. You had your job in the city fixing cars and motorbikes, just like you always wanted to, and I was going to go to college. We were going to buy our own house on the edge of town. Just one of those new prefab ones that were quite small, with only a tiny patch of land, but it was the start of everything that we had planned. We were going to conquer the world, you and I.
From up there on the hill, the view of the city so many miles away is still as clear as it was on that summer afternoon way back then. Clear enough that the once shiny high-rises that are now burned out and blackened ruins stand out like the most sinister of eyesores overlooking the valley.
That’s what I remember the most from that horrible day.
The Flames as the fires spread across the city with no one able to stop them.
I questioned for so many years how it was possible that it could have happened so quickly. How no one had managed to fight back. Of course, these days I know the answer to that all too well. I’ve seen the aftermath of it so many times that I’ve lost count.
I wish I could tell you all about where the children play now. It’s beautiful there and I sit and watch them quite often in their new place. It’s strange to see the same faces in the generations that have followed the lucky ones who escaped. And we were lucky. So lucky. I don’t like to think of the millions and millions of people that didn’t have the fortune of being near one of the gates when the others came through, when the soldiers that saved us arrived. If it hadn’t been for that old ruin that was a landmark that they knew, we would never have been one of the places that were saved.
I was so terrified, running down that hill as fast as I could and tripping over my own feet in panic. After your phone call, after you said goodbye for the last time and that you were trying to get out of the city, and all the chaos that I could hear in the background. I wish I’d known back then that it would be the last time that I would ever speak to you. I would have told you to run and never stop, ever. I would have told you that I loved you.
But how were we to know?
How was anyone to know that the things pouring out of those dark and fiery holes would mean the end of this whole world? The end of everything we had once known.
I remember so clearly now as I ran back down into the village and found everyone in panic, shuttering up their houses and locking the world away like that would stop what was coming.
A week later and the whole world had nearly collapsed, all that week I’d tried phoning you, all week and no answer, just a dead line ringing out. My dad wouldn’t let me take the car and drive to try and find you. I was convinced that you had got away and were hurt somewhere, somewhere where I could find you and bring you home.
Of course the truth is that had I only driven a few miles towards the city I would have been killed like everybody else who had tried to leave. Those creatures got everyone.
Everything slowly stopped working on us over the next few days, you know, the phones went dead, no replies on the radio, televisions, and then finally all the electricity just stopped. The lights went out.
The town committee met up and tried to organise some kind of expedition to go and find out what was going on. Four cars, mostly full of local police officers, set off on the Monday morning. I watched them go, hoping that they would find you.
They never came back.
I was up on the hill again, against my parents will, watching over towards the city, hoping that I’d see you come walking down the road, when they came, when the soldiers came.
The bright flash of light nearly blinded me, even though it was on the very edge of my vision and right across the town on the hill where the ruins were. I closed my eyes and nearly fell over into the dirt, but then the bright light was gone almost as quickly as it had appeared, and was replaced by something dark that shifted and writhed, a circle of some kind. Something that I can only describe as a door opened in the middle of it.
Then the soldiers came running out. Dozens of them, followed by vehicles that looked like armoured trucks with huge guns mounted on the top. The stream of soldiers didn’t seem to end.
Another noise snapped me out of my gaze, made me jump and look back towards the city. A moan, like a wounded animal, and it wasn’t far away. I squinted in the bright light to try and locate it.
Then I saw them all.
Hundreds and hundreds of people out in bush lands, some of them had made it as far as the bottom of the hill. They were stumbling, all of them, their faces blackened and bloody. Wounded people, and lots of them.
I had to help them, but there were so many. Had they all walked from the city? That was thirty miles away at least in the blistering heat of the desert.
I ran down the slope towards the nearest refugee, a man who I thought must have been in his late forties and dressed in a suit that was ripped and dirty, but I slowed down as I got within a few feet and skidded to a halt.
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
He looked at me and stumbled forward, reaching out to me. I thought he was asking for me to help him, so took a few steps forward. I was only two or three feet away, moving to help him, when I saw the blood pour from his mouth as he opened it. He reached out for me, but the expression on his face wasn’t the relief of a hurt man reaching for help that was just few feet away, no, his eyes were full of hunger and hatred.
I stepped backwards and nearly tripped over a rock, only to have him come stumbling towards me. Another one was approaching, reaching out for me with the same burning hunger in his eyes, except this one had an arm missing, and half of his face was hanging off so that I could see the skull underneath.
My heart nearly leapt out of my chest.
I screamed and ran, glancing back over my shoulder to see just how many of them there were.
Thousands and thousands of these half dead people were clumsily making their way towards our town.
A gunshot went off nearby, then another. I jumped backwards, startled, and looked round to see the two half dead people nearest to me go tumbling back down the hill, to fall into the crowd that was now clawing its way up the hill towards me.
I staggered to my feet and ran as fast as I could up the hill, almost colliding with one of the soldiers who had come through that strange door. There must have been twenty of them on the hill, kneeling in a row. One of them pointed at me and then pointed towards the town.
“Go,” he said.
Who were they? What were they doing here? How had they got all the way over town to this hill so quickly?
I went, running as fast as I could through the bushes and trees, stumbling and falling several times before I burst out of the tree line and onto the road that runs along the back of the school. More and more soldiers passed me as I ran stumbling through the streets, heading home as fast as I could go.
The town was in complete chaos. There were soldiers everywhere ordering people out of their houses and along the streets heading towards the north of the town, towards the ruins. I ran past them several times before finally making it to our road.
My mother cried out in relief as I sprinted breathlessly towards her. They were at the bottom of the drive, my dad was arguing with one of the soldiers and my mum was looking around frantically.
The soldier had been telling them to leave, that there was no time, but they weren’t going without me. Now that I was back the soldier was insisting, even lowering his gun at my father and pointing up the road.
As we walked down the street, following other people, and carrying everything that my parents could quickly put into the three rucksacks that my father had bought for when we went walking, I tried to tell my them what I seen, but I couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t stop feeling terrified, and couldn’t get the thought out of my head that you might be amongst all those half dead people.
The hour that followed was one of the most terrifying experiences in my life. All of the townsfolk were being herded up the hill, by will or by force. We stood in the queue and tried to keep up and stay calm, but the soldiers weren’t letting anyone slow down. Across the other side of town, near the school, gunfire could be heard. I glanced back a few times; the soldiers on the hill were firing down the other side, at what I could only imagine was the half dead people. Many more of the soldiers were running through the town towards the battle
When it was our turn to walk through the door in the ruins, my mother had a panic attack and my father literally had to carry her through.
What we stepped through the door to was nothing like what I had expected, though, I must admit I didn’t have a clue where it was going to. I thought it would be some place safe, some place not far away, but we walked out onto rolling fields, where the grass was green and the sun was not so bright. Correction, the suns were not so bright.
That was what terrified me the most. There were two suns.
We weren’t even on the same planet.
We had emerged on an open plain on some other planet. Another planet. I wouldn’t have even dreamed of it being possible before that moment, but we were really there.
So long ago.
Of course, as the years have passed I’ve grown quite used to gates, quite used to other places.
Has it really been ten years?
I joined them you know. The soldiers I mean. They were never from our world, well, some of them maybe, and much more of them now, but most were from dozens and dozens of other worlds, what they call the old worlds, the ones that had already fallen. It’s a rag tag army, built from the ruins of so many civilisations that had been destroyed by the same thing, by the creatures that come out of the portals.
It was about a two and half years after we had gone through the portal and then moved onto the mass of tents and buildings that made the evacuation camp, the camp that was to be my home. That place was a sprawl of miles and miles of people from all over our world that had been rescued, hundreds of thousands of them.
I was only just twenty years old when I joined up, by just a few months, which was old enough, and they were recruiting. My mother and father were furious with me, but soon listened to me when I told them that I wanted to help people like we had been helped, that I wanted it more than anything else. I needed it.
The Resistance, as they are called, had saved more than five thousand people from our town that day, five thousand from our town alone! No one had been left behind, and if there were people willing to dedicate their lives to that, then I wanted to be one of them.
So, I’m an Outrider. The elite of the frontier and long distance soldiers, that’s what they call us, though that’s really a joke. We’re the most mismatched bunch ever. The ones who go first. We’re not heavy troops, no; I was never strong enough to be one of the Vigilants. Instead we are mobile and move fast, mostly running scouting and small rescue missions into the older worlds, or going out scavenging and searching for supplies and abandoned weapons and armaments, or other high tech that has been left behind.
That’s how I ended up back here.
I’ve been back to our world a number of times in the last ten years. There are still a lot of small pockets of survivors hidden away and it’s our job to find them and help them. Some don’t want to be evacuated, most of them actually, and the Resistance leaders are more keen to have people start coming back here than move them out. Ten years is enough time that most of the creatures, including their horrific leaders, have moved on to another world to cause mayhem. All that is left are the stragglers and some wandering zombies that were left behind. The dark horde doesn’t seem too fussed about leaving some behind.
So why did I end up back here again? Well we just went into the city a few days ago. The intelligence guys decided that it was time to start pulling out machines and vehicles from there and we, as usual, have to go in first and secure the area.
It’s pretty crazy in the city right now. Hundreds of outrider troops scouring the buildings and hauling out salvage. You know, they actually found a bunch of survivors, right in the middle of the city? Only a couple of dozen of them, but when it went up on the radio my heart jumped.
Could it have been you?
They had been holed up in one of the high rises for ten years! They only went out every few months to fetch supplies from across the city and then hid again.
We find these little surprises in nearly every city on every world you know? It’s such a joy to find them, especially if they’ve been waiting ten years to be rescued. You should have seen their faces. They were so happy and they were all crying.
I didn’t take my helmet or my face mask off, otherwise they would have seen me crying too.
I was surprised when my immediate commander said yes to letting me come here, letting me come back home. I know that they planned to use the same gate that we used all that time ago, but that wouldn’t happen for at least a week. I just said it straight, it was my home and I wanted to go fetch a few things that we had left behind. He looked at me, squinting, trying to figure out if there was another motive, I guess, and then just said yes.
“You go secure the portal location. Set up on the hill and stay in your vehicle if anything shows up. Shouldn’t be anything there, we cleaned up most of the Shamblers after we evacuated.”
I’d forgotten that my commander had let the Resistance mission to our town that day.
“Your letting me go there alone?” I asked.
“You have to. I can’t free anyone else up. There is far too much to do here.”
That was it. An hour later and I was driving in my truck, alone, back to our home town.
I drove around the town for a while, taking in everything and remembering all the places that we used to go. Did you know that the fountain is still running? Still pouring water that is as clean and fresh as it was back then.
I went back to my old house, walking through the abandoned streets that were always so busy back then. Cars sit there on the driveways of all the houses, rusting in the weather and covered in dust and grime, windows have broken and the paint is peeling off of all the woodwork. They are all run down now, left to fall apart over the years with no one living in them.
I did collect a few things that I’d left behind when we were all evacuated in such a hurry. Just some old keepsakes, a few books and some clothes, my diaries, drawings and the letters that you sent me that I kept in the little box under my bed. It was all still there, all still untouched.
Then I came up here. Stupid really, but I couldn’t help it. I had to see our tree and the swing one more time. If my commander could see me now I’d be in for a real ticking off, sitting up here on the top branch, at least a hundred yards away from my truck and the safety it provides.
But then I hadn’t seen a single creature in the town, and the noise of the truck would have definitely brought them out. It’s how we clear them out of places, just drive round for a while and then stop and wait for them to come out so that we can put them down.
I hadn’t seen a single one all day.
I didn’t expect you to be here.
Have you been here all this time? For ten years? Have you been stumbling around endlessly all this time, looking for something that you have forgotten about?
I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. Don’t know why I feel the need to recount everything that’s happened to me all this time, but you look so alive, for one of, well, for one of them. But it’s not as though you can understand anything that I’m saying is it? You’re gone aren’t you? That’s just an empty shell standing at the bottom of the tree, clawing at the bark.
I know what I need to do, but it’s so hard. I’ve killed hundreds, maybe thousands of half deads over the years, but never someone I knew, especially not someone as special as you. I can’t sit up in this tree all night with you down there looking up at me, and I can’t just come down.
Did you find you way back here somehow? Were you hurt? Were you already turned? So many questions and there will never be any answers.
You know, I even went back to the barn. I don’t know why I did that. I could cope with all of the other places. The fountain, my parent’s home, your old house, I could manage all of those, but that place? That place held just one memory didn’t it? The only one time that we did it, just a few weeks before the world fell apart. It took me months and months to pluck up the courage to do that with you and you were so patient, even though I know the waiting was hard for you.
And I never got to tell you.
He’s nearly ten years old now, our boy. You’d be so proud of him. He’s so clever. The teachers in the camp think he is one of the brightest. I don’t see him anywhere near as much as I wish I could, but I have my job to do and it’s so important, I can’t leave. He understands of course, always says his mum is a hero. He lives with your mum and dad most of the time when I’m on the road. They adore him, as do my parents.
He has your eyes and your smile and he is obsessed with motorbikes, just like you always were. We actually spent two whole months when I managed to get some leave once, fixing up a motorbike that he found in the salvage. It took me ages to find all the parts. I guess I spent enough time watching you fix up your bike that I actually learned something.
You’d be so proud of him.
I have to go now, my love, which means I have to help you to move on, as hard as that is going to be.
I’m sorry I never told you I loved you the last time we spoke, but I never knew it would be the last time.
I will always love you and will never, ever forget you.
Goodbye my love.