The View From the Hill

By Charles Etheridge-Nunn

We both look past the hills of long grass, down past the motorway to the city. Streetlights are on like nothing’s happened. We know better. It’s the houselights being on that worries me.

“What if it’s zombies?” she asks me.

“It’s not zombies,” I reply, knowingly. Of course I don’t know, not from up here. If I say it is, I could be proven wrong later. “Besides, they couldn’t work the lights.”

“But maybe they can. Maybe they’re smart and can use light switches, cars and microwaves.”

“If they can drive cars then we should be in the bunker.”

We’re not the best survivalists. I’m willing to admit that. She’d only had some basic first aid training and I’d always fallen asleep during science classes. If either of us knew about medicine or biology or something then we’d have known what happened. We’d be aware of The Incident and able to defend ourselves properly. But we don’t. Instead we guard against everything.

As I said, we’re not great. We should have been in the bunker all this time, but once or twice a day we get curious. If I was an engineer or something I could have built a periscope or a television that works in the bunker. Instead we feel the hatch for any warmth. It was my idea that if a nuclear war had happened, maybe we’d feel heat from the radiation. We didn’t have a Geiger counter, so we have to gauge that way.

The Incident happened while we were in the bunker, which was a shame. I know I’d have been paralysed with fear, but I’ve seen disaster movies and wondered if it would look the same. We’d lived in the manor for a year, but that was so we could convert the bunker into our new home. That’s why we let the building go into such disrepair, broken windows and wooden walls swelling from exposure to the elements. It was a Tuesday, and we were stacking the last of her balls of wool in the bunker, in the order she preferred. She loved to knit, and preferred some colours over others, but knew that could change in the twenty-to-forty years we would be living down there before our deaths. That meant many balls of each colour, a few different hues, but then the order was very specific. The wool wasn’t graded by colour or size, but by preference. Royal Purple and Dandelion Yellow and Sky Blue and Vivid Pink and Coffee Brown, all next to each other. She wanted them nearby so when we were down there she wouldn’t waste a minute having to search for the right colour. I had been collecting puzzle books from my youth, carefully rubbing out the answers I’d made and then doing my best to force myself to forget them.

We knew there would be a lot of time ahead of us, so I’d only read books I’d already read and left the others for after The Incident struck. I’d left her organising her wool as I never got the order right. I crept up the ladder I’d kept clean and rust-free all these years, then took in my surroundings.

Something had changed. The mansion was still the mansion, the long grass was still long grass. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Even the city was the city, but it wasn’t. Something had changed. The motorway between my hill and the city seemed too quiet, even for four in the morning. The feeling of the outdoors was different. I called her up and she felt the night air with me. She gave a little noise, not quite a gasp not quite a laugh. We smiled and looked at each other, the only people smart enough to get out while we could. The only survivors. Our hands drifted together but didn’t touch, couldn’t touch.

She was my Eve from that moment. The last man and woman, but we both knew we couldn’t touch, couldn’t get close. What if one of us had a virus? What if one of us was infected but immune? We could be carrying whatever killed the rest of mankind, harmless until it was spread by physical contact, blood, saliva, anything really. We were in love but in case an airborne virus was carried by either of us we tried not to get close to each other. She pointed out that we’d have to breathe each others air in the bunker, so we had a test run at being locked in with the sealed ventilation. A week later and neither of us had died, so we relaxed about the no-breathing-near-each-other policy.

We’d met online, researching survival methods about the end of the world. Other people seemed to be too relaxed, but I’d spent a year up all night worrying about what would happen to me if the world ended. She was more relaxed than me, but still as concerned and her OCD helped bring her up to my level. We were the only people we could relate to. I’d given up my job and bought “the manor”, an old, disused farm house. I couldn’t be in the city. Our guesswork showed that most apocalypses seemed to be worse if you were in a town or city. We wanted to visit the shops while we prepared, so we couldn’t be too far away. Over a motorway, up a hill, under a house and in a bunker was to be our haven. Safe from monsters, roving gangs, floods and nuclear weapons, we were immune to everything that could be thrown at us. Once she’d moved into the manor, we picked separate rooms with the least holes in, then set about redecorating the bunker.

Lights were first. I picked out striplights, but she suggested softer lighting, some lamps, nice modern patterns, not flowers or anything old ladyish, but abstract and easily interpreted as many different things when you looked at them. During this covert run to a supermarket we also bought a welcome mat, despite the lack of use it would get once The Incident struck.

At first we both went to the supermarkets, but as time went on and we knew we were running out of remaining days or weeks, one of us would sit in the car with the engine on, in case we both had to bolt from the city and get to the bunker. We even left the hatch open to allow easy access to our new home. No hikers went near the manor, it looked too creepy, so we didn’t worry about people breaking in.

So back to my Eve. She was best at the supermarket dash when we needed supplies. She had a map of the shop and knew the best routes to get in and out as fast as possible. We always picked times when no one would be around and the motorway was clear. She’d mistaken heavy storms for the end of the world a couple of times and become a great runner to try and be more prepared for the next one.

The food was bought surprisingly quickly, between my inheritance and her meagre wages. It took mere months to get enough supplies to keep us into our nineties. That was about the time we’d decide to kill ourselves if the apocalypse wasn’t over by then. After the food was bought we thought about entertainment and comfort. Amongst the classics I missed, I bought a few science books. I’d be able to know more about the end of the world once we were safe from it.

She’d read up on medicine and again, we’d complement each other. We were perfect as a couple. We never argued, because we were too busy facing the end of everything together and nothing would get in the way.

I could say, “We shouldn’t make our walks go past the paddock with the horses. They might be ill with something and if it’s contagious, that’s our plans ruined,” and she trusted me.
She could say, “What if it’s zombies?” And I would believe that it could have been zombies. The apocalypse could have been anything. We can’t see from this far and we daren’t go any closer to check. It was stupid going outdoors but we were curious. She drew the short straw and went up the ladder. I’d kept it polished and smooth so neither of us would get out and bleed potentially infectious blood on each other. The air still felt different she said. The long grass was still there and the manor was still decaying at the usual rate.

I followed her up, deciding to trust her opinion rather than stay underground for my own safety. It would have been a lonely few decades if she’d have died alone out there and weighing up the options, I’d rather we went together. She was right, the air was still a little different and it seemed strange seeing so much of the outdoors after being confined in our home for… a week? Maybe. We didn’t think a calendar would be needed, and most companies didn’t make ones going as far ahead as forty years.

“What if it’s zombies?” she said. It could have been zombies, but I decided it would be best to try and reassure her that no, it probably wasn’t zombies. I walked to the manor and picked up my hunting rifle just in case. I didn’t have it in the bunker as I didn’t want accidents, but if we were going to be outdoors, I may as well have had it ready. Undead, wild animals, who knows what could have been out here or what they did to the human race.

There was a distant noise. A car, maybe?

“There, someone’s alive,” she said.

“Maybe they’re infected. Thank god we’ve not got any lights of anything to draw attention to us here.”

We were lucky. The manor didn’t show up on any maps as it was so old, so fallen apart. Other people trying to survive wouldn’t find us unless we wanted them to. There wasn’t even any power going to the manor to light it up, just the bunker, and that had a thick lead hatch. I never knew why the bunker was there. The war, I assumed, but it was big enough to keep more than just two people, so we had room to spread out.

“I can’t see who’s behind the wheel. I can barely make out the car,” she said.

“Get down!” I whispered loud enough for her to hear. “We can’t be seen. That’d ruin everything.”

As she ducked into the grass there was a noise. A man in a thick jacket stomped around the corner of the manor and into view. Without any light I couldn’t see his face, see if he was human or if he was ill, undead or anything else new or strange. Immediately, instinctively I twisted my wrist, bringing the hunting rifle up and firing.

I may have left it behind when we first entered the hatch, but I wanted to be ready, be prepared. I practised on rabbits and kept my weapon clean. Despite shooting from the hip, the bullet found a new home inside the man’s head. I was ready for the recoil and stood my ground against the impact. The man was still for a moment and I wondered if just one shot would do. He collapsed as I levelled the rifle where his head was.

She stood up from her hiding place and asked, “Did you get him?”

“Of course.” To protect her, to protect us, of course I’d hit him. But I had to be sure the man wasn’t getting up. If it was even a man to begin with.

We walked to the body, his arms stretched out, a spiked stick dropped nearby. A weapon or a walking stick? I wasn’t sure. It might even have been there beforehand for all I remembered. His face was contorted, twisted by the gunshot, so we didn’t know what he looked like before. Was he a zombie, or a hiker?

“It’s too late,” she said. “If they’re already on the hillside then we need to go back to the bunker.”

She was right, of course.

“We can’t come back up,” I told her, as I held the gun up to cover for any other people who might be following our fresh victim.

“Help,” the person, infected, zombie, looter, I don’t know. Still, “Help,” he said. It was too late. They might have learned to mimic us, to lure us in by sounding just like a dying hiker.

I let her go into the hatch first, after all even against the end of the world manners were a good thing to keep about us. As I was entering the bunker I saw the lights flickering on. She was at the controls, waking our home up. I knew her, she was already thinking about what she’d knit. Given how cold it would get down here, as we didn’t want to tax the generators with unnecessary luxuries, my guesses were a scarf or some gloves. I took one last look at the dead human or zombie or infected person, feet facing me amongst the yellowing grass. I took a last breath of outside air, then pulled the hatch down and broke the handle off.

Curiosity wouldn’t lure us to a death on the surface, not any more. If we couldn’t get out, we couldn’t die. We were safe from the outside, safe from the world. Together and alone for the rest of time.

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