Unwarning: This book is suitable for all ages.
Silent Apocalypse is set in the immediate aftermath of a global pandemic that has eradicated all adult animal life. The central character – sixteen year-old Felicity Goldsmith – comes from a wealthy rural family, who (upon the passing of her last family member) embarks upon a cross-country journey to find both company and answers regarding the plague’s origin. What she discovers, at first horrifies her, then gives her hope for the survival of life on Earth.
Chapter Eleven: Crossbow Girl
For two more days we trudged onward. Our minds became dulled as our limbs grew ever wearier. It was soul destroying, particularly because we appeared to be getting no closer to our goal. We began to wonder if we might not die of old age before we closed upon our quarry.
In a previous life my parents had long complained of the degeneration and decadence of modern British society – particularly the future elders of our once-proud land – namely the ‘youngsters’. My personal experiences had not born out their beliefs; but now the endless pyres we encountered as we skirted larger conurbations seemed to support their assertions. Towns and cities were no-go zones. One didn’t need a deadly virus to die in one of those: Merely a Human Being, who, perhaps, wasn’t quite human anymore.
That night, as we rested in a large house overlooking a small, silent town, I came close to despair. The hopefulness of two days earlier had drained from me. Strangely it was our nightly ritual of ‘The Whispers’ that pulled me out of it and gave me back
my sense of determination.
Whilst listening in the dining room, Kevin brought something to our attention: It was an apparent undercurrent in The Whispers that somehow we’d failed to notice previously. They were very faint beeping sounds, some short, some long – filling the tiniest of gaps in the overall sound.
Katherine had been outside when it began. Upon re-entering she cocked an ear. Of Lee, she asked, “Do you read Morse?”
“Nah.” Lee, listening intently, replied, “I was more into the X-Men.”
She cuffed him upon the shoulder, which surprised him.
“I don’t mean the detective novels, you heathen: I mean the code.”
“No.” Lee tried to brush off the pain as though it were dandruff.
“Shame.” She said – entering the kitchen. “Those little beeps might be a message in Morse Code.”
Lee called after her, “Yeah, and they might be interference.”
“Wait a minute!” Donald cried out, “That’s something I never thought of before: Interference: That’s what ‘The Whispers’ are really: They’re a sort of interfering with themselves!”
I was puzzled. “Sort of interfering?”
“Designed in. Something to hide something else.” Donald was on a roll, and the weariness of mind and body seemed evaporate from him.
“The Morse, perhaps?” Katherine suggested as she sniffed at a freshly opened jar.
“Nah, that’s just there to throw us off the track.” Donald replied. “Ignore that. But I’m certain there’s a message buried in there somewhere: And we gotta find out what it is.”
“And how do we differentiate truth – from smoke and mirrors?” I asked.
Kevin stepped from the shadows, “Get Lee his Tripe Recorder.” He said.
In the morning we stocked up with canned products from the larder of the house. We then broke our cardinal rule, and set out for the nearby town. Like nervous rodents – wary of any sound or movement – we scuttled along both sides of the single carriage road that entered the town. There appeared to be no one around – at least none that we could detect. Soon – having passed through a brief suburban area – we found ourselves in front of a general store. Surprisingly the glass in the doors and windows remained intact.
‘Was everyone in this town an old-age pensioner or something?’
Actually, I quickly realised when I discovered where we were, this was very nearly the case. The town was, until recently, a popular retirement area for the rich, the famous, or both. Of course there’d been young people in the town; but they’d either missed this particular area, or they were yet to discover it.
Whilst Lee attempted to force the door, Kevin stood across the road. The simple boy was not happy:
“This isn’t right.” He complained. “This is a bad thing to do.”
“Kevin, it don’t matter no more, mate.” Lee tried to explain, “There’s no one here anymore. No one’s going to mind. Really – it’s all right.”
Kevin wasn’t that easily convinced. He sat down upon the kerb, and mumbled, “Someone’ll mind: You’ll see…”
He was ignored of course, and with Donald’s help Lee managed to force the door, and we – ever so wise – elders rushed in.
“You grab some batteries, Don.” Lee instructed, “I’ll check out the back.”
Meanwhile Katherine and I investigated the second floor. We expected a store room, but discovered an apartment that, presumably, belonged to the proprietor of the shop. Inside a teenage girl’s bedroom – its walls plastered with posters of currently unemployed boy-bands – I found the very thing for which we searched: A cassette tape recorder that had been long forgotten beneath an unmade bed and was coated with a veneer of fine dust.
When, a short while later, we assembled in the shop, I was the hero of the hour. Don found a packet of blank tapes upon a shelf, and had already collected several differing sizes of batteries. We then stuffed our haversack with whatever else we could find – mostly chocolate bars and fizzy drinks – then made our escape into the silence of the empty town.
We’d covered about twenty metres, and Lee was congratulating us on a job well done, when something hard and fast glanced off the road surface in front of us. Four of us dropped to the ground, but Lee merely crouched. He held the cassette recorder, and he didn’t want to damage it. He looked horribly vulnerable, and clearly expected the worst.
“I’ll take that, thank you very much.” A female voice called from somewhere not too distant.
Lee was aware of the rifle strapped to his back. He clearly felt naked without it where he could use it. Somehow he must get it into his hands: With this thought uppermost in his mind, he spotted a wooden bus shelter just a few metres away, and chanced a dangerous dashed for cover. A step or two from cover a crossbow bolt caught him in the haversack. Inside it a can of cola was torn open – squirting its contents out through the hole like a sugary geyser. Lee didn’t stop though. He dived into the shelter, quickly casting off his drenched haversack, and taking a grip upon the SA80, which had almost leapt into his hands.
Meanwhile Katherine and I had rolled to the doubtful protection of a public telephone booth. Donald had managed to wriggle into hiding at the base of a garden hedge, and was now bringing his hunting rifle to bear. But in which direction should he point it, and at whom? There was no obvious target. The same could be said of Lee’s SA80 – the muzzle of which appeared at the bus stop door, and appeared to scan the area fruitlessly.
A bolt sent wood splinters coruscating into the air. The SA80 stuttered several rounds in response. But they were optimistic, un-aimed shots.
“If you can’t acquire your target, how are you going to hit anything?” The voice called out. “Not a problem I have, by the way. Regardez vous…”
We were all suddenly aware that Kevin still lay face down in the road, his head covered by his hands. He was whimpering in fear. A bolt snagged his haversack in passing, and his yelling increased accordingly.
“Like I said.” The voice rang out. “I’ll have that squawk box.”
The cassette recorder slid slowly from the bus shelter. It was being propelled by the butt of Lee’s weapon. When he could reach no further he stopped, and then spoke: “There, you can have it: It’s not that important. I’m sure there’s a whole load more in town somewhere.”
“I expect so: But that happens to be my ghetto blaster. I don’t take kindly to burglars. Right: now the shooter: It looks very efficient: I don’t have one. Or is that more important to you? I know how boys like their toys.”
Lee didn’t hesitate to slide it into the road.
“What about the local Texas Ranger grovelling under the hedge? I could use that telescopic sight.” The command was unmistakable.
Donald’s hunting rifle joined the SA80 as ‘liberated’ bounty.
“Not much of a hunting party, are you?” She called again. “Neutralized by one girl
and her trusty old William Tell apple-shooter!”
Lee felt that this was no time to exhibit male pride:
“Nah, I s’pose not.”
“What’s this?” She sounded honestly surprised. “Giving in so easily?”
“We’ve had enough trouble for now. Can’t be bothered it with anymore.” Lee answered – and his tone made it patently obvious that he meant it.
I wondered if he had anything up his sleeve. For once I doubted it.
“I’m coming out now. If you shoot, you shoot.” He continued, “What I’d like to do is tell you why we wanted your ‘ghetto blaster’. When you learn that – well you might feel slightly more inclined toward us.”
He stepped into the road. He hadn’t even bothered to raise his hands. He could have been hiding a handgun anywhere. I knew he wasn’t, but the girl with the deadly accurate crossbow didn’t.
“I’m feeling more inclined towards you already.” She called out.
My hopes climbed.
In a nearby park, a girl of about nineteen dropped from a large conifer tree. She was clothed entirely in green combat fatigues. Shouldering her modern lightweight crossbow she did a pirouette, which showed off a vast array of bladed weapons, and two small auxiliary crossbows hanging from a belt.
“Oh girls – your opinion please: do you think my bum looks big in this?” She asked.
After retaking her cassette recorder, the mystery girl introduced herself as Candice Butler. Kevin thought that she was crazy, and voiced his opinion openly. Candice didn’t take offence. Instead she invited us back to her apartment, which rather surprised us all, and led at least two of us to wonder if she might not be a little schizophrenic.
Once we’d reassembled in the kitchen of her apartment above the store, we discovered that she really was interested in our requirement for her ‘ghetto blaster’.
While Candice used a butane-powered stove to prepare a meal for us, Lee explained. Between dicing, slicing, chopping, and sizzling, she interjected several pertinent utterances such as “Hmmm,” “Ooh,” and “Really?”
Lee finished by telling her that we intended to record the ‘Whispers’ and an attempt to decipher their meaning.
The meal was the quickest stir-fry in history. Candice would have done any Chinese restaurant proud. As she served up the simmering, purely vegetarian, meal, she asked the question:
“And where do you hope this will lead?”
We were all caught out by the simplicity of the question. We needed to find out because…because we needed to find out!
‘No, no, this will never do.’
“Well, hopefully we’ll escape the plague.” I said; but as I heard my own words – the logic of the reasoning behind them seemed dubious at best.
“Sounds’ reasonable.” She said – pulling up a chair for herself, and passing the wok around the small, cramped table.
Then I knew that it was a crazy notion: If some girl, who shoots crossbow bolts at a group armed with guns, and is more concerned about the size of her rear end than her well-being – then tells you that something “Sounds’ reasonable”, know damned well that it doesn’t sound reasonable at all. Not in a million years! But unlike Kevin I’d acquired the social skills to hold my tongue. We were hungry, and since she offered us no more questions to answer, we ate in silence.
Candice finished first, having eaten ravenously.
‘When did she last eat? Why did she leave it so long between meals?’
To our complete surprise she took her plate, and hurled across the room, where it shattered in the kitchen sink.
“Well I won’t be needing that anymore!” She said as she wiped her fingers clean on the fabric of her combat blouse. “Right, which one of you has a problem with even numbers?”
We all looked at each other. None felt sufficiently inspired to admit an understanding of her apparently meaningless question.
“Pardon?” Katherine said.
“Look,” Candice explained in her way, “there’s five of you: Six is such a much more symmetrical number – don’t you agree? Now if you all insist upon five, then I suppose I’m going to have to stab one of you to death.”
Kevin looked at our puzzled faces. He understood her completely:
“Six – that’s my fave-rit.” He indicated the rest of us. “Same as them.”
Then Katherine understood. “Are we to take it, Candice, that you intend to join us?” She asked.
Candice looked surprised. “Isn’t that what I just said?”
“In an oblique and scary way, I suppose you did.” Katherine confessed.
We couldn’t be certain, but we thought that she’d attached herself to our group. We didn’t particularly enjoy the prospect; but it was better than having her take pot-shots at us.
Lee didn’t bother asking what her motivation was; He knew that he wouldn’t have understood her answer anyway. So he held out his hand, and said, “Welcome aboard, Butler.”
“Aye, Cap’n: glad to be aboard, shiver me timbers, and all that baloney.” She replied, saluting.
And so we were six. ‘But’, I thought; ‘if everyone we meet shoots first, and asks questions later, how much longer will any of us survive?’ Were the odds being increasingly stacked against us?
‘Luck can run out, you know.’
Shortly afterwards the six of us returned to the house upon the hill to discuss future planning. We now had the required tape recorder. Since time was not, as Candice put it, “of the essence”, we concluded, perhaps lazily, that another night in comfort was the best course of inaction. We would record tonight’s ‘Whispers’, and then enjoy the amenities, such as there were – what with no running water or electricity. But with otherwise very pleasant surroundings we could study the results of our recent labours without acquiring more aches and pains.
It was a while before sunset, and whilst it remained light, Candice had gone off
somewhere with Lee and Donald to show off her prowess with her crossbow. Why – we didn’t know: We’d seen, first hand, her expertise in action.
The kitchen came equipped with two ovens: A modern gas appliance, and an old Aga. Naturally the gas was off, and the Aga was long, long cold: But with persistence Kevin, Katherine, and I coaxed it into life with kindling and a prayer, and we were soon busy preparing food purloined from the general store.
After being silent for almost ten minutes, Kevin asked, “What’s wrong with Candice?”
“Oh, Kevin; wash your mouth out: You know she’s the lost likeable and most heavily armed lady in town.” Katherine called out in fake horror.
“I think that’s one of the reasons he asked the question.” I said.
“Yes.” Katherine replied. “She reminds me of a massacre in Texas.”
We both half-giggled at this, but it went straight over Kevin’s head.
Katherine tousled his hair, which embarrassed him. “Aren’t I the silly old mare?” She said.
“You’re not old.” Kevin replied matter-of-factly, “Nor a mare. You can be silly sometimes though.”
She hugged him briefly. “I can – can’t I!”
I decided to broach the subject of Candice once more before she returned:
“I’m having a little trouble with our new chum.” I said.
“Anything in particular?” Katherine inquired. “Or generally – as in she’s a complete fruit and nut bar?”
“Where was she when we found her?” I began.
“Up a tree. But strictly speaking, we didn’t find her: She found us.” Katherine corrected my terminology.
“Mere semantics. Why was she up a tree?” I continued.
“She was raised by monkeys?” She offered.
“Don’t be facetious.” I scolded; then got to my point. “She was hidden up a tree; armed; wearing camouflage; and – more importantly – she appeared to be expecting us!”
Katherine paused to consider this –before carrying my reasoning further:
“And she knew exactly how to deal with us. Her confidence was totally awesome. It was like she knew how we’d react. Hey, perhaps she’s a witch.” Then upon consideration she added, “Or something slightly less fanciful.”
“She’s not like you and me.” Kevin observed.
That was a fact no one could argue with.
‘I’m not sure that Candice is like anyone.’
So we eventually agreed to say nothing to antagonize her, but to maintain a discrete watch upon our newest recruit. And not a moment too soon did our conversation end, because only seconds later she breezed into the room with the thoroughly enthralled Lee and Donald in tow.
For almost ten minutes the two boys waxed lyrical about Candice’s marksmanship.
‘Shouldn’t that be marks-woman-ship?’
All the while, I couldn’t help but notice, Candice kept an eye on Katherine and I.
‘Is she somehow aware of our conversation? Or is she reading our minds as well?’
Over ‘supper’ we settled down to listen to the ‘Whispers’. After telling Kevin to remain silent – or in Lee’s parlance, “Kev: gob shut; all right?” – Lee pressed the ‘Record’ button on the tape recorder, and we all snapped into a state of complete, totally attentive, silence.
Later we listened to it over and over, until we knew every bleep, whistle, ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ of the entire transmission. Still it meant nothing to us – which left us utterly perplexed and deeply frustrated. It seemed so unfair: somebody was going to the trouble of broadcasting this. In the final hours of man, no one would be sufficiently evil to dream up such an elaborate practical joke. Would they?
We sat around in troubled silence for some time after Lee’s angry fist had knocked the cassette recorder off of the table. Kevin was in another room, bouncing a ball against a wall.
“It’s hidden – obviously.” Candice spoke out finally.
“We figured that for ourselves, without the aid of this…” Katherine indicated the
fallen cassette recorder.
Candice ruminated for a moment. She said, “What we need is a device that filters out the interference. I imagine you’ve all had similar thoughts, but personally I don’t believe that any old Tom, Dick, or Candice is supposed to hear this: And I believe in a lot of things that most people don’t – like marmalade bees and chocolate trees, and bumps that say “Hi” in the night.”
We all looked at her.
“I added that last bit to get your attention.” She smiled dazzlingly.
Kevin called in from the next room, “She knew it would: She’s good at knowin’ things.”
The boys looked even more puzzled.
“It’s nothing.” I told them. Then to Candice I said, “Tell us what you think we should do.”
Candice gave me a long appraising look that, under normal circumstances, would make me feel uncomfortable. But as everyone was so graphically aware – these were far from normal circumstances.
“Aah,” she breathed out – then casting a quick glance toward the door, “someone‘s been talking.”
Then to all of us she said, “Walk this way, por favor.”
She then proceeded to mount a pretend horse, and canter from the room. Confused, we all stood, and made our way toward the door.
Candice reappeared at the door, still cantering, “No, no, no! I said, ‘Walk this way’”, and then she disappeared from view once more.
“Humour her, huh?” Katherine suggested.
So very self-consciously we all cantered from the room.
We found Candice in the garden. She appeared to be taking her bearings. She laughed out loud as we cantered up to her, pulling on imaginary reigns to halt our invisible steeds. When she’d recovered her composure sufficiently, Candice pointed in the direction of a wood that was only discernible as a slightly darker patch of black against the darkness of the night.
“Brockton.” She said “It’s a small town in that direction. It’s about four kilometres distant, as the crow flies. We will be taking a circumbendibus route along a public footpath, which will add about a half kilometre.”
“Circumbendibus? Is that a real word?” Lee enquired.
“Around the houses.” Katherine explained.
“Well why didn’t she say that? You know I’m useless with anything more than two syllables.” He complained.
Candice continued as though she’d rehearsed her words:
“There we shall discover the whereabouts of a certain Wayne Fairgrove.”
She obviously knew full well that none of us knew who Wayne Fairgrove was, but waited until one of us felt pressured into asking the obvious question.
“Wayne Fairgrove was my boyfriend.” She explained. “He was also a total, un-repenting, dyed-in-wool, nerd, of whom I hoped never to see anything again. But then I knew I would. And you knew that I knew I would. And you know that I knew that you knew…”
“Enough!” Katherine cried. “Can he help us, or not? Just say ‘yes Katherine’ – or ‘no Katherine’.”
It was torment to watch Candice as she suppressed her eloquence.
“I guess that would have to be a ‘yes Katherine’.” She grated out.
And in that moment I knew for certain that Candice possessed no powers of telepathy, or talent for prescience. We’d not encountered her on some random chance either. Fate was at work here: Fate had brought us together – in this place – at this time. I was sure of it. I just didn’t know why.
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© Paul Trevor Nolan