All That Remains

All That Remains

A Story by Con Campbell
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This short story explores the regrets of an unnamed protagonist and his struggle to come to terms with the loss of his wife in a post apocalyptic world.

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Things change. People change. Times change. There was once a time to reflect on time, a time when you could sit and ponder the intricacies of the world at length on the deck, watching the sunset with a beer and somebody important to you. But that time has been and gone. A lot has been and gone. All that remains of that deck now are splinters and ash; I struggle to remember that it used to be more. My cosy three-bed is long gone too, perished with that deck in the early days… Feels like a lifetime ago. Man, so many years have passed since I’ve watched a sunset with nothing but the peace of mind found only in those solitary moments on that deck. Splinters and ash are all that remain of most homes now... The world has changed.

I don’t go there anymore. My wife an- Well, we’d worked most of our twenties and early thirties away saving for a deposit on that three-bed in this tiny cul-de-sac. Eventually, we got the mortgage. It was listed as a prime beach facing property, but that always annoyed me, it wasn’t beach facing at all. The beach was around the back of the house, though to be fair, the view was still beautiful. I’m being pedantic, but there was a time in my life where small discrepancies like the orientation of a building relative to a pretty view were all I had to complain about. I tried to visit the street sometimes after it happened, but never got close… The more time I left between attempts, the harder it got. I loved my life, and I loved my wife, and the reminder of what was gave me hope for what could be once again. Not for me, but for others.

See, we all walk this earth with the best intentions, but so few of us act. We might think we do, but we don’t. The media reported the facts so many times, and the people ‘protested’, insofar as a post on a social media page can be considered protest, but that was the world back then. People were happy to live out their lives in ignorance, comforted by the notion that they did their bit by sharing an article, or commenting on some story or other. We spent our time arguing amongst ourselves about insignificant things that don’t even feel real anymore… We’d had warnings for years. But then there were always warnings about something - the proliferation of terrorism, the irreversible effects of climate change, the endangerment of bee populations. I think its human nature to assume that there’s always somebody better than you that can fix the world’s problems. There wasn’t.

Irony is, is that by the time we realised we needed somebody better to fix the world’s mistakes- well, our mistakes; the world still is as much a victim as anybody. You’re lucky if you can get a lettuce to take root in the earth any more. I’ve still yet to see a place that has been unaffected. Even then, finding somewhere safe is impossible… But still, by the time we realised, it was already too late, all the somebody betters of the world were already dead. The world’s population fell fast. I don’t know how fast, but by the end of June, barely a month later, me and my wife had stopped coming across people completely, for a while at least. I don’t know how many of us are left now, I can’t imagine there’s any meaningful way left to count.

 

In the earlier days, people tried to adapt the best they could. The world didn’t end, it just stopped. For a while, there was residual electricity and water flow, even gas, and with fewer people around, the inevitable looting just didn’t happen, at least not anywhere near us. I’ve heard horrible stories from a lot of people since then, and a lot of people tell me that I was lucky. Lucky is a funny word, really. Sure, that panic you used to see in the movies, the war for supplies and medicine, the egocentric its-me-or-you survival of the fittest instinct was just never necessary at the time. But everything that followed? Lucky? Yeah, okay.

The first few weeks for me and my wife were slow going. I couldn’t stand the thought of my friends, neighbours, even their pets, all slowly expiring in their homes, not being paid their proper respects. In the end I’d lost count of how many graves I’d dug, but I got it done. I put way too much thought into it, keeping families and marriages together - People should be allowed to rest with their loved ones, I thought. It took me a long time to bury them all.  Behind our house, if you stand on the deck facing the beach, to your left a small-ways there’s a grove of palm trees that offers a nice bit of shade in the summer heat and a nice view of the water. I buried the people that had nobody else with some kind of personal effect: a family photo, a piece of jewellery, something. I felt like it was the best I could have done for them. That memory almost makes me laugh now. I put way too much thought into it - that sort of sentimental s**t gets people killed every day now. 

 

For months, we had it easy. Full stores were left untouched and we were the only survivors for miles. A twenty-minute drive east from the end of our cul-de-sac put you at a huge shopping complex that, for the most part, seemed to go unnoticed. Abandoned cars and a couple of buses on the road in made it awkward to navigate, and the place was rather unassuming. You might mistake it for industrial warehouses if you didn’t already know what it was. I think that’s why people didn’t bother -seemed like too much work. Occasionally, you’d have competition, other survivors from nearby towns and the like. The mild nods at a distance between them and us always seemed friendly enough, but I’m a big believer that being safe is better than being sorry, so I asked my wife not to speak to them, and we avoided contact. I think they came to the same conclusion, because we never did cross paths in that shopping centre. My mind occasionally slips, and I find myself asking whether things might have been different if we’d spoken to them? I guess I don’t know, and in the end, it doesn’t matter.

We used our neighbours houses as storage overflow, so our trips out became rarer and rarer. We kept our home neat, and everything else was stockpiled across the cul-de-sac. The more time went on, the more the shelves in those stores emptied and began to gather dust. Eventually supplies would run out, so we took the initiative. We assumed the neighbours wouldn’t have minded us using their space, but really, I’m sure they would have. Our neighbours were the types that would knock on your door if a leaf blew from your yard into theirs. They were harmless people and were decent enough, but I think stale sex lives and too much watching from the windows can make people a bit coocoo. I can’t even remember their names anymore.

 Maybe that lack of exploring our new world was the problem? About five months in, I think, the power and the gas stopped, and a week or two after that, the water followed. We made plans to venture back to the shopping complex, Haven, they called it, to find a generator, fuel and water. That name has to be the biggest piece of s**t irony there’s ever been. Haven. We hoped that if we were careful, we could at least see out the winter in some sort of comfort before we’d presumably have to move on from the cul-de-sac and on to… Something else. It was November by this time and temperatures were dropping fast.

I know I lie to myself when I think back. Maybe I idealise because its easier to remember things for what they could have been than for what they actually were, but I know by this point my wife was unhappy. I don’t think the marriage was unhappy, in as far as I at least felt like love was a constant. I guess it wouldn’t have mattered either way, after all, we relied on each other for survival, and ultimately by this point we couldn’t really choose another life if we wanted to. Here and there though, when she thought I wasn’t looking, her expression became sullen, like the light in her eyes flickered out and the life in her face went to join our neighbours in the palm-grove. It took something from me the first time I caught that look on her face. This life is lonely, and every day means working just to survive to the next - there are no days off… It’s boring, and really f*****g tiring. Even in this world though, she’d kept a certain vibrancy about life that I could just never match. It escaped me how she was always so optimistic, exactly as she was before the world changed. I was always the realist, and she was always the optimist. She… Emma. Emma always told me I was too negative. She said that the only point to life, absolutely the only thing worth trying to find, was happiness, that if in any way I’m not, I need to do something about it. Seeing her become me and not be able to find that happiness anymore was devastating.

 

We made plans. We had enough tinned and dried food to last another year, but everything else was running thin. So, we’d go back to Haven, find a generator, enough fuel to keep it running as long as we possibly could, and as much liquid as we could find. I’d say water, but by this point I’d taken to drinking more soda and beer than I cared to admit. Everything would be fine, and, in the spring, we’d re-evaluate our options. I know better now than to plan for only one outcome. Nothing ever really goes to plan, and even when it does, there’s always some unintended consequence that you just never account for. I just wish I knew how you could ever plan for such overwhelming consequences.

            We had to conserve fuel as much as we possibly could. By this point, we’d already siphoned the cars around the cul-de-sac and a good few miles in any direction dry, so a straight-shot trip to Haven and back was all we could afford. Getting there was uneventful. The same slow, dreary drive weaving around cars and behind buses that it always was. I remember seeing somebody at the other side of the parking lot. It had been maybe a month since we last made this trip, but I didn’t recognise him. He looked rough, even from a distance I could see his matted hair and knotty beard paired with a jacket that had seen better days but was otherwise unremarkable. He disappeared into the complex.

            I asked my wife to stay with the car while I headed inside with a shopping cart to find what we needed. She didn’t want to, but I had a bad feeling about the guy across the lot. It was dark inside, and even with a flashlight it was difficult to navigate what felt more like a labyrinthine maze of hallways than aisles in stores now. I found what we needed. On the shelf next to what was left of the multi-packs of bottled water was a sawed-off shotgun. I was never a gun person at the time, so it was just a gun to me, and its weight intimidated me. The crude burrs along the tip of the barrels and the rough reshaping of the stock told me that this gun wasn’t modified with the best of intentions. Now, I can tell you that this weapon is a Beretta 682 double barrel sawed-off competition grade shotgun, and it has saved my life more times than I can count. The weapon was already loaded, and a few stray shells were scattered on the shelf and floor nearby. I took the weapon and the ammunition with me and set off with my cart back to the car.

           

Across the parking lot I could just about make out my wife’s blonde hair, scrunched up into a bun. She must have heard the cart as I pushed it off the curb - she quickly spun around and ducked out of view. I shouted over to her. It was rare to hear anything other than our own voices, so I can imagine the confusion she must have felt. It made me smile. In another life, I had spent way too much time hiding behind corners around the house just waiting to make her jump. Smiling felt alien. I don’t remember the last time I smiled.

            Back at the car, we loaded the trunk up together. It filled fast, so the back seats took the generator and the bottled water. I kept the shotgun hidden under my jacket. I don’t know why I hid it from her, maybe I was scared of her telling me I couldn’t keep it. I’d only just found it but had already grown attached to the prospect of a weapon that could protect us. Protect her. We got back into the car and as I inserted the key to start the engine, she placed her hand on my forearm. Emma always had cold hands, even during the summer. She told me that despite everything, she wouldn’t change us for the world. She told me that as long as we stuck together, stayed strong, we’d be fine. She handed me this stained scrap of folded paper and told me to read it when I was alone. I guess she was a bit embarrassed. She tried to lean in to kiss me, but I pulled away. I felt her body pressing against the barrel of my gun, and I panicked, but she mistook my intention. I chose not to come clean, and we drove back in silence. I felt shame lying to her.

 

The sun was setting over the beach by the time we got back home. Visibility wasn’t great, but manageable. We unloaded the car and I began moving things into the garage, ready to deal with it the next day. My wife headed into the kitchen to prepare food while I worked outside. She was angry with me. There are no words that could ever convey just how f*****g much I regret not telling her that I was sorry for not explaining myself… I worked into the night.

 

It couldn’t have been more than an hour, maybe two hours, later that I remembered hearing a glass shatter, followed by a sharp scream, which was quickly muffled. It came from the kitchen. My heart stopped. Emma. I stood up and ran to the back of the garage and into the house, I reached into my jacket and drew my shotgun out as I turned the hallway into the kitchen.

 

There’s a myth that time slows down you’re in hyper stressful situations, but that’s bullshit. Time speeds up. Time speeds up so much that you can’t react properly. Everything just happens. You have no choice but to let instinct take over, let yourself be dragged under the waves, slammed against rocks and thrown downstream. Instinct is the only reason I’ve survived so long…

 

The setting sun burned through the door to the deck opposite the entrance to the kitchen. It made it difficult to see, but even in silhouettes, I saw him. The man from the car park the day before. He had his left arm wrapped around my wife’s neck, and in his right was a knife. One of our knives. It was pressed to her chest. There was a small bloodstain on her top from her writhing. I reacted. I raised the sawed-off directly to that piece of s**t’s head, and words flowed from my mouth. I begged him to let her go, told him that nothing would happen. He could leave, take whatever he wanted, as long as he let her go. He didn’t. I looked at Emma, I was trying to tell her everything would be fine, but she wasn’t looking back. The dark of her eyes briefly reflected a flash of light to her right, and her eyes widened.

I swung around to my left, barely in time to see a second man running towards me with another blade. Time happens so fast. I imagine he felt like a deer caught in the headlights for the second he had left. He was desperate to get to me first, but I reacted. Instinct took over. I fired my weapon; the recoil was completely unexpected. It hurt. Hundreds of small metallic pellets sank into his chest and he recoiled violently to the side, knocking multiple candles and a gas light from the counter-top as he fell to the floor lifelessly. Fire erupted across the floor, and I spun back towards my wife. I knew my weapon had one more shell in its chamber, but the spread was far too dangerous. It didn’t matter.

 

I was too slow. As my head darted back towards my wife, her chest, her shirt, were both covered in blood. All I could see was his hand and the handle of the knife, the blade wasn’t visible against her skin anymore. His face turned to one of pure hate, as he threw my bleeding wife to the side. She hit the floor hard, and I lost control. I ran at him. I didn’t care about the shell in my gun, I wanted something else from him. I tackled him at the waist and we both fell back, straight through the door to the deck. He hit down hard, and I was on top of him. I wrapped my hands around his throat and pushed as hard as I could. Instinct. He fought, digging gnarled fingernails into my skin and pushing desperately, but I was bigger. Stronger. I pushed until I heard a violent pop in his throat. His arms fell to his side, and he stopped moving. I watched the light leave his eyes, and in that moment, I shouted, as loud and heavily as I could, barely an inch from his face. It felt like years of built up anger, desperation and sadness were leaving my body for a moment. I squeezed harder still.

I remember feeling an intense heat behind me. That’s what snapped me out of my blood lust. I stood and turned to see my house in flames. The entryway, the kitchen… I didn’t even think about it, I ran back inside for Emma. I knelt beside her and grabbed her, lifting her. I burned the left side of my face on the way back into the house, but I didn’t care. I carried her out to the deck, away from the body. I walked with her down the small steps on to the beach front, and I laid her down. I pleaded with her, ‘Emma, please… Talk to me, baby’, but she didn’t respond. Her eyes were only partially open, but they were as lifeless as the man’s that I’d just strangled to death. I chose to spend her final moments on the deck murdering a man, rather than telling her that I loved her, that I was sorry. I sat with her body and I watched our home burn to the ground as the sun set over the sea behind me. I was… I am completely alone in the world. I’ve never been a good man, but Emma was everything good in me, and watching her lifeless body, watching our home and everything we’d built together burn left me feeling just as lifeless. I stayed with her for days… Until the fires died and flames turned to smoke, and smoke turned to ash.

 

I remember every shovel of dirt that I dug up from the earth in the grove, every gust of wind, every bird overhead. It took a lifetime. I laid her body in the grave but couldn’t bring myself to bury her for hours. I’d never see my wife again. As I sat there with her, I took out the note she’d given me the day before. I handled it carefully and read it. Her words… Eventually, I covered her, and with what resolve I had left, I moved the dirt back over her body. One painful shovel at a time. I thought back to what she’d always tell me, that the only point to life was to find happiness. I need to do something about the things that cause me pain. I buried the shovel in the dirt and breathed deeply. I had no more tears left to cry… I turned,  put the note in my jacket pocket, and I walked away. I walked away from the grove, from the house, from Emma. I carried my shame and my loss, and I never turned back.

© 2019 Con Campbell


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I really enjoyed this story. I was wondering about the protagonist not referring to his wife by name earlier in the story and if that was intentional? I felt like the action scene was a tiny bit too short but I take the point; action happens fast--I wonder if maybe there could be a bit more description in that one area. I was disappointed when the story ended and I realized it was a short story and not the beginning of a novel. The voice is very captivating. I found the prose to be quite beautiful and really, really well-done.

Posted 1 Year Ago


Con Campbell

1 Year Ago

Hi! Thanks for the kind words - they mean a lot. This piece and one other were actually written as p.. read more

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Added on November 12, 2019
Last Updated on November 12, 2019
Tags: short, story, short story, drama, world, post apocalyptic, post, apocalyptic, fiction, philosophy, loss, death, tragedy, mourning, regret, marriage

Author

Con Campbell
Con Campbell

Hull, Yorkshire, United Kingdom



About
Hi, I'm Connor. I'm an English Master's & English & Philosophy Honours degree graduate from Hull, England. I don't write nearly as much as I want to or aspire to, but hey, what's here is a sample of.. more..

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