G X Todd lives and works in the West Midlands. After completing a history degree at the University of Birmingham in 2002, she started working for public libraries where she now drives the 35ft library van around the Black Country. Defender is her debut book and the first in the four-part Voices series.
LETTER #24 July 4th, Monday
You and I will never meet. This letter is our only connection – from my thoughts scribbled on a page, to your eyes and your mind. That is a meeting of sorts, one we must be grateful for.
I suspect this letter will find you in despair, or lonely, or lost. That is how we live now. We have all become strangers to each other and, worse still: enemies. The human spirit that once tethered us together has now divided us as surely as any ocean ever could. But let us forget all that for now. For now, I want to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, there was a girl called Ruby, and she was a normal girl in every way. She lived in a normal house with her normal family, and spent her normal weekends working in a care home looking after normal old folk. But there was one person in Ruby’s life who wasn’t normal, and his name was Mike.
Mike lived at the care home. He and Ruby played chess, and took walks together, and good-naturedly argued over who could spin a better yarn – Grisham or King. Mike reminded Ruby of her little brother (which went some way to explaining why she loved Mike so much). But the abnormal thing about Mike wasn’t that he thought Grisham was the superior storyteller, it was that he spoke to a voice in his head called Jonah, and had done for over sixty years.
Mike told Ruby that soon countless other voices would come, destructive voices, and many people would die, but that she shouldn’t be afraid because it was the first step to a better, brighter world. And so, on his death bed, Mike gifted Jonah to her, and Jonah became Ruby’s new friend. And along with Ruby’s brother they explored this newly broken land, and wept and laughed and bled together, and eventually found an Inn by the sea to call their home where they lived happily ever after.
Now, the moral to all this, Dear Stranger, is simple: that wisdom can sometimes be mistaken for craziness, and that strangers can often be friends in disguise.
Please try to remember on the hard days and cold nights to come that all the deaths weren’t for nothing. It’s going to take a while, because all change takes time, but it will get better, I promise.
Your friend, Ruby
Ma, I’m addressing this diary entry to you because you’re not coming back. You’re dead and I need to see those words in writing.
Words aren’t difficult for me. Al and I have been writing notes to each other since we were little. We drove you crazy with all the scribbling and giggling, but words were a lifesaver for both of us. I think they always will be. But words have power, and I must treat them with care – especially words I’ve kept secret for so long.
A staggering amount of people are dead. This isn’t a secret. They were killed by their own hands and others (still not a secret). The fact it took almost three weeks before the killing died down also isn’t a secret, although it was a shock to many.
So here’s the first real secret: None of this came as a shock to me. I was warned. You remember Mike, Ma? One of the old guys I looked after at the home? Liked cherry tobacco and distracting me from chess with raunchy tales from his travelling days. The staff told me Mike had dementia, but Mike didn’t have dementia. He was the sanest man I ever met. He told me what would happen if the voices came. I believed every word he said.
As I write this, I keep looking up and catching glimpses of Mrs Jefferson. She’s lying on her front lawn, her skirt around her hips, her hair in curlers. The shovel Mr Jefferson hit her with is lying next to her. I can’t see Mr Jefferson, but I heard a gunshot not long after I watched him kill his wife, so I’m pretty sure he’s dead, too. The same as everyone else on our street. I wish you would come back, Ma. I miss you so much.
I have to go now. Al is back. I love you.
The Man Who Was Pilgrim
At the beginning, Pilgrim missed a great many things, things that were by their very nature impossible not to miss once they were gone. Imagining a hunk of cooked cow, for example, could torture a person. It was easy to visualise a medium-rare steak, feel it melting as soon as it hit the tongue, molars sinking through the meaty plumpness and an explosion of juice gushing out. It was enough to make his stomach cramp up like a fist and sit there just under his ribs in a solid, unignorable ball of want.
Then the next week he would miss something else. Mashed potatoes, perhaps, or fried okra. There was a period of a month or more, near the beginning, when he would have travelled non-stop for a thousand miles if only at the end of the journey waited a thick, cold, strawberry milkshake. The inanity of a craving couldn’t prevent it from rubbing on him like clothes on an open sore.
Quite often there was an absence of such culinary cravings, but those times were worse, for the ghosts of loved ones and more deep-seated longings would creep around him instead. Those he’d kept tightly bottled up for fear that if opened they would froth and volcano forth never to be contained again.
And so he’d waited for a time when such longings were past him, when they became as beaten down and untrodden as the roads he travelled. He knew the passing years would eventually have his memories overgrown with the clutching vines of day-to-day concerns, and that the haunting ghosts of time past would be buried in the old dead world where he’d once belonged. The wait for their interment had been long and exhausting, but each day added another layer of dirt to their graves until finally a huge mound had piled up and rendered them invisible, even to his sharp eyes.
Now he lived only for the day, and longed for nothing.
Time and movement had aided his forgetting, but when the bustle of travel failed to occupy his thoughts, there were plenty of other things to keep him distracted.
A bottle of beer. Capped. Untouched. The label peeling at one corner, the writing faded. The glass was brown, and brown glass was good: over time it allowed less light to infiltrate and molecularly alter the contents. Pilgrim checked the expiry date. It was out by seven years.
He glanced around the dusty bar. It was a watchful, alert glance, one expecting to see nobody and nothing but made up of a diligence born of necessity. One day, when the undertaking of such a searching glance was forgotten, a hidden shadow would be waiting, bent on taking away what wasn’t theirs, willing to maim or kill for it. Of course, today wasn’t that day – there was no one in the room, only the multifarious projections of his own reflection shot into long, disjointed shards in the cracked bar mirror running along the back wall.
He took his beer and a stool outside. He gazed up at the sky, noting the absence of clouds and the crisp, clear blueness that stretched from one horizon to the other as if it had been steamrollered out, flawless and smooth. The summer sky had already marked the day to be a beautiful one, but to him the sky didn’t denote beauty, the brown glass bottle of beer in his hand did. It was a lost token of a world gone to ruin.
He was in the middle of nowhere, western Texas. The signpost at the town’s limits had claimed a population of 539, but Pilgrim doubted more than the 39 remained, and none of them had organised a welcome party. Which was how Pilgrim liked it. It was safest to stay out of each other’s way. Parts of the town had suffered fire damage, the gutted, blackened skeletons of homes standing like rotting teeth between the untouched buildings. The burnt husks had still been smoking and giving off a dull heat when he’d passed by, and even now an acrid smell reached his nostrils whenever the wind picked up.
Carrying the stool to the middle of the empty street, he placed it on the centre line of the road. He sat down and rolled the bottle between his hands. It felt hard as granite and smooth as soapstone. It was warm, which didn’t bode well for the contents, but he could live with that – it was his favourite brand. Licking at his dry lips, he twisted the cap off. White suds foamed into view. They reminded him of bath bubbles, but the waft of malt and hops was the furthest thing from soap-scented. He groaned quietly and lifted the neck of the bottle to his nose and breathed in deep. Warm, yeasty beer: it had never smelled so good.
He licked his lips again, placed the bottle to them and paused as a shadow flicked past the corner of his eye. Only a small flicker, off to his left, maybe just a cloud passing over the sun, or a splinter of sunlight dancing over a broken windowpane, but still, it was a distraction. All he wanted was to drink his beer in peace.
Pilgrim sighed through his nose, took the bottle away from his lips and stared at the window of the convenience store until the shifting shadow inside retreated and went away. He stared a while longer to make sure it didn’t reappear and, keeping one beady eye on the storefront, tilted his head back again, letting the liquid lap against his pursed lips, beer moistening the dry skin. Teasing himself. Then he let it roll inside – a welcome wave of amber nectar flooding his mouth. His throat locked mid-peristalsis, automatically wanting to swallow, and he almost choked on the beer before he could spit it out.
Clearing his throat, he filled his mouth with another long pull and swilled it around his teeth and gums like mouthwash. He spat that out on to the ground, too, until soon there was a small river of beer snaking its way back towards the bar, heading for the gutter.
He took a long time swilling that beer and spitting it out, wanting to ingrain the malty taste of it into his fading and tattered memories. It was going to have to last him a while.
He would have liked to swallow the frothy beer down, feel it bubble deep within his warming guts, but the danger of drinking something so far past its prime wasn’t worth the risk.
I knew you wouldn’t chance drinking it, Voice said from that dark place at the back of Pilgrim’s head.
Pilgrim closed his eyes. Not because his peace had been broken, but because any sense of peace he ever hoped to achieve would be only an illusion, for Voice was always with him and always would be. He was demon and angel and conscience all wrapped up in one, and there was no escaping him.
Hefting his pack higher on one shoulder, Pilgrim turned right and headed for the alley where he had hidden his bike. He tried to ignore the black cat padding along behind him.
It’s still following us.
He tried his best to ignore Voice, too. Voice hadn’t been speaking to him all morning, having taken umbrage at something Pilgrim had said. Or hadn’t said. Pilgrim didn’t know which and didn’t much care. The silent treatment suited him just fine. In fact, he wished Voice would employ the tactic more often.
It’ll be wanting food next. Mark my words.
They had picked up the tail not long after entering town. Pilgrim concluded the cat had once been domesticated or at the very least had recently been in the company of other people. It was far too friendly for its own good. Most animals had learned that humans weren’t to be trusted any more, and knew to keep well out of reach or else chance getting served up as shish kebab. This cat didn’t understand the dangers, and had followed him in and out of stores, padding close on his heels, darting away only when Pilgrim stepped into the back courtyard of the bar. He had seen a kicked-over dog bowl by the rear door and a shoddily built kennel in the yard’s far corner and figured the scent of its owner still hung around. The cat recognised its old enemy, if not its newer one.
By the time Pilgrim had sat down on the stool in the middle of the road and finished his beer, he had forgotten all about the cat. So when it jumped up on the hood of a car he had snatched his gun out, his finger already squeezing around the trigger before identifying the small black animal as his earlier stalker.
He had directed a cuss word or two at the cat, but it didn’t stop it sauntering towards him, unheeding of the gun’s barrel tracking its head. For a moment, Pilgrim had considered pulling the trigger anyway, even went so far as to cock the hammer.
The cat gave a low, plaintive meow. It stared up at him with wide yellow lamps for eyes. They appeared lit from the inside, luminous and unblinking.
It meowed again.
Exhaling quietly until his lungs felt strangely deflated, Pilgrim had carefully lowered the hammer back into place and holstered the gun.
‘You wouldn’t look so endearing with a hole in your head.’
The sound of his voice was all the welcome the cat needed. It slunk forward to wind itself around his legs, purring as if a little motor hummed inside its small body.
You’re gonna be stuck with the mangy shitball now, Voice said.
‘Can always choose to shoot it later,’ Pilgrim replied, leaning down to scratch the cat behind one ear.
The cat had paused to lap at the beer staining the blacktop, its tongue flashing out pink and quick. It gave a delicate sneeze and shook its head and left the rest to dry in the sun. Pilgrim didn’t blame the animal one bit; the beer had already left a bitter coating on his tongue.
Sometimes things were best left forgotten.
A smile touched one corner of his mouth when he saw the motorcycle tucked in behind an old, rusted dumpster. The bike was scratched and dented and cracked in places, but she ran sweet and had lasted more than eight months so far. That was three months longer than any other bike he had appropriated. He wheeled her out, one hand swiping a line of dust off the faded gas tank. He slung a leg over the fraying seat, the engine rumbling to life with one crisp twist of the key and a single depression of the starter button.
Shucking his pack on to both shoulders, he righted the weight of the bag until it was comfortable. It felt heavier than it had in weeks. He had dug up more supplies than he’d expected to here, but there was nothing else of any use. The decayed bodies hiding in back rooms and garages and basements, most marked with self-inflicted wounds, offered little companionship.
Besides, you’ve got me for company, Voice said.
‘I thought you weren’t talking to me.’
I wasn’t. But I got tired of waiting for you to apologise.
‘Apologise for what?’
Exactly! You don’t even know what you did. I’d have been waiting for ever.
Pilgrim stopped listening. Maybe he should consider lying low here for a while, conserve his gas, before the need to restock forced him to move on.
You’ll get itchy feet, Voice said. You know it, and I know it. And who knows where the next meal or cache of gas will come from if you stay here too long?
As much as Pilgrim didn’t want to admit it, Voice had a point. Besides, Pilgrim preferred to keep moving. He’d rather have the open sky as his roof and the horizons as his borders than the walls of a town stacked up all around. Easier to see what lay ahead that way.
The locals won’t take kindly to us staying, either. The cat is the only one who’d welcome us.
Pilgrim’s eyes automatically found the cat. It stalked back and forth next to the bike, searching for a safe way up.
Bring it along, Voice said. Could serve as a good appetiser at some point. Or a bartering tool.
Might as well name it while you’re at it.
‘Maybe I will,’ Pilgrim said.
He leaned over and gripped the cat by the scruff of the neck, lifting it high and settling it on the tank in front of him. Its hind quarters slid back until they rested in the V of his thighs, up against the crotch of his jeans.
‘If there’s even a hint of claws going anywhere near my balls, you’re getting a one-way ticket off this bike.’
Pilgrim gave the throttle some gas, watching for the cat’s reactions to the throaty growl of the engine. The animal gave a quick, sharp yowl but settled down almost straight away.
Grunting quietly, Pilgrim lifted the glacier sunglasses from where they hung around his neck. Like always, the world became a whole lot more tolerable at a lower brightness level. Next, he lifted the dusty neckerchief tied loosely at the nape of his neck and tugged it up over his nose. He took a moment simply to sit with his eyes closed, absorbing the heat of the day like a lizard, allowing himself to be warmed from the outside in. He breathed deep through the cotton at his mouth, the bike vibrating soothingly through his bones. After a slow count of fifteen – because fifteen had always been a good number – he heeled the side-stand up, knocked the bike into gear and aimed its nose towards the sun.
There wasn’t much to see any more. Pilgrim kept his eyes on the road and on the horizon, on the abandoned cars and on the places where ambushers could be lurking, and on the blacktop ahead for sharp items designed to puncture tyres. He had a set number of things to be alert to (for example, signs for supermarkets or gas stations, pharmacies and hospitals, libraries even), but other than those few places, and the wariness of being jacked for his belongings and maybe even his life (and now the cat, he supposed), he generally felt no interest or curiosity in much of anything.
Until he spotted the girl.
She was a distance off yet but immediately she was a splash of colour that drew his eye. And even so, the sighting invoked only a mere flash of curiosity, a reading which barely registered.
The teenager was sitting on a folding chair at a roadside stand, a handmade sign painted with the words ‘Fresh Lemonade for Sale. Drink Up or Pucker Up’ propped up next to her. It had been beautifully painted with green vines winding through the script and plump yellow lemons adorning each corner.
Curiosity killed the cat, Voice said in the back of his head. And satisfaction won’t ever bring it back.
(C) G X Todd 2017