There isn’t a virus. He’s pretty sure of that. The radio, when the BBC news had come back every day for a week, before ceasing once more, had mentioned rumours of a virus motivating some of the big “refugee trains” that had got stuck in the West Country. But nobody who’d left from round here had been ill. Nobody who’d come through had been ill.
So he was also pretty sure “refugees” wasn’t the right word. What were they running from? The ones who’d left from round here were running to something, or hoping to. Geoffrey, in the house on the right, had been the first to leave. He was a postman, and when the local post office had stopped getting deliveries because the depot in Cirencester couldn’t afford the petrol, he’d said, he had, quite early on, early enough for it to be a proper move, with a van and everything, decided to follow the offer that had been made to him, that the depot would try to redeploy everyone in the bigger centres. He had moved to something… and hadn’t been heard from since. Wi–fi had stopped working several weeks back, just before the electricity had shut off, but even before that, a lot of what had been on Facebook and Twitter seemed to have been recycled memes anyway, automatically sent by bots, rallying cries for one set of wankers or another. Everything else had been people’s horror stories, and then the comments asking if they were okay, and there’d often been no answer, and the posts would vanish, pushed under by the bots. He was almost glad now to have no more news. It made things quieter. Just him and the world, or what was left of it.
Lily from the house on the left, she’d been something, even at her age, she’d always had a look on her face like… Yes, well, best not to dwell on what had departed. She’d waited until most of the others on the close had gone. He’d been hoping she’d stay put. But she’d come over one morning and said her daughter was coming through in a van, and she’d got together just a couple of shopping bags, and had left her dog Patch inside her house, she said. What a life she must have had to be able to put it all in a couple of shopping bags. What stories were behind that look on her face, that he’d never asked about? She’d come over, she’d said, to ask him to wait a day and then let Patch out, and there’d been tears streaming down her face, and he’d said of course not, he’d look after the dog himself, like a bloody fool, but he’d got a kiss out of it anyway. And that had been how it had ended up just being him on the close, and a little rag of fur of a yelpy dog.
He remembers he should take a look at Patch’s bowl, and finds it empty. He goes to the cupboard and refills it for the boy’s dinner using the last can of meat. No problem, Lily still has loads. She left him her key on a piece of wool. He goes out into the early evening. Patch follows. He lets himself into Lily’s house. He finds the cupboard with the dog food, carries an armload back to his house. He’d been so strong, when he was a young lad. He was a bricky. Now he’s worried about his knees going. Sheer vanity not to bring the wheelbarrow. He’d taken his current voluntary job as a librarian, one of those which used to be a paying job before they decided there was no money for just about anything, more for the company than because he had any feeling for it. And because it was nearby. The library is just across the green from the close. Not so far to haul himself. He still opens up sometimes, on a Saturday morning. Sits there like a fool. As if anyone’s going to come.
He stops on his doorstep, realises he’s heard a sound. He’s gotten so nervy about noise. Everyone in town had got used to the sound of the cars on the road. All their lives. That gradually diminishing was like a dial being turned on British nervousness. Summat’s round the back of the library.
There hasn’t been much violence round here. Couple of the pubs got raided. But that was just kids. That stopped when the pubs were shuttered up or, in the case of the Railway Inn, burned out. No kids round here now. They’d used those young legs. “Come on, dog,” he says, scared at how loud his voice is. He hopes they think it’s a big dog. He gets his library keys out as he wanders over, in case he has to lock himself in there, in case he has to use the keys to defend himself. He has no idea how to defend himself. The sound turns into a scream and he stops. Foxes. Bloody foxes, everywhere now, mating in the bushes that are over growing the east window of the library. Autumn’s here soon. The bushes will die back. But not the foxes. Good luck to them. Maybe in spring he’ll find a chainsaw. But who round here would have a bloody chainsaw? Those have all gone with the tradesmen. That lot were lapping it up before they all left. Last ones that were. The few British lads who’d ever become tradesmen. No competition left for them, not from abroad and now not from here. He stops for a moment, making sure it’s foxes, and, yes it is. He feels weirdly like a voyeur, calls Patch back, not wanting him hurt, and heads back home.
He puts music on as he makes his own dinner. He’s got one window open. Does and doesn’t want the music drawing anyone here. There’s the British temperament all over, oh we love people, as long as they’re the right people, but how do you ever know until you bloody meet them? Then the British made bloody sure they wouldn’t be meeting so many of them, and, well, he can’t say it all went wrong from there. It just kept going wrong, had been going wrong from before he was born. He stops and reminds himself: nothing bad has happened to him here. That’s what he keeps saying to himself. This is his town, and he’s been happy here all his life, and he’s not bloody going now. He’s put a bit of work into farming the allotment behind the vicarage gardens a couple of streets away. But food’s not going to be a problem for quite a while. Most people left at speed in the last couple of days when it was clear everyone else was going, and there was limited space then, so a lot of them left cans and packets. He’s broken into so many houses. He’s left notes every time, listing what he’s taken, giving his name, but no address. He reckons that if they ever come back, civilisation will have come back too, enough for them to find him. Besides, most of them lot know him. He has his rules. Rules will get them by, if anything will. Lack of rules, that’s what got them into this… No, he chides himself. That’s you getting old. The rules just changed, and you weren’t given the new rulebook, old lad. Remember how the kids used to give you such hope? They used to seem so gentle compared to how your lot had been. Such grown–up thirteen–year–olds. It was the world that hadn’t given them a chance.
He has some audiobooks, and enough batteries not to have to worry about when and how he listens to them, but he finds them hard to deal with sometimes, and for some reason now is one of those times. He decides he’ll walk Patch properly after dinner. He takes a walking stick and puts on his jacket, though it’s still warm enough not to bother. He makes sure twice that he’s closed the windows and locked up. His mind wanders so much now he forgets things. It’s not that he’s that old, not yet. It’s just that there’s so much space for it to wander in. With the dog yapping at his heels, he makes his way out of the close, down the road past the very silent preschool, along the row of big houses with overgrown gardens. The whole town smells of green now. It blooms up especially after the rain. All the ingrained dirt of cars is starting to get washed away. He wonders if autumn will smell like the remembered or fictionalised autumns of his childhood. That’s worth hanging on for, lad, a smell! The park opposite the big houses has one of those swings with two seats that rock up and down like a pair of scales. This, he’s worked out, is where those gentle chimes come from that he hears at night, the seats knocking against the pole. He goes to check, and watches it happen. He takes a step forward, has his hand on his pocket knife, but he doesn’t want to cut the ropes. Instead, he twists them round and round, so the seats thump gently against the pole. Big storm could untie those. At least now he knows what the sound is.
He goes over to the vicarage, unbolts the big gate, looks up at the windows. He doesn’t like to look at windows, he almost always sees movement in the corner of his eye. This is what ghosts are, he thinks, us looking round for stuff, hoping and fearing that it’ll be there, when really there’s nothing. Programmed into that, we are. We look for company, then complain when there’s too much. At least he never had a wife and kids. The idea of pining for them… He isn’t sure he knows what that feels like, though he’s seen it in others. Still, they’d be here now, wouldn’t they, helping him out? The wife, at least. Maybe he’s going to learn what pining is.
He keeps his head down, not looking at those windows, goes round the back, stamping down the long grass to keep the path relatively easy to traverse. He goes through the trees to the allotment, sees there are some strawberries fat on the bush. Is the weather better this summer, or is that just summat that would have happened anyway? He’s always felt the weather was better at weekends, when people weren’t working, but maybe that was a mad thing to think. He never looked it up to see if it was true, and now where can he look, who can he ask? He plucks the strawberries and wraps them in a handkerchief. He doesn’t need them, not yet, it’s more that he’d prefer to eat them than think about them rotting. He starts thinking about all the rot in the world now. He can’t eat it all before it goes off. He starts to laugh. He stops himself. He picks a few more things, tidies it all up a bit. The rectangle of the allotment is finally sorted, a proud little patch of his own. It felt good to do that. Good work.
As proper night is falling, he heads back home. He stops at the vicarage lawn, at the edge of the trees, realising with a start he’s seeing real movement beyond. He picks up Patch and silences him, hand round muzzle, just as the boy starts to bark. He hates the fear that shot through him at the movement. He slowly makes his way forward and sees what’s moving.
A pair of okapi deer are picking about on the lawn. They got in gardens round here from way back. The owners of the big houses used to get people in to shoot them. He stops and watches them. They care nothing at all about him. Their world has gotten a little easier, but he doubts they know that either. Money used to kill a few of them like accidents killed a few of them, and now it’s gone.
He watches the okapi. They’re like aliens have landed. They start to be frightening as he looks at them. Their lack of care about him seems to spread and settle into something fearful, a hand on his shoulder that seeks to lead him away. That seeks to lead him into that smell of green, somehow. That was an odd connection to find sitting there in his mind. He releases Patch, who runs straight at them, barking. They run, off into the hedges, noises against the night then gone.
He takes a step out onto the lawn. He feels suddenly sad at the impulse to yell this is his lawn, his building. It never was.
Bloody knee. He shouts as the pain hits him. Patch runs back and starts bloody barking at him. Fat lot of good that’ll do, boy! He gasps great heaves of air. Is this it, then? No, no, the pain is gradually withdrawing. It’s just a twinge. It is. After a few minutes, the pain vanishes again, that hand on his shoulder that will one day lead him. But not tonight. He lies there still, though. The stars are coming out above him. A perfect natural sky, being slowly born to his eyes as the world turns. He can see a couple of what must be planets. That’s Jupiter, isn’t it? A blob, wiggling in the warm air. Red Mars is further down on the horizon, and now here come the stars. It feels like a luxury to see them, still. Amazing he’s out here after dark, even in the summer. He’ll lie here and let dew form on him, will he? No, Mum, because that was his Mum’s voice he put on there in the back of his head, he’ll get up in a minute. The dog has settled down into the crook of his arm.
He looks up at the stars as they gradually reveal themselves. They’re natural things, unchanging, only that’s not true, it’s just us being so small that makes them look like that. He recalls the comfort he seems, in his memory, to have taken from that when he was young, and takes that same comfort now. That comfort, he realises, is because the stars still seem tamed. He’s seeing constellations, patterns people have put up there. He’s seeing the excitement of astronomy when he was a kid. The hope, no, the certainty, that we’d rise above ourselves and get out there. Britain would get out there. RAF pilots in spaceships would get out there.
There’s something beyond that, though, something more to the comfort of a clear night. Only he doesn’t quite know what it is. A few times in his life, he’s looked up and felt like something is about to be revealed to him in all that glitter. In a British summer night, the numinous often seems to be on the verge of speaking. But it never does. Hold on, it seems to say, hold on. We’ll be here in a minute. We’ll be here next time the golden years arise, next time the hero climbs from his barrow. We’ll be here next time. We’re still here. We’ll always stay here. Where you can’t quite reach.
He holds on, though. He finds he’s about to cry, and can’t abide that. He uses the stick to haul himself up to sit. He tests the leg. He can stand. He thinks about his Dad, who went to Burma for the war and told him when he was growing up with all his war comics that he’d never shot anyone, and told him much later that he had. He doesn’t know why he thinks about that. He stands up.
He makes his way home, the dog trotting after him. He has rules to his days, and today he has broken one. Today he will be late to bed. Worth it to see those deer, though. Why did he scare them off? Well, he might need to hunt them some day. He’s not going to. Don’t you worry, he says to them in his mind. Don’t you worry, you aliens. You live out there in the night for me.
He gets home, listens, unlocks, gets inside, locks, puts the strawberries in the coolest corner for next morning, lets Patch through into the bedroom, goes to the loo, goes to bed.
He can see enough by the light of the moon now rising right outside that he can light his candle. He reads for the ten minutes he always reads. A whodunit. He isn’t sure if he’s read this one before. Plenty of books to choose from in a library at which he’s the only customer and the librarian both, and he can’t remember. Maybe somewhere in him he knows whodunit.
Time for lights out. He snuffs the candle, does that thing he does that he calls praying. He’s got no idea if that’s what other people have meant by the word. He’s only started since he’s been on his own. It feels more like talking to his old Mum than anything else. Sorry for the world, he says. Sorry I made it like this. Me and my lot. All our lot. All of us. Amen. He doesn’t ask for help for himself or anyone. He can’t see the point. Maybe he’d ask for help for the okapis, but the okapis’ own God can handle that. A laugh again that he has to snuff out. He doesn’t want to get emotional on the edge of sleep. His bloody dreams, full of people, the way they lull him so when he wakes—
There’s a light outside.
No, he’s not dreaming, it’s not the moon, there really is a light outside, by the library, moving about.
He leaps up, terrified. He grabs his clothes, gets his stick. Knife in his pocket, put it in his belt. Never mind the keys this time, it’s time for the knife. He looks at Patch, whispers to him to stay.
He makes his way to the door, and has to tell Patch that again. He unlocks as quietly as he can, closes the door behind him, letting it lock, leaving the dog inside. The dog hasn’t got food for more than a day, he should have let him out, but no, this is urgent, and the yapping would give him away. He doesn’t have any bloody choice. Dad, Mum, you with me now? I don’t have any choice. Like you didn’t. Like bloody always. But that only becomes clear when it’s urgent, doesn’t it?
The light is on the other side of the green, beside the library doors. He hopes he’s been quiet enough. He makes his way slowly forward, aware of how cold the night has turned now. That big moon overhead, and friendly Jupiter and Mars, you watching me now?
He goes to the first tree, then to the next. He can see a figure standing by the library door. It’s a he. What’s he got in his hand?
Books. He’s carrying books. At least he thinks those are books. In his other hand is a battery lamp.
He doesn’t have time to think about it, somehow. Before he can think he’s stepping forward. “I’m the librarian,” he says. Too loudly. “Can I help you?”
(Editors’ Note: “Don’t You Worry, You Aliens,” is read by Heath Miller on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 13A.)
© 2016 by Paul Cornell