I had wandered into the shell of a hotel in the town’s central square, stepping over the twisted, looping vines and ignoring the skittering rats. I hadn’t seen anyone for two years and currently my supplies were dangerously low. Hunger had become a way of life.
I swung my patched, army green rucksack onto the reception desk, a puff of dust exploding around it, and yanked open the drawstring looping the top. There were only the three cans left, one of chopped tomatoes, one of kidney beans and one of mushroom soup – all with ring pulls – thank goodness for small conveniences. My canteen was half full of water. I looked around: upturned chairs, broken glass, pictures on the walls of modern art, now blistered and faded to grey.
There would likely be some beds here to rest up for a night, but food was now a priority. I had been to so many deserted shops and homes yet scavenged so little food. I found it hard to understand. It had been two decades since the last great war and seven years since the disease outbreaks that followed but I somehow had expected more food to have been left behind. I supposed finite resources could only go so far in desperate times. People hoarded, robbed and wasted too – so much waste. There had been days when I had resorted to rat or pigeon meat, but it was hard work catching them, almost took more effort than the energy you reaped from those scraps. I was exhausted deep within. How long was I supposed to keep going?
A small noise came from the adjacent room. It was like something had been knocked accidentally. I swung around. Luckily my bag was open, and I could reach for the revolver, it only had the one bullet but that still made it the most lethal thing I possessed.
“Who’s there?” I demanded, trying to sound aggressive but it would be obvious I was scared. I heard someone slowly moving in the next room, it was definitely a person and they were revealing themselves.
A woman, to my surprise, about my age – maybe a little younger, dirty face, long black hair and deep searching eyes. She was dressed in a baggy overcoat, skinny jeans and Converse, with a tall knitted hat balanced precariously over her forehead. She did not look like a threat. I lowered my gun.
“You alone?” I asked
She was still for a minute, working me out before she nodded, biting her lip.
It was so strange talking to someone, let alone seeing them.
“I stopped counting after a year…” she said. Her voice was croaky, scratchy.
“Are you ill?” I said, clutching my revolver handle a little tighter.
“Not from the diseases or anything like that. I am just very tired… and hungry. I am… I am pleased to see you. I thought everyone was dead, in the whole world.”
“Me too,” I replied. And a silence.
We were mesmerised by each other’s presence. Maybe we were the last two people on Earth, it seemed possible, even probable.
I broke into a smile and watched a couple of tears roll through the dirt down her face, they were tears of relief.
“You know what? Let’s share a meal. I haven’t got much but we should mark this moment. We should eat together, get stronger for tomorrow. How does the last mushroom soup on Earth sound to you?”
She walked toward me. I put the gun back in the bag and we embraced, quite tightly, quite spontaneously. The silence around us in the room, in the street and in the beyond, it was deafening.
That night, in the spacious, musty lair of the penthouse suite, we perched on the edge of an emperor sized bed and sipped the soup from the can, passing it back and forth between us. It seemed the cleanest option. A little water spat from the hot tap in the en-suite bathroom, but it was brown. I was tired and with my new company, I had not explored the entire layout yet. There would be time, the one thing we always had now, was time.
Her name was Ava and much like me, she had been fortunate enough to be in an underground bunker when the bombs detonated, emerging with her family into the chaos of destruction three months later, when they guessed the fallout would be less severe. Her parents and brother had since succumbed to the first epidemic that swept most of the survivors away in its viral shroud. She recounted a story I was familiar with: people dying all around her, criminal gangs, more dying, nature rotting, landscapes falling, more dying still, then being alone and inching through the remains, trying to find something without knowing what it was. There were so many skeletons of people in our world now. They littered each town, lay in houses, some even in the burnt-out husks of cars. We had seen one on the stairs on the way up to the penthouse suite, like someone had chosen the spot to give up. It was on its side, pitifully draped over the steps, a fossil of a human spirit, still clothed in a faded suit, shirt and tie, the skull jaw hanging open as if in surprise.
After the soup, we each took a swig from the canteen to wash it down and then crawled, without really speaking, under the thick old duvet, fully clothed. We embraced and there was so much comfort in the moment.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I should thank you. This means a lot.”
We drifted off to sleep naturally, free of worries, just accepting we were tired and together and we were not going to hurt each other.
I was dreaming of the bomb. The blast that erupted around everything and everyone that day, it shook the world to its core, breaking everything that was not rock. I awoke with a start, instinctively knowing something was not right. It was a noise. A loud growing buzzing sound all around the hotel, escalating, increasing in intensity. I shook Ava awake. It took her a second for her eyes to acknowledge me and where we were, like she had forgotten and she had assumed I was something her mind had invented.
“Whuuu…What’s that sound?” she said.
“No idea. Let’s take a look.”
We slid from under the duvet so our shoes connected with the thick carpet. It was so deathly dark, the moon not even giving us a sliver of shine to focus. Still, I could sense movement, a massive cloud of beating little wings out there in the blackness of night. Something hit my cheek, something big and clumsy with a leathery little body. I had noticed it pop through a small hole in the window. I swiped it off on to the floor. Even in the dark I could make out the thick abdomen, about five inches long, wriggling hairy legs and crumpled wings. It was some kind of large insect.
“No way!” said Ava, perplexed. “That’s a flying ant, a giant one. Look how big it is!”
Panic. The sound, it was a swarm of them. How they had reached such as size was beyond me, maybe an effect of the radiation, but there it was on the floor, its arched mandibles clicking together and its sting poking up at the air defensively. It was plain to work out that a sting on something that big was going to pack a lot of hurt. I grabbed the duvet off the bed, realising as I did, that other black shadowy shapes were emerging from the same hole in the window. After locating my rucksack, I grabbed Ava’s hand and pulled her toward the corridor, slamming the door shut behind us. I wrapped the duvet over our shoulders as a makeshift protective barrier, huddling close.
Small hard bangs erupted against the door the second it closed, like a hailstorm had manifested in our hotel room. Thank goodness we had woken up. The sound of the insects hitting the door was a random but relentless pattering of thuds. I could see the long black wiry legs searching for connection in the thin gap under the door.
Other, high-pitched sounds sang through the air in a chorus of pain, shrill, desperate, and animal. It was the hopeless squeals of dying rats, expressing their ultimate suffering. It seemed the ants had located food in abundance.
“What do we do?” pleaded Ava.
“I don’t know… We need to hide I guess?”
I could see a solitary flying ant zig-zagging within the dim corridor. I took the pen torch out of my trouser pocket to pin-point it and it flitted into the fuzzy circle of light. Its flight pattern looked desperate as if it were lost and ravenous, a single minded being detached from its swarm. Behind it, it cast a large menacing shadow on the elevator door at the end of the corridor.
“What do insects hate?” Ava whispered, as if she might alert it toward them.
“All animals hate fire, we need to find fire.”
Another ant and then another swirled up into the corridor, like scouts before the marauding calvary arrived, checking the path, finding the route to potential food.
“If we need fire, then the kitchen, maybe the kitchen?!” bleated Ava.
We stumbled toward the stairwell, swerving around the ants as we scrambled. We stamped over the clunky bones of the human remains on the steps as we descended. It felt unnatural heading toward the ground level, like we were increasing our chances of connecting with the swarm. After hearing the rats’ distress, it was obvious those abominations were predators after a meal. They probably hadn’t encountered humans yet, so maybe we didn’t look like their usual food. A new thought concerned me, what if the ants were looking for a home? An old hotel, full of rats, cave like shelter and protection from the weather – the prefect nest.
When we reached the reception there were a lot of the monstrous critters flying at head height. We were careful not to swat them, so as not to provoke but they would bump into us, tangle in the rough cuts in our duvet. We squirmed as we ran, trying to dodge and duck the buzzing little beasts but they were increasing in number. It felt like a matter of time till we were bitten, stung or set upon.
At the reception area, we could see the thickness of the swarm outside the broken glass of the main hotel entrance. A wall of black vibrating wings was swirling like a thermal current, a tornado, spiralling and moving as one beast. They had not entered the hotel at this level in force yet. There were many rodents and birds just beyond the doors and they were fighting over the scraps. The duvet was now a writhing matt of giant winged ants, so we abandoned it as we burst into the kitchen through the heavy double swing doors.
When we were through, we checked the walls for cracks but the room looked unbreachable. Only two of the creatures had come in with us on our clothes so we batted them to the floor and stamped on them hard repeatedly, continuing after they were clearly dead, leaving an orangey mash on our shoes.
The room was full of cooking surfaces; hobs and worktops and cutting boards. Pots and pans and utensils hung from silver rails. Crucially there was a colossal stone oven protruding in a wide dome from one wall, for cooking pizzas I guessed. There was ash in the hole and a stockpile of very dry old wood logs next to it. I pointed and Ava nodded. As we hunted for matches it occurred to me the ants could come down the flume, and I started shaking with the realisation. She was pulling drawers out so the contents were pouring onto the floor, spices, plates, books, cluttering and clattering about her feet as she ransacked the kitchen. She finally held up a box of extra-long matches, the prize for her efforts.
“Here!” she yelled.
The fire began as white smoke, which spilled out, back into the kitchen at first until finding its way upward. We watched the first flickers of flames dance around their fuel and felt some small relief. The fire spread swiftly, awoken, alive, a mission to devour the woodpile I had built. There was no way the insects could come down the flume now, at least. The smoke billowing out of it may even be making them sleepy out there, I mused.
I needed to fashion a weapon, something to ward off the insects at close range, something easy to create from the materials around us, like a medieval torch. I found a kitchen mop with a long handle and poured some lighter fluid Ava had uncovered onto the spongy strips on the end. We could light it up in a moment if we needed to, for personal defence.
There were distinct scuttling noises in the cupboards nearby. Rats, they were hiding in the kitchen with us, tucked into dark spaces, afraid with good reason. I felt like we were imposters in the food chain, a pair of odd redundant animals – more a natural curiosity, with our impending extinction, than creatures of any real relevance to this bleak world.
“If the rats are in here, then where did they get in?” I said to Ava. The fire light reflected in the mirror surface of her eyes as she stared at me in horror.
“Are we going to die here?” she asked me quietly.
I didn’t know what to say. It felt possible.
“I am so glad I am with you,” I replied. She hugged me tight, really tight. It was wonderful. For a second, I forgot the treacherous surroundings.
“I have been alone so, so long,” she croaked, choking on the words.
“I don’t know how we’ve kept going. It’s like an automatic response, to just keep doing things, keep breathing, keep moving, even though on most days – I tell you, I don’t know why. There is no why. That’s until now. Now I have you with me.”
She kissed me slow and we closed our eyes.
The sound of thousands of insect wings was an intense buzzing, but almost a flapping sound. A noise that was growing louder. We both pulled apart at the same time. They were in the room now. Rolling airborne balls of them. I couldn’t see where they were coming from until Ava pointed to a door hinged onto what I presumed was a storeroom. It was slightly ajar and they were zipping out from the slight opening in single file with high frequency. She ran over to it and kicked away a ladle that was preventing it shutting. It closed with a reassuring ‘clunk’ but the room had developed a black cloud of the beasts hovering and diving around us.
I felt a deep fear that we were helpless. As if to confirm my thoughts, Ava screamed in pain and slapped a palm on her exposed neck. She had been stung. The pain must have been overwhelming, as she fell to her knees a second later, mouth wide open in a silent gape of agony. Something that size – I would not be surprised if it could kill a person.
I grabbed the mop and lit it so it burst into a raging flame. I swung it from side to side wildly, whilst moving toward her. Some of the creatures fell, singed, to the floor or onto worktops whilst others dispersed from their frenzied flights to seek refuge in the corners of the ceiling space. By the time I was at Ava’s side, I could see the large bruise-like marks on her neck and cheek, swiftly developing into bulbous lumps of swollen red flesh.
“It hurts, it really hurts!” she agonised, clutching the wounds. “It hurts too much, I can’t bear it!”
I saw her trying to look for the bag with my gun in it, perhaps on instinct, but I held her again, held her so she knew what it was to feel a soul was there for her, to be alive and with someone. When the intensity of her stings began to subside, I could feel her body quiver with the onset of shock.
I looked her in the eye.
“Try to focus on something beyond the pain, try. Pain from insect stings, it never lasts – it will fade… I have to act now. I have to do more, get more fire going somehow, you understand? I am still here for you, I am still right here!”
The room was beginning to smell of smoke but the threat of the ants took precedence as a problem over the pedestrian hazards of smoke and fire. I squirted lines of the lighter fluid across the worktops and lit them with the burning mop head. Lines of blue tinged flame leapt up across the kitchen sending the insects in retreat, clinging to high surfaces, refraining from flying in the smokey confines. When they were walking on the walls, they made easy targets, so I thrust my crude weapon into them. They burst into tiny balls of flame and tumbled to their deaths, bouncing off my feet. It was strangely satisfying each time. I began to cough as the smoke became more clogging and Ava too, I could hear her wheeze with the hostile air about us.
After several minutes, I had killed the majority of them, the remainder looking docile and disarmed, staggering like they were drunk on the smoke. I dragged Ava into an alcove and made sure her face was covered up with a rag I had in my bag, usually reserved for dust storms. I wanted more than ever to protect her.
I inspected the corners of the room, finding surviving insects and dispensing with them one by one. It was easier than expected. After a few minutes, to our relief, the swarm outside seemed to move on. We could sense it, hear the noise that had been so loud begin to fade. They had not settled in the hotel after all, like a monster on the scent of new kills in new territory, too energetic and focused to take refuge anywhere for any length of time.
The fire in the oven was burning still, keeping us warm but the smoke was now in webs high in the room, no longer making it hard to breathe, dissipating very slowly. On the floor were dozens of charred and battered giant insects. I stared at their grotesque bodies for a long while, taking them in, those little sacks of meat.
An idea came to me. My ribs were pushing against my skin beneath my clothes, I was malnourished, I was pale and I needed to replace the valuable energy I had used up on fleeing and fighting the ants.
Ava was sweating, had her eyes closed but was conscious.
“I know you are in pain but can you manage some food?” I asked.
“I can try, yes. But what’s left? We had the soup already? Maybe the tomatoes? Better than nothing I guess?”
I scooped a saucepan off the floor. The kitchen still had some cooking ‘extras’ I could put to good use. There was olive oil to drench the bottom of the pan so it wouldn’t burn and salt and pepper for seasoning. I hesitated before carrying out my plan, it was a good plan, I knew it.
I crawled across the kitchen, pausing intermittently to pick up the dead insects. Before decanting each body into the saucepan, I ripped off their extremities: their heads, wings and stingers. They reminded me of king prawns, a meal I hadn’t eaten for many years, it was the curl of their long husks. There were Italian spices in the kitchen so I sprinkled a generous layer into the mounting pile, before mashing the beasts into something like a paste. I inserted the pan into the stone oven that was aglow with heat and let the warmth hit my face, as I watched the ingredients transform into a sticky broth. Finally, I dumped the tomatoes and kidney beans in, stirring them hard to soak into the mixture.
“Are you cooking them?!” she slurred, a little dazed and confused.
“Protein, lots of protein,” I said. “I found some fizzy drinks too, it’ll be like a takeout, remember those? I bet these things taste like chicken! Although I hardly remember that any more, to be honest!”
The fire crackled like a listener to our small voices.
“Am I going to be alright?” she asked, sweat now a glistening sheen on her neck.
“Yes,” I said with confidence, “We’re going to both be fine from now on. If we can get food from insects like this, we can stop thinking about scavenging every day in buildings. There must be hundreds of these things in this room, each a meal. We’ll make plans to catch them again… when they appear. We’ll adapt.”
“Looks like we just entered the food chain again,” quipped Ava, clutching her neck protectively.
“As long as we are doing the eating, I am good with that,” I said.
The strange stew I had concocted began to bubble in the pan nearby, the long, slow, popping bubbles, releasing a distinct flavour. It would be a feast.