The past is the present is the past
Jacob survived the virus that wiped out most of humanity, but he can’t leave the past where it belongs. Tormented by nightmares, the only option seems to be returning to the source of it all and facing up to what he has done. But the past is complicated and he soon realises that putting it behind him won’t be as straight forward as he thought. If he can’t come to terms with what he has done and what he must do, his sanity and the lives of the people he loves may be forfeit.
The gulls circled overhead, screeching a warning to one another that he was there. In the distance Jacob could hear the waves rushing the beach. The ground fell away in a long slope that wore on his tired legs. There were cars parked along the road, but he had learned the trick of not looking inside them; even the corpses left in the open weren’t all picked clean yet, anyone that had been unfortunate enough to die in a car would be worse still.
At the bottom of the hill the road curved left. If he followed it he would end up at Macy’s Parlour, next to The Old Western Hotel. Macy’s had served the best pizza he’d ever tasted, in summer season there was apt to be a queue right around the block. He wondered if people had died waiting, but didn’t turn the corner to find out.
He crossed the road and turned right. There was a rough stone wall and when he looked over it he could see dark water moving quickly over jagged rocks. He kept walking, running his hand over the stones. How long had it been since he’d last visited Furness? Two years? Maybe three? It seemed like a life time ago, but nothing had really changed. There was no dirt, no degradation, the place was a time capsule.
The road led to a carpark where there were plenty more cars for him to ignore. Nothing he wanted to see in any of them. Not even in his darkest hour had he been tempted to open one of those coffins and root around. On the other side of the carpark there was an old public building. One corner had been given over to toilets, the other to coin operated showers. Nestled between them was a shop selling beach toys and hot coffee. Not open, of course.
The sun was high by the time he crested the hill and the path turned to sand. He stopped and looked down and wondered if it had been worth it. He’d been travelling for six months to reach this point and it still wasn’t the end. The hardest part was ahead of him, but for now, he could enjoy the gentle breeze against his chapped skin. He could pretend, for a while longer, that this was what it had all been for.
The tide was a long way out. There were wind-breakers and faded cooler bags blowing across the sand. No bodies; they had probably been washed out to sea by now, or picked clean by the same gulls that had been circling. Either way, the problem wasn’t his, and he was grateful.
Thick rocks lay half buried in the sand. If anyone had still been there to take care of the beach, they would have swept them clean to make a safe path down to the sand. Now they were as much a hazard as a help and after almost losing his balance half a dozen times, Jacob decided it was safer to walk at the side, where at least he expected the ground to be soft and uneven.
The beach was just as he remembered it; the sound of the waves, the smell of the salt, the feeling of sand being blown against his face. For a moment it was possible to stare at the waves and believe that nothing had changed, that the world was as it had always been. He found it easy to lose himself in the sight and, when he next came to awareness, he realised that his boots had sunk, and the sun was beginning to set.
He had never given much thought to boredom in the past. When he’d considered the end of the world – which he didn’t do often, but it had come up from time to time – he’d always thought there would be plenty to keep him occupied. There would be gathering food and water, searching for safety and companionship, fighting when needed. The idea that he could find the apocalypse boring would have seemed absurd. But that was exactly what it was.
It had first come up towards the end of the first year. Without the competition of 70 million other people, there was plenty of food to go around. There was no need to fight; if you didn’t get on with someone, you could just pack up and move on.
There were people who wanted to hurt others just for the the sake of it. But there were enough good people willing to stand together, that the problem rarely stuck around for long.
At least they provided a distraction though. Once there was no one left to fight with, there was nothing to do except work on a farm, or scavenge for food in the cities. There was never enough work to go around and he found himself with less to do than when he’d had to work for a living. It was not enough to take his mind off of her.
He’d read books, gone drinking, visited all the places that had been off-limits before and learned all the secrets they contained. He’d done everything he could think of and in the end it hadn’t been enough. In the middle of the night he still found himself waking from nightmares.
(Why didn’t you come to me Jacob?)
In the end, he’d had to leave.
Jacob hadn’t been the first, and he wouldn’t be the last. Transience was common. Few people thought it strange that he would turn his back on the community he had helped to build, but to him it had felt monumental.
It took a week to get everything ready; to round up the people he wanted to say goodbye to and gather the supplies he thought he would need. Once that was done, he just started walking and soon enough, the community was behind him and the open road ahead.
Now he was at the beach and he could no longer pretend that boredom and nostalgia were his motivations. He hadn’t spent six months walking from town to town, relying on the kindness of strangers, just to look at the sea.
It was almost too dark to see by the time he turned and made his way back to the rocks. He stumbled across the sand, up the slope and got to the road. He considered checking into the Old Western but decided against; it reminded him too much of awkward teenage trysts with the summer girls and, after all, there was no shortage of places for him to spend the night.
He woke at first light, wrapped in a tangle of thin sheets, moist with his sweat. His gasping breath was the only sound in the room. He sat up and looked around, after a while he started to believe it had only been a nightmare, that there was nothing he could do, that it was too late.
(Why weren’t you there?)
There was water in the pipes, so he washed, dressed and left the house. He shivered in the warmth, still trying to put the dream behind him, but knowing that until he went to the house he wouldn’t be able to.
What did he hope to get out of this? What, was the best-case scenario?
There was no good outcome, but he still needed to go, still needed to see for himself. He needed to know what had happened to them, to know if there had ever been anything he could have done.
There were ghosts haunting these streets, calling out to him and asking why it had taken him so long to come back. If he’d come sooner then he might have been able to do something, but now it was too late. Now he was just a tourist.
When his grandparents had moved to Furness, it had seemed like the coolest thing in the world. He’d imagined their days would be spent building sandcastles on the beach and eating ice-cream. The best part though, was that he got to visit them every summer. His mum hadn’t been able to understand why they would retire to a place so far away from their family, but to him it had made perfect sense.
His own parents hadn’t moved until his grandmother had died. By then Jacob had been at university, but of course Emma hadn’t. She was his older sister, by five years, but no one had any expectation that education was going to feature in her life. She had moved with them.
When he’d finished school, he could have joined them, but by then he’d been having too much fun on his own. He’d gone to visit occasionally, but the seaside is a very different place in your twenties than your teens and it hadn’t held the same fascination for him. By then his grandfather had been on his way out anyway and his parents had been planning to move back to the city afterwards.
In the end, his grandfather had held on until the virus came. Although he was among the first wave of deaths – the old, the young and the already dying – it had all happened so quickly that it didn’t make much difference. From first to final wave took less than a month.
It was easier to tell himself that there was nothing he could have done, and for the most part that was true. He couldn’t have saved them, but – and this was the crux of it, the reason he had come back – he could have helped.
The old house stood at the top of the hill, surrounded by other large houses and grand chalets, hidden now behind walls of tall grass and overgrown trees. The only part he could see was the roof, a crooked weather vane testament to the storm of last summer. He approached on shaking legs, feeling his heart beating a staccato in his throat.
What if they were still there? He had survived and, if there was a genetic reason for it, they might have done as well. Then he thought about Emma
(Why weren’t you there?)
and that terrible dread found him again, only worse. He felt short of breath; if it was something genetic then she would have survived as well.
There was the nightmare, as fresh as if he’d just woken; his parents had died, and Emma hadn’t. She’d woken up one morning and no one had come to get her. Alone in her cot with no way to get out and no way to help herself, even if she managed that. She couldn’t speak, but in his nightmares she always asked why he wasn’t there to help her.
How long would it have taken her to pass? Die, he meant, there was no point pretending anything else. That was the real nightmare, his sister trapped in her bed, moaning, screaming – she was perfectly capable of those noises – and not being able to understand why no one was coming to get her. The thought of it made him feel sick. The knowledge that he could have been there, made it worse.
He had to know that she’d died of the virus, preferably before their parents. She wasn’t strong enough to fight it off. It was the only explanation, but he had to see for himself. If he wanted the nightmares to stop then he had to know for sure.
Jacob climbed the hill slowly. There were loose rocks and plenty of sharp branches to catch himself on if he wasn’t careful. He could hardly see the path, but a deeper instinct had taken over and he made it to the house without getting lost once.
The cracked paint, abundance of weeds and dirt smeared windows were not the happy place he recalled from childhood, but it was far from the gothic monstrosity of his imagination.
He stopped on the path that ran between the two rows of houses and led to a narrow river and fields at the end. All he had to do now was walk through the garden to the front door, go inside and find out what had happened to them. To Emma.
He pulled the scarf over his nose and mouth in anticipation of the smell. The smell of his mother, father and sister decaying in the darkness. He closed his eyes, pushed the door and found it locked. He had a curious compulsion to knock, but stopped himself
(what if someone answered?)
and walked around to the back garden where he would either find the back door unlocked, or a rock to unlock it with.
All the windows were closed, and the curtains pulled shut. Nothing unusual about that per-se, when people got sick they often tried to shut themselves away. Unfortunately, for him, it also meant that they shut in the smell when they died.
The back garden was also overgrown. He pushed aside overhanging branches and caught his hand on a thorn. He swore under his breath and wiped a thick bubble of blood on his jeans. Hopefully there was a stocked medicine box inside, he had seen plenty of people die from more ridiculous injuries.
The back door was locked. He found a good-sized rock and hesitated. It felt wrong to break in, this had been his grandfather’s house, his family’s home. The discomfort passed, and he broke the glass easily, then cleared hanging shards out of the frame.
It took a moment for him to realise that the bitter smell of death that he associated with breaking and entering, wasn’t there. It struck him as odd, but what did he really know about the decomposition of a human body? Perhaps it reached a point where the smell began to dissipate. It didn’t mean anything. It was certainly nothing to get his hopes up over.
Jacob took a final breath of the perfumed garden air then stepped into the muggy darkness.
The room was dark, but the layout was familiar: on his right there was a large television hanging over the fireplace, his grandfather’s chair to his left, directly opposite it. One of Jacob’s strongest memories was of the white haired old man sitting there with a cup of tea, his feet up on the stool, watching reruns of old detective shows.
There was a brown sofa with lacy white sleeves against the far wall. It had been a space ship and a submarine, amongst other things, when the weather had been too bad to go outside. To the right of that was a wooden cabinet which contained ancient volumes of The Encyclopaedia Britannica. To the left of it was the door.
Jacob went into the hallway, where the only light came streaking through the dirty window onto the table at the bottom of the stairs. When he’d been a child it had been the telephone table and had seemed enormous. He looked at it now, almost expecting to see the bright red rotary phone and the notebook for jotting down messages. In later years a stool had been added for his grandmother to sit – it had always been his grandmother; his grandfather never had much time for conversation – while she talked. Now there was just a pile of letters and a stray iPhone charging cable.
He stopped at the first door he came to.
It had started out as the front room, full of crystal doo-dads and frills. He’d only caught glimpses of it then and had never been allowed in; it was a grownup room, they had told him. When his grandmother had recovered from her fall and been allowed out of the hospital, she hadn’t been able to climb the stairs, so they’d turned it into her bedroom. Then she’d died, and his parents had moved in. Emma had never been very good with stairs, so they’d set up her cot and everything had been fine and wonderful and…
…she might be in there now.
His hand hovered over the brass door knob and he tried not to imagine what he would find. The proof of his guilt, of his failing not just his sister but his parents as well? Would she have struggled? In panic and desperation, would she have managed to pull her cot over? Pull something on top of her? Would she be laying prone and half-decomposed in —
“Stop!” he said aloud. His voice sounded unnatural in the stillness. It spooked him. He shook his head and wiped his sweat soaked palms against his jeans. Whatever was in there couldn’t be worse than he was imagining. The only way to stop nightmares was to open the door and see for himself.
Jacob put his hand back on the knob, turned it, and pushed open the door.
The room was dark as night. A blackout blind covered the large window. Jacob waited for his eyes to adjust and reveal the horror that was waiting for him. There was a wardrobe in one alcove next to the fireplace, a chest of drawers in the other. Her cot, however, was gone.
He took a step back, closed the door and opened it again, as if his first impression might have been his mind playing tricks on him. When he looked again it was exactly the same. This time he went in, walked to the window and pulled up the blind. The sunlight revealed four square impressions in the carpet where her cot had been.
It didn’t make sense. Unless Emma had died first, while his parents had still been well enough to clean her room. It would have been the best outcome for her but didn’t explain why his parents hadn’t told him.
He closed the door and went back to the kitchen, feeling that nothing had been resolved, that no questions had been answered. He found the medicine box, it smelled like childhood. He moved automatically to clean his wound with a sterile wipe, apply antiseptic cream and a cloth plaster. When he had finished he sat at the table and let his mind wander.
Night came suddenly in a world without electricity. As Jacob became aware of the lengthning shadows, he jerked out of his formless reverie and came too with no memory of what he had been thinking. He only knew that he didn’t want to still be there at full dark.
He went to the stairs, looked up into the growing dark and remembered all the times his mum had told him to be careful running up and down them, and all the times he’d told her that he would. They were particularly steep, and led straight to the very hard cornered telephone table, but his eventual undoing was the result of wearing socks on a carpet worn smooth with age. He’d broken his arm in two places that summer and earned a telling off from his dad.
It felt strange not to take his boots off, but if he fell and hurt himself now, there was no one around to come to his rescue. He couldn’t afford to risk it. Taking hold of the banister, he began to climb.
There were paintings on the wall, scenes from a farm life that neither of his grandparents had experienced, but somehow still felt connected to. They weren’t so different to how things were now, and he wondered whether his grandmother and grandfather would have fared any better than him had they been young enough to survive. Further up there was a Victorian bed pan. When he’d been younger he’d thought it was a musical instrument and been horribly disappointed to learn the truth. Now it was something that he would consider taking when he left, the winter nights could be long and cold.
He checked the bathroom first and found nothing. The next door led to his grandparent’s room and he didn’t expect to find anything there either; his grandfather had died at the very start of the outbreak, before anyone had realised the extent of it, before funeral parlours had closed their doors and undertakers had thought it was nothing more than an extremely profitable summer. He opened the door, saw nothing and closed it again. His grandparents room had been even more out of bounds than the front room, and he already felt like he was trespassing.
Jacob checked the spare bedroom next. It was where he’d slept when he’d come to stay, and the rest of the year it was where they kept bulk bought toilet paper and tins of food. There was unlikely to be anything worth keeping, but he wanted to be sure. And, also, to avoid the final door for a little longer. The final door led to his parent’s room and there was no getting away from the certainty that they would be in there.
(Where’s the smell then?)
He could believe they’d lived long enough to bury Emma, and at a stretch, one of them might have been able to bury the other, but no matter how he looked at it, that still left one body waiting behind that door.
There was nothing in the spare room except boxes of food long past edible. He checked them anyway, might have spent all night doing so if the growing darkness hadn’t made his consider the final door and the horror of coming across their bodies by moonlight. He closed the door and turned right, not even needing to take a full step.
His hand on the brass handle. It was cold and slippery. He was being silly, he knew, building it up in his mind to be worse that it could possibly be. He’d seen bodies before. He’d handled them, moved them into the mass graves that had been dug outside the towns that wanted to keep functioning. A corpse held no horror for him and these were his parents. They deserved a more dignified end.
Jacob turned the handle, pushed the door and went inside.
Their bed was in the middle of the room, behind the door. It was neatly made. He checked the floor, thinking that one of them may have collapsed and died there
(Then why is the bed made?)
but the only thing he found was two pairs of slippers, lined up neatly beneath the window. A vase of dead flowers on the windowsill above.
He stood at the door and tried to take it all in. There was no sign that anybody had died here. It looked as if they had gone on holiday.
Jacob wondered if that could be the explanation. Had they gone away thinking they could escape the virus? It seemed ridiculous now, but at the time it would have made sense. If the number of cars on the road was anything to go by, then plenty of people had tried the same thing. It would even explain why Emma’s cot was gone – they would have had to take it with them – although not why they hadn’t told him.
He sat on the edge of the bed, sending a cloud of dust into the air. If they had gone, then where? He still needed to find them, to know what had happened. This was worse than being back to square one; at least he had known where his grandfather’s house was. If they had tried to get away, then they could be anywhere in the country. They might not even have made it wherever they were going, they could be in one of countless cars clogging up the roads. He might have walked straight past them.
It was hopeless. He might as well give up. He buried his head in his hands and didn’t look up again until he heard the front door open and then footsteps in the hallway.
Jacob turned to the window. Whoever was in the house was on the stairs already. Even if there was a safe way down – which he doubted – he didn’t have time to open the window. It was probably locked anyway, and he couldn’t see anything to break it with. He could try jumping through, but it was too easy to imagine himself lying on the ground, his legs broken, covered in glass. He stood a better chance by turning to face whoever it was.
He had as much right to be in his grandfather’s house as anyone. Yes, he had broken a window to get in and whoever was on the landing had a key, but that didn’t change the fact that this was his family’s home. He looked around for something he could use as a weapon but there was nothing. He turned to face the door.
Jacob realised that he was holding his breath and let it out. The handle began to turn. Whoever was out there hadn’t gone to any of the other rooms first, they had come straight to him. Was it possible they knew he was there?
The door began to open, a long shadow crept across the floor towards him. He could see no details of the figure standing there.
“You took your time.” The voice was almost friendly. “We were beginning to think you weren’t coming.”
There was something familiar about the voice and the shape of the person standing there. But the chances of someone he knew surviving and coming back to find him were so impossibly small that it seemed more likely he was looking at an alien in disguise.
“What’s the matter?” the figure said, not even clearly male or female. “Don’t you recognise me?”
They stepped out of the shadows into the room and Jacob’s first instinct was to take a matching step away. He grabbed a handful of curtain material, as if he could use it as a weapon, or hide behind it. Then he saw her face and stopped. “Rosemary?”
“Who else?” she said.
“I don’t… how?… what?” He couldn’t believe that Rosemary was standing in the doorway of his parents’ bedroom. She had lived in the house opposite his grandparents for as long as he’d been coming to visit them. She had lived with her parents and, when they’d died a few years before the virus, she’d inherited the house. “How are you here?”
Rosemary shrugged, just as Jacob supposed he would have done if she’d asked him the same question. No one knew why they’d survived, only that they had.
“You were expecting me?” he said.
“That’s right,” she said. “You’d better come with me.”
Jacob followed her out of the room and down the stairs, the farm pictures now cloaked in the long shadows of dusk. It was easier not to think about where she was taking him, easier not to think about how this was possible and what it might mean.
Outside, Rosemary switched on a wind-up torch. The glare of it was almost painfully bright. “Be careful,” he said.
She cocked her head to look at him with an expression which demanded an explanation.
“Someone might see,” he said.
“Ah,” she said and nodded wisely, but didn’t turn off the light. “And who do you think might see?”
“I don’t know. There might be anyone around here.”
“I think we’ll be okay,” she said, and he didn’t question her again. She had survived just as he had.
He followed her along the path that ran between the two rows of houses. Instead of going into her garden they went to the gate which led to the river and the fields where he’d spent many happy summers taunting sheep and cows. Rosemary held the gate open and he hesitated.
“It’s not far,” she said. “You need to see this.”
Jacob thought he knew what she was taking him to see and didn’t think it was necessary. Certainly, it was something that could wait until the morning. He looked at her, meaning to tell her that, but found he couldn’t. If it was what he thought, then he should be grateful to her, the least he could do was play along.
He closed the gate quietly behind him and followed her up the verge to the path that had been worn into the grass. The river was to his left, slow moving and too low for him to see. They walked along the bank and turned right to cross at a small stone bridge. Jacob wondered how long it would be before it cracked and crumbled into the water.
Rosemary stopped in front of a tree which might have been five-hundred years old. She pointed her torch at the ground and he saw a large flat stone which had been crudely engraved. Even with the torch it wasn’t possible to read it, but he didn’t need to know the exact words to know what it said.
“I know your mother always liked this spot,” Rosemary said.
Jacob nodded. Finally, here was his proof and if he wanted to, he could ask about Emma: Did she die first? Was she in distress? He thought that Rosemary would tell him the truth. Instead he said, “Why were you expecting me? Didn’t you think I was dead as well?”
“No.” He turned to ask why, but she shook her head sympathetically and the words escaped him. “Not here. Come back to my house. We’ll talk there.”
They walked back along the bank in silence. So much had happened so quickly that he was having trouble getting it clear in his mind.
She stopped at the front door and fished the key out of her pocket. Jacob wondered how she could be so confident about shining her torch around, but still paranoid enough to lock her front door.
Rosemary stopped in the hall and turned to him. She spoke in a whisper. “Ask me again how I knew you’d survived.”
Jacob asked her, keeping his voice in the same whisper, wondering if all the death had made her mad. She wouldn’t be the first person it had happened to, but she seemed normal enough.
“I’ve got a brother in Dorset. I never went to find him after people started dying. I didn’t want to face it. He was older, always looked after me when we were little, I didn’t want to watch him die, not after… then one day he came here, and wasn’t he surprised to find out I was alive.”
That must be why they were keeping their voices down, he thought. Her older brother must be asleep in one of the rooms upstairs.
“That’s how I knew you’d survived,” she said.
Jacob felt as if he was missing something. His thoughts were slow and clumsy. It didn’t sound like an explanation to him. Or maybe a part of him did understand but wasn’t eager to share the explanation for fear of being let down again.
“Come with me,” Rosemary said.
Her house was a mirror of his grandfather’s. He followed her along the hallway and they stopped at a door on the left. Rosemary turned towards him and put a finger to her lips. Jacob nodded, not sure what he was agreeing to, but feeling an almost overwhelming desire to tell her to stop, that he didn’t want to know.
The door opened with a gentle shah as it rubbed across the carpet. Inside it was dark, but he could hear the small breaths that took him back to his earliest childhood, when he’d still shared a bedroom with his older sister. The sound of her breathing was as familiar to him as his own.
Tears stood in his eyes and he found himself crossing the room towards her cot. He wanted to see her, to smell her and know that this wasn’t a trick. Rosemary’s hand on his forearm held him back. He looked at her and she shook her heard She turned and he followed her out of the room.
They sat at the kitchen table with an oil lamp and steaming cups of cocoa between them. Jacob felt as if he hadn’t slept in a year and wasn’t sure whether he was waking from a nightmare or entering one.
“Your parents died during the night,” Rosemary said. “I’d been checking in on them, bringing them water and food, although they weren’t eating much by then of course, and helping with Emma.”
He nodded, thinking that he should thank her for doing that, but not really knowing how.
“When they passed, I brought Emma here.”
“And she was okay with that?” Jacob said, remembering the girl who refused to eat if she didn’t have her normal plate, who would kick and scream if she was interrupted doing something she was enjoying, who had been in a foul mood for more than a month when their parents had moved to Furness in the first place.
Rosemary shrugged. “Your parents knew they were sick. We’d been preparing her for a few weeks by then.”
If they’d known they were dying, why hadn’t they contacted him? The phones had still been working, they could have made the effort. But he knew the answer: if he’d wanted to help he would have gone to them. He was a grownup, capable of looking after himself, their priority had, understandably, been Emma.
“And now you’re here,” she said.
Jacob nodded, but before he could struggle to find the words to thank her, they were interrupted by Emma crying out. It was a shrill sound that he remembered well, it had woken him from the deepest sleep more times than he could remember. They were both on their feet in an instant.
“She has nightmares,” Rosemary said. “I think that on some level she knows your parents are gone. During the day she’s fine but…”
“It’s okay,” he said. “You go.”
Emma was crying now, a sickening wrenching sound that drove needles into his nerves. Then Rosemary was gone and a few moments later the sound was reduced to a gentle sobbing.
He sat down and played with his cocoa cup. Jacob had never considered the possibility of finding Emma alive. It made things more complicated. He would be a stranger to her now, or, if she had any memory of him at all, someone who had abandoned her. They were family and he knew what his parents would have wanted him to do, what he should want to do, but all he had wanted was to assuage his guilt, not find someone
to look after.
And was it fair to her? She had been through so much already. She was settled with Rosemary and maybe it was better to leave it that way, rather than force his way back into her life.
He was still considering his options, going back and forth between staying and leaving, when the door opened, and Rosemary came back in. He had been so caught up in his dilemma that he hadn’t even noticed Emma stop crying.
“She’ll be okay now,” Rosemary said. She sat back down and picked up her drink. “You look exhausted. You should rest.”
“I’ll be okay,” he said.
“Nonsense. There’s a spare room at the back, the beds made.”
She got up and gave him no opportunity to argue. He followed her out of the room, his steps faltering for a moment outside Emma’s door, and up the stairs to the second floor. Judging by the family pictures and flowery bedsheets, it had been her parents room.
“We’ll talk more when you’ve had some rest,” she said.
Jacob lay on top of the dusty duvet and stared into the darkness above him. He didn’t expect to sleep, but he did almost instantly. Although he tossed and turned with dreams, when he woke he couldn’t remember one.
He didn’t wake until she knocked on his door, just loudly enough to disturb his shallow sleep. The door opened and he sat up. Rosemary stood at the door but didn’t come in.
“She’s eating breakfast,” she said.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” he said.
Rosemary smiled. “Get dressed and come downstairs. You can see for yourself.”
Jacob nodded to her back as she left the room. He wasn’t sure what to do. He was glad that Emma was alive, pleased that she hadn’t died alone and scared, but that didn’t mean he wanted to take responsibility for her. There was a reason he hadn’t come back sooner, and although he would never admit to it, maybe that was why.
The realisation made him uncomfortable, but it didn’t make up his mind. He felt pushed into a corner, unsure whether his thoughts of leaving were selfish or really the right thing for Emma.
One thing he was sure of was that refusing to see her would be insulting to Rosemary. After everything she’d done, she didn’t deserve that. He got out of bed, smoothed his hair and went downstairs before he could change his mind.
Emma was sitting at the kitchen table pushing pieces of bread into her mouth. She had her green breakfast plate and a Sippy cup full of orange squash. Her slim fingers were coated in a layer of peanut butter and there was more around her mouth. Rosemary was sitting beside her and, for a moment, neither of them seemed to notice him.
It was a surprise to realise how much he missed her. He felt a tug on his heart and a confused mixture of sympathy and envy. The sympathy was easy to understand; she had lost her parents; her whole world had been turned upside down. The envy was more complex; did she realise that those things had happened? She probably had no idea how different things were now and how much easier was it to be ignorant? No one expected her to fight, to survive…
He shook his head and the thought dissipated like a cloud of vapour. He shouldn’t be there, he was only going to upset her.
Jacob was on the verge of leaving when Rosemary said, “Emma?” She put a hand on his sisters. “Have you seen who’s here?”
Emma looked up. It took a moment for her roving eyes to find him on the other side of the room. Her mouth opened but he couldn’t tell whether it was fear or delight. Then she croaked out a throaty laugh and her arms were in the air, reaching towards him.
Everything that he’d been worried about was forgotten in an instant. The peanut butter covered state of her was unimportant. Jacob crossed the room, put his arms around her and felt hers around him. He was crying, but they were tears of joy and relief. She remembered him.
“I knew you were coming back,” Rosemary said. “So, I showed her pictures, so she wouldn’t forget.”
Jacob nodded into Emma’s neck and, although the reaction was small, he didn’t think he had ever been so grateful to anyone for anything in his entire life.
The gulls circled overhead, screeching a warning to one another that they were there. In the distance Jacob could hear waves rushing the beach. The ground fell away in a long slope that wore on his tired legs. At the bottom of the hill he turned right and stopped at the stone wall to shift Emma into a more comfortable position on his back. Her small hands grasped his shoulders as if she thought he might drop her.
He tried to remember the last time they had come to the beach together. He had still been young enough to play games with her, his patience with his big sister seemingly inexhaustible. Then had come puberty and girls and parties. She had become an embarrassment.
The sun was high by the time they crested the hill and the path turned to sand. He stopped to rest and reflect on how much had changed. First his grandmother, then his grandfather. Then the virus and the end of the world. Now he was back, and he had Emma again.
It was three weeks since he had learned that his sister was still alive. The nightmares hadn’t troubled him since.
She moved restlessly on his back, feeling the sun on her face and tasting salt on the wind. Her body tensed with excitement, he was learning to read her again; she wanted to be down on the beach and he did too.
He went carefully down the stone steps, moving to make Emma more comfortable and hoping that he didn’t slip and drop her. Rosemary was waiting for them at the bottom. She helped Emma down, a throaty laugh echoing across the empty shore. Emma got to her feet and wobbled away to investigate something that had caught her eye.
Jacob stood beside Rosemary and watched. He didn’t know how long they could stay there, the future was a mystery, but he knew that they were together and that was all that mattered.