This story, one of my early attempts at fiction, was published back in 2013 by With Painted Words. The photo below was the original prompt for the tale.
The wooden bench felt as chilled as the air seeping through his blanket.
Shivering he watched the darkness retreating from the emerging band of red on the horizon.
On cue, the trees surrounding his home erupted with song, feathered heralds greeting the new dawn. In another lifetime the four of them had sat here, clad in survival gear, breakfasting whilst transfixed by this natural choir. His wife’s manicured nails segregated proteins from carbs as she enthused in her asinine way that they should have made this move years ago.
He retrieved from under the blanket the last of his food, a greenish tinged piece of meat clinging to bone. The emanating odour did not deter his stomach from rumbling. Chewing at it he fought back the urge to retch, focusing instead on his awakening surroundings.
Their eldest had nicknamed the place the Isle of Birds, though its real name was Priest Island. An uninhabited nature reserve divided from the mainland by sea. His father, fearful of anything Soviet, had acquired it somehow in the late 1960s. Building a small house in case the mainland was ever invaded. He could hear his Father’s voice still, ‘a sanctuary, reachable by car, far enough away from anything important.’ The island couldn’t be any less important, a cruel assortment of coves, woodland and rocks all tainted by guano.
The birds began to hop amongst the branches. Today they would leave as they did each year, heading southwards, until they found azure water lapping warm sand.
The morning they had fled London he had scraped frantically at the ice covered car windscreen as his wife fussed over what clothes to pack. Finally he coerced them into the car and soon they were passing dark houses whose occupants slumbered, blissfully unaware of what they were about to wake up to. Somewhere past Birmingham he threw his phone out of the car, sickened by the endless silent vibrations. Passing Liverpool the radio began to report a spate of suicides breaking out throughout London. His foot pressed the accelerator instinctively. They crossed into Scotland as the radio began reporting mass suicides and civil disorder throughout the England and Wales. Experts uncertainly bandied numbers of possible fatalities 22% … 42% … 63%. Unlike the experts he knew how big the death toll would be. It was his work after all, his opus. He intended his family to be amongst the surviving 1%.
A lifetime ago his peers had hailed his work into genetic purification as potentially worthy of a Nobel Prize. Yet his life’s work had evolved over the years into something more apocalyptic. The result? Years wasted, research unheralded and unrewarded. He had created perfection and no one would know. He hated the notion of it going to waste, going unrecognised. Imagine being Picasso and never seeing your finished work he would tell himself on those dark nights filled with dark wine. That February he instigated a series of automated protocols that bypassed the fail-safes and unleashed his research into an unsuspecting world.
Their luck held, for they reached their boat moored at Ullapool with little incident. The Harbour Master, a chinless man full of self-importance, proffered freshly issued military directives denying leave from the mainland. However a thick bundle of twenties proved persuasive and soon their boat crossed the dark water towards their new home. The house was dusty and cobwebbed but acceptable. The generators thankfully worked; sadly his laptop network didn’t. Their only means of communication was an antique short wave radio left by his father. He was irritated at such an oversight, yet all they need do was wait three months. A duration their supplies should last as, by then, his calculations predicted the worst would be over. They could then return. Heroically identifying the cause, discovering a cure. He would be hailed a hero.
His plans went awry in their second month when a violent storm holed their boat. Thwarting any dreams of a heroic return. He told his family it would be okay, that someone would come. Yet no one responded to his SOS broadcasts, everyday a sea of white noise greeted his ears.
Taking another bite he ran his fingers over the arm of the wooden bench, feeling the notches that marked each sunrise. They had made bets that morning when the first cut was made, guessing how many more before they returned home. He had said seventy, knowing it may be more.
Now scars covered the entire bench.
The birds had begun to take flight, soaring invisible thermals. Ready to flee, to leave, unlike his family. As the three crosses opposite him within the trees attested. Their youngest was first, falling from a nearby tree whilst foraging for eggs. His death caused partly by his infected broken leg, partly by incompetence. Grief was soon replaced by hunger as their food supplies dwindled. They tried to forage, but to little success. Their luck seemed to have returned the day they found the dead seal in a cove. They ate like kings that night, gorging on slick salty fat. How was he to have known that the meat was diseased?
When they finally awoke from their stupor it was to discover their eldest dead, choked by his vomit.
Not long after, his wife threw herself off of a cliff onto the wet slate below. Crimson mixing within the grey sea. He was still ashamed that the only thing he felt when he found her was hunger.
The sound of wings flapping drew his gaze; the birds were leaving, soaring upwards into the golden red sky. Winged refugees fleeing a dead island. He put a hand to his lips and blew them a kiss.
He swallowed the last mouthful, dropping the bone, the last of his wife, to the floor.
Retrieving his knife from his boot he slid the blade across his dirt-encrusted wrist, mesmerised by the growing band of red that appeared.
The final notch for the final sunrise.