Matthew Blackwell: After The End

Flight 113. A Boeing 747 commercial airliner. 412 souls aboard on take off.

Eight survived the crash.

What was left of the plane landed on a remote island in the Iroha Archipelago. Once a tranquil cradle of nature, now a sad, haunted place, scarred by the devastation of the tsunami.

 

The teacher comes to first. Blood runs into her eye. Her side hurts. Her trousers are gone but her shoes are still on. The first person she finds is a man. His left arm and shoulder are gone. The next one looks like he’s sleeping. A foot, still in the trainer. An ear, pierced through the helix. Something she can’t identify – just meat and bone. Then she finds the doctor face down in the sand. Almost leaves her for dead until she sees a leg move.

They head for what’s left of the fuselage. A ragged cone resting against a sandbank. Quiet moaning coming from inside. Someone crying. Someone praying.

 

Inside it’s dark. Cool. Chemical smell of bleed air, aged upholstery. Stale coffee. Human waste.

Their eyes adjust. At the far end of Business Class is a pile of seats. A barricade of tangled metal, splintered plastic, torn seatbacks. Limbs.

The architect and the recruiter are trying to lift a seat. The architect stops to rest, arches his back. He sees the teacher and the doctor.

Over here, he says. Help us.

Go, says the doctor. I’ll check these ones.

The doctor checks the ones still strapped in, oxygen masks wrapped around lifeless faces. Still wearing a mask, swinging gently in the draft, is a severed head. She finds a salesman, alive.

 

The barricade is a sobbing, mewling scrap heap. As they lift away the seats, the pleas grow more urgent. A middle aged woman, a grandmother, has been praying in Spanish and now she is screaming the words, over and over.

No nos dejes caer en tentación y líbranos del mal.

Everything they move causes somebody pain.

Keep going, says the doctor. We can’t help them if we can’t get to them.

Líbranos del mal.

The salesman gets the emergency door open and they throw the seats outside. By the time they’ve finished, three of those trapped have died. They manage to rescue the grandmother and a flight attendant. The grandmother is just moaning now. Both her legs are broken. The flight attendant is unconscious. His face looks like raw beef.

 

The teacher, the architect, the salesman, and the recruiter sit outside. The architect has emptied a service trolley and grouped the contents in the shade. He pours rations of bottled water into plastic glasses and passes them out. The salesman tries to take a bottle for himself. The architect and the recruiter try to reason with him. Now it’s an argument. It’s almost a fight until the doctor comes out to join them. Outnumbered, the salesman backs down. He walks away. The adrenalin has worn off now. Nobody speaks. The teacher cries.

Five minutes later the salesman is back. He calls for the doctor. He found something.

 

They follow him to the front of the plane. They find the co-pilot. Everything from his pelvis down is crushed under the plane’s nose. He’s unconscious but when the doctor examines him he snaps awake and screams. He doesn’t stop screaming. The teacher stays with him while the others tear through any luggage they can find for painkillers. The screaming goes on. It wakes the grandmother who wails from inside the plane. Like a couple of dogs howling to each other in the night. They find some codeine. It’s thirty minutes before things calm down again.

 

The architect and the salesman take turns trying to break into the cockpit. It’s no use. The teacher is the smallest so they boost her onto the nose and she climbs through the broken window. The pilot is slumped in his chair. Blood lies drying on the controls. She unlocks the cabin door and they look for a radio. They flick switches, press buttons, try everything. Nothing works.

 

The sun starts to set. The recruiter makes a fire in the sand by the open end of the fuselage. Darkness comes. They huddle inside the ragged porch. The teacher, the architect, the salesman, the recruiter and the doctor. They leave the co-pilot alone, covered in blankets. He begs for water the whole night. They take turns bringing it to him. Then he begs for more painkillers. Then he begs to be killed.

 

The teacher snaps awake, unsure how long she’s been asleep. She looks around. The fire is dead. The others still sleeping. She listens. It’s quiet now. Just the waves and the insects. She takes a bottle of water to the co-pilot. When she finds him he’s already dead. Mouth crammed full of sand. On her way back to tell the others she realizes they are short a bottle of water. Nobody owns up to taking it.

 

The sun is over the horizon and it’s getting warm already. It’s time to deal with the bodies. The recruiter suggests burning them. In the end they dig graves just inside the treeline. There are a lot of bodies. And sometimes just parts. The odd ones that don’t match up they put inside suitcases. Coffins of plastic and material, plastered with global destinations. Before burial the bodies are scoured for food, anything useful. They mark the graves with sticks or bits of debris from the plane. When they’re done they’re exhausted. Nobody speaks.

 

Night comes. The grandmother is very weak now. Sometimes she whispers a few words. The flight attendant is no better. The doctor barely feels a pulse.

They make another fire. Eat another measly meal. They pass time looking at the photos on their phones. Sharing stories. It’s the first time anyone has smiled since the crash. The fire dies. They sleep.

 

In the morning the flight attendant is dead. They wrap his body in a blanket and the salesman and the architect carry it to the graveyard. They find one of the graves disturbed. It looks like something has been digging in the dirt. They cover it back over. They bury the flight attendant.

 

They eat a pathetic breakfast then split into pairs to look for food. The teacher and the recruiter. The architect and the salesman. They head along the beach in opposite directions. The doctor stays with the grandmother.

 

Everywhere are signs of the tsunami’s work. Dark patches of dried-up mangrove swamps. Trunks plastered with sand a metre high. Boulders of brain coral lying deep in the forest, mazelike surfaces half covered in moss. Half an hour’s walk inland they find a broken rowboat in a tree.

 

In the centre of the island they come upon a deep rent in the earth where the land has split apart. Within its sheer sides they see sections of changing soil like a slice of layer cake. A carpet of decomposing organic matter over light-coloured humus over iron-stained red soil. They peer into its gloom. The bottom cannot be seen.

 

The island seems devoid of life. They hear bird calls but never see any birds.

 

They find small purple berries and fill a hat with them. Everyone who eats them gets sick.

 

The doctor finds a small body of water. Grey fork of a dead tree reaching from its centre. A thick scum on its paralysed surface. They fill their bottles and boil the murky beige swill in a metal container. It tastes awful but nobody gets sick.

 

They eat bark and moss and grass and leaves. The gnawing emptiness in their guts never ends.

 

They hang hammocks of material to catch water but it never rains.

 

One night the recruiter sees a ship’s light. He wakes the others and they shout and wave and shine the torches from their phones until the batteries die.

 

The food is almost gone. Everyone is very hungry. There are some tiny bottles of alcohol but the doctor advises against drinking them.

 

They use the elastic net compartments from the seat backs to build a bigger net. They leave it out overnight. In the morning it is full of dead fish. They try to eat them but they’re already rotten and make them sick.

 

One afternoon the teacher thinks she spots a figure moving a long way off down the beach. She calls out. When she returns with the others there is no one to be seen. She searches with the recruiter. They find nothing, not even tracks.

 

The hunger is all there is.

 

Somebody finds an arm, crawling with maggots. They collect the maggots in an empty can, share them out. They dig up the suitcases and use the spare parts to farm more maggots.

 

Everyone is starting to look thin. Bones jut, casting shadows on translucent skin. Eyes disappear in the dark pits of sockets.

 

Nine days after the crash the grandmother finally dies.

Four hours later they decide to eat her body.

 

The teacher retreats into the cockpit, locks the door. Sipping from a miniature of gin she shuts her eyes and listens to the perfect silence. The empty space of the cockpit like a projection theatre filled with her tortured imagination.

Dirty fingers pulling at clothing. Heavy, laboured breathing. A blade slicing through loose skin. Cutting away flesh. Just a little at first. Sampling the dish.

She drinks.

Does she smell meat cooking?

She pictures giddy, spit-slathered grins. A fatty gobbet placed timidly onto a tongue before being swallowed. A nervous, impatient wait for a sign, an ill effect. But nothing changes. Nobody is struck down.

The smell of the cooked meat is in their nostrils and they are wild with the hunger now. They hack at the body, ripping handfuls from it and putting them to the fire.

The sounds. Ravenous gobbling. Wet smacking of lips, moans of pleasure. Lurid carnal bedlam. A feeding frenzy.

She drinks. She drinks everything she’s got.

Her head swims in blurred mire. She clutches herself, hands roving over bones, tactile and undulating.

The images. She can’t shut out the images. Teeth picked clean. White shining through ragged red. A button lying on carpet. The back of a hand wiped across a greasy chin. The moon on the water. Something scratching in the dirt. Or is it at the door?

Sleep comes. Dreams follow. Terrible dreams.

Líbranos del mal.

 

She wakes. Sunlight on her face. Heavy blood pounding behind her eyes. Ravening thirst. She can’t keep her balance. She retches a pitiful spatter.

She listens at the cabin door. Eerie silence. Faint burnt smell in the air. She opens the door.

 

Unsteady, she makes her way through the cabin towards the light. Towards the burnt meat smell. The floor is tacky with drying blood. Smears on white walls. Bones lie strewn about the cabin, picked clean. Flies circle a pile of entrails. The grandmother’s head lies broken open. Scooped clean. Her eyes are half closed. Her mouth slightly open. Her tongue is gone.

 

Outside the porch the remains of a lifeless fire. Chunks of charred meat on a makeshift spit, burnt to blackness.

A strange smell on the breeze. Copper and bile. A few feet away she finds splatters of black vomit drying in the sand.

 

She finds the recruiter, curled up like a foetus. He’s dead, eyes staring at nothing. He lies in a pool of something thick and dark like red tar. The doctor and the architect lie side by side, unmoving. Their filthy hands clasped together. Away from the others is the salesman. Always the strongest of them, he is still alive. He is on his knees, dry heaving over a puddle of black blood. Neck bulging with the effort, eyes straining from sockets. He looks up at her, tears streaming. Begs her for help. She stands, watching. He retches again and then sags onto his side. Chest rising and falling in fitful rhythms. Then he stops breathing and a rattling sigh leaves him and he lies still.

 

Sounds grow dim, filtered. Like the world has the volume turned down. Blood thick with liquor thrums in her veins. She drops to her knees, then onto her side. Rolls onto her back. The sun is white now. Pale and watery. Her fingers caress the sand. Darkness comes.

 

It’s the hunger that does it. Fluttering in the pits of stomachs. Skittering through veins and muscles. Pounding into nerve endings over and over. Urging them back to life. Death does not end the hunger.

 

Hot delirious virus pulses through them, reactivating circulation, respiration. Dead muscles flex again. Hands clutch. Jaws work the air. Eyes roll and rove. One by one they stagger to their feet.

 

The teacher wakes. Something is tugging at her leg. The salesman is bent over her, clutching something to his mouth. The others are coming now. The doctor and the architect together. The recruiter moving in halting fits, like a child unsure of its footing. They huddle over her. Dirt encrusted fingers pawing at skin. Wet mouths tasting. Teeth clenching. Biting.

She closes her eyes. Clutches handfuls of sand. The pain is very distant. The sand trickles away.

 

Hunger rages inside. Every scrap of flesh, every sinew is consumed. Skin, hair, organs. Gnawing on tendons. Teeth clacking and scraping on dry bone.

 

Old selves are slowly consumed. Brains clogged with blood clots. Congesting, choking. Piece by piece they lose who they were. Memory and personality fade out, go black. All that’s left are the very old parts. The rat brain. The lizard brain. All that’s left is the hunger.

 

They wander. Listlessly traipsing through sand. The doctor and the architect still hand in hand. When the sun sets they huddle clumsily together.  Craving warmth. When there is no moon they howl at the dark, dry vocal chords fraying like old rope.

 

They find the graves and dig them up.

 

The sun blisters and splits their skin. They’re the colour of leather now. What hair remains is bleached white.

Irritably they flick their heads at the clouds of flies circling them. Soon maggots writhe from caruncles, consuming half dead flesh. But the hunger has no need for eyes.

 

One morning they are drawn down to the shore by furious activity. Cackling and swooping, a frenzied storm of gulls attacks the carcass of a beached whale. Its lone upturned eye an empty ragged pit. The birds scatter as the group falls upon its bulk.

 

Fingers and teeth tear through sun-cracked skin to pink-white fat beneath. Wolfing down mouthfuls of rotting blubber. They feed and feed and feed until stomach linings rupture and they slough their guts. Then they feed some more.

 

The tide comes in. When it leaves it takes the carcass with it. The wretched pack clinging on. A slowly decomposing island drifting out to sea.

 

A sound like damp wood splitting and a section of the carcass breaks off. What was once the architect goes with it, sinking into the depths. For a moment the doctor notices he has gone. Then she goes back to eating.

 

After a while the sharks come. They circle the floating feast, electric senses buzzing. Red debris in the water. Bloodlust quickening. Getting ready for the feeding to come.

 

The shark comes in and rips off the doctor’s leg like someone pulling apart bread. Old half-dead blood clags out into the water, clouding it with rusty brown. She doesn’t even notice. She just wants to keep eating.

 

Far behind on the beach lies the eyeless head of the teacher. It can no longer feel the cold. It is not afraid of the dark. It thinks only of the hunger.

*

Matthew Blackwell earns his living as a graphic designer, but writing is his true passion. His influences are Cormac McCarthy, Bret Easton Ellis, the screenwriter Walter Hill, Stephen King and 2000AD scribe John Smith. He lives in Guildford, Surrey in the UK.

‘After The End’ was also published in Seven Dark Stars: Blackness Absolute published by Dark Prophets Press. You can purchase a copy via the links below:

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https://www.amazon.co.uk/Seven-Dark-Stars-Blackness-Absolute/dp/1326628763/

https://www.amazon.com/Seven-Dark-Stars-Blackness-Absolute/dp/1326628763/

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