NOTE: This is a REALLY long post, I've tried to use the read more feature, so if it doesn't work, please understand why I've used a smaller print. SORRY!
When I started writing the ALONE trilogy, I had in mind a couple of spooky movies: 28 DAYS LATER and SHAWN OF THE DEAD. Two classics, right? They kind of set the mood for the type of story that I wanted to develop (scary and plausible meets funny and moving) while writing in a zombie-type genre. Having written a few serious "adult" thrillers, this was my first offering for young adults, and I was always wary of treading that thin line in YA Lit where I kept thinking: Am I writing an adult novel with a teenage character, or a novel for teens? I kinda think it's both -- and with everyone reading YA these days, that distinction in old-school publishing categorization is probably void anyway. So, while I wanted things to be realistic and scary for my readers, I also wanted to play around with a fun narrative trick... which is hard to talk about without completely giving away the ending to book 1, CHASERS. That said, it's an ending that a small percentage of readers can't quite get their heads around, despite all the clues throughout the book. The feel that I wanted the reader to have was "no matter how alone you feel, you're never really alone" and "who's to say that if people close to you die, every bit of them has to go". I think those concepts came from my own childhood: I was an only child and grew up in a broken home, and lived my first 12 or so years with my dad and my grandpa, in the big old family home. It was in central Melbourne, on a large avenue of towering Elm trees that would creak and moan their way through the night. The house was a hundred years old, a five storey terrace, full of dark rooms and steep stairs; it had a life of its own. And ghosts! While I never saw them, so many of the family and friends had. That, along with a childhood full of books, developed my vivid imagination and love for storytelling. Many of those memories I drew on when creating my protagonist, Jesse, and his experiences in ALONE. So, in true Halloween spirit, here we have a short story featuring Jesse that takes place somewhere off the pages of the trilogy. I wrote it for an anthology for high school students to study here in Australia and New Zealand, as a kind of taste of the ALONE world. I guess if I had to say what it's about, it would be communication -- and what it's like when you can't communicate as easily we take for granted. I hope you enjoy.
I Am Alone By: James Phelan
I’m sixty-five storeys up in 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The whole building is mine but things like ownership are now vague notions.
I sat and I watched the morning arrive and I wondered if I’d ever see fire like that again. Smoke remained, rising from the crumbled ruins of a thirty-storey apartment block that had come down in the first week. This place needed saving, and after three weeks of being alone, I knew I couldn’t do it all by myself.
‘Don’t go there alone,’ I said.
There was a person alone down there in the street and I’m not sure if they were infected or not, but they were alone and walking and it seemed like they had no idea about the chase that was about to go down.
It was a woman, I think. She was chased and they disappeared out of sight and whether she was infected or not, it was too late for her either way.
That was this morning.
Now, I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a New York City police car.
I’ve got the engine switched off. I’m hiding. There are at least six people after me. Chasing me. If you could call ‘chasers’ people—but why not, they were, once, and there’s every possibility that they will be again. The windows are fogged over and not for the first time I’m wondering if that’s a dead giveaway, like surely the empty cars don’t look like this. I try to breathe less.
There’s a loud bang on the car next to mine, like a cricket ball’s hit the metal sheeting. There’s a scream, close by, then gunfire.
The long, staccato, machine-gun fire of an assault rifle. I watch the passenger windows to my right then something bumps against my car, slides down to the ground, wiping part of the frost and snow cover from the glass and replacing it with two even streaks of blood. They’re almost perfectly mirrored forms, like a Rorschach ink blot. I see a beautiful face there in that pattern, talking to me.
There’s silence. Four minutes later there’s a single gunshot, a block away at least, this time the hollow sound of a pistol instead of the sharper crack-crack of an assault rifle. Twelve minutes later I wonder when I figured out the different sounds of firearms. Not the type of information that a sixteen year old from Melbourne is especially savvy with. I will wait until it’s been dead quiet for an hour before I make my move.
I sink lower in the seat, my hand on the key in the ignition. The car’s in gear and the handbrake is off, so all I have to do is turn the key and floor the accelerator and I’ll be out of here. Not that driving away in the snow will particularly help against someone firing an assault rifle at me. Pity cop cars aren’t bullet proof, but things like that don’t worry me—if I could change anything, and believe me there’s a long list—something like
the defensive capabilities of a place or vehicle are right at the bottom.
I hear voices outside the car. I’m still, hardly breathing. I listen to my heart, its rapid beat familiar to me now, and I can’t convince it to settle. I close my eyes and when I open them snow is falling hard. More time passes before I rub my index finger on my side window to make a little circle of clear glass to see through. I
can’t see anyone. I can’t hear anyone. I give it five minutes before I get out of the car and run north up Fifth Avenue.
I turn right onto East 54th Street and go into a grocery store—dark, lit only by my torchlight. There are a dozen or so cell phones on the counter and floor, their boxes and packaging ripped open and scattered around, like someone has been here searching for some measure of salvation. All the batteries are dead.
I begin to fill two large canvas bags with a mix of canned goods. There’s a noise from the back of the shop and I stay still, my torch beam steady on the ground at my feet. I hear a shuffling noise, coming towards me. I want to run.
It’s a dog. His big eyes shine back at me and his face looks friendly. I reach out to him but he growls, shows his teeth. He’s lean but not skeletal—he’s been scavenging something. I look through the isle of tinned food, take a couple of cans of frankfurts, pop them near him and tip them on the floor. He edges closer, sniffing the air, his eyes never leaving mine as I back away and get out of the store.
The fire may be out but I carry something just as significant: radio handsets. Not just any—these operate on some special band that, unlike all other radio frequencies, does not have that woodpecker sound. For three weeks I’ve heard nothing but static and interference and silence on every radio and telephone that I’ve tried, and now these are…they’re a salvation of sorts. I found the two of them in the NBC security offices in 30 Rock. I wish I had three but it’s a start and I know better than anyone that wishes don’t come true in a hurry. I imagine what it would be like to hear another person’s voice over that radio.
It’s time to go.
I stand at the door of the book store at the corner of Park Avenue and East 57th Street. I’ve stashed the canvas bags of food behind a car around the corner. I bang again on the glass door, sit on the curb, take off my backpack and watch the street. The sun is shining now. There’s a sound behind me:
Caleb. He unlocks the door, all smiles, and gives me a big bear hug as I pass through into his home.
‘Hot chocolate?’ he asks.
‘Sure, thanks,’ I reply, following him up the stairs.
Caleb is a great guy, an older brother I never had. I met him three days ago after he practically crashed an ambulance into my cop car. We were both going slow and out of control in heavy snow and he pushed my car off the road. Our bumpers were hooked together and in the half an hour it took to free them and get back on the road, we knew we’d be friends.
He lights up a little gas burner stove and puts long-life milk into a saucepan. There’s stacks of food and drinks that line a wall. Games of every kind cover a conference table. He’s got a petrol generator set up in a storeroom, bigger capacity than the one I’ve got back at 30 Rock, and he runs it all day long, charging things like laptop computers and iPods and running a fridge. There are a few television screens set up for different consoles, and he has a massive LCD screen hooked up to a PS3 on pause. That first day I was here we had races on book trolleys, then he showed me some tricks on his skateboard, but he soon crashed and skinned his elbows and wouldn’t let me help him with the bandages. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days until now. Today as I came in downstairs I noticed the skateboard was broken in half. The milk in the pan steams and he heaps in a couple of spoons of chocolate powder. We take our drinks into his lounge area.
‘Think the power will ever come back on?’
‘Maybe,’ he replies, talking though the steam of his drink.
‘Depends if it’s just that the lines are cut, or if the power plants have been attacked too.’
‘I saw street lights on in New Jersey.’
‘Last week. Stayed on for two nights, several blocks, all lit up. Gone now.’
He nods at this new info, fleeting optimism.
He’s made a stack of comic books and graphic novels for me to read since I was here last. Big collection, arranged in order that I should read them, he says. Says it’s a crime I’ve only ever read a couple of Spiderman and X-Men comics back home. We talk about how neither of us really understands why no one
has yet been a superhero. Maybe we’ve had leaders like Gandhi or Mandela or whoever who’ve made a massive difference, but that’s not what we talk about.
‘I’m talking about an average guy or girl, driven to get organized and skilled up enough to put on a costume and get out there and make a difference,’ he says. ‘Kinda like Batman or most of the Watchmen, some ordinary guy or girl who decides to tool up and kick some criminal butt. A guy like me.’
I laugh and take my jacket off as he sets up a little gas heater.
‘Dude, that’s awesome,’ he says. ‘Thanks.’ I’m wearing a Spiderman outfit that I tried to dye black but it’s streaky, several shades of grey in places, and there are even a few tiger-stripes of red where the dye hasn’t taken at all. It’s a wreck of a job, but at least the food stains are covered. I’ve worn it on and off for over three weeks and—I like it, it’s easy and comfortable to wear, mostly.
We play a couple of sports games on the 70-inch screen, then shut the generator down and eat some hot bread he’s made with a bread-maker, thick slices topped with some canned bolognaise sauce. I wash it down with juice and he has two beers. He talks about his family and his job and his tiny apartment down in the East Village and how at least he doesn’t have to worry about paying rent and bills anymore.
‘I just don’t know who to blame.’
‘Like who did this?’
‘You’re a little bit different, aren’t you?’
‘Little bit,’ I reply, realizing I’ve zoned out before.
‘It was a country though, no doubt,’ he said. ‘Russia maybe, China, North Korea.’
‘Yeah, damned French. Maybe even the Brits, who knows?’
‘What could cause a sickness like that?’
‘I’ve been through every book here I could find on chemicaland biological warfare. There are a few things that make people thirsty, like what we see here, but that doesn’t explain how they’re…you know, how they don’t talk or anything.’
‘Yeah. In the first week, I spoke to a few people I saw around, including an army guy. He said it was an attack by either China, Russia or North Korea. I haven’t seen him since.’
‘Well, that narrows it down.’
‘Yeah, I got the sense he was just rounding up the usual suspects. But what he was saying was, this was a coordinated, large-scale attack on this city, and probably a nation-wide thing.’
‘What about the sickness that makes them chasers?’
‘That’s funny how you call them that,’ he says. ‘You know only a few, like maybe one or two per cent of the total affected population, actually chase. Rest are smart enough just to stand ’round and drink water or eat snow.’
‘Yeah, the name “chaser” just kind of stuck after…when I saw them on the first day,’ I say. ‘Have you thought…like, maybe it was better for those who died during the attack?’
He looks off to the doors and after a while he nods.
‘Wanna go crash cars, see if the airbags go off?’
‘Maybe next time,’ I reply.
‘Golf on the roof?’
‘Nah.’ I smile, thinking of when we spent all afternoon playing golf, having putting competitions through the self-help and crime isles, and driving off the roof, aiming for a large window in the building opposite. ‘I wish I could find a cricket bat.’
‘That game seems pretty gay to me.’
‘And baseball’s what?’
‘A real man’s sport.’
‘More Play Station?’
‘Nah,’ I say. ‘I might have a sleep for a bit, if that’s cool?’
‘Sure.’ He looks at me, concerned. ‘You right?’
‘Yeah. Couldn’t sleep last night.’
‘Wake you for dinner.’
He leaves me. I take a heavy feather quilt and pillow, take off my boots and lie on one of the couches. It’s so warm and comfortable that I sleep then and there.
I dream of an apartment on the fifty-ninth floor at 30 Rock. In my dream I see it as clearly as when I’m awake, but I know it’s different. There’s a room in there that was locked once, locked from the inside. I’d smashed it down, with the old typewriter from the study. In my dream I stand there at the door, which is all busted up around the handle, and I push it open with my foot, and the room is not how I remember it in reality. In my dream it’s a basement, a brick wall with a bare concrete floor. I take a step inside and it feels like it’s carpeted.
There’s a wooden chair and with a telephone on it. It’s one of those phones that were around before I was born, with a circular thing to choose the numbers rather than the buttons of today. It has a long lead that runs into the shadows, a place so dark there’s no telling where it goes. I’ve seen darkness like that before, in a subway tunnel, the cavernous holes of what remains of Rockefeller Plaza, road tunnels that lead off Manhattan—
The phone rings.
It’s the first phone I’ve heard ring in over three weeks. It’s louder than I remembered a phone’s ringing could be. I don’t want it to end. I listen to it like it’s music, think of the possibilities of the conversation that could ensue if I pick up the handset. I’m too scared to do anything about it. I forget it’s a dream and I stand there until I’m making the ringing sound in my head. It’s implanted in there now like, no matter what happens, I can
make the noise in my mind and hear it, no matter where I go or what’s going on around me. I take three steps and pick it up.
No one’s there, and the ringing has stopped.
Was it for me? I will never know.
I wake up.
I’m in 30 Rock. Looking out at night sky. I want to pack the stars away. Most of them are dead, long gone, their light traveling though the cosmos for thousands and millions of years after their demise. I’m surrounded by death, and I know that there’s so much that I will never know. I leave the observation deck. I head downstairs. I want to sleep and wake up in a different place and time, where the ground isn’t frozen and the people are warm.
I wake up, for real this time. Caleb is there, looking down at me.
‘You were talking in your sleep,’ he says. He hands me a steaming cup of hot chocolate. Our fingers touch and it’s a moment of electricity. I’d forgotten what it’s like to touch another person.
He sits on the edge of the couch. I’m in his place. In my dream I had woken up but really I hadn’t. I’m sweaty.
‘Hell,’ he says, ‘you’re lucky. The only people we dream about now are dead, right?’
I don’t answer him and he sits there in silence next to me as a storm cracks outside and snow falls.
‘I’m going to watch the street,’ he says, getting up and putting on a big snow-suit. He picks up a set of night-vision goggles and a high-powered rifle. He puts a little short-range walkie- talkie next to my couch. ‘You sleep. I’ll call you on that if there’s trouble.’
He leaves the room and I roll on my side and put the empty cup down beside the walkie-talkie. I wish I could call my family on it. I watch it and feel my eyes closing, heavy. Sleep comes easy here, easier than back at 30 Rock, and not the least, I suppose, because of the…
Over three weeks have passed since I took a subway ride from the UN Secretariat Building towards lower Manhattan. There was a bang and it was hot and then black, and an hour or so later I came to. By dim torchlight I found my way to street level. The power was already out and the phone dead. I wish I had a phone call, even just one. A ringing in the night or a dial tone as I placed the call. On the other end of the line would be home, back in Australia, and they’d tell me how everything was okay there and that help was on its way and that they missed me. The phone would ring, I’d pick it up and it would crackle to life.
I can hear my father’s voice, and I know I’m asleep because that’s something that I can’t do otherwise. I think I hear gunfire in the distance, but maybe it’s close by and I’m so deeply asleep that I can’t move, despite my desire.
I don’t think you can ever really choose the sound of the voice in your head. Not with any clarity, nothing beyond a static of background chatter. You can pretend to hear it clearly. You can mimic someone, you can dream, but it’s never like the real thing. I can hear his voice now, full of urgency and warning. Maybe this is it; my last, long sleep. I’d closed my eyes and listened tothe wind and wished for the day when my call would come, and now I sense it’s come and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Before sunrise I am dressed and packed and I put the long-range radio handset on Caleb’s bedside table and scribble a note:
This is for you. A real radio. See you soon.
He looks like a child as he sleeps.
I put my jacket on and I quietly slip through his barricade. Outside, it’s still dark.
I travel at or before sunrise because the streets are quiet. I’ve not seen chasers active until mid-morning. Maybe they like it when the sun is hitting the streets. Maybe they move around late at night and need to sleep in. Maybe they really are just like me.
I walk north along Park Avenue, dragging the canvas bags behind me.
This morning I am to meet my other friend, Rachel. She lives in Central Park Zoo. The way is clear. I walk north, my booted feet quiet in the silence of the post-apocalyptic streetscape.
I go around and over rubble when I have to. I recognize things I’ve seen pre and post the events of that first day. Little has changed, although some more buildings have come down and there are no fires anymore and the ash has stopped falling.
There are more sounds. I hear two cars, or maybe it’s the same vehicle that I hear twice within the hour. I hear a gunshot, far off in the still, clear morning. More an act of culling than an exchange of hostilities.
I go out wide to avoid the southern end of Central Park and I approach from the east, from 64th Street and across Madison Avenue into the zoo.
The entrance is through trees, with bare branches holding up the sky, and everything here hides under shadows.
I’ve been here twice this week and I know how to find her.
I knock on the glass doors, wait for five minutes, knock again. Rachel emerges, wide-eyed at first, looking around me, then she comes and lets me through the heavy doors and locks them behind me. She is slim under her khaki zoo-keeper’s uniform and her face is pale, her eyes always wet and searching. I present her with the two big canvas bags that I half-dragged here. I told her I’d look for a clear road so I could drive here next time and bring a bigger load of food and she nods and doesn’t look expectant. She doesn’t take the bags from me, just points to a spot to put them down, as if this is like selling herself and if she did then she’d never get up on her own again.
Inside, everything is covered with dust and ash. I follow her down dark hallways, beyond rooms with dappled light and quiet groans.
It’s warm in here. There’s occasional movement in the near- darkness and the hum of a petrol generator lighting some greasy old lamps. I followed her and we stop by a sheet of glass. She crouches down and I do too, and she shines a small torch into the gloom that’s eating up the light. There’s a big hairy mass and I can’t imagine what it is, but then a face looks at me, big and expectant and familiar in some way.
A brown bear, and a little cub nestled into its side. Here is life and it’s new and innocent in every way.
We stand in silence and the mother bear watches us, then goes back to her cub, and I don’t know what to say to Rachel. But her eyes seem to soften and after a while her face falls and I follow her out into the cafeteria.
I shake my head. She shrugs, eats tinned fruit, which could be what I gave her two days ago. I don’t think she will leave her animals, even to go and get food for them or herself, although she won’t say as much and she certainly won’t ask me for help. I wish it was otherwise, but then why would she need to ask
anyway—I’d give whatever I could, whenever I could.
I watch Rachel eat her fruit and then she gets a drink from a vending machine that looks like it was smashed open by a truck, and she stands there, drinking, maybe waiting for me to say something. But she never really looks at me. and after a minute she leaves, going back to her work. She does so much and what am I doing? I don’t even know who I am anymore.
Four hours later I finish collecting water from the neighboring pond, hauling drums through the southwest gate as I’ve seen Rachel do once. I’ve stacked them up four high and three deep and twelve across. They’re not drums, they’re empty water cooler bottles. I assume she uses them to move water around for the animals to drink. Now I can hardly lift my arms and I turn back to the zoo’s entry building and she’s there, some hay in her hair and a flushed face—she hasn’t stopped working either. For the first time she looks me in the eyes for more than a couple of seconds and, as I go to walk past her, I think she whispers: ‘Thanks’.
I have a can of Coke from the vending machine and she comes into the cafeteria and I felt guilty but she smiles, and maybe I should have taken something from her at the start.
I show her the radio handset.
‘Radio. Works.’ I hand it to her, the charger too.
‘You have one?’
I shake my head.
‘My other friend, Caleb, who I told you about?’
She looks at me weird, different. She tries to hand it back but I don’t take it. I know I’ll be okay. I know I can avoid the chase, hide out. I’ve nothing other than myself to protect. She’s argued maybe in her mind, but it’s fallen on deaf ears all round and she puts the charger on her desk and clips the radio on her belt.
‘You can contact him.’
She says she will but her eyes say otherwise. She has a PhD and I have two years of high school still to do. I can’t bring myself to tell her that it’ll be okay, that things can only get better. I am capable of the darkest things.
‘I had an idea,’ she says, not looking at me. ‘I thought maybe, you could, like, you could stay here with me.’
I look out the doors to the empty street. The day is getting dark. I imagine the image of my friends standing across the street, waiting for me to join them for the walk back to 30 Rock. They’d make everything easier and harder at the same time.
‘I’ll come back tomorrow,’ I say, attempting to meet her eyes. ‘With petrol for your generators.’
Her eyes meet mine, just for a moment. She then looks across the street, to exactly where I imagined my friends had been.
I put on my pack and leave, following the departing sun, hoping that I have not left it too late. About ten blocks south I hear a scream and I know I’ve been seen.
Chasers are after me.
I run around the first corner, disappear into a restaurant. Wait in the darkness, pressed up against a wall. They pass the window, a dozen of them, in a half-run. They’re out there and they might come back. I head down into the basement, barricading the door shut behind me. A smell like rotten food. I shine my little wind-up torch around in the darkness, walking past the walk-in refrigerators and shelves stacked with Italian foodstuffs. There’s a camp-stretcher set up as a bed,like maybe someone had been here for the first little while, but they’re long gone, dust or ash coating the pillow.
I take a blanket, shake it clear, cough from the dust. I roll it and tuck it under my arm.
I will wait here until sunrise. I look around. There’s a metal staircase that leads up to metal doors that must open onto a side street. The smell gets worse in a far corner, like the worst kind of garbage. I stand at the doors to a room-size fridge and there’s slimy red-brown sludge oozing from under the door. In one corner of the brick room is a small office. It’s bare, just a timber chair like the ones in the restaurant upstairs. I walk towards it, shining my light, which is getting dim, and I wind the handle to make it shine bright again. Everything is illuminated. On the chair there’s a telephone. The line travels off into the darkness.
I close my eyes. I see the radio. I see that telephone on the seat in that concrete room. I have dreamed of this place. I open my eyes and the phone’s still there. I set the torch on the ground and close the office door. I break out some biscuits from my pack, sit on the blanket, stare at the phone. There are so many calls I want to make, so many calls I want to take.
Part of me is always afraid that I’ll wake up and not remember how to get to my friends, Caleb and Rachel. Worse still, that they’ve moved on, or that they’ve forgotten about me. Or that I’ve forgotten about them, and I sit there in 30 Rock and watch the streets from up high and never come down to street level again. How could I forget them? They’re the only people I know.
I think of that woman I saw running in the streets. Alone.
I am alone.
Don’t go there alone.
In my thoughts I hear a reply:
Author: James Phelan
Publisher: K-Teen, 256 Pages (October 30th, 2012)
Add to: Goodreads
Synopsis: Four Teenagers.
One Destroyed City.
Jesse is on a UN Youth Ambassadors camp in New York when his subway carriage is rocked by an explosion. Jesse and his three friends, Dave, Mini and Anna, crawl out from the wreckage to discover a city in chaos.
Streets are deserted. Buildings are in ruins. Worse, the only other survivors seem to be infected with a virus that turns them into horrifying predators...
Outnumbered. No sign of life. Just them. And you... ALONE.
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James, thanks for letting me share this story on my blog with everyone for Halloween! Looking forward to reading Chasers even more so now. Also, thanks to K-Teen for donation the copies for this giveaway!
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