What Survives by M. Amelia Eikli
I’ve named the dog Scram, because no matter how many times I tell him to, he never does. He sits next to me, wagging his tail with an infuriating enthusiasm, and stares at me as if to say, ‘Yes! I love “scram”! What a wonderful word! Say it again! Oh, say it again please!’ So I do, and he doesn’t get it, so Scram has become his name.
The first couple of days, I expected him to leave. I pretended not to notice him so that I wouldn’t be disappointed when he wasn’t there anymore. But I got used to him; I started looking for him in the mornings and made shelter for him at night. Now, I grab treats for him in every shop we pass. There’s always an excellent selection. No one, not even the most paranoid doomsday prepper, thought to empty the shops of dog treats.
He makes walking better. He never growls, and he catches rabbits, pheasants and passing wasps. He chases butterflies and barks excitedly at birds. He’s a very good dog.
‘Scram?’ I say. I speak to him when it gets too quiet. ‘Do you think we’re in Hamburg now? Do you think we’ve made it to Hamburg, boy?’ I already know we have. I’ve been following the map closely—and the big ‘Wilkommen in Hamburg’ sign is a bit of a tip off.
Big cities creep me out, and the smell of death is everywhere. So far, I’ve mostly avoided walking into cities at all. But the heel of my boot has a slash in it, I’m almost out of petroleum jelly, and I lost my knife somewhere outside Hanover. I picked up a kitchen knife from an old lady’s house, but I need to find one that folds. Big cities mean selection and survival. I can’t really say no to that.
Scram barks and jumps. He’s running back and forth in front of me, sniffing lampposts, corpses and muck. He loves being in Hamburg like he loves being everywhere. He investigates the hair of a lady who lies in a doorway, but he doesn’t disturb her. He never disturbs the dead, and I love him for that.
Here, they’ve piled up the dead on street corners. They’re lying quietly, waiting for the van that never came to pick them up. Sometimes, I try naming the dead as I pass.
Mrs Lying in a Doorway, I think, had beautiful hair, and held on to the end.
Mr Bright Green Trainers, I continue, couldn’t outrun the disease, but gave it a good go.
This way, I can remember them all; I make a space for them inside what I know of the world. But the piles are too big. Mr… Mr… Mrs… and I don’t know, because they all blend together and ooze into my consciousness as ‘this pile’ or ‘that pile’. It’s too harsh. Too toxic. Instead, I try not to look at them, just keep moving north, breathe through my mouth, count my steps, think of something else or nothing at all.
I lean on numbers to make myself keep moving. There were roughly eight billion people in the world. I can’t be the only survivor. Even if just 0.1% survived, there should be 80 million of us, wandering about. 80 million people means I’m bound to run into some of us eventually. With 0.01%, it would be slightly harder for us to find each other, but even with 0.001%—80,000 people—and a lifetime of loneliness to fuel the search, I will find others. I’m bound to. I’m hoping, though, that there’s a genetic reason I’m still here. That would mean hope for my family.
A stylish family of mannequins—impeccably dressed in wrinkle-free hiking gear—stand in front of pristine tents and unused sleeping bags; this is the shop I’m looking for. They’re surrounded by plastic flowers and papier-mâché trees, bird feathers, twigs, a plastic campfire and a stuffed bear. The shop owners get bonus points for effort. I wrap my hand in a towel and set about smashing the window. Even with the emergency hammer I stole from a bus, my arm grows sore and my mind wanders. Hiking, tents, a kiss in a… no. It’s important that I don’t think too much. Security glass is a nightmare. It splinters slowly and in big, heavy sheets. You can make it through, but it takes time. I swear a lot and Scram rests.
When the window finally gives in, I brush the glass away with my foot and step inside. Scram jumps in beside me and sniffs the display. Will he widdle on the fake trees? These are the things that concern me now. He doesn’t, of course. Instead, he runs in and out of the tents and plays with a plastic plate that could—by a dog—be confused with a Frisbee. Looking around, my eyes are drawn to a small red light that’s blinking inside.
For a moment, it makes my stomach jump.
Lights can mean life, my stomach says, tossing and turning in excitement. I settle it at once.
Lights just mean batteries, I think in my sternest tone. And batteries mean nothing at all. These truths are important. These truths keep me sane. My stomach needs to arrive at this conclusion before it takes me down with it. I’ve been walking for more than a month, and nothing has, so far, meant life.
The red eye stares at me from the top of an old-fashioned answering machine. The type with a tape and backup batteries that got so popular after the third, or was it the fourth pandemic. The tape rewinds with a loud whirr I haven’t heard since I was a kid, but its low-tech squeak still feels excessively futuristic in the dead quiet around me. A frail male voice sputters. It’s emotional. Final.
‘Alle Mitarbeiter von Stolze Sport und Freizeit möchten sich bei Ihnen für die Zusammenarbeit bedanken. Das Geschäft bleibt vorerst geschlossen… Vielen Dank.’ I don’t pay attention to what he’s saying, but the sound of a human voice is comforting. Comforting and painful. Then there is a long pause, and his voice shifts. ‘Laura… wenn du irgendwo da draußen bist… Bitte komm doch wieder nach Hause! Alles ist verziehen… Wir… komm wieder nach Hause.’ There is such a soreness to this and I can’t help but translate, even though I don’t want to know. The German I learned at school rises up through 15 years of neglect and tells me he’s asking Laura, whomever she is, to come home. All is forgiven, he says. Come home.
Discomforting. That’s what I meant. The sound of a human voice is discomforting. I shiver and start looking around the shop for what I need. The machine continues. ‘Sie haben zwei neue Nachrichten.’ There’s a beep and an automated message of some sort. A chipper pre-recorded voice tells me something I don’t need to know. Whatever it wants me to do, it is most definitely too late.
The shop has a great selection of hiking boots. I’m already dreading breaking in a new pair; not only do the blisters and sores hurt like hell, but they will also slow me down. Ideally, I’d be in Denmark by now, so I’m already behind schedule. But there’s nothing to be done, so no point complaining. My current right boot lets water in through the heel, and no amount of duct tape can fix it forever.
My measure of a good day has changed in these past few months. This is a good day, as I’ve run into the ultimate sign of good fortune: there are no excess doors. The shop kept boxes of shoes in different sizes stacked along the wall. I can find my size without breaking down any warehouse doors, which means fewer calories spent and more walking time today. The machine still drones on, the voice too chipper for this tomb. I start unlacing a pair of purple boots that resemble the ones I already have. For some reason, I’m reluctant to pick any of the most expensive pairs in the shop. They feel out of my league, even though there are no leagues left.
The machine beeps. The second message starts playing. I freeze. Someone is sobbing. A wet, sticky and heartbreaking sound, occasionally broken off by violent, rolling, scraping coughs. Swallow, breathe, swallow. My skin is cold and clammy, and I recognise these coughs. The woman on the tape hasn’t got long left at all.
‘Opa…’ the voice croaks. More sobs. More coughs. ‘Ich komme…’
There are no more messages. Just the silence they leave me with, surrounded by shoes for nobody’s feet. I throw up in a purple boot and sink to the floor.
Eventually, I wrap the shoes in a plastic bag I find under the counter. The smell of sick makes me gag, but the thought of leaving it exposed for animals to find is worse. Swallow and breathe, swallow and breathe. It strikes me, as I place the shoes in yet another bag and throw them in a bin that will never be emptied, that these messages were important. Opa never heard the message from the girl, whom I can only assume had been Laura. Her words, like all other words from the end of the End, disappeared into nothing until I picked them up. I don’t want them. I wish I could erase them and leave them behind. But instead, I play the tape over and over until I’m sure I’ll remember them by heart.
I find another pair of shoes that fit even better than the first. They are dull and grey, so I pinch a couple of the fake flowers from the window display and weave them between the laces. It looks all right. I take a couple more and stick them in my hair for good measure. The shop has an impressive display of hunting knives in a big cabinet on the wall. I break the glass with my hammer and choose a big one. It doesn’t fold up but it’s sleek and long, and the sheath is beautifully decorated with trees and wolves on dark leather. I rub my thumb against it. It’s sharp. I suck the small beads of blood between my teeth. It tastes wrong. When I notice how long it takes to stop bleeding, I start counting the weeks since… Don’t think about it, just count. 14? 15? 18? I have no idea, but I add iron tablets to my mental list of things I need to find. I’ve got no time for anaemia, and I should be getting my periods back soon.
I grab some freeze-dried camping meals, a new head torch (the one I have is fine, but this one’s better), and half a packet of ibuprofen I find in a drawer behind the till. Scram is standing in front of a pack of tennis balls, whimpering slightly.
‘Oh, please, can we? Can we?’ says his tail, and he turns to me with his tongue out, tilting his head so that his face adds, ‘Oh boy! Tennis balls! Come on! You’ll love it! Come on!’ So I break open the pack and pour four of the five balls into my backpack. The fifth, I hold in my hand until we get out, and then I throw it as far as I can down the street. Scram couldn’t be happier. He barks and runs in his weird little way, halfway between a run and a skip. He reminds me of a calf in spring. He runs here and there, always in the general direction of the ball but constantly veering off to this side or that depending on where his skip lands him. I laugh a short laugh. Just a syllable or two. ‘Ih ih,’ I say. The sound is off, but the intention is there and makes me smile.
I keep moving north. I’ll be there in plenty of time for my niece’s birthday.
Six weeks ago, I placed the backpack on my bed and closed my eyes. The smell of her still hung in the air like an afterthought. I had the feeling that there was something I meant to say, but I couldn’t quite remember what, or why. We had bought this backpack five years earlier, when we were still new and fresh and didn’t know who we’d be as a couple. We had hoped we’d be the outdoorsy kind. We spent hundreds of pounds we didn’t really have on hiking boots, a tent, head torches, thermoses, walking sticks and softshell jackets. We only went camping once. My feet blistered so much that I couldn’t walk the next day. We had to take a taxi home. I wanted so much to be healthy, strong, enduring—but my heavy frame and excess pounds ground my feet against my boots until I bled and oozed and swelled them full. I spent the next year learning to walk. Not the cold march of everyday navigation but the steady, patient gander of a proper hiker. We had been planning to go hiking again, but the backpack still looked brand new.
When the End came, we were scared. We huddled together like frightened sparrows in our little nest. We never stopped watching the news. It was far from our first pandemic, but this one felt different, right from the start. We watched the early reports that said the disease must have originated somewhere in Asia, and the later ones that said the US was more likely the birthplace. We watched the guides on how to protect ourselves— the old classics of face coverings and social distancing, and the specifics of bleach and magnesium. Then, there were endless accounts of incubation times and symptoms. We felt the world grow quiet as more and more experts died before they could tell us how to survive. We heard the howl go up around the world when they said they’d been wrong: contamination had started a year ago; incubation time could be eight months, or even more. The disease was everywhere already. It was too late.
The broadcasts stopped in the middle of the second wave. By then, it had already been dubbed ‘The End’. Before the second wave had rolled past, electricity, water, everything had shut down. There simply weren’t enough people to keep the world going. There simply weren’t enough people to care.
For a while, we thought we were survivors. And for a moment or two, there was calm. We weren’t many. Maybe 30 in our town; someone said there were a couple of hundred in the next city over. We all wore face masks and gloves. We followed the guidelines written by those who hadn’t made it. Most of us were young. All of us were heart-scared. And we kept to ourselves, most of the time.
She would lean into me when we cuddled, and we’d pretend like the past year and a half—with all its sorrows and uncertainties—hadn’t happened. Her fragile body and glittering mind were the only things I cared about. I wanted to protect her, find some way to make her safe and happy. I used to think she had led me back to God, and now, God had left us a new Earth. We were chosen. Or abandoned. Perhaps we were left behind for a reason. We were the righteous, or we were the damned. Either way, we had each other.
We never talked about our parents or our siblings. There were no phones, no trains, no postmen, so we couldn’t know if they had made it. Not for certain. Instead, we read to each other by candlelight and planned to go and see them when things settled down. Her family first. They were just a few hours away by car, near Wales. Then we’d find a way to visit mine, in Norway. We talked about my niece’s birthday in October. We’d definitely visit them then. Someone would have figured something out before that—of course someone would. I did what I could to keep our hopes up. I talked about the future, and furniture, and how to get through the next winter if the electricity didn’t come back. She tried to make me smile, talked about books and poems and how happy she was that she had found me. Then, after a few weeks, she started coughing, and I knew God was dead, and probably had been for a while.
After a devastating global pandemic, the world has gone quiet. She hasn’t seen another living soul for weeks, just the piles of corpses lining the streets. With an enthusiastic dog named Scram, a photo of her wife, and the memory of an old friend at her side, she hikes across Europe to answer one question: has her family survived?
An unsettling presence watches her from the shadows. As she walks through empty cities being reclaimed by nature, she grows less certain that the yellow-eyed creature is just a figment of her imagination.
What Survives takes readers on a gripping journey of grief, resilience, and the relentless pursuit of life.