There’s no sudden realisation, no great epiphany. It’s just the slow creep of comprehension, like waking up from a long sleep, that brief moment when you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming.
It’s like an archaeologist placing a sheet of tracing paper on an engraving, and then rubbing it with charcoal. Slowly, with a bit of effort, a picture begins to emerge.
And the picture is this: I fixate on my hands, turning them over, getting them warmer as I put them closer to the flames.
I’m alone, in a forest, sat on a large log. The crude stone fire-pit and the bin-bags indicate I’ve been here for some time.
There’s a clump of white fungus growing from the bark of the log that I’m sitting on. I keep looking at it, but I don’t know why.
I stand up and my right knee clicks, pops like bubble-wrap, and I become aware of how chilly it is. I’m wearing a red flannel shirt and jeans. Awkwardly, I press my nose against my shoulder and inhale. I smell of damp and grass and hours spent outside. Hours spent sat on a log warming my hands over a fire, probably.
I hobble around my hastily assembled ‘camp’: pots and pans; a tarp attached to a tree; a hatchet in a stump near a small stash of logs. The trees are thick, tall and angular, their tangled branches reaching up to form a dense canopy. The ground is covered in dead leaves and bracken, crunches under my boots as I trudge forward.
I can hear the sound of running water, so I head in its direction. The trees open up into a clearing and when I emerge from the woods, I step into a thin stream that trickles along a rocky wound in the forest floor. I spot a plastic jug and some empty bottles on the rocks near the stream. This is where I get my water from. I hop over the stream onto the gently sloping bank at the other side.
I decide to press on for a bit. I don’t want to lose sight of my camp, so I figure I’ll walk for a few minutes before turning around and heading back. But after only a short walk, the trees clear and I step out onto a field.
The field is vast, green and flat. I can make out a stone wall in the distance that runs along the horizon. Must be a road or path on the other side. Everything feels mute and empty. The grey sky presses down on me, on the world. The eerie silence is shattered by a rush of birds taking flight from the trees behind me. The sound of screeching and flapping wings makes me jump. Adrenalin charges through my veins.
The voice that comes out of my mouth is unfamiliar to me.
I put my hands my thighs and bend over, gulping air. Blood thunders from my heart to my head and back again.
Try again to remember how I got here, but my brain is a 32-bit console: it lacks the processing power to fully render my memories, so everything is obscured by fog.
I pick myself up.
My heart’s still pumping, so I have a moment before heading back into the trees, towards the camp. I spot the stream and hop over it. I fill one of the bottles I found on the bank with water and take it back with me.
The fire’s still burning. I break up some dry branches and twigs and put them on the flames, and then fetch one of the logs and toss it into the flames. I find bottle filled with layers of stones and dry earth, so I must have been fetching and purifying water from the stream for a while now. I pour some filtered water into a pan and gently place it on the fire.
As I wait for the water to boil, I occupy myself by staring at my hands again. And then something occurs to me: my hands are soft, unblemished. I look over at the stack of chopped wood, and then back at my hands again.
And that’s when I see the outline of a large, dark shape rising out of the ground just a few feet away from the camp. Why didn’t I notice it before?
It’s covered in leaves and branches, but there’s no mistaking it. It’s a car. A large, family car, a hatchback estate.
The windows are blacked out. I try the handle on the passenger side, and it clunks as the door unlocks. I slowly pull it open. A blast of stale air, a stink of wet fur and sweaty feet. It’s dark inside. I climb into the seat, but I keep the door open so I can see.
The back seats have been folded away, leaving enough room for a wooden bedframe with a mattress and blankets. This is where I sleep. I press the button on the glove-compartment, and it pops open.
I have a rummage. There’s a couple of manuals, one for the car, one for the radio, and scraps of paper covered with scribbled numbers and incomprehensible notes. An empty bottle of pills. I shake it, but it’s empty.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know I’m supposed to take three of these a day.
I find a white plastic carrier bag, stuff it into the front pocket of my jeans. That’s when I find the wallet.
I take it out and open it up. From the frame of a little plastic window, a face stares up at me. It’s a driver’s licence with a picture. Some average looking, white, middle-aged bloke. I don’t recognise him. I look at his face again, and then I look up at my face reflected in the rear-view mirror.
The face in the mirror is grubby; sunken cheeks covered by a wild, unkempt beard. Thin, grey hair jutting out from at mad angles from a balding head. I don’t recognise him.
I look back at the driver’s licence.
Who is he?
Who is he?
He looks old, worn-out, tired. He might be the same person as the one in the photograph, he might not be.
He places the wallet back into his pocket, and then he takes the empty bottle of pills and puts them in the carrier. He pulls himself up from the seat, gets out of the car and shuts the door. Walks around to the back of the car, opens the boot.
He finds a crate under the bed. It contains some packets and tins of food items. Noodles. Beans. A couple of bags of coffee and powdered milk. Biscuits. Dried fruit.
He grabs some things, makes a mental note, pushes the crate under the bed and closes the boot. Heads over to the fire. After straining the water and boiling it again, he has a cup of bitter tasting-coffee along with a stale tasting energy-bar.
After breakfast, he sets out towards the stream and heads to the edge of the woods. He takes the hatchet with him (just in case). The plan is to chop a wedge in the trunk of the trees so he can find his way back, but he notices they’ve already been marked.
He crosses the field and finds a road on the other side of the stone wall. He climbs over it, as random thoughts and images tumble through his brain: his soft hands, fingers outstretched as he warms them over the flames; the screech of the birds escaping the trees; the face on the driver’s license; the face in the mirror; the clump of white fungus.
The road gently slopes up to a hill and he can make out a car in the distance, so he focuses on it and starts walking.
Getting closer, he realises it’s abandoned. No passengers, no food, no nothing. The layer of grime and dirt on the windows suggests that it’s been here for a long time.
When he reaches the summit of the hill, he looks down sees a small cluster of houses, around five or six of them squeezed together.
It’s too small to be a village, just a single, deserted road flanked by humble red-brick houses. No sign of any activity anywhere. His only company is a couple of dirty cars in overgrown driveways. He goes over to a house, peers through the windows. It’s empty. No furniture, fixtures, or fittings. A shell.
He walks on a bit further, realises the last building on the left side of the road is some kind of convenience store. There are no logos or branding, just a simple white banner sign above the large front window that says: ‘SHOP’
He heads towards the door. Opening it, he’s shocked by what he finds. Everything inside it is white. Fully stocked white shelves are filled with white packets, tins, and bags with simple item descriptions stencilled on the front in a neat, regular, black font: INSTANT BEEF FLAVOUR NOODLES; BOURBON BISCUITS; CHERRY FLAVOUR SPARKLING BEVERAGE; CHOCOLATE BAR WITH CARAMEL, NOUGAT AND PEANUTS.
It’s like he’s stepped onto the set of play or TV show.
‘Hello?’ a voice calls out.
For second time today he recoils, the relative silence of his own company smashed to smithereens. Adrenaline floods his veins, and he scuttles behind a row of shelves.
‘Sorry, sorry,’ the voice says. ‘Calm down mate, okay? I’m not a threat. I don’t want any trouble. Just calm down.’
Slowly, he tips his head to the side, looks out from behind the shelves. The owner of the voice, and possibly the store, is behind the counter, hands in the air.
‘Seriously pal, you can come out.’
The man behind the counter is average looking – average build, average height. Everything about him is average. White, middle-aged, no facial hair or remarkable features. White trousers with a white polo shirt. White apron and white baseball cap.
Keeping his eye fixed on the man behind the counter, he steps out from behind the shelves, slowly approaches. Reaching into his pocket, he pulls the wallet out and opens it up, shows it to the man behind the counter.
The man behind the counter points to a white plastic badge pinned to his chest. It has ‘FRANK’ stencilled across it.
‘I’m Frank,’ he says. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Do… do you? Do you?’
It’s difficult to speak at first. His voice feels raw and new, like he’s speaking for the first time: ‘Do you know who I am?’
Frank slowly reaches across, takes the wallet from his hands, furrows his brow as he examines the photo.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t recognise you.’
Frank takes the license from the from the wallet and holds it up close to his eye.
‘Is it me? Is that me?’
Frank stares at the picture, and then looks up at the face in front of him, back to the picture, back to the face, repeats again before saying: ‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t tell. It could be, it might be you, but I just can’t tell. You look very different to the person in this picture. That’s all I can say, really. Maybe if you cut your hair and shaved your beard off. I don’t know.’
Frank gently places the license back into the wallet, hands it over.
He puts it back into his pocket and doesn’t know what to say, so he doesn’t say anything for a while. Eventually he asks: ‘What happened to everybody?’
Frank shuffles around for a bit, hops from foot to foot. Adjusts a couple of items on the counter. He leans forward, makes a show of turning his head left and right as if to check they’re alone, when they clearly are.
‘Listen mate, you’re the one who’s paying for all of this. And let me tell you, it’s not cheap. Isolation. Subsistence living. Basic survival scenario, it’s what you insisted on. I haven’t got a fucking clue what all this is about, I just work here mate.’
He nods at Frank, and then he looks around the store. ‘Do you mind if I take a couple of things?’
‘Knock yourself out mate. But don’t forget these.’
Frank reaches under the counter and pulls out a couple of bottles of pills, the same container as the one he found in the glovebox.
‘Remember to take three of these a day. Helps block things out so you can focus on looking after yourself,’ Frank says.
He takes the empty bottle from the carrier, places it on the counter and puts the new bottles in. He walks around the store and grabs a couple of things while Frank makes an ostentatious display of wiping down the counter with a white cloth.
He takes some beans and tinned vegetables. Some powdered milk and teabags. Some beef jerky and chewing gum. Oh, and toilet-roll, can’t forget toilet roll.
‘Look after yourself,’ Frank says. ‘Where you off to next?’
‘I’m going home,’ he replies, pointing north. ‘Back to the woods.’
‘Good lad. Last thing… try to remember not to leave all your plastic waste lying around. If you put in a bag and leave it outside the car, someone will sneak in during the night and dispose of it while they’re dropping off the chopped wood. Don’t worry, they wait until you’ve passed out in the back of the car, so you don’t even notice.’
Frank smiles and waves: ‘Look after yourself.’
‘I will, don’t worry.’
He opens the door. He’s about to step outside when Frank shouts: ‘See ya next month. And bring the wallet with you again, it’s a good icebreaker.’
Artwork by Gareth Sleightholme
Joe Hakim lives and works in Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire. He is the author of the sci-fi/horror novel The Community and has also dabbled with spoken word, broadcasting, and theatre production with varying degrees of success.