The corner stone café.
All day jumbo breakfast Â£3.99. Myriad aromas, countless mouth-watering tastes. An oasis of nostalgia amid hopelessness.
The carefully stencilled menu, prices hand written next to each delightful dish. All floated in his mind's eye in sublime, memorized detail, furnishing this soothing corner of his soul where the embers of gladder times still glowed.
For an instant, the acrid stench of burning tenements, shops and the indisputable aroma of corrupted flesh were forgotten, supplanted by bacon, coffee, toast. But his imagination's hold on these memories was tenuous. Born of necessity, concentration marshalled its forces toward survival these days; not the futile mourning of the unattainable, of a life lost.
Around him progressive dawn light coaxed the usual sights, sounds and smells from the world. In the distance the low, rumbling explosion of a ruptured gas pipe. Above birds so mutated that to even guess at their breed would be folly, indulged their own instinctual nostalgia; their agonised, screeching twitters akin to the cries of tortured cats.
Crouched low, peering warily through a broken window, Skip reconnoitred the street, or at least the ruinous expanse it now presented; labels and tags of the past had been forsaken a long time since. They were useless now. Things, events, people could no longer be ordered into the niches in which society had once coerced them. Streets were merely killing grounds peopled by the hunters and the hunted, a trio of circumstance, cunning and sheer dumb luck deciding the former from the latter.
Frail vegetation poked tentatively through the cracked concrete at his feet, a light breeze persuading their undernourished forms into a tired swagger. But nature, it would appear, was just as fucked as everything else. As broken as the scorched skies, the poisoned air, soil and water. As done-for as disco, Sunday roast and good manners.
Twitching, he glanced nervously behind him -an essential habit since the world had gone and got itself all fucked over- but this time found nothing untoward. On each shadowed corner, every mound of debris and rubble, his keen eyes lingered; diligently scanning the rest of the room, even so far as the roofless expanse above. In this world where threats could come from any and everywhere, Skip took nothing for granted. Assumption
was just another superfluous echo of a time when routine and order gave the word some weight; when one plus one still came out at two.
The lightening dawn skies, Skip noticed, had begun to dim. An uncommonly swift, angry darkness closed in from the east. Behind him a dog wined.
"You ok boy?" Skip asked, his voice a gravelled, barely-familiar, mutation of its former timbre. Ears pricked, the dog cocked its head inquisitively. Its attention a fleeting thing, the animal sniffed the air and whimpered again.
Beyond the window's aged glass the hunched forms of the damned addressed the morning. No more than shapeless silhouettes of humanity now, they shuffled through smouldering buildings, crept behind the burned husks of vehicles. They too, like the dog, sensed something.
Skip glanced back to his companion who, having discarded the weather soiled shoe on which it had been gnawing, now furiously licked its balls as though salvation might be found there.
"Its coming, isn't it boy?"
A muffled whine of response from the animal.
Round and round it goes, who it fucks nobody knows.
Skip shuddered, recalling the stink of burned flesh and hair, the blistered, oozing scalp of the lunatic who had spoken those words.
"Stop him," the mad-man had implored, a palsied, blackened finger pointing toward Slater, "He's gonna kill the world. Stop him. Stop-"
Slater shot him in the head.