He had been singing along to something on a random Spotify playlist, more sounds than lyrics, slapping butter on toast, when the Storm entered his world.
He doesn’t even remember what the song was now, his overriding memory of that moment was the volume of screeching. His own name, a voice at top volume coming rapidly up the open stairs of their cosy duplex.
Jamie. Wild eyed and terrified and straight from bed. Normally this shirtless, sleep-tousled male vision would have been welcome in the morning, but Jamie had launched himself at Mike full tilt and burst into tears.
That was the name they settled on, in the week of the endless news cycle. Something innocuous, for how could they ever capture the terror of 98% of the population just being gone? One week with the veneer of normalcy, before the dark and quiet end. Panels of experts who knew nothing, wasting the airtime of 24hr news. Nobody had known how little time they had left. A maelstrom of pointless speculation when they should have been planning. Nobody knew what really happened, so why did it matter if it was an electromagnetic disturbance? A divine punishment? Extraterrestrial activity? All that mattered were the people left behind. A plot from a film too far-fetched to ever be made was now their everyday reality.
Jamie had explained through gasping, heaving sobs. The conversation with his mother, two percent of the population remaining. They sat soberly in front of the BBC News channel and absorbed the rolling bulletin, Jamie wide-wild-eyed, with an American channel playing out the same story on his laptop, while Mike tried his parents again and again.
Gradually it transpired that the Isles had been unaffected. Mike’s parents had got back from their morning walk, blissfully unaware, and were safe and well. Another merciful miracle.
Later, deep into the night came the euphoria of survival. A cosmic lottery that they both won, for neither could have imagined life without the other. Mike drifted off in Jamie’s arms, sated and guilty.
On the seventh day the signal died.
All channels ceased, cellular waves had degraded, the internet was gone. A week of intense input, then nothing. From being permanently online, they suddenly had nothing but each other. They exchanged concerned small talk with the remaining few neighbours, people living in the same building and who they barely knew. But this was London and panic was edging into people’s eyes. Supermarkets were few and small around here, and had long since been picked clean, with no deliveries coming in, because there were no delivery drivers. Barricades had gone up around the big Sainsbury’s further down the road toward the station. Mike and Jamie had been firmly deliveroo guys before the Storm, and had grimly queued and loaded up backpacks with as much as they could carry during their allotted time. They paid cash that they had scraped together in a further charade of normalcy, as there were no bank networks or debit cards without a signal. Much good it would do the supermarket overlords at the end of the world. Everybody hoarded and no one really considered that with only 2% remaining, food was unlikely to be the issue for a while.
In the days that followed, Jamie spent countless hours staring out of their floor-to-ceiling windows, the purple light of the Storm reflected in his dark eyes. Through their many years together Mike had learned to roll with the tides of Jamie’s dark days, had known when to prise him out, and when to leave him to come back at his own pace.
But that was in the before time.
The Storm had ripped everything from them. Their cushy media jobs, their connection to the outside world, and their comfortable balance with each other.
“Jamie, I made you a sandwich,” Mike tentatively approached his boyfriend, who was sitting on the floor, his cheek pressed against the glass. Their flat was on the top floor of this building, and had something of a view, for London. The tops of the other buildings were lit, as much of the world was now, in malevolent purple.
“Do you think my Dad survived?” Jamie asked, in a grey whisper, his voice creaking from disuse. These were the first words he had spoken in four days and Mike exhaled, tension bleeding from him. He sank to his knees next to his darling boy and gently put the plate in front of him.
“Eat. Don’t think about that dickhead,” Mike said, indicating the sandwich.
“Don’t call my Dad a dickhead,” Jamie said, half-laugh, half-sob. Mike stroked his hand through unbrushed, greasy curls.
“You’ve called him a dickhead enough times,” Mike pointed out, dropping a kiss to the top of his smelly head. He sat and awkwardly put a hand on Jamie’s shoulder. They sat in silence for a long while, Jamie resuming his staring and not eating the sandwich.
“What if it isn’t finished?” Jamie asked a long while later. The bread of the sandwich had hardened in the air, and had been none too fresh to begin with. He had eaten a few morsels. In the end, Mike had finished most of it. A silent rebuke. They could not afford to waste food now.
“What do you mean?” Mike asked wearily. His back and hips and arse were sore from sitting on the hard wooden floor for so long.
“I mean what if it happens again? What if it takes more of us?” Jamie looked at him, his dark eyes red-rimmed, underlined with blue black stain. Mike had a sudden creeping suspicion.
“How much sleep have you had?” He asked, harsher than he intended. Jamie flinched at his tone.
“I’ve slept,” he protested, weakly
“Jamie. We promised. Even before the Storm.” Mike tried to contain his anger. He knew in his rational brain that it was a product of his love for Jamie, distilled into worry when the depression that had plagued him most of his life flared up into this. “We promised no lies. Even when it’s bad. No lies and no omissions.” Mike felt his heart clench, he was so selfish. He needed Jamie to be okay, because he couldn’t do this alone. Evacuation was months away, and London got scarier every day.
Jamie looked away from him, out of the window.
“I haven’t, really. Slept.” Jamie admitted quietly. “I can’t risk it. Not while the sky is…” he gestured, feebly to the window, “What if it takes you? What if you’re not there when I wake up? You weren’t there when I woke up the first time and...” his voice cracked into a sob on the last word and he turned to rest his forehead on Mike’s shoulder. Mike put his arms around him.
“Bub, I know.” He rubbed his cheek against Jamie’s head. “I can’t even, it’s all a bad dream. I keep thinking I’ll wake up and it will have literally just been a long, weird nightmare. Like that summer when it was over 30 degrees every night and we had all those wild dreams? But you’ve got to sleep.” Mike rubbed his shoulder. “You need to switch your brain off.” he took Jamie’s hand and stood creakily to his feet, pulling Jamie up with him. Jamie let himself be taken, too weak to do anything else.
The vans were going around the neighbourhood again, they heard the sirens at 6am, then the same announcements repeating over a tinny megaphone, first in the distance, growing closer until it was unbearably loud. The evacuation tokens were to be allocated today.
The Army, those that were left and those who had seized the opportunity to sign up and get guns, stood with assault rifles managing the queue into the park. Mike and Jamie had argued about who was to go, but in the end neither could bear to be out of sight of the other, so they went together. They were under no illusions. Their jobs couldn’t be less essential these days, and they were unmarried men, no children or other dependents. The nights were already tough, screams and shouts echoed in this affluent neighbourhood. The door to their building had been smashed the day before and although they had reinforced the inner door to their flat they felt exposed.
The line that snaked through the park and out alongside the main road comprised all sorts. Some were grim and withdrawn, some still cheerful and chatty, despite everything. Blitz spirit, they still called it, but at least the Blitz had had some prospect of ending.
The sergeant was impassive as he checked them off the electoral register list and dropped a ‘9’ in Jamie’s hand and a ‘13’ in Mike’s. Jamie opened his mouth to protest but one look around at the hard-faced soldiers and a small shake of the head from Mike and he subsided without a word. They both gave their agreed order of preference; Man, Arran, Jura, Islay, Mull.
“I’m not fucking going before you,” he raged once they were safely back inside their flat. “I’m not going without you full stop,”
“James,” Mike put a hand on his arm, only to be petulantly shrugged off. “Jamie, relax” he said, resolutely through the other side of fear and into a detached calm about everything in the face of his boyfriends white hot rage.
“Mike, we have to get better tokens. We have to go and argue our case! 9 means January next year, 13 means May! That’s over a year! We’re gonna fucking freeze to death or be killed if we have to spend winter here without power, you heard what they were saying on the news, before the signal died, the power stations aren’t gonna be running much longer with no-one to run them,” Jamie rattled all of this off at 100mph without pausing to draw breath.
“Just breathe,” Mike said, infuriatingly calm. “Just breathe and remember that those guys down there have guns. We can’t speak to the manager of the Army. Normal people don’t know who we are, and we’re irrelevant now anyway.”
“Michael. We’re human beings! Citizens of this country! We’re not so ‘irrelevant’ that we should fucking freeze to death just because the Military or the Goverment or whoever the fuck is in charge now doesn’t value the arts!”
“We’ll sort it out,”
“We’ll.. Get better tags”
“There will be a black market for them,” Mike replied with grim certainty.
Jamie, for all Mike could tell, did make a sincere effort to sleep. He lit scented candles, and took some time washing his face, even using some of his expensive skincare products (a remnant of their now obsolete career) and listening to a meandering classical piece he had saved to his phone, before blowing the candles out and switching the bedside lights off.
He lay in the dark, listening to him breathe, hyper aware of the man beside him. Time crept shadow slow. He could hear Jamie doing his box breathing, their fingers brushed lightly, a reassurance that the Storm hadn’t taken him. Beyond their blinds, London was eerily silent for once. No cars or busses, No sirens, No people. After a while, Jamie huffed in frustration.
“I’m keeping you awake,” he complained, frustration with himself evident in his voice.
“It’s ok, just relax,” Mike placed his hand on Jamie’s chest.
“I’m going to go to the other room where I won’t bother you, at least one of us should sleep,” Jamie said, flipping the duvet aside.
“Jamie!” Mike grabbed at him to stop him leaving, “Just stay, stay with me.”
Jamie rolled away and Mike tucked in behind him like a human backpack.
“It’s going to be okay,” Mike whispered to the back of Jamie’s head.
“How?” Jamie whispered harshly, “Nothing about any of this is okay,”
Mike had no reply to that, so just held Jamie in the darkness, trying to contain all that he felt for this man through his arms around him, tethering him to the world. He felt shudders as Jamie attempted to repress sobs.
“Shh… it’s ok, you don’t have to talk. You don’t have to sleep. Just listen to my voice,” Mike spoke softly, a deep, gentle burr with a lancashire lilt still evident on certain vowels. “On the Isle there is a hill, yeah? It’s on the southern tip of the island, near Port Erin. They call it Meayll Hill or Mull Hill, I don’t know. I’ve only been there once. But listen, right? There is this cool stone circle and when the sun is shining you can look north and see the whole island stretch before your eyes like a patchwork quilt, and you can hear the sea birds and smell the salt on the air. At the right time of year the hills are purple with heather. One time mum and dad forced us to walk there and it was a trek and I was totally grumpy about it, but it was so worth it once we got up there. I want to show you, Jamie, I want to take you there. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, it just matters that we get there together.”
He told the story to himself as much as Jamie, because he wanted to believe it.
Mike took a deep breath and hefted the heavy load on his back and he hid, tucked behind the arches of the shopping centre. His backpack clinked, and his eyes darted back and forth, looking for people who might have heard the noise. The tower of St. Mary’s loomed across the street from him, lit by flickering streetlights. Through the trees he could see two men stationed in the spire, on the lookout for who knows what? It quickly became apparent that not only the army had guns now.
He stood for a long while in the shadows across the street. The gunmen hailed people going in and out of the church building and Mike once again attempted to steel himself to go inside. This was ridiculous. It was just a transaction like any other. Except his meerkat heart had not done well with transactional interactions even before the Storm. This was the wild west, and he could not be less comfortable with bartering.
Someone was next to him. His heart exploded and he restrained himself from jumping a foot into the air. It took a moment before the ringing in his ears subsided enough for him to take in what the person, a man he realised belatedly, was saying to him.
“Are you thick or what? I said, ‘what are you doing loitering around the Market?’” The man was frowning, blonde, and muscular. Stubble dotted his strong jaw. He was maybe Mike’s age or a shade younger. In another lifetime, this was someone Mike would have excitedly told Jamie about, when he got home.
“Uh, ah, I’m after Evac Tokens,” Mike managed to squeak out.
“Isn’t everyone mate,” said the man with a throaty chuckle, “Get us out of this shithole before the rioting starts for real.”
“Ah, haha, yeah exactly,” Mike said, pasting on a grin that he certainly didn’t feel.
“Well, you’re in luck handsome,” the man smiled a genuinely lovely smile and beckoned Mike to follow him across the road, “We’ve got all sorts, an’ Evac Tokens an all, for the right price.”
Mike felt his heart even out slightly as he followed the man across the dark street. The bottles in his backpack clinked as he walked out of the safety of the arches. Finally, something was going to go their way.
Mike walked up the stairs of their building gingerly, his empty backpack flapping sadly against his back. His throat clenched painfully as he tried not to cry.
Jamie met him at the door.
“Where have you… Jesus, fuck!” Jamie was aghast as soon as he saw him. Mike dropped his eyes, not wanting the fuss, not wanting any attention. He walked past Jamie, up the stairs towards the lounge. Jamie clucked behind him, making concerned and increasingly angry noises. He still hadn’t slept, as far as Mike could tell. Certainly nothing more than micro naps that he jolted out of as soon as he realised he was asleep.
Mike crossed to their kitchen, and pulled open the freezer, grateful every day that they still had power to cool it. He pulled out a bag of peas and dragged himself over to the sofa, slumping with his head back and the peas wrapped in a tea towel against his face.
“Mike, what the fuck happened?” Jamie asked, agitated. It was not the first time he had said this apparently.
“Uggghhhh,” said Mike, eloquently.
“Who did this to you?” Jamie demanded, “I’ll fucking kill them,”
“Jamie,” Mike pulled the bag of peas off his eye to give him a Look. “Don’t even joke about that,” he pleaded. “Just forget it, forget I even left the building, this was stupid. I’m stupid. And useless.”
“You’re not useless,” Jamie insisted. “It doesn’t matter. Fuck. It couldn’t matter less,” he rubbed his hands against his sallow face. “You’re back here alive and that’s all I care about,”
“They took the alcohol,” Mike said, hollow. Random partial bottles of niche alcohols, leftovers from forgotten cocktail nights. The kind of thing it was impossible to get now, and eminently tradeworthy. Or easily stolen, in the end.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jamie said, crouching before him to hold his hands. Mike squinted through his swollen purpling left eye. Jamie was, at least, more animated than he’d seen him in days. Something protective had been awoken in him.
“I didn’t get better Evac Tokens,” Mike confessed.
“It doesn’t matter,” Jamie repeated, softer. He remained crouched before Mike, taking both of his hands gently in his own, turning them over to see the reddened knuckles on his right hand.
“You fought them?” Jamie asked, still softly. His brows knitted into a frown, of course it didn’t make sense to him. Mike had never been a fighter.
“I didn’t have much of a choice,” Mike sighed out. He dug into the pocket of his jeans, and dropped two pentagonal tokens embossed with 9 and 13 into Jamie’s hand. “They would have had these too,” he replaced the bag of peas against his swollen eye and lay his head back, mainly so he would no longer have to look at the painful sympathy on Jamie’s face.
There was silence for a long while. Mike drifted between awake and asleep, tired as he was. Snatches of this exhausting night flashed through his mind, his own failure mocking him.
The man had led him down the side of the church, to makeshift market stalls. Tarpaulins stretched between looted scaffolding poles, covering trestle tables piled with all sorts of things; warm clothing, blankets, large tubs of protein powder and baby formula. Hard faced men and women presided over their wares, eyeing him suspiciously. He felt conspicuously well dressed in Jamie’s nazgul coat.
“Evac tokens you was after, wasn’t it?” the blonde man said lightly,
“Uh yeah,” Mike tried to keep the nerves out of his voice, they had agreed to try and even out their allocated lots first, then trade up. “I’m looking for anything better than a 13,” at that the blonde man and his companion behind the stall burst out laughing.
“A 13, seriously? You worth that little to them?” At that Mike flushed, a prickling red embarrassment that crawled down both sides of his neck.
“I’ve got alcohol,” he announced, slightly too loud. He swung his backpack around and pulled out an almost full bottle of Courvoisier, a remnant of one of Jamie’s Oscar’s themed cocktail nights.
“Posh stuff too,” mused the man, picking up the bottle and turning it over in his hand. “What else you got?”
“No!” Mike sat up awake, the left side of his face cold. Jamie had moved to sit next to him.
“Hey, hey,” Jamie stroked his arm, “It’s OK. You’re home.”
“They all had weapons,” Mike said, before his brain was truly back in the room. Jamie’s eyes went wide. “They all had and I didn’t... I didn’t have anything.”
“Oh Mike,” Jamie said, barely above a whisper, “You still fought them?”
“I couldn’t let them take the tokens too,” he said simply. Jamie held his hand as they sat side by side, breathing in sync without realising what they were doing. Presently, Jamie spoke, weight behind his words,
“From now on, we go together. No matter what we’re doing,” He looked forward into the middle distance. “Both of us together, because I am not fucking losing you…” a darkness came into Jamie’s eyes then that made Mike shiver despite himself, “If anything happened to you... “ Jamie grasped Mike’s hand as if he would crush his bones, and somehow Mike found it reassuring. Whatever happened they would be together.
At the end of that week, the power went out.
Jamie had been halfway through a Frank Ocean song when his phone bricked. He had known it was coming, kept his screen off as much as he could, brightness on the most minimal, yet when it died for the last time he felt it like a kick in the stomach. Music was his only refuge, sleep was impossible, so awake he lay, night after night, listening to every thump and bang and crash as people ransacked the empty flats in their building.
Jamie deteriorated and Mike got devious. He forced them both through several advanced Vinyasas, memorised from one of Jamie’s previous yoga phases, until their mats were shiny with sweat, and then ‘used up the potatoes before they went bad’ making a huge mound of mashed potato. Jamie was at least eating now, although shadows still darkened pits beneath his hollow eyes. But he allowed that the exercise had made him feel a little better.
They debated endlessly about leaving. People hammered on the door of their flat every night. They had stacked furniture against it, and it was double locked, but they knew it couldn’t last forever. They had to go out to try and get some more food before long, but they couldn’t leave each other and they couldn’t leave the flat empty. So they stayed.
He would like to tell himself that he debated a long while before doing this, but standing there days later with the mortar in one hand and pestle in the other, it was barely a choice at all. At this point, Jamie was like the walking dead, shuffling around and jumping at imagined noises. Reading one page of a book, then putting it down to pace around their space that seemed at once too big and too small. Breathing their own recycled air, ignoring the hammering on their door and shouts and screams from the street below.
Two, he thought, should do it. He ground two small blue pills into dust and stirred them into a glass of orange juice. Then he went to find Jamie.
Twenty minutes later, Jamie was flat out snoring on the sofa, gently maneuvered into a more comfortable position (because there was no way Mike was going to attempt to carry his comatose 6’4” boyfriend down a flight of stairs to the bedroom) and covered with a blanket, after slumping sideways where he sat. Mike sat opposite him for a moment in one of their armchairs, head in hands, guilty and relieved in equal measure. Then he went downstairs to the bathroom to wash, praying to a god he didn’t believe in that the water would still pump from the taps.
When he came back upstairs, a strange man and woman were standing in his lounge.
Mike stood, rabbit still in the doorway, wet hair dripping down the back of his neck. Seconds passed glacial slow, as his heart thundered in his ears.
“Alright?” the man said in a cheerful London accent. “This one sleeps like the dead mate,” he nodded towards Jamie, still asleep on the sofa. The man was older, balding head shaved close to his scalp, with stubbly jowls and watery blue eyes.
“How…” Mike choked out, his voice barely working.
“Interesting thing about this particular building, they made the balconies offset” the man said conversationally. “Looks pretty from the outside, and makes it nice ‘n easy for me to get a ladder up,” Mike flicked his eyes to the sliding door, which stood open to the breeze. Of course, being on the 5th floor, they had never locked it.
“He’s a pretty one n’all,” his female companion noted, indicating Mike. She was twitchy and thin faced, jet black hair showing an inch of roots, all scrawn where her partner was chubby. “Reckon we’ve got a couple of gingers ‘ere Roy?”
“Yeah, I reckon we do,” said Roy with a pleasant grin, keeping direct eye contact with Mike. “Right, Ginger, first off you’re gonna give us any hard cash you got. That’s a given. Then, you’re gonna give us any goodies you got, such as whatever knocked out Sleeping Beauty here, because I poked him and he ain't taking no nap - that’s chemical.”
Mike went completely still, a cold analytical clarity descending over his mind. They were both armed, Roy had a lump in his pocket that was all too obviously a pistol. His companion had a police issue taser - painful but not deadly. All this he had seen in the seconds that Roy took a breath and looked around the rest of the room. The man continued,
“Last thing, we’ll be having your Evac tokens. We don’t want no trouble, son. But we will be taking your things and you will be giving them to us without any fuss. Alright?”
“And if I say no?” said Mike, dispassionately. Roy laughed, delighted,
“‘Say no…’ do me a favour!” he chortled, “Listen son, you ain’t gonna refuse me,” he took the gun out of the pocket of his stained hoodie and pointed it at the sleeping Jamie. ‘Right handed’, Mike’s impassive brain supplied. The woman had moved out of his line of vision, and was poking around in their bedroom by the sound of things.
“Our Evac Tokens are useless,” Mike said, flatly. “Nine and Thirteen. They can’t possibly be of any use to you,”
“Thirteen? Fackin’ ‘ell, I got bettern that, and I don’t even wanna go,” Roy looked momentarily sorry for him, “You poor sods. I’ll still have the Nine though,”
Mike fixed him with a flat stare.
“We keep the medications in the kitchen,” he said, coolly. “There’s no need for your wife to be rummaging in our bedroom,”
“Awright,” Roy shrugged, easily. “‘Ere, Kat!'' he yelled, “Come an’ keep an eye on sleeping beauty while I relieve this Charming Man of ‘is drugs,”
Mike gives him a humourless smile and makes a ‘you first’ gesture towards the kitchen.
He scrubs the floor mechanically. He feels like he’s watching himself do it from somewhere on the ceiling. Fumes from the bleach assault his nose and he slams back into his body, reeling with the smell. He’s going to be sick. He runs to the open door, out onto the balcony and retches over the rails.
He turns the knife over and over by the handle.
It’s brand new, from the fancy set he bought Jamie for his birthday, once the vegan thing really kicked into high gear and he made noises about getting more into cooking. It’s one of the best on the market according to his google-fu, weighted and balanced to perfection.
It cuts flesh and bone just as well as vegetables, it turns out.
The scene in the kitchen would have been comedic, had it been in a tv show or film. Mike stood, knife in hand, staring open mouthed at Roy, who was bellowing, his left hand clutching his right wrist, which was spurting blood and ended in a stump. A severed hand clutching a gun lay between them on the kitchen countertop.
“You’ll want to keep that arm raised,” Mike’s voice said, incongruously. The knife, still in his hand, shone redly. Kat hurried into the kitchen, screeching at the scene unfolding before her.
When Jamie crawled sluggishly out of sleep, many hours later, he found Mike sitting calmly in the armchair, thousand yard stare into the middle distance. His hair was newly shorn, inexpertly hacked close to his head in mousy, spiky tufts, all traces of his jet dyed ends removed.
“Wha…” Jamie’s cheek felt crusty where he had drooled in his sleep.
“We’re leaving London. Today,” said Mike with a finality that Jamie would never normally have argued with.
“I’ve packed our backpacks. Once you’ve eaten, we’re leaving,”
Phil smirked at the familiar shriek. He had been waiting for it, idly pulling weeds in their vegetable garden while Dan read. It had rained heavily yesterday and the ground was soft. It was a useful way of distracting himself while his soul was being bared.
He looked up and saw his world, his all-but-husband, who he had handfasted on Meayll Hill on a midsummer bike ride the year before, standing in the doorway of their bothy and he giggled.
“Is that a good ‘Phil’ or a bad ‘Phil?” he asked, hands dirty from the muddy soil.
“Firstly, Roy was a lovely man who helped us a lot and whose hand you most definitely did not cut off,” Dan gesticulated with Phil’s well worn notebook for emphasis.
“ I didn’t cut his hand off, Mike did,” Phil pointed out.
“Secondly, I fucking knew you spiked my orange juice that time,” Dan seemed more satisfied about being right than angry at being dosed against his will, thankfully. Phil just shrugged.
“You needed a reset,” he said, suddenly very intent on the weeds. “Are you angry that I wrote about us?”
Dan reverently laid the book down inside the house and came out to crouch down, cupping Phil’s jaw towards him and planting a firm kiss on his mouth.
“I know, okay?” he said seriously, “I know what you did for me, and I’m grateful for it,” Dan kept his hand on Phil’s jaw and forced him into an uncomfortable eye contact. “I’ll always be grateful for whatever fate decided that both of us were to be left behind, together. I know I was a nightmare in the early days. And I know that shit went down that neither of us would want to go in a book,” at that Phil huffed a small humourless laugh, Dan’s eyes were fathomless dark.
“Mostly, I know you hated that knife more than anything. So write whatever you need to work through it. Fuck it, it’s just a story, it’s not like we’re famous any more,” Phil looked up and Dan was smiling. “It’s a good story Phil, and I want to see how it ends,” at that, Phil smiled back and bumped foreheads with his beloved boy.
The sun shone cleansing bright and fresh in the blue sky, not a hint of purple to be seen. Inside a drawer, the Santoku blade sleeps, waiting.