Dawn exploded, its fiery blast blowing away the rubble of the past year as if some divine puppet master had decided ’enough is enough.′ I took it as a sign - I was alive, I had survived for almost a year, and now, it was time to live. So, I celebrated my birthday.
I’ve not honored that day for years. Not since Ma flung me down our back stairs, on the day I turned nine. My collarbone snapped like a twig, something neither of us was keen to commemorate with an annual celebration. Ma’s dead now, though, so I reckoned, what the heck.
I lied to myself, of course. The chances of this day actually being my birthday are ridiculously slim. I was born on the twelfth of July 2016, but I’ve no idea of today’s actual date. I never thought to keep a calendar, and living without electricity quickly puts an end to technology’s usefulness in keeping track of ‘time’ - if there even is such a thing. According to Einstein, ′Time is an illusion,′ in effect, a work of fiction - merely a Human construct.
Humanity is no more. Therefore, time is redundant - I exist in a world where it no longer has any meaning. Seconds, minutes and hours pass without record and the constant cycles of light and dark are the only indication of each passing day.
Everyone but me is dead. I alone have the responsibility of estimating the arrival of a day which holds no significance to anyone else. I am my own flawed timekeeper, merely noting the appearance of the season that heralds the start of another year of my life. The days are growing longer, and the nights are warm, which means it’s early summer. Therefore, I decide, I am another year older.
I walked into town to collect some supplies and look for something special to take back - a birthday gift to myself. When I say I went into town, I didn’t actually go into town; it freaks me out just thinking about that. ‘Town’ is what I call the retail park just outside Worksop; it has a Tesco Superstore, a Hardware Store, a Pet Supermarket and loads of other shops. They are all deserted now of course.
There are no corpses in Tesco. I guess they had closed the store before everything got really scary. Maybe there wasn’t enough staff left to keep it open. I still cover my face when I go in, though, especially now it’s getting warmer. I tie my scarf around my nose and mouth, it works surprisingly well. The stink was worse before. In the beginning, I threw up every time I went in. The stench of rotten meat and fish was thick enough to taste. Still, at least there were no bodies. Nothing stinks as bad as a rotting corpse.
Did you know that when things rot they go through stages? I didn’t - I am an expert now. When people die, for a while they just look the same, and then the insects lay their eggs on them. I know - it sounds gross, but I’ve come to appreciate that it’s a good thing. The world would be littered with dead bodies even now if it wasn’t for them. What the dogs don’t eat the bugs happily finish off. They’re the ultimate recyclers. ’Waste not, want not.′
After the insects have done their stuff, the bodies blow up with gas, like those helium balloons people used to buy for special occasions. ‘Happy Birthday!’, ‘It’s a Boy!’, ‘Get Well Soon’... This is when they stink the most, that thick, sweet, sickly scent - like a dead mouse, only about a million times worse. It gets a little easier to take after the eggs have hatched when everything turns into gunk.
Even gunk has stages. First, the corpses melt into a thick, slimy gunk, followed rapidly by thin, runny gunk. Eventually, the water evaporates leaving dried, crumbly gunk, that’s when the smell becomes almost bearable. A lot of the bodies didn’t get that far, though, because the larger animals got there first.
I get most of my food and supplies from the Tesco grocery superstore. Every isle contains rows and rows of shelves stuffed full of tins, jars, packets of dried foods, bottles of water, cartons of UHT milk, fizzy drinks and all sorts of other stuff too. I’ve been grocery ‘shopping’ there for ages. I think it must be nearly a year because it was last July when life started to turn to shit.
I collect supplies every few days. I reckon there is enough non-perishable food left to feed me for years, and that’s just from this one store. Every few days I fill up a trolley with whatever I fancy and push it back to the boat.
Today, I collected enough food to last me for two or three days. I found an iced birthday cake too, so I went on a hunt for some candles. That was when I spotted you sitting on a rack between the greeting cards and the magazines. I couldn’t have wished for a more perfect birthday present.
I’ve never kept a diary before. I’ve got a lot of other books. I have my Girl Guide Handbook, a pile of sketchbooks and an impressive collection of paperbacks, but I had nothing to write in. To be honest, I prefer drawing to writing, which is ironic considering I was named after a writer.
I do like to read, though, I must have read at least thirty books since coming here, but I never wanted to be a writer. I always intended to be an artist when I grew up. That’s never going to happen now, of course. Either being an Artist or, potentially, growing up. Sometimes I wonder if there is any point to me creating a piece of Art when I’m the only one who will ever get to see it. Does that matter, though, when I still love to sketch? ‘Art for Art’s sake?’
Drawing makes life seem normal again; I can lose myself in it. Miss Franklin, our Art teacher, said that you have to immerse yourself entirely in the creative process in order see something well enough to sketch it. I’ve never had any trouble immersing myself in anything. When I’m drawing it’s like being underwater, everything else fades and becomes separate and indistinct, like fuzzy muffled figures at the edge of the pool.
Sometimes, like today, I’ll look up from my sketchbook, and I’ll see Ma, sitting there at the table, her cigarette poised at her lips and steadfastly hanging on to its column of ash. She’s not there, of course, it’s my imagination playing tricks. Like when you are expecting something to be there, and for a second you think you see it, but in the next instant it’s gone, and you’re left feeling like a fully paid up member of crazy person’s anonymous.
That’s another reason why I needed today to be a good day. I needed to feel normal again, and I almost succeeded. Having a cake with fifteen candles on top, lighting them, blowing them out in one go, and making a wish. Perhaps it was even granted because I found you, which is almost the same as having found a friend.
I never had many friends before. Maybe that’s why I’m still here when everyone else is gone; because I can handle being alone. I am used to being on my own and have been since I was small. I would sometimes wake up in the early hours of the morning, and Ma would be gone. Often, she wouldn’t return in time to take me to school. I soon learned how to make my own breakfast, get dressed and get to school by myself.
Once, during a particularly stressful parent’s evening at school, Mrs. Herod, my year three teacher, remarked on my hermit-like personality. She said: “Harper is a bright girl, but she’s a bit of a loner. She doesn’t mix with the other children.” She was right, I didn’t.
None of them liked me anyway; I was taller and skinnier than everyone else. At school the only one I talked to was Marion, she was different too, small and round. We must have looked really odd when we stood together, no wonder they called us names. A particular favourite of mine was spaghetti and meatball. I gave that eight out of ten for originality.
Mrs. Herod asked Ma if there was any trouble at home she should know about. That was the last time Ma went to any of my parent-teacher meetings. She said I’d disgraced her. I looked ‘disgraced’ up in the dictionary. Disgraced; to cause someone to feel ashamed. I remember thinking how great it was that one word could only be described by using six others. That was when I started collecting words. Each day I’d pick a new one, learn what it meant and try to drop it into the conversation whenever I could. I had my favourite words too. I once spent a whole week calling everyone ‘pathetic’ because I liked the way it sounded. It made Ma terribly angry. She hated when I used words that she didn’t know.
I collect sayings too, though you’ve probably already noticed that. It’s as if they are tattooed on my tongue. There’s one for just about every conceivable circumstance. ‘I can tell thee where that saying was borne.’ That’s Shakespeare, from Twelfth Night.
So, I guess if we are going to be friends, I should introduce myself. My name is Harper Lee McKenzie. Harper Lee was a famous author who died a few months before I was born, around fifteen years ago. I guess her name must have been all over the media at the time. Ma wasn’t much of a reader, in fact, I never saw her pick up a book, but she watched a film at school, and I think it kind of got to her. It was called ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I like the title because it’s taken from a saying, ’Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember - it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’
I read the book, of course, I had to. I’m glad I did, it taught me a lot; courage comes from within, never be afraid to stand up for what’s right and never give up. It’s one of the most inspiring books I have ever read, which is why I like my name so much. Ma got something right, at least.
My Ma never finished high school. She got expelled in her last year. It was because of her drinking I guess, or maybe because of me - perhaps that was why she hated me so much. Still, she liked me well enough to give me a cool name. Though there’s really no point to them anymore is there? What good is a name if there’s no one left to speak it?