20. The Eve of the War
On the 23rd of December, the day which Rachel called Christmas Eve Eve, Ray took the kids Christmas shopping. Very, very few shops were open, and even fewer were selling toys. There were no adverts for half-price sales, no big displays in the windows, no Santas, and no light-up reindeer. Ray had often heard people ranting about the commercialisation of Christmas- his father had spoken out about it on an annual basis- but he expected that all those people, wherever they were, missed it like hell as well.
They trudged the streets. It wasn't snowing.
Ray bought food, mostly. He tried to get nice things, but there weren't many nice things to be found. Rachel and Robbie bought clothes for their mother and grandmother, shoes for their grandfather, and DVDs for Tim. They made Ray look away while they picked out his present.
Then they went back home. They went past the notice board. Ray scanned it automatically, just in case- just in case his brother was looking for him and thought that the best way to do it.
At the house they wrapped the presents, and put them under the tree. Gerald turned the tree lights on, and it was very easy to imagine, once the room was lit with a cosy light, that all was right with the world.
The catch there, of course, was that if all had been right with the world, they wouldn't be all in the same house about to have a Christmas together.
Or would they?
"It's getting dark," Rachel murmured. "I forgot it gets dark so quick now."
Ray and Robbie looked out of the window. Some of the broken lamposts were on, and a few lights in the houses. Looking at the lights, he wondered about something.
"The other people," Robbie said thoughtfully, as if reading his mind. "We should...I dunno...bring them something. I mean, like- that light over there- that's just down the street, and we don't know who lives there."
Ray looked across the room at Anna.
"I don't know," she said. "We didn't know everyone in the street."
"We could find out, then, I suppose," Gerald said.
Ray closed the curtains. "We could," he said. "But it's...what...ten o' clock, kids. Bedtime."
Gradually, everyone trooped off to bed, leaving Ray alone in the living room. He wandered out the the kitchen and looked out of the back window, at the place where there wasn't a gravestone.
And then he thought he heard the phone ring. It made him jump out of his skin and turn away from the window straight away. He raced out of the kitchen, and figured that no, he must have imagined it.
It rang again.
No-one else seemed to have heard it. He shuddered, but he went to the phone. What if it was...
No. Ghosts didn't exist. Only in the mind.
He picked up the telephone and tried to find his voice.
"Hello?" came a tired-sounding voice on the other end. It was a female voice, and Ray was temporarily terrified. Why was it so dark? Why hadn't he left the light on? Was he just dreaming this? "Are my mother and father there?"
Ray didn't know what to do. "Um. I don't know. Who is this?" There were footsteps on the stairs now.
The voice ignored his question. Whoever it was sounded utterly desperate and nearly hysterical. "Is anyone there? Who is this? Maryann Johnson, is she there?"
And then Ray thought he knew who it was, although he was still keeping his guard up. "Yeah. Yeah, she is. Um, are you...?"
"Miriam," said the voice on the phone, as Anna came running down the stairs and through the door. "Maryann's sister. Miriam Johnson."
Miriam's story was not among the worst. It was bad, certainly, but not as bad as it might have been. She had been badly injured in her collapsing house: someone- she didn't know who- had rescued her and taken her to a hospital. She'd been in a coma, and had nearly died, but hadn't. As soon as she'd had access to a phone she'd phoned her parent's house, knowing Maryann had gone there, and barely expecting anyone would actually be there alive. It had indeed taken that long for her to be healed, released from hospital, and able to get to a phone. But she had done it, and she was now at the house, with them, and alive.
Her best friend was dead- Miriam had seen her body. Her boyfriend was missing- he'd gone to England on holiday- but Miriam was hoping he'd be found.
She had finished telling her story in under an hour, and then looked around at the others, and asked what had happened to them. Tim said nothing. So Ray did instead.
He explained that it had been an ordinary day, then there had been a storm, then the next thing he knew there was a giant alien war machine stalking the streets. He had grabbed the kids and run. He had lost Robbie on the way (he glanced nervously at Robbie as he said this, but Robbie just nodded) and then taken shelter in a cellar. He skipped over everything that had happened inside the cellar, but kept in the part about the tripod. Miriam's mouth fell open at that. He mentioned the stay in the church, didn't mention Joe, and let Maryann whisper one sentence about Serena.
And then he mentioned Celeste. He felt like he had to.
"...and...there was a fight. With the gun. And she...died. We..."
Buried her in the back garden sounded just plain laughable now.
"...well, she's dead."
Miriam did something thoroughly unexpected, to him at least. She hugged her sister, and her parents, and then him, and then everyone else.
Ray, Robbie and Rachel went to every house on the street, carrying a bowl full of chocolates. Most houses seemed empty. Ray knocked on the door of the dead old woman's house, just in case there was someone else in there now, but no-one answered.
The fifth house door was answered by a woman. She stared out at them suspiciously.
"Yes?" she said.
"We're making a trip to meet the neighbours," Ray said, as charmingly as he could. "Seeing as it's Christmas and all. And you're the neighbours."
The woman looked at them all and shook her head. She shook her head at the candy, as well. "No," she murmured softly. And then, "Who are you?"
"We're from down the street," Robbie said helpfully.
"I've never seen you before."
"We came, ur, after everything happened."
The woman nodded. "Well. Thank you," she said.
They wandered through the whole street. Ray began to feel faintly ridiculous after a while- it was the offering people candy that did it- but he wasn't going to complain.
They ran into a few people on the street. Nobody they recognized. One was an old man, whose reaction to them was "It's Christmas?"
"Yeah," Robbie said.
The man shook his head and went on. "No point really, is there?" he said. "No point at all."
Robbie stared after him and looked at the other two.
"We'd better go home," Ray said thoughtfully. "We've been to every house."
"Didn't get much out of it," Robbie muttered. "Not really."
"Did too," Rachel said.
On their way back home, in sight of the house, they ran into a street musician. He was just some young guy with a guitar, playing Hallelujah. Ray didn't recognize the song, but Rachel did.
"I know that song!" she said happily. "They play it on the radio a lot."
The musician grinned at her.
Rachel started singing along. Ray let her, and glanced up at the house. Someone was coming out- it was Tim. He was walking slowly.
"Meet anyone interesting?" he asked, as soon as he was near.
"Not really," Ray said. "No-one wants to talk much. Is Maryann alright?"
"Yeah," Tim muttered.
All of them hung around and listened. There were a couple of other people in the street, too, and they were doing the same. The guy with the guitar looked a little embarrassed as he sang.
"...I used to live alone before I knew you..."
Eventually he trailed off.
"That's all I know," he muttered. "Sorry. Wasn't expecting an audience."
"That was good," Rachel said.
"Oh. Thanks. Um, I'll be going..."
"Do you know any other songs?" Robbie asked.
"No," the guy said. "Sorry."
He wandered off, and the four of them went back to the house. It was pretty cold. Rachel hummed the song as they went.
"It was in Shrek," she said brightly. "That song. I think I had the soundtrack. You know, used to."
"You did," Robbie said.
They entered the house, and Miriam greeted them.
"Maryann was a bit worried," she said. "And the others, too. Um, I suppose we could open presents, or have Christmas lunch, or something."
"I'm gonna check the TV first."
He checked the TV. He flicked through all of the channels; it was the same old news.
"Did I mention- did I tell you about the war...stuff?" he asked her nervously.
"I know about that," she answered. "It was hard to avoid. I don't think they're really going to...are they?"
They didn't talk about it the rest of the day. They opened the presents and ate the food, and watched the windows and watched everything.
And then night fell- far too fast.
Ray was the only one downstairs again- everyone else was upstairs, hopefully asleep. He wandered through to the back yard once more.
Here lies Celeste, who things could have been different for.
He looked past the graveyard to the wreckage, and to the sky. They could be up there right now- more of Them, coming back for another go. Or, more likely, nukes were starting to fly, some place other than here.
He might not even know, until everything went white one day. He might not even know that the aliens had uncovered the worst of all humanity, and human weapons were being built on a pile of corpses. Those people hadn't died because of other people. The ones who were left very well might do.
And they wanted him, as well. Because of one desperate act. They wanted him to be on their side, to give them information, tell them what he had seen inside one of the best weapons to ever walk the earth.
And of course, all he had seen had been darkness.
The back door creaked open behind him. He didn't know who it was- it could be Tim, or his brother come back to find him, or even, somehow, impossibly, Celeste.
It was Maryann.
"I thought you'd be out here," she said. "I've heard you every night coming out here."
"Don't be sorry."
They both leaned against the wall of the house.
"I took a look at the television," Maryann whispered. "Saw the news. It's happening, Ray. All the remaining helicopters and tanks and stuff are going to go to war for a thousand stupid reasons, and they're going to destroy everything."
"When?" Ray whispered urgently.
"I don't know. No-one said. I think they're..." She swallowed. "I think we're not supposed to know. No-one's supposed to know."
Ray said nothing, because no curse could sum this up.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Maryann said. "This is the biggest disaster in human history, and it did nothing. It made things worse. I thought if one good thing came from the deaths of Joe and...Celeste's children and everyone, it would be some sort of gurantee that no-one else would ever kill! And they did! Even here! In this house! And we can't do a thing about it!"
She looked so angry. Ray was reminded of the time, so very long ago, when she'd called him out for taking an innocent life. And this was on a much bigger scale. People in their millions should be angry and screaming at the sky.
And maybe they were, far from here.
"They forgot," Maryann whispered. "Or they didn't care."
Ray put his arms around her.
"I know," he said hopelessly. "But at the moment, I guess we're alive."
"You guess we're alive?" Maryann said, smiling slightly. "Oh, god...there must be something we can do..." She trailed off, and then said, her voice coming out all in a rush, "They're trying to get the machines working. They're going to make them walk under the sea to other countries and let them loose. With human pilots. And they want people to drive them, and people to defeat the ones on the other side, and that's what they'll want you for, because you blew one up. Not many people did that. And they'll track you down eventually, because, you know, twenty, thirty people saw it happened- got saved by you. And they'll..."
She shook her head fiercely.
"I won't tell them anything," Ray said. "I promise."
"Yeah," she said. "I know."
They stayed out in the garden a long, long time, watching the skies. They would never be safe anymore. Christmas Day, 2006, and death had come to Earth.
Ray and Maryann walked out to look at the helicopter. Things were beginning to grow on it now. Plants, and very small flowers. No red weed in sight.
It was a calm night- the calm between two storms.
Just a few months ago, and this would have been unfathomable. The world had changed so much.
They walked among the wreckage until it was almost midnight. Their only real hopes were in the house- their children were still alive, in the one almost safe place on Earth.
And there they would remain.
"Celeste, listen to me. You're gonna survive. You'll grow old, and you'll tell your story to millions of people, and you'll never forget your children and all that you've lost but you'll be strong, alright? You'll be strong because of them. I know it's hard, alright, but...you will live, Celeste.
You will live."