Teresa shouldn’t have left at lunchtime—against the rules, but girls need something the arbiters of school rules didn’t take into account, and the corner shop sold that essential drug, chocolate. She should’ve headed in the opposite direction really, to avoid storekeeper, Mr Pervy-Pimpled-Prost but she’d miss Physics. She arrived at the shop and wavered, leaning against the doorframe, afraid to allow the dangly doorbell announce her presence so he’d ogle her alabaster white legs.
May came out laughing. “He isn’t here, gone to his other shop in Kinnerton. Here, I’ve got your seventy-percent, dark. You and your addiction owe me, let’s see you smile.”
Teresa turned to the vibrating, rain-splattered window to hide her smile and savouring the last square of chocolate. It was July so the rain was warm, yes? The double-decker bus lurched to the left as the driver rushed a tight roundabout, eager to deliver and be rid of his cargo of chewing gum-flavoured school kids. She’d climbed the swaying stairs of the overfull bus hoping to sit by her new squeeze, Finn. Except he wasn’t there. He’d have known better, and so should she, than to share his journey home with an immature bunch of snots from Dodleston.
A familiar voice startled her from behind. “Hey, Tess, he won’t be here. He got himself excluded from school this morning, the twat.”
“Eh?” She plunged her hand into her schoolbag, shoving aside an Advanced Level textbook on Earth Sciences then stopped, gasped and turned to May, her friend since birth. “My phone was confiscated in assembly and I forgot to collect it.”
May laughed making her marmalade hair bounce as she changed seats, pushing a couple of little year sevens out of the way. “Use mine. Bet he’s in the Red Lion.”
Teresa jabbed at the phone but the cacophony of immature voices made it impossible to hear his hardman act, although she suspected it was a, ‘Hey, May, darling’.
“I’ll have to text him, he thinks it’s you.”
“What? Are you cheating on me?” Teresa’s thumb blurred as she asked Finn his location and got nada in return. She looked up again at May, who’d deflected the question. She dropped the phone while giving it back as the bus braked sharply making everyone grab something, someone.
As she retrieved her phone, May said, “He got caught with vodka. You know, for tonight’s party. The shopkeeper saw it on the cam and told old Barney, who… well, like last time.”
Teresa hated the bus. A travelling virus factory, though the antics of the younger pupils made her laugh. She should speed up getting her licence. Several sixth-formers who lived out in Dodleston and the farms would help with petrol. She looked out at the suburbs of Chester, as a few pupils tumbled out of the door. Their green shirts flapping in the June post-shower sunshine and their legs already going like egg-beaters to get to a snack shop.
“Hey, Tess, what’s that in the sky?”
A dirty, smudgy line grew from behind the bus, overtook it and headed southwest.
Teresa muttered, “That’s not an aeroplane.”
May tilted her head then pressed it to the glass. “Is that rumbling noise coming from it?”
Nerdy Podge had just laboured up the stairs and stumbled to the large curved front windscreen. His voice quivered with exuberance. “It’s a meteor, on its way to becoming a meteorite.”
Many of the kids, now silent, ran to the front to watch, fascinated, but some in horror.
“We’re gonna die when that hits!”
“Someone tell the driver to turn round!”
“Don’t they just burn up in the sky?”
“They explode like nuclear bombs.”
“Ya not sposed to look at them. Makes ya blind.”
“Is that heading for Kinnerton?”
“No, Dodleston. My house. Fuck.”
Teresa stared at the descending trail. They all had homes out there. Cold sweat dribbled between her shoulder blades, while a hot tear rolled down her cheek.
Five kids at the front window elbowed and pushed to get to the top of the stairs and clambered down shouting at the driver to stop. He ignored them. He had a job to do.
She stared at the long line of cloud being made by the meteor, swirling round like the eddies when she paddled a canoe. Dodleston was just four miles away. She saw the line meet the horizon.
Instinctively, her eyelids snapped shut with the dazzling white light.
Next to her, May screamed as the front windscreen blew in, luckily in millions of tiny cubes. Teresa had seen enough nuclear-war films to know the blast was followed by a wave of searing heat and ear-splitting noise.
Teresa gripped the top of the seat in front as the bus swung to the left and swayed, tilted. She couldn’t tell which screams came from the bus, kids, acoustic shock or her. Her eyes now wide open. Her grip slipped. Needed to get May away from her window because it would smash in the fall. She’d be cut, or crushed. They couldn’t get away from it. Falling. Need anti-gravity—how did she have time to think of that? Better climb up the seat. Ah, no need. Bus has stopped tilting. A house got in the way.
Had the bus been blown over by an airburst from the meteorite or was it just careless driving, an overreaction? Too many kids bustling for the stairs, so she and May headed for the emergency exit window at the rear. Then she saw the trees and walls strewn drunkenly over the road. Bloodied people slowly scrambled to their feet.
Teresa and May heaved against the emergency bar and the window reluctantly swung open allowing them to disembark, precariously, lowering themselves to the tarmac. It had stopped raining, thank God.
Teresa jabbed at May’s pink phone to see if Finn was okay.
“He’s not picking up. What d’you think, May?”
“We should go back to school, it’s not far and—”
Teresa gave back the phone and looked south in the direction of a growing dark mushroom cloud. “We must go there, home. Walk, run if we have to.”
She jogged past the bus, followed by a reluctant May, and through the melee of pupils some of whom were crying, others heading for home in her direction but most milled around as if waiting for instructions.
A car horn startled Teresa, but instead of moving off the road and onto the pavement, she turned and held out her arms to force the rusty red Ford Fiesta to stop. Assuming it would.
It did, and Teresa saw the driver grinning. Finn, Year 13, lover, ex, maybe.
“We need a lift, Finn. Dodleston, now.”
He draped a pale arm out of the car. “It’ll cost you.”
“Whatever.” Should she sit in the front? A glance at the no-eye-contact May, said yes. Fuck ’em.
A mile from Dodleston they had to pull up. A snot-coloured furniture lorry languished on its side across the road, one of its wheels rotating.
Teresa gripped Finn’s skinny arm. “Can we get around it?”
“You’re kidding, I’m not taking my car through muddy fields.”
“And,” May said, “we’ve got to help that driver. I saw him move!” She got out of the car and ran over.
“Like there’s not hundreds worse off just up the road. I’ll walk. Phew, it smells of fireworks out here—cordite and ozone?”
She inched past the lorry. Some trees were down, and pointed away from Dodleston, at her. She couldn’t swallow as her mouth dried. She realised the dark clouds were not rain clouds—entirely—but smoke defeating gravity, from a bonfire a mile wide. Then came a drizzle of smuts, smudgy precipitation. From where they were, near the fishing pond, she’d normally see the church tower and the top of the redbrick primary school but it was too hazy to see anything.
Her house was alongside the school. She started to run but stopped to listen. A low ho-hum of traffic on nearby roads. Did they know of the disaster? Maybe some of it was the emergency services, she could hear sirens way off in the distance. Some of it from behind her. She must get to what’s left of her house and family before police-stop-tape and soldiers block her path.
People staggered out of the fog of raining dust. Was one Phoebe, her little sister? Grief they were all khaki and grey head to toe. Dust? At least their eyes were white, shocked open. There she was, dragging her school bag behind her.
“Phoebe, let me hug you.” Ignoring the dust, Teresa embraced her sister, who stood limply, unresponsive in her arms. “You’re traumatised aren’t you? What about mum? Have you seen her?”
“Of course not, or you’d be with her. Ah, your teacher’s here. Miss Anderson? Is there a crater? How much of the village was destroyed?”
The willowy woman’s blue eyes stared out of her grey head. At least her hair precipitated dust in a gentle fall revealing the blonde beneath. Others from the village stopped too, none talked.
“Are you all in shock? Phoebe, Miss Anderson, say something.”
The teacher finally refocused on Teresa. “Confused. Don’t know who you are. Who I am.”
Teresa walked up to embrace her former teacher. She nearly un-hugged when her nose filled with the burnt dust odour, but she continued. “It’ll be shock. I assume the school wasn’t hit then. I see other pupils. Did the meteorite land on the other side of the village? Surprised anyone survived. Pleased, of course.”
“Ah, you mightn’t have seen it being inside the school. One struck somewhere around here. Look at all the damage.”
Teresa let the teacher go, brushed dust off her white T-shirt leaving ochre streaks. She’d need to use Stain Devil on that in the wash. She kneeled in front of Phoebe and hugged her.
“What do you remember, kiddo?”
“Noth … nothing.” Tears streaked through the dust on her cheeks.
Finn came up behind her. “Always thought Dodleston was the land of the living dead.”
Teresa hit his arm. “Finn, I’m staying with this lot at least till the emergency services arrive. Will you go ahead and see if there’s a crater or anything? Perhaps the rock exploded in the air so there might not be one.”
“Yeah, I’ll be the trail-blazer.” He ran on ahead through the dozen survivors, his red shirt and blue jeans blurring into the dust mist.
A few minutes later she saw him wandering back. “What did you see, Finn?”
He stumbled past her, making her grab and pull him round. “Finn?”
His forehead sported worry lines like an accordion. He trembled. “Who are you?
What d’you want?”
“You just went into the village to see… what did you see?”
Paramedics were leading the confused amnesiacs to waiting ambulances. Teresa was grabbed by the elbow by a policewoman and tugged.
“No, officer, I’ve just arrived to check on my family, but my friend here…”
“We’ll take him too. Do you want to come or can you look after these older folk until more ambulances arrive?”
The dust was thinning over the village. Teresa could see ruined buildings now, but no more people coming out. “Are there emergency services on the other side and on the road from Gorstella?”
The brunette policewoman looked back as if checking she won’t be overheard by colleagues. “There was, but we’ve lost contact with them. They’d reported going to the rim of a crater where the Red Lion used to be…”
A paramedic motorbike growled past them towards Dodleston. Both the policewoman and Teresa shouted at him to stop but he couldn’t hear because of the newly arrived helicopter overhead. Any lower and it would make the dust worse.
A red glow brightened from the motorcycle’s brake light then a thud.
Teresa took a step towards the crashed paramedic, eager to help but also curious in spite of the worry knot in her stomach.
“No, you might lose your memory too,” the police officer said. “I’ll go up to that crumpled phone box and yell at him.”
May had come up behind and pulled her backwards. “Come right back, Tess, I’ve seen footage from that news helicopter. It’s too dangerous here. Come on!”
Reluctant to move, Teresa changed her mind when she saw the policewoman holding her head as if it was about to burst. She shivered—it could have been her. “Where did you see it?”
“There’s a BBC TV van, look for yourself.”
At last, she saw the crater even if vicariously via a helicopter and mobile screens. Centred on the edge of the village the meteorite had swallowed The Red Lion and the church with the rim running along the edge of the school. Trees, lampposts, walls outside the circle had fallen outwards like spokes of a wheel. Amazingly, the school remained standing as did a few other strong buildings.
May knocked heads with her. “Can’t see the rock in the middle. Too much debris fallen back onto it, I s’pose.”
“Never mind the rock, where are the people? They can’t have all been vaporised. Can they?” She was being illogical, but then it’s only human for a teen to believe they’re indestructible. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
She was dragged away by May, back to Finn’s car beyond the upset lorry and anguished crowds. She considered driving the car even without a licence but their passage back was blocked by the worried and the gawpers. Where to go? Both May and herself had homes with the last known address in a crater.
Teresa borrowed May’s phone again and jabbed at the number of a nearby aunt, but no signal. The service could be overwhelmed, underground or sideswiped by fucked up electrons. Hang on, she remembered a footpath across fields to Lower Kinnerton, then a jog up the road to the Royal Oak to her aunt’s.
“Ninety-eight people,” May read aloud from the Chronicle. “Ninety-eight whose memories were wiped that day and more since. A hundred missing. Even bio-hazard-suited-up scientists were helicopter winched back up as forgetful automatons with lost pasts and names.”
May threw the newspaper in the bin at the MacDonalds Amnesia Clinic. “Come on, Tess. You’ve been a patient here for ten days you must remember something.”
Teresa rubbed her forehead. “I fell over a branch.”
“Now we’re getting recall. Where was this, Kinnerton?”
“Garden. I was three. Nothing since. I’ve tried and tried.” Tears filled her eyes until they dribbled down.
May stamped a foot. “They’re moving Finn from the Eaton Amnesia Clinic to be near you. Thought maybe you’d wandered over to the crater. Maybe you thought the amnesia affect had worn off.”
“I don’t know nothing, not even you.”
Her visitor left to investigate screaming. Teresa should be upset, a wreck of tears butalthough she’s been told her mother’s died, her sister has lost her memory and her dad had flown back from his oil rig, none of it meant anything. Oh, a door bang and that girl, May, was back.
“You’re not going to believe this, Tess. The meteorite. The rock that destroyed our village. It’s left! Flew out of the crater, straight up. You know what this means don’t you? It wasn’t a rock. Some kind of alien ship. Why? Probably off course, crash-landed. Or perhaps it’s gathered all those memories to take home.”
Lightning crackled through Teresa’s brain.
“May, May come quick!” Where was she? Screams from the other wards. A man’s grating cough and despairing yell reached her from the next bed. She too needed to cough, and scratch down there—nooooo.
She screamed. Withdrew her now contaminated hands, up to her face, stubble. Argh!
“May, May, May!”
She appeared at her bed. “That you, Tess? In there?”
Teresa could hardly hear her friend over the shouts and cries, but May spoke again, “It’s happening to everybody. So sorry, Tess. Erm he’s back there, his hands all over your…”
“Whose body, May?”
Her so-called friend just shook her head, so the mind of Teresa made the head turn to read the name over the back of her bed. “Mr. Percival Prost.”
Bio of Geoff Nelder
Geoff Nelder is a professional liar, badass editor, and fiction competition judge. He was awarded Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society for his research into air pollution and microclimates and used his students as unpaid researchers to discover urban heat islands in Yorkshire towns and villages. He taught now-out-of-date Geography and IT to the ungrateful alive but escaped on his bike to write.
His publications include science fiction novels Exit, Pursued by Bee and the ARIA trilogy; and thrillers: Escaping Reality, and Hot Air. Many of his short stories have found homes in mags such as The Horror Zine, Ether Books, Encounters, Jimston Journal, Delivered, Screaming Dreams and many anthologies such as Monk Punk, Science Fiction Writers’ Sampler (with Gregory Benford and David Brin) and Zombified.