“WHAT’S IT mean, then?” Terry demanded. He planted himself at the barrier and ignored the grumble of irritation from the line behind him.
There were over a hundred families crowded into the space, shuffled into roughly drawn lines. Children leaned against their parents’ legs or were carried in their arms. People wearing Aran sweaters and hospital bracelets slouched in wheelchairs. IV bags were zipped into coats as the users leaned on their companions’ arms. Some of them were back for a second day, with the hope that it would be their turn on the military transit for evacuation to Glasgow. Others just needed supplies, dressings, and meds.
They could all wait. He had.
Terry dragged his son’s arm up to display the strip of black tape slapped onto his too big borrowed jacket. Jimmy tugged back against him.
“Dad. Dad, please don’t,” he begged.
Terry ignored him and lifted his arm up higher so the tag couldn’t be missed. His fingers wrapped easily around the bony, wasted wrist. “Go on. Fucking say it. You put it on him. Say it.”
The woman on the other side of the barrier—girl, he’d have said if it weren’t for the clipboard and the white jacket and the power over life and death—couldn’t meet his eyes.
“Sir,” she said. Her voice cracked. “Please. We have to process everyone in the queue. We’re doing everything we can to make this as quick as possible.”
Someone shoved him. “You’ve been seen. Just move.”
A mutter of agreement rippled through the hall.
“We all have kids.”
“…I need my meds!”
“…daughter went yesterday. She’s all alone.”
Terry shrugged the hands off and reached down to drag his son up into his arms. He remembered when he’d grumbled that it was getting harder, that piggyback rides wrecked his back and the kid could walk. Now all that chunky muscle and growth-spurt-ready chub had leeched away, the down jacket seemed like the only weight to him.
“What’s the black tab for?” His voice cracked as he yelled. He could taste the salt and bile on the back of his tongue. “I know. I already fucking know. Just admit it.”
Now she couldn’t avoid looking. Her gaze dropped to the careless black slap of tape and then back up to Terry’s eyes. Her face was scrubbed and raw-looking from the wind. She still had adolescent spots on her chin, for fuck’s sake.
One of the other doctors stepped in. He was lean and dark, with a beak of a nose and nervous hands.
“It’s triage.” He put a reassuring hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Everyone here needs to be evacuated. We have to prioritize those with the most need and the best likely outcomes.”
“And where does my son go on that list?” Terry asked.
The woman clutched the clipboard to her chest and grimaced. She tried to say something, but it wouldn’t come out.
“I… Doctor Blake?” She glanced desperately around at the other doctor.
“The survival rates for your son’s condition, as I’m sure the doctor’s explained, are poor,” Doctor Blake said. “In addition he isn’t undergoing intensive care that needs continuity. He’s low on the list.”
The first doctor bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”
He spat in her face. The gob of phlegm hit her just under the eye and slid down. She flinched back with a shocked gasp and scrubbed at her cheek with her sleeve. Blake looked sour and waved a hand to call someone over.
“You.” A big man in a paramedic’s uniform—Harris nametag velcro’d on his breast pocket—grabbed Terry. “Out.”
There was no point in a fight. They all knew what the black tag meant. He just wanted them to say it.
“I’m so sorry.”
The woman’s apology drifted after him as Harris shoved Terry, with Jimmy still clutched clumsily in his arms, out through the doors and into the narrow entry. The long glass windows were flowered with frost, and the recently shoveled path was already under half a foot of snow.
“You got a place to go?” the paramedic asked. He glanced down at Jimmy—at the peaked bald face under a flap-eared fur hat—and his mouth twitched. “There’s shelters. If you and the kid need—”
“No.” Terry picked at the edge of the tape with his nails. It was stiff and shiny, hard to get hold of. When he finally managed to rip it off, the tape left a stripe of sticky residue on the red sleeve. It would collect fluff to match the one from yesterday. “All we need from you is a seat on the bus.”
“Dad,” Jimmy said. He reached up and patted Terry’s face with a cold hand. “It’s alright. We can come back tomorrow.”
The tag would be the same color—just another stripe of fluff on his sleeve.
“I’ve got money,” Terry lied. He ignored Jimmy’s exhausted protest and grabbed for Harris’s arm. “You can have it. All of it.”
Harris pulled away. “Whose kid would I kill?” he asked.
“I don’t care.”
Of course he was. When your son was dying, everyone was very, very sorry. They were sorry to tell you the diagnosis, sorry when they said the treatment wasn’t working, and sorry when they said your kid was too likely to die to deserve a ride to Glasgow.
“Let’s go home, Dad,” Jimmy said.
Terry carried him. When he bought his boots, they said they were waterproof. Maybe they were. He’d only worn them on the occasional walk with the dog. But snowproof they weren’t. His socks were wet and half-frozen. He couldn’t feel his toes anymore, just the occasional jab of pain through the bones.
The wind battered him. It chilled his jaw and froze his joints. He stopped outside the butcher. The window was empty, and a bitterly ironic sign for summer BBQ deals was still pasted to the glass. He slid down until his hips caught on the low windowsill.
“Just a minute,” he said.
There was a gun. It wasn’t his. It belonged to the farmer he did work for sometimes. A shotgun they used for gulls. He could… what?
Jimmy tugged at his jacket. “Dad. Dad.”
He looked up as a stocky old man limped toward them, his weight divided between two sticks. A white collar showed over his coat. Terry didn’t know him, but there were a lot of people in town he didn’t know.
“Father,” the priest parroted back, with a nod of his head to Jimmy. “I heard what happened back there. The boy’s sick.”
There was no “sorry” in the priest’s voice, no pity. It was refreshing and disorienting at the same time.
“He’ll be fine. We just need to get to Glasgow.” It was a lie. At that point even Terry knew that. But the lie was all he had.
“Those doctors didn’t think so.”
Terry lifted his chin stubbornly. “What do they know? If they were any good, would they have sent us out here?”
The priest dragged himself closer, his legs awkward as he moved through the snow. He wasn’t as old as Terry had thought. The lines of his face were scars and wear, not age. He leaned against the window and smiled with closed lips at Jimmy. Then he turned his attention back to Terry.
“Do you believe in miracles?” he asked.
“I’m not religious.”
The priest chuckled. Gapped teeth flashed against the red of his mouth, and his breath was visible as he panted from the effort of getting there.
“You don’t have to be.” He reached out and laid a scarred hand on Jimmy’s. A smell clung to him—something sour and musky. Terry felt embarrassed to notice it. “You just have to be desperate.”
“I’M A pathologist,” Nick had protested as the hospital administrator shoved a clipboard and hi-vis vest at him. “What good am I going to be to a relief effort?”
No one had listened. It was all hands on deck as the SNP proved they could manage their own disasters without any help from England. Except they couldn’t, and it was small comfort that, by all accounts, neither could anywhere else in the UK. The winter had swept across the country with brutal, climatic efficiency, and all their glorious civilization ground to a frozen halt.
Helicopters were grounded, train tracks frozen over, and most importantly, the off-licenses were either sold out or looted.
Nick only had one bottle of whiskey left, and that would not be enough.
Faced with the prospect of an unstocked liquor cabinet—otherwise known as a filing cabinet—Nick added an extra shot to his tepid coffee. He took a drink and grimaced as the bitter burn hit the back of his throat. At this point he could probably just drop the pretense and admit it was just whiskey in a coffee mug.
Nick took another drink, apparently determined to chase that empty bottle, and closed his eyes for a second. Last night’s hangover poked at his eyelids with raspy fingers, and the little bit of professional pride that wasn’t numb with the cold hissed reproachfully at him.
“Fuck you,” he told it. His voice echoed back to him dully as it bounced off the walls. “This is your fault anyhow.”
He sighed and opened his eyes. The world had gone to hell, and Nick was apparently going to face it sober, but there was still work to do. He turned and cast a grim eye over his makeshift base of operations.
It was billed as an Entertainment Center on the sign outside.
Even at its best, Nick couldn’t imagine it had been that entertaining. It was a corrugated iron box with a flat plastic roof in the middle of a run-down trailer park, probably sweaty hot in the summer and definitely Baltic in the winter. There was a heavy cover that turned the small pool into a stage and a poster still taped to the front door. The paper was yellowed and the tape brittle. It advertised a tribute act to the pop band Bucks Fizz (Buck the Frizz) as a headline event in the 1980s. From the layer of dust in the pool, it had been drained since that concert, but the smell of chlorine still lingered in the air.
Not even the real Bucks Fizz could liven up the atmosphere now. Frost crusted the dips in the metal, the paintwork was fractured and peeling where the ice crystals had pushed through, and corpses wrapped in tarps and plastic sheets were laid out along the edge of the pool. It looked like a particularly macabre holiday brochure photo.
Nick was the only doctor in Ayr who still had a full practice list.
He fished his voice recorder out of his pocket and turned it on… probably. The cold had cracked the casing, and the LED had given up the glowing ghost a week earlier. It didn’t look like it was working, and there was no way to tell if it was or not until he stumbled over to the Trauma Base to use the only computer hooked up to the generator.
Until then—Nick tapped his thumb on Record—he just had to take it on faith.
“This is Doctor Nicholas Blake,” he said. His accent slurred down-market as he talked. Exhaustion and, to be fair, booze had eroded a natural talent for mimicry and one year of elocution lessons. His vowels had gone all Glasgie. He thought about caring and decided he didn’t. “I am continuing to process the dead recovered from Ayr.”
It was stark, said out loud like that.
Nick tucked the recorder into his breast pocket, where hopefully it would still pick up his voice. He looked at the body laid out on the flimsy Formica table he’d dragged over from the kitchens to serve as a makeshift slab—not ideal under normal circumstances, but these were hardly normal circumstances, even for Scotland.
He remembered scoffing over weak tea with his colleagues in Edinburgh as the snow piled up outside. They’d made fun of the soft Southerners who thought a bit of snow was the end of the world and joked about missing I’m a Celebrity this year. The Scots were used to bad weather, cold winters, wet springs, and the legend of summer. When winter came early, it was just something to grumble about and stock up on whiskey.
Even as the helicopter took off from the hospital roof and Nick perched on a box of antibiotics and saline and peered with that familiar queasy fascination at the retreating earth, he’d thought it was all under control. It would be a few hard months, and once it was over, farmers would apply for compensation for their dead sheep, the Guardian would write op-eds about global warming, and the odds would be significantly better for a white Christmas next year.
He’d been wrong. They all had. It probably didn’t make any difference to the dead, though.
“Deceased is a teenage female,” Nick recited for the record. He picked up his digital camera and breathed on the lens to melt the glaze of frost. The first photo was of the girl’s pale face, bruises discoloring her temples and the hollows around her eyes. Even in death the cold pinched her lips and left them chapped and dark. The clips still in her hair, rhinestone butterflies against wet-dark curls, were quietly macabre. Nick lifted her arm. The flesh was stiff and chilled under his gloved fingers. “Identifying mark of a rose tattoo on inner forearm. Initials I-C are included. No ID was found with the remains.”
He snapped a picture of that, the ink dull under dead skin, and set the girl’s arm back down on the table. Two more pictures, to chronicle the mole on her hip and the scar on the back of her ankle, and he set the camera aside.
“Cause of death is presumed to be hypothermia.”
Nick put the envelope containing the girl’s personal effects on her chest and sealed the body bag. He scrawled a number in Sharpie on the plastic, and job done. The girl would join the rest of the logged remains in the deep end of the small pool and then be transferred to the shallow, temporary grave site in the waste ground outside the trailer park.
And that was it. Nick’s job was done. On to the next corpse. Sometimes the body would present with injuries inconsistent with the cold as a cause of death, but even then, all he did was chronicle the injuries the same way he did scars and tattoos. It wasn’t a job that really required twelve years of medical school and nearly a decade of experience. A janitor with a checklist to work off could have done the same job.
Not that Nick had anything else to do. He was only meant to be there for three days—an in-and-out mercy mission to drop off medical supplies and evacuate the critically ill and vulnerable to a world-class hospital with an emergency generator and prepared staff. That was four weeks ago.
The medical supplies had been used up. Contact with the world-class hospital had begun with platitudes about finding a way to get them out and ended with silence. The critically ill were mostly under Nick’s care now.
So Nick logged the dead, tried not to think about how much he missed picking them apart, and waited for his whiskey to run out. Once it did—he picked up the mug and took a gulp that warmed him up just enough to make him realize he was freezing—he’d see what came next.
The cold was brutal, and the equipment they’d been given wasn’t sufficient for the conditions. Nick was nearly forty, nearly fit, and he drank too much even before the snowpocalypse. His fingers had lost sensation. He needed booze to control the scratchy cough that woke him up at night, and he’d skipped meals because his stomach ached as though it couldn’t digest what he shoved in there. It might have been years since Nick treated a live body, but if he put his mind to it, he could probably diagnose himself.
But once he did, there was only one real resolution on the table and he wasn’t ready to lie down in the pool with the rest of the corpses—not yet. There were still a few shots of whiskey left and plenty of remains to chronicle.
Nick shifted the girl’s corpse. The next in line was a contorted, naked man with bloody hands and feet.
“Presumed cause of death is hypothermia,” Nick said tiredly. “Injuries are consistent with ‘terminal burrowing,’ and with the state the remains were—”
Someone hammered on the door. It made the whole building rattle as it vibrated out along the metal walls. Up in the corners of the roof, ice cracked and dropped onto the corpses. Nick jumped in reaction and nearly knocked the dead man off the table.
“Fuck,” Nick spat out. His heart skipped a beat and then another before it finally, sluggishly started again. It felt as though it were wedged in the base of his throat, like a chicken bone. He swallowed hard and rubbed his knuckles against his chest to shift the ache. “Shit.”
He yanked the dead man back onto the center of the table and folded the tarp over him, as though he might still care if someone saw his frostbitten genitals.
Whoever was outside had stopped banging on the door. Apparently it wasn’t as urgent as they had thought. Nick grumbled under his breath. Before they decided to give up, they’d woken every dog in the area and set them to howling. Nick stripped the gloves off as he stalked to the door. He yanked it open, and the blast of cold that blew in shocked the irritation out of him. It had gotten dark while he was working under the glare of portable generator-powered lights, and the storm had picked up again. There was no fresh snow to add to the grubby drifts piled up against the nicotine-beige caravans, but a wind armed with ice had blown in off the sea.
The dogs filled the night with frantic, aggressive noise that bounced off the metal sides of the trailers. It made it difficult to place anything.
“Hello?” Nick asked sharply. The cold worked under the heavy cuffs of his jumper and dug down into his bones. It dried out his nose as he inhaled. “Nelson? This isn’t funny, you idiot.”
He grabbed his coat from beside the door and shrugged it on as he stepped outside. The snow came up to his ankles, a bitter trickle down into his boots, and the wind flapped the long tails of his coat behind him. It splayed his shadow over the snow like grubby wings.
He took a step forward and looked around for the idiot paramedic. Back in Edinburgh, Nelson had been a “two sugars in a sugarless tea” joker. The last weeks stuck in a shoddy trailer site on the edge of a shrinking, snowbound town had edged the practical joker into an almost manic need to coax a laugh from someone. It wasn’t working.
Nick held his coat closed over his chest with one hand and ventured another precarious step outside. He squinted against the wind and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“Hello?” he said.
Something familiar and bitter teased at his nose. He had a good sense of smell. He’d always been the “do you smell that?” guy. But he couldn’t quite place that smell. The cold dulled everything. He took another step. His feet were already soaked.
“I’m not in the mood.” Nick scowled into the dark. “Jim? What is it? Does Jepson want to see me?”
Someone groaned in the dark. The sound was low and wet and suggestive. Nick would have blushed if he weren’t so cold. He licked his lips and felt the sting of spit in open cracks.
“Go to hell.”
Nick turned and stumbled through the snow, back toward the still-open door. His shoulders were hunched and tense, the muscles knotted into a tight ache. He shouldn’t have slept with Nelson. It would have been a bad idea even if they weren’t stuck there until the weather eased off.
If. A paranoid voice creaked a correction in the back of his brain. If it eased off. It was his gran’s voice, old Scottish pessimism to the point of preaching the apocalypse and a clip around the ear if you left your shoes on the table or your hat on the bed, or the other way around, just to be safe.
She was born around here, he remembered—up north a few miles—a “proper Highlander” as she always said.
Nick reached the threshold and kicked the clumped snow off his boots. “Go ahead and freeze, then,” he tossed sourly back over his shoulder.
But something made him hesitate in the doorway—maybe the smell, still naggingly familiar, or the second groan that clawed its way over the wind. That time it sounded… thick instead of wet. Across the trailer park, he saw lights flicker down at Jepson’s trailer. The trauma leader was still up and at work. Her silhouette paused in front of the grubby net curtains, and someone joined her there.
Maybe not at work. Nick started to turn away, but then he stopped and looked again. Heavy jackets and layers made everyone the same shape, more or less, but the second figure was shorter than Jepson. So unless the surgeon had decided to kiss a girl and see if she liked it, that meant it was Nelson.
The scent finally worked its way far enough up his nose that he could pick the copper and salt stink of it out from the sharp ozone smell of the snow and the distant salty reek of the sea.
Nick lurched back out into the snow. “Copeland! Harris!” he yelled for his neighbors. The wind caught his voice and stretched the words out thin and tinny from his lips. “Someone’s hurt out here. Help!”
The door on one of the shabby vans creaked open, and Copeland looked out. Her hair was matted down on one side, and her broken arm was strapped carefully across her chest. She used her teeth to pull her heavy padded jacket over her shoulder as she gingerly came down the metal-grille steps.
“Who is it?” she asked, eyes wide and afraid.
“Don’t know,” Nick said. “I thought it was Nelson playing silly buggers, but….”
He jerked his head toward Jepson’s caravan. Copeland looked in that direction, and, even though there was no one visible at the window anymore, she blushed.
“Maybe they’re just… I mean, Doctor Jepson is married.”
Copeland pulled a flashlight out of her pocket with her good hand and thumbed it on. The narrow beam of bright light flicked back and forth over the snow for a second and then stopped abruptly on a patch of dark, half-melted snow in front of one of the unused caravans. “Doctor Blake. There. Oh my God, they’re bleeding.”
Nick shifted direction and lumbered toward the stain. The snow was up to his shins as he veered off the trodden-down path and into the heavy, iced-over drifts. He caught his foot on something—a pot, an old bit of fence—and pitched forward onto his knees.
Other lights were going on across the park. He heard doors open and some voices demanding to know what was going on and others yelling at the dogs to shut up.
The beam of the flashlight flittered away and played randomly over the side of the caravan as Copeland hammered on the side of Harris’s van.
“Wake up. Come on, man, we need help,” she yelled.
Nick scrambled back to his feet and batted the ice off his knees with both hands. The wind caught his coat and viciously flapped it back and forth. Despite the cold, he had broken out in a slimy sweat under his arms and an itch at the back of his neck. The blood trail went from blotch to drip to smear before it disappeared under the trailer, dragged under the cracked brown latticework that covered the base. Old horror-movie instincts made him hesitate at the hole, where the smell of blood was so strong that it was impossible to mistake for anything else.
“Hey, are you okay?” Nick asked. Stupid question, but he felt like he had to break the silence. “Do you need any help? I’m a doctor. If you’re hurt.”
A rough rattle of air, almost lost under the wind, was his only answer. Nick took a deep breath, tasted the whiskey still on his tongue, and crawled into the gap. Snow soaked through his jeans, the chill of it jabbed into his knees like needles, and he had to fumble blindly in front of him to avoid the metal bars and pipes.
Nick squinted into the dark. He could just about make out a figure curled up against the trailer’s tire, half-naked with a dark blanket hitched up over their hip. Something about the voice was…. Did he know them? It wasn’t someone from the Relief Team, though. Maybe it was just the accent. Everyone up here burred their words like his gran had when she got merry.
“It’s alright.” Nick grimaced as he caught his shoulder against a sharp strut. “We can help. You’re going to be okay.”
Behind him he heard Copeland and Harris arguing as they got closer, her voice quick and panicky over his sleep-blurred questions. Nick was almost close enough to the man to touch his white sleeve when Harris demanded, “Who the hell is it, then?” and turned his torch under the trailer.
It wasn’t a blanket. Blood coated the man’s leg and stomach in a thick, almost syrupy film over raw skin. His chest was dappled with it too—arterial dark splatters that dripped onto the frosty ground in slow, persistent splats.
Nick didn’t know him. The torch picked out the sharp lines in his lean, angular face and bounced back oddly from green eyes that looked too bright for the amount of blood. He was beautiful. It was an odd thing to notice in all that gore, but Nick couldn’t help it.
“I don’t need your help,” he rasped out, his lips curled back from the words. “I don’t need anyone’s help.”
“Of course you don’t,” Nick said. “You look like you’re thriving under here.”
His brain scrambled to pull up the half-forgotten, heavily depleted list of supplies stored in the old toilet block.
“Harris! Get in here and help me. You’re the emergency medicine expert.”
“I told you. I can die… on my own.”
The man lifted his head off his arm, and Nick realized that the awkward lines of his folded body had created a sort of tourniquet that was now released. The steady drip of blood turned into a gush that steamed as the cold air hit it. Some ingrained habit from med school, back before they all agreed he was better with the dead, made Nick lurch forward and clap his hand against the man’s throat. With his body pressed against the man’s shoulder, he was close enough that it felt like an embrace—but somehow more intimate, with the bubble of the man’s life caught in Nick’s hand. The wound was wide and ragged, the edges bulging around his fingers as he tried to pinch them together.
“Who is it?” Harris persisted in the background. “What are they doing out here?”
Copeland’s voice cracked. “Does it matter? We have to help him.”
“What if it’s a trick? What if those idiots come back to try and steal drugs we don’t have?”
It felt alien. He was used to cold blood, still and settled under the skin. Not this hot gush, eager to escape and soak the ground. The man struggled against Nick’s attempts to help him, his bloody hands slick and slippery as he pushed at Nick’s arm and face. Blood smeared up over Nick’s eye and into his hair. Through the glaze of red, he saw, for a second, a woman hanging off the man’s shoulders by one wasted arm. Her fingers, so sharp and hard they looked like shrink-wrapped bone, plucked at the edges of the wound to try and open it.
Nick gasped and tasted rot and wine in the back of his throat. As though she could feel his attention on her, the woman looked up. Dirty, elflocked hair swayed back from her face, and Nick saw the sharp blade of an eroded nose and a glimpse of a dry yellow eye.
His bladder clenched and nearly spilled a night’s worth of whiskey down his leg. He didn’t want to see any more. Nick squeezed his hand tighter, resisted the pick-pick of dry fingers, and ducked his chin to wipe the blood off his face with his shoulder.
When he looked up, the woman was gone. He shuddered in relief, and the injured man stared at him as though he could tell what Nick had just seen.
“Who? I don’t know who that is. You’ll have to tell him yourself,” Nick said, the taste of metal and copper slipping onto his tongue. He glanced over his shoulder and yelled at the dithering Harris. “Just get in here and help me. He’s bleeding.”
“Tell the Old Man,” the man said. The sharp clarity had faded from his eyes, leaving them dull and angry. He sagged against Nick, a heavy weight of muscle and bone and despair. “Tell him… I died first, if nothin’ else.”
“You’re not dying. I got you,” Nick insisted. He could feel the blood push against his fingers and run down his arms. The warmth of it was almost pleasant, even if it was in danger of making him a liar…. “Besides, I don’t even know your name.”
“Gregor.” The man’s head fell forward, and his chin braced against Nick’s hand. “Tell him his favorite son died, but I went first.”