Chapter Seventeen

Stay calm, keep steady and keep moving Donna silently repeated to herself over and over again as she walked with Paul towards the huge mass of dark bodies in the very near distance. The short journey from the pizza restaurant to the edge of the ring road had taken somewhere in the region of three-quarters of an hour, many times longer than it should have. And with each step forward they had taken, so the nervousness and apprehension felt by both survivors had steadily increased. They were walking into the lion's den. In just a few minutes they would be surrounded by rotting corpses on all sides, and a single unexpected movement or sound could well be enough to start a chain reaction within the crowd that might feasibly engulf them and leave them with no means of escape. On their own the bodies were weak and were more an inconvenience than a threat.

In a crowd of this size, however, the danger was undeniable and there was no obvious way out other than to turn and run back into the city. Donna knew that there would be as many bodies again waiting for them back there. The smell was appalling. Since they'd left the office and gone out into the open they'd been aware of a suffocating, noxious taste in the air which steadily increased as they approached the mass of decaying bodies. It was the smell of death and disease, and it seemed to coat and tarnish everything. Struggling to keep her nerve, Donna watched the corpse nearest to her left out of the corner of her eye. It had once been a girl - about her height and age perhaps - but now it was barely recognisable.

She might even have known the pathetic creature before it had been struck down by whatever it was that had laid waste to the world less than a week ago. The early morning light was still low but there was enough illumination for Donna to be able to make out what remained of the girl's features. Her once pale and smooth skin had been eaten away by disease and decay, leaving it with an unnatural blue-green tinge. Blistering, weeping sores had erupted around her mouth and nose. Her mouth hung open heavily and a thick string of bloody, germ-filled saliva trickled down the side of her face. Her once well-fitting clothes now rustled and flapped against her willowy frame in the cold morning breeze. Donna couldn't look away from the remains of the girl. In a strange way it was easier to concentrate on just one of the bodies rather than look around at the rest of the crowd. Each one of them was abhorrent and repulsive in their own way. She was frightened that the next one she looked at might be more grotesque and even more repellent than the last. She was frightened that she might happen to see one of the creatures that was so badly decomposed and damaged by the savage affliction that she wouldn't be able to contain her disgust.

She had to keep reminding herself that one slip, one single unexpected sound, might be enough to bring everything crashing down around them. Paul had gradually moved further ahead. He was a couple of meters in front of Donna now and there were several bodies between them. The sheer size of the crowd that they had become part of was surprising and daunting. Paul knew that there had to be a reason for the unexpected gathering and, with no other indication of where they might find help or safety, it seemed sensible to go along with the movement of the mass of corpses. The sun was beginning to rise to their right and, as the brilliant orange light spilled silently over the city for the first time that morning, Paul looked ahead and, for a moment, was sure that he could see movement in the windows of a large, modern building on the other side of the ring road. He wanted to turn around and tell Donna but he knew that he couldn't risk attempting any form of communication with her.

Behind, Donna let her head hang heavily on her shoulders in the same way that the listless creatures around her did. To look up and around would show them that she was different. For as much of the time as she could she kept her eyes focussed on the ground around Paul's feet, desperately trying to keep track of his movements so that she didn't lose him. The crowd was becoming denser and more tightly packed and her nerves, comparative strength and natural speed made it increasingly difficult to match the slow and awkward pace of the shuffling cadavers all around her. Although all moving in the same general direction, the creatures had poor control over their movements and frequently lurched, tripped or staggered to one side or collided randomly with others. Paul allowed himself to look ahead again. Bright orange sunlight reflected back from the windows on the far right of the building, hurting his eyes. Perhaps that was all he'd seen, he thought dejectedly. Perhaps he hadn't seen movement after all, just the morning sun bouncing off the bronze-tinted windows. But no, there it was again. Knowing that he was taking a risk just by holding his head high and looking up, he continued to stare at the building ahead of him. He saw movement again.

Christ, there were people in the windows. He was still a couple of hundred meters away but he could definitely see them now. Unlike the countless thousands of sickly bodies that surrounded him and Donna, he knew instantly that the people in the windows were different. They were grouped together in several rooms and they were largely still. They had control. They were communicating with each other. They were looking down at the bodies and the remains of the city and they were thinking and talking and pointing and planning and... and it seemed impossible. For a few seconds longer Paul wasn't fully able to accept what he was seeing until he was close enough for it to be undeniable. These people were alive. These people were survivors. Without thinking he reacted. He stopped and span around to look for Donna. 'Up there,' he yelled when he saw her, pointing towards the building in front of them.

'Look!' She stared back at him with a look of terrified disbelief on her face, not listening to what he was saying, just stunned that he had been stupid enough to shatter the protective silence that they had managed to maintain for so long. Already aware that the bodies around her were beginning to react, she dropped her head again and hoped that Paul would shut up and do the same. It was too late. The first bodies began to push past her, their speed suddenly increased. 'Run you fucking idiot!' she shouted. Without waiting for his response, she dropped her shoulder and began to run towards the building ahead. She collided with body after body after body with each impact sending the weak figures tumbling to the ground and causing more and more of them to react. Already numerous clumsy and diseased hands were trying to grab hold of Paul. He wrestled them away and followed after Donna in her wake. The sheer volume of bodies crammed around the front of the building made the main entrance appear impassable even from a distance.

Already gasping for breath, Donna looked around anxiously for an alternative route. She was surrounded on all sides by the noxious corpses, every last one of which now seemed to turn and lurch awkwardly towards her. There wasn't time to make decisions. She just kept moving, hoping that her comparative strength would be enough to see her through. She sensed that Paul was close behind but didn't bother to check. He would have to look after himself. Stupid fucking idiot. She was on the ring road itself now. She tripped down the high kerb and began to run across the wide stretch of tarmac, managing to somehow continue to push the bodies away and also to avoid the wreckage of cars and rotting corpses strewn across her path. The crowd surged after her relentlessly, moving together slowly but ominously like some unstoppable thick and viscous liquid.

Up and over the low central reservation barrier and she knew she was almost there. She could hear her foolish companion getting closer behind her now grunting and groaning with effort as he forced his way forward through the seemingly endless tide of the dead. 'Go right!' she heard him shout and she immediately changed direction. The building in front of them was long and narrow but they were considerably closer to the right side than the left. It seemed logical to try and get around the back, but who was to say that there wasn't a crowd twice as big behind the building? The alternatives were bleak. She kept moving. The bodies were tightly packed against the front entrance. Donna rounded the corner and saw, to her relief, that there were considerably fewer of them to the side of the building, no doubt, she decided, because virtually all of the corpses would have approached from the direction of the city centre. Slipping around the side of a red and white striped entry barrier she took a deep breath, pushed another two corpses out of the way and continued to move forward. 'Climb up!' she heard Paul yell from behind. 'Get off the ground.' Donna looked around helplessly, not sure what he was expecting her to do. He answered her questions as he suddenly appeared next to her and pushed his way through the hordes towards a large delivery truck that was parked alongside the building.

Grabbing hold of the passenger side wing mirror he hauled himself up and away from the grabbing hands below. He lay flat across the roof of the truck and reached back down for Donna. 'Come on,' he hissed. Exhausted, she pushed her way through to the lorry and clambered up. By the time she had reached the top of the truck Paul was already making his way along the length of the vehicle towards the rear end. Donna followed before stopping and falling to her knees once she was safe. 'Help!' she yelled desperately, praying that someone inside the building would hear her. The back end of the truck where Paul was standing was less than three feet away from the outside wall of the building. Just above his head and to his right slightly was a small balcony. Without stopping to consider the risks he leapt up and grabbed at the metalwork surrounding the balcony area. In a flurry of movement he reached out and wrapped his arm around one of the metal railings. He grimaced with pain as the sudden weight of his body threatened to wrench his shoulder from its joint.

Slowly, and with much effort, he managed to pull himself up. Donna watched from the roof of the truck as he hauled himself up onto the narrow landing and began to smash his fists furiously against a double-glazed window. Donna lay down and rolled over onto her back and looked up into the grey morning sky above her. The noise that Paul was making quickly faded into silence as she relaxed, as did the constant shuffling of the relentless crowd of bodies swarming around the front of the building and around the truck. She stared into the clouds moving over her head and watched as they blew across from left to right. If I look up and I keep looking up, she thought, then everything seems normal. If I don't look down then I can pretend that none of this is happening. Just for a few seconds I can pretend it's not happening.

After locating the window where Paul was standing the survivors forced it open and quickly pulled him inside. Using a ladder to bridge the gap between the building and the top of the truck, two men ventured out into the cold and inhospitable morning and brought Donna into the shelter.

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