Chapter Sixteen

Sheer physical and emotional exhaustion had drained Sonya to the point of collapse. The cocktail of drugs hurriedly prescribed by Dr Croft had knocked her out for the best part of four hours, giving her body time to regain a little strength. When she woke it was shortly after five in the morning and it was dark, save for the first few rays of morning light which were beginning to edge cautiously into the room. She was still lying on the bed where she'd delivered. The body of her baby daughter lay in the crib at her side, wrapped in pure white blankets. As soon as she'd regained consciousness she reached out and picked the little girl up and held her tightly, keeping her safe. Instinctively but pointlessly she still wanted to protect her lifeless child. Whenever Sonya moved it hurt, but the physical pain and the other aftereffects of childbirth were nothing compared to the anguish and agony she felt inside. She felt empty and hollow as if everything of value inside her had been scraped out and thrown away. She felt detached from her surroundings, almost as if she was watching herself move but she wasn't actually there.

She didn't know if she was warm or cold. She didn't know if she was tired or wide awake. She felt as if everything - her ability to communicate, to make decisions, to laugh or cry, to react or to hide - had gone. Her aching body was filled with nothing but relentless pain and remorse, tinged with anger and bitterness. Why did this have to happen? Croft was asleep on a chair in the corridor outside the room. She could see his feet through the half-open door. The pain she felt inside seemed to increase with each passing second. Several long minutes later, for the first time since her daughter had died, Sonya made a conscious decision.

Groaning with effort and discomfort, she sat upright and then swung her legs out over the side of the bed. She was bleeding heavily and had to wait for the blood to stop before lowering herself down. The floor beneath her feet was hard and cold. She grabbed a towelling dressing gown from a hook on the back of the door and struggled to put it on whilst still cradling her lifeless child. First one arm in, then the next, and then she wrapped the thick material around both herself and the baby. The corridor was even colder. Dragging her feet, Sonya slowly walked past Dr Croft.

She could hear Paulette stirring in the next room. Apart from the woman's muffled movements and the sound of another solitary soul sobbing on a different floor, the building was icily silent. What do you know about pain, Sonya silently asked whoever it was who was crying. If only they knew how she felt. The staircase was colder still. Sonya found it difficult to climb the stairs. She was tired and she hurt and she felt nauseous. The doctor seemed to have given her every drug he'd been able to find to help her get through the labour and then the grief. That, combined with the blood loss and drowsiness, had left her feeling bilious and faint. But somehow she managed to ignore everything and keep moving. The fifth floor, then the sixth, then the seventh. She wasn't sure how tall the building was, but she was certain that she had to be somewhere near the top floor now. She stopped and walked down another corridor to her right. She tried a few doors until one opened. It led into a small, square room similar to the one in which she'd just spent the night.

In one corner there was a single bed with a suitcase on top, next to that a cheap dressing-table. On the table was a collection of letters and a couple of photographs of a group of happy, smiling people standing in a sun-drenched garden somewhere. Presumably the pictures were of the room's now deceased occupant and their dead family. Sonya tenderly cradled her baby close to her chest and looked down into its grey but still beautiful face. She stood in the centre of the room, rocking gently, instinctively soothing her dead child. Slowly she opened up her dressing gown and lifted the baby up to her face.

She kissed its cold head and carefully laid it down on the bed next to the suitcase. Before moving she folded back the blankets to keep the little girl warm. She picked up a metal-framed chair and threw it through the window. The silent world was suddenly filled with unexpected noise as the glass shattered and the chair dropped into the rotting crowds gathered around the front of the building. Their unwanted interest immediately aroused, thousands upon thousands of creatures surged towards the building again. Sonya didn't look at them. She could hear other survivors down on the lower floors now, running around frantically, desperately trying to find where the sound had come from and terrified that the safety of their precious shelter had been compromised. Ignorant to the extent of the sudden movement and panic she had caused both inside and outside the building, Sonya dragged another chair across to the broken window. She picked her daughter up off the bed and, holding her close to her chest again, climbed up onto the chair before shuffling carefully onto the windowsill and sitting down. With her bare legs hanging out of the building and dangling in the cold morning air, she sat in silence and surveyed what remained of the world and its devastated population.

There was a massive crowd of shuffling bodies below her - the vacant shells of ordinary people who had fallen and died last week before somehow dragging themselves back up from their undignified resting places. And beyond them were millions more bodies still, lying and rotting where they had died on that first morning. But none of them mattered. Even the bodies of the people that Sonya had known and loved and who were out there somewhere didn't matter anymore. Nothing mattered. Sonya pressed her feet hard against the wall and leant forward and pushed herself out of the window.

She fell headfirst, falling through three-quarters of a turn as she dropped heavily through the disease-filled air, crashing down on her back onto the roof of a parked car and killing herself instantly. The nearest of the sickly cadavers instinctively took slow, lumbering steps towards Sonya's body. With dull, clouded eyes they stared at her battered and smashed remains. In spite of the force of the impact, she still held her baby tightly.

The sound of the window shattering echoed around the empty town. Paul and Donna heard it and it prompted them to move. They had spent the last three and a half hours sitting in a third floor, glass-fronted pizza restaurant. Their earlier supposition that slow movements and silence would be enough to avoid attracting the attention of the wandering bodies had thankfully proved to be correct. What they hadn't bargained on, however, was the effort involved in maintaining such a slow and tedious pace in close proximity to such unpredictable danger. Instinct constantly urged both of them to either hide away from the bodies or destroy them but they could do neither. The creatures were obnoxious, repellent and, for all that Paul and Donna knew, potentially lethal but they couldn't afford to let their emotions give them away. Staying so close to the desperate figures and being forced to pass them and move between them was almost impossible. Although he didn't dare speak out loud and say as much, Paul likened it to being forced to hold his hand in a bowl of boiling water.

After spending several hours outside, exposed and vulnerable, the survivors had staggered into the restaurant to calm themselves and try and rest for a while. Half of the restaurant had been destroyed by fire, and the vicious flames had left plastic tables and chairs mangled and misshapen. An explosion in the kitchens had blown a hole in the wall of the building the size of a small car, and it was through the hole that they heard the sound of the window being smashed. Holding onto the twisted and blackened remains of an oven for support, Paul leant out of the building and looked up and down the desolate street below. The light was low and a single figure moving away from the scene was all that he could see at first. Gradually his eyes became used to the light and were able to focus in the gloom. Then he saw the crowd. Hundreds, possibly thousands of bodies were gathered together in an area perhaps half a mile away. It took a few long seconds before the importance of his discovery finally registered. 'Christ,' he said as he pulled himself back inside.

'What?' mumbled Donna. 'There's a crowd down there,' he explained. 'Bloody hundreds of the damn things.' 'Where?' 'The ring road. They're down by the university I think.' 'So let's go the other way.' Tired, Donna picked up her belongings and started to get ready to leave. 'We should go towards it,' Paul said. There was an unsurprising lack of certainty and conviction in his voice. He knew that what he was saying was right, but he also knew that they would be taking an immense risk. Replace putting a hand into a bowl of boiling water, he thought, thinking back to his earlier analogy, with diving into a swimming pool full.

'Why?' Donna asked. She was exhausted. All she wanted to do was stay still and sleep. 'Because if these things are attracted by sound and movement,' he explained, 'then there's something over there that's keeping them interested.'


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