Chapter Three

Another endless night and morning alone was all that Jack could take. He sat at the top of the stairs and reached the inevitable conclusion that it was time to get out. The sooner he did it, the sooner he could get back he reasoned. With his rucksack already packed he nervously locked up his home and stepped outside shortly after one o'clock that afternoon. For a few precious moments the autumn day felt reassuringly normal. It was typically cold and dry yet threateningly dull and overcast. A brisk, gusting wind was fresh and welcome, disturbing the silence and occasionally disguising the smells of death and burning which otherwise hung heavy in the air.

Less than fifty meters into his journey and Jack stopped, turned around and took a few hesitant steps back towards his house. It looked temptingly safe and certain back there. He knew exactly what he'd find behind the locked door and where everything would be. Out here in the open, though, he didn't know what was going to be waiting for him around the next corner. Too frightened to move forward into the unknown, but equally afraid of the consequences of turning tail and hiding alone in his home for days, possibly even weeks on end, he didn't know which way to turn. He stood in the middle of the street and cried like a child lost without its parents.

Jack gradually managed to placate himself by settling on a compromise. He decided that he would walk a little way further towards the town centre and that after an hour or two he would turn round and come back home. Tomorrow he would venture a little further, then further still the next day and the next day after that until he found other survivors. There had to be others, of that much he felt certain. Feeling a little better he began to walk towards the end of the road, wishing that he'd learnt to drive like just about everyone else he knew had done before they'd reached the age of twenty. He would have felt much safer in a car. Jack stopped walking when he was halfway down Turnhope Street as the first moving body he'd seen since leaving home stumbled into view. He was just about able to cope with the corpses that littered the ground, but the ones that moved were still too much for him to stand. Despite the fact that they didn't seem to react to anything, he still felt undeniably threatened by their unnatural presence.

As the body (the uniformed remains of a male traffic warden) approached, he instinctively stood still and pressed himself against the side of the nearest building, hoping that he would blend into the background and go unnoticed. His fears were unfounded. The corpse staggered past without even lifting its head. It dragged its feet along the ground painfully slowly and Jack watched as it listlessly walked further and further away, its arms hanging heavy at its sides, swaying with the rest of its uncoordinated movements. The complete and utter silence of the morning was overpowering. The darkness last night had been much the same - intense, relentless and uninterrupted by even a single street lamp. This morning apart from the sounds of the occasional gust of wind blowing litter and waste down the desolate and empty streets there was nothing. No cars. No planes. No music.

No voices. Just a heavy, ominous and painfully empty silence. The noise his feet made as they scuffed along the pavement sounded as if they were being amplified a thousand times. Once or twice he cleared his throat, ready to shout out for help, but at the last moment his nerve had gone and he had decided against it. Much as he wanted to attract the attention of anyone who had survived, he was desperate not to attract the attention of anything else. And despite the fact that there didn't seem to be anything else left to attract, he didn't have the balls to take the chance. It all boiled down to the fact that he was scared. No, he wasn't just scared, he was damn terrified. Portdown Park Road ran into Lancaster Road which led into Haleborne Lane which then merged with Ayre Street, the road which eventually widened and became one of the main routes into the heart of the city. In an hour Jack had walked the best part of three slow miles and he hadn't seen anything or anyone, apart from another twenty or thirty of the silent, stumbling bodies. Some of them - the majority of them in fact - he had been able to ignore and pass with little difficulty. They looked, to all intents and purposes, relatively normal, just a little dishevelled and unkempt and lacking in colour, almost monochrome. Once in a while, however, one of them would come along which instantly filled him with nervous nausea and fear. The reanimation of the dead, it seemed, had been completely random and without any obvious logical criteria. Five minutes ago Jack had passed a body that had clearly been involved in a horrific accident. It had been male, he thought, but he couldn't be completely sure.

The body was covered from head to toe in vicious burns. There didn't appear to be a single area of skin that hadn't been charred beyond recognition. The hair had been burned away from the scalp and the face - or the black hole where the face had been - was completely unrecognisable, just a mangled, burnt mass. Some clothing still hung around the creature's desperate frame, flapping in the breeze. Most of it, however, had either burned away or melted into the twisted, blackened flesh. But somehow it kept moving. Ignorant to the damage and deformation it had suffered and oblivious to any pain or shock it should have felt, the bloody thing just kept on moving. Its eyes were burned out empty sockets and it had no coordination but still it kept on dragging itself forward, clumsily crashing into walls, parked cars and other obstructions. It had been the smell more than anything that had tipped Jack over the edge. He'd caught a taste of the scent of scorched flesh on the breeze and had immediately dropped to his knees and emptied the contents of his stomach into the gutter. Although he'd decided to turn back if nothing happened, an unpredictable combination of curiosity and morbid fascination coupled with the desperate desire to actually find someone else alive kept Jack moving towards the centre of town. The further he got from his home, the more confident he gradually became but, as he neared the main hub of the city, the full enormity of what had happened was made painfully apparent.

The small and insignificant suburb where he had lived had been brutally scarred by what had happened but that had been nothing compared to the city centre. Here, where there were far more tightly packed shops, offices, factories and other buildings the death and destruction appeared immense and unending. Jack was overcome by the magnitude of it all. Nothing seemed to have been left untouched by the silent killer early on Tuesday morning. Walking down one side of a wide dual carriageway, he finally plucked up enough courage to shout out. `Hello,' he yelled, frightening himself with the volume of his own voice. `Hello, is there anybody there?' Nothing. No surprise. He tried again. `Hello...' He stopped shouting and listened as the echoes of his words reverberated around the desolate city street, bouncing off the walls of lifeless buildings. Now that he seemed to be its only occupant, the world suddenly seemed vast and empty. In the far distance he heard a lone dog bark and howl. `Hello...' he shouted again.

Dejected, he wondered whether it was worth going on. He had left his home with some hope, albeit a minimal amount, but now that had evapourated away to nothing. But how could he possibly be the only one left, he asked himself? Out of millions - possibly billions - of people affected, how could it be that he had survived when the rest of them had fallen and died? Did it have anything to do with where he'd been when it had happened? Did he just have a natural, inbuilt immunity? Was it because he worked nights? Was it something he'd eaten or not eaten? Nothing seemed beyond the realms of possibility anymore. More pathetic, staggering bodies were all that he could see.

Now that his initial fear and uncertainty at being out in the open had subsided, Jack was beginning to feel stronger and less threatened by those bodies which moved. He could see, hear, think and react. They, it seemed, could do nothing more than stumble about aimlessly. He was getting closer and closer to the heart of the city with every step. Was it safe to go in there? Should he turn back now and head home? The main road gradually narrowed to a single lane in either direction and the sudden closeness of the buildings around him made him feel hemmed in and uneasy. He decided against shouting out again. There were even more bodies up ahead. He managed to walk past them with a new found nonchalance, even plucking up the courage to push one of them out of the way when it staggered randomly into his path. Jack glanced over to his right where he saw one of the pathetic creatures sitting in the shadows of a shop doorway.

He hadn't seen any of the corpses sitting still before, they seemed to move about constantly. Perhaps this was one that had fallen and died in the doorway where it had remained until now. He stopped and walked a little closer. As he approached the body raised its head and looked up at him, lifting its hands to shield its eyes from the bright autumn sun which had appeared momentarily through an unexpected gap in the heavy cloud cover. The figure in the doorway - a young girl, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years of age dressed in a creased and crumpled school uniform - slowly stood up and began to walk towards him. It took the two desperate, frightened individuals a good thirty seconds to realise and fully accept the fact that they had both found another survivor.

Moving slowly and with caution at first, the girl broke into a run for the last few meters before wrapping her arms around Jack and sinking to her knees. He crouched down and held her as tightly as he could, as if he'd known her for fifty years and not seen her for ten. He'd finally found someone else alive. After a few long and emotional seconds of silence, Jack looked around anxiously before taking the girl's hand in his and leading her towards the nearest building. It was a dental surgery. A cold, dark and small private practice which smelt of dust and decay still tinged with a sterile, antiseptic edge. The two survivors sat down together in a musty waiting room on hard plastic seats, surrounded by three motionless corpses that had been waiting to be seen by the now dead dentist since early Tuesday morning. A nurse was slumped across a counter to their right. The presence of the bodies didn't seem to matter.

Being indoors helped Jack psychologically, regardless of how grim and desolate his new surroundings were. At first neither survivor knew what to say to the other. `I'm Jack...' he eventually stammered awkwardly. `I heard you shouting...' she began to sob. She shook as she leant against him. The warmth of her body was welcome and reassuring. `I didn't know where you were,' she continued. `I heard you but I couldn't see you and...' `Doesn't matter,' he whispered, stroking her hair and gently kissing the top of her head. `It doesn't matter.' `Have you seen anyone else?' the girl asked. `No-one. What about you?' She shook her head. Feeling fractionally better and more composed, she pushed herself away from Jack slightly and sat up in her seat. He watched as she wiped her face. `What's your name?' he asked softly. `Clare Smith,' she mumbled. `And are you from round here, Clare?' She shook her head again.

No, I live with my mum in Letchworth.' `So how did you end up in this part of town?' `I'd been stopping at my dad's this weekend. We didn't have any school on Monday so I stayed with him an extra day and...' She stopped talking when the memory of her parents and the recollection of her sudden, unexplained loss came flooding back. She started to cry silently. Jack watched helplessly as a relentless stream of tears ran down her pale cheeks. `Look,' he soothed, trying to make it easier for her, `you don't have to tell me anything if you don't want to. If you want we could just...'

`What happened?' she asked suddenly, cutting across him and turning to look him square in the face for the first time. `What did this?' Jack sighed, stood up and stepped over a corpse lying at his feet. `Don't know,' he replied, looking through a frosted-glass window into a small office area. `I was on my way home when it happened. I didn't see anything until it was too late. Clare leant forward in her seat and held her head in her hands. `Dad was driving me to school,' she said quietly as she stared down at the floor between her feet. `He lives right on the other side of town so we were coming through the city centre...' She paused to wipe her eyes and clear her throat. `We pulled up at a set of traffic lights and Dad started to choke.

I tried to help him but there was nothing I could do. We drove into the car in front and the car behind hit us. Dad just kept coughing and shaking until he died and I couldn't do anything...' Clare's composure cracked and she lost control again. Jack took a few steps closer to her and knelt down in front of her chair. She grabbed hold of him tightly and pulled herself towards him, burying her face in his chest. Still feeling a little awkward and unsure, he put his arms around her again and rocked her gently. `Come on...' he soothed. Clare wiped her eyes and continued to talk between heavy sobs. `I got out of the car to try and get some help for Dad. I didn't even stop to think about what had happened to him. And when I got out I couldn't believe what I saw. Everything had stopped. We were stuck in the middle of the biggest crash you've ever seen. It looked like there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of cars all smashed into each other. I had to climb over them to get to the side of the road...'

`It happened so quickly that no-one had time to react,' Jack mumbled. After a few long seconds of silent reflection he cleared his throat and spoke again. `I've been heading into the centre of town,' he explained. `I live out in the suburbs. I thought I might find a few more people that had survived round here.' `And you haven't found anyone?' Clare asked. Jack shook his head. `You're the first.' `So why have we survived?' `No idea. I don't know anything more than you do. I mean, I was just sitting on the bus trying to get home and...'

He stopped talking suddenly. `And what...?' Clare pressed. `Shh...' he hissed, lifting a finger to his lips. He could hear something. He stood up and walked out of the waiting room, beckoning Clare to follow close behind. A twisting wooden staircase led from the ground floor up to the rest of the dental surgery. At the very top of the staircase were three doors leading to separate consulting rooms. Jack cautiously pushed the nearest door open.

It swung forward, opening into a small square room dominated by a large treatment chair complete with dead patient. A dental nurse's corpse lay at his feet. On the other side of the room the lethargic body of a dentist - wearing once hygienic white overalls covered with dribbles of blood - was trapped, its path blocked by the chair and an upturned cupboard of medical equipment.

The corpse staggered helplessly from side to side. `Let's go,' Jack said under his breath. He turned and led Clare downstairs and back out onto the street.

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