Chapter Twenty-Five

'They've got to be somewhere down that track,' Michael whispered, knocking back the last dregs of a mug of lukewarm black coffee. 'Whether they're a mile away or ten miles away, they're going to be down there somewhere.' 'So what do we do?' Emma asked, leaning across the melamine covered table and watching the shadows dance across his face in the dull light of a flickering gas lamp. She was tired. It felt like they'd been talking about this for hours. 'Find them,' he said simply. 'But is that wise?' 'What do you mean?' 'If this really is the army or airforce or whatever, do we really want to get involved with them?' 'Do we have a choice? Whoever they are, they're obviously well organised. You never know, they might have an antidote or something. There could be bloody hundreds of them holded-up somewhere.' 'But we don't need an antidote.' 'I know that,' he snapped.

'All I'm trying to say is that this whole thing might not be as hopeless as we've been thinking...' 'And anyway,' she continued unabated, ignoring everything he'd said, 'everybody's already dead. It'd need to be a bloody good antidote to help those poor bastards out there.' 'Okay,' Michael sighed, annoyed by her flippancy and her reluctance to try and find some good in the day's events, 'you've made your point.' A brief moment of silence followed. Emma looked around the cramped motorhome where she'd spent virtually every minute of the last few days. She hoped with all her heart that Michael's optimism was justified. After the relentless grief, despair and fear which had burdened them both constantly since the nightmare had begun, the possibility that some semblance of normality might somehow be about to return to their lives was welcome and unexpected. But it was so unexpected that she wouldn't allow herself to believe it was true until the fragments of possibility and hope had been evidenced and cemented into reality.

'You okay?' Michael asked, concerned by how quiet and reflective she had suddenly become. 'I'm all right,' she answered sadly. 'Sure?' She shook her head and looked down at the table. 'No,' she mumbled. Suddenly uneasy and self-conscious, Michael shuffled awkwardly in his seat. He'd spent weeks with Emma now but there was still an occasional distance between them. He grew more and more relaxed and assured in her company each day, but moments like this felt uncomfortable. Truth was he didn't know what to say to her. He didn't know how to make her pain go away. 'What's wrong?' She wiped her eyes and looked up at him. 'Sorry,' she sobbed, 'I can't help it. Most of the time I'm okay, but then sometimes I...' 'What?' Emma looked around the caravan, searching for the words to express how she felt. 'I just want this to stop,' she explained. 'I want to go to sleep tonight and wake up in the morning and find everything back as it used to be. And if that's not going to happen, I want to wake up and find the bodies gone and the uncertainty gone and the fear gone and...' 'Shh...' he whispered, worried that her voice was becoming loud enough to be heard from outside. 'Listen, you know as well as I do that the only certainty round here is that things are never going to get back to normal, don't you?' She nodded. 'Yes, but...' 'If this is all we've got left then we've got to make the most of it. We'll get used to living like this and...'

'But this isn't living,' she protested tearfully. 'How can you call this living? This is barely existing for Christ's sake. Look at us, Mike. Look at what's happening to us. We smell. We're dirty. We haven't washed properly for weeks.

Our clothes are filthy. We both need to cut our hair and you need to shave. We're not eating properly or exercising or...' 'We're making do,' he interrupted. 'And when we can we'll find somewhere to live where we can wash and relax and grow our own food. We'll get new clothes and we'll build ourselves a bloody palace somewhere, okay?' She sniffed back more tears. 'Okay,' she replied. Michael stared into her tear-streaked face.

She was right, but what could they do? As far as he could see there was no immediate way out of the situation they found themselves in. They had to remain mobile and go without some base necessities in order to survive. He truly believed that things would change eventually, they had to. The bodies would decay away to nothing in time. 'Hungry?' he asked, looking for a way to distract Emma from her dark and difficult thoughts. She nodded and sank back into her seat.

'A little.' 'I'll get you something.' She watched him as he stood up and walked the short length of the motorhome to the cramped kitchen area. Their vehicle shelter was safe but stifling. She might have been able to cope with the confined space had she been able to venture outside occasionally. As it was she was trapped, and she was finding the motorhome increasingly claustrophobic. Even though they had intentionally driven out into the middle of nowhere, for safety's sake they had draped thick blankets over every window and door to prevent any light from seeping out into the darkness and giving away their presence.

Almost three weeks had passed since the day the disease had struck but Emma still couldn't adjust to the way she was having to live. She'd known from the start that she'd probably never fully come to terms with the devastation and loss she'd experienced, but there were other much more subtle ways in which she was struggling. Having to remain deathly silent was harder than she would ever have imagined.

She was growing tired of having to think about everything in terms of how much noise she was going to make. Michael came back to the table and sat down. He carried with him more coffee and two pots of dehydrated snack food. Steam snaked up into the air from the top of each pot. 'Beef and tomato or sweet and sour?' he asked. They had found a job-lot of these snacks in the storeroom of a small corner shop they'd looted earlier in the week. The food tasted awful but it was hot, easy to prepare and relatively nutritious. 'Can't stand sweet and sour,' she answered, 'but I prefer it to beef and tomato.' He passed her the sweet and sour flavoured food and a fork.

Still sniffing back tears she began to eat hungrily and without further complaint. 'I think they'll be back,' Michael said between mouthfuls of tasteless food. 'Who will?' asked Emma. He looked at her in disbelief. How could she have forgotten already? 'Whoever it was I saw today,' he sighed. 'Remember? Bloody hell, Emma, anyone would think you didn't mind living in a shit-hole like this eating plastic food out of a plastic pot!' 'I'm sorry,' she said quietly. 'I'm tired. Look, I know how important this is to you...' 'Do you?' Michael snapped. 'Yes,' she insisted, 'of course I do.'

'Have you stopped to think where these people might be from? This might not be as widespread as we'd thought. Maybe it's only this country that's been affected...' He stopped talking, aware that Emma had put down her fork and that she was staring at him. 'Don't do this,' she said softly, reaching her hand out across the table and gently squeezing his. 'Please don't let your imagination run away with you. Until we know more let's just keep our feet on the ground and take every day as it comes. I don't want to start thinking things are going to change only to find that we're back in the same damn mess again and nothing's happened. Do you know what I'm trying to say?' 'No, not really.'

She sighed and squeezed his hand again. 'As far as I'm concerned you're all I've got left. You're the only thing left that I can count on. My family and friends are gone. I don't have a home any longer and I don't own anything other than what's in this van. The only thing I seem to be able to hold onto is you, and I'm not about to let you go.' 'You don't have to. I'm not going anywhere. I'm not suggesting that we do anything that's going to...' 'I don't want to take any chances, Mike. You know how much I hate all of this, but if this is as good as it's going to get then it's going to have to do. Let's just keep our heads, take our time and not take any chances, okay?'

He looked across the table and into her eyes and nodded. Much as he wanted to follow the track and try and find the other survivors he knew that she was right. He felt strangely guilty for a moment. Did he give their relationship and need for each other the same importance that Emma appeared to? For a split second he tried to imagine being without her. He couldn't. She was all he had too.

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