Chapter Two

Every door and window in the small end-terraced house was locked. Jack Baxter stood in silence in his bedroom and peered out from behind the curtain as another corpse tripped down the middle of the road and staggered away into the inky-black darkness of the night. It had disappeared from view in seconds. What the hell was going on? Coming home from a night shift early on Tuesday morning, he had been outside and unprotected when it had begun.

Jack worked at a warehouse just outside the city centre. The bus route which he used to get home followed a loop past the warehouse, through the city centre, over to the other side of town and back again. The bulk of the passengers usually got off when they reached the main part of the city and, when it had happened on Tuesday morning, he had been one of only eight people left on board. The first sign that something was wrong had been an old man. Sitting two rows of seats in front of him he had started to cough and wheeze. His pain had increased dramatically in just a few seconds. Initially haunched forward, the pensioner had suddenly thrown himself back in his seat with violent force, terrified and fighting to breathe with his already inflamed throat burning with pain. Before Jack had fully appreciated the seriousness of his condition the pensioner had begun shaking and convulsing uncontrollably. He had been out of his seat and about to help when a twenty-five year old mother of three had yelled out in agony from the back of the bus. Her children had been screaming and crying too.

Helpless, Jack had run towards them but had stopped and turned and moved back the other way when he realised that the driver of the bus was now also coughing and choking. He sprinted the length of the swaying, lurching vehicle and had reached the driver in time to see him retch and gag on the blood running freely down the inside of his throat. He collapsed over the wheel, losing control of the bus and sending it swinging out in a clumsy arc across the carriageway, smashing through traffic coming the other way and eventually ploughing into the front of a pub. Jack had been thrown to the ground, his head thumping against the metal base of one of the seats and knocking him out cold. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious for. When he finally came round his vision was blurred and he had struggled to regain his balance on unresponsive, unsteady feet. He had picked himself up and dragged himself towards the front of the battered bus. The driver was dead. The rest of the passengers were dead too.

Using the emergency release he had managed to force open the door and had stumbled out onto the street. A sight of unparalleled and completely inexplicable carnage had greeted him. As the people on the bus had died so, it seemed, had everyone else for as far as he could see. Numb, Jack had stood motionless for a good few minutes, his body remaining frozen and still while his eyes darted around the macabre scene.

He began to count the bodies - ten, twenty, thirty and then more and more... The destruction around him appeared to be endless. He had waited expectedly for the silence to be shattered by the wail of approaching police, fire and ambulance sirens but nothing had arrived. With each passing minute the ominous quiet had become heavier and heavier until he had been able to stand it no longer. A breathless ten minute run through a suddenly alien landscape had got Jack home. Sights which had been ordinary, familiar and nondescript when he'd left for work the previous evening had now become twisted, bizarre and grotesque. The supermarket where he'd done his shopping the previous afternoon had been on fire and he'd watched as unchecked flames devoured the glass-fronted entrance which he'd walked through a thousand times.

In the playground of the primary school at the end of his road he had seen the fallen bodies of parents surrounded by the uniformed corpses of their small children. A car had driven into the front of a house seven doors down from his own. Through the rubble and dusty debris he had seen the body of the owner of the house slumped dead in her armchair. What had happened made no sense. There were no obvious explanations. There was no-one else left to ask for answers. Apart from Jack there didn't seem to be anyone else left alive. Somehow in all of the destruction he seemed to be the only one to have survived. Jack had lost his wife Denise to cancer some fifteen months earlier.

In many ways having suffered such an immense loss then somehow made it easier for him to accept what had happened and continue to function now. He had already grieved. He was already used to coming home to a cold, quiet and empty house. That was why he'd been happy to work nights since she'd died. He had frequently avoided mixing with the general population since his wife had been taken from him. No-one understood what she'd been through and no-one could make it any easier to accept. Even now, four hundred and thirty-seven days after she'd passed away, the memory of the physical and mental anguish that he'd witnessed her suffer hurt a thousand times more than any pain or fear he'd felt whilst stepping through the bodies that first morning. Once he'd arrived back home Jack had tried to make contact with the rest of the world.

He had tried every one of the thirty or so phone numbers in his address book and had managed to make a few calls before the line finally went dead. No-one answered. He had listened to the radio for a while. The sound it had made was unsettling. He'd expected to hear hissing static but for a long time there was nothing, just an endless and empty silence. One station he had come across was still playing music. He had listened hopefully and nervously as the last few notes of a final song faded away, only to be replaced again by the same relentless silence that had descended everywhere else. In his mind he had pictured radio presenters, newsreaders, engineers and presenters lying dead in their studios, by default still broadcasting the aftereffects of whatever it was that had killed them. He had spent much of his time upstairs just watching the world outside, hoping and praying that something would soon happen to explain or even end the nightmare.

But it didn't. Looking out from one of the back rooms he had seen the body of his elderly neighbour, Stan Chapman, lying twisted and motionless in the middle of his cold, wet lawn. No-one, it seemed, had been spared. Because of his working hours Jack's days worked in reverse to most people. In spite of everything that had happened, by noon on the first day he was having trouble keeping his eyes open. He had drifted and dozed through a long and disorientating afternoon and evening and then had spent what felt like a painful eternity sat on the end of his bed in the darkness, wide awake, alone and petrified. And the next day had been even harder to endure. He did nothing except sit and think dark, frightening thoughts and ask himself countless questions which were impossible to answer. For a while he had contemplated going outside and looking for help but he had been too scared to venture any further than halfway down the staircase before turning back and returning to the relative safety of the upstairs rooms. As the early light of Thursday morning began to creep across the ravaged landscape, however, what remained of Jack's devastated world had been turned on its head once again.

Just before seven o'clock a sudden metallic crashing noise had shattered the quiet. With everything else so silent and still the clattering sound had seemed to take forever to fade away into nothing. For a few seconds Jack hadn't dared move, paralysed with nerves. He'd waited anxiously for something to happen and, now that it finally had, he had been almost too afraid to go and see what it was. Gradually, as his curiosity and the pressure of his isolation had overtaken his fear, he had made his way down to the front of the house and, after peering through the letterbox, had opened the door and cautiously stepped outside. Rolling down the middle of the road was a metal dustbin. Strangely relieved, Jack had taken a few steps away from the house to the end of the drive and had looked up and down the deserted street. But it wasn't deserted. In the shadows of the trees on the opposite side of the road he had just about been able to make out a solitary female figure moving slowly away. Suddenly more confident he had sprinted the length of the street and grabbed hold of the woman's shoulder.

She had stopped moving instantly and just stood there, her back to Jack. Overcome with anxious emotion he hadn't stopped to wonder why she hadn't heard him or reacted to him in any other way. Instead he had simply turned her around to face him, desperate to see and to speak to someone else like him who had survived. But it had been immediately obvious that this poor soul hadn't escaped the nightmare, and that she had been another victim of the scourge that had torn across the city. She might have been moving, but was as dead as the thousands of bodies still littering the silent streets.

Jack had stared into her black and cold, emotionless eyes for an explanation. In the low light her skin had appeared taut and grey, waxy and translucent. Her mouth hung open as if she no longer had the energy to close it and her head had lolled heavily to one side. He had let the body go and it had immediately stumbled away, moving in the opposite direction to the way in which it had previously been travelling. Jack turned, sprinted back to his house, and had locked and bolted the door behind him. In a petrified, trance-like state he had wandered through his house and had spent an age in the kitchen, propped up against the sink for support, staring out into the garden and trying to make some sense of this bizarre new development.

His dark and disjointed thoughts had been disturbed by the sudden appearance of his dead neighbour at the window. The body had tripped through a gap in the hedge that Jack had been meaning to repair for the last three summers. The old man's clumsy corpse had dragged itself around the garden constantly, changing direction whenever it came in contact with the hedge, a fence or the house. More than twelve hours had passed since Jack had seen the first body moving this morning.

He had spent the rest of the day upstairs, hiding in his bedroom again, terrified. He packed a bag with clothes and food but when it came to moving he was too scared to leave. He knew he'd have to go outside eventually, but for now the familiarity and relative security of his home was all he had left. Even now he could occasionally hear the body of his next-door neighbour crashing aimlessly and relentlessly around the back garden.

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