The isolation and desperation of the situation affected all of the survivors, some much more than others. Carl spent most of the afternoon trying (unsuccessfully) to catch up on missed sleep and (also unsuccessfully) to forget everything that was happening outside. Time was dragging at an unbearable and painfully slow rate. An hour now felt like five and five hours more like fifty. As the sun began to sink back below the horizon he clambered out of the community hall once more and stood alone on the small area of flat roof he'd discovered the previous evening.
For a moment the air was pure and refreshing and he swallowed several deep, calming breaths before the now familiar smells of death and of burning buildings quickly returned, blown towards him on a cool and gusting wind. There was a sudden unexpected noise behind him and he span around to see Michael struggling to climb through the tiny skylight.
'Did I make you jump?' he asked as he dragged himself out onto the roof. 'Sorry, mate, I didn't mean to. I was looking for you and I saw you disappear up here and...'
Carl shook his head and looked away, disappointed that his little sanctuary had been discovered. In the community centre private space was at a premium and they had all been limited to just a few square feet each. Almost every move that every person made indoors could be seen by everyone else. Carl hated it and he'd been looking forward to getting out onto the roof and spending some time alone. The small square roof had been the only place so far where he'd been able to stretch, scratch, stamp, scream, punch and cry without feeling that he had to hold back on how he truly felt because of the effect it might have on the others. Stupid that almost everyone else was dead and yet he still instinctively found himself considering what the few remaining people might think of him rather than just being honest and true to himself. The effects of years and years of conditioning by society were going to take more than a few days to fade away.
'You're okay,' he sighed as the other man approached. 'I just came out here to get away for a while.'
'Do you want me to go back inside?' Michael asked anxiously, sensing that he was in the way. 'If you want me to go then I'll...'
Carl slowly shook his head again.
'No, it's okay.'
Glad to hear that he wasn't intruding (although not entirely convinced that he really was welcome) Michael walked across to stand next to Carl at the edge of the roof.
'What the bloody hell is happening?' he asked, his voice so low that Carl could hardly hear what he'd said.
'Don't know,' he mumbled in reply, equally quietly.
'Christ, it's just the speed of it all,' Michael mumbled. 'A few days ago everything was normal, but now...'
'I know,' Carl sighed. 'I know.'
The two men stood in silence for a while and surveyed the devastation around them. No matter how long and how hard either of them stared for, they still couldn't accept the sight of countless bodies lying face down on the cold ground. Even more difficult to accept were those pitiful corpses that were now moving. How could any of this nightmare be happening?
'Almost makes you envy them, doesn't it?' Carl muttered.
'The bodies still lying on the ground. The ones that haven't moved. I can't help thinking how much easier it would have been to be...'
'That's a fucking stupid way to talk, isn't it?' Michael spat.
'Is it?' he snapped back angrily.
In the heavy silence that followed Carl thought about his words. Bloody hell, how low and defeatist he suddenly sounded. But why not, he thought? Why shouldn't he be? His life had been turned upside down and inside out and he'd lost everything. Not just his possessions and his property, he'd lost absolutely everything. And when he thought about poor Sarah and Gemma, lying there together in their bed at home, the pain he felt became immeasurably worse. But were they still there? Had they been affected by this new change? The thought of his beautiful little girl walking aimlessly through the dark streets alone was too much to bear. He tried unsuccessfully to hide the tears which streamed freely down his tired face.
'Come on,' Michael whispered, attempting to reassure him (although he already knew that there was no way he could).
'I'm okay,' Carl sniffed. It was patently obvious that he was not.
'Sure?' the other man pressed.
Carl looked into his face and forced himself to smile for a fraction of a second. He was about to reply with the standard 'yes, I'm all right,' when he stopped. There was no point in hiding the truth anymore.
'No,' he admitted. 'No, mate, I'm not all right...'
Suddenly unable to say another word, he found himself sobbing helplessly.
'Me neither,' Michael admitted, wiping tears of desperation and pain from his own eyes.
The two men sat down on the edge of the roof, their feet dangling freely over the side of the building. Michael stretched, yawned, and then ran his fingers through his matted hair. He felt dirty. He'd have paid any price to have been able to relax in a hot bath or shower and follow it up with a night spent in a comfortable bed. Or even an uncomfortable bed. Just something better than a hard wooden bench in a cold wooden building.
'You know what we need?' he asked.
'I can think of about a million things that I need,' Carl answered.
'Forget about all the practical stuff for a minute, and all the things that we should have like warmth, safety, security, answers to a million questions and the like, do you know what I need more than anything?'
Carl shrugged his shoulders.
Michael paused, lay back on the asphalt and put his hands behind his head.
'I need to get absolutely fucking plastered. I need to drink so much fucking beer that I can't remember my own name, never mind anything else.'
'There's an off-licence over there,' Carl said, half-smiling and pointing across the main road. 'Fancy a walk?'
He glanced down at Michael who was shaking his head furiously.
'No,' he replied abruptly.
Another long silence followed.
'Christ, look at him would you,' Carl said, minutes later. Michael sat up.
'Who?' he asked.
'That one over there,' he said, nodding at a solitary figure in the distance which tripped and stumbled along the edge of the main road. The shadowy shell had once been a man, perhaps six foot tall and probably aged between twenty-five and thirty. It was walking awkwardly with one foot on the kerb and the other dragging behind in the gutter.
'What about him?'
Carl shrugged his shoulders.
'Don't know,' he sighed. 'Just look at the state of him. That could be you or me, that could.'
'Yes but it isn't,' Michael yawned, about to lie back down again.
'And there's another. See that one in the newsagents?'
Michael squinted into the distance.
'The newsagents with the red sign. Between the pub and the garage...'
'Oh yeah, I can see it.'
The two men stared at the body in the building. It was trapped in the entrance to the shop. A display rack had fallen behind it, blocking any movement backwards, and a crashed car prevented the door from opening outwards. The body moved incessantly, edging forward and then stumbling back, edging forward and then back.
'It just hasn't got a clue what's happening, has it?' Carl muttered. 'You'd think it would give up, wouldn't you?'
'It's just moving for the sake of it. It doesn't know how or why or what to do. It just needs to move.'
'And how long will they keep moving? Bloody hell, when will they stop?'
'They won't. There isn't any reason to stop is there? Nothing registers with them anymore. Look, watch this.'
Michael stood up and looked around. He walked over to where the slanted roof of the main part of the building met the flat roof they were standing on and pulled away a single slate. Carl watched bemused as he walked back to the edge of the roof.
'What the bloody hell are you doing?' he smirked.
'Watch,' Michael said quietly.
He waited for a few seconds until one of the wandering bodies came into range. Then, after taking careful aim, he threw the tile at the staggering corpse. He was surprisingly accurate and the tile hit the body in the small of the back. The body tripped and stumbled momentarily but carried on regardless.
'Why did you do that?' Carl asked, still bemused.
'Just proving a point I suppose.'
'That they don't react. That they don't live like you and me, they just exist.'
Carl shook his head with despair and disbelief. Michael walked away again. In a strange way he regretted throwing the slate at the body. No matter what it was today, it had been a living, breathing human being just a few days ago. He felt like a mugger, preying on an innocent victim.
'Do you think it was a virus that did this?' Carl asked. 'Emma seems to think it was. Or do you think it was...'
'Don't know and I don't care,' Michael replied.
'What do you mean, you don't care?'
'What difference does it make? What's happened has happened. It's the old clich§Û, isn't it? If you get knocked down by a car, does it matter what colour it is?'
'So what are you saying?'
'I'm saying that it doesn't matter what did all of this. Okay, it matters in as far as I don't want it to happen to me, but what's done is done, isn't it?'
'Look, I've lost friends and family just like the rest of them. I might sound like an uncaring bastard but I'm not really. I just can't see the point in wasting any time coming up with bullshit theories and explanations when none of it will make the slightest bit of difference. The only thing that any of us have any influence and control over now is what we do tomorrow.'
'So what are we going to do tomorrow?'
'Haven't got a fucking clue!' Michael laughed.
It started to rain. A few isolated spots at first which, in just a few seconds, turned into a downpour of almost monsoon proportions. Carl and Michael quickly squeezed back through the skylight and lowered themselves into the ominously silent hall.
'Does you good to get out now and then, doesn't it?' Carl mumbled sarcastically.
'There's a lot of truth in that,' Michael replied, fighting to make himself heard over the noise of the rain lashing down.
'You're right. I think it would do us good to get out. Have you stopped to think about the bodies yet?'
'Christ I haven't thought about much else...'
Michael shook his head.
'No, have you stopped to think about what's going to happen when they start to rot? Jesus, the air's going to be filled with all kinds of germs and crap.'
'There's not a lot we can do about that, is there?'
'There's fuck all we can do about it,' he replied bluntly. 'But we could get away.'
'Get away? Where to? It's going to be like this everywhere, isn't it?'
'I don't know.'
'So what good will leaving here do?'
It became immediately apparent to Carl that Michael had been doing more logical thinking than the rest of the survivors put together.
'Think about it. We're on the edge of a city here. There are hundreds of thousands of bodies around.'
'And I think we should head for the countryside. Fewer bodies has got to mean less chance of disease. We're not going to be completely safe anywhere but I think we should just try and give ourselves the best possible chance. We should pack up and leave here as soon as we can.'
'You really thinking of going?'
'I'd go tonight if we were ready.'
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