Chapter 13

Emma had managed to pack all her belongings into two carrier bags and a cardboard box. She did the same with Michael and Carl's things. Between the three of them everything they had was condensed into the sum total of five carrier bags and two boxes.

She breathed a sigh of relief at three minutes to eleven when Carl and Michael returned. The others had hardly spoken to her in all the time that the two men had been away from the community centre. It was almost as if she had suddenly ceased to exist. The rest of the survivors seemed to think that they were being abandoned, and Emma had real difficulty trying to understand why they felt that way. The invitation still stood for any of them  -  all of them if they wanted  -  to leave with Michael, Carl and herself. She guessed that the only thing stopping them was uncertainty and their personal and irrational fears of stepping outside the creaky wooden building. Countless times in those few hours she looked up and made eye contact with other people, only for them to look away again quickly. Countless times she heard people whispering behind her back. She knew that they were talking about her because nothing was private anymore. The eerie silence inside the hall amplified every spiteful word.

'Everything all right?' she asked as Michael parked the van in front of the building and clambered out and stretched.

'Fine,' he replied quietly, flashing her a quick and reassuring smile as he did so. 'You okay?'

She nodded.

Carl walked around from the other side of the van.

'We got everything we need,' he said. 'What do you think of the transport?'

She nodded again and slowly walked around the large family car. There were seven seats inside, two at the front, two at the back and three in the middle. The front two seats and the seat behind the driver's were empty. The others were piled high with supplies.

As she looked through the tinted glass windows it suddenly occurred to her that they were standing outside and, for the first time since it had all began, none of them seemed to be giving a damn about what had happened to the devastated world around them. They were surrounded by bodies  -  some still, some moving  -  and yet today she wasn't the least bit bothered. Perhaps it was because they were about to leave. Maybe deciding that she didn't need the protection of the hall anymore had subconsciously changed her way of thinking.

'Have any trouble while you were out there?' she asked, snapping herself out of her daydream.

'Trouble?' Carl replied, surprised. 'What kind of trouble?'

She shrugged her shoulders.

'I don't know. Christ, you spent the morning in the middle of a city full of walking corpses. I don't know what you saw. Did you...'

Michael interrupted.

'Nothing happened,' he said abruptly. 'There were plenty of bodies walking around, but nothing happened.'

'Not as many as I expected though,' Carl added.

'That's because they're starting to spread out,' Michael grunted as he shoved their carrier bags and boxes into the back of the van.

'Spread out?' said Emma.

'It's the blotting paper effect, isn't it?'

'Is it?'

Michael stopped and turned to face her.

'When all this started there was a high concentration of bodies in the middle of the city, wasn't there? People were at work and school, weren't they?'

'Yes...' she replied, unsure where the conversation was leading.

'So if those of them that are up and moving around are walking randomly, it stands to reason that they've spread out from the centre of the city like ink spreads across blotting paper.'

'I see...' she mumbled, far from convinced.

'It might take a while, but it's started and I bet that's what will happen.'

He returned his attention to loading the last two bags into the van. Emma continued to think, trying hard to follow through the route of his logic.

'So,' she eventually continued, 'if what you're saying is right, given time there could be equal numbers of bodies all over the country?'

Michael thought for a moment.

'Suppose so. Why?'

'Because if that's the case,' she said quietly, 'why the hell are we bothering to run?'

'We're not running,' he snapped, deliberately avoiding the very valid point of her comment. 'We're backed into a corner here. What we're doing is giving ourselves a chance.'

Sensing that the conversation had opened up a particularly unpleasant can of worms, he slammed and locked the van door and headed back inside.

The silence which greeted Michael as he walked back into the main hall was the most ominous silence he'd heard since he'd first arrived there days earlier. The rest of the survivors  -  all twenty or so frightened individuals  -  stopped and stared at him, Carl and Emma in unspoken unison. Some of those people hadn't acknowledged him in all the time they'd been at the community centre. Some hadn't even spoken a word to anyone since they'd got there. And yet, suddenly and unexpectedly, Michael got the distinct impression that it was the three of them against the rest. There was real animosity and anger in the room. It felt like betrayal.

The wave of hostility stopped Michael in his tracks. He turned around to face Emma and Carl. The three of them found themselves exposed and stood together in the centre of the room.

'What's all this about?' he asked, keeping his voice low.

'It's been like this since you went,' Emma replied. 'The rest of them seem to have a real problem with what we're doing.'

'Fucking idiots,' Carl snapped. 'It's because they know we're right. We should tell them that...'

'We'll tell them nothing,' Michael ordered. The surprising authority in his voice silenced and stunned Carl. 'Let's just go.'

'What, now?' Emma said, surprised. 'Are we ready? Do we need to...'

Michael glanced at her. The expression on his face left her in no doubt as to his intentions.

'What are we going to gain from waiting around?' he hissed. 'We're better off travelling in daylight so let's make the most of it. Let's get out of here.'

'Are you sure...?' Carl began.

'You sound like you're having doubts?' Michael snapped, the tone of his voice seeming almost to carry a sneer. 'You can stop here if you want to...'

Carl shook his head and looked away, feeling intimidated and pressured.

'Oh bollocks to it,' Emma said, her voice now a fraction louder. 'You're right. Let's just get out of here.'

Michael turned back to face the rest of the survivors who still stared at him and his companions. He cleared his throat. He didn't know what to say or why he was even bothering to try and say anything. It just didn't seem right to walk out without trying one last time to persuade the rest of them to try and see the sense in what they were doing.

'We're leaving,' he began, his words echoing around the cold wooden room. 'If any of you want to...'

'Fuck off,' Stuart Jeffries spat, getting up from his chair and walking up to Michael. The two men stood face to face. 'Just get in your damn car and fuck off now,' he hissed. 'You're putting us at risk. Every second you spend here is a second too long.'

Michael looked into his tired face for what seemed like an eternity. There were countless things he could have said to Jeffries and the others  -  countless reasons why they should follow and not stay locked in the community centre  -  but the anger bordering on hate in the other man's eyes left him in no doubt that to say anything would be pointless.

'Come on,' Emma said, grabbing his arm and pulling him away.

Michael looked around the room one last time and stared back at each one of the desperate faces which stared at him. Then he turned his back and walked.

Carl led the way out, closely followed by the other two. Just seconds after taking their first steps out into the cold afternoon air the door of the community centre was slammed and locked shut behind them. Sensing that there was no turning back (and feeling suddenly nervous and unsure) the three survivors exchanged anxious glances and climbed into the van. Michael started the engine and drove out towards the main road, pausing only to let a single willowy-framed, greasy-skinned body stagger oblivious past the front of the van.


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