Chapter 15

Three minutes past four.

The slow and laborious afternoon was drawing to a close and Carl knew that it would only be a couple of hours before the light began to fade. When he'd handed the driving duties over to Carl, Michael (who was now curled up on the empty seat in the back of the van, sleeping intermittently) had estimated that they should have reached the west coast in an hour or so. It had now been two and a half hours since they'd swapped places and still there seemed to be nothing ahead of them but endless road and aimless travelling.

It was a cool but bright afternoon. The brilliance of the sun belied the low temperature. It shone down from a slowly sinking position in a sky which was mostly blue but which was dotted with numerous bulbous grey and white clouds. The road glistened with the moisture which remained from a shower of rain they'd passed through a few minutes earlier.

Emma still sat in the front passenger seat, still sitting bolt upright, still scanning the world around them constantly, hoping that she would find them somewhere safe to shelter.

'All right?' Carl asked suddenly, making her jump.

'What?' she muttered. She was miles away. She'd heard him speak but not heard what he'd said.

'I asked if you were all right,' he repeated.

'Oh,' she mumbled. 'I'm fine.'

'Is he asleep?' he asked, gesturing over his shoulder at Michael. Emma glanced back and shrugged.

'Don't know.'

At the mention of his name, Michael stirred.

'What's the matter?' he groaned, his speech slurred with exhaustion.

No-one bothered to answer him. He closed his eyes again and tried to sleep.

There was a hand-painted sign at the side of the road. It had been battered by the wind and was only partially visible. As they passed the sign Carl managed to make out the words 'cafe', 'turn' and '2 miles'. He hadn't had much of an appetite all day (all week if the truth be told) but at the thought of food he suddenly felt hungry. They did have some supplies with them in the van but in their rush to leave the city they had been left buried somewhere in amongst the various bags and boxes.

'Either of you two want anything to eat?' he asked.

Emma just grunted but Michael sat up immediately.

'I do,' he said, rubbing his eyes.

'I saw a sign for a cafe up ahead,' he mumbled. 'We'll stop there, shall we?'

There were empty grassy fields on either side of the uninterrupted road. There were no cars, buildings or wandering bodies anywhere to be seen. On balance Carl thought it was worth taking a chance out in the open. He needed a break. They all needed to stop for a while to try and get their heads together and decide what they were actually trying to achieve.

Suddenly interested in the day again, Michael stretched and looked around. He too noticed the lack of any obvious signs of human life. He could see a flock of sheep grazing up ahead. Up until that moment he hadn't stopped to think about the significance of seeing animals. In the city they'd seen the odd dog, and there had always been birds flying overhead, but the relevance of their survival had been lost on him because there had always been a million other confused thoughts running through his mind. Seeing the sheep in their ignorant isolation today forced him to think about it further. It must only have been humans that had been affected by the inexplicable tragedy. Whatever it was that had happened had left other species untouched. Their sudden arrival at the cafe interrupted his train of thought.

The tall white building appeared from out of nowhere. A large converted house that looked completely out of place in its lush green surroundings, it had been hidden from view by a row of bushy pine trees. Carl slowed the van down and turned left into a wide gravel car park, stopping close to an inconspicuous side door. He turned off the engine and closed his tired eyes. After hours of driving the effect of the sudden silence was stunning. It was like sitting in a vacuum.

Despite having been almost asleep only minutes earlier, Michael was by now wide awake and alert. Before Carl had even taken the keys out of the ignition he was out of the van and jogging over to the cafe door.

'Careful,' warned Emma instinctively.

Michael looked back over his shoulder and flashed her a brief but reassuring smile. The air was cold and fresh and he suddenly felt more relaxed and sure than he had done at any other time since they'd left the community centre.

He reached out and tried the door. It wasn't locked (it opened slightly inward) but it wouldn't open fully. He pushed against it with his shoulder.

'What's up?' asked Carl.

'Something's blocking it,' Michael replied, still pushing and shoving at the door. 'There's something in the way.'

'Be careful,' Emma said again. It was clear from the trepidation in her voice that she was nowhere near as comfortable with the situation as her two companions seemed to be.

Michael shoved at the door again, and this time it opened inward another couple of inches. He took a few steps back out into the car park and then ran at the door once more, this time charging it with his shoulder. This time the door opened just wide enough for him to be able to force and squeeze his bulky frame through into the shadowy building. He looked back at the others momentarily before disappearing inside.

'I really don't like this,' Emma muttered to herself, looking around anxiously. The cold wind blew her hair across her face and made her eyes water. She held her hand to her eyes to shield them from the sun and stared intently at the cafe door, waiting for Michael to reappear.

Inside the building he had found that the blockage preventing him from opening the door fully was the stiff and lifeless body of a teenage girl. She had fallen on her back when she'd died and his brutal shoving to get inside had forced her up and over onto her side, giving him those vital extra few inches space to squeeze through. He gingerly took hold of her left arm and pulled her out of the way. As he dragged the body clear he peered through a small square window and could see Carl and Emma standing in the car park waiting for him. He carefully laid the girl down out of the way and headed back outside.

'It's okay,' he shouted as he reappeared in the doorway. He had to shout to make his voice heard over the wind. 'It was just a body. I just...'

He stopped speaking suddenly. He could hear sounds of movement behind him. He could hear movement coming from inside the building.

'What's the matter?' Emma asked frantically as Michael half-ran and half-tripped back towards her.

Breathlessly he answered.

'In there,' he gasped. 'There's something in there...'

The three survivors stood in silence as a lone figure appeared in the dark shadows of the doorway. Its progress blocked by the lifeless body on the ground that Michael had moved, it turned awkwardly and stumbled out into the car park.

'Do you think it's...' Carl began.

'Dead?' Michael interrupted, finishing his sentence for him.

'It could be a survivor,' Emma mumbled hopefully although in reality she held out very little hope of that being the case.

From its stilted, uncoordinated movements Michael instantly knew that the figure which slowly emerged into the light was another one of the stumbling victims of the disaster. As it lurched closer Michael saw that it had been a woman, perhaps in her late fifties or early sixties, dressed in a gaudy and loose-fitting green and yellow waitress uniform. The remains of Tuesday morning's make-up was smudged across her wrinkled face.

'Can you hear me?' Emma asked. She knew in her heart it was pointless, but she felt that she had to try and force a response from the desperate figure. 'Is there anything we can do to...'

She let her words trail away into silence as the body approached. The world was silent save for the gusting wind and the relentless clump, clump of the creature's uncoordinated feet on the gravel as she took step after painful step towards the three survivors. The corpse tripped on an edging stone and fell towards Carl who instinctively jumped back out of the way. Emma leant down and helped her back onto her unsteady feet. The body walked slowly between them, completely oblivious to their presence, and then continued out towards the road. The road curved gently to the right but the woman's course remained relatively straight until she'd crossed the tarmac and become entangled in a patch of wiry undergrowth on the other side.

Michael and Emma watched the pathetic creature for a little longer. Michael couldn't help but think about what might happen to her. In his mind he pictured her staggering on through the dark night, through wind and rain, and he felt a sudden and surprising sadness. A poor defenceless old woman  -  a mother and grandmother perhaps  -  who had left for work last Tuesday just as she had done on any other day, she was now destined to spend what could be an eternity wandering without direction or shelter. He had managed to quickly build up a resistance to such thoughts and feelings in the city but now, now that they were out in wild, comparatively inhospitable surroundings, he found himself being deeply affected by the plight of the innocent victims of the disaster.

Carl had disappeared. Emma could see him moving around inside the cafe and she gestured to Michael to follow her into the building.

A short passageway led them to a large, dark and musty room which they cautiously entered. There were various bodies scattered around numerous tables and slumped awkwardly in comfortable chairs. Michael smiled morbidly to himself as he walked past the corpses of an elderly couple. They had been sitting opposite each other when they'd died. Alice Jones (that was the name on the credit card on the table) lay back in her seat with her head lolled heavily on her shoulders, her dry eyes fixed on the ceiling unblinking. Gravity had caught her husband somewhat differently. He was slouched forward with his face buried in the remains of a dry, mouldy serving of what was almost week-old scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon.

There was a noise from the kitchen area and Carl appeared carrying a large plastic tray.

'Found some food,' he said as he threaded his way over to the others through the confusion of corpses. 'Most of the stuff in there has gone bad. I managed to find some crisps and biscuits and something to drink though.'

Without responding Emma walked past the two men and made her way towards a large glass door at the end of the room. She pushed the door open and went back outside.

'Where the hell's she going?' Carl muttered.

Emma wasn't out of earshot.

'I'm not eating in there,' she shouted back into the building. 'You two can if you want.'

Michael looked around at his gruesome surroundings and obediently followed her back out into a grassy area beyond the car park. Carl also followed, a little slower than Michael because he was carrying the food and was having difficulty seeing his feet over the edge of the tray. Two bodies sitting in a bay seat by the window caught his eye. A woman and a man, both of whom looked like they'd been about his age, had been sitting next to each other when the virus had struck. Spread out over the table in front of them was a tourist map that was marked with spots and dribbles of dark dried blood. On the ground, twisted around his parents' feet and around the legs of their table, was a young boy. His exposed face was frozen with pain and fear. At once all that Carl could see were the desperate faces of his own wife and child, and the sudden recollection of all that he had lost was almost too much to bear. With tears streaming down his cheeks he carried on out to the others, hoping that the gusting wind would hide his weeping from them.

Michael and Emma had sat down next to each other at a large wooden picnic table. Carl sat opposite them.

'You okay?' asked Michael.

'Does anyone want a can of coke?' Carl said, deliberately ignoring his question. 'There are some other cans inside if you'd prefer. I think I saw some bottled water...'

'Are you okay?' Michael asked again.

This time Carl didn't answer. He just nodded, bit his lip and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. He began to busy himself by opening the food he'd brought outside.

'You look tired,' Emma said gently, reaching out and giving Carl's hand a quick and reassuring squeeze. 'Maybe we should stay here tonight. I know it's not ideal but...'

Her unexpected touch triggered a change in Carl. Suddenly, and without any warning, his defences seemed to crumble.

'Either of you two got kids?' he asked, his voice wavering and unsteady. Both Emma and Michael looked at each other momentarily and then shook their heads. 'I did. I had a daughter. The most beautiful little girl you've ever seen. She's got... I mean she had...'

'Hurts, doesn't it?' Emma said, sensing Carl's pain and sympathising (but not fully understanding) his obvious agony. 'My sister had two boys. Great lads, I saw them a couple of weeks ago and now...'

'Christ,' he continued, not listening to a word she'd said, 'they do something to you, kids. When we found out we we're expecting Gemma we were gutted  -  I mean absolutely fucking devastated. Sarah didn't talk to me for days and... and...'

'And what?' Michael pressed gently.

'And then she was born and everything changed. I tell you, mate, you can't understand what it's like until you've been there yourself. I watched that little girl being born and that was it. You never really know what life's all about until you've been there. And now she's gone... I can't fucking believe it. I feel so fucking empty and I just want to go back home and see her. I know she's gone but I want to see her again and just...'

'Shh...' Emma whispered. She tried desperately to think of something to say but instead settled on silence. She didn't fully appreciate the extent of Carl's pain, but she knew that nothing she could do or say would make him feel better.

'I'm fucking starving I am,' he sobbed, forcing the conversation to change direction. He grabbed a packet of biscuits and tore them open. A gust of wind picked up the empty cellophane wrapper and whisked it away.

As they ate Michael watched Carl sadly. He had always done his best to keep himself to himself and had often taken criticism from others for being so antisocial and insular in the past. Today though, watching his friend being torn apart with grief, he was strangely thankful that he had spent so much time alone and that he was not having to mourn a similar loss. True, he sometimes craved companionship (increasingly frequently as he'd got older), but Carl was obviously suffering with such excruciating pain that he found himself questioning the benefits of ever having been a family man. A like-minded friend had once said to him that they would never marry for that same reason. His friend had argued that after spending and sharing their adult life with one partner, the pain of any loss would have been too much to take and would have destroyed the memory of the years spent together. Watching Carl today, however, Michael thought how wrong his friend had been. Having a partner and a child seemed to have made Carl complete. True the pain was destroying him now, but would it have been any easier to have never experienced the love, memories and fond attachment that his family had obviously brought to him? Which was better, to be unfulfilled and never feel such attachments or to be complete for a while and then be torn apart with the agony of loss?

The further away from home and familiarity that Michael got, the more emotional and less self-assured he became.

The survivors sat and ate in virtual silence for half an hour. From where they were sitting they could see down along the side of the cafe. They could also see their well loaded van, and the thought of getting back behind the wheel and driving aimlessly again depressed each one of them. They knew that they had little option but to continue on their way but for a while the fresh air and open space was a refreshing change from the uncomfortable and musty confinement they had endured throughout the last week.

As was often the case, Emma was the first to disturb the silence.

'How are you two feeling?' she asked.

Neither man responded. Michael was deep in thought, playing with a broken can ring, and Carl was neatly folding an empty crisp packet. Both men waited for the other to answer.

'Do you still think we've done the right thing?'

Michael looked up at her with a puzzled expression on his face.

'Of course we have. Why, are you having doubts?'

'Not at all,' she answered quickly. 'It's just that we're sat out here and we don't seem to be making much progress. It'll be getting dark soon and...'

'Look, if push comes to shove we can sleep in the van,' Michael sighed. 'It won't be a problem. I know it won't be comfortable but...'

'I'm not worried,' she snapped, interrupting to justify her comments. 'I just think we should be on our way soon. The sooner we find somewhere to stop, the sooner we can get ourselves settled and sorted out.'

'I know, I know,' Michael mumbled, getting up from his seat and stretching. 'We'll get moving in a little while.'

With that he began to wander back down the side of the cafe towards the van. Emma stared after him. She found him a very strange man  -  equally inspiring and irritating. Most of the time he seemed cool, collected and level-headed, but there were occasions (like now) when he didn't seem to give a damn and his apathy was infuriating. Not for the first time in the last week their safety was on the line but Michael didn't seem the slightest bit bothered. She assumed it was because they hadn't yet found anywhere obvious to stop. If things weren't going Michael's way, she had noticed, he didn't want to know.

'You okay?' she asked Carl. He nodded and smiled. 'Arrogant sod, isn't he?'

Michael stopped walking when he reached the edge of the road in front of the cafe. He looked out across a lush green valley landscape and drew in several long, slow breaths of cool, refreshing air. He slowly scanned the horizon from left to right and then stopped and turned around with a broad grin plastered across his tired face. He beckoned the others to come over to where he stood. Intrigued and concerned in equal measures, Carl and Emma quickly jumped up.

'What's the matter?' Carl asked, his heart beating anxiously in his chest.

'Over there,' he replied, pointing out into the distance. 'Just look at that. It's bloody perfect!'

'What is?' mumbled Emma as she struggled to see what it was that he had found.

'Can't you see it?' he babbled excitedly.

'See what?' Carl snapped.

Michael moved around so that he was standing between the other two. He lifted his arm and pointed right across the valley.

'See that clearing over there?'

After a couple of seconds Emma spotted it.

'I see it,' she said.

'Now look slightly to the right.'

She did as instructed.

'All I can see is a house,' she said, dejectedly.

'Exactly. It's perfect.'

'So you found a house in the woods,' sighed Carl. 'Is that all? Bloody hell, we've passed a thousand houses already today. What's so special about this one?'

'Well you two had trouble seeing it, didn't you?'

'So?'

'So what does that tell you? What does the location of a house like that tell you?'

Emma and Carl looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders, sure that they were missing the point (if there was a point to be missed).

'No idea,' Emma muttered.

'It's isolated, isn't it? It's not easy to find. It's going to be right off the beaten track.'

'So, we're not trying to hide are we? There doesn't seem to be anyone left to hide from...'

Emma still couldn't understand what the big deal was. Carl on the other hand was beginning to get the idea.

'It's not about hiding, is it Mike?' he said, grinning suddenly. 'It's the isolation. People who lived in house like that must have been pretty self-sufficient.'

'That's exactly it,' Michael interrupted. 'Imagine this place in the winter. Christ, a couple of inches of snow and you're stuck where you are. And these people were farmers. They couldn't afford to be without heat and light, could they? My guess is that whoever lived in that house would have been used to being out on a limb and would have been ready for just about anything. I'll bet they've got their own power and everything.'

Emma watched the two men who had become much more animated than they had been at any other time in the last week.

'It's going to be hard enough for us to get there,' Carl continued. 'And you've seen the state of the poor sods left wandering the streets, haven't you? They'll never find us.'

'It's perfect,' Michael beamed.

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***