Chapter 16

After fighting for survival virtually every second of the way since the disaster had begun, a slice of good luck finally came the way of Michael, Carl and Emma. It really was nothing more than an unexpected chance. A welcome fluke.

They had been on the road again for just over an hour since leaving the cafe. Michael had certainly been right about the isolation of the house in the woods as it had proved impossible to find. It had taken them the best part of the last sixty minutes just to find the road which crossed the valley and their brief euphoria at finally seeming to have made some progress had once again quickly given way to desperation and melancholy.

The sides of the seemingly endless, twisting roads along which they travelled were lined with tall trees which made it virtually impossible to see very far into the distance in any direction. Irritation inside the van was rapidly mounting.

'This is bloody ridiculous,' Michael sighed. 'There must be something around here somewhere.'

Michael was driving again with Emma sitting directly behind. She leant forward and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. He instinctively pulled away, annoyed and frustrated.

'Calm down,' she sighed, trying hard to soothe her companion's nerves despite the fact that her own were tattered and torn. 'Don't worry, we'll get there.'

'Get where? Fucking hell, all I can see are trees. I haven't got a clue where we are. We're probably driving in the wrong direction...'

'Got it!' Carl shouted.

'Got what?' Michael snapped.

Carl had been poring over the pages of a road atlas.

'I think I've found where we are on the map.'

'Well done,' he said sarcastically. 'Now can you find that bloody house?'

'I'm trying,' he replied. 'It's not easy. I can't see any landmarks or anything to check against.'

'So can you see any buildings round here?'

'Hold on...'

Carl struggled to focus his eyes on the map. He was being thrown from side to side as Michael followed the winding route of the narrow road.

'Anything?' Michael pressed impatiently.

'I don't think so,' Carl eventually replied. 'Look, can you slow down a bit? I'm having trouble...'

'Look, if you can't find any buildings on this road,' the other man interrupted angrily, 'do you think you could tell us how to get to another road that might actually lead somewhere?'

Another pause as Carl again studied the map.

'There's not very much round here at all...'

'Shit,' Michael cursed. 'There must be something...'

'Will you take it easy,' Emma said from the back. 'We'll get there.'

Michael thumped the steering wheel in frustration and then swung the van around a sharp bend in the road. He had to fight to keep control of the vehicle and then was forced to steer hard in the other direction to avoid driving into the back end of a car which had crashed into the hedge.

'If I've got this right then we should reach another bend in the road soon,' Carl said, sensing that they needed some definite direction. 'Just after the bend there's a junction. Take a right there and we'll be on a main road in a couple of miles.'

'What good's a main road? I just want a road with buildings on.'

'And I'm trying to find you one,' Carl shouted. 'Fucking hell, do you want to swap places 'cause all you've done is criticise everything I've tried to...'

'Bend coming,' Emma sighed, cutting right through their argument.

Without slowing down at all Michael steered round the sharp turn.

'Okay, here's the junction,' he said. 'Was it right or left here?'

'Right...' Carl replied. He wasn't completely sure but he didn't dare admit it. He turned the map round in his hands and then turned it back again.

'You're positive?'

'Of course I'm positive,' he yelled. 'Just bloody well turn right.'

Seething with anger and not thinking straight, in the heat of the moment Michael screwed up and turned left.

'Shit,' he hissed under his breath.

'You idiot, what the hell did you do that for?' Carl screamed. 'You ask me which way to go, I tell you, and then you go in the opposite bloody direction. Why bother asking? Why don't I throw this fucking book out of the window?'

'I'll throw you out of the fucking window,' Michael threatened. He became quiet as the road narrowed dramatically.

'Keep going,' suggested Emma. 'There's no way you're going to be able to turn the van around here.'

The width of the road narrowed alarmingly, and the tarmac beneath their wheels became potted and uneven.

'What the hell is this?' Carl demanded, still livid. 'You're driving us down a fucking dirt track!'

Rather than stop and admit defeat, Michael instead slammed his foot down harder on the accelerator, forcing the van up a sudden steep rise. The front right wheel clattered through a deep pothole filled with dark rain water which splashed up, showering the front of the van. He switched on the wipers to clear the muddy windscreen but, rather than clear the glass, they instead did little more than smear the greasy mud right across his field of vision, reducing his already limited visibility further still.

'There,' he said, squinting into the distance and looking a little further down the track. 'There's a clearing up ahead. I'll try and turn round there.'

It wasn't so much a clearing, rather a length of track where there was no hedgerow on one side and where there had once been a gate into an adjacent field. Michael slowed the van down to almost a dead stop and put it into first gear.

'Wait!' Carl shouted. 'Down there!'

He pointed through a gap in the trees on the other side of the road. Michael again used the wipers to clear the windscreen.

'What?' he asked, a little calmer now that they had stopped.

'I can see it,' Emma said. 'There's a house.'

Michael's tired and wandering eyes finally settled on the isolated building. He turned and looked at both Carl and Emma.

'What do you think?' Carl asked.

Rather than bother to answer he instead slammed his foot down on the accelerator again and sent the van flying down the track. Like a runner suddenly in sight of the finishing line there was a new found energy and steely determination about his actions.

A staggering body appeared from the darkness of the trees at the side of the track (only the fifth they'd seen since leaving the cafe) and wandered into the path of the van. His reflexes slowed by fatigue, Michael yanked the steering wheel to the left and swerved around the miserable creature, scraping the van against the hedge on the other side. For a fraction of a second he watched in the rear view mirror. The corpse stumbled on across the track and through the undergrowth on the other side, completely oblivious to the van which had just thundered past, missing it by inches.

Michael forced the van over another slight rise. Once over the top the survivors had a clear view of the building in the near distance. The track which they were following led directly to the front door of the large house.

'Looks perfect,' Emma said softly.

The uneven road became less defined with each passing metre. It swooped down through a dense forest in a gentle arc and then crossed over a little humped-back stone bridge. The bridge itself spanned the width of a gentle stream which meandered down the hillside.

'It's a farm,' Carl mumbled with remarkable perceptiveness as they passed an abandoned tractor and plough.

'Can't see any animals though,' Emma muttered, thinking out loud.

Michael wound down the window and sniffed the cool air. She was right  -  he couldn't see or smell a single cow, pig, sheep, chicken, duck or horse.

'Must have been an arable farm,' he said as he stopped the van in the centre of a large gravel yard, right in front of the house. Without saying anything else he climbed out and stretched, glad to finally be out of the driving seat.

The apparent tranquility of their isolated location belied the turmoil and devastation that they had left behind them. The three survivors stood together in silence and took stock of their surroundings. They were standing in a farmyard, about twenty metres square, boxed in by the stream, the farm buildings and the forest and littered with rusting farm machinery and unused supplies. On the furthest side of the yard (opposite to where the track crossed the bridge) were two dilapidated wooden barns. The farmhouse itself was a large and traditional brick-built building with a sloping grey roof which was dotted with green and yellow lichen. From the front the house appeared to be roughly rectangular. Three stone steps led up to a wooden porch which was the only protruding feature. Tacked to the side of the building was an out-of-place looking concrete garage with a grey metal door. Twisting ivy covered between a half and a third of the front of the building and the unchecked leaves had begun to crawl from the house across the roof of the garage.

'This looks perfect,' Emma continued to enthuse. 'What do you two think?'

As he was standing closest to her she first looked towards Michael for a response. Not for the first time today he seemed to be miles away, wrapped up in his own private thoughts.

'What?' he mumbled, annoyed that he had been disturbed.

'I said it looks perfect,' she repeated. 'What do you think, Carl?'

'Not bad,' he said nonchalantly, leaning against the side of the van. He was deliberately trying to hide the fact that being out in the open scared him. He didn't know who (or what) was watching them. 'It'll do for tonight.'

Michael slowly climbed the steps to the front door. He opened the porch and stepped inside. The other two watched from a distance, keen to know if anyone was home but too unsure to get any closer. Michael, on the other hand, was too tired to waste any more time. He banged on the door with his fist.

'Hello,' he yelled. 'Hello, is anyone there?'

Carl found the volume of his voice unsettling. He looked around anxiously.

When, after a few seconds, there had been no reply to his shouting and thumping, Michael tried the door. It was open and he stepped inside. Emma and Carl looked at each other for a moment before following him. By the time they were both standing in the hallway he had already been into every room downstairs and was working his way through the second storey. He eventually reappeared at the top of the stairs.

'Well?' asked Emma.

'It looks okay,' he replied breathlessly as he walked back down.

'Anyone in?'

He nodded and pointed towards a room on their right. Emma peered through the door into a large and comfortable sitting room. A single body  -  an overweight, white-haired man wearing a dressing gown, trousers and slippers  -  lay twisted painfully on the ground in front of an ornate open fireplace. Feeling a little safer now he knew that this was the only body, Carl went into the sitting room and walked over to the corpse. There was an unopened letter on the ground next to the man's lifeless hand.

'This must be Mr Jones,' he mumbled, reading from the address on the front of the envelope. 'Mr Arthur Jones, Penn Farm. Nice place you had here, Mr Jones.'

'No sign of Mrs Jones?' wondered Emma.

'Couldn't find anyone else,' Michael replied, shaking his head. 'And he looks too old for there to be any little Joneses here.'

Emma noticed that Carl had sat down next to the body. He was staring into its face.

'What's the matter?' she asked. No response. 'Carl, what's the matter?'

He shook his head, looked up at her and smiled.

'Sorry, I was miles away.'

Carl quickly looked away, hoping that the other two hadn't picked up on the sudden anxiety and unease he was feeling. Christ, he thought, he had seen literally thousands of dead bodies over the last few days, so why did this one in particular bother him? Was it because this had been one of the first bodies he'd actually sat down and looked at, or was it because this was the first body he'd seen with an identity? He knew the man's name and what he'd done for a living and they had broken into his home. It didn't feel right. He didn't believe in ghosts or anything like that but, at that moment, he was convinced that somehow Mr Jones would get his revenge on the three intruders.

Michael sat down in a comfortable armchair and shielded his eyes from the early evening sunlight which poured into the room.

'So will this do?' he asked. 'Think we should stop here?'

'There's plenty of room,' Emma replied, 'and there's the stream outside for water.'

'And it's not easy to get to,' Carl added, forcing himself to get involved in the conversation and ignore Mr Jones. 'Bloody hell, we had enough trouble finding it.'

'And it's a farm,' Michael said. 'There's bound to be much more to this place than just this house.'

'Like what?' Emma wondered. Michael shrugged his shoulders.

'Don't know,' he grinned. 'Let's find out, shall we?'

With that he jumped up from his seat and left the room. Carl and Emma followed him as he walked down the hallway with the entrance to the kitchen and the wooden staircase on his left and a succession of rooms on the right. He looked into (but didn't go into) a living room and a small office as he walked towards the back of the house. He stopped by the back door and looked back at the other two over his shoulder.

'There you go,' he said, grinning again. 'Told you. That should help.'

Intrigued, Carl and Emma peered past him. On the small lawn at the back of the house was a large gas cylinder mounted on a firm concrete base.

'Wonder what's in the shed,' Carl mumbled, looking into the trees at the bottom left hand corner of the garden.

'Probably just tools,' Emma guessed. 'You know, lawnmowers, that kind of thing.'

'Then what are those?' he said, nodding into a small store room to his left. Emma peered into the gloom and saw that everything she had thought would have been kept in the shed had been housed in this little room.

'Only one way to find out,' she said and she stretched past Michael and opened the door. She led the three of them across the lawn.

It was obvious that this was far more than just an ordinary garden shed. It was too big and strong to be a potting shed and too small to be anything to do with the farm stores. Carl pushed the door open and leant inside.

'What's in there?' Michael shouting, watching the other man with interest.

Carl reappeared.

'You won't believe this,' he gasped. 'It's only a bloody generator!'

'What? For making electricity,' Emma said stupidly.

'I bloody hope so,' Michael sighed under his breath. 'That's what they usually do.'

'Will it work?' she then asked, equally stupidly.

'Don't know,' Carl replied, 'I'll have a go at getting it going later.'

'We've got plenty of time to try,' Michael added as he turned and walked back towards the house. 'Think we should stop here then?' he asked sarcastically.

Neither Carl or Emma bothered to answer but it didn't matter. Individually they had all decided to stop the first moment they'd arrived. Penn Farm seemed the ideal place for them to sit and wait. What they would be waiting for, however, was anyone's guess.

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