Chapter 17

Michael was asleep by eight o'clock. Curled up on a sofa in the sitting room of the rustic farmhouse, it was the best and most unexpected sleep he'd had since the disaster had begun. Fate had dealt everyone some bitterly cruel hands recently but, for this one man at least, a welcome respite in the nightmare had arrived.

The house was silent save for his gentle snoring and the muffled sounds of Emma and Carl's tired conversation. Although they were easily as tired as Michael, neither felt able to close their eyes for even a second. No matter how comfortable and peaceful their surroundings had unexpectedly become, they knew that the world beyond the walls of the building was as inhospitable and fucked up as it had been since the first minutes of the tragedy last week.

'I could have tried to get it going tonight,' Carl yawned, still talking about the generator in the shed behind the house. 'I just couldn't be bothered though. We've got plenty of time. I'll try it in the morning.'

Thinking about repairing the machinery had made him feel strangely relaxed. It reminded him of the job he used to do. He was looking forward to getting on with the job tomorrow and hoped that, for a short time at least, the grease and graft would allow him to imagine that he was back at work and that the last few days had never happened.

Emma and Carl sat on either side of the fireplace, wrapped up in their coats because the room was surprisingly cold. Michael had prepared a fire earlier but they had decided against lighting it for fear of the smoke drawing attention to their location. Their fear was irrational but undeniable. Chances were they were the only living people for miles around but they didn't want to take any risks, no matter how slight. Anonymity seemed to add to their security.

The large room was comfortably dark. A low, dancing orange light came from three candles which cast strange, flickering shadows on the walls. After an awkward silence that had lasted for a good ten minutes, Emma spoke.

'Do you think we're going to be all right here?' she asked cautiously.

'We should be okay for a while,' Carl replied, his voice quiet and hushed.

'I like it.'

'It's okay.'

The staccato conversation died quickly. Next time it was Carl who disturbed the quiet.

'Emma, you don't think...'

He stopped before he'd finished his question, obviously unsure of himself.

'Think what?' she pushed.

He cleared his throat and shuffled awkwardly in his seat. With some reluctance he began again.

'You don't think the farmer will come back, do you?'

As soon as he'd spoken he regretted what he'd said. It sounded so bloody ridiculous when he said it out loud but, nonetheless, the body of the farmer had been playing on his mind all evening. These days death didn't seem to have the same finality as it always had done before and he wondered if the old man might somehow find his way back to his home and try to reclaim what was rightfully his. He knew that they could get rid of him again if they needed to and that in a reanimated state he would pose little threat, but it was just the thought of the body returning which unnerved him. His thoughts were irrational but even so the hairs on the back of his neck had again begun to tingle and prickle with cool fear.

Emma shook her head.

'I'm sorry,' he blathered. 'Stupid thing to say. Bloody stupid thing to say.'

'Don't worry about it,' she insisted. 'It's okay.'

Emma turned away from Carl and watched a ghostly whisper of grey smoke snake away from the top of the candle nearest to her and dissolve into the air. She sensed that Carl was watching her and, for a moment, that made her feel suddenly and unexpectedly uneasy. She wondered if he could sense what she was thinking. She wondered if he knew that she shared his own deep, dark and unfounded fears about the body of the farmer. Logic told her that they would be all right and that he would stay down  -  after all, the bodies seemed to have risen en mass last week  -  they'd either dragged themselves up on that one cold morning or they'd stayed where they'd fallen and died. And even if Mr Jones did somehow rise up and start to walk again, his movements would be as random, stilted and uncoordinated as the rest of the wandering corpses. Pure chance was the only thing that would ever bring him back home. She knew that nothing was going to happen and that they were wasting their time thinking about the dead man but she still couldn't help herself.

'All right?' Carl asked quietly.

She turned and smiled and nodded and then turned back and looked at the burning candle again. She stared into the flickering yellow flame and thought back to a couple of hours earlier when the three of them had shifted the body of the farmer and that of a farm hand that they'd found fallen at the side of the garage. Mr Jones had been the most difficult corpse to get rid of. He had once been a burly, well-built man who, she imagined, had worked every available hour of every day to ensure that his farm ran smoothly and profitably. By the time that Carl and Michael had got around to shifting his awkward bulk, however, his limbs had been stiffened and contorted by rigor mortis. She had watched with horror and disgust as one of the men had taken hold of his shoulders and the other his legs. With a lack of respect they had dragged him unceremoniously through what used to be his home. She recalled the look of irritation so clear on Michael's face when they hadn't been able to manoeuvre the farmer's clumsy bulk through the front door.

They had taken the two bodies into the pine forest which bordered the farm. Michael and Carl had shared the weight of the corpses (making two trips) and she had carried three shovels from the house. She remembered what happened next with an icy clarity.

After laying the bodies out on the ground Michael had turned to walk back towards the house. Emma and Carl had instinctively picked up a shovel each and begun to dig.

'What the hell are you doing?' Michael had asked.

'Digging,' Carl had replied. His answer had been factually correct, but he had completely missed the other man's point.

'Digging what?'

Thinking for a moment that he had been asked a trick question, Carl had paused before answering.

'Graves of course,' he replied before adding a cautious; 'Why?'

'That was what I was going to ask you.'

'What do you mean?'

Emma had been standing directly between the two men, watching the conversation develop.

'Why bother? What's the point?' Michael had protested.

'Pardon?' she'd interrupted.

'Why bother digging graves?'

'To put the bloody bodies in,' Carl snapped, annoyed that he was being questioned. 'Is there a problem?'

Instead of answering Michael had just asked another question.

'So when are you going to do the rest?'

'What?' Emma had sighed.

'If you're going to bury these two,' he had explained, 'then you might as well finish the job off and bury the fucking thousands of other corpses lying round the country.'

'Don't be stupid,' Carl had protested angrily. 'We can't...'

'For Christ's sake just look around you. There must be millions of bodies and not one of them has been buried. More to the point, none of them needs to be either...'

'Listen, we've taken this man's home from him. Don't you think that at the very least we owe him...'

'No,' Michael interrupted, his voice infuriatingly calm and level. 'We don't owe him anything.'

At that point he had turned and walked back towards the farmhouse. The light had started to fade with a frightening speed and he had almost been out of view when he'd shouted back to the others over his shoulder.

'I'm going back inside,' he'd yelled. 'I'm cold and I'm tired and I can't be bothered wasting any more time out here. There are all kind of things wandering round out here and I...'

'All we're doing is...' Carl had replied.

Michael had stopped and turned back around.

'All you're doing is wasting time. The two of you are standing out here risking your necks trying to do something that doesn't even need to be done. I'm going back inside.'

With that he had gone, and Carl and Emma had been left alone with the two lifeless bodies at their feet. They had stood together in silence, both unsure as to what they should do next. For a second Emma had been distracted. She thought she'd seen movement deeper in the forest. She wasn't sure, but she thought that she had caught a glimpse of another body staggering through the trees a short distance away. The thought of more bodies being close by made the cold night feel colder still and had returned her attention to the corpses on the ground.

Emma had been annoyed by Michael's attitude and manner, but what upset her most of all was the fact that he was right. He was cold, heartless and unfeeling but he was right. Whether they had wanted to bury the body out of duty to the farmer or out of instinct it didn't matter. The burial would have served no real purpose other than to make the two of them feel a little better and less guilty about what they were doing. But they were simply trying to survive. The farmhouse and everything in it was no use to Mr Jones any longer.

In the fading light they had reached a silent compromise. Rather than bury the bodies they had instead just placed a light covering of loose soil and fallen autumn leaves over the two dead men.

'What are you thinking about?' Carl asked, suddenly distracting Emma and bringing her crashing back into the cold reality of the living room.

'Nothing,' she lied.

Carl stretched out in the chair and yawned.

'What do we do next then?' he asked.

Emma shrugged.

'Don't know. If you're talking about tonight I think we should try and get some sleep. If you mean in the morning, I'm not sure. We need to decide if we're going to stay here first of all.'

'What do you think? Do you think we should stay here or...'

'I think we'd be stupid to leave right now,' said Michael, surprising the other two who turned to look at him. He had been sound asleep just a few moments earlier and his sudden interruption had startled Carl and Emma.

'How long have you been awake?' Carl asked.

'Not long,' he yawned. 'Anyway, in answer to your question, I think we should stay here for a while and see what happens.'

'Nothing's going to happen,' Emma mumbled.

'I bloody well hope you're right,' he said, yawning again. 'I think we should spend tomorrow trying to find out exactly what we've got here. If we're safe, sheltered and secure then I think we should stop.'

'I agree,' said Carl. He kept his motives hidden well. It wasn't that Carl particularly wanted to stay in the farmhouse, it was just that, for a few days at least, he didn't want to go anywhere else. In the journey from the city he had seen more death, carnage and destruction than he'd ever thought possible. The old, strong walls of the house protected him from the rest of the shattered world.

'I'm going to bed,' Michael said as he stood up and stretched. 'I could sleep for a week.'


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