Chapter 20

Less than an hour later and Michael, Carl and Emma were ready to leave Penn Farm. Wrapped in as many layers of clothing as they could find, the three of them stood together at the side of the van and winced as a cold and blustery autumn wind gusted into their exposed and unprotected faces.

Doubt and uncertainty.

Their emotions had begun to take on an almost cyclical pattern. In turn they each felt utter desperation and fear and then sudden, short-lived elation and hope. They had spent the last week lurching from crisis to crisis. Since leaving the city those nightmare situations had been punctuated by brief moments of success and real achievement such as finding the house yesterday and realising its full potential this morning. As Michael had already discovered to his emotional cost, the temporary respite that those successes presented to them made the dark reality of their shattered lives all the more difficult to accept. No-one dared to think about what might happen next. No-one dared to think about what might happen tonight, tomorrow or the next day. As uncertain as anyone's future had always been, the survivors now seemed unable to look forward to their next breath of air with any certainty.

They had been standing in silence for almost five minutes when Michael managed to snap himself out of his trance and get into the van. Each one of them had a thousand and one unanswerable questions flying round their tired heads, and that constant barrage of questions seemed to prevent them from saying anything. Someone would think of something to say or something to ask, only to be distracted and thrown off track by another bleak and painful random thought.

Following Michael's lead Carl and Emma climbed into the van and sat down. Michael turned the key and started the engine. The noise made by the powerful machine echoed through the desolate countryside.

'Any idea where we're going?' Emma asked from the back of the van. She shuffled in her seat as she slid the precious key to the farmhouse into the pocket of her tight jeans.

'No,' Michael replied with admirable honesty. 'Have you?'

'No,' she admitted.

'Fucking brilliant,' Carl cursed under his breath as he leant against the window to his side.

Michael decided that whatever they did they weren't going to achieve anything by waiting. He slammed the van into gear and moved away down the long rough track which led to the road.

'I'm sure I used to come round here on holiday with my mum and dad when I was younger,' he sighed five minutes and three quarters of a mile further on.

'So do you know your way around?' Emma asked hopefully.

He shook his head and pulled out onto the smooth tarmac.

'No. What I do remember though is that there were loads of little towns and villages round here, all linked up by roads like this. If we keep driving in any one direction we're sure to find something somewhere.'

He began to push his foot down on the accelerator pedal, forcing the van along the twisting track.

'Hope we can remember the way back after this,' Emma mumbled.

'Course we will,' he replied confidently. 'I'll just keep going in one direction. We won't turn left or right unless we have to, we'll just go straight. We'll get to a village, get what we need, and then just turn around and come back home.'

Home. Strange word to use thought Carl because this definitely didn't feel like home to him. Home was a hundred or so miles away. Home was his modest three bedroom semi-detached house on a council estate in Northwich. Home was where he'd left Sarah and Gemma. Home was definitely not some empty fucking farmhouse in the middle of the fucking countryside.

Carl closed his eyes and rested his head against the cold glass. He tried to concentrate on the sound of the van's engine. For a few seconds the noise stopped him thinking about anything else.

Michael was right.

Within fifteen minutes of reaching the road they'd stumbled upon the small village of Pennmyre. As they approached they saw that it was not so much a village, more a short row of modest shops with a few car parking spaces and a pelican crossing. The silent hamlet was so small that the sign which said 'Welcome to Pennmyre  -  Please Drive Carefully' was just over a hundred meters from the one which read 'Thank You for Visiting Pennmyre  -  Have a Safe Journey'. But the compact size of the village was comforting. They could see it all from the main road. There weren't any dark corners or hidden alleys to explore.

Michael stopped the van halfway down the main street and climbed out, leaving the engine running in case they needed to get away at speed. On first impressions the sight that greeted them was disappointingly familiar. It was just what they had expected to find  -  a few bodies scattered on the pavement, a couple of cars crashed into buildings, pedestrians and each other, and the odd walking body, tripping and stumbling around aimlessly.

'Look at their faces,' Carl said as he stepped out into the cold morning air. It was the first time he'd said more than two words since they'd left the farmhouse. He stood on the broken white line in the middle of the road with his hands on his hips, just staring at the pitiful creatures that staggered by. 'Christ,' he hissed, 'they look fucking awful...'

'Which ones?' Emma wondered as she walked around the front of the van to stand close to him. 'The ones on the ground or the ones that are moving?'

He thought for a second and shrugged his shoulders.

'Both,' he eventually replied. 'Doesn't seem to be much difference between them anymore, does there?'

Emma shook her head slowly and looked down at a body in the gutter by her feet. The poor thing's lifeless face bore an expression of frozen, suffocated pain and fear. Its skin was tight and drawn and she noticed a peculiarly greenish tinge to its cold flesh. The first signs, she decided, of decomposition. Strange that the other bodies  -  those still moving around  -  had the same unnatural tinge to their skin too.

There was a sudden dull thump behind Carl and he span around anxiously to see that one of the awkward stumbling figures had walked into the side of the van. Painfully slowly it lurched around and then, quite by chance, began to walk towards the startled survivor. For a few long seconds Carl didn't react. He just stood there and stared into its cold emotionless eyes, feeling an icy chill run the entire length of his body.

'Bloody hell,' he hissed. 'Look at its eyes. Just look at its fucking eyes...'

Emma recoiled at the sight of the pathetic figure. It was a man who, she guessed, must have been about fifty years old when he'd died (although the unnatural tightness and hue of his skin made it difficult to be certain). The body staggered forward with stilted, uncoordinated and listless movements.

Carl was transfixed  -  his attention captured by a deadly combination of morbid curiosity and uneasy fear. As the cadaver approached he could see that both of the man's pupils had dilated to such an extent that the dull iris of each eye seemed almost to have disappeared. The eyes moved continually, never settling on any one object, and yet it seemed that whatever information was being sent from the dead eyes to the dead brain was not registering at all. The body moved ever closer to Carl, looking straight past him. It didn't even know he was there.

'Fucking hell,' Michael cursed. 'Watch out will you?'

'It's all right,' Carl sighed. 'Bloody thing can't even see me.'

With that he lifted up his arms and put a hand on each one of the man's shoulders. The body stopped moving instantly. Rather than resist or react in any way it simply slumped forward. Carl could feel the weight of the body (which was unexpectedly light and emaciated) being entirely supported by his hands.

'They're empty, aren't they?' Emma said under her breath. She took a few tentative steps closer to the corpse and stared into its face. Now that she was closer she could see a fine, milky-white film covering both eyes. There were open sores on its skin (particularly around the mouth and nose) and its greasy hair was lank and knotted. She looked down at the rest of the body  -  down towards the willowy torso wrapped in loose, dirty clothing  -  and stared hard. She was looking at the rib cage for signs of respiration. She couldn't see any movement.

Michael had been watching her as intently and with as much fascination as she'd watched the body.

'What do you mean, empty?' he asked.

'Just what I said,' she mumbled, still staring at the dead man. 'There's nothing to them. They move but they don't know why. It's almost as if they've died but no-one's told them to stop moving and lie still.'

He nodded thoughtfully and watched another one of the creatures as it wandered aimlessly across the road a little way ahead of the van. Carl again looked into the face of the body he was holding and then dropped his arms, allowing it to move freely again. The second he had released his grip the corpse began to stumble away.

'So if they're not thinking, why do they change direction?' he asked.

'Simple,' Emma answered. 'They don't do it consciously. If you watch them, they only change direction when they can't go any further forward.'

'But why? If they can't make decisions then they shouldn't be able to realise that they're stuck. When they hit a wall shouldn't they just stop and wait?'

She shrugged her shoulders.

'It's just a basic response, isn't it?' Michael said.

She nodded.

'Suppose so. It's just about the most basic response. Christ, even amoebas and earthworms can react like that. If they come across an obstruction then they change direction.'

'So what are you saying?' he pressed. 'Are they thinking or not thinking?'

'I'm not sure really...' she admitted.

'You sound like you're saying that they might still have some decision making capabilities...'

'Suppose I am.'

'But on the other hand they seem to be on autopilot, just moving because they can.'

Emma shrugged her shoulders again, becoming annoyed.

'Christ, I don't know. I'm just telling you what I think.'

'So what do you think? What do you really think has happened to them?'

'They're almost dead.'

'Almost dead?'

'I think that about ninety-nine percent of their bodies are dead. The muscles and senses have shut down. They're not breathing, thinking or eating but I think that there's something still working inside them. Something at their very base level. The most basic of controls.'

'Such as?' Michael asked.

'Don't know.'

'Want to take a guess?'

Emma seemed reluctant. She wasn't at all certain about what she was saying. She was improvising and having to think on her feet.

'I'm really not sure,' she sighed. 'Christ, it's instinct I suppose. They have no comprehension of identity or purpose anymore, they just exist. They move because they can. No other reason.'

Conscious that she had become the centre of attention, Emma walked away from the van towards the row of shops to her right. She felt awkward. In the eyes of her two companions her limited medical experience and knowledge made her an expert in a field where no-one really knew anything.

On the cold ground in front of a bakery the body of a frail and elderly old man struggled to pull itself up. Its weak arms flailed uselessly at its sides.

'What's the matter with it?' Carl asked, peering cautiously over Emma's shoulder.

'Don't know,' she mumbled.

Michael, who had followed the other two, nudged Emma's shoulder and pointed at an upturned wheelchair which lay a few metres away from the body. She looked from the chair to the body and back again and then crouched down. Fighting to keep control of her stomach (the rotting skin of the old man gave out a noxious odour) she pulled back one of his trouser legs and saw that the right leg was artificial. In its weakened state the body couldn't lift it off the ground.

'See,' she said, standing up again. 'Bloody thing doesn't even know it's only got one leg. Poor bugger's probably been using a wheelchair for years.'

Disinterested in the crippled body and feeling nauseous and uneasy, Carl wandered away. He walked alone along the front of the row of silent shops and gazed sadly into the window of each building he passed. There was a bank  -  its doors wide open  -  and next to it an opticians. Two corpses sat motionless on dusty chairs waiting for appointments with their long since dead optometrist. Next to the opticians was a grocery store. Carl went inside.

Inside the shop was dank and musty. The pungent smell of rotting food tainted the damp air. The smell acted like smelling salts in suddenly reminding Carl of all that had happened. In a fraction of a second he was reminded of the nightmare of Northwich, the loss of his family and everything else that had happened in the last week. He suddenly felt exposed, vulnerable and unsafe. Looking over his shoulder constantly he began to fill cardboard boxes with all the non-perishable food he could find in the tiny little store.

Emma and Michael arrived at the shop seconds later. In little more than a quarter of an hour the three of them had transferred much of the stock to the back of their van. In less than an hour they were back at Penn Farm.

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