Chapter 23

Despite having gone to bed exhausted, Michael was awake, up and dressed by six o'clock the following morning. He had spent another uncomfortable and mostly sleepless night tossing and turning on the hard wooden floor at the side of Emma's bed. He was glad he'd woken up before she had. She hadn't said anything to make him think that she minded him being there, but he was quietly concerned as to what she thought his reasons were. Regardless of what she might or might not have been thinking, it made him feel much better not to be sleeping alone.

Even though his twenty-ninth birthday was now just a couple of weeks away, Michael had spent the last few dark hours curled up in fear like a frightened child. His mind had been full of the kind of irrational fantasies the like of which hadn't troubled him since he'd been eight or nine years old. In the early morning gloom he had hidden under his covers from monsters lurking under the bed and behind the wardrobe door and had found himself sitting bolt upright in the darkness, certain that something terrible and unidentifiable was coming up the stairs towards him. In his heart he knew that these were nothing but foolish thoughts and that the sounds he could hear were just the unfamiliar creaks and groans of the old house but that didn't make the slightest bit of difference. The fear was impossible to ignore. As a child there had always been the safety of his parents' room to rescue him from his nightmares but not today. Today there was nothing and no-one to help and the bitter reality beyond the door of the farmhouse was worse than any dark dream he'd ever had.

As soon as the morning light had begun to creep into the house he had felt more confident. The uncomfortable fear he'd experienced was quickly replaced by a uncomfortable foolishness leaving him feeling almost embarrassed that he'd been so frightened in the night. At one point in the long hours just passed, when the howling wind outside had been screaming and whipping through the trees with an incredible and relentless ferocity, he had covered his ears and screwed his eyes tightly shut, hoping with all his heart that he would fall asleep and wake up somewhere else. Although no-one else had seen or heard him, in the cold light of day he felt ashamed that he had allowed a chink to appear in his brash and arrogant exterior.

It was a strong, safe and sound house and Michael need not have worried. In spite of all that he had imagined in the darkness, nothing and no-one had managed to enter Penn Farm. Still drugged by sleep he stumbled into the kitchen and lit the gas stove. The constant low roar of the burner was strangely soothing and comforting and he was glad that the heavy silence of the early morning had finally been disturbed. Slightly more relaxed, he boiled a kettle of water and made himself a mug of strong black coffee which he quickly drank. He made himself some breakfast but couldn't eat much more than a couple of mouthfuls.

Bored, tired and restless, he desperately needed to find something to do. As he had already discovered to his cost recently, these days an unoccupied minute tended to feel like an hour and an empty hour seemed to drag on for more than a day.

A open door from the kitchen led to a large utility room which Michael wandered into aimlessly. He had spent some time in there yesterday, but no longer than half an hour. In the furthest corner of the room was a pile of empty cardboard boxes and other rubbish that the survivors hadn't yet been able to dispose of or find a home for. This had been the least important room in the house as far as the three of them had been concerned and, as such, they had paid it little attention other than to use it as a temporary store. Michael thought for a second or two about trying to sort the room into some kind of order but, if the truth be told, he couldn't be bothered. He wanted something to do, but it needed to be something interesting. He needed more than something that would just distract him. He wanted something that would grab his imagination and fully capture and hold his attention.

High on the wall opposite to the door he'd just walked through was a wooden shelf. Little more than a warped plank of wood held up by three rusty brackets, the shelf was piled high with junk. Curious, Michael dragged a chair across the room and climbed up to have a closer look. On first sight there seemed to be very little of any interest  -  some old garden tools and chemicals, faded and yellowed books and newspapers, glass jars full of nails, bolts and screws and the like  -  but then he came across an unexpected and unmistakable shape. It was the butt of a rifle. Cautiously he pulled the gun free and stood there, balancing precariously on the chair, admiring the cobweb and dirt covered weapon. Instinctively he reached up again and felt his way along the shelf, first to the left and then to the right of where he'd found the rifle. With his fingers at full stretch he grabbed hold of a dusty cardboard box which he dragged closer. Now standing on tiptoes with the rifle wedged under his arm he teased up the lid of the box and saw that it was full of ammunition. Like a child with a new toy he picked up the box, jumped down and carried everything back to the kitchen.

Emma got up at half-past eight and Carl rose three-quarters of an hour later. They found Michael sat at the kitchen table, carefully cleaning the rifle. He'd been working on it for over two hours and the job was almost complete.

Michael glanced up at Emma and noticed that she looked tired. He wondered whether she'd had as little sleep as he had. Although they'd only slept (or not slept) a few feet apart he hadn't dared disturb her in the darkness of the night.

'What are you doing?' she eventually asked him once she'd made and drunk a very necessary mug of coffee.

'I found this earlier,' he replied, stifling a yawn. 'Thought I'd have a go at cleaning it up.'

'What's it for?' Carl asked. Those were the first words he'd uttered since coming downstairs.

Michael shrugged his shoulders. Deadpan, and with a complete absence of any sarcasm or humour in his voice he replied.

'Shooting things,' he said. 'What else you going to use it for?'

'I know that,' he snapped, annoyed, 'but what are we going to use it for?'

He put the rifle down and looked up at Carl.

'Don't know,' he replied. 'Bloody hell, I hope we never need it.'

The rifle was clearly of interest to Carl. He sat down next to the other man and picked it up. Having spent all morning working on it, Michael seemed annoyed that someone else had dared to interfere.

'Put it down,' he said. 'I haven't finished with it yet.'

'You ever used one of these?' Carl asked, suddenly much more animated.

'No, but...'

'I have,' he continued to enthuse. 'Used to do some work for a bloke that used to shoot.'

'I don't like it,' Emma said from across the room. She was standing next to the sink. She couldn't have been any further away from the table. 'We don't need it. We should get rid of it.'

'I don't know. We don't even know if it's going to work yet...'

'Can't see any reason why it shouldn't,' Carl interrupted. 'Mind if I try it out?'

'Yes I do,' Michael protested. 'Bloody hell, I've spent bloody hours trying to get it...'

Carl wasn't listening. He jumped up from his seat, grabbed a handful of ammunition and headed for the front door. Michael looked over towards Emma. Surprised by his sudden disappearance they both stood still for a second before following him out.

By the time they reached the front door Michael could already hear the rifle being repeatedly cocked and fired. Fortunately Carl had been sensible enough to try and fire it before loading.

'Is he safe with that thing?' Emma asked quietly as they stepped out into a cold grey morning.

'Don't know,' Michael replied under his breath, still fuming that the other man had dared to take the rifle from him. He stared with piercing eyes as Carl loaded it.

'This is okay you know,' he babbled excitedly. 'This is just what we needed. You never know what's round the corner these days...'

'Don't know what frightens me more,' Emma mumbled, 'the fact that there are dead bodies walking round the countryside or him with that fucking gun.'

Michael managed half a smile which quickly disappeared when Carl lifted the rifle up and held it ready to fire. He pressed the butt hard into his shoulder, closed one eye and aimed into the distance.

'What the hell are you doing?' Michael demanded. 'Are you fucking stupid? All we need is for that bloody thing to blow back in your face and you're history...'

'It's okay,' he answered without moving or lowering the rifle. 'I know about these things. It won't blow back.'

'Just put it down will you?' begged Emma.

'Watch this. I'm going to get him...'

Puzzled, Michael stood behind him and looked along the barrel of the rifle. Carl was aiming through a gap in the trees, out towards a ploughed field a few hundred metres away. He squinted towards the horizon and saw that a lone figure was tripping clumsily through the uneven mud.

'Leave it, will you?'

'I'm going to get him,' he said again, shuffling his feet and getting the figure square in his sights. 'What's he going to do about it? Christ, he probably won't even know he's been shot.'

'You've got to hit him first,' Emma hissed cynically.

'Oh, I'll hit the bastard,' he said and, with that, he squeezed the trigger and fired.

For a long second the deafening sound of the shot rang out and echoed through the otherwise silent countryside.

'Missed him,' Carl spat, annoyed.

The figure in the field stopped moving.

'He's stopped,' Michael gasped. 'Fucking hell, he heard the shot. It's got to be a survivor.'

Stunned, Carl let go of the butt of the rifle and it swung down heavily to the ground. Still holding the barrel he took a few cautious steps forward.

'I didn't get him did I?' he asked anxiously. 'Shit, I was only trying to...'

'Shut up,' Michael snapped. 'You didn't get him.'

As they stared into the near distance the figure in the field began to move again. Instead of struggling on through the muddy fields, however, it had now changed direction. The bedraggled man was walking towards the house.

'He's coming this way, isn't he?' asked Emma, doubting what her eyes were telling her.

'Looks like it,' Carl mumbled in surprise.

Michael didn't say anything. He watched for a second longer until he was completely sure that the man was heading towards them before sprinting out to meet him. Apart from the survivors back in Northwich this was the first person they'd seen in a week who seemed actually able to react and respond to the outside world. He couldn't afford to let him out of his sight. And to think, moments earlier Carl had aimed a rifle at him.

Emma chased after Michael and Carl followed close behind.

The view from the farmhouse had been misleading. There was a hidden dip between Michael and the man which added an extra couple of hundred metres distance between them. Ignorant to the uneven, clammy mud beneath his feet and to the pain of the sprint and now to the climb back out of the dip, he continued at speed, taking care to keep the lone stranger locked in his sights every step of the way. He pushed himself to keep moving faster and faster. He wanted to call out to him but he couldn't. His mouth was dry and his heart was pounding was nervous excitement.

'Hold on,' Carl moaned. He was a short distance behind Emma. Not as fit as he would have liked to have been, he was finding the running too much. Emma stopped and waited for him to catch up, constantly keeping a close eye on Michael as she did. She watched as he clambered over a metal five bar gate. He was now in the same field as the man who continued to walk closer and closer to him.

'You all right?' she breathlessly asked Carl.

He slowed down, shook his head and stopped next to her. Doubled-over with exhaustion, he rested his hands on his knees and sucked in as much cool, refreshing air as he could. He looked up and watched as Michael stopped running and approached the unknown man.

Michael wiped dribbles of sweat from his face and spat to clear phlegm from his throat.

'Fucking hell,' he said between deep, forced breaths. 'Are you okay? Christ the chances of us finding you like that must have been...'

He suddenly lost his footing in the slimy mud and fell to down his knees, landing at the feet of the other man. He looked up into his face and, in a fraction of a second, all the hope and elation he had felt suddenly disappeared. It was just another corpse. The man's face was blank and cold and drained of all emotion. His pockmarked skin was tight across his skull and had a familiar grey-green hue and translucence. His dirty, ragged clothes were loose and ill-fitting. He was as sick and diseased as every other one of the lamentable bastards they had seen.

Dejected, Michael climbed to his feet and turned back to shout the news to the others.

'It's no good,' he yelled, fighting to make his voice heard over a vicious, blustery wind. 'It's no fucking good. This bastard's just like the rest of them.'

Neither Emma or Carl could hear what he was saying. Confused, they watched as the scrawny man continued to move closer. He lifted his rotting head, seeming almost to be looking at Michael who was still facing the other way. The man's next movement was so unexpected that no-one, especially not Michael, had time to react.

The sound of a single sliding footstep squelching through the thick mud alerted him. He span around and found himself face to face with the foul creature. Before he could do anything it launched itself at him, grabbing hold of him with its emaciated arms. More from the surprise of the attack than its force Michael was sent slipping and sprawling to the ground. Suddenly forced into action, Carl sprinted to his friend's defence and grabbed the shoulders of the corpse that had now gripped hold of Michael tight with its skeletal fingers. Although weak and with little strength, the body held on with a savage and unexpected determination which proved difficult to break. Carl managed to pull its weakened frame up a little way, just far enough for Michael to be able to slide his hands under its bony abdomen and push it up and away. With one brutal and controlled show of force he thrust the body up into the air and rolled away to safety through the greasy mud.

'Okay?' Emma screamed, rushing to the Michael's side.

He wiped splashes of foul-smelling mud from his face and nodded, still fighting to catch his breath. Already tired from the run, the brutal speed and shock of the unexpected attack had winded him.

'I'm all right,' he gasped.

The body on the ground lay on its back, squirming and struggling to right itself again. It had just managed to haul itself up onto its elbows when Carl kicked it back down.

'Fucking thing,' he hissed. 'You stupid fucking thing.'

The body continued to twist and writhe. Oblivious to Carl's hate and comparative strength it again lifted itself up. Carl again kicked it back down.

'Fucking thing,' he spat for a third time before kicking the corpse in the side of the head. His boot collided with its left temple with a sickening thump and it stopped moving. A couple of seconds later it started again.

'Leave it,' Michael said. He had managed to stand and was being pulled back towards the house by Emma. 'Come on, Carl, just leave it.'

Carl wasn't listening. He began to lash out violently at the figure on the ground. He kicked it in the area of the left kidney, sending it rolling over and over away from him.

'Carl!' Emma pleaded. 'Carl, come on!'

She could clearly see hate and frustration in his face. He looked up at her for a fraction of a second before returning his attention to the rotting corpse in the mud. He spat into its vacant face before letting go with another brutal torrent of kicks. Oblivious to the battering it was taking, every time it was beaten down the creature continually tried to climb back up again. Dumbfounded, Carl took a breathless step backwards.

'Just look at this!' he shouted, pointing at the pathetic creature squirming in the mud. 'Will you just look at this fucking thing! It doesn't know when it's had enough.'

Emma could hear desperate, raw emotion clear in his voice. He sounded close to tears but she couldn't tell whether they were tears of pain, anger, fear or grief.

'Come on!' Michael yelled again. 'Don't waste your time. Let's get back to...'

He stopped speaking when he noticed that there was another figure in the field with them. Emma grabbed hold of his arm.

'Look,' she whispered, her voice barely audible.

'I see it. What the fuck is going on?'

The second figure was walking towards the survivors with the same slow, slothful intent as the first had just minutes earlier.

'There's another one coming, Carl,' Michael said, trying hard to control the rising panic in his voice.

'And another,' Emma gasped. A third creature was dragging itself up the field towards them.

Michael took her hand and half-helped and half-pushed her back over the gate.

'Get going,' he said quietly. 'Put your fucking foot down and get back to the house.'

'Okay,' she mumbled, her eyes filling with frightened tears. She clambered over the gate and took a couple of hesitant steps forward before pausing to look back. One last glance at the approaching bodies was enough. She turned and began running back towards the farmhouse for all she was worth.

'Carl!' Michael shouted. 'We're going. Pull yourself together...'

Carl looked up and finally saw the two corpses approaching. In a defiant last outburst of anger and frustration he kicked the still moving corpse in the head one more time. He caught it square in the face and felt bones shatter and break under the force of his boot. Thick crimson-black, almost congealed blood dribbled from a gaping hole where its nose and mouth had been. The creature finally lay still. Silently satisfied, Carl turned and ran after the others.

'I'm coming,' he yelled.

He sprinted back through the mud and hauled himself over the gate, almost losing his balance when a forth bedraggled body came at him from out of nowhere. He ran harder than he'd ever forced himself to run before, knowing full well that his life might depend on reaching the safety of the farmhouse.

By the time the three survivors had made it back to the house the first battered body in the field had dragged itself up onto its unsteady feet again. It turned awkwardly and followed eleven other bodies as they converged on the isolated building.

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