Chapter 25

Carl drove the van while Michael and Emma sat in the back together drawing up a list of everything they could think they might need. It had been a conscious move by Michael to hand the keys over to the other man. He hadn't liked the way Carl had been acting this morning. Sure all three of them were right on the edge at the moment, but his position seemed more precarious than that of the other two. There was an undeniable air of uncertainty and fear in his voice every time he spoke. Michael's logic was that by distracting him and giving him a definite role to concentrate on, his mind would be occupied and any problems could be temporarily avoided. He could sympathise with the poor bastard entirely. He knew that he personally could just about handle what was going on around him at the moment, but if anything else happened he wasn't so sure that he'd be able to cope.

Less than two minutes trying to draw up the list and the two survivors stopped, both of them quickly realising that it was a waste of their precious time and that they couldn't afford to even try and be specific anymore. Truth was they couldn't risk wasting time trying to find the things they thought they might need, instead they had no option but to fill the van with whatever they could lay their hands on and only stop when there wasn't space for anything else.

Carl drove towards the village of Byster at a phenomenal speed. Michael silently wished that he would slow down but he knew that he wouldn't. He'd found himself accelerating at a similar rate whenever he'd driven recently. Driving was deceptively difficult because although silent, every road was strewn with hundreds upon hundreds of random obstacles  -  crashed and abandoned cars, burnt out wrecks and the remains of collapsed buildings. There were scattered, motionless corpses and scores of other wandering bodies everywhere. When Michael had driven he'd found that a nervous pressure had forced him to keep accelerating. He felt sure that Carl was feeling that same clammy, noxious fear too.

Before they reached the village they passed a vast, warehouse-like supermarket, brightly painted and completely at odds with the lush green countryside which surrounded it. Carl slammed his foot on the brake, quickly turned the van around and drove back towards the large building. It was a crucial find. They guessed that pretty much everything they needed would be inside. More importantly, filling the van with supplies there meant that they didn't need to get any closer to the centre of the village. More to the point, it meant that they could keep their distance from the sick and diseased remains of the local population.

'Brilliant,' Carl said under his breath as he pulled into the car park and slowed the van down. 'This is fucking brilliant.'

He gently turned the steering wheel and guided their vehicle round in a wide and careful arc. Other than four stationary cars (two empty, one containing three motionless bodies and the other a charred wreck) and a single body which tripped and stumbled towards them they seemed to be alone.

'You want to get as close as you can to the main doors,' Michael advised from his position behind Carl. 'We want to be out in the open as little as possible.'

Carl's immediate response was to do and say nothing. After thinking for a couple of seconds he put the van into first gear and pulled away again. He turned away from the building and then stopped when the glass entrance doors were directly behind him.

'What's he doing?' Emma asked quietly.

'I think he's going to reverse back,' Michael replied, his voice equally low. 'It's what I'd do. If I was driving I'd try and get us almost touching the doors so that...'

He stopped speaking suddenly when Carl jammed the van into reverse gear and slammed his foot down on the accelerator pedal. The force of the sudden and unexpected movement threw Emma and Michael forward in their seats.

'Jesus Christ!' Michael screamed over the screeching of tyres tearing across the car park. 'What the hell are you doing?'

The other man didn't answer. He was looking back over his shoulder, looking past Emma and Michael and towards the supermarket doors. The engine whined as the van hurtled back towards the silent building.

'Carl!' Emma protested uselessly. She turned to look behind her and then crouched down with her hands over her head as she braced herself for impact. The van smashed into the plate glass doors and then stopped suddenly  -  the ear splitting noise of the engine immediately replaced by the deafening crash of shattering glass and the ominous groan of metal on metal. Carl pressed hard on the brake and Michael looked out of the window to his side. The van had stopped a third inside the building and two thirds out in the car park. They were virtually wedged in the doorway.

'You stupid fucking idiot!' Emma screamed.

Ignoring her, Carl turned off the engine, opened the tailgate using a control lever by his right foot, took the keys from the ignition and then clambered out over the back seats. He stepped out into the supermarket, his boots crunching and grinding jagged shards of glass into the marble floor.

'Good move,' Michael mumbled under his breath as he watched Carl. He quietly acknowledged that the other man's unorthodox parking, whilst battering the exterior of their van, had made their situation infinitely easier. Not only had he got them safely inside the building, he'd also managed to block the entrance at the same time, and the entrance would stay blocked until they decided to leave. He was impressed, but he didn't want Carl to know that he approved. Michael felt sure that he was having real difficulty in coming to terms with recent events and he thought it was important to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. If he boosted his confidence by applauding his risky and very direct actions what would he do next?

Michael followed Carl out into the supermarket and Emma followed a few seconds later.

'Bloody hell,' she scowled, screwing up her face in disgust.

'Stinks, doesn't it?' Carl said, turning back to look at the others.

Michael covered his nose and took a few cautious steps further forward. The air was heavy with the sickening stench of rotting food and rotting flesh. More than just unpleasant, the obnoxious smell was stifling and suffocating. It hung heavy in the air and he could feel it coating his throat and dirtying his clothes and hair. It was making Emma retch and heave. She had to fight to control the rising bile in her stomach.

'We should get a move on,' Michael suggested. 'We don't want to be here any longer than we need to be.'

'I agree,' Emma said. 'I can't stand much of this...'

Her words were viciously truncated as she was knocked off balance by a lurching, staggering figure which appeared from out of nowhere. The stumbling creature had silently dragged itself along an aisle of rapidly decomposing food. Emma screamed and instinctively pushed the corpse away and down to the ground. Michael stood and watched as the remains of a gaunt, mousy-haired shop-assistant lay still for a second before its withered arms and legs began to flail around again as it desperately tried to haul itself back up onto its unsteady feet. Before it could get up he kicked it in the face and it dropped back down again.

'We should have a look around,' he said, anxiously looking from side to side. 'There's bound to be more of them in here.'

He was right. The deafening crash of the van as it ploughed through the glass doors had attracted the unwelcome attentions of a further five ragged cadavers which had been trapped inside the building. The clumsy remains of four shop staff and one delivery driver slowly advanced towards the three survivors. The battered body on the floor reached out a bony hand and grabbed hold of Michael's leg. He shook it free and kicked the creature in the head again.

'Fuck this,' he spat. 'We've got to shift them.'

He looked around again and spied a set of double doors behind a bakery display piled high with stale, mouldy bread. Without saying anything else he took hold of the body at his feet by its shoulders and dragged it across the floor. He kicked open the doors and threw the remains of the man into a room filled with cold, lifeless ovens. Making his way back towards Emma and Carl, he caught hold of the next closest corpse (a check-out operator) and disposed of it in exactly the same way.

'Carl,' he yelled as he made his way towards the third creature. 'Grab hold of another one, will you? If you're quick they don't have time to react.'

Carl took a deep breath and grabbed hold of the nearest corpse in a tight headlock. With its thrashing limbs carving desperate, uncoordinated arcs through the stagnant air he hauled it over to the bakery and pushed it through the double doors. It collided with the body of the dead check-out operator which, a fraction of a second earlier, had managed to lift itself back up onto its feet.

Sensing that quick action was needed, Emma ran over towards the others and shoved through the doors the remains of an elderly cleaner who, unbeknownst to Carl, had been staggering dangerously near. She dropped her shoulder and charged at the pitiful figure. The unexpected force of the impact sent the shuffling carcass (which had all the weight and resistance of a limp rag-doll) flying into the bakery.

In less than three minutes the survivors had cleared the main area of corpses. Once the last one had been safely pushed through the double-doors Michael wheeled a line of twenty or so shopping trolleys in front to prevent them from pushing their way out.

'Let's get a move on,' he said breathlessly as he wiped his dirty hands on the back of his jeans. He stood up straight and rested his hands on his hips. 'Just get whatever you can. Load it into boxes and pile it up by the van.'

In silence they began to work.

As Michael packed tins of beans, soup and spaghetti into cardboard boxes he nervously looked around. The cold, emotionless faces of the bodies in the bakery stared back at him through small square safety-glass windows in the doors. They were still moving continually. They were clamouring to get out but didn't have the strength to force themselves free. Were they watching him? Had they not acted quickly in locking the bastard things away, would they have attacked them in the same way that the lone body in the field had attacked him earlier?

'Jesus Christ,' Carl said suddenly.

He was standing at the opposite end of the building to Michael and Emma, close to where the van had smashed through the entrance doors. His voice echoed eerily around the vast and cavernous room.

'What is it?' Emma asked, immediately concerned.

'You don't want to know what's going on outside,' he replied ominously.

Emma and Michael looked at each other for a fraction of a second before dropping what they were doing and running over to where Carl was standing.

'Shit,' Michael hissed as he approached. Even from a distance he could see what had happened.

Carl had been about to start loading the boxes into the back of the van when he'd noticed a vast crowd of diseased and rotting bodies outside. Their cold, dead faces were pressed hard against the windscreen and every other exposed area of glass. More of the creatures tried unsuccessfully to force their way through the slight gap between the sides of the van and the buckled remains of the supermarket doors.

Emma stared through the van at the mass of grotesque faces which stared back at her with dark, vacant eyes.

'How did they...?' she began. 'Why are there so many of them...?'

'Heard us breaking in, didn't they,' Michael whispered. 'It's silent out there. They'd have heard the van and the crash for miles around.'

Gingerly Carl leant inside the van and looked around.

'There are loads of the fucking things here,' he hissed, his voice just loud enough for the others to hear. 'There's got to be thirty or forty of them at least.'

'Shit,' Michael cursed.

'What?' Emma asked.

'This is just the start of it,' he replied. 'Fucking hell, that was a hell of a noise we made getting in here. The whole building's probably been surrounded by now.'

For a few dangerously long seconds the three survivors stood together in silence. They exchanged awkward, uncertain glances as each one waited for one of the others to make a move.

'We've got to get out of here,' Carl eventually said, stating the obvious.

'Have we got everything we need?' Michael asked.

'Don't care,' the other man snapped. 'We've just got to go.'

Michael immediately began to load boxes and bags of food and supplies into the van.

'You two get inside,' he said as he worked.

Carl loaded another two boxes and then clambered back through to the driver's seat.

'I'll get the engine going,' he shouted.

'Leave it,' Emma shouted back. 'For God's sake, leave it to the last possible second will you. The more noise we make the more of those bloody things we'll have to get through.'

He didn't say anything as he climbed through the gap between the front seats and slid down into position. On Michael's instruction Emma followed and lowered herself into the passenger seat, equally silent. The two of them stared in abject horror at the wall of dead faces gazing back at them. Trying hard to concentrate, Carl attempted to put the key into the ignition. He was shaking with fear. The more he tried to ignore the bodies and keep his hands steady, the more they shook.

'Last couple of boxes,' Michael yelled as he crammed more and more into the back of the van. He'd left just enough space for him to be able to climb inside and pull the tailgate shut.

'Forget the rest of it,' Emma shouted. 'Just get yourself inside.'

Carl managed to force the key into the ignition. He looked up and to his right. One of the closest bodies in the wretched throng lifted a clumsy hand into the air above its head. It slowly drew its weak and diseased fingers together to form an emaciated fist which, without warning, it brought crashing down on the driver's door window.

'Michael,' he shouted, his voice wavering with strained emotion. 'Are you in yet?'

'Almost,' the other man replied. 'Last box.'

Carl watched as a second body lifted its hand and smashed the side of the van. Then another and another. The reaction spread through the ragged bodies like fire through a tinder-dry forest. Within seconds the inside of the van was ringing with a deafening crescendo of dull thumps and relentless crashes. He turned the key and started the engine.

'I'm in,' Michael yelled as he hauled himself into the van. He reached out and grabbed hold of the tailgate which he pulled shut. 'Go!'

Carl pushed down on the accelerator and cautiously lifted his foot off the clutch. For a second there was no response then a slow, jerking movement as the van inched forward, shackled by the twisted metal remains of the supermarket entrance doors. Another lurch forward and they were free from the door but still progress was difficult, the sheer volume of bodies surrounding the front and sides of the vehicle preventing them from moving away at speed. Terrified, Carl pushed harder on the accelerator and lifted his foot completely off the clutch and this time the van moved away freely. The bulk of the bodies were brushed away to the sides but many others were dragged down under the wheels.

'Bloody hell,' Michael mumbled, watching events behind them through a small gap between boxes and bags of food.

'What's the matter?' Emma asked.

'They won't lie down,' he said. 'The bastards just won't lie down.'

He stared in horror and total disbelief as the crowd surged after them. Although their slow stagger was obviously no match for that of the van, the relentlessness and pointless persistence of the rotting gathering caused an icy chill to run the entire length of his spine. There was no point in them following the van, but still they came.

'Almost there,' Carl said under his breath as he steered towards the car park exit.

'Keep going,' Emma yelled, her voice hoarse with emotion. 'For Christ's sake don't stop.'

A single solitary figure stumbled out in front of the van and, rather than waste precious seconds trying to avoid the woman's body, Carl instead ploughed straight into it. The momentum of the van carried the corpse along for a few meters before it slipped down under the front bumper and was crushed beneath the wheels. As they left the car park and turned onto the road, Michael continued to watch the battered body on the ground. Its legs were smashed and shattered  -  that much was clear  -  and yet it still tried to move. The surging crowd tripped and stumbled over it ignorantly but still it continued to move oblivious. Reaching out with twisting, broken fingers, it dragged itself along the ground, inch by inch by inch.

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