Chapter 29

Carl spent many hours during the days which followed shut away in isolation in his attic bedroom. There hadn't seemed to be much point in coming out. What was there to do? Sure he could talk to Michael and Emma, but why bother? Every conversation, no matter how it began, seemed to end with the three of them each drowning privately in complete and absolute negativity. They either ended up talking about how little they had left or how much they had lost. It hurt Carl too much to talk anymore. He decided that it was easiest for all concerned if he just didn't bother.

His bedroom was wide and spacious, spanning virtually the entire length of the house. Being high up it was relatively warm and comfortable and, most importantly to Carl, it was isolated. There was no need for anyone to come upstairs for any reason other than to see him. And as no-one had any need to see him, no-one came upstairs at all. That was the way he was beginning to like it.

Although twee and old-fashioned, the bedroom seemed to have been recently used. When they'd first arrived there Carl had decided that it had been used as a temporary base for a visiting grandchild, perhaps sent to the countryside to spend his or her final summer holiday on the farm. The furniture was sparse  -  a single bed, a double wardrobe, a chest of drawers, two brightly painted stools, a bookcase and a battered but comfortable sofa. On top of the wardrobe Carl had found a wooden box containing a collection of toys, some old books and a pair of binoculars which, once he'd cleaned the lenses, he had used to watch the world outside his window slowly rot and decay.

It was approaching half-past three in the afternoon and he could hear Emma and Michael working outside in the yard. He felt absolutely no guilt at not being out there with them because he couldn't see any point in anything that they were doing. He was happy to sit back and do nothing. Okay it was boring, but what else was there to do? Nothing seemed to be worth any risk or effort.

He didn't even know for sure what day it was.

He sat on a stool near to the window and, for a couple of seconds, tried to work out whether it was Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Back when life had been 'normal' and he'd been at work, each day had its own 'feel' and atmosphere  -  the week would begin with the dragging purgatory that was Monday morning and then slowly improve as Friday evening and the weekend approached. None of that seemed to matter anymore. Each new day was the same as the last. Yesterday was as frustrating, dull, grey and pointless as tomorrow would surely also be.

Today  -  whatever day it was  -  had been fairly warm and clear for the time of year. Perched on one of the wooden stools with the binoculars held up to his eyes he had been able to see for miles across rolling fields. The world was so still and free of distractions that, even from a distance, he could make out minute detail such as the dramatic tower and steeple of a far-off church. As the sun began to slowly fade below the horizon he watched as the colour faded from the steeple and it became an inky dark shape silhouetted against the light purples and blues of the early evening sky. Strange, he thought, how it all looked so calm and peaceful. Underneath the cover of apparent normality the world was filled with death, disease and destruction. Even the greenest and purest, seemingly untouched fields were breeding grounds filled with fermenting disease and devastation.

A short distance before the church Carl could see a straight length of road lined on either side with narrow cottages and shops. The stillness of the scene was suddenly disrupted when a scrawny dog ran into view. The nervous creature slowed down and crept breathlessly along the road, keeping its nose, tail and belly low and sniffing bodies and other piles of rubbish as it moved, obviously hunting for food. As Carl watched the dog stopped moving. It lifted its muzzle and sniffed the rancid air. It moved its head slowly (obviously following some out of view movement) and then cowered away from something in the shadows. The dog jumped up and began to bark furiously. Carl couldn't hear it, but he could tell from its defensive body position and the repeated angry jerks of its head that it was in danger. Within seconds of the first sound the dog had attracted the attention of some fourteen bodies. With a vicious, instinctive intent and a new found speed, they surrounded the helpless creature and set upon it. Between them the corpses tore the animal limb from limb.

Even after all that he had seen  -  the destruction, the carnage and the loss of thousands of lives  -  this sudden and unexpected attack shocked Carl. The bodies were becoming more alert and more deadly with each passing day. They now seemed to be grouping together and moving in packs, animal instinct driving them on.

He couldn't understand why Michael and Emma were bothering to make such an effort to survive. The odds were stacked against them. Where was the point in trying to carve out a future existence when it was so obviously a pointless task? Everything was ruined. It was over. So why couldn't they just accept it and see the truth like he could? Why continue to make such a fucking noise about nothing?

Carl knew that there would never be a salvation or escape from this vicious, tortured world and all he wanted to do was just stop and switch off. He wanted to let down his guard for a while and not have to look constantly over his shoulder. In the dark hours he spent alone he came to the conclusion that he'd never again find such peace until his life was over. But even death no longer brought with it any certainty.

Outside in the enclosed area in front of the house Michael was working on the van. He had checked the tyres, the oil, the water level and just about everything else he could think of checking. The importance of the van to them could not be overestimated  -  without it they would be stranded. Without it they would be trapped at Penn Farm, unable to fetch supplies (which they knew they would have to do at some point in the near future) and unable to get away should anything happen to compromise the safety of their home. And they had almost come to think of it as a home too. In a world full of dark disorientation, within the safe and sturdy walls of the farmhouse they had at last found a little stability.

'Next time we're out we should get another one of these,' Michael said as he ran his hands along the buckled driver's side wing of the van. He made it sound as if they could just run down to the shops when they next felt like it. His casual tone completely belied the reality of their situation.

'Makes sense,' Emma agreed. She was sitting on the stone steps leading up to the front door. She'd been sitting there for the last hour and a half, just watching as Michael had worked.

'Perhaps we should try and get something a little less refined,' he continued. 'This thing has been fine, but if you think about it, we need something that's going to get us out of any situation. If we're somewhere and the roads are blocked, chances are we'll need to find another way to get away. We could end up driving through fields or...'

'I can't see us leaving here much. Only to get food or...'

'But you never know, do you? Bloody hell, anything could happen. The only thing we can be certain about anymore is that fact that we can't be sure of anything.'

Emma stood up and stretched.

'Silly bugger,' she smiled.

'I know what you're saying though,' he continued as he gathered together his tools and began to pack them away. 'If we stay here we could do pretty much anything. We could build a brick wall round the house if we wanted to. Really keep those bastards out.'

Emma didn't respond. She stood at the top of the steps and looked down across the yard and out towards the rapidly darkening countryside.

'Light's fading,' she mumbled. 'Better get inside soon.'

'I don't think it makes much difference anymore,' Michael said quietly, climbing the steps to stand next to her. 'Doesn't matter how dark it is, those bloody things just don't stop. It might even be safer out here at night. At least they can't see us when its dark.'

'They can still hear us. Might even be able to smell us.'

'Doesn't matter,' he said again, looking into her face. 'They can't get to us.'

Emma nodded and turned to walk inside. Michael followed her through into the house.

'Carl's in, isn't he?' he asked as he pushed the door shut.

Emma looked puzzled.

'Of course he's in. He hasn't been out of his bloody bedroom for days. Where else do you think he's going to be?'

He shrugged his shoulders.

'Don't know. He might have gone out back. Just thought I'd check.'

She shook her head and leant against the hall wall. The house was dark. The generator hadn't yet been started.

'Take it from me,' she said, her voice tired and low, 'he's inside. I looked up at the window and saw him earlier. He was there again with those bloody binoculars, face pressed against the glass. Christ alone knows what he was looking at.'

'Do you think he's all right?'

Emma sighed at Michael's question. It was painfully obvious to her that Carl was far from all right. It was equally obvious that his temperament and stability appeared to be wavering more and more unsteadily each day.

Michael sensed her frustration.

'He'll come through this,' he said optimistically. 'Give him time and he'll get over everything that's happened.'

'Do you really think so?' Emma asked.

Michael thought for a moment.

'Yes... why, don't you?'

She shrugged her shoulders and disappeared into the kitchen.

'Don't know. He's really suffering, that much I'm sure about.'

'We've all suffered.'

'I know that. Bloody hell, we've had this conversation again and again. He lost more than we did. You and I lived on our own. He shared every second of every day with his partner and child.'

'I know, but...'

'But I'm not sure if you do. I'm not sure if I fully understand how much he's hurting. I don't think I ever will.'

Michael was beginning to get annoyed and he wasn't completely sure why. Okay so Carl was hurting, but no amount of hoping, praying and crying would bring back anything that any of them had lost. Hard as it sounded, he knew that the three of them could only survive by looking forward and forgetting everything and everyone that had gone.

He watched as Emma took off her coat, hung it up in the hallway and then lit a candle and walked upstairs.

Left alone in the darkness, Michael listened to the sounds of the creaking old house. A strong wind had begun to blow outside and he could hear the first few spots of a heavy shower of rain hitting the kitchen window. In cold isolation he thought more about Carl and, as he did, so his frustration and concern continued to increase. It wasn't just about Carl, he decided. The well-being of each of the survivors was of paramount importance to all of them. Life was becoming increasingly dangerous by the day and they couldn't afford to take any chances. They all needed to be pulling in the same direction in order to continue to survive. For the first time since this had all begun it had stopped happening. It was beginning to feel like he was with Emma and that Carl just happened to be there as well, distant and superfluous.

He knew that they were going to have to pull him into line.

Carl was their glass jaw. He was fast becoming their Achilles heel and every time they left the safety of the house he was dangerously exposed.

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