The earlier wind and rain had quickly developed into a howling storm. By half-past ten the isolated farm was being battered by a furious gale which tore through the tops of the surrounding trees and rattled and shook sections of the hastily constructed barrier around the building. Constant floods of driving, torrential rain lashed down from the ominous, swirling clouds overhead, turning the once gently trickling stream beside the house into a wild torrent of white water.
For the first time in several days the survivors had started up the generator. It had seemed sensible to presume that the noise of the squally weather would drown out the constant mechanical thump of the machinery. Sick of sitting in darkness, Michael had decided that it was worth taking the risk for a little comfort.
Relatively relaxed and oblivious to the appalling conditions outside, Michael, Emma and Carl sat in the living room together watching a video in the warmth of an open fire. Michael was quickly bored by the video - a badly dubbed martial arts film which he'd seen several times since they'd taken it from the supermarket in Byster - and yet he was pleased to be sitting where he was. Whilst what remained of the population suffered outside, he was warm, dry and well fed. Even Carl had been tempted down from the attic. Their evening together had provided a brief but much needed respite from the alternating pressure and boredom of what remained of their lives.
Emma found it hard to watch the film. Not just because it was one of the worst films she'd ever had the misfortune to see, but also because it aroused a number of unexpected and uncomfortable emotions within her. Whilst doing a good job of distracting her from everything that was happening around her for a time, the film also reminded her of the life she used to lead. She couldn't really identify with anything - the characters, their accents, the locations, the plot and the incidental music all seemed alien - and yet at the same time it was all instantly familiar and safe. In a scene depicting a car chase through busy Hong Kong streets she found herself watching the people in the background going about their everyday business instead of the violent physical action taking place in the foreground. She watched the people with a degree of envy. How novel and unexpected it was to see a clean city and to see individuals moving around with reason and purpose and acting and reacting with each other. Emma also felt a cold unease in the pit of her stomach. She couldn't help but look into the faces of each one of the actors and think about what might have happened to them in the years since the film had been made. She saw hundreds of different people - each one with their own unique identity, family and life - and she knew that virtually all of them would by now be dead.
The end of the film was rapidly approaching, and a huge set-piece battle between the hero and villain was imminent. The filmmakers were less than subtle in their attention grabbing techniques. The main character had driven into a vast warehouse and now found himself alone. The lighting was sparse and moody and the overly dramatic orchestral soundtrack was building to an obvious crescendo. Then the music stopped suddenly and, as the hero of the film waited for his opponent to appear, the house became silent.
Emma jumped out of her seat.
'What's the matter?' Michael asked, immediately concerned.
For a few long seconds she didn't answer. She stood still in the middle of the room, her face screwed up with concentration.
'Emma...' Michael pressed.
'Shh...' she hissed.
Oblivious and disinterested, Carl cocked his head to the right so that he could see past Emma who was standing in the way of the television.
She looked frightened. Michael was worried.
'What is it?' he asked again.
'I heard something...' she replied, her voice low.
'It was probably just the film,' he said, trying desperately to play things down. His mouth was dry. He felt nervous. Emma wasn't the type to make a fuss for no reason.
'No,' she snapped, scowling at him. 'I heard something outside, I'm sure I did.'
The film soundtrack burst into life again, startling her. With her heart in her mouth she reached down and switched off the television.
'I was watching that,' Carl protested.
'For fuck's sake, shut up,' she barked at him.
There it was again. A definite new and indistinct noise coming from outside. It wasn't the wind and it wasn't the rain and she hadn't imagined it.
Michael heard it too.
Without saying another word Emma ran from the living room into the dark kitchen. She quickly threaded her way around the table and chairs to the window and craned her neck to see outside.
'Anything there?' Michael asked, close behind her.
'Nothing,' she mumbled. She turned and headed out of the room towards the stairs. She stopped when she was halfway up and turned back to face Michael. 'Listen,' she whispered, lifting a single finger to her lips. 'There, can you hear it?'
He held his breath and listened carefully. For a few moments he couldn't hear anything other than the wind and rain and the constant rhythmic mechanical thumping of the generator. Then, just for a fraction of a second, he became aware of the new noise again. His ears seemed to lock onto the frequency of the sound and it somehow rose up and became distinct from the rest of the melee. As he concentrated the noise washed and faded and changed. In turn it was the sound of something being clattered against the wooden gate over the bridge, then another, less obvious noise, then more clattering and thumping. Without saying another word he ran towards Emma and pushed his way past her. She followed as he disappeared into their bedroom. By the time she entered the room he was already standing on the far side, looking out of the window in utter disbelief.
'Bloody hell,' he said as he stared down. 'Just look at this...'
With some trepidation Emma walked across the room and peered over his shoulder. Although it was pitch-black outside and the driving rain blurred her view through the glass, she could clearly see movement on the other side of the barrier. Running the entire length of the barricade were vast crowds of bodies. They had often seen one or two of them there before, but never this many. They had never seen them in such vast and unexpected numbers.
'There are hundreds of them,' Michael whispered, his voice hoarse with fear, 'fucking hundreds of them.'
'Why?' Emma asked.
'The generator,' he sighed. 'Even over the weather they must have heard the generator.'
'And light,' he continued. 'We've had lights on tonight. They must have seen them. And there was the smoke from the fire...'
Emma shook her head and continued to stare down at the rotting crowd gathered round the house.
'But why so many?' she wondered.
'Think about it,' Michael replied. 'The world is dead. It's silent and at night it's dark. I suppose it just took one or two of them to see or hear us and that was enough. The first few moving towards the house would have attracted the next few and they would have attracted the next and so on and so on...'
As the two of them looked down at the hordes of corpses, one of the creatures standing on the stone bridge spanning the stream lifted its emaciated arms and began to shake and bang the wooden gate.
'What's going on?' Carl asked having finally dragged himself out of his seat and upstairs.
'Bodies,' Michael said quietly. 'Hundreds of bodies.'
Carl crept forwards, dragging his tired feet on the ground, and looked out over the yard.
'What do they want?' he muttered under his breath.
'Christ knows,' Michael cursed.
The other man stared down at the heaving crowd with a morbid curiosity. Emma turned towards Michael and took hold of his arm.
'They won't get through, will they?' she asked.
He felt that he should try and reassure her but he couldn't lie.
'Don't know,' he replied with a brutal honesty.
'But they haven't got any real strength, have they?' she said, trying hard to convince herself that they were still safe in the house.
'On their own they're nothing,' he muttered. 'But there are hundreds of them here tonight. I've got no idea what they're capable of in these kind of numbers.'
Emma visibly shuddered with fright. Her fright instantly became icy fear as the moon broke through a momentary gap in the heavy cloud layer and illuminated even more of the desperate figures staggering through the fields surrounding the farm and converging on the house.
'Shit,' snapped Michael anxiously.
'What are we going to do?' Emma asked. She looked down and watched as part of the crowd lining the stream-come-river surged forward. Several of the creatures, their footing already unsteady in the greasy mud, fell and were carried away by the foaming waters.
Michael looked up into the clouds and ran his fingers through his hair, trying desperately to clear his mind and shut out all distractions so that he could think straight. Then, without warning, he ran out of the bedroom and sprinted down the staircase and along the hallway to the back door. Taking a deep breath he unlocked the door and ran over to the shed which housed the generator. The conditions were atrocious and he was soaked through in seconds. Ignorant to the cold and the vicious, swirling wind, he flung open the wooden door and threw the switch which stopped the machine, suddenly silencing its constant thumping and plunging the farmhouse into complete darkness in one single movement.
Emma caught her breath at the moment the lights died. The darkness explained Michael's sudden disappearance and she ran out to the landing to make sure that he had made it safely back inside. She was relieved when she heard the back door slam shut and lock.
'You okay?' she asked as he dragged himself breathlessly back up the stairs.
He nodded and cleared his throat.
The two survivors stood at the top of the stairs, holding each other tightly. Save for the muffled roar of the wind and rain outside the house was silent. The lack of any other sound was eerie and unnerving. Michael took old of Emma's hand and led her back to the bedroom.
'What the hell are we going to do?' she whispered. She sat down on the edge of the bed as Michael looked out of the window.
'Don't know,' he answered, instinctively and honestly. 'We should wait and see if they disappear before we do anything. There's no light or noise to attract them now. They should go.'
'But what are we going to do?' she asked again. 'We can't live without light. Christ, winter's coming. We'll need fire and light...'
Michael didn't reply. Instead he simply stared down at the crowd of decomposing corpses. He watched the bodies in the distance, still dragging themselves towards the house, and prayed that they would become disinterested and turn away.
Emma was right. What quality of life would they have hiding in a dark house with no light, warmth or other comfort? But what was the alternative? On this cold and desolate night there didn't seem to be any.
Rapidly becoming sick of it all, Michael turned away from the window, took Emma's hand and led her out of the room. The temperature was low and to hold her close was comforting and reassuring.
Carl remained alone in the bedroom, leaning against the window, watching the milling crowds beyond the barricade with fear, unease and mounting hate. He hadn't even noticed that the other two had left the room.
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