Chapter 33

Once it had been accepted that Carl's leaving for the city was inevitable the survivors quickly forced themselves into action. He was keen to get away as quickly as he could and Michael and Emma were keen to make the most of having him around. A trip away from the house was essential to all of them whether they were staying or going. Having three pairs of hands instead of two meant that theoretically Michael and Emma could collect more supplies and so defer their next excursion for a few precious days and hours longer.

On a cold and wet Sunday morning they returned to Pennmyre, the first place they had visited after stumbling upon Penn Farm last week. The tension in the van rose quickly as they approached the main street of the village. It came as no surprise that as the sound of the engine shattered the fragile silence, the unwanted interest of scores of deplorable creatures nearby was aroused. Too afraid to move at first for fear of being swallowed up by the diseased crowds that had quickly gathered all around them, Emma, Michael and Carl were forced to wait for over an hour in the back of their battered vehicle, crouching silently on the floor, hidden under blankets and coats until the bodies had drifted away.

Michael had parked close to a small supermarket. Once the crowds around the van had dispersed Emma carefully opened the van door nearest to the building and quietly disappeared inside. While Michael and Carl began their search for alternative transport she collected as many tins of food and other non-perishable supplies as she could find and loaded them into the back of the van. Each movement she made was slow and considered. Every step was carefully co-ordinated so that she remained silent and out of sight of the rest of the world.

There were two large garages near to the supermarket. Michael quickly found a Landrover that suited his needs and set about finding the keys from the office and ensuring that the tank was filled with petrol. He siphoned extra fuel from other vehicles scattered around the forecourt and loaded them into the back of his new transport in metal cans. As he worked he watched the occasional body stagger by. He was sure that one or two of them saw him. He guessed that they were used to seeing bodies moving and that their rotting brains were not been able to distinguish between him and the millions of other sickly bodies still dragging themselves along the silent streets. Sound still seemed to be their main stimulus.

By chance Carl stumbled across the perfect machine to get him to the city. In a dark and narrow alley between two shops he found a motorbike. It looked well maintained and powerful and, although his experience of riding motorbikes was limited, he knew that it would be ideal. It would give him far more speed and manoeuvrability than any four-wheeled vehicle could. He found the keys to the bike in the pocket of a leather-clad corpse nearby. With trepidation (but understanding the need for protection and not having the time or inclination to look elsewhere) he then stripped the leathers from the decaying body and gingerly removed its helmet. The head of the cadaver was withered and light and the flesh unexpectedly dry and discoloured. Not daring to start the engine, he released the brake and pushed the bike back to the supermarket where Emma and Michael waited anxiously for him.

Emma climbed into the driver's seat of the van as he approached, keen to get away.

'Got this,' he whispered. 'Should do me.'

She nodded but did not say anything. The reasons for her silence were twofold. Primarily she didn't want to attract the attention of any body wandering nearby but, also, she didn't have anything she wanted to say to Carl. As the morning had progressed she had silently become more and more incensed by his selfish intentions. Not only did she think he was a fool for even thinking about going back to the city, but she also decided that he was a weak and uncaring bastard for leaving her and Michael. Three was a safe number  -  if one of them was injured then the other two could help. Left alone with Michael, she knew that they would be in serious trouble if anything happened to either of them. And the chances of Carl surviving on his own in an accident were next to nil. By leaving he was putting them all at risk.

'What do you think of this?' Carl whispered to Michael as he returned to the van. Michael couldn't even pretend to be interested in either the bike or Carl. He grunted in resentful acknowledgement.

'Ready to get going?' he then asked, clearly directing his question towards Emma. She nodded.

'I'm ready.'

'I've found a Landrover,' he continued. 'You start the van up and I'll try and get it going. If it works I'll lead, if not get ready to let me back inside.'

She nodded again. Her throat was dry and her heart had started to thump in her chest. She knew that as soon as they started the first engine they would be engulfed by bodies.

'I'll follow on behind,' Carl said.

'Whatever,' Michael muttered as he jogged back over to the Landrover.

Once he was inside the vehicle Carl climbed onto the bike and waited. Emma looked across to the garage and waited for Michael to settle himself. He shuffled in his seat, put the key in the ignition and then put his thumb up to Emma. She started the van and within a couple of seconds the first bodies had arrived, lurching towards the survivors from all directions. Michael started the Landrover and inched forward over the high kerb and down onto the road. Carl started the bike, taking three attempts before the spluttering engine burst into life after the best part of two weeks of idleness. The deafening roar from the engine seemed to attract the attention of every corpse for miles around. A vast crowd surged towards the scene as fast as their rotting legs would carry them.

As body after relentless body collided with the sides of the Landrover, Michael put his foot down and carved a bloody path through the pitiful creatures. Emma did the same, following in his wake, and then Carl attempted to move forwards. The bike was powerful  -  far more so than he had expected  -  and the unexpected force caught him off guard. For a second he almost lost control. He paused and steadied himself. The nearest corpse lurched towards him, catching hold of the back of his jacket more through luck than judgement. Terrified, Carl lifted his feet from the ground and accelerated away from the remains of the desolate, dead village, leaving the body behind reaching out after him.

A few miles had been driven before Carl had developed enough confidence to try and use the bike to its full potential. He raced with the van and the Landrover, overtaking and then dropping back, cutting between them and weaving his way through the wrecks, bodies and ruins which lay in his path. By the time they'd reached the track which led from the main road back up to Penn Farm he felt confident enough to surge ahead. He drove across the stone bridge, unlocked the gate and waited for Emma and Michael. The second they were both through and safely within the confines of the barricade he slammed the heavy gate shut and snap-locked the eight chunky padlocks which they used to keep it secure. Already there were bodies close by  -  perhaps the remains of last night's crowds. As he closed the gate he saw twenty or thirty shadowy shapes appear from the forest and start to stumble towards the house, hopelessly following the bike, van and Landrover. Although still clumsy and lethargic, they moved with an unnerving determination and reason. A week ago they had wandered aimlessly and without direction. This morning it was clear that the creatures had a purpose.

Carl wheeled the bike closer to the house and knelt down and began to check it over for signs of obvious damage. He didn't want to go inside just yet. Now that his decision to leave the house was certain he felt disconnected from the others. He no longer belonged at the farm. It felt almost as if he shouldn't be there any longer and he felt alone and strangely superfluous. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that Emma was walking over to speak to him and, for a second, that made him feel slightly better.

'You okay?' she asked.

He stood up and brushed himself down.

'I'm all right,' he replied. 'You?'

She nodded. Her voice was tired and emotionless. Carl sensed that she was talking to him more out of duty than any real desire to.

'Look,' she began, 'I know you've said that you're sure about this, but have you stopped to think...'

'I don't want to hear this,' he snapped, interrupting and silencing her words.

'You don't know what I was going to say...'

'I can guess.'

She sighed and turned away. After thinking for a second or two she turned back, determined to make her point.

'Are you sure about what you're doing?'

'As sure as anyone can be about anything at the moment...'

'But you're taking such a chance. You don't have to leave. We could stay here for a while longer and maybe go back to the city later. We could bring the others back here. There might even be more of them by then...'

'I've got to leave. It's not just about surviving anymore, I've already done that.'

'So why are you going?'

'Take a look around you,' he sighed, gesturing towards the house and the barrier which surrounded it. 'Is this enough for you? Does this give you all the protection and security you need?'

'I think we're as safe as we can be...'

'I don't. Christ, last night we were surrounded.'

'Yes, but...'

'Just answer me this, Emma. What would you do if those things got through the barricade and got into the house?'

Emma struggled to answer.

'What would happen? As far as I can see you wouldn't have many choices. You could lock yourself into a room and sit tight or you could try and get to one of your vans and try and get away that way. Or you could just run for it.'

'You'd have no chance on foot.'

'That's exactly my point. This house is surrounded by miles and miles of absolutely fucking nothing. There's nowhere to run to.'

'But we don't need to run...' Emma protested, raising her voice.

'But you might. Back in the city there are a hundred places to hide on every street. I don't want to spend the rest of my time locked away in this bloody house.'

Emma sat down on the steps in front of the house, dejected and frustrated. Michael was busy working to unload the supplies from the back of the van. He already seemed to be doing his level best to ignore Carl.

'I'm worried about you, that's all,' Emma said quietly. 'I just hope you realise that if anything happens to you on your own, that's it.'

'I know that.'

'And you're still willing to take the chance?'

'Yes,' he said, simply and definitely.

Carl leant against the bike and looked deep into Emma's face. It was the first time for days that the two of them had made anything resembling real, purposeful contact with each other. Looking into his dull, tired eyes, Emma felt her earlier anger mellowing and mutating into something that resembled pity. The man standing in front of her was nothing more than a shell. He was less than half the man he had been when they'd first met. He had lost everything including, it seemed, all direction and reason. She knew that he wasn't bothered about surviving anymore. All his talk of finding shelter and of reaching the survivors was bullshit. She knew in her heart that all he wanted to do was go home.

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