Chapter 34

'Planning on leaving tonight then?' Michael asked.

An hour after returning from Pennmyre and Carl was still outside, getting ready to go and refuelling the bike and loading his few belongings. He looked up and nodded at Michael.

'Might as well,' he quietly replied.

'Sure you want to take the risk?'

He shrugged his shoulders.

'We're all taking risks whatever we do,' he answered. 'I don't think it matters anymore.'

'Well I think you're asking for trouble. You should at least wait until the morning when it's...'

'I'll be all right,' he insisted.

'Fine.'

Michael sat down on the damp ground near to the bike. He looked around the yard, first quickly checking that the barrier round the house seemed secure and then looking up high, staring into the trees surrounding, listening to drops of water from the earlier heavy rainfall dripping down from leaf to leaf to leaf before falling to the ground.

'Look,' he said, sensing that he had a duty to again try and persuade the other man not to leave, 'are you sure you know what you're doing?'

Carl sighed.

'Christ, not you as well. I had enough bullshit from Emma earlier...'

'It's not bullshit. We're just worried that...'

'Worried that what?'

'I don't know,' he lied, feeling awkward and reluctant to reveal his true feelings. 'I guess we're just worried that you're doing the wrong thing. I've heard everything you've said about wanting to go back to the community centre and I understand why you think you need to go but...'

Carl stopped what he was doing and looked at Michael.

'But...?'

'I think you're confused. I think you've been through too much to cope with and you're having trouble dealing with it all. I don't think you're capable of making the right decisions at the moment and...'

'I'm not a fucking lunatic if that's what you think,' Carl snapped, his voice surprisingly calm, 'I know exactly what I'm doing. The fact is I just don't feel safe here. And before you say it, I know we're not safe anywhere anymore, but I obviously feel differently about this place than you two do. That excuse for a fence we built doesn't make me feel any better...'

'That excuse for a fence,' Michael interrupted, annoyed, 'kept a thousand of those bastards out last night.'

'I know, but there are millions of them out there. Eventually they're going to get through.'

'I don't agree.'

'We'll put a bet on it now and I'll come back next year and see how you're doing.'

Michael didn't find Carl's attempt at black humour amusing.

'Okay, so we're not as isolated as we thought we were here, but we've done all right so far, haven't we?'

'Better than I ever thought we would,' he accepted.

'So why leave now? You're going to get ripped to pieces out there.'

Carl thought for a moment. He had done a good job of keeping his true feelings and emotions hidden from the other two for most of the last week. The pair of them had been so wrapped up in building and protecting their precious ivory tower that they seemed to have forgotten everything else that was ever important.

'I just want to go back to somewhere I know,' he eventually admitted. 'I know I'm taking a massive chance but I think it's worth the risk. If I'm going to spend the rest of my days hiding from those bloody things out there, I might as well hide somewhere close to the place I know best, somewhere I actually want to be.'

'But think about the other risks,' Michael said, his voice tired and low. 'Think about the bodies that are just lying rotting on the ground. Every city will be filled with disease.'

Carl just shrugged his shoulders.

'I don't know anything about that and there's nothing I can do about it anyway. I used to mend fucking twenty-ton presses for a living, doesn't matter if you tell me there's germs and disease about because I can't do anything about it. I'll have to take my chances there just the same way you and Emma will do here.'

'But we're not taking chances...'

'How do you know that? How do you know that there isn't cholera, typhoid or a thousand other diseases that we've never even heard of already here in the air or in the stream or...'

Michael knew he was right. There was no point in arguing.

'You don't have to go,' he said, quickly deciding to change tack completely. 'Please stay here with us. Just do me a favour and think about it for a couple of days at least will you?'

Carl shook his head.

'All I've done this last week is think about this. Look, it's nothing personal. You were the one who kept telling us how important it was to look after ourselves, weren't you?'

'Yes, but...'

'So can't you see that's all I'm doing. You keep doing what's best for you and Emma, and I'll look after myself. We all might be gone tomorrow...'

'Don't talk like that,' Michael interrupted, suddenly angry. 'You can't talk like that if...'

Ignoring him, Carl continued.

'We might all be gone tomorrow but the three of us might still be around in ten years time. I just can't lock myself away in here and sit and wait for something to happen. If all we're going to do is cower and hide for the rest of our lives then we might as well just end it now.'

'I understand what you're saying,' Michael sighed, accepting that nothing he could say or do would persuade Carl to stop. 'I understand completely, but I still think you're a stupid fucking bastard.'

'That's your opinion.'

Michael stood up and took a step closer before stopping again.

'Just stay a little longer, will you? Things might be different again in the morning.'

Carl looked up and managed half a smile.

'That's what scares me,' he mumbled, sounding tired and resigned. 'I can't stay. I have to go.'

Sensing that to prolong the conversation any longer would be pointless, Michael turned and walked back to the house.

By six o'clock Carl was ready to leave. His bike, loaded up with his bags, stood next to the gate. Dressed in the leathers and boots taken from corpse in Pennmyre earlier in the day, and carrying the freshly disinfected crash helmet in his hand, he stood at the front door of the farmhouse with Emma and Michael. This was it. He knew that there was no turning back, and no point in delaying the inevitable.

He glanced at the other two.

'Ready?' Emma asked.

He nodded and swallowed. His mouth was dry.

It was a cold night with a relentless, biting wind. Emma zipped up her fleecy jacket and thrust her hands deep into her pockets.

'Last time I ask,' Michael said, fighting to make himself heard over the wind, 'are you sure about this?'

Carl nodded again.

'Better get on with it,' he said and with that he pulled on his crash helmet. The helmet helped to make him feel further detached from the other two, and that sudden perception of distance made it easier to take the first step and leave.

The three survivors walked together towards the bike.

'I'll open the gate,' Michael said. 'You wheel the bike through and start it. Once I hear the engine and see you move, I'm locking up. Okay?'

Carl raised a leather clad hand and lifted his thumb to show that he understood. He took one last look over his shoulder at the farmhouse he was leaving and climbed onto the bike. He flicked up the kick-stand with his foot and rolled forward a couple of tentative meters.

'Wait by the house,' Michael said, gesturing for Emma to get back and out of the way. They had no idea what would be waiting for them on the other side of the gate on the bridge. Keen to put maximum distance between her and the rest of the world beyond the barricade, Emma slowly walked backwards towards the house. She watched intently as Michael carefully unlocked each of the eight padlocks and lifted the wooden bar which secured the gate.

'Ready?' he asked.

Carl stood astride the bike, his hands tightly gripping the handlebars. He nodded.

Slowly and cautiously, Michael pushed open one side of the gate. Carl rolled the bike forward again until he sat on the other side of the bridge. Again he glanced over his shoulder and saw that the other man had also taken a few steps forward. He kept hold of the edge of the gate in his hand, ready to slam it shut as soon as Carl had gone. They had only been out there for a few seconds but already Michael could see movement in the bushes.

A few seconds later and it was done. Carl lifted his foot and slammed it down on the pedal, starting the bike. The mighty engine spluttered and roared into life sending a cloud of fumes and heat billowing towards Michael. As the first few inquisitive corpses emerged from the shadows of the forest Carl accelerated away. As he pulled the gate closed Michael saw the bike swerve as Carl avoided the first body to have staggered into his path. With shaking hands he lowered the wooden bar back into place and snap-locked each of the heavy padlocks.

Emma was standing just a few feet behind Michael. He turned around and her sudden unexpected appearance startled him. He caught his breath and then, instinctively, reached out and held her tight. The warmth of her body was reassuring. He rested his head on her shoulder and cried silent tears for the man who had just left Penn Farm. Michael put his tears down to the wind but he knew in his heart that there was more to them. He found himself suddenly wracked with guilt at having let the other survivor leave.

Such was the silence of the evening that almost ten minutes had passed before the sound of Carl's engine had finally faded away into the night. Emma shivered as she imagined the effect that the noise would have on the lamentable remains of the population of the shattered world through which Carl was now travelling. The roar of the engine and the light from the headlamp would attract the attention of hundreds, probably thousands of bodies, every last one of which would stagger after Carl until he was out of view or earshot. But he would have to stop the bike eventually. What would happen then? It didn't bear thinking about.

It was a bitterly cold night.

Once they were completely sure that they could no longer hear the distant sound of the motorbike, Emma and Michael went inside and locked the door of the farmhouse behind them.

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