Chapter 42

Seven miles to Penn Farm.

The maze of twisting country lanes which surrounded the farm and connected it to the numerous villages and small towns nearby was confusing and disorientating. Michael found it hard to keep concentrating because he was preoccupied with other thoughts. Had he done the right thing in leaving Philip behind or should he have made more of an effort to drag him away from his home? He knew that the poor confused soul wouldn't have abandoned his dead mother without a lot more persuasion, and he also knew that they hadn't had the luxury of having time to argue. When it came to it the decision had been a pretty clear cut choice between Emma and Philip. He couldn't stand the thought of risking Emma's safety for even a second, but at the same time he felt wracked with guilt when he remembered the pathetic, frightened little man he'd left quivering alone in the stagnant surroundings of his dead mother's house.

A short while earlier in the car park, in those few precious seconds when he had stood out in the open next to Emma, he had allowed himself to feel a faint flicker of optimism. Momentarily they seemed to have been miles away from the close confines of the farmhouse and the wandering bodies. He had felt strong and safe as he had breathed in deep gulps of cold, sea air. But reality had returned with a vengeance. Now an all too common feeling of claustrophobic despair had returned.

A T-junction in the road appeared. It looked familiar and Michael sensed that they were finally heading in the right direction. Then a signpost he had seen before, soon followed by the rusting wreck of a blue estate car which he remembered having seen crashed into the base of an old oak tree. Without a doubt they were at last on the road that would lead them back to the farmhouse.

Driving back along the same road towards the farm but approaching it from the opposite direction was Carl. Feeling numb and weak with nerves and with every muscle in his body aching with heavy tiredness and a deadly fatigue, he glanced down at the motorbike's controls. He was still travelling at a reckless speed, but he didn't dare slow down as the needle on the fuel gauge had dropped to the lowest possible level. He hadn't planned on making two long trips on the same tank of petrol. Now little more than fumes remained in the tank.

Forcing himself to keep going, he swerved around another one of the wandering bodies and increased his speed still further. The body span around and grabbed at the carbon monoxide-filled air where the bike had just been.

With less than three miles to go Michael's nervousness increased. He felt a constant and very real fear in the back of his mind whenever they were away that something might have happened to the farmhouse. If the gate or any other part of the barrier had collapsed then their home could well be surrounded by scores of relentless, decomposing corpses. Although there was still a way to go, he began instinctively to search for the turning which led to the track running from the road to the house. It was on their left somewhere, but he knew it would be difficult to see from the angle they would be approaching at.

They rushed past the trees, bushes and buildings lining the sides of the roads at a dangerous speed but neither Michael or Emma cared. Both were individually content to risk a degree of safety to get back home in the shortest possible time.

Carl was almost there.

Just a couple of hundred yards remained between him and the turning onto the track to the farm. He too searched constantly for the elusive junction. There were bodies all around him, stumbling onto the road in whichever direction he looked. Yet again the silence of the rest of the world seemed to have amplified out of all proportion every sound the motorbike made. Like a perverse Pied Piper a growing crowd of restless corpses followed him, attracted by the throaty roar of the powerful engine.

Carl's heart sank as that same roar suddenly spluttered and died.

He was out of fuel. Damn close to the farmhouse, but not close enough.

As the bike freewheeled to a standstill he frantically tried to decide what to do. He quickly took off his helmet and threw it at the closest few bodies before dumping the bike and beginning to run. Exhausted, hot and tired he sprinted down the road and towards the track with what seemed like hundreds of corpses in close (but slow) pursuit and with more swarming around him from the trees and shadows surrounding. He was faintly aware of a low mechanical sound in the distance but he was too scared to stop. He had to keep moving. He reached the turning onto the track and began to sprint up the hill in the direction of the farmhouse.

At that moment the Landrover and car appeared, both still in close convoy and both out of sight of Carl. Disorientated and surprised by the unexpected appearance of so many bodies, Michael missed the turning. The sound of their vehicles had attracted plenty of cadavers along the way, but why were so many of them here now? Had their collective interest been aroused by the noise from the Landrover when they'd first left Penn Farm earlier that morning?

Emma flashed her headlamps at Michael and gave a blast on the horn, not sure if he knew he'd passed the turning onto the track. Furious for allowing himself to be distracted by the crowds, he braked hard and tried to turn around. The road was infuriatingly narrow and his frantic three point turn took many more turns than it should have done. Each time he reversed or drove forward more and more of the shambling creatures were dragged under the wheels of the Landrover.

Emma smashed through the rotting crowd and accelerated up the hill back towards the house. The rough track seemed worse than ever  -  the wheels of the car were smaller and less forgiving than the larger wheels of the van and Landrover. Each dip and trough of the uneven ground caused her to lurch forward in her seat and rattled her to the core. Weak and defenceless bodies were thrown to the side but there seemed to be still more and more of them further ahead. She accelerated again and managed a momentary glance into the rear view mirror. Michael was on his way up the track close behind her.

Carl was managing to outrun the bodies. Now that he had ditched the motorbike the sound he made was greatly reduced, and in turn that reduced his attraction to the ragged corpses all around him. But he was tiring fast. The air was dry and he had a painful stitch which he tried unsuccessfully to breathe through. He knew that he could not afford to stop but at the same time he was beginning to have real difficulty in keeping going. For a second he could hear the noise he'd heard at the bottom of the track again, and this time he realised that its volume was steadily increasing. The corpses dragging themselves up the hill towards him gradually broke off their pursuit and began to stumble back down again, distracted by this new sound. Carl looked over his shoulder and then turned back to look ahead again. In the near distance he could see the gate and the barrier and, just beyond that, Penn Farm.

Without warning Emma's car appeared with Michael in the Landrover close behind. Carl span around and could hardly believe what he was seeing. He stood in the middle of the track waving his arms and yelling out loud, desperately hoping to attract the attention of one of the survivors. Emma noticed him, but at the same time three close shadowy figures also heard his anxious cries and threw themselves at him. They dragged him down to the ground where he kicked and punched and struggled to pick himself up. With an instinctive venom and anger, the creatures ripped at his flesh with vicious, twisted fingers.

Emma slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the car. Michael pulled up close behind (the track was too narrow to pull up alongside Emma) and ran to Carl's side.

'Fucking hell, it's Carl,' he shouted as he grabbed hold of the first of the three bodies and threw it to one side. 'Where did he appear from?'

Emma took hold of another cadaver's shoulders and wrenched it away from the man on the ground. Michael kicked the last one away and then helped Emma to get Carl into the car. Already they were being surrounded by hundreds of diseased figures.

'Get back to the house,' he screamed as he bundled Carl into the back of the car and pushed Emma into the front. Before he had even closed the door she had accelerated away again and was careering down the final incline towards the gate spanning the stone bridge.

Michael shoulder charged his way back through the sickly throng to the Landrover and managed to force his way back into the driver's seat. He slammed and locked the door and then looked up and down the track. More and more bodies were converging on the road ahead. The frequent noise from the house over the last day or two must have attracted them. Perhaps their brains were beginning to function with more clarity and reason than before? Maybe these hundreds of corpses had actually stayed close to the farm and laid in wait because they knew that the survivors had been hiding in there? And now the combined noise from the bike, the Landrover and the car that Emma was driving seemed to have brought every last one of them out into the open.

He put the Landrover into gear and drove forwards, obliterating any of the corpses that foolishly remained in his way. But there were literally hundreds of them now, maybe even more than a thousand. He noticed that Emma had stopped a little way short of the gate and already her car was being swamped by ragged figures. Why didn't she open the gate and go through? Cruel realisation suddenly dawned. He had the keys.

Like a man possessed he sped down the track. There were just too many of the damn creatures around. There was no way he could get out of the car and unlock the single padlock which they used to secure the gate when they left the farm. There were too many bodies around for him to risk being out in the open. There was only one option. He drove on and smashed through the wooden gate, sending splinters of wood flying in all directions. He drove across the dusty yard and skidded to a sudden halt right outside the steps leading up to the front door of the house. He anxiously looked back to make sure that Emma was following. She careered into the yard with a body clinging onto the bonnet of the car, trying desperately to smash the windscreen with a tired and wizened hand.

Knowing that he literally had just seconds to spare, Michael grabbed the keys to the Landrover from the ignition and took the house keys out of his jacket pocket. He jumped out of the car and ran up the steps and tried to unlock the door. His hands were shaking with nerves.

'Open the bloody door,' Emma screamed.

The lock clicked and they were inside. Michael gestured for Emma to get in while he went back for Carl. The other survivor could hardly move. He was physically and emotionally destroyed.

A few seconds longer and the three of them were back inside the farmhouse with the front door locked and secure.

'Get him into the kitchen,' Emma ordered. Michael dragged Carl through and lay him on the cold and hard tiled floor.

'Think he's going to be all right?' he asked breathlessly.

She shrugged her shoulders.

'Don't know,' she mumbled as she checked his injuries. Nothing too deep. Nothing obviously serious. Just flesh wounds.

They were distracted by a dull thumping sound from the other side of the room. Michael looked up to see that a crowd of bodies had gathered at the kitchen window. With heavy, uncoordinated hands they began to bang relentlessly on the glass.

'Upstairs,' he shouted. 'Move!'

Emma didn't argue. Between the two of them they grabbed hold of Carl and hauled him up to the bedrooms.

Once they had laid him down on Emma's bed Michael left the room and slowly walked around the top floor of the house. He looked out through virtually every window and stared out at in horror at the nightmarish sight which greeted him. His worst fears had been realised.

The house was completely surrounded.

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