Chapter 46

Quarter to ten.

Michael was sitting in a chair in the corner of the bedroom with his eyes closed. He was tired and he needed to rest but there was no way he could sleep, not even for a second.

Emma sat on the edge of the bed where Carl still lay. She had taken care to position herself so that even though it was dark, she could still clearly see both men. She watched them anxiously in the dull light, waiting either for Michael to open his eyes and decide that they should move or for Carl to return to full consciousness. She was a little less worried about Carl now. He seemed much calmer. He was generally still and quiet, but his face now seemed relatively untroubled, almost to the point of appearing relaxed.

Taking care not to make any more noise than was absolutely necessary, she stood up and walked over to the window. Peering down cautiously into the yard below she saw that the seething mass of dark, heaving bodies remained. An apparently endless sea of bobbing, rotting heads. Hundreds and hundreds of them clamoured to get closer to the house and their sheer number was still the overriding concern because, individually, the corpses were slow and dumb. While she watched she saw five or six of them lose their footing on the muddy bank and tumble helplessly into the stream, unable to get up and get out again. She saw another one of them become caught on the jagged remains of one of the gateposts on the bridge, trapped and unable to move. The remnants of its ragged clothing had become snagged on a large wooden splinter but it couldn't see how to pull itself free.

There was another reason why the bodies terrified her.

It was more than just their horrific appearance and the fact that their rotting flesh was host to many unknown and deadly diseases. Emma was morbidly fascinated and repulsed by the creatures because, less than a month ago, each one of them had been like herself. An individual. A person. A human being with a clear and identifiable personality and individual tastes, skills and beliefs. What scared Emma  -  what chilled her to the core in fact  -  was what these once ordinary, normal people had become. Chances were many of her friends and family had gone the same way. And who was to say that when she died, she too wouldn't spend the rest of eternity dragging her decomposing body aimlessly around their dead world?

One or two of the bodies weren't a threat. A group of between, say, ten and fifteen was a concern, but nothing they couldn't deal with. But in the cold darkness outside the farmhouse tonight there she could see hundreds upon fucking hundreds of them.

'No better?' an unexpected voice asked from the shadows behind her, startling her momentarily. She span around quickly. It was Michael. He was up and out of his seat.

'They're still here,' she replied with her heart thumping anxiously in her chest. 'They're still coming.'

'I'm sorry,' he said, his voice low, sensing that he'd startled her. 'I didn't mean to make you jump.'

She nodded and turned back to look out of the window again.

'Do you think they know we're in here?' she asked.

'I don't know,' he answered. 'I think they sense that there's something different about us. It might just be because of the noise we make, it might be because of the way we move...'

'But what do they want from us?'

'I don't think they want anything.'

'So why are they here?'

'Instinct.'

'Instinct?'

'Yes. Like I said, we're different, that's all. Whatever's left of their brains is telling them we're not the same as they are and they're drawn to us. I don't think they mean us any harm, they just want to know what we are. If they react towards one of us, it's because they're looking out for their own safety.'

'They think we're a threat?'

'I think so, yes.'

Michael took another few steps closer to Emma and gently put his arms around her. For a second she involuntarily recoiled at his touch. She meant nothing by her response. She wanted to be close to him but, at the same time, she wanted to be alone. Truth was she didn't know what she wanted anymore.

'Are you all right?' he asked, concerned.

'I'm okay,' she replied, turning round to face him but not quite managing to make eye contact. 'I'm just tired,' she mumbled, 'that's all.'

'Sure?' he pressed, not convinced.

She shook her head and her eyes filled with stinging tears.

'No,' she finally admitted, reaching out and grabbing tight hold of him. She pulled him closer and buried her face in his chest. 'I don't think we're ever going to get away from this house.'

'It's going to be okay,' he said instinctively and without any degree of conviction in his words.

'You keep saying that,' she sobbed. 'You keep saying that but you don't know if it's true, do you?'

She was right. Michael knew as much and decided that it was better to say nothing. Still holding onto Emma tightly, he shuffled closer to the window and peered outside. As she'd already suggested, nothing out there seemed to have changed.

'Come on, we've got to go,' he announced suddenly.

'What?' Emma protested, pushing herself away from him. 'What the hell are you talking about. We're not ready to go yet...'

'It's not going to get any better,' he said, his voice surprisingly calm and unemotional. 'We could wait here for months but we'd be fooling ourselves if we think it's ever going to get easier.'

'But what about Carl?' she nervously snapped. 'We can't leave here until he's...'

'You're making excuses,' Michael sighed. 'We've both been making fucking excuses all night. We've just got to do it.'

She knew he was right and didn't bother to argue. Truth was they had both been avoiding the inevitable. But suddenly Michael seemed determined to make a move, and she watched him with quickly mounting trepidation. There was a new found concentration and direction in his voice which she understood but which also frightened and disturbed her. She knew that this really was it. She knew Michael was right and that leaving was their only chance, but that didn't make it any easier to accept or to deal with. She watched as he pulled a thick jumper over his head and tightened the laces on his boots.

Michael looked up and noticed the concern on her face.

'You okay?' he asked.

She nodded quickly but it was impossible to hide her fear. Her legs were heavy with nerves. She could hardly breathe.

'Look, I'm going to try and start the generator,' he continued. 'There are fewer of them out the back and...'

'What, only five hundred instead of a thousand?'

'There are fewer of them,' he continued. 'I'll see if the noise will distract them.'

With admirable strength Michael seemed to have switched off his emotions and was concentrating all his attention and effort on the task immediately to hand. He walked towards the door and then stopped and turned back to face Emma. He looked ready to say something to her but didn't.

'Are you sure about this?' she asked.

He shrugged his shoulders.

'No,' he replied with brutal honesty, 'but I can't think of any other option. Now do me a favour will you and try and get Carl to wake up. Get him ready to leave. As soon as I'm back inside we'll have to go for it.'

With that he turned and disappeared into the darkness leaving Emma alone, staring into the space where he had just been, trying desperately to make sense of the sudden confusion all around her.

Michael crept down the staircase, frightened that even the slightest noise might have a devastating effect on the vast crowd outside the house. Perhaps even something as insignificant as stepping on a loose, creaking floorboard would be the final straw that might whip the rotting masses into the frenzy that could see them forcing their way into the house.

With his heart pounding in his chest with cold, dark fear and with his entire body drenched with a sticky, clammy sweat, Michael lowered himself down onto his hands and knees and crawled along the hallway, keeping out of sight of every window and every door. He had reached the back of the house in just a few seconds, and he carefully lifted himself back up onto his feet, hiding in the shadows and keeping his body tight and flat against the nearest wall.

Once upright he had a clear view of the back lawn through a small square pane of dirty glass. There were still many, many bodies outside, but on this side of the house their numbers seemed fewer and much more diffuse. He watched as the shadowy silhouette of one of the pathetic creatures stumbled past. As soon as it had gone by he silently turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open. Holding his breath he slipped through the narrowest gap he could and then pushed the door shut behind him. He was outside.

He had seen thousands of the lamentable corpses over the last few days and yet, at this most dangerous time, he still found himself unable to tear his eyes away from them. Standing perfectly still he watched them move. They lurched and staggered, their legs heavy and uncoordinated. For the most part their heads were bowed and it seemed to take more effort than any of them could muster for them to look up.

The shed which housed the generator was some twenty meters away from where he stood. He knew that to run towards it would attract more attention. It made sense to try and walk slowly to match the laboured pace of the cadavers around him. But moving slowly seemed to infinitely increase the mental effort and strain involved with every single step. He was now inches away from the first few bodies and he knew that one false move would be all it would take to set off a deadly chain reaction throughout the enormous crowd.

Step by painful, dragging step he moved across the back lawn. Bodies stumbled past him, some even collided with him, and yet he forced himself to remain focussed and not to panic. He wanted to run. He wanted to kick and punch at the bloody corpses all around him and smash his way through to the generator. This was like playing with fire. The mental pain was like being forced to lie down in scalding hot water and not move. Each second was agony, but every alternative was worse.

Another cadaver lurched into his path. For a fraction of a second he allowed himself to look into its cold and clouded eyes before quickly looking down at the ground. He winced with repulsion as the body crashed into him, and he instinctively lifted his hands to protect himself. The body's torso was weak and rotten. His hands pushed effortlessly through the creature's decayed flesh and into the chest cavity. Biting down on his lip to stop himself from shouting out in disgust, he carefully pulled himself free and carried on towards the generator.

Four meters to go. The wind was cold and the air damp with spitting rain but Michael didn't care. Three meters, then two meters. Almost there. With numb, trembling hands he reached out for the door handle. Resisting the temptation to increase his speed by even a fraction, he pulled open the door and disappeared inside. The gusting wind caught the door and slammed it shut behind him and he cursed the noise which rang out through the silence like a gunshot.

There was a torch in the shed which they had purposely left there for emergencies. Using the dull light from its dying bulb he scanned the machine's control panel. It had been days since they had used the generator, and he prayed that it would work tonight. He remembered Carl's instructions (he'd taught both Michael and Emma to operate the system) and began to prime the machine. He looked up and saw through the flapping door (which constantly opened and shut in the wind) that there were bodies all around. He flicked the switch to start the generator and, as it coughed and spluttered and failed, every last one of the bodies he could see immediately turned and began to walk towards the shed. He tried the generator again and, again, it died. Once more and the same response. Terrified and unable to think straight, he tried the machine for a forth time. It finally burst into life and began to chug and thump reassuringly. Clouds of dirty fumes billowed up into the swirling night air.

All around the house and throughout the surrounding countryside, approximately one and a half thousand bodies began to move towards the mechanical noise. Over fifteen hundred bodies staggered towards Michael.

There was no time to think. He kicked open the door and ran back towards the house, fighting his way through a thick sea of clumsy bodies. He kicked and punched and powered through to the back door which he lunged towards. As he tugged and pulled at the handle more than a dozen pairs of twisted, rotting hands grabbed at him, catching hold of his hair, his clothes, his shoulders and his legs and arms. He screamed and writhed to free himself but it was useless. He could struggle free from the grip of one corpse, only to be caught by countless others. He began to feel himself being pulled back into the disease-ridden crowd.

'Michael!' he heard Emma scream. He looked up and saw that she was on the other side of the back door. She was pushing at the door, struggling to open it against the sheer volume of sickly cadavers outside. Michael managed to shuffle a couple of steps to his right and get one arm back inside the building. With a strength and determination that she had never before possessed, Emma grabbed hold of him and dragged him back into the house. A body was pulled inside with him and, while Michael kicked and punched at the wretched thing, Emma slammed the door shut, severing an emaciated arm in the process.

The body on the floor stopped moving momentarily and Michael crouched down, struggling to catch his breath.

'Okay?' Emma asked, shouting to make herself heard over the noise coming from the frenzied crowd outside.

He nodded.

'Think so,' he gasped.

She turned to look out of the window in the door. The small pane of glass was filled with a mass of dark, dangerous shadows, every last one of them clamouring to get inside.

'We need to...' Michael began before being interrupted by another noise, this time from the front of the house. He looked at Emma for a split-second before standing up and running down the hallway.

It was Carl.

'Shit!' Michael yelled to Emma. 'What's he doing?'

The two survivors watched helplessly as their friend unlocked the front door. He lifted his hand to the latch and then stopped and turned to look over his shoulder when he heard the others approaching.

'Ready?' Carl asked, grinning with excitement and misguided anticipation. His face was grotesque and almost unrecognisable. Already scratched, bloodied and bruised, his features were distorted further by the dark shadows of the besieged house. He seemed blissfully unaware of what was waiting for him on the other side of the door.

'Fucking hell,' Michael gasped, 'he's going to open it! He's lost it. He's completely fucking lost it!'

Emma was rooted to the spot with fear. She couldn't move or even think. Her lips formed silent words of desperation and terror.

Carl lifted up the rusty rifle they had found and smiled again at Michael.

'Come on, Mike,' he yelled. 'We'll have them. You and me'll have the fucking lot of them!'

Michael could hear the bodies fighting to get into the house with a new found purpose and ferocity. He was about to try and talk to Carl and make him understand when he opened the door.

'Get upstairs now!' he screamed at Emma. He grabbed hold of her arm and half-dragged, half-threw her up the staircase. He followed close behind but stopped and turned back when he was only a couple of steps up.

Blissfully unaware, Carl opened the door fully and, for a single second which seemed to last longer than ten, nothing happened. A moment of stillness and unexpected calm which was suddenly shattered by a tidal wave of rotting flesh and bone which powered into the house. The force of the surge was such that Carl was lifted clean off his feet and smashed against the nearest wall. In seconds the hallway was filled and Carl had completely disappeared from view, swallowed up and destroyed by the vast and unstoppable crowd.

Turning quickly, Michael ran up the stairs after Emma. She was hiding in Carl's attic bedroom. He slammed the door shut behind him.

'Get the fucking bed!' he screamed. 'Help me push it in front of the door.'

Taking one end each, the two of them shunted the heavy wooden bed down the length of the room and turned it sideways so that it completely blocked the door.

'Where's Carl?' Emma asked, although she already knew the answer. Michael didn't bother to reply. He ran over to the window and looked out. The bedroom was at the front of the house. It was dark but he could make out their Landrover and car in the yard below.

'We've got to get out,' he said, his voice trembling with emotion. 'I've still got the keys to the Landrover...'

'But what about our stuff? Christ, all our stuff's...'

'Forget it,' he snapped.

'But how are we going to get out? We can't just...'

Michael ignored Emma's questions. He opened the window and leant outside. A few of the bodies below caught sight of him and their ferocity seemed to increase when he stepped out onto the roof.

'Follow me,' he said, turning back momentarily to face Emma.

She walked over to the window and looked down.

'I can't...' she whined.

'You've got to. You haven't got any choice.'

Fighting to stay calm and in control of her body and emotions, she watched as Michael carefully shuffled around and lowered himself down along the slanted roof until his feet were resting in the guttering. Lying flat with his stomach pressed against the tiles, he shuffled sideways until he was directly above the porch. Once there he stopped and looked up at the bedroom window again.

'Come on,' he hissed. Emma looked at him and then looked down at the mass of bodies in the yard. More and more of them were reacting to Michael's voice. Unsure, she climbed up onto the windowsill and tentatively put one foot outside. Moving painfully slowly, she then lowered herself down until she was hanging out of the window. She stopped again, paralysed with fear.

'You can do it!' Michael yelled, sensing her unease. He prayed that she couldn't sense his.

He lowered himself down the last few feet onto the roof of the porch and then stood still for a moment to regain his balance. He glanced down at the shifting sea of figures below and saw that he was now close enough to be able to see the faces of the hundreds of corpses gathered around the house. Just meters away from his feet an endless column of creatures struggled to force themselves into the building.

Emma still clung tightly onto the windowsill for dear life, too afraid to move. A sound from inside the house distracted her and she looked back through the open bedroom window to see that the bed blocking the door was being shoved out of the way. The volume of bodies that had entered the house was astonishing. It was the sheer mass of cadavers that was forcing the door open. As she watched a thick and constant stream of featureless figures began to pour into the room.

'Move!' Michael screamed, distracting her. She looked down and watched as he dropped from the roof of the porch onto the yard below. It was a drop of some ten feet and he landed awkwardly amongst the bodies, twisting his ankle. Ignoring the pain and the clumsy, grabbing hands which reached out for him, he forced his way over to the Landrover and unlocked the door. Kicking and punching at the corpses holding onto him, he fought his way inside and started the engine.

Another new sound meant another surge of bodies, this time all heading towards Michael.

Emma looked up. The bodies in the bedroom were close. She had to move. She stretched her legs out behind and lay on the sloping roof, moving her toes constantly, hoping to feel the guttering and use it for support. She followed Michael's route across the roof and then stopped when she was above the porch. Distracted by the light in the yard coming from the Landrover's headlamps which Michael had just switched on, she watched in horror and disbelief as he began to drive away.

'Michael!' she screamed.

She watched the Landrover as it moved away from the house. Michael slowly steered it back round in a wide arc, finally stopping when he was as close as he could get to the front of the house and the porch. For a fraction of a second Emma thought that he was going to leave her behind.

She dropped down onto the roof of the porch and caught her foot on a loose slate which crashed to the ground beneath her. Unsteadied, she struggled to regain her balance and lurched forward. As she desperately fought to grab hold of something solid to hang onto, more slates worked free under her weight and she fell down to the yard, the mass of bodies breaking her fall. Within seconds she was completely engulfed.

Michael jumped out of the Landrover and dived into the crowd surrounding Emma. He grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and yanked her free, pushing her towards the Landrover which she dived into. She slid across to the passenger seat and then reached out for him. She took hold of his right hand which he held out and pulled him towards her. But the collective strength of the creatures was too much and they took him from her, dragging him down onto the ground.

Michael sensed that he was about to die.

But fucking hell, he thought, he'd survived so much, why the hell should he give up now? And even more importantly perhaps, he knew that he couldn't leave Emma to suffer alone. With the very last dregs of energy that he could summon from his frightened and exhausted body, he scrambled to his feet and kicked and punched at the figures around him. He reached inside the van, grabbed hold of the steering wheel and pulled himself in. He yanked the door shut behind him, leaving countless carcasses to smash their decaying fists against the metal and glass.

'Ready?' he asked breathlessly.

Emma nodded and swallowed hard.

Michael forced the van into gear and lifted his foot off the clutch. For one desperate moment it seemed that the volume of bodies surrounding the Landrover might prove too much for it to overcome. The engine roared but it did not move. He accelerated again, this time increasing the power steadily until the engine screamed to be released. With one sudden, juddering movement they began to edge forward, carving a bloody passage away from their home and out through the rotting masses.

Emma glanced back over her shoulder at what remained of Penn Farm. Through her tears she could already see that the farmhouse was now little more than an empty shell. There were dark, shadowy figures moving at every window.

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