Almost an hour passed before anyone dared to move.
The survivors, already shell-shocked and beaten by all that they had been through, stood together in terror and disbelief and tried to come to terms with the morning's events. Surprisingly it was Ralph, the solicitor who had seemed so authoritative and keen to take control last night, who appeared to be having the most trouble accepting what he had seen and heard today. He stood in the centre of the room alongside Paul Garner (an overweight and middle-aged estate agent), struggling to persuade Emma, Carl, Michael and Kate James (a thirty-nine year old primary school teacher) not to open the door and go back outside.
'But we have to go out, Ralph,' Emma said, calmly and quietly. 'We've got to try and find out what's going on.'
'I'm not interested,' the flustered and frightened man snapped. 'I don't care what's happening. There's no way I'm going to go out there and risk...'
'Risk what?' Michael interrupted. 'No-one's asking you to go outside, are they?'
'Opening that door is enough of a bloody risk in itself,' Garner muttered anxiously. He chewed on the fingers of his left hand as he spoke. 'Keep it shut and keep them out.'
'We can't take any chances by exposing ourselves to those things...' Ralph protested.
'Things?' Emma repeated, her tone suddenly venomous and agitated. 'Those things are people you selfish shit. Bloody hell, your friends and family could be out there...'
'Those bodies have been lying dead on the ground for days!' he yelled, his face suddenly just inches from hers.
'How do you know they were dead?' Michael asked, perfectly seriously and calmly. 'Did you check them all? Did you check any of them for a pulse before you shut yourself away in here?'
'You know as well as I do that...'
'Did you?' he asked again. Ralph shook his head. 'And have you ever seen a dead body walk before?'
This time Ralph didn't answer. He turned away and leant against the nearest wall.
'Jesus Christ,' Garner cursed, 'of course we've never seen fucking dead bodies walking, but...'
'But I've never seen anyone drop to the ground and not get up for two days either. Face it Michael, they were all dead.'
'Look, Paul,' he sighed, 'let's be straight with each other for a second. None of us have got the first bloody clue what's happening here. The only thing I know for sure is that I'm interested in looking after myself and the rest of the people in this hall and...'
'If you're only interested in the people in here why do you want to go out there and...'
'I'm interested in looking after myself,' Michael repeated, still somehow remaining calm, 'but I need to go out there and see if I can find out what's happening and to see if any of those bodies pose a threat to us. I'm not interested in helping them, I just want to know what's going on.'
'And how are you going to find out what's happening?' Ralph demanded, turning around to face the rest of the group again. 'Who's going to tell you?'
For a moment Michael struggled to answer.
'Emma's studied medicine,' he replied, thinking quickly and looking across at her. 'You'll be able to tell us what's wrong with them, won't you?'
Emma shifted her weight uncomfortably from foot to foot and shrugged her shoulders.
'I'll try,' she mumbled. 'I can try and tell you whether they're dead or not but after that I...'
'But can't you see what you're doing?' Ralph protested, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. 'You're putting us all at risk. If you'd just wait for a while and...'
'Wait for what?' Carl interrupted. 'Seems to me that we're at risk whatever we do. We're sat here in a hall that we could knock down with our bare hands if we tried hard enough, and we're surrounded by thousands of dead bodies, some of which have decided to get up and start walking around. Staying here seems pretty risky to me.'
Sensing that the conversation was about to stray into familiar waters with yet another pointless debate about whether to go outside or not, Michael made his feelings and intentions clear.
'I'm going outside,' he said. His voice was quiet and yet carried with it an undeniable force. 'Stay in here and hide if you want, but I'm going out and I'm going out now.'
'For Christ's sake,' Ralph pleaded, 'think about it before you do anything that might...'
Michael didn't stop to hear the end of his sentence. Instead he simply turned his back on the others and walked up to the main door out of the community centre. He paused for a second and glanced back over his shoulder towards Carl, Emma and Kate. The rest of the survivors were silent.
'Ready?' he asked.
After a second's thought Carl nodded and made his way to stand next to Michael, closely followed by Emma and Kate. Michael took a deep breath, pushed the door open and stepped out into the bright September sunlight.
It was surprisingly warm. Carl (the only one who had been outside for any length of time recently) noticed that last night's bitter wind had dropped. He shielded his eyes from the light and watched as Michael cautiously retraced the steps that he had taken earlier, walking away from the dilapidated wooden building and towards the road. When the first moving body staggered into view he instinctively stopped and turned back to face the others.
'What's the matter?' asked Emma, immediately concerned.
'Nothing,' he mumbled, feeling nervous and unsure.
The three other survivors walked towards him and stood close. Carl noticed that a crowd had gathered to watch them in the shadows of the doorway of the community hall.
'So what are we going to do now?' Kate James wondered. She was a quiet, short and round woman with a usually flushed red face which had suddenly lost much of its colour.
Michael looked around for inspiration.
'Don't know,' he admitted. 'Anyone got any ideas?'
Three faces returned three blank expressions. A few seconds later Emma cleared her throat and spoke.
'We need to have a good look at one of them,' she whispered.
'What do you mean?' Kate asked, her voice also quiet. 'What are we supposed to be looking at?'
'Let's try and see how responsive they are. We should see if they can tell us anything.'
While she had been speaking Michael had taken a few steps further forward.
'What about her?' he asked, pointing at one of the nearest moving bodies. 'What about that one there?'
The group stood together in silence and watched the painful progress of the pitiful creature. The woman's movements were tired and stilted. Her arms hung listlessly at her sides. She seemed almost to be dragging her feet behind her.
'What are we going to do with her?' Kate wondered nervously.
'Do you want to get closer and just have a look?' Carl asked.
Michael shook his head.
'No,' he said, 'let's get her inside.'
'What, back in there?' he gasped, gesturing at the building behind them.
'Yes, in there,' Michael replied. His voice still remained calm and unflustered and it was beginning to annoy Carl who silently hoped that the others shared his mounting fear and unease because he certainly wasn't as together and as sure as Michael appeared. 'Is that a problem?'
'Not to me,' said Emma. 'Try convincing the others though.'
He obviously wasn't concerned.
'I think we should get her indoors and try and make her comfortable. We'll get more out of her if we can get her to relax.'
'Are you sure about this?' muttered Kate. Her nerves were obviously beginning to fray.
Michael thought for a moment before nodding his head.
'I'm sure,' he said, sounding confident. 'What about the rest of you?'
After a few awkward seconds had passed Carl spoke.
'Bloody hell, let's just do it. We're never going to achieve anything just standing out here like this, are we?'
That was all that Michael needed to hear. With that he strode up behind the woman, reached out and rested his hands on her shoulders. She stopped moving instantly.
Emma jogged the last few steps and moved round to stand in front of the body. She looked up into her glazed eyes and saw that they seemed unfocussed and vacant. Her skin was pale and taut, as if it had been stretched tight across her skull. Although she was sure that the body couldn't see her (she didn't even seem to know she was there) Emma respectfully tried to hide her mounting revulsion. There was a deep gash on the woman's right temple. Dark blood had been flowing freely from the wound for some time and had drenched her once smart white blouse and grey business suit.
'We want to help you,' she said softly.
Still no reaction.
Michael gripped the woman's shoulders a little tighter and shuffled closer.
'Come on,' he whispered, 'let's get you inside.'
Carl and Kate watched the others with a morbid fascination.
'What the hell is happening?' Kate asked, her voice gradually becoming noticeably weaker and more unsteady each time she spoke.
'No idea,' Carl admitted. 'Bloody hell, I wish I knew.'
He surveyed the desperate scene around them. Not all of the bodies had moved. The majority still lay where they had fallen.
'Carl,' Michael shouted.
'What?' he mumbled nervously, turning back to face the others.
'Give us a hand, mate. Could you get hold of her legs?'
Carl nodded and walked over towards Emma and Michael. He crouched down and grabbed the woman's bony ankles, one in each hand, and, as Michael pulled back on her shoulders, he lifted her feet. She was surprisingly light. There was no weight to her at all and she didn't react to being moved.
The two men scuttled back to the community hall, closely followed by Emma and Kate. As they approached the doorway the survivors (who had continued watching intently throughout) quickly realised what was happening. They scattered like a shoal of frightened fish that had just been invaded by the deadliest predator shark.
'What the bloody hell are you doing?' Ralph stammered as Carl and Michael barged past him. 'What the hell are you doing bringing that in here?'
Michael didn't answer. He was too busy directing the others.
'Group yourselves around her,' he said authoritatively. 'Try and cage her in.'
Obediently Kate and Emma drew closer, as did another two survivors whose names Michael did not know. Carl gently lowered the sick woman's feet to the ground so that she was standing upright again and then took a couple of steps back so that he was level with the others. Once something resembling a circle had been formed and he was happy, Michael let go.
For a second the body did nothing. Then, without warning, it lurched towards Kate who screwed up her face in nervous trepidation and stretched her arms out in front of her to prevent the woman from getting too close. As soon as she made contact with Kate's outstretched hands the woman turned and staggered away in the opposite direction towards another survivor. This continued every time the edge of the circle was reached.
As the woman stumbled towards Michael he allowed himself for the first time to look deep into her face. For a dangerous few seconds he found himself transfixed, looking at the pitiful creature in front of him and wondering how she might have looked just a week earlier. A few days ago he might have found her attractive but, today, her emotionless gaze and drawn, almost translucent skin immediately dissipated any beauty or serenity that her face had previously known. There was an unnatural sheen to her exposed flesh. Michael noticed that her skin had a grey, almost light green tone and a greasy shine and it was tightly stretched over the bones of her skull. What had at first glance appeared to be dark bags under her frozen eyes were, in fact, the prominent ridges of her eye sockets. Her mouth hung open - a huge, dark hole - and a thick string of gelatinous saliva trickled continually down the side of her chin. He pushed her away.
The woman turned and began to stagger towards Carl. Clearly unable to control or co-ordinate her own movements, she tripped over her own clumsy feet and half-fell, half-lurched towards him. He recoiled and pushed her down to the ground, feeling a cold sweat prickle his brow as the pathetic and diseased creature scrambled back up onto its feet.
'Can she hear us?' Kate wondered. She hadn't really meant to ask the question, she'd just been thinking out loud.
'Don't know,' Michael answered.
'She probably can,' Emma said.
'Why do you say that?'
She shrugged her shoulders.
'It's something about the way she reacts.'
Ralph, who had until then been watching nervously from a corner of the room, found himself being drawn closer and closer to the circle of survivors.
'But she doesn't react,' he stammered, his voice uncharacteristically light and shaky.
'I know,' Emma continued. 'That's what I mean. She's walking and moving around, but I don't think she knows why or how.'
'It's instinctive,' Carl muttered.
'That's what I'm starting to think,' Emma agreed. 'She probably can hear us, but she doesn't know what the noises we make mean anymore. I bet she's still capable of speaking, she just can't remember how to.'
'But she reacts when you touch her,' Paul Garner jabbered anxiously.
'No she doesn't. She doesn't react at all. She turns away because she physically can't keep moving in a certain direction. I bet she'd just keep walking in a straight line forever if there wasn't anything in her way.'
'Christ, look at her,' Kate mumbled. 'Just look at the poor cow. How many millions of people like this are wandering around out there?'
'Did you check her pulse?' Michael whispered to Emma who was standing next to him.
'Sort of,' she replied, her voice equally low.
'What's that supposed to mean?' he hissed, annoyed by her vagueness.
'I couldn't find one,' she answered bluntly.
'So what are you saying?'
'I'm not saying anything.'
'So what are you thinking?'
Emma glanced across at him and shrugged her shoulders.
'Don't know,' she admitted.
'Get it out of here,' Garner hissed nervously from his vantage point in a doorway a safe distance away.
Michael looked around the circle and noticed that the others were suddenly either looking at the ground or looking at him. Sensing that it was up to him to make the next move he took a step forward and grabbed hold of the diseased woman's arm. He pulled her gently out of the hall and back towards the door which he opened with his free hand. He pushed her out into the sunlight and watched as she staggered away from the building and back across the car park.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com