Clare was at the door before I was out of the car. She ran over to me and then just stood there in silence with tears rolling down her face. My brain was struggling to cope with everything that was happening. I didn't know what I was supposed to say.
'Are you okay?' I eventually mumbled, my voice wavering and cracked with emotion and uncertainty.
'No,' she replied in little more than a whisper.
'What's wrong?' I asked nervously, almost too scared to listen to her answer.
'It's Penny...' she began before stopping when the pain and tears took over. 'She's... I don't...'
She withered and collapsed in front of me, virtually falling into my arms, and I instinctively reached out and caught her. I hauled her back up onto her unsteady feet and she buried her head in my chest as she sobbed hysterically. I held her tightly, keen to let her know that I was there for her, but also because I was relieved to have found someone else who had not deteriorated into the same pathetic and sorry state as most of the rest of the population seemed to have done.
'Tell me what's happened,' I pressed gently as I walked her back towards the house. 'What's wrong?'
Clare looked up at me with red eyes filled with desperate, stinging tears. She sniffed and wiped her face.
'It's Penny,' she sighed.
'What's the matter with her? Same as last night?'
I closed the door behind us and followed Clare into the living room. I sat down with her on the sofa.
'Last night,' she began, 'after I'd spoken to you she just seemed to get worse and worse. I've hardly had any sleep. I had to lock her in her room because...'
She shook her head, tears running freely again. She couldn't bring herself to finish her sentence.
'It's all right,' I said, reaching out to hold her. My attempts to console and reassure her were failing pathetically. Even after all that had already happened I was still frightened and disturbed by news of Penny's condition. I tried to at least appear strong for Clare's sake.
'Can I see her?' I asked.
She nodded, stood and led me upstairs, holding my hand all the way. As we approached the door of the little girl's room she squeezed tighter and tighter.
'I've been sitting here for hours just listening,' she whispered, nodding towards a small area of the landing which was littered with empty coffee cups and other rubbish. She stopped, dried her eyes on the sleeve of her blouse, and then lifted her head to look at me. Her face was a picture of frozen fear and pain. She turned back to face the door, lifted her hand to open it, and then stopped, letting her hand fall away again.
'I can't...' she began. 'She's...'
Clare shook her head and sniffed back more tears.
She took a deep breath and pushed the door open. She moved to one side and gestured for me to go through.
'It'll be okay,' I whispered as I passed her. She didn't believe me but she managed half a smile.
I peered cautiously around the door into the little square bedroom. I couldn't see Penny at first. It was difficult to make out much. The light was low and the room looked as if it had been hit by a tornado.
'Is she okay?' Clare asked, trying to lean over my shoulder to see inside.
'Don't know,' I replied. 'I can't see her. Maybe she's...'
In one unexpected movement Penny appeared from behind the door and stopped in front of me, staring at me with dark eyes full of anger and inexplicable hate. Her sudden appearance and malevolence caught me off guard and I jumped back, almost tripping over Clare behind me. And then she moved. With the speed of a wild animal and the strength of someone ten times her size the little girl shoulder-charged me and sent me flying back out onto the landing. It took all my strength just to keep hold of her. As I dragged her back towards her room she spat and hissed and bit me. I threw her down onto her bed and then ran back and slammed the door behind me, feeling her slam into the other side just moments later. She was thumping on the wood, trying to get out. And she screamed. A fucking awful wail of a scream which paled into insignificance alongside the desperate cries of her heartbroken mother standing next to me.
'What's happened to her?' she demanded. 'Why is she doing this?'
I didn't answer. I couldn't answer. I locked the door, leant against the wall and slid down to the ground.
The thumping and banging continued for another twenty minutes. When it finally stopped I crept back into the bedroom and found the little girl curled up in a ball underneath her bed, shaking. Stronger than a shiver but nowhere near as violent as a full-blown fit or convulsion, she was trembling from head to toe. She was breathing and her vital signs were okay but apart than that she didn't move or respond to me in any way. I didn't know what to do other than just leave her there until we'd managed to fetch a doctor to her. I stood up and ushered Clare out of the room and then turned back to look at Penny once more. She was bruised, bloodied and exhausted. Her normally sparkling eyes were dull and clouded. She was just an empty shell. There didn't seem to be anything left of the beautiful little creature that I'd taken out for a birthday treat just a couple of days ago.
Clare and I quietly made our way back down to the living room where we spoke in hushed whispers.
'Is she going to be all right?' she asked.
'Don't know,' I replied honestly, shrugging my shoulders. 'Impossible for me to say. We need to get someone out to see her but...'
'What's caused this?' she demanded, cutting across me.
'I don't know. Look, Clare, have you been out today?'
'No, I've been here with Penny all day, you know that. Why?'
I paused for a moment. After the trauma she was already having to deal with, could my friend cope with any more news?
'Because she's not the only one who's like this.'
'What do you mean?'
'I told you last night that Joe Porter had been acting weird...'
'But he's a sixty year-old man and Penny's just a child for God's sake...'
'Yes, but that's not all. Did I tell you about Siobhan?'
'No,' she mumbled, shaking her head.
'She's hardly spoken to me since you and I went out together at the weekend.'
'Christ knows. She's screamed at me, shouted at me, ignored me and virtually accused me of having an affair with you just because we went out together on Penny's birthday.'
The disbelief on Clare's face was clear to see.
'I've just come from her house. I left her sitting on the sofa like she was in a fucking coma, just staring at the floor. And James and Stephanie were the same when I saw them earlier, and Ray Mercer from the pub says that his wife Brenda has...'
'So what are you saying? Is it a fucking epidemic?'
I shrugged my shoulders and walked across the room to look out of the window. The street outside was deserted.
'I don't know. To be honest I haven't really thought much about it. I had just assumed that Siobhan and Joe Porter were both off on one and I thought Penny must have picked something up from nursery...'
'But what about the rest of them?'
'Don't know,' I mumbled again.
'It's got to be a virus or something doing the rounds, hasn't it? Last winter half the village went down with flu just before Christmas. Maybe that's it?'
'Mrs Conner's the same. Explains why she was so vile to me this morning.'
'Who's Mrs Conner? I thought you said you hadn't been out?'
'She lives next door. She was out in her garden this morning. I saw her when I went out to put the dustbin out. I said good morning to her and she just started ranting and raving at me. No warning. Christ, she's over eighty years old and we've never had a cross word in all the time I've lived here but today...'
'So what exactly did she do?' I asked, keen to know if this old lady's behaviour matched that of the other people I had come across.
'Like I said, I was just minding my own business and she started yelling at me. It was fuck this and fuck that, the kind of things you just wouldn't expect to hear from someone like that.'
'The people I've seen have either been like that or completely bloody catatonic. Siobhan went off the handle at me on the telephone but today I left her sitting there like a bloody cabbage. You know James' eldest? She said her mum and dad spent the night shouting at each other and this morning they haven't even got themselves dressed.'
'Christ, what about their baby?'
'I left the kids with next-door. You, James' neighbour and Ray Mercer are the only people I've been able to have anything resembling a sensible conversation with so far today.'
Clare held her tired head in her hands and ran her fingers through her hair. I could see that she was trying to make sense of everything that was happening and, for the first time, so was I. So far I had spent the day moving from conflict to conflict to conflict and I hadn't actually stopped to try and understand what was going on. It was only now that I was able to take a step back that I began to think there might actually be more to the day's events than I had first thought. It had been all too easy to gloss over the reasons behind all that had happened as I had been preoccupied with each individual argument.
'What about Rob?' she asked.
'Haven't seen him all morning,' I answered. 'He went out before I got up.' After that there was silence.
About ten minutes later Clare got up from her seat and picked up the telephone. She tried a few numbers - various family members, the doctor, Siobhan, my house - but predictably didn't get any answers. All that had happened was so sudden and inexplicable that my mood and feelings were swaying violently. One moment I felt complete and utter fear, helplessness and disorientation, the next nothing but disbelief.
It was like a switch had been flicked.
Numb and almost too afraid to move, we sat and waited for a reason to leave.
During the long, slow hours that followed I tried to telephone my friends and family again. I couldn't get any answers using either Clare's phone or my mobile. It was only four o'clock but it felt more like ten. The light outside was quickly fading. Clare drew the curtains and switched on a table lamp.
'Hungry?' she asked.
I shook my head.
'Want a drink?'
She stood up and paced impatiently around the room before sitting down again, frustrated.
'You all right?' I asked instinctively. Bloody stupid question. Of course she wasn't all right.
'I'm fine,' she sighed. 'The world's falling apart, I can't get anyone on the phone and my daughter's upstairs lying on her fucking bed like she's been fucking lobotomised. I'm absolutely fucking fine! What about you?'
'Sorry,' I mumbled.
She grunted and shook her head.
'Look, do you think we should...?'
The lights went out.
'Shit,' Clare hissed.
'Where's your fuse-box?' I asked.
'Cupboard under the stairs,' she replied as she felt her way across the room to stand next to me.
I carefully made my way around the room with outstretched hands, using the walls and furniture to support and guide me. I eventually reached the front door, then the stairs, then the cupboard. The fuse hadn't tripped.
I retraced my steps back through the shadows to the living room. 'Everything looks okay,' I said. 'Has this happened before?'
Clare was standing by the window. Although I couldn't see clearly what she was doing, I knew she was opening the curtains.
'Is it just us?' I asked.
Even from where I was standing I could tell that it wasn't. The world outside was bathed in a total, inky darkness. I couldn't see even a single electric light out there. The houses nearby were dark. Every street light was dull and unlit.
'A power cut,' Clare hissed. 'Bloody hell, that's all we need.'
Instinctively I tried a few more electrical items although logic said that none of them would work. The television was dead, as was the stereo. Strangely, even the little battery powered radio which Clare kept in the kitchen seemed to have stopped working.
'What about the phone?' I wondered.
'No-one's answered the bloody thing all afternoon,' she snapped, 'what difference will it make?'
Begrudgingly she walked over to the phone, picked it up and then dropped it down again.
'Dead,' she sighed. 'Can't even get a dialling tone.'
'So what do we do now?'
'Are you going to try and get back home?'
I thought for a moment. There didn't seem to be any point. There probably wouldn't be anyone there. On the other hand we could all have gone to my place, but I didn't like the idea of moving Penny in her current state.
'I'll stay here with you if that's all right,' I said.
'Good,' she replied. 'You sure?'
'What about your brother and Siobhan?'
'I don't know.'
'Should you try and get to them?'
'Don't know. I'd rather stay here and sit tight. I know where Siobhan is and I haven't got a clue where Rob is. I'd rather not take any chances tonight. We'll wait for the power to come back on and then we'll decide what to do next.'
'Are we going to be safe here?'
'Safe from what?' I replied rhetorically. Her question was logical but surprising and impossible to answer nonetheless. In the shadows and low light I saw her shrug her shoulders. She turned away from me to look out of the window.
I crept upstairs to check on Penny a short time later. On my hands and knees (so that I didn't trip in the darkness and disturb her) I crawled into the bedroom. She was still lying under the bed where I had left her earlier. I gently pulled her out, lifted her surprisingly heavy frame and lay her on top of her covers. Her skin was cold and clammy. Even though her eyes were tightly closed, her face looked troubled and unnatural. Her innocent features were twisted and contorted with pain and confusion.
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