Chapter 26

Part IV

CHANGE

26

I slept intermittently and woke early next morning to find myself sprawled across the settee in Clare's dark living room. She lay asleep in my arms and for a long time I did nothing. I lay perfectly still and relaxed in her warmth and listened to the soft sounds of her steady breathing. Having her so close was reassuring.

We had waited together in the darkness for hours the previous evening, just sitting there waiting for something  -  anything  -  to happen. But nothing did. The power remained off and I remained unable to summon up the courage to get off my backside and go back home. It was easier to stay where I was and the excuse of looking after Clare and Penny was, in my own mind, enough justification for my actions. Just before two o'clock Clare had finally drifted off to sleep. My nerves and creeping anxiety had eventually been overtaken by tiredness an hour or so later.

As the cold grey light of day poured through the half-open curtains I began to remember everything that had happened previously, and the shock of recollection flooded over me like a torrent of ice-cold water. Any last vestiges of comfort, sleep and tiredness quickly disappeared and I knew that I needed to get up and get moving. I gently lifted Clare's sleeping body from on top of me and, taking care not to wake her, I slid off the sofa and stumbled over to the window. The world outside seemed reassuringly dull and overcast.

With trepidation I climbed the stairs towards Penny's room. My heartbeat quickened nervously as I gently pushed the bedroom door open. I found the little girl in much the same state as she had been when Clare and I had last checked on her shortly after midnight. She lay on top of her bedclothes  -  cold but breathing steadily  -  covered with just a single blanket. Her angry fever had lessened although her forehead was still clammy. In the harsh light of morning, however, the extent of the horrific damage she'd inflicted (both to herself and her bedroom) was painfully apparent. All around me the carpet was covered with a layer of smashed and now useless toys, and strips of wallpaper hung down, torn angrily from the walls. Penny's skin was bruised and she was smeared with traces of dried blood which had run freely from untreated cuts and grazes. I couldn't even begin to imagine what could have caused such a normally calm and placid little girl to have turned like this. There wasn't a single reason I could think of to explain why such a normally intelligent, bright and loving child should act with such anger and irrational spite and venom. As I stood and stared into her sleeping face I thought about the other people I had seen yesterday  -  James, Stephanie and Siobhan. I knew that I couldn't afford to stay hidden in the house and do nothing any longer.

I leant down and gently touched the side of Penny's neck with my outstretched right hand, cautiously checking for a steady pulse. I quickly found one and, as I pulled my hand back, her eyes flickered open. She silently turned her head to look at me and stared angrily. Instinctively I backed away from the bed. Thankfully she lay still and did not react in any other way. Her eyes remained wide  -  huge, dark pupils  -  but she seemed to be looking through me and past me, not directly at me. I made my way back downstairs.

Clare was awake when I returned to the living room, sitting waiting on the sofa.

'How is she?' she whispered anxiously.

'A little better I think,' I replied honestly. 'She just opened her eyes. She's calmer and her temperature's gone down.'

'Thank God for that,' she sighed with relief clear on her face. 'Did she say anything to you?'

I shook my head.

'No. I think she knew I was there with her but she didn't say anything.'

I deliberately chose not to tell Clare about the way Penny had looked through me. I could still see those cold, emotionless eyes.

'Good,' she said, standing up and stretching. 'I'll go up and see her in a few minutes.'

'Okay.'

'So how are you feeling this morning?'

'Fine,' I replied, giving little away. 'You?'

'I'm all right.'

'Good.'

'Has the power come back on?'

I hadn't even thought to check. I flicked the nearest light switch on and off a few times but nothing happened.

'Still dead,' I sighed dejectedly.

Clare walked into the kitchen, continuing to talk to me as she went.

'So what are we going to do now?' 'What do you mean?'

'Do we still need to get a doctor out to see Penny or should we wait and see if...? Shit...'

'What's the matter,' I asked, concerned. I followed her into the other room and found her standing next to the cooker.

'Bloody gas is off as well.'

'You sure?'

I walked over to the stove and tried the controls. She was right. I waited for the hiss of the gas but there was nothing.

'What the fucking hell is going on here?' I cursed, tired, irritated and unnerved.

I pulled the cooker back from the wall and checked that it was still connected. Everything looked okay.

'Forget it,' Clare said from the other side of the room. 'Look.'

I looked up and saw that she was standing at the sink, holding the kettle under the cold tap. The tap was full on but just a pathetic trickle of water was coming from it. Ten seconds later and the trickle had dried up to nothing.

I could feel panic and uncertainty beginning to rise up in my throat like bile. I wanted to sit down and try and look for a rational explanation but I couldn't. I couldn't speak. For a few seconds I couldn't even move.

'What's happening?' Clare asked. Her throat sounded dry.

'Don't know,' I mumbled pathetically. 'I don't know.'

She swallowed, put down the kettle and began to look around the room for answers. Then she looked at me.

'We've got to do something,' she said. 'We can't just sit here. Something's happening and we need to find out what...'

'I know, but...'

'But what?' she snapped angrily. 'But fucking what? What is going on?'

I took an unsteady step towards her and then stopped. She turned away from me and leant over the sink and looked out of the window.

'I don't know,' I said before quickly running out of things to say. 'Look, maybe we should...'

I stopped speaking. Clare's body tensed. Her attention had obviously been caught by something she'd seen outside. From where I was I couldn't see what it was. Rather than tell me, she ran over to the back door, unlocked it and pushed her way outside. I followed close behind.

'What's the matter?' I shouted after her. 'What is it?'

She didn't answer. She didn't have to.

Hanging heavily in the sky, at a distance of maybe ten miles from the house, was an alien ship. Seemingly identical to the first ship we'd seen in the summer just passed, the huge vessel hung silently over the land.

'Fucking hell...' I began before my mouth dried. 'What the hell is that doing here? I thought their rescue ship wasn't due for another few months...?'

I walked a little way further away from the house and out into the garden. Turning back to look over the roof of the building behind me, I saw that there was a second noiseless ship in the sky, this one much closer. Both of the machines were vast and impervious.

'What's going on?' Clare demanded desperately. 'For Christ's sake, Tom...'

She knew that I couldn't answer.

A cold, autumnal rain had begun to fall. I wiped my face dry as I walked the length of Clare's garden towards a low stone wall which separated her property from the fields beyond. I climbed the wall, jumped down and then ran into the middle of the nearest field, hoping to get a better view of the alien ship closest to the house. When I turned back I froze with sudden, bitter fear. I could see another five ships, all watching and waiting ominously from seemingly random positions in the dark and overcast sky.

Feeling vulnerable and exposed, I ran back to the house.

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