The farmhouse felt as cold and empty inside as the rest of the world was outside. For hours Michael and Emma sat together in total darkness and almost complete silence, both of them thinking constantly about Carl. Whilst they could understand why he had decided to leave, neither could fully agree with what he’d done. Michael’s home seemed a million miles away to him but he knew in his heart that there was nothing worth going back there for. All that he had left behind was familiarity, property and possessions and none of that counted for anything anymore. Sure there were things which had a sentimental value attached that he wished he had with him now, but even those few precious belongings weren’t worth risking his life for. Nevertheless he accepted that Carl had been forced to leave far more behind than he or Emma had. Returning to Northwich would never bring his family back but, if it meant that he could be at peace with himself for the rest of his days, Michael guessed it would be worth taking the chance.
Without the generator working the house was dark, cold and uninviting. By late evening the gloom was such that Emma and Michael could hardly see each other despite the fact that they were sitting at opposite ends of the same room. Conversation was sparse. Although both thought of a thousand and one things they wanted to say to the other, neither dared say a word. Both survivors felt disconsolate and empty. Regardless of the fact that Carl had spent most of the last few days locked away in private in his room, it was painfully obvious that he was missing. Everything felt incomplete. Nothing felt the same anymore. And more than that, all that Emma and Michael could think about was what might be happening to their companion out on the road. The more they both thought about it the easier it became to accept what he had done and why he’d done it. The painful part was not knowing whether or not he was still alive. Was he still driving towards Northwich? Had he arrived? Was he with the survivors or had something happened to him along the way? Had the numbers of bodies in the city proved too much for him to deal with? No matter how hard they tried, neither Michael or Emma could clear these constant dark thoughts from their minds. The oppressive atmosphere eventually proved too much for Emma. She went up to the bedroom, preferring for a while to be alone.
At midnight Michael had also had enough. He’d spent the last fifty minutes dozing intermittently in his chair and yawning. Each yawn had been long and persistent and they had followed one after the other after the other, leaving his head spinning and his eyes watering. He desperately wanted to sleep but did nothing about it, despite Emma having gone upstairs over an hour earlier. For a while he wondered whether it would even be worth the effort of going up to bed. Once there would he be able to switch his mind off for long enough to be able to sleep? He could have slept in the chair he was sitting in but it was uncomfortable and he would have woken up stiff and aching and still tired. A few minutes after twelve he forced himself to get up and go upstairs.
For some reason Michael decided to try and sleep in another room. He and Emma had slept in the same room every night since they’d arrived at Penn Farm. Although he desperately wanted both her company and the reassurance of her presence, tonight he decided that it would be better if he slept elsewhere. Whether he was silently following some subconscious and misguided moral code he didn’t know and he didn’t care. Whatever the reason for using another bedroom it didn’t work. On his own in the dark he couldn’t even bring himself to shut his eyes for more than a couple of seconds, never mind sleep. Less than an hour after first climbing the stairs he lit a candle and quietly traipsed back down again. Trying hard not to make any more noise than was absolutely necessary he made himself a drink, lit a fire in the hearth and sat down to read a book.
Twenty minutes later Emma (who had also been unable to sleep and who had become understandably concerned when she’d heard noises downstairs) tiptoed into the living room. Finding Michael curled up in a ball on a rug in front of the fire she reached out and gently shook his shoulder.
‘Fucking hell!’ he screamed out, spinning round and sitting up in a single frightened movement. ‘Jesus, you scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know you were down here.’
Taken aback by the unexpected strength of his reaction, Emma sat down on the nearest chair. She brought her knees up under her backside and consciously tried to shrink her body down to the smallest possible size. In spite of the fire the house was still bitterly cold.
‘Sorry,’ she mumbled. ‘You looked like you were asleep.’
‘You’re joking aren’t you? I haven’t slept a bloody wink all night.’
Michael finished his drink, stretched and looked around the living room. The house felt much bigger tonight – perhaps even too big – and Carl’s sudden leaving was the obvious reason why that seemed to be the case. The room they sat in was filled with random flickering shadows from the fire, trapped indoors as the curtains at all of the windows had been drawn tightly shut. The survivors were afraid to let even the thinnest sliver of light escape out into the night for fear of attracting more of the wandering bodies to the house. When they needed to speak to each other Emma and Michael both instinctively talked in hushed whispers which echoed around the empty house, and when they needed to go into another room they crept through quietly, taking care not to make a single unnecessary sound. They didn’t dare do anything that might alert the outside world to their presence at the farm and the constant oppression was making Michael feel claustrophobic. He wanted to scream or shout or play some music or laugh or do pretty much anything other than sit there and watch the hands on the clock on the wall slowly march round another hour. But they both knew that they couldn’t afford to take any chances.
Michael glanced over at Emma sitting curled up on the chair. She looked tired and sad. Her eyes were heavy and she was deep in thought.
‘Come here,’ he said warmly, holding out his arms to her.
Not needing any further encouragement, she slid down from the chair and sat next to him. He gently put his arms round her shoulders and pulled her close. He lightly kissed the top of her head and held her tight.
‘It’s bloody cold tonight,’ she whispered.
‘You tired?’ he asked.
‘Knackered,’ she admitted. ‘You?’
‘The same. Can’t sleep though.’
‘Nor me. Too much going round my mind. I can’t switch off.’
‘Don’t need to ask what you’re thinking about, do I?’
She shook her head.
‘Not really. Difficult to think about anything else, isn’t it?’
Michael held her a little tighter still.
‘Just wish he’d stopped,’ he said, his voice suddenly sounding unexpectedly strained and cracked with emotion. ‘I still think I should have stopped him. I should have locked the stupid bastard in his room and not let him leave. I should have…’
‘Shh…’ Emma whispered. She pulled back slightly from Michael to allow herself to look deep into his eyes. The low orange flames of the fire highlighted glistening tears which ran freely down his face. ‘There was nothing that either of us could have done and talking like this is just pointless, we’ve already had this conversation. We both know we would have done more harm than good if we’d tried to stop him…’
‘I just wish he was here now…’ Michael continued, having to force his words out between sobs and deep breaths of air.
‘I know,’ she whispered, her voice soothing and low.
The two friends held each other tightly again. After a brief moment of awkwardness and reluctance they finally both began to cry freely. For the first time since they had lost everything on that desperate autumn morning two weeks ago, they both dropped their guard, relaxed and cried. They cried for all they had lost and left behind, they cried for their absent friend and they cried for each other.
The unexpected and much needed outpouring of emotion which Emma and Michael shared acted as a relief valve – diffusing otherwise insurmountable pressure, soothing troubled minds and breaking down unnecessary (and imaginary) barriers. Once their tears had dried (it could have been minutes or hours later – neither was completely sure) they began to relax and then, gradually, to talk freely again. Michael made them both a drink of hot chocolate which they drank together as they watched the fire die.
‘You know,’ Michael yawned, lying on his back and watching the shadows flickering on the ceiling, ‘I’d have bought a house like this if I could have afforded it.’
Emma, lying at right angles to him with her head resting on his stomach, smiled to herself.
‘Really?’ he asked, lifting himself up onto his elbows and looking across at her.
‘Yes, really,’ she replied. ‘It’s a dream house, isn’t it. A lick of paint and it could be beautiful.’
He sighed and yawned again.
‘Apart from half a fucking million rotting bodies on the other side of the fence it’s okay, isn’t it,’ he mumbled sarcastically.
Emma ignored him. She tried to stifle a yawn but couldn’t.
‘I’m tired,’ she said.
‘Want to go to bed?’ he asked.
‘No point. I won’t sleep.’
His elbows aching, Michael lay back down again. He scratched the side of his face and then rubbed his chin. He hadn’t shaved for three or four days. He couldn’t remember exactly how long it had been but it didn’t seem to matter. He put his hands behind his head and basked in front of the fire.
‘If it wasn’t for the bodies,’ he said, his voice quiet, ‘then I could put up with this.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Don’t get me wrong, I wish everything was back as it was,’ he explained. ‘All I’m saying is that I could deal with it all a lot better if the dead bodies had stayed dead. I can handle there being only a handful of us left, I’m just having trouble coping with the fact that it’s a constant fucking battle.’
‘It’s not a battle.’
‘Yes it is,’ he insisted. ‘Of course it is. If we want food then we have to fight for it. We have to sneak out, grab as much as we can and then sneak back like bloody mice. If we want heat and light then we have to be ready to be surrounded by those frigging things outside. It’s a fucking battle and it’s not fair.’
For a second Michael sounded like a spoilt child. But Emma knew that he was right and she agreed with everything he said. Had it not been punishment enough to have lost everything that ever mattered to them? Why now did they have to continue to suffer like this?
‘And what really gets me,’ he continued, ‘is the fact that the bloody things are already dead. You can’t kill them. I bet if you put a fucking bullet between their eyes they’d still keep coming at you.’
Emma didn’t respond. She knew it was important for him to talk but this was a conversation that she didn’t particularly want to prolong. She reminded herself that it was obviously doing Michael good. For too long they had each kept their fears and emotions bottled up for fear of upsetting the other two and disturbing the fragile peace and shelter that they’d found at Penn Farm. In the last twenty-four hours Carl had proved that holding onto private pain and frustration was not necessarily the best thing to do. His internal conflict and personal torture had driven him to take action which, from where she was standing, appeared tantamount to suicide.
‘Want another drink?’ Michael asked, disturbing her train of thought.
‘What?’ she mumbled, only half-listening.
‘I asked if you wanted another drink.’
‘No thanks. Do you want one?’
He shook his head.
‘So why did you ask then?’
‘Don’t know. Just something to say I suppose.’
‘What’s wrong with saying nothing.’
Michael covered his eyes.
‘Too quiet,’ he replied.
‘And what’s wrong with silence?’
‘It lets you think too much.’
‘Don’t you want to think?’
‘No, not any more. I want a break from thinking.’
‘But that’s a stupid thing to say. You’re always thinking, aren’t you?’
He yawned, stretched his arms and then pulled them back and covered his face again.
‘There’s thinking and there’s thinking, isn’t there?’
‘Of course there is. Have you ever sat down with a group of friends and talked about nothing in particular?’
‘Have you ever had one of those pointless conversations where you spend hours discussing really bloody stupid things? You know, when you find yourself arguing about the colour of your favourite superhero’s shorts or something like that?’
‘I can’t ever remember talking about superhero’s shorts, but I know what you mean.’
‘I remember when I was a kid, in the summer holidays, we’d get up early and disappear into the park for hours. We’d be there for most of the day and we wouldn’t actually do anything. We’d walk around and play and fight and…’
‘You need to switch off,’ Emma said as Michael’s voice trailed away into silence. ‘We both do. We weren’t designed for this kind of life. Your mind and body can’t cope if you keep going at full speed all the time.’
‘So when are you and me going to switch off then?’ he asked. ‘When are we going to be able to do something without worrying about the consequences?’
‘Because I think you’re right, we’re both going to need to, Em. I think that somehow we’re going to have to try and find a way to do it.’
‘Meditation,’ Emma suggested. ‘We could meditate in shifts.’
‘Are you taking the piss?’
‘No, I’m serious. Like you say, we’ve got to learn to switch off and disconnect from everything. If we don’t then one or even both of us will probably lose it big time.’
‘So when was the last time you managed to switch off and disconnect?’ he asked, semiseriously.
Emma thought carefully for a couple of seconds.
‘About six months ago,’ she laughed.
Once their frustrations had been aired and discussed, Michael and Emma talked for hours. Their long and rambling conversation covered everything and nothing.
‘We’re you born in Northwich, Mike?’
‘Just outside. What about you?’
‘No, I just studied there.’
‘Did you like it?’
‘It was okay.’
‘Yes, it was okay.’
‘I liked it. All right so it had it’s fair share of penthouses and it’s fair share of shit-holes but everywhere does. It was home.’
‘I much prefer being out in a place like this. Not at the moment, of course, but before all this happened I was always happier out in the country away from the noise and the concrete and the people.’
‘And me. I used to try and get away as often as I could. I’d just get in the car and drive for a couple of hours and see where I ended up. I’d go and lie down in a field or walk along a river or something…’
‘Didn’t go fishing did you?’
‘Because I hate fishing. It’s a bloody barbaric sport.’
‘Bloody boring sport.’
‘I used to camp. I’d pack a rucksack and a tent and catch a lift to somewhere remote.’
‘And then what would you do.’
‘Emma, do you miss the television?’
‘I miss the noise and normality of it, but not much else.’
‘I miss the weather.’
‘I never realised how much I relied on weather forecasts until now. I really miss knowing what the weather’s going to do next.’
‘Doesn’t matter anymore though, does it?’
‘Suppose not. It didn’t really matter anyway but I still want to know.’
‘Just looking at the telly switched off reminds me of everything that’s gone now.’
‘Did you used to watch a lot of films?’
‘I used to watch more films than anything else.’
‘And I bet you never really listened to the radio.’
‘No, not very often. Why?’
‘I’ve got this theory that people who watched a lot of films and who didn’t listen to the radio always had strong personalities.’
‘How do you work that out?’
‘Because you’re the kind of person who knows what you want if you don’t listen to the radio. If you listen to the radio you have to sit through hours of crap music, crap adverts and pointless conversations just to get to hear to a couple of minutes of something you like.’
‘I suppose. I’m not convinced though.’
‘I never listened to the radio, not even in the car. I was always a CD or cassette man. You always knew where you were with a cassette.’
‘So how’s this all going to end, Em?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I don’t know. Are things ever going to sort themselves out?’
‘I doubt it. Bloody stupid question really.’
‘I know, sorry.’
‘I think it’ll get worse before it gets any better.’
‘Think so? Shit, how could it get any worse?’
‘Disease. There are millions of bodies lying rotting in the streets, aren’t there?’
‘What about insects then?’
‘What about them?’
‘Rotting bodies and more disease is going to mean more insects, isn’t it?’
‘It might do. Probably.’
‘And rats. There are going to be fucking hundreds of rats about in the cities.’
‘Emma, is there anybody you can think of that you’re glad is dead?’
‘Bloody hell, what kind of a question is that?’
‘Come on, be honest. Is there anyone out of all the people you knew who you’re actually glad is dead?’
‘No. Christ, you’re sick at times.’
‘No I’m not, I just don’t bother with bullshit. There were a few people in my life who I’m happy aren’t about anymore.’
‘I worked with a bloke who was a complete bastard. He had a wife who just doted on him. She’d have done absolutely anything to make him happy. She had two part-time jobs as well as looking after three kids.’
‘And what did he do?’
‘Nothing. Absolutely bloody nothing. He was qualified and everything, just couldn’t be bothered to get off his backside and do anything with his life.’
‘So why did you want him dead? What did he ever do to you?’
‘I didn’t say I wanted him dead. He didn’t do anything to me.’
‘So why did you hate him?’
‘I didn’t say I hated him. He used to be quite a laugh actually.’
‘So why are you happy he’s dead?’
‘Don’t know really. He just always pissed me off. Suppose it was because I couldn’t be that way. He was just a waste of space. He didn’t add anything to his family, he just took from them. It never seemed right.’
‘Do you think you would have got married?’
‘Don’t know. Probably. I would have liked to have settled down and had a family eventually.’
‘So did you ever get close?’
‘No. I always thought I’d know instantly when I met the woman I was going to marry, but it never happened.’
‘I got engaged when I was eighteen.’
‘How old are you now? Christ, I can’t believe I’ve never asked your age before.’
‘So why didn’t it work out?’
‘Because I was left doing all the work while he sat on his backside, same as your mate and his wife. Jesus, he broke my heart. I would have done just about anything for him but he wasn’t prepared to do anything for me.’
‘So you must be glad that he’s not around?’
‘Not really. Actually I still miss him.’
Another hour and the virtually constant stream of questions, revelations and personal admissions had all but dried up. By three o’clock the two of them were sprawled out together on the rug in front of what remained of the fire, relaxing in the fading warmth of the lightly glowing embers. Michael woke up when Emma shuffled in her sleep and snored. In turn his sudden startled movements woke her.
‘You okay?’ he asked as he untangled himself from her legs. Their bodies had become innocently twisted together in the night.
‘I’m all right,’ she mumbled, her words dulled with sleep.
Michael dragged himself up onto all fours and shuffled round until he was in a similar position to Emma. Exhausted, he collapsed back down next to her. He instinctively reached out and put his arms around her body, holding her tightly and subconsciously shielding and protecting her from anything that might happen in the remaining dark hours of the night.