Michael’s earlier disorientation worsened as they drove back home. The roads which they’d followed earlier looked even more unfamiliar when he tried to navigate his way back again. The journey was made more difficult by the fact that he kept glancing back in the rear view mirror to check that Emma was still following. He felt surprisingly uncomfortable without her in the seat next to him. He had come to rely on having her around much more than he’d realised. He still felt like he hardly knew her, but the truth of the matter was that he had shared more pain, despair and raw emotion with her than with any other person in the twenty-nine years of his life so far.
He threw the Landrover around a sharp bend in the road and then slammed on the brakes to avoid the back end of a milk float which was jutting out into the road, the front of the float having smashed into a low stone wall. He missed it by inches, and the closeness of a collision shocked him back into concentrating on safely returning to the farm house. Another quick glance in the mirror revealed that Emma was still close behind.
The winding road gradually opened out and became straighter. In the near distance he could see a row of three isolated grey cottages. From one of the buildings (it seemed to be the middle one) a single figure emerged and staggered into the middle of the road. It stopped and turned to face him.
‘Fucking hell,’ Michael said under his breath to himself as he stared at the pathetic body in front of him. ‘Just look at that stupid fucking thing.’
He pushed his foot down harder on the accelerator, the Landrover quickly gaining more and more speed. At that precise moment Michael focussed all his pent up anger, fears and frustrations on that one pitiful creature. For a few seconds he felt that destroying it would somehow make amends for the loss of just about everything and anything that had ever mattered to him.
As Michael raced ahead the distance between the two cars increased. Concerned and confused and certain that something was wrong, Emma accelerated to try and keep up with him.
The body in the middle of the road lifted its tired arms into the air above its head and began to wave Michael down.
‘Jesus Christ,’ he muttered. It took a full few seconds for the true importance of what he was seeing to sink in, and by that time he was almost upon the body. It was moving with more direction, purpose and intent than he’d seen from any of the corpses before. Instinctively he slammed his foot down on the brake and brought the Landrover to a sudden juddering halt. He knew before he’d stopped that it was a survivor that stood in the road ahead of him. Even from a few meters away he could tell from the expression on the man’s face and by the way he carried himself and reacted that he was still alive.
‘Thank God,’ the diminutive man gasped as he approached Michael. He looked up as Emma stopped the car a short distance behind the Landrover. ‘Thank God,’ he said again, ‘you’re the first people I’ve seen in weeks…’
‘Are you all right?’ Emma asked. She was already out of her car and walking towards the man.
‘I’m okay,’ he replied quickly, chattering like a nervous child. ‘I’m better now I’ve seen you two. I thought I was the only one left around here. I was going to…’
‘What’s your name?’ Michael asked abruptly, cutting across him.
‘Philip, Philip Evans,’ he answered.
‘And where do you live?’
The little man gestured towards his house.
‘Here,’ he said, simply.
‘Then let’s get inside,’ Michael suggested. ‘It’s not a good idea for us to be standing out here like this.’
Philip obediently turned and led the others back towards his cottage. Emma looked him up and down as she followed him indoors. He was short and shabbily dressed. A noticeable stoop made him appear much shorter than he actually was and his grubby clothes were worn and had obviously not been cleaned or even changed for several days, maybe a week. His tired face was ruddy, pockmarked and unshaven and his hair greasy, ruffled and unkempt. Philip itched and scratched at himself continually.
They stepped through the low front door and found that inside the house was as vile, odious and squalid as its owner. Dark, dank and musty, it was the perfect breeding ground for countless deadly germs and diseases. Michael immediately wanted to turn around and leave but he knew that he couldn’t. No matter what his first impressions of Philip Evans were he was a survivor and, as such, he felt duty bound to try and do something for him. He was the first survivor they had seen since they’d left the city. More to the point, he was the first survivor they’d found since that first night in the community centre back in Northwich.
‘Sit down,’ Philip said as he closed the door behind them and ushered them both into the living room. ‘Please sit down and make yourselves comfortable.’
Emma glanced down at the sofa next to her and decided to remain standing. It was covered with crumpled food wrappers, crumbs and other, less easily identifiable rubbish.
‘Can I get you a drink?’ he asked politely. ‘I’m sorry, I’m just so surprised to see you both. When I heard the noise of your engines I thought that…’
His words faded in volume as he disappeared into the kitchen to fetch drinks (despite neither of the survivors having taken him up on his offer). Glad to be alone for a moment, Michael seized the opportunity to speak privately to Emma.
‘So what do you think?’ he whispered.
‘About what?’ she replied.
‘About him,’ he hissed. ‘What do you think we should do?’
She thought for a moment. She knew what she had to say but didn’t particularly want to say it.
‘He’s a survivor and we should offer to take him with us,’ she said with obvious reluctance.
‘But…?’ he pressed, sensing that she wasn’t telling him everything.
‘But look at the state of this place,’ she continued, gesturing at their cold and stale surroundings. ‘Christ, this house is disgusting. It’s making me feel sick just standing here, and by the look of him he’s bound to be contagious, isn’t he?’
‘We don’t know that for certain, do we?’ Michael argued despite the fact that he agreed with her completely. ‘We’ve got to try and do something for him, haven’t we?’
She nodded dejectedly and then changed the sour expression on her face as Philip returned to the room, still talking.
‘…and after that when we couldn’t find him we decided that something was definitely wrong,’ he babbled, his voice tired. The little man paused and stood still to cough. It was a violent, hacking noise, like a smoker’s rasping early morning cough, and he struggled to catch his breath.
‘You all right?’ Michael asked.
Philip looked up and nodded, his face flushed and red.
‘Fine,’ he wheezed. ‘Just picked up a bit of an infection I think.’
He carried a circular metal tray which he put down on the table after brushing a layer of rubbish down onto the dirty carpet with a single sweep of his arm. He handed Emma a chipped mug and then passed one to Michael. Emma peered into her cup and sniffed it. It was undiluted lemon cordial. She glanced across at Michael who discreetly shook his head and gestured for her to put the mug down.
‘Do you know what’s happened?’ Philip asked.
‘Haven’t got a clue,’ Michael replied.
‘I searched the village but I couldn’t find anyone else alive. I can’t drive so I haven’t been able to get into town. I’ve just been stuck here waiting for someone to come,’ he stopped talking for a second and looked at Michael again. ‘Are you two from town? Are there many of you there?’
‘We came here from Northwich just over a week ago,’ she replied. ‘And there are just the two of us now. We left a few people there but other than that we hadn’t seen anyone until we found you.’
Philip sank down into an armchair with an expression of bitter disappointment on his face.
‘That’s not good news,’ he muttered. ‘I’ve been stuck here waiting and I haven’t been able to do anything. My telephone’s not working and the electricity’s been cut off and…’
‘Philip,’ Michael interrupted, ‘just listen to me for a minute. Whatever happened here has happened right across the country as far as we know. Just about everyone is dead…’
‘I’ve seen some people,’ the little man whittered, not listening, ‘but they’re not right. They come when they hear me, but they’re sick. They bang on the door for hours trying to get inside but I just lock it and sit in the back room until they go.’
‘We think you should come with us,’ Michael continued. ‘We’re living in a farm house a few miles from here and we both think it would be better for you if you were to…’
Philip still wasn’t listening.
‘Do you know what makes them act like that? I really don’t like it. Mother’s not well and it upsets her when I tell her that…’
‘Your mother’s here as well?’ Emma asked.
‘Of course she is,’ he replied.
‘She can come with us,’ Michael offered. ‘We should get your things together and get out of here as quickly as we can.’
‘She won’t like leaving,’ Philip mumbled, ‘she’s lived here since she and Dad got married.’
‘Maybe you’ll be able to come back,’ Emma said, sensing that Michael was keen to get moving and doing her best to sensitively persuade Philip to leave.
Philip thought for a moment and then nodded.
‘You’re right,’ he finally said. ‘It’s probably for the best if we all stick together. I’ll go and tell Mum.’
With that he turned and walked towards a door in the corner of the room. Beyond the door was a narrow, twisting staircase which he began to climb. Emma instinctively followed but Michael stopped her.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked.
‘Let me go first.’
Philip was already at the top of the stairs waiting breathlessly. As Michael approached he lifted a single finger to his chapped lips.
‘Be quiet please,’ he whispered. ‘Mum’s found all of this a little hard to deal with and I don’t want to frighten her. She’s very old and she’s not been well these last few months.’
Michael nodded and managed a half-smile despite the fact that the air at the top of the stairs was rancid and he could clearly hear the ominous humming of germ-carrying flies close nearby.
Philip pushed the door open slightly and stuck his head into his mother’s room. He stopped and turned back to face the other two.
‘Give me a minute with her, will you?’ he asked.
He disappeared into the room and pushed the door shut behind him but Michael followed immediately. Philip didn’t notice.
‘Mum,’ he said softly as he crouched down at the side of the bed. ‘Mum, there are some people here who can help us. We’re going to go back with them for a few days until things settle down again.’
Michael stood a short distance behind Philip. Emma cautiously entered the room and walked over to stand next to him. He leant down and grabbed hold of her arm. With tension and fear obvious in his voice he hissed at her to quickly go back downstairs.
‘Why?’ she quietly asked. She took a single step forward to get a better view of Philip’s mother and then covered her mouth with horror and disgust. Mrs Evans’ skin was discoloured and decayed, her hair lank and greasy. Flies buzzed around her decomposing flesh and were feeding on her constantly writhing body. Michael walked up to the bed and pulled back the soiled sheets which covered the old lady. Ignoring Philip’s protestations he stared down at her emaciated body. She was tied to the bed with strong ropes which were stretched tight across her stained night-dress. She’d been dead since the first morning.
‘I had to tie her down,’ Philip stammered anxiously. ‘She wouldn’t stay in bed. When the doctor saw her last he said she had to stay in bed until she was better…’
‘Philip,’ he sighed, ‘your mum’s dead.’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ the little man scoffed, laughing with disbelief. ‘How can she be dead? She’s not well, that’s all. Bloody hell, how can she be dead you daft bugger?’
‘This has happened to millions of people, Philip,’ Emma said, fighting to keep control of her nerves and her stomach. ‘I know it sounds crazy, but most of the people who…’
‘Dead people can’t move,’ he shouted, resting his hand on his mother’s shoulder. ‘How can she be dead if she’s moving? Answer me that?’
‘Living people don’t rot,’ Michael replied. ‘Now your choice is simple, either come with us now and leave her here, or you both stay.’
‘I can’t go without Mum,’ he wailed. ‘I can’t leave her here on her own, can I?’
Michael took hold of Emma’s arm and gently pushed her back towards the stairs.
‘Wait for me by the front door,’ he said quickly. ‘I’ll be down in a couple of seconds.’
He turned back to try and reason with Philip.
‘Come on, just accept it will you?’ he began. ‘Your mother is dead. She might still be moving, but she’s as good as dead. She’s the same as those other people you’ve seen outside.’
Emma listened anxiously as she crept back down the stairs. She waited on the bottom step for Michael.
‘What are you going to do if you stay here?’ he continued. ‘You probably haven’t got much food or drink and your health is suffering. We’re your best chance, Philip. Get your stuff together and come with us.’
‘Not without Mum. I can’t leave without her.’
Michael shook his head dejectedly.
‘No,’ he said simply.
Without any warning something inside Philip snapped. In a fraction of a second the meek little man became an uncontrolled animal. His fears and frustrations bottled up since the nightmare had begun, he suddenly exploded with fury and savage emotion, lunging at Michael and sending him flying across the bedroom. Surprised by the force and the violence of the unexpected attack, Michael lost his balance and tripped backwards through the doorway. With Philip desperately holding onto him, the two men tumbled down the stairs and came to rest in a heap at Emma’s feet.
‘Get back to the car!’ Michael yelled as he struggled to hold the other man down. ‘Get the fucking engine started!’
Despite having the speed and intentions of a man possessed, Philip was weak and slight of stature and it didn’t take much effort on Michael’s part to overpower him. He wrenched him around and grasped his scrawny neck in a dangerously tight headlock. He dragged Philip towards the front door of the cottage, ignoring his pitiful, wheezing cries.
There were three bodies in the road between the car and the van. Emma ran past them and climbed into the car and started the engine. The corpses – joined by more from the shadows nearby – began to crowd around her. She struggled to see between them and waited anxiously for Michael to appear.
More bodies were reacting to the sounds of the struggle inside the building and were heading towards the cottage. Emma accelerated, hoping that the sound of the car’s engine would distract them and give Michael and Philip a chance to get out. A couple of stumbling figures turned around awkwardly and staggered towards the car. An equal number continued to move closer to the house.
Michael looked up and saw that there were corpses in the doorway. Philip, sensing that he had been distracted momentarily, managed to squirm free. He took a few steps away from Michael and wiped tears from his eyes, oblivious to the danger of the approaching cadavers.
‘Why can’t I bring her with me?’ he pleaded, still refusing to accept the bitter truth.
Michael grabbed hold of his arm to pull him out of the house but he recoiled and managed to twist himself free again. A body reached out and grabbed hold of Philip’s shoulders. Another caught hold of one of his legs. Terrified, he began to kick and scream.
‘Get them off me!’ he yelled. ‘Please, get them off!’
Michael tore the creatures away from him and pushed them back out into the street. He looked up and saw that there were about twenty figures around Emma’s car and he could see her panicked face staring back at him through the glass. He knew that he had to make a choice and he had to make it immediately. Keep trying to persuade Philip to leave without his mother or just leave without either of them. He glanced back at the pathetic shell of a man who stood in the middle of his living room, whimpering and snivelling.
The decision was made.
Michael ran out through the doorway, pushing bodies to the side, and pausing only to pull the door shut behind him hoping to give Philip something of a chance. He fought his way through the ragged crowd and climbed into the Landrover and started the engine. From where he sat all that he could see was a mass of grotesque, decaying faces staring back at him. He gave a couple of short blasts on the horn and, when Emma did the same in reply, he pushed down on the accelerator and moved away. The decomposing bodies offered hardly any resistance.
He watched in the mirror until he was sure that Emma was following and then put his foot down.