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Breaking Point

Two weeks since the night­mare began, and Michael and Emma are run­ning again. Their efforts to sur­vive and build a new life for them­selves at Penn Farm have all been in vain, and they’re as des­per­ate and fright­ened today as they were the day the rest of the world dropped dead around them.

They’re close to reach­ing break­ing point.

The farm­house was lost, and with it all secu­ri­ty, com­fort and cer­tain­ty. The two of them sat togeth­er in the back of the Land Rover, locked in a des­per­ate embrace, afraid to let go because all they had left now was each other.

Why are we even both­er­ing when the odds are stacked so high against us? What’s the point? When everything’s gone, why are we still try­ing to survive? 

They both asked the same ques­tions indi­vid­u­al­ly, but kept their answers pri­vate, main­tain­ing the pre­tence, refus­ing to dwell on the hope­less­ness of their sit­u­a­tion for the sake of the oth­er. Both Michael and Emma knew their sit­u­a­tion was dire.

Their des­per­ate flight from Penn Farm, over­run with dead flesh, had been unplanned, unex­pect­ed and ter­ri­fy­ing. It had all hap­pened so quick­ly: a long, drawn out wait and then, final­ly, sud­den­ly, break­ing point had been reached. The num­ber of bod­ies which had con­verged on their iso­lat­ed hide­out had reached unman­age­able lev­els, and then Carl had … well, Carl had reached break­ing point too. In many ways the final loss of the farm­house had come about as a direct result of his actions, and yet nei­ther Michael nor Emma felt any anger towards him. The fragili­ty of his state of mind was whol­ly under­stand­able in the cir­cum­stances. Michael won­dered if he too might go the same way before long. He even won­dered if that might be for the best. Could insan­i­ty pos­si­bly be any worse than this real­i­ty? Might it even make things easier?

They’d wait­ed in this des­o­late, windswept car park on the edge of one side of a steep val­ley for as long as they’d been able. Times past, peo­ple had come to this iso­lat­ed place to admire its beau­ty. Today all that Emma and Michael were inter­est­ed in was its remote­ness. From their high van­tage point they looked down over a land­scape which felt eter­nal­ly emp­ty now, and their micro­scop­ic size amidst the vast­ness of this place was hum­bling. The world should have been theirs for the tak­ing. Christ, as far as they knew, they were the only ones left alive, sure­ly they should have inher­it­ed every­thing by default? And yet here they were with nothing.

That was because they were here too. The relent­less, tire­less dead. Mil­lions of slow­ly decay­ing bod­ies which hound­ed them inces­sant­ly, nev­er stop­ping, and nev­er giv­ing up.

As it was, they’d only seen one body since they’d been up here. Who had it once been? How had the dead man man­aged to get this far on foot? Sure­ly he couldn’t have fol­lowed them all this way, so how had he end­ed up out here in the mid­dle of nowhere at the same time as Michael and Emma? They couldn’t help ask­ing these and oth­er unan­swer­able, irrel­e­vant ques­tions when the hideous crea­ture first lum­bered into view. The gnarled corpse had been hor­rif­ic: all grub­by skin and bone, the gust­ing wind blow­ing its ragged, flap­ping cloth­ing against its skele­tal frame, high­light­ing its bru­tal ema­ci­a­tion. Its grotesque face, deformed by decay, had appeared both expres­sion­less and impos­si­bly furi­ous at the same time.

The two of them had remained per­fect­ly still, wait­ing for the mon­stros­i­ty to dis­ap­pear again, too afraid to go out and con­front it, despite know­ing full well that either of them work­ing alone could have tak­en it down in sec­onds. They chose instead to wait, sit­ting motion­less in the back of the Land Rover until the dead man had gone. It seemed to take for­ev­er for him to dis­ap­pear, but nei­ther of them moved even a mus­cle until he was com­plete­ly out of sight, both fear­ing there might be more of the dead near­by. The damn things fol­lowed the herd. If they’d attract­ed the atten­tion of just this one, count­less more might soon follow.

‘We need food,’ Emma said after they’d been sat in their wind-beat­en, blood-splat­tered Land Rover for what felt like weeks, con­tin­u­al­ly watch­ing the road ahead and behind should oth­er corpses appear. Michael didn’t answer. She was right, of course, but why both­er? ‘We can’t just sit here indef­i­nite­ly, can we?’

‘Why not? You got any bet­ter ideas?’

She looked across at him. He stared out through the rain-lashed win­dow, doing all he could to avoid mak­ing eye contact.

‘I can’t take this any­more. I’m hun­gry,’ she said, and she scram­bled over into the front and sat down behind the wheel. She start­ed the engine, and the sud­den noise and move­ment forced Michael into life.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ he protest­ed as she pulled out onto the road. He climbed over into the front and col­lapsed into the seat next to her.

‘What does it look like I’m doing? I can’t stand this.’

He want­ed to argue and make her turn back but he knew he couldn’t. He had no counter.

#

Anoth­er unplanned dri­ve through the heavy-skied gloom of a cold late-Sep­tem­ber after­noon came to a sud­den end out­side a lone house, as far away from every­thing else as Penn Farm had ini­tial­ly seemed. Michael silent­ly thanked Emma for forc­ing his hand. For a while he’d begun to gen­uine­ly believe they might die up on that rocky out­crop, too scared to ever move.

‘So what do you reck­on?’ she asked. Michael looked around. The house stood alone at the road­side, no oth­er build­ings in sight. He could see a soli­tary corpse in the dis­tance, too far away to be of any real concern.

‘I’ll go in and check it out,’ he replied, and before she could say any­thing else he was gone. He checked the front door — locked — then walked around the side of the build­ing. He peered around each cor­ner, check­ing the gar­den was emp­ty, before try­ing the back door. It was unlocked, and he slipped through into a small, square kitchen where a rus­tic-look­ing table and chairs filled almost the entire floor. He stared at the nev­er-fin­ished remains of someone’s last break­fast until a sud­den noise behind dis­turbed him and he span around to see Emma stand­ing in the door­way. She hadn’t want­ed to wait alone outside.

‘Well?’

‘Don’t know yet,’ he said. ‘Haven’t got any fur­ther than here.’

He walked around the edge of the table and down a short hall­way towards the front door. Some­thing grabbed at his leg and he recoiled, jump­ing back with shock and trip­ping over the cor­ner of a rug. He was flat on his back­side before he knew what was hap­pen­ing, face to face with a woman’s corpse lying on its bel­ly. He scram­bled back away from the hideous thing, unable to take his eyes off its repul­sive, dis­ease-rav­aged face. One of its legs was bad­ly bro­ken: hor­rif­i­cal­ly swollen in all the wrong places. A sharp point of bro­ken bone had torn through the skin and was now scrap­ing along the wood­en floor­boards as the crea­ture tried to move clos­er to him. It reached out but its grasp­ing fin­gers fell short every time. It tried to grip the rug and pull itself clos­er, but its weight was too much for its weak­ened mus­cles to shift.

Emma was stand­ing in the kitchen door­way, unable to move. Michael was still sit­ting on the ground. He drew his feet up clos­er, keep­ing out of range of the dead woman’s thrash­ing arms, mov­ing back as she inched forward.

‘Get rid of it,’ Emma said, but Michael couldn’t move. This was the first of the dead he’d been this close to since their escape from the farm house, and it ter­ri­fied him with its unde­ni­able, vicious intent. And yet, phys­i­cal­ly, he knew it was noth­ing. It appeared so pathet­i­cal­ly weak that he couldn’t under­stand why he, Carl and Emma hadn’t been able to defend their home in the woods from these pathet­ic things. Their flesh was weak. They were rot­ting. Hol­low. This one had been an elder­ly woman — no match for him in life, let alone death — and yet he still couldn’t bring him­self to fight. He pic­tured him­self boot­ing her face, cav­ing it in until just a bloody mess remained, but he couldn’t do it. Patchy white hair. Drib­bles of decay stain­ing her cardi­gan and her flo­ral print dress. Slippers.

For fuck’s sake …

Forc­ing him­self to get a grip and move, Michael stood up, grabbed the corpse by the scruff of the neck, and half-dragged, half-threw it back into the room it had been slow­ly crawl­ing out of. He pulled the door shut, safe in the knowl­edge it couldn’t reach the han­dle from the floor, and that even if it did, it would prob­a­bly only be able to push, not pull.

And again he thought, if this is our ene­my, how the hell did we lose the farmhouse?

The rest of the small house was clear. The dead woman in the lounge banged the door repeat­ed­ly, doing lit­tle more than fill­ing the build­ing with unwant­ed noise.

Michael and Emma sat in the kitchen togeth­er and ate. What they didn’t eat now, they’d take. Despite their hunger, their ner­vous­ness had stolen their appetites and each mouth­ful was an effort to swal­low. Emma didn’t think she’d be able to keep much down. Her stom­ach turned over every time the dead woman hit the door.

‘We can’t stay here,’ she said.

‘I know.’

‘That noise … it’ll bring more of them.’

‘I know.’

‘So where are we going to go?’

Michael didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. He got up and walked to the front of the house. Emma fol­lowed. There was anoth­er body out­side now. They watched from the safe­ty of the shad­ows as a crea­ture which used to be a para­medic awk­ward­ly lum­bered past in its loose and bad­ly soiled jump­suit uni­form. It looked like it was going to keep walk­ing, but an incon­ve­nient thump from the corpse in the lounge attract­ed its atten­tion. It piv­ot­ed around awk­ward­ly on lead­en feet, then came towards the house, crash­ing into the win­dow through which Michael and Emma had been watch­ing, paw­ing at the glass.

Anoth­er noise from the woman in the lounge, loud­er this time, per­haps in response.

‘We could shut her up,’ Emma suggested.

‘What, tie her hands behind her back?’

‘You know what I mean.’

Michael knew exact­ly what she meant, but just the thought of hav­ing to face that foul old hag again made his legs weak­en. He’d nev­er been par­tic­u­lar­ly good at han­dling con­fronta­tion, and the longer this night­mare con­tin­ued, the less-equipped he felt to be able to deal with the dead. They were weak and yet so dri­ven to attack: so relent­less­ly hos­tile and so bloody unpre­dictable. He couldn’t face it, not yet. 

‘Let’s go,’ he said, and the dead para­medic began beat­ing on the glass in response to his voice and move­ment. It was just a mat­ter of time before more corpses arrived here.

Between them they car­ried a small sup­ply of food and oth­er sup­plies out to the Land Rover, care­ful­ly creep­ing around the back of the para­medic and avoid­ing yet anoth­er corpse which was trip­ping unsteadi­ly down the road towards the house now.

Michael start­ed the engine and watched as both of the crea­tures turned and moved towards the Land Rover with renewed inter­est and speed. ‘Which way?’ he asked.

‘Any way,’ Emma replied. ‘It doesn’t mat­ter. Just go.’

#

No maps. No sat­nav. No real idea where they were or where they were going …

As the after­noon dis­ap­peared into the evening and the light began to fade, Michael and Emma found them­selves skirt­ing around the edge of a small town. Their nerves increased as their sur­round­ings became more urban and less open. There seemed to be move­ment around them con­stant­ly now. The road imme­di­ate­ly ahead was blocked by a crash which nei­ther of them saw com­ing until they were almost upon it: dur­ing the final rush hour, two bus­es trav­el­ling in oppo­site direc­tions had col­lid­ed with each oth­er at speed. One was still stand­ing upright, the oth­er over on its side. Michael swung the Land Rover around, bump­ing up over a low cen­tral reser­va­tion, then accel­er­at­ed back the way they’d come. The road they’d just dri­ven along, vir­tu­al­ly emp­ty a few min­utes ear­li­er, was fill­ing with teem­ing move­ment now as hordes of the dead grav­i­tat­ed towards the Land Rover’s noise. A group of them that had been trapped in a build­ing — some kind of coach sta­tion, it appeared — man­aged to get free and spilled out onto the car­riage­way like a slick. Michael swerved, then steered hard the oth­er way to avoid plough­ing into anoth­er group emerg­ing from a side street like a gang. Maybe the dark made things look worse than they actu­al­ly were, but there seemed to be hun­dreds of bod­ies up ahead of them now, fuck­ing hun­dreds.

‘Get off the road,’ Emma said, sound­ing calmer than she felt.

‘And go where?’ Michael demand­ed, more than a hint of des­per­a­tion in his voice. ‘We can’t risk going any deep­er into the town.’

She grabbed his arm and point­ed towards the entrance to a mul­ti-storey car park on the far side of a traf­fic island they were fast approach­ing. ‘Head up. Just get up off the street.’

Michael grunt­ed some­thing unin­tel­li­gi­ble then steered up the exit ramp, crash­ing through a bar­ri­er. He drove up floor by floor, using what­ev­er gaps in the sta­tion­ary traf­fic he could find to keep climb­ing, hav­ing to fight against his instincts and ignore the road mark­ings. He was turn­ing and turn­ing the car now like they were rid­ing a hel­ter-skel­ter in reverse, half-expect­ing to still come across oth­er dri­vers com­ing back down the oth­er way.

They final­ly stopped when they reached the top floor of the car park and there was nowhere else to go. A sud­den sharp show­er of rain ham­mered down and wind whipped across the rooftop, but the con­di­tions didn’t stop Michael from get­ting out, run­ning over to the edge of the build­ing, and look­ing down. He held onto a met­al rail­ing as anoth­er gust of wind buf­fet­ed him.

‘See much?’ Emma asked when he returned.

‘Not a lot. The dumb fuck­ers haven’t worked out we’re up here.’

‘Not yet,’ she said under her breath as she climbed over the seats and bed­ded down in the back. ‘Just give it time.’

#

Sev­er­al days passed. It was now dawn on the third day since they’d reached the car park. Each hour seemed to drag on for­ev­er. The mea­gre, bare­ly suf­fi­cient sup­plies they’d gath­ered from the house were sup­ple­ment­ed by bags of shop­ping they’d found in oth­er cars near­by. Emma and Michael sat in the Land Rover togeth­er through the light and the dark and the wind and rain. Con­ver­sa­tion was infre­quent and dif­fi­cult, the atmos­phere unremit­ting­ly grim. Their sit­u­a­tion, whilst by no means com­plete­ly hope­less, was unclear at best.

Sev­er­al times Emma tried ask­ing the ques­tions Michael was doing his best to avoid. ‘So what are we going to do? And please answer me this time, Michael. Don’t just ignore me again…’

But that was exact­ly what he did. Rather than answer or argue, Michael got out and walked to the edge of the roof again and looked down, as he’d done count­less times since they’d got here. This time Emma followed.

‘This is crazy. We have to do something.’

‘Like what?’ he demand­ed, his voice unex­pect­ed­ly loud. Emma took a step back with sur­prise at the strength of his response. He sound­ed des­per­ate, close to tears. ‘You keep ask­ing me the same thing again and again, but I can’t give you any answers. Just look down there, Em. It’s fuck­ing hopeless.’

He point­ed down and Emma leaned over to see. The crowd of bod­ies around the car park had been grow­ing steadi­ly since they’d first arrived. Now a crowd of them filled the street direct­ly below. She didn’t know why they kept com­ing. Was the rest of the world real­ly so qui­et that they could hear even the slight nois­es she and Michael made up here? Had this crowd grown from the rem­nants of the dead attract­ed here by the noise of their arrival? But why so many?

‘They know,’ Michael said, his voice a lit­tle calmer now. ‘It’s the only expla­na­tion. They know we’re up here — some of them, any­way — and that’s enough. And I think they’ll keep try­ing to climb up until either they get to us or we have to go back down.’

He stared down into the silent, con­stant­ly shift­ing mass of dead flesh so far below. He couldn’t tell whether their move­ments were con­trolled or invol­un­tary, but he was sure he saw sev­er­al of them lift their heads and look up. He tried to block the thought from his mind, but sud­den­ly all he could think about was this car park steadi­ly fill­ing up with the dead, floor by floor, until he and Emma were trapped and sur­round­ed again, until the point of no return had been reached. Break­ing point.

#

Anoth­er end­less day slow­ly turned to night. Emma bus­ied her­self by loot­ing from the few cars on the top floor of the car park they still hadn’t touched, occa­sion­al­ly creep­ing down to the floor imme­di­ate­ly below. She’d found scraps of food in one car, the odd bot­tle of water in anoth­er, some warmer clothes for both of them in a third. Michael, spurred into doing some­thing because Emma sud­den­ly seemed so busy, filled the tank of the Land Rover with fuel siphoned from oth­er vehi­cles, then built a bon­fire in an emp­ty space and lit it, des­per­ate for warmth. Emma came run­ning over as soon as she saw the flames.

‘What the hell are you doing?’

‘Keep­ing warm.’

‘But you can’t … what if they see it?’

‘Who, the bodies?’

‘Yes!’

‘They won’t.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because we’re on the top floor of a fuck­ing car park, Emma. We’re fifty fuck­ing feet off the ground!’

‘But what if they do see it?’ she screamed at him. ‘What if it brings more of them here?’

‘For Christ’s sake, think about what you’re say­ing. How can they pos­si­bly see it from down there?’

‘How do you know they can’t? There are oth­er build­ings this tall. What if there are bod­ies up there too? They’ll see it.’

‘And how are they going to get here? Get a bloody grip.’

‘Don’t talk to me like that—’

‘Then don’t talk to me at all! Any­way, if this fire doesn’t bring them up here, your bloody scream­ing will.’

‘I’m not screaming.’

‘You fuck­ing are!’ he yelled at her.

They both shut up, aware that they were being as loud as each oth­er. Michael’s last words echoed off the walls of emp­ty buildings.

‘We should just go,’ she said, qui­eter now, calmer. ‘Take our chances and get out of here.’

‘There are still too many of them down there. We can’t. We’re trapped. I don’t want to go any­where near any of those fuck­ing things, do you? We’ll keep wait­ing. They have to go even­tu­al­ly, don’t they?’

‘You reck­on?’

Michael turned his back and walked away. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take.

#

Michael had been sit­ting in the front of the Land Rover, star­ing out into the dark­ness for what felt like for­ev­er, when he thought he saw move­ment out of the cor­ner of his eye. It was almost dawn — yet anoth­er dawn — and he glanced back over his shoul­der to check on Emma. She was still asleep behind him, her head buried under blan­kets to block out the rest of the world. He peered deep­er into the gloom around the ramp which led up onto the rooftop, des­per­ate­ly hop­ing not to see any­thing. Had it, as he now prayed, just been a trick of the low light? A scav­eng­ing bird land­ing and tak­ing off again, feed­ing off the scraps like he and Emma did? Ash being blown from the remains of last night’s fire? But then he saw it again, and this time he knew exact­ly what it was. He could tell from the slow, lop­ing move­ments, from the unsteady awk­ward­ness and list­less gait that it was one of the dead. How it had man­aged to drag itself all the way up here, he had no idea. It must have heard them loot­ing and argu­ing and react­ed to their noise. And now, hours lat­er, the total lack of oth­er inter­rup­tions had com­bined with the bizarre, dogged per­sis­tence the dead now dis­played to allow this one to final­ly reach the top floor.

Was this corpse alone, or was this the first of thou­sands? Was this the begin­ning of the del­uge he feared?

What do I do? 

Michael sat per­fect­ly still and watched the crea­ture as it approached. He moved only his eyes and tried to work out what his next move should be. Maybe if he just ignored it, it might go away like the lone body they’d seen out on the hills? But this one couldn’t get away — there was nowhere left for it to go. Per­haps he should wait for it to reach the edge of the roof and hope it would take a final step too far and fall off. As the corpse stag­gered clos­er, the first shards of morn­ing sun­light allowed Michael to make out all the details he didn’t want to see. It was a pathet­ic, mis­er­able sight. Bare­ly able to sup­port its own ema­ci­at­ed weight, it dragged its feet along and its lead­en arms swung with every step as if it was half-heart­ed­ly attempt­ing to march. It had dark greasy hair cov­er­ing most of its face and its ragged cloth­ing glis­tened with damp decay where the light struck. Bizarrely, some­thing about its lethar­gy — its appar­ent igno­rance, apa­thy almost — annoyed Michael. The corpse remind­ed him of a use­less teenag­er, like one of the kids in the school class­room where he’d been deliv­er­ing a talk when this night­mare had begun. It looked pathet­ic, and he asked him­self ‘Why am I afraid of you?’

Michael looked back at Emma again when she stirred in her sleep, and his sud­den move­ment was enough to make the corpse react. It start­ed towards the car and, as it approached, he thought about the cru­el irony of their sit­u­a­tion. He was still alive. He was still strong. He could still think and eat and sleep and laugh and cry and do all the oth­er things he’d always been able to do, and yet he and Emma were the ones who’d become pris­on­ers of the dead, trapped on this car park roof. The body con­tin­ued to come clos­er and Michael watched it intent­ly. Its face was hol­low and vacant, infu­ri­at­ing­ly expres­sion­less. It bare­ly looked capa­ble of mov­ing much far­ther for­ward, let alone caus­ing either of them any harm. And yet he still couldn’t bring him­self to do any­thing about it. He thought back to the farm­house again, to the life he’d almost had there with Emma before it had fall­en apart. They should have done so much bet­ter. Had that real­ly been their last chance as they’d feared, or could they try again? Was he real­ly going to allow what was left of his time to be ruled by these foul, decay­ing crea­tures, this one in par­tic­u­lar? Or was he going to do some­thing about it?

Michael got out of the car, wak­ing Emma in the process, and marched towards the corpse. His sud­den surge of deter­mi­na­tion waned just as quick­ly as it had begun. He slowed, then stopped and stood his ground. The body con­tin­ued its des­per­ate­ly slow approach. It’s just you and me, he thought, look­ing deep into the foul aberration’s dis­tort­ed face and doing all he could to ignore the bil­ious feel­ing at the back of his throat. It sud­den­ly felt as if every­thing boiled down to what hap­pened next; that these few min­utes would some­how shape every day he and Emma had left. So was it sink or swim? Fight or flight? Win or lose?

The corpse took anoth­er lurch­ing step for­ward, and Michael flinched.

‘Get back in the Land Rover,’ Emma said from some­where behind him. ‘Quick!’

He looked at the dead body as it react­ed to her voice. Then he turned to Emma and said: ‘No.’

Before she could stop him, Michael lunged for­ward and grabbed the corpse. The smell up close was foul, and the sog­gy nois­es the piti­ful cadav­er made as it squirmed in his grip made him want to vom­it. Its flesh was cold and pli­able under his fin­gers. It tried to push his arms away but its com­par­a­tive lack of strength meant it didn’t stand a chance. Michael straight­ened his arms and sur­prised him­self by lift­ing the creature’s entire sog­gy body sev­er­al inch­es off the ground. It con­tin­ued to try and fight, but it was mis­er­ably weak. He lift­ed the corpse high­er before run­ning to the edge of the rooftop and hurl­ing it over. He watched as it tum­bled down like a shop win­dow dum­my, stiff arms and legs sprawl­ing, then crashed into the crowd below, hit­ting the deck with a sick­en­ing crunch which Michael could clear­ly hear over the silence of every­thing else. Down at ground lev­el, the dead imme­di­ate­ly surged again, trip­ping and slid­ing inquis­i­tive­ly over what was left of their fall­en brethren.

Breath­less and feel­ing strange­ly exhil­a­rat­ed, Michael returned to the Land Rover.

‘We’re going,’ he said.

‘Where?’

‘I don’t care.’ He wiped his hands clean on a tow­el then threw it out of the win­dow. ‘Any­where but here. We’re not going to be prisoners.’

He start­ed the engine, and anoth­er corpse dragged itself up onto the rooftop, seem­ing­ly in response to the noise.

‘Are you sure about this? You were the one who—’

‘I know what I said,’ he inter­rupt­ed, ‘and I was wrong. And no, I’m not sure about this, but if we do some­thing and fuck it up, at least we’ll have tried. You were right, we can’t just sit up here and either starve to death or wait for them to get us. I’m tak­ing back con­trol, Em.’

She was about to speak again, but it was too late. Michael put his foot down and the Land Rover jud­dered across the wet asphalt. He swerved around a tight cor­ner, smack­ing into the lone approach­ing body and send­ing it fly­ing, then ploughed down a steep, stom­ach-churn­ing incline into the dark­ness. Emma held on to her seat, her safe­ty belt, the door … any­thing she could grab hold of as the Land Rover hur­tled fur­ther and fur­ther down. With each lev­el they descend­ed, the amount of dead flesh around them increased, but it was nev­er enough to stop them. On one floor Michael clipped the wing of anoth­er car, but his response was sim­ply to accel­er­ate hard­er and get out of this gloomy, germ-filled con­crete maze as fast as he could. Even­tu­al­ly he smashed through anoth­er bar­ri­er along­side the one they’d bro­ken through when they’d first arrived here, then raced out onto the street. He gripped the steer­ing wheel tight and thun­dered through the mass of rot­ting flesh, no longer both­er­ing to try and avoid hit­ting them, just doing what­ev­er he had to do to get away.

#

They stopped at a cut-price super­mar­ket on the way back out of town. Emma had spot­ted it in a side road: ignored and over­looked by the dead. Michael slammed on the brakes and reversed up to the doors. They’d done this before.

‘We should fill the car up,’ Emma said as she climbed out and ran into the store, ‘then just get away again.’

Michael didn’t answer. He was already inside, drag­ging a pile of plas­tic shop­ping bas­kets over towards the near­est aisle. He looked around anx­ious­ly and began to fill them. For­tu­nate­ly there were no corpses inside that he could see, but a hand­ful had already appeared at the floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows which ran the length of the shop floor. They slammed their hands and slid their decay­ing faces against the glass, mov­ing from side to side, slow­ly match­ing the move­ments of the two loot­ers inside.

By the time the first four bas­kets had been filled at speed and car­ried back over to the Land Rover, there were eight corpses at the win­dows. By the time they’d filled ten bas­kets, there were twen­ty of them. By the time they’d col­lect­ed enough, it had become impos­si­ble to gauge how many of the damn things there were. The full expanse of glass had become a sol­id mass of greasy grey flesh, and a crowd had formed around the front of the Land Rover too. Nei­ther Michael nor Emma said any­thing until they were loaded up and ready to leave. They stood a short dis­tance back and sur­veyed the chaos out­side together.

‘Are we in trou­ble now?’ Emma asked.

‘Only if we wait around here much longer. We need to move.’

‘Just dri­ve through them?’

‘Exact­ly. Before they reach crit­i­cal mass.’

‘Crit­i­cal mass? What the hell are you talk­ing about?’

‘Crit­i­cal mass, break­ing point … it’s all the same thing. We’re safe until we let them get to a cer­tain lev­el. When there’s too many of them, the bal­ance of pow­er shifts and we’re screwed. Until then, we’re still just about in con­trol. We just have to keep moving.’

‘Break­ing point … is that what hap­pened to you on the car park roof?’

‘Some­thing like that, I guess. You ready?’

Emma nod­ded, and the two of them ran for the back of the Land Rover and scram­bled over the sup­plies they’d col­lect­ed. Michael dropped into the driver’s seat, start­ed the engine, put his foot down, and careened away. Emma held on tight behind him.

‘So what’s the plan now?’ she shout­ed over the noise of the engine and the relent­less thump of the stream of unsteady bod­ies they ploughed into and through. At first Michael didn’t answer, con­cen­trat­ing instead on mount­ing the pave­ment to weave around the back of a truck, then avoid­ing anoth­er clutch of corpses to get back onto the road.

‘No plan,’ he told her.

‘Great.’

‘Plen­ty of food, though.’

She couldn’t real­ly argue, but she did. ‘We need to be bet­ter organ­ised that this, Mike. We can’t just keep stop­ping and starting.’

‘Why not? I’m begin­ning to think that’s exact­ly how we need to be. The same thing’s going to hap­pen wher­ev­er we go, isn’t it? Wher­ev­er we are, what­ev­er we do, we’re going to have about ten min­utes grace before we’re sur­round­ed. Fact is, we’re mas­sive­ly out­num­bered, Em. We just have to deal with it.’

‘So is this it then? Just dri­ve, loot, dri­ve, sleep, dri­ve, fight … ? We’re going to end up spend­ing the rest of our lives stuck in this bloody car.’

‘If you can think of a bet­ter solu­tion, I’m all ears.’ He gripped the wheel and swerved to avoid a child’s corpse which walked down the white line towards them, arms out­stretched in a clas­sic ghoul-like pose. ‘We need to dri­ve out into the mid­dle of nowhere, find some­where prac­ti­cal­ly inac­ces­si­ble, then hope there’s a build­ing or some­thing we can use nearby.’

‘There’s a café on the top of Snow­don,’ Emma offered.

‘That’s not as dumb as it sounds.’

‘It wasn’t dumb at all,’ she said, offend­ed. ‘I was being serious.’

‘But it’s imprac­ti­cal. Too extreme. There are prob­a­bly loads of places like that, but less remote. It’s just a ques­tion of find­ing them.’

‘Let’s stop and get a map or some­thing. Plan things prop­er­ly instead of just lurch­ing from cri­sis to crisis.’

‘We’re not lurch­ing from cri­sis to cri­sis. It’s all the same bloody cri­sis, in case you hadn’t noticed. We just need to find some­where as iso­lat­ed as the top of Snow­don, then only a hand­ful of them will ever be able to reach us. Christ, it’ll be hard enough for us to get there.’

‘Déjà vu. Haven’t we been down this road before? Wasn’t that the big sell­ing point of the farm­house? Look where that got us.’

‘It almost worked,’ he replied, winc­ing as the Land Rover pow­ered into anoth­er corpse.

‘Yes, but almost is the same as didn’t these days. It’s not that sim­ple. There are too many of them.’

Michael braked as he reached a cross-roads. The Land Rover skid­ded to an abrupt halt. The dead poured towards them from every con­ceiv­able direction.

‘This is bloody crazy,’ Emma said under her breath. She ducked instinc­tive­ly as anoth­er corpse lunged for the Land Rover. It tripped in the road and fell for­ward, its skull crack­ing against her win­dow with a sick­en­ing thump.

Michael strug­gled to keep con­trol of both the Land Rover and his tem­per. ‘I’ll keep dri­ving until we find a bloody light house or some­thing like that, shall I?’

Emma didn’t bite. She gripped the sides of her seat as he accel­er­at­ed again. And then she saw it.

‘Stop!’

Michael instinc­tive­ly react­ed, bring­ing the Land Rover to anoth­er jud­der­ing stop and wip­ing out four more strag­gling cadav­ers in the process. ‘What?’

‘Over there,’ she said, point­ing ahead and way over to their left. ‘Look!’

Michael saw it imme­di­ate­ly and sped up again. ‘You’re a bloody genius,’ he told her as he steered them towards an indus­tri­al estate. Through the chain-link fence he could see a vast expanse of tar­mac cov­ered with car­a­vans and motorhomes of vary­ing shapes and sizes. She’d found a tem­po­rary solu­tion to their prob­lems: a way of get­ting as far as they could from the towns and the cities and the dead with­out hav­ing to resort to liv­ing out of the back of this bloody Land Rover any longer.

‘That one,’ Emma said as they approached, point­ing out the largest, most lux­u­ri­ous, and strongest-look­ing motorhome she could see.

THE AUTUMN SERIES