Chapter 14 - Losses And Wins
Claire stared at her father, her eyes welling up with tears. Although the man was smiling, his face was in more of a rictus than indicating pleasure at seeing her.
“Oh, god,” James muttered. While not being much of a fan of his prospective father-in-law, James would never have wanted this for him; it was clear the man was not himself, meaning only one thing. “We’ve got to get away from here.”
Claire turned to look at him, showing no anger, just a deep-seated sadness that broke James’ heart to see. Not saying a word, Claire re-engaged the gears and drove quickly back down the drive and away. They travelled a couple of miles before Claire found a layby in which to stop.
She turned the engine off and just sat there, staring straight ahead. James took her hand and squeezed it gently in reassurance.
“I, I feared this” she mumbled. “I imagined this all the way down here, but…”
James stayed silent. He liked to think he connected well with women and reckoned he knew from past experience when to speak and when not to; this had to be one of those latter moments. Claire mumbled silently to herself, her lips moving but no sound coming out. Eventually James broke the silence.
“Will your mother be there?” he asked gently, still clutching her hand.
Claire stopped mumbling. James saw her face muscles tauten.
“I would have thought so. Will she be like him? I couldn’t stand that, the last time we spoke we argued.”
All James could think was that yes, she almost certainly was, but that wasn’t what he said.
“Listen, I will go back there and find out. I’ll approach on foot, probably use the row of laurels off to the side of the house for cover. I can look through the window and see if I can see anything. You should wait here.”
“Wait here? Bollocks to that,” she retorted derisively. “I have to see for myself.”
James watched drops of rain hitting the windscreen, joining together into runnels and plummeting downwards, all the while trying to think of what he could say to discourage her. He couldn’t imagine a scenario where this could have a pretty outcome that wouldn’t be seared into her brain forever. On the other hand, when Claire wanted something, she generally took it with both hands.
“Alright,” he acceded finally, sighing. “Do me a favour babe, whatever you see, please don’t just go rushing in. I won’t lose you for anything.”
Hugging her tightly, he kissed her on the cheek before they got out of the car. Claire locked the car and pocketed the keys. Watching her automatic and perfectly normal action James wondered if they would ever again have to worry about anyone capable of driving a car, let alone stealing one. Suddenly he felt the pressure of the end of the world on his shoulders. Right now, though, he was more frightened about what were they walking into.
As they approached the farm, they decided against approaching from the front of the house, instead they hopped over the five bar steel gate to the adjacent field and used the hedge to shield them from watchful eyes as they made their way towards the back of the house.
From their vantage point they could see the whole rear of the property as well as through all the large sash windows and into the large Victorian-style conservatory hanging off the back of the pile. They hunkered down, waited and watched. The rain had eased a little and so they only got wet slowly. Not grateful for the weather’s kindness, James shivered as inexorably the cold seeped into his bones.
For a while nothing stirred. Suddenly Robert Bruford appeared at the back door. Slowly and deliberately he stepped outside and turned his face upwards to greet the gentle rain. Claire stifled a sob as even from their distance from the house they could both see small black things crawling over his face. James put a reassuring hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. As if she didn’t notice his touch, she watched fixedly as what had been her father returned inside.
“Let me go in and see if I can find your mum,” he offered.
“No,” she replied, stifling a sob. “I think that if she isn’t infected then I know where she’ll be. I’m going in.”
“Wait,” James argued. “This isn’t just about you and your mum anymore.”
He pointed at her slightly distended tummy and she came up short. She slumped and put her hand on her belly, stroking it absently.
“I’ll go in, but first I need to know if there are any waterproofs in the house I can get to.”
“What? It’s a little late…Oh. I get it.”
Having described where to find a set, Claire hugged James tightly. Shock was beginning to set in and her body was racked with uncontrollable shaking. Holding her until they subsided, he reproached himself for not finding a way to stop her accompanying him to the house on what was probably a fool’s errand.
Making sure Claire was properly concealed from prying eyes James ran quickly towards the house and flung himself against the wall and out of sight. Nothing stirred. So far, so good. Staying low James crawled around to the side door and disappeared inside.
Closing the door as quietly as he could, James listened out for movement but the house was as silent as a tomb. Great, without searching, he wouldn’t know where Robert was, or for that matter Amelie, who he was hoping was still all human. Waterproofs, he reminded himself.
Slinking silently to the utility room and following Claire’s directions, he rustled up a set of slicks and quickly pulled them on, all the time fearing the crackling, rustling sound of the impermeable material would raise the dead, or perhaps even slug people. At least with these on he felt a little less vulnerable. The thought of this disgusting infection was appalling to him and made him squirm mentally; if he wasn’t careful the fear would have him hide in this small room in safety. He shook off those thoughts and focused on what he needed to do. From the utility room he would have to backtrack his steps and go down a corridor he passed on the way here. At the end of that hallway was Robert’s study - forbidden territory even to Claire under normal circumstances.
Carefully opening the door he peered down the corridor. Looking towards the kitchen he saw a shadow move, the sibilance of leather-based shoes on gritty stone-tiled floor told James the man was walking towards him. He closed the door again and put his foot against the base, hopefully preventing entry from the hallway. He waited, bracing himself against the door. Seeing the door handle move slightly he gasped in surprise. He held his breath. And waited. It moved some more before he finally heard the footsteps move away again and back to the kitchen. He heaved a sigh of relief.
Opening the utility room door once again he could now see the corridor was empty. Relieved, he stepped out and rustled his way noisily in the opposite direction and down the hallway towards the study. He hated the noise these waterproofs were making; he may as well carry an illuminated signpost announcing his position. He tried the door only to find it locked. Damn, he cursed to himself. Lightly tapping on the door, he whispered Amelie’s name. He tried again.
“Who is that?” came a French-accented woman’s voice. He sighed in relief, she was alive, not one of them. James felt unreasonably happy at this, not for Amelie, but for Claire’s sake; at least she would see her mum again.
“It’s me, Mrs Bruford, Claire’s James,” he whispered. “Can I come in?”
The key in the door rattled and the handle turned. Just in time, James voice and clothing had attracted Robert who had managed to sneak up on him and was now no more than three feet away. Amelie’s hand grabbed his coat and pulled him into the room and slammed the door shut just as Robert connected with it. It started to open again. Seeing the danger, James threw himself at the door, pushing it closed with all his might. Trapping Robert’s forearm it was severed completely and fell comically to the floor, slugs and earwigs spewing from the open end.
“Argh!” Amelie screamed and instinctively bent down towards the severed limb to catch it. James pulled her back roughly and she fell against the oak desk.
“Sorry, Mrs Bruford. Don’t touch it! Not if you want to live.”
Amelie barely noticed James or his words; she was fixated on the writhing limb, the slugs within it now behaving like rats leaving a sinking ship. Free from corporeal incarceration they made their way in a line towards the two humans.
James looked around. There was a beautiful pair of white painted French doors at the far end of the study, their vista taking in most of the well-appointed garden. From his position James could see that Claire had moved from her original position, assuming his successful mission would end with him getting into the study. He ran over to the doors and tried to open them but they were locked.
“Have you the key?” he asked, his demand urgent.
“Somewhere in here,” Amelie replied racing over to the desk drawers. James could see more slugs with their accompanying earwig herdsmen oozing under the door and following the original armful towards the desk and Amelie.
“Forget that!” James cried. Kicking at the windows he soon punched a hole in them big enough to get through safely. Pulling Amelie away from the desk he hauled her outside and over towards the concealing foliage at the edge of the garden and the waiting daughter.
They fell into each other’s arms and hugged each other tightly. Meanwhile, James looked back at the house nervously. No movement yet, but he was sure it wouldn’t take long before Robert came out in chase. He might even be able to call upon others; James had no idea of the range this telepathy thing the infected seemed to have was and didn’t want to find out, at least not now.
Together they raced back to the car; this time James drove, allowing the two women to sit in the back and talk - they had a lot of ground to cover. His hands shook with the adrenaline rush, the gears suffering a little for it, but at least he didn’t crash or stall. Slewing at speed around country road corners he had to deliberately concentrate on slowing down. It would be too bad to escape only to wrap themselves around a tree. Even a small tree would win hands down against this roller skate.