Chapter 6 - Home Safe Home
While running the last few yards to his house, James couldn’t get the image of his boss’s suffering out of his mind. Prior to this day, he had seen precisely one dead body in his life; it had been the result of a car accident and there’d been a small silver coloured coffin brought in by the authorities attending - somewhere in Italy, he couldn’t remember. He’d been on a bus caught up in the traffic jam and he’d watched, mesmerised as they lifted the lifeless child and placed the blood-soaked corpse reverently into the box. The child’s parents were off to one side, crying and watching as their baby was taken away. The mother collapsed at the last moment. He thought that had been bad, unable to imagine the agony of the parents.
Watching George, blood-soaked and writhing in pain on the grass while being ever-increasingly concealed beneath a mass of slugs and darting, blood-drinking earwigs was at another complete level of horror to his previous experience. Fucking slugs, he cursed to himself, fucking slugs and bugs! The sound of the poor man whimpering in his final agonies would forever be etched in his consciousness, that and seeing the grass all around his corpse simmering with the invisible march of an underground army of slimy gastropods. The surface rose and fell like the surface of a pan of bubbling molasses as wave after wave slimed their way to the ample and vulnerable body.
His own legs felt like jelly, nearly failing him at the last moment as he raced to his front door. Fumbling for the keys, he unlocked it and in an instant he was in the arms of Claire, his girlfriend. Her face was streaked with blackened tears, her make-up all over her face. She was a glorious sight to James; it meant that at least they would be together if the worst came to the worst.
“Get inside quick,” he urged as he slammed the door and locked it. It was a silly reaction, of course - what slug has ever opened a door, let alone unlocked one. He couldn’t stop shivering, cringing at the thought of the slimy little bastards around his feet, climbing…
Forcing himself to stop thinking like that he slumped against the wall with his eyes closed and struggled to bring his breathing under control, leaving Claire standing there staring at him, at the moment apparently blissfully ignorant of what lay in wait outside.
James gathered his wits. He looked into her face, looking for signs that she was okay. Apart from mascara making her look like a sad panda she appeared unharmed. He hugged her again.
“You okay?” he asked, wondering about the smeared make-up; it was obvious she’d been crying.
She hesitated, her head shaking slowly in confusion.
“I was going to ask you the same question. You look like you were chased by your own ghost. We need to get to my mum,” she blurted.
James cocked his head in confusion. This conversation wasn’t going in the direction he expected but at least it partly explained the panda face. Her mum was very capable of making her cry.
“I need a drink before I do anything,” he retorted. Staying off the subject of the end of the world, he clung to safer ground. “What’s wrong with your mum?”
As they made their way to the kitchen, Claire replied.
“Forget that. We can get over to my mum’s later, sort out yet another spat. I’m more worried about you. You’re bloody Skype call frightened the shit out of me, especially when it cut out. I stayed in like you asked. What the hell’s going on? Apart from the fire down the road, which I might add isn’t being seen to by the Fire Brigade, I haven’t seen a damn thing. I tried the radio but nothing made any sense. As for the TV, most of the channels are down. I’m getting frightened. Has there been a terrorist attack? Was it at your work? I’m so glad you’re safe. Do we need to leave?”
The questions came thick and fast. James was unsure where to start. Mustering his thoughts, he began.
“This will probably sound crazy, but I think we are under attack.”
“What?” she began.
“Hear me out.” He recounted his experiences and the loss of George, glossing over the worst of it of course. Hearing of the man’s death she sat down heavily on one of the kitchen stools; she felt a little guilty because of her Skype call faux pas.
“Sort of puts my argument with mum into perspective, doesn’t it?”
“So what’s wrong now, as if I couldn’t guess?”
“She called a little while ago; she was going on about helping out when the baby arrives. We were arguing when the line went dead. Something’s wrong at the farm, don’t know what. I thought that was going to be the worst of the day, but looks like you have me beat.”
Her parents disapproved of him, always had, and he couldn’t help think that the living hell of her mother being there every day might be worse than the hell he’d just come through.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” he began. At that the look on her face showed more doubt than belief. He continued. “I haven’t the foggiest as to what we should do; I think we may struggle getting to your mum’s right now, so maybe we should stay here and hunker down. Keep the blinds drawn and noise to a minimum. See if the authorities can get a handle on what’s going on.” His words sounded hollow, even to him.
Unlike the usual attacks you saw in zombie movies, the zombie-like people on the streets seemed almost benign; this placid behaviour helped stop him from rushing into making a decision he might regret. To take his mind off the problem for a moment, James poured a couple of large glasses of red wine and handed one to Claire.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” She asked, patiently.
“Ah, sorry.” He retrieved her glass and poured the contents into his.
She went to the fridge and retrieved a small bottle of soda water and drank from it. James drank a good slug from his brimming over glass and they sat for a while in silence, trying to figure out what to do. In reaction to what he’d just undergone, combined with the feeling of safety being indoors gave him, he was leaning towards staying put. He felt more relaxed, the wine was working. He had never understood doctors’ reluctance at prescribing a good slug of booze to calm the nerves, it always worked for him.
“You said there was a problem at your mum’s. Could you tell what it was?”
“Hard to say, I got the distinct impression it had something to do with something my dad said or did. I don’t know.”
This worried James, if these problems were out there in such a remote place, then would they be going from the frying pan into the fire by trying to get out of the city? If her mum, Amelie, was in the same boat as George, well, he knew Claire would be inconsolable. It also meant that this thing was way more widespread than he’d realised up to now. Somehow he’d always assumed it was only a London-wide problem. His mother-in-law-to-be lived in the heart of Kent, in a small village called Paddock Wood, about thirty miles away.
“Who said what? What did you hear?” he asked, working hard to keep his voice even.
“Mum didn’t say much, apart from the usual criticisms, sorry, advice. Suddenly she changed, almost forgetting I was even on the phone. But it wasn’t so much what she said as the tone of her voice. She sounded truly frightened. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard her frightened. Just when I thought she was going to tell me something, she said someone was at the front door and rang off.”
“Okay. So there’s not really very much to go on then,” James replied, surprised the call had made her cry. Maybe it was the preggers hormones, he thought. She had been more than a little sensitive since her sum of the parts became greater than one.
“Something just felt wrong,” she continued. “I can’t put my finger on it. I think I heard a siren before the line went dead.” She hugged herself, clearly picturing the worst possible scenario. Normally James would say gentle words, trying to dispel fear, but right now in his own uncertain state he was of little use to her. At this moment, he feared that the authorities, even if they existed anymore, were losing the battle. He prayed silently that he was wrong on that score. If that was the case then they would have enough problems of their own to contend with without worrying about something that seemed already to have taken place. At least he could be grateful that she had not yet encountered the things outside. He sighed.
“I think we need to make a decision about what we should do next,” he announced. “We can’t just sit here drinking, although god knows, I bloody want to.”
“Can’t we just get in the car and go?”
“I think there are a few things you need to understand before we even think about going outside. You,” he emphasised, “haven’t yet been up close and personal with them. I have. They have some sort of infection that seems to be highly contagious; from what I’ve seen you can get it simply by touching a person’s skin.”
“I guessed that from what you said earlier,” she agreed. So she had heard all of what he’d said. He’d thought she was preoccupied about her ‘mother incident’.
“Don’t worry, I haven’t touched them myself, but poor old Robby did. It affected him in seconds. One moment he was normal, the next he was just standing there, the blood drained from his face. He was frozen in place, just like the people you and I thought were druggies on the news. Except, well, I don’t know. He and the others just seemed to stand there. What can I say, they reminded me of mimes, street artists, you know those guys who spray paint themselves with metallic paint and pretend to be bronze statues.”
She had nothing to say to all of this; it was a lot to process.
“From what I saw when George was attacked, we also have to stay clear of the grass as they seem to be in it and under it.”
“We should be alright inside or in the car,” she surmised. Claire sounded disconnected from emotion, almost calculating.
“I imagine so; they didn’t chase me onto the road. Apart from the fire over the road, what have you seen?” he asked.
“I hadn’t long gotten up before you called. I looked outside before that and there were about ten or fifteen of those people out there.”
“There weren’t any out there when I got back, except for that one woman George dodged.”
“They were out there,” she insisted.
“I’m sure,” James acceded. So they were able to move around. That was behaviour he hadn’t seen up to now.
“Will anyone miss George?” Claire asked.
“I honestly don’t know. If he has anyone then they aren’t local,” James pondered. “We so nearly made it all the way here.”
Distracted, James looked over Claire’s shoulder, out the kitchen window and into their neat little garden. James’ face went white as a sheet, his jaw slack.
Claire turned around and let out a shriek of terror.