Clare was out of the door before Tom had even stopped the engine. She ran across the road and grabbed hold of him. He revelled in the sudden close contact of another lucid person.
‘You okay?’ was all he could think to say. Stupid bloody question.
‘No,’ she answered. ‘I don’t know what the hell’s going on. I can’t get anything out of Penny. I tried calling the doctor, but no one answered. I tried 999, Tom. I couldn’t get an answer on bloody 999!’
He followed her inside. The last few times he’d been here, the place had been full of Penny’s noise and bluster. Now the building felt cold and unwelcoming, as unnaturally quiet as everywhere else. Clare stopped at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Where is she?’
‘Her room. She hasn’t moved all morning, Tom.’
‘Can I see her?’
She nodded and took him up to her little girl’s bedroom. She seemed to slow down as she approached the door. She reached out for the handle but didn’t open it, turning back and looking to him for reassurance. He braced himself, not sure what to expect. Clare pushed the door open, peered inside, then stood out of the way to let Tom through.
The small room was just as he remembered; bright, colourful, innocent. There were toys scattered all about the floor, but no sign of Penny. The bed was unmade and empty. Clare gestured over to the other side of the bed. Tom walked a little further, cringing as the floorboards creaked loudly under his weight, and then he found her. She was slumped on the floor in the corner of the room, her head lolling over to one side as if she’d cricked her neck. Her eyes were open. She was staring right at him, and yet at the same time it was as if she wasn’t looking anywhere at all.
Penny’s unnatural appearance increased his unease. Tom wanted to get out but he made himself move closer. He crouched down in front of the little girl, feeling sure that at any second she’d snap out of this trance and start laughing like a kid again, as if it had all been one big joke. But she didn’t. She remained completely still. She didn’t even react when, out of sight of her mother, he gently picked up one of her hands and pinched her skin so hard it must have hurt.
Tom looked over his shoulder. Clare was standing just behind him, waiting at the foot of the bed.
‘Have you seen anyone else today?’ he asked.
‘Because they’re all like this, Clare.’
‘All of them?’ The disbelief in her voice was evident.
‘That doesn’t make any sense…’
‘I never said it did. I know, Clare, it’s fucked up. I don’t have a clue what’s going on. Penny’s exactly the same as Siobhan. And James and Stephanie too.’
‘James and Stephanie? Christ, Tom.’
‘One of the kids phoned me and I went around. Same reason you managed to get me – I’m the only idiot still answering. It’s like they’ve all just stopped…’
‘But why? What’s caused this?’
‘Come on, Clare, how the hell am I supposed to know?’
‘You should try and find your brother’s alien friend. He’ll know. It’s got to be something to do with them. Where is he?’
‘For Christ’s sake, how am I supposed to know?’ he snapped at her. He hadn’t realised he was yelling, but he could see it in Clare’s frightened reaction. He tried to apologise but he couldn’t find the words. He was scared, unable to think straight. He turned back to Penny, hoping she might have reacted to the noise too, but she hadn’t. She was stuck in the same uncomfortable-looking position.
Tom got up and left the room, thumping back downstairs.
‘Where are you going?’ Clare shouted, chasing after him.
‘Siobhan and Rob,’ he replied, sounding as unsure as he felt.
‘Please don’t leave us here, Tom.’
Confused, he walked back out to the car. He paused before getting in. He walked up to the front of the house next to Clare’s and rang the bell. When there was no immediate answer he began hammering on the door with his fist. ‘Who lives here?’
Clare was right behind him. ‘His name’s Graham,’ she replied. ‘I’ve never had a lot to do with him.’
‘Is he likely to be in?’
‘Rarely goes out. Doesn’t have a job, as far as I’m aware.’
There was still no answer. Tom rang the bell again, this time leaving his finger on the buzzer. Although muffled, they could clearly hear the shrill, continuous ringing from outside. He moved to the nearest window and peered in. He beckoned Clare over. She looked over his shoulder and saw her neighbour sitting on a sofa on the far side of the room, staring into space. He was just like the rest of them. Frozen. Unresponsive.
‘This is fucking crazy,’ Tom said, climbing over a low picket fence to get to the next house along. He used the brass knocker but had barely waited for the noise to fade before he tried the door and found it unlocked. He went inside. Clare was hesitant to follow. They could hear running water. The kitchen was flooded, the ceiling bowed, water dripping down.
‘Let’s go, Tom. Please.’
Tom ran upstairs. In the bathroom an overweight, middle-aged man was sitting in the base of the shower cubicle in several inches of water, his legs hanging out over the edge, water pouring over the top of the tray and flooding the carpet. The man – head bowed, skin pruned, water running into his open eyes and dripping off his forehead, nose and chin, didn’t react. Tom didn’t say anything, he just rattled the shower cubicle door. The man did nothing. Tom pulled the power cord and the water flow immediately stopped, but even that failed to illicit any response.
Back to the car.
‘What are we going to do, Tom?’
He looked at Clare but didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer. What did they do? He went to open the car door.
‘Don’t go,’ she said.
‘I have to.’
‘You can’t leave us here.’
‘Come with me. We’ll get Penny, then go and get Rob, then go on to Siobhan’s. Okay?’