By David Moody
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2010 David Moody
All rights reserved.
Carl Henshawe was over three-quarters of the way home before he realized anything had happened.
The early morning sun was low on the horizon as he drove back from the Carter & Jameson factory just north of Billhampton. He'd been there since just after four, fixing an insignificant repair which had hardly warranted him being called out in the middle of the night. Simpson — the wily bastard who ran the night shift there — was too tight to pay for new machinery and too smart to have his own men fix the problem when he could call someone else out. He knew the maintenance contract inside out, better even than Carl's employers. Never mind, he thought to himself as he tried to drink a cup of coffee with one hand, tune the radio with the other and still keep the van moving, being on twenty-four-hour call paid well, and Christ, did they need the money. He loved his family more than anything, but neither he nor Sarah had been prepared for the extra expense of having another mouth to feed. Gemma, their perfect little girl, was costing them a fortune.
Damn radio. Must be something wrong with it, he decided. One minute there was the usual music interspersed with inane chatter and drivel, the next just silence. Not even static. The final notes of the last song faded away and were replaced with nothing.
The sun flashed through the tops of the trees, blinding Carl intermittently. He knew he should slow down but he wanted to get home and see Gemma before Sarah took her to nursery. He shielded his eyes as he took a tight bend too fast, then slammed on his brakes as a small, mustard-yellow–colored car raced toward him, careening down the middle of the road. He swerved hard to the right to avoid an impact and braced himself as the van bumped up the verge at the side of the road. He watched in his rearview mirror as the other car continued forward, its speed undiminished, before clattering up the curb and thumping into the base of a wide oak tree.
Carl sat unmoving in his seat and gazed into the mirror, unable for a moment to fully comprehend what had just happened. The sudden silence was unbearable. Then, as the shock slowly began to fade and the reality of the situation sank in, he got out of the van and ran over to the crash. His mind was racing; his focus entirely self-concerned. It'll be his word against mine, he anxiously thought. I wasn't concentrating. If he sues and they find against me, I'll probably lose my job. As it is I'll have to explain why I ...
Carl stood in the middle of the road and stared at the body of the car's driver, slumped forward with his face smashed into the steering wheel. His legs heavy, he took another couple of nervous steps closer. The car had hit the tree at an incredible speed making, it seemed, no attempt to either slow down or swerve. Its bonnet had hit so hard it had virtually wrapped itself right around the trunk.
He opened the door and crouched down, face level with the driver. He knew immediately that the man was dead. His empty eyes stared at him, somehow seeming to blame Carl for what had just happened. Blood was pouring — not dripping — from a deep gash on the bridge of his nose and from his mouth, which hung open, pooling under the pedals in the foot-well. Suddenly nauseous, Carl leaned over the crumpled front of the car and emptied the contents of his stomach in the grass.
Got to do something. Phone for help.
He ran back to the van and grabbed his mobile from its holder on the dashboard. It's easier knowing he's dead, he tried to convince himself, feeling guilty for even daring think such thoughts. I can just tell the police that I was driving along and I found the car crashed into the tree. No one needs to know that I was here when it happened. No one needs to know that I probably caused it.
No one was picking up. He looked at the phone's display and dialed 999. Strange. Plenty of battery power left and the signal strength was good. He cancelled the call and tried again. Then again. Then again. Then another number. Then the office. Then the number of the factory he'd just come from. Then his home number ... Sarah's mobile ... his dad's house ... his best mate ... nothing. No one answered.
Get a grip, he told himself, trying not to panic. There had been no other traffic on the road since the crash. If no one's seen you here, his frightened and flawed logic dictated, then no one needs to know you were ever here at all. Before he could talk himself out of it, he got back into the van and started to drive. Maybe he'd call the police anonymously later, he decided, trying to appease his guilt. I don't even need to tell them about the body. I'll just tell them I've seen a crash at the side of the road.
A mile and a half farther down the road, Carl spotted another car. His conscience getting the better of him, he decided to change his plan and stop and tell the driver about what he'd seen. There's safety in numbers, he thought. They could drive back to the scene of the crash, and then report it together. As he neared the car he saw that it had stopped, parked at an awkward angle across the dotted white line, straddling both lanes of the road. The door was wide open and the driver's seat was empty. He pulled up alongside the car and saw that there were three people inside; a mother in the front and two children in the back. Their frozen faces were filled with agony and panic. Their skin was gray and he could see trickles of blood running down the chin of the boy nearest to him. He didn't need to look any closer to know that they were dead. He found the lifeless body of the missing driver a few meters farther along the road, sprawled across the tarmac.
Carl slammed his foot down on the accelerator and raced away, his head spinning, hoping every time he turned a corner that he'd see someone alive who could help him, or at least explain what had happened. The farther he drove without seeing anyone, however, the more obvious it became that in the space of a few miles' drive, everything had been changed forever.
The level of Carl's panic and fear was such that he'd seen more than another fifty lifeless bodies — bodies which had all seemed to simply fall and die where they'd been standing — before it occurred to him that whatever had happened here had probably happened to his family too. He drove back home at a dangerous speed, swerving around the corpses in the streets, then parked the van outside his house and ran to the front door. With his hands trembling, he forced the key into the lock and shoved the door open. He shouted out for Sarah but there was no reply. The house was cold and silent. He slowly walked upstairs, almost too afraid to open the bedroom door, tormenting himself with unanswerable questions. If I'd driven faster, would I have been home in time to help? If I'd wasted less time with the corpses at the roadside, would I have been here for them when they needed me most?
His heart pounding and his legs weak, he went into the bedroom and found his wife and daughter lying dead together. Gemma's head hung over the edge of the bed, her mouth open wide in the middle of a silent scream. There was blood on Sarah's white nightdress and on the bedsheets and floor. His eyes stinging with tears, he begged them both to wake up; pleaded with them to respond; shook and screamed at them to move.
Carl couldn't stand to leave, but he couldn't bear to stay there either. He kissed Sarah and Gemma good-bye and covered them with a sheet before locking the door and walking away from his home. He spent hours stepping through the hundreds of bodies outside, too afraid even to shout for help.
Michael Collins stood in front of a class of thirty-three fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, tongue-tied and terrified. Under his breath he cursed Steve Wilkins, his idiot of a boss, for forcing him to do this. He hated public speaking and he hated kids, teenagers especially. He remembered having to sit through things like this when he was at school. "Industry into Schools" days they used to be called. Days when, instead of listening to their teacher drone on for hours, kids were instead made to listen to unwilling volunteers like him telling them how wonderful the job they really despised was. Michael hated compromising himself like this, but he didn't have any choice. Wilkins had made it perfectly clear that his performance today would be directly linked to the quarterly bonus he was due to receive at the end of this month. Wilkins came out with some bullshit about how his middle managers were "figureheads of the company." Michael knew that, in reality, his middle managers were just there for him to hide behind.
"You gonna say anything?" a scrawny kid in a baseball cap sneered. Michael tried to stay calm and not react, but the way the end of his notes shook made his nervousness obvious to the entire class. The sadistic teenagers quickly seized on his apparent weakness.
"The work we do at Carradine Computers is extremely varied and interesting," he began, lying through his teeth, his voice wavering. "We're responsible for ..."
"Sir ..." a lad said from the middle of the room, waving his hand frantically in the air and grinning.
"I think you should just give up now. No one's listening!"
The rest of the class — those who weren't reading magazines, drawing on their desks, or blatantly listening to music through headphones — began to jeer. Some hid their sniggers behind their hands, others rocked back on their chairs and laughed out loud. Michael looked to the teacher at the back of the class for support but as soon as he made eye contact with her, she looked away.
"As I was saying," he continued, not knowing what else to do, "we look after a wide range of clients, from small, one-man firms to multinational corporations. We advise them on the right software to use, the systems to buy and ..."
Another interruption, this one more physical. A fight had broken out on side corner of the room. One boy had another in a headlock.
"James Clyde, cut it out," the teacher yelled. "Anyone would think you didn't want to listen to Mr. Collins."
As if the behavior and apathy of the students wasn't bad enough, now even the teacher was being sarcastic. Suddenly the stifled laughter was released and the whole room was out of control. Michael threw his notes down onto the desk and was about to walk out when he noticed that a girl in the far right corner of the room was coughing. It sounded painful and cut through the rest of the chaotic noise. More than just an ordinary cough, it was a vile, rasping, hacking scream of a cough, which sounded as if it was tearing the very insides of her throat apart with each painful convulsion. He took a few steps toward her and then stopped. Other than her choking, the rest of the room had become silent. He watched as her head jerked forward, showering her desk and hands with sticky strings and splashes of bloody spit. She looked up at him, her eyes terrified and wide. She was suffocating. Michael glanced at the teacher again. This time she stared back at him, fear and confusion clear on her face. She began to massage her own neck.
A boy on the other side of the room began to cough and wheeze. He got halfway out of his seat, then fell back again. A girl just behind and to the right of Michael began to cry and then to cough. The teacher tried to stand but then fell out of her seat and hit the floor ... within thirty seconds of the first girl starting, every single person in the room was tearing at their throats, fighting to breathe. Every single person except Michael.
Numb with shock and not knowing what to do or where to go to get help, Michael staggered back toward the classroom door. He tripped over a student's bag and grabbed hold of the nearest desk to steady himself. A girl's hand slammed down onto his and he stared into her face, deathly white save for dark trickles of crimson blood which ran down her chin and dripped onto her desk. He pulled his hand away and opened the classroom door. The noise inside the room had been horrific enough but out here it was even worse. Screams of agony rang out through the entire school. From every classroom and from places as remote as assembly halls, gymnasiums, workshops, kitchens and offices, the morning air was filled with the terrified noise of hundreds of children and adults suffocating and choking to death.
By the time Michael had walked the length of the corridor and was halfway down the stairs to the main entrance, the school was silent. A boy was sprawled on the ground at the foot of the stairs. He crouched down next to him and cautiously reached out his hand, pulling it away again as soon as he touched his skin. It felt clammy and unnatural, almost like wet leather. Forcing himself to overcome his fear, he rolled the boy over onto his back. Like the kids in the classroom his face was ghostly white, his lips and chin smeared with blood and spittle. Michael leaned down as close as he dared and put his ear next to his mouth, praying that he would hear even the slightest sounds of breathing, wishing that the suddenly silent world would not become quieter still. It was no use. He was dead.
Michael walked out into the cool September sunlight and crossed the empty playground. Just one glance at the devastated world beyond the school gates was enough for him to know that whatever had happened inside the building had happened outside too. Random, fallen bodies littered the streets for as far as he could see.
He didn't know what to do. He considered his options as he walked; go back to work and look for people there? Try the hospitals and police stations? He decided to head back home, change his clothes and pack a bag, then head deeper into town. He couldn't be the only one left alive.
Emma Mitchell felt depressingly sick, cold, and tired. Everything was an effort this morning. The head cold which had been threatening for a few days had finally hit her hard. She decided to skip classes and stay in bed. She'd tried to study for a while, but gave up when she realized she'd started reading the same paragraph five times without ever making it past the third line. She decided to fix herself some food, but then couldn't find anything to eat. Her bloody flatmate had been taking her stuff again. She'd have to talk to her again when she got back tonight, she decided. The last thing Emma wanted to do was go out, but she didn't have any choice. She put on as many layers of clothing as she could stand and dragged herself to the store at the end of Maple Street.
There were only two other customers in Mr. Rashid's shop. Emma was minding her own business, haggling with herself and trying to justify spending a few pence more on her favorite brand of spaghetti sauce, when an elderly man lunged at her. She shoved him back ... she wasn't sure to: She instinctively shoved him back but then realised he was struggling to breathe. Her mind immediately began racing, sudden surprise and panic taking hold. What do I do? She was just a few terms into a five-years course of medical studies and she wasn't sure. Did she use her limited knowledge to try and work out what was wrong, or just use commonsense first aid to help?
Another noise behind her made Emma look back over her shoulder. The other shopper had collapsed face-first into a display rack, sending loaves of bread, rolls, and pastry crashing to the ground. He lay on his back in the middle of the aisle, coughing, holding his throat and writhing in agony.
Emma felt the grip on her arm loosen and she turned back to face the old man. Tears of pain and fear ran freely down his weathered cheeks as he struggled to breathe. The shock and surprise fading, her training slowly began to take hold and she leaned across to try and loosen his collar and lie him down. She stopped when she saw the blood inside his gaping, toothless mouth. He leaned forward and it dribbled onto the floor, splashing her feet. His legs buckled and he dropped to the ground, his entire body shaking and convulsing.
Emma ran to the back of the shop to find Mr. Rashid and call for help. She found him lying in a stockroom doorway, barely alive. His wife had collapsed in the kitchen. The tap was still running and the sink was overflowing, blood-tinged water collecting in a pool around her pallid face. By the time Emma returned to the front of the store, both of the men she'd left there were dead.
There were bodies everywhere outside. Emma stumbled onto the street, shielding her eyes from the blinding sun. Literally hundreds of people had fallen around her. They had all suffocated. Every face she looked into was ashen, each person's lips bloodied and red.
Much farther down the road, perhaps a quarter of a mile, where the high street crossed Maple Street, the road was covered in an unfathomable tangle of crashed cars. Nothing was moving. Everything was still but for the traffic lights, which obliviously continued to work their way through their routine of red, amber, and green, then back again. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Autumn by David Moody. Copyright © 2010 David Moody. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.