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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.
Excerpted from Autumn by David Moody.
Copyright © 2010 by David Moody. Published in November 2010 by St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.