Chapter 6

Dead inside.

Henshawe sat alone in a dark corner of a storeroom with his head in his hands, weeping for the wife and daughter he'd lost.

Where was the sense in going on? Why bother? Those two had been the very reason he existed. He'd gone to work to earn money to keep them and provide for them. He'd come home every night to be with them. He'd been devoted to them in a way he thought he'd never be with anyone before he and Sarah had got together. And now, without any reason, warning or explanation, they were gone. Taken from him in the blinking of an eye. And he hadn't even been able to help them or hold them. He hadn't been there when they'd died. When they'd needed him most he had been miles away.

Outside in the main hall he could hear the moans and cries of other people who had lost everything. He could smell and taste the anger, frustration and complete bewilderment of the other survivors which hung like the stench of rotting flesh in the cold, grey air. He could hear fighting, arguing and screaming. He could hear raw pain tearing each one of the twenty or so disparate, desperate people apart.

When the noise became too much to bear he dragged himself up onto his feet with the intention of leaving. He was about to get up and walk and leave the hall and the rest of the survivors behind when his mind was quickly filled with images of millions of lifeless bodies lying in the streets around him and he knew that he couldn't go. The light outside was beginning to fade. The day was almost over. The thought of being out in the open was horrific enough, but to be out there in the dark  -  lost, alone and wandering aimlessly  -  was too much to even consider.

He leant against the storeroom door and peered into the main hall. The brilliant orange sunlight of dusk poured into the building from above his head, illuminating everything with vibrant, almost fluorescent colour. Curious as to the source of the light, he took a few steps out of the room and turned back around. In the sloping ceiling just above the door was a narrow skylight. The storeroom he had hidden in had been added as an extension to the original building and when he had arrived he had noticed that it had a flat roof. Sensing that his escape was at hand, Henshawe climbed onto a wooden table, stretched up and forced the skylight open. He dragged himself through and scrambled out onto the asphalt roof.

The coldest wind he had ever felt buffeted and blew him as he stood exposed on the ten foot square area of roof. From the furthest edge he could see out over the main road into Northwich and into the dead city beyond. By moving only his eyes he followed the route of the road as it splintered away to the left and headed off in the general direction of Hadley, the small suburb where he had lived. The small suburb where the bodies of his partner and child lay together in bed. In his mind he could still picture them both, frozen still and lifeless, their perfect bodies stained with dark, drying blood, and suddenly the icy wind seemed to blow even colder. For a while he considered driving back to them. The very least they deserved was a proper burial and some dignity. The pain he felt inside was unbearable and he dropped to his knees and held his head in his hands.

From his vantage point he could see countless bodies, and it struck him as strange and unnerving to think that he was already used to seeing the corpses. Before all this had happened he'd only ever seen one dead body, and at that time it had seemed an unusual and alien thing. He had been at his mother's side when she'd died. As the life had drained away from her he had watched her change. He'd seen the colour blanch from her face and her expression freeze and had watched the last breath of air be exhaled from her fading body. He'd seen her old and frail frame become heavy and useless. She'd had little strength towards the end, but even then it had taken just a single nurse to help her get around. When she died it took two male porters to lift her from her bed and take her away.

Parts of the city in the distance were burning. Huge thick palls of dirty black smoke stretched up into the orange evening sky from unchecked fires. As he watched the smoke climb relentlessly his wandering mind came up with countless explanations as to how the fires could have started  -  a fractured gas main perhaps? Or a crashed petrol tanker? A body lying too close to a gas fire? He knew that it was pointless even trying to think about reasons why, but he had nothing else to do. And at least thinking like that helped him to forget about Gemma and Sarah for a while.

He was about to go back inside when one of the bodies in the road caught his eye. He didn't know why, because the body was unremarkable in the midst of the confusion and carnage. The corpse was that of a teenage boy who had fallen and smashed his head against a kerb stone. His neck was twisted awkwardly so that whilst he was lying on his side, his glazed eyes were looking up into the sky. It was as if he was searching for explanations. Carl felt almost as if he was looking to him to tell him what had happened and why it had happened to him. The poor kid looked so frightened and alone. Carl couldn't stand to look into his pained face for more than a couple of seconds.

He went back inside, and the cold and uncomfortable community hall suddenly seemed the safest and warmest place in the world.

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