As part of the February Femmes Fatales showcase, And Then appeared last week, a short story that takes no prisoners and doesn't let go of our emotions. Deep down, death fascinates all of us, and the darker aspects of the human condition will always inspire me.
And Then doesn't pretend to be anything other than true horror. It's not about monsters or ghosts, but rather the horror of finality, and what it must be like to face it. True fear and horror comes from the stuff we don't understand, and can never truly understand. But putting yourself in their shoes, at that final moment...now that is scary.
Minutes. His life ticked away.
Sounds echoed around his head - muted, strange and tinny, and somehow detached - they lapsed into his conscience like the colours of a long forgotten sunset.
Sounds of the crash echoed around him like a residual tear in the fabric of space and time; he remembered the deceptive lull of speed and the stinging flash of chrome. He remembered hearing the grinding shriek of metal against metal, followed by the eerie hissing of air from a tyre.
And then... a strange lingering silence enveloped him; cold, tight and full with dread.
Cool air fingered his skin. The stench of gasoline clung low, poisoned the back of his throat.
He had been returning home along the country lanes as the evening shadows descended across the inky horizon. It had rained earlier in the day, but he remembered the skies had cleared and he recalled looking up at the stars that glimmered against a thick indigo blackness punctured by the arctic glaze of the moon.
He didn’t know what caused him to lose control of the motorcycle. All he knew at that moment was the shifting umbra which pressed against him.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been lying there – it seemed such a long while, even though outside of his slanted sense of reality, it had been only a minute - and for a moment, he couldn’t move; his body and senses had numbed and become compacted by the impact. But then, gradually nerve endings trembled and feeling returned. Skin tingled. His veins swelled and his muscles contracted. He was able to clench his fingers and move an arm.
He reached up, lifted the visor from his helmet.
He couldn’t be sure, but he thought his neck felt wet; something dribbled down his jaw and around the bottom of his earlobe. He couldn’t move his head, not at first. A strange feeling spiralled across his shoulders and down his spine like a wave of needles pricking his skin. His vision appeared skewed; he lay staring at the glittering glass fragments close to his face, saw his bike lying in the road just ahead, wrecked.
Legs moved, and arms and hands. But his head felt so heavy.
The minutes evaporated.
And then that strange sensation rushed through him again when he tried to move – his head remained skewed.
Something trickled into his stomach, flooded his abdomen and he winced against the sickly eddy, tried hard not to vomit.
He remained still again, swollen heartbeat pumping furiously beneath his clammy skin, deep burnished breaths filling his lungs. The contents of his stomach swilled and frothed, yet somehow he refrained from retching.
He removed his glove, lifted his arm and touched his neck. It felt strange and wet, just as he had guessed. He tried movement once more, slowly sat up; ignored the dull ache around his shoulders. He didn’t feel any pain, but he felt a peculiar dragging sensation around his neck.
His vision blurred momentarily. Light and colour blended into one before the world around him came back into view. His vision refocused, but he found it hard to blink and his eyes shuttered in response.
Cold air laboured in his lungs. The corridors in his mind sank into a dismal mire of heavy confusion - his vision still seemed strangely lopsided, as though he was staring across his chest, and yet he was sitting upright.
He reached up, felt across his shoulders and sensed the tight, twisted flesh. He tentatively put his hand against what he thought was his neck, felt something soft, sticky and warm. He knew it was blood. The steady stream from the serrated gash soaked through his clothes and stained his flesh. It dribbled down the inside of his leather jacket and soaked through his shirt now that he was upright. He felt the roundness of the crash helmet resting against his chest.
The thought tore through him that he should feel immense pain; his body should have reacted to the crash, yet his entire body remained insensate and it confused and distressed his brittle senses.
He realised then; in the silent minutes that remained, that his head had become partially detached from his body and now hung around his chest, held by wrenched slivers of muscle, bone and sinew.
His stomach contracted and forced adrenaline into every open pore. Vomit lodged in his gullet, as though afraid to expel.
He wanted to scream, but his vocal chords didn’t work.
Minutes to seconds. The darkness crowded him.
He wanted to cry like a lost child, but the tears wouldn’t come.
His life - counting down to a blackness he didn’t want to enter - made him so frightened of approaching finality, so raw in his fear, that he couldn’t shriek in the face of a truth, and the help he so desperately wanted he knew would never come. He could barely grasp any of it and his thoughts rattled inside his skull; a dreadful, terrifying cacophony that drowned out the inevitable.
He couldn’t be saved. He was going to die. In the middle of the road, in the middle of somewhere, next to bristling leaves and whispering fields of wheat, beneath the bleak, nonchalant glare of the moon.
Then the minutes stopped.
Amid the suffocating inner silence, his final moments vanished into the encroaching darkness and his vision instantly turned into an infinite blackness.
He slumped back against the cold tarmac.