May 31, 2023
by Melissa Miles
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
She landed on her back with a thud.
‘Ow’ she thought, although she’d never give anyone the satisfaction of hearing her say that out loud.
“Maria, get up!” her father called to her.
She had to get up, rub her bruises and carry on even though she was so, so, tired. Her very bones seemed to ache, and not just after a throw. Always.
“Santa Muerte, help me,” she murmured under her breath. She seldom called on her beloved saint, the one she worshipped at every neighborhood shrine, but this was their family business, their livelihood, she couldn’t let her family down.
She pushed herself up from the rough mat of the wrestling ring. Out of the corner of her eye she thought she caught the sight of designer clothes, not likely she thought, here in this old gymnasium in Tijuana.
As she sat up, she tried to steady her reeling head and wandering thoughts, but... was that roses she smelled? She shook her head. Weird things had been happening to her senses lately, and, added to that, she, who had always been the most agile in the family, was becoming clumsy. Her feet and hands were painful and tingled. Sometimes, they went numb and she’d drop what she was holding or miss her footing.
She took a deep breath and got to her feet.
“Maria, are you alright?” her dad asked. Maria took off her skull mask and nodded at him, wiped the sweat off her face, then repositioned the macabre-looking thing over her face. She had to be alright, they had bills to pay.
“Santa Muerte, can you hear me?” It was foolish, she knew, a superstitious belief in a saint the church did not acknowledge. Santa Muerte, Saint Death. The grinning skeleton dressed in beautiful clothes, the companion of the spirits.
She expected to hear her dad calling them to their places to rehearse their rough routine again. They could improvise within the routine, of course, which is why she ended up flat on the mat. Her brother had been a bit overzealous with that last throw. But the routine wasn't ready, yet. It had to have some form, some structure.
She looked around for her brother and father, but she was no longer in the gym.
Instead, she was in a grey field with shadowed figures in the distance. She wasn’t sure what to do. Was she having some sort of hallucination? Had she fallen asleep? Was she unconscious? She took a tentative step toward the nearest group of figures, a couple of young people like herself. They were laughing.
She strode toward them, her long skirts swishing. Wait. Long skirts? She looked down in confusion. Yes, she was wearing black lace skirts. She smoothed her hand down over the beautiful cloth. Her hands were different too. Not her usual calloused, scratched hands, but soft and beautifully manicured ones. She brought the hands up to her face and wiggled the fingers. Yup, they were definitely her hands, or at least they were definitely attached to her. This is so odd, she thought.
She looked for the group of young people again. They were gone. In fact, all the figures she had seen before, were gone. The landscape was only trees, rocky outcrops, and smooth grass... no humans anywhere.
She called out, “Hello?” Her voice echoed. How could that be, she thought, in a wide-open space?
On the other side of the grey field was a river, dark and cold-looking. She could see it looping off into the distance. She walked toward a small open boat with its oars in the water. Although she felt like she was walking in treacle, she was determined to get to the river’s edge because there was somebody sitting in the little rowboat. She normally didn’t like people much, but in this instance seeing anybody was a relief. The problem was, no matter how much she walked, she wasn't getting there.
Maria was reminded of a book she had read when she was a girl, Alice in Wonderland. A queen or someone had talked about having to run faster and faster just to stay in one place. She hoped she hadn’t somehow tumbled into a rabbit hole, but it certainly felt like she had.
Then, suddenly, a presence was beside her. She turned her gaze ever-so-slightly to her left, keeping her eyes down, both fearful of what she might see, and of the reaction she might get. But all she saw was a beautiful pair of gold high heels, Manolo Blahnik’s to be precise. Maria had watched Sex and the City often enough with her Mom before she’d gotten sick and everything went sideways. She knew Manolo Blahnik’s were pricy footwear and sought after. Neither she, nor anyone in her circle, imagined there’d ever be a time that they would be able to wear a pair.
She raised her gaze to take in a little more of the figure that was silently matching her, step for step. It wore a long dress like hers, but its was a beautiful deep green flecked with gold that matched the shoes. Maria raised her eyes a little more but stalled at the sight of skeletal hands. She snatched both a hasty breath and all of her courage, then dared to look at the face of her companion.
It was a grinning skull, and it was wearing a beautiful hat and a necklace of precious stones. Maria stopped, so did the skeleton.
“Santa Muerte?” Maria whispered.
“Yes,” said the skeleton, “I thought you called me?”
“I did,” Maria said quietly, “I just never expected…”
“You never expected me to come?”
“But you have been a good and faithful worshipper at my shrines. Why would I not?”
“Ah,” answered Maria, “I just never thought…”
“You never thought I was real?”
“It does come as a surprise to some people,” the skeleton grinned. “Anyway,” the saint of death said cheerfully, “welcome to my realm.”
“Thank you, I think” said Maria, “so those people…”
“Yes, all quite dead.”
“Is my mum…?” she left the question hanging, uncertain of what she hoped the answer would be.
“No, your mother is in a much sweeter place than this. This is like a waiting room while I decide exactly where each of these spirits will go.”
Maria‘s face paled as she understood the significance of that comment, she was so glad her mother was in the ‘sweeter place.’
“What is that river?” Maria asked.
“That is the river Styx,” said the saint, with the slightest tone of irritation. “It’s not mine, I have to share this realm with a being called Hades, which means I get a river and that chap in the boat and a whole bunch of pomegranate trees. Still, I don’t mind too much, we care for our own spirits.”
“So... am I…?”
“Dead?” asked the Saint. Maria nodded, they had started walking again. She didn’t quite remember when.
“Not quite, but you came close. That, of course, is why you’re here. This isn’t normally how things go, but I am going to send you back now.”
“Thank you” said Maria, “but...why?”
The last thing Maria heard the saint say was “Because you asked for my help and now you’ve got it. I left you something in your pocket.”
Maria felt like the world was kaleidoscoping, her head still spinning as she opened her eyes and found herself on the floor of the wrestling ring. Her father and three brothers had gathered around her. The concern on their faces made her feel guilty.
“I’m alright,” she said as she got to her feet, swaying only a little. “Where do you want us to take it from dad?” Her father laughed in relief.
“That’s enough for today,” he said. “Take the afternoon off Maria. I’ll do some work with your brothers.”
Maria smiled and nodded. She did feel strange, although the sensation seemed to have come back into her fingers, which was a relief. She climbed out of the ring and went into the dressing room to change.
She was searching the hidden pockets of her costume for a clean tissue when she found something else. A pumpkin seed. She always kept a few, roasted and salted, in her pockets for a snack. She popped it into her mouth.
“Bluk,” she said out loud. But too late. She had already automatically swallowed the unpleasant morsel.
“Ah, hello,” the saint said. “It worked then?”
Maria was back in the grey land, which glimmered now. “What?”
“The pomegranate seed.”
Maria made a face. “Is that what that was?”
“Yes, it came from one of those trees, I wasn’t sure if it would work for us, being from a different culture and all that,” the skeleton said adjusting her hat. “As I said, you came close to death, which is why you came here in the first place, I can’t stop it completely, of course, and why would I? We have such fun down here.” Maria looked askance at the grey fields.
“Not here,” said the skeleton crossly, “in my own place! Where your mom is.”
Maria smiled at the grumpy saint.
Santa Muerte continued, “Anyway, for now, I’ve made an unusual deal for you. You can come down for half of the year, visit with me and your mom, generally be dead and have fun, but then go back and help your dad for the other half. What do you say?”
“What’ll it seem like to your dad and brothers?” interrupted the saint. Maria nodded.
“Well, as you’ll have to bring your body with you, I suggest you tell them the truth.”
Maria’s forehead wrinkled into a frown, she wasn’t sure how she’d explain the situation.
“I know!” said her saint, “tell them you’re going into a sanatorium.”
Maria thought for a moment, then nodded, although she’d modernise the term before she used it. “A health spa!” she giggled. “That’s perfect.”
“A…health… spa” repeated the skeleton, trying the term out. “I like it. I think I’ll use that in future, much cheerier than The- Realm- Of-The- Dead.”
“Your illness that was killing you?”
Maria nodded, and almost asked what it was, but she chickened out, the Saint went on. “It will retreat for the six months that you’re in the land of the living. You’ll be fine.”
Maria smiled. “That sounds great,” she said.
“I’m glad you agree,” answered the Saint, “it would have been too bad if you hadn’t. The deal is already done. Go now, enjoy the spring, I’ll see you at the end of summer, you can see your mom and meet Hades. Who knows? You might find you like him?”
“Thank you, Santa Muerte. Thank you.”
Maria opened her eyes to find herself in a bed in the hospital. Her dad was sitting next to her, He was holding her hand and praying.
“Oh thank God,” he said.
“No, it was Santa Muerte,” croaked Maria, but her throat was dry, and he didn’t hear her.
Her dad gave her a sip of water. “The doctors are amazed, they say your symptoms are gone! It’s a miracle.”
Maria nodded and smiled. “I can come back to work soon, but dad…”
“I might need to find a heath spa for part of the year, so I don’t get sick again.”
Her dad hugged her and murmured, “whatever you need, darling girl.”
“And can we make a little shrine to Santa Muerte?”
“Of course Maria, whatever you like.”
“Thank you, dad.” She closed her eyes.
“And thank you, Santa Muerte,” she whispered as she sank back into the pillows. “I will see you soon.”
Maria heard the distant rattle of bones, and smelled roses.
Melissa Miles is an American who lives in New Zealand. She had many professional iterations--acting, teaching, film-making--but is now focusing on her writing while caring for her aging menagerie.
May 17th, 2023
Move. Eat. Repeat
by Ian Salavon
Move. Eat. Repeat. first appeared in On The Premises Magazine.
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast
We had to keep moving. We didn’t have a choice. The smell compelled us like a cartoon pie on a windowsill, the steam penetrating our nostrils and pulling us on. We just kept walking to it. Ok. Not exactly walking, shambling, shuffling, but moving all the same. We averaged about a half a mile an hour, and when something got in our way, like a lake or a fence, it only slowed us. Once, we walked to a cliff and kept going. Those of us in front provided cushion for those of us that followed when we fell. We suffered broken bones and lost limbs, but we kept moving. We that couldn’t walk anymore pulled ourselves with our arms. Obstacles were annoyances to be sure. But we eventually overcame them, and we kept moving on course to the smell.
All the stories got it wrong, sort of. On the outside, we were mindless lumbering corpses. But we could still think and feel and want. We just couldn’t act on it. We were like thought cloud passengers riding our bodies for, well, we didn’t know for how long or why. We just kept going. We couldn’t communicate with us. We were of one purpose, but our minds were separate. But we followed that delectable smell.
Maybe we smelled it before. It was like the smell of ideas and thought and life. Come to think of it, we couldn’t smell anything else. But we didn’t stop limping our way to our end goal. Moving was more than instinct. It was religion and philosophy. Moving to the smell was existence.
We didn’t feel pain anymore. We were missing body parts. Bone and muscle were exposed to the elements. When it rained, tattered flesh sloughed off. When it was dry, scorched skin flaked into the wind like sand. Eyes were gone, but we could still see. Organs were destroyed but we could still move regardless of the damage. We got waylaid by them once. We don’t think they knew what to do. They thought they could ambush us with rifles, but their smell drew us in. They couldn’t hide. But that’s when we got our first taste. We tried to say the word for the meat inside their head. Nothing but a gravely rasp came out. We were thinking it as we ate the candy like insides of their skulls. We all wanted more. So, when we were done with them, we caught another scent and kept walking. Move. Eat. Repeat.
We had a family, a career, even a dog. Who knew where they were now? Who cared? We had children. They were smart and talented. Our spouse was beautiful and kind. We had what we would call a charmed life, but just because we could remember the details of our other selves doesn’t mean we wanted it all back. This was simple. No stress. No obstruction. Just single-minded intention. We thought it ironic that if we had this kind of focus before, we might have made more of ourselves. But, like we said before, who cares?
It was rare, but every now and then they would recognize us. We could hear the pain in their voice, “Daddy, please!” or “Oh my god, Mary!" Inevitably they would say “They’re gone, now! It’s not them anymore.” But they didn’t know. We were still in here. We just weren’t on the surface. We couldn’t be reached. No matter what they said, and no matter how hard we tried to stop, we moved to that smell and ate. It didn’t make any difference who it was. We ate and we kept on going and ate some more. And we felt the loss. We felt the guilt and the shame. We felt all the disgust, and we wished the worst on ourselves for actions we couldn’t control. And then we moved on in our slow, half stomping, half shuffling way looking for more. Following the smell. We kept moving.
It grew stronger as we moved south. The stronger the smell, the more of them there were. It was hot. We think it was July, and if we were paying attention we probably would have known where we were. Our minds wandered a lot. With no rest (we never stopped) and no sleep (we didn’t need it), we tended to think about anything while our bodies did what they did: move to the smell. We thought about the future, and we laughed. Nothing but a dry hiss came out. There would be a time when we couldn’t move. If moving was the all-encompassing reason for our being here, what would happen when the moving went away? The idea of not moving, of not being able to follow the smell, the thought almost made us short-circuit. It just didn’t make sense. We wondered if this is what we had in mind when we used to talk about unity before. If we took away what we were doing, isn’t this what we wanted? All of us moving together to one goal. Granted that goal was to eat them, but we don’t need to split hairs. Of course, with the way things were now, the same could be said for them. They were united in stopping us. We used to think that fighting against all odds even when facing Armageddon was the noblest act we could do. Now, that just seems like gibberish. We would win. We were unstoppable. We kept going no matter what. The poor mouthwatering fools they were.
It was hard to miss the giant wall they constructed on the outside of the city. We recognized the skyline even in ruins. It was on the coast. We were right. We had been moving south, and we’d been moving for a long time, but that didn’t matter. Day became night became day ad infinitum, and we were still miles from the city. The walls were enormous, at least as tall as the great buildings behind it in some places. Even from this far away, we could see the piecemeal work of the walls’ construction. Junked automobiles, shipping containers and train cars provided the foundation for reams of iron rebar, concrete pillars, old scaffolding and I-beams. They used anything to build the strongest barrier they could, and it wouldn’t stop us. We would get through and have our fill. We always did.
The sun went down and came up and we kept moving. It was harder now because there were so many of us packed together. Those of us in the front kept pushing, but the wall held. The hoard kept trying to move forward. The smell made us drunk with lust for the flavor of what they held inside for us. We were coming. On the sixth day after we were forced to stop moving due to the wall doing its temporary job, they started trying to burn us. They sent out helicopters and dropped fuel on us then lit us on fire. They only succeeded in making putrefied cadavers burnt. We kept on pushing. We could hear some of the shouting on the other side of the wall “Evacuate the city?” they asked. “We have to make a stand” they said back. They were so stupid. Were we that stupid before? Probably. We had deliberate design now, and nothing would get in the way. Nothing could.
The wall began to fall after weeks of battering our decayed bodies into it. There was a layer of us that had been stomped flat by then, mashed into the ground by our incessant moving. We stood on our writhing corpses still pounding into the wall as it fell. Tons of debris crushed us. We kept going. Explosions flayed us apart. We kept going. We made it to the opening and had the pleasure of watching them flee or fight. Both were useless gestures. If they fought, they’d be eaten and become us. If they fled, we’d catch them, eat them, and they’d become us. The smell was overpowering. Our memories in our cloud minds were a haze inside the cloying stink that called us. They were tired from trying to keep us out for so long. We never got tired. Some resigned to their fate either out of wisdom in accepting the inevitable or in sacrifice to let some escape. We came on them like locusts. We left nothing in our wake except the reawakened. They joined us in the feast. We ate until our bellies were distended, and we kept on eating even with stomachs full and grey matter stuffed into our rotting esophagi. We ate until their cranial innards fell from our mouths onto the streets of the city. Then we picked it up and ate some more.
When everything was gone, the smell went away. We walked the streets and our cloud minds returned. Our old lives from before were clear again, but we had no power over what was left of us. We moved with no function, no purpose. Nothing. Aimless meandering. The city held nothing for us, but we moved through it like thousands of macabre Oliver Twists. “Please, Sir. May I have some more.” We screamed into the wherever with our cloud minds. We yelled ourselves into silent madness. Hoping for a direction. Praying to follow the smell of our reason for being one more time. It was oblivion: recognition of everything and impotent to any of it. Existence not even for its own sake. We were less than dead.
Time passed. Thoughts blurred. Nothing we’d seen from before registered. One day mashed into another. Memories did the same. We started to fall apart faster now. We were still moving, but very slowly. Bones were brittle and cracked easily. We couldn’t turn our head anymore, and the bottom part of our jaw had fallen off. We wouldn’t let that stop us from eating again if we got the chance.
There was a terrible storm. Wind and rain pummeled us, and water from the shoreline flooded the streets. The torrents threw us this way and that. Nothing more than a curious distraction. Buildings collapsed on us, and over time we dug ourselves out. We never stopped moving. The waters receded and flushed us into the gulf. Waterlogged, we rose from the beaches on a clear bright morning, and it hit us. The smell, sweet and pungent and already intoxicating. At the southern horizon, we saw large ships far into the gulf. We recognized them as warships. From before. They were on those ships. There for us to seize and eat them and have them join us and keep going. We were nothing but a skeleton now with a few bits of soggy meat pieces as we waded out into the surf that gently splashed into our boney legs. We had an army vs their army. They had weapons that couldn’t stop us. But they had that delicious and disgusting smell that kept us moving. To them. They couldn’t stop us.
Ian Salavon is a professional chef by trade and a lover of speculative fiction in every flavor. When he is not writing, he spends his time at the Fort Worth Judo Club where he is a black belt and coach. His work is mainly featured in long road trips and family bedtime stories. Move. Eat. Repeat. was first published in On The Premises Magazine.
May 10, 2023
Rotten to the Core
by Aleks Ivanov
Listen to this story here on the Kaidankai podcast.
It will take around nine more minutes to reach the surface at this pace. Nine long minutes until his mandated suicide.
Floor. Wall. Hand.
Thump. Thump. Thud.
Niall caught the ball.
The morning had started with him staring at his left hand, suspended above his face. It was missing the ring finger. It was also the only part of his body that wasn’t pitch black and perpetually on fire. It looked badass, frankly, but the doctor seemed to disagree. The rot has spread too much, you’re a danger to the bunker, why did you return? Are you crazy? Or something along those lines. Niall wasn’t listening, he already knew what followed. The leaders of the cult would initiate the farewell rite and bless his journey to the Underworld. They wanted to get rid of him.
Most people in the bunker were rotten to an extent. A simple visit to the surface would start the rotting process, and there was no known way to stop it. Despite it not being contagious, it was an unwritten rule that you must always cover up the rot. Those who didn’t would bear the stigma of indecency for the rest of their lives. Niall was a scout, a delivery boy he called it. He would take messages and provisions to and from other bunkers. It was a respectable job, and he always brought back souvenirs from the forest, the beach, or the mountains. Many of the bunker dwellers had never seen the surface, and they would shower Niall with gifts in exchange for a seashell or dandelion.
All of that stopped when rumors spread about Niall’s rot. Behind his back, they whispered that he had strayed too far from the gods, that he had committed atrocious sins, and that the gods were punishing him for it. Stupid and narrow-minded people! The surface accelerated the rot, and Niall was out very often doing favors for the dwellers. Ungrateful bastards. His left hand, a few centimeters past the wrist, was now the only part of his body that remained human. The clock was ticking.
Back in the room, Niall glanced over at his belongings. What does one pack for the Underworld? Certainly not garments, the rot’s flames didn’t set things on fire, nor did they hurt, but they emanated enough heat for Niall to be comfortable in cold temperatures. Food wasn’t needed either, the rot had spread to his organs and it kept him fed at all times. All the food he put in his mouth tasted like ash anyway. The rot was unexpectedly helpful. It would have been an objective improvement were it not for the inevitable madness.
He wouldn’t need his sleeping bag or his camping gear. After all, the trip was going to be a short one, and he preferred the freedom of being unencumbered.
In a cardboard box near the bed were all of Sobaka’s things. The leaders didn’t allow animals in the bunker, so Sobaka always waited on the surface, in a little wooden doghouse that Niall and Silent Nic built for him. The house was barely big enough for the lab and it was rather crooked, fault of the terrain, claimed Niall, but Sobaka always squeezed inside and grinned with glistening eyes and a tail that pleaded for a modicum of wagging space.
A tennis ball was all he took with him. The red one was Sobaka’s favorite.
Thump Thump. Thud.
Coming around the corner, on the carpet of pine and juniper needles laid for him, Niall looked like a demon from the Underworld. His burly frame was entirely black and engulfed in dark red flames. The fire on his face completely hid any recognizable features. With every step, embers flew off and disintegrated before touching the ground. His long sturdy legs marched confidently towards the elevator, stomping just loudly enough to startle some of the dwellers kneeling on the side of the corridor. The flames followed Niall, the sheer speed of his walk leaving them behind, but never extinguishing them. The kneeling dwellers who, by tradition, had their eyes closed, only heard steps and a muted thump that resonated throughout the hall.
Confused murmurs started spreading and, one by one, the dwellers opened their eyes to look at the sinner walking in front of them. It was true, he was almost fully rotten, and he wasn’t covering any of it. He was bouncing a red tennis ball on the floor. It couldn’t be the same Niall, the rot has changed him, he was a respectable man. Niall did not deign to meet anybody’s eyes, not even the people he once considered friends. Maybe the rot had changed him, or maybe being treated like an illness had turned him sour. Who knows?
Two-Step Veil was waiting at the entrance of the elevator. After Old Lucas kicked the bucket, Veil was elected leader for no other reason than his loud voice. Niall stopped in front of him, two steps too close for comfort, enough to make Veil’s obnoxious voice crack. He was scared shitless of the rot, although he would never admit it. He held a box with both hands extended as much as possible, to keep Niall at a distance.
We are gathered here- was more of the speech than Niall had intended to hear. He stepped forward and grabbed the box, making sure to touch Veil’s arm with his rotten hand and linger for a few seconds. Then he turned to his left and advanced into the elevator. The guards stopped their trembling hands and put their guns away. They didn’t have the balls to shoot anyway. Veil inserted his key into the elevator control panel and pushed the button for the surface. Silence accompanied the whirr of the closing doors. Niall had his back to the rabble.
Thump Thump ThumpThumpThumpThumpThump
The ball rolled to the other side of the elevator.
If Sobaka was here, he’d fetch it.
Maybe his stunt was unnecessary. The dwellers didn’t like him, but they did their best to hide their aversion. Maybe he should have just played along and taken part in the rite.
Who could blame them, after all? When Karl went fully rotten, he turned feral and almost killed two of the doctors. Something about the rot made humans much stronger and more resistant, which is a bad thing when said humans lose their minds. That’s the reason for the farewell rite, it was better to have crazy monsters on the outside rather than the inside of the bunker.
Nobody knew what the rot was. All research returned no tangible results. The skin of the rotten was, for all intents and purposes, cinder. Endlessly burning cinder.
The more logical-minded dwellers thought of the rot as a virus. After it spreads throughout the body, it takes control of the mind. The rest of the rabble turned to faith. It’s punishment for our sins! The gods are testing us. It’s the end of time! At some point, the two factions split up, and the bunker ended up being run by cultists.
What did Niall believe in? Now that’s a good question. He believed that his death was close and that being torn between science and religion took too much time and effort. Instead of walking either path, he was bushwhacking down the hill of existence, and it was going well enough.
The box that Niall snatched from Veil was on the floor. It was an unimpressive metal box, old and rusty. It looked like it would contain family photos.
It contained a .45 Colt Single Action, Army, with one loaded round. He was expected to kill himself, to keep other scouts and workers safe. And the whole rite was seen as a celebration. What a fucking joke. The ticket to the Underworld was a bullet in the goddamn brain. The stupid elevator was taking too long.
When the nine minutes had passed, Niall stormed out of the cabin. The elevator let him out at the base of a rocky cliff, in the proximity of a pine forest.
Chop. Chop. Chop.
It was Silent Nic. He was chopping down some wood for the bunker. Niall gave him a nod.
They never spoke, they only ever nodded at each other. The upward nod. They were basically best friends. Silent Nic was the one taking care of Sobaka when Niall was underground, and he loved dogs because he didn’t have to talk to them. He got the nickname when he was caught lying, so the leader chopped his tongue off. Apparently, he was covering for a kid who stole an apple. That’s what the rumors say, at least. Nobody knew his side of the story.
Silent Nic was rotten. Not as much as Niall, but he didn’t have long to live. He saw the gun in Niall’s hand and understood. He gave him a downward nod, and kept eye contact for a few seconds. Then he went back to chopping.
Following the right side of the cliff, a few hundred meters ahead, Niall reached the maybe-not-too-crooked doghouse. It was surprisingly clean. Niall whistled twice and threw the tennis ball in the air, as high as he could. Sobaka loved playing this game. He never went too far from the house and, whenever he heard the whistle, he would run to Niall as if his life depended on it. Sometimes he managed to catch the ball before it fell to the ground.
Niall waited a bit more. A part of him still hoped to see Sobaka running towards him, eyes focused on the ball, no time to put his tongue back in his mouth. He would miss the ball by half a second and would slide towards Niall because the momentum was too strong to break.
But he had run off, Sobaka, and he never came back. Silent Nic still kept his little house clean, just in case.
With a gun in hand and his routine check complete, all Niall needed to do was find a place to die. What a weird sound that thought had. Find a place to die. How does one choose a place? How does one even pull the trigger? He barely knew how to hold a gun. I wonder if Sobaka had the same thoughts. Maybe that’s why he ran off when the rot spread too much. Dogs are smaller than humans, even a lab his size didn’t stand much of a chance.
The clock was still ticking, Niall’s hand made sure to remind him. The rot had covered the whole palm and was now spreading to the four fingers he had left. He only had a few hours to kill himself, but none of the courage required to do so. It was getting dark. If the moon was still around, it wouldn’t be a problem.
Some two hundred years ago, however, night had come. The moon, though, was nowhere to be seen. It just wasn’t there. It didn’t show up. Apparently, that was a big deal. Then. Nobody talked about it now. No one had seen the moon with their own eyes, so it was nothing more than a myth.
With the sun set and nothing to reflect light, the surface was pitch black. Not even Sobaka’s eyes could muster enough light from the stars to distinguish the outline of objects. They could only ever see about half a meter in front of them, thanks to the faint light emitted by the flames. Many of their nights were spent in a tent or under some tree.
Whenever Niall was on the surface, before falling asleep, he would practice the language of dogs. He liked to believe he was succeeding, at least a little bit. But who knows? Maybe Sobaka was just amused by the sounds his best friend was making. What matters is that they had had fun.
This one always made Sobaka tilt his head with a puzzled expression. But nobody, nothing was there to tilt their head this time. Just the gun. And a round in it itching to be shot. He picked up the gun with his slightly still-human hand. It only felt right to use that one. The gun was heavy. Heavier than he imagined. And his shoulder was twitching. The grip was uncomfortable, maybe because of his missing finger.
Sobaka had bitten it off. It was the rot’s fault. It would turn the dog feral sometimes. That was the first time Sobaka had attacked Niall. It took a few months for the pain to subside. Partially because Niall refused to rest. Sobaka was somewhere out there, and he would find him. He never did, and at some point, he gave up. That was also the last time. After coming to his senses, Sobaka had run away, perhaps for fear of hurting his best friend again. Who knows? It’s just a stupid dog.
Niall immediately regretted that thought. Sobaka wasn’t just a stupid dog. He was his best friend, and he must have had his reasons for disappearing.
He put the gun down. There was still some time left. His little finger was now fully cinder, but his other three were still healthy.
A little above the gun, a small yellow light appeared. A little past it, another one popped up. Then two, three, ten more. They were fireflies, and it seemed like they were going somewhere.
Niall stood up and started following them, his steps slow, heavy. He couldn’t see where he was going, but maybe they could. It didn't matter, really. They were pretty, and that was more than enough. He followed their sparkle for a few minutes. Exactly how many, he didn't know.
Eventually, their unlikely group reached a valley swarming with other fireflies. Thousands, tens of thousands. They hadn't been flying aimlessly! The little creatures brought the stars to Earth, and they danced with each other. They disappeared for a few seconds, then reappeared in a different place, with another partner. It was a show of lights organized by nature, and Niall had been invited. What a pretty place to die.
He joined the dancers and started running forward, passing through the cotton plants. Seen from above, he was nothing other than a big firefly with his flames illuminating the cotton around him, he flailed his hands up and to the right, and then down and around. It was a silent musical, all the guests were dancing to the rhythm of the others’ vibrations and gave off their own in return. For several minutes, Niall was a firefly. The protagonist in this impromptu play. For the first time in a while, he wasn’t an illness.
He stumbled upon a clearing, somewhere near the middle of the valley. He sat down, panting. Steam misted off him. Only two fingers were left.
A raindrop hit his arm. He looked up.
Silver raindrops fell across the valley. Stygian rain, they called it. Straight from the river Styx. You could tell because of the silver glow. Some people thought the rain was the cause of the rot. Niall could see why. Whenever a firefly was hit by a raindrop, it would catch fire and brightly burn before disappearing forever.
It started raining harder. The fireflies died. They were picked off one by one. They didn’t try to escape, they just kept dancing, making the most of their final moments.
The sparkling festival was over. After the fireflies, the rain hit the cotton and turned it black. The rot came from the missing moon and rained upon the earth. The cotton was the last line of defense. It would absorb all the rot it could to protect the soil, but it was never enough.
Every drop that hit Niall would fuel his fire. One finger left, and it was quickly rotting.
It was time. Finally he’d be done with it. Was that a good thing? There wasn’t enough time to say. He grasped the gun and pressed it to his temple. He released the safety.
It was pouring. The entire valley was glowing silver. He wasn’t ready, but it didn’t matter.
He cocked the gun.
All the cotton was black. Completely rotten. Torrents poured down the hills, towards the valley. It was a good life.
He put his finger on the trigger. How hard would he have to press?
Niall closed his eyes.
His hand trembled. He opened his eyes and looked to his left
It was Sobaka. He was running through the cotton, growling. His black eyes were focused on Niall, who gasped and held his breath. Amidst the flames you could see the dog's fangs. In less than a second, he closed the gap to Niall and lunged at him.
Sobaka landed behind Niall, the gun in his steaming mouth.
Niall exhaled loudly with a sharp grunt. Sobaka was back. His lost friend was still alive and had stopped Niall from shooting himself. Or had he? Was this real? Had Niall actually shot himself? Was this the underworld?
Sobaka dropped the gun and ran to Niall, his tail wagging and his grin wider than ever. He was jumping left, then right, and keeping a low stance, ready to sprint. His eyes fixated on the red tennis ball. Niall threw it in the air. Sobaka caught it. Niall's hand was now fully rotten.
The two best friends embraced each other and enjoyed the warmth of their flames. Sobaka had been fully rotten for a while, yet he was still here, and he wasn’t feral.
The ground shook. Niall hung onto whatever looked minimally stable and held Sobaka tight. The hills were cracking, and water was pouring out of the cracks. Impossible amounts of water. The water level was rising. It was now as high as the cotton. Niall couldn’t see a safe spot, so he ran away from the water, Sobaka at his side. "Ran" was a bit of an exaggeration. Niall's steps dragged through the water. Sobaka struggled to keep above the streaming, glowing silver torrent.
The earthquakes grew more intense and reduced the hills to rubble. The visible surface was all water, which was still rising. Sobaka had climbed onto Niall’s shoulders, the tennis ball still in his mouth. Niall was mustering all the strength he had left to keep them afloat.
DING. DING. DING.
In front of them, a canoe. At its bow sat a cloaked figure, face obscured, and holding a bell. A bony hand reached down and pulled Niall and Sobaka aboard. Then it resumed rowing. Sobaka dropped the ball and shook off the water in his fur. His tongue hung out, and he was panting, but the dog was relaxed.
None of this is real. It can’t be. Niall thought that he must have fired the gun, and that the bullet was traveling through his brain. Maybe it was sending all kinds of signals and causing hallucinations.
The cloaked figure turned towards the two, he approached Sobaka, crouched, and pointed at Niall.
Is this him?
The figure extended an open hand, the skin and flesh gone.
Sobaka took the ball and placed it in the skeleton’s palm.
This shall suffice. Thank you, little one.
The figure turned away and continued to row. Niall sat in the canoe with Sobaka at his feet, silently eying the events, unable to speak. Not knowing what to say.
You must be confused, human. I am Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld. Your friend over here has been refusing to come with me. He says he couldn’t leave without you because you’d get lost. He must love you a lot.
Charon rowed. Sobaka was licking Niall’s face. Niall felt something soft. Sobaka's fur.
Their rot was gone.
Aleks Ivanov is a Bulgarian undergrad majoring in Computer Science. Aleks is a fan of fiction stories but only recently began writing. Alek’s goal is to become an independent game developer and create a game that will forever carve its place into people's hearts.
May 3, 2023
Red Light, Green Light
by Ed Dearnley
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
When I was a child, Mum always said I slept like the dead.
Once, when we were on holiday, the Red Arrows came screaming over our house at six in the morning, their Hawk jets almost scraping the rooftops. At least that’s what Mum told me, as I never woke up. Through my childhood, I slept through thunderstorms, smoke alarms and music festivals.
And I slept through exams. Specifically, GCSE French.
With mock A-Levels coming up, the memories of that debacle sent me searching for an alarm clock. Mum sometimes worked nights and, as I couldn’t rely on her to wake me, I decided to use a two-alarm strategy. Alarm number one was my phone, obviously, but that left me in need of alarm number two. So, I dredged through my memories and decided to have a look in The Box.
I bet every kid has a box like that one. The box that lives at the back of their wardrobe, collecting memories. Where everything that was once loved, but is now unwanted, gets thrown, forming a geological record of childhood.
The top layer of The Box was recent stuff: old phones, unwanted PlayStation games, headphones with one working ear, holiday mementos and a cat’s cradle of wires and chargers. Below that was the age of toys. First came the Transformers, tiny remote-controlled drones and hundreds of Pokémon cards – mostly fakes unfortunately. Then, tucked in amongst the bottom layer of Paw Patrol figures and random pieces of Duplo, I found it.
The clock light.
It was the same size and shape as a child’s football, flattened on one side. The casing used to be white but was now yellowing with age. In the centre of the flat face was a cheap looking digital clock, with triangular s buttons to set the time and alarm. Around the edge was a thick, opaque white band under which, I remembered, lay a dense array of coloured lights.
There was a story behind the clock light. When I was two, I kept getting up in the middle of the night, jumping into Mum and Dad’s bed and asking, Is it morning yet? After two months Dad cracked, biked down to Argos and blew fifty pounds on the light.
The idea was that it gradually lit up like a sunrise when it was time to wake up: a dim red to start, then the oranges and yellows of dawn and, finally, the bright blues and greens of daytime. I’d stay asleep in my dark, double blinded room, and get out of bed when the artificial sunrise told me to.
It didn’t work. I loved the clock and never again jumped into their bed at four in the morning to ask, 'Is it morning yet? 'Instead, I jumped into their bed at four in the morning and asked, 'When is my clock going to light up?'
If finding the clock light was easy, finding the power supply proved much harder. Unlike modern gadgets with their USB-C ports, this one took a long, needle like plug. Eventually, I found something suitable in Mum’s box of wires and chargers downstairs and plugged it in.
The digital clock lit up with an orange glow, the digits flashing away to tell me to set the time. It took a while to work out which buttons to press – ease of use didn’t seem to be its strong point – but eventually I managed to set the time and an alarm. It turned out to have audio as well, so I chose the sound of a digitised dawn chorus to wake me, along with the most blinding green light the old thing could put out. Then I placed it on my bedside table, right next to where my sleeping head would lie.
Mum spotted it later that afternoon when she brought me up a snack. “Oh Will, you found that old thing,” she laughed, “You used to love it - you wouldn’t sleep without it. We left it behind at Grandma’s one time, and Dad had to drive all of the way back to fetch it.”
And then she left me to study, alone in my bedroom with my books, a cup of tea and two digestive biscuits.
I was still studying when the clock light began to play up. My first thought was that someone was shining lights through my bedroom window - my friend Andy playing a joke or something - but when I turned around it was the clock light, flashing through its bright range of colours.
I couldn’t study calculus with that kind of distraction, so I got up and walked over to my bedside table to turn it off. I thought it might be an old alarm, stored away in its memory for all those years, but when I picked it up it was obvious the stupid thing had just crashed. The time on the orange numerals said 19:04, but rather than flashing as usual, the colon between the hours and minutes was frozen. I fiddled with the buttons, but they didn’t respond.
As I mashed away at the buttons, I realised that the flashing lights weren’t random. Maybe it was the maths revision sinking into my head, but the blinking colours seemed to form a pattern. Deciding calculus could wait for a minute, I studied the pattern instead.
Six short white flashes.
Red, orange and green.
Three long red flashes.
After the last red flash, it went dark for a few seconds then started the cycle again. I stood there watching it for a couple of minutes, then decided it must have got locked in some kind of test mode. I whipped out the power cord, counted to three and plugged it back in again.
The orange digits lit up and began to flash. Normal serviced had been resumed.
I returned to the books.
Mum gave me a lift to college the next morning. I was doing my A-Levels at BASVIC, a sixth-form college in the middle of Brighton. Supposedly it wasn’t selective, but it sure was hard to get into - most of the other kids had been to exclusive private schools. It was a cool place, the vibe more like a mini-university for teenagers rather than a school. Mum kept telling me how proud Dad would have been.
The downside was the journey took a lot longer than the short walk to my local school sixth-form. But on a day like that one, I didn’t care. The road into Brighton ran straight along the clifftops, with only a narrow strip of grass and a rusty wire fence separating the speeding traffic from the sheer drop down to the sea below. The sun sparkled on the waves, and it felt like I was on holiday. Maybe in Spain, or France.
Mum didn’t say a word as she guided the car along the busy road. When the road dipped into the city and the ugly concrete blocks of Brighton Marina began to blot out my view of the sea, I turned around and saw that she was in one of her moods. Her attention seemed fixed on some point in the sky, to the far west over Worthing, although hopefully she was paying some attention to the traffic. After every gearchange she raised her left hand to her mouth and chewed on her ragged nails.
I knew that look well. It meant she had something on her mind, usually a problem at work, or a money worry.
“Are you ok, Mum?” I asked.
She didn’t reply for a moment. She didn’t like dumping her worries on me. But, eventually, she answered. “She died yesterday.”
“Madeline Wilson. She threw herself in front of a train.”
Madeline Wilson, I thought. The woman who killed my dad.
One of the few things I remember about Dad is that he loved riding his bike. I remember sitting in a child seat on the back of his bike as we crested a hill and plunged down the other side, both of us screaming with delight. And I remember him coming in from a ride, covered in mud, with a big red scrape down his arm and a huge great grin etched on his face.
Dad was riding his bike home from work on the day that he died. He always rode to work, rain or shine, cranking over the green hills of the South Downs to get to his office in the nearby town of Lewes. He’d pulled a late one, making his way home in the dark. The bike lane was shut for resurfacing, so he was slowly grinding his way up the long, shallow climb of Falmer Hill on the unlit road.
Madeline Wilson was coming home from work too. She’d been at a boozy work meeting, where she’d sunk two bottles of wine whilst schmoozing a hedge fund manager down from Battersea. As she pulled off the Brighton bypass and accelerated her silver Mercedes up Falmer Hill she made a phone call to her hairdresser, booking a cut and blow dry for the following Thursday.
During the court case she claimed she never saw Dad. Her solicitor suggested he was wearing dark clothes and had no lights. The prosecution showed the jury his shredded reflective jacket and the cracked cases of his powerful rechargeable lights. She drove all the way to the top of the hill before a red light at the crossroads brought her to a halt. At which point, another driver jumped out of their car and frantically banged on her window.
Dad had been dragged behind the car for at least a mile. The coroner wasn’t sure whether he’d died in the initial impact or during the journey up the hill, but he’d certainly slipped away by the time the paramedics untangled him from the chassis of the car. The mangled remains of his bike were found by the road the next morning, along with the Mercedes’ front numberplate and left hand wingmirror.
At her sentencing, Madeline claimed that she’d suffered enough, that the damage to her mental health from the social media shitstorm that followed the case was worse than anything the judge could do to her. The judge disagreed and sent her down for ten years.
She served six. Just after she got out, Madeline sent a letter to my mum. It went straight into the shredder, unread. That was the last I’d ever heard of her.
I turned it all over in my mind. I felt nothing at all for Madeline - it was a fittingly selfish end for a horribly selfish person. If there was anyone to feel sorry for, it was the train driver.
“Good,” I said to Mum, “The world’s a better place without her.”
Mum didn’t say anything. She just continued with her hundred-yard stare all the way into Brighton. Then she dropped me at the roadside outside of college and drove off without saying a word.
I went for a quick drink in the Good Companions after college, then jumped on the Number 12 bus home. If the journey into town was pretty, the return trip was even better. From the top of the double decker bus, I had a panoramic view of a spectacular sunset, with the sky and sea turning turquoise, then orange and finally a deep, crimson red as the bus dropped me off on the seafront near my home.
Mum had tea on the table when I arrived and seemed to have recovered some of her usual cheer as I wolfed down my sausage, mash and beans. Afterwards, I went upstairs to my room and hit the books. Exams started the following week with a three-hour long psychology paper. I had a lot of cramming to do.
I’d just started to worm my way into the theory of operant conditioning when the clock light began to flash again. This time I didn’t wait around: it obviously had some kind of fault that was throwing it into a test mode. I got up, walked over to be bedside table and pulled out the power cable.
It didn’t stop flashing.
The clock was frozen at 19:04.
My heart skipped a beat for a moment, then, as I turned it over in my hands, I realised the blindingly obvious.
It had a battery backup.
I ran down the stairs, liberated a screwdriver from Dad’s old toolbox and unscrewed the battery compartment. Inside was an old Eveready C-type battery, long past its best days. It looked like it was leaking, so I used the screwdriver to lever it out and dropped it straight into the bin.
The clock light still didn’t stop flashing. I stood there staring at it, entranced by the flashing band.
'How can it be doing this?' I thought. And then I frowned - the pattern had changed.
Five short white flashes.
Red, orange and green.
Three long red flashes.
One less white flash than yesterday. No sooner had I spotted it, than the lights faded and died. The orange numerals of the clock flickered off.
The logical side of my brain kicked in, the bit that studied physics and maths. There was a rational explanation for this. The clock light must have large capacitors, or even an internal battery. When the external power was removed, it survived for a minute or two on the remaining charge, then it died.
The explanation made sense, but it was still creeping me out. I opened the wardrobe and returned it to the bowels of The Box. I’d order a cheap alarm clock from Amazon before exams started.
The next day was a Friday, and straight after college I went away for a camping weekend with a couple of friends. It wasn’t ideal, being so close to exams, but we figured it would help us relax and let off some steam after weeks of a routine that went, college, home, study, sleep, repeat.
We filled Andy’s old Vauxhall Corsa with tents, cooking gear, food and beer, and headed out to the wilds of Crickley Hill camping site thirty miles to the east. We’d tried camping before, with disastrous results. It had rained all weekend, a steady stream that puddled in our tents and soaked into our sleeping bags. The nearest pub had been shut for renovations, and we forgot to bring a can opener.
This weekend, we had better luck. Much better luck. The sun shone, the local pub was great and, best of all, there was a group of girls pitched right next door who wanted to hang out with us. On the Saturday night, we all huddled round the campfire as the sun went down, and I enjoyed a long, passionate snog with a pretty red-haired girl from Horsham. She gave me her phone number the next day as we packed away the tent, and seemed keen to meet up again.
I didn’t think about the clock light for the whole weekend.
Andy dropped me home on Sunday evening, my skin painful and red with sunburn. Mum called after me as I dumped my bag in the hallway and rushed towards the stairs, asking how the weekend had gone. She winked at me when I stuttered a reply. Sometimes, she seemed to know what I was thinking without me having to say it, which I guessed was par for the course when you’d single-handedly raised someone from the age of three.
It was time to face reality and hit the books again. I got halfway up the stairs before Mum poked her head round the side of the banisters and stopped me.
“Just one thing,” she said. “There was a noise coming from your room on the last couple of evenings – like birds tweeting. It stopped after a while, and I didn’t want to go into your room, so I don’t know what it was. Maybe an old phone?”
Or the clock light, I thought, as I tentatively pushed open my bedroom door. But how could it turn itself on again? Surely any tiny spark of power left inside would have long since leaked away.
I opened the cupboard door and fished the clock light out of The Box. It was dark and dead, cold to the touch. But I wanted to be sure, so I carried it over to my bedside table and placed it gently down on the wooden surface, the clock face pointing towards my bed. I pulled out my phone and looked at the time.
19:02. Two minutes to go. I sat on the edge of my bed and waited.
19:04 arrived on my phone, but the clock light stayed dark. I began to relax - this was all in my mind. The tweeting noise probably was an old phone. Or maybe an actual bird - we’d had a magpie in the loft last year.
Then the clock light burst into life. I was so shocked that I jumped into the air and fell off the bed, scraping my back against the wooden bedframe and landing with a bump on the floor. As I got to my feet, I could see 19:04 frozen once again on the clockface as the edge of the device cycled through its colourful patterns.
This time, there were only two short white flashes.
The weekend beers must have connected some neurons in my brain, as suddenly, I understood. Six white flashes on Wednesday, five on Thursday and two today, Sunday.
It was a countdown.
But a countdown to what?
The whole thing was freaking me out. I picked up the clock light, walked down to the kitchen and unlocked the back door. The lights stopped flashing as I crossed the patio in front of the kitchen. I walked to the back of the garden, opened the door to the shed and slammed the clock light down onto the workbench. I grabbed a rusty old hammer and raised it up above my head, ready to smash the old, brittle plastic into a million pieces.
And then I hesitated. What if there was something weird inside, like brain tissue. Or maybe just a cold cloud of mist, ready to rise into the air like a sigh from a newly dead corpse. I thought I’d rather not know. Instead, I picked up the clock light and threw it into a crumbling cardboard box of old drill bits and saw blades. Then I slammed the door shut and walked back to the house.
On the way back through the kitchen I found Mum’s album open on the kitchen table. I’d seen it there on my way out but, in my haste, I hadn’t realised what it was. It was the album that I’d repeatedly told her to burn. The one where, for some morbid reason, she kept all of the press clippings about Dad. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, she’d break the bloody thing out and weep her way through the pages.
That year, the demise of Madeline Wilson seemed to have inspired a second appearance.
It was open on a big story from the Brighton Argus, the newspaper coming away from the page as the old, dried-up glue lost its battle with gravity. The grainy black and white photo showed a grinning Dad dressed in his bike gear, holding up a medal. Mum said it had been taken from his Facebook feed, a record of the time he got second place at a local hill climb race.
'Solicitor Killed in Falmer Road Bike Accident,' said the headline.
'Some accident,' I thought. You didn’t need a PhD to understand that getting mown down by a drunk driver gassing away on the phone to her stylist was no accident.
My eyes darted down through the text of the article, then settled on a familiar figure.
19:04. The police thought that Dad had been killed at 19:04, and asked anyone who had been driving along the road at the time to get in touch.
I slammed the album shut and went to join Mum in the lounge. She was watching old repeats of Downton Abbey, but at that moment I really didn’t want to be alone in my room.
I didn’t sleep well that night.
“So, it just lights up? All on its own,” said Andy, staring at the clock light.
“Yep,” I replied, “All on its own. No plug, no battery.”
Andy took a swig of his beer. San Miguel, not one of my favourites.
I’d thought about the clock light all day at college. If it was a countdown, what could it be? Or maybe I was just going mad and there was some entirely rational explanation to this.
When I got home, I retrieved the clock light from its graveyard in the shed and walked it round to Andy’s house for a second opinion. By the time I’d given him the whole story it was 19:00. By my phone, four minutes to showtime.
“That’s just weird Will,” said Andy. “Are you sure those girls didn’t slip you some pills or something?”
I just smiled at him. We watched as the time counted down, the only sound a few soft belches, the result of Andy’s gassy choice of beer.
And then, a few seconds after my phone hit 19:04, the clock light lit up again. This time, there was just one white flash.
“Bloooody hell,” exclaimed Andy, peering in for a closer look. “Bloody hell, bloody hell, bloody hell. Show me there’s no battery again.”
I picked up the clock light and flipped open the battery door. Still empty.
Andy stood there, staring at the flashing lights for a few seconds, then started nodding his head.
“I’ve got it mate; I know what this is.”
I knew it. There had to have been something I was missing.
“It’s a countdown to you finally losing your virginity. You need to get on the phone to that Horsham girl right now - hook yourself up for tomorrow.”
“Piss off Andy,” I said, but I couldn’t help myself smiling.
“It’s probably powered by all of the farts lingering around in your room.”
“Seriously, Andy, piss off,” I said, but I was starting to laugh. The tension had gone, evaporating into the air like the bubbles in Andy’s beer.
Eventually, the flashing stopped. Andy agreed to let me leave the clock light at his place, as long as I promised to take home the ghost of my dead dad.
I slept a bit better that night. But I still dreamt of flashing lights. And of Dad, gasping in the darkness as he pedalled up some endless hill.
I had a few free periods the next morning, so I had a driving lesson booked. I didn’t really want to learn as I figured cars would drive themselves in a few years’ time. And, anyway, the bus service was good where we lived. But Mum insisted it was a valuable life skill that was best to learn when you were young, stupid and wilfully ignorant of what could happen when two tonnes of steel meets another solid object.
It was another beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. I took the wheel of the little Ford and practiced three point turns and parallel parking on the quiet roads of my village, the instructor keeping up a steady banter of lurid speculation about our camping weekend. He was a dirty old bastard, but I liked him, the mindless chitchat taking me away from driving tests, mock exams and haunted electrical appliances.
The manoeuvres completed, we headed down to join the coast road into town, off to practice the joys of the Brighton one-way system. We sped past the old windmill at Rottingdean and accelerated towards the city, the blue sea to our left and the green hills to our right.
Approaching the city limits, we came up on a set of traffic lights controlling the traffic joining from inland. The instructor had warned me about these before – an accident blackspot apparently. The lights turned from green to orange when we were about sixty meters away, so I put my foot on the brake and gently slowed the car.
The black Land Rover behind me did not like this one little bit. The driver flashed his lights and waved his hands in the air, obviously thinking I should have just floored the accelerator and gone straight through.
'Tosser,' I thought, but it was hard to be angry on a day like that one. Sitting at the lights, I watched the sun shining on the blue water. There were surfers out there, riding the break formed by the waves driving against the long arms of the marina.
The red light turned to orange, and then green.
I didn’t move.
“Green light Will,” said the instructor, “You can go now.”
I still didn’t move. Red, orange, green, red, red, red, played on a loop in my head. Red, orange, green, red, red, red.
The Land Rover driver lost patience and swung into the filter lane, flying past with a squeal of tyres and a loud blast of his horn.
“Are you ok, Will?” whispered the instructor, his rough voice gentle for a change.
I shook my head and squeezed my eyes tightly shut. When I opened my eyes, I saw the Land Rover about fifty meters up the road, accelerating hard. Further down the road was a dark green lorry, approaching at speed from the opposite direction.
As I watched, the lorry began to drift across the solid white line separating the two carriageways, its wheels edging into our lane. The Land Rover driver spotted it, too, but far too late. The lorry struck the corner of his car with a colossal bang, just as he started to swerve.
The impact of the huge lorry flipped the black car onto its side, then sent it skidding across the road and onto the grass in a shower of bright orange sparks. In the blink of an eye, it smashed through the wire fence and disappeared over the edge of the cliff.
The lorry fared better, veering back into the left-hand lane, the driver struggling to regain control as he shot past our still stationary vehicle. It skidded to a halt in a huge cloud of black tyre smoke, coming to a rest about a hundred meters behind us.
I looked at the muddy mess the Land Rover had made of the grass verge, then at my hands, gripping white against the black leather steering wheel.
“Holy… holy shit,” stuttered the instructor. “If you’d have gone, that would have been…”.
“It would have been us,” I said, finishing his sentence.
Cars came to a halt all around us. The instructor hit the big, red hazard lights button and we got out of the car, our legs shaking. Joining the growing crowd, we walked over the ruined grass towards the crushed remains of the fence, then got down onto our bellies and inched our way forwards towards the cliff top.
The Land Rover had crashed down onto the concrete pathway that ran between the cliffs and the sea: the Undercliff Walk, a popular path for cyclists and walkers. Its rear wheels were still spinning, whilst smoke rose from the mangled bonnet. Standing to one side of the smashed vehicle was a cyclist in a bright orange jacket, staring up towards us with a look of total shock.
The falling car must have missed him by inches.
Amazingly, nobody died in the crash. The Land Rover driver was rushed to Sussex County Hospital with serious injuries, including two broken legs, a fractured skull and a punctured lung. His recovery was long, but complete, a testament to the engineering prowess behind his car and the medical skills of the men and women who saved him. The Land Rover only just missed the cyclist, and three dog walkers, down on the Undercliff Walk. They didn’t receive a single scratch.
The lorry driver claimed to have been blinded by the morning sun, but video footage from his cab suggested he’d simply fallen asleep. He was given a three-year suspended jail sentence at Lewes Crown Court.
I retrieved the clock light from Andy’s house a couple of days later. I plugged it in and waited until 19:04, but neither the orange clock face nor the lights around the outside ever worked again. I took it to a repair shop in Hove the following week, but the technician said the circuit board was corroded beyond repair and all of the capacitors had blown. He said it was cheap Chinese junk - he was surprised it had lasted more than a year.
My mock A-Levels went surprisingly well, and I aced the real thing a few months later. I had a year out, then got a place studying physics at Imperial College in London. I often came home during the holidays and, despite what happened, I still loved that journey along the coast from my village into Brighton.
I never took my driving test. I bumped into my driving instructor in the local pub a few times afterwards; he’d buy me a drink and jokingly ask me for next week’s lottery numbers.
I often wonder who or what saved me that day. Was it Dad, reaching out from beyond the grave to save the son he never saw grow to a man? Or maybe the remorseful spirt of Madeline Wilson, determined not to let tragedy strike our family once again? Or could it just have been a random fault in an old electrical appliance, that by sheer fluke of luck saved my life?
All I really know is that these days, when an electronic gadget develops a fault, I don’t follow the standard advice to switch it off, then switch it back on again.
And look for patterns.
Ed Dearnley lives in Sussex, UK, where he works in climate change mitigation for a local authority. He is the author of the non-fiction book London to Brighton Derailed. In 2022, his flash-fiction Homework was published by Bag of Bones Press in their collection 206 Word Stories.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.