I can understand why some people would call my meeting with Stephanie a tragic accident, but I call it something else.
'What are you watching, Petal?'
She blinked that time, I was sure of it. Maybe I was making some progress with her, after all. A few days ago we'd had a stupid disagreement about who did the most work around the house. Isn't it funny how something so insignificant like that can grow into a major argument? This had been perhaps our worst ever falling out. I remember how upset she'd been at some off the cuff remark I'd so carelessly thrown at her. It scared me how cruel I could be sometimes, and that remark had landed me squarely in the dog house.
Still no reaction.
Her name was Hannah, although I'd given her the pet name of Petal some three years ago, now. She seemed to like it, and it suited her. She didn't have a pet name for me, to her I was just Joe.
'Can you hear me?'
Still no reaction. This was starting to get ridiculous.
I slumped back in the sofa and studied her carefully. I could see that she'd been crying, again, her eyes were all shiny and her mascara had run. It occurred to me that she wasn't looking so good these days.
We'd known each other for over four years and had been living together for nearly two of those. Of course we'd had our ups and downs, but this...well, this was serious. I guess I hadn't helped the situation by writing our car off the very next day, but I'd been bloody lucky to have walked away from that one, and I'd told her that.
I'd met a young girl called Stephanie at the scene of the accident. Now this girl had literally taken my breath away when I'd first laid my eyes on her. She'd popped round yesterday night, in fact, and this probably hadn't helped ease my troubles with Hannah, either. Still, I got to thinking that if Hannah didn't start talking to me soon, I might try my luck with the Goddess I'd met amongst the carnage. But deep down, I knew it was too late for all of that.
The theme tune to some game show came blasting out of the television I'd attached to the wall, but neither of us were really watching it.
'Fancy a tea, Joe?' Hannah asked.
That was the first time she'd spoken to me in a while. Maybe (despite what Stephanie said) I was finally getting through to her. Stephanie had told me to leave her. But I could hardly do that, could I?
'Sure,' I said. 'I'd love a tea.'
I watched her closely as she left the room. She had her old jeans and that faded blue t-shirt on again. Just lately, this attire seemed to be the only clothes she had to wear. Her hair didn't look too great either. She'd let herself go, all right. I knew the reason why, but I threw it as far from my mind as I could.
'You and I should go somewhere. Start afresh,' Stephanie had said.
I hadn't replied to that. I simply hadn't known what to say.
There was a full moon out tonight, and I shuddered in the knowledge of knowing that all sorts of monsters came out when the moon was fat. Despite the rather callous things she said though, Stephanie wasn't a monster, and I distinctly remember how her ample cleavage had seemed almost ready to burst out of that silk blouse she'd been wearing on the day of the accident. Oh how things could have been different if I'd had met Stephanie before Hannah. Still, as I've said, all of that is past me now.
Hannah came back into the room carrying two cups of tea, and I smiled at her as she placed my cup down on the coffee table in front of me.
I met Stephanie four days ago on the A409. I had been driving along at a steady sixty-five, listening to the sounds of the radio and heading home after a particularly long day at work. It was dark and the road was slippery on account of the recent downpour of rain, but the rain had seemed to be clearing. I remember switching my wipers down a click from full speed and squinting into the darkness ahead.
That was when I saw it.
Perhaps only a hundred yards down the road – it was hard to tell in the conditions – I saw what looked like a petrol tanker jackknifed across the road. I didn't have time to think, I just slammed on the brakes. The car slid for what seemed like forever, and the smell of burning rubber filled my nostrils as the shell of that petrol tanker grew larger in my all-expenses-paid front row seat. I don't remember feeling scared. I don't remember feeling anything, actually. All I was was a passenger in some screwed up, out of control rocket ship.
Close to the point of impact, I heard my satellite navigation system advising me to turn left in three-hundred yards. The machine's voice was so cool and controlled under the circumstances that it almost seemed funny, and I remember thinking: never mind the left turn, what about that fucking trunk in the middle of the road?
All I could see then was the ugly undercarriage of that truck. Even the looming cylindrical tube containing the precious cargo had disappeared off the top of my windscreen. I remember seeing clearly a red triangular sign attached to the undercarriage. The sign said Flammable. It was perhaps at this point when everything slowed right down.
They say your life flashes before your eyes just before the end. Maybe that's true, but that's not what happened to me, perhaps because by some miracle, my life hadn't ended there. I can only surmise what might have happened next because as soon as I felt the first forces of impact, I must have blacked out.
I thought that was going to be the end of me. I mean, you would, wouldn't you? As that truck had grown to shove everything else out of view, I guess I must have been fearing the worst. And when I came around and realised there was a petrol tanker sitting on the roof of my car, I understood that this was the worst. I suppose if the fucking thing had just been resting on the roof, I could have lived with it, but it had crushed the roof down and pushed the front of the car in so much, I was thinking about getting a job as a contortionist when I got out.
How the hell was I going to get out?
I think that was when the panic kicked in. For sure, it was really something that I was still here after the impact, but it was going to take some real trickery to get me out. I tried to move something, anything, but I was wedged in solid. It occurred to me then that this car might just end up being my tomb. Just before my mind could go on a wonder trip to hell and back, my ears picked up on something: screeching. Another car in trouble, perhaps? But before I could think any more of it, I felt a sharp shunt from behind, pushing my car out from underneath the tanker. And a few seconds after that, there was an almighty explosion. Although I was facing the wrong way, I still saw that explosion, my retinas were burned white with it. I remember thinking that the blast must have pushed me another hundred yards towards my left turn, and I remember wondering why my stupid Sat-Nav hadn't given me my two-hundred yard warning. Fucking technology.
'You forgot the lights,' I said.
Hannah sighed, got up from the armchair and switched the lights off. We always watched television in the dark; her in the armchair with her feet resting on the table, me slouched on the sofa. Only I wasn't slouched this time, I was sitting up, looking at Hannah. To tell the truth I was worried about her. It wasn't like her to be so down. Still, I kept thinking about Stephanie. Stephanie in her short black miniskirt and her knee-high boots.
'You shouldn't be here,' she had said. 'You should be with me.'
Well maybe I should, but Hannah was the one I loved. I'd much rather be here watching the television with my cup of tea, even if she wasn't talking to me.
I must have blacked out again, but when I came around I felt real heat from somewhere behind me. I tried to move, but couldn't. My body was entombed within a casket of elegantly twisted metal. I never should have walked away from that accident. But by some miracle, that's exactly what I did.
I remember somehow managing to squeeze my body through a gap that shouldn't have been possible for me to get through, and then I was outside, feeling the cool drizzle on my face. I turned towards the source of the heat and what I saw was like something out of a New Age disaster movie.
The road was littered with chunks of twisted metal which came from God knows where. Fragments of glass and bits of reflectors glinted in the light thrown from the raging inferno that used to be a petrol tanker. But the worst thing about it all had to be the silence. There wasn't a single sound apart from the light pattering of drizzle against the cold, hard road. I was about to shy away from this hellish scene when something caught my eye: there was a car wedged beneath the undercarriage of the flaming truck. That must have been what had shunted into the back of me, freeing me. I suppose I should have tried to do something, but even if I'd wanted to, I wasn't sure if my legs would work. So I just stood there, the heat of the flaming truck warming my face. The flames dancing in my eyes.
Bowser, our pet cat, came trotting into the room just after Hannah had turned off the lights. He ventured into the centre of the floor, stopped, and looked straight at me.
'Go on, Bowser,' Hannah said. 'Go and see Joe.'
Bowser mumbled something but jumped up onto the sofa to lay in the seat next to me. I stroked him and he purred. Hannah turned to me and smiled. 'You can always make that cat purr, Joe. I don't know how you do it. He never purrs for me.'
I smiled. 'I guess I have the magic touch,' I said.
Through the window I could see the moon rising. Soon it would be high enough to light up the sofa with its soft, pale light. If Stephanie had been here, I would have soon been able to see her in her full beauty, when that moon rose just a little bit more.
It seemed to take an age for the vehicles with the blue flashy lights to turn up. They eventually did, but not before I saw something that made my miracle seem like a cheap magic trick, not before I saw Stephanie clamber out of the car which was wedged underneath the tanker. I did tell you that when I'd first seen her, she'd taken my breath away. Do you now see why?
'My God!' I said.
I watched on with unbelieving eyes as she approached.
'Are you okay?' I said when she was within talking distance. 'How the hell did you get out of there?'
Stephanie coolly surveyed the damage on my car as she came towards me. 'I could ask you the same question,' she said.
And yeah, she could. I shook my head. Not only had she walked away from a car wedged beneath the undercarriage of a truck which was in flames, she looked to be in pretty good shape, too. In fact, she looked stunning. She was a real phoenix from the flames, for sure. A Goddess amongst a field of carnage.
'I'm Joe, what's your...what?' I swear I'd never thought a person could turn as white as a ghost; I'd always thought it was just a stupid metaphor. But I was wrong about that.
'Oh my God!' she said. 'Look over there.'
'Haven't you seen it? Look!'
I twisted my head to see what had gotten the girl so rattled, and what I saw made my stomach clench. Off the side of the road a car had collided head on with a large tree. How the fuck had I not seen it before?
I think I knew the answer to that, though: I had seen it, only my mind had conveniently blocked it out because it was too horrible to comprehend. I saw the skid marks along the road which led to that car and assumed that the driver must have successfully avoided hitting the truck, but hadn't been as successful when it had come to avoiding the tree. We went over to have a look. I guess we'd both been morbidly curious.
In the driver's seat I saw the remains of a woman. I say, remains, and I couldn't even hazard a guess at her age, because half of her head was missing. The windscreen had been blown out, too, and I had a horrible feeling that there'd once been a baby sitting in the back seat of that car. That was before it had gone flying towards the windscreen, taking a chunk of the mother's head along for the ride to land, oh, I don't know, maybe a few hundred yards down the road from here, perhaps.
'I guess not everyone escaped the carnage,' she said. 'I'm Stephanie.'
'It's a miracle we escaped the carnage,' I replied. 'Say, where the hell's the driver of the truck?'
Despite the cargo being aflame, the cab of the truck was dark. The poor bastard might well have been choking to death in there, but we had no desire to go and investigate. We'd had enough of that for one night. Was that selfish?
The moon had risen enough now to cast its pale light into the room. I glanced across at Hannah to see that she'd entered into a light doze.
'I'm sorry about that stupid argument, Petal,' I said.
'S'okay,' she replied sleepily.
'And I'm sorry about getting involved in that accident. I never meant to, you know.'
'Yeah, I know.'
'You catch some sleep, it looks like you need it. You'll feel different tomorrow, I promise.'
She would feel different tomorrow too, because I'd made up my mind to leave her tonight. When Stephanie came knocking on my door in a few minutes, I'll be taking her hand and starting afresh.
As I've said, it had taken an age for the boys in blue to turn up, but eventually they did. They didn't take much notice of us, really, and spent most of the time looking at the three smashed up cars and scratching their heads. But, all credit to them, they had us packed away and sent down to the hospital in pretty short order.
A knock at the door tore me away from my thoughts. That must be Stephanie. It was time for me to start my new life. I whispered goodbye to Hannah, walked towards the front door, and opened it. Stephanie was there, looking as drop-dead gorgeous as I remembered her to be. She was wearing those knee-high boots and her black miniskirt again. She also wore the silk blouse that her cleavage was still desperately trying to escape from. I looked back into my hallway, what the hell was I doing?
'Come on,' Stephanie said. 'We've spoken about this. I don't want to be on my own, I want to be with you.'
'But what about Hannah?' I asked.
'She'll be fine. She'll have to be.'
'But nothing. You don't belong with her.'
With that she offered her hand and I took it. I stepped outside and closed the door behind me. Then we walked, hand in hand, down the driveway and out onto the street. There was no traffic around – there never was any more – so we walked in the centre of the road. I glanced across at Stephanie to see her full beauty in the moonlight. She had scared me at first, but she didn't scare me any more.
Her skirt was ripped and torn. Her boots were melted. The blouse she wore was nothing more than burnt tattered rags where charred and blistered skin occasionally peaked through. Her face was black, the lower half looking more skeletal now than flesh. And there were a few wisps of hair sprouting up from her blistered and burned head. I can tell you that I wasn't in much better shape, myself.
I did say that we should never have walked away from that accident, and I don't know why it was only us that did. Sometimes I'm sure people catch glimpses of us every now and then as we wander the streets searching for where we might one day belong.
[ 8th September 2009
- 11th September 2009 ]