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Fiction and poetry




The Middle of the Night, A Dark Hallway

 John Higgins

Maybe it’s because you have always been convinced that you’re special. That you were brought onto this earth for a purpose. That you will be the best in the world at something. That you have something to offer. That you have unrealised potential. That you haven’t written your novel yet. Or composed a concerto. Or won an Oscar. Or cured cancer. Or discovered a new constellation. Or found true love.

Maybe that’s why you accept the lift without hesitation.

You’re glad just to be off your feet. The burning sensation prickling your soles vanishes the moment you slide into the passenger seat. You retract your thumb. You notice how sore it is from jutting out at passing cars for hours.

The car smells of car. The pine air-freshener dangling from the mirror. Old cigarette butts crippled in the dashboard ashtray. Dust in the upholstery tickling your nose. A grease-sodden fast-food bag crumpled up in the back seat. A bag of tools beside it. The stench of dried sweat, lying beneath all this like white noise.

There’s a radio but it’s not playing. The silence is eerie. The driver breathes like they’ve called a late-night sex chatline. The silence is encroaching. The silence is unbearable.

You say thanks for this. You say it clearly. You enunciate every syllable. You ensure that the kind benefactor who has picked you up is aware of your gratitude.

You ask where they’re going. They don’t respond. A feeling: dry-mouthed unease. You quash it down. You tell them where you’re going. It’s far. You point anyway. As though it’s just up here on the left.

The comforting golden arches of a McDonald’s appears. You see through the windows. You see the gaudy colours. You see the white counter. You see the brims of logo’ed caps. You see a family. You see a man eating a double cheeseburger by himself. Then it’s gone.

You try to relax. You tell yourself that it’s fine. You tell yourself that the driver is just one of those oddballs. An outcast with little in the way of social graces. You charitably blame anxiety for your saviour’s withdrawn nature.

You look at the driver. They look perfectly ordinary. Their side-profile doesn’t speak of aberrance.

You try your best to ignore the intensity with which they’re watching the road. You fail. You remind yourself of others’ little idiosyncrasies. You remind yourself how an uncle doesn’t speak while driving. How your mother cannot stand the radio playing while driving. You lay a blanket of respectability over all of this. You make associations with the real world that calm your quickening heartbeat.

You look back and the rest stop is a distant memory. It may never have existed. The man with the cheeseburger, the lonely cars parked up outside, the family dipping nuggets into pots of sauce. You will never see them again.

You blame yourself.

You hear the dull thud of the locks engaging and you blame yourself. You watch the last of civilisation flit by the passenger window. You watch the lights, the houses, the windows, the porches, the disused barbecues. The Ford Mondeos, the recycling bins, the fences, the rusted bicycles.

You watch all these things be replaced by trees. Massive trees, either side of the road, rising from the centre of the earth and piercing the sky.

You don’t know the names of different trees. You can’t distinguish them. You call fir trees Christmas trees. These trees, jutting out of the earth, knitting themselves across the heart of the forest so you can only see leaves and blackness, are unknown to you.

You tell the driver that they can let you out anywhere soon. You say you’re meeting someone around here. You know it’s a pathetic excuse but fear has clouded your brain.

Still, you don’t let the threat of your death make an embarrassment of you. You refrain from making a scene. Manners cost nothing, after all.

You politely ask the driver to stop. They ignore you. The car is building speed, slicing along the empty road that cleaves the forest in two. The trees slide by faster and faster, the world around you a mere blur. A car passes and you bang on the window. You hear the sudden screech of brakes as the car does a U-turn. You hear the sirens of police cars coming over the precipice of the road. It’s all your imagination, of course. You see the last red glint of the car’s brakelights heading towards the McDonald’s however far back.

Your fear of causing a scene dissipates as the driver slowly tilts the steering wheel and the car falls from the tarmac onto a dirt road, the conical headlight beams catching the brick-red dust that is thrown up by the approaching tyres.

You try the door even though it’s locked, the handle snapping closed impotently. You hit the button that controls the windows but they’ve locked that too, from the dimly lit command centre. You try to break the window but it’s useless. You hammer on it, the tempered glass shaking promisingly in its rubber frame, and then nothing. The car continues, you give up, your palm tingling with pain.

You toy with the idea of grabbing the wheel, attacking the driver, but your fear of certain death is stronger than your fear of abstract death. You can already see it: the claustrophobic scuffle; the dull feeling of some previously concealed blade piercing your abdomen, puncturing some major organ; the sudden jerk as the car lifts into the air, twisting and ploughing directly into a tree; the blackness of the forest bursting into life as the car explodes outward like a sun.

You look out the window, the scenery cast into a darkness that is so foreboding you can viscerally imagine deformed bodies racing from the forest towards the car, you can imagine hands shooting out of shallow graves, you can imagine a glint of demonic red in the face of the driver, their eyes still fixed on the road, panting heavier and heavier as they navigate the forest path.

You don’t know how it can be this, your ultimate end coming in some abandoned log cabin, or maybe just a clearing between the trees. You imagine the feel of dirt in your mouth, cable-ties biting into your wrists, the sound of the boot slamming closed and the scrape of a shovel coming closer, closer.

You were destined for something greater than this surely, you think, your heart pounding like a revving engine before the clutch is released, or bucking like a horse in the traps. You were destined for something greater than this, the words flit through your mind like neon mockeries, words that would have ordinarily caused you embarrassment.

Your mother or father, maybe a teacher or professor here or there, a supervisor or manager, sometimes just a friend taking you aside as you hit your rock-bottom, told you that you were better than this, and this, whatever this has been, has been transformed into this, every moment marked off by the air-freshener pendulum ticking back and forth, back and forth, as the car slowly winds its way through the woods, the last signs of humanity – tarmac, cat’s-eyes, families enjoying Happy Meals, the sudden burst of dazzling headlights strafing across your eyes – now finally gone, as though by merely leaving the road you and your captor have somehow travelled in time, back to some Palaeolithic era, you and the driver the only two sentient beings on earth.

The driver is slowly losing their cool, their knuckles white as your face, their fingers hooked over the steering wheel’s spokes. They mutter to themselves, but it’s so low you can’t make out any of it. Nor, in a sense, do you want to, clinging to the infantile hope that should have left you four or five kilometres back, that the driver is merely debating whether to let you free here or carry you to some Burger King rest stop at the other end of the forest.

So you continue, you and your driver, into the forest, all the while ruminating on the unfairness of it all, when you compare your potential with that of any other person who could have been picked up today, slaughtered; becoming some statistic, remaining a footnote in the historiography of the driver, a simple blue hyperlink on your killer’s Wikipedia page that no one ever clicks on because, after all, no one reads about the victim, do they? and knowing your current fortune, the change in your existence’s dynamic, you know you probably don’t even have the privilege of being the first, or the last: you’ll be somewhere around the middle, the memorable names bookending yours in their uniqueness, while you remain, forever, victim #4, #6, #11, some unremarkable number, your death serving only to accentuate the interest in your killer, your driver, and the car starts to slow, finally, and the headlights alight upon a clearing, some rotunda embedded in the heart of the forest, a space where no one can hear you scream.

John Higgins is a 23-year-old Irish writer. His work has been featured in Honest Ulsterman, New Pop Lit, The Blue Nib and more.