By Sean Smith
“Please sign to confirm you are dead. Here and here.”
I pressed my bloodied thumb onto a thin sheet. With it, the last product of me was stamped onto an empty form. The last version of me, imprinted on anything, anywhere, ever again. I screamed.
The car alarm cried, and distant sirens whirred. Orange hazard lights glowed against the crooked spill of the corner shop, turning the shadows of broken glass into ghoulish mouths. Fire rose from the front axle, slowly crawling over to the hood of the car, where I lay sprawled, mangled.
“Matthew Lynch, You are here because You are dead,” said a voice – a body – perched upon a high chair. “You are here for crimes in Life, which are to be paid in Death. It is within Our jurisdiction to interrogate you until We see otherwise. You shall stay sat in that chair until We have accounted to Your crime. And by the looks of it,” it smiled, peeking at a page of an endless book, “we have quite the case. So please, do make Yourself comfortable.”
Unable to move, I screamed again. I could feel the residual heat crawl against my nape, though there was no fire. The figure in the high chair, the Judge as it introduced itself, ignored my tortured squirming and turned to the page of the endless tome. The figure read, and yet had no eyes; it spoke, and its words needled inside my skin, crawling up my back and stoking the pain.
“June 1984, Mr Lynch. Fifteen-minutes-past-afternoon. Do You remember?”
Tonight’s Weather: twenty-five degrees, with 0% chance of rain. With zero cloud coverage, it’s certainly good stargazing weather with the meteor showers this week. Now, at number one for the second week, from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it’s Relax!
It was a warm June night, where the sun hugged the horizon and thickened the air. I miss those nights, where the warm breeze danced amongst the trees, and I would rest on dad’s cheap camping chair, watching the sun slowly set amongst the endless crops. I’d often crave a six pack or two, so the night’s often ended with a glass bottle trail. Dad’s Golf hovered behind me, engine running so the radio could play. I could vaguely hear Frankie over the dry chug of the car’s engine, which was enough to fill the void. I was happily away from everything. From dad. From mum. The cold crawl of turning twenty next week ate at my mind, so I needed this warm feeling: the cold beer on my lips, the joy of silence; the buzz of trying to reclaim a childish joy of innocence by doing nothing. It never worked, but that never stopped me. Just pure bli-
“Mr Lynch!” I was back, awake, if I was awake at all. I was outside the unmemory. The Judge spoke again. Who was it, the creature that spoke? “Save the romance for another time. Tell the Truth! The incident: You weren’t just drinking, were You? You weren’t by the overlook, as you had initially planned. You were driving down a lane, at twilight. Thick forest; running away.”
“I was drunk, yes.”
Tonight’s Weather: 15 degrees, with a 100% chance of rain…. Now, from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it’s Relax!
The headlights dangled hopelessly ahead of the Golf as the beams tried their best to navigate through the thick mist. Barely able to see inches ahead, I tore into the muddied backroad blindly, fighting against the wheel to keep stabilised. I skimmed some branches from a tree I couldn’t see. The right mirror tears off with a blunt snap. The car crashes through a dip in the road, waves of mud splashing onto the side windows. I was terrified, driving blind; and yet no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t let off from the pedal. My breath felt stale, stiff, lodged in my gullet. The radiator had caved in with the damage at the nose, and the electrics were beginning to fail. The headlights flickered, and then shut off completely. Sweat trickled. For a moment, nothing. Aimless wandering as the wind screamed in the blackness. And then they flickered back on. The faint light illuminated the wrecked car bonnet: a contorted shadow of a handlebar, protruding from the bloodied bumper like a thorn. Where the fuck is the body? I could barely keep my eyes on the road. I looked each side, hoping to find it. The window wipers increased in pace, but barely kept the heavy barrage of rain at bay. My heart felt as if it wanted to crawl out of my throat, suffocating me with infinite what ifs. The body would be found. My dad’s car would be traced. I was fucked. Nothing made sense in those flickering moments of sickening agony.
I began to cry.
“Mr Lynch,” said the Judge, turning the page. “It says here You initially thought of driving off the cliff Yourself, once You had escaped the forest. Your failing relationships, Your jealousy, Your father; nothing stopped You from taking that leap. And then You hit your cyclist in a drunken rage.”
I didn’t say anything. I only saw the cyclist’s eyes, hazily. I felt drunk. Everything else melted away into a bloody, gooey puddle. Everything except those eyes.
Those fucking eyes.
“Why didn’t You just run away?”
“You knew the consequences. You were angry, and very, very drunk. Not a great mixture, is it?”
I thought I spotted a smirk on the Judge’s face.
“Why are you doing this! Why am I here?” I cried, shocking the jury who had been quietly spectating. They glared at me, unblinking, with horrible frowns. Mum, Grandma, Dad. The Cyclist.
“You are dead, Mr Lynch. I am asking questions.”
I felt a faint flattening in my chest; a skip in my heart.
“Dead? Is this some Christmas Carol shit? Make me suffer for my terrible ways, and then send me off to be redeemed?”
The Judge laughed, the sort of laugh you’d expect from such a creature: a weighty chortle, bitter and sinister, as if it could eat the soul. It seemed the type to enjoy eating souls. It certainly enjoyed eating mine.
“Oh, Mr Lynch, You will Suffer, but You will not be Redeemed. You will still be the miserable old man You were before. There is no Redemption here, only Memories, forgotten by those who have Remembered, and those lost, unthought by chance and choice. Here, everything you now see will be a testament to your failures, your regrets, and the memories unmade by your own weakness. You cannot escape.”
Lightning exploded overhead as the rain grew heavier. The car was half parked in a ditch. I fell out of the door and followed the wake of my tire tracks. The body wasn’t far, I was sure. I had to find him. The rain was unrelenting; it beat upon my head like a hammer to the skull as it tore through me, and the wind. The bloody wind, a siren’s wail. My Nikes were caked with thick mud as I clambered along the knee-deep quagmires torn up by the Golf. The further I moved away from the car, the quieter Relax! became, and the hum of the engine. I was on all fours to balance myself against the elements. The lights of the car had disappeared now. Relax! faded away. Only the rain remained, pitter-pattering down into the infinite beyond. The only light came from the moon, spying through the canopy. I think the moon was terrified too.
“You found the body, didn’t You, Mr Lynch?”
“Yes.” I paused for a moment, trying to escape the image, the thought, but it chased me. His body was contorted into unfamiliar directions, sharing the ugly shape of a swastika or an old plum tree. I leaned closer, gingerly and shaking. Legs bent backwards, and his neck in a shape unnameable, he carried a cold, absent face, as if suddenly lied to. And in his eyes, a soft sadness. “Yes.”
The clock struck five at my brother’s place. Gerald. I remember you. Everyone was in the living room; your newborn son was the next big thing. What was his name? Ethan, right? Ethan Lynch, the newest member of the family. Guarantee my dad would’ve made it prime conversation. But I suppose neither of us would have wanted him anywhere near dear Ethan.
Ethan was giggling as Mum picked him up, pursing her lips and giving him a little kiss on the head. She put him back on the ground. His legs softly accepted the Persian rug he sat on, and so did his hands. He flopped over onto his stomach and ran his little fingers through the refined textures of the wool and silk. He giggled again, and little bits of spittle oozed from his smiling mouth. His deep blue eyes glowed with joy; everyone seemed to smile when he did. Like his father. He was the sweetest thing; a little bundle of joy, my Mum would say. I liked him, and I smiled too. That was the first time my mum had seen me smile in months. It was the first time I’d seen her smile in years.
I had found the body, half buried in mud thrown into a pile by the trail of my car. His head, partially disconnected from the neck, was face down in a deep puddle. Around him, signs of a struggle: claws marks where he had clutched the earth to lift himself upwards, but his broken bones had caved in. He had drowned, heavily in pain and unable to breathe.
“He spent his final moments in total agony, Mr Lynch.”
“I could have saved him! I was doing the right thing!”
“But You didn’t save him, Mr Lynch, much like many other things. You can say You could have, but doing such requires Courage!” The Judge frowned. “And You have none of that.”
I wanted to say something. I wanted to scream at it, and wrap my hands around its neck and watch it turn blue. My hands throbbed, and my muscles ached, as I pulled against the invisible restraints, but no amount of resistance against the chair made it budge. The only thing that escaped me was the waves of sweat pouring from my brow. It was cold in here, and it made the sweat sting. I began to cry.
“You cry! These mistakes are Your own, Mr Lynch.” It turned a page of the tome, and studied whatever was written inside. It snorted. It seemed amused. “To say the least, the possibilities of this man’s life were endless. From his current trajectory, he would have graduated with a law degree, made himself a small fortune. He already had a loving wife, and a child. Now orphaned.” The Judge turned the page again and looked up. A crack in its face, that ugly grin again. It looked surprised, but pleasantly amused too. It was taking pleasure in this. “But I’m sure, Mr Lynch, that You knew him better than me. Correct?”
“That’s enough!” I screamed. I couldn’t take it. My eyes burned and felt sore, and my throat was parched. “No more. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” barked the Judge. “You are well past apologies! You destroyed a man’s Life, and because of that, Your own. Feel sorry for Yourself, and keep it to Yourself!”
As everyone made their way to the dining room, I stayed a moment to look at Ethan. For the first time that night, he looked back. In his eyes, there was an absence of guilt. They cut through me, stabbing out every small emotion my chest I had otherwise forgotten. He looked sad now – I think he noticed something inside – but looked down at my watch, and giggled again. I felt his little hands clamber and squeeze for my wristwatch. He liked the ticking sound, the hand turning, the texture of the worn leather. His eyes followed attentively, watching the time tick away. Tick tock, I said to him, and he giggled. He would learn to hate that sound.
“It seems, Mr Lynch, We’ve struck a tangent in the narrative. If any of this happened at all, that is…”
“It did happen!”
Unmoved, the Judge learned forward. “Oh, I’m sure it did, in some manner. But Your words still wear that blanket of Grief, don’t they?”
“What the fuck are you talking-”
My sentence slurred into a groan as a sharp pain throbbed in my head. Sweat drizzled from my scalp, stringing my hair into thick grey ribbons that clung to my temples. And then an immense nausea, unbearable and suffocating.
What was happening?
I felt as if I was spiralling into a malarial fit. My muscles began to involuntarily jump and jerk inside my skin. Lumps formed where my muscles tensed and rearranged, crawling beneath my skin. I felt every tendon twist and pop like fireworks. My bicep wanted to tear from my arm. My veins bulged, about to explode. The Judge’s eyes kept on me, hard, locked. I could feel its pupils dig inside my brain, scooping the necessary elements with a crimson spoon. But as fast as the pain came, with a twitch of its head, the pain disappeared entirely. I gasped for air, clasping for my neck, and for the first time, my hands escaped the chair. I tried to reach inside, to feel my diaphragm closing in, and the pain began to build again. The world began to rush infinitely fast against my forehead; the very rhythms of the earth, or wherever I was, become a tangible force. Everything became a watery blur, except the quiet, staring, eyeless face of the Judge. I was drowning on nothing.
The Judge twitched again.
I collapsed onto the floor, breathless and dazed. My palms were damp, clutching onto bloodied clumps of hair torn from my head. I felt the bald areas throb as the blood poured out. A little slither edged over my nose, dripping onto the floor that didn’t exist. It was nothing, a translucent colour with no texture or appearance. It simply didn’t exist. Maybe nothing did here. Maybe it was all made up. Maybe I was going mad.
“Breathless, Confused, Deluded,” said the Judge. “Grief can do that. Or was it Guilt? Or Shame, in that You felt proud in killing him?”
What was it suggesting? The Judge continued to stare. Its empty face filled with derision, suspicion. I could feel its hand in my heart, thumbing the aorta, trying to arouse some memory that had wedged itself in its darker corners. A discarded, half-eaten memory that shouldn’t have been found. I was terrified, because I started to remember.
“Stop it!” I screamed, pulling myself up unevenly. I felt hungover. “Stop it! I know what you’re doing! I’m not guilty.”
The Judge stopped, freezing completely. For a moment, it said nothing; its mouth twitched briefly, forming the sounds and shapes of words, but unable to mutter them. It hesitated. The sensation in my chest resided. It seemed to struggle to keep its posture, as if unsettled by something. Its brow quivered, and its voice gurgled. Was it coughing up some phlegm? For a moment, it continued to make these sounds until they slowly generated into words.
“Mr Lynch,” it said, sighing piteously. “I am in no place to judge, or be the judge, but I am your Judge, and thus my place stands in allowing You to be Your own court room.”
“You’re making no sense.”
“Yes I am.”
I could feel his claws slowly crawling back in. Fuck! This time, I resisted. I focused on where the tearing sensation was, and I pushed against it. A flashing explosion of immense pain, as if every inch, every atom of my body was twisted, burned, torn out, and then plugged back in. I pulled back against his hand digging in. I fell away from the jury, who continued to quietly stare. Mum looked disappointed. The Cyclist frowned; he had dad’s frown.
“Now you’re starting to realise, aren’t you, Mr Lynch?”
I could feel its contempt burning my lungs, and so I punched myself, repeatedly. Surely the pain reached the Judge too, as much as it hurt me. It flinched with every punch. Harder at every hit, I kept on until the pain resided. For a moment, total numbness, and the Judge, in all its malicious pride, looked pale and dormant. And then the hand lunged in again. With a scream, a heave, an internal thrust, I hit back, and everything went black.
The flames started up my arm. Around me, through a thick blanket of smoke, oil began to drizzle out from the fuel tank, caking the shop floor in a thick tar colour.
Not much time now, Mr Lynch.
I awoke to find myself in an empty field, as far as my tired eyes could see; this nothingness stretched in every direction. Ridges made by what seemed to be crop rows lined the soil of the fields, except no crops grew here; nothing grew here. The land hadn’t been touched for a while. And the soil…it looked so clumpy and sickly. Taking a handful, it felt familiar: a gritty substance as black as ground coffee, and a scent that made the back of my skull hum. I held it to my tongue and tasted it. Amidst my bruises, I felt the hum transform into a warming buzz about my temples. Tobacco. Looking over the rest of the fields, I noticed not even the light was normal. No shadows shed in the dips of the land, and the sky was overcast, so the fields were illuminated only by a dull glow filtered through the unbroken clouds. Everything here seemed dead. I felt so infinitely lonely. I was dreaming. I had to be. So, I started to run, as fast as I could. But after what seemed like hours, I was unsure if I had moved at all. I saw no change in the land, no anomaly or exception. Just the same grey light in the same meagre black fields. I may as well have been running on the spot. My breath stiffened again when I tried to recover, and I felt small nudge; a cold hand was returning. But its touch felt less intense. Strangely, it felt soft.
“It’s Sad, isn’t it, Mr Lynch?”
It had appeared behind me, and I stumbled back, falling over one of the crop rows and into the tobacco. The Judge, now wearing a long, leather duster that danced against a rising breeze, slowly paced towards me. The leather looked familiar, creased with white wrinkles in its age. It ticked, and seemed to be embroidered with hundreds of small circles: clock faces, all telling different times at different speeds. A minute lasted a minute, sometimes an hour; others had stopped ticking. They all hummed quietly.
“Welcome back,” it grinned. “Like home, isn’t it?”
I blinked, and found myself standing in front of a wooden hut, as old as the Judge’s jacket. The building looked abandoned, and carried a sickly colour like that of driftwood.
It wasn’t here before, was it?
“No, it wasn’t. But You’ll remember what this place is soon enough.”
The veranda sung to me. From the wooden overhang, several windchimes played a hollow tune. They whispered quietly against the icy air, with words I half understood. Soon after noticing them, they disintegrated into a fine dust, melting into the tobacco fields behind me.
What is this place? All of this?
“A home for things You never wanted to see. A mirror broken and unkept by You, disregarded after that wrongful night. You don’t remember it, but You do.” The Judge walked over to lift me up onto my feet; its smooth, cold hands carried an overwhelming strength. It patted down my cloak to clean off the dust, and pushed me towards the house. “You made this place. Plank-by-plank, as You grieved.” It leaned to my ear, and with a gravelly murmur, it said: “This place is a lockbox for everything You regret to know. We all have one, in Life.”
What are you saying?
“What am I saying?” it laughed. “Everyone must take the trials of Life in Death; our Legacy; our Thoughts; the moments that made us Live, Cry and Die. Unfortunately for You, you spent most of Your time in agony, buried in ways to cope. Look around You, Mr Lynch. You speak little of it much, but these fields of tobacco should indicate what this place is. The pleasures made in order to suppress Your deepest, darkest grievances. Locked away in that grovel,” it pointed to the cabin, “is everything you Hate. That is your rite to passage in order to Die.”
And if I don’t go in?
No response. I looked about, but it was no longer there. It had left silently, as swiftly as the dust from the windchimes. Not even the ghosts of footprints. I was totally alone, in the eternal quiet. The wind chimes still sung softly, in the air, somewhere. A breeze chilled the air, but it was more a ghostly breath. An intangible breath, that touched my skin but did not ripple my clothes, nor leave a whisper.
Stepping onto the veranda, the wooden planks groaned a hollow sound; they were old and rotting, and stank of damp. Crumpled newspapers were wedged between the planks, and where the breeze tore them up, I could see my name in bold letters. And then my face. I kneeled down to pick one up, but as I reached, they ducked under the flooring. Every time I tried to snatch one – no matter how fast – they were faster. I kicked the floor in frustration, before another newspaper appeared, as if to taunt me. I could see my face again in the picture. A mugshot. Unsmiling, like the jury. And then, as swift as it had started, the wind chimes had stopped, and a horridly still silence took over. The sound of nothing was an eerie character, where no voices could soothe the earth in the ground – absolute silence was terrifying out here. I felt a superficial fear flood me, a what if. What if something was out there? Nothing existed beyond the veranda but the endless plains, which stared coldly back. And yet, I could feel something else staring back. Feeling a sudden urge to run, I turned to the entrance of the building and threw myself in. The windchimes sang again as soon as I closed the door behind me.
A slither of grey light broke through two measly windows that overlooked the fields; they were both caked with tobacco dust that poured in from outside, and barely held to their hinges. A single candle, planted in the centre atop a solitary kitchen table, illuminated a small box next to it. A cold draught from the floorboards pushed me forward, and before I noticed, I was holding the box in my hands. It was a small object, simple with sharp edges, but had no texture to sensate, no features to observe. Opening it, however, I found nothing. Just an infinite black…that stared back. Inside, in its deepest caverns, I saw it, for the first time in decades. Guilt. I felt a hotness climb up my nape, and I was terrified. I knew I hadn’t much time.
Tonight’s Weather: 15 degrees, with a 100% chance of rain…. Now, from Frankie Goes to Hollywood, it’s Relax!
Gerald’s face lay in the mud, his body mangled like a sweet wrapper. His bicycle had wrapped around the tree, the one we used to climb. Dad’s Golf sat in the road, half in a ditch as the smoke settled. The door hung open as I ran over to my brother, with Relax! blaring out and echoing through the trees. The engine’s gurgle quietened as everything melted away around me. Everything was a sickening red haze. He wasn’t moving. I scrambled, crying as I shook him. He wouldn’t move.
“I’m so sorry,” I had screamed. “Fuck! I didn’t mean to!”
I did mean to. I did it out of hatred, and there was no coating this in candy, as dad would’ve said. Even when he did get back from jail three weeks later, all he could talk about, cry about and curse about was Gerald. When there were talks of having a court meeting to discuss what had happened, all my parents ever talked about was Gerald. Even at the court case, Gerald was always the subject of concern. Aspiring Teen Killed in Shock Accident, the papers said. I was the suspect, and even then they didn’t care. My Mum could smell the beer on me; I think she knew. She frowned, as did my dad. They always frowned at me after that day. If I had known dad would die soon after, I would’ve given Mum a hug or something. The case was dismissed; I was found innocent. Accidental manslaughter. I never mentioned I was high on E and piss drunk.
When we got home, my only graduation photo was replaced by a shrine of Gerald, and my only medal turned into a row of cheap tea candles. I didn’t exist to anyone. So I left them soon after Gerald’s funeral. Apparently Mum had died a year later. I didn’t care.
I made my way to the kitchen with the others, leaving little Ethan to fiddle with my watch; they were serving bagels, lentils, eggs, fish, a few bowls of nuts, and some dried fruits. Mum had prepared them with Gerald’s wife, Ella. I think her name was Ella, same age as me, just past 19.. She wasn’t all that important, unlike Gerald. Everyone cared about Gerald being gone, but no one regarded her all that much. Maybe we shared a common agony. I sat next to her. I hoped she wouldn’t smell the vodka.
“Here’s to Gerald,” I said, smiling meekly, raising a glass of wine. Gerald’s wife rose a glass feebly, unable to smile. She looked at me with restless eyes. “Here’s to Gerry. May God comfort us, wherever He is.”
I drank, watching little Ethan through the hallway. He stared up to a photo of his dad on the mantlepiece; at 18 – not much older than when I killed him, I thought, with a smile – Ella would explain what happened to Gerald to Ethan, and he would forgive me. I admired that. He had a lot of his Dad’s spunkiness. I think he graduated business last year at Cambridge. I’m proud of him, I think. But for now, he sat there like an invalid, and sucked on the dummy he had found on the floor. He turned his head to stare at me, with an innocent smile on his pale face. He brimmed with a bubbly joy, and giggled as I made faces. Peeka-a-boo!
I felt the heat consume the last chunks of my flesh. I let it. No more, forever.
“You remember now, don’t you, Mr Lynch?”
I didn’t look up; I refused to. The Judge sounded sympathetic, exhausted even. My hands felt numb and weightless, and my entire body flared with an excruciating heat that felt bland. For once, the pain felt nice.
I gazed to the side, avoiding the gaze of the Judge. Mum stared at me, watery-eyed and horrified. But I noticed she had started to shake; her eyes were locked onto my hands. I looked down, and found my fingertips were dissolving into a fine, black dust. My skin was starting to peel like old wallpaper; first my hands, and then my legs. My body flopped to the ground as the dust worked its way to my hips, and yet, even with the hard thud into the invisible floor, I felt nothing but joy. I looked up at my sobbing mother, and saw the guilt in her eyes. In Gerald, I saw a wanton rage. He tried to comfort her, but she pushed him away. His crooked, ugly glare proved to me I had won, in the end, after all this time. I smiled.
I then looked to the Judge with a grin on my face; it stared back coldly. It took a sip from an unusually familiar glass – a cut-glass piece, much like the one at Gerald’s wake. It then bowed its head, and began to cry too. And yet, I noticed – as the dust reached my breast – nothing but a single tear, thick and blue, splashed into the papers on its desk. It then stamped something out with the tear. My name. I could feel it. I could feel my soul shut down, and my bloodied fingerprint file into an infinite evidence cabinet. The dust of my disembodied self came here too, and I could feel each particle organise itself into a separate cell, away from the other. Was this the afterlife?
“Mr Lynch, you are hereby guilty of your crimes in Life. May the dust take you and reap your Soul. If you have any words to say to your Loved ones, now is the Time.”
I turned to them again, craning my head at an angle as the dust reached my throat. My Mum continued to cry, as did Gerald, though in his eyes, he was furious, and his fists, if they weren’t peeling away into the abyss like mine, would have shot towards me in a raging anger. I laughed, as loud as I could. I laughed because I could, and because I wanted Mum to hear. I wanted her to hear how proud I was of my actions. And then, sharply, no sound escaped me. I tried to laugh again, but I could only quietly wheeze to myself. It turned into a strangled cry, a cough, and then nothing at all.