Nature has gripped the three-story carpark. My car sits among the overgrowth of its rebellion like a steel sore on a large green thumb. I say it’s my car, even though the documents in the glove box suggest otherwise. I wonder if Deborah Peterson was one of the lucky ones like me. If that’s what you can call us.
The shutters are down over the doors into the medical centre. No lights. No sound. I knock on the window, but there’s no one inside to hear. The small bank of computer screens where Janine usually sits is off. The television, normally scrolling the sparse information we get from whatever TV stations are still running, is nothing more than a black mirror reflecting the dead room back in a warped fisheye stare. It’s Thursday. My appointments with Dr. Kline have always been on Thursdays. Even during all this.
I pound on the glass in one last dwindling hit of hope that this is all a dream, that what is happening out there in the world hasn’t finally reached here – this place, my sanctuary – and that my fists rattling the glass will shake me out of this nightmare, where I’ll find myself sitting in my usual spot, with my name minutes away from being called and my veins minutes away from getting what they need to keep from locking me out for good.
I don’t wake up.
Shit. I need my serum.
I walk back across the grey tarmac towards Deborah Peterson’s Fiat I left sitting skewed across two bays with its driver’s door slung wide. The smell of oil, dust and earth is warm around me. In the smooth concrete at my feet, I notice a small crack no wider than a pound coin and no longer than one of those stumpy Ikea pencils. Somewhere, water drips in empty echoes that remind me how utterly alone I am. Once I get to where Dad is, maybe I’ll feel better seeing his face again.
My veins ache with vibrations. I’m not sure if it’s the thought of Dad that causes it, or because I’m a day behind on my shots. The serum is getting weaker like Dr. Kline warned it would. The longer I take it, the more my body needs.
I look down at the crack, searching for signs of life finding a way through, when a single strobe explodes behind my right eye, leaving a flash bulb after image of Dad’s silhouette in the bright white expanse; his shoulders broader than an American Footballers, his thick rockstar hair cascading down to drape loosely over them. Hot lightning spikes through my head, electrifying the back of my skull with fractured webs that spread out in lines of razor wire over my entire brain, shrinking against it, gouging out deep valleys of agony. The muscles in my neck pulse and writhe beneath my skin, trying to burst their way out. My spine twists as vertebrae pop with dry, bubble-wrap cracks. Nerves catch, shooting flames of liquid-hurt down through my legs, folding my knees beneath me, and their calcified caps hit the hard floor with a crunch I feel through my hip bones and all the way to my toes.
I know there can’t be a God, not with what’s happening out there, but please, if there somehow is, I just need enough strength to get my serum.
The crack in the concrete rests between the middle and index fingers of my right hand. On all wounded fours, I stare deep into it. Studying the dark within, looking for that sign of life winning the hard fight. But it’s nothing but a dead, toothless grin mocking me. From inside it, an ethereal voice whispers up, telling me I’m screwed, and that I will never rid my crippled world of this thing growing inside of me. It tells me to just give up, roll over like the rest of them, and let the inevitable happen.
“When a flower loses its petals, it is seen to lose its appeal.” I hear Dad’s voice ringing through my splintered mind, swatting away that cowardice other. “But take a daisy; a small, delicate David in a world of leering Goliaths, meek and powerless by appearance, but will break through the hard crust of stone just to get a chance to touch the wind and dance against its honeysuckle kiss. A spirit so willed that nothing, not even the impossible, can stand in its way. So, tell me this, Em, is it really within its garland finery that the daisy holds its true beauty?”
I ball my hands into fists. I lay my knuckles on the ground.
“No, Dad,” I say, “beauty is in its will to overcome.” I push against the floor until my knuckles grind hard, and I stand myself up.
Tucking me in every night, wrapping me in ideologies to help steer my dreams, Dad always told me I was that very daisy. That I had the same power to overcome.
“Capable of anything,” he would say. “The world is your concrete to break. The wind is yours to make of it what you want. Just reach up through the crust and take it. Take it all, my Mighty Em. Take it all.”
He was always such a good dad, and after death’s sickle sought mum, he made a pretty good one of those, too. I will get out there and spend one final hour with him. I owe him that much. But not just yet. I’ve got too much to do first.
Every step I take towards the shuttered doors is laboured like my feet are frozen in blocks of ice. My right foot drags behind me. Tendrils of arctic pain travel up and split through my shins as if they’re just dusty pieces of old driftwood laid out on a beach, drying for centuries under an unforgiving sun. All the muscles in my lower back feel like cracked glass. Needles prod my brain. My lower lip bleeds from biting against it all. Layers fall over my vision. The image of the shutters ripples out like disturbed water. I rub my eyes. Everything blurs.
“A spirit so willed that nothing, not even the impossible, can stand in its way.”
Okay, dad, I hear you.
I blindly stagger closer in the fluid offset motion of it all. I keep myself going despite the want to lie down and give in to what that voice calls the inevitable.
The shutters are too strong for me to break through. I don’t even have to question that. I only hope that the windows aren’t reinforced.
With palsied hands, I fumble the keys out from my trouser pocket, and the dead phone I’ve been keeping for no reason other than the familiarity of habit comes out, too, and falls to the ground. The screen shatters. A thin echo repeats its destruction all the way through the carpark.
My fingers are rods of steel moulded shut around the keys that sit poking out between them like deathly knuckledusters.
I lean my forehead against the glass.
I need a second.
The strength is leaving me with every sour breath I take, but I need a moment. The cool glass feels too good; its touch seeps through the flames of my sizzling skin to calm the boiling of my brain.
I lift my head and bubbles of heat broil and pop against the surface of my brain. I raise my fist on fragile crockery bones and slam the toothy metal ends of the keys against the glass. Everything inside me reverberates like a tuning fork pitched to high C. The layers hanging over my vision ripple faster. The boiling bubbles in my brain thicken, fighting for any available space. A split cracks through the bone of my elbow. I scream. Blood drools from my lip, torn ragged from suppression.
There’s a light, a small sliver beyond the waiting room doors. Dr. Kline’s office. Just seeing it gives life to the dying will inside of me.
I raise my hand again, and this time when I hit the glass, it turns into a network of frosted veins. Looking at those cracks is like looking in at my own mind.
I raise my hand for the third time. This is it. This is the one.
“I am a motherfucking daisy,” I scream and break through the glass. The echo of my voice sounds weak as it bounces away from me and is quickly drowned out by the crashing waves of glass.
I stand there swaying, looking in at the waiting room, afraid to take another step. If my legs don’t hold me, I know I won’t have the strength to pull myself up again this time, and the idea of getting so close only to die so far away locks me to the spot.
Stanley left his wedding ring on the bedside table when he left three weeks after I got sick. His note said that the struggle of seeing me slowly dying, even if it took five years or more, was worse than the sudden eradication of everything that we were. Standing here, looking in at a place so close, knowing that the agonising struggle to cross its void could be futile, I kind of understand his reasoning. I didn’t then. I hated his fucking guts for bailing. But I get it now. Just to lie down and let the end come and wash over me seemed so easy, so tranquil. But I know that the end is just a focal point in the distance of everything else, just a target to aim for, and can you hit a target by doing nothing? I wonder if Stanley suffered like everyone else, or if, in the end, he took the easy way out once again.
One at a time, I drag my feet through popping glass shards. The pain is a blanket over me now. I feel it in no specific part of me, just all over.
Dr. Kline’s room sways and blurs in front of me. My foot catches on the corner of a chair, my big toe explodes inside my shoe. Yelping, I stumble, tearing muscles in my back, snapping tendons behind my knees. I can almost touch the door now.
I push through and into the light of the office. There he is, Dr. Kline, sitting in his chair. His head is tilted back. Jaw slack. Eyes locked in a tragic stare up at the ceiling. The side of his head is gone. The gun in his lap helped drag his end straight towards him. A slither of freedom in a constricted world is worse than none, I guess. Hope when all is hopeless can be a dangerous thing.
Two keys dangle from his belt on a retractable keyring. My car keys still sit tight between my locked, wax-white knuckles with crimson drips trickling over their vampiric teeth. I reach with them, hooking the keyring onto the serrated end and with my sight drifting in and out of murkiness, I slowly inch my useless shaking body closer towards the fridge where he keeps the serum. Now all I have to do is feed the smallest key into the smallest lock I have ever seen, with two clumsy balled-up fists to work with.
With the knuckle of my thumb, I turn the key I don’t want over on the ring and fumble with the small nickel key I’ve seen the doctor use hundreds of times over the past two years. Using the middle and third knuckles of my left hand, I pluck the keys from their precarious hook in my right and painstakingly manoeuvre the world’s smallest key between the knuckles of my left fist so that I now look like a shit, somewhat circumcised version of Wolverine. Now all I have to do is aim it at the coalescing locks in front of me.
I take a deep breath, trying to match my breathing with the pulsing of the lock and stab it in.
Jackpot. Fuck yeah!
A wave of elation momentarily floods out the pain, but then recedes all too quickly as I’m hit with another surge of agony that forces me backwards, pulling the fridge door open with me as I land drunkenly in the doctor’s stiff lap and bounce forward onto the floor. Every bone in me snaps in a symphony of splinters. My throat closes in around garbled screams.
Tears drown my skin as I lay looking at the glow of the open fridge. The small foil-lidded glass bottles holding the yellow juice that can put this old Humpty Dumpty back together again are just an arm’s reach away.
Here I am, closer than I was before, yet dying an even greater distance away. My last breaths, when they come, will do so with me staring into the face of unreachable salvation.
I close my eyes and let myself drift.
Diaphanous streaks of light spin through swirls of darkness. As the gossamer strands float and knit together, they paint a waterfall of hair surrounding almond outlines clutching emerald spheres above sharp cuttlefish cheekbones. A razor jawline. A hero’s chin. A dimple big enough for a little girl’s thumb to rest in. A smile that encourages strength.
“Dig, my Mighty Em, dig.”
Breath fills my gasping lungs as, like oil in water, the darkness sinks to the bottom and the glare of the open fridge blurs when my eyes come back to life.
“Dig. Dig deep.”
I swear he’s standing right behind me. His voice is so perfectly clear.
I move my muscles an inch and get ten tons of pain bearing down on me. Another inch, another ten tons. I’m so tired of feeling this way. Exhausted of being an unpainted marionette with fraying strings. My teeth crack inside my jaw when I clench down and drag my ineffectual puppet’s body closer.
The wild pendulum of my swinging fist knocks a packet out of the door, and it lands in front of me. I claw open the packet with the keys and place the needle from inside sideways between my aching, broken teeth.
“That’s it, Mighty Em. Reach up, you can do it. Reach up and dance in the wind.”
I reach for the bottle, miss it and fall, smashing the side of my head hard against the fridge door. In painful slow motion, I watch as the door swings closed with a dull thud, shutting out the light. Shutting out salvation.
I want to cry. To give up all over again. But then I see one small bottle laying on its side right there. The yellow liquid swishes inside as the bottle gently rolls back and forth.
Piercing the needle through the lid is like trying to thread a needle with invisible cotton, but eventually, clumsily, I get the juice sucked up, and when I jab the needle into my thigh, the liquid rushes through me. Every vein flows with cold heat. My muscles unclench, my bones snap back into place, my vision slides back to clarity and my brain goes from boiling to a gentle simmer, and by the time I’m loading my pockets with every bottle of serum I can carry, it becomes completely still again.
I grab a bunch of needles and take the doctor’s gun. Crunching my way back over the glass, I leave the medical centre for the last time. I will never see this place again. My sanctuary is now all that I carry in my pockets, and someday soon that will be gone too. But for now, there are cracks out there that need breaking through.
I start up the stolen Fiat and the engine sputters through the stillness as I take the snaking exit ramp down into the heart of sprawling vines and thick ferny foliage of the lower levels. Any car left down here is now a part of the earth. All constructs of man taken back by the gentle fingers of nature. With my open palms on the steering wheel, I think about when I’ll get to see Dad again.
“Not yet,” I say, “but soon, I promise, Dad. Once my pockets are empty.” Then I drive out into a silent, overgrown world, where the beauty of the weak has overcome.
Now based in Sheffield, Stephen was born and grew up in East London in the 1980s, raised in a single-parent household in the absence of his father, who spent most of Stephen’s childhood in and out of prison. Substance abuse, academic struggles, dyslexia, heartbreak, and exposure to the darker sides of London living on a working-class estate, have defined Stephen’s imaginings, inspiring his writing, and distilling his approach to the horror and thriller genres. Stephen’s work has recently been featured on Globe Soup and the Flash Fiction Friday websites.