The Death Park’, Duncan Barford

Artwork by Djibril

'In black again? You look like a bloody undertaker!' his father muttered.

Dominic took his seat at the breakfast table and sipped coffee until his father put down the newspaper.

'Sleep well?' the older man said.

'Where's mother?'

'Montreal. I think.'

'She said she'd be here.'

His father shrugged.

Dominic was still weak from the hospital and wasn't sure he had the strength to argue. 'I can't remember the last time this family met in the same room together.'

It wasn't quite true. They'd both visited him in hospital, smiling down, as if it made the overdose any easier to handle.

He poured more coffee, whilst his father ate a croissant in silence.

'We let you do things your own way,' the older man said at last. 'Whatever you wanted, we provided the wherewithal. Not many people are that lucky.'

Dominic pushed down his anger, aware of how his parents vanished whenever confronted by any hint of emotion. 'You never asked what I was doing. Not once.'

His father sighed.

'I won't argue, Dom. I only wanted to say - and your mother too, if she was here - we're both relieved you're still alive. That's all.' He fingered the newspaper next to his plate. 'For Heaven's Sake! The doctor said you'd taken triple the fatal dose!'

Dominic smiled bitterly.

He remembered making his decision, then lying down in bed to chew the pills. His mind had felt so clean and free of thoughts. He'd kept swallowing, until he guessed it was enough. This was in the house his parents had bought near the university. He'd been due for a tutorial with his supervisor. He'd left the door downstairs unbolted.

He pushed away the coffee cup.

'I was working too hard. Getting nowhere, as usual.'

Dominic's father cleared his throat.

'If it'd been over a woman, maybe I could understand,' he said.

A black van marked 'PRIVATE AMBULANCE' turned into the Ministry, slowing as it approached the checkpoint.

Janet knew what those words meant. She was watching from the second floor, sipping coffee as her computer booted-up. She'd once had a job at an insurance firm, whose window overlooked an undertaker's yard, and all day long she'd seen vans like that. Now she noticed them all over the city. A fleet of secret taxis for the dead.

Her computer played a tinny fanfare. The time in its corner read '09:08'.

Was the van delivering, or picking up? A great deal happened inside the Ministry, most of it classified. Even for this menial desk job she'd had to sign the Official Secrets Act.

Janet smiled at her colleagues, arriving at their desks. They'd worked with her long enough to understand she didn't like talking this early. She yawned and stretched her shoulders. She'd slept in the studio again last night. Told herself it was because she needed the time to paint. But her flat no longer felt like home. Chris had moved in a month ago, and it was clear already that being 'between jobs' was his full-time occupation. [ Black coat: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ]

She clicked on a spreadsheet and squinted at rows of government statistics, wincing at the metallic flavour of the coffee. Bad enough having to stare all day at a screen, tired and sleazy in yesterday's blouse and skirt, without bad coffee into the bargain.

Chris was probably scratching his pubes, raiding her cupboards for breakfast.

You fool yourself you've found someone, she thought, and then you realise you're stuck with them.

She reminded herself of the sketches she'd been working on late into the night. She almost smelt the studio's oily tang of pigments and spirit. The idea came from a dream. She'd found herself walking up behind a man standing by a well. She'd felt the crunch of dead leaves underfoot and had breathed autumn smoke. The man was in black and looked so sad. She wanted to see what he was peering at. Whatever it was, he paid no notice of her.

The image of the well intrigued her. A symbol for the unconscious, she mused, as if he's staring into himself. She tried to visualise a perspective that would show both man and well, with its darkness in the very centre.

A growl from a revving engine snapped her attention back to the window.

Inside his checkpoint booth, a security guard shouted at the black van. Whatever he said was drowned by its noise. A second guard, on the pavement, was talking to a pretty woman. His head turned and Janet saw his smile fade.

'09:09' began to elongate. Decelerate.

The van lurched, smashing the pole that spanned the driveway and sending red and yellow fragments flying.

The pretty woman ducked. The guard she'd been talking with stepped into the road and thrust out his arm.

Janet felt the breath leave her body as the van hit him. His white cap span off. The front wheels crushed him. But it wasn't the blood or his twisted body; it was the way his hand lay, cupping the surface of the road, that made Janet realise he was dead.

She craned forward, knocking over her mug. Her colleagues crowded to the windows, desperate to see. The van was too close now to be visible. There was a screech as it swerved, a bump as it hit something, but it kept on coming.

Janet found she had acres of space to work it all out. She watched the surviving guard reach for his phone. The pretty woman was straightening up, not understanding yet. Someone downstairs screamed. Janet was scared too - but it was an angry kind of fear. All she'd ever wanted to do was paint. Her heart stung with fury at what they'd done to the guard - dead, just because he'd come to work and tried to do his job.

Downstairs, the van smashed the glass doors with a biting crash. Everyone stared numbly at everybody else. She didn't know what they should do. She gripped the edge of her desk and braced as the floor blew in.

Heaving the gate shut, Dominic brushed the flakes of rust from his hands. The hem of his coat swept the gravel as he crunched up the path, between rotted stumps of what were once ornamental fountains.

After breakfast he'd found a note: 'CALLED AWAY. LAUSANNE. SORRY.'

The gardens were public, but visitors nowadays were rare. A metal signpost was the only modern feature: 'WARNING: PSYCHIC FRAGMENTS.'

Dominic glided past, ignoring the disclaimer in tiny letters underneath. Someone had attacked the metal sign, denting it all over.

His favourite bench was a decayed lump of wood, adrift in a sea of dead leaves. Arranging his coat, he sat and surveyed the degraded pathways, the empty tracks between dead flowerbeds and choked lawns. He sniffed the damp air.

Something stirred in a nearby hedge. He watched the black leaves swirl, breathless for a second. He told himself this couldn't be something - although, God knew, he'd be entitled - but Dominic understood that seeking out psychic fragments only made them hide.

A magpie clacked and skirled from the hedge, fleeing toward the perimeter wall.

His heartbeat returned to normal, and he forced himself to think about his thesis. Telepathy and Dreams: a Parapsychological Study. Was it really research, or just his sad attempt to invite something strange and exciting into his life?

His gaze fell on a distant bandstand whose roof had fallen in. As he got up and made his way toward it, he remembered his dream last night. For once, not about losing his parents at an airport, aged six; or waking up and realising he was already an old man, without having finished his thesis. Instead, he remembered a lumbering vehicle - and something in white letters. The ghost of a word: AMBIENCE, or LANCET? Perhaps AMBIVALENCE...?

As an undergraduate he'd been taught to doubt the paranormal. But times change, and now that psychic fragments had been confirmed by empirical studies, the race was on to discover what triggered them. The observer's mind was somehow paramount...

How he'd love to be the one who discovered the answer...

Noticing that she could still think gave her confidence. Otherwise - she had no sense of where she was. No sight or feeling.

It was like that time in Chris' car, when he'd skidded at a junction and pranged the car in front. It had the same feeling of time frozen.

The thought had barely crossed her mind, but now the full memory reared up - hedges and grass reeling past the passenger window, lashed by rain. The inside of the car smelling like wet dog. Chris had been sleeping in it at night. And then she suddenly remembered: this was also the day she'd agreed to let him move in. It'd been on the way home, after the accident, when they'd both been giggly with relief.

The brakes squealed and the car began to slide. The rear of the car in front loomed up - exactly as it'd done the first time it happened. She turned to scream at Chris, whose eyes were wide, lips puckered with shock. But this time, the world continued to decelerate, until the scene was progressing so slowly it had the unreal flicker of a videotape, advancing frame by frame.

Chris sat rigidly next to her, like a waxwork.

What is this? A second chance? she wondered.

Her body felt odd - the way it feels in dreams - not a thing of flesh at all, but of imagination. Even as inwardly she decided that this time she'd turn him down, she began to wonder. The soft leather under her, and the damp blast from the window - when she concentrated on them seriously, they seemed to flux and waver.

Oh God. I'm dead, she thought. I am dead, aren't I?

She put a hand to her face, realising that she was unaffected by the speed that time was passing. The car in front didn't matter. Glancing at it, collision seemed even more distant.

'Like Xeno's paradox,' she thought, and the ancient, silly parable flashed through her head:

Take the distance between an archer and her target. Divide the distance in half. Divide the half in two again...

(She'd thought it stupid the very first time she heard it.)

...divide until there are infinite divisions between the arrow and the target. Now ask yourself: how can the arrow ever strike, given that it must cross infinite intervals of space?

'But the "infinite intervals" are only in the mind,' she thought. Then paused - because in her present state, suddenly Xeno didn't seem so piffling.

'What if my brain believes I'm here?' she wondered. 'What if it's grinding down my very last second into such fine dust, it'll feel like forever? '

But if this were true, she didn't have to breathe the stink of Chris' car. And her job at the Ministry no longer had a claim on her. She leant, and gently kissed Chris on the cheek. His flesh had the texture of a daydream.

Did he miss her? Had he even turned out for the funeral?

'My studio,' she whispered, remembering the man at the well, still waiting to be painted, and marvelling that she had eternity to spend on him.

In the centre of the park a bridge shouldered a road across a cutting. Dominic wandered underneath. The spittle of weeds had stained his coat. He brooded bitterly on the silence that awaited him when he returned to his father's house.

 [ Park gates: image (cc) 2005 Djibril ] Passing an old stone well, he was startled by an echo from its rim.

He peered down, but there was only darkness, broken by a ripple of aqueous light. Yet beneath the sound of dripping water he heard it again—scuffling. Something trapped.

An ancient black van snarled across the bridge. The grasses on the bank rustled and a woman in blouse and skirt stumbled down, her arms held high for balance as she came through the weeds.

'What are you doing here?' she challenged him.

'Just walking. I'm allowed, aren't I?'

She held his gaze sceptically and crouched by the well. Her clothes tightened against her as she bent. The uniform didn't look warm enough for autumn, and—unlike previous park-attendants he'd glimpsed—she didn't seem the outdoor type. Regretting his rudeness, he pointed with his boot: 'Something's trapped down there.'

'I don't hear anything.'

She turned around and caught him staring at her.

'Well - it's there. I heard it twice.'

She looked him over.

'Do you walk here a lot?'

'Most days.'

'Don't you know what can happen here?'

'No. Not to me, it hasn't.'

The sound came again—a slithering. This time with an undertone, almost like a groan.

'I told you!' he exclaimed.

She rose, nodding.

'You claim nothing like this has happened to you before?'

Claim? Who the hell did she think she was?

'So you really think this is something?' he said.

It struck him suddenly that her arrival was rather too tidy a coincidence.

'I won't get involved if you prefer it that way,' she said, as if she'd read his thoughts.

A breeze blew along the cutting. It smelt of bark and soil. Dominic realised he'd spoken more words to this strange woman than anyone else in days. He felt as if hidden eyes were watching him. Was it the park, or had he forgotten how to talk to women?

He felt his cheeks start to burn.

'There's a chain fixed to the inside,' she said, making room so that he could kneel beside her at the rim. 'It's too heavy for me, but you could try it.'

The wind blew hair across her eyes. She flicked it away, and looked at him. 'Of course, you don't have to,' she said.

He peered down. A length of rusted links was visible for a couple of metres.

'If it really is something,' he said, 'I don't care. I've nothing to lose. I hope it changes me.'

She nodded as he gripped the chain with both hands and gave a first heave. The links grated, scattering rust.

'My God—it's heavy...'

The second time, something shifted with a loud, sucking smack.

'Don't let it slip,' she warned, 'or it'll take your fingers.'

The loop of slack grew as he pulled, thudding against a rising object.

'Whatever it is,' she said, 'you must promise you won't let go.'

She moved close to him, so that he couldn't escape her eyes.

'I won't... I promise...' he said.

She needn't have worried, because on the final heave his limbs locked in terror. The ancient bucket snagged against the well's rim and burst, scattering its contents across the grass. He threw himself back from the mess of body-parts—severed feet and fingers, bleeding. A hunk of matted hair, sprouting from a slice of scalp.

The stench of blood clutched his face. He heard blood trickling.

'Christ! Can't you see that?' he gagged.

'Yes,' she whispered, watching him.

With the back of his hand he wiped his mouth.

'This park - they built it over the old Ministry building that got bombed,' he gasped, bracing himself for another look. But when he turned there was only a shattered bucket.

'You saw it too,' he blinked. 'How?'

He scrambled to the well. Water glimmered at the bottom.

Another magpie broke cover, somewhere above the cutting. Its shriek distracted him for an instant. When he turned to ask her what had just happened, there was only the empty grass.

He whirled about, scanning the cutting, the bridge, the distant trees.

Confused and angry, he started to walk.

She'd disappeared just like his father!

He surveyed the bare horizon. Nothing, except a plume of bonfire smoke that drifted from a distant point, dark against grey clouds.

She must've come on purpose. She'd stood there, and had made him lift that bucket.

He stared at his trembling hands, and saw how the chain had ripped his skin. He winced, remembering again the bucket's mangled contents.

Damn it! He wasn't strong enough for this! If only she'd known what he'd been through, she'd never have made him dredge up those stinking remnants!

He'd almost reached the metal sign when the idea hit him, and in an instant changed everything. It seized him with such power, he had to lean against the post and catch his breath.

'WARNING: PSYCHIC FRAGMENTS' the familiar legend read.

Perhaps this wasn't the last time he'd see her. He hoped not, because there were questions he had to ask, now that she'd helped him to see. Already, vague ideas were forming, which he knew he had to get down on paper. The feeling of exhilaration grew stronger.

We are the angels of our own creation, he thought.

© 2005 Duncan Barford

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