Lisa Negus is a rising horror and science fiction writer from Mansfield in the UK. Her very first short was anthology accepted and also broadcast on the radio; not a bad start to her career! Since then she has been published by Unhinged, Strix, Dead Things, Parchment Symbols, Hadrosaur Tales, Blood Samples, Vampire's Crypt, Whispers from the Shattered Forum and many others. Last year she was short-listed for the 2001 Asham Award and more recently a short play she scripted with Rob Rowntree just narrowly missed out on a short-listing for the East Midlands Playwriting Competition. She is currently working on a SF novel, and also a collaborative novella with Rob Rowntree and Derek M. Fox called The Shedding of Skins.
Four times he died. Four desperate times.
Johnny hated being alone in the automated, chrome-plated, basement world of the sterilization department. Shadows crept, strange noises skittered through at night making him feel like an intruder, an unwelcome guest.
He especially loathed the nights he had to cover for Albert, who was frequently off with some excuse or other, some illness he or his kids had come down with. A touch of the 'flu was tonight's excuse but Johnny knew there was a Country and Western gig in town, and Albert loved his Country and Western. Make it Rock and Roll and he could almost have understood it.
'Damn you Albert. Damn Johnny Cash and his Burning Ring of Fire.' He loaded rack after rack with sealed buckets of waste trying to create enough sound to hide the small noises that might be rats scrabbling around the heating pipes.
'No weather to be dragged from your bed to cover for someone going line dancing.' This was February and the streets outside sparkled with frost in a way that might have been magical in some other neighbourhood.
If employment wasn't so hard to come by Johnny would have looked for another job instead of waiting for a transfer to day shift, but there was no work in this town: a dead-beat self perpetuating backwater hardly large enough to register on a map. It had no major roads, no name sign, no claim to fame and few residents under fifty. And once it had a grip on you, you were stuck. Trying to escape was akin to a spider climbing the slippery slopes of a bathtub.
Johnny sighed. Hopefully it wouldn't be long before he and his band, The Shaggy Animals cut themselves a record deal. Yep, he would really be going places then. Show Albert a thing or two about music.
He wheeled the first trolley load of pharmaceutical waste into a sterilizer large enough to drive through.
He hated this bit most. The machine's brushed chrome interior split his reflection, sent hazy multiples of it careening around its walls. Glutinous shadows shifted, ready to pounce if he were not out quick enough, the darkness always more real, more threatening, with no one to share it. His thin hum blended with the metallic clatter of the trolley, failing to fill the void.
He hopped out of the machine, and without looking back slipped out of the double doors drawing a packet of cigarettes from his lab-coat pocket. The throat-rasping smoke was soothing, an antidote to the tension. Johnny rested his head against the cool tiled wall, watching smoke spiral and creep along the segmented ceiling. By the time he had finished he was chuckling, wondering why he went through this ritual.
Back inside, a naked light bulb swung in the draft, smoke diffused the harsh white glare. He stared. Surely it was not from the cigarette.
Thickest in the far corner, it wove languidly above a second trolley awaiting installation in the sterilizer. Johnny grabbed an extinguisher. But there was no sign of fire.
A faulty seal on one of the containers must be allowing something to leak out, it happened sometimes and wasn't usually worth worrying about. You never knew what came down here under the banner of "laboratory waste". Johnny didn't want to know either - an injection of too much reality not always a good thing.
As he relaxed, something behind the one of the epoxy coated racks moved. Not much, just enough to set the liquid within some of the canisters sloshing from side to side. The smoke travelled closer, doubt began to prickle, a shiver working its way from ankles to hairline.
Hastily he shoved the trolley into the sterilizer, jumping as the hiss of its doors mingled with ring of the telephone. Part of him was relieved. He knew it would be Albert checking up to make sure he was okay, to smooth things over. There was no way it was going to work this time.
'Is that Country and Western music I can hear in the background Albert?' he said.
Johnny listened to Albert expostulate about how his wife was watching some show on TV, how it was keeping him awake, him having a terrible bout of 'flu.
'You are one lazy bastard, Albert. Get your fat ass in here.' He slammed the phone into its cradle. Johnny bloody Cash indeed.
One button push and the sterilizer's cycle kicked in, smooth and purring. It took a moment to register how the smoky wisps grew larger, denser, like drifting coal-dust; how it became a spectre winding towards him, reaching with translucent fingers. Shit.
Behind him the sterilizer stuttered.
The doors blasted outwards. Twisting. All slow motion, ballet graceful. Quite beautiful.
There was no time to duck, hide or even register as a steel fragment glanced off his skull. Thankfully, Johnny never witnessed the orange roses of flame or smelled smoke floating around his bleeding body. He never saw the burnished, metal chunks embedded in his legs.
If he had, he may not have wanted to live.
He came round in the ambulance, drowsy, confused, agony cutting through the morphine.
'I saw it. I saw it,' he screamed, before slipping into the void.
Four times he died and four times he came back, finally establishing a steady, if weak pulse.
In the long, pain filled months following, Johnny recalled each death vividly. Oh, not the Doctors or their machines, death being something else entirely: a frightening inky ocean where there was no heartbeat, no umbilical back to life's protective womb. Freefall of the purest kind, and that old sucker, Death was the only other entity around. And there he was, grinning like he just met up with Alice.
The raven-black vapour wound in through his mouth, out through his nostrils, dragging his life essence behind it, trying to extinguish him like a candle flame. With each death, its brightness deteriorated. Yet Death reckoned without Johnny's lust for life. Each time he snatched back. Four times. Four times he was asked. Four times he refused.
Death lingered even as he woke in the ICU, its long shadow cast across white cotton sheets. 'I won't die,' he hissed. It seemed to consider, then drifted away, perhaps seeking less resilient prey. This was a hospital after all, how many patients hovered in that dismal space between life and death? Its disappearance gave Johnny no sense of triumph or peace of mind. Somehow, he knew it would bide its time.
The next days passed without recognition of time, just rounds of operations, pain, drugs, and cool, sweet darkness with Johnny barely aware they had taken away his legs from the knees down. But gradually he healed, skin knitting, leaving trails of pink scars, which itched until he wanted to scream. The bruising faded through every shade of mauve and yellow.
He endured days when he couldn't move without the help of nurses. He endured days of forced exercise. Days when he didn't want to carry on because life without legs was unimaginable. But it was those sweat-bathed nights when he couldn't sleep that really got to him. When all he could do was watch, helpless as a new-born, as shadows chased around the ceiling accompanied by the moans of other patients. Those were the times he wished darkness had claimed him. Nights were infinitely longer than days.
Dreaming about The Shaggy Animals - the white light and lasers, the roar of the crowd and the adrenaline buzz as that first chord kicked in was all that kept him going.
After a month of recuperation, infection set in leaving him wracked with fever. Sleep was long spells of delirious images and thirst.
This night, pain jolted him awake, its white-hot knives dissecting every limb. His screams reverberated around the wards, and when he opened his eyes it was to see an opaque cloud drifting along the ceiling; it formed itself into a snake-like shape, ready to strike by pouring itself into his open mouth. He would never give into it. Never. He raised his arms, batting it away. When the nurses rushed in with a shot of oblivion in a clear plastic syringe, he refused their drugs - he had to keep control, death was not getting a hold of him just because his idle colleague had left him alone to go to a Country and Western gig.
'Please turn on the lights,' he begged. Not knowing what else to do, the nurses complied. 'Thank God,' he said, keeping feverish eyes on the fog. It was most likely the product of delirium, but he was sure it gave him a jaunty wave as it drifted away. Before the nurses rushed to another emergency in a nearby bed, he asked that a Priest visit, and bring holy water with him.
The preacher sat by Johnny's bedside reading from a battered old bible. Still feeling sick, Johnny tried listen and stay patient which was difficult because his whole body itched.
'Did you bring the holy water, Father?' he asked as the tall, black robed ecclesiastic finally stood to leave.
'Now what would you be needing holy water for, son?'
Too weak from fever and lack of sleep to sit, he beckoned the Priest close, 'To keep Death away, Father. I see him all the time. I need the water to make him stay away.'
The holy man raised an eyebrow. 'You see him now? Can you describe him to me?'
Johnny looked over the preacher's shoulder. 'He looks like the blackest kind of rain-cloud.'
The preacher shook his head. 'I'll stop by again,' he said.
Johnny caught at his sleeve. 'Wait. What about the water?'
The preacher tried to pull himself away.
'Leave me the damn water.'
'Water won't help. Death itself is not unholy or even an enemy - it comes to us all in the end,' he said
'Then I hope you enjoy yours, Father,' Johnny jerked his head at the cloud.
The preacher gasped at the look on Johnny's face and back away.
The shapeless haze followed. A few minutes later, sirens sounded in the street below. Pondering this, Johnny was suddenly struck that representatives of both God and Death had come to him in black. He shrugged; it was of no consequence, but thought that he might take up wearing it too.
Johnny suffered Albert's regular visits to the hospital in relative silence. He tried hard not to blame the old man for the loss of his legs and the multitude of scars that criss-crossed his body. But nothing could change that fact that it should have been Albert at work on the night of the explosion. To his mind, Albert should be lying where he was now. He was the corpse-in-waiting, you only had to look at him for heaven's sake, he was a blubbery, overdue coronary, all that huffing and puffing and wheezing he did. It was a wonder he could raise his legs to line dance.
Albert usually brought a small gift: a girlie or motor magazine, puzzle books or chocolate. Today he brought a jigsaw puzzle. Johnny hated jigsaw puzzles almost as much as he hated being alone.
In all the times he had visited, Albert had been unable to meet his eyes, which had become darker, more brooding since the explosion. Johnny was fully aware of how bad he looked. The lacerations on his face made shaving hard. Pain left him hollow-eyed and constantly sweating 'The living dead,' he once said to his reflection in the mirror and grinned, which worsened the image.
Today had been a bad day. He swore often as he forced himself through a series of exercises. He didn't want any company, let alone Albert's.
Albert though, had something on his mind. 'What's it like, Johnny? Dying I mean. Is there really a light calling you?'
He scratched irritably at the stubble on his chin. 'Forget about the light, it ain't there.'
Weeks of pent up animosity suddenly fought its way out. 'There's only dark out there. Remember that Albert. Remember it when you're thinking what a lucky escape you had. Because it was your darkness I was in. You should be the one getting used to life without legs.'
There was fear, actual dread in the older man's eyes. When he swallowed, like he was apt when nervous, it made his eyes bug, which made Johnny want to laugh. Instead he hurled the jigsaw at the wall, its one thousand pieces scattering the floor. 'Next time, bring something useful like scotch.'
He pressed his face into the pillow and refused to say another word.
It was July when he finally left hospital. A shiny new wheelchair made up for his lack of legs. He learned to use it by wheeling himself around the sun-baked pavements. The scents of flowers and fresh mown grass filled the air, as did the omnipresent hum of lawn mowers and noise of his neighbour's dog, which barked through the days and howled through the nights.
Johnny didn't mind the dog too much, it was like an alarm that jerked him awake two or three times each night when he would lie sweating in his bed, glad to be alive. On the bad days he would flick on the lights and check that nothing lurked, ready to change all that. When sleep re-took him it was usually all the sounder. He figured any residual annoyance with the dumb animal was a small price to pay.
After a few days at home, he took to sleeping with the lights on but shadows still gathered in the corners of every room and made patterns on the walls that disappeared when his eyes fixed on them. Even a good scotch could not soothe the restlessness inside and by now he was up to a bottle a day. It helped with the virtually constant pain and the massive quantity of drugs he had to swallow. He also believed that drink released his inner creativity and would spend hours strumming his guitar waiting for the rest of The Furry Animals to stop by. A front man without legs? It could work. Damnit it would work.
He thought about returning to work, not that he had to, the compensation took care of that, but, until the band was more established, all he had to do was practice his riffs and stare at the walls. Besides he was sick of the way the people of his neighbourhood stared, their restrained sympathy displayed in over friendly attitudes. At the same time he knew they were glad of the gossip tragedy brings. Maybe he'd write a song about them; they could stare all they liked when he was on stage silhouetted in halogen.
In the end going back to work was a relief. Operating the sterilizer from a wheelchair was easy enough. But more and more his absent legs hurt like hell, no matter how much he drank. On the day his transfer to day shift came through he caught a glimpse of a very familiar darkness weaving around the sterilizer.
Albert was loading a trolley.
'Hey, Albert look what I got,' he handed over his transfer letter. As Albert read, Johnny thought he read relief in his eyes. Yeah, that's right, you won't have to live with the guilt any more, he thought. And I don't have to live with the dark.
'Tell you what, I'll pop out and get us a little something to celebrate.'
'Sure,' Albert agreed, issuing Johnny with a genuine, heart-felt smile. It seemed like they were both in the mood for partying. Johnny slipped on his new black coat over his new black jeans and T-shirt. He doffed an imaginary hat towards the fog as the double doors closed behind him. As Johnny glided up the corridor he found himself humming a tune, one he had learned from Albert. Burning Ring of Fire. Maybe he and his band would cover it. Johnny laughed out loud because he knew they would be going places soon. Warm contentment spread through him, his humming evolved into song. Which was lost as a violent boom echoed around the building. The preacher at the hospital was right, Death wasn't always an enemy.
You should have made it Rock & Roll, Albert he thought and punched the air.
(C) Lisa Negus 2002
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.