I like to floor the accelerator on a straight, feel the speed pushing me into my seat. Only ever in the countryside though, and with no one else on the road. I’m not a boy-racer. Damn it, I’m a thirty-five year old man with a great family, a steady job and a promotion on the way; you know the type. It’s just I enjoy the odd hit of speed. So on a straight, I open it up…then brake firmly towards the bend. Never on the bend. We’ve all seen bunches of flowers at the bole of a tree somewhere, with a rain-smudged picture of someone, often a teenager, pinned to the trunk. Sometimes police tape flaps in the wind, but always the bark has been stripped by the impact.
Wood versus metal. Physics versus flesh. Don’t brake on a bend, kiddies.
Right now, sunlight flickers in my peripheral vision but not in that annoying way to make me angle the visor. I hope I don’t get stuck behind anyone who’ll deny me my fun, someone thoughtlessly turning my homebound stretch into a journey much slower because they don’t appreciate the engine connected to their toes. Tarmac spears into the summer countryside and my playground spreads out. The road is mine. I thumb the front window buttons and the air rushes in. I’ve never been one for air-con. The freshness fills me and I taste the sunshine, the foliage, the woodland.
The speedometer needle creeps up, hovering at 40 mph. I take a gradual bend at almost 50, and it straightens out. Clear ahead, open tarmac hemmed in by bushes, and the needle pushes 60. Engine revving, clean air howling. Now pushing 70…
And then I brake. Hard.
Branches and leaves and hefty chunks of earth litter the tarmac. Beyond that, a fallen tree.
Tyres rumble, the steering vibrates, and my knuckles whiten as I squint over them. The car jerks to a halt, my breath heavy. Seconds drag as I stare ahead.
I’ve no idea if those seconds turn to minutes…
My mouth is dry and I find it difficult to swallow. I want to say something, anything, but…but it’s what is on the tree that has frozen me in my seat. Even my hands remain clamped to the steering wheel. They’re now cold, clammy.
The felled oak is one of many, twisted and splintered and flattening the hedgerows either side of the road. Roots tangled in brambles and ivy and great upheavals of earth. In the midst of branches, a bloated creature straddles the great trunk. As grey and wrinkled as an elephant and equally as large, its immense torso glistens. Folded leathery wings hang down its flank to curl beside clawed feet. Bristles cover its bulk, and a collar of longer hair circles its neck, giving way to a horned head—six or is that seven horns? Each, chipped and gnarly, of differing lengths. Its lidless eyes, black, wide, piercing, gaze down a twisted snout and in its mouth, a branch dangles. Saliva drips from wet lips.
The fingers on my left hand peel from the steering wheel and drop to the gearstick. My jellied leg pushes downward, foot dumping the clutch pedal. Finally, the car crunches into reverse as my heartbeat crashes between my ears.
I watch the branch slip from the creature’s mouth. Head thrown back, it bellows. Deep, throaty. Neck stretching, torso slimming, those great wings extend. They reach out, wider and wider.
My neck clicks as I whip my head round for a view behind me. I accelerate, hard, and the car shoots backwards. I steer one-handed down the lane. I hear rather than see the wings beating, sounding like a sledgehammer whacking a mattress. Over and over. Getting louder. Approaching…
Metal shrieks, glass implodes. Pain flares across my face and I look round into a shattered windscreen and bodywork buckled by yellow claws. The car is lifted up. Up. The engine revs; such a shrill sound and I spy the rev-counter blasting into the red. My arse comes off the seat, then harsh into the cushion again, shaken left and right, forward and back. Blue sky fills every window.
I fumble the seatbelt release and my shoulder smacks the door.
Up higher, blue sky, blinding sunshine, clouds, wings beating…
The patchwork of English countryside spreads out too far below. I can even see the coast…and is that Hastings pier over there? Cold air whistles all the while there’s that continuous thump of immense wings. More tearing of metal, glass shattering. The windscreen breaks free and spins off. Higher we go. The car tilts.
I slam into the dashboard and slide over it. Metal and plastic tears my forearms, my palms. Heart in mouth, my ears roar from the wind, the fear, the madness. My fingers scrape and scratch as I slide out over the bonnet, blood smearing a handprint over the bodywork. The creature’s body blocks out the sunshine, great wings punching the air. For a moment—only for a moment—my slippery fingers clutch the front grill, legs dangling. Far below, there’s the country lane and those fallen trees.
I fall. Now weightless. A cold speed snatches the Earth closer.
My arms cartwheel and I’m aware that I scream the word “Fuck” louder than I’ve ever needed to; one dragged out expletive. The ground, this creature’s nest, gets larger, closer.
Curled around one another are a pair of smaller creatures. Marginally smaller. Bald, skinny, evidently the offspring of the nightmare that now flies somewhere above me. Closer to Earth, I see their mouths agape, forked tongues whipping to and fro, flicking saliva.
Something cracks. Loud. Pain explodes and white light blends with the raging agony. My body has landed half in, half out of one creature’s mouth. The other grabs my useless legs. No more pain as I’m torn in two. Through the mad rush of white and black, of blurred and focused, there’s a pressure on my head and upper-torso. The creature’s jaws squeezing…
I see my intestines stretch in a dark red mess, and—
Mark Cassell lives in a rural part of the UK with his wife and a number of animals. He often dreams of dystopian futures, peculiar creatures, and flitting shadows. Primarily a horror writer, his steampunk, dark fantasy, and SF stories have featured in numerous anthologies and ezines. His best-selling debut novel, The Shadow Fabric, is closely followed by the popular short story collection, Sinister Stitches, and are both only a fraction of an expanding mythos. His most recent release, Chaos Halo 1.0: Alpha Beta Gamma Kill, is in association with Future Chronicles Photography.
For more about Mark and his work, or to contact him directly:
Free stories: www.markcassell.com
The Shadow Fabric mythos: www.theshadowfabric.co.uk