This is the world behind closed eyelids, a world that follows its own logic, its own set of rules. What is seen here transcends that which we call normal, even if on outward appearances, it seems normal. Normal is a façade designed to hide the reality lurking beneath. And in this world, reality can be dangerous.
Let me show you...
The sky is gunmetal grey, heavy with rolling clouds and lit occasionally by brief splashes of lightning. It is almost dark. The darkness is inky. In the unfolding scene, it hangs like a pall, shimmering, velvety, alive with malice. The twin beams of the SUV’s headlights cut through the darkness, albeit briefly. The slipstream moves with liquid grace around the wedge of light, around the sides of the car and reforms behind the vehicle.
You can see this as I see it, from an omnipresent vantage point. We are merely observers as this scene plays out, powerless to intervene, even when that moment of understanding hits... and oh, yeah, it’s not only going to hit and hit hard, but it’s also going to hurt. Bad.
The road is narrow, a typical country trail, poorly maintained, marked with faded white lines and now, wet and shiny with drizzle. It cuts a straight line thus far through verdant fields dotted with cattle, sheep and the occasional horse. Traffic is light. The SUV has only had to slow below eighty-five twice to pull over to the side and allow enough room for oncoming traffic to pass. But you know was well as I, that that is going to change.
It’s just the nature of this world. There is nothing either of us can do, except wait and watch. Just know this: the ending, when it comes, will be mercifully swift. But that’s for later.
For now, let’s take a closer look.
Inside the SUV a young woman sits behind the wheel. She has long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, and eyes the colour of a clichéd summer sky. Right now, those eyes are darting from the side mirror, to the rear-view mirror, to the speedometer, then out front to the narrow country lane. Her lips are squeezed together into a tight grimace of concentration and her brow is furrowed, her pencil line eyebrows almost meeting at the bridge of her nose. Her face is squarish, with broad cheekbones and a strong jaw, belonging to the type of woman who you’d expect to not only have an opinion, but be more than willing to express it as well.
This is Lydia Kohn. She is twenty-six years young, a successful primary school teacher who dabbles with oil painting and playing the piano in her limited spare time. She is usually bright-eyed, quirky and lively, though in this scene at this particular time those traits fade into the background. Concentration gives her countenance an angular, severe look, tempered with the frustration of driving a vehicle that is much too big and powerful than any she is used to. Compounding the frustration is the fact that the transmission is manual; and she is not alone in the vehicle.
In the backseat sits a little girl of five. She is the exact opposite of Lydia, with dark curly hair and green eyes and a sour disposition. Her gripes are many; all of them compounded by this late afternoon clandestine trip that she is adamant she does not wish to be involved with. Every contour of her face suggests that a tantrum is seconds from erupting. That she has held off for the last half hour is more a curse than a blessing. When she finally erupts, it will be on a huge scale, the young child equivalent of a volcano that has been teasing for years before finally blowing its top.
For now, little Miranda is happy to discuss her displeasure with her rag doll, Molly. This she does with elaborate stage whispers, cupping her hand over the side of Molly’s rag head while making surreptitious glances into the rear view mirror. The object of the game wasn’t so much to avoid being caught, but rather, the opposite. She wanted a reaction, a bite; even the tiniest hint of a frown that showed that she was getting under Lydia’s skin. But no. Lydia wasn’t playing the game. Of course, Miranda has no way of knowing that Lydia dealt with games such as hers on a daily basis. It would take much more than stage whispers and furtive gestures to get a rise out of her. Still, she keeps trying.
“This is Daddy’s car,” she says to the doll, not for the first time. Her voice is heavily inflected with distaste at the fact that someone else, and not Daddy, is behind the wheel. When she is certain that Lydia is watching in the rear view mirror, she rolls her eyes dramatically. It is a wasted effort; Lydia’s glance is but momentary and very soon she is focussed on the road ahead, peering through the fan shaped grooves the window wipers peel through the drizzle that is steadily becoming fully fledged rain.
Unperturbed, Miranda continues her monologue. “Daddy always plays music when he drives... the good music... but not as good as Mummy’s music...” Here, she pauses, and looking directly into the rear mirror and Lydia’s pale reflection therein, finishes, “Mummy likes The Wiggles.”
Outside, the darkness presses against the windows as surely and as physically as the drizzle. The road begins to climb; the first of many gradual inclines. With the inclines come the bends. At first, they are subtle deviations, able to be rounded without really slowing down. But as the gradient begins to increase, so too does the tightness of the corners. Before long, the drizzle turns into rain, and then the rain becomes a steady downpour. Lydia’s field of vision narrows so that the only things that exist in her world are the sodden black tarmac with the double centre lines, the cats eyes reflecting in the steady glow of the full beam from the headlights, and the road signs alerting her which way the road was going to abruptly jag. By this time, the SUV’s progress was almost a crawl. Lydia’s wrist hurt from multiple gear changes and her ankles hurt from pressing the floor pedals in amateurish combinations.
Behind her, five-year-old Miranda smiled smugly, unaffected by the inclement weather outside. She observed Lydia’s distress with a kind of gloating satisfaction, knowing instinctively what her next barbed parry should be. If you look closer, you can see her waiting for that opportune moment. Of course, in souls so young, there is very little premeditation. When she pounces, it is natural and spontaneous; yet it cuts straight to the core.
“At least Daddy can drive this car,” Miranda mumbles. The pretence of whispering into Molly’s ear is long gone. In fact, the doll has slumped forward, remaining on the car booster seat only by the virtue that its leg has become entangled in the restraining harness.
Lydia’s lips further tighten into their grimace. Her eyes dart to the rear view mirror, narrow momentarily. It is a reaction, tiny, but a reaction nonetheless, certainly a reward for Miranda’s angling. And she wasn’t going to let go of this advantage.
Miranda leans forward in her seat, or at least as far as the harness holding her in allows. Her eyes are fully focussed now on Lydia’s reflection in the mirror, savouring that grimace, that reaction. She had found the tiny crack in the mask. Now all was required was to pry it open a little more.
“We’d be there now if Daddy was driving,” she said. “Daddy’s a good driver.”
Lydia doesn’t stir, doesn’t react, though she does pause during yet another rough change of gear to flick her eyes into the mirror. “Miranda, dear,” she says. “Can you sit properly in your seat, please?”
“You’re not my Mummy. You can’t tell me what to do.”
And there it is, the clincher, the one phrase that carves deeply into Lydia’s psyche and is guaranteed to draw blood. To five-year-old Miranda, it’s the gap in the armour she so desperately sought. Seeing Lydia flinch at the remark, watching her once stern face collapse, the grimace trembling from her lips, silver tears rolling from the corner of her sky-blue eyes, Miranda feels only elation. She is far too young to understand the notion of guilt, of realising the consequences of her barbed words. And even were she to comprehend the level of hurt she had only now inflicted, there was no time to remedy it.
In her eagerness to rub salt into the open wound, she leans forward some more. “You’re not my Mummy!” she says, louder, almost shouting.
“Miranda, dear,” Lydia tries, but the words are lost in a croak. Her eyes take their penultimate scan of the road ahead, before darting back to the rear view mirror, seeing that not only was Miranda actually leaning forward, but had slipped half out of the harness, such was her desire to hurt Lydia.
“I’m not your ‘dear!’” Miranda screams. “You are not my Mummy! I don’t like you! I want to go home!”
Tears blur Lydia’s vision. They flow freely now down her cheeks. One rogue tear trickles into the corner of her mouth. She tastes the salt, the bitterness of memory, the starkness of reality.
That’s not fair, she wants to tell Miranda. She would summon the teacher voice; the voice that would freeze even the most impudent student. She would talk, rather than react; rather than break down... or even worse, snap angrily.
Her eyes are still in the rear view mirror when the sharp bend looms out of the darkness. She is focussed fully on Miranda, milliseconds away from making an attempt at resolution. Molly, at long last, twists free of her restraint and flops onto the floor. Miranda, in the final seconds, makes a half-attempt to lurch after Molly, she may even called out the doll’s name as she leant forward, totally out of her harness now... before suddenly freezing.
“Lydia, watch ou—!”
Lydia turns back to the road. Only it’s not the road that is in front of her now. The road barrier guarding the corner looms closer and closer. In our dream perspective, the world feels as if the air has turned to molasses. Everything moves slowly. As Lydia’s eyes widen in shock and horror at the inevitable moment of impact, we can see individual droplets of rain spatter on the windshield, we can hear each one smash onto the glass, the sound loud, like a series of hammer blows. As we watch, transfixed, unable to move, unable to think—frozen in our omnipresent vantage point—Lydia jerks the steering wheel. In her panic, her feet shoot forward, missing the clutch, missing the brake, pounding on the accelerator: hard.
The SUV loses traction on the roadside gravel and the rear end swings out. There’s a thunderous boom as the vehicle sideswipes the roadside barrier, spraying glass and metal. Yet, it doesn’t stop. Not yet, anyway. Along the barrier the SUV grinds for several agonising seconds, before the vehicle mounts the girded metal structure, rides it for a few seconds more, and then flips onto its side to skid, with a shower of sparks, into the middle of the road.
An incomplete silence fills the scene now. The sounds we hear are soft, and intermittent. The first thing we notice is the patter of rain bouncing off the road and the dented SUV. There is something alien about this sound, a kind of calm that is at odds with what our eyes see. If anything, it fuels our disquiet and our guilt. Oh, yes. There is plenty of guilt here, though for now, it has kindly taken a backseat.
The next noise we hear is the ticking of hot metal rapidly cooling in the rain. This is interspersed with hisses of steam as droplets find the gaps in the twisted panels of the bonnet and the front guards and drip onto the hot engine. As we approach the wreck—and approach we must, not because we want to, but because it is dream lore to go where you are beckoned—a third sound, much weaker, but more disconcerting because of this, reaches our ears.
From deep within the interior of the SUV, now nothing more than a dark silhouette in the road’s middle, we hear muffled sobbing. The noise is soft, plaintive... harrowing. The epitome of horror and terror and absolute raw fear, all laced with pain and propped up by a surge of adrenaline that even now, you know is fading. At first, there aren’t any distinctive words, and any that try to form are swiftly blotted out with a series of wet, hacking coughs. But as we draw closer... closer... and closer, we are able to make sense of the words trying to be articulated.
There are a few staccato attempts at “Oh, God,” accompanied by the sound of someone wriggling ineffectually against the seatbelt pinning them in place in their seat. “Oh, God,” is very soon replaced by yet another choked garble of words. “Help me!”
But before Lydia Kohn is able to clear her mangled airways and try to shout out, a brand new noise fills the air. The noise is loud, a throaty roar, a growl. One that you and I both recognise in an instant, and upon doing so, feel our hearts freeze in our chests.
Bright white light suddenly washes the scene, setting shadows scattering in all directions as if they, too, can sense what is inevitable.
In the last seconds before we are thankfully torn free from the horror in this lonely country highway, we catch a glimpse from Lydia’s own eyes as the light solidifies from an overly bright aura into the concentrated beams—four in total—of the semi-trailer that has come hurtling around the blind corner straight at the overturned SUV...