The November Special Guest Writer is Stephen Gallagher
Please feel free to visit Stephen HERE
NOT HERE, NOT NOW
by Stephen Gallagher
He came around the corner too fast, there was no denying that. But it wasn’t his fault, it was the way they’d laid out the road. The Mondeo’s offside wheels veered out over the double white lines and hogged a piece of the opposite lane, but he had a clear run at the bend and so that was no problem. He took it wide to avoid dropping his speed. He hated to brake. Only bad drivers braked on bends.
Bad drivers, faint-hearts, and life’s born losers.
Oh shit was the thought that then flitted through his mind in the two-fifths of a second before disaster struck.
Because what lay beyond the bend was all wrong. There was a school on the far side of the road and a line of parked cars half-on the pavement where they shouldn’t have been. A big yellow refuse cart was coming the other way and it had swung out to pass them. There was room to squeeze by it to the left, just … but the way wasn’t clear.
Just beyond the dustcart, someone was crossing.
A mother and child, the girl holding the woman’s hand and pulling ahead. What happened then happened in an instant, and it both amazed and dismayed him.
He was going to hit something, that was inevitable. He was going too fast to stop and there was nowhere to swerve. The refuse cart was like a lumbering wall of glass and metal and shiny hydraulics. The girl was about seven years old. And … It was already too late. There was no point in trying to make any kind of a thought-out decision because some part of him had already
He’d chosen the child.
There was a thump and a flurry as they went by, just like an empty cardboard box that he’d once struck on a windy day on the motorway. He was braking hard and he was thrown forward against his seat belt, the car sliding to a halt a good fifty or sixty yards on.
Then he dropped back into his seat as the car finally stopped.
The accident was way behind him now. He gripped the wheel, blinking.
He was so out of phase that he wouldn’t have been surprised to look in the mirror and see nothing unusual, no sign of anything having happened at all. As if it had all been one of those little flash effects one saw in movies, a few frames of nightmare and then back to normal. Like God saying, Boo! and then you look and nothing’s changed.
But when he did raise his eyes to the mirror, he could see that the child was lying in the road like a dropped sack and the woman was crouching over it, shouting. He could hear her, now. He turned in the seat for a better look back. People were running to them. The men from the dustcart, in those shiny yellow jackets. More women, from the direction of the school.
All converging. All so far behind him. For a long moment he sat there, knowing that he had to get out of the car and that he would have to go back and confront what he’d done.
Everyone was concerned for the child. Any moment now, some of them would raise their heads and transfer their attention to him.
He floored the accelerator, and took off.
He didn’t breathe until he was around the next corner and out of their sight. Some of their faces were like little painted dabs of outrage in his rearview mirror. It took only seconds, but those seconds seemed like an hour. He knew that he should have gone back, but what could he have done? The child was already getting help. He couldn’t change anything now. He’d get abuse, he’d get blame, no one would want to hear him explain …
And it hadn’t even been his fault.
He drove like a robot, hardly aware of the moves that his body was making. His mind was racing hard on a track of its own. The traffic was thinning out at the tail-end of the rush hour; it was almost nine and most people had made it to where they were going by now. Just the flextime crowd and the late-spurters. Late for the shop or the office.
Late for school.
At least the ambulance wouldn’t have to fight its way through.
Damn that kid. Damn her! And her mother too! What the fuck did they think they were doing?
His rage was sudden and real. Half of those cars had been parked on double yellow lines and a couple of them had been left on the zigzags where even the Pope couldn’t stop if he’d wanted to. It was as if women dropping off their kids thought that rules didn’t apply to them. They parked like shit, they pulled out without looking, they’d even stop in the middle of the road and walk their darlings to the pavement if there were no spaces left. They put the hazard lights on and seemed to think that was some kind of a charm. It’s only for a minute, they’d almost certainly say.
But how long did it take? They’d as good as condemned that kid.
It was their fault. They deserved the real blame.
He’d gone past the building where he worked before he’d realized it.
He drove on anyway. He couldn’t face the idea of going in now. He’d call in later with some excuse, but for now he had to think.
Had anyone taken his number? Or a description of him or the car?
He hadn’t been aware of it, but there was no way to be sure. Apprehension sat in him like a sickness. As he joined the traffic on the ring road he began to wonder if the car might be carrying any telltale marks. He tried to raise himself in his seat to peer at the wing, but the angle was impossible.
There were no shop windows on the ring road, which mostly went through industrial land. So no chance of catching a reflection there.
He could always stop and check, of course. But that would mean getting out of the car.
He needed some time to think, and he felt more at home behind the wheel than anywhere. He was a good driver, one of the best. There were five accidents on his insurance record but not one of them had been his fault; idiots pulling out ahead of him, most of them, or taking too long to maneuver or moving too slow.
Like that dustcart. Chugging along like an ocean liner down the middle of the road, guaranteed death if he were to hit it head-on at the speed he’d been going. It wasn’t as if he’d consciously decided to hit the child. Some reflex had been responsible for that, some uncluttered animal circuit in the brain that saw certain mortality and acted for survival. No questions, no considerations. You couldn’t plough into a truck like that and live; whereas with a seven-year-old, you could. It was basic human programming. Automatic, and beyond conscious reason.
Surely anyone would have done the same.
He watched for police cars. If they had his number, they’d certainly be looking for him. But the chances were that they didn’t. People didn’t think that fast in a crisis. He had to stay cool and he hadn’t to panic. It was sad — no, it was worse than sad, it was lousy — but it wasn’t as if he’d knowingly opted to do harm. Harm had simply chosen him as its messenger that day. It could have been almost anyone. That didn’t make him a bad person.
He knew the woman’s type. Middle-class parents. He saw ones like her every morning, hanging around and chatting on the pavement outside the school gates. Dressed up, made up, nowhere useful to go until pick-up time but, God, couldn’t they complain about how busy they were. When it came to whining, they were experts.
So even with all that screaming, it was entirely possible that the child hadn’t actually been hurt.
The bump had been nothing and he’d all but brushed by. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became. The image of the small body sprawled on the tarmac would be a hard one to get out of his mind, but things like that always looked worse than they actually were. If he’d
hit the kid, really hit her, then she’d surely have been thrown somewhere further along the road.
A tiny pocket of chilled sweat had collected under his waistband at the small of his back. He arched slightly in his seat, and shivered as he felt it run.
The ring road was curving through the edge-of-town industrial estates and bringing him back in a full circle toward the area of his home. He was about ten minutes away from it and he could think of nowhere else to go. Once there, he could phone work and say that he was unwell. He could pretend he hadn’t even left the house yet.
No one would ever know.
But when he was making the turn into the road where he lived, he saw that there was a police car across the end of his driveway. Its lights were on and its engine was running. He quickly canceled the indicator and went on past the junction. He wasn’t sure whether he’d seen anyone in the car. If they’d gone around the side of the house, they wouldn’t have been able to see him at all.
What was he going to do?
For a few desperate seconds he actually tried to make some other kind of sense of the situation, but that wouldn’t work. They had his number, and he was sunk. He’d left the scene of the accident. They had a name for that: hit and run. It wouldn’t matter that he could explain, that there was a perfectly rational sequence to what had happened; hit and run would stick, and the truth would go unheard.
He’d been driving like an old woman since it had happened. He’d just gone along with the flow and hadn’t overtaken a single car in the past twenty minutes. He checked his mirror and saw that the police car was emerging from his road, blue lights flashing but with no siren. So they’d seen him, then. He changed down the gears and tried to get ahead of the car in front, and that was when the siren started up.
This was all wrong. This wasn’t the day that he’d set out to have. The car in front was a white Fiat and it shifted out of the way when he blasted on his horn. He was desperately trying to think of some way that he could turn it all around and make it come out all right, but everything was moving too fast. He shot through the space that the Fiat had made, and crossed traffic lights on amber. The police car came through on red a few seconds later, slowing for safety as the cross-traffic braked and gave way, but already he’d doubled his lead. He floored it, he sped. Within the minute he was back on the ring road and the police car was a distant howl.
Still behind him and still chasing, but losing ground in the traffic rather than gaining it. Some tangle must have held it back for a few seconds for him to get so far in front. He didn’t know what, and he wasn’t inclined to hang around and look.
He had to get away from all this. He had to buy some time to think.
He cracked open the window an inch or so, just enough to be able to listen out for his pursuers and judge how far they were behind him. At first all that he could hear was the roar of the wind, but then the sounds began to separate out. It was as if the siren had an echo, but then he realized; there were at least two of them now, two wolves on his trail, both howling as they picked up the scent.
And then a third, a different kind of two-tone altogether. One of the blue vans, perhaps, or something bigger. The van they were going to throw him in. Word was going out on the radio, and they were converging in pursuit. The howling of the sirens would then give way to the howling of a mob and once that began he could never, ever hope to be heard above it.
The road was dropping into an underpass, traffic noise turning to thunder.
The articulated lorry ahead of him began to pull out, and he got close up behind and pulled out after.
Much of the traffic here was made up of trucks and vans, big freight and delivery wagons. They lumbered along and it took one hell of a surge in acceleration to pass them sometimes; you were out there and exposed for what seemed like forever, a real test of the best. Getting in behind a lorry and using it for cover felt almost like a wimp’s way out, but right now he was desperate. He checked his mirror, and saw the blue van. It was some way back, still, but must have joined the chase from somewhere close. Its twin blue lights were like captured stars, and they were reflected over the cars in a sea of metal.
The underpass was open to one side, daylight coming in through an endless temple of concrete columns. Slowly, achingly, the lorry ahead of him drew past the long flatbed vehicle in the inside lane. He was right up against its tail and hanging on close. The flatbed carried road building machinery and could probably go no faster; the roar of engines in the enclosed space made his chest vibrate. As the back end of the overtaking lorry moved ahead of the flatbed’s cab, the flatbed driver flashed his lights and the lorry signaled to swing back in.
The way ahead would be left clear, and he could floor it and go through.
He’d better. Because the two big lorries were nose-to-tail in the inside lane now, and there would be no space for him to get back in.
The articulator’s driver had judged it perfectly. He’d seen the oncoming Volvo truck some way ahead, he’d worked out that he had exactly enough time to make his maneuver and get back in, and he’d carried it out with neatness and precision. The trucker’s calculations hadn’t included a Mondeo tagging along behind. Why should they? Controlling one of those big lumbering dinosaurs was enough of a job on its own.
He’d been left out in the wrong lane, heading the wrong way, racing head-to-head with a vehicle ten times his size. The Volvo truck was blasting its horn, flashing its lights. Warning him to get out of the way. But how could he do that? He gripped the wheel harder, willing something to happen.
He couldn’t drop back, there wasn’t time. He couldn’t return to his lane, there wasn’t a space. If he tried to swing wide, he’d hit the pillars.
And the truck driver’s options were exactly the same as his own.
In the two-fifths of a second before disaster struck, he knew exactly what had to be going through the truck driver’s mind. Knew it probably better than the driver did himself.
When it came down to it, the man’s options were limited. Swerve into the other trucks, and die. Swerve into the concrete pillars, and die. The choice he had to make was really no choice at all.
Whether the truck driver knew it or not, he’d reacted already.
He’d chosen the car.
Stoker and World Fantasy Award nominee, winner of British Fantasy and International Horror Guild Awards for his short fiction, Stephen Gallagher has built a career both as a novelist and as a creator of primetime miniseries and episodic television.
His fourteen novels include Valley of Lights, Down River, The Spirit Box, and Nightmare, With Angel. He's the creator of Sebastian Becker, Special Investigator to the Lord Chancellor's Visitor in Lunacy, in a series of novels that includes The Kingdom of Bones, The Bedlam Detective, and The Authentic William James.