The Face: Part 1

This is a novella (a short story that’s a bit too big to be a short story) that I wrote over a decade ago.  Since it’s too long to publish in one go on the Internet, I thought I’d do it in a series. Hope you like it!


The Face

The painting came on a grey autumn morning, riding on the back of Peter’s truck. Jane would never forget that day: It rained later on, but right then the wind was strong enough to pull the wrapping cloth away and make poor Peter chase it around the yard.

Peter worked as a night guard at the Dunns. The Dunns – named after the founding family – was a small shoe factory about ten miles away from their house. Peter got a job there after he wrecked his knee and couldn’t count on his football skills to provide the two of them with the daily bread.

He always joked about it though.

He’d been working at the Dunns for almost two years when the painting came. When it came. Jane couldn’t put it any other way: Peter didn’t bring it. It came.

So it was one of those ugly, grey, freezing Tuesday mornings, around half-six, and there she was, standing in her purple robe, waiting to hear the engine roar as she stared at the big Snoopy mug with the plate on top to keep the coffee warm. Black. That’s the way Peter drank it. Said it suited him. A big black coffee for her man.

The truck pulled up the front yard and Jane flinched. She knew the ritual: He’d come in, heavy boots on the front porch – and staying on the front porch – and he’d come inside in his socks, he’d grab her, kiss her and stroke her hair. Then she’d give him the Snoopy mug and he’d take one long swig, set it down, smack his lips, go “mm-hmm” and say that he just loved the taste of his wife’s coffee right after his wife’s lips. Then she’d laugh, and the day would begin.

There had been a time when she would spend those mornings – grey ones, sunny ones – wishing that the ritual would change; today, maybe tomorrow. But after a while she spent mornings – grey ones, sunny ones – telling herself that rituals were good, that they meant something, that they gave life steadiness; something like an iron bar you could hang on to when your ship was being stormed to pieces – and boy, did she know about storms.

Like the day the painting came.

Peter didn’t come straight in that morning. Jane was looking at the Snoopy mug, telling herself about how good rituals are and all that, and suddenly she realised that Peter was still outside, by the truck, calling her.

She wondered if she should take the mug with her but decided not to.

She went out to the front porch.

“Mornin’, baby! What’s happenin’?” Her voice was always hoarse this early.

Peter waved and walked behind the truck. “Mornin’, sugar. Got you somethin’, thought you should see it before I brought it in.”

All Jane could see was a big flat object, covered in a white cloth. Looked like a window. “What’s that?” she asked, starting to get suspicious like any rational woman at a moment like this: the moment when he brings something into the house, and that something is not expected.

Peter straightened the object and Jane mechanically placed herself in front of the door, like a guard.

Peter stretched out his hand.

Jane took a deep breath. It was cold out here.

Peter pulled the cloth off.

Jane didn’t breathe out. She just stared at it. And it stared back. Because that was what it was.

A face. That was the first thing that struck her. A face. The fact that it was a painting sank in later.

Or maybe it never did.

She was speaking now, fast. “There’s no way on earth that thing is coming into the house. No way.”

Peter’s face fell. “You don’t like it? C’mon, baby, it’s art. Kinda weird, sure, but that’s the whole thing about it. It’s modern art!”

Jane kept shaking her head. “No. No. No!

And then Peter looked down at his feet. He did that when he got serious. “Look, just listen to me for a second – there’s a story here.” Remember old Piper Jack?” Piper Jack used to teach at an aviation school, teaching folks to fly Piper Cherokees. After crashing with one of his students, he developed a bad case of the shakes that eventually beat him down to the lonely old drunk everyone knew him to be: an old alky with no one to share his war stories except a mangy brown tomcat that pooped all over the house. When they found his rotting body earlier in the summer – a steaming hot week after he died – the coroner put down the cause of death as either the bottle or the cat’s filth.

Jane stopped shaking her head and peeled her eyes off the painting. It didn’t take its eyes off her. “Piper Jack? What about him?”

“Well, here’s the story. Remember we used to think the old man had no family? Well, it turns out he had this cousin, right? So, since he didn’t bother making a will before he passed, all of his stuff – including this painting – went to her. I can’t imagine where he even got it from – he didn’t strike me as the artistic type. Anyway, get this”, he said, and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket, “when the cousin came over to collect Jack’s things, she finds this note taped behind it. It says: ‘In the event of my death, this painting is to pass on to Peter Belder, for his kindness towards me during my old age.’ Can you believe that? I just helped him cross the street a couple of times – that’s all. Didn’t like it one bit either, him reeking of whisky like he did. Anyway, the note is signed and all, so the cousin comes in yesterday evening at work – very polite and all, didn’t look like old Jack one bit – and gives me this painting. It spooked me at first, but after spending the whole night with it, it kinda grew on me.”

Jane tried to sympathise. “Baby, I still don’t see why this… this thing has to go into our house. You want to keep it, fine, but do we have to put it in public view?”

Peter shook his head. “You don’t get it? It’s not about the painting. When I asked the cousin what she was going to do with the rest of Piper Jack’s stuff, she told me that it was going to either charity or auction. Scattered to the four winds. So you see”, he said and looked at it, “this painting here is all that remains of the old fella. It was a present. It don’t feel right, just burying it somewhere, know what I mean?”

Jane sighed. He had a point. And now that she took a calmer look at it, the face didn’t seem as hideous as it first did. It actually seemed a bit friendly too, something like a faint smile on its lips. In fact, the artist must have been a genius – the face seemed to change expressions when you looked at it from different angles.

“So what’d you say, baby?” Peter was giving her puppy eyes as the final resort.

“Okay”, she said, still looking at the face that suddenly seemed satisfied. “Okay. But I say which wall it goes up, right?”

Peter beamed. “Sure, honey. Whatever you say. Thanks.” He began to untie it. “I love you”, he said, but she had gone back into the kitchen.

By the time he brought the face inside, the coffee had gone cold. He didn’t even touch it though, preoccupied as he was with their new acquisition. Jane poured the black liquid down the sink while Peter went down to the basement to get a hammer and nails. It was later, much later, that Jane realised that their ritual had been broken.

He didn’t kiss her either.

To be continued…

Short story: Vincent

Sometimes, it is too much to take.

Sometimes it is too much to handle.

Sometimes it’s just too much.


Vincent opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He was sweating. In the moonlight, he could see the shadows from the branches outside, dancing gently in the midnight breeze. Next to him, Sarah mumbled something in her sleep and scratched her nose.

His thoughts started to play, just like in the old days. He struggled to keep them on the bright side.

Think happy thoughts, Vincent. Happy thoughts.

Think about your life. It’s been good up to now, hasn’t it? College, love, job, family. Isn’t it worth it? Why ruin it?

Think about Sarah, her bright eyes, her kind heart, her generous spirit. A wonderful woman.

Think about the kids. Tommy, with his baseball cap, wielding a bat as tall as him. Tommy, with ice cream all over his face laughing and squirming when his Dad tries to clean him up.

Lizzy. Oh, Lizzy with her big mother eyes and gentle manners. His little princess who cried over that dead bird she found in the garden as if it was the greatest loss in the world. Lizzy, with her little smile and her long ponytail.

Think happy thoughts, Vincent.

Don’t do it.

Think about that promotion, waiting for you just around the corner. Employee review is only a week away and Jonas said you’re moving upstairs, to Management. And if Jonas says something, it comes true.

Come on, Vincent. Don’t blow it. You’ve buried the craving for years, and you can keep at it. Maybe it hasn’t gone away, maybe it won’t, but the fact is, you’ve kept it under control. And under wraps – that’s real important, Vincent, ‘cause if anyone finds out, if you get caught, then woe is you. It’ll be over; Sarah, the kids, the job, the promotion – even that fishing boat you’re saving up for. No trout, no salmon, no tilapia. You give in to the craving, and you can kiss it all goodbye.

Goodbye. You hear, Vincent? Just stay in bed, breathe, cuddle up with Sarah if you must, but you just stay there and let the craving pass.

But it didn’t.

Minutes dragged on, and shadows grew longer, they stretched from the ceiling to the walls, long, wicked, gnarled fingers that reached out to him, and spread over his body and squeezed him so hard that his breath caught and his heart tightened.

He couldn’t believe it. This time, it was bad – just like the last time it happened, some twenty years ago. It was at camp. Him and his team had just gotten back from a secret night swim at the lake and snuck back into their house without anyone knowing. And then, laying in bed and staring at the ceiling – just like now – Vincent saw the shadows growing long and the fingers crawling toward him, slowly, menacing, horrible and terrible and downright evil. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. His heart tightened.

And then it came, the craving. It was the first time, and it was powerful, a rabid beast, a crazed wolfman, that uncontrollable monster that tore up from the depths of his soul and grabbed his little body and shook it like an earthquake, like a rolling wave, like the very scream of the abyss itself.

Just like now.

That night, twenty years ago, Vincent jumped out of bed, still in his underwear and run out of the house. He stopped for a second, holding his breath, palpitating, his pulse pounding in his ears – do it do it DO it DO IT – and then his legs took over and he ran like a maniac, like an animal, like the wind, and he tripped, he fell and just kept going on all fours, on threes on twos, until he reached the forest and then he plunged deeper and deeper into it, cutting himself on the bushes and the low branches and the stones.

He stopped. He was in a small opening, in the dark, alone and he wasn’t afraid. He looked up at the full moon, and his eyes widened. He took it in like a drink, the white light glistening on his sweat and blood and he smiled.

Then he did it.

A little before dawn, Vincent came back to the camp. He dived in the cold lake to wash himself up, and snuck back into the house.

He slept only two hours, but he woke up more rested than he’d ever been. He ate double breakfast, and was non-stop for the rest of the day. He felt stronger, powerful – almost invincible.

But that evening, he knew. He knew he couldn’t do it again. He couldn’t just give into the craving. He couldn’t allow it again. Because then they might know. He was lucky the first time, but if they found out they’d tell his parents and then who knows what they’d do to him. They’d send him away, that was for sure. Maybe they’d lock him up somewhere, maybe the basement and throw food at him every now and then. No, they couldn’t find out. Never, ever, ever.

Never. Maybe he’d lose his family over it. His job. The boat and the fishing.

Don’t do it, Vincent. Stay in bed, let the fingers crawl past you. Morning will come.

But sometimes, it is too much to take.

Sometimes it is too much to handle.

Sometimes it’s just too much.

Vincent got out of bed, still in his underwear. The monster, the wolfman, the beast, the animal, it was there again, swelling inside him like a tornado, the earthquake that shook him to his core again and again, driving him mad with every vibration, breaking down his soul with every pulsing wave – do it do it DO it DO IT – and that was it.

He went to the kids bedroom first. They were asleep. He did it there and went back to Sarah. When he did it there too, she was asleep.

And now? No forests to run to. No lake to wash into. Where? WHERE? His heart pounded like a hammer and he held his breath.

The basement! He could finish there.

In the moonlight pouring through the narrow windows, Vincent did it. He did again and again and he let it drive him, carry him with its power and force. His sweat glistened in the white light again, just like that night twenty years ago. He already felt invincible. It was like he had been asleep all those years between that night and now, but it was there again, the beast, the monster, the animal, filling him, swelling inside him with every sweat-soaked motion, driving him, feeding him, taking him to –

“What are you doing?”

He stopped and stood still. Sweat dripped from his hair, but it felt cold now.

Behind him, Sarah switched the light on, killing what little of the mood was left.


He didn’t answer. He just stood there, his naked back to her.

“Vincent?” A little scared now. “What were you doing down here?”

There was no way out of it. She’d seen him. She saw him doing it. It was over. There was only one thing he could do. Poor Sarah. She’d never know what hit her.

Vincent breathed out, and turned around. All the power seemed to have left him. With slow, bare steps, he walked over to his wonderful wife and took her trembling hand into his. Then he looked into her eyes.

“It’s ballet. Tchaikovsky – the Swan Lake. I saw it when I was a kid. I can only do the opening moves.”


Later on, lying on the couch, Vincent stared at the ceiling again. No shadows. No fingers. No nothing.

Sarah had been upset, but she left him with a “we’ll talk about it in the morning”. He didn’t follow her upstairs. He needed to be alone.

He felt calm and good. He got caught and that seemed to take something out of it. Made it weaker. Lesser.

One thing was certain: he could never do it again. He shouldn’t. He was lucky tonight, but who knew who would see him next time.

Next time? There wouldn’t be a next time.

Vincent closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Never, ever, ever.

Bits & Pieces: They come to me

You might not know this, but I write. A lot. And like many writers, I often write experimentally. Try things out. So I have this folder on my computer labelled “Bits and pieces”. It contains short bouts of stuff I’ve written either for fun/expression, either to try out a new style, or even as a part of a future novel. They’re not complete. They’re not short stories. But instead of letting them collect digital cobwebs, I thought I’d polish the occasional piece and share it on the blog. So here’s one. Make of it what you like.

They come to me. From all over, I see them drawing near, like ants on a dead rat. From where I stand, I can see them coming for miles – little lines of humanity’s leftovers, small, sad, tepid ghosts dragging the chains of themselves behind them. It’s what’s left of us. It’s what we left for ourselves. And now, on that endless pursuit for meaning, this human detritus still gets on its feet and shuffles over to the mountain, the one landmark over a charred landscape.

They come over and stand at the foot of the mountain, looking up. They don’t know, they just feel for now. It’s rational bypass now, all gone, the logic, the analysis, the mind, the what-got-us-here, it’s just instinct of the basest kind, homing on some rock protrusion in a flat horizon, something different in the nothing that surrounds us.

They look up, watching me. And I look down, watching them. It’s not mercy, or grace. It’s not the pursuit of meaning, happiness or anything like that. It’s just a gaze. Eye contact. Species recognition. Acknowledgment between the damned.

In the grey sky, the light slowly collapses. Dusk. Night. No stars. No moon. Just the dark and the land spreading at my feet, twinkling now with a thousand little fires and tiny dark figures huddling quietly around them.

It’ll be cold tonight. It’s cold every night.

It’s all we have left.

Short story: Fired

The three of them sit in a semicircle, the Director in the middle, HR to my left and my line manager to my right. Door behind me. Window across, dark with the March dusk and a miserable rain pattering on the double-glazed, soundproof, insulating, corporate glass.

Nature doesn’t usually mark the occasion. Babies are born during hurricanes. Lotteries are won in a blizzard. A guy jumps out of the twentieth floor of his apartment building on a sunny-blue summer day and sprays the warm sidewalk with his brains while seagulls fly above.

Nature doesn’t care.

Someone’s talking and my employee-conditioning kicks in and I pay attention. The Director’s pudgy face contorts in a semi-sad smile and his mouth kickstarts the stage play we are about to engage in by invoking the first line of his managerial script.

“How are you feeling?”

Of course, honesty isn’t expected. Bound by the pseudo-social contract of professional interaction, I also smile sheepishly and mutter something between “okay” and a verbal shrug.

Phase one is over and it’s time for his soliloquy. He speaks in the measured, paced, practised and soft tone of the veteran manager, but when I look up from the table and catch his eyes, all I see is autopilot.

He uses a lot of filler. Words like “performance”, “output”, “competence” and “leverage” fill the air between blow-softening neutrals like “expected”, “observed”, “discussed” and “decided”.

I nod to the music, but I can’t help keeping one eye on my watch. It takes him forty-seven seconds to go through the obligatory spiel, to put me at ease, to avoid conflict, to prevent negotiation, to minimise the chance that I’ll come back tomorrow with a case of home-made Molotov cocktails.

I feel tired. Forty-seven seconds, and then he finally gets to it.

“We all think that it would be better for you to not continue in this role.”

And just like that, the ritual – and my job – is over. Of course, there’s still some epilogue, but the main story has ended. Some live happily ever after. Some others, not so much.

They are expecting some reaction from me. For a moment, I entertain the idea of saying nothing and just staring impassively out the window. Lack of affect. Psychopathy. Scare them a bit. But then that “burn-no-bridges” instinct overcomes me, so I sigh a little and throw on fake stoicism. “Well, some things just don’t work out.”

They all nod, relieved. Whichever of them writes the report on this, they’ll tick the box that says I took it well.

The HR lady rattles off some information about contracts, final payments and paperwork. Then the Director looks at me with managerial puppy eyes and asks, “Is there anything you’d like to say?”

Like that’d make any difference. But I guess they give all the condemned a chance to final words, so I blather something that doesn’t exactly blame Management, but doesn’t exactly absolve them either.

They feel it. My line manager – ex line manager – looks uncomfortable.

Well. At least he’ll have a job tomorrow.

The rest goes fast. They get on with the scripted noise about how they wish me well and that I’ll probably have questions in the next couple of days and shouldn’t hesitate to email them.

Then they take my staff ID card. Of course, they deactivated it before the meeting even started.

The Director stands up and then the rest of us do. I breathe through my nose as my ex line manager storms out of the office without even saying goodbye.

The Director walks me out of the building and tries to pass it off as being friendly. It’s not. Company policy dictates that he has to escort me off the premises. Not a bad idea, actually.

Before I know it, I’m in a taxi on my way home. Five pm, on a rainy Tuesday. When I get home, I don’t turn on the lights. I lock the door behind me, walk into the lounge and sit quietly on the sofa, listening to the rain outside.

For the first time in my life, I’m fired.

Spanish translation

Short story: Of ropes and balances

It was the rope. That’s what he was thinking while the car tumbled down the hill like a tossed coin, the night sky going in circles with the ground over the dashboard.

The rope.

Someone ‘d told him that just before you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes – well, all he could see was the sky and the ground spinning, the cold air sucking and hurling through the broken windows, and he was pretty sure he was about to buy it – so no, scratch that theory. Too bad he wouldn’t be going back to tell them.

It was a long drop down the hill, a long drop to the rocks with the frothy waves, a long drop until the car filled up with water, a long till it sank to the bottom. A long drop and too much time to think about it, too much time to work it out, analyse it, whatever, too much time to change his mind.

But he had changed his mind, hadn’t he? Yeah, just like a second ago. Or not? Everything happened so fast that he hadn’t had any time to play catch up – but that thought got lodged there inside his mind that was tumbling like the car, it got stuck and, well, it wasn’t his whole life but it would have to do.

So his brain hit one of those rewind buttons and started flying back fast, fast enough to match the car’s fall, fast enough to play catch-up.

And there he was, he saw himself some half an hour ago, on his way out of “The Peel”, the last local bar that’d let him in for happy hour. He’d drank his twelve shots one after the other and he remembered thinking that Stoli didn’t do it for him anymore – well, nothing seemed to do it for him anymore; not Stoli, not pot, not sex, not gambling, not even that smack he’d scored from the French guy yesterday. And that’s when he’d figured it out. That’s how he knew.

See, he wasn’t no great philosopher or anything, but the way he saw it, life was like a rope; a stretched rope you held on to walk through the dark – that line always turned the ladies soft. And he believed it too, which made selling it easier. Anyway, you walked along in the dark, holding onto the rope, and either of two things happened: Sometimes you got all the way to end of it, and sometimes the rope broke, snap! and you were left standing in the dark with a loose end. Now if that happened, you could do three things: First, you could sit there like an idiot. Second, you could stumble along in the dark and try to find your way out. Or, three, you could try to find the other end, and tie the pieces back together.

As far as he could tell, he’d tried the first two.

The car came to a sudden stop on the rocks at the bottom, on its side like a dying animal. It stood there for a while, and he could hear the angry waves lapping on the hood, the wind hurling and making it teeter on the rocks like a cradle, pushing it to the sea, the sea pushing it towards the shore. Teeter-totter, between life and death.

One, two, three…

…four, five, si-

– the wind won.

The car tilted, metal screeching on the rocks, some more glass shattering, and it began to turn – to pivot, so that instead of the deafening splash he had expected, the car just slid quietly into the water, trunk first. Anticlimax. He laughed a little – story of my life.

… so when he’d finished throwing up after doing the Frenchman’s smack, he sat there with his face hung over the toilet, staring into his yellow thin vomit – hadn’t eaten anything real in weeks – and that’s when it first hit him, although his first thought had been that he needed his twelve shots to make it through the night.

So there he was, at “The Peel”, staring into his twelfth empty glass and it might as well have been the toilet, and that’s when he knew that his rope had come one way or the other to the end. It was like Harry the barman told him, all the booze in the world isn’t going to bring her back.

Darkness covered him, cold and salty, and then the water – icy, January, Atlantic black wet killer, it started from his back as the car sank backwards and slowly moved over his shoulders, his waist and started up his chest. He shivered and swore – had to be dramatic about it; a bullet through the brain wasn’t enough, had to be a tough guy. Too bad the Stoli was keeping him from freezing to death.

Won’t be long now, he thought, and that thought from before came back, colder than the water.

Had he changed his mind?

Did it matter?

He didn’t know if it did, but it beat watching reruns of his entire life.

He’d sat outside the bar, behind the steering wheel, his stomach doing hula-hoops from the smack, the vomiting, the Stoli and now from the idea he’d just gotten.

It wasn’t hard; for once there was something simple and easy. Just turn the engine on, head off toward the coast, up that turn that overlooks the ocean, build up some speed – his Ford could probably make sixty-seventy if he pushed it – and dive. Fly over the hill, clear the rocks below, hit the water and just let nature take its course.

So why’d he tumble down the hill instead?

In the cold water, he remembered something. Because at the last moment, heading at fifty-seven for the cliff, he’d baulked. His body kind of took over, his foot hit the break, his arms turned the wheel, and his right hand pulled on the handbrake.

He’d stopped, right on the edge.


Now, under the creeping black waters, shivers running through his body, he knew: It was what Harry had said, that short phrase he’d spat out at him like he’d done to hordes of other deadbeats, burnouts and screwups that came to “The Peel” to drink the pain away, it was that little cliché he’d said, all the booze in the world isn’t going to bring her back.

Somewhere between racing up the road and the cliff, maybe somewhere there the Stoli gave him a break and he’d realised the thin little wisdom of those words, he’d realised that if booze wasn’t going to bring his wife back, well, drowning in the Atlantic sure wasn’t going to do the trick either. And then he got another little zen thing, one that cleared his brain up.

Dying is bad enough, but dying for nothing, well, that really sucks.

His left hand groping for the door handle, his right for the seatbelt buckle – why’d he put that on anyway? – they both found their targets together, but only the belt came loose. The car had almost completely sunk beneath the surface and the water pressed on the door – equilibrium, they called it – and now that the icy wetness covered his nostrils, he began to feel the first pangs of panic. Given that he hadn’t felt anything except misery since his wife’s funeral, the sensation cut him like broken glass –

Glass. The window.

For a moment his heart calmed, though it could just be hypothermia.

Get out the window.


Easier thought than done, but it wasn’t like he had many options – or time. He couldn’t see the stars above anymore; hell, he couldn’t see anything anymore except the narrow white light from the headlights ahead, and that didn’t seem to go very far, it couldn’t penetrate the darkness of –

– that’s what got him going. That idea of the car sunk and stuck at bottom of the pitch-black, and him trapped inside, freezing, drowning, gasping his last bubble breaths at the bottom, alone in the dark, only the crabs and fish and whatever else lived down there feasting on his bloated corpse – all that send a jolt through his spine and his faculties all came to life, Stoli and smack be damned.

Pushing with his legs, he managed to lift his body against the crushing weight of the water just as he sucked the last inches of air that’d gotten trapped underneath the roof. Pushing and pushing – his foot hit the gas and he heard the engine rev, even down here – he finally got off the seat, hit his head on the sealing, re-positioned himself, forcing down his breath so much that it made his lungs hurt, and he slid out the window.

Out of the car now, he felt disoriented. His chest hurt, his body demanding oxygen for all the muscle work he’d put in and he knew he wasn’t exactly a fit Coast Guard anymore – if he got out of this alive, he swore he’d quit smoking and hit the gym like a pop star. But he knew that sea water will lift you up – elevation, they called it – and half-instinctively he kicked and kicked like a frog, feeling like he was going to explode any moment.

All around him darkness and – his oxygen-starved brain still registered – an awful silence. Just a hum and a thump, probably the water and his heart.

The trapped air from his lungs began to push upwards now, filling up his cheeks, struggling to come out from his clenched lips. As he continued to kick, he knew that the carbon dioxide build-up from his exercising muscles would just keep on growing and growing until he wouldn’t be able to hold it down any more. And once it came out, it’d be a split second before passive inhalation caused him to suck in and drown. A vicious circle: The faster he swam to the surface, the faster his body would kill him.

All this was academic of course – training remnants of a lifetime in the Coast Guard.

He just kept kicking and kicking, and now he managed to put his arms into it. Upwards, always upwards, that haunting sensation of drowning like cement in his lungs, his chest heavy, his cheeks about to rip, his sight blurring – he felt like his eyes were going to pop out – just as his lips parted and he blew froth up his face, the water suddenly got thinner, lighter, and that split second before sucking in was enough to let him stick his face out in the air.

He’d never drawn breath like that before; he felt like he would never stop. But the powerful intake filled his lungs so fast that it almost seemed unfair compared to how long he’d held his breath for. His chest still hurt, and some salt water got in there and caused him to cough hard, breathing in, coughing out, he twitched like that on the surface for a while until his own equilibrium set it.

When it did, he felt exhausted. Hardly any strength to do anything now. But he got his bearings and he realised that he had drifted away from the rocks, so he pulled up what strength he had left and began to swim.

It felt like a small eternity until he covered the hundred yards to the rocks – the same sharp rocks that seemed so dangerous before now welcomed him like a mother… well, maybe not exactly, but his intoxicated, drug-struck, air-starved brain couldn’t come up with a better metaphor. Who cared? The balance was tipped again, death was now life and blah blah blah.

Get to the rocks. His shoulders ached, his back ached, his chest was on fire – but he still found it in there to laugh at himself, Mr Suicide, Mr Broken Down, Mr Stoli paddling for dear life like a sewage rat. And if anyone ’d seen the whole charade, that’s what they’d think, they’d think he’d chickened out, not enough booze, not enough smack – hell, not enough pain to carry through. Maybe check to see if he was leaving a brown trail behind him… but he knew. He knew, and he didn’t care what anyone ’d think of him and his pathetic Attempt To End It All.

Maybe it was a second chance – didn’t much feel like it, but maybe he’d just been delivered from himself. Heck, he could have hit those rocks on the way down – engine was still running, could have lit up the night sky. Or the car could’ve gone down head first. The seatbelt could have stuck. It could have been deeper; his lungs might’ve given in; a shark could’ve chewed a piece off his ass for all he knew, but no, he was still there, half dead but half alive too, and he could see the rocks a couple of yards ahead, and one, two, three, he was riding the waves like a surfer and he let them ease him onto a smooth flat top at the bottom of the hill, and he grabbed hold and wasn’t going to let go, no sir, not after he’d seen what was on the deep end of the abyss.

And as he clung there, breathing, laughing, thanking, crying – that’s when it hit him. It was the question he’d left unanswered on account of trying to save his life. But it was still there, and it was still foggy and as if his mortal coil didn’t have another thousand natural shocks to deal with, it began to gnaw on the back of his mind, call it professional instinct, call it crazy, call it whatever, but it was still there:

Why had his car gone down?

He’d stopped at the top of the hill. He’d hit the breaks hard and pulled the handbrake. He’d had second thoughts – he was clear on that. So what, (ha ha), pushed him over the edge?

The answer came to him as the headlights of the other car, the car that had crashed into his own shone on him from the top of the hill. The lights teetered there for a while and he looked at them dumbly, like a frog staring into a flashlight.

And then the lights moved.

It wasn’t that though, it was the sound of gravel that made him jump. The headlights began moving now, faster and faster towards him, and suddenly something surged through his veins and his aching muscles came back to life. Panic and irony biting at him, he looked around quickly but there wasn’t much space – or time – so three seconds before the car hit him, he just kind of stood up and jumped backwards into the water and swam away as fast he could.

He saw the whole thing: The car cleared the rocks and went seamlessly into the water, the driver’s head bobbing along unconsciously – or dead. But the passenger, a woman, suddenly sprang to life – must’ve been the water, and started to struggle as the car sank, she banged on the glass, tugged on the seatbelt, screamed and then disappeared beneath the surface.

In the moment of silence that followed, he only had one thought: The rope. The damn rope that gets cut and tangled and broken and whatever, his rope that he couldn’t find the other end, well, his thought was that maybe he – he, a drunk, burnout, wasted – well, maybe he could hold someone else’s rope together, keep it from snapping. Maybe that was his own lost end.

He was already swimming underwater, kicking hard, following the sinking headlights. Maybe he could get there in time. Maybe he could get her out in time. Maybe he could save her and himself. Maybe he could tip the balance.

He didn’t see it, but above him, dawn began to break.