Tires squealing, then a crash, crunch. Five miles outside of town, no one heard the collision of the two vehicles at the darkened intersection of the county roads. There were no streetlights. Only the moon glistening off the shards of glass that were now littered across the asphalt. A million shimmering diamonds in a tragic sea of dark.
Stumbling from his wrecked car, Ben Harrington could feel the sticky blood dampening his hair and snaking rivers down the side of his face. Like a newborn fawn learning to walk, he couldn’t find his balance, having no idea which direction to go. The world spun around him. He was the sun, and a thousand years were passing on Earth. Rust and iron. Burnt rubber. Gasoline. Those were the only smells that pervaded the thick air around him. There was churning in his gut before its contents were spewed out onto the street.
Turning around, Ben took in the sight of the wreck. Both vehicles were crushed, mangled beyond recognition. Windows were broken. Tires were shredded. The front end of his SUV was caved in, smoke billowing from the engine bay like a ghost in the night. A reaper coming to claim departed souls. The silver sedan had taken the brunt of the damage, the driver side of the car smashed in, devastated. He could see blood. Even if he wanted to look into the face of the other driver, would he have been able to see it?
A deafening ringing in his ears pierced through the unsettling hush. Then the rev of an engine pierced through the ringing. Spinning around, nearly losing his balance, Ben could see this face, the face belonging to the driver of the car stopped on the street. Dark, vacant eyes stared back at him down a hooked nose with a prominent bridge like that of a Roman. Dark hair contrasted against skin as pale as alabaster.
Ben wasn’t sure if he was going to say “hey” or “help.” His vocal cords made no sound. All that came out was a quiet noise as air passed through his dry, parted lips. Taking a step toward the stranger, he collapsed onto the road.
The last thing he remembered was the color red perfusing the night. Tail lights blinded him as though someone was shining a laser into his eyes, burning his retinas. The mysterious vehicle was driving away. Everything went numb, and he was sinking into the abyss.
Two days of his life had been lost to him by the time Ben awoke in the hospital. The incessant beeping of machines was the first thing his mind registered, the noise making his brain feel full. When his eyes finally fluttered open, all he saw was white. White walls. White sheets. White lights. It was a far cry from the blackness that had greeted him with the promise of his eternal fate.
Ben couldn’t remember much from the accident. And that’s exactly what he told the police officers when they came to his room to question him. He did, however, remember that there had been a third vehicle at the intersection. Even though he couldn’t tell them exactly what had happened, he was certain the wreck had been their fault. But when asked, he couldn’t recall what the car or the driver looked like. The doctor backed him up on this. Memory loss was common with the head injury he suffered.
The one thing Ben could remember was the look in the stranger’s eyes. Just his eyes. How dark and empty they had been. Devoid of feeling, thought, of anything. Two black holes in the face of a phantom. The memory caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stand.
The officers seemed to agree with Ben’s statement that it was the fleeing third vehicle that caused the wreck. The driver had sped off in the midst of a catastrophe. It was clear he didn’t want to get caught at the scene.
Before they could leave, Ben couldn’t stop himself from asking, “What happened to the other driver?”
The men in uniform exchanged long, despondent looks before the one with a bushy, ungroomed mustache and receding hairline answered. “He didn’t make it. I’m sorry.”
Ben could see those black hole eyes again. They were devouring him, sucking him in, swallowing him whole. They continued to greedily consume his entire upside-down world.
For three more days he remained in the hospital, and all of them just kind of blurred together by the end. Physical therapy. Pain meds for his broken ribs. CT scans of his brain. A visit from his mother. Less than appetizing hospital food. Green Jell-O. Orange Jell-O. He allowed these memories to get lost in his memory bank along with the ones of the accident. Tossed them into the vault in the back of his mind and locked them up tight, threw away the key.
If he never remembered any of this until he was on his final deathbed, it would still be too soon.
After he was released from the hospital on what had to be the hottest day of the year, he took a couple of more days to recuperate at home. But then he got bored. He never would have imagined he’d be so relieved to return to work.
He couldn’t drive himself considering his car had been totaled. Of course it wasn’t worth the cost to repair it because it hadn’t been worth much to begin with. He showed up at Raven’s Bar and Billiards in an Uber, thanking the young college freshman with unintentional bitterness. How many grand had the fancy new Mustang set the kid’s parents back? At least it allowed him some kind of employment to earn his own beer money.
As his lift drove away, Ben was momentarily mesmerized by the red glow of its tail lights. He nearly succeeded in forgetting why they caused him to stop breathing. When he began to remember, he forced away the stubborn memories long enough to enter the building with its much more comforting dim, amber lighting. A classic rock track blared through speakers, fortunately drowning out his own thoughts and making him feel normal once again.
“Glad you’re not dead, Harrington,” was the first thing Raven said to him as he clocked in behind the bar. Then, as she shoved an empty tray in his hands, “Table five needs another round of Daiquiris.”
Table five was surrounded by a gaggle of females in their mid-twenties, all wearing skimpy shorts or skirts and brazenly showing off their considerably tanned and ample cleavage. He had wanted a distraction, and this is what he got. A pack of lionesses prepared to devour him whole. If he had to choose between the lions and two black holes ripping him in opposite directions, the lions won every time.
Whipping up the cocktails, he poured them into four chilled glasses straight from the shaker. Placing them each on the tray, he carried them cautiously over to the lions who appeared as hungry as they were thirsty.
“Thank you, Ben.” The woman with the darkest tan batted her heavily mascaraed eyelashes at him as she read his nametag with honey on her tongue.
Another not-so-accidentally grazed his hand as he sat a drink down in front of her.
These lions craved attention like oxygen.
Holding the empty tray under his arm, he smiled politely at them. As he turned to leave, the corner of his eye caught sight of a shrouded figure in the darkest recesses of the bar. Sitting alone at a clean table, the only part of him that the light reached was his nose. It was large, pale, and hooked.
Had all the oxygen in the bar been sucked out?
No, it was just those dreadful memories attempting to escape their prison again.
The tray clattered on the counter behind the bar when it slipped out of Ben’s grasp. He tried not to let his gaze wander over to the silhouette in the corner of the room, but his eyes were more obstinate than his memories.
“What’s up, Harrington?” Raven asked as she returned from serving another round of beer to a raucous group of guys playing pool. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“That man in the corner,” Ben started, turning to face her so as not to seem suspicious. “Do you know who he is? Has he come in here before?”
Raven didn’t bother looking. “You know there’s only a handful of regulars I know by name. And you know who those are just as well as I do.”
When Ben turned back around, the man was gone.
Ben took another Uber home after work. He had been so distracted during his shift that at one point he tripped over a barstool. Now he smelled like gin and tonic. He didn’t care what his driver thought. All he cared about was making sure he was plenty distracted by the light of his phone’s screen while they drove through that dreaded intersection.
Directing his ride to stop just outside of the gate that opened onto the ranch he lived on, Ben got out of the car, making sure to turn away before he could get lost in tail lights.
The metal gate had a horseshoe welded in the center. It was old and creaked as he opened it. Like nails on a chalkboard, the sound grated on his frayed nerves every time. Sterling Creek Ranch was owned by some family friends, and he rented a one-room cabin from them. It had a kitchenette and came fully furnished with a pull-out sofa that he never bothered to pull out.
Once home, he showered and changed into some clean clothes that didn’t reek of booze. Sitting down at the small dining table with a bowl of some off-brand cereal, he opened up the most recent newspaper he could find, flipping straight to the listings of vehicles for sale. He was getting a check from the insurance company, but even with it, he didn’t have a lot to spend.
As he circled one possibility with a red marker, he heard a noise come from outside. It was the familiar creaking of the metal gate.
It was well past two o’clock in the morning. Who would be opening the gate this late?
Stepping out onto the porch of the cabin, Ben looked east up to the main house where his landlords lived. All the lights were off. Gazing down the dirt road toward the entrance of the ranch, he saw nothing. Just darkness. Emptiness.
Shrugging it off as the wind or some mild hallucination caused by the late hour, Ben returned inside. The uneaten portion of his cereal had turned soggy in its milk bath, so he threw it down the drain. Turning on the faucet, he began to wash the bowl by hand. He didn’t have to wait for the water to heat up. There was no cold water in summer; it was always lukewarm.
There was another noise. This one was different than the last.
Nearly dropping the plastic bowl in the sink, Ben quickly shut off the tap. Everything went silent. All he could hear now was the pounding of his own heart beating in his ears. But he was sure he had heard something. Like metal being beat against metal. Hollow, sharp, and resounding. Not too close, but not too far off either.
Walking out on the porch again, he scouted out his surroundings. Once more, he saw nothing. Then something moved in his peripherals. A shadow.
“Who’s there?” he called out.
The only reply he received was the singing of cicadas.
Feeling foolish, he turned to go back inside. He stopped when he was facing the road outside of the ranch. Red light bled into the blackness of night. Tail lights, motionless in the distance. Growing brighter, still unmoving.
Brighter. Red. Bleeding.
The night was just another blur. He was on a roller coaster, spinning out of control in the solar system. Seeing black holes and red dwarfs. Being pulled apart by a gravitational force, he was close to a supernova ready to explode.
Ben couldn’t remember going to bed. What time had he even fallen asleep? He woke up on the couch to the afternoon sun peeking in through the blinds, dust dancing in the rays of light. It was already time to go to work.
“Hey, Harrington. That trash is overflowing.” Raven looked about ready to jump over the bar and wring his neck. “Take it out back, will ya?”
Nodding his head, Ben watched as she took a tray of margaritas and mugs of foamy beer from the other bartender and carried them over to two couples on a double date. He couldn’t blame her for the murder eyes. Once again, he had been distracted all night. The hairs on the back of his neck were permanently standing, unable to shake the feeling of being watched. Would he see Mr. Black-Hole-Eyes again? Had someone really been out there on the ranch last night or was his imagination running away with him?
Struggling with the trash bag, he finally managed to wiggle it out of the can. Picking up the couple of beer bottles and a lime wedge that had fallen out, he squeezed them into the bag and tied it up tight. Shuffling his way to the back door, he was forced to drag the heavy trash bag behind him.
The back door opened up into a darkened alleyway with only a flickering street lamp in the distance providing any light. As Ben heaved the bag outside and toward the dumpster, the sound of the door slamming shut reverberated off the walls with a deep boom. He dropped the bag a couple of times before he finally managed to hoist it up high enough to actually get it inside the dumpster.
When he went back to the door, he pulled on the handle. It wouldn’t budge. He pulled again. Same thing. Why was it locked? It was always unlocked when they were open. Wasn’t it?
Spinning around so fast that he nearly lost his balance, Ben’s breath was stolen from him. He was no longer alone in the alley. A man, silhouetted against the flickering lamp post behind him, stood before him. He approached slowly with strobe-like movements.
“Who are you?”
“You know who I am.” The man’s voice was low, monotonous, and guttural.
Ben’s back was pressed against the door now as the stranger came closer, trapping him. His heart was hammering in his chest as though it was trying to flee without him. Close enough now so Ben could make out some of his features, the man undoubtedly sported an aquiline nose, like that of the curved beak of an eagle. His eyes were as dark as he remembered them. Time and space became warped. He couldn’t escape those black holes even if he tried.
“Why are you here?” Ben asked, his own voice shaking.
“You know why.”
“You were there that night. At the accident.”
“I was there.”
“You killed that man!”
In response to Ben’s outburst, his tormentor took another step forward. His complexion was void of color, the perfect shade of white. From beneath his dark hair, crimson blood began dripping down his face. It glistened like glitter where the light hit it.
“I was that man.”
Time stood still. Everything else began to move, spinning around him in a blur. It made him dizzy and sick. There was a lack of direction, and he was at the mercy of open space. It had forsaken him, thrusting him toward the menacing cosmic body. He was tumbling through the event horizon, and gravity was pulling him apart.
“No, that’s ridiculous!” Vigorously shaking his head, Ben turned around and began to beat on the door. “You’re crazy! Leave me the hell alone!”
“You killed me, Ben. You caused the wreck.”
The man’s voice sounded far away, echoing, disembodied. Ben felt hands on him, forcing him around. He shut his eyes, preparing for an attack. None came. Cowering against the door, he gradually opened his eyes. There was no one there. Once again, he was completely alone in the alleyway.
This time, the door swung open on the first pull. Bolting inside like a bullet out of a gun, Ben tore his apron off and threw it on the bar on his way toward the front door.
“Where do you think you’re going, Harrington?” Raven’s tone was annoyed, but her expression showed concern.
Ben didn’t answer her. He left the bar and called for a ride home.
There were newspapers everywhere, loose pages scattered all over the dining table and sprawled out on the floor. And yet Ben only remembered looking through one the night before. As he rummaged through the papers, leaving black smudges on his fingertips, he tried to get the image of that ghostly shadow out of his head. The one that had been standing by the intersection as his driver drove past while bringing him home. That foreboding spectre, Death, or the angel of it.
Finding another page of obituaries, Ben’s eyes scanned over it. Kneeling on the floor, he felt a blow to his gut that sent him backwards onto the ground. Sitting on the cool hardwood floor, he stared at the black and white photograph of a man who had recently passed away in a car accident. His hair and eyes were dark. His nose was like a hawk’s.
Ben was forced to suck in a ragged, painful breath when he realized he hadn’t been breathing, gasping and choking on air as it stung his lungs. Struggling to stand, he slipped a few times, newspapers scattering. Finally on his feet, he made a break for the front door that he had left wide open on his way in.
Not bothering to open the gate, he hopped over it instead. Barely breaking stride, he continued to run. The intersection was only a mile from the ranch, so he just went hell for leather.
The wind whipped through his hair. He could feel it tugging at the stitches still in the side of his head. It burned his eyes, but he couldn’t stop. Feet pounded on pavement, but it was gravity that pulled him forward.
As he neared the intersection, Ben could see it now. The harrowing scene played out in front of his eyes. Blue light from his phone screen illuminated his face as he barreled down the road in his SUV. He never even saw the silver sedan until he crashed into it. There was no third vehicle that had forced him to swerve. No stranger who caused the wreck and fled the scene. He had seen the face of the man he killed and willed him into existence as his scapegoat. Fresh, bright blood against an ashen face, distorting his features. His eyes wide open, dead and black.
Falling to his knees in the middle of the intersection, Ben’s vision was blurred by tears. He was a collapsing star surrounded by black holes. Now it was his turn.
The supernova came, exploding in the form of headlights.
White. Then the void. Now he was the black hole.
Chelsea Thornton is a writer from Texas. She is an editor and staff contributor for The Aurora Journal and a reader for The Forge Literary Magazine. Her work has been published in Maudlin House, Bewildering Stories, Idle Ink, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @chelseactually or at chelseathornton.com.