Short Story – “The before and the after”

The Guardian newspaper ran a competition to find a short story (4,000 words or less) to be judged by Stephen King. Named “The Bazaar of Bad Dreams” contest, the story had to be inspired by the following passage written by King himself:

“There’s something to be said for a shorter, more intense experience. It can be invigorating, sometimes even shocking, like a waltz with a stranger you will never see again, or a kiss in the dark, or a beautiful curio for sale at a street bazaar.”

My entry, “The before and the after” can be found below.

 

THE BEFORE AND THE AFTER

 

Most of us hope that death, when it comes, is over in an instant. People in their sympathy are often swift to wish it on others plucked from the earth before their time.

“I hope it was quick.”

“I just hope they didn’t suffer.”

“I hope they didn’t know what was happening.”

I am about to test that theory on a scale that my mind can’t possibly comprehend. And I too hope that for all the people I am about to free from the shackles of life, what they experience is nothing but a vivid nanosecond before the void takes them. Perhaps it’s the only way I can justify it. Because none of us actually know what happens at that final moment, although some have brushed it, we can only go by cliché or by the lingering hopes of those who face it as a certainty.

“My life flashed before my eyes.”

“I saw a tunnel with a white light and I wanted to go towards it.”

Is that what these damned people are going to experience?

Because of me?

I pity them, but I also envy them, because my passing won’t be as fast; my death won’t be as intense an experience as their sudden, split-second realization that the end has come, because I already know that my time is running out. They don’t. Not yet.

I wonder how fast the mind can work. From sensing danger to a possible plan of action or an escape to understanding to acceptance to death. Very fast I think.

I understand that many of the people who are going to die because of what I am about to do deserve to have long and happy lives. The morally innocent, the children, the mothers. I am not a bad person; I cannot justify their deaths. I can only hope like everybody else does, that they don’t know quite what’s happening and that it happens fast.

The pressure is building in my ears, making me swallow over and over trying to make them pop. We’re climbing very fast.

We are all defined by moments. There are only befores and afters, that’s all. Before you were born. After your mother died. When we first met. Moments in songs that push your hands involuntarily to the sky or to your cheeks to wipe away the tears. The first time you see the shark. The UFO at the end of Close Encounters. Holding your daughter as she’s handed to you. A smile from the person who has agreed to share this insanity with you at the altar. Ed Sullivan waving a hand across a screaming black and white screen to four young men from Liverpool. Gene Kelly skipping through puddles, the ever-echoing piano note to finish Sgt Pepper and the crackle of needle on vinyl.

Then there are moments that really change everything. Collective happenings that we all know. By my reckoning there have been perhaps six in our lifetimes, the moments that we remember because we know where we were when we heard, or when we saw. These moments made possible by our own strides into technology, the speed of sending news around the world.

Princess Diana dying (I was at a rich friend’s house swimming naked and drunk with boys and girls when one ran from the enormous house into the night toward us with the news). Michael Jackson found dead (we are outside a bar, smoking on a rainy London street, again with friends and we’re laughing because surely not, this was the most famous man in the world, still, even after the allegations and the ridicule.) Too young to remember Lennon dying but I recall the abject horror on my mother’s face as she knelt in front of the television in our living room with her hair in a ponytail and hand held over her mouth watching the long-haired groups of despairing kids waving candles in New York. JFK being shot, a world’s optimism pinned on one man, a decade before my time, but so relevant now.

We are bouncing around all over the place, still climbing too fast. My ears pop. Stale air. Indecipherable pings. Engine humming outside.

Number five, the moon landing. Again before my time but no question that it was a moment for everyone. The one moment of this type unconnected to tragedy. That shadow looming ever closer on a tiny screen, millions sitting open-mouthed at this ridiculous display of heroism, this show of bravado and exploration. Of boyhood imaginations coming true. The fear of death. Of being left there. How that would feel.

Number six, September 11th of course. A phone call that morning from a best friend in Ohio who entreated solely that I should turn on the television and then hung up, and so I did and stood without moving for two hours and then sat on the couch for three days without moving my eyes from the box in the corner that relayed horror after horror from around the country that I loved so much. A phone call to my father, have you ever seen anything like this? Never. There was before 9/11 and there was after 9/11. I know I never wanted my little girl to have to see those people jumping. I managed eleven years before she found them herself.

And now, I fear, I am going to be responsible for number seven. It hangs on my decision, which I think I have made. There hasn’t been a huge amount of preparation, there hasn’t been time. I know what I am taking away from so many families. I have a daughter and a son myself. Rather, I had a daughter and a son, I should say. Were it not for the alcohol that thought would have had my hands shaking and the sob of grief choking my throat once again but I gulp it away and we sink what feels like hundreds of feet in the following few seconds, though I have read it’s actually never more than about twenty or thirty.

I don’t want to cause anybody the kind of anguish I’ve been experiencing for the past few hours, but nobody can tell me I don’t understand. I just hope it’s quick. I hope they don’t know what’s happening. Perhaps though I am doing them all a favor. From what I have faced and learned in the previous two years or so, life is too often a burden rather than an experience. Despite those series of moments, those indelible images of beauty, the enormous capacity of the mind to experience pleasure, there is too much pain, and frustration and evil. Too many brains simply wired incorrectly, the astonishing and complex nature of the human design so fallible in the same way that we can make such intricate machines that end up failing due to simple, natural error, or a lack of maintenance.

We dip again, then climb, then dip. Whirring sounds. The silence of that processed air.

The optimism I began with was eroded so quickly that I looked for a way out within months. I didn’t think it would end here though; I never contemplated that my words and decisions could bring about such misery and such heartache. I wonder if that single shocking transition from life to death might be a burst of singular pleasure, a final cruel joke from God, a sign usually of procreation reduced to finality. Is it the French that call an orgasm a little death? I am grasping at straws, there is no good to this, there is no justification, and there is nothing to hold on to.
We do everything we can to survive, unless we end things ourselves, when that wiring in the brain goes bad but spares us causing others suffering, just to our own bodies. A fall from a bridge, a step in front of a train.

Am I any better than those men with bad wiring who have taken so much from so many? The man in Oklahoma who placed a truck packed with explosives by a building and killed nearly 200 people? There was a daycare at the bottom. Am I better than the Sandy Hook demon, than the VT shooter, than the monsters of old? Fritzl? Hitler? These evil men drunk with power or with hatred. Am I any better? The magnitude of what I am about to do and all that I am going to take is drying my mouth and slamming my heart against my ribs and has my hand shaking the ice in the glass.

We have leveled off but still the pressure weighs heavy in my ears. I lean my head against the side of the plane. I don’t want to do this.

Before and after. Before and after I decide, before and after I stand, before and after I speak. Either side of a moment. Death comes to us all eventually but it shouldn’t come to many before it’s supposed to arrive. I am going to change that. I am going to change the rules of nature. I am going to take my stupid, inconsequential body and brain and play God and intervene in the quiet, well-meaning lives of so many, and end them. Tear them away from laughter and tears and from learning. From embraces and grief and from understanding. They will never have the chance to question why, they will never get a second opportunity, they will never be able to look me in the eye and beg me, because I think they would beg, for just one more sunrise and one more sunset. For one last kiss from a soulmate who perhaps they saw this morning and expected fully to welcome home at the end of the day.

Another fierce climb sets me back in my seat, I wasn’t expecting this. I need to ask somebody what is happening. Even for one of these machines, these contraptions I have always hated so much, we seem to be going far too quickly.

Katie and Georgia and Steven, their faces so vivid to me, at every stage of their lives, but they are already fading, I’m clawing at the memories, I didn’t know I would need them. There is a chance they are alright, I suppose, but I don’t hold much hope now.

We bank almost 180 degrees and I am left staring down from what must be 20,000 feet looking at sea that remains untroubled by all of our good and evil and disputes and marriages and children and destruction. Tides constantly moving back and forth against our shores, almost as if they meet us and see what we’re capable of and retreat in horror. Something sounds very wrong with the plane; despite what is in my immediate future my heart reacts accordingly with barely-restrained panic. My mouth is dry, my hands dig into the soft plastic on either side of my legs, and I look around for signs of distress in anyone around me.

I am just in front of the left wing; I look at the two engines below my window, the only things keeping me up here. Maybe if they failed it would be a good thing. Every other plane journey I’ve ever taken consisted of my silently praying and wishing the hours away, waiting for the relief that hearing tires squealing against tarmac would bring. But not this time. Maybe this time it would be better if we continued on a downward spiral to meet the unforgiving water beneath us, so tranquil and blue from here but so raging and fatal when welcoming any metal bird that’s ever tumbled from the skies. Human error.

But slowly the sea disappears from view to be replaced by the smatterings of white cloud and we somehow seem to increase our speed. I am sweating; I feel it against my seat back, my shirt drenched in perspiration. It is soon now; I know it will be soon. I am desperately sorry, and I wish I could tell my mother and father that I had no choice. I really had no choice. I didn’t want to do it but I had to. I’m sorry.

Mom it was Carl he said if we just took a few nobody would notice and so I just did what he asked me and I’m sorry and Mom don’t cry I’ll take them right back to the store I promise I know stealing is bad I’m sorry.

Sure enough, they arrive at my seat. It’s time. Oh dear Lord I am so sorry. I rise from my chair and we walk into a partitioned room, three of us and John opens the case and shows me the numbers. He is asking me if I understand what is happening and I reply that yes, I do understand. Although I don’t, of course. No more than any of us have ever understood any of this. There may well not be much of it to wonder about however, not now, not afterwards. Those thousands of years of the best minds we had to offer, those that weren’t badly wired, wondering and looking upwards and attempting to explain; man always looking skyward for answers, always looking to the skies in times of hope or desperation. The answer will indeed come from the skies for so many, very soon, but it won’t be from God, or from some beings from elsewhere in a corner of the solar system, the answer will come from me, James Donaldson, the 47th President of the United States, and they want that answer now. They need an answer.

A simple yes or no.

Everything in a moment.

The before and the after.

 

THE END

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