Here’s my entry to this year’s Sheffield 1000 Word Competition, a horror-love story about a man’s rise from darkness, and his descent far past it …
“Now then, what’re your plans for the Zombie Apocalypse?”
Those were Emma’s first words to me, lips framing an impossible smile.
Ours was a love like the movies. Sudden, all consuming, all embracing and all in. Innocent and deep and pure and tearing. That truest of love, oft found soaring upon the currents of Venice or Paris, London or New York, served up whimsically with gelato and cappuccino and fine dancing shoes.
Here, amidst the swirling eddies of The Devonshire Cat, my love was swept to me – real ale and red hair and a ricochet of need. We felt it, both – the loss, the hurt, shared darkness behind troubled eyes.
But the hope – the hope that bled and ran between us like rain upon the windows – it was the fresh, gentle hop of intoxication.
Her question awaited our fate, and she trembled at my nervousness. “My mistake,” she spooked.
“Wait,” I murmured, clutching without touching, perceiving the tiny hairs on her arm raise at my palm’s intimacy. I understood, of course – had seen the shadow of abuse as if a reflection.
Carefully she sat opposite, hands arranged neatly in lap, glass placed squarely on beer mat.
I took a breath – of her, of the ale, of the future.
“We would finish our drinks,” I began, “then, with you set behind me, and a glass clasped in each hand, I’d start knocking undead heads.”
I grinned and she giggled, designs of smothering a loneliness within the late city crowds now our distant memory.
That smile again. That impossible smile. Impossible, because it was for me, draped by red hair over hesitant eyes.
And we talked, talked in whispers while others were about us. Talked of this, and of that, our bubbles bulging tightly together.
Eventually she told me everything, and I her – the past that had led to our collective present. Torment-induced still waters, closed hearts since keeping the tides at bay.
And I sang to her that night and she wept for us, the glare of Sheffield’s brilliance curving through my apartment window, bearing an orange hue to Emma’s pale tears. As our city closed its eyes, the light flickered upon her cheeks and died, and so we remained, safe in the nightfall of our new synchronicity.
Shut in, but no longer alone. Our own Zombie Apocalypse.
And every day hence I felt the breath of her smile upon me, its contact soft and careful, the impossible now tenable, absolute.
We lived in the black and white, shying from the grey areas. Me and her. Her and me. Our love needed no other. Black and white. This and that. Emma and I.
Simple things came to be. A heartbeat – I’d never noticed my own heartbeat. A pulse. A blink. The itch of desire.
But the pain – I also felt pain. It seeped in unbidden, so long suppressed. I felt the ache of my bones and the prick of a finger, where once there had been blank.
Still, I came back to that smile. We never touched – our tainted flesh eternally withdrawn – but the way those curved lips could caress my soul, it was a dance beneath the yin and yang.
Our future, in our hands. Black and white in beautiful rapture.
But the car – the grey Mercedes AMG, twin turbo V8, aggressive carbon fibre structure and personalised plate – it came and it sped and it wrecked Emma blindly upon our barcode of love.
Emma. My Emma – damaged good.
For weeks I sat at her bedside, as they tried to rebuild her face, her body further ruined beyond. Hands upon her, and she couldn’t say no.
She’ll never walk, they said. She’ll never talk they said. She’ll never smile, I thought.
And as I sang to her I wept, and I was the only one.
White became black.
I was open – opened by that impossible smile – and I could no longer hold the darkness back. I didn’t want to.
The pain was unbearable, it devoured my mind, and I detested my impotence that fateful day – unable to hold her hand and pull her safely within my bubble. To watch on, frozen, as that Mercedes grey sports car, twin turbo and personalised plate, crushed what remained of Emma’s tangled resolve.
It won’t be long, they told me. Do you have plans, they asked me. I do, I replied.
As I pushed Emma across Devonshire Green this day, I felt the dirt calling to me. Could feel it between my fingers and beneath my nails. The beetles scuttled and the worms dug, for they too felt it coming.
But I loved her. Innocent and deep and pure and tearing – tearing, for one must ultimately live behind dead eyes and a torn soul. And so I brushed the dirt away and resisted the claw of the beast’s talons, for the gold lettering of our final destination was framed in blue before us. Our first meeting place to be our last, for she didn’t have long.
The bar was warm, the bottle list long, memories emerging and fading, fast. Blackness in the corners beckoned me, voices pressed at my bubble – still I fended off the murk.
We took our seats, opposite, rain bleeding upon the windows as hope washed away. Real ale and red hair and a remembrance of love – for love no longer existed here, only dark.
And then I saw it. Lips framing once more that impossible smile. Impossible, because it saved me. Impossible, because it tore me. Impossible, because the demons conjured it for me one final time.
As Emma’s eyes closed, so did mine.
Carefully I sank my pint, then hers.
The world died, the shadows devoured, and the hollow men came.
After, they told me the things I did. The rage and butchery that I wrought upon those people – those lifeless people – but it didn’t register.
It didn’t register, behind dead eyes, and an impossible smile.