A man finds more than he bargained after a motorway pile up. (EDITED! Please Review!)
|The second of August. Fourteen minutes past three in the afternoon. Zero seconds. That’s when it all began. I know this because that’s where the clock had stopped in what remained of the car, its battered corpse capsized at the epicentre of a field of devastation across three lanes and half a mile of motorway. The smell of burning petrol hung in the heat haze, blanketing the scarred tarmac. A vision of apocalypse through the hanging remains of a shattered windscreen. The wheels span fitfully in the air, the futile twitches of a crushed cockroach. Less than a minute earlier a sixteen wheeler had dumped its cargo of steel rods. I was four cars behind it.
Car one, a black SUV containing two irritated parents and four arguing children got the worst of it as it span out of control, clipping the front of car two, it already resembled freshly harpooned prey. Car two, a blue convertible Mazda, tried to swerve - but too fast and too late. The SUV knocked it into a sideways skid, skewering it and the passenger, each nailed to the other. The third car didn’t have a chance to react, and ploughed into the driver side of the Mazda with that low frequency thumping particular to car crashes. The driver of car two was crushed, killing him instantly. The driver of car three was saved by her airbag as I collided directly with the rear of her BMW.
The bonnet of my Vauxhall rushed up towards my windscreen, which promptly shattered. I experienced a moment of weightlessness as the tail of the car bucked into the air, and then everything was silent, slow, and filled with microscopic detail. I saw individual fragments of shrapnel cruise past, languid and leisurely. As the car flipped I observed the face of the driver behind contort in horror – I could have counted his teeth if I’d wanted to. It was like being underwater, and I watched the scene unfold until time returned in a rush as I landed on the far side of the accident. The car’s roof scraped the tarmac, the sound directionless and muffled, as it shuddered to a standstill.
My head was jammed against the ceiling of the car, and blood was dripping onto my face from the ruined mess of my right leg, which was bent into the steering wheel. I felt no pain, and briefly thought that this should worry me, especially when I noticed the four-inch length of splintered bone. Something was engraved on the bone. I forced my eyes to focus. Words. I struggled to shut out the rolling wave of pain that was trying to catch up with me. The text was neat, computer-like, as if etched by a laser or precision cutting tool. I made out the words “fourteenth of March, final“. Then the noise erupted and the blackness came.
The surgeon who patched me up was a Mister with a capital M, not a doctor. We spent a lot of time talking while I recuperated. Not surprisingly he had a lot of questions about where the inscriptions on my skeleton came from. They didn’t show up on X-rays, but we’d both seen them with our own eyes. I couldn’t explain it, and neither could Mister Wright. He wanted to write a paper, he wanted to tell the world. I didn’t agree – much as I wanted to know more about the strange condition of my bones, I didn’t relish the prospect of becoming a freak show attraction – moreover, it seemed pretty obvious to me that further investigation of my condition would require a great deal of very invasive surgery.
I resolved that the best thing to do would be to try to forget about those neatly carved lines of text, to forget about the fourteenth of March, to get on with healing, and to get on with my life. A week later, the ninth of August, I returned to my home to find a stack of unopened bills, a tank full of dead fish, and a fridge full of rotten food.
Physiotherapy became my main task, a lengthy and painful process; under the expert tutelage of a thickset woman I secretly named Nurse Beelzebub. She pretended she didn’t delight in the agony I was forced to endure. She called it progress, and congratulated me as if I was a small child who’d managed to use the toilet. I knew the truth; she was feeding on my suffering like some kind of demented vampire. Over that time, despite my resolution, my thoughts continually returned to the sight of the text on my exposed bone. I pushed them aside time and time again, concentrated on healing, but every agonising step was a reminder of the fragile skeleton in my closet. Every reminder of that was a reminder of those words; Fourteenth of March, final.
October fifteenth. Crunch time. I’d tried to ignore it but it seemed that this wasn’t the kind of thing the human brain can disregard. I levered myself out of my chair, settled on to my crutches, and moved into the kitchen. I’d been planning this all morning, and got to the point where I had to bite the bullet and do it. Do it before I chickened out. With some difficulty I retrieved the iron from the cupboard, set it on the table, and plugged it in. When I returned from the kitchen drawer I could feel the heat coming off it. Good. Next I set my left hand face up on the table, clenched into a fist, but with the little finger outstretched. I took the tea towel from the side and gripped it between my teeth.
My mother always told me that every kitchen needs at least one good, sharp knife. This was the knife I took up now. It was heavy, and its edge was as keen as it could be. I tried to imagine I was chopping a carrot, placed the tip of the blade on the table surface, and used the knuckles of my other fingers as a guide. The weight of the blade rested on the joint of my little finger. Close your eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out. Count to three.
I expected the cut to be harder than it was. The pain was excruciating, the act of cauterisation even more so. It was certainly messy, but the actual act of amputation was over very quickly. One firm downward stroke and it was done, despite the toughness of the knuckle. I sat at the table for about an hour, curled and weeping. Eventually I was ready to continue the process. That was easier than I thought; I just imagined I was pulling the meat from a chicken wing.
The result? Three tiny bones, each one covered in tiny writing, exquisitely executed Helvetica text. The point was proved, and to continue the investigation was going to require professional help. I called Mister Wright.
On the seventh of December, we began the procedure. Strictly cloak and dagger stuff, you understand – there was no way this could be done legitimately. We’d found an anaesthetist, Doctor Merrick, and drawn him in with the story, with Polaroid pictures of the original injury, with the three tiny bones in a Ziploc bag. I had to admire him – this small, nervous man with a head as smooth as a newborn had clearly never had so much as library fine, and we were asking him to become an accomplice in the kind of back street surgery you can’t even find in eastern Europe. Once we’d convinced him that this wasn’t a joke, and that the engraved bones really were waiting to be uncovered, he barely hesitated in agreeing to participate.
Mrs. Wright was our nurse – a deeply religious woman with a passion for archaeology. That was exactly what she viewed this as, and I liked the metaphor; surgery as a dig, an excavation… wet archaeology. She likened it to the uncovering of Tutenkhamun’s Tomb, or the Dead Sea Scrolls. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if we would have done it at all, but as we planned the operation she kept reminding us that this was unique, that this was historic. She kept the faith for all of us.
The Wrights and Merrick arrived together, and we set to work. My kitchen was sterilised, and became an operating theatre, with a stainless steel table and bright lights on stands, video cameras were set to record as much of the process as possible – banks of monitoring equipment were wheeled into place. I lay down, naked, as Merrick wired me up and fastened me to the table with Velcro straps. Shivering against the steel slab, the smell of antiseptic with an undercurrent of sweat and fear. Trays of instruments gleamed. Tools for clamping, tools for clipping. Tools for cutting. The human body contain two hundred and six bones. Assuming that all of them had the writing on them, we had a lot of work to do.
We couldn’t use general anaesthetic – we had a lot of procedures to perform and it would have been too dangerous. Numb from the neck down, that was the plan. Merrick did his job with admirable professionalism, injecting a chemical cocktail of his own devising. As the syringe pierced my neck I was gripped with a sudden rush of fear, but Merrick’s calm was infectious, and despite what we were about to do to my body I breathed the oxygen easily and without panic. For a short time I felt a prickly heat in my limbs. It spread through my groin, stomach, and chest… then no sensation at all – I was a disembodied head floating above the scene.
The fact is I was excited, I was unique, and that leg was broken anyway – taking it off was probably the best thing to do. I watched in detached fascination as they stripped the meat from my bones, as they cleaned them and polished them, as they read the words written on them. I looked like a proud mother at the birth of her first blood-soaked, squalling child.
After reading the words on the bones, we didn’t need to speak. We had to continue. I think Mister Wright and his wife and associate would have done so anyway, without my permission, but no such standoff occurred. Mister Wright said he could give me a shot, save me from going through all of the surgery, save me from the pain – and despite the anaesthetic, that pain washed through every newborn phantom limb like a red tide. I refused. I had to read as much of the message as I was capable of seeing. We continued, limb by limb, bone by bone – like cutting down a tree.
I saw a lot.
There wasn’t much of me left when it finally became too much, and I blinked the agreed signal. Blink, blink, blink, pause, blink, pause, blink, blink, and blink. The syringe pierced my neck, and I winced slightly, eliciting a momentary wry smile from Mister Wright. His wife was crying. Doctor Merrick stood solemn, eyes down and hands clasped. The bones were laid out on the table beside me, every inch covered in that perfect text – we’d worked a lot of it out, got the order of things, we were pretty sure we knew what the message was all about, and that’s what it was. A message.
I guess I’ll never know why I was chosen to carry the message – but there it all is, chapter and verse on scapula and metatarsal. Scripture on tibias and femurs, all rendered undeniably true by the sheer impossibility of it all.
It’s getting colder now, like looking at the world from the end of a long tunnel. The others will have to carry the message now. I’m not sure it’ll make much difference; they don’t have a lot of time. Ninety-seven days will be gone almost before you can blink.
The finger bone connected to the hand bone, the hand bone connected to the arm bone, the arm bone connected to the shoulder bone. As the darkness wrapped itself around me like a blanket and I fell out of the world, I sang a song to ward away the demons and ease my passage.
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones. Hear the word of the lord.
See you soon.