In the Dark – Highly commended – 5th Place in the 2017 Writing Contest

In the Dark

Richard Hooton


EVERYTHING’S dark. Pitch black. Where am I? I can’t move. My eyes won’t open. What the hell?

I’ve been buried alive with mounds of suffocating earth slowly crushing me. I have to get out. Wait. There’s no pressure; nothing’s weighing me down. It’s like floating in space with no stars.

It’s not real. Just a nightmare. My alarm clock will sound, I’ll awake, laugh with relief, then make a cup of tea and my world will be right again.

But I’m thinking too much to be asleep. I’ve always been afraid of the dark; anything could be lurking out there. Come on, Sarah, open your eyes. After 40 years of instantly obeying me, my body rebels. My mind screams “move”, yet I’m frozen.

I yell. Silence mocks my pathetic efforts to make noise. So that’s it. I see nothing. Feel nothing. I am nothing. I’m dead. Is this it? An immobile black silence. Am I in hell? Purgatory?

All I know is that I’m alone.

There’s a noise. I can hear. It’s rhythmic: a deep, whistling whoosh then a pause. There’s a quiet beeping in the background and a mechanism that wheezes and clunks. It’s like the world’s most musically challenged orchestra; completely in time, never missing a beat, but with no melody or tune.

In their moments of silence I can hear the beat of my heart. It’s faint, but life is pumping through my veins. My head’s as fuzzy as radio static. I smell antiseptic and bleach. And something fainter. A sweet, delicate fragrance: the subtle notes of my favourite roses. I have senses. Am I blind and paralysed? I’ve read about locked-in conditions: A fully functioning mind trapped inside a broken-down body. Am I confined inside a personal hell?

I long to know; but I’m afraid of the truth.

I lie here — what choice do I have? — and wait. How did I get here? I piece together the jigsaw from fragments of memory. Rushing to an appointment; always rushing, from one place to the next, one duty to another. I remember a letter; ominous black words on smooth, white paper. I dropped my four-year-old son off at nursery. How could I have forgotten Joey? Is it still morning? I think of his forlorn face when I don’t arrive to pick him up, thinking his mummy has abandoned him.

I will myself to move. It’s futile. I’m lost in the dark.

What’s that? A new noise. A tapping that gets louder. Closer. Footsteps. A muttering, like someone talking through cloth, then it’s clearer. They’ll rescue me, surely?

‘Five more minutes then I’m off.’ A voice from my left. A woman’s soft tones enlivened by eagerness. They must see me.

‘Where you off tonight?’ Another female voice. To my right. Why aren’t they doing something?

‘Round the pubs in town then I’ll hit the clubs. Can’t wait.’ A night out. Excitement. Entertainment. Pleasure. I’m trapped in a black tomb.

‘You ready? On the count.’ Ready for what? ‘One, two, three.’

A sensation, like I’m flying. Am I soaring up to meet my maker after all? Then back down. I think I’m stationary again.

The footsteps resume, then fade until they’re gone. Just the noise of the machine is left. I’m as helpless as a trussed animal in a slaughterhouse. I can’t rush now. All I can do is think about how I wish I could kiss Joey’s feather-soft hair and breathe in his sweet scent. My little firework. To feel warm sunshine on my skin and be dazzled by its brightness. How sweetly frail like spun sugar those cherished moments seem now. All I have in my cocoon are memories.

There’s footsteps again. A familiar musky scent in the air stirs me. Voices. This time male.

‘I’m afraid there’s been no change.’ The tone is serious, sombre. ‘I conducted the most basic reflex tests.’ A nervous cough. ‘But there was no response.’ That fragrance. Is it?

‘There must be more you can do?’

The voice chimes in my heart like a clapper striking a bell. Deep, masculine and as familiar to me as my name. It is him.

Pete, my husband of twenty years, my lighthouse, is by my side. His aftershave is comforting, his voice reassuring. Help is here. And he’ll have made sure Joey’s safe.

‘We’ve done all we can.’ What are they contemplating? ‘It’s been three days now.’ I’ve been lying here that long? ‘I’m sorry.’ The stranger’s voice is quiet and burdened with sadness. ‘There’s no chance of recovery.’

If my body could shake it would. Clearly, I’m in a hospital bed and the stranger’s a doctor. It’s a life or death conversation. My life or death. And I can’t intervene. I want to shout out, to throw my arms into the air. All I can do is listen to them discuss my existence. Tell him, Pete. There’s always hope. Never give up.

‘It’s too soon. She needs more time.’ He does as I ask. But his voice drips with fear, sounds strangled by panic. You need to convince him, Pete.

‘It’s possible your wife’s mental ability has been impaired by the lack of oxygen while we were restarting her heart. It may have caused catastrophic brain damage.’ Why can’t they tell there’s nothing wrong with my mental ability? ‘Consider her wishes. Would she want to be kept alive on a ventilator?’

I bloody well do want to be kept alive.

What’s happened to me? I must think harder to shine a light through the fog. I remember pins and needles in my legs, still managing to get Joey to nursery before work, a pain snaking up me. I collapsed, recovered, went to the doctors, then hospital. That letter casts a shadow. The doctor gave it me, it described some condition, something about the immune system attacking the nervous system, leaving your brain unable to control your muscles. I was waiting at hospital. Then darkness.

I wonder what I look like, laid flat, all ghostly white in a hospital bed. Not too revolting, I hope. I imagine myself angel-like, long blonde hair flowing backwards against a crisp, white pillow, my complexion pale but clear.

The doctor said I’d had a heart attack. I must be in a coma but somehow able to hear. It’s quiet. Pete hasn’t answered the question. What’s there to think about? I picture my husband, his stance: legs together, back straight, head bowed, hand on chin, contemplating.

He’ll be as alone as I am; though we’re just inches apart.

Our futures hang in this moment.

‘We have to be realistic about your wife’s prospects.’ The doctor’s voice is matter-of-fact grim. ‘I think it’s time to turn the machine off.’ I see my danger. My life support. Keep that machine on, Pete.

‘We did talk.’ I’ve never heard Pete’s voice so low, as if it’s scraping the earth. Then I know what he’s going to say. Please don’t recall that conversation.

‘About the right to die.’ He gulps, near chokes on the words. ‘Sarah said if she was permanently incapacitated she’d no longer want to live.’

If I could cry, I would. It’s exactly what I said. But this isn’t that situation. I try to scream out. I wish I could open my eyes. I can’t bear this darkness. There must be some way of getting their attention, just the slightest movement: the flutter of an eyelid or trembling hand. Despite terror gripping my mind, my body remains still.

My death is sealed.

I’ll never see Joey’s bright eyes, burning with energy, again. I won’t be there to catch him when he falls, to guide him, to teach him. I’ll never see him grow, flourish, achieve. I’ll have left him and Pete behind. For one last time I want to tell them I love them. They’re all I’ve ever wanted in life – now I have nothing. Now I stop to appreciate. Why does it have to be dark to see the light?

And alone, inside your head, is the darkest place I’ve ever known.

Then Pete speaks. ‘I still think she should be given more time. I’ve a feeling she can pull through.’

For the first time, I’m so happy Pete’s going against my wishes. Relief isn’t an adequate word. Time is all I need. If my mind is functioning my body will follow. It’s up to the doctor now. Is his silence hesitation?

‘I’ll book Sarah in for an MRI scan to see what brain function there is and keep her on the ventilator until then.’

A lifeline. I know the scan will reveal me and they’ll bring me round. I can’t wait to open my eyes and see my two boys again. I’ll kiss my husband. I’ll hold my son in my arms until they ache and breathe in his heavenly scent. Whatever it takes, I will rise and walk away from this hospital bed.

I’ll be out of the darkness and into the light.

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