Fiction

A Dying Moment by Gavin Gardiner | THIRD PLACE Short Story Competition 2020

TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide

The moment froze as the woman from above hit the concrete in front of him.

The wind continued to blast, making his eyes water and face contort in its command. This gale was the only thing untouched by fate’s freezing influence, with the woman before him stuck in her exact second of impact, suspended midway through her collision with the pavement. But why was he being forced to witness the obliteration of this stranger? Why had every twisted detail been paused for his consideration? He wished only to caress the knotted twine around his ring finger, the mark of his and Sophia’s love, but time had paralysed him completely.

Unable to move, imprisoned in an instant, he gazed into this woman’s dying moment.

He found he hated her. This plummeting thing entering such an ungodly state of ruin was nothing more than a rude interruption. The falling form was completing a journey from, presumably, one of the overlooking windows of the hotel above. But this sight wasn’t deserving of his attention; there was only one worthy of his thoughts.

Sophia.

It had been in her father’s barn one cool summer’s dusk when those poetry-loving lips had whispered how it was going to be. They’d lay in one another’s arms upon a mixed heap of her abandoned Coleridges, Miltons, and Whitmans, with his Foundations of Behavioural Neuroscience and Neuroscience: 6th Edition somewhere in the mix. With no colleges or universities nearby they’d taken the studying of their passions into their own hands, but these shared study sessions were never very productive. Anyway, that was when she’d described the bonds of marriage as ‘immaterial’ to what they had, and explained that they needed no pomp or ceremony to seal their love. Hypnotised as always by Sophia’s carefully selected words, he felt his insides settle into a kind of tingling static of excitement as she tied the earthy twine around his ring finger. She then motioned for him to do the same for her. He did, and from that moment on he knew their families’ attempts to interfere were, also, immaterial. With the ragged strings picked from the bale of hay, they’d knotted their resolve to abandon the countryside that had defined their lives up until this point, and flee for the city. They would work, study, and build a future together. But what had this wilderness of towering concrete brought them?

His terminal diagnosis, that’s what.

He stared with rage into this stuck second, bitter that the fallen woman’s death would no doubt stay with him for the rest of what little time he had left. Furious at the thought, yet unable to look away, he glared down at this random woman’s final act of rebellion or depression or last desperate attempt to take control of her life. She was blurry, like the moving subject of an improperly taken photograph. He could barely make her out, such was her distortion, until suddenly he discerned something: her frozen, final conscious motion. In her moment of impact, she was reaching one hand up.

For him.

He squinted through the explosive gale and saw that, sure enough, her eyes were locked on his. He was surprised she’d have time to register someone so fully. Could she really be reaching? The synaptic connections of her brain were probably lighting up at incalculable speeds, like an orgy of strobe lights, so it could be possible. There were survivor stories of these things, you see. Those who had made suicidal leaps and lived to tell the tale gave all sorts of reports as to what they experience, both aligning and conflicting with the opinions of the ‘experts’: the explosion of adrenaline could make you hyper-aware, or send you into shock, or cardiac arrest, or cause you to black out, or even make you forget what the hell it was you were in the middle of doing anyway. In the end it was still a mystery. What goes through the mind of someone in the cross hairs of concrete, whose self-inflicted mode of annihilation is so utterly bereft of hope or chance or luck, is still a sacred secret.

He should know. He’d researched it enough.

He’d been told the cancer would take him soon, but he’d made up his mind before he’d even left that cold, cruel doctor’s office that he was going out on his own terms, whether Sophia liked it or not. But he was afraid. Yes, of leaving Sophia. Yes, of all their grand plans for the future fizzling out. Yes, of never revolutionising the field of neurophysiological biochemistry. But it was the thought of that final moment that caused the cold sweat to break out across his back. He was going to end it himself, this he’d set in stone, but the dreaded instant before his return to the darkness of nonexistence was…well, troubling. And so, to prepare, he did what he did best. He studied and researched and learnt.

Did dying moments stretch out like elastic, the final split second of your life protracting for longer than anyone could ever know? He’d learnt that male mosquitoes live for an average of ten days, yet their perception of time may allow for this short lifespan to feel to them like what we know as months. The smaller the animal, the faster its metabolic rate; the faster its metabolic rate, the slower the passage of time appears to them. Try to swat a fly and you’ll have your proof. He’d even skimmed some papers hypothesising a possible solution of mankind’s distant descendants to the eventual end of the universe: manipulation of their metabolisms to experience the final centuries of the cosmos as countless millennia.

Speculative cosmology and bug study have nothing to do with you ending it, he’d told himself. But wasn’t there the chance that our biochemical metabolic processes, or at least the neurological signallers governing the outputs of these operations, could go haywire in the event of such a cataclysmic rush of adrenaline? Couldn’t that burst render our perception of time as skewed as the mosquito’s? His readings had validated time and again the popular opinion that stressful situations slowed time down for the individual, or at least sped up their senses. Many sleepless nights of research had sealed his belief that there had to be a connection between the overflow of epinephrine, noradrenaline, cortisol, and dozens more stress hormones in a moment of such intensity as that of one’s premature death – and your metabolic perception of time.

As that physicist with the funny hair had once said, it’s all relative.

He’d come to believe that however he did it would result in this final, stretched second. The pull of a trigger would warp into hours, the leap in front of a train would become a Hollywood slow-mo sequence, and the moment of the concrete’s ferocious arrival – as this woman was experiencing – would stick like a broken record. But he knew too much about the effects on the brain of failed overdoses, had seen too many images of blundered self-inflicted gunshot wounds or blunt force traumas. No, it was going to have to be a jump. That was the surest way. He would just have to suck up the goddamned final moment, just like this woman before him.

He was going to be the master of his own demise, no matter what Sophia said. Except hadn’t she agreed that it would be for the best? Hadn’t he felt her bony pianist finger on his lips before he could protest at her not only wanting to be there by his side, but actually doing it with him?

He left these troubling thoughts, such unbearable thoughts of any harm coming to Sophia, and turned his attention back to the jumper. Blurred breakages and anatomical detonations were becoming evident throughout the woman’s horizontal body as it slowly sunk into the curbside. Was he inventing things that were not there in this hand seemingly reaching up for him from the pavement? Was her frozen motion nothing more than the desperate flailing of someone meeting their end?

And still the moment did not resolve. Still the wind pummelled his paralysed being, causing tears to stream from his eyes. Still the woman was driven at a snail’s pace into the concrete. His hatred began to dissolve. Whatever she’d gone through, they were the same, really. This was what he was to become. Before long, his synaptic connections would be the ones blinking like a demonically possessed tangle of Christmas tree lights. That explosion of adrenaline making you hyper-aware, or sending you into shock, or cardiac arrest, or causing you to black out, or making you forget what the hell it was you were in the middle of doing anyway would soon be his.

Come to think of it, what had he been in the middle of doing?

Of course, he’d come from his temp office job, that grey, washed out excuse for a— Actually, it had been from the university campus, that beehive of academia, a buzzing furnace of innovation and discovery coiled like a spring ready to— Or had it been their apartment, so dingy and damp as it was, yet emanating a warmth produced only from two souls intertwined in a love so—

Sophia. From wherever he’d come, he’d come with Sophia.

And as the maddening gale snatched the tears from his eyes to carry them upwards, the image of the woman before him finally resolved into clarity. At long last he spotted the twine wrapped around the ring finger of the woman’s reaching hand, and abruptly realised his own hand had also been outstretched the entire time. Those manic synaptic connections suddenly brought it all back.

He’d come from above.

Also horizontal, also reaching, he felt himself floating above the woman in her final instant. Untethered, he stared down into eyes that were wide with all the knowledge of those who witness their own end. He begged this treacherous moment to allow those poetry-loving lips just one last breath. But this world, having given him more than he was ever meant to be given, could now only take – and take it would.

In his dying moment, he reached back.


Find Gavin’s links here: https://linktr.ee/GGardinerHorror

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