I wrote this short piece for Australian Writers’ Centre Furious Fiction competition, the criteria included starting with the word ‘five’, something that needed repairing, and the phrase ‘a silver lining.’ Thanks to Ricky Barton for his help.
Five miles of dark, lonely highway stretch behind Liam. Reykjavik’s lights have long since faded. Foot to the floor, he passes barren snowfields, his heartbeat matching the grunge music on the radio.
Crunch! Broken glass shatters under his wheels. His eyes dart to the rear-view mirror. What else can go wrong?
He drives on, hands shaking, alert for signs of damage. If he stops, they might find him. And at fifteen degrees below freezing, he won’t leave his heated cocoon unless—
Kerthunk… kerthunk… kerthunk…
A flat tire.
Liam pulls into the icy verge. A copse of birches looms out of the black night. No way can he call the rental company. They’ll see the shattered headlight from earlier. He’ll change the tire himself.
He pulls on his ski jacket, abandoning his tripod and precious Nikon on the backseat, along with his quest to photograph the aurora borealis, the whole reason for this accursed trip.
Outside, a bitter chill slices through his layers of clothing. The northern lights flicker, Gods at war. A silver lining for his misfortune. Green swirls hover on the horizon then dance higher. Red lights form, shimmering above the green. Blood red.
Blood. Seeping across the snow.
A whisper catches on the breeze, ‘Liam.’
His skin prickles. ‘Who’s there?’
No reply but the rustling of birches.
Mouth dry, he finds the jack and unpacks the spare wheel.
The voice calls his name again, a woman, more insistent than before.
Liam gulps, guilt his frosty companion. ‘Where are you?’ His shout falls short, muffled by the unforgiving snow.
The red sky turns purple, the aubergine tinge of a mortal bruise.
To flush out his provocateur, Liam stumbles across the snow piled on the side of the road. A leg sinks deep. Cold clamps his calf, stabbing needles of pain. He scrambles up, every breath drawing daggers of frozen air down his throat.
The aurora flickers one last time and vanishes. The car’s single headlight fades as he ventures into the profound dark. Gloom presses in on him.
‘What do you want from me?’ he cries into the night.
‘Liam. Now.’ The raspy voice drags him onwards, into the tomb of trees.
The birches whisper secrets of bygone days. Their leaves slap his face, angry, spiteful. He presses through their cruel taunts into a clearing.
A mangled corpse lies on the ground. The victim of his car crash in the city hours earlier. Moonlight reveals her gaping wounds. Blood stains the snow.
‘You did this!’
He gags on his terror.
The birches sway, only now Liam sees not trees, but warriors drawing arms. They grab him, tear at his eyes.
The spectre of his crime banishes all thought but that of escape. He runs blindly back to his car. Snow claws at his feet.
Blue flashing lights surround him.
A policeman approaches. ‘Liam Holdsworth?’
‘You’re under arrest.’
Next time: on the art of writing, The Importance of Understanding Novel Genres