by Catherine Jordan, she/her

It took swerving the car off the road and through the barrier before the steering wheel started talking to Kas again.

Well, it said in her ears, echoing through her brain. Whispers in a wind tunnel. With the little time you had, I’m sure you made the best decision, love.

The echo of the metal barrier parting like tissue paper burned in Kas’ ears. Everything was splintered. The car hung between take-off and the inevitable crash down, suspended in air. Around Kas, objects twisted and turned in miniscule motions, sent flying from the sharp impact. Time was dissolving, seconds stretching out. She could taste blood in the back of her mouth.

Best think fast, advised a CD case, spinning past her, a shard of light in the head lamps. You are stuck between then and now – and time waits for no one.

You’re screwed, agreed her reflection in the rear view mirror. It grinned. Too many teeth.

“Am I dead?” Kas said, noting her neutral tone. A sense of great calm had enveloped her. What had happened, what would happen, merging on the horizon. “Am I going off the deep end?”

Not yet, said a half-open packet of mints, flung from the dashboard.

Almost, added one of the individually wrapped mints as it slid out in a frenzied bid for freedom. Or never. With you, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

“Why? Because I’m crazy? Prone to anger? Too far gone?”

No, said the windshield, too soft to be anything but pitying. Because you’re having a conversation with your car.

Kas turned to Aoife, taking in her face. Her expression was twisted in the first movements of shock. Make-up smudged from a long night, her shirt riding up, one mostly-shaved leg propped up on the dashboard. Her neon green toe separator stained by her nail polish spilling. The brutal-blue liquid was now suspended in space, splashing like a wave frozen at the height of the turn.

She had swerved the car to protect Aoife, Kas knew. She had seen the blaring headlights ahead of them, bigger than God, and had made her decision. Everything after had been instinct. The wheel had swung with her, the car following suit; for a brief moment, she had been a beast of metal and meat. Bones and wheels screaming in unison. It was terrifying. It was exhilarating. 

You wanted to save her, whispered the car radio, dials flickering as the vehicle struggled with being tossed off the road. But why didn’t you want to save yourself?

Kas took a second. Her hair flowed around her, a concentric halo whiting out her vision. “It just didn’t occur to me at the time.”

A long silence. Then, so quiet she couldn’t tell where it had come from: Do you want to live, or do you just not want to die?

“I don’t – I don’t know,” Kas admitted. Somehow, that terrified her more than watching the car hurtle towards them. “I don’t think I want to die. I don’t even know the person who would be dying. But I don’t know if I want her to live, either.” 

She drew her legs up. Around her, the loose objects twisted in place, twinkling. Idly, from the suppressed fear of what was about to happen, she knocked a lipstick tube out of orbit and sent it spinning across the cab. “Sometimes, I feel like I don’t know her at all. As if she died, I wouldn’t notice. Like she’s already dead.”

Everything is dying. Everything is dead meat still moving. Everything is a story being told, and every story has an ending. The question, my dear, is when, said the radio, switching from AM to FM in a crackle of diodes. (change of word maybe)

“Do I get a choice? Am I not going to die here anyway?”

There is always a choice, boomed the terrible heart of the engine, reverberating in Kas’ bones. Even when there are no other options. Especially when there are no other options.

Kas stared at Aoife, still frozen, still caught in time. “I think . . . I think I want to learn who she is. Who she can be for other people. I want to learn how tohow to want to live. I want to learn how to not be dead. She’s a stranger to me – that’s scary even to think about. I want to learn who she is. For better and worse.”

Well, then, said the steering wheel, half-wry, half-affectionate. You know what to do.

“Yeah,” Kas said. She folded her hands together. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear the world returning, hurrying to make up for lost moments. She set her jaw. “Let it ride.”

A sensation of great upheaval, more than the velocity of the vehicle spun into space. It turned Kas’ insides to agonised mush. The car hit solid earth, and the window shattered in a constellation of violence; she stopped thinking about anything but the pain of impact. Everything went dark.

Sound and sense only returned when she registered the distant burr of the road, the shallow breathing of bodies in shock. Two bodies.

Aoife was pale, paler than usual, a clean cut running across her forehead, greyish red against her skin. But she was alive, staring at Kas with too many emotions to distinguish.

“Oh my God,” Aoife said, voice cutting through the silence. “Your mam is going to kill you.”

Kas nodded. Laughter bubbled up in her throat. It was manic, mostly a harpy-screech, streaming out of her like a river too fast to dam. The cleansing, cauterising fear of what was coming, what could be weathered. She buried her head in her hands. Sometimes it took the impact to remember there was something to hit. “Yeah. Yeah, she is.”