Chapter 1: The Crash
He was dying. There was no doubt now. Aron’s eyes remained fixed on the long trail of crimson across the white, tiled floor. It started from around the corner he’d dragged himself from to where he sat now, leaning against the brick wall, panting with exhaustion.
He still found it hard to believe that only a day ago he had been sitting in the driver seat of his cross-country jeep, enjoying life like it would never end. His only worries had been repaying his college loans, and what gifts he would mail his parents back home for Christmas. None of it mattered now. His loans could go screw themselves and all his parents would get would be news that would probably kill ’em—no parent should ever have to learn that their child was dead.
A sharp blade of pain stabbed in his abdomen, causing him to fall into a coughing fit. Crimson spittle flew from his mouth then began to run down his lips, his chin, his neck… Aron lowered his weak gaze to the massive gaping hole on the right side of his waist, if it could still be called a waist. Fractured bones protruded from it, leaving it nigh impossible to use his legs. With the amount of blood he’d lost, it was a miracle he’d been able to maintain consciousness let alone find the strength to drag himself away from danger.
He leaned his head back against the wall, clenching his eyes shut as another wave of agony rake across his body. Why him? Why now? He’d just turned twenty-one and already it seemed that his drinking days were over.
Hell, what drinking days? He chuckled to himself. I never even got the chance to take a single sip of alcohol. He sighed. Oh well. Least this nightmare will finally come to an end.
An almost silent slithering sound filled the air, bringing his eyes back open. The room was still empty, the amber light pouring from the windows showing nothing save the glistening red pool around him.
What the hell was he hearing?
The slithering grew louder and slowly, ever slowly, the room’s temperature began to plummet—or was that his body’s temperature? He couldn’t tell anymore.
The light on the wall began to fade as long tendrils of shadow raced across it smothering it out.
What monster is coming after me now?
Aron winced as something large came around the corner. Large was the only word he could use to describe it as it didn’t have a true shape or form. If anything, he couldn’t even call it an animal as no animal was composed of a midnight black liquid. No natural animal anyway. It rose in place for a few seconds to the height of a toddler, as if reacting to the sight of him before flattening again; racing towards him. It stopped just short of his useless outstretched legs. It rose again, blocking out the rest of the light.
Was this the Angel of Death? Aron wondered. If it was, then jeez. It looked as though 99% of what the world thought Death looked like was wrong. He let out a small chuckle at the thought, despite knowing the consequences. He stared at it a moment longer, before gently closing his eyes and saying, “Go ahead. I know it’s over.”
A guttural chuckling followed by a whispering voice that could be described as nothing short but demonic filled his ears.
“Over?” The voice snickered. “My dear boy, this is just the beginning.”
Two nights earlier
Aron let out a loud sigh as he slammed the textbook shut.
“Finally.” He breathed with relief. “I’m finished.”
He leaned back in his seat with his arms outstretched. Exams were over. Homework was finished. The semester had ended. He looked over his shoulder at the neighboring mirror hanging on his roommate’s closet door. In it he could see a mentally exhausted young twenty-one-year-old man, though perhaps the term ‘boy’ was far more appropriate. He’d always felt the same, even after his teenage years had passed. Age, regardless of what others told him, had done nothing to change him. He still had the same short, scraggly brown hair. The same hazel eyes. Heck, even his height hadn’t changed since age seventeen—he was still 5’11.
Perhaps the only difference in his life now was where he was: SST University. A far cry from the dump of a place he’d called home just a few months prior. It was clean, had working air condition (also another fine reminder of how different his ‘glamorous’ roots were), a gorgeous view out the window, and a dream come true for someone like him. He’d busted his butt trying to work up enough money to get away from his shoddy hometown several hundred miles away on the east coast. Once he’d finally done it, his parents had been gracious enough to send him what little they had to a place where he could have a better future. Of course, he’d still probably be in debt until he was forty (thank you school loans) but compared to where he was from: it was worth it.
“Sup, Aron!?” A cheerful voice came from behind him.
Aron sat up straight as he swiveled the chair around. His roommate had finally returned from his last class.
“Hey, Ziggy,” Aron responded with a tired smile, “what’s up?”
He couldn’t understand that guy. Ziggy never seemed to be out of energy. Ever. Even now, after three straight days of nothing but exams, this guy looked ready to run a marathon.
“It’s the end of the semester man! I get to go home and see my folks!” Ziggy grinned.
Aron’s smiled faded.
“That’s great man. I hope you have a great time.” He swiveled his chair back around and logged onto his laptop.
“What about you?” Ziggy continued, “You going home to see your folks for Christmas?”
Aron shifted uncomfortably in his seat but didn’t say anything. Instead he pulled up one of his favorite websites that kept lists of short stories to read.
“Yo! Dude! Did you hear me?” Ziggy’s voice chimed in.
Aron quietly clenched one of his fists over the keyboard, just out of sight. He’d hoped Ziggy would drop the topic of ‘going home’ and ‘folks’ but clearly, he wasn’t going to.
With a loud sigh, he looked over his shoulder and answered, “No. I’m staying here.”
Ziggy’s mouth dropped. “Really? Dude, why!? No one’s going to be here!”
“A few people will. I heard Matt down the hall is staying.”
“That’s because he hates his parents and his parents hate him.”
Aron shut his eyes and shook his head. Ziggy really couldn’t take a hint, could he?
“I don’t have the money to go home,” Aron finally said. “I spent just about all my savings to get here and am already in debt. I don’t have any spare cash lying around to buy a plane ticket home and back. Neither do my parents.”
To his credit, Ziggy didn’t answer. Instead, he turned around and started packing for his return trip home as un-awkwardly as he could. Aron didn’t blame him. He hadn’t known. He’d kept most of his background to himself for personal reasons. Mostly to avoid pity. The last thing he wanted was everyone at the campus to feel sorry for him. Still, the mention of going nowhere pained him. A whole three weeks at the dorm alone for his Christmas break? That wasn’t much of a vacation, more of a punishment.
He sighed and turned back to his computer.
Maybe he’d get lucky while he was here. Maybe something fun and unexpected would fall into his lap and kill the forthcoming boredom. Until then though, Aron pulled up his Deviant Art page, let’s read something good. He clicked the first link he saw: “Alpenview, Self-Explained”. That story looked interesting.
It was almost ten ’o’clock at night when Ziggy’s voice interrupted Aron’s reading, “Hey, uh…Aron?”
Aron looked over his should towards Ziggy. “Hmm?”
He saw Ziggy chewing his lips as if he were contemplating something that he didn’t like. “Could I ask you for a favor?”
Aron minimized the webpage shortly before spinning his chair around. “Sure man,” he replied. “What is it?”
“Well, remember how I said I’m leaving to go see my folks?”
Aron nodded, unsure of what that had to do with anything.
“So, you see my flight leaves at six in the morning and it’s in the next town over and I have to be there at least twenty minutes early…”
Aron frowned. “Okay, and…?”
“The problem is, I need a ride to the airport.” He grimaced.
Aron’s postured stiffened.
Ziggy, you did not…
“You need a ride to the airport, and you need to be there by 5:40 in the morning.” He almost snorted. “Ziggy, you do realize that Springfield is over an hour away, right?”
Ziggy’s frown turned into an apologetic grin. “Yeah that’s why I wasn’t too keen on asking you for this favor. We need to get up at around 4:30 at least.”
Aron stared at him. It was ten at night for crying out loud! And now he decided to ask this? Aron slowly closed his eyes taking in a deep breath.
“Alright, fine.” He sighed, opening his eyes. “I’ll do it. But you owe me one.”
They managed to get there around 5:20 the following morning, despite everything. The both of them were tired. Aron more out of anything since he was going to have to drive all the way back to the fricking campus while Ziggy would get to sleep on a plane. Aron sniffed as he drove away from the airport. Lucky him, he thought. He had said his goodbye to Ziggy who’d apologized repeatedly to him for making him get up so early. It was fine though. It wasn’t like this was the worst thing to ever happen to Aron. In fact, losing just a little bit of sleep was a breeze compared to some of the crap he’d endured back home.
Home… he couldn’t stop coming back to that, could he? He couldn’t seem to stop himself from reminiscing over the fact that he wouldn’t be able to see his folks this Christmas. He sighed then turned on the radio. Immediately, “I’ll be home for Christmas” began to play.
His eyes dropped from the foggy highway to the radio.
Really? He glared.
He slammed his finger against the mute button and then returned to the road. Sure he was tired, sure the radio could help him keep awake, but he sure as hell didn’t need that kind of reminder.
He blinked a few times trying to fend off the grasps of sleep. He still had another forty-five minutes before he’d make it back to the dorm. Yet, oddly enough, the sun had still yet to rise. Thunder grumbled above just as droplets of rain began to pelt the windshield.
“Ah great,” he muttered. “Because being this dark and foggy, and me extremely tired and freaking alone for the holidays wasn’t enough.” He slowed down and turned on his flashers as the rain thickened. “How much more can this morning suck?”
Two large beams of light appeared in the fog directly in front of him, followed by the loud blaring of a mat-truck’s horn. Aron hadn’t even the time to scream. His instincts took over. He yanked the wheel to his right to get out of the way of the mat-truck’s incoming hulk of a grill but realized all too late that it had been a mistake. He hadn’t even realized he’d been going over a bridge until the steel railing came into view; it was the last clear image his eyes registered before his head smashed into the steering wheel and jeep plummeted into the dark forest below.
Aron let out a loud groan. His head hurt. His chest felt like it been hit by a truck. His face felt wet and a nasty burning stench filled his nostrils. He slowly opened his eyes to see the bent metal door of his jeep and the blades of rain falling from the dark skies, running down the cracked window.
What happened? his dazed mind asked.
He lifted his head from the collapsing airbag as it hissed out powder. His eyes scanned around his ruined jeep: the front had smashed in, bent, and twisted and cracks spiderwebbed across the windshield.
A crash? Yes…a crash! Memories of the accident slowly fluttered in. The loud monstrous horn, the shine of the steel railing racing into view, then blackness. He glanced out the window to dark trees surrounding him. He must’ve run off the bridge and by some freaking miracle landed with the car upright. He did his best to sit himself up and look himself over. Everything looked alright. The airbag had cushioned his head and the seatbelt had kept him in his seat (he made a mental note to never make fun of seatbelt commercials again). He rubbed his forehead, wincing from the stings of pain from the newfound cuts across it. He lowered his hand and bent to examine his legs. They, as well as his arms, were intact at least.
He unbuckled his seatbelt and reached for his pocket. All he needed to do was dial 911 and everything would be—
An orange flame flickered from just above the dashboard. The scent of charred plastic and burning oil grew stronger.
Aron’s eyes widened. “Oh crap!”
Forget calling 911. I need to get outta here! Without a moment to lose, Aron grabbed the handle of the door and tried pushing it open. It moved a few centimeters before stopping.
“Uh-uh!” he screamed. “Not a good time to do this to me!”
He slammed his body against it, trying to force it open. He felt it move another few inches just as flames began to erupt from the center console.
“Damn it!” He needed to get out of the car. NOW!
Refusing to give up, he slammed his shoulder into the door again and again and again. Praying that by some miracle it would give in. The door however remained adamant. His mind scrambled for quick solutions on how to escape. His eyes darted everywhere, searching for another way out. They halted over the cracked window. His eyes lit up. He still might have a chance.
Knowing he couldn’t turn his body to kick it out without getting scorched, Aron resorted to slamming his elbow into the glass. One hit. Nothing. Two hits. Another small crack slithered from the largest. Three hits, the fire grew larger, the sound of it grew deafening, and the smoke became blinding. But he didn’t stop. Giving it one last go, he slammed his entire left side into the window. The most beautiful noise he could ever imagine filled the air: the glass shattering. Wasting no time, he grabbed hold of the new opening, ignoring the broken shards that dug into his palms, and pulled himself out of the vehicle. He hit the ground with an, “oof” then scrambled away from the growing flames. He got away just in time. He’d only gotten a few yards away when the sound of something like cannon filled the air only to be replaced seconds later by the mighty roar of flames. He turned to see a burning inferno in place of what used to be his car.
Flames licked from beneath the hood of his jeep as its engine whistled and whined from the heat. So much smoke billowed from inside its windows that he bet it could be seen for miles around. That was good. It’d make it easier for the authorities to find him. Which reminded him. He dug a hand into his pocket for his cell. He needed to call for help. Once he found it, he pulled it out, only to grimace with disappointment. A long crack ran through the phone’s center, splitting it into two. He couldn’t power it on. He closed his eyes with a silent groan then dropped the useless cellphone to the ground. He wasn’t going to get help that way. He opened his eyes, taking in a deep breath. What could he do? His eyes wandered back to the raging inferno.
His eyes looked up for the bridge, but the storm and smoke made it impossible for him to see anything above. Regardless, he knew that if he could just get to the highway and flag someone down for help, he’d be saved. He nodded to himself. That’s what he needed to do. He spun around looking for distant car lights, streetlights, anything that would give indication where the road was. Trees, thundering rain, and darkness—the sun had yet to rise, making it impossible to see.
On second thought, his eyes returned to the bonfire of a car, I think I’ll just lean against the nearest tree and wait for help.