I saw a car-wreck while crossing the Mojave Desert one oven-summer twilight before I was old. It shut down a four-lane highway, eastbound and west; twisted metal sank into sand between black shrubs and the Wile-E-Coyote orange rock backdrop. I was touring with a testosterone punk-band back then; tattooed Californians who only surfed at night. We drank to kill time in the jam, made jokes about death to avoid scary thoughts. One of the guys – they called him Stickhead – ate three trips of mushrooms in the corner.
We crawled past the accident scene eventually; a junkyard, familial MPVs knifed by an articulated truck. There were still bodies littered about, some in bags and some not. Medics in bright jackets ran like kids at recess.
Stickhead stared. I watched him and called his name but he just stared and his face was grey. We passed an empty stretcher and I slapped his cheek to make the others laugh.
We moved on a couple of miles and it was only then that he screamed, when the horror was behind us and no longer real. Perhaps it was only dangerous in the past, when it had fallen into memory, been infected by imagination.
Five of us wrestled him but the screaming wouldn’t stop. His eyes were squishy and his face was taut, skin tried to peel back, cheekbones to tear free, forehead veins bulged to split. His fist hit my mouth and as the others held him I drove my elbow down and collapsed his two front teeth. He didn’t flinch. We tied his arms and legs but couldn’t gag him in case he puked. He screamed and screamed and I thought of boiling water blistering babies’ skin.
It was two a.m. and starry when he stopped. I’d been trying to tune him out to sleep and the sudden silence shocked me; stillness like a wall.
Cathal O’ Connell is a recent materials science graduate from Dublin, Ireland. His fiction has appeared in various publications including A Fly in Amber and Skive Magazine.