Sophie felt it, even to the precise millimetre of tarmac where her wheel spun out. Whatever happened before was forgotten and following that only a chaotic roar of rubber on concrete paving slabs. Then there was the impact, a deafening grind of metal on brick and the sound of her car bonnet crumpling in front of her.
Somewhere at the end of the crashing and grinding, the blaring sirens, it all stopped. The lights were silenced and the sirens wiped out. Just emptiness after that, with the crystalline memory of the slip, the skid, the spin which took her from being a living woman to a…
Well, what am I? she asked herself. Quite clearly, even with every sense she had relied on since birth ripped away, Sophie knew she was dead. You just don’t get up and walk away from a crash like that.
“Do you know what it was?” The words echoed out over a boundless hollow space, but at the same time seemed to be reaching her ears from a mere step away. “Can you hear me, Sophie?”
I’m alive! The thought ran through her mind like a freight train, rolling over depression and despair and straight into blissful relief. I survived!
The voice spoke again, much nearer now and clear enough for Sophie to hear the melancholy tones weeping between each word. “I’m very sorry, but that’s not quite right.”
As if peeled apart by an unseen hand, her eyes opened. She took it all in piece by piece; seeing each detail in all its cruelty and reconstructing the scene one grisly part at a time. The twisted metal, crumbling brick, mangled body of the car and flickering lights of the ambulance.
“They got here fast,” she said, not sure who was listening. “They can still save me.”
And there he was, the old man standing beside her and watching the scene with a resigned pity in his eyes. “You were very lucky. They were just down the street, waiting at a red light, would you believe it?”
“So they can save me?” she asked, taking in his slightly oversized black suit and black tie, the white shirt with a starched collar and his finely combed beard.
“I’m very sorry,” he said again. Then his tone lifted a little as he raised a finger to point down the street, tracking a slim middle-aged man as he sprinted towards the crash. “There I am!”
The younger man slowed as he drew closer and the old man lowered his arm. Two police cars had arrived, the officers busying themselves with the crowd of onlookers gathering in the street.
“What’s happening?” Sophie asked, keeping her eyes on the crowd and steering her gaze away from the wreckage of her car.
“Do you know what caused it?” he asked again, giving her an expectant look. “There, do you see? I know what caused it.”
The slim man was gesturing at something on the ground, drawing the attention of the people around him. One of the police officers dropped to one knee in the middle of the road and shot a picture of the tarmac. Sophie looked back at the younger man and saw the resemblance. He had the older man’s wide jaw, green eyes and the same wispy hair, although the older man’s was grey and much thinner.
“Who is he?” she asked, glancing between them.
“Didn’t I say?” The old man gave her a puzzled look. “He’s me. I’m him. You don’t remember me?”
“No.” She studied the younger man’s features again, feeling for some morsel of recognition. There was nothing. Who is he? she wondered again, not voicing her confusion out of concern for irritating the old man.
He gave her a smile, but the pity never left his eyes. “I saw it all. You know, I never forgot this day for as long as I lived. There I was, waiting down the street by the crossing. You hit a pothole, filled in with rainwater and frozen overnight. All my life, I never forgot it…” The way he was staring at her now, Sophie imagined it was the same expression fans wore when they met their celebrity heroes. “You know what I used to say? I told them that must’ve been the last patch of ice in the city left over from winter. Imagine that.”
“Your whole life?” she said, feeling dizziness shake the world around her. “What do you mean? Are you dead?”
He screwed up his mouth in confusion. “No, I’m alive over there. But yes, I’m dead here.”
“Then I’m dead?” Her voice was a shrill croak.
“That’s hard to say… hard for me to say.”
They wandered back toward the mauled wreck of her car. Something was being dragged out, a slack body on a covered stretcher. One hand dangled over its side. Sophie watched the paramedics wheel it over to the ambulance and lift it inside. It was too much. She sat on the kerb and rested her face in her hands, feeling tears dampen her palms. The old man sat beside her.
“I can’t deal with this,” she said, choking on her words. “I want to see Jackie.”
“Yes.” He smiled and gave her an enthusiastic nod. “We can do that. It’s not too difficult to do, but it’s quite far away. It’ll be a long journey.”
“Isn’t there a test?” she asked.
“Well, if I’m dead…”
He laughed, the sort of jolly laugh she expected to hear from the old man. “I’m not Saint Peter, or any other kind of saint.”
He held out his hand and she took it.