Martin paused halfway to the checkout counter, his attention caught by the garish book cover half-buried in the newsagent’s discount bin. He had only stopped at the motorway service station for a quick coffee and bite to eat, but he dug into his jacket pocket and fished out the required 50p coin without thinking. The gum-chewing teenager at the counter didn’t spare him or the tattered copy of West Highland Folklore a second glance.
Later that night, as he sat in his bedroom in an anonymous motel on the outskirts of Glasgow, he flicked through the pages, glancing at the detailed line-drawn illustrations: selkies, kelpies, banshees, fays and spirits; whole tribes of Celtic faerie people and other such nonsense. It made a change from FHM, he guessed. Perhaps it satisfied some need to bolster the mystic credentials of his final destination. Probably he was just desperate for any sort of distraction, anything that would stop him thinking about Alice and the kids, about what he planned to do tomorrow.
He paused at a particularly disturbing image: a dense train of goblins and toothy-smiled spirits, all linked together in a column, spiraling out of the night sky to grab at a terror-stricken man clinging onto a stunted tree for dear life. Martin squinted at the text: “The Sluagh, sometimes known as the Host or the Wild Hunt. The Unforgiven Dead. Too evil to be accepted into the afterlife, they roam the night looking to swell their rank from those who are near death.”
Martin shuddered and snapped the book shut. He tried to forget the screaming face of the Hunt’s victim. “You hang on in there, fella,” he said, fully aware of the irony of his sentiment. “Don’t you let go of that tree.”
He dropped the book in the bathroom bin.
Later that night he feasted on tandoori lobster, washed down with copious pints of chilled lager. The lobster was the most expensive item on the menu of the restaurant, chosen at random from the limited choice near the motel. He hunkered in the corner, quietly observing the procession of Saturday night couples and obnoxious all-male parties, and afterwards he staggered back to his room and noisily threw up before collapsing into a restless, heart-pounding stupor.
The sound of distant, muffled laughter woke him before dawn. Aching and dehydrated, he showered, packed, and fled — eager to make the most of his last day.
The drive north was scenic, but long and tiring: longer than he had expected, longer than he had remembered. He drove recklessly, grinning as he sped into the twisting bends beyond Loch Lomond, shedding responsibility and care with every mile. He shouldn’t have been driving at all according to Mrs. Gupta, but who was going to stop him now?
Maybe he should give up and keel over right here.
Martin paused as he toiled across the desolate bog in his waterlogged trainers. He fumbled out his map, considering the whorls of tightly packed contour lines. He groaned. There was still another five or six miles of hard trudge ahead of him; five or six miles of boggy, trainer-sucking moor before he reached Suilven’s western slope.
The hill’s distinctive, double-crested profile rose above the dark waters of the loch ahead of him, like some hunched, ridge-backed beast, capped by a gleam of winter snow. The hill’s relative isolation, surrounded by rugged moor and scattered lochs here in the far north-west corner of the Scottish Highlands, made its odd shape all the more prominent. All the more irresistible.
Martin squinted at his watch. Mid-afternoon. After two hours of walking through the desolate wilderness, he was exhausted already. And it wasn’t going to get any easier.
He blinked back tears as the landscape wavered before him. Clouds scudded from beneath the sun and the dark loch was suddenly recast in shimmering light; the dull grey-green of the moor transformed to gold. Suilven itself glowed like a beacon, and Martin felt his heart lift. So far he had been lucky with the weather, the sky a clear blue with only the occasional drift of cloud. Cold and crisp. Perfect. Unusual for the time of year, or, to hear the locals talk, any time of year. And no midges, either: no sign of the tiny, blood-sucking flies that attacked in great black clouds at the first sign of warmth and living flesh.
So. Not everything was bad. And if this was going to be the last thing he ever did, he might as well make a success of it.
Martin straightened, breathing in a deep lungful of cold, fresh air, his resolve renewed. It was a good day to die, and Suilven was a good place to die. Certainly better than some over-burdened hospital milling with shift-changing strangers to whom he was just an inconvenience; or home, surrounded by achingly familiar reminders of a life spent without great consequence. He laughed. How ironic, that he should now feel so alive, so in the moment, yet be only hours from death.
Nearby laughter echoed his own. A malicious cackle, cutting straight through his developing euphoria.
He wheeled around, seeking the source. There was nobody about, not for miles. Only a few ragged-looking sheep. It had probably been one of them calling out.
Yes, Martin decided, feeling a chill trickle down his spine. That was it.
Just a sheep.
“You should expect some visual and auditory disturbances,” Mrs. Gupta said. She eased herself against the edge of her desk to face him. “As the tumor grows it will cause various…effects. Have you noticed any?”
“Some flashes, now and then,” he said. “I thought it was my eye.” He decided not to mention the strange laughter he thought he sometimes heard.
Her computer screen was turned towards him, tiled with glowing cross-sections of his brain. The tumor shone bright near the centre, a malignant pip nestled within his skull.
It was all happening too fast. All he had done was go to the optician after he noticed his left eye had become a little cross-eyed. He had immediately been referred for an MRI scan. Rather than being sent home afterwards and told to wait days for the result, the radiographer had asked him to stay so that he could talk with a consultant.
Mrs. Gupta looked down at his thin sheaf of notes. “Do you have anyone close, Martin?” She was on first name terms with him already. A bad sign. “A partner, or relatives? Any children or dependants?”
“No. None.” He shook his head. “Not anymore.”
She looked again at the notes. “There’s mention of an… Alice? As next of kin?”
“She… left me.” He waved his hand, his throat tight. “I need to update the records. Please don’t try and contact her.”
Mrs. Gupta frowned. “Of course, I don’t know your personal situation, Martin. But now would be a good time to gather your friends and loved ones close. You’ll be needing their help.”
“No,” he insisted, voice hoarse. “No one.”
Mrs. Gupta placed the notes down on the desk behind her, searching for something. “Well, if there is anyone, you’ll need to warn them. There’s a risk of… behavioral changes. Erratic moods — ah. Here it is.” She handed him a small booklet. “More information. I know it’s a lot to take in all at once. My number is on the back, please call me any time. And,” she hesitated, “there’s a list of charities and organizations in there that may be able to help, especially if you’re alone. A lot of patients find them very helpful.”
A patient. How had he suddenly become a patient? The one thing he had always wanted to avoid at all costs. Just like that: re-classified. Downgraded.
He cleared his throat. “Can’t you operate?”
“We can do something about the eye, if that’s really bothering you. But the tumor itself… I’m sorry, no. It’s too deep. There are lesions indicating it’s already metastasized.” At his expression, she forced a smile. “We’ll do our best, Martin. Radiotherapy and chemo will shrink the main mass for a time, and that will address both the symptoms and the speed with which it grows…”
Before he could stop himself he was asking The Question. The one he’d always dreaded he would one day have to ask. The one he’d already asked on behalf of too many others.
“How long have I got?” His voice sounded calm and very, very distant.
Mrs. Gupta sighed. “Six months. With radiotherapy… maybe a year.”
He’d expected the worst, thought he was prepared for it, but it still felt as if he’d been gut-punched. He groped for half-remembered and half-understood terms from newspaper headlines glimpsed over the years. “Is there no experimental new treatment I can try? Gene therapy? Immune system drugs?”
Mrs. Gupta shook her head. “I’m afraid not, Martin. Nothing that has proved effective. Brain tumors are one of the most difficult types of cancer to treat, and yours is, I’m afraid, sited in one of the worst possible locations.”
Yes. Martin fought the sudden urge to laugh. In my brain.
“Is there any hope?”
She leaned forward and placed her hand on his forearm. “Martin, there is always hope.”
“And if, when the time comes…how will this thing kill me?”
Mrs. Gupta moved back against the edge of her desk. She took off her narrow-framed glasses and wiped them. Her eyes were brown and warm. “As the tumor grows it will put pressure on the part of your brain that governs the most basic operations of your body. You’ll become paralyzed, either partially or fully. Unable to swallow. Unable to breathe. Most patients suffocate.”
“Oh.” Martin swallowed hard, suddenly conscious of his ability to control the action. He couldn’t imagine not being able to do that.
Well. Actually, yes. On second thoughts, yes he could. All too well.
Mrs. Gupta was speaking again. “…We’ll prescribe some antidepressants and you should talk with one of our cognitive behavioral therapists…”
He tuned out. He had seen his parents and too many of his friends succumb to the relentless cycle of aggressive treatment and false hope this disease entailed.
He already knew what he was going to do.
“Jesus Christ, is it worth it?”
Halfway up Suilven’s southern slope, hundreds of feet above the moor, he collapsed onto the track’s rocky surface, gasping for breath, his legs aching. The vista was spectacular — glimmering lochs that reflected the slanted rays of the setting sun, the undulating landscape cast into sharp relief — but he was incapable of appreciating it. He struggled to suck in air and trembled like a sickly child. Apart from the fact he was dying, he had thought he was in pretty good shape for his age. Obviously not so much.
He hawked up a gobbet of phlegm and spat it out. A headache threatened, a real stonker. He leaned back, closed his eyes.
“I’d love to climb that one day,” he had said, on his first glimpse of Suilven’s distinctive, hump-backed shape, fifteen years ago. It slid past the windscreen of his old, battered Ford Fiesta. He and Alice were driving south, returning from their circumnavigation of the far north of Scotland, part of their mad, two week long dash around the British Isles.
“Not today,” Alice said. And she was right. They’d be lucky to make it to their bed and breakfast in Ullapool before nightfall. The twisting Highland roads thwarted any attempt to judge time between destinations, and earlier that day, as the sun shone on a nameless West Highland beach lapped by the Atlantic waves, he had proposed to her and she had accepted.
But the ambition to climb Suilven had lodged deep in his mind. Forgotten for long years, perhaps the tumor’s malignant roots had disturbed it in its forgotten recess and brought it back to the surface. Perhaps his whole life since that first glimpse of the hill had been an illusion. Either way, this was where he had decided to end it all. Tonight.
If only he could get off his fat old arse.
“Come on.” Breath regained, he stood and turned his back to the glorious view. Above him, incongruously, a stone wall skirted the rounded crown of Suilven’s western peak. The track led to a gap, an entrance to an airy underworld.
Yes, in answer to his own question, it was worth it.
He restarted the climb. His feet crunched through a thin layer of snow and ice. He was almost at the top.
The laughter that seemed to follow him only spurred him on.
“It’s an off-site client, Alice. In…London. I’ll be gone two or three days.”
She had seemed more concerned than angry. “So sudden? Should you even be driving? Did you get your eye checked out?”
“I’ll do it when I get back. I’ll be fine.”
“Martin…” Her tied-up hair was backlit by the afternoon sun shining through the kitchen windows, a smudge of flour on her cheek, a dough-smothered wooden spoon forgotten in her hand. The smell of fresh baking filled the house.
“Stop fussing.” He fumbled his car keys into his jacket pocket, realized the leaflets from Mrs. Gupta’s office were still in there, folded up and unread. He flashed Alice a re-assuring grin, checking his jeans for his wallet. “I’ll call you when I can, darling, but the battery on my phone’s dodgy. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me.”
“They have phones at this client’s office, don’t they?”
He ignored her as he opened the front door.
“What about the children? Oliver’s going to be home in less than an hour –”
The thought of seeing his son filled him with terror. Coming face to face with the lost future would smash his barely maintained facade apart. “I’m sorry, Alice. I have to go right now. This client’s important and their whole IT system’s down. My job depends on sorting them out, you know how it is these days.” He reached out as she approached and pecked her on the cheek, his watering eyes averted. “Bye, darling. Say hi to Olly and Jess for me. Tell them I love them.”
He slammed the door shut and drove off without another word or backward glance. He had always hated goodbyes.
Crunching through the shallow crust of snow to the cairn marking the summit. His feet throbbed, the blisters excruciatingly painful, but he no longer cared. He scrambled up the jumble of rocks and balanced awkwardly atop to enjoy the panorama they afforded. No more climbing now; he had the rest of his life to enjoy the view.
His long shadow stretched across the ridge sloping towards the triangular eastern peak. It was slightly lower than the one upon which he sat, but less accessible. If he had more time he might have explored it, but…
This will do.
He twisted round towards the sea. Any hope of a spectacular view of the sun plunging beyond the Hebridean islands was extinguished by the approaching bank of cloud. The first stars were already visible and the temperature was dropping fast.
He checked his phone but didn’t turn it on. So tempting to send those last messages he had saved in draft. But not yet. Just in case it could be used to locate him.
He felt suddenly nervous. Not that he would succeed, but that he would fail. To wake up in a pool of his own vomit, suffering the world’s worst hangover, in agony from liver failure…to be greeted by the disapproving looks of the Mountain Rescue team, to be returned alive to face the disdain of those who knew and loved him, to be accused of taking the cowards’ way out — honestly. He would prefer death.
This was it. Game on.
He began to strip. First his totally inadequate jacket. Then his shirt and vest. His Nikes. He paused to admire the peeling skin and blood blisters covering the underside of his feet before taking off his jeans. His boxers, he left on.
Bare on a night mountain, he thought, and smiled. Briefly.
He started to shiver, uncontrollably.
Fuck, it’s cold.
He delved into the backpack, retrieved the first of the five bottles of whisky he had brought. Probably far more than he would need, but better safe than sorry. He cracked open the screwtop and glugged back a mouthful. Coughing and spluttering, he rummaged in the pack again and brought out the painkillers. Not enough to kill him — the cold would do that — but it might help with his developing headache.
“C’mon.” He hunkered on the cairn, skin covered with goose pimples, teeth chattering. “Hurry up.” Every time the wind gusted, he couldn’t help but shudder and moan, his steam clouds of breathe swept away.
He didn’t remember exactly where the idea for suicide by hypothermia had come from. Some description he had once read, of how even the fit and healthy could succumb. Of the creeping lassitude and the eventual, fatal coma. It had sounded like an attractive and simple method, compared to all the others he had considered. Traipsing the long white corridors of the hospitals during his parents’ illness, it had never been far from his mind.
He curled his knees to his chin, wrapped his arms tightly around his shins.
“Come on,” he said, and shivered. “Come on, sweet lassitude.”
Pale streaks of light threaded the darkened sky, as if God played with fluorescent finger paints. Martin stared at the show for a while, uncomprehending, half-dozed, and then jolted awake. A half-full bottle of whisky lay tumbled at the base of the cairn. Four unopened bottles sat in the backpack. The sky was almost full dark except for the long, bright ribbons of light. The cloud from the west rose into a towering thunderhead.
“Aurora,” he said. But he wasn’t so sure. Then he rolled over and retched up.
Slowly he stood. He couldn’t feel the cold now. He no longer shivered. If anything, he felt warm, feverish. Clear-headed for the first time in days.
Full of guilt and new determination. What was he doing? He still had months left. Hundreds of days, possibly. Just think what he could accomplish, if he used each day to the full. Was he mad?
No. He would not die today.
“Martin, Martin, Martin.” The voices whispered. “It’s too late.”
Filled with rising panic he stumbled down the side of the cairn. There was still a little light left. He could make it down, find shelter. He would survive. See Alice and the children again. Say a proper goodbye.
Mocking laughter followed him.
The light patterns accelerated, smudged together, twisted like serpents. The wind gusted, and the warmth he had felt fled. The voices around him grew louder: a riotous hissing and babbling, the sinister gabble of a hungry crowd.
Why would they be interested in him? He wasn’t an evil man.
But suicide was a sin, wasn’t it? Leaving Alice with a lie. The children. All his friends. What the hell had he been thinking? Who had he been thinking of? Of himself. Himself only. They deserved better than that.
He stopped, yards from the cairn. His clothes. The phone. It was still in his jacket pocket. He wheeled around.
The glow in the sky had faded. A dark tentacle spiraled down from the cloud. Humanoid forms clung to each other, a thick rope of flesh, all ashen skin and bulging sinew, protruding bone and skinny, grasping limbs. And eyes, in pairs or alone or in great clusters, pale yellow eyes that fixated upon him.
The impossible, grisly tether looped down towards him. Multiple pairs of long-fingered hands stretched out to scoop him off the top of the ridge.
Martin cried out in horror and began to run, heedless of the slope.
“Martin! Martin!” Some of the voices just laughed, others screamed wordlessly. The noise built in his head. He covered his ears with his hands, trying to block out the insane babble. He thought he heard Alice’s voice in there, and the children’s.
He stumbled, his foot catching a rock hidden beneath the thin rind of snow, and fell hard. Above him he felt a swoosh, as if grasping hands had narrowly missed.
“Go away!” He twisted around, onto his back. There was not even a tree here, for him to grab hold of and never let go.
More hands, grabbing him, slimy, cold and hard-knuckled fingers under his armpits, lifting him. His feet cycled uselessly in the air, comic. “Let me go!”
Something hard pressed into the back of his head, a bony finger invading his skull, hooking deep inside. He screamed. Wetness gushed down his kicking legs. The hill dropped.
A moment of exquisite pain. He gasped and closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, he was flying, he was soaring, able to see from a thousand different viewpoints. His fingers were cold and ashen, his heart a shriveled, unbeating knot. The world and all its burdens had spun away.
As he rose to his new home, he realized he was free at last. Of guilt, and love, and care and mercy, and all those useless things.
And he began to laugh. And laugh.
Originally published in Magic Creatures from Celtic Mists, Artema ePress, 2013.
© All Rights Reserved Henry Szabranski.
Story notes here.