WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Last laugh

Write Across Sussex

Write Across Sussex

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by John Connor

Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.

The sudden sound of laughter suffused Carter with such intense feelings of relief and joy that, despite his body’s desiccation, tears brimmed in his red-rimmed eyes and spilling, formed erratic patterns across his grimy cheeks. With the last strength left in his withered muscles he pushed himself to his knees and, grasping the rock’s hot, abrasive edge, hauled himself to his feet and shuffled forward.

The plane had drifted to earth in the deserted heart of the reserve, its engine firing intermittently, the wings flexing as they sought and lost purchase on the turbulent, tropical air. Skill and chance kept it in level flight until the final moment but the flatness of the ground was illusory, a boulder ripping the port wheel from its mounting and slewing the aircraft round before it dipped and cartwheeled through the scrub.

Carter had pulled himself from the wrecked cockpit and scrambled away through the jumble of torn tree limbs in an attempt to place as much distance as possible between himself and a full load of gasoline. He had crouched, arms wrapped protectively around his head and become slowly aware of the absolute silence that surrounded him now that the cacophony of tearing metal and splintered wood had ceased.

After several minutes and when no explosion had manifested itself, he had risen carefully and examined his body for injuries. He had escaped relatively unscathed considering the force of his impact. He had a number of tender areas, which would no doubt develop into impressive bruises and a single, bloody wound on one calf but otherwise he was in pretty good shape for a man who had fallen three thousand feet and impacted at eighty miles-per-hour.

The plane probably carried a medical kit but Carter had still been wary of the dangerous fuel load and noting that the blood on his leg was already congealing he had decided against returning to the fractured cabin. Instead he had limped away from the crash site and up onto a stony rise from where he could survey the countryside into which he had plunged.

It was desolate, semi-desert, flat and stony with a few sparse groves of acacias and an occasional larger tree, which he could not identify. In most directions the level terrain vanished into a distant heat haze but to what he guessed was the north, a blue smudge of hills, which might have been mountains, marked the horizon.

Carter had considered his options.

There would be no rescue, of that he could be sure. When you broke into a private strip and stole an aircraft, you didn’t log a flight plan or leave any clue as to your destination. He had taken off in near darkness and flown out to sea at wave height to avoid detection. Then he had turned back and crossed the coast at a remote and uninhabited location, flying on a compass bearing memorised from a map smuggled into the prison. It had been a risky and uncertain enterprise, which, in the event, had not paid off but over which he had little choice; a life of tedious routine and petty cruelty or a chance for freedom, however brief that might be.

The manner of his leaving meant also that he had no provisions, no equipment, not even a phone with which he might have made an ignominious surrender.

However, at this latitude his first requirement was water and so, he had turned his back on the twisted wreckage of his stolen transport and struck out for the hills.

With his own life in jeopardy Carter had found himself giving consideration to those whose lives he had himself, ended. He reviewed each moment of casual brutality, from his unexpected encounter with the security guard to the predicted, and doomed, intervention of the prison warder, and he concluded that none were worthy of his further concern. Life was about the survival of the fittest; if the meek did inherit the earth, as Father O’Connell had insisted, then it was from six feet under. Carter had grinned at the joke and limped on towards his distant goal.

After two days the mountains had seemed as far off as before and the wound in his leg had begun to bleed again. During the day the sun had burned his skin and sucked the moisture from his body and at night the stars were shards of ice leaching the warmth from his bones. On the third morning he had come upon a stand of small trees and had ripped the branches and stripped the bark in search of moisture but the sap seemed to have run dry. He had sucked pebbles as he remembered reading of it somewhere but his mouth too was drained and had lost its ability to salivate.

As his thirst had grown, his mind had wandered. The heat shimmer on the desert floor had been an ocean of clear, fresh water into which he could dive, could he but have reached its shores, but for every inch he had limped towards it, the waves had receded by a yard.

On the morning of the fourth day he had finally found himself in more verdant terrain but by now his determination was spent and after dragging himself into the shade of a thorn bush he had collapsed and drifted in and out of consciousness.

It was during one of his more lucid moments that Carter heard the laughter. It was preceded by a deeper chuckle, a parent maybe, amused by a youngster’s games, but then came the unmistakable shrill of a child’s laugh: a ripple of sound which roused his mind to hope and action.

He pictured the native village beyond the screen of thorn: cooking pots awash with water and simmering with food. They could shelter him whilst he recovered from his ordeal and guide him on to safety but they could also reveal his existence and threaten his liberty. As he raised himself painfully erect, the wound on his leg oozing fresh blood, he began to formulate a plan: to take the child hostage, use threats against its life to bargain for his own. Maybe, a life would need to be sacrificed to make his intentions clear. In the end pain and bloodshed always carried the day but he would start with guile.

The laugh rang out again and Carter framed his cracked lips into a smile and stepped out around the bush.

The hyena, smiling in its own way, threw back its head and laughed.

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