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The Fall of a Sparrow.

By: D.A. Wildsmith.


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It’s the memory of the crash that wakes me most nights. Perhaps, all the other horrors have become commonplace.

Soaked with rain, she had jumped into the driver’s seat. From the backseat, I could hear her cursing under her breath. Our old Toyota missed a gear. The engine blared. The car didn’t move. The infected were upon us.

As the car lurched into reverse, their hands slapped at the bodywork. She was panicked; therefore, I was panicked. My Spiderman mask flapped in the door, and I wished he was there to save us.

If it’s now, it doesn’t matter… Her favourite CD tried to hide the moans of those outside. The music was loud, but she was too busy to do anything about it. The car bounced over debris. Of course it was debris, I was seven. You don’t run over people, in the family car, when you’re seven.

They were still on the roof of the Toyota when we hit the bridge. She was distraught; crying through clenched teeth. I know she tried to say something to me as we hit the wooden railing. Glass showered the inside of the car. We were airborne and rolling towards the abyss. I saw bodies somersaulting through the air outside.

If it’s then, it still will come… It wasn’t a graceful descent, and it wasn’t slow. The roof of the car hit the river first. Everything went black. My ears were ringing, and I could smell blood in my nose. Bodies hit the water outside. The weight of the engine pulled the bonnet down. A torrent of water poured in through the broken windscreen until the air had no means of escape.
My beautiful mum, mascara running down her cheeks, looked back at me from the front seat. The air bags sighed under the weight of the water as it pooled around her waist.

“You’re alive.” She wept. Still strapped to our seats, we stared straight down into the algal depths.

“My seatbelt hurts.” I said.

“Your seatbelt. You’re alive.” Her head dropped. The vehicle moaned as it bobbed in the river. I heard splashing outside. They were out there. I could hear their nails on the paintwork. The car electrics died, so did her song.

I clicked open my seatbelt and fell forward onto the back of the passenger seat. My mother undid her seatbelt and reached out to me.

“Mummy, your arm.” I wanted her to hold me and make it all better. She pulled her hands away, under the water.

“This world, it’s changed. I never thought I would…”

“What’s wrong, mummy?”

“We shouldn’t have survived.”

“Did you mean to crash?”

“You’re such a clever boy.” She sobbed. “I was too slow back there…with the jerry cans. They rushed me from the tree line and…”

“They bit you?” She burst into tears. “How long?”

“Probably seconds.” We looked into each other’s eyes, every second was precious. Every second meant goodbye.

“Will you eat people, mummy? Will you eat…me?” We could hear the infected, clawing at the roof of the car.

“Please, forgive me. You’d understand if you were older.” She reached up from the rising water and grabbed my t-shirt. “I’m sorry, honey.”

She pulled me closer, drew me into her chest. She held me with such love. I spread my hands across her back. I wish this was the moment I would remember in my dreams. Nevertheless, the cold water washed over my head; its chilling touch waking me from my bliss. I realised this wasn’t a hug. Beneath the wash, I screamed.

Terrified air burst from my lungs and bubbles raced across my face. I wriggled to free myself, but she had a firm grasp of my shirt. As slender as she was, to a seven year old, she was too big, too strong. A giddy panic electrified every muscle in my body as I felt my need to breathe climax. If I had died then, as a boy, I would never have understood.

I was too young to give up. Thrashing and writhing, I tried to lever my head above the water. In the darkness, I saw stars; like a giant universe was opening above me. Exhaustion finally brought stillness. I gulped back on my dry tongue. The panic was gone. I wondered what it would be like to breathe river water.
A bolt of movement thumped through my mother. Her body snapped away from me. My shirt stretched down and bent me in two. It slid over my head and was gone. And so was she.
In a small air pocket under the rear window, I bobbed to the surface. Wide eyed and desperate, I filled my starving lungs. The car was submerged, but there was movement on the other side of the glass. I couldn’t tell what exactly; arms, legs, riverweed. My breaths became staccato, and I knew I was sobbing.

There was a stream of air bubbling through a bad seal in the rear window. I looked down, towards my feet, towards the front of the car. To escape I would have to swim through the broken glass. I would have to swim past whatever pulled my mum from the car. I stood on the headrest of the passenger seat. My ankles felt exposed to the clutches of those hungry wretches.

I shook my head and cried. The pocket of air was disappearing. I tilted my head back to keep my lips above the brown swill and briefly lost my footing. Dropping into the water, I plunged towards the open windscreen. Towards them.

Clawing at the water, I fought to steady myself. I was treading water, trying to find footing on the headrests again, when something brushed against my foot. A yelp escaped me. In the five centimetres of air that separated me from drowning, I saw my Spiderman mask bob to the surface.

Today, I think of it as my first adult thought. It was the moment when the sparrow took flight. It was the instant when the survivor weighed up his options. It was the time when the man grabbed his life by the scruff of its neck and would not be beaten. Nevertheless, it was a novelty superhero mask which fuelled my transformation.

I grabbed the sodden material in my hand and pulled it over my head. The eye holes dripped, and I blinked the fetid water away. With the mask resting on the bridge of my nose, I filled my lungs for the last time. I rolled the remaining fabric down my face and felt a surge of hope pulse through me.

I duck dived and kicked off the rear window. I was through the front of the car and lost in the umber depths within seconds. A cold current washed over me; perhaps pushed me down stream. Our old Toyota was gone. I was alone, soaring through the mire. Somewhere above me, there was light. The mask clung to my face. It made me immortal.

I broke the surface not far from shore. Tall grass, blowing in the wind, beckoned for me to hide. I heard voices behind me, in the distance, but I couldn’t turn to face them. I crawled into the fragrant rushes and curled up, slept, and dreamt of the crash. I awoke before nightfall, my mask was still on.

I was my own man then, as I am now. Forty-three years have passed since that day. I’ve met survivors, made friends, lost friends. I’ve fallen in love, and I’ve been heartbroken. The infected are everywhere now. Safety is a rare commodity. The struggle has been for nothing, especially now.

Forty-three years. You don’t survive forty-three years without making a few mistakes. I’ve been lucky; I’ve seen many who haven’t had my good fortune. Even so, the struggle only leads to one place. For me, that place was the orchard; five minutes ago. I didn’t even see them coming.

I look at my son in the rear-view mirror; the wound on his shoulder. My foot would press the pedal through the floor if my anger would have its way. A dirty Spiderman mask frowns at me from the passenger seat. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.

“You wearing your seatbelt?” I say to him. I press play on the stereo.