I was crawling through something shallow. Water? No, it wasn’t wet, but it was a river. Somehow, I knew that to be true.
I couldn’t see, my vision was clouded by red light and white smoke. My nose was filled with copper and… and something else. What was that? The scent, it was as if it was pulling me. The way a hungry stomach pulls you to the smell of a home-cooked meal, yet this was more physical.
Then a low hissing filled my ears. What the hell was that? There were too many things to process. Where am I?
I heard the words in my head. But they weren’t my own thoughts.
One thing at a time, Seamus. The voice was soft and smoky. I’d never heard someone sound like that before. First, focus your sense of hearing.
Something inside of me compelled me to listen, like how a student learnt to listen to their teacher, or a child to their parent—but this wasn’t learnt, it felt instinctual. I concentrated on the hissing sound, trying to listen closely. I could make out individual whispers inside of them, but they were different languages. The same phrases, over and over again.
Good. Now your sense of smell.
There was a voice in my head. It was as if it had only just struck me how absurd that was. I was going mad.
Focus, Seamus. The voice adopted a sterner tone, and the thing inside that compelled me to listen grew larger.
I took a deep breath in through my nose. At first, it was more of that rusted copper smell and that other scent I couldn’t quite place. Then my sinuses were filled with clean air. The copper was still there, but it was further away.
Well done. Now, prepare yourself before you focus your sight, for you are experiencing a phantasmagoria. Nothing you see is real.
I realised what was happening now, I was in a nightmare. This was all in my head. So I obliged the voice without protest, squinting my eyes until I could focus on the light. It was the sky, red as blood with a matching moon. The white smoke was the clouds. I was lying down, staring up.
And all around me were rotting corpses. I scrambled, trying to lift myself to my feet and run, but I had no leverage; the bodies shifted about like quicksand, pulling me lower the more I struggled. I grabbed a cold limb with my right hand and pulled, climbing my way on top, then reached with my left hand.
It crumpled under my weight and I tumbled further down into the corpses. No, no, no. I was starting to feel sick, wondering again how I ended up here.
“It’s just a dream,” I muttered, then reached out again. But it was like grasping at smoke, the corpses slipping away before I could touch them.
I won’t tell you again, Seamus. Focus. Look at your left arm… or rather, where your left arm should be.
The voice was beginning to grate on my thoughts, the soft edges turning to steel. Whoever he was, he was losing his patience. Look at your left arm, he’d said. I obeyed, lifting my hand up to my face.
It wasn’t there.
There was a stump where my elbow should be, and nothing else. No, that didn’t make sense! I could still feel my fingers, I could still make a fist.
Maybe I… Maybe I just couldn’t see my left arm! This was a dream after all, it could be invisible. I reached out with my right hand. It passed over the stump. No, that can’t be right. My arm was still there, I could feel it!
You’re experiencing the phantom limb phenomena, Seamus. The voice sounded like it was rehearsing the line, as if it was used to delivering this kind of news. The part of your brain that would be controlling your left arm still exists—it is confused by its sudden disappearance. But you will get used to it in time. I can assure you of one thing, your arm was lost in the accident.
The accident? What was he talking about?
A flash of light interrupted my thoughts. Then it changed colour: red, orange, melting into a mix of purple, pink and blue. I was in a nightclub… Cavern. There was a name stuck in my head, someone I had to find.
I found him. But something… something went wrong. And then I was in the middle of the road, just outside the club. A car—a drunk driver?—was the last thing I saw, but not the last thing I felt. My ribs snapping, flesh tearing. A deep gash cutting through my left shoulder; my elbow shattering. Maybe I screamed, maybe I didn’t. But now I knew one thing for certain.
I was dead. That had to be it. And this was hell.
My body went limp. There was no point in climbing, no reason to struggle. Soon I would become one of these corpses, rotted to the bone, whispering to myself. I would be stuck here for eternity.
Then I remembered something.
“My mother,” I called out, “and my brother Sean. Where are they? Do they know I’m dead? Can I… can I see them?” Those last words came out as a whisper.
The voice in my head had nothing to offer but silence.
I wanted to cry, but something stopped me: a numbness, rushing through my veins like iced-water—part liquid, part solid. The lump in my throat that I thought was choking me let me breathe more freely than I ever had. I was dead. There was a strange sort of peace, finally knowing that.
In the midst of all the whispering voices I heard something that wasn’t foreign to my ears..
“Seamus,” it rasped.
I turned, propping myself up on my one elbow. The corpse next to me had his eyes fixed on mine. For a moment I wondered why he knew my name, but the answer was clear: he could hear the same voice I heard in my head. So whose voice was that, God’s or Satan’s?
Those were questions to ponder later. Right now, this corpse wanted to talk to me. I tried to study his face. Maggots crawled beneath holes in his skin and his blond hair looked brittle enough to break into dust. Still, he looked better than most of the others. Maybe he was new to this, like me.
“That’s me,” It felt strange to converse with someone who was dead—I had to remind myself again that I was dead too. “What’s your name?”
He twisted his head, confused. There was something about him, the gauntness of his cheeks or maybe the way his eyes bore into mine, eyes with just the faintest hint of blue behind the colour of death, that made me feel as if I should know him. I leaned in closer, ignoring the scent of his rotting breath. His mouth opened and closed, as if he’d forgotten how to speak and was trying to remember.
Then his body lurched. My breath stuck in my throat as I tried to pull away, but it didn’t seem as if he had the strength to pursue me. His arms shook with the effort just of raising them. But the anger… There was no mistaking the anger written on his face.
And then I recognised him. I’d been looking at that very same face every day for a week. Jacob Livingstone.
“You don’t deserve to live.”