Runaway By Ian O’Brien

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It isn’t blind adrenaline or fury that drives her but a kind of flat blackness, a steady humming like the engine, somewhere deep in the gut. Nelly gurgles in the baby seat behind her and when she looks at her in the rear-view mirror she catches her own eye, black and swollen. The last time, the last of the last times. Nelly shifts in the seat, her eyes half open and so she reaches back to her, blindly, her eyes on the road, caresses a foot when she finds it. Ssshhhh.

‘Nelly the elephant packed-’ but her voice cracks, catches in the throat like a crack in glass.

It’s almost 5am, the motorway is empty, save for the occasional drowsing long-distance lorry, though she looks in her mirrors, expecting to see him at any minute, the work van roaring closer and closer, that furious engine that she would always listen out for, coming down the street on his way home from work, that low growl that filled her stomach with lead every time.

But the motorway is mostly empty behind her. She looks at the dashboard clock. 4.58. Soon his alarm by the bed will be triggering. He will sit up gruffly, he never snoozed, and he will look across to where she should be. The flat black feeling inside curdles. She looks back to Nelly, who stirs slightly. She had been silent as she scooped her from her cot. She’d prayed for it, held her own breath as she crept down the stairs, each slight creak flashing through her body like lightning.

She doesn’t know where she is going. She will have to turn off the ring road soon, anywhere. It isn’t panic she feels, just a solid determination. But as the clock ticks to 4.59 she begins to breathe more rapidly. She is doing 80. The sky is pregnant with a heavy grey and her car’s automatic lights that have only just turned off click back on. It is then the matrix signs flash up: “60: Report of Obstruction’ and it lances through her in a wave. She looks again in her mirrors for his work van, but nothing. The fences and the sleeping houses beyond blur past and in one she thinks she sees a curtain open. She drops down to 70. And then another matrix sign, its yellow figures lurid, changes again: “40: Report of Animals’. Her stomach lurches. Another check of the mirror and she lets the car groan down to 60.

And then she sees it. It happens in all of five seconds but later she’ll recollect how time seemed suspended, dragged almost. Something pulls her eye to the hard shoulder and, much further ahead, a shape appears, a sudden black whirl of movement. She instinctively moves out to the middle lane. It gets closer and she feels a crazed mix of panic and excitement and something like horror, when she realises it is a horse. It thunders towards her. Growing and growing, a jarring whir of limbs, solid against the blank grey of the motorway fence. It seems to jerk, pulling up its head as if against some phantom reigns and for a horrifying moment she thinks it is going to bolt straight for the car. It comes fully into view, kicking up dust and stones and glass as it roars along the hard shoulder. And then it is alongside, and later she will swear that it looked straight at her. A stallion, sweating and shining black. Its eyes swivel madly, a searching flash of white, straining, red-rimmed, bulging. Panic, she thinks, wild panic, or something else, the electric fury found in sudden freedom. Her heart shudders as it crashes past. She looks in her mirror, allowing the car to slow for a moment and watches it for a second as it disappears, leaving the cloud of dust thrown up from the road to settle back into place. A fuzz of thoughts clamour for attention, she imagines it careering off into the traffic, blindly crashing into cars, a frenzy of broken limbs ricocheting from car to car before thrown to the roadside, or leaping across a fence and out, away, finding a space, a street, a park, a field, an open meadow. Tomorrow, when she switches on the radio and hears the words ‘A runaway horse,’ she will switch it off, not wanting to know.

The clock clicks over to 5am and, as is if it has been waiting just for that moment, there is a sudden break of rain.


Ian O’Brien

Ian O’Brien is a writer and teacher from Manchester, UK. He has had some work published recently in literary journals such as Neon, Fictive Dream and Prole in the UK and Flash Fiction Magazine in the US. He was shortlisted for the Cambridge Prize for Flash Fiction 2020.

Twitter handle: @OB1Ian

Links to other work online:

‘Icarus’, published in Flash Fiction Magazine:

‘Forecasts’, published in Fictive Dream:

Interview in Neon magazine:

Link to issue 48 of Neon in which my story ‘Hollowing’ appears:

Link to issue 28 of Prole magazine, which contains two of my short stories, ‘Bite’ and ‘Snow Between The City and the Sea’:

Image by rihaij from Pixabay


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