It became a counting game—every ten steps he'd pause and stretch his hearing. Scratches and rustlings were all he heard, as the green lane's inhabitants warned each other of his approach. Once he stumbled, and in the act of falling had a whole string of painful premonitions: a broken ankle, a painful night, a quiet day. The green lane would reach around him, and by the time his body came to light it would be wrapped in roots: a rustic mummy. But an outstretched hand saved him from worse than a jarred skeleton: he felt the impact in his teeth, but no real harm done. As he clambered up again his fingers curled round a stick, as if the world were offering an apology. Nothing like a stick for helping maintain balance. God, he was going to be good at being old, if circumstances allowed. He reached a junction with another green lane, and without pausing turned left—sometimes the best decisions were the ones you hardly made, the ones that made themselves for you. Though it was best not to make too severe an accounting. It could start to look like the life you'd lived had been a series of accidents; of unintentional explosions, and unwilled alterations. Another ten steps and he paused to listen. The motorbike was back within earshot, though it couldn't possibly be heading down the green lane. But it was.
Panic can be time-consuming, and there were better ways of getting through the next little while. Max had two obvious choices: keep going or bundle himself into a clump of hedge and hope the bike would pass by without seeing him. Now that he'd branched off from his initial route his chances of avoiding detection had improved by some precise mathematical element he couldn't currently determine, but maths was a tricky bunch of bastards, and he'd sooner trust his stick. The motorcycle's noise remained at a set distance, or seemed to: noise magnified in the dark, but also played games of its own. It could lurk round corners, or jump over hedges. Max continued on his way, trying not to hurry: less haste more speed, and other English word games. The world was dark and strange and familiar all at once. In his night-time ramblings, he never entered the green lanes. This was why: they could swallow you whole without even bothering to spit you out. Idiots sometimes drove them in vehicles they didn't care about any more than they did nature, but darkness contained risks even idiots steered clear of. Rocks shifted, stones rolled, and roots reached out and grabbed you. Cars that could bully their way through daylight found themselves wrecked by night's tricksters. Pedestrians like Max moved slowly, exploring the barely visible terrain with a stick, and keeping one foot on the ground at all times.
Somewhere behind him, the motorbike roared and revved. He hoped its rider was unprepared, and wearing non-protective gear.
When the stench hit him it was with the force of an avalanche, as if gravity were rolling boulders down a slope.
It was the dead badger. He'd not been aware he was approaching its ambit, and even now couldn't tell how close he was—it had gathered power since he'd first encountered it, its atmosphere expanding like an untended chemistry experiment—and his eyes began to stream, his head to fill. The worst smell in the world. He'd undersold it, calling it that. It was the smell of an afterlife gone bad; all the disappointments of eternity balled up into a single sensation, and delivered with the subtlety of a shovel in the face. The motorbike ceased its slow progress and growled from a crouching position. When Max turned, a static glow lit the bushes a hundred yards back, where the green lanes met. His watering eyes made the scene a kaleidoscope, fragments of light scattering and reforming, under which the motor hummed with indecision. It would follow him or not. There was nothing he could do about it. He turned again and made his way forward, half blind, his rustling inaudible as long as the motorbike grumbled, and the air he was walking into grew solider with every step. The badger's death was crawling with life, its corpse a feasting table for insects, its putrid flesh, its rotting fur, a palace for famished worms. The stink was unbelievable. The darkness made it worse. There was something in his ears too, as if the animal's death had scored a symphony in the night: it was all drums and screaming strings and a conductor who'd lost the plot. The motorbike was on the move. Max didn't look back. He stumbled forward, stick in hand, and a wave of nausea splashed over him, splashed all around. He pulled the neckline of his sweatshirt over his mouth and nose, but it made small difference. Light was picking him out, an elongated stickman thrashing his way down a quivering corridor, which grew narrower ahead, and rockier underfoot. He must be passing the badger corpse now, off to his left, entangled in its rooty tomb, and Christ the smell couldn't get worse but it did: like walking into a wardrobe and having the door close behind you. The motorbike was throwing shapes as it heaved and rattled over the stony ground, its headlight's beam a wandering yellow scoop. Max's vision began to clear. Leaves were dancing ahead of him, and he couldn't tell if this were a breeze or the motion of the motorbike sending turbulence ahead to rummage down the lane, but either way he felt an approaching storm. The sweatshirt slipped free of his nose and the stench redoubled but he was past the epicentre now, and the motorbike hadn't reached it yet; still about eighty yards behind him, its progress cautious, its driver anxious not to spill on the rough terrain. Behind its headlight's glare there was only a grotesque lump, as if driver and machine had fused into a single being. This was how monsters were made.
Max had no idea why this maelstrom had been unleashed tonight. He was well pissed off about it, though.
This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book One Night: A Novel by Georgina Cross.