The mind can do a lot of thinking in its final moments. Some strange corner of Fergus’s brain had time to know that the stag in the middle of the road was magnificent. Shaggy-maned and bearing its antlers with all the poise of a medieval jousting helm, the beast had been staring downhill with its nose into the wind as if the last gust had carried the sound of a distant call. At the first thump and shudder of the brakes it turned its head towards them, and did not move. It merely glared at them over its shoulder so that the grizzled, moisture-matted pelt folded into its neck like the stole of an ancient king.
That same part of Fergus’s mind, the bit that wasn’t panicking and bracing his body for impact, wondered at the infinitesimal detail of the scene. A light fog snorting from a greying muzzle. Foliage, crystal sharp in the autumn patchwork of yellow-and-black, leaf-and-bark. The vibrations in a raindrop on the windscreen as the ABS juddered beneath them and they side-slipped over wet leaves with almost no check to their speed. On the edge of his vision the antlers turned to watch them glide past, but Fergus’s focus had switched from the stag to the edge of the road and the drop beyond.
His first reaction was panic. The second was rejection. This isn’t happening, this isn’t real. But the verge still punched them nose-up into the air in a detonation of wheels and suspension, making the CD skip as they launched. Reality was a momentary hiccup in a digital scream. Weightless behind a whining engine, Fergus stared horrified at the canopy of an oak tree that loomed in front of them as the nose of the car started to drop. He sensed Kate’s arms pushing away from the wheel as if to force herself backwards through her seat, but he didn’t see her face. His eyes were locked on the trunk of the oak, a massive pillar of the woods that rushed at the centre of the bonnet. It filled the windscreen beyond wipers that counted them down to oblivion with their metronome beat. Three, two, one…
His final reaction was acceptance. Just before they hit, Fergus knew that the moment was real, that this was the instant of his extinction. And with that knowledge came three heartbeats of calm in which a great sadness dragged him downwards, a sadness so profound it was beyond weeping.