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I lay in bed, listening to the silence of the house and trying to recall the
dream that had woken me with such a start of fear. I remembered running through
wide, battle-scarred streets under a flame-filled sky, but whatever demons
had been pursuing me had already slipped back over the horizon into unconsciousness.
Anne was breathing softly at my side, miraculously undisturbed by the twisting
and turning I must have been doing. I could tell I wasn't going to get back
to sleep easily, so I slid out from under the covers, pulled on my slippers
and robe, and padded downstairs.
There was still a smell of wood smoke in
the living room, but all that remained of
the evening's log fire was a pile of white
ash in the hearth. I pulled back a curtain
and looked out. It was a clear Connecticut
night with a touch of frost under a nearly
full moon. In that light our rambling, half-wild
garden became a place of secrets and enchantment,
conjuring up memories of the cozy, old-fashioned
children's stories that my grandparents used
to read to me at Christmas around a roaring
fire in their Devon farmhouse.
My father worked for a firm of heating engineers
in London. When I was ten, he was offered
a job in Philadelphia. Neither he nor my
mother ever really settled there, and as
soon as he retired they moved back to the
south of England, which they still thought
of as home. But by that time I was at Princeton,
and in love.
Anne and I lived together for almost four
years before we married, then waited another
two years before deciding that we could afford
to start a family. Charlie was just a few
months old when we found this house. We had
both loved it from the moment we first saw
it. We wanted more children and lots of space
to have them. We also wanted to live outside
the city. The loan we took out was bigger
than we could afford, but we gambled on being
able to make the payments, and so far we
had been lucky. In fact I sometimes felt
that we were luckier, and happier, than we
had any right to expect. Now Anne was pregnant
again, just as we'd planned.
I shivered, suddenly aware of the cold,
and let the curtain fall back. Had the nightmare
that woke me come from the fear that good
things were given only to be taken away,
as though by some sadistic Manichaen principle?
Did I really believe in that kind of a universe?
Maybe I did. Somewhere.
I switched on a lamp in a reflex effort
to push these thoughts away, then debated
whether to pour myself a whiskey or go through
to the kitchen and make a hot cup of chocolate.
I settled for the chocolate because I'd drunk
enough with dinner and wanted a clear head
for the morning.
As I stirred the pan on the stove I became
aware of someone watching me. Anne was leaning
against the door frame, arms folded, feet
crossed. She wore a robe like mine. We had
bought them together. Her short, dark hair
was tousled and her eyes, normally wide with
an expression between surprise and laughter,
"I'll have whatever you're having," she
"I'm sorry I woke you."
"You didn't. The empty bed did." Her
eyes followed me to the fridge for more milk
and to the shelf for more chocolate. "What's
worrying you? Are you afraid that now you've
made up your mind, they're going to change
"It's not about tomorrow," I responded,
with a touch of impatience in my voice. She
arched an eyebrow skeptically. "Of course
not," stifling a yawn and smiling at
the same time. "It's just a coincidence
that you're up at 3 a.m. making yourself
"Everything's set for tomorrow. The
meeting's only a formality."
She came towards me, slipped her arms over
my shoulders and looked into my eyes, first
one then the other, the way she always did. "All
I want is to be sure you're doing it because
you want to, not because you think you should
for me, Charlie and the bump." The "bump" was
her pregnancy that didn't even show yet.
She pushed it against me, rubbing softly.
"Are you accusing me of putting my
family before personal preferences?"
"You're calling me a wimp?"
"Yes." She pressed her face to
mine as my hands slid under her robe. "Rick," she
murmured, and didn't have to say any more.
I hoisted her gently up and she locked her
legs around my waist. Somehow I managed to
switch off the stove before I carried her
out. I almost tripped on her robe as she
dropped it, wobbled painfully on one of Charlie's
Ninja Turtles on the stairs, and gave a muffled
curse as I banged my elbow on the door at
the top. "It's never like this in the
movies," I said, lowering her, and myself
with her, to the bed.
"No," she whispered, a little
breathless even though I was the one doing
all the work, "there isn't room in those
Charlie woke us ten minutes before the alarm
went off to say that he could hear Gummo,
our Siamese cat, stuck on the roof again.
I pulled on an old tracksuit and climbed
into the chilly loft to let him in through
a skylight. Charlie waited anxiously where
I'd told him to on the landing, circled by
Harpo, his mongrel terrier, who pierced the
air with a repeated nervous yelp.
The cat was really freaked by something.
I tried everything I knew to get him in,
including coaxing, cajoling, and even having
Charlie run down to get his food bowl filled
with his favorite breakfast. It was no good;
the wretched animal just prowled up and down
the tiles, making plaintive meowing noises
and staying carefully beyond my reach. I
realized I was going to have to go out and
get him. I hauled myself up through the skylight,
inwardly reflecting that domestic bliss,
like most kinds of happiness, had its shortcomings.
Climbing out onto a sloping roof of very
old tiles before the overnight frost had
completely thawed was not the cleverest thing
I've ever done. The cat seemed to sense the
danger and ran for his life, terrified that
I might pick him up and then fall, still
I don't think I would have fallen at all
if the cat hadn't turned and lashed out at
me, lips drawn back in a snarl and claws
extended, when I went after him. I'm pretty
agile and I was moving with care, but I just
wasn't ready for this reaction from a cat
who, I swear, spends half his life sleeping
on my desk, and the other half curled up
on my lap whenever I sit down to read. I
cursed him, and suddenly I heard a scream.
Not my voice. Anne's.
As the world began to spin, I saw her terrified
face in the skylight I'd just climbed out
of. Only then did I realize that the world
was spinning because I was falling.
It was one of those moments where reality
hangs suspended. It's not even that things
happen in slow motion. They're both happening
and not happening at the same time. Events
are kept at arm's length by a protective
barrier of shock and denial. You think thoughts
you don't have time to think. You realize
in a detached, purely intellectual way that
something awful is happening, but without
really touching you.
Then your imagination goes to work. You
have a flash of yourself in a wheelchair
for the rest of your life. Even worse, on
your back, a quadriplegic in an orthopaedic
Suddenly... I'm not absolutely sure about
this, but I think I heard myself laughing.
It was all too absurd to be taken seriously.
It couldn't be true!
Anne's scream continued to ring in my ears
as I pitched off the roof, turning in space.
I could hear Charlie's cry and the dog's
panicky barking in the loft behind her. But
they were wrong, surely, to be alarmed. It
couldn't happen. It couldn't!
I didn't know much for a while after I landed.
I didn't black out, but time stopped.
Then I felt the life begin to flow back
into all the parts of my body. Mentally I
checked them off, one by one. Things moved.
I was whole.
By the time Anne reached me I was on my
feet, picking chunks of the evil-smelling
compost into which I'd fallen off my tracksuit.
I inspected myself in the long bathroom
mirror as I stepped out of the shower. I'd
have a bruise or two, but nothing worse.
The fact that I was in good shape, thanks
to a vigorous workout several times a week,
had probably helped. At least I'd landed
with a certain degree of physical coordination.
How remote it seemed already, that appalling
knowledge that everything hung in the balance.
Suppose I'd cracked my head open? Another
couple of feet either way and it would have
been like a coconut against concrete. I peered
into the eyes between the dark mop of hair
and the white foam as I began to shave. How
must brain damage feel, from the inside?
You must know there's something terribly
wrong, but you're not sure what. Maybe every
so often you get a kind of oblique flash
of the appalling truth: you're what's wrong.
You're a freak, not quite human. People pity
you, but above all they fear you, because
you have become their nightmare.
I closed my eyes and forced myself to think
of something else. Moments later I was heading
downstairs for breakfast. As I entered the
warm kitchen that smelled of coffee, eggs
and toast, Charlie took up the refrain he
had been chanting non-stop and with much
hilarity ever since it happened.
"Daddy fell in the doo-doos, daddy
fell in the doo-doos..!"
I drove down tree-lined lanes, working through
the intricate network of back roads that
joined the highway at the last possible point
before entering the city. The radio was on,
but I couldn't have told you two minutes
afterwards what the headlines on the news
had been. The day, which had already started
out dramatically, would, if all went well,
be an important one for me.
My company, Hamilton Publications Inc.,
had set up in business nearly six years earlier,
with just myself, my assistant Marcie, and
two others. Our specialist publications ranged
from a literary review to a newsletter for
professional caterers. One of our earliest
efforts had become a must with every wine
grower on the west coast. There was a bi-monthly
that no gallery owner could afford to be
without. High school science departments
subscribed in their thousands to "Particle/Wave",
a digest and update of progress in the new
physics, too simple for genuine researchers
but too technical for the layman.
I or one of the team would spot what looked
like a gap in the market and then check it
out demographically. Nine times out of ten
we came up with compelling reasons to drop
the idea; but that one time out of ten would
add another title to our list.
After a while total strangers started calling
up or writing in with ideas. Three of them
had, within weeks, found themselves allocated
office space and running their own brainchild.
We devised a profit share scheme so that
they felt they were working as much for themselves
as for the firm.
About a year ago we'd started to attract
attention from the big boys. A couple of
conglomerates had come sniffing around with
buy-out offers, but I wasn't keen on going
to work for somebody else. Essentially I'm
a dabbler, an ideas man. I love nothing better
than to spend days and sometimes weeks reading
up on some topic that has caught my imagination.
It can be nuclear physics or traffic control.
I'm a kind of specialist in the eclectic;
or "totally lacking in intellectual
focus" as they put it in college, where
I did not distinguish myself.
Anyway, the business, at the point or the
plateau it had reached, was a kind of natural
extension of me, one that I didn't want to
give up just yet, not even in return for
a lot of money.
At the same time, it might have been nice
to branch out in one or two other directions.
For instance, I'll tell you something that
may not have occurred to you. Do you want
to know how people really are? How they're
feeling, what they're saying, what they really
mean? If you want to know what is truly going
in the world around you, don't read anything
by journalists or sociologists or any kind
of analyst. Don't even talk to cab drivers.
Read the trade papers. There's one for every
trade and everything that likes to call itself
a profession. The boasts ring so hollow and
the anxieties stare so searingly through
that the truth, unspoken, hits you like a
sledgehammer. The trades are the code books
to what's happening and where we're going.
I wanted to start my own string of them.
And try something, I don't know... new.
My lawyer, Harold, had begun making inquiries
about possible sources of finance, hence
the meeting at the bank. Anne had made me
promise to call her and report as soon as
we were through. She was taking Charlie into
town some time late morning for a friend's
birthday party that was to begin with a movie
outing. After that she would be working at
home all afternoon. She organized a charity
that ran shelters for the homeless. It was
unpaid work and she was fully aware that
the help they offered was a drop in the ocean.
She used to joke that it was a perfect job
for a knee-jerk liberal: well-meaning, pious,
and ultimately ineffectual. She'd been a
journalist before having Charlie, a good
one with a promising future. She could have
gone back to it but chose not to. I think
she was prouder of what she was doing than...
The sound of the horn reached me from a
long, long way away. I don't know where my
mind had been. Not consciously going over
all the things I have just been setting down.
All I know is that I suddenly seemed to come
out of a daydream to find a huge truck bearing
down on me, horn blaring and lights flashing.
I swung the wheel to the right, and still
don't know how I managed to miss him. The
car skidded and stalled and came to a halt
half on and half off the road. For a while
I couldn't do anything except sit there shaking
and feeling a clammy, cold perspiration all
over me. Eventually I pulled myself together
and drove off, hunched over the wheel in
fierce concentration, heart still pounding.
Even by the time I'd parked in my numbered
space in the lot behind our building, I was
still shaky. To miss death twice in one morning
was too close for me. I had this jolt of
superstition about things coming in threes.
It was a few minutes before I got out of
the car and headed into the building - big,
square, turn-of-the-century. It closed itself
around me that morning like an old friend,
familiar and reassuring.
I took the elevator to the sixth floor,
where we occupied half the available space.
I pushed open the door with its modest logo: "Hamilton
Publications Inc." Jigger, the receptionist,
smiled up from her desk and the day's first
cup of coffee and said good morning. I walked
through to my corner office, greeting on
the way the four men and two women who were
in before me because they had deadlines to
meet by the end of the day. The others would
be in soon if they weren't tied up seeing
contributors or working at home. Marcie,
always knew where everybody was if I needed
to talk to them.
"Harold called to ask can you pick
him up at his office so you can talk on the
way over." Marcie was checking off my
messages with her customary efficiency.
"Okay," I said, "tell him
I'll stop by at ten after."
"And he said," she gave a puzzled
frown, "that I wasn't under any circumstances
to let you out on the roof. What does that
I sighed. "It means that he called
home before he called here." I told
her the story, which kept her giggling on
and off for the next twenty minutes while
we dealt with the morning's mail.
Harold had been my best friend ever since
I came to America. He had lived across the
street and quickly took me under his wing,
introduced me around, taught me to play baseball,
and made excuses for my accent until it blended
into a reasonable facsimile of his own.
Now he was a lawyer, my lawyer, and a very
clever one. I trusted him with everything,
and he'd never let me down. He dreamed up
contracts which were impeccably concise,
yet loose enough to let the independent and
sometimes eccentric people I worked with
feel at ease. He'd knit together loans, mortgages
and pension schemes and never dropped a stitch.
He'd also fought and beaten a massive New
York law firm that had been sent after us
with a phony copyright claim by a conglomerate
that meant to put us out of business.
He was just stepping out of his building
as I pulled my lovingly restored `67 Mustang
to the curb. I had anticipated the sly smile,
the hint of mockery on his face.
"I want to know that you're feeling
positive. Are you feeling positive?"
"Shut the door, Harold."
"Just because your first bold leap
of the day landed you in a pile of shit..."
"... doesn't mean the next one will
necessarily do the same."
I pulled out to re-join the traffic. "It
was just compost. You're as bad as Charlie."
He sniffed the air ostentatiously. "Still,
another shower might have been a good idea.
Just kidding, relax. We're going to get everything
we want this morning, I swear it." He
started to laugh. "Boy, I'd like to
have been there with a camera!"
I decided not to tell him about the near-miss
with the truck.
"And what's all this about getting
up in the middle of the night for comfort
foods? Hot chocolate, my God!"
I wondered for a split second if Anne had
also told him how and why I never got around
to drinking it. Then I smiled. What if she
had? He had become her friend just as much
as mine. I was glad they got along so well.
The fact that Harold had never married had
made Anne wonder briefly whether he was gay.
But I couldn't believe that, if he was, I
wouldn't have known. Besides, he'd never
lacked girlfriends, some of them very beautiful,
some of them very accomplished, many of them
both. He was attractive to women in an easy-going,
understated sort of way. He knew exactly
who he was, didn't come on macho, never seemed
to ask more than they were prepared to give.
Besides, he was only my age - thirty-four.
"... especially if Chuck Morgan starts
`thinking out loud' the way he does," I
suddenly heard Harold saying. "Don't
get drawn into that. Just dig in and stick
to what we agreed."
"I'm sorry," I said, "I didn't
quite get all of that."
He looked at me. "Where did I lose
"From the top down to Chuck Morgan
thinking out loud."
Harold rolled his eyes. "Forget it.
What you don't know now it's too late to
fix. Just nod and smile and let me do the
talking." He had glance my way as he
spoke, and suddenly I was acutely aware that
he hadn't turned away. I avoided meeting
his gaze, embarrassed and feeling almost
guilty for some reason. There was an edge
of concern in his voice when he spoke. "Are
"You're sure you didn't land on your
Bob Crossfield was a genial man with silver
hair and a big shapeless body expertly streamlined
by a carefully tailored suit. He crossed
to us with hand extended as we were shown
into his office. We sat in comfortable armchairs
and a secretary appeared with coffee on a
silver tray. Harold caught my eye, looking
smug. He knew that this greeting from the
bank president meant that we were well on
our way to getting precisely the terms we
wanted. I relaxed a little, but still felt
uncharacteristically nervous, unable to pin
my uneasiness on anything in particular.
After a few minutes of conversation Roy
Gaines, Crossfield's assistant, came in to
say that the rest of the team were assembled
in the conference room. I started to get
to my feet, but, as I did, something strange
and alarming happened. It was as though something
snapped, or burst, inside my head, giving
me a sudden feeling of being hopelessly cut
off from everything around me.
"A stroke!" was my first panic-stricken
thought. "Brain hemorrhage." I
knew that it could happen even to young and
apparently healthy people. My fall that morning
had maybe done more damage than I'd realized.
I wanted to cry out for help, but no sound
would come. The three men in the room with
me had become distant, hazy figures, apparently
unaware of my plight. Their voices slowed
and mixed into a mechanical, meaningless
drone, and my own breathing and heartbeat
thundered in my ears. Instinctively I grabbed
for my head, stumbled, and felt I was about
to pitch full length on the floor.
Then, just as abruptly, everything returned
to normal. Sound and vision popped back into
focus as though nothing had happened. I realized
at once that I hadn't made the exhibition
of myself that I feared I had. The hand grab
to my head became a polite cover for an improvised
cough, the brief unsteadiness passed unnoticed.
All the same I needed a moment to pull myself
together, take a few deep breaths, get a
grip. I asked for the men's room before going
into the meeting. Gaines showed me to a panelled
door in the back of the office.
The relief at finding myself alone for a
moment was extraordinary, almost as though
I was running from some enemy and suddenly
found myself in sanctuary. Was I sick? Some
kind of virus? I looked at my reflection
in the mirror above the washbowl: perfectly
normal, neither flushed nor pale. And yet
I was suddenly feeling alternately hot and
cold. I dowsed my face in water, dried it,
and took another look. Nothing had changed.
I spun around. There was no sign of anyone
behind me, and yet I could swear - no, I
knew - that I had seen a movement in the
mirror. I turned back to it. Nothing. Had
someone opened the door to make sure I was
all right, then quickly withdrawn? Surely
I had locked it. I checked. I had.
So there was no one in the room. Just myself.
And I was seeing things.
It seemed to me that this was one of those
times when the best thing to do is go home,
get into bed, and stay there. But whatever
the reasons for my distracted jumpiness that
morning - mental, physical, real or imaginary
- I had an important meeting to get through,
and get through it I would!
I gave my reflection one last, defiant glare,
and turned to leave.
Seated around the long table in the panelled
conference room were five men and one woman.
We had all met at least once before, nonetheless
Crossfield made introductions and we shook
In front of each one of us was a water glass
and carafe, plus a legal pad and felt-tip
pen with the bank's name on it. Also everyone
was supplied with a copy of the bank's report
on Hamilton Publications Inc., a tight little
document full of words like growth curve,
profit projection and all the rest of the
jargon-riddled double-talk that experts use
to dress up their guesswork. Crossfield made
introductory remarks, I delivered a short
prepared speech about how glad I was to be
sitting around a table with them all, then
began doodling on my legal pad as Harold
launched into the details.
Obviously I knew every dot and comma of
what was under discussion, but I remember
being struck at one point by my remarkable
lack of attention to what was actually being
said. I thought as I glanced up that I caught
an odd look in Bob Crossfield's eye. Chuck
Morgan was also looking my way. He was only
a couple of years older than me, but almost
completely bald and with a tennis player's
wiry physique. I put down the pen and made
a show of paying close attention.
Crossfield asked me if I had anything to
add to what Harold had said. I knew he would,
and I said I hadn't. The discussion was then
opened out to include the whole group. Sure
enough Chuck Morgan started "thinking
out loud" in a direction which, if unchecked,
would have significantly lowered the bank's
risk and increased their control. Harold,
with infinite grace, quickly circumvented
him and looked to me for murmurs and nods
of agreement, which I readily supplied. The "thoughts" were
Others had little to add, and it became
clear that the meeting was indeed a formality,
there to give its imprimatur to what had
already been decided. I reached out to pour
myself a glass of water. I don't know why
but my mouth was suddenly very dry, my lips
sticking together so that I felt if I had
to speak the words would come out incoherently.
It was as the glass was halfway to my mouth
that I caught sight of what I had been doodling
a few minutes ago.
I am not gifted artistically, and anything
I draw usually resembles the work of one
of those chimpanzees you see in learning
experiments in TV documentaries. But I was
startled by the clarity of what I was looking
at now. I had drawn the same figure several
times, first small then growing larger, as
though approaching. It was the figure of
a woman running. She was holding out her
arms as though reaching for something or
someone. She was obviously in terror, and
in the third sketch had fallen to her knees
and was crawling. In the fifth she was stretched
out on the ground, though still apparently
trying to move. In the sixth she was pinned
down like a specimen of some insect on a
slide, or else crushed by some immense, unseen
weight. The seventh sketch was a dark and
horrible thing, a Goya-like glimpse of something
too terrible to contemplate, an impression
of pain, dismemberment and death.
"Rick? Rick!" Harold repeated
my name louder. I must have been called upon
to make some response, but I hadn't heard
a thing. Without looking up I knew that all
eyes were on me. A silence had fallen on
the room. It was obvious to everyone that
something was wrong.
The crash that the glass made as it slipped
from my fingers was like an explosion. It
was followed by the sound of my chair sliding
back violently. By the time it hit the floor
I was racing for the door, oblivious of the
astonishment and alarm all around me.
But none of it mattered. All that counted
was what was in my head, the knowledge that
was suddenly planted there. Maybe "planted" is
the wrong word. It was knowledge unveiled,
as though it had been there all along and
I had been suppressing it.
At any rate I knew for sure, just as surely
as though a voice had spoken, what it all
Maybe even that isn't accurate. Maybe instead
of knowing I was simply gripped by a compulsion.
Instead of thinking I was responding, though
without any knowledge of what I was responding
to. I was propelled - yes, that was it, propelled.
- by a force that wasn't physical or even
mental. What I was doing had to be done.
It was stronger than conviction. It was inevitable.
And yet there was uncertainty. Not uncertainty
of purpose, but of whether I could achieve
what I knew I must attempt. If I had been
stopped then and made to explain what I thought
I was doing, I'm not sure I would have been
able to. All I knew was that the woman I
had drawn was Anne. I knew she wasn't reaching
out for me but for Charlie. I had drawn the
desperation of a woman trying to save her
But from what?
Without knowing how I got there, I found
myself in the underground parking lot with
my car keys in my hand. As I drove out with
squealing tires I caught a glimpse of Harold
and Roy Gaines, who must have followed me,
waving at me to stop. I ignored them, as
I ignored the flimsy wooden barrier that
the startled gate man would have raised for
me had I paused to hand over the validated
parking ticket in my pocket. It scraped along
the Mustang's hood, shattered the windshield,
then flew off its hinge and spun towards
For some time - again I don't know how long
- I must have driven with the opaque labyrinthine
pattern of my shattered windshield blocking
any view of where I was going. I remember
that eventually I punched a fist through
it - and found I was exactly where I expected
to be, approaching a stop sign at an intersection
of three roads. Ignoring the sign I swung
through protesting traffic and took the first
exit. Even then I didn't know where I was
headed. I just knew that I was headed somewhere.
How I got away with so many infractions
of the law in so short a space of time I
shall never know. Speed and luck, I suppose.
But even if there had been police cars chasing
me with flashing lights and wailing sirens,
I probably wouldn't have noticed. I doubt
I would have noticed anything short of gunfire,
with bullets thudding into the upholstery
all around me. And maybe not even that.
Later, much later when I had time to reflect
on it all, I went back over the road and
measured the distance I drove that morning.
It was exactly 3.9 miles from the exit of
the bank parking lot to the spot where the
traffic jam started. I don't remember any
sense of frustration when I saw the long
tailback starting under the bridge and winding
up Pilgrim Hill and out of sight. It was
obvious that the road was totally blocked
somewhere up ahead. What I don't know - honestly
don't know despite the number of times I've
tried to recall the moment - was whether
I knew then what had happened; or whether
I was still simply hurtling forward in an
unthinking trance. Certainly there was no
doubt in my mind by then about where I was
going. I sprang from my car, leaving the
door open and the engine running, and started
scrambling up the grassy slope to the left
of the road. People watched me from below,
wondering who this madman was, and where
he had to be so urgently.
At the top of the slope, sweating, clothes
torn and muddied, fingernails ripped and
bleeding from the final hard-won, steepening
yards of the climb, I stopped and looked
towards the head of the jam. I knew exactly
where it was, of course. But did I know what
it was? From where I stood I couldn't see
much aside from a general confusion, people
running, a crowd forming, an odd scattering
of vehicles that suggested an accident. I
ran towards it as fast as I could.
There were a few token grunts and protests
as I shouldered my way through to see what
was at the center of it all. But by then
I think I knew. I had known for a split second
in the conference room when I dropped the
glass and ran out. I had glimpsed the awful
thing that confronted me now, but the image
had been pushed to the back of my mind while
I negotiated the journey here. Now there
was no turning from it.
A huge refrigerated rig, much larger than
the one that had almost killed me that morning,
had gone out of control and jumped the central
divide. It had jackknifed and turned over.
The back had sprung open and deep-frozen
carcasses of meat were scattered everywhere.
Beneath the vehicle a small car lay crushed.
It was pale green and still, though only
just, recognizable as the imported "Deux
Chevaux" that Anne had wanted ever since
our first trip to Europe. They had stopped
making that model, and it was a while before
I found a specialist dealer who supplied
me with one for her thirtieth birthday.
She had been so happy, thrilled like a child,
when she came downstairs and found a key
on the table with a huge bow attached to
it, then saw the car through the window parked
outside. I had put a picnic hamper on the
back seat, filled with French bread and champagne
and a bottle of wine and some foie-gras and
a birthday cake with her name on it. All
we had to do was drive out to a spot I'd
already chosen and...
... and now she lay dying, trapped, bleeding,
pushed back as though recoiling in some impossible
cartoon-like exaggeration of shocked outrage.
Except this was no cartoon, and no exaggeration.
It was simply the literal truth of what massive,
unstoppable force had done to her.
I don't know whether I cried out, said anything,
in any way communicated who I was, but people
suddenly made way for me, let me go forward,
lowering their voices, bringing a strange
stillness to the scene.
A man was on one knee, struggling with what
remained of the car's rear door. If I saw
his face I don't remember it. All I remember
is a broad back with a cheap gray suit stretched
tight across it as his fleshy shoulders worked.
He had a thick neck with a roll of fat above
the collar. His hair was reddish-brown, short
and greasy, brushed back flat on his head.
And suddenly, as he turned, he had my son
in his arms.
Charlie was deathly white but alive - and,
I realized as he clung to me and I felt the
sobs racking my body, he was unhurt.
I don't remember if I handed him to someone
or if someone prized him gently from me.
At moments like that there is, I think, an
almost psychic understanding between people.
Things are said, things are done, without
reflection and with a sureness that is lacking
in more normal times. Charlie was taken from
me to be cared for, and he knew this was
right. He didn't cry, he didn't cling, he
knew what he must do. He was in shock, of
course; but what does "in shock" mean
except that some deep and dependable instinct
takes over to guide us through moments which
would otherwise overwhelm us totally?
I turned to Anne. She could move her head
only slightly, barely more than an inch;
but her eyes made the rest of the journey
to meet mine, and she saw her own death in
Her lips moved and I bent closer. But she
wasn't trying to speak; only to give me a
faint last smile, a loving goodbye, a reassurance
that she knew and accepted what was happening.
The agony of not being able to hold her
as she died was all but unbearable, but she
was trapped in a vice-like coffin of steel
that left me outside, a helpless onlooker.
Somewhere distantly I heard a siren drawing
close, then a voice saying it would be hours
before they could cut her free.
Only we didn't have hours. These were our
last minutes. Perhaps seconds.
I reached for her face, almost afraid to
touch in case the contact brought back the
physical pain which she seemed mercifully
to have slipped beyond. But she gave a faint
sigh, almost of pleasure, as my fingertips
caressed her cheek and lips. I leaned forward
to kiss her, but her eyes glazed over. Where
there had been stillness there was now only
the emptiness of death.
Somehow, as I slumped forward with a howl
of unfathomable loss that seemed to come
from somewhere so deep in my being that it
was almost outside of me, my hand found hers.
She must have thrown it up, instinctively
trying to protect herself from the impact,
and now it protruded, fingers splayed, from
the appalling inch-wide gap between the dash
and the seat on which she lay.
The people around us let me be, knowing
that my grief must have this moment, letting
the sobs shake free unhindered from my body.
Then, very gently, I felt hands taking hold
of me, pulling me away.
I said yes, let them, this is right. Don't
spoil the dignity of her going with your
own self-centered torment. Just do what must
be done. Think of your son, he is alone,
he needs you.
But I had reckoned without the rage, the
senseless, aching rage that swept through
me like a flame. Against my will I hunched
forward, clung to what remained of her, my
eyes shut tight against a truth I could not
tolerate. As though in slow, slow motion
my head arched back and I roared into the
blackness of my inner universe: a roar of
terrifying, primal, primitive defiance.
That was when I felt the movement in her
hand. I didn't open my eyes at first. I knew
that I was dreaming and didn't want to wake
from the forlorn, illusory hope that I was
wrong, that she still lived.
And then I heard her voice. "Get me
out of here before this thing rolls over.
Richard, help me! Get me out of here, quick!"
I looked. Her eyes were open, locked on
mine, wide and full of fear but fighting,
brave. I was a sleepwalker, a passive, stunned
spectator of the next few moments.
Help was everywhere. Strong men lifting,
straining, carrying her to safety. She was
alive! Cut, bruised, in shock, but living,
standing there unaided suddenly, before me.
Somehow I swam forward through the dizzying
waves of unreality that swept over me. I
took her in my arms. She was solid, warm,
and real. It seemed impossible, but she was
It was Anne who took control now, calming
me, telling me over and over that everything
was all right. She stroked my face, her dark
eyes pouring reassurance into mine, soothing
me with gentle child-like noises of affection.
I tried to speak but couldn't. She put her
fingers to my lips. Don't try. It's all right.
We're together. Everything is all right.
Suddenly, almost guilty at having been so
caught up in my own emotion, I remembered
Charlie. I turned and called his name, expecting
him to run to us, to be swept into our arms
and hugged and kissed and reassured that
there was nothing more to fear.
But no child ran from the surrounding group
of silent onlookers. I called his name again.
Blank stares, silently exchanged looks of
puzzlement were all that met my gaze.
I turned to Anne. "Where is he? He
was here, safe."
With a chill that reached my soul I saw
in her eyes the same uncertain, half-frightened
incomprehension that was all around me. "Charlie!
Our son Charlie! They got him out! He wasn't
hurt! I held him. Charlie!" I was screaming
suddenly, turning wildly, calling for our
son who had vanished into thin air.
"Richard! Richard!" Anne was holding
me, trying to calm me, fighting to restrain
my helpless, flailing arms. "Don't,
Richard, don't! Don't do this!"
"Where is he? I couldn't have been
wrong? Where is he? Where's our son."
"Richard! Richard!" She shook
me, made me look at her, fixed my eyes with
her own determined, anxious gaze. "We
have no son. I don't know what you're saying.
We have no son."
Again I felt the waves of blackness sweeping
over me. I fought to keep my balance, to
hang onto my sanity in the face of this absurdity.
My head spun one way, then another, taking
in the groups of baffled, murmuring onlookers.
What were they to do? Who was this crazy
man screaming for a child whom only he seemed
to imagine had existed?
Then I saw the accident, the jackknifed
rig and the car trapped under it.
But the car was no longer Anne's car. In
the grotesque tangle of metal, glass and
leather I recognized the color and distorted
outline of my own car. It was my dark blue
Mustang that had collided with the truck.
Something warm and liquid ran down my face,
catching the corner of my eye. I reached
up and my hand reappeared in front of me
soaked in blood.
I looked down at my clothes. They were not
the same clothes I had been wearing. Nor
was the expensive-looking, though now torn
and stained grey trouser suit that Anne had
on, anything that I had seen on her before.
She had never owned a suit like that. And
yet it was Anne looking at me with concern
and fear, as though I was in some terrible
trouble and she didn't know how to help me.
There was a flurry of movement in the crowd
surrounding us. Two men pushed through in
the uniform of paramedics, unfolding a stretcher
as they came. In their eyes I saw the trained,
alert, professional calm of people schooled
in dealing with emergencies. They were coming
for me, preparing to take care of this panic-stricken,
hysterical victim of... of what?
As the blackness finally overwhelmed me
and I began falling, the last thing I felt
was strong hands grabbing me before I hit