© 2001 by Steven L Campbell
(Approximately 1,700 words)
Inside this cold and sterile environment, I am a prisoner of time, a prisoner of fate, a prisoner to the cruel circumstances that have left me unable to communicate to the people around me. They pass me and I go unnoticed by them. Without a name, I am nobody. Without a voice, I am nothing more than a silent pet that must be fed and bathed and taken care of. Unable to move, I am barely alive.
It began when my Uncle John died ten days ago. He was more of a father than an uncle. He and Aunt Zela raised me after my parents died when I was four. My older cousins Judy and Donald became like sister and brother, and when Judy called with the heartbreaking news, the two of us wept while we remembered John Foster’s inexhaustible kindness.
That evening without Carrie at my side (she was in Pittsburgh at an art show), I left my woodsy ranch home on the northeast outskirts of New Cambridge and drove west to Uncle John’s funeral in nearby Ridgewood. I felt alone without my wife and constant companion next to me.
(My dearest Carrie, I miss her dearly. We married the year she graduated from New Cambridge University. I was twenty and she had just turned twenty-three. The wedding ceremony turned out better than how we had rehearsed it. Even the cake turned out just right. Although Aunt Zela lamented that I had married too young, that my destiny was college and a profession as a teacher, she shared my happiness anyway when I became a writer for the New Cambridge Gazette. She and Uncle John ended up loving loved Carrie and the children dearly.)
During the drive to Uncle John’s funeral at Ridgewood, a strange storm dropped rain and hail on me just north of town where the surrounding woods are thick with pines. Despite the canopy of tree limbs, brisk winds and sheets of rain caused me to pull over and wait for visibility to return. My cell phone searched for a signal while I sat alone in my cramping Toyota Camry parked along the highway.
A few yards behind me, a naked tree that had lost many of its branches long ago toppled and splintered onto the road. Then, as I looked through the torrents of rain striking the sunroof and flowing down my windshield, I saw bolts of lightning strike beyond Myers Creek to my right. Suddenly, a whistling bolt of lightning struck the hood of my car and rocked it like a boat taking a large wake to the stern. My ears popped and a deafening ringing filled my head. My hands tingled and felt like they had been too close to a raging fire. I stuck my fingers in my mouth to relieve the burn. When the ringing stopped and the burning in my fingers had subsided, the storm was gone.
A headache twisted my forehead into an unvarying frown. I got out and inspected a large scorch mark across the hood of my car where the lightning had turned portions of the metallic blue color to an ashy gray. Nothing I couldn’t fix I reasoned as I got back in. As I looked in my rearview mirror before driving off, something seemed amiss. By the time I had driven another mile, I realized the tree that had crashed onto the road had not been there when I pulled away.
The headache knifed at the back of my eyes and the evening seemed especially bright when I drove into Ridgewood. When I arrived at the funeral home, no one was there, so I tried calling Aunt Zela, but my phone still searched for a signal. I left downtown Ridgewood and drove south to Uncle John and Aunt Zela’s house, and the place where I grew up. As I turned on Hamilton Street and approached the house, a thin teenage boy darted out in front of my car. I stopped quick enough not to hit him and he was athletic enough to dodge a car coming down the other lane. He turned and looked at me and I stared dumbly into a face I hadn’t seen for a long, long time.
A girl around the same age and a boy no older than seven, came across the street next. My cousins Judy and Donald passed in front of my vehicle and I watched them catch up to the boy that I had been in another time. Next, I saw Uncle John come to the driveway, climb into his old, red `66 Chevy pickup truck, back out onto the street and drive past me.
A car horn blared from behind and I was startled into driving in the direction I had seen my self and cousins go. Suddenly, I began to shake and had to pull over. I got the door open in time to vomit onto the street. After I emptied my stomach, I closed the door and wiped my mouth with my hands. My headache ceased, but my stomach roiled.
I don’t remember how long I sat there along the side of the street with the engine running and my mind locked in disbelief. At some point, I turned on the radio, likely to distract me and keep me from thinking. A baseball game came on. The Pittsburgh Pirates were playing the Cincinnati Reds in Pittsburgh, at Three Rivers Stadium.
The announcer’s voice from long ago sent chills through my numb body. His was a cherished voice I had listened to on many summer days and nights while growing up on that very block of town.
I snapped off the radio and cried deep sobs. It was all I could think to do. Perhaps I should have screamed, but the thought never entered my mind.
When my nerves settled enough to drive, I tried the radio again. Many of the stations I selected were playing anti-war songs, and Watergate was still a hot topic on the news. I slid a New Age CD into the CD player and drove madly away, but the strangeness remained as I passed late 1960 and early 1970 classic Chevy and Ford vehicles from some insane road show. Of the vehicles I followed out of town, their Pennsylvania license plates looked plain—authentic yellow and blue like the ones nailed to the wall inside my garage back home, not like the colorful and fancy wildlife one fastened to the back of my small, aerodynamic-designed Toyota.
Along the way, I saw places from my childhood restored. Sam’s Diner and the movie theater were back. The shopping mall was Chester Bailey’s farm again. I knew that I had somehow traveled into my past, and my fancy car was trespassing on it. What would the police say if they should pull me over? I drove the back roads toward New Cambridge and home. There, the peaceful countryside settled my nerves.
Night came early as a second front of storm clouds quickened the darkness. When I returned to the highway for the final three miles home, I could tell by the large and round headlights that passed me that I was not getting closer to where I wanted to be. The strangeness had reached New Cambridge and I saw that the BP filling station two miles from my house had changed its square green and yellow signs to red and blue oval ones with AMOCO AMERICAN GAS in white letters across their blue centers. Amoco’s gas was 47.9 cents for a gallon of regular, and I laughed like a loon as I turned on the road to home and drove toward the house I knew would not be there.
The road came to a dead-end next to the creek that wound its way behind where a home would someday stand surrounded by walnut and maple trees with a doghouse and swing sets and tire swings below. Someday, three children would be home-schooled here, a practice that would fly in the face of some of our friends on the school board. Carrie and I would contend that a good education can come from the home and that most schools, although well-intentioned, don’t develop well the minds for creative problem solving. Andrew would become a sculptor and teach college art classes in San Diego, California. The twins, Haley and Becca would become geology and nursing students respectively at New Cambridge U.
A different type of headache drummed in my head. I recognized it as the kind I get when I’m stressed and tired. Irritation set in and I hammered on the steering wheel, yelling at God until all that irritability changed to anger, and anger changed back to frustration and confusion.
Afterwards, I sat alone for several hours trying to figure out what to do next. For sanity’s sake, I knew I had to find someone and some place familiar. The once beautiful woods that I had enjoyed being in had now become ominous tree shapes silhouetted by a large spooky looking moon.
I turned around and drove into New Cambridge not sure of where I was going. I felt numb and out of sorts when I started over the railroad tracks on Dearborn Avenue and noticed that the signal lights were flashing red. That’s when the train struck my car.
When had they started using the railroad again?
That’s the question I tried to ask the ambulance crew who pried me from the wreckage before I passed out.
After that, I woke up here in ICU, broken, alone, a prisoner to cruel and sinister circumstances, making me unable to speak to the people around me.
No one looks long at my eyes. Perhaps they’re afraid of what they see there.
God, take away my misery.