That damned CD. God. Will it ever stop?
It’s Trent Reznor. It’s Nine Inch Nails. It’s skipping.
I opened my eyes when my damaged car CD player refused to let me sleep any more. Well, I opened one eye. My right eye wouldn’t open; it was stuck shut. The image that came to my left eye was blurry, and slow to come into focus. My seatbelt was tight—really tight, actually, but only on the right side. I unfastened it.
I was instantly, violently sucked against the passenger door. I hit hard, and stayed there. I instinctively turned my back to the peculiar magnetism of the door, using my buttocks as a cushion against its powerful force.
My car was on its side. I realized that after a moment of analysis. That revelation led to another discovery: I’d wrecked my car. The windshield was misshapen; it had a dead tree pressed against it, and was bulging toward me in a glorious blue spidery flourish.
I looked below me. The passenger window, too, was a spider-web. Through the threads of the web I could see with my one eye earth, dirt and grass. I raised a hand to touch my right eye. My hand did not find an eye. At least, it did not find something that it could identify as an eye on the basis of its previous experiences with the shape and texture of an eye. Perhaps, had my hands more medical experience, and had they been more probing, they might have concluded that the eye was still there. This conclusion was not the one that my increasingly panicked mind came upon, however.
I screamed. I called for help. I cried. It hurt.
I continued to weep, however as dryly as I could manage, until the pain, along with reality, ebbed into darkness.
All was silent. Horribly, sickly silent. It was like the feeling you get when someone hits you hard in the back and knocks the wind out of you, but in my ears.
I was cold, too. It was the most painful cold I’d ever met. Liquid icicles bit off masses of my flesh, eager to lick at my bones. Or so it felt.
Contrarily, my brain behind my eyes burned, painfully burned. I screamed inside my head, and I wept like sweat from imaginary pores on gray matter. Real tears, real screams weren’t enough to express my agony, and so, while my throat bled from screams unhindered by the concept of pain so mild as that of some ripped throat-parts, I might just as well have been back in the safety of my dreams, slumbering through the horror.
My right ear burned. I couldn’t feel my right arm far beyond the shoulder, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to pull it free without some careful finagling. Instead, I used my left arm. I reached over my head, and I flipped the pillow. Much cooler.
Lane opened her eyes to look at me. Her nose was not more than two inches from mine, and she smiled an honest smile, closing her eyes with relish.
“You could have pulled your arm out if you needed.”
“I didn’t want to wake you.”
Her smile widened a little, exposing an adorable characteristic chipped tooth, “Good job.”
“I actually do need to get up, though, to go to the bathroom. I’ll get you some fresh water while I’m up. Do you need anything else?”
“Can you go to the bathroom for me, too?” she mused.
“How about I just bring an extra cup back with me?”
I closed the conversation in concession to a heavy bladder, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“I love you.”
“You too,” I toyed back, intentionally omitting the word “love” in my reply as a play on her own habit of doing the same.
I stepped carefully on the creaky stairs that led down to the first floor, not because there was anyone to wake—Lane would probably be sitting up awaiting her water when I returned—but because it seemed like a sin to disturb the quiet of the morning unnecessarily. Inside the bathroom I set Lane’s glass on the counter by the sink, and looked up at the mirror to admire not myself, but the contentment and tranquility I knew were shining through my sleep-filled eyes.
The eyes that looked back at me were glistening pearlescent islands in a sea of charred, melting flesh commingled with hair, which flowed down over a gaping exposed jaw. Those eyes were reflected in the mirror finish of a tinted rear-door window, which had been detached from the rest of the car in the explosion, and lay on the ground beneath me. I was hanging over, and gripping tightly to, the back half of the passenger seat of my car, which was not at all attached to the rest of my car, and blackened everywhere but where it was pressed to my chest.
The melted man in the mirror was dead. He wasn’t me, certainly, because I was still alive, still thinking, still seeing things—things like dead faces in reflective glass. I was alive, though, certainly, certainly alive, because my arms were moving. They released their death-grip to the back of the car-seat and shifted to bear my weight. They pressed toward the earth to raise my abdomen from its perch, and then my legs joined the effort. Slowly, a collaboration of many muscles and bones brought on the miraculous result of me standing on my two feet. Those feet then teamed up to produce another miracle: I walked. I walked, and it probably hurt like hell, but I didn’t notice. I was walking. I was certainly alive.
My destination was the road. Disoriented from the crash and the explosion, and the slipping in and out of consciousness, I was unsure of where exactly the road was. Fortunately, my car had left a trail through the brush, which I was able to follow back to the road.
The path soon led to a four-foot vertical face. Now, in normal conditions, such a hop would prove no challenge, but I didn’t really want to test my muscles and bones after they’d just proven themselves against such a trial as an exploding car. Looking for an alternative route, I turned my head to the right; there was a lot of greenery, through which there may likely have been a way up, but, being thorough, I checked to the left as well.
As I turned my head, something dark passed on my right. Well, I thought I saw something, anyway, and so my vision darted back that way. Nothing was there. There was nothing to be seen anywhere around. I decided to just climb forward. If it was a strain, I didn’t notice.
From my new perch I could see the roadway. It was only about seven yards away. Step after step, I made my way roadside. It was there that I would wait, and signal for help. I hoped that I would remain conscious long enough for help to arrive on the discreet country road.
I had no way of knowing the time, but by the golden-illuminated cumulus above and the dew-licked grass below I concluded that it was early morning. Perhaps it was too early to expect much traffic. I sat. I watched the road. Then, I decided that I’d likely still be seen even as a bloodied mass lying by the road, so that’s what I became. In a few more moments, I was asleep.
I was awakened abruptly by the whir of a car passing by. As quickly as my wits returned to me I was on my feet, waving and screaming. The little green economy car was gone, though, in a blink. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream, but I saved my energy for the next car. I did not sit again.
The sun had risen maybe twenty degrees in the sky, and it was probably somewhere between eight and nine o’clock. There would be more traffic now. There was more traffic. Coming. Now.
I threw my hands into the air, and waved them from side to side. I don’t know where I summoned the energy for it, but the same miraculous source also filled my lungs for a powerful scream of “Help! Please! I need your help!”
The car passed me by. I saw the driver, and he didn’t turn his head. He didn’t even seem to look at me. He completely ignored me. How could he have missed me? It wasn’t possible; he must’ve seen me. I guessed a person really could be that cold, that heartless. It was the only explanation.
A handful of other cars passed in the next hour, and the results were pitifully similar. Not one even seemed to register my presence. It was disheartening, to say the very least of it. I was losing faith in people, and, more significantly, in my chances of surviving my situation. Nonetheless, I had no sensation of death’s creeping. It was as if I had a free pass to stay alive, however woefully.
I clenched out the world, eyelid against eyelid. I meant to admit now some of those tears I’d earlier stifled. Somewhere in my head, I began to pretend my situation was different. I was wishing. I imagined myself back at home, sitting on my couch and watching Smallville. I still hadn’t watched last night’s new episode. In a moment it felt real, and the roadside was as distant from my mind as it was from my apartment. I could hear Erica Durance as Lois Lane on the television in front of me. I opened my eyes to watch.
“What the hell?” Kevin, my roommate, exclaimed, directing his curse to the television. “I already watched this.” He reached out and picked up the remote to the digital cable box. He changed the channel.
“Kevin! Oh my God, Kevin! I don’t know what’s going on. I think I was just in an accident.” Kevin didn’t respond. He didn’t even seem to realize I was there. I stepped up from the couch and walked in front of the television.
“Kevin!” I was yelling. Kevin looked directly at me, but his expression didn’t change. He was only watching television. It was useless. He couldn’t see me, and he couldn’t hear me.
I supposed I was dreaming again. Frustrated, confused, and sad, I eased my expressive pose and walked over to sit next to Kevin on the couch. I looked at the television for a moment, and then lowered my eyes to my knees, cupping my palms to my forehead. I thought hard in my head, “Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.”
“You aren’t dreaming.” I jerked my head up to find the voice’s owner, first looking at Kevin. He was still engrossed in a “Scariest Police Chases” special.
“Who said that?” I was really losing my marbles.
“This is not a dream. It is your punishment. It is your curse.” I managed to spot the dark figure standing in front of my couch, in front of me. It was difficult to see. Not in the sense that it was hazy or unclear, but more that it was, well, invisible to the eye. It was as though I saw the figure with my mind, or some part of my mind, and the image I saw was superimposed over the world I saw with my eyes. I could not focus on the speaker to any extent that would allow the interpretation of features.
His voice seemed to echo through space. No, it echoed in my head, in my mind. I couldn’t determine his location by ear because the sound came, as the image, not from my environment, but from some uncharted region in my brain. I continued the dialogue. “My curse? What curse? Who are you?”
The testy image faded and left. No answer came.
The police. That was who I needed to get to. They’d need to know about the accident. They’d be able to help. I thought about where the nearest police station was. When I figured it out, and visualized the station in my mind, I saw it with my eyes. I’d transported myself. At that moment, or in one of the next few moments, I realized that the same thing had happened when I found myself at the apartment. I’d been imagining myself on the couch at the apartment and then ended up right there. I decided I’d have to test my theoretical ability later, but for the time I had a destination in mind. I started toward the front entrance of the police station.
There was a bit of traffic passing through those main doors, and no one seemed to notice me. I slipped in through the open door, dodging a trampling. A short, poorly lit corridor with tobacco smoke-stained paint and sporadically placed doors with smoked-glass windowpanes led to an opening. That opening hosted a grungy, clinical help desk, manned by a skinny young policeman with dirty, but not oily, short brown hair. He was placing a telephone receiver on a phone-base with multiple flashing lights, and lifting a police radio to his mouth. He called for another officer to pick up line four; it was his wife.
I hoped that the officer would be able to see and hear me, but I didn’t expect much. “Officer, I need to report an accident.” He pulled a pen from his breast pocket and began to write something on a piece of paper. I hoped he was marking a form for me to fill out, but supposed that he hadn’t heard my address or seen me walk up to him.
After a moment, he looked up at me. He spoke to me, too. “Do you have a cell-phone?”
Ecstatic to be heard again, to exist again, I replied frantically, “Well, no, I-umm-after the cra—“
“It’s in my front right pocket.” A teenager behind me interrupted. Insulted, I spun around to find an angry looking boy inches from my face, with an officer a head taller right behind him, holding the boy’s cuffed hands behind his back. This was the boy the tin young officer behind the counter had been addressing, not me.
The police couldn’t see me. Nobody could see me. Nobody could hear me. I didn’t really exist. I was starting to figure it out—I was dead. That was the only explanation. I’d never really decided on what to believe about the after-life, but it seemed that this was it.
A thought occurred to me, one that hadn’t yet, in all of the excitement and revelation: Could I see me? I didn’t remember ever looking down at my hands, at my body, to see if it was there. I held up my hand. Well, I thought I did. I saw nothing. I was truly invisible.
Another thought occurred to me, and I tried to lift the pen that was tethered to the desk at the front of the police station. My fingers, if they even existed, passed right through the pen. I wasn’t really there at all.
I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. If I was dead, was I really supposed to do anything? Without a known purpose, I decided to finish the journey I’d been on before the accident.
I closed my eyes, and I was at Lane’s house. Her front yard, more specifically, because it seemed inappropriate to appear inside her house without invitation. I immediately noticed that her car was not in the driveway, which seemed odd, as she should have been expecting me. We were supposed to leave for the beach this morning. I started to cry again, but steeled myself. It was probably around ten o’clock, and I was supposed to have been there at seven. She must have been worried, unable to reach me on my cell phone.
I closed my eyes with urgency, and took myself to Lane’s passenger seat. She was driving the route to my apartment, and she looked distraught. We were only about a mile and a half from the place where I’d crashed. A speeding police cruiser came up from behind and quickly passed.
Unable to communicate with her, I rode with Lane to the crash site, my whole filled with dread. She’d find my car there, or pieces of it, and, well, what else? Was my body there? It didn’t seem to be with me anymore. This was not the way for her to learn about my death.
There were three police cars parked unevenly alongside the road above my car, each with its lights flashing. Lane pulled over on the other side, her hands beginning to shake. She looked straight ahead for an instant, and then looked down. Then she looked up and out the window to her left. After just a moment, she jerked her face away, and directly toward me. Her eyes were glasslike, and wet. She wasn’t crying, but she was scared. Scared to death. She wasn’t looking at me, she was looking away from the idea of me, dead, in a ditch, just across the road.
After she gathered the necessary composure, Lane opened the door and, deliberately, stepped out of the car. She strode across the road with admirable strength, but it was a blessing that no traffic emerged from the bend, because she wouldn’t have seen it coming. An officer had been waiting for her to come over since she’d parked, and as she neared he asked her to please return to her vehicle and be on her way. She did not register his request, and walked right past. He shouted, “Ma’am! Ma’am, you can’t go down there!”
Lane stopped. It wasn’t because the officer had told her to. She’d seen the car. It was charred, but some of the electric blue still shone defiantly. She recognized my Chevrolet Corsica’s burnt remains, and her heart stopped beating.
In a moment it beat again, but with a new, accelerated pace. Her eyes burned out tears as her face contorted. She spoke, “Is he okay?” It was a whisper, and no one understood.
“Is he okay?!” A scream this time. Before the police officer who’d tried to stop her could respond, another officer emerged with urgency from below.
“Sir, there’s no one down there.”
“What do you mean there’s no one there?! Did you search the area? The gas t—” He stopped himself, remembering that Lane was still in earshot. I moved in closer to listen as he motioned the other man near for a more private conversation. “The gas tank ignited, so the driver could have been thrown from the wreckage. It may take a thorough search of the area to find remains.”
“But sir, there’s something else.” The dominant officer offered a questioning expression. “There’s a trail—of blood—leading away from the wreckage. It comes up here to the road,” he motioned to the place where I’d slept by the roadside, partially concealed below the car they stood beside, “and stops, it looks like.”
I didn’t know what to think anymore. I’d been certain that I must have died. But before me lay evidence to the contrary. It appeared that I actually had walked away from the accident. I actually had transported myself by thought. Or was there another explanation?
Perhaps I’d made it to the roadside, and died there. Perhaps an animal had taken my body. Perhaps. There was no way to know. Certainly, no amount of idle contemplation would provide an answer. Lane interrupted my thoughts. She shook off the dread, and started moving again, toward my car. The senior officer, Epps, as I’d read from his uniform, saw, and ordered “Get her!,” with urgency, to the other man.
Lane was stopped, but not easily, and Epps had to assist. Lane was in an ugly vice of pain, and she wept, violently. I wept, too, if I was really there. I wanted to hold her, to tell her that everything was okay, and not to worry. I wanted to eat her pain. I couldn’t. I was helpless, and so was she.
Lane cried out, “Where is he?! Where is he?! Jonathan! Jonathan!! Can you hear me?!”
“I hear you.” She didn’t hear me.
“Get her up to the station.” The younger officer lead Lane toward his squad-car. She relaxed her rebellion and followed. I joined them both in the car, but neither knew it.
Silence, and tears that fell slow despite their weight, dominated the drive. I don’t know how long the trip was. I think it was seven years. Being with Lane, if I was, was emotional. I’d been so confused and bewildered that I hadn’t considered the implications of what was happening. What if I could never really be with Lane again? Was I going to spend the rest of forever in a world that I couldn’t feel, that I couldn’t affect? Reality was heavy, and it fell on me almost at once. I reached to hold Lane, but caught only air, if that. Another tear fell from me cheek to nothing.
The car stopped at an intersection, and its driver turned his face to Lane. He opened his mouth, paused, and closed it. He waited for her to see him, which didn’t happen quickly. “Can I see your license?” he finally asked. Lane retrieved the card slowly, silently, listlessly. “Is this address current?” She nodded.
The officer delivered us to Lane’s house. He told not to worry about her car. It would be safe and someone would take her to retrieve it when she was ready, when she called the number circled on the card he gave her. The top of the card read Capt. Jason Epps, and the number circled was underneath the word “mobile.” Life in a rural town had a few benefits, if some drawbacks, too.
A few steps into the house lead Lane to the couch, and there she stopped. After a few moments, she sat. She didn’t collapse. She sat very carefully, and adopted an odd, stiff posture. She watched the television, but she did not turn it on. I don’t remember what I did at that moment in time. I probably stood over her.
I watched Lane’s face. I don’t know what my face expressed. Her face was a shell, the only glimmer of emotion in her fiery, swollen eyes. Slowly, so slowly that the change didn’t initially register, her lips deformed themselves. They betrayed her stoicism in a wrenching downward twist. Her eyebrows were transported downward and together, but with slightness. Her cheeks reddened.
She collapsed, then, and I instinctively moved to catch her. She ended with her face in the couch, her left hand white and clenching the arm of the couch, and her right gripping the bottom. I sat in the floor, and watched.
I screamed. Lane wept. She fell asleep.
I could not sleep. I didn’t try, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able. I wanted to try to learn more about what was happening, but I didn’t know where to start. I couldn’t leave Lane alone, either. She was alone anyway.
At four o’clock in the afternoon. Lane woke. Her expression transformed from ecstasy to shock, shock to confusion, and finally, to pain. I believe that the sun interrupted her from the same dream that had given me peace in my car that morning. She regarded the westerly facing window with disdain, and arose from the couch. She walked into the kitchen, one room over. After only a short moment, she went back, and then moved to her bedroom. Blankets covered the curtains, and the room’s only light came from the open door. Lane closed the door, and walked to the bed by memory.
I heard the springs accept her body, with just the slightest creak. I moved to the bedside, and again sat. I knew I was looking into her face only by the sound of her breath. I don’t know if her eyes were closed or open.
“Jonathan?” It was a question. Was she dreaming again? Was she mourning? A tearful, monosyllabic chuckle preceded another “Jonathan?” I was speechless, breathless. “I see you!”
“Oh God, Lane! Thank God! I knew you’d see me, you had to!” I stopped when I realized that she was hearing nothing.