All at Once...

Synopsis:

Your life is about to change...

All at Once...

Story:

All at Once...

by Erin Halfelven
 

It happened so fast.

One moment, the two-lane country road through eastern California farmlands held nothing but myself and a poky old bus coming towards me, probably full of farm workers ending their day in the evening twilight. The next moment, at a spot where the road narrowed to pass between the concrete abutments of one of the numerous canals in the area, two young people in a classic sixties Mustang convertible came around the bus in my lane.

I seemed to have plenty of time.

I saw the driver of the bus steer right, trying to make a third lane. He looked to be a middle-aged Hispanic man with a tattoo on his left forearm, possibly the Marine "Semper Fi" slogan with globe, eagle and anchor. His moustache bristled and his mouth scowled but his eyes stayed calm as he tried to judge the room he needed. He'd seen death before and dealt with the fear of it.

Split seconds stretched into definable moments.

I saw the young couple. The man driving the convertible had a wild look; impatient with life, he had chosen to take what might have been an inconsequential risk. He looked about twenty or twenty-five, the blond woman in the other bucket seat looked younger. Her mouth had already been open as they came around the bus--maybe laughing, I couldn't tell. Their faces changed as they realized the terror of their situation.

I calculated my narrow options and made a decision.

All three vehicles would never fit through the eye of that needle, not at more than 120 miles per hour relative speed--not enough time for the necessary margin of error. At dead slow, I doubted we would have more than two feet of total room around the wide old bus, the sporty convertible and my behemoth SUV. Faces crowded the windows of the bus; it might hold thirty or more people. I had already lived longer than both of the people in the Mustang put together. The calculus of living and dying inexorably kept coming up with the same answer.

Only the driver of the reckless Mustang could save us all.

The bus had steered right and slowed; I had done the same, careful not to stomp the brake but with a swift, hard pressure to take advantage of my anti-lock braking. If the Mustang accelerated with all the power of a 289 cubic inch V-8 in a small car, if he steered delicately around the bus then quickly swerved right to miss me while I slowed as much as I could to open a window for him, we might all live through this.

I watched the window of hope and life open then slam close.

It takes a third of a second or more to reach the brake for a driver with quick reflexes. The bus driver and I both reacted before the younger man, but he must have touched his brake in less than half a second after he came around the bus. I watched the front of the Mustang dip as he braked. He'd made the wrong choice again; now one or more of us would have to die. I knew I was already dead in that moment.

I'm no hero, but I could try to give the others a chance to live.

At our speed, I doubted I'd feel anything. Just to be sure, I took my foot off the brake and jammed it on the accelerator, another third of a second. Calmly, I steered to the right, feeling the tires bite first softer pavement, then gravel, then dirt. I debated rolling the big SUV but decided I might lose control and roll back into the path of the oncoming cars. I could try for the canal itself but if I won that bet, I would probably drown. I leaned forward, hugging the steering column, knowing the airbag would not save me.

With abrupt, savage joy, I chose the abutment at seventy, head-on.

* * *

I never expected to wake up. In fact, I felt a bit of disappointment that took me a few moments to sort out. If I had survived that crash, I must be in really bad shape--my last change of position in the cab had been deliberately selected to insure breaking my neck.

I remembered the last flash of blue as the abutment grew in the windshield, blotting out my sky. The airbag exploded against my chest and my head snapped forward as the collision forces ripped at my body. I remembered slamming backward against the seat, driven by the airbag against my momentum; my head whiplashed backward, missing the headrest because of the slewing of the off-center collision.

I didn't remember anything else until I woke up, my brain probably had not had time to register the impact that killed me. For a dead person I felt pretty good. That thought seemed funny to me and I laughed softly. I felt my breath move in and out of my chest, my diaphragm moving, my voice-box tempering the airflow, my tongue in my mouth moving back and forth with each chuckle.

I felt no pain and only a little discomfort. If I could move my diaphragm, I wasn't a quadriplegic. At that moment, I accepted the fact that I might be partially paralyzed, perhaps from the waist down--but I was alive.

I head a voice say something, but before I could sort out what had been said or react in anyway, darkness spun up and swallowed me back down.

Sleep, one of the little deaths we all enjoy. I slept. And while I slept, I dreamed or perhaps I remembered a dream.

In my dream, I walked down a long corridor into a room so filled with light that I could make out no details. Someone moved past me, perhaps a young woman, going deeper into the light. I hesitated, feeling afraid. A voice called me by name, saying, "The way is open to go forward or back. You made a choice, a sacrifice. But another door is opened, if you are not ready to come into the light, you may go back, through this other door."

A guiding hand turned me, showing me the shadowy door out of the light. "No one deserves to die, just as no one deserves to live. Both are gifts. As you chose the circumstances of your death, so you are given to choose again. Death and a journey into the light--or another life and yet another death one day."

I moved toward the dark opening in the wall of light. "Be at peace with your choice," said the voice. And just before the darkness engulfed me again, "It's a gift."

* * *

I woke up again, less surprised to be alive this time. I could hear people moving around in the room. I didn't want them to know I was awake yet so I didn't move or say anything while I took some time to think. The dream had already begun to fade but I felt certain that I had been given something precious by some force greater than humanity. I had never believed in God before, but neither had I believed in the non-existence of a Supreme Being. The personal experience felt a bit intimidating; was I expected to become a prophet and start a new religion?

Well, a religion founded on the thought that life is a gift wouldn't be that bad an idea would it? Still, having died once, I felt no eagerness to be burned at the stake, stoned in a pit, or crucified. Besides, the voice had sounded a bit like Walter Cronkite--it just seemed so improbable. I decided to keep quiet about my otherworldly experience, which in any case, had already faded to no more than a very vivid dream.

I heard machines quietly booping and beeping; and somewhere probably on the other side of a door, people rushing about on urgent business but making very little noise. I smelled clean linens, the sharp odor of disinfectant, someone's delicate perfume, and behind it all, a background smell of grime and blood and terror and sickness. I'm in a hospital room, I thought.

I tried to wiggle a toe, just to see if I could. I felt sure that it had moved; I even felt the coarse threads of the institutional linen rasping gently against my toenail.

Someone said, "I think she's awake."

Before I could think, She? She who?--someone squeezed my hand. Reflexively, I squeezed back.

"Yes!" said a voice very close to me. "Darling? Are you awake? Open your eyes, honey."

The masculine voice sounded proprietary, comanding as much as pleading. A terrible realization came over me. I opened my eyes. After I managed to focus, I saw a young man's face only a foot or so from me. At first, I thought it might be the face of the driver of the other car, but no, that man had been darker, with black hair. Red hair surrounded this face which also featured a gingery moustache and bright blue eyes, filling with tears. "Melissa?" he whispered.

Oh, hell.

I squeezed his hand and he squeezed mine back, firmly, as if claiming me. I felt a dissonant reassurance. My throat was raw and abused, unfit for talking. I'm in a hospital, I must be sick or injured; I've got a right to not talk, I decided. But--who is he? I wondered. I feared I knew.

Other voices spoke up. "Let me talk to her," said a woman. Someone touched my other hand, "Missy?" said the woman.

From the names and pronouns the conclusion was inescapable; I'm a woman, I realized. Or maybe a girl? Other questions floated around. How old am I? What do I look like? Who are these people? And most important, Who do they expect me to be?

"Punkin," said another deeper, older voice. "This is your father. Now open your eyes and say heighdy to your visitors."

Smiling involuntarily, I opened my eyes. Should I call him Daddy, I wondered. But all I could manage was an indistinct croak that might have been, "Hi."

"Hello, sweetheart," said the older man standing on my left. His tanned and weathered face broke into a sunny smile. The woman sitting next to him had soft blond hair and a worried expression. Mom, I knew she must be.

On my other side, holding my right hand, the younger man murmured, "Oh, baby."

Oh, crap.

He had to be my husband. A brother or a boyfriend would not be closer than my parents, wouldn't be touching me while they weren't. He smiled at me while tears ran down his face. Everyone had tears on their faces, me included. How can I tell them I'm not who they think I am, I wondered.

It seemed such a waste of a miracle, to send someone back to them who wasn't the person they had lost.

A nurse, no, a doctor, began rushing them out of the room. "You can talk to Melissa later," she said. "We've got work to do."

They said goodbye reluctantly and almost had to be forced out. The two older people called the young man, "Sean", and the doctor called him, "Mr. Hanrahan." The old couple, my parents apparently, were Sue and Henry MacGowan. I would have to learn the spelling later. The doctor's name was something Slavic with too many consonants and ending in "-ski." She was tiny, probably less than five feet tall with features sharpened by intensity, black hair in a braid, and serious gray eyes.

She turned to me. "We took the respirator out when you started breathing on your own, half an hour ago. Can you talk yet?"

That explained the sore throat. "A little," I croaked.

"Nurse," said Dr. Ski, "get her some water."

They helped me sit up. There were tubes in my arms; the ones in my left arm running up to a machine that beeped and booped and had several plastic bags full of clear liquid hanging from a rack above it. More tubes disappeared under the covering on the bed. I didn't want to think about it but they probably accounted for the peculiar, stuffed uncomfortableness between my legs.

I sipped water appreciatively while the nurse held the cup and straw; my hands were too shaky to hold anything. Dr. Ski looked into my eyes and throat and the nurse did medical things like taking pulses and writing in charts until my throat felt good enough to talk.

Dr. Ski took the chair beside my bed and rested a clipboard on the bed rail. "Do you know where you are?" she asked.

"A hospital," I said.

She nodded. "Do you know your name?"

"I think so. I'm Melissa MacGowan Hanrahan?" I unconsciously made it a question.

She made a mark on the chart. "Do you know what day it is?"

"Not a clue," I said.

"Who's the president of the United States?" she asked.

I smiled. "You'd better ask the Supreme Court."

She marked that down, too, but she smiled.

It occurred to me that the joke might be stale--I had no idea how long I'd been in whatever existence the room filled with light represented. "What is the date?" I asked.

"October 12, 2005," she said, watching me.

I may have shown some surprise; it was only a day after I had driven east from San Diego with papers for one of my Imperial Valley clients. I felt very weak, like someone who has been in a hospital bed for several days. It didn't make sense, but why should it. I shouldn't have been alive at all, much less answering questions in Melissa's body.

"What happened?" I asked.

"What do you remember?" she countered.

I frowned. I couldn't tell her the truth. "I don't remember anything." A plausible truth--I didn't remember any details of Melissa's life.

She wrote something down and consulted some notes. "When you told me your name did you remember that or figure it out from conversation?"

I sighed. "I must have figured it out because I don't remember."

She nodded. "You use Heather as a middle name instead of MacGowan," she told me.

Heather? "Oh." Heather sounded nice; better than Melissa.

"Would you drive a Buick or eat it?" she asked.

"Uh, drive it?" The question startled me.

"Who's Snoopy?"

"A cartoon dog."

"Who's Snoop Dogg?"

"A cartoon person," I joked. I looked at my arm to be sure; pinkish beige, at least I wouldn't have to pretend to like rap music.

"How much is seven times twelve?"

I had to work that one out. "Eighty four, I think."

"Is purple a preposition, adjective or noun?"

"Adjective, unless you have a bag of purples." An old joke, based on a BC cartoon the doctor was probably too young to have seen.

"What's your birthday?"

I shook my head.

"October 20, 1977," she said. That startled me, the day and month were right but the year was off by decades.

I did some more quick math. "I'm twenty eight?" I asked.

"You will be next week," she said.

I would have a lot of new names and dates to remember, I thought.

Dr. Ski looked at me carefully. "How old is your daughter?" she asked.

I don't know what color I turned, but she jumped up quickly and called a nurse over.

"I'm all right," I managed.

"You didn't know you had a daughter?" she asked.

"No," I said.

"You have two, and a son," she said. "Nine, six and two."

"Oh, lord," I murmured. "I'm Catholic, aren't I?"

She laughed softly, "As a matter of fact, yes. According to your intake information, at least."

"What are their names?"

"Perhaps you'd best discuss that with your family," she said.

I nodded. "I still don't know what happened," I said. The idea of someone calling me Mommy and expecting mothering filled me with dread and terror. I decided I'd rather not talk about it, either.

"You passed out at a party, fell and hit your head. You weren't breathing when the paramedics reached you. You've been in a coma since August 6th." She stopped. "We used an experimental therapy on you, a new drug. There are only a handful of cases of recovery from a profound coma using this drug. And every case is different."

"No wonder I feel weak," I said. "More than two months, I'm probably going to need physical therapy." I'd once handled the affairs of a man who had been in a coma for more than a year. He had been forced to sue the hospital, for not keeping his joints functioning, in order to cover his medical expenses and physical therapy bills.

She looked at me curiously. "A modest amount, you've lost muscle tone but there shouldn't be any serious problems."

"How soon can I be out of here?"

"We need to run some tests, perhaps by the weekend," she said then added, "it's Wednesday," when she saw me open my mouth to ask. "Your husband and mother have been here everyday, moving your arms and legs, fingers and toes."

I didn't know what to say to that. Melissa had been loved; I didn't know how that should make me feel but I felt something like an impostor.

"I need to pee," I said suddenly. It had taken awhile to recognize that feeling. Things had changed and there was plumbing in the way.

"We've been clamping your catheter since yesterday, to build strength in your bladder. We'll unclamp it now and perhaps remove it in the morning."

I nodded. It probably wasn't as bad for a woman, but I'd been catheterized once, after I got shot up in Nam, and it hadn't been a joyful experience when they removed it. I didn't look forward to that a bit.

In fact, I seemed to have a lot of trial and trouble to look forward to. I didn't know the first thing about being a woman, a wife, or a mother. I'd never married, never had kids. I'd kept my relations with women casual and had done without intimacy for twenty years. Even during my annual pro bono week with the juvenile court, I seldom came in contact with real live children.

My ribs hurt when I tried to take a deep breath, but I did it anyway. Muscles that had been under-used for weeks protested when I stretched out my legs. No sciatica. I ran a hand weakly through my hair, examining it. Long and blond, I wouldn't be needing the Rogaine anymore. I smiled.

Dr. Ski smiled back. "It's good to be alive, isn't it? Alive and awake to enjoy it."

I nodded. "It's a gift."

Notes:

This story is a sort of sequel to "Soul Survivor" and perhaps "Sam I am" and even more remotely, Lainie Lee and Boychiq's "Esperanza". -- Erin

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