It throbbed so much it bordered on pain. Braden had become accustomed to the white, jagged scar that circled his left forearm and twisted like a snake towards his palm. Over the past three years it had healed to a shiny pinkish surface and it had ached less with each passing year. Now, its surface bulged with a puckered, white appearance. And it was hot.
Beaded sweat ran from his forehead and into his eyes. He felt as if he were going mad. The past week alone, he had seen things practically appear in front of his eyes, heard a woman's voice speaking softly in his ear when no one was there, and had a headache that no drug seemed able to counter and he couldn't blame on alcohol.
As Braden sat in front of the empty television screen, alone in his living room, he tried not to think about it. Not tonight. Please, not tonight. I hurt. But he knew his own mind, knew that the more he tried not to think about it, the more assuredly it would enter his thoughts and bridge the distance from his subconscious to his waking mind. He saw the beginning, Ashley and himself, in the car.
Lurching from the couch, Braden stumbled to the stairs. Gripping the oak rail tightly, he steadied himself against the havoc the headache caused to his center of balance. Up the stairs he went, brow furrowed in pain, until he reached the landing then turned left directly into the bedroom. The bed was unmade, the covers tossed carelessly about. Just like my life, he thought listlessly. He slumped buttocks to mattress and pulled open the small drawer to the wooden stand. Inside was his medicine. He would need it. The headache had come early this evening, and coupled with the burning sensation in his arm, it boded a long sleepless night.
The cap came off easily in his practiced fingers and the bottle arced in its well-traveled route as he aimed for his lips. He hadn't bothered with the light. This routine was as familiar to him as breathing. Alcohol, rum flavored, poured into his gullet and warmed him from esophagus to stomach. A quarter of a bottle later, he eased back and set the rum on the stand. Now he was burning inside and out.
He sat for a few minutes, waiting for the first light tickling of alcohol to stir his brain. As heat crept through his blood, he couldn't help himself. A steering wheel was in front of him. He blinked hard, trying to erase the searing image. Again, he grabbed the rum bottle. Again, he sucked back a good portion. Again, the steering wheel appeared. Tears blurred his vision but could not dampen that damned steering wheel. Its image was clear and stark, just as he had seen it three years ago.
They were driving, he and Ashley, going for the last checkup. The doctor had told them everything was fine. It would be a perfect baby. They just needed to do some final tests and then it would be up to the baby to decide when it would make its appearance.
Up ahead, Braden could see the country road's graveled surface start into a steep curve.
Ashley liked the country, had wanted their first house to be out of the city. Braden had agreed. Only married for two years, and his salary as a corporation business programmer had afforded them opportunities that most couples could only dream about. They had their house with the white picket fence. It was only a 20 minute drive to the suburbs and from there another five minutes to work. Braden liked the fresh air in the morning. It cleared his head and prepared him for the busy, stagnant office environment.
Ashley put her career as an executive secretary on hold in order to have a baby while they were young and could easily afford it. Her job would be waiting for her after the infant's birth. Things had been planned perfectly.
The car started into the turn.
After settling in their home, their first night of celebration had produced a positive result. They had become pregnant; happily pregnant. Both Braden and Ashley smiled happily, nine months later, as they rounded the first part of the curve that was to change everything in their lives.
Four wheel drive was made for the terrain but the February snow-slicked gravel road did not forgive modern technology.
Braden wanted it to stop, but couldn't. The images played out just as they had for three years on a nightly basis. The alcohol in his system didn't do its job tonight by blurring the images and bubbled ineffectively in his brain. In fact, it seemed to add a clarity and a slow motion effect.
Braden tried to fight the road but the wheels wouldn't take. Just when he seemed to gain control, the car with its fancy new independent four-wheel drive suspension slid even faster toward the guardrail and the small embankment beyond. The vehicle crashed into and over the rail, and started its journey to the bottom of the minor but steep gulch. Towards the trees.
Braden screamed. Ashley screamed. The car roared through empty space into the stand of trees and came to a sudden, sickening halt. Instinctively, Braden's left arm came up to protect his face as his belt broke. The state of the art air bag did not inflate and he was thrown through the windshield. He could feel and hear the glass breaking against his arm, sensed the rush of frigid air as he was thrown from the car. His position, when he landed with lung-whooshing impact, enabled Braden to see into the vehicle he had just vacated, enabled him to see Ashley hanging through the broken windshield. Her eyes were closed and there was blood seeping from her mouth.
After the darkness gave way to a well lit room, Braden realized he was in the hospital. When his senses enabled him to formulate the question, he cried in agony at the answer he received. Both gone. Wife and child dead. The doctor had commiserated but he couldn't know the degree, the depth of what stabbed Braden's soul.
Braden gripped the rum bottle once more and poured the remaining liquid into a throat-searing swallow. The tears that ran from his eyes were tears of pain, but not that caused by the burning of his throat. After draining the bottle, he looked at the label, as if seeing it for the first time: Captain Morgan's Dark Rum. He blinked against the dimness of his room and with sudden impulse, hurled the glass container against the wall where it burst in a shower of glittering fragments to join other fragments that lay about from previous bottles' flights.
Drinking seemed to be the only consolation after that day. Sure, the insurance paid everything; the funeral, the vehicle, the house, all the items that would make his life comfortable. But his life wasn't comfortable, wasn't liveable. He lost his job and didn't care. His house was paid for. He had no need to work. A monthly stipend from the insurance company kept him in drink and groceries. But his love for Ashley ran deep, was a current that was a part of him. Without that current, there was nothing to live for. Braden was a coward and knew it. He could not take his own life with a brave thrust of a knife against wrists or with a hot speedy bullet to the brain. So, Braden tried to drink himself to death. He never succeeded; couldn't succeed. Passing out before he could reach the point of alcohol poisoning, he always awoke with a hammer banging away at the inside of his skull. You're still alive. Bang. You're still alive. Bang.
And lately, Braden had begun having visions. The alcohol, of course. That's what he blamed it on. After three years of constant drinking, there was little doubt it was having an effect on his mind. Yesterday, when he had gone to the liquor store, he had been sure the his car was black. Today it was dark blue. Yesterday, there had been a fence bordering his property. Today there was a hedge just outside the fence that he hadn't noticed previously. They were just little things like that, but disconcerting all the same.
Braden knew he was messed up. His once trim 175 pound six- foot frame had spread into 210 pounds, belly-over-belt. He didn't care and drank to forget it. It was easy to get drunk now, easier than letting sobriety leave him in a sobbing, broken state. Three years of pain and not one moment of alleviation. No wonder his mind had collapsed.
Then, just today he began hearing a voice, a female voice -- her voice. It whispered in his ear, bodiless, following him wherever he fled, just as it was doing now.
"Please, Braden, talk to me. Let me know you can hear me, my love. I'm so lonely without you. Come to me, Braden."
The whispers had gotten louder, were crashing against his eardrums. Braden felt he could almost reach out and touch Ashley, but knew it would be only an empty embrace.
"Can't you hear me? Please. I miss you so much. I just want us to be together again."
Drunk, Braden didn't know how he managed to hold the can long enough to pour the gasoline throughout the house. The match he had lit was quickly burning down, was about to singe his fingers. He couldn't let go. The last dregs of survival instinct clamored at his senses and screamed in his guts. It was the heat of the match that caused his fingers to reflexively open. The still burning splinter of wood dropped onto the gas- soaked carpet. Flames started rapidly, eating through furniture like a ravenous beast suddenly given sustenance.
"Please, Braden. Please come to me."
Braden fell into a sitting position and just watched as the fire spread. Peculiarly, he could feel no heat, as if his pain sensors had shut down with the dropping of the match. But he could see waves of it rippling in front of him, dissolving his home with orange-red fingers of flame. Black smoke filled the air and rolled about in the enclosed space. His breathing was unaffected.
"Come to me, Braden. I need you."
Darkness tunneled his vision and reduced the spectacle of the fire to a microscopic view, then completely covered his mind.
Pinpricks of pain. That was light shining in his eyes. He kept his eyelids tightly shut, trying to block out the beams.
"You're right. He's conscious."
Braden smelled antiseptic. He recognized the smell, knew it for the scent of a hospital. Once again, he had failed in his quest for suicide.
"I told you! Didn't I tell you?"
An ecstatic voice. A female voice. Ashley's voice.
Braden's eyes flew open, heedless of the sunlight that basked the room in a brilliant glow. He couldn't believe it. There, beside the bed, squeezing his fingers painfully in her tiny hand was Ashley. She seemed to have aged, to have gained a few pounds in her face, but it was her. Alive.
"Oh, my God! What's going on?" Braden's voice was raspy, sounded like a whisper even though he thought he had shouted. Smoke inhalation must have damaged his vocal chords.
There were tears in Ashley's eyes. To her right stood a man in a white coat, obviously a doctor. He was shaking his head with a stunned expression on his face.
"I've never seen it happen like this before," he said, bemused. "After three years, they almost never come back. We've got to get him in for a cat scan. I've got to take a look at him stat."
A flurry of activity answered the doctor's press of the call button. His directions were met with instant action, and Braden was unhooked from equipment that had been monitoring him, taken from the bed and placed on a stretcher, which was wheeled swiftly to a room further down the hall. Braden's head was scanned and he could hear cries of amazement coming from the observation room. Just as quickly, he was taken back to his room and his waiting wife. He had no time to ask questions during this entire process.
"I'll be back shortly," said the doctor. "Your wife will explain."
Ashley, eyes wet and shining, wrapped her arms around him and hugged him fiercely. Braden was speechless. For three years he had believed his wife dead. Now her physical presence had stunned him beyond all vocal power. He hugged her back, noticing how weak his own hug felt. For the first time, he looked at himself. There was no belly. His arms were thin and wasted. Again the question, what the hell was going on?
"Ashley." His voice was a low frog croak.
"Shhh. Don't try to talk," she said gently. "You've got to build your strength up so you can come home." She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a white handkerchief.
"The fire. There's nothing to go back to."
"I set it on fire, Ashley. They told me you were dead. I couldn't handle it any more. I burned everything."
Ashley's brow furrowed in confusion. "There was no fire, Braden. And how could you have started a fire? You've been in a coma since the accident."
"Coma? But I thought you got killed in the crash." Braden's voice was picking up strength.
"Braden, you've been in that hospital bed for the past three years. They told me you were almost brain dead. They kept telling me that you would never wake up. But I knew. I knew. I was with you almost every evening. I began by reading to you. Lately, I've been begging. Latham has been without a mother almost every night. Oh, that's right. You don't know. It was a boy, Braden. I used the name you picked out."
His mind whirling in confusion, Braden did the only thing at the moment he could do and passed out.
Dr. Nycum told him that what had occurred amounted to a small miracle. Braden's head had been bashed in by a tree trunk on his flight from the car. This had resulted in brain damage and coma. The doctor took a photograph out of Braden's file to show him the result. The cat scan photo depicted a dark silhouette with very few points of brightness. Medical equipment had kept his body functions working over the past three years, but the hospital staff was beyond hope that he would ever awaken given the destruction to Braden's gray matter. Dr. Nycum produced another photo. This was a generic photo of a normal person, with dark and light areas over both hemispheres of the brain. Then, he produced Braden's latest scan. There was a ring of bright light at the outer reaches of his brain, while the middle, where the most damage had occurred, was dark.
"What does this mean?" Braden asked.
"It means that we are no closer to discovering how the brain functions then we were ten years ago. The brain is a sensitive instrument and as we've always known, does not have the capability to heal like other body tissues."
The doctor glanced in Braden's direction. Braden kept eating, trying to nourish a body that hadn't seen solid food for a long time.
"I've never seen this happen before and we can only come to one conclusion. Because we kept you alive, your brain decided that since you weren't going to die something had to be done. All your neural pathways have been rerouted, all information bypasses the damaged area. The normally unused portions of your brain have been brought into play. In effect, your brain reprogrammed itself."
"But am I normal?" Braden paused at the dessert, then dug in as his stomach started its demands.
"We'll do further testing for reflexes and cognitive ability. But preliminary testing indicates that you're as capable as any normal adult male. As I said, this amounts to something that may make medical history."
"What about the fact that I seemed to be living a normal life while in a coma? I didn't just dream that. It was too vivid, too real."
"Your biological clock kept time for you while your brain was reworking neural passageways. Apparently, it kept you occupied with real life events, as if you were still consciously alive, with all the physical and mental stimulation to make it seem like you were living on a daily basis. That may be some kind of sanity saving mechanism. I've never known a coma patient to come to with any memory of anything other than the last moments before succumbing to unconsciousness. Apparently, the brain can think on a level that is undetectable by hospital instruments and did so in your case. I can't give you any more definitive answer than that. You are the only one that has had this experience, so it's something totally new to all of us."
Six weeks later, Braden was home with Ashley and Latham. He had seen the boy while in the hospital, but in the freedom of his own, unburnt home, he was able to act more like a father and not like an invalid patient. Latham favored his mother in that his hair was spun gold, his eyes ice-blue, his face triangular with china doll features. But his devil-may-care attitude and unquenchable curiosity, that he got from Braden.
Braden put on weight. While in the coma he had slipped to 145 pounds, but he was rapidly gaining on the 175 pounds he had maintained before the accident. There was no scar on his arm, other than a thin pink scratch. And it never ached, throbbed or otherwise bothered him. Alcohol was never thought of. It had been mentioned once, but Braden didn't think champagne was necessary to celebrate his return to meaningful life. He and Ashley celebrated in a different manner, which to Braden was much more fulfilling than any drink could provide.
His job was reinstated, although it was not the original position he had occupied. On the stepladder of success, Braden once again had to start at the bottom rung. The coma had not seemed to affect him in the performance of his duties, and over the next two years, step by step, Braden made his way to the rung he held before the accident.
In the meantime, Ashley continued in her position as executive secretary. Braden was amazed at her tenacity, her undying strength. While he had been in a coma, Ashley had worked every day at her job, come home and spent time with Latham to give the babysitter a break, then spent the night at the hospital, reading to him, trying to rouse Braden to consciousness. In the end, Braden thought it was her faith that caused him to come to. He had heard her while in the coma in the form of that bodiless voice. He had felt her need of him.
When Latham turned five, it was decided that Braden would take him to the school. A parent was required for first day orientation. Thereafter a yellow school bus would stop in front of the house to pick the boy up in the morning and deposit him back later in the day. Ashley couldn't get time off work. Braden could.
Ashley gave Braden precise directions to get to the building. She had received the instructions from the school when registering Latham. Braden had not traveled the route before, but felt he couldn't get lost on the one road that meandered through their area.
"This is Latham's first day of school," Ashley whispered in his ear as she picked up her briefcase and kissed Braden lightly on the cheek.
"So it is," he responded, grinning.
"There might be need for celebration this evening."
Braden's grin grew larger and never left his face even while he was buckling Latham into the black family sedan. He slid into the driver's seat, then waved as Ashley backed out of the driveway in the Jeep which had become the work vehicle. Braden liked the Jeep. It hugged the road with a solid assurance whenever he and Ashley drove to work in the morning.
Following the directions Ashley had thoughtfully written down, Braden drove a few miles. He recognized some areas along the way. He had occasionally driven as far as the store that serviced the small community. The school was supposed to be a mile past the store.
"Nervous?" he asked the small boy who was gazing out the window at tree-lined scenery.
"Nah. Mom told me all about it. It's just like Sesame Park only it's not on TV. I get to play instead of just watching."
Play. Braden grinned. His own school years had been more of a torture for his teachers as he had been fairly precocious. Given Latham's attitude, Braden knew what was in the school's future and pitied the teaching staff.
Past the store, there appeared to be a fog bank lying across the road. Braden flicked on the headlights, slowed the vehicle, and entered cautiously. All outside light disappeared. With or without headlamps, Braden couldn't see past the hood of the car. Nervously, images of a prior accident flooding his mind, he braked and put the car into park.
"What's wrong, dad?" Latham looked curiously at his father.
"Can't see to drive. We may have to wait a little bit for this fog to burn off."
Latham turned his head in all directions, then glanced back at his father. "There's no fog, dad."
Something cold grasped the back of Braden's neck. "That gray bank all around us. That's fog."
"There's the road up ahead. There's trees all around us. You're joking, right?"
The cold on Braden's neck got icier still. "Wait here," he said to Latham, and got out of the car.
Braden couldn't see the ground, just a gray area where the ground should be. All around him, other than the car, there was nothing, a gray blankness that pervaded everything. He reached out to touch something, anything. His fingers touched nothing. Then he noticed that he seemed to be floating even though his feet were flat under him as if he were standing. He could no longer feel any pressure of gravity against his feet. Panicking, he looked toward the car. It was gone. Nothing surrounded him. It wasn't fog. It was nothingness.
"Latham!" Braden's mind swam, crashed, and threw him into unconsciousness.
Tears in Braden's eyes softened the blow of the bright penlight. There was a strong smell of antiseptic in the air. The man in the white coat with the small name placard that read: Dr. Cinkant, released his eyelid and leaned back. "Well, this is a first," he said.
"I told you I saw movement. I thought he was going to wake." A voice. A female voice.
Braden's head whipped toward the sound. The small black nurse had two fingers on his wrist, checking his pulse manually.
"Where am I?" asked Braden.
"Where you've been for the past five years," answered the doctor. "Brace yourself, sir. You've been in a coma."
"I know that. But that was two years ago. Where's Ashley? What happened to Latham? Did somebody notice the car?"
The doctor and nurse exchanged glances. "If you're talking about the car that was in the accident, sir, it was totally written off."
"Where's Dr. Nycum? Where's my wife?" Braden's voice was increasing in strength, verging on a scream.
"Calm down, sir," said the doctor, soothingly. "Nurse, go get a sedative, please." The little black woman hurried out of the room.
"I don't understand. What's happening?"
"I know you're confused. After all, it's been five years. I'll try to break this to you as gently as I can. Your wife didn't make it. I'm sorry."
"Confused? You bet I'm confused! My wife and son did make it. I was just driving him to school until we hit that fog bank."
"Sir, I'm sorry. It's normal for patients to be disoriented after first waking from a coma. Just try to relax and we'll help you through it."
"Relax, hell! I want my wife. I want my son!" Braden's shouts began to weaken as understanding filtered through. He had still been in the coma. When he thought he had first awakened to find his wife and son waiting for him, that had been a dream. And the dream had broken when he drove that unfamiliar stretch of road to the school. He had never been there so his mind could not supply the details to keep it real. At that point, realism vanished and he had awakened.
The nurse reappeared. In her hands was a syringe filled with a colorless fluid. Braden studied her for a moment as lethargy crept over his mind. Surrealistically, she dimmed, as if a lens to a camera had lost focus. Then, the image became sharp once again. Now her hair was blond, kept tidied by the nurse's cap, and her ice-blue eyes looked at him in sympathy out of a pale face. Ashley brought the needle closer.
Braden jerked his arm back out of reach. "No! This can't be real. Ashley!" Braden's mind swam again as the scene dissolved into gray blankness, then the blackness of unconsciousness overtook him.
"I told you I saw movement. I thought he was going to wake." A voice. A female voice. There was a strong antiseptic odor.
Braden opened his eyes and looked at the nurse and the doctor standing by her side. He began to scream. The gray blankness returned.
"I told you I saw movement..."