Jessica doesn’t know that she’s about to die. Meghan isn’t quite sure how she knows this, but then there are a lot of things that Meghan doesn’t understand. It could be that her skull is half-empty. Or, that maybe her mind integrates stimuli different than other people. Whatever the reason, her ability to interpret her surroundings have grown exceedingly difficult since the bicycle accident. The surgeons, in their blood-soaked scrubs and aprons, spent eight, painstaking hours beneath circular LED bulbs stitching her back to one piece. With a reduced brain, Meghan had to relearn to live again, to eat, walk, write, and talk.
What nobody could predict was just how well she would accomplish these things or what would become of her emotions and distorted view of reality afterwards. Imagined ideas and worries obscure her thoughts like thick smoke. Her reality is more like a mirrored corridor, with each extension only leading further from the truth. Most days, Meghan does all right. But sometimes, dark thoughts roll in, fast as shadows over a playground. Today, such a storm loomed in the blank spots of her mind.
* * *
Jessica held Meghan’s art picture between thumb and finger. Her brows slanted above the top of the parchment. Meghan curled her toes up tight in her shoes. This helped to avert the tics she had whenever she grew nervous, angry, or scared, a side effect from having only half a brain. “I’m not done with it!” she said. Her voice came out like a punch.
“Meghan, I haven’t even said anything yet.” Jessica searched Meghan’s eyes, just like the doctors whenever they tried to interpret her hot reactions. Of course, she had become moodier since the accident, but people still gave her that dubious stare, the one that said, “Maybe her behavior is more of a personality trait rather than the effects of injury, one that she should try harder to control.”
“No, but you want to,” Meghan said. “I can tell.” (Tic!) She shifted her stance to hide the jerk that snapped her head to the side.
“What I want to say,” Jessica paused to look at the picture again, “is that this is a beautiful portrayal of your pain. The dark gray silhouette is descriptive of what you are feeling and how you view the world.” She tapped her lips with nails Meghan thought were too long and too pink. “The empty playground suggests that maybe you want to play again, but for some reason, can’t?”
Meghan could only handle one psychiatrist in her life. “It’s not my pain.” She plucked the paper from Jessica’s hand. “It’s just a thought I keep having.” She looked at the merry-go-round on the horizon. She had never actually seen the merry-go-round in her thoughts, but she could hear it, the squeal of metal grinding against metal.
Jessica leaned into Meghan, examining her picture again. “Is that building on fire?” she asked, pointing to smeared charcoal that made up the sky.
“Yes. But I haven’t finished the flames.”
Jessica’s eyes skipped to hers, an uneasy flicker lit from the center of her pupil. “You are having dreams about the fire drill again?”
The art center had conducted a fire drill last year. Meghan, with half a brain, thought that the building really was on fire. Nightmares had plagued her for weeks afterwards.
Meghan shook her head. “They aren’t dreams this time. I know that it is going to happen.” She looked at Jessica, among other bad things.
Jessica gave Meghan’s arm a gentle squeeze. “If you want to skip Ed’s birthday party tonight, we would all understand, Meghan. I know your days are harder than ours.”
Ed was the schedule manager at the center, a position he had worked at nearly his entire adult life. He expected everyone to be at his party and would give those who didn’t show a cold shoulder. That would make two cold shoulders for Meghan, for Ed kept no secrets about his opinion that he thought her volunteering would be more suited elsewhere.
“Like maybe the nut factory down the street,” Meghan heard her dead mother say.
The cold chill of her mother’s breath gave Meghan a shiver. A few years ago, swelling in Meghan’s brain almost took her life. She died on the operating table for two whole minutes. One thing Meghan had never told anyone was that, sometimes, when you come back from the dead, you don’t come back alone.
Since that day, Meghan has heard and seen her dead mother, Carol. The ethereal figure looks like her mother and sounds like her mother, but there is something different about her, meaner, as if death had stained her soul. It’s not the mother she used to know and certainly not one she wants to get to know.
“I’m fine,” Meghan told Jessica. “I want to go. Besides, I love cake.”
Jessica smiled at her, but it held pity in the drooped corners of her mouth. “The party starts in an hour. You want a ride?”
“No!” Meghan burst.
Jessica frowned and glanced around them—nobody liked the attention that a mentally challenged person attracted. “You don’t have to yell,” she said, shushing her.
But the coroner will be taking your pulse in forty-five minutes! Meghan’s thoughts screamed. He wouldn’t take mine, because surely with a half-empty skull, I’ll be dead!
“Dead as a doornail,” her mother replied.
Panic brought on the nightmares from her paintings. They flashed and skipped like black and white 8mm reel film behind Meghan’s lids. Flames, like those from a dragon’s breath, devoured a building, alarms climbed in pitch, oscillating through the streets, and people stormed through the halls, no different from rats in tunnels before the flood of water. Smoke rose against an orange-stained sky, gold ochre in her painting. And across the parking lot, in the field, a silhouette…
“Meghan?” Jessica shook her arm. Her eyes were two blue disks in a sphere of white.
Meghan knew that she had gone flat again. Moments when her breath dried up, her eyes softened to slits, and her arms dropped motionless to her sides. But not her thoughts. They raced around in her head, a disturbed-bee kind of way. People whispered about her episodes, muffled words about how she looked like she’d left her body, gone somewhere perhaps before the accident—a place from where she didn’t want to return from.
“Meghan?” Jessica said, again. She stepped back and waved her hand in front of Meghan’s face.
Meghan blinked her eyes. A shiver darted beneath her skin. Meghan tightened her toes, but it was too late. Her head snapped twice to the left. (Tic! Tic!)
Jessica sat her down on a bench in the hall and wrapped her arm around her. She and Jessica were never that close, but Meghan imagined it made her feel better.
“Meghan, the bad stuff you see…it isn’t real,” she said. “It’s only a release of your worries and what scares you.”
Maybe that much was true, Meghan agreed with a muted nod. Across the hallway, she noticed her art instructor, Samuel, leaving the classroom and heading toward his office. He was one of the few people that Meghan trusted. He saw past what blinded others, understood the heart of her paintings—and he never made her explain what she didn’t want to.
Meghan stood from the bench. “I want to show Samuel my painting. I’ll be right back.” She locked her eyes on Jessica. Still, with no idea of how she was going to stop her impending death, she knew she had to try. “Don’t leave, okay? I’ll go with you after all.”
“All right,” Jessica said, checking the clock on her phone, “but make it fast. I have to run to the bank first.”
Meghan turned and ran to Samuel’s office. She popped her head around the door frame. He wasn’t there. She went inside, beset with strange awkwardness at being in his office without him. Was she welcome or not? She decided to leave him the picture with a note on the back.
Behind his desk, Samuel kept a cork board on the wall. He called it his ‘Wall of Never Doubt.’ It was tacked full of pictures from Arequipa, Peru, southern parts of Africa, and a sunset picture taken at the rim of the Grand Canyon. Handwritten notes, bits of poetic quotes, and artwork lined along the sides of the board.
Samuel would lay long, dark fingers across each item, telling Meghan, “Belief is the key to success and happiness. If we don’t believe, what have we?” He took her hand in his and held it tight. “More importantly,” he added, “who are we? These places, these people,” he pointed to one of her paintings, “these visions have power when we believe in them.”
Meghan believed in Samuel.
She flipped the painting over and wrote his name in the upper left corner. She had written it many times—her favorite doodle. She savored its design, how the S would curve and snake around the other letters. The ‘a’ looped off the ‘S’, and the ‘m’ made a hook at the end where the ‘u’ and the ‘e’ were cradled. Then, the ‘l’ curled up high, circling around before its majestic arch down, a finish worthy of Samuel. She wanted to give him the picture personally and tell him about the visions she painted. Actually, they weren’t visions, more like visitations with her dead mother:
At night, when Meghan couldn’t sleep, her mother would glide forth from the shadows of her room, wearing the tattered bathrobe they had buried her in. She joked about how she still had both of her hemispheres, yet, she was the one who was dead. She pulled a large pair of clippers from her bathrobe and told Meghan that she was going to clip off her toenails if she didn’t stop curling her toes. The covers on the bed flipped back, but Meghan’s one-hemisphere-brain wasn’t always dysfunctional, and she had put her shoes on before she went to sleep. She tapped the soles together, clappity-clap, and her mother chortled, an awful rasp of a giggle, before shuffling back into the corners of shadows, back into death.
Meghan left most of this out of her note to Samuel, but she did mention that her mother had told her, “Life is a cycle of many. There is no present, only the past and the future, and that to pinpoint the exact instant of now would be an infinite journey.”
Meghan thought Samuel would enjoy hearing these things because of his interest in near-death experiences, especially since it had come from the tongue of a ghost.
She stepped around his chair and laid the note in the center of his desk. In case the breeze of a person, vent, or door should blow it off his desk, she put a stapler on top of it. A sense of accomplishment and excitement at hearing Samuel’s feedback instilled her with completion. She walked back to the art room where Jessica had been waiting. Jessica wasn’t there either.
Meghan speculated that she was waiting for her in her car. She headed for the entrance. Ed stood, knees buckled with fat, rounded calves, by the doors. He held a bouquet of colorful and bright birthday balloons.
Her mother giggled. “He’s turning forty-three, but clearly, he’s still twelve.”
Ed turned to her, his frown contrasting with the rainbow above his head. “Jessica said to give you a ride. She had to stop by the bank and didn’t want to be late.”
Ed didn’t look happy about the arrangement, and for once, Meghan shared mutual feelings with him.
The bank…Dark thoughts crossed her again. That is when she makes her mistake!
“No!” she yelled. “We have to stop her! We have to save her!” Meghan ran outside, ignoring Ed’s spiteful remark. Jessica’s white Honda cornered onto the street. Brake lights failed to gleam because she didn’t see or hear Meghan.
…The bad stuff you see isn’t real.
That was what Jessica had told her.
But what if she was wrong?
Meghan ran after her. “Jessica, wait!”
At the intersection, the silver muffler on Jessica’s car purred loudly. She sped through the yellow light. One block down, Meghan spotted the city bus. She ran for the curb at the next signal. The bus wheels rolled to a stop and an older woman with Jell-O arms pushed open the doors. Meghan climbed the stairs, toes curled tight. She had never ridden a city bus by herself before.
“How much?” she asked the driver.
The woman, barely glancing in her direction, swung the bus into traffic with meaty arms wrapped around the wheel. “Eighty-five cents,” she spat.
Meghan dropped two quarters, three dimes, and one nickel into the slot. The weighty stares of strange strangers halted her step to the front-row seat. The cushion was cold and hard. The bus smelled pungent, like boiling vegetables. Meghan looked out the window. Dusk threw shadows between the streets, which, mixed with a thick drizzle, blurred the view out the windshield of the bus. The wipers skidded arched streaks of dirt and grime across the glass and slapped against the sides of the bus. The metrical beat pulsed several paces slower than Meghan’s heart. She imagined Jessica’s car was several blocks ahead of her. The dread that she might not be able to stop the accident inundated her with nervous energy. She couldn’t sit still and rocked back and forth in her seat.
“Remember,” her mother said, “the future is actually the past.”
Meghan struggled to understand that one and didn’t think it was a result of her half-empty skull.
She scanned the traffic ahead, bobbing her head side to side to look around the vehicles that lined the streets. Ahead, lights flashed, spinning red and blue. Meghan felt her insides slide down.
It couldn’t be. She bent her toes under and held her breath. No. It has to be someone else—the bad stuff I see isn’t real.
“You can’t pick and choose what should or shouldn’t exist, sweetheart,” her mother said.
“You really are crazy,” said the 43-year-old man with rainbow balloons.
“These visions have power when we believe in them.” Samuel.
The sight of twisted metal sparked a panic below Meghan’s ribs. She stretched for a view and saw within the smash of wreckage, the cars were bright, blue and red, not white—not Jessica’s car.
Meghan let out her breath, loud enough that the bus driver looked up in the mirror at her. Her small, green eyes narrowed even further into a bulbous nose. “Something wrong?” she asked.
Meghan shook her head but didn’t bother to reply. She saved her explanations for questions she couldn’t get out of answering.
Once the bus passed the flashing lights of the patrol car, it became obvious that the more serious wreck ahead was to blame for the fender-bender behind them. A long, silver cylinder of a liquid-carrying semi-truck lay on its side. Meghan knew Jessica’s white Honda was involved. She knew it like she knew she was going to crash her bike crossing the bridge that day. How just seconds after the car’s horn had blasted behind her, time had slowed. So much, that she could feel the weight of the future reaching into the past. The future is the past...Meghan wondered if that was what her mother’s riddle meant.
At the next stop, Meghan got off the bus. The golden skirt of the streetlamp fell over an old man, wearing a hat and holding a cane. He stood hunched over. Ice-blue eyes rested steady on her. Something in them brought Meghan’s tics to the surface, as if his eyes were really tunnels that might pull her into another world.
He lifted a curled finger at her, opened his mouth, but Meghan turned away, scared of what he was about to say. She ran towards the accident, glancing over her shoulder. The old man watched her cross the road with a smile that fed her thoughts with unease.
A crowd of people gathered around the scene. Meghan made her way to the front where emergency crews rushed about with stretchers and medical supply cases. A police officer rolled yellow tape around street hurdles, blockading the onlookers. A few streets down, a fire truck roared its horn. The loud sound jolted Meghan. (Tic!). But she wasn’t falling off her bike this time; she was falling into another nightmare—the future becoming the past.
Meghan approached a man next to her. “Do you know if there is a white car involved?” he asked, catching only a glimpse around the semi-trailer.
“I think so,” he said. “A woman in a white sedan.”
Meghan ducked under the yellow-caution tape and ran around the front of the semi. A white car smoldered under the spray of firefighters. Flames stretched, striving to touch the ceiling of night. A woman, who had been standing off to the side of the road, turned around.
It was Jessica.
“Jessica?” Meghan ran over to her. “You made it out of the car!”
Jessica wrapped her arms around Meghan. “I ran the stop sign,” she sobbed.
“But you’re okay.”
Jessica cried again. Her arms felt weightless to Meghan and she looked see-through. Lights that should have waved across her face shined right through her like a window.
“I’m sorry, Meghan,” she said. “You were right about the fires.”
“Fires? What do you mean?”
Jessica shook her head. “There were two fire drills at the art center. The first one wasn’t a drill.”
Dark memories rose into Meghan’s thoughts, like reptiles snaking up from the earth. She looked over at the accident, where smoke rose and blended into the clouds…yes—she had seen smoke like that before, wafting into an orange-stained sky.
“I’m sorry, Meghan. I have to go now.”
Meghan turned and saw that Jessica had left. Where she stood, there was a pinprick of light that sparked into the dark purple of night.
Meghan reached into her pocket for change and touched a piece of paper. When she pulled it out, a small cry escaped her throat. It was her picture to Samuel, the one she had left on his desk.
* * *
“It’s the synergy of oil and parchment,” Samuel said. He was teaching a class. Meghan stood outside the door and watched him for a moment. His skin was soft bronze, spun of the richest brown silk. His large black eyes entranced the students, pulling them into his enchanted world of mystery and adventure.
“You are the brush, the paint, the canvas.” He lifted his right hand into the air. “You are the vision that you see, and you must let it empty from your spirit, like water into earth. Paint everything you can see, all that comes to you in that tunnel of light.”
“Tunnel of light—” Meghan looked at the sign taped to the door. ‘Paint your near-death experience’ with Art Professor, Samuel Lewis. She unfolded her picture and realized that that was what she had done in her own painting. The fire had brought her into the world of the dead, if only for a brief moment.
* * *
While he was busy teaching, Meghan headed back to his office. This time, she was going to pin her picture up on his Wall of Never Doubt. She pressed a tack into the corner of the note, right in the center of the corkboard. She backed out of his office, keeping her eyes on the note, making sure it would still be there when she left the room.
Alarm bells sounded. They deafened Meghan in its suddenness and potency in the memory it cued. Sirens screamed through the hallway. People were running down the hall, shouting, “Everyone, get out! There’s a fire in the art center!”
Meghan bolted for the art room as fast as she could run. A crowd of terror-filled bodies rushed past her. Her own wave of panic crested when she noticed the old man, the one she saw at the bus stop, sitting hunched over on one of the hallway benches. He was wearing the same hat and holding the same cane.
Meghan slowed, knowing his presence meant something very grave. His eyes bore down on her again. Up closer, she could see that one of his eyes didn’t follow the alignment of the other. It was made of glass.
Meghan walked over to him. He smelled like a barn. “I know you, don’t I?” (Tic!) “I saw you at the crash.”
The old man pushed into his cane and heaved himself up. “Why do you waste your time, Meghan, running through the folds of it?” He sized her up with a tilt of his chin and the squint of his good eye.
Meghan tightened her toes. “How is the effort to live a waste of time?” She croaked underneath her shock.
“When you don’t know whether you’re living or not.”
Meghan gasped. (Tic! Tic!) “No. No. I get it now. (Tic.) The past and the future are one.”
The old man’s lips folded into a frowned wrinkle. He shook his head. “Everything has already happened, or it is going to. To pinpoint the exact present moment is an infinite journey.”
“My mother said that.”
“Ahh, because I told it to her.”
Meghan leaned towards him. “You know my mother?”
He smiled and nodded.
“Did you tell her to clip my toenails too?” Anger spit from Meghan’s mouth.
He laughed, clutching his cane with both hands. “Nah. That was all her.”
The hallway grew quiet, empty. Meghan looked down the vacant corridor, then back at the old man. She was in the future again. “I’m almost there, in the past,” she said to him. She started for the front door of the building. “I’m too close to changing things to stop now.”
The old man’s smile faded into the state of his shabby clothes. “You will not succeed, Meghan.”
But she had already fled out the door.
* * *
Samuel was walking away from a paramedic van, toward the field with the playground in it. His face was wet with tears. Meghan followed him. He didn’t turn around at the sound of her footsteps grating across the gravel. He was lost in thought.
In his hands, he held a sheaf of papers, papers that he had tacked up on his Wall of Never Doubt. The top one was her painting with the note on the back, the painting with the burning building and the field across the street, the merry-go-round, the single gray silhouette against an orange-stained sky. Samuel looked around himself, at the similarities, and blindly passed by Meghan. He couldn’t see her. She was in the past…or the future, which one she wasn’t quite sure of anymore. Meghan knew that her note to him was full of knowledge that perhaps the living couldn’t understand either.
Instinctively, she started to curl her toes, but stopped. Her tics were gone. She saw a white rock on the ground, encircled by dull gray ones. She picked it up, wanting to give it to Samuel, a small token of the light he’d brought to her. But she was afraid to touch him. She didn’t want to scare him like her mother had scared her.
She dropped the rock. Samuel heard it and turned around. He saw the white rock, picked it up, and held it up to the fading sun. Behind it, a light sparked and shrank into a center. It disappeared into a pinprick, like a star on the horizon. The merry-go-round spun in the breeze.