Condemned

They are all around me, my children and their children, all looking properly sad…and I knew none of them cared that I was dying.

I’d lived a long life, long enough and harsh enough that I knew when someone was putting on an act. The only way my family could have been more obvious in their desire that I just die and get out of their way would have been if they’d all been wearing neon signs flashing their feelings.

Being within a few months of my ninetieth birthday, I wasn’t against the idea of dying. When my wife had passed two decades ago, I’d almost prayed for death. But death had remained elusive until just a month ago. That morning, waking up in the predawn darkness with a pain in my chest like a giant’s fist squeezing my heart, I had known I was in trouble. Part of me wanted to just lie there and wait for the end to come…but for all my desire for death, my fear got the better of me. My cell was next to my bed, and I had managed to call 911 before the pain overwhelmed me.

Waking in the ER was all I needed to tell me that I was not dead. The doctors had delivered the bad news: my heart muscles were failing and that there was nothing they could do. The news hadn’t really been a surprise. Nor was I surprised by the next step in my life: hospice. My children could easily have taken me in, most of them had already seen their own children leave home, so space was not a problem.

No, the only problem was their unwillingness to take in, and take care of, their ‘old man’. Oh, they came to visit me in the hospital, and later in hospice, quite often. Sharon, my youngest daughter, spent much of her day with me. She would chatter and to keep my mind occupied, but I knew the only reason why she was there so constantly. She had the time to be with me because her divorce had been finalized and she’d cleaned her ex-husband out.

The rest came, mostly in the evenings and on the weekends, but rarely more often, and never very many. Even if the doctors hadn’t already told me, the fact that so many of them were here now told me I didn’t have long to live. It was getting harder and harder to stay awake, and it wasn’t just because my visitors were boring (which they were). No, I often found my mind wandering, and it was not uncommon for me to remember speaking to one of my grandchildren, then to find them no longer present.

And the time I was not conscious of my family was becoming more and more troubling.

Sometimes, I would remember my wife and our life together…both the good times and, sadly, the bad. Other times, I would remember the people I had worked with, most of them long dead but now seemingly alive again to remind me of all my failings. The double-dealing that had helped me rise through the corporate ranks. The way I had oppressed and stifled those who might rise to take my hard-won place.

Worst of all were the times I remembered my children’s lives. How I had struggled to understand what being a father really was. How they had seemed to never quite be what I had hoped they would be. The many, many times I and one or more of them had disagreed, often vehemently.

But today, today had brought an new twist. Just before I had become aware the room was filled with my family, I had been in a grey void, a place unlike anything I had ever seen or imagined. And there had been the voice.

It had been so calm, almost matter-of-fact, as it listed the many defects of my life. I hadn’t wanted to listen, but even though it had seemed barely louder than a normal speaking voice, I could have no more block it out than I could have blocked to roar of a jet engine running next to my ear. It had seemed to come from everywhere, and nowhere, like an echo inside my head. And it had droned on and on, unrelentingly reminding me what a complete and total bastard I’d been.

Then, silence…and a different voice had addressed me.

“Mr. Sanchez, your manifold failings have been duly noted. Have you anything to say? Any justification to offer?”

The strangeness, the complete and total bizarreness of the moment, stunned me into silence. After a pause, the voice continued.

“Very well. No defense having been offered, you are hereby found guilty of having wasted your life, and worst, of having made the lives of those around you miserable. We therefore condemn you to wander through your lives…all your lives, in all the many different universes you exist in. It is hoped you will take example of how the other versions of you have lived their lives for the better. You will, of course, be allowed a final chance to make amends with your relations with your family, and if we find your efforts sufficient, your sentence may be amended. You are free to go, and may the multi-verse have mercy on you.”

The room comes back into focus, my family around me still, all keeping their distance, staring at me while they wait for me to die. Not one of them approaches me, asks how I am doing, if I need anything. I think of what the voice had said, that this was my chance to “make amends” with them. Fuck them. They don’t love me, and they wouldn’t care whatever I said. The thought goes through my head, and I find it hard to breath. The room, everything and everyone in it, all of them begin to dim and fade..and in my head, I hear the voice that had pronounced my sentence speaking again.

“Very well, Mr. Sanchez. If you refuse to take advantage of the mercy offered by this court, your sentence will be carried out immediately.”

With those words, the world goes black and I feel myself falling, a fall that seemed to continue forever. Then the voice speaks again, one final address to me.

“You, who have spurned human contact and the very concept of helping others, shall learn of the value of volunteering to help…and the price it extracts. The soldier first you will be….”

What is life?

I replay that last moment in my mind, over and over again.

I am driving, far too fast as usual. My wife is beside me, not happy with my driving, but having been through the experience enough times that she’s almost inured to it.

The moment of realization that the pickup coming to the intersection in front of us is not slowing down, and will run the stop sign in front of us.

Then the crash, the scream of the tires as I try to stop almost drowning out my wife’s screams for me to stop. The side of the truck and the front of my car crumpling together. The airbag a white wall in front of my face.

Then….nothing.

No sound.

No smell.

No touch.

No sight.

Nothing.

I wonder if I am dead, if this is some sort of purgatory, some sort of punishment for my arrogance for thinking I could speed without consequences.

But I am not dead.

I feel nothing…most of the time. Sometimes, I feel a pain in my neck, like a blunt knife being driven through my skin. But what these fleeting feelings mean I do not know.

Then the day came when all that changed.

There was a sudden burst of light, light so intense my head felt as though it would explode from the sensory overload. Then darkness again, and my mind screamed for the light, no matter how painful. Then sound, someone breathing deeply, almost as if they were next to my ear. The breathing was replaced by a voice, loud enough to seem as though God were shouting in my ear.

“Can you hear me, Mr. Sanchez?”

I try to speak, to nod, but nothing happens. After a pause, the voice speaks again, now little more than a mere mortal shouting.

“No, that’s not working…let’s try this.”

A moment of silence, then….

I am surrounded by light. A diffuse light that I seem to float in. But I feel nothing, it is as if my mind is suspended in the light. Then I see a white plain that stretches away forever, but still I have no sense but sight. The voice returns, the disembodied speaker continuing it’s disconnected and nonsensical monologue.

“That seems to be working. He should be getting input now, but…the mic’s open? I thought I told you to…oh, never mind, I’ll need it active to address him and see if any of this is working. Mr. Sanchez…can you hear me? Are you seeing anything?”

I try, but no matter how hard I try, I am silent. The voice speaks again, but it still makes no sense.

“I’m seeing a response… He hears me! Why can’t he respond? Check the vocal codec…yes, of course I want you to activate it. How else do you expect him to respond?”

I feel something, like there is something caught in my windpipe. My reflexes take over, and I hear myself cough. I try to cough again and do. The voice is silent, so I try to form words of my own.

“Hello, can you hear me?”

I hear a voice, but it is not mine, it sounds like a little girl’s voice.

“Why do I sound like this? What’s wrong with my voice? What’s happening to…”

“He’s right, why does he sound like that? ‘Default profile setting’? Why did you pick a young girl as the default for a grown man?”

There is a moment of silence, then the voice returns, now sounding like a teacher addressing a slow student. The change grates at my nerves, but I remain silent to listen to what it has to say to me.

“Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Allen, head of the research department at the Sloan Institute for Advanced Neural Trauma Treatment, and, well, you were in a traffic accident. Do you remember that?”

How can I tell this fool that I have relieved that accident for what seems like forever?

“Yes, I remember that. But you didn’t answer my question. What’s going on?”

Another silent pause. Perhaps this Doctor Allen had remembered to mute his mic. Then…

“Mr. Sanchez, your body barely survived, but your brain…suffered extensive damage. Your medulla oblongata almost detached from the rest of your brain because of the g-forces your head was subjected to. It kept your body alive, but with the rest of your brain is effectively disconnected from your body. The damage has shut you off from the world. That happened five years ago, but we…I have come up with a way to connect you to the outside world.”

Five years? How was it even possible that I could have survived like that? The very concept stunned me, but as I struggled to come to terms with what I’d just heard, the voice kept talking.

“Game designers have become far more sophisticated in their ability to generate realistic virtual environments. I had the idea to connect your brain to a VR system that would allow you to exist in a virtual environment, one where you could interact with people. Now if you’ll give me just a moment more…yes, I want you to use profile X3. Just get it up and running! Good. Now, let’s see if I can initiate the rest of the connection…”

The white plain disappears, and I am standing in what looks like a ruined city…I am standing! I feel the pavement under my feet, a slight breeze blowing past me. I feel my body! I raise my hand…and it looks odd. The fingers move as I command them to, but the skin looks as if it were made of plastic. Then I notice the color of the skin on the hand. It is not the slightly-brown skin I inherited from my Argentinian grandfather, but an almost comical pinkish tone, like a caricature of an Anglo’s skin. I hear a crunching sound, like someone walking on gravel, the first sound I have heard since I became aware of this body. It is behind me, and old caution makes me spin around.

A short, pudgy man dressed comically in a scientist’s long white lab coat stands in front of me. His bald head shines as if he finds the surroundings hot, and the smile on his face looks more forced than real. Unlike me, he seems much more textured, more real, and I wonder about this until he speaks.

“I guess the scanning room is working, you can clearly see me. Mr. Sanchez, I’m Doctor Allen, and I’m glad to finally meet you. How does your virtual body feel?”

“Fake. I can feel everything just fine…but I can’t smell anything, and my mouth has no sense in it, none of the lingering taste you get in your mouth. It’s like it’s there to do nothing more than let me speak. Are you going to deal with those next?”

Allen shook his head. “I’m afraid simulating the senses of smell and taste are beyond our abilities for the moment. Maybe in another few years…”

“You expect me to wander around this…what is it? Recycled scenery from some ‘shoot-em-up’ game? You want me to stay here, doing what? Being your lab rat? You didn’t tell me what happened to my wife…did she die in the crash?” Allen’s eyes shifted away from mine, and I knew without thinking that he was going to lie to me. I stopped him. “She did, didn’t she? Then who do I have to ‘see’? We had no children, my parents died years ago, so why should I be a part of your experiment? Go find someone else to play your games with.”

Allen met my eyes now, and he no longer had the look of a man trying to be friendly. “I can’t do that. You are the ideal test subject, and I need you to help me perfect the interface.”

“I refuse. Now, if I remember correctly, you can only use a person in a medical experiment with their consent, and seeing as how I’ve just indicated I do not want to be part of this experiment, you can’t legally experiment on me. So disconnect me, now!”

Allen’s smile came back, but now it wasn’t friendly at all. No, it was the smile of a man who knew they held all the cards. “And who heard you deny me permission to experiment on you? Look around. We’re alone, and there’s no connection from here to the rest of the lab, so none of my assistants heard you. Besides, they work for me, not you! They’ll do as they’re told, because they know they won’t have their positions if they interfere with my work. Face, it, Mr. Sanchez, I own you! Now, let’s start finding out what you’re capable of….”

And that was the start of my life in hell.

A drive worth making

If you look at a map, Illinois Route 18 west of I-39 is a bland, straight strip of pavement carrying the driver into rural western Illinois. It looks like the type of road you have to work hard to stay awake on if you were driving it.

But roads like everything else must bow to the real world, and in the real world, the landscape this road runs through goes from flat to a series of low hills and shallow valleys. The further west you go, the more pronounced those folds in the Earth become until you reach the edge of the watershed of the Illinois River.

Like every major river, the Illinois has carved out a broad valley over time, a valley with steep walls, steep enough that taking a road straight down it would have resulted in an exceptionally steep drop/rise. So instead of taking the straight route, the builders found a side valley carved by one of the small creeks that feed into the Illinois.

But like any creek in a situation like this, its path is far from straight. From a road like a ruled line, 18 suddenly becomes a snake-like ribbon wending it’s way down a wooded valley surrounded by steep hillsides. The posted speed limit is 40, and even I, a man who loves to ‘push’ through a tight turn, find it hard to get through any of those twisting turns much faster than that.

The creek still runs down the valley, and as it drops towards the floor of the Illinois valley, 18 crosses paths with it several times. On either hand, as you go further and further down the valley, the creeks flow continues to widen the valley. In several spots, freshly-exposed earth can be seen, evidence of small landslides as the creek undermines its banks and the hills above it constantly press downwards trying to fill the gash water has made in it. There are even a few spot where the valley widens enough, or people are stubborn enough, that houses can be seen. To live in a place like this is a thing I cannot imagine, constantly worrying about sudden floods of water cutting access off, or worse yet, washing a house away.

I’ve been down this path in summer, and it gives the impression of a green-shaded tunnel. In winter, on a day of fog and misty rain, the bare trees make you feel like you’re on a passage through an otherworldly landscape. It is a drive worth making if you have a reason, or even just for the pleasure of a challenging drive through some interesting scenery.

Patience, tolerance, and other trials of used car shopping.

My first car was a hand-me-down. A cousin of mine decided to create a ‘franken-car’ by marrying the body of an early 1960’s Ford Galaxy with the engine and transmission of a Mustang of roughly the same vintage. It proved to be a reasonably reliable vehicle, and I drove it until my inattention lead me to skid into an intersection in the middle of a torrential rain, The resulting collision damaged it to the point where I had to retire it. I saw it, years later, with the body restored, being driven by a chap who seemed happy to have it.

After that, I went through a string of used cars until 1996, when I decided to splurge and buy a new car. By then, I had graduated to smaller cars, and my initial infatuation with automatic transmissions had given way to a dedication to manual transmissions. It took a bit of shopping around, but I finally found a ride I wanted: a Honda Accord with ‘five-on-the-floor’ and an economical four-cylinder engine. The dealer had to trade with another Honda dealer to get it, but I got the impression that everyone involved was glad to move the car off the lot.

“Hoss”, as I eventually nicknamed the car, proved to be a reliable and loyal steed. But twenty years of wear, several accidents, and 200,000+ miles have begun to take their toll. So now I’m car shopping again…and finding that manual transmission cars are even rarer than they were when I purchased “Hoss”.

I am also being reminded of why I hate car shopping.

In my current economic situation, I can’t afford a new car, so I’m not even bothering to look. That limits me to looking for used versions of vehicles that are rare to start out with…a very small pond to fish in indeed. The Internet, you would think, would be a great tool in a search like this, and you’d be right but for one fact: the accuracy of Web pages depends on how often the dealership updates their information. I’ve contacted dealerships about vehicles, only to find out that, no, they no longer have that vehicle, it was sold a couple of days ago…or a couple of weeks ago. Then, once you call, the salesman (and they always seem to be men) insists on trying to sell me a car I’m not interested in, or tries to change my mind about wanting a manual transmission.

I explained to one why I wanted to stick with a manual. The flexibility in shifting, the ability to save fuel by dropping a car out of gear on a downhill slope and coasting, but I might as well have tried to explain it to this laptop. So I guess I’m stuck talking to these predatory morons in hopes of finding a vehicle that satisfies my needs and fits my budget.

I just hope “Hoss” keeps running until I can find its replacement…and that my patience doesn’t fray.

Gatherings and departures

We file into the huge empty space, two short, ragged lines of people following the coffin draped in white. As we walk down the aisle, the piano begins to play, and an enormous bass voice begins to fill the space with the words to “Amazing Grace”. We take our seats as the song closes, and the priest steps forward to begin the rites.

The words pour out, the prayers are offered, more songs are sung, but all of it feels hollow, the entire thing seems a dark phantasm, impossible to believe. The rites finish with the incense holder swinging to fill the air with a scent that reminds me of burning pine, and it is over. We file out again, and those of us strong enough move forward to move the casket from its trolley into the hearse.

A ride to the cemetery under gray skies, moving to unload the coffin, the walk to through the sodden grass to the graveside. A final prayer, a blessing, then the holy water is sprinkled and it is done. The hardest part is done, at least emotionally.

The weeks ahead will be filled with events that keep the wound open and the salt renewed. Listening as the will is read. Settling accounts at the bank. Filing claims with the insurance companies. Assuring officialdom and everyone else who seems to need to know that, yes, my mother is dead.

But through it all, there are good moments. Friends and family gathered together to remember a long and eventful life. Laughter as the happy times are shared once again. The joy of seeing old friends. Tonight, we will gather one final time to share supper and memories, then we will go our separate ways once more.

Goodbye, mom, you are remembered, now and always.

The Waiting

Her chest rises and falls in an almost gasping motion. Her eyes are closed. She sleeps, a respite from the grim surroundings.
The news that she was dying was a hammer-blow to my soul. But knowing it, I knew I could not care for her, my heart had not the strength. So here I sit, in a worn-out room, in a facility that has seen better days, and do what I can to make her comfortable. There are moments of clarity, moments of confusion, but mostly there are moments like this. Moments when I can reflect on my own cowardice for not overcoming my weakness. Moments when I wonder what it will be like to no longer have the feeling of being anchored to my parents. Moments when I can wonder if I will even be able to bury her. But most of all, moments filled with memories of past happiness, and the grief that soon, all I will have is memories.
So I sit in this sad room, watching my mother die, and wishing I could awake from this nightmare.

Acre’s Bastard

Acre’s Bastard

Wayne Turmel

Achis Press, 2017

(also available from Amazon)

format: digest

Reviewed by Andrew Reynolds

The subtitle to Wayne Turmel’s Acre’s Bastard is “Part 1 of the Lucca le Puc stories”, and I am looking forward to further stories from this author about his engaging main character.

Lucca is a literal bastard, an orphan living in the orphanage run the Order of the Hospital and St. John in Acre. The product of uncertain parentage, he lives during the chaos and violence of the Crusades, and as the story progresses, things go from bad to much, much worse

The story opens with Lucca doing something he has a long history of doing: getting into trouble. In this case, though, Lucca’s antics bring him to the attention of a newly arrived member of the Hospitalier Order. His attempt to punish Lucca takes a turn familiar to those following modern Catholic problems, and Lucca defends himself rather than submit. He chooses to flee the only home he has known rather than risk the repercussions of that resistance. Lucca fears he will be pursued for what he has done, and what he knows of his assailant, but find refuge with a mysterious beggar.

Lucca soon learns that his benefactor, Marco, is a brother of the Order of St. Lazarus, and far more than just a dirty street beggar. Marco is in fact a knight in that Order, and having been forced to give up the sword by leprosy, he now fights with his wits as a spy. He inducts Lucca into his world, a world the boy soon proves surprisingly adept at navigating.

The story follows Lucca as he journeys from the streets of Acre, which he describes as the most sinful city in the world, to the deserts of what is now Israel. We see him move from playing pranks to witnessing one of the most pivotal battles of the Crusades. Along the way, we meet characters, from Lucca’s band of friends to the lepers inhabiting the hospital run by the Order of Lazarus, and even these supporting characters have none of the cardboard cut-out feel of many adventures. They have the feel of people we might have chanced to meet if we were to be transported to those hectic times. Through it all, the story carries the reader along and keeps them wondering what will come next, and how Lucca will survive it all.

In his postscript, Mr. Turmel speaks of being inspired by adventures he read while growing up, novels like Treasure Island and The Three Musketeers. He has taken those earlier stories to heart, and in this novel has wrought a work that stands on an equal footing with them. Acre’s Bastard is technically classified as ‘Young Adult’ literature, but I think most adults will find it more than engaging enough to make it a worthy read.