Here Endeth the Lesson

Panic-stricken I looked back as I ran.  The thickening fog was rolling over the crest of the hill, only seconds behind me.  I forced myself to ignore the pain in my leg and lurched across the neatly cropped lawn toward the door.

Carol threw water on her face, blotted it and did her makeup without thinking.  She brushed at her hair, tucked her  blouse for the third time and slipped on the jacket she’d bought on a whim just the previous week.  She’d  been attracted to the gray suit on display but the navy had fit so well she’d bought it.  She hadn’t planned on wearing  hat with it but today it seemed necessary.  Satisfied after a cursory glance in the mirror, she rejoined  Samantha in the sitting room.

 “Is it time to leave?” she asked.

 Samantha didn’t need to look at her watch.  “About ten minutes, still time for a cup of tea.”  She reached toward the   small silver teapot.

 “No thanks, I don’t think so”, said Carol.

 I was not surprised to find the door unlocked and the house, though uninhabited, was warm and seemed to be waiting for me.  I stood in a small room beneath a low ceiling framed by carved mahogany.  On the dark-stained floor was a Persian rug in muted shades of blue and gray.  The room was filled with a soft light though I was unable to identify the source.

I noticed an old photograph on a small table next to candelabra and crossed to examine it, hoping for any clue to a growing feeling that I belong here.  I picked it up to look more closely at the figures but it crumbled into dust at my touch.  Now I began to hear music, a string quartet playing a composition that was very familiar but that I couldn’t place.  The room spoke gently to me of peace, a refuge from a world in which increasingly I thought myself mad.

Carol and Samantha followed the driver to the car.  The sun was much too bright after the darkened rooms inside.  Carol rummaged in her purse and was relieved to find she had remembered to bring her sunglasses.  Even after settling herself in the car, reflexively smoothing her shirt and jacket, she left them on.  She closed her eyes and leaned back, grateful for the chance to escape, even for a moment, the torment of the past week.  Samantha slid in beside her.  She didn’t speak, but gently patted her hand.  There seemed to be very little to say this morning.

As I turned from the table, the room began to shimmer, then to lose its solidity.  The candles began to melt.  The wax overflowed the candelabra which itself softened, flowing to the edge of the table and then to the floor.  Through the windows I could see the fog, the noxious yellow fog that had driven me to this house.  It seemed to flow up the windows, obscuring what little light the sliver of moon provided.  As the fog reached the top of the windows one by one each source of light in the room was extinguished.  And I was adrift in darkness.

I looked for the door to orient myself.  As my eves adjusted I began to see the outlines of objects.  I had identified the path to the door when I realized there was again light in the room. .Hope died as quickly as it rose as I realized the light now came from the objects themselves.  They danced with a pale fire, reflecting the cold glow, dim as the light from a distant, dying star that had somehow become part of the accursed fog.

Each object now glowed, burning without flames.  Anything my gaze touched melted and dissolved as eerily and had the candles..  I tried desperately to stop the disintegration, forcing myself to know again that solid matter did not dissolve.  I looked at the table and willed it to remain.  In a moment it stabilized, then slowly grew more solid.

Whatever was happening did respond to my will and could be reversed if I believed it could.  I could even see the remnants of the photograph on the table and the lamp above.  But the effort was too great.  At the edge of my vision I became aware of objects fading.  I could feel my control slipping.  When finally I expelled the breath I had unconsciously trapped, the table imploded without sound and vanished into a small point that shimmered for a moment then winked out.

All around me objects began winking out.  The fog, which had been only extending tendrils through cracks, now was boiling out of the walls.  Worse, I saw that my body glowed with the cold fire and was growing smaller.  I was the last object and when I winked out only the fog remained.

Carpenter awoke slowly, still feeling the effects of too much alcohol and too little sleep.  The details were more than hazy; he had rarely felt so clearly the effects of actions so poorly remembered.  The cry that erupted when he tried to move brought a nurse quickly.

 Abby Martin had been a nurse for twelve years, the last four in the Intensive Care Unit.  She was accustomed to caring for very sick patients but she had not lost her enthusiasm and her natural cheeriness was enhanced by any signs of improvement.  Seeing him awake pleased her immensely.

 “Well. Mr. Carpenter, welcome back!  How are we doing this morning?”

 “You look just fine but I think I have a few problems”,  he said.

“Nice to see our sense of humor is still  intact.”

“If so it may be the only thing” he said, stopping short of asking how he was, certain the answer would depress him.  He preferred to learn the truth gradually, if at all.

 “How do you feel?” she asked as she stuck a thermometer in his mouth and grabbed his wrist while she looked at her watch.

 “I can’t seem to move anything without wanting to cry like a baby”, he said as well as he could around the thermometer.

 “That’s not surprising.  You have some nasty bumps and bruises”, she said as she removed the thermometer.

 “You make it sound like I fell off my bike”, he said a little testily.  “Let’s start with my arm.  As I recall it used to bend and I could do things with it.”

 “Well, you were in an automobile accident.  You do have a fracture that has been set and your arm is in a cast.  I’ll get word to your doctor and I’m sure he’ll be in to see you as soon as he can.”  She wrote on his chart and rehung it.

 “I’ll be back in a few minutes.  Would you like something to drink?” she asked as she retreated.

 “Just some cold water.”  He closed his eves suddenly exhausted by the effort of thinking and talking.  She obviously wanted the doctor to tell him about the accident and all the nasty bumps and bruises.  He decided he could wait.  He was asleep before she returned with the water.

 The long black car drove slowly along the narrow road, past the azaleas, just reaching their full bloom and beautiful in the sunlight filtered through the trees.  Carol and Samantha did not see the azaleas but sat quietly, each with her own thoughts.  Mike saw them as the car eased to a stop.  He waved, delighted they were here.  But they did not notice him.

 Carpenter awoke to find his wife sitting by the bed.  He prepared to defend himself but she had spent two days waiting for him to die and didn’t mention his drinking.  She didn’t look a whole lot better than he felt.  The familiar feelings of remorse welled up and he swore he would never do this to himself and her again.  It would be terribly difficult but he would find the strength.  He was totally committed, just as he had been all the other times.

 Later that afternoon the doctor gave him the list of things bent, broken, bruised, cut and just not working right.  To cheer him up he explained just how lucky he was to be alive.

 ”Frankly, I never expected to tell you about all this.  I thought I’d be explaining to your wife that we did all we could but you were just too severely injured to  You’re a very lucky man.”

 “Yeah, well it’s a little difficult to appreciate all that good luck right now”, said Carpenter “but I am grateful for all you’ve done, or a least most of it.  As I understand it I’m now a self-contained system and have no reason to move that is if I could move.”

 The doctor smiled.  “You do have tubes just about anywhere we could put one and the better you feel the more you’re going to complain.  Right now you’ll be sleeping most of the time and you’re too weak to give us much of a problem.”    By the time the doctor left he was ready for another nap.

The black car pulled to a stop at the side of the road only thirty of forty feet away.  Carol and Samantha got out slowly and stood there, waiting for someone or something.  They still hadn’t seen Mike.  He wanted to go to them but he couldn’t seem to move.  Samantha put her arm around her sister’s shoulder and they slowly moved forward.

 “On the third day J.Alan Buford arrived, his first visitor other than his wife.  He heard him first, not an unusual occurrence.  J. Allen had the brash self-confidence which came with being a nationally renowned defender of the right to drive drunk.  With the reputation came obscene fees from people who, like Mike, could pay for the privilege of remaining free and retaining their licenses.  Carpenter had paid for a good half of Mr. Buford’s large Mercedes, a car that J. Alan drove very carefully in recognition of the poor sportsmanship sometimes shown by police officers who were unhappy with J. Alan’s success in upholding the rights of the accused, at least of those who could pay the freight, to a more than fair trial.

 He could hear the hearty voice introducing its owner to the nurse and pictured him handing her one of his engraved business cards.

 “Howdy, ma’am.  I’m J. Alan Buford.  Call me John; I just use the initial on my cards.  Seems to help prepare folks for the fees I charge.  Sort of an early warnin’ system”.

 It hadn’t warned Carpenter.  The first time had been $10,000 up front.  And nobody called J. Alan, John; it wasn’t a matter of respect, it just seemed to fit the man.

 “Keeps life simple,” J. Alan had said as he accepted that first check.  This way we know we’re goin’ to get along”.  J. Alan had suffered enough of life’s inequities and no longer wished to expose himself to the possibility of being disappointed yet again by human frailty.  Should one of his admiring clients find his gratitude substantially abated following the acquittal, or as sometimes happened in an imperfect world, the conviction he would not be tempted to re-negotiate.

 Each renewal of their symbiotic relationship had cost progressively more due to the increasing weight of his record and his ever greater need of the man.  It was said J. Alan could get the devil off in a Baptist church and if, by chance, he couldn’t save you, he’d hold off the sentence till your liver gave out.

 This was the first time J. Alan had come to him and Carpenter understood the message.  He was in so much trouble that J. Alan was preparing to test drive a Rolls.

 J. Alan provided him with all the details that others, less practical in these matters, had avoided mentioning.

 “Son, you sideswiped two cars and hit a very large tree which at the time was some forty feet from the roadway and well within the speed limit, which, by the by, you were not.”  J. Alan shuffled some papers till he found what he needed.

 “I took the liberty of havin’ Sam Mikulski,” he looked up, peering over his wire-rimmed reading glasses at Carpenter, “you remember Sam don’t you, Mike?  Tall thin fellow, looks like a professor?  We used him as an expert at your last trial.  Worth every penny.  Anyhow, I asked Sam to investigate the accident, subject to you approval, if, I mean when, you got your lights back on.”

 “Why J. Alan,” Mike interrupted “you sentimental softie, if I’d died you’d have had to eat the expense.  I’m touched.”

 “Well now actually I did kinda clear it with Mrs. Carpenter.  She felt it would be best to check it out right away, ‘fore the facts got cold you know.”

 Mike nodded.  That put the world back in proper order.  J. Alan returned to the highly efficient Sam’s report; “the tree was moved three and one quarter inches from its previous vertical position, effectively stopping the front end of your car.  Unhappily, , the rear continued to move and attempted to catch the front which at the time was wrappin’ its fenders around the tree and sending the engine back into the center of the car”.  He paused, as though considering the events and then resumed in his hearty manner that seemed to imply if you were here to hear it, it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

 “The good news is no one, includin’ yourself was killed, though Sam tells me the tree’s future is not bright”.

 “Yeah, said Mike, “and I’ve got these nasty bumps and bruises”.

 “Unfortunately,’ J Alan continued without acknowledging Mike’s self indulgence, “your blood alcohol tested at .24, which I believe is a personal best.  It’s also gonna provide me a serious problem unless I can get the trial switched to a still in Cocke County, Tennessee or persuade the judge you weren’t drivin’.  Since you were alone in the car and Cocke County is in the wrong state, not to mention the wrong century, you can see ol’ J. Alan is goin to have to work on this one.”

 This was ol’ J. Alan’s gentle way of suggesting Mike explore a second mortgage on his house and prepare to lose his license anyhow.  He was very tired by the time J. Alan left.

 Another black car drove up and then several more.  Members of his and Carol’s families and some of their closest friends joined Carol and Samantha.  Now they turned and began to walk, heads down, slowly toward him.  Across from them the Reverend Young, somber and dignified in his black suit, opened a book and began to speak.

 Mike was too stunned to hear the words.  Reverend Young closed the book and prayed, then said a few words to Carol and walked toward the cars, followed by the others..

 Carol and Samantha remained, looking at the flower strewn mound..

 “I still can’t believe he’s gone”, said Carol.  “I catch myself waiting for him to come home; thinking I should leave a note when I go out.  I heard a noise last night and, for a moment, I thought he was working late again.  I never had a chance to say goodbye”

 “I’m so sorry” said Samantha.  “It’s so hard to lose him this way”.

 “It was just so senseless.  If he could just have stopped drinking so much or at least quit driving when he was drunk.  Every time I close my eyes I see that broken body lying in bed, his face so swollen I didn’t know him.”

 Samantha held her close, There was really nothing more to say.. They turned and walked slowly back toward the limousine.

 The thickening fog was rolling over the crest of the hill, only seconds behind me.  I forced myself to ignore the pain and lurched across the neatly cropped lawn toward the door.

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