George A Bernstein
Turn signal flashing, she eases into the right lane in front of a large, battered pick-up, with less than a half-mile to the Old Orchard Exit Ramp. Jackee Maren rarely drives so aggressively, but first delayed by her two sons’ late departure from school, and then navigating around a minor fender bender on Dundee road, she is already ten minutes behind, and she’s never late. The Northern Illinois Chapter of the United Way won’t start their planning session without their chairwoman, and Jackee hates the idea of keeping so many busy people waiting.
Peeling onto the ramp, her attention is drawn to her two boys, bickering and shoving in the back seat. Glancing back at the road, a ridge of goose bumps cascades down her spine. They’re hurtled toward a string of glaring taillights… cars unexpectedly stopped by a red light at the first intersection off the expressway.
Jamming a foot on the brakes, she’s stunned when the big Mercedes slews sharply right, smack into the path of the huge pickup truck, which had exited behind her. It slams into the rear fender of the sedan, sending it careening off the road, the seatbelts gouging her shoulder, crushing the breath from her lungs.
“Hang on boys,” she gasps. Oh God! My sons! They can’t die here.
They spin down the embankment like an eccentric top, ricocheting off a bridge column. The wheel torn from her grip, the air filled with the screech of rending metal and the stench of burning rubber, the car rears like a great angry beast, its rear legs hamstrung. Slamming down, it hurtles backward into the culvert, bucking and skipping along the steep embankment.
Despite seatbelts, Jackee is flung around like a rag doll in the jaws of some huge terrier. The air bag erupts in the midst of their tumultuous downward plunge, rushing out at 200 MPH, just as frontal impact slings her forward.
Her face catches the brunt of the blow, skewering lips on her teeth, smashing her nose. A searing bolt of pain fires across her brain, igniting a burst of red heat behind her tearing eyes. A sharp pitch right crushes her left cheek against the window, knocking her momentarily senseless. The sedan teeters, enveloped in a cloud of dust, hunkering precariously on its haunches before crashing down on its wheels, coming to a thunderous, grinding stop.
She awakens to wailing and blubbering from the two small boys in the rear seat.
“Mommy!” The call gasped through ragged breathing.
“Mommy!” Now a frantic screech.
“I’m…I’m here.” We’re alive! Thank God, we’re all still alive.
She sags against the seatbelt, every joint singed with agony, unable to will herself into action.
Help should be coming. She moans. Gotta hang on… She slips out of consciousness.
The continued bawling and moaning of her sons stir her, drawing her out of the fog of semi-consciousness. One of her eyes is swollen shut, but the other flickers open, glazed with shock.
Where the Hell’s Fire/Rescue.
She winces, her whole body racked by pain.
Seems like we’ve been trapped down here for…
The warble of a fast arriving rescue vehicle answers that question. She closes her eye, struggling to control the thunder in her head and the molten bands of fire across her chest.
“Lady? You with me?” A hatchet-faced EMT materializes at the shattered passenger-side window. She strives to focus on the man, who is futilely struggling with the door.
“Malcolm, Bryan,” the words slurred through blood stained lips. “Sons…back seat…”
“Yeah, they’re still strapped in. We’re gonna take care of everybody, but it’s you I’m focused on.”
Jackee’s head lolls forward, her emerald eye fluttering closed as she struggles to remain conscious. The swell and ebb of her breast confirms that, while battered, she still lives. Her sons in the back continue their chorus of terror, though it’s winding down to a pattern of whimpers as their surge of adrenaline burns out.
“Can’t budge this damned door,” the EMT, grunts. He’s joined by his thick-shouldered partner, hefting a crowbar.
“Move over and give me room to work.” forcing one end of the steel into the jamb, struggling to lever it open, he glances at his partner. “Those kids look okay?”
“Probably. All that loud wailing is a good sign, but we’ll check ‘em out once we get everyone free. The woman’s obviously suffered some airbag trauma and…Oh, oh, she’s coming around.”
Jackee’s eye blinks, her head inches up, and she tastes the blood oozing from her nose and lips.
“Oohhh. What…what…” She makes a feeble effort to turn her head.
Oh! My sons. The brakes…bad crash…are they…?”
“Mommy.” Malcolm’s voice a hoarse squeak. “Are you hurt? We’re okay, I think.” His voice and Bryan’s whimpering through ragged breathing is reassuring.
Thank God. So close. Don’t know how I could…” She sags, her thoughts fading again.
“We’re gettin’ nowhere with this bar.” He looks back.
“We need the hydraulics down here, and in a fuckin’ hurry,” he screams up at the road.
“On the way. How ‘bout a power saw now?”
“No way. Too dangerous.”
Ten minutes later, a hydraulic pry bar dispense with the door. Frantic minutes drag by as they disentangle Jackee from the air bags, and her two sobbing, shaken sons, from their seatbelts.
Jackee smells the fuel that continues to seep from the ruptured tank, pooling beneath the wreckage.
Fire…or worse…is an eminent threat.
She floats to full awareness. Her body is festooned with welts, and her face feels like she’d gone ten rounds with Joe Frazier. Strapped to a gurney, her head and neck immobilized, one medic checks her vitals, which, despite her tattered façade, are surprisingly robust.
“Looks like you’re gonna be okay, lady. Got someone you want me to call?” he asks.
“Husband. Phil Maren.” Mumbled with a thick lisp over a swollen tongue and lacerated lips.
“North Chicago Printing. In city. My sons?”
“They’re shaken and bruised, but don’t seem to have any major problems. We’re checking ‘em out now. They’ll come to the hospital as a precaution, and your husband can pick ‘em up there.
Moments later the ambulance races toward Skokie Valley Hospital.
A freak thing. Was it the brakes? Phil just serviced the car.
How did it…?” She slips off into a sedative induced slumber.
Jackee Maren had no idea that this terrifying accident was but a small taste of the true horror soon awaiting her.
Five Months Later
Where am I?
Intense, deep-cave blackness envelops her…smothering, almost thick enough to touch. She seems adrift, suspended a pool of dark, still water.
A bath? That doesn’t make sense.
Despite a shroud of absolute darkness, she senses herself rising, finally breaching the inky surface, floating weightlessly.
And she is awake.
What was that? A dream? It seemed so real!
Jackee Maren lay very still, confused by the eerie perception of bobbing gently on tepid, calm waters. Despite a sense of warmth lapping at her, she shudders.
What’s happened to…? Oh… how stupid of me.
My surgery! It’s finally over. Five months since the accident, and breathing hadn’t gotten any easier. But why is it so... so dark in… where? A recovery room?
Why have they left me alone?
A pungency unique to hospitals floods her with unpleasant memories: momma, daddy, and her own last visit. Not a happy moment in the bunch.
Icy tentacles caress her spine, kindling a mountain range of goose bumps.
What’s going on? Why... oh...
Voices murmuring, bare whispers, apparently close by. What are they saying?
Spooky, laying here in this... this black place. Why haven’t they taken me to my room? Phil’ll be worried.
Won’t he? He promised to take time from work to care for their sons… to be supportive for a change… while she recovers from this reconstructive facial surgery he seemed so eager for her to have. She shivers, momentarily reliving that scary car accident.
Spinning, lurching, crashing down that embankment. The shriek of rending steel.
God, it was terrifying.
The boys tussling in back, and I was distracted, worried at being late… and wondering about Phil’s frequent late nights. He was seldom home evenings before then. But that changed after I spun the Mercedes into that ditch.
Whatever. That was then. Gotta figure out the now… why I’m still in Recovery. Get someone’s attention. If she moves, will stitches tear? The undercurrent of voices pulls at her.
Why are they whispering?
She shivers again, her skin peppered by an icy sleet of uncertainty.
Has something happened... something bad? No one’s here... no one to check on me. Did something go wrong?
Oh God, it must be terrible!
Her heart tumbles, skipping into high gear. This crushing darkness robs her of any sense of place.
Maybe I’m dead, locked away in the Morgue, lying on a slab, waiting to be cut up? It’s so black, and they.... Oh, shut up!
Jeez, it was only reconstructive surgery after the accident. Dead people don’t lie around, thinking. Always ready to worry if there’s a little hitch somewhere. Nothing bad happened. Still, I’ve gotta get someone's attention.
Hey! Why didn’t I see that before?
How had she missed what was right in front of her… two shaded windows, a bare sliver of light glimmering at their lower edges. Dare she move, seeking aid? Still stymied by the strange aura of weightless floating on a glassy film of water, she tentatively stretches out a hand.
Am I actually moving? Eerie! I can’t really tell in this utter darkness. Her unseen fingers trip lightly across the base of the shades.
Success! Both spool noiselessly upward.
Finally! She winces, blinking at the sudden light, before her vision clears.
There, three men, standing in a small white room, two wearing blue surgeon’s scrubs, the other, the tallest, a dark suit. No second bed, no moveable tables, no guest chairs anywhere. No outside windows, either. Stark illumination from flickering fluorescent fixtures cast demonic shadows across their faces. She shivers, unassured by the sight of the trio of apparent doctors.
What is this place? A recovery room? Suddenly their voices are clear.
"I spoke to her husband," says the one in the dark suit, fingering the stethoscope looped around his neck. "He said she occasionally took both amphetamines and tranquilizers."
He said that? It was just this one time, and he said…
"Damn," from the taller of the two, "that wasn’t on the admitting form. We could’ve rescheduled. Drugs and anesthetics always cause problems."
Problems? God, I knew it. Damned hospitals! Damn, damn, damn!
"We’re checking,” the third man says. “I’m not convinced tests will tell us anything that will do us much good in court, if it comes to that."
What are they talking about?
She is suddenly struggling to breathe, her heart pummeling her breast.
Oh Jesus, something did happen! Something bad!
Head spinning, her world lurches surreally askew. She shudders.
I’m so cold! Her little lagoon churns from comfortable warmth into a bed of ice.
Something’s terribly wrong! Hospitals are supposed to fix things, but I had the same scary feeling while waiting for Daddy’s test results... and I was right!
Gotta find out what’s happened. Sucking in a ragged breath... worried about damaging her facial surgery... she grits her teeth before calling out.
Don’t panic. They'll see me in a minute.
But they don't. Are they deaf?
"Over here!” Louder now, willing them to look at her.
"You, out there! Please help me."
The taller surgeon cocks his head and turns.
Thank God! He'll see me now.
He pauses, still as stone. Then his eyes flare wide, his jaw dropping. Snatching at the other doctor’s sleeve, he thrusts an almost accusing finger at her.
"Look," he shouts.