Cliff jerked as his cell phone buzzed in his pocket. Who would be texting him in the middle of school? His tenth grade English Comp teacher was droning on about some idea he had about writing an interesting paper, and was writing on the chalkboard so Cliff took a second to check his phone. He knew the cell phone was not allowed in class and that he was supposed to leave it in his locker, but that was a nuisance.
“Meet me behind dumpster at one thirty.” It was from his brother Ryan.
“Whaaaat?” He grimaced to himself as he quickly responded back, “?”
“Wanna go for a ride?” was the text.
This didn’t make any sense. Ryan didn’t have a car. It was school time.
“Ok.” It was the only answer he could give. His curiosity had the better of him and if Ryan was doing the asking then he probably would take the blame if they got in trouble.
It was late November and the Canadian sunlight was sparse during the day. By the time Cliff started school, there was still another hour before sunrise and by the time school let out, the sun was starting to set. It was depressing. He had half an hour to wait until one thirty and the anticipation of running out of school began to build. He thought through a plan of heading to the bathroom after class, waiting until the bell rang and then heading to his locker to grab his coat and book bag before slipping out the back door. He knew he had to be quick ‘cause the teachers monitored the hallways a few minutes after the bell rang.
Mr. Hormer finished his dialog and turned to face the class. Cliff sat quietly, suddenly alert, but his cell phone hidden back in his pocket.
This was it. Cliff tried to stay calm as the bell rang. Everyone pushed for the door with the usual jabbering but he held back a second, pretending to straighten some papers in his textbook. Walking slowly out of the room, he read the announcement board to give the bathroom crowd a few minutes to clear out. His watch showed 12:50 before he washed his face in the bathroom sink. Everyone was out and the bell rang.
“Cliff, you’re late!” his American History teacher chided him as they passed in the hall.
“I know. I’m hurrying,” he answered back, pretending to start a slow jog. Instead of stopping at his classroom door, he turned and ran to his locker and then down the hallway to the back door. It was a back entrance that hardly anyone used that led back to the dumpsters. He closed it quietly and slipped behind the main dumpster.
“Ryan,” he called quietly, hoping not to arouse anyone.
“Hey,” Ryan came in behind him. “Wanna go for a ride?”
“How? You don’t even have a car,” Cliff asked, as he pulled on his jacket.
“Mom’s car. If we hurry, we can be home in ten minutes and still have an hour to drive.” Ryan said as he pulled Cliff’s jacket and started running towards the tree line behind the school. There was a worn footpath where a lot of the kids from the high school cut through to the housing development bordering the property line.
“You asked Mom?” It couldn’t be right.
“No, dummy. Mom and Dad are away on that trip. She left the keys in the kitchen.” Ryan was running faster now and Cliff had to speed up to stay up with him.
“You’re crazy. You know that right?” Cliff panted as they neared their street.
“So? It’ll be fun.”
The keys were hanging on the hook behind the kitchen door. Dad bought the used but beautiful Corvette for Mom as a wild Mother’s Day gift after her minivan broke down. She didn’t drive it much after the snow came since she didn’t want to dent it up. Anchorage was pretty good with keeping their streets cleared of snow, but Mom was cautious, Cliff thought to himself.
“You want to drive?” Ryan asked him with a grin, dangling the keys in front of him.
“Very funny,” Cliff responded with a smirk.
Ryan knew Cliff only had a driver’s permit and that only for a few weeks. There was no way he was going to let his younger brother drive this car. He chirped the remote and jumped into the front seat.
“Yes. There’s plenty of gas.”
“Where do you want to go?” Cliff asked as he slid into the passenger’s seat. He was only an inch shorter than Ryan was, and people said they looked like twins, even though they were fifteen months apart.
“Just want to hit the open road,” he said as he started the engine.
“And you do know that Mom is going to kill you, right?”
“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.”
They backed out of the driveway and then made their way out of the development. Ryan was careful to stop at all the signs and slow down through the congested areas. The car had good acceleration but he didn’t want to attract attention. Following the roads out of town, they turned onto the ramp for north on Glen Highway. Traffic was very light and the roads were bone dry.
“Shall we see how fast this car will go?” Ryan asked Cliff as they rounded a bend facing a long stretch of straight road. He asked but didn’t wait for an answer as he pushed the petal to the ground. The car lurched forward with a sudden burst of speed and they flew down the road.
“Seventy, eighty, ninety, ninety-three, one hundred!” Ryan shouted as he let his foot off the gas. “One hundred miles an hour.”
Cliff cheered with him as they pumped fists. There was a car ahead of them and a few approaching from the rear so they slowed down to just about the speed limit. The sunlight was intense, reflecting off the snow banks lining the highway. It was a beautiful day with the high mountains in the distance, topped with their white caps. They drove over a river gorged with water, paying no attention to the signs for moose crossings--just enjoying the open road. The day was perfect.
No school, an open road, a great car and a brother to share it with, Cliff thought.
They didn’t talk much and Ryan played around with the radio controls until he settled on a station beating out a good rhythm. Twenty minutes passed quickly and Anchorage slipped away behind them.
“Let’s do a little exploring,” Ryan suggested as he braked suddenly and took a road off to the right.
“Where does this go?” Cliff asked as he braced himself for the turn.
“That’s what we need to find out,” Ryan was smiling now, thoroughly enjoying the afternoon. The road banked to the left and went under the highway and towards the mountains. Driving was easy but the constant curves kept them at a slow speed.
“Look out!” Cliff shouted as a deer stepped into the road a few hundred feet in front of them.
Ryan braked the car smoothly and they slowed to watch the deer stare back at them. It was in no hurry to get away, but they had places to go. Speeding up, they followed the road for another five miles or so before they saw signs for a store ahead.
Let’s get something to eat,” Ryan said. “Got any cash?”
Cliff rummaged in his backpack as Ryan picked up speed in anticipation of roadside food.
There was a strange crackling sound in Cliff’s ear. Something had happened. It was so quick. The silence was louder than his breathing. Why was his face so cold? The side of his face felt wrong. No pain, just weirdness. Someone started a heavy pounding. Who would be doing construction out here? They were miles away from anyone. His thoughts focused to realize his heart was banging in his chest. Moving his fingers slightly to understand he felt stickiness. His shoulder was cold and he rolled slightly. The weirdness in his face was stronger and he focused to open his eyes. He blinked. His left eye was blinded by the bright sun, but his right eye stayed black. Closing them, he stretched his toes and fingers as if to test if they still worked.
Time had stopped. He was only aware of the side of his face, coldness and weirdness. His breathing filled his chest and then let it down, over and over. He had to figure out why his face felt weird and slowly lifted his hand. His stomach churned as his fingers felt sharp hard things and a spongy surface where his smooth skin was supposed to be. Glass? It felt like glass. Why would there be glass in his face? He licked his lips and breathed deeply. Pain. His stomach hurt with the breath.
Ryan? Where is Ryan, he thought as the remembrances of their drive came barraging into the front of his brain. Pulling himself to a sitting position, he tried to open his eyes again. He felt nausea and dizziness wash over him. Only one eye. A twinge of panic. Ryan!
Concentrating, he focused his eye on the ground. There was snow, some red snow, some branches, tree trunks. No road. No wait; there was a road but way over there. He could barely focus and kept his eye closed as much as he could bear. His ankle twinged sharply as he pulled himself to his knees. More panic. Shuddering his breath in, he lifted himself to a stand, holding on to the rough bark of a tree. He felt like the world was falling over. There was blood on the snow but he didn’t look at it. He focused forward to the road. “Ryan!” He tried calling.
The snow banks were low here, only about three feet high. Lots of sun. Cliff took one step forward and flinched as he lifted his left arm to steady himself. His shoulder hurt. Hanging his arm loosely, he took little steps. His sneakers sank into the snow and blood was dripping from his chin on the snow in front of him. He lifted his head to look farther ahead and avoid the sight of the blood. Nothing felt right. His left ankle hurt with each step but it held him. The snow bank was hard and he stumbled over it, falling on his right side, landing on the rocks and gravel of the road.
More pain. Dizziness. More nausea. Ryan! He had to get to Ryan. The car. Mom’s beautiful blue corvette was crunched. Shoved into a massive pine tree. Ryan! Ryan! He remembered he had to use his voice.
“Ryan!” He was almost angry. Why didn’t he answer? He limped through the snow to the back of the car and then steadied himself along the side. Ryan was dead. His head was at a strange angle and there was blood in his ears. Cliff’s stomach cramped and he heaved, vomiting at the shock. Pushing away from the car, he dragged his feet back to the road. The bright afternoon sun was behind the trees and he knew darkness was coming fast.
Walk. Walk. Walk. He told himself hundreds of times. He kept his eye closed and only checked his bearings occasionally. His brain was barely focusing and he started to feel almost like he was floating. His body was working by itself and he didn’t have to do anything. Sleep. He wanted to sleep.
“You there.” It was a voice. A man’s voice. An old man? “Hold on there? Are you okay?” The voice kept talking. His feet kept walking. He felt the rocks on his ear. His feet rested. His body slumped over the rough surface of the road. An engine. A car door. Pain. Stop!
“Stop!” His voice finally broke the silence. His body was being pulled up and he wanted to keep still on the road.
Silence. The smell of cigarettes. No it was a pipe. Sleep. Bumpy sleep. Shouting. More bumps. Silence and darkness.
The smell was strange. He was warm. His toes moved. A strange beeping sound. He blinked.
“Cliff! Nurse! He is blinking.” It was his mother. No. He didn’t want to talk to her. Her car. Ryan. Ryan was dead. His throat choked and made him cough. Go away! Leave me alone! He drifted back into the sweet darkness.
That beeping. It was there again. Something was stuck to his face and itched. He itched badly. Where am I? He lifted his arm but it wouldn’t move. He felt like he was tied up. His other arm lifted and he tried to scratch his mouth.
“Cliff! Wake up! Can you hear me? Cliff. It’s Mom.”
He knew it was Mom. Somehow, he sensed that she was there in his sleep. Her voice was close to his face.
“Wake up, Cliff! Can you see me?”
“Ma’am, you need to take it slow.” A voice came in the room. “The doctor is coming.”
He could see her face. She was smiling. Tears poured down his cheek and he mouthed, “I’m sorry!”
“Why are you crying? You don’t have to be sorry! Quiet now.” Her voice changed to a whisper as her own tears fell on his face. She was kissing him but he didn’t mind. She smelled good. But Ryan? The question plagued his mind.
“Cliff. Nice to see you are waking up,” a man’s voice spoke close to his face. Cliff could feel his hands as he placed a stethoscope on his chest. “Can you look at me? Tell me how many fingers I am holding up?”
“Ryan?” he whispered the question.
“Don’t worry about Ryan right now, Cliff. Listen to the doctor.” His mother’s voice corrected him.
“Good! Now let’s see if we can’t get you sitting up today.” The doctor stepped back to talk to the nurse.
“What happened to me?” he whispered to his mother.
“You were in a car accident,” she said quietly. “We have been waiting for you to wake up for three weeks.”
He nodded slightly and focused on her face. “Am I okay?”
“When the car hit the tree, you went through the windshield and the glass from the windshield scraped your cornea and the rest of your face pretty badly. That’s why you have this big bandage over your face.” He could feel the pressure from her hand on his face through the bandage.
“What else?” he sensed her hesitation.
“You had a grade three concussion, a broken collar bone and a fractured ankle. But you are getting better,” she assured me.
“Cliff.” It was Ryan’s voice but he knew it couldn’t be him. The tears came again and blurred his vision.
“Cliff. Hey, good looking. We look like twins.” How could it be Ryan? He was dead. He had seen his dead body.
He opened his eye again, focusing on what looked to be Ryan with white bandages around his head.
“I thought you were dead,” he whispered as the sobs choked him from talking more.
“No way, man! I am as alive as you are. You just have been sleeping a lot longer.” It was Ryan. He was alive! Relief spread over him like a warm blanket.
“Let’s set you up a little.” It was the nurse again and she lifted the head of his bed by a couple of feet.
“Hey!” Cliff tried to stop the nurse as the dizziness from the change washed over him.
“Now take it easy, honey,” she calmed him. “You will get used to this in a minute.”
“Cliff, I am going to call Dad. He will be so excited that you are awake. Ryan will stay with you,” my mother whispered quietly to him, somehow knowing that his head ached.
He put his good hand up to give her a little wave and turned to look at Ryan again. “I saw you dead.”
“Well, here I am. So I can’t be dead.” Ryan cleared the blankets a little to sit next to Cliff. “Mom’s car had that safety thing that calls you when you crash. Apparently, they called shortly after the crash and when they didn’t hear anything, they called for police. The police located the car and called for an ambulance. They said I was unconscious, but bleeding a lot in my head from the force of the crash. Apparently, your airbag didn’t go off and you went through the windshield. My concussion was also a grade three but I never went into a coma. They put a shunt through my skull to take some of the pressure down, but my swelling only lasted two weeks. Right now everyone is most worried about your eye.”
Cliff motioned for Ryan to give him some water. The tube in his nose was irritating him and he felt it with his fingers.
“Hey, don’t fuss with that. They had to give you a feeding tube so you wouldn’t starve while you were in the coma. They’ll probably take it out soon, now that you are awake,” Ryan instructed him.
“Is my eye okay?” Cliff whispered with his husky voice from not talking for weeks.
“Not sure yet. The doctors have to wait and see. They did surgery to try and repair it, but won’t know until it heals.”
“How did I get here?”
“Some old guy found you all bloody on the road and took you to the hospital in his pickup. He keeps coming by to see you every few days. He said you looked like a monster with your face all torn up.”
“Was Mom mad about the car?” Cliff was curious.
“She never said a word about it. I guess she was just glad we were alive. Not the nicest phone call to get when you are away on a trip,” Ryan jokingly said.
“No,” Cliff sighed deeply, closing his eye. “Pretty good to see you alive.”
2015 copyright. Use only with permission.