Chapter One: Signs
As the houses and barns became more and more spread out along the countryside, the road beneath me got rougher. I began to relax as I distanced myself from the debacle that was this last weekend, and let my foot lean on the accelerator a little harder.
Road narrows. That sign was accurate, as the shoulders of the two lane highway gradually disappeared, and made me back off of the gas pedal a little.
Bump. That one always made me smile, as I wondered why they just didn't fix the thing instead of putting a sign to commemorate it. It wasn't even worth mentioning most of the time, and this one was no exception, as I wouldn't even have noticed it otherwise.
Frost heaves. Now that was an interesting one, I remember thinking as I leaned into the gently curving road just before the car became airborne and the gravel disappeared. I remember flying past a sizable oak tree just prior to the front end of the Saturn connecting with the side of the hill. Then everything went blank as my life passed before me in my mind.
Chapter Two: My life.
It wasn't exactly my life that flashed before me at that moment, but more a rehash of the last weekend, and I couldn't help but think that those couple of days would be a fitting ending to what had become a very sad existence.
I had traveled out to Buffalo to attend the graduation of my - our youngest daughter from college. My heart swelled with pride as I watched Chelsea stride across the stage to accept an award, and marvelled at how much she looked like her mom did at her age.
That was long ago, when her mom was a lot different than the woman she had become. Truth be told, I bore little resemblance to the person I had been back then myself. The difference was I hadn't become shrill and pretentious as the years went on. What had I become? Besides bitter and depressed, that is.
Jane was my wife for almost 20 years, and we had managed to produce 2 wonderful daughters. Young women so magnificent that it made the union worthwhile, although there were times when I wouldn't admit that.
Great in the early years, when we were both idealistic and naive, our relationship had become less and less about each other and more about our daughters, which was understandable. Soon, there was practically no relationship at all, and we had become roommates instead of husband and wife.
Jane's life became all about things. Jewelry and clothing. Social climbing and keeping up with the neighbors. Our incomes allowed a certain degree of this lifestyle, but apparently not to the extent Jane wanted. She always wanted more, and better than what we had.
I grew to despise her materialistic ways, and longed for her to go back to being the wide eyed party girl I had fallen in love with back in our teenage years.
What she longed for, I couldn't say. I was not the person I was either, and in the end had become the person Jane did not want any more. In the end, when she finally pulled the plug on our marriage, it was an act of mercy. To her credit, she did what I could not get myself to do. Walk away. What she didn't expect was my reaction to her declaration, which was pretty much a nod and a shrug. I couldn't even work up any emotion over it.
Two years after our divorce, she had remarried. Jane had found her ideal mate; a doctor who could obviously afford to give her all the things she wanted. More things, and better things than I could ever provide.
Jane was now very happy, and she took pains to tell me that at every opportunity during the past weekend. She paraded her entire jewelry collection during the time we spent with Chelsea at the various functions we attended. I fought to keep the smile plastered on my face as Jane flicked the verbal jabs in my direction in her subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle manner, and I counted the minutes until I could tactfully flee the scene.
That's how I found myself on some hillbilly road that morning, driving way too fast and thinking far too much. Getting off the interstate and roaring away on the back-roads had been my way of letting off steam and frustration in recent years, and had usually proven to be cathartic as well as infinitely more interesting than the tedium of the Thruway.
After the car flew off the road upon hitting the sizable swell halfway around the bend, and I watched the imminent collision unfold, I felt no terror, or even remorse. It was almost as if I found it better it to end this way than to live the life I had been living, and not taking anybody else with me made it all the more acceptable.
Chapter Three: Still ticking.
The burning stench of the air bag was the first thing I remember as I began to regain my senses. My upper torso was embedded in the device that had employed precisely as advertised, and had apparently saved my life.
I wasn't even hurt, I discovered to my amazement. Nothing serious at least. My shoulders throbbed, as did my wrists, which had the skin torn off of their insides. The top of my head hurt, possibly as a result of hitting the visor. I seemed to remember reaching to flick the shield down to block the sun just before the car had become an unsuccessful airplane.
As I reached up through the inflated pillow to feel the bump on my head, my shoulders protested with a searing pain of amazing intensity. From outside the car, I heard a voice, but it was so far away, it seemed like a dream.
Pushing the airbag away as best I could, I saw the face of a woman looking into the passenger side window. With the sun behind her head, she had an angelic look about her, almost like she glowed. Maybe I was dead after all.
"Hello," I said lamely. "Mind if I park here?"
"Can't believe you're still alive," the woman said. "How bad you hurt?"
"I'm okay," I said as I tried to open my door.
"Want me to go call for help?" she asked, and then added, "You'll never get out that way."
I looked to my left and saw the reason that the door wouldn't open. The tree that I had noticed during my flight was wedged against the door. Luckily, I had missed it by about a foot, although I wasn't sure whether it was good luck or bad. One thing was certain; if I had met that tree head on, all the safety devices in the world wouldn't have saved me. The tree was probably twice my age, and looked like it would have brushed me and my Saturn off like a leaf.
"No, I'm okay," I said as I tried to climb over the stick shift while getting my face away from that raunchy smelling airbag. "Just need to get out."
The passenger door opened and I felt the woman grab me under my arms and pull me toward her. I grimaced from the pain as she managed to get me over the obstacle, and I wiggled my way out of the car to survey the damage.
"Good grief," I said as I looked at the crumpled front of the car, and the steam that billowed out of the hood was not a good sign either.
"Heard you crash from down my place," the woman said as she waved down the road to a farmhouse.
I looked over to where she was pointing and felt the earth spin as my head turned.
"Hey buddy, you don't look so good," the woman said, as I fell back against the side of the car. "Why don't I take you over to the hospital? It's only about 25 miles away."
"Hospital? No - no thanks," I said as I reached into my pocket for my cell phone. "Triple A can pull this thing off your property and take me into town."
I punched the buttons on my phone for a few seconds but heard nothing but silence, even after I walked around and went to a higher piece of ground.
"I don't think you'll have much luck with that thing," the woman said as she watched me with an amused look on her face.
"No towers around here I suppose?" I asked in resignation as I angrily flipped the phone closed. "Where am I anyway?"
"Darnell," the woman answered. "Population 145, I figured you weren't from around here."
"Darnell?" I asked as my head began to throb. "Never heard of him, but he should do something with this damn road of his."
I looked back over at the huge swell at the top of the hill, and shook my head slowly. It looked like a ski jump, and I was not surprised at the result of my hitting it, especially at the speed I had been traveling.
"I'll tell Darnell next time I see him," the woman answered with a chuckle. "Maybe he should put up a new speed limit sign back at the town line. Guess some people can't tell that some kids spray painted the 30 into an 80."
She was having a little fun at my expense, and for a minute I got a little irritated. Would every interaction with a woman have to be painful?
I didn't get mad, for two reasons. One was that she was being very nice to me, and the other was the realization that the accident had been my fault, not Darnell's or anybody else's.
"Guess I was going too fast to see the speed limit sign too," I admitted.
"Can't blame you for that, my friend," the woman said. "Most people in their right mind keep the pedal to the metal when they hit Darnell and don't let up until it's in the rear view mirror."
"No offense meant against your town," I said.
"None taken, Mister..."
"David. David is fine."
"Pleasure to meet you David. I'm Callie."
We lightly shook hands, as Callie took my wrists into consideration, and I actually looked into her very pale blue eyes for the first time.
"Is there a service station around here?" I asked hopefully.
"There's a guy in Earlton - Jeff's Garage - he does good work, and he's the closest. About 8 miles east. I can get you to the hospital and then call him to get your car."
"I'm really okay," I insisted, my hatred of doctors and hospitals legendary among friends and relatives. "Maybe you could take me to the service station and then I could get myself a room in a motel for the night. A little rest is all I need."
"A motel? I don't think there's anyplace closer than Starkville, about 15 miles away," Callie said. "They've got these little cabins that are so darn small you can't swing a cat inside."
I looked around at the miles and miles of rolling hills and fields spread out around me as far as the eye could see. I had really done it this time, I thought, and looked longingly at the barely missed tree.
"Look, that's my place down there," Callie said, pointing to a farmhouse about a 1/4 mile down the road. "Why don't you come down and we can call to get your car taken care of? Can't make you go to the hospital, but at least you need to get those scrapes taken care of. What say you come down and clean yourself up. No sense in standing up here all day."
"Hate to be a bother," I said, knowing that there were few alternatives.
"No bother at all," she said.
That was how I met Callie.
Chapter Four: Callie's farm.
I climbed into the beat-up pickup truck on unsteady legs, and as Callie coaxed the engine to start, I began to question the wisdom of not getting medical attention. My head throbbed with every jerk and bounce of the truck, and my wrists were raw and burning. As for my shoulders, even getting the door closed was a painful experience.
Luckily it was a short drive to the weather-beaten farmhouse that stood at the bottom of the hill. A two story house that had been painted white a very long time ago, with a expansive porch in front and a big barn in the rear.
I could see a horse looking at me with curiosity as I labored to get out of the truck, and the protesting sound the hinges made as I closed the door got a cow mooing from somewhere out of sight. What was that show I used to watch so long ago? Green Acres? Well here I was, broken down in Hooterville.
Callie kept watching me with with a look that could safely be considered wary, and I managed to give her a grim smile as I followed her up the steps of the porch. I noted that Callie certainly did fill out a pair of jeans well. They were a faded and worn out pair of Levi's, and I chuckled silently when I realized that they had likely become that way through wearing, not bought in the store like that, so I guess that made them unfashionable.
Inside, the house was neat and even though the furnishings had seen better days, it looked nice enough. We passed a photo of a grinning man and Callie, likely taken about ten years ago. Her husband, I assumed, as we passed another photo of the two of them. I wondered what the guy thought about his wife taking in guys like me into his house, and pictured what my reaction might be if the situation was reversed. Even more interesting was imagining my ex going to fetch somebody in need and bringing them home. Fat chance of that.
The bathroom was very utilitarian, with a old tub and sink that must have come with the house. A tiny lighted mirror above the sink was the only admission to modern times, and after I followed her over to the sink, Callie turned on the water and had me put my wrists under the tap.
"Ahhh!" I groaned as the cool spray hit my raw wrists.
Callie chuckled as she grabbed a bar of soap and lathered it up between her hands. Her hands looked strong and muscular, much like the rest of her appeared to be, although with the bulky red flannel shirt it was tough to tell. Her fingernails were neatly trimmed and without polish, and when her soapy hands began softly scrubbing my wounds, the pain was eased somewhat by the pleasant feeling of being pampered like this.
"Boy, that bag really took off some layers of skin, didn't it?" Callie asked.
"Quite an experience having that thing go off in your face," I said. "Although I guess bloody wrists are better than a fractured skull."
"I heard the crash from down here," Callie said as her strong hands cleaned the wounds as gently as she could. "That and the horn going off got my attention alright."
"Gee, I hope your husband doesn't get the wrong idea," I said, trying out my famous sense of humor on Callie. "Us being in here like this."
"Well, if you hear the screen door open and a man's voice call out for me, I suggest you head for the door and run like the devil," Callie said dryly. "Of course, I'll be way ahead of you."
"Oh gee, is he the jealous type?" I asked.
"No, he's been dead going on seven years."
Chapter Five: Open mouth, remove foot.
The silence hung in the air for what seemed like forever, as I tried to figure out a way to extricate myself from the awkward position I had put myself in.
"I - I'm sorry," I said lamely. "I saw the pictures and I had no idea."
"Don't worry about it," Callie said in a matter-of-fact manner, not even blinking as she reached for the towel beside the sink. "No way of you knowing, and besides, I egged you on."
Callie dried my wrists with care, even though I wouldn't have blamed her if she hadn't. There were a couple of open shelves next to the sink, and Callie grabbed a bottle of something, shaking it as she opened it, directing me to put out my hands.
"Gonna sting some," Callie warned just a second before drenching my wrists with hydrogen peroxide.
I let out a howl as the stuff bubbled on my open flesh, the stinging making my eyes water as the disinfectant did its job. Callie dried the unaffected parts of my hands and grabbed a roll of cotton bandage.
"You should be a nurse," I said as I watched Callie expertly wrap my left wrist before going to the right.
"Should have been something," Callie noted cryptically, although that little wry smile appeared in the corner of her mouth.
As Callie worked, I looked at her face, which was gently weathered and lined in a way that made it impossible to guess her age. 35 or 55, or someplace in between, I figured. Maybe older too. Possibly younger. Hell, I was never good at guessing ages anyway.
Her complexion was flawless though. Ruddy might be the word I was looking for. A few freckles around her nose and forehead, full lips and sparkling teeth, and strawberry blonde hair that was cut short of her shoulders. I hadn't thought of my Florence Nightingale as beautiful when I first saw her, but the more I looked at her, the more pleasant looking she became.
"There!" Callie said, as she looked up at me, having finished wrapping my wrists.
Catching me staring at her made her a little flustered for a second, but she quickly regained her composure and tidied up the mess she had made.
"Anything else I can doctor up for you?" Callie asked.
"Do you have any Advil or something like that?" I asked, hoping for relief from the pain in my head and my shoulders.
"Got some aspirin," Callie said, and poured me a glass of water before getting them. "Why don't you come in and sit on the couch before you fall down. Still don't look right to me."
"I never did," I admitted glumly as I followed her into the living room, and her resulting chuckle made me smile through the pain.
I eased myself into the couch while Callie returned with the aspirin.
"I'm gonna call the garage, even though I doubt if anybody is there, it being Sunday and all," Callie said. "You just rest, but don't fall asleep. I think you're supposed to stay awake after something like this. Are you hungry?"
I shook my head no, very carefully.
"Of course, if you went to the hospital like I suggested..."
Callie's voice trailed off as she went out to the kitchen, suspecting that her advice was going to be unheeded. While I knew she was right, I was always the stubborn type, and so decided to grit it out. Maybe just rest my eyes a bit.
Chapter Six: I'm awake.
That was what I said in response to having my eyelid raised. Although my brain was a bit foggy, I immediately deduced that this wasn't Callie looking into my eyes, but some old coot.
"Relax David," I heard Callie say from behind me. "He's a doctor."
"Retired," the old guy said.
"I got nervous when I couldn't wake you up, so I went and got Dr. Nelson," Callie said.
"Good thing Callie did, son," the doctor said. "Better safe than sorry."
My body relaxed as I let him peek around my eyes and head, being too sore and tired to fight it. He had me take off my shirt when Callie mentioned that I had told her my shoulders hurt, and they had to help me off with it because I couldn't manage.
The doctor tested my range of motion, lifting and stretching my arms in every way possible, and I bit my lip rather than let on how much it hurt. Finally, the old guy straightened up and delivered his diagnosis.
"Best thing would be to go to the hospital, but Callie said you're dead set against that," Dr. Nelson said. "You probably have a slight concussion, and some muscle damage in your shoulders, but you'll live despite yourself. Saw where your car landed, and I'd say you made out pretty good."
I agreed with his assessment, if only to end the conversation, and thanked him for his time. Callie walked out to the kitchen with him while I tried to keep my temper in check. When Callie returned, I let her know how much I appreciated her disregard for my wishes.
"Thought I said no doctor," I said bluntly.
"Tough turds," Callie snapped. "My house, my rules. Rather deal with you surly and alive than quiet and dead. What would I do with a corpse on my couch? Now come with me."
Callie helped me get to my feet and led me down the hall. I was brought into a bedroom that had a slight air of disuse. It was sparsely furnished, and when I looked at the clock I couldn't believe my eyes.
"8 o'clock?" I asked in confusion.
"Like I said, you were out quite a while," Callie said, pulling down the bedsheets on a bed that looked very inviting. "I was nervous."
"My suitcase?" I asked, looking at my travel bag that had been in the trunk of my car.
"Went up and got it," Callie said with a look on her face that indicated she was a lot more upset than I had been. "Couldn't get a hold of the garage so I left a note on the car in case the county sheriff came by and saw the wreck. Figured you'd need your stuff."