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Country Road

Country Road is about a woman who revisits her home town, only to end up paralyzed on a remote country road.

Message to myself: You can go home again, but maybe you shouldn't.

Here's the story:

The irony doesn’t escape Nina, that she’s lying, perhaps dying, alongside the same dark country road where a lifetime ago she used to park with Ricky Turner after the basketball game. It was a dirt road then, with plenty of secret places where you could pull off and work yourself into a frenzy that the mores of the day kept you from consummating. The road is asphalt now, but still narrow and deserted. Still the long way around to what used to be home.

     When her arms first started feeling prickly, before they went completely numb, she stopped the rental car and fumbled in her purse for her phone. She feared it was a heart attack — her father had died of a heart attack — although she felt no pain, just this pervasive tingling. But the phone didn’t work; she couldn’t get a signal or maybe the battery was dead, and the charger, she remembered, was still plugged into the cigarette lighter in her own car, parked in lot C at LAX.

     She tried to drive a little further, to find one of those side lanes she remembered, but she had trouble guiding the wheel and since there’s no shoulder at the edge of the blacktop, only a shallow ditch, that’s where she ended up — half in the ditch, half out. She managed to turn the hazard lights on but, after that, with the car resting at such an uncomfortable pitch, she had no choice but to slide across the seat, force open the door and tumble out. By then her legs were feeling odd as well, as if they were prosthetics she didn’t know how to use, so it took her a while to crawl out of the ditch and up onto the grass.

     She tries to remember who used to live around here or how long it’s been since she’s seen a house. But now, when she opens her mouth, she realizes she can’t talk, which means she can’t scream either. It must be a stroke. Her mother had strokes.

     It’s hard to escape the creepy sense that this affliction, whatever it is, has been waiting here for her. She’s only been in town an hour or so, taking the scenic route from the airport for old time’s sake. She was perfectly fine back home in Los Angeles. But the notion that something — anything — might have been biding time for all these years, lurking along this very road, waiting just for her, is irrational and far too egocentric to even deal with.

     She forces herself to think positively. At least it’s springtime and warm enough; she won’t freeze or catch pneumonia. She simply needs to stay calm. And alert. Someone will come along eventually. They’ll see the car and stop and take her to a hospital and it might turn out to be something simple, like a pinched nerve. A few days in bed. She’ll miss her cousin’s wedding, but at least she made the effort, flew all the way out here from California. That has to count for something.

     She hopes it won’t take too long, though. She knows there are no lions or tigers or bears in these woods, but she’s not sure how a possum or a raccoon might react and has no desire to stare one down. And, of course, the longer she lies here without any kind of treatment, the further away her body drifts. It was stupid of her to make this trip in the first place. A whim. She’s never come back for a wedding before. She has no real family here any more. She barely even knows this cousin.

     Still, it’s eerie how familiar things seem. Branches of giant trees brush the night sky overhead. Crickets chirp. The scent of lilacs teases her nose. She remembers the lilacs well, their slow intoxication, time-released by a crafty breeze. The pattern of the stars is familiar too; she can pick out the tiny one to the right of Orion’s belt that she used to wish on, lying on her back on the picnic table when she was nine or ten.

     They don’t grow lilacs where she lives now. Another thing she left behind.

     Not that she’s unhappy with her life. Roses grow year round in front of her little house in the Hollywood Hills. She loves her multicultural friends and her job at the PR agency. She loves living where things really happen.

     But all that seems so far away, disconnected, just like her body. She can still feel her body — enough to know it’s there — but her limbs refuse to obey her brain and she can’t make any kind of sound. She tries to picture herself back in her own house, in her own bed, but she’s afraid to close her eyes. And she can’t remember what roses smell like. The stars and trees and sounds and scents swallow her up until it seems as if she’s still here. That’s Ricky Turner’s car over there in the ditch. He’s fallen asleep, lying in the grass beside her. If she doesn’t turn her head to see, it might be true.

     But she knows Rick Turner died a few years ago. She read about it in the alumni paper. In fact, the article made her wish that on one of those long-ago nights she hadn’t been so falsely virtuous, that she’d let him actually make love to her.

     Not that her life is full of regrets. Not at all. She’s done most of the things she wanted to do. Lived in the Village in New York. Learned to paint. Even climbed a mountain in Tibet.

     She can feel the tears in her eyes. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? It means something is working right. She blinks and the stars shimmer. She tries to reach out with her mind. To touch someone. But her grown children, friends, ex-husband, lovers are all huddled inside her head and she can only look out.

     She has no idea how long she’s been lying here: minutes that seem like hours or the other way around. At first she thinks the burst of light is a shooting star, but it’s too low to be a star, and it’s still there, slashing across the middle of the trees. She hears the sound of a motor and music; only then does she realizes a car is approaching. It’s coming very fast, faster than seems possible along a road like this, and her instant relief at being rescued quickly segues into a fear that it might race on past, and then into a larger fear because she remembers that the rear end of her own rental car is jutting out into the road.

     Headlights zigzag over the trees. A rock song she doesn’t recognize grows louder. Both end abruptly in a sickening climax of shattering glass and metal..

     Nina can barely breathe. The car must have been doing at least 60. How could anybody drive like that on such a twisty, narrow road? But she knows the answer. The road is always empty, never patrolled. Pictures in her mind, fast frames of summer nights, convertible top down, radio blaring. Lucky for her there was never an obstacle in her path. Horror washes over her with more physicality than any sensation she’s felt in hours. She tries to move, wiggles a little, but it’s no use. She listens for a cry, a moan, but silence has smothered the echo of the crash, even the crickets have stopped their high-pitched strumming. Then she hears footsteps moving fast in her direction and sees a man in a windbreaker with neon purple stripes on the arms dash past her toward the wreck. He utters a sharp, pained sound. At the same instant, a wet nose pushes against her cheek and the brown eyes of a golden retriever stare down at her inquisitively. She blinks at the dog. It barks. The man is suddenly bending over her.

     “Omigod.” A pause. “Nina? Nina Mathieson?” His face, vaguely familiar, mirrors the shock of what he’s just seen. “I’ll get help. I’ll be right back.” He starts to leave, then turns to the dog. “Bridget. Stay!” The dog does as it’s told, lies down beside her. “I’ll be right back,” he says again.

     He didn’t offer that assurance to the driver of the other car and she doesn’t want to think what that means. She reminds herself that this will be over soon. She only needs to hold on a little longer. But what she really wants more than anything is to get up and run away, quickly, before he returns, find some other secret road that will take her back, back anywhere, or ahead into some other future, any other future — just not this one. The dog sniffs at the air, makes funny, somehow comforting, slurping noises.

     She closes her eyes now, but just for a minute. She wishes she could remember who the man is. She knows she’s seen him before and he looks to be about her age, but no matter how hard she tries she can’t find his face in her collage of schoolgirl memories or anywhere else for that matter. He recognized her, though; said her name with such complete surety. Nina Mathieson.

     Nina … Don and Carla Mathieson’s girl. The big cream-colored house on Oakridge. She’s always been a wild one — that Nina. Why, I remember …

     She’s glad she insisted on keeping her name — a bridge between who she is and who she was. The dog lays its head on her stomach. It smells like every dog she’s ever known.

     He's coming back now. She can hear him running through the grass. The dog leaps up but doesn’t leave her side. The man, breathing hard, drops down on the grass beside them.

    “The ambulance is on its way. Don’t move.”

     She blinks, gestures toward the road with her head.

     “It’s Linda Weatherby. She’s just a kid. Had to be tearing up the road to do that kind of damage.” He hesitates. “I’m pretty sure she’s gone.” His eyes are wet, so are Nina’s. “Are you in a lot of pain?” he asks. She rolls her head slightly from side to side. “Don’t move. They’ll be here soon.” He’s quiet for a second, then says. “You probably don’t remember me. Tom Bruckman. I was a year ahead of you in school, dropped out, worked at the gas station.”

     That’s it. That’s why his face is familiar.

     “You had that old Chevy convertible. You and your girlfriends used to come into the station. Eight or nine of you, crammed into that car.”

     He’s talking, she knows, to keep them both from drowning in the tragedy at hand. She’s grateful for that and wants desperately to remember something about him, something besides the fact that he worked at the gas station, but she can’t.

     “You’ve always been kind of special to me. I’m sure you won’t remember this, but one time when I was filling up your car you took hold of my arm and told me I was crazy to drop out of school and that I’d be really sorry if I didn’t go back and graduate. You said it so passionately, as if I really mattered and, of course, I was 18 years old and you were so smart and popular — the fact that you even bothered to talk to me sort of knocked me out.” He pauses, peers up the road. “I got my GED a year later. Went to trade school. I’m an electrician.”

     He's right. She doesn’t remember. There are so many things she doesn’t remember. The years have gone by in clumps and suddenly none of it seems real. The people crowded inside her head are faceless. But this man — Tom — has a kind face, kind eyes. She searches those eyes, looking for some connection, something beyond the brief words she can’t recall that he says were so important to him, something beyond the coincidence or maybe the karma that threw them together tonight. But what she’s looking for is too small, too specific, and she knows it. At this moment, Tom Bruckman and his dog are her whole life.

     “I heard you’re living out in California. Must be real nice. I was there one time on vacation. Went to that Hollywood Bowl. Wow, now that’s something.” In the distance, the faint wail of a siren. “Here they come.” Relief in his voice. She blinks, but she can’t stop the lurch forward into real-time. They’ll carry young Linda Weatherby away and a sober policeman will break the news to her parents. Very soon, in some nearby hospital, a doctor will clear his throat and tell Nina an awful truth.. She blinks again, pushing back the tears. Tom reaches over and takes her hand.

Copyright © 2000 Rachel Canon