“Do you know your name?”
Chris Knowles heard the words close to his face, but they were surreal as if he were in a dream.
“Mr. Knowles, I am Doctor Benjamin Mannstein. You are in Doylestown Memorial Hospital and you’ve been in an accident. Could you please tell me…? Do you know your name?”
Chris’s eyes opened slowly. Everything was blurry as if he were seeing everything through an aquarium. The man in front of him removed something silver from his coat and now a blinding light flashed in his eyes. “Hey— turn it off.” For the first time he could feel the tube down his throat and the pain in the back of his head. He tried to breathe in and couldn’t. In fact, he couldn’t even feel his lungs. Something was breathing for him. He tried to sit up, and couldn’t move. The entire left side of his body felt like it was being crushed in a Vise Grips. “What the hell happened? What’d you do? I feel like somebody just beat the crap outta me…” His found he’d run out of breath. “with a two-by-four,” he added hoarsely.
“You were in an accident,” Dr. Mannstein repeated. “Again, do you know your name?”
“Yeah, I know my name,” Chris said but he had to think for a second. “My name is Christopher Knowles. Sorry. I’m a little groggy. I’m trying to get my bearings.” His mind flashed…five, ten, twenty images all at once. He’d been trailering the backhoe over to the new site and something had happened. There’d been an accident. His mind replayed a big blue garbage truck pulling out suddenly. He remembered saying, “Aw fuck,” and then a blurry white pillow blew up his face and there was white powder everywhere. It stank like somebody had set off firecrackers…and then there was nothing.
He tried to sit up again but everything was strapped down or maybe they’d drugged him up. “Did I hurt anybody?” He opened his eyes and tried to focus but it was impossible.
The man hovering over him wore a white lab coat and had coffee breath. He had short salt-and-pepper hair, his face a perfectly sallow oval. “Other than you, no,” he said after a long pause. Dr. Mannstein’s eyelids hung dark and heavy over his eyes and he had matching dark circles beneath. He looked more like a shrink than a surgeon…a human version of a basset hound. And then he blinked at him slowly. It stood out. He was being assessed, but for what?
“In case you’re interested, the driver of the garbage truck is fine by the way. He’s probably already back at work, though I understand the backhoe you were pulling did a number on his truck.”
“Shit.” Chris’s mind jumped again. “Damn! What about my Kubota? I just finished payin’ it off. What about my truck? Is it messed up too?”
Another long moment passed. “I honestly don’t know. You, however, were beat up pretty badly. You’re… You’re lucky to be alive.”
The way Dr. Mannstein said it sounded unconvincing even in his groggy state. He tried to sit up again, but they had numbed everything out. He couldn’t feel his legs, couldn’t feel much of anything. “Where’s Jenny? Does she know about this? Is she okay? Shit, she must be freakin’ out. She can’t stand hospitals. Is she okay?”
It seemed like every time Dr. Mannstein spoke, there was a five-second delay, as if he were censoring everything. “Your wife is in the waiting room along with your daughter. They’re both concerned about…”
There was that delay again. It was getting scary. “Can I see them?”
“Not just yet. For one thing, you’re in what is known as a clean room in IC…intensive care. You’ve been here four days now and…”
“Four days? Are you shitting me?”
“No, I’m not shitting you, Mr. Knowles. You’ve already had…extensive surgery. We can’t afford to have you catching anything. You don’t have a lot of reserve right now. …Actually, you don’t have any reserve right now.”
Chris tried to process the words. Everything was confusing. “Okay. I understand…I think. What kind of surgery?”
“You’ve had multiple surgeries, Mr. Knowles. And I’m sure you have a hundred questions, but for the time being, as your surgeon, the most important thing for you to do is rest. I would, however, like you to answer just a couple of questions. We need to see if there was any damage to your brain. Do you understand?”
“Good. Now…do you know which president is on the head of a penny?”
“Yeah. Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln.”
“Excellent. What is six times seven?”
“Very good, again. You’re already ahead of my daughter. She’s an English major at Sarah Lawrence.”
Chris knew it was a feeble joke, possibly designed to see if he was able to comprehend humor. “Good school.”
“Yes it is. Do you know what month this is?”
“Yeah, I think so. It’s…June. June was the last payment on my Kubota.”
“Excellent. And the last question…June of what year?”
Chris had to think for a second. “Uhm. Sorry, I’m still a little punch-drunk.”
“That’s quite all right. Take your time.”
“Okay. I remember now. It’s… nineteen-ninety-seven.”
Mannstein squinted at him. “…Okay, let’s try that one again. “It’s understandable that you’re a little groggy, but this is important. What year is it?”
Chris struggled to make his eyes focus. Mannstein was staring at him directly now. His eyes looked like a concerned hound dog. He chuckled. “What? Is this a trick question? It’s still nineteen-ninety-seven.”
“No trick questions, Mr. Knowles. And…last question. Really try to think hard before you answer. How old are you?”
Chris chuckled despite himself at the fundamentality of the questions. “Last time I checked I was twenty-seven. Do I get the cigar?”
Mannstein slid slowly off the bed and stood up, still writing. “Sorry Mr. Knowles. Cigars aren’t allowed in the IC.”
“How old am I, Dr. Mannstein?”
“According to your chart and according to your wife, you are forty-years-old.”
“But that’s stupid. Why would she say that? She’s pulling your leg. Can you get her in here? Wait a minute… I’m sorry. Everything’s all mixed up in my head.” Some machine next to his bed began beeping and suddenly the room was filling with people, all rushing. And then everything went dark.
The second time he opened his eyes he hurt everywhere….everywhere. His teeth hurt. His chest felt like a grenade had gone off in it. Even his eyelids hurt. It was as if someone had stuffed him into one of Asplundh’s big tree-chippers and ground him into little bits and then pasted him back together.
He looked around slowly, blearily searching for a friendly face. It was that doctor again…Mannstein with a surgical mask, and gloves and hat, and a nurse in the same attire. He looked up at the nurse and saw familiar huge dark…wet eyes behind the mask. “Jenny?”
“It’s me, Chris,” she whispered. “It’s me,” she whispered again, louder. For a moment, she started to move toward him, but then she stopped. “I love you, Chris.”
“I love you, too,” Chris whispered. “…I’m sorry you have to be in a hospital. I know how you hate…”
“Oh Chris, for godsakes…” She ripped her mask off and came over to the bed.
“Mrs. Knowles. You know what I told you about getting too close.”
Jenny turned. “What? I’m gonna make him worse than he already is? He can’t get any worse than he is. For the love of God…”
She lowered herself gently next to her husband and squeezed his right hand. He didn’t have a left hand, or a left arm, or a left leg…or much of anything on the left side of his body. When the Kubota jack-knifed, it had flipped over and the front bucket had crushed the left side of his body. Everything was still there. It was just half as thick as before.
The pain had been horrible, even with all the drugs they’d injected into him. But seeing Jenny react brought everything into focus. Now it was even worse.
“I guess I’m screwed, right?” Chris asked in a whisper.
Jenny stared at him for a long time before she answered. “Pretty much…” As soon as she said it the tears began to form in her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think it was my fault. I was taking the Kubota over to…”
“Oh, Chris… Stop!” The tears were running down her face now and her voice had become ragged. “It wasn’t your fault. I just…”
Chris looked over at Mannstein. “I’m dying, right? Just tell me… How much time do I have? Is this it? Do I have to say goodbye now?”
Dr. Mannstein’s eyes were damp as well. It had been a long four days and in a lot of ways, Chris was a lot like his brother…smart, sensitive, a little arty, but a little blue-collar. And now he was shot-to-shit. It was, indeed, over. “No, you don’t have to say goodbye right now. You have time. But…”
“Okay, let me just give it to you straight. The bad news is we have a whole bunch of equipment keeping you alive right now. Unplug any single one of them and…”
“I understand,” Chris said. “I’ve watched enough of those hospital shows. You just have to decide how long before you…pull the plug. Essentially…I’m already dead, right?”
“It’s a whole lot more complicated than that,” Mannstein said, “but…there’s no point in trying to kid you. Essentially that’s where we’re at. I’m really sorry.”
Cudder’s Mountain, Tennessee, Scenic Overlook #5
“You’ll see. From way up here, after I fire the first shot it’s gonna look like a big ole anthill bein’ overrun by a shitload of really pissed-off ants,” Edward Fromme said, wetting his index finger and holding it up into a light seven-knot breeze from the west.
“Black ants,” his brother, Billy added.
Edward twisted the windage knob two clicks on the rifle scope and grinned at his brother. “Billy, let it never be said that you don’t have a firm grasp of the obvious. Yes, we’re talkin’ black ants now. That’s kinda the point of the whole thing.”
Billy glared at nothing in particular. “I don’t know which of you is a bigger pain in my ass, Daddy or you.” He gazed straight down the mountain at the new Baptist Church and fresh asphalt parking lot in the valley below. It was such a steep angle that it felt like they were up in an airplane. He counted forty-seven cars in the tiny lot, three of them new Caddys, the rest an assortment of old rusty junkers. “Naah, strike that. I know which one’s the bigger pain. It’s you, Ed. You and your fuckin’ fifty-cent words. By the way, I looked up, enervating and it ain’t no compliment. Even Daddy don’t talk like that and he’s smarter than you. He don’t talk down to me like you do.”
“Enough,” Joseph Fromme said to his two sons, his voice serene. He gazed down at the church through ten-power binoculars and scanned the parking lot. “All right, I told you to wire-up the three Caddys. Did you do like I said?”
“I did,” Billy said. “They’re even all facin’ in the right direction. When you hit the filler caps… I wisht I’d brought my camera.”
“How much C-12 did you put inside the caps?” Edward asked.
“I divided it up all equal.”
Edward’s bulging eyes widened fractionally behind the rifle scope. “Well…I guess we’re gonna wake up some folks in the next county over.”
“That’s all right,” Joseph Fromme said. “You did fine. We’re making a point. We’re just making a little bigger point, that’s all.” He looked at Edward, his oldest. “How much nitrate did you use on the church?”
“Enough to do the job.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“That’s way too much. Ten pounds would take it out just fine. And you be sure every…ant is out before you go blowin’ it up. Do you understand?”
Edward’s eyes went dead. He adjusted a ten-pound canvas sand bag on one of the boulders overlooking the valley with the same care of a mother tucking in her newborn. He lowered the huge .50 caliber target rifle down on the bag and wiggled it down into the sand.
“What are you shooting?” Joseph Fromme asked.
Edward took a deep breath and let it out loudly. “Tracers, Daddy, just like you said. First one’s standard like we agreed, cuz nobody will see the first one. From then on, it’s gonna look like the white wrath of God comin’ straight down from heaven.” Edward looked up from his scope and tried to imagine it the way it’d be viewed below. It was going to be cool. Like glowing miniature lightning streaking down from heaven, followed by what promised to be some truly first-class pyrotechnics. “I’m ready whenever you are.”
“Just remember, wait until everybody’s out before you blow the church. I’m looking for a measured response not a blood bath,” Joseph said. “Least for today.”
From the fifth switchback up Cudder’s Mountain, the distance to the church below was a little more than half a mile straight down and about a quarter mile to the south. Even with the sandbag, the crosshairs of the scope danced about on the left rear fender of the first car. The heat mirages didn’t help either, but Edward waited patiently for the crosshairs to settle on the filler door. He squeezed gently and the big rifle bucked hard against his shoulder. A plume of orange fire blossomed three feet out from the muzzle. A heartbeat later the Cadillac went up in a ball of fire that blew straight up between the walls of the canyon. A grey turkey buzzard that had been riding the currents veered and began flapping to gain altitude. Edward flipped-up one of the pads on his ear muffs and looked over at his father. His eyes were wild…insane now. They were giddy. “Didya see that? Was that friggin’ spectacular or what?”
Joseph Fromme remained strangely serene. “Okay. Good. Now wait until everybody’s out before you do the next one. You sure you’re shooting all tracers?”
“Oh yeah…” Edward said, his voice sounding like a little kid’s.
Far below, they watched. They watched as the entire congregation of the Cudder’s Mountain Baptist Church scrambled out the front entrance. From half a mile away they did, indeed, resemble small angry insects. Fifteen seconds later, Edward leaned back into the sandbag. There was smoke now and flames, but he spotted the next car about thirty feet to the left. To correct, on the rifle scope it amounted to the tiniest pressure of his cheek against the stock. He squeezed again and actually saw the tracer arc down into the valley. Oddly, it looked like it was moving in slow motion. The valley exploded in low thunder and he leaned into the rifle butt the tiniest amount and let loose. “This is so cool!” he giggled looking up from the sand bag. “I just wonder what the hell they’re thinkin’. They must think God himself is coming down to kick their black asses.”
“You’re not supposed to be enjoying it this much,” Joseph Fromme said in a quiet controlled voice. “Finish this up and be done with it.”
“Yessir. Yes, Daddy.”
“Now check again. Can you tell? Is everybody out of the church?”
Edward scanned with the rifle scope. At twelve power, everything moved too fast. Gaggles of families in their Sunday best, some huddled together. A ragged group of black men, hats falling off, ties waving, running everywhere. The consensus, however, seemed to be that the safest place was back inside the church. After they ran out, they ran back in.
“Pretty much, Daddy,” Edward said. “I don’t see anybody at all coming out now… Nope, definitely nobody comin’ out.”
“Okay then. Finish up. By the way, where’d you put the nitrate?”
“Some things are best left unspoken,” Edward said, drawing down on the nine-foot bronze crucifix hanging over the two red front doors. He aimed for the chest, knowing that the combination of C-12 and ammonium nitrate was such that anywhere close to the doors would do the trick. He flipped his ear suppressors back down and squeezed gently. The explosion took one and a half seconds to reach them on the switchback. A scorching invisible bubble rolled up from the valley. It rolled up past them and they turned their heads and closed their eyes.