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Drawing by Russell Morgan (UK) (www.kdas.co.uk)
"A Place For Second Chances"
© 2010 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved
© 2010 by Wayne Faust
Collier brushed back a graying lock of hair from her forehead and reached for the start button on the Integrator. She switched it on and it clicked softly. There was a brief scent of ozone in the close air of the hospital room.
“Don’t you usually wait until the Canvas is complete before sending him in?” asked Greenbaum, a journalism student.
“Yes we do,” replied Collier. “But this patient clearly doesn’t have much time left. It would be a shame if we waited too long.”
Walter Lawston’s memories had proven harder to gather than any patient she had ever had. Collier sighed and took the old man’s vitals. She had learned bits and pieces of his story through the process of getting the Canvas ready. It had made her cry the previous evening as she sat alone in the ladies room by the nurses’ station.
She reached down and stroked the soft, white hair that remained at the scruff of the old man’s neck. Rapid eye movement began behind his closed eyelids. He was heading off into his own past now, interacting with it, hopefully even changing it, if only in his head. It wouldn’t be perfect, for there were always flaws and gaps in memory, especially in this case. Collier hoped it would still make things a little better for him at the end of his life.
“Pleasant dreams, old man,” she whispered.
A long hallway shimmered into view. Doorways opened and closed as ghostly apparitions went in and out of dorm rooms. The dark brown of the linoleum floor solidified in quick-moving stripes, as if being painted by an unseen hand. The acoustical tiles of the ceiling, stained and pocked, flickered into being above.
The sounds came next, fading in as if someone was turning up the volume on a movie. An unseen pair of flip-flops padded down the linoleum hallway. Muted conversations, punctuated with far-off sounding laughter came from the area in front of the drinking fountain. Tinny music spilled from underneath the doorways of rooms. It was 1960’s rock and roll mostly, although strains of ‘Moon River’ came from behind a door marked ‘406.’ The sounds suddenly swelled and clarified, as if someone had switched from a transistor radio to a set of real speakers.
Next there were smells - a hint of burnt popcorn from room 412, reefer from room 442, a whiff of Old Spice lingering in the air of the hallway.
Walter Lawston stood with his legs apart, watching wide-eyed as the scene came together around him. He reached out and touched the cold, cinderblock wall on his left. It felt solid. But the wispy shapes flittering around him still looked like ghosts.
It wasn’t as if Walter didn’t know where he was. He knew this place well, and he knew this time, for it was his own past. But still, it was a shock when a door at the end of the hallway opened and Paul Grout, his college roommate, stepped into the hallway, shimmering at first like a projection on a fluttering sheet, and then becoming as solid as the yellow cinderblock walls. He strolled towards Walter and he had an achingly familiar, confused look on his zit-scarred face.
“Hey, Walt,” Grout said. “What’s up? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
At first Walter couldn’t speak, for he was looking at a ghost. Paul Grout had been killed in Vietnam more than fifty years ago. Walter had even been a pallbearer at his funeral. But here was Paul, alive and breathing, standing in front of him wearing a Beatles t-shirt and cutoff shorts, hair falling over his shoulders, white bath towel on his arm.
“You okay?” asked Grout, cocking his head in bewilderment.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” stammered Walter, “it’s just...it’s good to be here.” Emotion welled up in Walter’s chest and threatened to overwhelm him. Tears pushed at the corners of his eyes.
Paul Grout reached out and tapped the top of Walter’s head. “Mission Control to Walt! Anybody home? Hello!”
Grout shook his head and edged past Walter down the hallway, muttering to himself, “Play the field, I tell him. But does he listen? Noooooo. Lucy comes along and it’s goodbye Walt…”
As Grout’s voice faded away, Walter’s breath caught in his throat. So this was the night.
Out of all the nights of Walter’s life, this was the one he had wanted to come back to, the one he had dreamt about for so long. This was the night he had planned to ask Lucy to marry him. They had argued instead about some trivial thing and it had ruined the mood. Walter had let the whole thing slide until another night. But that other night never came.
Activity in the hallway around Walter continued. Boomer bounced a Super Ball off the door to the stairwell. Lusk came through the doorway and was beaned on the head, causing Boomer to laugh like a maniac. Matson leaned out of room 408 and shouted, “Turn that crap off!” into the open door of 406, where Thompson was still playing ‘Moon River’ at full volume.
Walter ventured a step forward and then another. There was no resistance in his legs, the legs that hadn’t been worth a damn for the past ten years. He looked down in wonder and watched as his feet moved, smoothly and without a bit of pain. It felt like he could have been floating, and he jumped casually in the air just to see if he could do it. A surprised chuckle escaped his lips as he landed. His steps became firmer as he got used to walking freely again. He was nearly skipping by the time he reached the end of the hallway.
He edged past Boomer and Lusk and stood in front of room 400, the last door on the right. A cardboard sign taped to the door read, “Grout and Walt’s Place - Free Beer Tomorrow.”
He turned the brass doorknob. As the door swung inward the memories rushed out at him like air from a pressurized can. He had spent four school years in this tiny room, with a single bed on each side, matching pinewood desks in each corner, books on shelves. Brightly colored pictures filled the walls. On Grout’s side was an Andy Warhol picture of John Lennon and a black light poster of a naked couple embracing labeled “Flaming Love.” On Walter’s side was a blue and yellow flag of Sweden and a Hobbit calendar.
On the ledge above Walter’s bed was his beer candle. At the beginning of the semester Walter had stuck a candle to the top of a Pabst Blue Ribbon can and let the wax melt down the sides. Then he had burned candle after candle on the same spot until the can was buried in layers of multi-colored wax. It was a lot like Walter’s own life. Each of his long years had dripped wax on his best memories, obscuring the details. But now the wax had been stripped away and he could see the can underneath.
Walter smiled and reached out his hand. Suddenly the beer can shimmered briefly and was covered with layers of wax. Then it shimmered again and there was no wax at all. Then it disappeared, to be replaced by a paperback book, Stranger In A Strange Land. Walter pulled his hand back as if he had touched a hot stove. He looked around the room. The John Lennon poster was now a picture of Neuschwanstein Castle. The Hobbit calendar was now filled with pictures of Chicago White Sox players.
The room swayed briefly and Walter flopped down onto his bed. Dr. Collier had said it wouldn’t be perfect. It stood to reason that his memories would have gotten jumbled up after all these years. Evidently, his brain was having trouble sorting them all out. But none of that mattered now. He was back where he’d always longed to be. Tonight was the night he would see Lucy and set everything right.
Walter stood up and walked unsteadily to the mirror. The sight of his own reflection nearly made him sit down again. Instead of the lined, weary face he had seen every morning for so long, he was looking into a face right out of the pages of his college yearbook. He still had a full head of strawberry-blond hair. His skin was smooth. His beard was merely a wisp. Best of all, his eyes were clear and bright, as if looking toward a shining future. There was no sadness there, no grief, no regret. They were the eyes of a young man.
Walter’s heart thumped, not from disease but from excitement. He hadn’t felt like this in fifty years. He looked at his watch, a Bulova, the kind you have to wind by hand. It was 7:35 and time to get ready. He was supposed to meet Lucy at the Student Union at 8 o’clock – he was sure of that. He pulled back the bamboo curtain of his closet and picked out something to wear…
“So how long have you been doing this?” asked Greenbaum.
“Nearly since the beginning,” Collier answered. “I started out in Alzheimer’s research and that led to this.” She watched the monitors, checking for any signs of distress.
“Have you ever experienced it yourself?” Greenbaum asked.
“Of course. It was part of my training.”
“Is it like dreaming?”
Collier looked off into the distance. “No, it’s much more than that. If you integrate long-term memory with the conscious mind, the brain thinks you’re actually back there. All the sounds, smells, and emotions are real to you, and if there are any gaps, the brain usually learns to fill them in.”
Collier thought of what it had felt like when she had gone back into her own memories. She had chosen a time when her mother and father had both been alive, before she’d gone away to medical school. She had been too busy to spend much time with her parents in those days, and by the time she finished with school, they were both gone, so she went back into her past to try again. When they had turned on the Integrator, she had found herself sitting at the piano with her mother in the parlor of the old house, in the old neighborhood. The two of them played a duet on Silent Night, while her father stood behind them and sang along in his deep baritone voice, resting his hand on her shoulder.
Collier unconsciously reached her hand up and touched the spot where her father’s hand had rested. “You should know,” she said softly, “it’s hard to come back to real life.”
Greenbaum nodded. “I’ve heard about people who had to actually be shocked into coming out of it.”
Collier frowned. “That’s been somewhat overstated, but yes, there have been a few problems. But we’ve worked them out. In a case like Mr. Lawston, it’s not a concern. He doesn’t have much time left, so what does it matter if he spends it in his past? We’re just trying to bring him some happiness at the end.”
“It seems to be working,” said Greenbaum.
And indeed, the
old man’s face appeared to be backlit as a wide grin creased the corners of his
mouth. Wherever he was, he was enjoying himself.
Walter tied his shoes and smiled for the mirror one last time. He had to admit he looked pretty good. It had been a long, long time since his hair had hung down over his forehead. He pushed it aside and squeezed a small zit, squirting a little pus onto the mirror. It had really been a long time since he’d done that.
“Having fun?” asked Grout, just back from the shower.
Walter looked back over his shoulder. “Actually, yes. I can’t believe I’m here. It’s all so...” He stopped.
“What are you talking about?” asked Grout.
“Nothing. Never mind.”
Walter watched Grout dry his hair with a towel. God, it was good to see Paul again.
“You still thinking of enlisting?”
“I thought you were going into your Dad’s metal finishing business.”
Grout shook his long hair back. “There’s plenty of time for that. After I get out.”
Walter nodded, even though he knew that Paul Grout’s time would run out long before his enlistment was up. He would have to talk to him about that later. But he could only fix one thing at a time. He looked at his watch. It was 7:55 and Lucy was always early. She would be waiting for him.
“I gotta go,” he said to Grout.
“Have fun,” Grout answered. “I suppose it’s too late to tell you not to get all goofy.”
Walter grabbed a towel and snapped it at his roommate as he walked out the door.
In the stairwell, Walter’s feet were barely touching the steps as he ran down. When he burst outside into the autumn evening he stopped and took a deep breath. This was the air he remembered. A cool breeze came in off the lake and he could smell smoke from a bonfire on the beach. A scattering of brown leaves blew around the sidewalk. He leaned down and picked up a handful, crushing them in his palm. He breathed in the rich aroma. October had been his favorite month in those days, long before the chill of old age had settled deep in his bones.
By the time he reached the Student Union his heart was pounding in his ears. Lucy would be waiting for him just inside those doors, around the corner, sitting on a barstool. She would be wearing the white sweater she had knitted for herself. She would smile when she saw him. It was that smile he remembered most about her. And now he would see it again.
He grabbed the door handle and pulled. It was locked.
Walter rattled the handle. How could it be locked? He knew this was the right night. He had met Lucy at the Union. They each had a Coke and then they walked down to the lakeshore. He was sure of it. He looked at the Hours Of Operation posted next to the door.
Monday thru Friday - 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM
Saturday - 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM
Sunday - CLOSED
He looked at his watch. Eight o‘clock. Had his memory been wrong? That didn’t seem possible. Maybe he had picked her up at her dorm instead of the Union that night. North Hall, room 218, that’s where she lived. Or was it Denhart? Was it North Hall junior year and Denhart senior year? Or was it the other way around?
Walter’s brain seemed to lock up as he stepped away from the door. He would have to go back up to his room and ask Grout about some of the details. Grout would think Walter was crazy but he already thought that anyhow.
Something seemed to be wrong with Johnson Hall. It shimmered in front of his eyes and the stairway he would normally take up to his room was now a solid, stone wall. The lights in the windows of the north wing blinked out, to be replaced by jagged, black holes. He tipped his head back and saw the stars in the night sky spinning out of control. He toppled over backward and hit the sidewalk hard, gaping up at the unstable world like a beached fish. Suddenly the cement went soft beneath his back - soft as a hospital bed.
“No!” he gasped as his past receded back into the dark corners of his mind.
Walter opened his eyes. The smell of October bonfire had been replaced by the medicinal odor of a hospital room. The sounds of rock music had become the soft beeps of a life support machine.
“You’re back,” said Collier.
Walter turned his head to the side. Tears formed in his eyes. He had never felt so disappointed in his life. And so empty. He began to sob.
Collier motioned for Greenbaum to leave the room and he slipped out into the hallway.
“Tell me about it,” Collier said softly.
When Walter got himself under control again, or at least as much control as you can have while being kept alive by machines, he looked up and blinked.
“I thought I remembered,” he said, “but it got all mixed up. I need to go back. Please send me back.”
Collier bit her lip. That wasn’t possible. Once a Canvas fell apart the brain could never be fooled again. There was only one ticket per customer, and Mr. Lawson had used his up. And it was her fault.
“Please,” begged Walter, “I’ll do it right this time. We won’t argue. I’ll ask her to marry me, just like I wanted to in the first place. She won’t go away mad. She won’t drive off in her car. She won’t die.”
Collier grimaced. This man had lived his whole, bitter adult life with one glaring regret. He’d never been able to shake off that terrible night. He’d never found happiness with anyone else. This wasn’t just a small regret, like most of her patients had. This was a life-long yearning, an avalanche of guilt that no therapist had been able to take away. And now the one chance she had given him to make things right in his mind had failed. It nearly broke her heart.
“Okay,” she said, “I’ll get started on a reset. We’ll wait until it’s completely ready this time. In the meantime try and get some sleep.”
Collier set the IV to give Walter a slightly higher dose of morphine. Before he drifted off, she made sure he saw her push some buttons on the Integrator. The only thing she could give him now was hope. But it was a false hope.
The images raced through Walter’s head like a runaway train. It felt like a fever dream, where nothing makes any sense. Voices shouted and whispered, voices from long ago and just yesterday – nurses and doctors and his kindergarten teacher. He tried to shout, to make it all stop, but his mouth went numb and his vocal cords seemed to be gone. He could only lie there and gasp as his breathing became ragged.
‘I’m going to die now,’ he thought.
Suddenly the images slowed. The voices went quiet. A scene acquiesced into his mind. He was back standing outside of Johnson Hall. This time there didn’t seem to be any missing pieces in the Canvas.
His tennis shoes shuffled through October leaves. His breath fogged in the crisp night air. His heart raced.
“I remember,” he said.
He took off running.
“North Hall, room 206. I know that’s right.”
Thirty seconds to cross the Quad lawn, his tennis shoes scrunching the autumn brown grass. Twenty seconds to make it past Denhart Hall, lighted windows winking. Twenty more seconds to make it to the front of North Hall.
Up the steps, two at a time. He stopped on the landing, breathing hard. He looked up. The stone building was a blue castle in the moonlight. This was it. He flung open the front door. He raced past the hall monitor. She shouted after him to sign in. He didn’t stop.
In the stairwell. Up one flight. Through the swinging door. Royal blue cinderblock walls, achingly familiar. The 4th door on the right.
Walter closed his eyes and softly whispered a thank you to Dr. Collier. Then he lifted his hand to knock.
“We’re losing him,” said Collier. She hated this part. After all her years of training, she could only stand at the old man’s bedside and helplessly watch him die.
Greenbaum observed the scene from a chair in the corner of the room. It frankly surprised him a little. He had always pictured doctors as cold, clinical types, unable to form an attachment to their patients for professional reasons. But this woman had tears in her eyes. He thought of going over to comfort her but that seemed like too much. Instead, he settled on a cliché. “You did everything you could.”
“No, I didn’t,” she answered. “I got impatient and rushed things. I should have waited until the Canvas was done.”
“Was there time for that?” asked Greenbaum.
“No, I guess not.” She turned her head away, more out of frustration than for any other reason.
Walter’s hand paused in front of Lucy’s door. Could this really be happening? Would he finally get the chance he had been waiting all his life for? There was only one way to find out.
He rapped softly. After a pause that seemed like hours, a voice came from the other side.
“Just a minute.”
Walter’s legs felt like putty. He remembered that voice.
The door opened. Lucy stood there in the doorway, dressed in a white sweater, the one she had knitted for herself. There was that smile, the one that had danced in Walter’s head for all those sad years.
“Hello, Walter,” she said.
“There’s something I want to ask you,” he said.
He put his arms around her, tentatively at first, and then more tightly. She felt warm. And real. His body shook with sobs.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, pulling away.
“Nothing,” he said. “Nothing ever again.”
Collier switched off the life support. The old man’s body had finally gotten tired of fighting.
It was her life’s work to try and make things better for people. But this time, she had made things worse. She felt a dull ache in her bones and an empty feeling in her gut.
“I’m leaving now,” whispered Greenbaum, who had come to stand beside her. “Thanks for everything.”
Collier ran her hands through her hair and stood up straight. “Yes, of course,” she said firmly. She reached out and shook Greenbaum’s hand. “Good luck to you. I hope you’ll give us a decent write-up. We could use more funding.”
As soon as Greenbaum let himself out of the room, Collier collapsed into a chair and allowed herself to weep, releasing some of the pent-up emotion of the past few days. She had seen a lot of people die, but this one had been harder than most.
Collier asked herself all the old questions. Where was Walter now? Was he simply gone? Or was there something more? Like most of her patients, Walter had talked about Heaven near the end. In her better moments Collier hoped there was a place like that.
She dried her eyes with the back of her hand. If there was a Heaven she thought she might have gotten a glimpse of it when she had gone into her own Canvas. Maybe Heaven was a place for second chances. It was a very appealing thought.
Collier looked at her watch. It was 8 PM and time to go home. She had another terminal patient to meet with first thing in the morning. She would get a second chance then, not with Walter, but with somebody else. She hoped things would go better this time, for, in spite of everything, she simply wanted to do some good in the world.
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