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Fiction: The Outside World

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Waterfall

“You were right,” Susan said. “The view’s great from the other side of the road.”

Jimmy Duncan watched her approach, the sun behind her and the wind riffling her hair. She fiddled with her camera a moment, then plopped down beside him on the grassy hillside. To their left, loomed a wall of black forest; jungle birds screamed and chattered in the trees. To the right, beyond the rented Jeep, a line of ragged mountains marched away into the blue distance.

“How do you know this place?” she asked. “You never said anything about all this.”

“I don’t know the whole country. Just this area.”

She grinned. “And I thought you’d told me all your secrets.”

When he didn’t reply, Susan’s voice turned soft. “This has something to do with the accident, doesn’t it?”

“Why do you think that?”

“Because I know you. The look on your face.”

Jimmy sighed. “That was a long time ago.”

“So?”

“Besides”—he plucked a blade of grass, examined it, twirled it between a thumb and forefinger before the wind took it—“I’m not even sure you’d call it an accident.”

“What would you call it?”

“A miracle,” the cop said.

Jimmy turned his head toward the voice. Not his eyes, just his head. His eyes were bandaged tight. “What’d you say?”

“I said it was a miracle. That car of yours was squashed so flat we thought you was too. You’re one lucky fool.”

Jimmy groaned. He didn’t feel lucky. He felt blind, and nauseated, and achy. From somewhere down the hall, he heard the sad rattle of a cart as patients were brought their lunch trays.

“The other driver?” Jimmy asked.

“Not even a bruise. Them 18-wheelers are built like tanks.” Jimmy heard a rasping sound, and realized the cop was scratching his chin. “Want some advice, kid? That truck’s company owns a thousand stores, and we got three witnesses say it ran the light. Sue ’em, settle for a couple million, and move to Hawaii. Beaches, sunsets, girls in grass skirts.”

“What if you can’t see them?” Jimmy asked.

“Yeah, well, that could be a problem.” The cop cleared his throat. “Catch you later.”

Which was a lie. The cop didn’t return. The doctor, however, did. Along with a parade of nurses and orderlies and even a few lawyers. But no friends, and no family. Jimmy didn’t have any of those.

He didn’t even have a home. For the past two months, since the layoff from the warehouse in East Texas, he’d been on the road. Footloose, but not fancy-free. His savings were gone now. He’d hoped to sell some of his paintings, but that notion had suffered the same fate as most of his other ideas. In San Francisco he’d heard about an art colony near Vancouver and headed north. Why not? He’d never seen Canada. Then, in Oregon, a truck had failed to stop for a red light. What had stopped was his tour of the Northwest.

Broke, alone, homeless, blind. Even his artwork was gone, destroyed in the crash. He didn’t know what hospital he was in, or who was paying for his treatment. Uncle Sam, probably.

He almost wished he hadn’t been thrown clear, wished he’d been squashed as flat as his 10-year-old Civic. Easier for everybody.

But life went on.

As if proving that, Jimmy soon learned to ID the hospital staff from their voices. He had little choice; his hearing was one of the few senses he had left. He wondered if he’d ever see anything again.

“Pressure on the optic nerve, plus a scratched cornea,” the doc said. “A specialist is coming in. We’ll know more then.”

Three specialists and two surgeries later, Jimmy was told he would regain his sight. Two months from now, maybe less.

His body was another matter. Multiple head and back injuries, partial paralysis. He could move his neck and his left arm, but only slightly. Otherwise, zip. Each day he was lifted into a wheelchair beside his bed, and each day he wondered why the wheelchair. Did they think he was going someplace? He was left to sit there a couple hours, and then they swung him back into his bed, like a sack of feed. Day after day.

And then he met Maria. She came one morning like a fuzzy dream while he was in the chair and whispered in his ear. He turned his head in the direction of her voice. Many people had spoken to him during his stay, but this was the first whisper. It had a Spanish accent.

“The weendow,” she said. “You must make it to the weendow.” And squeezed his hand. Then she was gone.

A nurse told him later who the woman was. Maria Renaldo, from the fifth floor. A small lady, mid-80s. She loved to talk with patients. No one knew whether her goodwill visits accomplished much, but since she was harmless the hospital allowed her free access.

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