Amtrak 234. A serialized short story by Herb Schultz

Part Ten. The Thrilling Conclusion.

Cary awoke from a languid and luxurious dream in which he made love to his first girlfriend, rewound to a time when he was 19 years old and she was a virginal 16. The girlfriend was nearly as tall as Cary once was in real life, a trait of subtle eroticism that Cary ranked nearly as high as the dimples in the small of her back. In his dream, details of the love-making seemed so real – hues and shades, moans and shrieks, even the aromas of sex. Cary was reminded of the first episode of the TV show Star Trek – “The Menagerie” – in which the vegetative Captain Pike was permitted by the aliens to experience in his mind an illusive life as real as real life. Cary regretted waking up. Why couldn’t he fall into a permanent fantasy dream state instead of lying immobile yet fully conscious of all his morbid surroundings, unable to communicate?

Cary was no longer stationed in the Neuro ICU. He now idled away in a semi-private room, his condition stabilized to that of a robust house plant. As long as he was watered daily there was no reason to believe he should ever die. Each day dragged on as every day before it. With the exception of Lee and Sage, Cary’s visitors dwindled to barely one or two a month which suited him fine. Whenever a visiting business colleague made a side trip to the Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, he (it was always a male colleague) would speak perfunctory small talk for a minute then fiddle with a BlackBerry until the lack of a strong signal and the smell of urine compelled an abrupt exit. Of course, no visitor was aware that Cary could see and hear them, and so they interacted with him as they would a caged hamster. Truth be told, it made no sense to Cary why anyone would bother to visit. He postulated that the visits were to assuage guilt or to atone for sins lest God foist Cary’s predicament upon them as well. Maybe the visits were made out of simple morbid curiosity?

Lately, Cary was more lethargic than ever before. He sincerely hoped he was experiencing the beginnings of a mercy killing initiated by a sympathetic orderly and carried out with toxic chemicals, slowly and methodically. If this were true, Cary wished his body to be disposed of as soon as he died so that no one could conduct an inquiry that might cause trouble for the orderly – his guardian angel-of-death. But, as anyone could plainly see Cary had not executed a living will; there was no way now to prevent some invasive probing of his corpse should the circumstances of his death appeared even a wee bit odd. Fuck it all. Eyelids heavy but forever open, Cary tried desperately to fall back into that wonderful dream with his tall, forever-16-year old girlfriend. Oh, to press his flesh against her supple body and stroke her long, straight hair that smelled of patchouli and lavender; to intertwine his restored swimmer’s legs with hers; to bury himself deeply in the declivity of her femininity. Cary was almost there when he heard someone enter his room. The way the person shuffled slowly, each sliding step accompanied by the squeak of tiny wheels suggested he or she was neither a regular visitor or member of the hospital staff. Cary caught a whiff of urine.

“I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you, sir,” announced the stranger. “My name is Billy Rubin. I know you can hear me, and see me too when I get close to the bed.”

If he were capable, Cary would have bolted upright. Immediately an avalanche of thoughts ran through Cary’s mind leaving a wake of dissonance and confusion. Is this a dream and have I lost the ability to distinguish it from reality? Did someone run a test on me that revealed my cognition? Is this Rubin guy trying out a new therapy on me? Or is some fucking orderly busting my balls in a gambit to elicit some laughs from his buddies? Ever the pessimist Cary landed on the ball-buster explanation – over time, orderlies assigned to the vegetable wing lose the ability to distinguish their human charges from fish in a bowl.

“Mr. Hayes – sorry, I noticed your name outside the door – I was at that train wreck last year. I used to work at the golf course, Dinsmore, when the train hit your car. I saw what happened and heard what you said.”

This was no ball-busting orderly. This guy knew something and Cary was decidedly interested in what he had to say. Train wreck? I said something?

Cary had lain motionless in a hospital bed for so long – sores stinking, feeding tubes threaded down his throat (and later embedded directly into his abdomen) – hoping each and every 86,400-second day that someone would step forward and say directly to his face, “This is why you’re here in this shitty condition.” At no time had any of his family, friends, co-workers and care-givers revealed the circumstances that led him to Valhalla, other than the time Sage briefly mentioned a vague car accident. Maybe they had said something before he “woke up” but since then, nothing. How gypped he felt being confined to hell-on-a-mattress without an inkling of what devastation had been visited upon him. Cary considered the possibility that his visitor possessed a special ability endowed by God – Nah. What God? – to communicate with people like himself, all input and no output. People essentially dead but denied a better place in hell.

Billy shuffled up to the side of the bed to enter into Cary’s narrow field of vision. Cary saw a man with yellowish skin who looked like he could be 60 years old or a hundred, pulling along an IV bag mounted on a hook on wheels. “I got the cirrhosis of the liver.” He said ‘srosis’ as if running the syllables together might lessen the seriousness of the condition. “That’s why my skin’s so damn yellow. I had half my liver removed last week. I’m in a room on the floor right above you. Don’t look good for me though – I really need a new liver but I’m way down on the list.” Cary could not get over how yellow Billy was. It was surreal – like he was a cartoon character. Cary had never before laid eyes on someone in such an advanced stage of liver breakdown.

Billy continued, “I know you’re gonna believe what I’m about to tell you, because you have a special ability like I do. Everyone thinks you can’t see or hear, but you can. And I can see and hear things too – stuff far away from me, like I was right there even though I’m somewhere else.” Billy explained the lightning strike that induced his special skill, and recited a couple of mundane examples. Cary wished Billy would get to the accident.

“I’m sorry,” Billy said, looking down at the floor, “let me get to the accident. I heard the train roaring down the tracks faster than usual, then a huge crashing sound, then a long screech.” Billy imitated the onomatopoeiac sound: “Eeeeeeeech!” Cary mentally shook his head.

“I figured it had to be a train hitting a car at that unguarded crossing. Me and lots of people complained about that crossing for years, but you know the government. They never do a goddamned thing to fix a problem until a disaster occurs. Then they spend a hundred times more money than it would’ve cost to fix it in the first place.” Billy shuffled away for a moment and returned with a chair. He sat down heavily, like he had just dropped a bag of bricks.

“Wow. I feel like shit.” Billy exhaled hard and Cary smelled urine again. “Anyway, I got over to that crash scene fast. I was the first person there, y’know, not counting the Amtrak passengers. Cops and ambulances showed up right after I did. They wouldn’t let me get close. I helped them find a person who was thrown out of the car. I guess at first they thought there was just one person involved because that’s all they saw sitting there in the car.”

Cary was even more grateful now that Sage had come away from the wreck unhurt considering that she had been thrown out of the car. Thrown out of the car as a gargantuan locomotive dragged it along railroad tracks. Before hearing Billy Rubin tell it Cary assumed the accident involved another car, and that Sage happened to be on the lucky side of the collision.

Billy continued, “The cops made me leave, so I drove back up to the clubhouse. And as soon as I got there a helicopter flew over the golf course. I saw them take away a young girl. I guessed it was your daughter. Turns out the passenger that got thrown out of the car was in really bad shape, but you were miraculously fine – just a couple of bruises and scratches.”

“Wh–wh–what?” At first confused, Cary became indignant. He formed the mental question, “What the fuck is this? A sick joke?”

“No.” Billy said quietly. “I saw it just like I said. I have this strange ability from getting struck by lightning. I saw the medics take you to one of the cars on the train, and you were just sitting alone.”

Suddenly Cary recalled some of the scenario Billy just described – seated alone in the café car, his mind going crazy thinking of young, precious Sage and her mangled body.

“I saw you in that café car, all alone, in shock and sadness,” continued Billy, “and I heard you say these very words: ‘I would give anything in the world to change places with her right now…anything.’” Billy looked in Cary’s eyes. “That’s a quote – I swear.”

Cary’s brain raced.

With tears brimming, Billy added, “As the helicopter flew back over the course toward the hospital, I saw you on the gurney. Just like you are now.”

Cary wanted to let out a deep breath but could never do so as long as the ventilator operated. But relief came anyway. He felt tortured no more. Cary had indeed done something glorious after all. He had been a noble Viking warrior, slain in battle. A glorious warrior chosen by the Valkyries. It all made sense now. Another Valhalla awaited him.

Billy shuffled toward the door with his squeaky IV rig just as a steady clarion beep signaled flat-line.

The End.

(c) 2013. Major Terata Publications


Some of the locations and other topics referenced in the story.

The Mills Mansion


The Beekman Arms

The Beekman Arms: Oldest Inn in America

Beekman Arms Oldest Hotel In America Rhinebeck
By the Fireplace inside the Beekman Arms

Dinsmore Golf Course

The Concord Hotel c.1950s

The Concord “Monster” Golf Course

Album cover from Machito’s appearance at the Concord Hotel

Amtrak 234

Rhinecliff Train Station

Ruins of Bannerman Castle

Billy Casper in his prime

The Taconic Parkway

Spuyten Duyvil

Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla

“Ride of the Valkyries”

“Apocalypse Now”

Declaration of Lunar Ownership

The inspiration for a character’s name

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