A bad man makes a discovery about his true nature
Let me tell you a story about the day I died.
I’d been out on parole for about ninety days — a season I spent drinking and enjoying freedom and fighting the hands of the clock, wishing with all my might to slow down the passage of time. I wanted to enjoy every moment I had left in my rediscovered freedom. For eighteen years I’d been fixated on time.
How much time will I serve?
For the first ten years, thinking about how much time I would serve was all consuming. Every day I hoped and prayed for an early parole, a new trial… anything that gave me another chance to live life outside prison walls. It was during the process of denying my parole a third time when a rotund officer on the board told me, “Don’t worry, Mr. Gunn, you won’t die in prison.” I became even more obsessed with time — not how much more time will I serve, but how much time will I have left when I get out?
I would get my answer sooner than I ever imagined.
We had sneaked down a railroad access road that night to get our trucks into a party spot that couldn’t be seen from the road. We parked in a semi-circle, on a grassy flat along the Missouri River and got to work drinking beer and smoking pot under a clear Dakota sky. I’d like to say I was having a good time, but truthfully, despite my freedom, I was not thinking about having a good time.
I was plotting. Fuming.
Seething with anger about eighteen years lost. Wasted time.
To understand me, you need to understand something about our legal system.
It’s a farce.
In domestic court in particular. A woman’s word versus a man’s word, there’s no contest — a lying bitch can have you arrested any time she wants, just by saying you hit her. Or choked her. Or pushed her down the stairs.
It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter what you actually did, you’re at fault and you’re guilty and you’re going to jail.
So, as much as I wanted to enjoy the stars over the mighty Missouri that night, smoking cigarettes and listening to WFYR, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I wanted to make that bitch pay dearly.
“I’m going to get some beer,” I said as I crushed my can and tossed it in the grass. My old friends barely noticed.
I intended to get beer and return to the party, but it did cross my mind to just continue down the highway, past the liquor store near the county line, and head to the bar in town.
I’m gonna have to find out where she lives.
My mind was far away. There were four or five cigarettes left in the pack in my breast pocket, and I reached for them.
It was a momentary lapse of attention for sure, the kind of thing that can happen to any one of us, any day.
I missed a stop sign while my attention was on the smokes in my pocket.
My truck sailed into the intersection at sixty miles per hour and I had just enough time to turn my head and face the glare of headlights from an oncoming truck, a double-brilliant blast from four lamps, shining right in the window of my pickup.
The collision was an explosion of blinding silence, so deafening that it left me unable to hear anything beyond a high-pitched whine. My truck collapsed into itself as it was lifted up in the air and began to roll to the right. It was a unique collision of contradictory physics. My truck had gone airborne, traveling one direction, but slowly rolling along its horizontal axis in the opposite direction, and I was along for the ride.
Without a seatbelt, I was weightless in the cab until the truck contacted the ground, at which point friction halted its backward tumble and it rolled violently the other way. I was thrown flat across the seat as the roll reversed. An instant later the roof collapsed and threw an explosion of safety glass all over the inside of the cab.
The truck rolled back one full revolution and I was thrown out the driver’s side window just past the top of the arc — thrown forward like a fastball just after the pitcher’s release. My shoulder collided with the window frame as I exited the truck and there was a searing explosion of pain.
Then, for just one moment, there was something.
I… I can’t really explain it.
It was one of those things where a smell triggers a memory to a time and a place in your life… a feeling of happiness and nostalgia. I had that for just a moment… I smelled a laundromat. Or laundry or something, but to me, it was distinctly a laundromat. Like the one my mother and I used to frequent when I was five. Overrun with working-class families, with kids as wild as I was — the King-Koin Laundrette smelled like hot lint and spray starch.
I always got a pop and some Boston Baked Beans for a treat when we were at the laundromat.
I smelled it right before I died.
Everything went white and blinding as I was ejected from the truck and I was again weightless, spread-eagle and traveling forward at fifty miles per hour, just ten feet off the pavement. I came down from that shallow ballistic arc in the standing position, and just as my feet touched the ground, my body collided with a road reflector-post along the shoulder of the highway.
Now, if you’re squeamish, I would recommend you skip this part, or just put this story away and go find somebody else’s story about having a tea party or something, because this stuff happens, and it happened to me, and I’m gonna tell you about it.
The reflector post embedded lengthwise into my body — entered in my groin and created a gruesome, crushing ribcage injury as it exited through my left shoulder. The reflector arrested my forward momentum and my body spun 180 degrees around the post in a macabre pirouette, leaving the reflector set next to my left ear like a ghastly second head. When the rending of metal ended and the truck came to rest, my body was left hanging there, facing the wreck.
That’s exactly how it looked when you watched it from a distance.
When you watched it from a distance.
My body was broken and hanging, impaled on a signpost on the side of the highway, but I was standing there looking at it. I was pretty sure I had just been in a kinetically devastating truck accident, and my body was on the side of the road in a configuration that no human body could ever survive, and yet, I was still standing here, looking at myself.
I was confused.
It was distinctly quiet — both truck engines had been rendered non-functional. The truck driver who hit me looked like he was a little dazed and had yet to come around. Dust settled in the beam from my truck’s one unbroken headlight. The only noise now was the sound of WFYR, still playing from the radio in the dash.
I leaned over my body, looked into my face.
It was my face.
It was me.
My mouth opened and closed in spasms, like I was trying to say something, but nothing seemed to be coming out. I leaned closer, strained to listen, to hear what I was trying to say.
“I can’t breathe,” I said.
And right after that, the light went out of my eyes.
It’s a moment that hunters have witnessed in wildlife, but very few have witnessed in humans. It’s mostly doctors, soldiers or killers who have witnessed the moment of death, when the eyes glaze and consciousness is gone.
I saw it, and it was me.
“I must be dead,” I thought. “I’m out of time.”
This was one of those moments that happen in the movies from time to time, where the person who just died doesn’t understand it yet, then the guardian angel in the form of Burgess Meredith shows up to explain the situation.
Except Burgess Meredith didn’t show up, and I didn’t know what was going on.
Was I having an out-of-body experience while my physical body died on a road sign? And if so, how much time would I have before my oxygen-starved brain winked out and my astral projection effervesced into nothing?
Your body is already dead. You saw it yourself.
I turned and began to walk up the highway in the direction of the other truck just as the driver began to come out of his daze. He climbed out of his truck as I walked by, looked at me for one long moment, and then looked over at the other me, impaled on the sign post.
“Did he see me?” I wondered.
He had looked right at me, like he could see me.
Other vehicles were pulling over, some to gawk, some to render aid. I didn’t know how much time I had, but I wasn’t gonna waste it hanging around. I walked past a man in a baseball cap who was just getting out of his truck with a first aid kit.
“Hey, what happened up there?” he asked.
I looked at him. He was looking right at me.
“I think somebody died,” I said, and walked into the night.
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