by Bradley Cannon I am in an ambulance, dazed and bleeding from a cut on my forehead. Two EMTs are attaching my finger to a heart rate monitor. The rear doors are not properly closed, so I’m worried that I might fly out the back on my gurney. But mainly I’m concerned that my accidenthas thrown me into an alternate dimension.
Of course, no one else guesses I’ve left Kansas except me. It’s a crazy idea, even more so than half the stories I write on the weekends. My neighbor, Karen Gallup—technically another Karen Gallup—saw me crash out of my glass sliding door and land in a heap on the patio of this new world. I blacked out from the fall, only to awaken to the sound of sirens and the sensation of my body being rolled onto a gurney. She wore a cooking apron with daffodils, nicer than anything I had ever seen on her, but that’s not exactly proof of an alternate dimension.
Gallup’s lips never said more beautiful words than when she told the technicians I had flown as if someone pushed me from behind. She said, “I was speaking on the phone to Thomas”—her husband—“when this guy appeared out of thin air with the glass exploding all around him. It was as if he came out of nowhere.”
The ambulance doors are now shut, for the most part.
I moan, the pain quite real now that we’re moving and I’m fully awake. “Give me a phone,” I say. “I need to call Sara.” The two men say something about regulations, but one of them retrieves a personal mobile anyway, an old one without a screen. All the numbers are worn off except the green pound button. He dials for me and then places the phone between my shaking fingers. I smear blood into the cracks of the keypad where it will never come out. I’m shaking. The phone’s free ring-back tone is set to the rhythm of a church bell. One ring, two rings, three. . . .
Four cars hit my wife. Four. Three months ago, a child named Lily Billy, 3 years old, got out of her car seat and grabbed the steering wheel of the first vehicle. The girl’s mother swerved onto the sidewalk and knocked my beautiful Sara straight into the street with her Mexican to-go order still in hand. The vehicle cut back into the middle lane of the road and hit another car. Three more cars blew their horns and braked as they closed in on the accident. The drivers all whipped to the right lane, bumper to bumper so that they couldn’t really see what was under them. The second one bounced a little less than the one before it. The third one’s wheels hardly left the ground.
At the time, I sat writing in my kitchen, clueless when it happened because I can never get anything done unless I sit up straight in an uncomfortable place all alone. A creative prompt for an Internet writing group had remained on my computer screen for half the morning. It said, “You have recently lost the most significant person in your life. Tonight, lightning strikes your home, opening a portal to an alternate dimension. The person who died is still alive in this world.”
I cried a lot that day when I found out an hour later. Sara’s death wasn’t fair. Finding out after the fact was wrong. The killer, little more than a baby, couldn’t be punished and wouldn’t remember what happened. The girl wouldn’t know how to count for several more years, and my Sara wouldn’t be the one to teach her. Instead, Sara’s third grade classroom across the street from our home would be auctioned off to the next best application. God, she had squealed so joyously when the school had accepted her to start teaching this fall.
I don’t know if I should mention our last fragment of communication.
Her text: “Eek! I ordered a spicy burrito instead of a regular one. :(”
My text: “Don’t let it near your who-ha then! :D lol”
Is that what life’s all about? Crude, pointless jokes?
It stormed that first night as I read the writing prompt over and over. I turned to it first for a distraction, then marveled at its horrendous timing. In minutes, I hated it for such insensitivity. I hated myself too because I’ve certainly written about darker topics. I left to watch television, but the power went out. The sky became too dark to read, so I returned to the laptop and the prompt. I thought about the irony of the situation as if the portal mentioned might open at any second. Eventually, I passed through to the sad little perspective of destiny, as if suddenly too confused to remember all the hapless stupidities that instigated my wife’s death in the first place.
I waited until the storm let up, but lightning never struck and never opened any portal no matter how many times I wished that it would. I stepped close to my sliding glass door. I had a hunch that was where gateway would open, probably because I ran into that door a long time ago when we first bought the house. Sara had laughed at me from the outside. I tried to imagine her doing the same thing again but could not.
I went to the funeral and sat beside her closed casket, which might as well have been open. A single glimpse inside was all I needed to be haunted. I never imagined a closed casket service for a lover. People shook my hands, half of whom I didn’t recognize. I left my stool by the casket only once to tell a 15 year old to get the hell out and find some decent clothes. “Dress code isn’t just for school!” I said, telling his parents they should to be ashamed of themselves too. Kids weren’t allowed to disrespect me or any other high school English teacher. They especially weren’t going to disrespect Sara.
The microphone didn’t work during the service. The preacher said a few nice things, but I think he felt like his work with Sara was already finished. Later, I overheard my sister say he spent to much time trying to scare everybody into attending church.
I had to pee during the service. That’s the only way I knew her death was real.
I never got Sara’s crushed face out of my mind. I never saw her smiling reflection in my glass door no matter how hard I tried, though I did see the reflection of myself. My other self, identical in every way except that his left side was my right. His kitchen table filled the wrong side of the room. Even the text on his television screen scrolled backward, though he had no trouble reading it.
We flipped each other off for weeks, metaphorically because I knew he wasn’t real, though I always remembered to check on him and look into his eyes. After a month, we still believed each other couldn’t exist, though I had somehow given him a happier personality along the way. He was ordinary. Under 30. Didn’t keep his hair as neat as he should have. Identical to me in every way, except that I couldn’t see the dread in his expression. Sara never walked by, but I know she was there because he didn’t look miserable to me. I think that’s what first led me to think he might be his own person after all.
Three months after her death, exactly three, I made myself a burrito, a symbolic meal if there ever was one. I opened the microwave after 45 seconds, but I couldn’t wait any longer. I turned to the door and ran as fast as I could. My other self charged toward me from the other side of the glass. I hoped with everything inside me that I would knock him unconscious. He raised his hands to brace himself and his world, right as I struck the glass face first.
Now I listen to the cell phone ringing in the ambulance and wonder if she’ll answer. With each ring, I wish a little more that I had looked back through the broken glass into my house when they put me on the gurney. I would have instantly recognized whether the kitchen was tidy or littered with beer cans and pizza boxes. I would have known if I made it through to my alternate's clean, tidy world, or if I was insane.
Instead, I only peer out the back of the vehicle at the plain wall of my house, unable to tell if the world was backward before the twin rear doors were closed. Karen Gallup distantly shouts good-bye to me as if I am one of her cats. Two other men disappear outside before heading around to the vehicle's front seat. I have no way to know whether the man on the left side will drive or the one on the right. I check my arms and legs for some freckle or telling mark to make sense of it all, but I am too beaten up to learn anything. Is there nothing at all to read in this ambulance? The smudged phone continues to ring.
“Sweetheart?” Sarah answers all at once, and I hear children in the background, school children busy with first-day assignments. I instinctively find myself wondering where the other me is now. He must have run away immediately after our collision, but I know she won’t stay with me so long as she’s got him. If our relationships are as closely paralleled as I think they are, she’ll never leave his side when she realizes the truth, but that doesn’t matter now. A moment of elation arrives, as delightful as I ever dreamt. I can see her face in my mind’s eye again. She’s beautiful again. Loving. Alive.
Karen Gallup’s flowery apron was the first reason I wondered if this dimension was too bright to be real, but now it is the voice of my alternative wife that makes me question myself. After all, a brighter reality is a fake reality. Such marvelous color comes only from imagination. Truly brilliant, magical sensations, even on my wedding day, have never really happened. No matter how beautiful my Sara was, I still got a ketchup stain on her dress and had to suck it out of the fabric between my lips.
“I—I fell through the glass door. I’m all cut up,” I say, not brave enough to mention the ambulance yet.
“Are you okay? Do you need me to come and get you?” She sounds so good—too good, and I begin to doubt everything after all. This world must be a figment of my imagination, and I’m only a fool who ran through a door for no reason. I’m a fool who will soon have to explain himself to his doctors. I’ll probably end up on medication. Yet all this while, I can’t stop listening to her. I can’t stop my energized breathing. My eyes look so terribly hard at nothing in particular on the ambulance interior. Her voice is loud and clear. Powerfully bright.
I begin to cry. I begin to fall apart, and she hears me but can’t understand my pain. In her confusion, when my thoughts can become no darker, she says, “I bet you’re fine. I bet you’ve already checked to make sure your wiener isn’t cut off.”
“What?” I ask as Sara tries to laugh at her joke, her voice abruptly fading in and out from static.
Surprising me further, an alarm goes off like a bomb inside the cabin. One of the men shakes his head, embarrassed, to indicate that the sound has nothing to do with me. He starts banging equipment until it shuts off. The vehicle brakes for a moment. I hit the back of my head against the gurney, but I can already tell I’m getting better and that I haven’t made up this world after all.
Suddenly, I hear shouting over the line as my other self arrives in her classroom and tells her to hang up on me at once. When I first collided into his world, he must have ran straight across the street toward the school to find her. I suppose that's what I would have done too. She stutters once before the line goes quiet, and then I’m left alone.
I return the phone to its owner, and the damndest thing happens even as I am slipping into the shadows of doubt. Dare I say it, I find myself needing to pee, so I smile. CONTINUE TO PART 2