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"Scarecrows"

by Ron Coia

    The car accident did not change Steven’s life. He was altered to some degree, but it wasn’t like he had a spiritual experience from it. He didn’t see God or Light or pearly gates. In fact, he really didn’t even know what pearly gates were. Pearls on gates, he thought, seem out of place. Steven still read the Lifestyle section of the Sunday newspaper first, while drinking a few cups of black coffee with sugar. He still told people to “f*** off” if the situation required it. He still slept with women he hardly knew or cared about, which is how he met Jill. In fact, if it weren’t for the slight limp in his left leg, you wouldn’t even know that this man laid on his side on the hot asphalt at the intersection of Hope and Greenland fourteen months ago. He remembers that moment– undeniably the most frightening moment in his life–when he felt the warm blood race down his face and collect on the ground, as if it belonged there. He remembers the sad stares of others behind a fence of haze. He remembers not feeling his left leg. A witness told the officer that the lady driving the car hovered over Steven apologizing through tears, but Steven doesn’t remember her. He had to read it in the police report weeks later. Her name was Mary something.
   He dreamt of Mary several times since the accident. He doesn’t know what she really looked like, but his dream Mary had the dark hair of his mother and the eyes of his high school girlfriend. Like Steven, she was in her thirties. He steps off the curb of an abandoned street and the red Jetta swerves towards him as the brakes squeal as if in pain. Steven watches Mary behind the wheel, her eyes looking elsewhere. After the hit in the dream, Mary reaches down and lifts Steven off the ground, brushing away the dirt and congealed blood. She touches his cheek and whispers, “I’m sorry, Steven.”   
   “For what?” Steven asks.
   “For this. All of this,” Mary said while moving her hand from his face down to his chest. Her hand moved in small circles until he woke in his bed.
   It was the same dream that he had twice before. He glanced at his watch and rose from the mattress, being careful not to wake Jill. She was near the end of her work week at the St. Matthew’s Intensive Care Unit, where she works seven ten-hour shifts. Jill was a nurse that he met in a bar four months ago, which shatters some people’s Florence Nightingale theories. Steven walked to the window and peeked through the dusty blinds to see a dark, quiet street. The streetlight in front is burned out, which makes the house darker than it should be.
   The next day was Wednesday, the best day to go out for an afterwork drink in Steven’s mind. It seemed to him that the first three days of the week were the busiest ones at NetReliance, the company that installs the physical cable for data fiber optics. He has been a “lineman” for the company since the internet boom in the mid-nineties. He didn’t get in on any “ground floor,” and he doesn’t own many shares of the company beyond his paltry retirement account. He hangs wire. “I put the ladder against a pole, climb, connect a cord into a junction box, and then I climb down,” he often tells people who ask the same questions. “I’m a specialized cable guy.” Someone listening inevitably asks if he can hook up people with free HBO. Steven softly laughs each time even though it is not funny.
   Steven entered Stan’s Mug, a surprisingly well-lit place for a pub, and found a seat at the bar. The bartender, a young man with a black t-shirt, walked to Steven and cocked his head back while raising his eyebrows, a nonverbal “Whaddya want to drink?” He tossed a dented cardboard coaster near Steven’s elbow.
   “Pint of beer, whatever’s on special,” Steven said, trying to read the beer advertised on the coaster. It was a picture of a bird in flight, but just the silhouette. A shadow.
   “Start a tab?” the bartender asked.
   “No. I’m just having this drink,” said Steven, adjusting the coaster to the proper spot on the bar. He rubbed his left knee where it has been throbbing all day. He positioned the coaster with the bird right-side up, flying to the north end of the bar. He tried to imagine what the bird would look like in regular light, if the bird were real. It was an osprey or heron, he thought. He didn’t know his birds. The bartender dropped off the glass and continued walking to the other side of the bar. The shadow bird was covered.
   After watching sports scores on a wide television, Steven stood up from the bar and took one last gulp of beer to finish off his drink. He put the glass back on the coaster, the bird floundering in suds.
   He opened the door to his apartment and threw his keys in the basket near the fridge. Jill was there eating a bowl of noodles in front of the television. “Hi,” she said, warmly.
   “Hi,” Steven said, limping toward the hallway.
   Jill lowered the volume on the television. “How’s work?”
   “Fine,” said Steven blandly from the next room.
   “There’s some pasta on the stove,” Jill said, mostly to herself.
   That night, after sex, Steven dreamt of Mary. The curb. The car. The brakes. The car stopped several feet before Steven’s calm legs, and the door opened. Mary walked to him, bent down, and touched his left knee, which wasn’t throbbing.
   “I’m sorry for all of this. It must hurt,” she said.
   “It doesn’t hurt. I wasn’t hit,” Steven said, as if he were conscience of this dream world. He tried to move her hand away, but she had a television-evangelist grip on it. “You stopped in time.”
   “No, neither of us did.” Mary stood up and moved his hands to her wet cheeks. He moved closer and kissed her, smelling Jill in her feathery hair. Steven made love to Mary on the desolate sidewalk. The concrete felt hot and rocky.
   The next day at work, he stood atop his familiar ladder and expertly fumbled through an electrical mishmash of wires, connecting an eager neighborhood with high-speed access to the internet. He thought of Mary and the dream. His fingers plugged in cords that boost power. Today was Jill’s last day of work for the week, her seventh in a row. A supplemental cord dangled, and Steven grabbed it to put into the supply box. She’ll be off in a few hours. He wrapped the new junction box with nylon wrap, a type of electrical wire designed to fend off squirrels and birds from using the cables as nest ingredients. A scarecrow for the digital age. He thought about making her dinner, Indian, perhaps. He wanted to tell Jill about Mary and the dreams. He wanted to frighten away the crows.
   He dreamt of her again that night. Mary something. He was crossing the street at Hope when the red Jetta screeched. Sometime during the skid, he became the one behind the dashboard, trying to avoid Mary as she stepped off the curb. She looked frightened, but didn’t try to move to safety. Steven didn’t try to swerve. For some reason, this made sense to him, the kind of sense that exists within the confined logic of dreams. He felt her body fall under the speed of the bumper. The car stopped and he rushed to her. She was on her side, blood rushing out from an open gash on her forehead. Steven clutched her lifeless body, as if he were holding the body of Christ. “I’m sorry,” he cried. “I’m so sorry.” He covered her body with part of his open jacket. Bringing her head close to his, he saw Jill’s face, quiet.
   Steven woke with a start and sat up in bed. He looked at Jill and saw what the shadow bird looks like in the light.