A TURN IN THE ROAD
By Jeff Robinson (6,402 words)
(published SF, e-zine, www.wouldthatitwere.com, Jan-Apr 2002)

Jonathon woke to a world of pain.  His whole head throbbed and each pulse of his heart sent pounding waves of fire through his head as if his skull was about to explode.  He opened his eyes, but the brief glimpse of light plunged needles of agony deep into his brain and he squeezed his eyelids tightly shut once again.

As he moaned softly in his agony, a cacophony of sound swept over him.  The meaningless rush of white sound overwhelmed him and he raised his hands to cover his ears.  As the noise slowly diminished, he discerned distant voices amidst the din.  Holding his breath, he concentrated on what the voices were saying.

“…see?  He’s moving.  He’s awake, I tell you.  Nurse, come here and bring my bag.”

Jonathon peeked briefly out of one eye and, blinking against the harsh light, saw a silhouette of someone leaning over him.  He discovered that he was lying on his back and that his hands touched cloth instead of hair.  Feeling softly with his fingers, he confirmed that his head was wrapped in cloth.

“Can you hear me, Mr. Hansen?” a voice whispered loudly.  “Do you know where you are?”

“No,” he replied, cringing at the volume of his own voice.  “I… what happened?”

“You’re all right,” the voice replied.  “You were in an accident.”

Jonathon closed his eyes again and cautiously explored the wrapping covering his head.

“Leave those bandages alone.  You’ll open the wound and start bleeding again.”

Someone took his hands and arefully, but forcefully, guided them to his chest.  He did not resist.  Instead, he tried clear the confusion that clouded his mind like thick cotton.  Simply staying alert enough to understand the unfamiliar voice took all his strength.

“I’m Doctor Wilkes.  You were brought here to the hospital after an accident.  What’s the last thing you recall?  Do you remember falling?”
Jonathon struggled to think.  “I don’t know,” he said.  Nothing came to mind.  “No wait, I was at the rally.  I…” He remembered the crowd in front of the courthouse surrounded by the red, white, and blue banners that hung all around the town square.

“I was covering the mayor’s re-election speech.  Everyone in town was there.”

“Yes, that’s right and what were you doing?” the voice asked.

“I was trying to hear the speech.  I’m a reporter here in town for the Kansas City Gazette.” 

“Excellent.  Do you remember what happened next?”

He tried to piece together the events from the jumble of pictures that flashed through his mind.  “I was up on a scaffold, trying to see the mayor.  There were… too many people in the square and I couldn’t get close enough to hear.”  Then he remembered climbing the narrow platform of wooden planks that workmen had used to drape bunting on the lampposts for the election in two weeks.

“Yes, and then?” asked the doctor again.

“I was writing notes on my pad and… I must have stepped back off the scaffold.  The last thing I remember is falling and trying to catch myself.”

“That’s right,” the doctor said.  “You hit your head on a metal bench behind you.  You split open your head pretty badly.  Some people nearby saw you fall and brought you here.”

Jonathon nodded slightly and a new sensation of pain exploded through his head.  He moaned and tried unsuccessfully to will the room to stop spinning.
“Are you okay, Mr. Hansen?” asked the doctor. “Are you experiencing great pain?”

“Yes… it’s my head,” he said.

“That’s quite understandable,” said the doctor.  “I’d be worried, if it didn’t hurt.  Can you open your eyes?  I want to check your pupil response.”

Jonathon opened one eye and squeezed it shut again.  Someone’s fingers pried open his eyelids and flashed a light in them.  A moment later the intrusion was repeated on the other eye.

“Good,” muttered the doctor.  “Both eyes are responsive.  Can you look here for just a moment?  There’s someone who’s been waiting for you to wake up.”

Experimenting, he took tiny peeks with his eyes.  With repeated effort, the light became more tolerable.  Eventually he distinguished blurry figures near his bed.   Focusing on the nearest, he recognized a woman’s face, a woman with long blond hair.

“Beth?” he asked.  “Is that you, Elizabeth?”  As he blinked, her face gradually appeared though the haze that surrounded him.

She took his hand.  Her hands were soft and warm.  Elizabeth… his fiancée… they were to be married next June. 

“Oh, Jon,” she said. “You frightened us so.  I thought you were going to die.”  He squeezed her hand and smiled.

“Actually,” the doctor said.  “We thought you had died.  When they brought you in, I couldn’t even find a pulse.  You’d lost a lot of blood and your head was laid open like you’d been hit with an axe.
“I was ready to have you have you transferred down to the morgue, when you went into convulsions.  We had to tie you down and put a stick in your mouth so you wouldn’t bite off your tongue.”

Beth interjected, “Yes, Jon.  You gave us all a frightful scare.  You’ve been unconscious for three days.  The doctor said you were in a coma and you might never wake.”

The doctor leaned close and grasped his wrist to take his pulse.  “That’s right, young man,” the doctor said, “but I’ll have you know, she never left your side.  She’s taken her meals here in your room and even slept by your bedside.  You have a good woman here, don’t lose her.”

“Now,” said the doctor.  “Can you tell how many fingers I’m holding up?”

John peeked at the doctor and blinked several times.  He saw the doctor clearly holding up a single finger.  Then his vision blurred and he saw two images.  Now one of them was holding up three fingers.   A wave of vertigo swept over him that was so strong he thought would vomit.  Pressure squeezed between his eyes, and the room seemed to spin out of control.  He swallowed down a salty taste in his throat and closed his eyes tightly shut.

“No,” he replied.  “One finger, three fingers… I can’t tell.  I’m seeing double and the whole world is spinning.”

Beth squeezed his hand even harder.

“Well, that’s also to be expected,” said the doctor.  “Your impact with the bench took a sizeable chip out of your skull.  You have a small fracture and you’ve suffered a very severe concussion.   You also have a subdural hematoma, that’s bleeding in the brain.  There’s been great deal of pressure inside of your skull as a result.  It should subside on its own, but if it doesn’t, your symptoms will worsen and we may have to operate,”

“Operate?” he asked.

“Yes,” the doctor said patting him gently on the shoulder.  “But that shouldn’t be necessary.  Given time, the body will usually heal itself and the pressure will diminish.  Just in case, we’ll keep you under observation for a few days.  Your headaches and vision should improve as you get your strength back.  Just rest and concentrate on healing.”

Beth left his side and walked to one side with the doctor.  He heard both of them whispering, but couldn’t make out what they were saying.  Before she came back, however, he drifted back to sleep and had strangely vivid dreams.


*****

Jonathon spent another week in the hospital.  Beth came every day and attended to him.  She brought him food from her mother’s and shared meals with him.  Jon’s appetite came back with a vengeance, and he greedily ate everything she gave him.  His headaches gradually subsided, but his left side was weaker than his right.  To his dismay, he’d sometimes unexpectedly drop things with his left hand, and his first attempts at walking revealed a pronounced limp with his left leg.

His vision also continued to trouble him.  Frequently, he experienced waves of double vision.  One moment, he’d see Beth standing at the foot of his bed and the next he’d see several images of her, one still at his bed, another walking toward the water pitcher by his nightstand, and a third moving to the window to adjust the drapes.  Closing his eyes for a moment, he reopened them to find a single image once again.

When he told the doctor about his vision problems, Dr. Wilkes just nodded solemnly and said, “It’s the pressure on your brain.  We just have to give it some time.”

On the seventh day of his convalescence, the doctor declared him fit enough to return home.  Jonathon took his time dressing.  By the time he was finished his hands shook with the seemingly inconsequential effort.

Beth brought him an ornate wooden cane to help him steady himself when he walked.  The beautifully polished wood was topped with a large gold handle at one end and a flashy gold tip at the other.  Standing, he leaned heavily on the walking stick but felt steadier for having it solidly in hand.

“You look very distinguished with that cane,” Beth said, smiling demurely.

“Now, if I could only get rid of the limp,” Jon replied.  He tried to laugh, but flinched and gritted his teeth, as he stoically made his way down the hall.  The week and a half of involuntary bed rest had left his legs weak and shaky.  Beth steadied him with a firm grip on his arm and, with her help and that of his new cane, he maneuvered his way to the hospital’s front door.

When he got to the steps, he stopped to catch his breath, holding onto one of the marble pillars outside to steady himself. 

Beth stepped back, smiling as she gestured grandly at a fancy carriage parked out front. 

“Your carriage awaits, milord,” she said dramatically.

They both laughed and Jonathon waved Beth to step back, as he carefully descended the wide stone steps, wanting to make the short journey on his own without her assistance, if only to prove he could.  At the carriage door he paused and found himself gasping.  Surveying the short distance he’d walked, he felt a flush of pride on the success of his brief trip.

Glancing around, he marveled at the beautiful morning sky. Inhaling deeply, he savored the smells and sounds of the autumn morning.  You never appreciate simple things until you lose them, he thought.

Turning to enter the shiny, black carriage, he glanced to one side and saw another vehicle parked nearby.  The wagon was wide and tall, loaded with large wooden barrels.  One man attended to the four large draft horses, while several others wrestled with the barrels to unload them.  From the difficulties they were having, it was apparent the barrels were quite heavy.  The three men in the bed of the wagon tipped one of the barrels on its side and it landed with a resounding boom.  One of the horses bolted at the sound and the wagon jerked forward, knocking the men off their feet.   The unattended barrel rolled off the back of the wagon, bounced and bounded down the street, picking up speed as it rolled.

Jon watched in horror, as a woman in a long blue dress, passing several dozen yards behind the wagon, turned her head just in time to see the approaching barrel.  For a moment Jon thought she’d jump out of the way, but the woman just stared incredulously as the barrel hit her and rolled on. 

The workers scrambled to their feet and rushed over to her, but it was too late.  The woman was dead.  The juggernaut barrel accelerated, gaining even more speed on its way downhill and finally it hit a tree and burst open.  The men knelt beside the woman’s body.  The youngest of the crew turned and began retching on the ground, after a mere glance at the mangled remains left by the rampaging barrel.

Jon gaped in shock and grabbed the side of the coach, as his vision blurred.  

The tableau progressed in silence; no one knew what to do.  Then, Jon noticed a figure lying prone in the middle of the road.  It was a woman in a long blue dress.  She slowly stood and looked back at the wagon and the crowd assembled there.  Then she brushed herself off, turned, placed her parasol over her shoulder and walked away.

Jon stared at the receding figure, and then at the corpse near the cargo wagon.  The two women were the same.  Pointing in disbelief, he stammered, “Beth, look!  See that woman.  She’s… she’s…”

Jon started to explain, but as he did, the woman with the parasol reached the other side of the street and faded slowly into transparency.  In a moment, she’d vanished.  Jon blinked mutely with shock and dismay.

“What?” Beth asked.  “I don’t see anyone.  Jon, are you all right?”

Jon’s face went pale and he fainted.

*****

When Jon awoke, Beth was leaning over him, holding a moist cloth to his forehead.  He sat up slowly and glanced about.  Instead of finding himself in the hospital, his recognized the parlor of Beth’s widowed mother.   “How did I get here?” he asked, struggling to sit up.

“You fainted,” she replied as she gently pushed him back down onto the overstuffed sofa.  “The coach driver helped bring you inside.  Now you just rest.  Mother’s preparing the spare room upstairs.  You’re going to stay here with us until you’re stronger.”

This is ridiculous, he thought.  I have my own apartment and it’s much closer to the newspaper where I work.  He started to protest, but Beth interrupted him before he got out a single word.

“Now, I’m not going to argue with you, Jon,” she said, waving the wet washcloth in his face.  “You’re simply too weak to care for yourself.  Why, if you fainted when no one was around, there’s no telling what harm you might come to.”

Beth’s mother appeared from the hallway with a tall stack of linen in her arms and paused in the doorway.  Jon tried to rise, but Beth gently pushed him back down onto the sofa again.

“You stay put, young man,” Beth’s mother admonished.  “I’ll brook no protest from you.  I’m not going to have my daughter’s betrothed kill himself from exertion before she’s married.  Now you just wait there until your room is ready.  Then you’ll rest until dinner’s ready.”  The tone of her voice had a note of finality to it and, before Jon could say anything at all, Beth’s mother spun on her heel and marched briskly up the stairs.

Blinking at Beth, who stood over him, smiling demurely, he realized he was outnumbered and really and no say in the matter.  Obediently lying back down on the sofa, he shuddered and recalled the ghost of the dead woman he had seen.

*****

Jon stayed at Beth’s house for three more days, before he decided to return to his job at the paper.  As his strength slowly returned, he took increasingly longer walks each day with Beth.  Still, he continued to suffer intense vertigo and frequent spells of double vision.  On their walks, they talked about his vision of the dead woman’s spirit that had risen from the street and disappeared into thin air.  Their conversation turned to ghosts and life after death.  Both of them wondered what the apparition meant.  Beth listened patiently and was as troubled as Jon, if not for different reasons.

Once, on one of their evening walks, Jon nodded at a man passing by and tipped his hat.  Beth gaped and told Jon there was no one there.  Jon turned and watched silently as the man walked down the path and disappeared around a turn.  Jon shuddered and decided not to speak of his visions anymore.  Neither did he tell her about the strange dreams, which disturbed his sleep.

With exercise and Beth’s care, Jon’s limp became less pronounced and he hardly needed the cane anymore, though he continued to carry it as an affectation.  He felt it made him look more dignified.  Still, he was thin and weak.  The dark circles under his eyes gave evidence to the fact that he hadn’t been sleeping well. 

When Jon announced he was going to return to the newspaper, Beth nodded and told him his boss, Mr. Stelson, would likely be expecting him.  Jon finished his breakfast and went up to his room, where he carefully removed the bandages on his head.  Deep purple bruises were visible near his hairline and around the large bald spot where the doctor had shaved his head to sow stitches in his scalp.  He carefully combed his hair to cover his wound and gently placed a bowler on his head.  Then he took up his cane and walked briskly to the door.  Kissing Beth goodbye, he confidently strode down the sidewalk.

Despite his recent outings, Jon was exhausted by the time he arrived at the paper.   While he tried to walk self-assuredly into the newsroom, he found the effort challenging.  But he did not get very far before the office staff and his fellow reporters hurried over to greet him.  Shaking their hands, as they welcomed him back to work, he smiled cordially, but rumors of his condition must have preceded him, because everyone treated him with special deference and avoided the normal banter the younger reporters usually shared. 

At one point, he had another bout of double vision as a copy boy raced toward him and split into two images that seemed to dash past him on both sides.  Jon closed his eyes and struggled to suppress the accompanying wave of vertigo.

Before even reaching his own desk, a senior reporter stopped him and directed him into Mr. Stelson’s office. 

Upon his arrival, he took a seat across for his editor’s desk, as his normally gruff employer subjected him to fifteen minutes of uncharacteristic small talk, before finally giving Jon an assignment.  Rising carefully from his seat, Jon thanked Mr. Stelson and hobbled out of the newsroom.

The assigned task was an annoyingly trivial one, ostensibly to cover the opening of the new bank a conveniently short two blocks away.  The sidewalks and streets were crowded with a festive holiday atmosphere.  Today was Election Day, and the town’s political elite were all was out doing last minute stumping.  It’s good to be seen up and around again, he thought.  If I’d been gone much longer, everyone would think I’d died.  As he walked, he slipped effortlessly back into his reporter’s mindset and mentally tallied who would be attending the bank opening and whom he might interview.  The importance of the new bank made it a political event, and he grinned to himself, as he anticipated the opening ceremonies and the opportunity to be reporting again.

Stopping at the intersection across from the bank, he waited for the traffic to clear.  Next to him, a group of young boys, free today because the schools were closed, impatiently gathered beside him, searching for a break in the busy street.  The clutter of carriages, wagons and horses was unusually thick.  Some of the boys darted through the congestion and made their way across the street unharmed.  The smallest of their troop hesitated and found himself separated from his companions.

Just then, Jon’s vision blurred.  The crowd before him split and multiplied.   It seemed there were far more people present than a moment before.  Glancing down at the boy, Jon saw him dash out into the traffic.  Or at least, he thought he did.  Actually he saw several boys.  One made it across the street.  A second froze amidst the sudden rush of traffic and was trampled by a horse.  A third image revealed the same youth still standing beside him afraid to brave the crowd. 

Jon squeezed his eyes shut briefly and opened them again.  The multiple images were gone and he saw the small boy still standing next to him.  The child’s companions on the other side of the road taunted him, noisily daring him to hurry across. 

As the boy started to bolt toward them, Jon grabbed his collar with his strong right hand. “Whoa, there boy,” he said.  “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”  The memory of the image of the youth being trampled under a carriage sent chills down cascading down his body.

Keeping a firm grip on the boy, Jon waved his cane to slow down an oncoming wagon and make a break in the traffic.  As soon as the traffic halted, a number of pedestrians rushed across the gap.  Hobbling across the thoroughfare with the youth in tow, Jon hurried to the other side of the street.  Once safely on the other side, the horse and wagon traffic resumed its chaotic flow behind him.  The boy wriggled free from his grip, muttering a disparaging epithet as he disappeared into the crowd with his companions.

Jon swayed and grabbed a nearby lamppost, as another wave of vertigo nearly overcame him.

What just happened, he wondered?   Did I really see a vision of that boy dying under a horse’s hooves?  Did I just save him, or am I having hallucinations now, as well as seeing ghosts?

With great effort, Jon continued his short journey to the bank.  As he watched the opening ceremony, he pondered the incident but pushed it from his mind as he remembered his assigned task.  At one point, he experienced double vision again and thought the mayor dropped the scissors he was using to cut the ribbon on the bank’s new doors.  However, as his vision cleared once more, Jon realized the mayor hadn’t dropped the scissors, after all.

After the ceremony, Jon headed back to Beth’s house without interviewing a single official or dignitary.  When he got to his room, he collapsed on his bed exhausted and quickly fell asleep.


*****

Jon slept fitfully.  Again strange, vivid dreams disturbed his rest.   Incompatible images of unknown, yet oddly familiar places flashed through his mind.  In his mind, he saw his hometown change into a large city and to grow to an unimaginable size. As a detached observer he watched tall glass and metal buildings rise up to tower over the surrounding countryside which disappeared as more and more buildings were constructed. 

A moment later, he behled a very different vision.  In this new dream, the city was deserted and abandoned, without a single living soul within it. Only dust, death and shadows remained.  Somehow, all of these images were of Kansas City, yet somehow, none of them were. 

In one image, he witnessed the city destroyed in a firestorm that burned and blackened every building.  An instant later, he witnessed saw riots and war rage through the streets.  In one scene, he saw crowds of friendly faces and, in the next, he beheld armies of hostile invaders in strange military uniforms march ruthlessly through the city, slaying everyone in sight.

Waking in a sweat, he shook uncontrollably.  Eventually he calmed down enough to rise and limp over to the window.  Then, leaning on the sill, he drew deep breaths of the cool night air to clear the frightful images from his mind.  This calm soothing air and the quiet of the evening seemed at such odds with his dark foreboding dreams. Everything seemed peaceful.  Nothing outside was strange at all.  The night breeze carried the sound of crickets across the serene, sleeping city.  Shaking his head to clear the cobwebs from his mind,  Jon soon returned to bed, but he took one of the sleeping draughts the doctor had prescribed for pain.

Laying back down, Jon worried about his increasingly frequent hallucinations.  Am I going mad, he thought?  Am I losing my mind?

Resting quietly while waiting for the doctor’s tonic to take affect, he listened to the chirping of insects calling to one another on the still night.  After what seemed a long time, the medicine finally dragged him down into a dreamless slumber.

*****

The next morning, Jon woke late, still dressed in the clothes he’d worn the day before.  After he washing and shaving hurriedly, he donned a fresh suit, and headed downstairs to join Beth and her mother.  Breakfast was over, but both of them were sat, at the dining room table.  They were talking in whispers and stopped abruptly, when he entered the room.  Beth smiled, but her mother wore a worried expression, she couldn’t conceal.
After a some strained casual conversation, Beth’s mother rose and went into the kitchen to bring some food, leaving him and Beth alone.

As they waited, he told Beth of the incident with the boy in the street the day before.

“Oh, dear,” she said. “Perhaps we should go back to see Dr. Wilkes.”

Jon hadn’t meant to worry Beth.  He waved his hand dismissively, “No, that really shouldn’t be necessary.”

“ I probably just over exerted myself,” he said.  “After all, it was my first day back to work.”

Beth’s mother came in with a heaping plate of eggs and pan-fried potatoes.  As she started to serve him, she dropped her big serving spoon, spilling food all over the floor.  Jon leaned over to pick it up for her but, looking around, couldn’t find it anywhere on the floor.  He peeked under the chair and raised the tablecloth to see if it had bounced under the table. 

When he started to get down on his hands and knees, however, Beth’s mother asked, “What are you up to, Jon?”

Sitting back in his chair, he said, “I was going to pick up the spoon you dropped.”

“What?” she asked.
Jon blinked.  Standing in front of him, she held a large steaming plate of food in one hand, her large silver serving spoon in the other.  Looking around he saw no food on the floor at all.  As he opened his mouth to explain, Beth gasped.

“Oh, Jon,” she said putting a hand over her mouth, her face contorted as if she were going to cry.

Without further comment, Jon ate his food and, after the dishes were cleaned up, he left with Beth to go back to the hospital to see Doctor Wilkes.

*****

The doctor waved an oil lamp back and forth in front of Jon’s face and watched Jon’s eyes closely as he did so.

“Are you having any pain?” asked the doctor.

“No,” Jon replied.  “But I keep having these bouts of vertigo and double vision.”

“He sees things,” Beth said.

“What?” said the doctor, looking up.

“He sees things.  Ghosts, people who aren’t there.  Yesterday he had a vision of the future and says he saved a little boy’s life.”

Frowning, Dr. Wilkes turned to Jon.  “Is this true?”

Jon nodded, lowering his eyes.

“Is there anything else?” the doctor asked.  “Have you been hearing voices?  Have you had any strange urges?”

Jon shook his head.  “Oh no, nothing like that.  I just see things.  But I’ve been having strange dreams, too.”

“Nightmares?” Dr. Wilkes asked.

“No, not exactly.  They’re just… odd.  They’re wonderful and terrible, strange and familiar all, at the same time.  I don’t know what to make of them.”

Beth looked shocked that he hadn’t told her about the dreams.  Jon felt suddenly ashamed.

“Hmmm,” said the doctor.  “This isn’t good.  Let me see that head wound again.”

Dr. Wilkes removed the bandages and poked and prodded at the bald spot several times.  Jon flinched as the doctor pushed hard against Jon’s stitches.

“Just as I thought,” Dr. Wilkes muttered.  “There’s been more bleeding.  The pressure on your brain is increasing.  That’s what’s causing these hallucinations.”  Sighing, he pulled up a nearby stool and took a seat across from Jon.

“Young man, I’m afraid we’re going to have to schedule surgery to relieve the pressure on your brain.” 

Jon’s eyes flashed to Beth and he her expression of worry and concern said more than he wanted to hear.

Rising from his chair, the doctor said, “Why don’t I leave you two here, while I go check on the schedule for the operating theatre.”  Then, he left the two of them alone.

At first neither of them spoke.  They even had difficulty looking at one another.

After a time, a nurse entered and escorted Jon to a nearby room.  She instructed Jon to put on a hospital gown and then left the room with Beth room, while he changed.

When they returned, Jon was sitting once again on the hospital bed.  It wasn’t very long before the doctor sent word that it would be several hours before preparations for surgery could be completed.

Beth sat silently, her hand folded in her lap and a look of dire worry on her face.

Jon didn’t know what to say.  Eventually, weariness overcame him and, laying back on the pillows at the head of the bed, he quickly fell asleep.

Once again, unusual dreams assaulted him. This time, however, he dreamt of himself.  In one dream, he had died from the accident and he observed his own funeral.  In another, he was preaching from a pulpit in a crowded church.  Images flashed before him of all the careers he might have chosen.  In scenario, he became a policeman, in another a soldier.  A third portrayed him as a successful writer.  A fourth as a politician. 

It was as if all the choices he might have made long ago were being played out before him and all the different possible futures he might have had were revealed as they might have been.

He awoke with a start and jerked upright.  “That’s it,” he shouted.

Beth, resting in a chair beside him, jumped up and hurried to his side.  “What is it, Jon?” she asked.  “Is something wrong?”

“No,” he said.  “It’s just that I’ve figured it out.  I know what the dreams and visions mean.”

Beth stepped back, obviously afraid.

With an uncharacteristic intensity in his eyes, he leaned forward and said, “It’s choices.  The visions and dreams are all about the choices we make.  You see, every time we make a choice there are different results, as well, different outcomes.  That’s what I’ve been seeing.”

Beth’s eyes grew wide, but whether with curiosity or horror, Jon did not know.

“Remember, the woman I saw?  The one hit by the barrel outside the hospital? I didn’t see her ghost.  I saw a different outcome of the accident that happened.  In our world, the woman froze at the sight of the oncoming barrel and was crushed.  In a different reality, she must have managed to throw herself forward onto the road and avoided her own death. 

“I didn’t see her spirit rise from her body.  I saw a different outcome.  I saw what might have happened, but didn’t.”

“But, how?” Beth asked.

“I don’t know.  Maybe it’s the head injury.  Maybe it affected my sight and it lets me see these other realities.”

Beth bit her lip and shook her head sadly.

“No, listen,” he said.  “It all makes sense.  Remember the boy.  I saw all the choices he was about to make.  In one, I saw him run and get trampled by a horse.  It wasn’t the future I was seeing.  It was just alternate presents.  In our world, he was too scared to move.  I don’t know if I saved his life or not, but I saw visions of what might have happened, of what would have occurred.”

Beth put her hand to her mouth.

“Don’t you see?  It makes sense.   The man in the park that I saw and you didn’t.  He was just someone who might have taken a walk that night.  And then there’s your mother’s spoon at dinner.  She didn’t drop it, but I saw that she might have.”

“But if you admit these things didn’t happen, then how could you see them?” she asked.

Thinking for a second, he paused and then smiled excitedly.  “It’s like travelers walking together when they come to a turn in a road, a fork that branches into two directions.  While you might take one path, your companion takes the other path.  At first the two paths are close enough that you can see the other traveler.  But as the paths digress, they get further away and disappear in the distance.  That’s what it’s like.

“I see these other paths for a while.  The two different realities are similar, but they get further away over time and get harder to see.
“Maybe that’s why I have the double vision so much.  When people make decisions, I see the other path they could have taken.  If the changes aren’t significant, the two paths diverge and then rejoin.  Only significant changes diverge permanently.”

Tapping his head, he probed gently at the wound.  “It’s got to be a result of the accident.  Somehow it changed how I see things and it lets me see these other realities.  That even explains the dreams.”

“The dreams?” echoed Beth.

“Yes, see?  When I’m awake, the real world is clear and it blocks out the visions of other paths unless they’re very close.  But, when I sleep, the images of the real world fade and I can see further.  I can see more distant visions of other worlds that might have come to pass.  Each world is the result of different choices made by the people in them.  Just like we’re the sum of all the choices we make in our lives.  Don’t you see, Beth?  It all makes perfect sense.”

Beth shook her head adamantly.  “No, Jon,” she said.  “It doesn’t make sense at all.”

Jon looked around, frustrated.  Then his eyes gleamed with excitement once more and he said. “Look, Beth, I can prove it.  Will you help me?”

Beth didn’t reply.

“Go get that paper,” he said pointing at a table behind her. “Tear it into two pieces and write a different number on each one, but don’t show them to me.”  He gestured for her to hurry.  “Go on.  Please, Beth.”

She hesitated, then finally turned and did as he asked.  She placed the two numbered papers on the blanket at the foot of his bed.

“Good,” Jon said.  “Now pick up one of the papers and show it to me.”

Beth reached down, picked up the right hand paper and held it up.  The number, clearly marked was ‘twelve’.

Jon’s vision blurred and split.  As Beth held up the first paper, he clearly saw another Beth, reach down and selected the other one.  The other piece of paper showed a different number.  He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose.  When he reopened his eyes, only a single image of Beth remained, holding up the number twelve.

“The other number is thirty-seven,” he said.

Beth’s eyes grew wide.

“Go ahead, show me.  Show me whether I’m right or wrong.”

With a horrified expression on her face, she slowly turned over the second sheet of paper and displayed the number written there.  It was ‘thirty-seven’.

Jon’s grin grew and spread across his face.

“It’s a magic trick,” she said.  “You peeked at it somehow.”

“No,” Jon insisted.  “I saw two images of you pick up and show me both sheets of papers.  One was you, but the other image I saw showed what you might have done.  It’s not a trick; it’s a gift.”

“No, it’s not,” said Beth throwing down the papers.  “It’s a curse.   No one should have such powers.  It’s like reading someone’s mind.”  She backed away wringing her hands.

“But, Beth, think of all the good I could do.  I could figure out what choices are right and wrong beforehand and help people.”

“You could also let this madness control and consume you,” she insisted.  “You could use it to cheat at cards or steal other people’s money.  You could become a swindler, a thief, and a charlatan.”

Jon pursed his lips.  He hadn’t thought of that.  Great power also brought great temptation.  Who knew what opportunities he might succumb to in the future?

“It’s too important,” he insisted.  “I have to find out more about this new ability.  I have to learn how to control it.”

Beth raised her hands to her face and tears started streaming down her face.  “My God, you’ve gone mad,” she said.

Jon realized he had a decision to make. The doctor would return soon and he had to figure out whether or not he was going to submit to the surgery.  He looked at the terror on Beth’s face and realized that if he didn’t accept the surgery, he’d probably lose her.  On the other hand, look at what he could gain.  If he learned to control his powers, he might win her back over time. 

“Please, Jon,” implored Beth.  “Don’t tell me you’re reconsidering the surgery.  The doctor said if he doesn’t relieve the pressure on your brain, you could die.”

There is that, too, thought Jon.  Will I be placing my life at risk if I delay?

Jon worried for a moment about which alternative was best.  Which choice he should make? 

Then he laughed out loud.  He didn’t have to choose at all.  No matter which option he picked, the other possibility would still exist.  Reality would split and he would somehow walk both paths.  From a larger perspective, he would ultimately do both anyway, merely because there were two options he could take.

With that realization, his vision doubled once again, and a now familiar wave of dizziness washed over him.  When his vision cleared, he saw new figures in the room.

From one perspective, he saw himself rise from the bed, walk to the nightstand and pull on a pair of pants.  Then his identical image argued with another Beth and he saw her gasp and run from the room.  It was then that he knew that he would stay and have the operation, and that his other self would venture on alone to explore his new abilities to examine alternate realities. 

Jon would have the surgery and remain here with Beth.  His other self would face new, more dangerous challenges alone.

As he studied his counterpart, Jon was shocked as the figure turned toward him and winked.

He can see me, thought Jon.  Then he laughed and thought, but of course he can.  He can see me just as clearly as I can see him.  For a moment, the two Jon’s looked at one another across the gap that separated their two worlds.  Then they simply nodded to one another and exchanged an unspoken wish for good luck.

Jon sat in his hospital bed as his other self picked his hat and coat and walked away.

After the other had gone, he noticed his own Beth once more, staring at him with a look of horror on her face.  Smiling, he wordlessly stretched out his hand to her.  She walked to his side and held his hand with uncertain desperation.

Dr. Wilkes arrived shortly thereafter with a nurse who pushed a metal gurney with noisy rickety wheels.

“We’re ready,” he said.  “The operating theater is set up.  The nurses and doctors are assembled and everything’s prepared.”  Pausing, he looked at the troubled expression on Beth’s face.  “Is something wrong?” he asked.

Beth looked at Jon, her unasked question displayed on her face.

“No,” said Jon.  “Everything’s all right.  We’re ready.  Just do your best.”

Beth sighed in relief and squeezed Jon’s hand tightly. 

Jonathon climbed out of bed and up onto the gurney.  An attendant tucked sheets around him to cover him and then wheeled him down the hall.  Beth walked alongside the gurney and gave him one quick kiss before he was taken through the large doors of the operating arena.

As he lay in the brightly lit room, he wondered.  Did I make the right choice?  What would the outcome have been if I’d chosen differently?  What would happen now? Will I even survive the surgery? 

Suddenly he laughed.  Of course, I’ll survive, he told himself.  As long as there’s a chance, there will be some reality in which I survive.  In some, I’ll die.  In others, I won’t have the operation at all.  In some possible futures, I’ll use my powers to do great good.  In more distant worlds, I might cause great harm.  They were all equally valid realities, after all.
Jon closed his eyes and tried to relax.  Soon, someone placed a cloth mask over his mouth and began pouring liquid onto the mask.

As the ether fumes overcame him, he drifted into a deep sleep and gently drifted through visions of what might have been.

 

If you like what you have read or would like to send me your comments on this story, please feel free to contact me by clicking on the following link robinson_ja@q.com