I can’t open my eyes. I hurt all over, joints and flesh, bone and muscle. Nothing feels right. I try to count fingers, flex toes. My skin is like fire. My brain throbs behind my eyes.
There’s a voice. A female voice, shouting. A little girl? I turn my head toward the sound, and my neck pops. At least it moves.
I open my eyes. Dirt falls in, and I’m blind again. I start to rub them, but my arms protest. I lie limp instead and blink.
“Mister!” the voice yells. It sounds deeper now, in its anger. More mature. A woman?
“You almost hit this turtle!” she says.
Turtle? What is she talking about? I try to recall, but it‘s a blur. I was on my Harley. Faster and faster. Running away — from what? And then, suddenly, a girl in the way. I swerved. The bike slid, and I set it down. Hard. I skidded, bounced, rolled. I must have hit my head.
I turn again and crack one eye. Blink.
There’s a girl. A young woman. A girl, standing in the road. She’s just a shadow against the blue sky, but I can see she’s holding a large turtle over her head. She carries it to the edge of the road, where a grader has created a raised ledge, and where the brush grows right up to the clay like a living wall. My eye aches, but it turns to follow her, and my neck cranes despite itself. She sets the turtle into the woods. It’s marshy out there. I can hear the animal crawling in pine needles and leaves, and it sounds like a monster thrashing.
The girl walks toward me now. She’s pretending to balance on a tightrope, placing one oversized rubber boot in front of the other. My second eye opens on its own, and I can see her more clearly, though the image throbs in time with my brain. Larger, smaller, closer, farther, younger, older. She’s a teenager, wearing jean shorts and a red tee-shirt, black suspenders, a brown macramé scarf, rain boots painted in random colors that seem to run and reset as I notice them, athletic socks extending to her knees with mismatched stripes. Her hair — I shake my head and immediately regret it. I must have hit the ground really hard. I can’t seem to focus. Her hair keeps changing color, length, and shape.
She stands over me, hands on her knees, grinning at me. Right now, her hair is blond, short and fluffy. For a moment I think there’s a tropical fish painted or tattooed around one of her eyes, and I start to grin, too. It makes my face sore.
“Ola,” she says. “You should be more careful.”
I try to sit up, but my back disagrees. I groan and lie back. Close my eyes.
She hops over me, hops past me to the bike, and I squint to see. Her boots raise little puffs of red dust, like moondust stirred by astronauts. She’s weightless, otherworldly. She bends down to grab the handlebars, and I’m about to tell her to leave it alone when she sets it up like it was made of papier-mâché. I can see clay all over the side and in the workings of it, but it seems no worse for the wreck.
“You could get hurt,” she says.
She kicks down the stand. She turns and leans against the seat, crosses her arms to regard me with a pout. Her hair is black and cut in an uneven shag. Strange red highlights. The fish is gone. Her scarf is green. She’s wearing a jean skirt and a green tank top over a yellow one.
“You’re probably right,” I say. I drop my head against the road and wince. Lights dance behind my eyelids.
“Mister? Why are you sad?”
“I’m not sad, kid. I’m hurt. I wrecked my bike.”
“You’re sad. I’ve seen it before. And I’m not a kid. Did I tell you I like your bike? Where were we? Oh — I know what to do. You can’t be sad when you have a new friend.”
She looks around, regards the trees, the pebbles, checks between the spokes of the bike. Her hair is brown and curled in ringlets like a fairytale princess. There are tiny silvery stickers like teardrops on her face. No scarf.
“Friend, friend. Where can we find one of those?” she sings.
She hops over me again and settles beside me, grinning. She lies back on the road and looks at the sky. She elbows me in the ribs, and even though it hurts, I smile. She’s funky. She’s cute. She’s easy to like.
She points at the sky.
“Can you see those two clouds? What are they doing? No! Don’t look! They’re making little clouds!”
She covers her eyes, then sneaks a peek between her fingers.
“Jesus,” I say.
I try again to sit up, and this time I make it. She pushes my back from where she’s lying, helping me upright. Then she sits up beside me, leans forward and touches her boot toes. I’m just a little uncomfortable, now, because she’s acting so familiar, like we’re old friends, or siblings, or father and daughter. Or all of that at once.
“Where’d you come from?” I ask. “You been tromping through the woods? You live back at Eli’s place?”
“No way,” she says, adjusting a white bandana that hadn’t been on her head a moment ago. She makes a raspberry noise. “He’s a good bowler and stuff, but he’s grumpy.”
I realize she hasn’t answered my question, but it’s okay. I’m still not sure she’s real, after all. Her hair is blond again, and tied in two ponytails. She has big hoops in her ears. No bandana.
“What’s your favorite color?” she says.
“I don’t know.”
“Wrong. Favorite color?”
“Okay. Blue, I suppose. Why?”
“No reason. I could have guessed, though. You have zero imagination.”
She holds up a Polaroid camera — don’t ask me where it came from — holds it at arm’s length, turns it back toward us, and pushes the button with her thumb. It flashes and spits out a photo.
“I like pictures,” she says. “They don’t really steal your soul, you know.”
She puts the camera on the dirt between her knees and she pulls a blue Sharpie out of her right boot. She’s wearing long pants now, and her hair is brown and longer and braided in cornrows on one side. I wonder what she’ll look like in the picture when it develops. She draws a heart on the white border at the bottom of the print, then hands it to me.
“You keep this one,” she says. “Put it in your pocket. Look at it when you’re feeling sad.”
I tell her I will. I shake the print and wait for it to develop. She snatches it from me, opens my jacket, and shoves the print in my inside pocket. Red clay dust falls out.
“Not now, silly,” she says. “When you’re sad again.”
She pats my jacket against my chest, raising great gusts of dust off my body. I grin. She’s right. I feel better already. Clear headed. The throb behind my eyes has passed. Everything makes sense all of a sudden.
“What?” she says. “Did you expect a whale to swallow you up until you changed your mind?”
I shook my head. I know I can’t go back — back to what I was. I have to go forward. Behind me — that is, back where we met the cop — is nothing but chaos. Trouble. Darkness. Despair. And ahead — or rather, wherever Shekinah is going — is a wide open future. Possibilities. Light. If I go back, I’m throwing myself into the maelstrom, I’ll be swallowed by monsters, and I'll never know what message I was meant to bring.
I slap the dust off my jeans and shake it out of my jacket and shirt. I dance a jig, stomping the clay loose, and laughing. I’m feeling such a sense of relief and purpose, and the laughter comes easy. I bend over and whack the dust. I suspect I have it in my every nook and cranny. She giggles and flutters her hands in my hair to clear the dirt, then she steps back, coughing, and we laugh some more.
And then we just take a breath.
There’s quiet in the world for a moment, and I simply look at her. She’s small but solid. Real enough. I’d guess now she’s older than I first thought. Her teeth are ivory white within the smile of lips so deep red that the color seems magical, and her eyes are the purest crystal blue.
I ask if I can give her a lift, and she giggles and snorts like it’s the funniest thing she’s heard in a long time. I laugh too, just to hear her giggle.
“No. I’m good,” she says. “But do me a favor and wear a helmet if you keep riding this thing, okay? And watch out for turtles and other little creatures.”
“And be happy!”
I start off slow because I don’t want to raise a dust cloud over her. I look in the mirror, but of course she isn’t there. I brake and look over my shoulder. It’s a mile to the highway, and there are no open trails into the woods on either side of the road. She just simply isn’t there and probably never was to begin with. I don’t dare look for the photo in my pocket, but I smile again when I think of it.
I’m still grinning when I pull up in front of Eli’s garage. He’s grinning too, as he meets me in the dust cloud that catches up to me, draws back his massive right arm, and punches me in the face.
(c) 2010 by Tony Simmons
Originally from the "366 Days" project
Now Chapter 6 of "The Book of Gabriel"
and reprinted here tonight because of a visitation of sorts that I will tell you about on Sunday.