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PEOPLE ARE shouting, screaming and crying. I look around — I’m at the train station. Why am I here? Someone leads me to a bench and tells me to sit down. I do as I’m told, but I don’t know why. I don’t understand the chaos around me, but somehow I know that I’m part of it.
I look down — my trousers and shoes are covered in mud. As I brush off the dirt, I notice that my hands are scraped and bleeding.
“Are you okay, buddy?” An older man eyes me anxiously.
“I’m not sure,” I reply. “What happened?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“Please excuse me. I need to leave.” As I stand, my knees give way and I slump back down on the bench. My head is throbbing. I rub my forehead and feel a large goose-egg. There’s something wet and sticky on my cheek. Blood. How did it get there?
“Just stay here. Try to keep calm.” I feel the stranger’s hand gently touch my shoulder.
Emergency sirens resound nearby. The ache in my head increases, and parts of my body echo with intense points of pain.
“Sir, sir — can you hear me? I’m a paramedic. I need to check you out.”
A man in a uniform kneels down beside me and places a large case on the ground.
“I’m okay. I just need to go home.”
I look around. The throng of commuters has diminished. Some people quietly chat amongst themselves or with a police officer. Two women stand by the wall, crying and trying to comfort each other. People clustered by the stairs try to avoid looking at me.
Two workmen stand at the platform edge, grim-faced. One looks at the tracks at the front of the train, shakes his head, and wipes his eyes with his shirt sleeve.
I turn to the paramedic, who’s looking at me with kind but concerned eyes. “I don’t understand.”
The paramedic takes my wrist. “There’s been an accident.”
“I don’t remember anything.”
“What do you recall?” a quiet voice from the other side of me asks. I look up to see a cop, pen and pad at the ready.
As I concentrate, a series of vignettes flash through my mind. The stairs to the platform. A crowd of people. A shining bright light. Tracks and gravel. Lying on the ground. Then, screams and shouts. I try to describe what I see in my mind, thinking it probably sounds as daft to the policeman as it does to me.
“Please, tell me what’s happened.” Now my head is really aching and the pain down the right side of my body is almost unbearable.
“Let the paramedic have a look at you first.”
No one is giving me a straight answer. “No. Now. I want to know now. What happened?” My voice rises in spite of my efforts to stay calm.
“Well, sir, near as we can tell, you fell onto the tracks. Someone jumped down and pushed you out of the way of the train.”
I now understand that phrase: time stood still. I stare at him, not knowing what to say, what to feel. It’s as if all my senses are frozen.
“Wh — who . . .” My mouth is completely dry and the words won’t come out. I clear my throat and try again. “Who?” is all I can manage.
Neither man looks at me.
“Well, sir, we don’t know who he is. He, he’s . . .” His eyes shift to the wall behind me, then to the paramedic, his sentence unfinished.
The words hang between us. I close my eyes and more disturbing memories rush into my mind. Empty glasses lined up on a bar. Staggering up the walk to my house. Tripping on the doorstep. Collapsing on the cold hard floor. A beautiful blonde woman with tears running down her cheeks. The words, “This is the last time.” The woman and a little girl with a red hat, both crying, leave the house with a suitcase. She promised that they would leave and they did. The child turns. I hear “I love you, Daddy.”
Despair washes over me. Now I remember why I’m here.
I stare at the officer. Between the pain in my head and my aching body, the meaning of what he’s trying to say doesn’t sink in.
“Well, where is he? I want to — no, I need to see him.”
“Sir, I . . . I’m sorry, the man . . . the man who helped you, he . . . he’s . . .” His eyes shift to the train.
The importance of what he is unable to say suddenly hits me with such a wallop that I lean back on the bench and slide down to the ground. A loud painful shriek comes from somewhere. It’s me. I can’t stop myself — tears gush forth as I continue to scream.
The room is quiet, except for a constant and irritating beep. The shades are drawn, so it’s difficult to make out where I am. I try to move my arms, but they seem pinned down. A door opens, and I hear footsteps and soft rustling.
“Who’s there?” My voice croaks.
“Oh, you’re awake, Mr. Proctor. How are you feeling?” a soft voice asks.
“A little fuzzy and a lot confused. Where am I?”
“You’re at Mercy General Hospital, and I’m your nurse, Kathy.”
“Why am I in a hospital?”
“Can you just hold on to your questions until the doctor comes in? Let me check how you’re doing.”
“Please, I need to know.”
“Shhh . . . all in good time. For now, you need to rest.”
As I lift my head to demand an immediate answer, the walls of the room sway in a distorted dance. The dizziness passes as I lay back on my pillow, too weak to persist in asking questions.
She fiddles with something that’s just barely in my peripheral vision. It’s one of those noisy machines with numbers and wires that you see on medical dramas. She writes something on the chart in her hand.
“The doctor will be with you shortly. In the meantime, try to relax.” She leaves.
My entire body echoes in pain. Was I in an accident?
The door opens and closes again.
“Hello, Mr. Proctor. I’m Dr. Martin. How do you feel today?”
“I feel as if I’ve been in a fight, and lost.”
“Well, that’s understandable, given the circumstances.”
“Let’s start with what you do remember. I know you’re uncomfortable. The medication should begin its job soon. Try to relax, take some deep breaths. Just let it come.”
I breathe deeply a few times. After a few minutes, images come to mind. The platform is packed. I must have been coming home from work. I try to take some more deep breaths. I recall lights, confusion, noise — something seems to be blocking out any more information.
“Stay with the moment,” the doctor says.
Then it starts coming back — slowly at first, then in a swift rush. Oh my God, now I know why I was there. Scenes of Hannah and Emily flash through my head. The cold lonely house. The train station — the crowd. A young man with bright red hair yells at me as I push past him. I lean over the edge of the platform, as far as possible, watching, waiting. A light comes closer. The red-haired man grabs my arm. His mouth is moving, his face contorted in anger, but I can’t hear him. I shake him loose, ignoring his rant and jump. I land on the track, but I’m shoved aside. I look back. A flash of red. His face — eyes and mouth wide open in horror as the train speeds past.
There’s a deep pressure in my chest and I gasp for air. I remember everything.
“Breathe deeply, Mr. Proctor, try to breathe slowly.”
What have I done? It’s my fault. Tears trickle down my cheeks.
“Why the hell did you make me remember?” I scream.
“Because you have to go back before you can go forward.”
“What kind of psycho-babble is that? It’s my fault that he died. It was supposed to be me, not some stranger. Why would a stranger do that for me?”
“Maybe things happen because they’re supposed to.”
Great — a philosopher instead of a doctor.
“I guess that’s up to you.”
“What can I do? I’m in a hospital, that guy’s dead. My wife and daughter are gone. And I’m supposed to know what to do?”
“That’s something we’ll work on for a while — to help you decide. You know, you’ve been given a great gift, a second chance.”
“That’s hardly a gift. Someone died because of me.”
“Okay then, a reprieve, an opportunity if you wish.”
“For whatever you feel has to be done. Look, right now you need rest more than conversation. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I need rest,” I mumble, turning away from this nut case. How can he expect me to feel good about what happened — whatever he calls it? The price was too high.
I’m finally released from the hospital. After 10 days, I’ve healed physically, but the emotional part is still a work in progress. During my stay, someone always checked on me — probably a suicide watch. Every day I talked to someone — a psychiatrist, a counselor, the hospital chaplain — about what happened. Every night I relived everything in my dreams: the train and the face of my rescuer. I always awake to the sensation of being pushed off the rails.
I’m tired of reliving the memories. I want to go home, except it’s not a home anymore. Now that Hannah and Emily are gone, it’s just a vacant building with a lot of memories. I royally screwed up this time. I can’t blame them for running out of patience and finally running out on me.
The taxi pulls up in front of the house. Even in the middle of the day it looks bleak and empty — just like I feel. I swallow, but the lump in my throat remains. Stepping out of the cab, I pay the driver and slowly walk up the path to the stairs. I pause. I don’t really want to go in, but I’ve nowhere else to go.
Once inside, I wander down the hall, listening to the hollow sounds of my footsteps on the wooden floor. Memories flood my head of what I’ve lost. I walk aimlessly around the house, feeling its lifelessness.
The smell of Hannah’s perfume still lingers in our bedroom. On her bureau is a picture of the three of us, laughing. I can’t even remember when we were last so happy.
I walk down the hall to Emily’s room. My heart skips a beat — her favourite teddy bear lies on the floor by her bed, forgotten: they left in such a hurry. The window overlooks the backyard and her beloved playhouse. I remember the day it was delivered, and the laughter we all shared at my attempts at being a handy daddy. My little princess, gone.
Now what? No family, no job. I wander into the kitchen. Looking around, I see an old friend sitting on the table, waiting for me. I walk over to get reacquainted with the bottle of Scotch, but it’s empty. Since the accident I haven’t really felt much like having a drink, but now the old craving returns. That’s what started it all. I quickly put the empty bottle in the garbage.
I remember the good times before I lost my job. Sometimes it was touch and go, but somehow we made it. And then came the new — Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Hannah and I really celebrated my promotion. Unfortunately, I kept celebrating.
It’s easy to blame it on the job and the business lunches and the dinner meetings — all beginning and ending with drinks. Scenes of my inglorious past come to mind — missed meetings, or worse, stumbling drunkenly through them. When I got home, it would be another couple of drinks — to relax, I told Hannah. Then there were the three- and four-day weekends. Slowly, the booze became more important than my family and my job, which is exactly what it cost me.
Sitting and staring into space, I begin to take stock of myself — something I haven’t done in a long time. It’s something they promoted at all those counseling sessions. I want a new beginning with Hannah and Emily, but how do I prove that I’m worth it?
A job, that’s what I need. Anything, as long as I can get my family back and take care of them. Definitely not my old position, I burned that bridge a long time ago. I’ll call some of my old contacts. Maybe one of them can help me out with some leads. It’s what I have to do — swallow my pride and, if need be, beg for another chance.
I know the second step. I haven’t had a drink in almost two weeks, but it’s only a matter of time. The hospital suggested counseling and AA. I grab the telephone book and locate the local chapter, but I’m afraid to go, to admit that I’m at the bottom. Hannah’s and Emily’s faces jump into my mind. It strengthens my resolve. I must get them back, whatever I have to do.
As luck would have it, there’s a meeting tonight at 7:30. The person I speak to, Jack, even offers to pick me up. Is he afraid I won’t come? I thank him and agree to meet him there. I need to prove to myself that I’m in control of my future, that I can change.
The next task, call some of my old contacts. It’s going to be a tough challenge calling people I’d bailed out on to ask for a favour. It proves tougher than I thought. Sam Lewis’s voice is distant and brusque. It’s a short conversation, he’s not interested. Can’t blame him — I cost him a two million dollar client. Some of my calls are refused. Those who answer are curt. Nothing available. Two people say they’ll keep me in mind: their responses are half-hearted at best. Sympathies from everyone, but nothing is available. My call to Jim Larson is promising: he invites me to lunch the following week. Maybe I have a shot at getting my life back on track.
I feel a little more buoyed by my two steps into what hopefully is my new future. I have to succeed for Hannah and Emily, and for some stranger whom I’d never met.
My first AA meeting. A man about my age detaches from a small group and comes over.
“Charles? Hi, I’m Jack. Welcome.”
I sit near the back, embarrassed as the new attendees are welcomed. Jack, sitting next to me, reminds me that everyone here has been through the same thing. After hearing some members’ success stories, I feel even more determined. If they can do it, so can I.
I tell Jack that I will return tomorrow. He hands me a piece of paper. “No matter where or when, call me. Let me know how you’re doing.” I understand; a couple of speakers mentioned sliding back.
The next day I feel a huge surge of energy. I have a business contact. AA seems a breeze.
Over the next few days, I fill my time doing some of the repair jobs that have accumulated during the past year. It keeps me from thinking about drinking. I go to the meetings. I feel elated — I’m on my way. Jack cautions me that it’s a long road to recovery. He doesn’t seem to understand how well I feel already. I find myself whistling — haven’t done that in a while.
One morning, while waiting for the coffee to brew, I decide to sort out one of the kitchen cupboards. Loads of cookbooks. Laughable, since Hannah never used them, relying on her own instincts and talent. As I reach in the back, my hand brushes against an unopened bottle of Scotch. My hands begin to shake and that old familiar longing returns. As my mind wrestles with its desire, the sound of mail dropping through the mail slot distracts me enough to walk away.
I grab a coffee and sit at the kitchen table to sort out the usual bills and magazines. There’s a large envelope from the law offices of Craddock, Turner and Smith which I tear open. As I read the contents I feel as if someone has punched me in the stomach. The letter falls from my hand. Hannah has begun divorce proceedings. My fragile world begins to crumble.
I need to talk to her, to tell her that things will be better. I call her best friend, who says she doesn’t know anything. I call Hannah’s sister who promises to pass on my message, if she hears from her. She even wishes me good luck when I tell her my plans. I call my mother-in-law who says she doesn’t know where Hannah is and wouldn’t tell me anyway. She then begins to rehash my past and I hang up.
I look at my trembling hands. My eyes move to the bottle of Scotch. One drink, that’s all, just to calm my nerves. Standing at the kitchen counter, I pour a drink and quickly toss half of it back. The raw burn in my throat feels comforting. Hands are a little steadier, stomach calmer. Before I know it, the drink is finished. I forgot how good it tastes.
I pour myself another coffee and a double Scotch and go into the den. The butterflies in my stomach have vanished and my hands have stopped shaking. Settling into an easy chair, I turn on the television to distract myself from the remainder of the bottle in the kitchen. My mind wanders from the news as old memories try to surface, but the numbing effects of the alcohol push them aside. Soon I drift off.
I awake curled in the fetal position, lying in the doorway to the kitchen. An empty bottle lies near me, its last few drops leaving a dark stain in the floor. My head feels as if it’s ready to explode. Raising my head, I quickly close my eyes to the spinning room. I swallow hard. My mouth is dry and has a foul taste. I slowly open my eyes and wait for room to come into focus.
Empty pizza boxes lie on the counter, next to several empty bottles. I slowly sit up and lean against the wall, trying to think. Every light in the hall and kitchen is on. What time is it? I look at my watch, struggling to focus. Eight o’clock — Tuesday night. It can’t be. The last few days are a blur. The last thing I recall is sitting in the den, drinking a coffee chaser to my glass of Scotch. Why? The letter — from Hannah’s lawyer. The mess in the kitchen tells me the rest of the story. I bang my head against the wall in frustration. Screwed up again.
As my head clears a little, I think of my appointment with Jim Larsen. Hell, that’s tomorrow. I stagger to bed. I still have a chance for a job. Maybe all is not lost.
That night the dream returns with a vengeance and repeats itself several times. I awake in a cold sweat, screaming. Afraid of closing my eyes again, I sit in my bed, shivering and crying.
It’s morning. I feel like hell — look like it too. Despite my hangover, I resolve again to change, to try to get Hannah and Emily to return. After lots of hot black coffee and a long cold shower, I shave and put on clean clothes. I need to make a good impression.
Butterflies in my stomach are doing a two-step again. My mind replays scenes of all my escapades. I’m terrified, but I tell myself, I need to do this, to swallow my pride and, if need be, beg for a second chance.
I set out for the morning train, about a 15-minute walk, just long enough to blow away some of the cobwebs still lingering in my brain. This is the first time I’ve been near the station since the accident. I’m nervous, but I’m determined that this is my new beginning and I have to do it for Hannah and Emily, if not for myself and for a nameless man who made my new chance possible.
The platform is crowded, as it usually is at this time. I stand close to the wall, not trusting myself to go near the platform edge. I keep my eyes focused straight ahead, willing myself not to look in the direction from which the train will come. Deep breaths help calm me.
I keep a mental picture of Hannah and Emily in my mind. I’m doing this for them. I can already picture our reunion, the two of them returning home. Emily’s infectious laughter and Hannah’s soft voice fill my head. Being together again, back in our old life, happy.
In the distance, the blast of a horn signals the train’s approach. I hear a child’s laughter and a mother’s warning to keep away from the edge of the platform. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a splash of red. As I turn my head, I see a beautiful woman with a young child wearing a red hat.
Wait — it can’t be. It’s Emily, wearing her favorite red hat. And Hannah — she’s cut her hair and it’s now brown, but it’s her, I’m sure. I can’t believe my luck. I struggle to make my way through the crowd, totally focused on getting to them. They need to know about my new start. I call out Hannah’s name, but she doesn’t hear me. If only I can get to them.
A bright light momentarily distracts me, but I concentrate on reaching my family. I hear the train drawing closer and closer. Just as I reach for Hannah’s shoulder, I see a flash of red and I hear a loud scream. Hannah stands with her mouth open. I look to my right and see the red hat on the track. Then everything happens in an instant. My Emily — she needs me.
“Emily,” I scream. I have to save her. I jump.
Frozen faces. Tracks and gravel. I push as hard as I can. Darkness.
Screams and squealing brakes fill the air.
“Susan! Susan!” The woman shrieks as she attempts to jump onto the tracks.
Two men hold her back as others clamber down in front of the stopped train. A crying child is heard.
“My baby! Where’s my baby?”
One of the men returns holding her child, who has a large bump on her forehead and blood and dirt on her clothing and limbs. A police officer approaches the woman, while another officer stands behind him by the track.
“She seems okay, ma’am. She landed on some rocks and grass.”
“My daughter fell in front of the train. That man — he just jumped in after her. Where is he? I have to see him.”
The police officer glances back at his colleague, who slowly shakes his head.
“I have to thank him. He saved her life. He gave my child a second chance. Why would a stranger do that for her?”
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