Copyright 1980, 1999, Sarah Hartwell
I originally wrote this while in my early teens for an English class. I've updated and overhauled it a little for my site. ICU = intensive care unit.
Footsteps in the Sands of Time,
Tracks along an empty beach,
Towards a fate which is not mine,
A destiny so out of reach.
The ICU nurse frowned slightly at the state of the last two admissions into the intensive care unit over which she presided. Both were in their late teens and were unconscious after a horrific accident when a fairground rollercoaster full of laughing pleasure-seekers had plunged from its tracks at a steep downward curve. The nurse shuddered at the thought of laughter turning to screams and screams of exhilaration turning to cries of terror which reached an awful but brief crescendo among the tearing of metal as the coaster buckled on impact. Then there would have been the ghastly numbed silence before the injured and onlookers alike had begun to whimper in pain and fear.
Most of the rollercoater's occupants had been injured to some degree. In addition, many bystanders had been caught under toppling girders or beneath the coaster's cars as they screamed off of the curve and into a nearby crowd. The fire brigade and paramedics had spent much of the night freeing people from the tangle of metalwork, working beneath bright emergency lamps in the now-closed fairground. Thanks to their swift actions, some people had made it out of the wreckage shaken or with minor injuries. Some, like these, were in a far worse state. A few, a mercifully small few (not that it was any consolation to their next-of-kin), hadn't made it out at all and their bereaved parents were identifying and reclaiming bodies downstairs in the hospital mortuary viewing room.
The pair in ICU were only two of the victims who had been on the rollercoaster itself; one, a young man who showed signs of being ruggedly handsome if he survived, had been cut from the second car of the rollercoaster and had multiple injuries - two savagely broken legs from which shattered bone protruded at impossible angles through the lacerated flesh and internal haemorrhaging which made him too weak to undergo emergency surgery. Only the tangle of wires, the respirator and the drip kept his mangled body alive and kept his weak heartbeat pulsing across the screen beside the bed. With his injuries, treated as far as possible, obscured beneath the crisp white hospital sheets he looked peaceful as though asleep.
The other ICU admission, an attractive girl, had been more fortunate; her ribs had been broken, puncturing one lung and she had head and neck injuries but her heart beat strongly and she clung tenaciously to life as though defying her injuries. She had been in the last car of the coaster and nothing had landed on top of her. The nursed allowed herself one sigh and steeled herself for the other seriously injured victims who would follow once the trauma team and the operating theatres had done their work.
Lynn was unaware of the accident as she sat astride the gaudily painted carousel horse which rose and fell, plunged and climbed, surging endlessly forward as though participating in some ceaseless race. The carousel ground to a halt and the sea of bobbing fairy-horses slowed and stopped frozen in mid-bound for the riders to dismount. Only the wheezing of the organ did not falter from churning out traditional tunes which accompanied the ride. She slithered from her ornate mount and jumped from the platform.
Beside her, Jake grinned and hugged her shoulders, supporting her until the ground had stopped bucking and heaving beneath her feet. They drifted off, together as always, unable to remember ever being apart. Their meeting had faded into the past and it seemed as though they had always known each other.
Testing his aim and steady hand, Jake won a cuddly toy at the shooting gallery which he immediately gave to Lynn. They then drifted towards the fortune-tellers at one side of the fairground. Ahead of them a fairground barker on a podium outside a small tent yelled hoarsely.
"Let Madame Zita tell your fortune, she knows what lies ahead, to her your future is but history! Let Madame Zita ..."
Lynn dragged Jake with her, towards the red and white striped kiosk where Madame Zita plied her trade.
"Iíve always been a sucker for this sort of thingí Lynn laughed, her blue eyes alight with anticipation, "even if you donít believe it."
Jake laughed, pushing back his hair, "I donít mind as long as Iím the only tall, dark and desperately handsome man in your future."
Inside, the tent was warm and airless, smelling of canvas, crushed grass, patchouli and rose. Madame Zita looked like all fortune-tellers were expected to look, ebony hair tied back beneath a red headscarf and enormous hooped earrings. Her olive face seemed to have been etched like stone with deep lines as though time itself had used her for a calendar. Her eyes were compelling, deep brown and bottomless as though windows into another world. They were ageless, serene as if they had surveyed the entirety of existence without either excitement or dismay. Her eyes were passive, regarding the outside world dispassionately while seeming to look inside herself at the same time. Her pearl-white teeth were perfect and her calm, sure voice hypnotic. She at once crossed her palm with the silver coin Lynn paid her so that she would not catch any ill luck from her subject.
"Ah I see a long journey ahead of you; long not in distance but in difficulty. You have a long way to travel, miss ..." her eyes looked inwards, "a long way and alone."
"No chance," Jake protested, "where she goes, I go too, with a few obvious exceptions of course."
The gypsyís eyes pierced him like fiery needles and her voice took on some of that fire.
"I tell only her fortune, not yours. Her future lies in a journey," she turned back to Lynn, reading not her hand but her face, "You will be alone and it grows dark but you dare not stop. Ah miss, you must go, go now, for your own sake you must hurry. Be on your way!" Her voice had taken on a tone of urgency and her eyes suddenly seemed weighed down with great age as she stood and pointed towards the flap of her tent, "Be on thy way, go, begone!"
It was Jake who pulled Lynn from the tent and held her close until the trembling stopped. Lynn had sat, transfixed like a rabbit before a stoat as the gypsy fortuneteller had virtually shouted at her to leave the kiosk.
"Hey, hey, donít worry babe. Sheís just a crank, donít let her scare you" he whispered, more to convince himself than to comfort her.
The barker outside the tent had stopped calling and was looking at them, his black eyes glittering in strange puzzlement as though unsure of whether to be afraid of something. Beads of sweat stood on his tawny forehead and he licked his lips nervously, struggling to make some inner decision.
"Hurry missy, he finally croaked, the words seeming to be trapped in his throat, "hurry while there is still time."
Everyone had stopped whatever they had been doing and were staring at the young couple. The general hubbub had ceased and even the rides had ground to a silent halt; only the organ wheezed yet even its tunes seemed oddly mournful in the quiet. Eyes, a thousand eyes, were turned towards them; blue eyes, dark eyes, green, gold, violet, hazel and a million shades of browns and blues filled their minds. Aged eyes all watery and bloodshot, youthful eyes solemn and innocent, treacherous eyes, trusting eyes, eyes which pleaded or compelled, were tragic or gay or empty, they all stared at Lynn and Jake like a carnival of mourners staring down into a grave as the coffin is lowered.
There were no voices to accompany the multitude of eyes, only the out-of-place wheezing of the organ. Then abruptly the disembodied eyes dissolved into faces and the faces began to move away. The noise began again, babbling voices and groaning machinery as though it had never stopped. All of the eyes looked away except for the barker who was sweating profusely. He stared out from the troubled depths of his soul and pointed towards the far horizon, beyond the caravans which housed the fairground folk, trying to make them understand.
"Hurry, get out before dark - you donít belong here with us." he ordered.
There was no hint of menace in his voice but they did not question his order. That voice was full of quiet authority. Everywhere, people pointed them in the same direction, telling then to leave, urging them to hurry. Crowds parted to let the through and they began to hurry, spooked by the whole experience. There was no hostility, just open fear and a strange urgency in those faces, voices and eyes.
Soon Lynn and Jake were away from the stalls and out among the caravans and cars and the animal pens where the donkeys and animal acts were being rested. The placid eyes of the creatures stared in silent accusation, the windows of the caravans observed them silently and any person they met still urged them onwards, away from the fairground. As they walked up out of the fair-field towards the crest of a low, lush hill, the fair grew smaller and its colours merged into blotches or red and yellow.
The noises faded from their ears, the chatter of crowds, the asthmatic wheezing of the organ, the babble and the barkers all faded away as though someone had turned the volume down. After they had crested the hill, the fairground which had diminished to a mere speck, was obscured and the silence was complete. Lynn and Jake seemed to have covered an impossible distance in the short time that they had been walking and they began to talk, sing and make any noise to puncture the all-enveloping silence. The immensity of the silence deadened all sounds and they became content to walk onwards towards the far horizon in ethereal silence as though the azure sky itself were vaulted and held aloft on pillars of silence. Neither of them questioned the emptiness.
The landscape itself had a surreal quality; the silent lush grassland stretched into the distance, flat and treeless, devoid of any features to break up the endless single-hued green. The air about them was still and close and they felt as though they walked through a solid, palpable substance. Gradually the grass under their feet became drier and bleached although ahead of them and behind them Lynn could see only a uniform greenness.
The dry grass grew thinner and they also realised that they had seen no other living creatures since leaving the fair, nothing punctuated the grey-green expanse and soon sandy soil was visible beneath and between the grass. The tussocks of half-dead grass were separated by small channels of sand. The grass itself changed from soft springy tussocks to the resilient clumps of marram which formed stunted islands in a sea of dull yellow. The faded sand was held in dunes by the tough grass until the grass itself was no longer in evidence and they walked across a dull yellow desert. The grass itself might well have been an insubstantial dream for all about them was unbroken sand. The sky had turned to a sullen, cloudless grey and there was nowhere for Lynn and Jake to go but forward.
Following some inner compulsion, Lynn and Jake continued towards their unknown destination. They had not spoken to one another except to help each other up after stumbling and in the strange dreamlike quality of the terrain and atmosphere it seemed logical to push onwards until they had somehow reached something they would only recognise once they had found it.
Lynn now dragged the cuddly toy bear by one paw as they waded through the formless sand. Their steps sank them up to their knees at times in the soft heaviness which clung to their legs more like thick viscous liquid than sand. Their steps grew more laboured as they toiled across the desert and their footprints were erased by the settling sand. Although they did not feel tired or hungry, they seemed to be weighed down by the oppressive atmosphere and Jake especially was growing slower, his knees buckling under his own weight and his breath growing dry and laboured.
After what seemed like hours, Jake was unable to keep up with Lynn however slowly she walked. Unseen forces seemed to be pulling him backwards and downwards until finally he stumbled and sank to his knees.
"My legs ache," he gasped, "Lynn I canít carry on, you go on, the old woman said that you would be making the journey alone didnít she?" he laughed weakly.
"Letís rest for a while, huh? You can get your breath back. It wonít get dark for some time yet." Lynn told him tenderly as she knelt beside him, cradling his head against her. Jake began massaging his calf muscles, but his knees also felt weak and wobbly.
"No donít stop now, Iíll only slow you down"
"Jake, you know I couldnít leave you," she whispered, her arms around his neck and her eyes, so full of life, stared into his, trying to will him to get up.
"Leave me here, I can catch you up later, okay?" but his voice lacked conviction, "I'll catch you up."
She could not reason with him, he seemed determined to play the hero, he refused to be a burden on her, insisting on following on as soon as he could. The expression in his eyes was one of wonder as though he finally understood some fundamental fact about this surreal land and the strange, timeless journey across its dreamlike scenes.
"Donít look back, Lynn." he insisted gently.
As she turned away from him, her eyes brimming with unshed tears, he called out after her. It was a favourite quote from a song which he used to say good-bye to people he knew he was unlikely to see again.
"Hey, Lynn - Iíll see you on the dark side of the moon!"
She trudged unwillingly away from where he knelt, dragging the precious toy bear by one paw. She dared not look back, behind her she would see only the endless sands; there was nowhere for them to return to, no fairground and no grass, each of these things had vanished as soon as they had left them behind. Soon even the now tattered bear had grown to heavy for her. It was torn and grimy; not like the silky new toy Jake had won for her. The crimson ribbon about its neck had faded and the soft fur was grimy and matted, stained by the grass.
Her own clothes were not much better, the jeans she was wearing were sand-coated and full of irritating fine, loose chips of yellow; the bottoms of the legs were green from the lush meadow she had earlier walked across when Jake had still been with her. Her shoes were heavy with the sand that had crept into them and the leather was scored and scratched. In the oppressive atmosphere her hair had become lank with sweat and sand and clung to her head and neck.
By now she was walking in a daze and the ruined toy slipped from her hand to lie unnoticed on the sand. Lynn was walking by habit, putting one foot in front of the other, no longer caring about anything but moving. Her mind told her just to keep on moving towards whatever might lie at the end of her trek. A sharp stitch pain cut into her at every step like a sharp knife which had lodge against her ribs, but her mind rang with a million orchestrated voices which thundered at her senses to hurry, hurry, hurry
A jetty loomed up before her without warning as though it had risen up out of the sand itself. At the far end, a small wooden boat bobbed gently on a ridiculously blue and empty sea. No commercial vessels broke up the horizon and the waters stretched out forever, serene and empty, until the met and merged with the sky. Small wavelets lapped at the steep beach but there was no Ďseasideí smell of salt or seaweed and there were no seagulls.
Sitting on the fragile-looking wood of the ramshackle jetty was the first person Lynn had seen since leaving Jake behind. He was the only other living soul visible in the empty and arid wilderness. He sat staring out at the empty ocean, oblivious to her presence as she shambled painfully and noisily towards his jetty.
At the sight of the occupied jetty, Lynn broke into a run, ploughing her way through the loose sand and raising clouds of yellow dust. Her ribs hurt as though someone was pulling a strand of barbed wire across them and the million and one voices in her head reached a thunderous crescendo urging her to hurry, faster and faster they chanted, keeping pace with her as she ran. After an impossibly long time, she stumbled onto the sunbaked planks and only then did she look back across the wilderness for Jake.
Behind her, bare, scorched sands which stretched to the limits of her vision and shone blindingly yellow under the merciless sun. No figure was visible on its perfect surface; no sign existed that anyone had ever trodden these unbroken wastes - even her own footprints had been erased, buried by the sand. Her eyes wet with tears, she eventually turned to look at the other occupant of the jetty who still showed no sign that he had noticed her. He sat patiently holding a piece of coarse rope tied to the small craft and when he finally turned his face towards her Lynn felt sure that he had been awaiting her arrival for a very long time.
The boatman, for that was obviously what he was, was one of the most piteously hideous being Lynn had even seen outside of horror-movie monsters that had been devised by warped-minded writers. Like Charon of Hades he was filthy as well as ugly but he exuded no feeling of evil, having instead an air of serene patience.
His bewhiskered, shrivelled face was pitted and pockmarked like an apple left to wither on the ground. It was weathered brown and roughened by constant exposure to salt air, scarred as if life itself was at war with this miscreation. A mass of salty, dirty tangles framed the face: matted hair, bushed eyebrows and a filthy birdís nest of a beard. Half hidden below the eyebrows burned black, deep-set eyes between hung the crooked flattened nose with its cavernous, hairy nostrils.
Thin colourless lips were slashed across the beard, moistened occasionally by a nervous snakelike tongue. Uneven yellow teeth, little more than half-rotten stumps, could be seen as he sighed peacefully. The low forehead was furrowed by timeís plough, criss-crossed by whiplike scars which retreated up into the unkempt hair.
Slowly, the apparition raised himself from the edge of the jetty and stood with a permanent stoop as though overladen with worries. Unwashed, unmended clothes hanging from his thin body which was supported by gnarled and knotted legs terminating in blackened unshod feet. His toenails were like black claws, overlong and downwards curving. The manís hands were also gnarled and twisted and in his right hand he held a tall, roughly cut wooden staff. His face, Lynn noticed, was repulsive but not cruel.
"Youíve arrived," he stated in a voice barely distinguishable from the creaking of the jetty timbers, "Iíve only room for one more and I canít wait here much longer."
"One more to where?" Lynn husked.
"To the other side. You want to get there donít you?" he asked.
"My friend is back there, canít you wait for him?"
The boatman slowly shook his head, "Iíve room for one more only. Youíll have to leave your friend."
On the water which, at close quarters looked more grey than blue, the leaking boat bobbed impatiently. Though it appeared empty, Lynn sensed that it bore many unseen entities. She was sorely tempted to decline the trip to the other side and wait for Jake to arrive but remembering how Jake had refused to delay her she stepped into the small craft and sat on the plank seat along the side of the vessel. She felt sure that she would betray Jake if she refused the journey; the journey that she alone was to complete. The small craft creaked under her and then creaked again as the boatman stepped into the stern and began to pole them across the wide expanse of water.
Far back inland, Jake watched the small vessel set off towards the darkening horizon and his dry, dusty eyes followed the boatís progress as it crossed the smooth sea. Only the boatman was visible, standing at the stern of the boat with his staff, propelling the empty looking boat towards a destination beyond the limits of his vision. For a while he followed its progress and even when the small speck had vanished from sight he stared at the far horizon. Unable to even crawl to the jetty, he had understood that the journey was not for him to make and sure that Lynn would make it. Finally, still looking towards the horizon, he closed his eyes.
Far away in the intensive care unit, the nurse watched the girl Ďs fluttering eyelids. Her patient was struggling to escape from unconsciousness and the nurse prepared a sedative to keep her calm. Finally the lass's eyes opened, blue and sad and confused. Her swollen lips struggled to form words and when she spoke her voice was barely a whisper.
"Jake?" she asked, "he didnít make it to ..."
The sad blue eyes slowly focussed on their surroundings and she turned her head far enough to see the young man in the other bed. He was still attached to his life support machine but the undulating line of life had given way to a single, straight line and the machine hummed a barely audible dirge. Several doctors and nurses stood with their backs to him, shaking their heads. Another nurse began to disconnect the cables and tubes.
"He, his legs, they ..." she spoke softly, her eyes full of unspoken questions and deep understanding as though she had been revealed the secrets of existence as she slept.
The nurse spoke quietly, reassuringly, unable to tell the girl outright of the young manís death. She didn't know if the two were related or in a relationship and if they were, the girl was in shock and didn't need any further shocks at this time.
"He broke both legs," she said calmly, "Is he a friend of yours? You know him?" she asked, careful to use the present tense.
But Lynn had seen the nurses clearing away the monitors and she already knew what the nurse could not tell her.
"No," she whispered, "not while he was alive."
Realising that Lynn was lucid, the nurse didn't keep up the pretence any longer.
"He fought hard." the nurse admitted, "It was almost as if he had to work something out for himself. Then he slipped away very quickly and peacefully without waking up. He just let go. But his injuries were far worse than yours, so don't go thinking you can let go like that. Not in my ward. Not on my shift." She gave a reassuring smile.
A doctor arrived at the bedside, drawing sedative into a syringe.
The nurse turned round, facing the bed where the young man lay inert. She whispered in a voice she believed Lynn could not hear, "As though he had to solve some problem before letting go ... but who knows what happens during coma?"