The outside world.
Jimmy Duncan watched her approach, the sun behind her and the wind riffling her hair. She fiddled with her camera a moment, then plopped down beside him on the grassy hillside. To their left, loomed a wall of black forest; jungle birds screamed and chattered in the trees. To the right, beyond the rented Jeep, a line of ragged mountains marched away into the blue distance.
"How do you know this place?" she asked. "You never said anything about all this."
"I don't know the whole country. Just this area."
She grinned. "And I thought you'd told me all your secrets."
When he didn't reply, Susan's voice turned soft. "This has something to do with the accident, doesn't it?" "Why do you think that?"
"Because I know you. The look on your face."
Jimmy sighed. "That was a long time ago."
"Besides"--he plucked a blade of grass, examined it, twirled it between a thumb and forefinger before the wind took it--"I'm not even sure you'd call it an accident."
"What would you call it?"
"A miracle," the cop said.
Jimmy turned his head toward the voice. Not his eyes, just his head. His eyes were bandaged tight. "What'd you say?"
"I said it was a miracle. That car of yours was squashed so flat we thought you was too. You're one lucky fool."
Jimmy groaned. He didn't feel lucky. He felt blind, and nauseated, and achy. From somewhere down the hall, he heard the sad rattle of a cart as patients were brought their lunch trays.
"The other driver?" Jimmy asked.
"Not even a bruise. Them 18-wheelers are built like tanks."
Jimmy heard a rasping sound, and realized the cop was scratching his chin. "Want some advice, kid? That truck's company owns a thousand stores, and we got three witnesses say it ran the light. Sue 'em, settle for a couple million, and move to Hawaii. Beaches, sunsets, girls in grass skirts."
"What if you can't see them?" Jimmy asked.
"Yeah, well, that could be a problem." The cop cleared his throat. "Catch you later."
Which was a lie. The cop didn't return. The doctor, however, did. Along with a parade of nurses and orderlies and even a few lawyers. But no friends, and no family. Jimmy didn't have any of those.
He didn't even have a home. For the past two months, since the layoff from the warehouse in East Texas, he'd been on the road. Footloose, but not fancy-free. His savings were gone now. He'd hoped to sell some of his paintings, but that notion had suffered the same fate as most of his other ideas. In San Francisco he'd heard about an art colony near Vancouver and headed north. Why not? He'd never seen Canada. Then, in Oregon, a truck had failed to stop for a red light. What had stopped was his tour of the Northwest.
Broke, alone, homeless, blind. Even his artwork was gone, destroyed in the crash. He didn't know what hospital he was in, or who was paying for his treatment. Uncle Sam, probably.
He almost wished he hadn't been thrown clear, wished he'd been squashed as fiat as his 10-year-old Civic. Easier for everybody.
But life went on.
As if proving that, Jimmy soon learned to ID the hospital staff from their voices. He had little choice; his hearing was one of the few senses he had left. He wondered if he'd ever see anything again.
"Pressure on the optic nerve, plus a scratched cornea," the doc said. "A specialist is coming in. We'll know more then."
Three specialists and two surgeries later, Jimmy was told he would regain his sight. Two months from now, maybe less.
His body was another matter. Multiple head and back injuries, partial paralysis. He could move his neck and his left arm, but only slightly. Otherwise, zip. Each day he was lifted into a wheelchair beside his bed, and each day he wondered why the wheelchair. Did they think he was going someplace? He was left to sit there a couple hours, and then they swung him back into his bed, like a sack of feed. Day after day.
And then he met Maria. She came one morning like a fuzzy dream while he was in the chair and whispered in his ear. He turned his head in the direction of her voice. Many people had spoken to him during his stay, but this was the first whisper. It had a Spanish accent.
"The weendow," she said. "You must make it to the weendow." And squeezed his hand. Then she was gone.
A nurse told him later who the woman was. Maria Renaldo, from the fifth floor. A small lady, mid-80s. She loved to talk with patients. No one knew whether her goodwill visits accomplished much, but since she was harmless the hospital allowed her free access.
Maria started coming every morning, at the same time. She hovered beside his wheelchair, held his hand, whispered to him. Always the same subject: the tall window at the far end of the ward. She'd been a patient here not long ago, she told him, a patient in this same big room, and in a reverent voice she described the view from the window.
"A waterfall," she said, her minty breath warm on his ear. "A big waterfall into a blue lake with tall green trees. Can you not hear it?"
And he could hear it, if he listened hard enough. A distant rumble, a low thrumming growl. It was what had kept her going, she said, when she was here. In bed with a broken hip, she listened to the rolling water, and dreamed every day of making her way across the long room to look out at it. And when she was well enough she limped and shuffled to the window and held tight to the sill and stared at the spectacle. It had taken her breath away. A magnificent scene, one that calmed the heart and nurtured the soul. She'd remained there for hours, lost in the perfection of that stunning color snapshot of the Outside World.
"You can do the same," she said. "Every day, move a little closer. By the time you are there, they tell me your eyes will be healed too. Then you will see what I saw." She paused, her voice dropping even lower. "It is the work of angels."
He barked a bitter laugh. "I can't get there on my own, Ms. Renaldo. I can't move. Maybe someone could push my chair-"
"No!" she said. It was the first time he'd heard her raise her voice. Then, in her usual whisper, she added, "You must do it alone. Can you not move anything?"
"This arm, just a bit." He wiggled his fingers.
"Then start there."
So he did. Every day in his chair he struggled to move the left wheel, and every day Maria came and stood beside him, murmuring encouragement. The muscles in his hand and forearm seemed finally to respond. After a week he'd managed to roll forward a few inches, the next week a foot, the next week two feet. Each time left him exhausted, but now he was using his right arm too, and the task grew easier.
She even gave him a deadline. The end of August-a month from now--the bandages were due to come off his eyes. She expected him to have the chair beside the window on that day. It would be worth it, she promised. Once more she described the view, and the joy and fulfillment he would receive when he first laid eyes on the thundering falls. "It will give you new hope," she said.
He believed her. He dreamed of what it would look like, and of later capturing its glory on canvas. He knew he could do it. Art was his gift, maybe his only gift. He would paint the scene and hang the result on the wall of the home that he would one day build, and drink of its beauty when he was depressed. The very thought eased his pain.
Meanwhile, he listened. The low rumble seemed louder at times than others, but it was always there, background music behind the everyday hospital chaos. A constant reminder.
So he kept trying. He began to look forward to Maria's daily visit, even to the struggle and the pain and the sweat. She'd suggested he not tell the doctors about the goal he and she had set up; in fact, she usually came when the staff was elsewhere and pulled his wheelchair the short distance back to the bed afterward. But he didn't need the doctors to tell him he was improving. He could feel it. Even his legs could move a bit now.
Part of the credit, of course, was due to the hospital. Each afternoon an orderly wheeled him down the hall to a room labeled "physical therapy." But the progress there was slower. What helped him the most was Maria's assistance, when they were alone. Her encouragement, her support. Her faith in him.
By August 21, according to Maria, Jimmy was within six feet of the window. On the 22nd, five feet. And then, on August 23, he went nowhere. Maria Renaldo did not appear. It was the first day in weeks that she hadn't come to visit. When she failed to show the next day as well, Jimmy asked one of the orderlies about her.
"I'm afraid she died," he said.
Jimmy swallowed. He couldn't believe it.
"Sudden," the orderly said. "I'm told she went peacefully."
For the next two days, Jimmy did nothing. Except for his daily trip to therapy, he lay motionless in bed, sat motionless in the wheelchair. He couldn't stop thinking of Maria. He knew she'd had no family; it was one of the bonds between them. Both were alone and far from home. One of the nurses told him there would be a funeral service here in the hospital, burial in a nearby cemetery.
And then, that night, Jimmy had a dream. Maria was standing beside him at the window at the end of the ward, holding his hand and smiling. He knew she was smiling because he could see her now, could see her and the sunshiny wrinkles on her face and the roaring waterfall and the rest of the world beyond the window glass. And it was as spectacular as she'd said it would be.
The following day Jimmy pushed his chair, unseeing but knowing exactly where he was, farther toward the window. And the day after that. And the day after that. The orderlies, in on his secret now, helped him roll back to his bed after each effort.
On August 30 he leaned forward, groping with outstretched fingers, and touched the windowsill. The noise of the falls was louder now. He was there.
As promised, the doctors came on the 31st to remove his bandages. Before they did, he asked them to stand aside, and to their amazement he slowly wheeled himself to a point in front of the window. Sitting there as the bandages were unwrapped, he thought he could already feel the peace and serenity the old woman had predicted.
He'd done it. He had attained his goal, her goal. He was not yet healed but he was on his way, in both body and mind, and was about to witness what he'd anticipated for so long.
And then it was time. The bandages were off.
He opened his eyes.
At first he saw nothing but brightness. Then colors, shapes, images. He saw for the first time the beaming faces of his doctors and nurses, his pale arms, his hospital-gowned body, the walls and floor and beds of his ward.
But when he looked out the window--"Where's the waterfall?" He swiveled his head, his eyes searching. "The lake, the trees?"
The doctor frowned. "Waterfall?" He turned to follow Jimmy's gaze.
The view from the window was all gray buildings. Gray buildings, with a swatch of gray river beyond. The steady roar in the distance, Jimmy realized now, was machinery of some kind. Maybe a factory, or a treatment plant.
Jimmy's eyes, their sight newly restored, closed again. Tears spilled down his cheeks and onto his white gown.
"She lied to you," Susan murmured.
Jimmy turned to face her. She sat there in the soft grass and stared at him, stared as only she could, with those magical green eyes. How he loved those eyes.
He and Susan Shelby had been together seven months now. They'd met at a showing of his paintings at a California gallery, almost three years after his recovery. She was good to him and for him. He felt a twinge of guilt for waiting until now to tell her all this. But he'd never told anyone.
Jimmy shook his head. "She didn't lie. She told me what she thought was true."
"What do you mean?"
"Maria Renaldo, I discovered, was no hospital worker. No volunteer. She was just another patient. The fifth floor was the psychiatric ward."
Susan blinked. "She was crazy?"
"By our standards she was. Had been for years."
"But even if she was ... delusional," Susan said, "she'd know there was no lake there. She could see-"
"No. She couldn't."
"She was blind," Jimmy said.
He'd found this out later also, from one of the staff. Maria had indeed spent some time in the same ward, following a fall, and had sat for hours in her own wheelchair in front of the big window at the end of the room. That much was true. But she saw nothing from the window. She'd already been blind for years, ever since a bus accident after moving north from Bolivia.
"Bolivia?" Susan asked. Her eyes were wide now.
Jimmy nodded. "Turned out the cop was right. I did settle with the truck's company, for a boatload of money. I used some of it to find out about Maria's family and to come here."
Susan looked around as if seeing the lush Bolivian countryside for the first time. "Here? To this spot?"
"Look behind you," he said.
She turned and gasped. Set into the grass of the hillside three feet away was a small white headstone, still shiny. On it were the words "Maria Consuela Renaldo 1923-2008--The Work of Angels."
"But you said she was buried in Oregon--"
"I said she died in Oregon. The nurse was wrong about the burial. Maria was cremated; her ashes were stored there. I brought them here, a year ago. Along with this stone."
A silence passed.
"Why here?" Susan asked.
"Two reasons. One is, her niece and nephew live in a house just down that path. She had family after all."
"And the other?"
"She was born here," Jimmy said. "Come with me."
Together they climbed the 30 feet to the top of the hill. "What's that sound?" Susan said, as they neared the crest.
Instead of speaking, he stopped and pointed. In the wooded valley beyond was a blue lake and a foaming waterfall. It growled like distant thunder in the stillness.
Susan put a hand over her mouth. Tears gleamed in her eyes. "It's the painting. The one in your den."
He just nodded.
For a long moment neither of them moved or spoke. Finally she took his arm and leaned her head onto his shoulder. The shadows were longer now, the jungle quiet.
Below them, almost lost in the soft twilight, the falls roared.
Your Story Here: The Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest is underway. To enter, please visit saturdayeveningpost.com/fiction-contest.
John M. Floyd is the author of four collections of short fiction, most recently Deception (2013).
Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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|Author:||Floyd, John M.|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2013|
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