The Circle Squared - Book One: Squaring the Circle
"Too Much Time On My Hands" - Part One
"Alex, time for a shower and fresh bandages," Mom's voice called.
The horror of the dream was reduced by the relief of it being interrupted.
I rolled over and croaked, "Down in a few," in a voice I hardly recognized.
The coughs started as soon as I spoke. I barely got the sentence out before they became deep and productive, nearly gagging me. I had to force another few coughs to clear a tingling need to cough more. The alarm clock went off. Sighing, I slapped it off.
Another day alone at home. All week. Then back to normal. Normal? With the whole school knowing about me? Normal?
Don't bother going there yet, I warned myself, not wanting to dive straight into that mood.
I had yet to open my eyes, and was still reluctant to. I wanted to sleep. That smooth, soft, easy feeling that usually takes you into sleep was still strong and I was hardly able to fight it. I wanted to stay in bed. I didn't have to go to school so it seemed so unfair that I couldn't sleep in, especially after what I had been through lately. But I knew my parents, and knew they wouldn't let me sleep in, that they wanted me up and eating in front of them, even if I went right back to bed as soon as they left.
I grinned at the idea, and it was only with that thought that I was able to swing my feet out of bed and sit up. It was only then that I noticed that my sweats and the sheets were damp with sweat. After a little more coughing my blood began moving enough that I had the energy to stand. There was the usual wave of dizziness and nausea before I was then able to gather clean sweats and head into the bathroom.
Tired and complaining muscles made the shower once again the new normal chore. My arms didn't want to stay above my head long enough to shampoo well. My legs started to tremble long before I was done. I sat on the edge of the tub and gathered my breath and strength, slowly drying myself.
No wonder I don't wanna beat-off, I thought, nearly panting at just the effort to towel off.
Dressing was made easier by not wearing any shorts and by wearing slippers instead of putting on socks.
I slowly plodded downstairs and my wounds were treated. First this morning was the temple, then, once the stinking ointment was freshly covered by new gauze pads, and mummy wrapping around my torso, I was allowed to have breakfast. Another as-normal-as-possible breakfast, with reminders to paint some of the garage and vacuum my bedroom, maybe, if I could manage it. By the usual time, both parents had left and I was waiting at the kitchen table for Tom's knock on the door if he was stopping by before catching the bus again today.
Fuck. Only Tuesday! I still got most of the week to go! With nothing to do but whatever homework the guys bring over. And a few chores. And the garage.
I groaned aloud at the prospect. Not only did I not want to do any painting, I especially didn't want to spend that much time in the garage. What so recently - to me - had happened out there was still a sharp-edged misery.
Just looking at the door to the garage caused me to shake and feel vertigo.
I sat at the table and tried to master the feelings that wanted to rampage through me. Again and again, I felt that horrible sensation of not being able to breathe. I took in deep breaths to assure myself that I was perfectly safe. It did little to vanquish the fear.
The inescapable truth that I had died out there filled me with a fear that I could not explain rationally. It was impossible for me to not fear death, even suspecting, as I did, that I had crossed that barrier and seen Toby. I had enjoyed visiting him and I knew that if it was all real then death was nothing to fear at all: it was, in fact, something to look forward to.
I struggled with both sides of the argument, trying to force myself not to fear the fact that I would die again and it would be permanent. I tried to accept that death wasn't anything bad or sad, but my rational mind had no control over that primal fear.
The fear of the van, and the fire, and seemingly now the garage, crept back up on me.
"It's okay. Some day it'll be like it never happened," I said aloud, shakily, not fooling myself.
Wanting something else to occupy my thoughts, I considered that my visitations with Toby weren't real, that they were illusions. But again and again Toby had slipped something into our conversations that I could not possibly have known beforehand. Nearly every visit with him, he had either sneakily or forthrightly told me something that would happen, that I had no possible way to know, suspect, or even guess at. Each one had proved accurate or true.
I know I'm not psychic, I reasoned. Or prescient, or whatever. I can't see the future. I never have. So how did I dream up things that hadn't happened yet? The things that led to them hadn't even happened yet. And how did I know that something Toby had hidden was waiting for me there? How can I know that? I don't think so, I fucking know so. Just like the things he told me would happen. I know it for fact.
I thought and reasoned for far longer than I was aware. Surprised that I had burned away the morning sitting in the kitchen and thinking, I suddenly felt like doing something.
As I sat at the kitchen table, my eyes were naturally caught by the door to the garage. That same dread welled up, causing me to tense up and recoil from it.
"Some day it'll be like it never happened," I said weakly, and just as shakily as before.
I wonder if everyone gets scared of the place where they almost died? The place where they died, I corrected myself. I fucking died out there. Really died. I woulda stayed dead if Tom hadn't come by. But Dad and I had started working on the van at just the right time, so that when it caught fire, Tom was right there. We took just the right amount of time eating lunch right before we got to work. And it took just the right amount of time at Burger King. And we took just the right amount of time at the DMV getting my license. And we left the house at exactly the right time. It goes all the way back to the morning. All the choices and timing, just right.
And Tom walks in, just as the fire smokes me like beef jerky. And just happened to have taken that class on life saving. It goes on and on, don't it? Choice after choice, timing inside timing.
And here I am, fucking cowering from the garage. What's it got that's gonna hurt me? Memories? Fuck, no. I got those. Those are mine.
"The garage ain't got shit," I said loudly, challenging it. "Some day it'll be like it never happened," I repeated, firmly this time, and found that I could possibly believe it. "But not until I do something about it. I can't sit here and ignore it. If I do, nothing will get better. Nothing good comes from ignoring stuff."
I found myself standing in front of the door to the garage. My right eye winked once, my right hand twitched as I opened the door. The smells of burning plastic, carpet, and rubber were still prominent, despite the fresher scent of new drywall and plaster.
Shaking a small amount, I walked into the garage and examined the work ahead of me, studiously ignoring the stains on the concrete. I resolved that I wouldn't be pushed out of there by memories of events now past.
A few minutes later, I was back to attack the garage, wearing old clothes and sneakers. By the time I had the paint, roller, tray, and brush ready, I was already breathing a bit fast and feeling a bit tired.
After getting most of the first coat done, I was panting, sweaty, and weak. When I started up the ladder to roll along the ceiling line, I coughed and felt my throat tighten up. I hadn't had that problem since the hospital. I wondered if the paint fumes were causing it. I tried to ignore it, but my breathing required more and more work. Soon I felt as if I were having an asthma attack.
I walked into the kitchen and picked up the inhaler. It was intended to open constricted airways, and I was sure that was what was happening. I took one long draw from it. I waited, wheezing. Nothing seemed to be happening. I took another draw. I waited. Nothing. I was still wheezing and having to work to breathe. By then, the fear of suffocation was back with a vengeance. I needed help, and the inhaler didn't seem to be what I needed.
My mind locked onto marijuana and its expectorant properties. I went upstairs as fast as I could, holding tight to the railing and placing my feet carefully. The exertion only worsened the situation, making me more winded. Each difficult breath was another push toward that panic of suffocation. I was already sweaty from painting, but the effort to climb the stairs and the horrible fear of dying caused me to sweat tremendously. I was lightheaded and weak as I sat at the desk, opened the box. and pulled a long roach out of it with shaking hands. I lit it and hit it as best as I could through my tightened throat. It made me cough, but the coughs brought up loose phlegm and cleared my throat. As the roach reached its end, I was breathing slightly better. I lit another roach, and by the end of it, I felt much better and was breathing well enough.
I sat there long enough to roll a joint to take back down with me. I stopped in the kitchen and drank an entire bottle of Coke in nearly a single draft. I took another bottle out to the garage, along with the joint, and rejoined the battle.
It took quite an effort, but I applied two coats to three walls and the ceiling. My glasses were peppered with the paint. I felt it on my face, mixing greasily with my sweat. My hands were nearly covered with paint. I finished the joint at the back door, letting the cold air cool me and keep the paint fumes away. Between the joint, the fumes, and the cold air, I was coughing so badly that I was gagging and nearly puking, a headache throbbing through my injured temple. After finishing the joint, I was breathing nearly normally, though still coughing a bit.
I was tired and stoned, sore, and shaking from exhaustion instead of fear, but I still had cleanup to do. I washed off the roller, brush, the paint tray, and my hands, leaning heavily on the edge of the counter. Then the work sink and counter. Finally, the empty cans were in the trash and the rest put away. I admired my handiwork before heading upstairs, feeling as physically worn out as I could ever remember being. Taking a shower was nearly torture. Sore muscles complained all over my body. The burns were irritated by the bending and stretching and the sweat. My left hand had cramps, despite heavily favoring it while painting. I ended up laying in the tub, letting the water fall onto me, panting.
Clean, but still sore, I sat on my bed very gingerly and smiled at my victory.
I might have died down there, but the garage can't hurt me. What happened, happened, but it isn't a concern anymore. Some day, it will be like it never happened.
I laid back carefully, sparing my back and sides, relaxing into the mattress. I grinned in triumph and groaned in relief.
I was too tired to even think of anything to occupy my mind as I quickly drifted to sleep.
The smell of paint and shampoo faded, replaced by the nauseating reek of gasoline. I felt my stomach fall in anticipatory dread and fear.
I could only watch as I pumped the pedal once, then moved the Styx medallion aside so that I could grasp and turn the ignition key.
The engine turned for several seconds, almost catching, but not quite. The smell of gas grew stronger.
"Yeah. Old Chevy," Dad started.
I leaned across the sizable hump between the front seats, knowing that I would be unable to open the hatch cover. I pulled and yanked, afraid I might tear it off. The van was shaking from my efforts.
"Don't break it off. I tried. It's stuck good. Try to start it one more time, then we get that clasp fixed so we can get to the engine decently. Go ahead and try starting it again."
"At least you know I ain't even started it," I answered with a sly grin.
I didn't feel like grinning. I felt like screaming "Get the hell out of here!" and running for my life, but there was nothing I could do. I was fated to relive it again and again.
He peeked around the hood at me with a grin.
I thought, Don't stand there smiling at me! RUN!
Despite my best efforts, I turned the key again. The engine turned over, barely beginning to catch. Dad called for another pump of the accelerator. Knowing that it was the final doom, I watched as I pushed and released the accelerator. The engine turned faster, then caught with a pop. I tried to close my eyes as tightly as I could, knowing what was about to happen and completely unable to stop it. Another, louder pop, then an even louder "whoom!" as there was a bright, orange light, and I was knocked against the van door, my sore temple striking the pillar.
Things went fuzzy, and wobbly, and blurred, all at the same time. I heard my dad yelling my name. The engine cover was gone and flames rose toward the dashboard. My eyes closed instinctively against the heat and smoke. I could feel the heat of the fire on my right side. I choked on the odors of burning carpet, oil, rubber, and plastic.
I reached for the key, fumbled with the Styx medallion, and killed the engine. The flames still raged, even seemed to grow larger, and started burning the black shag carpet on the lower half of the dashboard less than a foot from me. Flames now reached to the height of my face. Thick, black smoke was curled up the windshield and rolled over my head.
I opened the driver's door, but it hit the wall of the garage after a mere six or seven inches. My lungs began rejecting the air they drew in, making me cough uncontrollably. I couldn't keep my eyes open against the smoke and heat, let alone breathe it.
I heard my dad calling my name again. I tried to call back, but I began a horrible coughing fit. I rolled the window down to get fresh air from outside the van, but the crank came off in my hand. The smoke increased and billowed out of the partially open window, still choking me. I slid as far from the blazing engine and dash as I could, pressing myself against the partially open door, shoving my face out the partially open window in an effort to find air.
The coughing became constant and painful. Each inhalation burned terribly, the chemicals, burning ashes, and heated air triggering uncontrollable and gut-wrenching coughs.
I tried to make my lungs work, to draw in and take what oxygen they could from the smoke, but they refused. My heart's efforts doubled. I pushed my face into the window, no longer caring if the glass broke and I was horribly cut; I only wanted the air. I clawed feebly at the stub where the crank had broken off, knowing that I could never turn the spindle, but trying anyway.
A loud bang startled me.
It didn't belong. I was dying, not wanting to. I wanted to stay alive and be with Jeff, now that it was possible. But the sound, it was all wrong.
There it was again. And the fire and the heat were gone, though I was still very warm and sweaty. I coughed.
It hurt, as usual, but I was breathing. I needed to clear my throat, but I was breathing.
And that sound that didn't belong at the edge of death came again.
I opened my eyes. I was in my room, on my bed. I sat up. I coughed more.
The noise yet again. It came from the wall. With a groan at my stiff and sore muscles, I leaned toward the window to see outside. Tom was standing in the yard with another small snowball ready to throw. He flung both arms out wide when he saw me.
I waved him toward the house and started downstairs before I realized that I was completely naked.
Yeah, good idea, answering the door for Tom totally naked. Real good idea, I chided myself.
I shook my head and returned to my room where I pulled on jeans and a shirt - despite complaining muscles - before heading downstairs.
"Didn't mean to interrupt a good time," he said with a leer.
"Good time?" I asked.
"You could at least zip up before you came down," he said while pointing.
"I wasn't bopping the bishop," I said defensively as I zipped up. "I was - oh, fuck!"
"No, you did not just do that," Tom said slowly, grinning and holding a hand over his glasses.
I nodded, the grimace on my face frozen in pain.
"Excuse me a moment," I said softly, taking baby steps toward the bathroom.
The pain was excruciating. My mind's eye was filled by a horrible vision.
In the bathroom I tried to wiggle the zipper in some way that would allow it to return to the down position without excruciating pain. Each time I tried I only succeeded in causing myself to whimper sharply.
"Can I help?" Tom asked from the doorway.
"Dude. I don't know what to do. I got a big chunk of hair in it."
"Just hair?" he asked, trying not to laugh now.
"Oh, ha-ha. It is to laugh," I said bitterly.
"Oh, please. Tell me if this was reversed, you wouldn't be standing here trying not to laugh!"
I laughed, knowing he was right, and wishing that were indeed the case.
I had to agree. The situation was bad enough, but I suddenly saw how it could have been much worse.
"You thought it was my dick?" I asked in horror.
He nodded, laughing out loud now.
"Yeah. I mean, the way you jumped and shit."
I shook my head and cursed a string of words that would have made a seasoned sailor blush.
"Hang on," Tom said, then turned away.
What the hell is he up to? I'm stuck here with my pubes in my zipper and he says hang on?
I continued trying to move the zipper without scalping my groin, to no avail.
He returned after a minute with a pair of scissors snapping loudly in his hand and wearing an evil grin. I cocked one eyebrow in concern as he went down to one knee in front of me.
His free hand opened the button on my zipper and then helped me hold the jeans from moving and pulling on my hair. With his other hand, he very carefully placed the scissors between my skin and the jeans, pointing downward. I grabbed his hand.
"Knight, how about turning the scissors sideways? Huh? In case? I'm already circumcised and I don't want you slipping and turning me into a eunuch."
He laughed and rotated the threatening device.
I couldn't watch.
I did notice that his hand was holding the jeans in a way that put the nearby meaty object directly into his palm. He also seemed to be taking far longer than he needed to. However, I was not about to rush him.
Finally I heard the sound of the blades sliding along each other and severing hair. I felt the slight pulling sensations; slightly painful, but more relieving.
"There," Tom said, his hand releasing my jeans.
I looked down and gingerly moved my jeans. There were still a very few hairs caught, but they either broke or pulled free quickly. I gingerly let the jeans slide downward. I bent over to see if the missing hair would be noticeable. I saw nothing different. I stepped out of the jeans and examined the zipper and the hairs caught there. There weren't many, and Tom had managed to cut them very close to the zipper.
"Man! Thanks!" I said in extreme relief.
Tom was still on his knee in front of me.
"Hey, while you're down there," I said, laughing.
He laughed, but I saw there was something on his mind that was very serious. I knew what it would be.
"Don't tempt me," he said quietly, standing, blushing, turning away.
I suddenly felt like a complete heel. I jerked up my jeans, without zipping them this time.
"Come on, I'll get in some other pants while you roll us a doobie. I fucking need one for sure, now!"
Tom didn't say anything as we went upstairs. Panting from the exertion, I walked to my dresser and picked out another pair of jeans. I felt self-conscious being naked in front of Tom, even though we had many times changed in front of each other without a thought, other than watching and often making grabs at each other. More than once an innocent change of clothes had led to hand-jobs or blow-jobs between us.
I thought of those changes as I slipped into briefs, jeans, and shirt. I finally turned around to see Tom looking at me. He literally jumped. He closed the box and held up the freshly rolled joint with a small smile.
"At least you missed the willy," he said with a wider smile.
I did not miss the fact that he had been watching me. I ignored it though.
So what if he was. I would, if things were reversed, I thought.
He lit the joint and inhaled deeply.
As I took my hit, he asked, "So, if you wasn't whackin' the weasel, what were you doing?"
I wondered if I should tell him the truth or not. I was sure that if I told him that I had started having dreams reliving the van fire, he would make a big deal out of it, and I didn't want to even discuss them, let alone put up with Tom on the subject.
"Well?" Tom prodded, taking the joint from me.
"I was dozin' off," I said simply.
He laughed, then said, "Never heard it called that before."
I laughed. "Dude. Honest. I was sleeping, is all."
"Sure," he said with another laugh. "Since when d'ya sweat when you're asleep?"
Crap! He's got me there. I'm soaked from that dream. Shit!
I noticed his change in expression, knowing that it meant he was seeing my gears turning as well.
"Okay, fine. I just finished painting the garage. I was a good boy today. Okay? This isn't sweat, it's a shower."
That was brilliant! Why didn't I think of that sooner?
"Really?" he droned out slowly. "You mean painting your ceiling, don't ya?" with a slight grin.
"I knew you was coming over, ya think I was pullin' the pud now? I had all day," I answered, daring him to fault my logic.
Obviously settling, he said, "You should call Mister Broft. I forgot to remind ya to call him yesterday."
Oh, shit! Mr. Broft hasn't seen or heard from me since before the accident. He probably thinks I don't want to work for him anymore. No, wait, Tom said he talked to him. Good ol' Tom, my knight in white linen. Always watching out for me.
After the joint, I dialed the number for the hobby shop. He was glad to hear from me and asked the expected questions. He said he was getting along, and he was waiting for me before he hired anyone else. He wanted to talk to my parents before I went to work for him, and he asked if he could call them that night. I told him I was expected to be released for full gym activities the next week, but he still wanted to speak to my parents. I told him I was doing well and had even painted the inside of the garage today. He still wanted to speak to my parents. I agreed and told him what time to call.
"How ya gonna get your folks to let ya work there?"
"Dunno. Yet. Gotta work on it."
"Got about an hour."
I worked on it between video games with Tom. When mom called up that dinner was ready, Tom asked if I was.
"No. Guess I'll have to wing it."
"Fucking luck, man," he said with a laugh.
"Yeah, fuck you too," I said as we headed downstairs.
I walked down the stairs very slowly, making sure that I wouldn't be winded when I joined Mom and Dad for dinner after seeing Tom out the front door.
During dinner, I eventually brought up the topic of not coming home from school every day if I found something to do. It was agreed that I was allowed to be out and about without informing them of my every move, so long as I was home by dinner. Dad even went as far as to say that when I had a car, it would be fine if I wasn't home before dinner, but if I missed it without calling they would take steps to assure that I would not be able to do so again for some time.
I asked, "Does that count for my job, too?"
"What job?" I got from both sides at the same time.
Ster-e-o, I thought with an internal grin.
"The hobby shop downtown. He's looking for someone to do stocking and pricing and stuff. For now. Heavier stuff when the doc says it's okay."
I mentioned it as matter-of-fact as I could, keeping eyes on their reactions. Mom seemed worried, Dad simply surprised a little. I waited. It was Mom.
"I don't think you need to be worrying about a job right now," she said.
"How would you get there?" Dad asked.
"Bike. It's between here and school. No problem."
He laughed, and she looked a bit angry at both of us.
Mom said firmly, "I don't want you out riding your bike around all that traffic. Certainly not in the winter!"
This wasn't going to be easy, I knew.
"But he needs somebody and I can do the stuff. And I love the place. I spend all kinds of time there."
"In the summer," Mom reminded me. "This time of year, I doubt you go there very often by bike!"
She did have me there. Then Dad backed her up.
"Son, there is no way you're ready to get a job. No car, and your health is more important anyway."
I had the usual reaction to such parental news. It was ignored. I was denied.
"He's calling tonight."
"Alex Raymond," mom said in surprise.
"He said he'd need your permission. Minor and that. But he wanted to talk to you anyway, age or not."
"Well, at least he sounds like a reasonable man," Dad said. "We'll talk to him tonight, then. And we'll talk about this later."
Mom seemed surprised, even more than I was. I was fairly quiet for the rest of dinner and managed to finish most of it. She seemed intent on getting rid of everything she had cooked by heaping more than usual onto my plate.
As usual, Tom returned after dinner, and we spent the evening playing Atari, getting high, listening to music, and watching television. Tom rang up a new high score on Asteroids, knocking my last high score off the list. He threw me his "See? Who's the boss? Fuck you" grin, to which I replied with a one-fingered salute. I then lit a congratulatory joint.
At seven o'clock, my phone rang. I was surprised to hear Cooley Black on the other end. Dan Richter and Marcus Dolby were in the background.
"Heard you was back home and wanted to say hi. See when you were comin' back to school, how you're doin'."
I felt great that they called. The call was short, mostly just a few questions from Cooley and answers from me. It lasted less than five minutes and left me with a grin I couldn't stop. It was a great feeling to have friends call and check on me.
Tom went home at the usual ten o'clock. Mom redid my bandages and I took the appropriate pills, minus the little yellow one for anxiety and the sleeping pill.
They had liked their talk with Mr. Broft. They expected it would be fine to go to work for him, once I was better and could get to work and then home without riding my bike through winter weather.
I was in no mood to argue the point, and was happy enough that I had gotten the topic started. I was willing to put further efforts on hold for a while as I wasn't nearly able to go to work yet anyway. The garage wasn't mentioned, but dad had pulled the car in. It was dark by then, so maybe they hadn't noticed.
I got ready for bed, stretched out, and started reading. The last thing I wanted to do was sleep a lot. I wanted to sleep as little as possible, giving the dream of dying as few chances to appear as possible. I had hoped that painting the garage would banish the dreams, but falling asleep had proved that wrong. I hoped to stay awake well into the night, eventually falling too deeply asleep to dream.
I made it well past the late night movie, Planet of the Apes, before the smell of gas returned.
I felt my stomach fall in anticipatory dread and fear.
The coughing became constant and painful. Each inhalation burned terribly, the chemicals, burning ashes, and heated air triggering uncontrollable and gut-wrenching coughs.
Can't breathe! Trapped!
I felt the heat of the fire singeing my skin through my clothing. Images of my charred and smoking body being pulled from the van by firemen, my grieving parents held back by police, ran in my head. I clawed at the window, knowing that even if I broke the glass and tried climbing out that I would only get my head out before hitting the wall, and only end up cutting myself horribly. I knew it was no use.
Real panic began to set in, forcing reason and rational thought to flee. I pushed the door with my shoulder, but it was as far open as it could get. I knew there was no way out to my right, not with the fire above the engine growing hotter and closer. Flames were also spreading across the thickly upholstered dashboard, the carpet near the engine bay between the front seats, the material of the overhead, and the hanging curtains just behind both seats. The flames were traveling across the bottom of the dashboard, and multiple, flaming drops of it were falling onto my jeans, melting through them, and then into my legs. The pain was excruciating, but I couldn't get my legs away from the falling drops of fire without putting them into the raging fire on the engine.
Not only was the air full of burning particles and ashes, it was hot, and toxic with fumes and chemicals. I tried to make my lungs work, to draw in and take what oxygen they could from the smoke, but they refused. My heart's efforts doubled. I pushed my face into the window, no longer caring if the glass broke and I was horribly cut; I only wanted the air. I clawed feebly at the stub where the crank had broken off, knowing that I could never turn the spindle, but trying anyway.
The pain in my temple flared with each cough. I felt the familiar dizziness come, and knew I was about to lose consciousness.
And somehow, my own thoughts were to blame it on God, worry about not being with Toby in the afterlife, how unfair it was that now Jeff and I were going to be a couple, I was going to die instead.
The heat of the fire, the pain of my skin burning on my right side and back, the pain as flaming drops of carpeted dashboard burned through my jeans and into my legs, the pain of my lungs filled with toxins and chemicals and hot ashes, the horrible suffocation.
The pains, the smells, and even my vision all began to fade, and I knew that I was dying. Again.
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