By the mid 1990's the struggle of life’s journey had taken a toll on almost everything about and around me. Perhaps it was a mid-life crisis or perhaps it was a calling but I was heading to the dark continent called Africa. I had stuffed my life into one of those modern backpacks and was ready to go.
It had taken six months to prepare. My two brothers, who were also my business partners, seemed supportive enough so I had worked to delegate the duties of my job in such a way that if I didn’t come back it wouldn’t much matter. The rest of the family, friends and relatives were, in varying degrees, rooting me on.
After much anticipation and many tears, I settled into my seat on the evening flight heading East from Toronto, Ontario. When the door of the aircraft closed and I realized that, short of a crash en route, I was fulfilling the commitment I had made to myself to make the trip. Little did I know how impactful this journey would be. I was about to empty the accumulated contents of my life’s vessel over the hills, plains and dusty roads of East Africa and have it refilled with the magic of renewal and awareness that awaited me.
I tell you this not so much because it sets up the story Critical Care but moreover because this was the time I read a wonderful book by John Grisham called A Time To Kill.
The book was good; very good actually. But it was his introduction on the cover that kindled a spark whose ember warmed a thought.
Mr. Grisham tells of how he decided to write his first novel and that it was his wife who said, "Just write one page each day and in a year you will have written a novel.” He did just that, and so have I.
For all of you who have penned a poem or a story or been told that you should write more: keep on writing. One day you may take the advice of Mrs. Grisham and write a book.
I believe much of what we experience comes to us because we are ready for it or because we are vehicles of receipt and delivery of a message. The story, Critical Care, and all of its characters was certainly the case for me. During the process of writing Critical Care I had begun with the kernel of an idea and started typing from there. All else just flowed through me and on to the pages. The story and characters were waiting to be introduced to you through me. I was quite amazed and humbled to meet each character when they revealed their identity and story to me and how they would fit into the novel.
So please, turn the pages and meet them…they and the story they tell are waiting for you. I truly hope you enjoy reading Critical Care. I certainly enjoyed writing it.
Life had seemed so easy for the wealthy and proper Douglas family of Boston until, on a chilly Fall morning, a shocking event changed all of that forever.
Short of the usual family and social challenges, patriarch Peter Douglas had provided for all the material needs of his offspring. His second marriage was joyful, his kids were healthy, the transition of the family corporation was completed and life was good. The family reputation was golden but Peter had yet to realize much was still missing.
Little did he know what awaited him on the other side.
What other side you ask?
You know – the side we dream about and wonder about when something unexplainable happens.
The side we hope may be better when and if we get there.
Peter awakes to a new day. The first day in his new life of discovering that there was more to life than what met his eyes.
His son Brian would take the lead in a race against time on the death clock at his Father's bedside. Could he hold the family and business together? Would he be able to withstand external evil forces that would work against him as he tried desperately be the son his father always wanted him to be?
Would his sisters and Mother be on his side or not?
Was this a test or was it real? You decide…
“Life’s mysteries. What do ya think fella?”
“You love that dog more than me.” His first wife had always accused him. In the end she was right; but that was history, and his new wife seemed too busy most of the time to notice either of them.
Enjoying a morning meal on the sunny deck, he read the business section and the obituaries, while Schebb gnawed on an old slipper. Peter felt the soft fur. He stroked Schebb’s head periodically causing him to look up. Peter adjusted his position to rise. Simultaneously Schebb sat up, wagged his tail, unaware that the vet was awaiting him for his fall check-up and grooming. Many leather seats in Peter’s cars had been scratched from the same struggle that would take place in the vet parking lot today.
Peter cruised out through the gateway of their boulder fence, enjoying the colorful maples that overhung the narrow side road that led from Peter’s secluded neighborhood toward town. He watched Schebb sniff the air then bark out the window when they passed the horse paddocks where the four-legged residents took little notice. Peter scanned the beautiful barns and large yellow house that sat on a small hill overlooking acres of shorn grass where the purebreds ran.
Today, Peter steered the car toward Carl Nathan’s estate.
Peter figured Schebb would have a good run chasing cows and horses, and a swim in Small Pond before he went to the vet in Needham. Schebb rested his head on Peter’s lap; a little head rub rewarded him. Peter tuned the radio to a world news station, put Schebb’s window up halfway and enjoyed the shared time.
Peter frowned while he listened to the news. “Why doesn’t someone invent a good news-only station?” The relaxing head massage continued. “I’ll have to suggest that to Carl about GBC when we see him.” Peter picked through the radio stations and finally settled on soft classics. He massaged his own forehead and temples firmly then squinted, trying to relieve some tension that had built since he got back from his walk.
At sixty-three Peter stayed focused on being a picture of good health. He was proud that his heart had fully recovered from an episode years earlier and he had pledged to keep it that way. He now kept his six-foot-two frame in peak shape. He ate well, worked out and even meditated. He had his drinking well in hand now, adjusted dramatically downward, since his father had died in a car wreck, while under the influence, many years earlier. His thick brown hair was just starting to show some gray. His face belied many years of working and playing very hard.
It had taken a nervous breakdown at forty-four, after losing his Dad, and a minor heart attack in his fifties to get the message through. Once Peter Douglas made his mind up about something though, there was no looking back for himself or those around him. One either bought in or moved on. Most of his friends from the youthful days had moved on or burned out.
Peter enjoyed the resplendent beauty of the leaves in transition. Driving a little faster than normal today on the quiet road, he felt the wind passing smoothly through his car and messing his hair. His mind wandered.
Thoughts of an Asian woman named Choy played a short film in his head. He reflected on his divorce and the conclusion of the transition of his business empire to his first-born son, Brian. He remembered the strain on his family and himself at that time and his decision to pack one bag and board a plane to South East Asia for an indefinite sabbatical.
Choy was then a newly divorced freelance journalist who sat beside him on the plane to Hong Kong. The silence between them was broken only by courteous exchanges for the first two hours of the flight.
It wasn’t until the flight attendant drenched them with two glasses of red wine that the tension turned to humor and then to friendly conversation, which turned to Peter and Choy spending nine months traveling, writing, photographing and generally loving life and each other.
During their time together Choy also exposed Peter to the teaching and knowledge of deep meditation and explored with him the idea of conscious realms beyond ones physical presence. Peter still had her silk blouse and she his white shirt, both bearing the blood-red stain of their first meeting.
Peter felt his face beginning to quiver and then tighten into an uncontrollable grimace. The back of his head exploded with pain. He watched the fall colors ahead melt into a psychedelic whirl. His body stiffened. He drove the accelerator to the floor.
Schebb jumped to his feet and started whimpering at his master. The car accelerated down the open road.
Peter’s arms stiffened like steel rods. His nails shattered when the increased pressure of his grip caused them to break through the covering on the steering wheel. Blood oozed from his cuticles. His jaw clenched powerfully in response to the shock. He ground his teeth tightly, breaking several, mixing enamel slivers with the saliva and blood. His twisted mouth now oozing.
Schebb barked and licked at Peter’s foaming mouth. The wind through the car mingled with Peter’s loud groaning.
The hair on Schebb’s back stood straight. Peter’s head pressed back hard against the rest. His stiffened legs drove his body deeply into the leather upholstery. Muscles and tendons in his hips, shoulders and neck tore under the strain of superhuman effort.
Peter felt utterly out of control, bathed in a wash of pain.
He heard no sound. He now saw color. His reality gone. Now just blackness.
Calves knotted and thighs bulged with the effort his body was generating.
Nose bleeding steadily; tiny, bloody tears ran down his face. Neck, forehead and temples swelled with twisted, bulging veins. The ninety mile-per-hour wind now blew matted hair, sweat and rose-colored foam from his face.
Schebb was suddenly hurled to the floor.
The car launched off the asphalt curb, tore through the guard rail and severed an old sign. Both front tires exploded. The engine revved uncontrollably, free from the resistive pavement.
For a few seconds Peter drifted high above the scene. He watched his car fly several hundred feet out into the open woods before starting its decent into the river. A billow of steamy, greasy, smoke forced its way out from under the hood.
Peter felt calm and detached. He observed this oddity from a painless floating plane well above the calamity.
Schebb was pinned in place. Peter’s body strained up and out against his seat belt and billowing airbag. The force of the exploded bag pushed the air from his lungs, and in a great burst he had expelled fluid from all orifices of his body.
A foamy red spray painted the billowing cloth. Blood was everywhere now.
A great bellow of gas exploded beneath him taking with it a day’s excrement which mixed with a release of urine. The crash of snapping branches echoed through the car. Each took a role in decelerating this forest intruder.
The nose of the car had tipped forward.
The descent continued.
Glass shattered and protruding car parts were ripped away from its body. Each tree imposed its share of punishment.
The car’s dive followed a predetermined arc through the wooded ravine. The engine sizzled when it plunged into the swirling Charles River, the foaming water cushioning the vehicle’s sudden, but soft, landing.
Peter became briefly conscious but then his odd flight above the scene abruptly ended, slamming him back into his unconscious reality.
The slowing effect of the trees, the turbulent water, had spared much of the impact. The swollen river covered most of the rocks which could have been the final resting place for Peter’s car.
After the initial dunking the car bobbed up. It began a journey down river.
Schebb’s eyes bulged and slobber dribbled from his mouth. He gasped for air. Cold water leaked into the car, flooding the floor where he lay. Clambering up onto the seat he licked Peter’s face, nudging him forcefully.
Peter didn’t respond.
A raspy bark echoed in the car.
It filled, accelerating down river toward the waterfall.
Joel, like Peter earlier, eyed the rush of color and sniffed the sweet air while he drove his family through the countryside. He guided his car casually around a curve. Music from the radio entertained his wife and two kids.
Another golden lab was perched in between Joel and his wife. At his first sight of another canine on the road he was jarred when his dog, Amber, barked loudly.
His startled passengers were jolted to attention. Joel felt his nerves fire from a shot of adrenaline being released.
All eyes were now on this dog poised in the middle of the road, staring at the approaching vehicle.
“Daddy, watch out.” Smoke spiraled up from the screaming tires. The car careened to a stop just feet from the dripping lab.
Chaos broke out. The children shrieked. Amber clambered to get out of the window. Joel’s wife beckoned him to pull off the road.
He instinctively pressed the buttons of the power windows to secure the car, which had stalled from the force of the screeching halt.
His heart raced. He stared, wide eyed, while this wet muddy lab barked viciously, then leapt up at his window spewing drool at him. Amber growled and barked near Joel’s ear. The children’s screaming dizzied him. He felt his face sting; sweat breaking out across it.
The car wouldn’t start. The engine seemed dead.
The lab jumped onto the hood of the car continuing to bark and growl, seemingly, at the family.
The panic level inside the vehicle increased.
Joel yelled for his wife and children to get down.
He fumbled with the ignition key.
Amber responded viciously by pressing her muzzle against the inside of the windshield in response to this external enemy. The children wailed. Their mother leaned over the back of the seat trying to calm them. Joel cringed at the noise. His stomach felt sick and impulsively tightened.
Then he saw a blur. A thick leather belt slapped down on the hood of the car. A slice of pain ripped through his chest in response to this gunshot like sound.
The lab yelped then heeled back just missing the swing of the burly, bearded man who yelled at him to get down. Joel, instinctively, glanced in the rear view mirror now filled with a gleaming chrome grill.
“You folks okay?” Joel heard the man yelling through the muddy glass.
Joel looked at him. He felt pale; fear filled, he nodded.
His felt his wife’s grip when she clutched him. The children sobbing quietly in the back brought water to his eyes. Amber growled lowly at the newcomer over Joel’s shoulder.
“I’ll take care of the mutt.”
From the back of his pants, the man drew a small, silver hand gun then aimed it at the lab who had retreated down the road. The dog flew over the wooden guard rail when a bullet ricocheted into the trees. His barking seemed to taunt the bearded truck driver. A second shot seemed to narrowly miss him, ripping through an overhanging branch. Horns honked when two cars from the opposite direction screeched to a halt. A man jumped out. The trucker stood tall, unmoved.
“Are you looking for it?”
“Looking for what?”
“There’s been a crash back there. A car must be down in the river.”
The trucker ran for his cab.
“Breaker, breaker, this is The Bearded One, does anybody copy?”
“Copy that, this is Snake. What’s goin’ on Fuzzy?”
“I’m just south of Needham at the Mill Street bridge. I think we got a serious accident on our hands. At least one vehicle over the edge, likely down in the Charles River. I gotta dog here, barkin’ like crazy. I bet people’s hurt. Get us some help. ”
“Roger that. I’ll make the call.”
The Bearded One made a quick beeline toward Joel’s car. The electric window went down. Joel stared. The trucker made a quick apology for their scare.
“You folks best get the kids outta here. I’ll take care of this. I think there’s been an accident down the road aways. Could be a car in the river. It won’t be pretty.”
“My car won’t start.”
Joel watched the trucker eye the red lights of the dash, then the console. His long arm reached a gloved hand through the window, over Joel, then slip the gear shift into park. Joel frowned. He felt his face redden.
The engine came to life.
Joel looked back.
The red plaid shirt of the gun-toting trucker was gone.
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