Chapter 10: Precognition
What value in knowing the outcome of a game that one cannot play?
Elisa has decided the answer to the question is nothing, nil, no value. Yet, she’s conflicted because she knows another answer as well which tends to negate her conclusion. Her brother will free her from this place, and that thought has given her great comfort over the years.
When she was young, she once saw a train pass by with its grand railcars and smoking engine and thought that’s us. All of us passengers on a train and we’re looking out the window, seeing the bits of landscape go by, and then trying to remember all we’ve seen while all these new bits to see pile up. But, she thought, my window is bigger, that’s all. I can see further forward than all the other passengers.
It’s close, and good enough for a little girl trapped in a body in a house where mom seems to cry too much and brother is always some shade of black and blue. She’s since likened the present time to a puzzle. Or, more accurately, infinite puzzles zooming into existence one right on after another. The only thing is she sees some of the pieces before the rest of the world, pieces of what’s to come are revealed to her before the puzzle itself has come together.
The puzzles of today are finally coming together, and she knows the look of one big piece. So although the nurse feeding her is jamming a cheap plastic spoon hard into Elisa’s mouth (as she does every Monday), Elisa isn’t feeling any pain. She’s seen today’s puzzle piece for years.
And when it falls into place, she will be free. What next? A cliff in Wyoming; the end of something for someone who can see all, whatever that means; three people both like and unlike her, odd in that they’re all different, and yet in their oddity are all the same. Excepting that third someone. A someone so unlike them in the magnitude of her self, but she’ll need help.
And that is all very interesting, and Elisa wants very much to discover the entirety of what that day holds, but first, she wants to see as far as her real eyes can see. The thing which irritates Elisa most about this building and this body in which she is trapped—besides of course their very existence—isn’t the smell or the unchanging fluorescent tint of the lights or even the fact that they’ve never bothered to give her a single book in all these years (and why would they, no one, not even her brother, believes she can read a whit), no the thing which bothers her to no end is the strangling closeness of this place.
White cement blocks stacked upon each other, every bit of the place an altar to the minimal. Breakfast of minimal nutrient slop, then through the minimally wide hallway to fit her wheelchair until it rolls into a minimally spaced lobby for the other minimal folk trapped here, either gathered around a tiny TV with rabbit ears which only picks up one channel or sat by a waist high window with a view of an alleyway, then to the twin bed with its thin mattress upon which they lay her every night, and this gives her a view of the ceiling, built, inescapably, to the minimum required height.
And then, in the close blackness she tries to remember the field mom first sat her in, with its great tree named Henry. Dad went to work in his tractor in that field and every night Elisa tries to remember the expanse of it, the sun making her squint to see the far distance, the wind on her arms and the cut-hay smell and just when she thinks she’ll get it swirling vertigo sets on her mind forcing her to open her eyes and takes a breath and there’s black and the air-exchanger moving air which should be still and the faint smell of excrement.
The nurse jams the spoon into Elisa’s mouth and Elisa wants to shout “hey, if you don’t stop slamming that spoon down my throat I’ll tell you what day you will die and how it will happen,” but all that comes out is, “happen,” as Elisa shakily raises her hand in protest.
“What you tryna say?” the nurse says, “’happy?’ You ain’t got nothing to be happy about. Now shut up and swallow.”
Elisa swallows, happy, she’s finally come to admit to herself, in the knowledge that on the 15th of April, 2019, this cruel woman will attempt to cut off a semi-trailer on the highway and be pulverized by tons of metal moving at an incredible speed for the mistake. You’d be happy too, if this woman had been violently shoving that spoon into your immobile mouth every Monday for nearly a decade.
She can move, sure. Moves like a stutter. Like there’s a blip of nerve saying to the muscle ‘go’ and then it does and then the nerve gets distracted and the muscle fails. Same way with speech. One, extremely fought for word. Then, possibly another if the planets line up just right, or whatever’s going on in there. She tries so hard to make sense, but this is impossible when everyone long ago agreed it was all nonsense.
Everyone agrees the word for it is ‘Rett,’ but Elisa has decided the best word for her condition is ‘disconnect,’ or possibly ‘misconnect.’ Something somewhere in her brain is disconnected or misconnected from the rest of her. Her mouth doesn’t want to say what her brain tells it to say, and her limbs won’t move quite the way she directs them. No one seems to know she’s not disabled in the classic sense, just disconnected. She doesn’t fault the doctors or the nurses. She did at first, she was in fact murderous in her anger at them (though she could not commit a murder any more than she could properly feed herself) for being so incompetent in their chosen profession. But the realization came to her that the structure of her brain must deviate so far from the norm is some fundamental way, some unrecognizable way, as to relieve the various health workers who had seen to her from any culpability in their failure.
If an extraterrestrial came down to earth, miraculously entered her room, and say this being is nonorganic, say it eats gamma radiation for breakfast and feels most at home in the empty vacuum of space, say that this thing could see time itself and that this relationship with time was the sole characteristic of it and her which could be remotely considered similar, say this space-fellow came into her room and told Elisa in his space language that he had an upset tummy and needed her help. Could she be blamed for failing to assist? For failing even to understand his plea? No, she would be blameless even as the fellow expired on the tile floor. Poof! No more adventures for him, or, Elisa supposes, for it. And so Elisa is no longer angry at the professionals who have placed her in this trap. None of them crafted it, and none of them possess the key to it.
The nurse pulls the final spoonful of tasteless mush from Elisa’s mouth. Elisa literally cannot express her joy at the finality of this meal, at the end of this moment. She tries her best to live in the moment because the past is so hard and the future so discombobulated. But must admit the happiness she feels now at least partly is due to the fact that she knows that by lunchtime she’ll be free. Her present moments, all of them, are tinted by the future. Elisa knows she can never truly live in the present, but that doesn’t stop her from trying.
Elisa watches the nurse rise slowly, carefully from her chair due to her enormous girth and turn to the sink to wash up. What’s that saying? See the nurse of enormous girth, on its back it holds the earth. Where’d she read that?
What if I hadn’t seen this day’s big puzzle piece? I’d have lost my mind on the very first one.
July 17, 1991. Her eighteenth birthday, the day of her emancipation from her parents’ care, or more likely an emancipation of her parents from the legal duty to provide care to their profoundly disabled daughter. Neither of them would admit happiness at the event outright; however, Elisa could decipher the undercurrent truth. Mom, elated because she was convinced she’d be free to run away from dad (though Elisa knew mom would never be free of that man until death, for she was in an equally powerful and miserable trap as Elisa herself). Dad, because the taxpayers of the State of Kansas would foot the bill for Elisa’s care from this year forward, freeing up his own cash for more expensive whiskey, or at least less-cheap, and more of it.
By her eighteenth, Elisa had grown bored of that particular future bit, she’d seen it, grieved it, moved on. Perhaps she’d have feared the day more adequately if she’d also seen the bit of future that involved no books. She’d foolishly expected a nurse to prop one on her lap as mother had, to flip the page ever so often because it made Elisa ‘seem happy.’ But Elisa was still afraid that day, for her foresight did not cause her to lose her status as a victim to the present, as everyone is. And Elisa was perhaps afraid on that day more than any other, for she makes more effort than anyone to remind herself that the present matters most. So, Elisa found herself sad. Her face was wet from something she supposed resembled real crying.
Howard took leave to come see her, because by that time in his career he could take advantage of such privileges, and because he wanted make a final case as to why Elisa should stay on the farm. She sat in her blank room (formerly that of her brother) and listened to him, in the living room, plead with mom and dad, begging them to reconsider. He even offered to send some of his soldier-pay home. But Elisa knew this conversation was doomed from the start, and so after a half hour of three loud voices echoing off the walls, the door opened and Howard entered her room.
“You look pretty today.”
Elisa tried to come up with the words but found none. No one ever told her this. Elisa did not believe she was pretty, at least not like those beauties on television, but she thought she might pass for above-average, if only she could muster a proper smile.
“Let’s go to that old tree,” Howard said. Howard leaned down and looked into her eyes, trying to find intelligence and Elisa wanted so badly to shout ‘Yes! I’m in here! Damnit my brain works mostly it just can’t get unstuck from this god forsaken body!’
“Are you in there?” he asked.
She’d do it. She’d will that fucking word ‘yes’ out. That or the future she’d already seen. Y-E-S. Three letters formed to state the affirmative, three letters in a single syllable word which signals understanding and compliance. I will say ‘yes,’ yes I am stuck in here.
She opened her mouth and “stuck” escaped the damn thing.
“Stuck? Stuck…yeah stuck. That’s about as good a way to describe it as any.” Howard chuckled, “you’ve really got a way with words. But ‘stuck’ doesn’t really answer the question, does it? Not in any way mom or dad will believe. Let’s go.”
Howard wheeled Elisa out the door and as far through the yard he could until the ground became too rough for her chair. Then he lifted her onto his right shoulder and carried her like a feed sack, and with his other hand he pulled the chair on past the yard, through the gate and up a great hill on the property, at least a great hill by Olathe standards. At the top of this hill, surrounded on all sides by short scrub brush and pasture forage, stood Henry, a tower of a cottonwood tree which had no business growing at the top of this hill or any hill for that matter. Cottonwood is a water-loving species and must live near a riverbed or other low-lying water source to have a chance. Yet Henry was the tallest cottonwood any Jacobson had ever seen, he’d been standing here since before great-grandpa Jacobson made his claim to this patch of land. This was Henry’s land before it belonged to any man, and still Henry rose from the earth in this dry spot where not even the Bermuda grass can survive the long summer. So under defiant, indefatigable Henry, Howard sat Elisa back down in her wheelchair.
She wished to say, ‘this is my favorite place. Right here,’ but knew if she managed a word it would be the wrong one, so she was silent.
From here in Henry’s shade Elisa had always come up with her best stories. Once, a man on horseback fled across this pasture, he with a gritty determination and a trusty pair of six-shooters, chasing after hooting Indians with bones tied into their hair. They had scalped the town’s preacher, and the gunslinger was determined to avenge their crimes. The wildest of these Indians, shirtless and redder than the reddest earth, turned to ride his painted pony backwards. He took aim and loosed an arrow which pierced our gunslinger’s heart, killing him instantly. Elisa thought the Indians deserved a win.
Once, a great black dragon with wings as large as the house and teeth the size of a man breathed fire across the land, threatening all who dared to stand in his path. Elisa, having been magically healed of her paralysis, clad in shining armor and armed with an enchanted blade, fought back the beast until it succumbed to her final flurry of blows. She stood over the mighty creature now slain and the world was safe.
But that day no adventurers roamed this field. That day was just a clammy-hand day. Elisa could conjure no story here. They sat quiet for a long time until Howard said, “I’ll get you out. I decided I don’t care whether you’ve got any mind in there or not, though I think you do. You deserve better than getting shipped off because…well hell I don’t know exactly. Maybe just because you’re my sis, maybe because you haven’t done anything wrong, but then I guess you can’t do anything right either, seeing as how you can’t do anything at all. It’s more about how we ought to be acting, rather than what you’ve been doing.” Howard bent and studied Elisa’s eyes. “If you’re in there, just know I’m out here trying.”
Elisa’s nurse rolls her into the common area, stops her at a wooden table with three other disabled people stooped around a jumbled puzzle. None of these have the mental faculties of a three year old, yet Elisa is assumed to be the most disabled here. On her worst days Elisa feels her sanity stretched thin by this reality. Today’s date struggles against the pull of these other days, helps her keep it together. Like a happy memory that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s a rubber duck in a bathtub. That’s the puzzle. Her foresight isn’t the reason she knows this, but that the thing consists of six pieces is a big help cemented by the added fact that they’ve been working on this same puzzle every second Monday of the month over the last six. How strange that she can see bits of the future, yet her past is so ordered, her existence so strictly patterned that the concept of time itself muddles.
When she ponders her concept of time, like a word repeated over and over, it starts to lose meaning. Is today really today? Yesterday or tomorrow? Second Monday because they’re doing the duck one, but which second? Maybe she’s remembering it wrong, maybe it’s Monday the second of the month. Maybe it’s the second Monday on every second month. Maybe they’ve only done this puzzle once a year and this is the second year I’ve been here. If one can have an imperfect memory, can she have an imperfect sight? She’s got it all switched and the things she think will happen have already happened and the duck puzzle Monday memory is actually the duck puzzle Monday prediction.
That’s when she looks at the calendar. All those little red x’s signaling all those days bested by time, those red x’s don’t lie. This day, forever a future, is now a present and will soon be a past. May 27, 2015.
This day will always stand out because they’re here. Presently. The tricky one named Calvin who will give (now had given) her brother a red envelope with an address on it. The rich preacher Tabitha who will bribe the administrator here. But why will the preacher pay such a large sum to free a stranger? Had she believed Howard’s tale, that there was something special (and not in the pleasant way of saying disabled) about his sister? A possible piece, after all Calvin went with him to this preacher. Or is it some kind of moral decision? The preacher, after spending years becoming rich through exploitation of that dread of the unknowable future by offering in its place hope—in truth a fraudulent and expensive lie—now seeks to atone by freeing one who actually knows that unknown. What is the nature of that puzzle piece Tabitha has seen but Elisa has not. Elisa cannot wait until it is revealed to her.
The funny part of this is, she thinks, is that the nature of the piece Elisa does not know—this preacher’s motivation—is already known by her brother. She, the one who sees the future, beat to knowledge, in this case by her big brother.
Now here’s the nurse, her familiar scowl replaced with confusion. Goodbye fellow inmates, goodbye common area, goodbye little television, goodbye white walls, goodbye narrow hallway, goodbye nurse, I hope—scratch that—I know I’ll never see you again.
Now outside. Now one hundred feet in the distance her brother and the other two. After all the close-proximity years, one hundred feet feels like one million and Elisa loves it. Let’s make it two million, just for her. She doesn’t tilt her head up to see the sky for it’s that far off white-blue horizon she’s happiest to see. She always knew it was out there, but doubts had begun to creep. She’s thrilled for a visual confirmation, seeing is believing after all.
The nurse reaches the end of the sidewalk. “Howard,” she says.
“Ophelia,” Howard answers.
Then Elisa’s chair shifts slightly as Ophelia releases the wheelchair’s handles. Elisa can hear her footsteps, quieter and quieter. This is freedom, and so Elisa is blissful in her stillness, she’s content to simply breathe. She’s exhilarated to simply float in her own spot of the universe, to simply exist in this small present.
“Tabitha, Calvin,” Howard says, “this is Elisa.”
“Nice to meet you, Elisa,” Tabitha says and Elisa is embarrassed at her lack of response. She wants to say, wonderful to meet you. And after a few more niceties ask why? Why are you here? And then see that puzzle piece fall into place.
Instead, Howard says, “let’s go for a stroll.”
Okay. A lazy stroll is fine with Elisa. But not too long, she wants to find out why Tabitha has come. Elisa wants to ask, but since she can’t she settles for hope that she’ll go ahead and say. A few minutes around the area and Elisa spots a young poplar growing in an empty lot. No Henry, but good enough for Elisa. Henry will have to wait for now. Of course Howard sees it as well.
“There,” Howard says and wheels her over to it. The lot is sandwiched between two WWII era houses on a quiet street.
“Why here?” Tabitha asks.
“She likes it here, I think. If it doesn’t go well, then I guess at least she’ll have the view.
“I’m telling you, it’s not going to go at all.”
“Why else would Elly have gotten you here?”
I got her here? What? What! Tell me! Tabitha pays them off, now she’s supposed to tell me why. Elisa knows this telling, this motivation reveal, is a construction of her own devise—as a logical progression—because she hadn’t ever actually seen that piece. You think you see green on one half of a piece, bright blue on the other, must be sky right?
“Here,” is what Elisa says.
“See, she knows!” Howard says.
“I’m only saying, I’ll take a look. But don’t get your hopes up.”
“Hopes are sufficiently low. Please.” Howard says.
“Okay,” Tabitha says and kneels to Elisa’s side.
What are you doing? This was not in the plan, no this was not at all part of the plan. Surely Howard doesn’t want this woman to hurt her, of course not, yet the stranger is reaching for her. This stranger’s intentions are entirely unclear and unpredictable, and so Elisa is struck by fear of time for the first time in a long, long time.
No, no I do not consent to this touching. Explain the procedure. But Elisa mutters none of these words, save “touch.” Come on, not that one. No, say No! Elisa tries to pull away but doesn’t move a muscle. Tabitha’s hands are on her forehead now. Elisa braces for some pain from her touch but none comes. Only the warmth of her palms until Tabitha releases her.
What was that all about?
“Well?” Howard asks.
“It’s not good. But it’s not genetic either.”
“What do you mean? What is it?”
“Injury at the base of her skull. Nerves, uh, severed I guess is the word. I don’t know how they—“
“Dad did this.” Howard clenches his jaw and his face goes red. Anger washes over him and he begins to pace. “I’ll kill him. I can’t believe mom didn’t know. I mean she had to know, I mean she, she helped him. She had to have lied, she had to have known I mean there’d have been a bruise and to lie all this fucking time and act like I was the crazy one and—“
Tabitha reaches for Elisa again. Elisa can’t remember the last time she saw dad, the fucker. He did this then. And not to remember the event. How odd, to see pieces of the future and pieces of the past. Why not see all the past? Only makes sense that a future-seer ought to have perfect memory. But would it have done her any good to know the cause of her…severed situation? No, Elisa thinks the opposite in fact is true, and then she thinks severed, what a grand word for it. I should have thought of it myself. I should kick myself. What a swell severed day, she thinks, wishing it could have been Sunday.
But then Tabitha falls from the side of the chair and slumps over on the ground.
“Is she okay?” Elisa says—and those are the words she wishes to say and they are the said words—and then she gasps.
This is connection. Re-connected after too long disconnected. Un-severed, after too long severed. Elisa smiles like she’d never lost it.
“I’m fine. I’m okay,” Tabitha says and sits up cross-legged. “Always hurts to do it.”
“Thank you, I don’t really think expresses it. But thank you.” Elisa runs her tongue along her front teeth. Wow. So that’s a tongue. Hello tongue, nice to meet you. She flexes her arm and it moves. So that’s a muscle doing what it’s supposed to. She hadn’t seen this coming, and she starts to laugh but then remembers her fear and turns to Howard, “why didn’t you tell me what was happening?”
“Huh? I thought you knew. Can’t you predict what’s going to happen?”
“Some of the times, sometimes.”
“How much? Calvin asks.
“Well, enough I guess, seeing as I’m out of there. I saw you, and I saw Tabitha bribing my way out, but I didn’t see this. Funny, isn’t it? Seems like this would be a pretty important part. I can’t control it, that’s the thing. So it kind of lies in a way.”
“Like remembering something wrong,” Calvin says and nods.
“That’s close to it. Can we go for a walk? Like, a real one?”
“I’d like that,” Howard says.
Elisa stands and she feels both new and old, weak yet stronger than ever. Tabitha sits with her back against the tree, removes a gigantic candy bar from her purse and takes a lazy bite. “I’m staying here,” she says. “Need to rest.”
Calvin sits next to her, “I’ll keep you company.”
Elisa takes a few clumsy steps, “you’ll have to help me along,” she says to Howard.
“Sure,” he says.
Elisa and Howard walk together, not far, only a few times around the lot. They listen to the wind and watch the distant sky and Elisa foretells of the dragon to be born which will first flare its fiery breath from a little known cliff in Wyoming.
The drive from Boston to Wyoming is a simple one on paper. Take I-90 west through New York, then cross the tip of Pennsylvania, all the way to Ohio, right south of the great lakes. Hit Indiana, switch to I-80 west and keep on that single stretch of highway through the great breadbasket of America. Iowa through Des Moines on to Omaha, Nebraska until, finally, Wyoming.