Bill Wake’s clothes fluttered in the wake of cars and trucks as they sped past. Sometimes drivers honked their horns. The sound beleaguered him for only a moment before trailing off into a droning moan. Occasionally someone shouted out an open window. The muffled syllables drifted down the highway and away from him. Occasionally, at intersections, people would yell out obscenities and various indignant terms. He heard their voices – usually male and usually only a few octaves past adolescence – call out words such as “rag head” or “terrorist,” but these vacant sounds didn’t faze him; they were just empty syllables and nothing more.
He ignored the cars as he walked. He ignored their sounds. He ignored the voices. He tried to ignore everything.
But he could not ignore his clothes.
He wrapped himself as completely as possible with cloth to hide himself from the world, to protect the nerve endings everywhere along his epidermis. He had heard it said that the skin was the largest organ of the human body. He hated that it was also the organ which gave him the most trouble.
Everything he touched told a story. Whether or not he wanted to hear the story was irrelevant.
Even the stitching of his clothes – the tiny threads and various fabrics – left their impressions. He saw writhing silkworms or content sheep. He saw cotton stalks waving in large fields under sunny skies. There were tiny hands pushing fabric through machines. There was the raucous noise of factories and voices in other languages. Sometimes needles pricked skin, and sometimes children were not allowed to be children. In the cloth itself he could detect the faintest hint of pain. The pain was there. It was everywhere and in everything. He wondered why it had taken him so long to notice the pain imbedded in all things. He could not understand how other people could not feel it, too. It was so tangible, so real, and so obvious.
He stopped on the road to rest and squatted down. He rested his thin arms on his bony knees. He leaned back against a guardrail. It was slick with rain and scarred by innumerable accidents. There was a dent beside him which exposed the shine of fresh steel. Lines of black paint marred the metal surface. There was red paint there, too. The metal was stained by the blood of at least two cars.
Too late, he realized there was a hole in the elbow of his shirt. He tried to stand away from the dented scar in the guardrail. As he stood, his skin touched the cool metal. He froze.
A woman sung along to the radio. It blared out a pop song. Bill had heard it many times. It had been popular when he was younger. He could remember Shelby singing it as she washed the dishes at the home they had once shared together before things went wrong.
The woman singing the pop song nodded her head back and forth in the front seat of the car. She was dressed in a conservative grey business suit and a white blouse. A baby sat behind her dressed up in a pale green onesie. A tiny hand reached up towards a mobile. Tigger and Pooh spun around and around and rocked with the movement of the car as it rocked over the shoddily paved highway.
Bill remembered that his boy Chase had owned a mobile just like that one. It had been passed on to his little sister Chastity before eventually being given to the Goodwill once his kids were too old for such things. They had grown too old for so many things, and they continued to grow. He could not stop it, could not face it. He had to leave the very feel of his former life behind. There was no other choice. His touch was too strong and too horrible.
Something vibrated in the plastic cup holder near the driver’s seat. It was a cell phone. The woman stopped singing and turned off the radio. The pop song was gone, and, for a second, all was quiet except for the soft hums of the wind, of the engine, and of wheels spinning over pavement.
The woman reached for her phone and flipped it open. There was a message for her. A big smile demonstrated her pleasure. With her thumb, she started to reply. She hit the send button. A moment later, the phone vibrated again. Her smile widened and her thumb began working the buttons once again.
A car honked. The woman looked up, her eyes grew wide, and she twisted the driving wheel. The car swerved. The baby’s mobile flew around in frantic circles. The clasp holding it in place came loose, and it clattered to the floor of the car. The baby cried. Angry little fists defied the forces working against the little baby. It screamed out in anger at the world which had so unfairly taken its toy. The baby was tied down and could never reach the mobile. It would never see the mobile again, and this was unfair.
The woman in the driver’s seat breathed deeply. The phone vibrated again.
Bill cursed at her and screamed out in his mind, Don’t pick up the phone! Don’t do it! It isn’t worth it!
The baby’s cries became louder. It was as if it protested what the mother was doing. It was almost like the baby knew what was coming. Bill conceded that this was in fact possible. There are many ways to perceive the world, after all.
Leave it alone! Bill protested in his mind once again. He knew it would do no good.
As expected, the woman didn’t acknowledge Bill. She couldn’t. He wasn’t there – not at that physical place, or more accurately, not at that physical time.
She cursed under her breath and reached for the phone. She flipped it up and a smile crossed her face. Her thumb began working and then she lurched forward.
There was the shattering of glass. The windshield broke apart into tiny little beads and flew outwards.
The baby cried louder as steel crunched steel.
Little fists flew outward, clenched tight.
The woman yelled. Her eyes expanded and revealed a primal fear at the moment of her understanding.
And then all grew quiet. The baby no longer cried. The only sound was the dripping of some fluid or another as it dribbled against cold, hard asphalt.
For Bill, the silence of the once screaming child was the worst part. The child had given up and given in to the universe working against it. The poor baby never had a chance. It never had control. It was just a passenger. What happened was no fault of the baby. All it had wanted was to play with its mobile. It never even asked to be born. It had never asked to be a victim, but Bill had seen enough to understand that no one ever asks for that. Never. Yet everyone is victimized in one way or another.
He had seen enough. He never asked to see this, had never asked to feel this.
Bill jerked away from the guardrail and looked at the dented metal scar where the flesh of his elbow had contacted cold steel. He shook his head.
Even the guardrail was a victim in its own way. It would live out the rest of its life – if such an existence can be called a life – with this scar. That scar would never go away. The paint may wash away in time, but the dent would remain along with the impression of all that had transpired.
Bill could identify with the guardrail. He wore his scars, too. Some of them were physical; if asked, Bill could point them out on his skin. Others were mental. Some of them had not even happened yet, but he knew they would, and that knowledge alone scarred him deeply in its own vicious way. It was a kind of scar that no one could understand – the scars of events yet to transpire.
The visible scar of the guardrail was a result of its past. Those kinds of impressions were fairly easy for Bill to read with his touch – sometimes too easy. The past had already happened and its events continued to reverberate into the present. Those indentations and scars and marks on all things would continue to reverberate long into the future: the more powerful the event, the more powerful the recollections and visions.
Bill left the past behind and hoped to find ways to avoid a future he feared.