He chuckled at the absurdity of this. Dead as a doornail. Who cares? Who cares now? He was a goner. This was the end of it all. Bobby frowned. He had heard that in certain circumstances, time can appear to slow down. But now, hadn't several seconds gone by and shouldn't that car have already slammed into him?
He opened one eye. What he was looking at didn't register. He opened both eyes and stared, perplexed by the scene in front of him. Was he hallucinating? Was he already dead? This didn't make any sense. He glanced around. Yep, here he was, sitting in the driver's seat of his Toyota Corolla. There was the dashboard. He was holding onto the steering wheel. His right foot was on the accelerator.
He turned back and gazed out the driver-side window. There was the front grill of a humongous sport utility vehicle. It took up his entire field of vision and he wondered if it wasn't a car but a truck, one of those semi-trailer trucks. Why in heaven's name did people buy such large vehicles? Are we compensating for a small penis or something?
He smiled at his joke. Then it hit him. What the hell? The SUV wasn't moving. It was frozen a couple of feet from the side of his car. He looked down at the front bumper outside his window and considered it in relation to the road. It wasn't moving. Did the owner brake at the last second? God, what a close call. His colleagues back at the office would freak when he told them how close he had come to being killed.
He grinned. Who wouldn't grin when they realize Lady Luck has smiled upon them and they've walked away from a potential accident, a lethal one at that? He stared at the grill of the SUV. The vehicle was so big; he pictured it crushing his Corolla like an egg. He must be the luckiest goddamn guy in the world.
As Bobby continued to stare at the SUV, he realized something strange. His car wasn't moving. He looked back and forth between the front window and the SUV. Nothing moved. He wondered if everybody had stopped at once when they saw there would be an accident. But wait. Why wasn't his car moving? It had been moving. He'd been driving through an intersection. The light had been green, and he had the right of way. At that moment, movement had caught his attention and he glanced out the driver-side window to see the SUV barreling down on him. At that moment, he realised the huge car had run the red light, had crossed the opposite lane without hitting anything coming the other way, and was heading right for his side door. And it was during that split second he understood there wasn't a single thing he could do to avoid this disaster. The SUV would slam into him and more than likely kill him. If it didn't kill him, he would be maimed for life. He hadn't even had time to get angry and swear. He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth, readying himself for the inevitable. But the inevitable what? Was this going to hurt? Would he feel anything, or would he lose consciousness to wake up days later from a coma all done up in a body cast, lying in a hospital bed? He turned to look out the passenger-side windows. Everything was still. He looked in every direction, out the front, out the back, to the right, and to the left and couldn't see a single person. He thought that somebody would have gotten out of their car to find out what was going on. This was weird.
Bobby sat with both hands on the steering wheel staring at the speedometer in the dashboard straight ahead of him. He wasn't looking at his speed; he was trying to conjure a rational explanation for this situation and decide what he would do next. This was bizarre and no, he couldn't think of any other incident in his entire life which would compare to it.
His eyes focused on the needle in the speedometer. Thirty miles per hour. He glanced out his window down at the ground. His car wasn't moving. How was this possible? He wracked his brain to figure out how any of this could happen, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't come up with any logical explanation. What to do? Maybe he should get out and survey the scene.
He stared again at the front bumper of the SUV. It was close, damn close to the side of the car. He tried to judge the distance, wondering if he could get his door to open. Even if he could get the door open, would he be able to squeeze through the narrow gap? Maybe the better thing to do would be to go out on the passenger side. He'd have to climb over the console, but what the hey? Nothing seemed to block the passenger-side door. He unbuckled his seatbelt and was turning in his seat when he heard a noise outside. He stopped and listened. Everything had been dead silent, but now there was no mistaking it, he could hear the sound of footsteps. But the footsteps didn't sound as he would have expected to hear in the middle of an intersection. This was an asphalt road, and there was no way a shoe step would sound like that on asphalt. This sounded more like a shoe on a tile floor. There was that distinctive click of the heel on a hard surface. He craned his neck to look back. He wasn't sure, but the sound of the steps seemed to be coming from behind his car on the passenger side. The steps were getting louder, but he couldn't see anyone approaching.
He saw the silhouette of a figure move beside his car. The figure stopped, and the car door was opened from the outside. The head of a man appeared in the open door.
He stared at the man and said, "Yes?"
"I don't think you have enough room on the other side to get out. I think the front bumper is too close to the door. How about you scoot across the seat and get out here?" The man smiled. "Now watch yourself on the console. Don't get yourself caught on the stick." The head disappeared, and Bobby could see the man push the door open as he took a step back. Bobby hesitated. What the heck is going on? Who is this guy?
The man bent over so his head was visible in the opening again. "Coming?"
Bobby said, "Yes," and climbed over the console of his car. He fumbled in the close quarters as he got over the console and avoided the gearshift. It occurred to him as he did so that the stick was still in drive, yet his car remained at a standstill.
He hauled himself out of the car and stood up. The man had taken another step back and was smiling at him. Bobby didn't recognize him and wondered who he was. The police? A rescue worker? A passer-by? The man's suit seemed to indicate he wasn't someone working in an official capacity. He glanced around and noticed a change. What the heck?
Everything was white. There was nothing but white. There was no intersection, no other cars, and no landscape. It was all white.
He looked at his left hand and yes, it was gripping the top of the car door. Yes, the car door was there, but everything else was white.
"I'm sorry. You must be discombobulated." The man's voice had a pleasant, friendly tone to it.
Bobby glanced toward the front of his car, but it wasn't there. He half turned and looked at the door he still touched. He could see the open doorway to the interior of his car and the open door itself, but the rest of the car wasn't there at all. It was white. He bent down and looked inside. The interior was there--the seats, the steering wheel, and the dashboard. He looked out the driver-side window at the grill of the SUV, which was still visible, a couple of feet from the side of his Corolla.
He stood up again and looked in that direction, but there was no roof to his car. Extending from the edge of the open doorway there was only white. The outside of his car didn't exist. It was as if the open door of the car was hanging in space, in the middle of whiteness. He couldn't see any ground below him, just this same white. He picked up his feet one after another, then shuffled on whatever he was standing on. It felt solid but looked like more of this white, more of this sameness that seemed to be everywhere.
"Where am I?" he said staring at the ground, not yet addressing the stranger. "Am I dead?"
"No, you're not dead." The man sounded matter-of-fact. "I'll try to answer your questions, but how about we move along? There's no point in hanging around here." He paused waiting for him.
Bobby faced the man, who stood there smiling. "Who are you?"
"This is a forty-second dimensional time break. It is a necessary part of doing a reset." The man kept smiling as he extended a hand toward him. "You can call me Mike."
Bobby stared at the man's hand. After a moment, Mike raised an eyebrow and moved his hand in a gesture indicating that he should shake it. When he reached out, Mike seized his hand and shook it with enthusiastic friendliness.
"There, now. Hello, Bobby. Now let's move on, shall we? Would you mind stepping away from the vehicle?" Mike gestured away from the car. Bobby hesitated, then did as he was told.
"Great," Mike said, pushing the car door closed. There was an audible click as the door closed into the car frame, then there was nothing, only white. The door opening had vanished. In fact, there was no longer any indication there had been a car there at all. "Coming?" Bobby followed, glancing around as he did. While they were walking and had the appearance of moving, everything around them was without form or feature. "I've got to be dead," he said as he kept looking around, trying to see something, anything, in the void that surrounded him. "Either that or I'm unconscious and dreaming." He glanced behind him. "Maybe I'm delirious and hallucinating. Isn't that what happens when they drug you up with morphine or something?" Mike chuckled. "I assure you, none of that has happened. Yet. But we'll get to that in due course." Mike continued to walk in an assured manner, as though he knew what he was doing and where they were going.
"I had to reset the scene," he continued, "as things had gotten mucked up. Through no fault of my own, mind you." He pointed a finger as though to emphasize the truth of his next statement. "There is always an element of chaos even in deterministic systems."
Bobby remained silent with a perplexed look.
Mike, meanwhile, continued to walk. "You like to think you've got things set out with mathematical precision, but precision itself is more of a concept than a reality. You do your best to get as close as possible to perfection, but as the old saying goes, nothing is perfect. Consequently, unexpected deviations from the original model crop up from time to time, and you have to step in and make a correction."
Bobby stopped and stared at his companion. "Who are you, really?" he demanded.
Mike appeared startled. "I'm Mike," he said.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he snapped. "You're Mike. But seriously, what the heck is going on?"
Mike was silent as if mulling over how best to respond. He spoke methodically, "As I explained before, this is a forty-second dimensional time break. It's a necessary consequence of wanting to do a reset. I am an intervener and I am here to guide you through the process." He raised one eyebrow and looked at him expectantly.
When he responded with a look of total incomprehension, Mike sighed, took his arm and half pulled him to get the two of them walking again.
As Bobby walked, he frowned at Mike. "What did all that mean?"
Mike continued to gaze forward. He shook his head and exhaled. "I don't know why I bother."
There was another moment of silence. "What?" Bobby said.
Mike blinked at him and smiled. "Sorry, I was talking to myself."
"You're not going to answer any of my questions, are you?"
Mike shrugged. "It's not that. It's a question of whether you're going to understand what I'm telling you. After all, would you explain nuclear physics to a dog?"
"What?" There was a note of irritation. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"What do you think your chances would be of getting a dog to grasp the fundamental principles of the atom? Or an electron? A proton? A quark?" Mike gazed off into the distance with a concerned expression on his face and spoke aloud as though he were talking to himself. "Those quarks are the oddest things. I still wonder why we couldn't have come up with a better idea." "Focus, Mike, focus," he said, snapping his fingers in front of the other man's face. "Would you mind coming back to me and my little dilemma?"
Mike shook his head, then turned to him and smiled. "Sorry. Now let's see, where were we?"
"You were telling me about some forty-second thingamajig. But admittedly, I didn't get it. I'm only a dog."
Mike shrugged. "Hey, don't take it personally. It was the best analogy I could come up with on the spur of the moment."
"Couldn't you merely say I may not be smart enough to grasp something that requires an advanced degree?"
Mike looked thoughtful. "Nope. I think my dog analogy is a better one. Your educational systems don't even touch what's necessary to understand these ideas."
He took a deep breath. "And what ideas might they be, Michael?"
Mike raised an eyebrow. "You can call me Mike. No need for supposed formality."
He exhaled loudly and rubbed his forehead. "Yes, I've died. But this isn't heaven."
Mike chuckled. "At least, you're keeping a sense of humour about all this."
He gave Mike a wry smile.
"Okay, okay," Mike said. "I'll try to break it down for you in a way that--"
"A dog could understand?" Bobby had raised an eyebrow to emphasize his question, but now also wore a smile of disdain.
Mike ignored him. "Yes. The problem here is that your accident is wrong."
"Yes, wrong. Well, it's not completely wrong, but some deviations to the original model have now inadvertently introduced a subtle variation that is going to snowball into results I never intended." He slowed his steps while Mike kept walking at the same pace.
Mike noticed he was no longer walking beside him, stopped and turned around. "What?"
Bobby stood staring at him. "What are you talking about?" Mike crossed his arms and placed one hand on his chin. "It's like this." He walked toward him then went by him. Bobby turned around to follow and was stunned to see him approach a table that hadn't been there before. He glanced around to see if anything else had changed, but no, the two of them were still surrounded by this nondescript whiteness. Mike motioned to him. "It's like this."
He stepped forward and saw in the middle of the table a row of dominoes all standing on end.
Mike pointed to the dominoes. "I'm sure you are familiar with this idea. Knock down the first domino and the rest fall one after another. The various events are linked to one another. But what if??" He reached into the middle of the line and displaced three of the dominoes, setting them up to lead in another direction. Then he walked to the end of the table. "Watch." He pushed the first domino, and it fell over to hit the second domino, which toppled and hit the third, and so on until toppling occurred in the middle. Each of the three displaced dominoes fell over as expected, but the last one, now positioned away from the next domino, fell but did nothing to continue the chain of falling dominoes. The rippling event had come to a halt early and did not continue to the end of the line. Mike pointed to the middle dominoes. "That's your accident." He touched the last domino of the displaced group of three. "As you can see, it has been displaced and this event has come to a dead halt. The displaced domino fails to affect the next domino in the line." Bobby considered the domino Mike was touching, looked up at him then looked back down at the domino. "Are you God?"
Mike chuckled. "Oh, no." He paused a second, then burst into a laugh. "Or should I say, ?Hell no?' Though I did set this up. As a matter of fact, I thought I'd done a pretty good job." He flashed a conspiratorial grin. "And I still do!" he said, waving a finger at Bobby. He stepped back and waved his arm toward the line of dominoes. "I set this all up. I planned it, executed it, and stood over it to make sure I hadn't made any mistakes. Unfortunately, stuff happens. You can see from my dominoes experiment that if you fiddle with the positioning of some of the dominoes, you can bring the whole event series to a dead halt. That isn't the way I planned it."
Bobby scanned the dominoes. "You mean the last domino is me. It's my accident."
"But?" "But you end up dead. You weren't supposed to die. You were supposed to live. You were supposed to go on and push the next domino in the series. But if you're dead like the last domino, you have been displaced from the event series and are unable to play your part in the continuation of the series." "You're not God." "Nope." Mike stood there, an amused smile on his face. "Then?" "I'm a builder. I like to put stuff together." Bobby furrowed his brow. "I'm positive now I'm all doped up in a hospital someplace and I'm in a full body cast. You're a hallucination caused by the pain medication. I vaguely remember reading something about this with morphine."
"You wish. No, my friend, you're not going to get morphine, but you are going to feel pain. Although it won't be fatal." He came around the table toward Bobby and pointed behind him. "What I did was set up a scenario."
Bobby turned. There was another table. He looked back to discover the domino table had disappeared. He rubbed his chin and pursed his lips.
"Look at this," Mike said.
He walked over. The table had an aquarium in the middle of it.
Mike gestured toward the tank. "I set up the scenario?an environment if you will?in which you thrive. There's randomness in any situation, but for the most part, I can foresee the eventualities and plan accordingly. Such is the nature of my stuff."
He stared at the tank perplexed. "Your stuff?"
"Well, it is my stuff. Technically it's my stuff. But let's face it; it's all part of the system."
"Are you talking about the Earth?"
Mike looked a little surprised. "Why, yes. And the surrounding sector, which obviously contains your solar system."
"Of course," Bobby said matter-of-factly.
Mike pointed to the aquarium. "I set this up."
"Ah, yeah, but what I meant was for this to be a metaphor."
Mike gave him a tired look and took a deep breath. He pointed to the fish tank and held the tip of his finger against the glass. "This is Earth," he said, and then a tropical fish swam past his finger. "That is you." He chuckled, then reached behind the aquarium and pulled out a glass bowl and a little fish net. He dipped the bowl into the tank, scooped up some water, then stuck the net into the tank and swept it around until he pulled up the fish. He turned the net over the bowl, shaking it to make sure the fish fell out. He held the bowl up with the fish. "Ta-da!"
"The aquarium is Earth and you just plucked me off it."
Mike held the bowl with something akin to pride. "Something like that. I needed to reset the scene and, due to the oddity introduced by sheer randomness, I had to remove you from the scene to perform the modifications."
"I was going to die and you didn't want me to die."
Mike nodded. "Yes. I am now rearranging things and I am going to put you back in the game, as it were."
"But you're not God."
"No. Well, not in the way you mean, I'd say. You folks have primitive ideas about the way the world works. Or should I say the way the universe works?" Mike chuckled. "You humans are so arrogant. You think you're God's gift to the universe. Okay, I grant you, you have potential. But right now?" He shook his head. "Don't make me laugh."
"What am I supposed to think about anything you're telling me? I'm walking around, aimlessly it seems, in this white void with somebody called Mike who claims to not be God but can pull dominoes and tropical fish out of thin air. Great magic show, by the way."
Mike gave him a sly smile. "Are you now going to ask for a card trick?" He placed a hand on his forehead and looked up as though concentrating on something. Then he pointed at Bobby and said, "You are thinking of the number forty-two. Right?"
Bobby stared at Mike with a look of utter disbelief.
"Okay, you're not thinking of the number forty-two." He walked away and gestured to him to follow. "Let's continue, shall we?"
Bobby followed and the two of them walked together again. "You said you're here to change my accident. You said it wasn't right. Aren't you interfering? Aren't you fiddling with time?"
Mike raised an eyebrow. "Good question. I would say it's more like I'm tending my garden."
Mike shrugged. "You asked and that seems like the best way of describing it. Well, the best way in terms you would understand. I set up the garden. I tilled the soil; I put in the fertilizer; I planted the seeds. Now, from time to time, I need to step in to water the plants, pull out weeds, or remove dead leaves. Let's say your accident was a branch growing off in the wrong direction. I am here to trim it and get it to grow back in the right direction."
"But you're not God."
"Listen, you people have confused ideas about God. An omnipotent bearded man looking down from above and talking to you personally."
"Aren't you talking to me?"
"I'm not God. Well, I'm not God in the way you think God is supposed to be."
"So what is God supposed to be? What are you?"
"I am a being. I am a few levels up from you. In the same way you exist above a dog, I exist above you."
"Are you saying I'm an animal?"
"Aren't you?" Mike gave him a quizzical glance. "You yourselves define humans as animals."
"Yes, but you seem to present it as though we're not that intelligent."
Mike chuckled. "Well, you are a legend in your own mind. Your species has a tendency of seeing itself as greater than it is. You think you're king of the hill, not realizing there are other hills, bigger hills, elsewhere in the galaxy and you're small fish."
"Why bother with us?"
"This is my garden and I'm trying to tend it."
"But if we are so insignificant, why do you talk to us? Why are you bothering to talk to me right now?"
"You talk to your dogs, your cats, all of your animals. Why? Did you think they would reply to you?"
Bobby remained silent.
"Of course not, but you talk with them anyway. And we could argue that you and your dogs communicate on some level. Clearly on a rudimentary level, but you do communicate. Picture that as the same with us. Although I have the ability to talk down to your level, you can't talk up to mine."
Bobby scratched his head. He did not understand what Mike was talking about, but because they were walking in a white void among random appearances of various props, he had to assume Mike was speaking the truth. Unless this was all a dream or a hallucination.
"It's not a hallucination," Mike said.
Bobby peered at the other man. "Can you read my mind?"
"Hmph. Like I need to read your mind to understand that perplexed look on your face."
A few moments later, Mike grabbed his arm and pulled him to a stop. "Well, here we are," he said.
Bobby noticed the vague image of a car door to his left. Not entirely visible, it was more like a washed-out grey outline of a car door. Mike stepped over to it and pulled on the door handle. The greyish door swung out, revealing what resembled the interior of his car, visible and clear.
"How about you hop back in and we'll get this show on the road, so to speak?"
"Aren't you afraid I'll tell people about you?"
Mike glanced at him as though he had caught him unawares. Then he chuckled. "Think about it, Bobby. You're going to tell people about our little meeting. Can you imagine what anybody is going to make of this? Heck, they'll either think you're on drugs or you've flipped. Either way, they'll be dialing 9-1-1 to get the paramedics over as quickly as possible to sedate you. And put a stick in your mouth so you don't swallow your tongue." He laughed heartily. "Worried? Not in the least bit. But I'd tell you to think twice about doing that."
Bobby looked at him. Did he see tears? Was Mike laughing so hard he was crying? He felt a little miffed. Why make fun of him? But he reflected on what Mike had said. No, he couldn't tell anybody. This was absurd. Nobody got taken out of a car to wander around a white void in the company of some powerful being while waiting for an accident to be reset, whatever that meant.
"Come on, get in," Mike said, gesturing with his free hand toward the opening into the car. "Let's get you back on the road to the rest of your life."
He bent over and climbed first into the passenger seat, then worked his way over the console to settle into the driver's seat. "Don't forget to buckle up," Mike said. He put on his seatbelt. Everything looked the same. The console stick was even still set in the drive position.
"If you'll look to your left," Mike added, "you'll see how the scene has been reset."
Turning to glance out his window, he saw that the SUV was not there, not precisely there. The SUV was now facing the rear panel of his car, by the trunk.
Mike had poked his head inside the open passenger door. "You will note that the SUV has been moved back. If it had slammed into your door, it would have killed you. Now the SUV is going to hit the trunk of your car and you are going to live. In fact, you're going to walk away. Instead of your life coming unceremoniously to a halt, it will continue for the remainder of its allotted time here on Earth."
He turned to look at Mike. "But why do this? What is it you're trying to change?"
Mike hesitated. "You will eventually get married and have a son. I want that to happen." He pointed to the back seat. "Now, Bobby, I want you to pick up that neck pillow you have."
"Reach around and grab it while I explain," Mike said, watching. "I'm trying to spare you from getting a concussion. When the SUV hits your car, the car is going to go right while inertia is going to keep your head still. Unfortunately, that means your head is going to slam into the driver-side door. If you hold up your neck pillow to the side of your head, you'll have some cushioning when this happens. Oh, you're going to feel pain and will see stars, but at least, you won't suffer anything as severe as a concussion."
Bobby held the pillow up to the left side of his head and turned to face Mike. "Like this?"
"Perfect," Mike said. "Well, I guess this is it. It's been a pleasure, Bobby. Good luck in life. We will not meet again."
"Ah, you too, Mike," he said.
"I'm going to shut the door now, and then in a moment things will resume. Ready?"
He looked straight ahead holding the neck pillow to the side of his head. "Ready." He heard the sound of the passenger door being closed. He shifted his eyes across the front windshield and noted that everything seemed to be the same, still frozen in the middle of the action. It was silent. He waited. Now what?
There was a loud bang. The car pitched to the right and Bobby's head toppled to the left and slammed into the supporting post beside the driver-side door. He saw stars and was only vaguely aware that his car continued to move to the right then rolled onto its side. There was the sound of metal being bent, torn, and crushed, along with glass breaking. He flopped around like a rag doll, held in place by his shoulder strap.
The movement stopped. He was dazed but still conscious. Slowly he deciphered what his senses were telling him. The car was now over on its right side. He was hanging down to his right, but his safety belt was keeping him in place so he didn't fall. God, did his head hurt. There were voices outside but he couldn't tell what they were saying. He heard an odd swooshing noise he realized must be coming from a fire extinguisher. Was the car on fire?
He heard more noise around the car and then on top of the car. Was somebody walking on it? The driver's door was pulled open and light poured in. A voice from above said, "Hey, are you all right?"
He felt dazed. "Yeah. What happened?"
"You got hit by an SUV, but man, are you lucky. It hit the back of your car. If it had broadsided you, you would be dead."
Bobby was still confused by the hit on the head. Broadsided? Dead? Just as that guy had said. What guy? Mike? Wait, did that happen, or had he been knocked unconscious by the crash? He remembered hearing stories of people who'd been smashed on the head recounting all sorts of bizarre things. Did he hear a siren somewhere?
Mike watched the paramedics pull Bobby out of the car.
Fortunately, he hadn't been seriously hurt and could manage under his own steam. The difficulty would be in climbing up out of the driver's door. Mike examined his car. It was totalled, but that was a small price to pay for being able to walk away alive. Bobby would go on to live a normal life. He would, however, stop from time to time to reflect on how lucky he was. If the SUV had been a little earlier, it would have slammed right into the driver-side door. Yes, what luck. It was luck, wasn't it?
What Mike didn't say was that Bobby's son, at the age of thirty-five, would fall asleep at the wheel of his car and cross over into on-coming traffic and hit a tractor-trailer truck head-on. He would be killed instantly, but, more importantly, the resulting traffic tie-up would cause delays that would, in turn, have rippling effects throughout society. Mike had lined up the dominoes and wanted them to fall in order.
Mike turned and stepped through the crowd. He headed off down the sidewalk and thought about how things had worked out. Accidents will happen, but with a little intervention, they can happen according to plan.