Four Lanes

September’s theme was On The Road.

Synopsis

When Ashleigh Owens runs into the path of Chris Sterling’s 18-wheeler truck the two form an unbreakable link that transcends the barrier between the dead and the living.

Four Lanes

by Jessica Wren

I couldn’t stop in time. There was no way I could stop in time. Chris Sterling repeated this morbid mantra every time Ashleigh Owens appeared in his mind’s eye. She always appeared just as he last saw her. As the image of her last seconds alive came to him with increasing frequency, her face became clearer in his mind.

An eighteen-wheeler can’t stop in a split-second. He could tell she had once been pretty, but had the haggard face of a person for whom harshness of life had taken its toll. When she’d looked up at him, her mouth turned up in an eerily peaceful smile just before the truck he was driving collided with her small, thin body. He had watched in horror as she ran across two westbound lanes, somehow dodging other vehicles. Chris desperately tried to apply the brakes, but to no avail. Ashleigh stopped suddenly—Chris remembered wondering how she had stopped so suddenly from a full sprint—stood in the middle of the left eastbound lane, and turned to face the oncoming log truck. Her body landed about twenty feet away on the shoulder of the highway.

Chris knew that he would relive that sickening impact every single night for the rest of life

He had sat in his truck, the head of a long line of stalled traffic that was backing up by the minute, watching as passers-by attempted useless CPR on Ashleigh’s mangled, lifeless corpse. The police asked him the standard questions, issued a breathalyzer test—standard procedure, the office said, as if the ordeal weren’t difficult enough without implying that Chris was somehow at fault—and declared that no charges were to be filed against Chris.

“I’m not even from this area,” Chris had said defensively.

“Sir, I’m not saying you did anything wrong. I assure you, this is all very standard.”

“All of it?’ Chris asked. “I’m from New Jersey, so I admit to being ignorant of local customs. In Texas, is it standard for people to run across four lanes of traffic and look a truck driver directly in the eye just before he hits them?”

“We will be doing a full investigation into the…death of Ms. Owens,” the police officer said impatiently. He couldn’t even acknowledge the woman’s death as a suicide and allow her to depart the world with a little dignity intact. Resigned, Chris rented a nearby hotel room, knowing his attendance would likely be required for the inquest. Fortunately, he had only been thirty miles from his final destination in Dallas.

After grabbing a burger to eat, Chris entered his hotel room, showered, and watched television for a bit before deciding he should try to get some rest. He had resisted the temptation to walk to a nearby package store to get a beer, reasoning that being hungover would likely make the next day’s events more difficult for him.. He tossed and turned, unable to shut off the image of Ashleigh Owens that had seared itself in his mind the way a picture can sometimes burn itself into a plasma TV screen.  At three in the morning, Chris finally accepted that sleep wasn’t coming, so he lay flat on the double bed and stared at the ceiling. The image of Ashleigh appeared to him. She had just stared at him, her eyes devoid of expression.

After the inquest, in which Chris was asked the exact same questions as the day before, he returned by bus to New Jersey. He went to hs destination to off-load his cargo, and his letter of resignation. A year went by and Chris’ mind converted into a claustrophobic confessional. After leaving his truck-driving job, he took  a job as an assistant manager at a grocery store in his hometown. Chris couldn’t bear to drive a truck again.

Ashleigh diligently paid her nightly visits, but as time went by, Chris began to notice that instead of greeting her with that frighteningly serene smile, she had started to talk to him. For five months, he tried listening to what she was saying, but every night, her words were drowned out by the grotesque sound of screeching brakes. Determined, Chris, who had always been a lucid dreamer, anticipated her speaking and concentrated on trying to catch her words.

“It’s not your fault, Chris Sterling,” the ghost of Ashleigh said. “I’m very sorry that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Chris was furious. Wrong place at the wrong time? Honey, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think there is a right time and place to jump in front of a truck. But just as he was about to give her a piece of his mind, he transitioned to a wakeful state.

                                                   ***************

“Why won’t you just go back to wherever it is that spirits inhabit and leave me alone?” Chris screamed over the deafening sound of crunching metal. He had reached the end of his patience. Trying to communicate with Ashleigh was impossible, and he had no idea what she wanted from him. Six months had passed since the fatal collision. He had seen a psychiatrist, certain he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The doctor dismissively wrote him prescriptions for Xanax and Zoloft, which didn’t do one single thing except make him feel like a zombie.

“Because I need you,” Ashleigh mouthed right before Chris woke up. How can I possibly help her? He thought.

But the thought nagged at him all day. After all that time wishing Ashleigh would go away, he found himself  wanting to know what he could do to help. His resentment toward Ashleigh had begun to fade, and in its place he had a sense of compassion. He did not understand what drove people to take their own lives, especially in such a gruesome manner. Whatever happened to her that made her feel that suicide was the only answer, it must have been horrible. He spent the day taking inventory in the supermarket, but his mind was on Ashleigh. He couldn’t wait to get to sleep so he could try to talk to her. I’ll just have to walk closer to her so I can hear her.

 

Later that evening in bed, though, sleep eluded him. He could not get comfortable, even after he broke down and took a Xanax. Seven o’clock came slowly, and at that time Chris, feeling miserable, dragged himself into work. The only thing stronger than his fatigue was the disappointment of failing Ashleigh. The only consolation was that this evening, he would certainly collapse from sleep deprivation.

                                                       ****************

“He got me addicted to Oxycontin,” Ashleigh said in a quivering voice.

“Who’s ‘he’”? Chris asked. When he confronted Ashleigh in his dream that night, he got directly to the point and ask her what she needed from him. Whatever it is she wanted, he intended to do his best to get it for her so he could get his nights back. His compassion for her lasted about as long as his work day. By the time he got home that night, he was exhausted. I just want one full night sleep, dammit. If Ashleigh’s so hellbent on hijacking my sleep, why doesn’t she come and sleep next to me?

Feeling guilty about the very thought, he forced himself to forget it. Since his wife, Jennifer, abruptly left him last year, he slept alone. He often thought about how nice it would be to lie next to someone and make small talk until he fell asleep next to her, warm and secure. He couldn’t get that same sense of companionship from a ghost. He decided to take another Xanax–his anxiety over his encounter with Ashleigh made him fidgety in spite of his sleep deprivation–to avoid any lost time.

After a moment of hesitation, Ashleigh opened her mouth to speak, but was drowned out by the sound of the crash. Fuck!

 

As frustrating as it was to only be able to have a partial conversation, at least Chris had some insight into her drastic suicide. He remembered a friend from school, a mild-mannered guy named Zach. Zach had to be the most easy-going guy in Garden City, until slowly, his friends started noticing changes in his personality. He started avoiding his friends, snapping at everyone, and generally acting paranoid and edgy. He started borrowing large sums of money from everyone he knew, and appeared desperate if he was denied. No one could guess what was going on until Zach was arrested for possession of heroin and needles. He was sentenced to rehab, but it was too late; the heroin had dug into Zach’s soul with all fours. He lived the life of an addict for the next two years: in and out of jail, living in filthy hotels, and alienating himself from everyone he loved. The drug, which Chris had heard was supposed to cause a feeling of intense euphoria, had ironically turned Zach into a miserable, depressed shell of a person until he was found in the park with half his brains next to him on the grass.

The misery of addiction alone drove Zach to suicide. He imagined Ashleigh had been going through a similar private hell. Chris, having avoided all drugs except a beer now and then and a joint once or twice a year, did not understand addiction, but it must be a terrible thing to drive a person to suicide. But what the hell does she want me to do about it? Get Oxycontin for her? Does an addiction carry over into the afterlife?

 

                                                               *************

“Just tell me what you want me to do.” Chris said curtly to Ashleigh the following night. He didn’t want to waste any more time. Whatever it took to stop these nightmares, he wanted to do and give Ashleigh a peaceful send-off into wherever it was that spirits spent eternity, and to leave him alone. Are you sure that’s what you want? A whispering voice said audibly to him. Shit. Now on top of everything else, I’m losing my mind.

“Doctor Prescott got me addicted to painkillers,” Ashleigh said.

“Is that what you need? The drugs?”

“No.” Then what is it? Chris felt a panic attack starting. Any second now, he would have to hear that horrible crashing sound.

Sure enough, the cacophony happened right on time, drowning out the words Ashleigh was saying to him.

The next day, he had off from work. He looked online for all listings for a Doctor Prescott in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. There were eleven. His next step was to find an article on Ashleigh, so he could find out her hometown. He searched exhaustively, but the locally media was strangely silent on the details of her suicide.

He was about to call off the search when he found a priceless gem:

The grand jury of Denton County decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge Dr. Stephen Prescott with improper conduct with an underage patient. Dr. Prescott is a neurologist based in Denton.The alleged victim, a sixteen year old patient of Dr. Prescott, committed suicide on Saturday afternoon…

 

“Oh, hell no! I’m not getting myself involved with a sixteen year old, even if she is dead,” Chris said aloud. Realizing how weird his statement was vented some of his frustration, and he was able to laugh for the first time in months.

He could see Ashleigh’s face right before her death; the image was permanently branded in his mind. She looked at least thirty. If she were sixteen, then she really lead a tough life. His sympathy for her returned full force.

                                                      *************

Back to square one, Chris thought irritably as he sipped his morning coffee. He had just enough time with Ashleigh last night to find out that she was not the teenager in question who had filed a statutory rape claim against Dr. Prescott. No, her drug supplier was Dr. Jeremy Prescott. He was a podiatrist based in Lewisville. She had seen him for the first time three years prior to her death, when she broke her foot. Chris was not able to get any more information that night.

Chris had to work a twelve-hour shift, and had no time to investigate Jeremy Prescott. It was midway during this shift that Chris had the idea to transfer to a store in Lewisville to better understand the current chaos in his life. The idea of leaving New Jersey gave him a sense of freedom. After all, it’s not like he needed to consult Jennifer anymore with major decisions.

                                                          **************

Ashleigh was thrilled to hear that Chris was planning to relocate to Texas to help her. Chris still had no idea what Ashleigh expected him to do, but the process of moving made Chris feel like he was doing something. A week after he put in his request, his transfer was approved. He didn’t have much to pack–Jennifer had taken everything in the divorce–so the actual relocation was easy. He rented a small apartment in Lewisville, the same town where the life-changing tragedy occurred. Meanwhile, Ashleigh stopped visiting him. Although he was finally able to get undisturbed sleep, he began to wonder if the move was a mistake. As he slowly settled into his new life, in a town where he had no friends and no connections, he questioned the logic of making such a drastic lifestyle change at the urging of a ghost. Was he projecting his unresolved mixed feelings for Jennifer on Ashleigh? Some days, he hated her and if were truly honest with himself, wished she would drop dead. Other days, he felt an intense longing for a reconciliation. She had told him before leaving that being a trucker’s wife was too lonely.  The irony.

                                                       **********

Ashleigh had no immediate family in the Lewisville area. When Chris made some inquiries, he found out her mother lived in Nacogdoches. He briefly considered visiting her, but knew that her mother certainly read the police report. A visit from the man who killed her daughter wouldn’t exactly be a pleasant surprise. Ashleigh had no social media, and locating any of her friends seemed an impossible task. Ashleigh hadn’t visited him since the night she told him about Dr. Jeremy Prescott. Jennifer had been a nurse, so Chris knew that legally the doctor could not reveal medical information. He decided to do a one-man sting operation instead.

On the day of his appointment, he nearly called and cancelled. Ashleigh had stopped visiting, and trying to uncover secrets at this point seemed not only useless but an invasion of privacy. So why don’t you just call it a day and go back home? His inner voice whispered to him again.

“Maybe because I can confirm that I’m not crazy. That I really am talking to a spirit,” he said audibly. “I didn’t know this woman before our paths literally crossed. How can I be dreaming up all this stuff about her?” That would have been the only logical explanation. He had looked and there was indeed a podiatrist in Lewisville named Jeremy Prescott. Getting an appointment was as easy as feigning heel pain.

After Prescott went through the motions of examining his foot for evidence of a heel spur that Chris did not have, Chris made his move.

“The truth is, Doc, I moved here after I heard my friend Ashleigh Owens killed herself. I’m helping to settle her affairs. It was horrible the way she died.” The doctor gave him a deer-in-the-headlight book, as if there was something he needed to hide before Chris saw right through him. Score!

“Yeah, it was,” Prescott said nervously as he ushered Chris to the door. “Go to the receptionist to make a follow-up appointment.” The doctor quickly closed the door behind him. For the first time in months, Chris had hope that he could put his ordeal to rest once and for all.

He was surprised that he was disappointed when Ashleigh didn’t show up in his dream. Maybe she found what she needed and crossed over to the spirit world. In any event, she wasn’t giving him any further instructions. In the morning, Chris woke up feeling empty and hurt. He recognized the feeling that he experienced when Jennifer left him: he had a broken heart.

                                                          **************

It was two long, depressing months before Ashleigh returned. Chris had decided there was nothing more to do in Lewisville, and made the decision to go back to New Jersey. Moving to Texas turned out not to be the exciting adventure he’d hoped for. He had been debating with himself about visiting Ashleigh’s mother. He decided once and for all against it.

Chris had been practicing using his ability to lucid dream to create a more peaceful scene, just in case Ashleigh did return. He created a sunny day by the lake. On the horizon he could see a sailboat. Families were playing on the beach nearby. There was only the sound of water lapping the shore and children laughing. No crashing, no brakes squealing. The night Ashleigh returned found them sitting side by side in a gazebo.

“It’s so kind of you to try to help me,” Ashleigh said.

“Yeah, well, see, the problem is I don’t know what you need my help with,” Chris said. “Maybe you should tell me more about what went down with Dr. Prescott.”

“He over-prescribed Oxycontin, and I got addicted to it. I think he did it to force me to stay a patient of his after my foot healed.Them greedy bastards just love to get their hands on your money”

“Do you want me to report him?”

“I want revenge on him.”

“What kind of revenge?”

“I want you to expose him,” Ashleigh said. “Make him lose his license so no one else has to suffer like I did.”

“Ashleigh, I tried to do that. When I mentioned your name, he clammed up.”

Ashleigh looked hurt and on the verge of tears. “I’ll see you tomorrow night, Chris.” The scene faded as Chris returned to consciousness.

                                                              **************

So Chris stayed. He had to find another job, since his transfer back to the store in New Jersey didn’t pan out. He began working at a car dealership in Roanoke. For two months he tried to work up the nerve to visit Ashleigh’s mother. He finally decided that the events were beyond his control, and she could not hold him responsible. It was a rainy weekend when he made the trip to Nacogdoches.

Janice Owens greeted him surprisingly warmly. Chris explained who he was and why he was there. Her original amiability turned to suspicion.

“You’re telling me that you moved all the way across the country because my daughter, whom you have never met, is telling you to in a dream?” Chris swallowed hard. He hadn’t considered the fact that Janice might see the whole thing as a cruel prank.

“I know it sounds crazy, Mrs. Owens, and maybe it is. But I’m telling the truth. Do you know why Ashleigh killed herself?”

Janice’s face darkened in anger. That lasted for around five seconds, when she burst into tears. “She was addicted to drugs. She got hooked after having foot surgery.” Janice paused to collect herself. “When her doctor cut off her supply of painkillers, she went crazy. She started stalking him, and when that didn’t work, she accused him of raping her.” Chris was taken aback. Ashleigh had never mentioned Dr. Prescott being inappropriate with her. “Honestly, Mr. Sterling, it’s Ashleigh’s own fault she got hooked. The doctor warned her that opioids could be habit-forming. She not only ignored his warning and ate them like candy, she crushed some of them up and snorted them. It was a mess, and I couldn’t convince her to go into a rehab facility.”

“Did Dr. Prescott try to help her get treatment?” Chris asked.

Janice’s eyes widened in fear. Chris could tell that the reality of the situation had finally sunk in. The man sitting in her dining room was indeed communicating with her dead daughter. “Mr. Sterling, I thank you for your concern. But please leave, and don’t come back.”

                                                         ****************

“Ashleigh,” Chris said as they were walking through the snow in New York City. The sounds of horns honking completely replaced the terrible nightmare noise. Chris conjured up the urban image in his head because he didn’t want his final meeting with Ashleigh to be in a place that was idyllically bucolic. “I’m afraid I have no way to meet this request.” Chris was filled with a gnawing ache in his heart; he did not want Ashleigh to leave him. “The only way you are going to get your eternal peace is if you let go of this world and move on. Go to whatever world spirits inhabit. Don’t worry about me, or that doctor. Just go.”

“You mean you don’t want to see me anymore?” Tears welled up in Ashleigh’s eyes.

“No, no, it’s not that.” Chris had never been in this situation before. Usually it was him being left behind. “Ashleigh, let me ask you something. Why of all people did you pick me?”

Ashleigh looked down on the ground, and when she did speak, her voice was barely audible. “The way you looked at me right before I died.  You were scared, yes, but the look in your eyes told me that you were concerned about me. What was I doing walking into four lanes of traffic? What drove me to take such drastic measures. Chris, I could tell you were more concerned about me than worried about yourself. No one ever looked at me that way before, not even my mom or my son’s father. And you know what? It was a wonderful feeling, better than any drug cold produce. The truth is, Chris, I don’t give a damn about Dr. Prescott. I just wanted a reason to be close to you.” Ashleigh kissed him on the lips before turning away.

                                                        **************

Four months went by. Chris decided to stay in Texas even though he no longer had any business there. It no longer mattered to him where he lived, or whether he left the house, or that he didn’t have a job. Each minute of the day felt like one hundred years as his life evolved into a small studio apartment. He had sold his car and some of his furniture, and in that he was able to build up a small fund to tide him over until he was ready to go back to work. Or at the very least, he was homeless and hungry and had no choice but to drag himself to something resembling a steady job, Chris didn’t even care what job it was; he was just biding his time until the time was right to join Ashleigh in the afterlife. Ashleigh had once told him that everyone, good or bad, went to the same place after death. So no matter what he did, he would be with Ashleigh after his own death.

Oddly enough, Jennifer called, asking how he would feel about a reconciliation. By then, though, Jennifer had no more significance to him than an estranged friend from high school. He spent his days watching meaningless TV shows and planning. After four months, Chris had an overgrown beard, wore dirty clothes, had terrible body odor, and was fat from eating a steady diet of fast food. It no longer mattered, though. He had only one last thing to do in this life.

                                                   *****************

Chris pushed his way past the receptionist and a nurse. He barged in on Dr. Prescott while the doctor was in the middle of another appointment.

“Get lost, pal,” Chris said to the other patient. The patient obliged; he wanted nothing to do with the crazy man standing in the doorway. Prescott himself cowered in the stool he was sitting in. Chris picked him up by the shirt collar and pressed him against the wall.

“Let go of me, you crazy son of a bitch!” When several members of the office staff came in to see the commotion, Chris slammed the door in their faces.

“You got Ashleigh Owens addicted to drugs. You caused her to kill herself.” Chris squeezed his forearm on the helpless doctor’s throat.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Chris tried to say with the little breath that he had. Chris eased up a bit. “The bitch stalked me. Said she was going to have me arrested for rape if I didn’t give her more pills.” Was he telling the truth? This was the same story her mother told me.

Who gives a fuck!

Chris pressed the palm of his right hand over Prescott’s face, and with his left forearm, choked him until he passed out.

                                                   *****************

Looking at Dr. Prescott lying dead on the floor, Chris knew immediately that his life meant nothing. Whether he was telling the truth and Ashleigh really was a crazed stalker, or he was a drug-dealing charlatan, it didn’t make one single bit of difference. Chris had remained completely committed to his own self-destruction. The thought of what lie ahead filled him with an eerie sort of pleasure.

He rushed from the clinic and got in his car, knowing the police wouldn’t be too far behind. He made his way to the same spot where he had last driven a log truck. Traffic was regular but not too congested. The first vehicle he saw that could do the job was a school bus. Chris let it pass by. His plan did not include traumatizing children. But then he heard the police sirens in the distance closing in on him, and he knew he had to act quickly. A truck was headed his way from the east, one which appeared to be a semi carrying groceries for delivery to stores. Chris noticed that the company logo was that of the store chain he worked for in New Jersey and in Texas. When the truck got about twenty feet away, Chris took off running so he could avoid oncoming cars from the west. It had to be that truck; nothing else would do.

Chris looked up to see the unfortunate truck driver who would be tasked with an involuntary hand in his suicide. He was surprised to see the driver was a woman. She had green eyes and strawberry blonde hair, similar to Jennifer. With her clear green eyes, Chris noticed her look of fear, concern, and an unexpected look of understanding. She wasn’t worried about anything but Chris at that moment. Chris got in the middle of the westbound lane and stood firmly. He caught the driver’s eye and smiled serenely as he surrendered to his fate.