The Paths Between Worlds ~ Chapter One
The lonely almost-death of Meredith Gale
I got the letter kicking me out of Berkeley the same day Oscar Kemple’s mom called to tell me she’d turned off his life support.
It’d be easy to blame everything that happened after that on those two coincidental events, but the truth is, I was already on a downward spiral; I just didn’t see how close I was to crashing face-first into the ground. I can guess what you’re thinking: Meredith, don’t be so hard on yourself. You weren’t to blame. And that’s mostly true, I suppose. After all, the asshole driving the Ford F150 is where my life really changed. But here’s the crazy thing, the one thing that surprises me the most—even knowing what I know now—if I could go back and change what happened, I don’t think I would.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with Oscar.
Oscar is, or rather was, my best friend. There had never been anything romantic between us, just a really strong connection that started the moment we bumped into each other in the junior high library. He pulled the book I wanted (the latest Harry Potter, if I remember right) and must have seen the look of disappointment on my face because, without a moment’s hesitation, he smiled and handed it to me. Turns out, we shared a lot in common. We liked all the same stuff; the same music, the same movies, the same books. And, to cap it all off, as we each grew into our teenage years, I liked guys and so did he—so it really was a friendship made in geekdom heaven. We made it through junior high school together, suffering all the associated ignominy of that period of our young lives; me the relentless target of bullying for being a ‘copper top,’ ‘little orphan Annie,’ or ‘freckle face,’ and finally, every school bully’s favorite go-to insult for redheads, a ‘soulless ginger.’
Oscar, for who he was attracted to.
On my fifteenth birthday, Oscar handed me a small package neatly wrapped in shiny silver wrapping paper with an orange-ribbon bow. Inside was a copy of Anne of Green Gables he’d picked up from a second-hand bookstore. That night, after the few friends I’d had over to celebrate left, I’d sat in my room and begun to read the book and the adventures of its eponymous red-headed heroine. I finished it in one sitting. The next day at school, I’d rushed up behind Oscar and delivered a quote from the book, “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
Oscar had laughed, hugged me, and without even thinking about it, I’d kissed him. It wasn’t a romantic thing, not in the boyfriend-girlfriend sense, it was just an expression of my absolute love for my friend, my very best friend. It was… natural. He was my first kiss and I his, and when we pulled back from each other, we were both beaming like the proverbial Cheshire Cat and his doppelgänger.
“Well, that was unexpected, Carrots,” he said, calling me by the same nickname Anne’s eventual Green Gabel’s love-interest had given her. And from that day onward, I was officially ‘Carrots,’ and every time he called me by it, I smiled. That moment… It’s the best memory I have, and I hold on to it like it’s the most precious thing I possess of my old life. Because it is.
After high school, Oscar was quickly accepted to Caltech and graduated as a materials scientist with a job offer from Dow Corning that would have set him up for life. By the time I found myself sitting at my first UC Berkeley Law school class, I’d spent four of the previous six years as a mild-mannered receptionist by day, and five evenings a week at my local community college to earn an Associate Degree. Add to that another two years to earn my Bachelor of Science, and you can pretty much see why I’d stayed single for most of those six years, except for the occasional brief romantic fling. I hadn’t ever really wanted to be a lawyer, but I thought it would be a good foundation for a move into the political arena, which was where I felt my true calling in life really lay. Still, at that moment in time, my future looked brighter than I could ever have hoped for… right up until it didn’t.
Fast forward to Christmas 2015, and I was one year in at Berkeley Law. Oscar and I hadn’t seen each other in almost six months, so when he called to tell me he was going to be home visiting his parents at the same time I was on winter recess, I could barely contain my excitement. We had a lot to catch up on. So that’s how he came to be a passenger in my beat-up Toyota Camry driving home early from a Christmas party that’d turned out to be nowhere near as exciting as it’d promised to be. Oscar, never one to let a moment of happiness slip by uncelebrated, sat in the front-passenger seat blasting Beyoncé’s Single Ladies from the car stereo. We were both giving the Queen B a run for her money, serenading her at the top of our voices, Oscar moving and grooving to the rhythm as he drummed out the song’s beat on the dashboard with his hands. He’d had a drink or three, and he was happy and relaxed. I’d stuck to Diet Coke. Despite my sobriety, the drive home was turning out to be more fun than the party that evening; an evening that should have become nothing more than a vague memory for the both of us.
That was not to be.
The last memory I have before both our lives took a sharp right turn was stealing a glance at Oscar as he sang and bopped to the beat of the pounding music. So young. So happy. So full of potential and promise, his face smiling back at me as the Ford F150 ran the stop sign, its headlights flooding the car’s interior, creating a momentary halo around Oscar a second before the two-ton truck slammed into us at fifty-five miles-an-hour.
The next thing I remember was waking up in a hospital bed, three days after the crash with a concussion, broken wrist, and a fractured femur that left me with a permanent hitch in my step. It was Oscar who got the grand prize; he spent the final year-and-a-half of his life in a hospital bed, hooked up to a bunch of machines, in what the doctors classified as ‘unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.’
The uninsured asshole in the F150 walked away without even a scratch. I’ve always thought it was a sign of just how screwed up our existence is when a single second of time can divert your life for better or for worse, depending on what side of a decision it falls. A moment’s delay here or there and your life is suddenly moving down a completely unexpected road. It was only much later that I would truly understand the implication of that simple observation, how a simple choice can quite literally save or end a universe.
Again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, two surgeries on my leg followed by four months of outpatient treatment and physiotherapy later, I was on my feet again. The Oxycontin my doctor prescribed after I’d been released from hospital took the edge off the residual pain enough for me to get back to my classes at Berkeley. Then my insurer decided they wouldn’t pay for the pain meds anymore and I was suddenly, and irrevocably, cut off. I wasn’t particularly worried. I had enough pills to last me the rest of the week, and when they were gone, I’d do as my doctor suggested and just switch over to Tylenol and leave that period behind me. Done. Over. Deep breath; time to get on with my life.
But a half-a-day after I’d swallowed my last pill, I started feeling the first uncomfortable effects of withdrawal. As the day went on, the discomfort graduated to a pain so intense even my bones hurt. Tylenol had no effect whatsoever, and by the time that first evening rolled around, I was at a bar, searching for anyone who could hook me up with something, anything, to take away the terrible sensation I had of rotting from the inside-out. It wasn’t hard to find him, and from that day on, my habit was fed mostly by cash transactions in the bathroom at the local Denny’s.
I won’t bore you with too much of the gory details, but as my habit got worse, I started missing classes. Just one or two at first, but within a matter of months, I was spending more time in my apartment getting high than I was at Berkeley. Then I stopped going to class altogether. I told myself I could always catch up; the faculty would understand. After all, I was traumatized. I needed the downtime. Everything would be just fine. Everything felt fine… until reality finally caught up with me.
Which brings me to earlier this afternoon.
With not a dime to my name and out of Oxy, I’d woken around mid-day with the red-hot grip of withdrawal already beginning to melt my insides. My mind refused to focus, constantly slipping from thought to thought as I tried to come up with a way, any way, to scrounge up some money, but my friends wouldn’t loan me another dime; I’d burned those that had stuck around one too many times, already. I’d sold or pawned everything I had of any value. Rent on my apartment was due in two days, but I’d already spent that. I had nothing left. I was twitchy, constantly pacing back and forth from bedroom to living room to bathroom to kitchen, my mind a fog of disjointed thoughts, paranoia, and fear. Finally, unable to deal with the constant feeling of uneasiness, I walked out to the street. A couple of fliers sat in my mailbox… and a letter from the university.
For the attention of Meredith Jane Gale, the envelope read in laser printed letters above my mailing address, Berkeley’s return address in the upper left. I was seized by a sudden sense of hope; there had been a clerical error, and inside this crisp white envelope I’d find a nice little check. Just sixty bucks or so would be enough for me to score some Oxy and get my head straight again for a day or two. That’d buy me enough time to sort myself out, get myself back on track. My heart began beating faster, saliva filling my mouth in anticipation. A smile sprang to my face, and I felt a surge of anticipation. Tossing the fliers, I tore open the envelope, pulled out the neatly folded sheet of paper within and read it:
Dear Miss Gale,
Despite numerous attempts by our staff to contact you, we hereby notify you that your position within the Criminal Law curriculum has been revoked due to lack of attendance. While we understand that there have been mitigating circumstances… blah, blah, blah…
If you feel this decision has been reached in error, you may appeal by… blah, blah, blah…
The air became suddenly heavy… abrasive against my skin as a growing pressure pushed against my chest. I let the letter slip from my fingers. It fluttered to the sidewalk, where a gust of wind caught it and carried it down the street. I stood motionless, watching as it tumbled away, taking with it the last vestige of my future and everything that I had worked so damn hard for since leaving high school.
Above the roof of my apartment building, angry rainclouds scudded across the sky toward me, dark and menacing, bringing with them a promise of chaos. I watched their approach with a growing sense of foreboding as, with each passing second, the pain in my chest became sharper as though the storm were attracted to the swelling desperation within me like some kindred force. Unable to look away, I might have remained transfixed for eternity if I hadn’t felt my phone vibrating against my thigh. Without taking my eyes from the sky, I slowly reached down with a hand that seemed to be encased in molasses and slipped the phone from my pocket.
“Yeah?” I mumbled.
“Meredith? Is that you?”
I recognized the voice instantly; Oscar’s mom, June.
After the accident, Oscar’s parents had transferred him to a hospital near their home in Studio City so they could be closer to him. They had never forgotten the friendship their son had with me, which I was thankful for, even though it was always they who called me. It had been a long time since their last update, and I was glad to hear her voice, mainly because they were good Christian people. Generous to a fault. Which was just what I needed right then because I hadn’t ever hit them up for any kind of a loan and I knew they were well-to-do. I took a deep breath, pushed the swelling panic within me down into the darkness and tried to make my voice sound as normal as possible. In the back of my mind, I was already concocting a sob story about how I’d been robbed and left penniless with no way to pay my rent or buy food. I felt that warm, nagging glow of anticipation return. I was beginning to feel better already.
“Hi, Mrs. Kemple, how are you?” I said, finally dragging my eyes from the ominous clouds. “How’s Oscar doing?”
There was a long pause before June spoke again and my paranoid mind thought that maybe, just maybe, she’d somehow figured out what I was up to. When she did speak, June’s words were like a sledgehammer against my heart, somehow able to batter their way past all the pain and the incessant needling of my addiction.
“Oscar passed this morning, honey,” she said, her voice hushed and slow. “I… I wasn’t sure if anyone had told you yet.”
“Wh… what?” I stuttered. My head swam, and a fog descended over my vision. My legs suddenly unable to hold me up, I crumpled to the sidewalk, my free hand resting on the side of the mailbox to stop me from tipping over completely.
“I’m sorry, Meredith. It was, well… it was just time. We couldn’t let him go on like… like that.”
At the sound of those last two words, the image of Oscar lying in his hospital bed the last time I had visited him flashed into my head: surrounded by machines, tubes coming from his mouth and his sides. The only sound in the private hospital room the constant beep, beep, beep of the monitors. And the smell, that antiseptic, unmistakable hospital scent that barely masks the scent of dying and despair.
June continued, “Richard and I… well, we decided it was for the best.” She paused for what seemed like forever waiting for me to say something, but I found no words to fill the expanding emptiness. The knowledge that they’d ended my best friend’s life, my only friend, without even giving me the chance to say goodbye drove an invisible spear through me, skewering me to the spot.
“Meredith, are you there?” June eventually whispered. I could hear the barely hidden river of her agony flowing behind the words.
I’d tried to blame myself after the accident, but June and Richard refused to allow me to, placing the blame squarely on the driver of the F150. But secretly, I knew I was still the one to blame; if I’d only taken a different route or stayed and talked to a couple of our friends for a few minutes more, everything would have been oh-so-different. None of this would have happened. Oscar would still be alive, and I would still have been me, not this strung out, drug-addled addict. That one extra minute would have made all the difference, and this version of the universe would have never existed. Everything would have been… right.
“I’m sorry,” I managed to whisper, my voice cracking.
“It’s not your fault, sweetheart. You know we don’t blame you. And it’s all for the best,” June’s voice whispered in my ear.
I felt tears slip down my cheek.
I’m not sure if I was crying because of the news of Oscar’s death or the letter kicking me out of law school or the pain of the withdrawal that was already turning my body and mind into mush. I guess, if I’m honest, I’m going to go with the withdrawal pain because that was symptomatic of what I had become back then; selfish, negligent, and, ironically, considering the source of my addiction, in almost constant pain from the residual effects of the accident. But this news about Oscar, well, it was a pretty close second. The combined weight of it all broke me. Somewhere inside, an invisible dam buckled, crumbled, fell. And the reservoir of self-loathing and despair it held back spewed its poison into me.
“Fa… fa… thanks for letting me know,” I sniffled and hung up the phone. I hadn’t offered a single word of comfort to June, and that’s something I’ll never forgive myself for, but at that moment, I felt utterly empty. And that emptiness was a relief, because even the withdrawal pain was gone, replaced by an emotional void, black and infinite. I felt as though I was just a sack of skin, inflated by the fumes of that toxic, black nothingness. Dead. And if this was what it felt like to be dead, then I welcomed it, because there was no pain, no guilt, no caring, nothing.
It was already late afternoon, and the shadows of the trees lining the street stretched across the road, reaching for me like skeletal-fingers. I pushed myself to my feet, stared at my apartment building, then staggered off in the opposite direction just as the first plump drops of rain began to splatter on the sidewalk.
I was soaked through within the first minute, but I didn’t care. Couldn’t care, not anymore. So, I kept walking, my eyes cast downward, permanently fixed to the continually unwinding concrete pavement just a few feet ahead of me.
One step. Two steps. Repeat.
I don’t know for how long I walked, have no real memory of the journey, but by the time I looked up again, the sun was setting, and my familiar neighborhood was gone. Ahead of me, I saw the lights of the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge stretching out into the San Francisco Bay, the city lights of the bay’s namesake glowing in the darkening sky beyond. What should have been a beautiful ethereal sight was nothing but pain-inducing to my bulging eyes. A walking path extended across the span of the bridge, and I followed it, the oncoming lights from cars heading to Oakland slicing through the gathering darkness just a few feet from where I staggered through the rain falling in ice-cold sheets.
The emptiness within me shifted like a living thing, as if the void sensed the approach of night, growing restless as the sun’s last rays vanished from the horizon.
Blackness within. Blackness without, I thought.
I continued walking, the footpath, black and shiny with pooling rainwater. When I reached the center of the Oakland span, I stopped. In the distance, the lights of the Golden Gate Bridge sparkled and scintillated. Unlike its infamous sister, the Bay Bridge had no safety nets to catch a jumper who was willing to simply climb over the waist-high metal security fence and step off into the freezing waters of the San Francisco Bay.
Until this moment, I hadn’t fully understood why I was here, why my feet had led me to this place. Now it was all perfectly clear; there was nothing for me; no one who cared for me; no reason to stay. The final frayed ties to this life were all broken. This was the place. Here was where all the pain would end. I was about a mile or so out over the bay, almost at the mid-point of the Oakland span.
Far enough, I decided.
I stopped and grasped the freezing, rain-slick metal of the bridge. Movement drew my attention back to the path: a cyclist was approaching along it toward me, his head bowed to keep the rain out of his eyes, water spinning off his bike’s wheels.
Somewhere within the blackness that had once been me, a small spark of hope sputtered into life and began to gradually expand; a dim light weakly illuminating the void. This had to be a sign, it told me. A final attempt by a seemingly indifferent universe to grab my attention; to give me a chance.
“If he stops, it means he cares,” I muttered to myself. It means I matter.
The cyclist rode by without even glancing up at me.
The spark sputtered and vanished.
All I wanted now was an end to this torture.
I grasped the safety-barrier with both hands, ignored the jagged chill that ran up my arms, swung my legs over, and lowered myself down onto the thin lip of concrete extending out just a couple of inches, my back pressed against the railing. Below me was nothing but a black mirror; the only evidence there was anything other than oblivion down there, the refracted light of headlights on the shore-road bouncing off the waves of the bay. If my eyes could have pierced the darkness and driving rain into the glassy waters of the bay what would I see? Bright red hair pulled back into a bun, unruly tendrils falling around my face. Blue eyes peering back at me, surrounded by darkly shadowed skin, puffy and lined from lack of sleep. I’d lost about twenty pounds over the past couple of months, and it showed mostly in my face; I was almost twenty-eight, but I wouldn’t have blamed anyone for thinking I was closer to forty.
I teetered on the edge, the rain pounding all around me. A numbing wind gusted in from the east, cutting into my soaked and rapidly freezing skin. My teeth began to chatter. My fingers were quickly turning numb against the icy metal. I leaned back to take some of the strain from my arms, let go of the barrier, and pressed the palms of my hands against my thighs, eyes tightly closed.
“Now,” I whispered.
It was so simple. Just step off.
My body refused to obey me.
“Now,” I repeated, the first tears of frustration beginning to run hot over my freezing cheeks.
“Now!” I screamed, urging myself to do it. All I needed to do was take a step, a single step, and it would all be over. I began to lean forward…
I reached blindly behind me for the safety of the guardrail as the emptiness within me vanished as though it never existed. What replaced it was an explosion of overwhelming panic, then terror at my utter stupidity, and a wild undeniable desire to live.
There were people who loved me.
I could get help.
All I had to do was reach out to someone, anyone. My heart thudded loudly in my chest, adrenaline pushing back the fear and the discomfort and pain. Everything could be fixed, but first I needed to get off this bridge, now!
Ever so carefully, I turned back toward the safety that lay just on the other side of the barrier. Shuffling my feet inch-by-inch while I swiveled my body to face the walking path, my fingers now totally numb and barely responding, the cold eating into my bones, slowing my muscles. I’d managed to get my left leg up onto the safety rail when a violent gust of wind flashed across the bridge, slamming into me head on. My right foot skated on the slick concrete lip like it was ice. I tried to keep my balance, overcorrected, felt my foot whip out from beneath me… and I slipped. My chin smashed into the railing knocking my head back. I felt teeth and bone crack as my jaws smashed together. Hot blood filled my mouth. Pain exploded through my body. My vision swam, my fingers released their grip on the railing. I began to slide off the side of the bridge, stopped from plummeting straight into the bay only by the fact that my body, from my right heel all the way up to my armpit, scraped agonizingly across the lip of concrete I’d been balanced on. As I dropped, my hands smacked against the railings… and the fingers of my right hand locked onto the metal. I would have screamed, but the blood in my mouth clogged my throat, choking me. I couldn’t even draw enough air to breathe let alone cry out for help.
I’m going to die. Oh my God, I’m going to die, my mind screamed. This can’t be happening. Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!
A fresh wave of panic exploded through my body, taking hold of me and refusing to let go. I whimpered like a baby as the fingers of my right hand began to cramp.
I gasped out loud at the sound of someone’s voice nearby.
“Candidate 13, do you wish to be saved? Answer yes or no.”
I couldn’t tell whether the voice belonged to a man or a woman; it was flat, emotionless. It sounded like it was coming from the walkway, about two-feet above where I dangled over the drop into the freezing bay water, suspended by one hand. And for a moment, I thought I was saved. I looked up, expecting to see feet or a hand reaching for me… but no one was there.
Then the disembodied voice spoke again, crackly and with a distinct electronic edge to it, like you hear in a movie when some kidnapper is trying to disguise his identity from the Feds. “Candidate 13. Meredith Jane Gale. In thirty seconds, you will be beyond my ability to save. Do you wish to be saved? Answer yes or no.”
I blinked several times in quick succession. “What?” I managed to slur through lips that felt like they were made of cotton. I felt warm blood spill over my chin with each word. “Help me. Please.”
“Meredith Jane Gale,” the voice continued. “Born August 7th, 1990 to Norman and Doreen Gale. Attended El Camino High School. Your best friend was Oscar Kemple. He expired today, contributing to your advanced state of depression. You lost your virginity to Richard Pollard at age sixteen and seven months in the rear seat of his Ford Explorer. The color of the walls of your childhood bedroom was purple, a color your mother objected to. This afternoon you received a letter stating you have been removed from your law course at Berkeley University.
Candidate 13, in eight seconds, you will lose your grip and fall. You will break numerous bones upon impact with the water, but you will not die from the fall. You will, however, drown six minutes and eighteen seconds after impact. The pain during that time will be intolerable. Once you are deceased, high winds and a stronger than normal swell will sweep your body far out to sea. It will never be recovered. I can save you. Answer, yes or no.”
Just how the voice knew all of this, I did not know. “Please, help me,” I whispered, blood clogging my lips. “You have to help—”
“Answer, yes or no,” the voice interrupted in that same cold, almost-electronic tone.
I started to answer, but before I could get the words past my shredded lips, my fingers gave way, and I slipped from the bridge, and I fell.
“Yes!” I screamed, my eyes tightly closed as I dropped toward the waiting abyss. Whether the words were in my mind or I actually managed to say them, I don’t know, but a millisecond later, there was a bright flare of orange light, and my world ceased to be.