Mark was asleep, or unconscious, or comatose, pick your word. What he wasn't was dead, although that was his fondest wish.
He was dreaming, the kind of dream which had haunted his nights and mornings and early afternoons, whenever his body would seem to give up and say "enough!" and force his feverish mind to sleep. The dream recreating that horrible night three months ago, which had changed his life forever.
It rained that night, of course, as it does so predictably in these kind of books when tragedy is about to occur. Laura, Mark's wife, and their daughter Jeanette and son Thomas were on their way to the movies. They were off to see Vin Diesel's latest blockbuster, and were excited. Thomas was enthralled with the prospect of fast cars and explosions, where Laura and Jeanette were entranced more with the more organic charms of Mr. Diesel himself.
Mark, though a minor fan of Vin Diesel himself, was at home, working on some projects in the garage. He had the scanner on in the background, and was monitoring the police, fire, ham, and aircraft bands. The radio chattered on about various fender benders and falls, as it usually did in such weather.
That night's major task was lights. Tail lights, brake lights, reverse lights, side lights, all were flaky or completely inoperative on the 1980 Fiat Spyder 2000 currently (and temporarily) sheltered in the garage. Well, at least there was room in the garage, and time at last, now that the work on the other cars was done. This made Mark happy, and he whistled nearly tunelessly between the usual grunts and obscenities of car maintenance.
Rust makes a poor conductor of electricity, and this car had the characteristic Fiat love of oxidation. Not to mention the rotted insulation, the dirty sockets, and the worst, the ham-handed "modifications" by the previous owner.
"God-damned idiot, what the F*** was he thinking, a trailer harness on a Fiat!" he muttered as he cut away the twisted mess of wire and clamp-on connectors. The scanner squawked and muttered in agreement. The rain fell harder.
Mark's family continued to chatter, sometimes all three talking at once, as Laura drove with one hand and lit a cigarette with the other. She was doing pretty well, she thought, only a six-pack so far today and now a movie with her babies. Her buzz was just where she wanted it, but she realized she'd have to stock up on nicotine so not to have to sneak out in the middle of the picture. "Don't want to miss those buns!" She blinked twice at a triple set of taillights ahead, and then realized she needed to increase the speed on the wiper blades. She did, and turned to respond to a playful jibe from her daughter. "Mom!! Look Out!"
At one point, the previous year, Laura had complained about an odd noise in the engine of the SUV. It was intermittent, one of Mark's least favorite kinds of problems. It took a while (especially since he wasn't the primary driver) but he finally tracked the noise to the power steering pump. Ah, and yes, the power steering fluid level *was* low.
Mark was a bug for safety, but he also hated working on the big SUV. Not only was everything too high off the ground, but it was all packed in and covered up. Today's vehicles weren't made for home mechanics, but were black boxes full of unknowns. "Close the hood and forget about it," they seemed to say. "Might as well get it all done at once," he thought.
It was a simple thing, really. Fluid for brakes, fluid for coolant, fluid for windshield wipers... and fluid for power steering. Four plastic reservoirs, and four kinds of fluid.
The windshield wiper fluid was easy. Blue, smells of alcohol, goes into the filler neck on the passenger side front of the engine compartment.
Coolant was easy too. Green, with a sweet cloying odor, goes into the much larger container in the passenger side front. The one with the overflow hose, of course.
The other two... less so. Both power steering fluid and brake fluid come in small plastic bottles, and the reservoirs are next to each other... on the driver's side of the engine compartment.
Mark had been drinking the night before, and had a headache and dry mouth. He really wanted to go back to sleep, but was getting ready to go out for the traditional Sunday Paper and Pastry anyway. So, he picked up the bottle of power steering fluid, and topped off the reservoir. Then he capped them both off, leaned the bottle up against the windshield, and turned on the motor.
The squeal was gone, though that was no clear assurance, and Mark worked the steering wheel back and forth to exercise the steering pump. No noise. He was pleased, and shut off the motor.
"Top off the brakes, and I'm ready to go to the store," he thought, and idly dreamed about relaxing with Laura and reading the comics. As he drifted, he picked up the bottle, uncapped it, and filled the brake reservoir exactly to the line. "Perfect." Getting things perfect was important to Mark, and a rare thing.
Then he capped the reservoir, and reached with his left hand to pick up the other bottle leaning on the windshield. The bottle's cap read "DOT3". S***.
Indeed, the bottle already in Mark's right hand read "Power Steering Fluid". He'd put the wrong one in.
Mark uncapped the brake reservoir, and noticed a mixture not unlike Italian salad dressing, streaks of varying density reflecting the light. S***, s***!
"It's only a couple teaspoons' worth," he thought, as he tried to bail out the layer of salad dressing. "Surely that can't be important".
He bailed most of the filthy contaminant from the reservoir, and topped off with the genuine brake fluid. Then he put away the bottles, and started the normal Sunday routine. Everything was fine, the steering responsive and quiet, the brakes firm and smooth. He decided not to mention it to his family. "They think I'm stupid enough as it is."
Over time, the few drops of power steering fluid in the brake system caused changes. Rubber parts in the master cylinder, in the lines, and in the calipers began to swell. The brakes became stickier, though it was hard to notice a little drag on the V6 engine, and the cigarettes masked the smell of burning brake pads.
Laura took a split second to return her attention to the road. The triple brake lights had resolved to two, large, stationary lights, far too close. She hit the brakes and swerved, since it was clear that otherwise they were going to hit. The brakes locked, and the SUV skidded sidewise just to one side of the car ahead, and into the intersection.
Buck was a trucker, this week hauling frozen meat for a regional grocery chain. He had been driving for 20 hours, tired from the long day, and barely awake. The last stop had been the worst, since they were short-handed and he had to help unload. That was it, though, and he was on his way home. He was ready for his bed, and he could just about feel the soft down quilt surrounding him. The painted lines of the cross town bypass kept drifting up off the pavement, oddly enough, until he would wake himself with a jerk and a shiver. He had just drifted off once again when he went through the intersection.
Mark was almost done. He had every light on the back of the car working appropriately, with the exception of the right tail light. Brakes, turn signals, parking lights, reverse lights, trunk light, all systems go except that one stubborn tail light. He sighed as he realized he'd need a new socket assembly. Another hundred dollars to throw into this ancient rust bucket.
The scanner sounded the characteristic tones for Fire and Rescue, Company 3. Mark listened more closely, as this was the one closest to his house. If it were a fire, he might have to go out to it as part of his Red Cross Disaster Action Team duties.
"Engine 31, Medic 31, Vehicle accident, corner 199 and Rt... 5. Passenger vehicle and a tractor-trailer. Nineteen thirty one"
Not a fire, so Mark relaxed and tried wiggling the tail light socket again, in the probably vain hope that out of chaos would come order... or at least a working light. He also checked his watch. JCC Dispatch seemed to exist in their own time zone, about 4 minutes behind standard.
"James City County Dispatch, Medic 31"
"Go ahead Medic 31"
"Vehicle Accident corner 199 and Rt. 5, we have a tractor trailer, jack-knifed, minor injuries to driver, and an SUV, three persons, at least one trapped."
"Pretty major accident," Mark mused, and turned his complete attention to the scanner. He listened to the drama unfold, as the on-site team called for the Jaws of Life.
"James City County, Medic 31 en-route to Williamsburg Community."
"Medic 31, en route WCH, twenty hundred hours."
That was it for the story, at least by scanner, since Mark knew the remaining radio traffic would be routine. He turned off the scanner and went in the house, to watch TV and wait for his family to get home.
A little while later, the phone rang.
This was the point where Mark would wake up from his nightmare, sweating and shouting. It had been this way every night or morning or afternoon for the last three months, whenever his body would seem to give up on his mind and shut itself down and force him to finally sleep.
Today was no different, and he awoke screaming. Today was different, though, because he wasn't in his bed. He was behind the wheel of the Fiat, in a parking lot. with the sun streaming in through the windshield. Silhouetted against this dazzling light was a giant elephant.
to be continued...