A Case of Petit Mal
by Tom Hooker
Someone once said that when a person’s head bounces on concrete, as in a fall from a high place, it sounds like a ripe melon bursting. That’s so wrong.
On the day I discovered this, I found myself on the east side of Church Street, halfway between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Across the street, a slender, black-haired woman was pushing one of those collapsible strollers with her right hand. The image of her sun-bronzed shoulders and legs, bared by a gold tube-top and navy shorts, was reflected in the smoked glass window of Freeman’s News Stand as she passed by. With her left hand, she held the hand of a small replica of herself: a girl in a pink sundress, white knee socks and sneakers.
My spine tingled. Something in my mind said, Watch these people.
Four cars were parallel-parked along the west side of the street. Noise from the sparse traffic bounced off the surrounding buildings, and exhaust soured the air.
The woman stopped to talk with a blonde who approached from the opposite direction. They laughed together. My subject let go of the stroller and the child so she could use her hands to illustrate her conversation.
The kid stuck her thumb in her mouth and glanced around. She stared in my direction and, for a moment, I thought she saw me. She tugged on the hem of her mother’s shorts, and received a vacant smile and a dismissive word for her effort. She removed her thumb from her mouth and grabbed the handles of the stroller.
I understood why I was being shown this event.
She pivoted the stroller, aimed it toward the street and pushed it between two of the parked cars just as a bronze PT Cruiser barreled through the Church Street and Fifth Avenue intersection. I realized the driver couldn’t see the girl or the stroller.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. The girl pushed the stroller into the street a half-second before the car hit it. The stroller flipped up and out, away from the Cruiser’s bumper. A bundle — a baby wrapped in a blue and white knit blanket — flew from the stroller in a high, slow arc. A pacifier separated from the bundle and hovered like a moon orbiting an infant planet. The girl’s momentum carried her forward and she bounced off the PT Cruiser’s right front quarter panel before being whipsawed between it and one of the parked cars. The baby bounced on the street. Its head made a flat whump, like a sack of sugar.
I felt like puking.
Behind the carnage the mother turned and brought her hand to her mouth. She had just realized what her moment of inattention had cost.
I checked my watch — one-fifteen. I’d seen enough. I waved my hands in a flourish, like those of a magician at the end of a trick...
* * *
“Pete? Petey? Are you all right?” I woke to the smell of flour and rosewater. Grandma Hamilton’s soft gray eyes were watching me.
She smiled, relieved. “There you are. For a second I thought...” The lower half of her face sagged a little. “Oh, my. You had one of those spells, didn’t you?”
Spells. That’s what Grandma Hamilton called them. Uncle Harvey called them “fits.” Most everybody else called them “episodes.”
They began about the same time my voice changed, when I could start a sentence and by the time I finished it, I’d have hit all four harmony parts of a barbershop quartet. I was so embarrassed that I often tried to respond to conversation with no more than a nod, a grunt or a shake of my head.
When the spells began, Mom and Dad took me to our family doctor, who listened patiently to their story before referring me to a neurologist.
Dr. French ran an MRI and a CT scan. I peeked at his notes. He called the results “unremarkable,” which I thought meant “boring” until I learned that in doctorspeak “unremarkable” meant “normal.”
Next came an EEG, where I lay on a hospital bed in a dimly lit room, my head covered with sticky pads with wires attached. Dr. French pronounced that test unremarkable, too. He seemed perplexed, unable to pinpoint the cause of the problem.
I was sitting at the end of an examining table one day, my feet resting on the pull-out footrest. Dr. French was standing beside me, head down, leafing through my file. Mom and Dad sat in chairs in the corner of the small room. Later, they told me what happened next.
I shut down. It was as if I were an appliance that had been unplugged. My eyes were open. I didn’t blink; I didn’t twitch, scratch, sniff or cough. I did nothing.
Dr. French might have missed it if he hadn’t chosen just that moment to ask me something. He might have chalked up my silence to embarrassment over my voice if he hadn’t noticed how still I was and how dead my eyes were. The episode lasted maybe four seconds. By then, Dr. French had his diagnosis. Petit mal epilepsy.
In fact, while my body had been there in Dr. French’s examining room, my mind had been somewhere else entirely...
* * *
Suddenly, I found myself standing in the back yard of a strange house.
A dog was there, going absolutely berserk; looking at me and barking so hard that slobber flew everywhere. A man was there too, manhandling a large aluminum extension ladder with uncalloused hands and trying to keep his khaki Dockers clean. He shushed the dog and, in the process, he looked right through me. I didn’t know then that I was invisible during these episodes.
A power line swooped from a pole near the street to a corner of the house. I saw a floodlight under the eave and figured the man was trying to position the ladder so he could reach the light. It must have had a burned-out bulb.
I had no trouble spotting the tipping point — where gravity controlled the ladder and the man did not. He grunted in frustration. Even I was smart enough to know that now was the time to let go and just let the ladder fall. But no, he fought the ladder all the way until it hit the power line and the electricity cracked like a bullwhip. I still have nightmares about that day; the smell of burned flesh and charred shoe leather...
I woke the following Saturday with a weird feeling, a kind of a tingle in my spine. That feeling grew stronger until I had to get up and walk around. By lunchtime, the feeling was so strong that I felt as if I was about to go up like a freakin’ bomb. I had decided to ask Mom to take me to the ER when it went away. Just like that, it was gone.
The next morning, I was sitting at the breakfast table with Dad, who hid behind the newspaper while Mom made pancakes. Dad went, “Will you look at this? Some guy got electrocuted yesterday. He was handling a ladder and it hit a power line.”
That was all I heard before I fainted.
* * *
I can always tell when the big day arrives. My nerves have a little zing dialed in when I wake up.
Mom gave me a big smile when I came down for breakfast. “There you are,” she said. “I thought I’d have to get you up again. I made a sausage biscuit for you.”
I grunted. Mom’s idea of making breakfast was sixty seconds in a microwave.
“When are you going to start talking again, Pete?” Mom sighed. “One of these days you will have to come out of that shell. Maybe when you meet a girl, huh?”
I let Mom fuss over me for a little while before I headed for class at Hendersonville High School.
At about twelve forty-five I left the campus and walked out Eighth Avenue, following the chain link fence along the southern end of the football field. When I crossed Church Street, I turned and walked south.
My timing was good. I reached the spot between Fourth and Fifth Avenues just shy of one-fifteen. The woman with the kid and the stroller was there. When the kid grabbed the stroller, I crossed the street, reached the gap between the parked cars and stopped at the curb. The little girl looked up, surprised to find her way blocked.
The PT Cruiser whizzed by and that annoying itch in my nervous system faded. I held out my hand. The girl took it without question, and I led her and the stroller away from the street.
“What are you doing? Are you trying to get my child killed?”
The mom stood before me; her eyes wild and frantic. “You leave my child alone! Touch her again and I’ll call the cops!” She grabbed the girl and the stroller and stormed away.
The brown-eyed girl turned and looked curiously at me; her mother’s rapid pace forcing her into a ragged, jerky run to try to keep up.
Except for the panicked mom, this event had gone pretty smoothly, unlike the ladder guy.
* * *
Two weeks later I scrounged around in the garage until I found the old inner tube I’d used to float down the Mills River last summer. Dad had let the air out to save storage space. I used my bicycle pump to inflate it; then I found a coil of rope about fifty feet long. I tied the rope around the tube, stuck my arm through the hole and marched away.
He was already in the water. The previous night’s rain had turned Mud Creek into a roiling torrent. I could see, further up the river, the overhanging branch the boy had tried to walk on. He didn’t make a sound. His head was just above the surface; his eyes were big, like white ping-pong balls. He dog-paddled for all he was worth. As I watched, the boy’s head slid under the water.
I uncoiled the rope, wrapped my hand around the fat tube and focused on a spot in the river. The boy’s head reappeared and he uttered a strangled cough followed by a weak, frantic wail that sounded more like the soft mewling of a kitten.
I sailed the tube through the air. It landed on target, right in front of him. He threw his arms over its rim and I pulled the rope taut, letting the strong current swing my cargo to the bank. The boy scrambled to shore.
“Are you okay?” I smiled. “That was scary! What’s your name? I’m Pete.”
The boy clambered to his feet. He wiped water from his eyes, giving me a look that seemed a mixture of fear, relief and gratitude before bolting down a narrow path.
I shook my head and gathered up my tube and rope. I was like, “What does a guy have to do to get a thank-you around here?”
* * *
These episodes didn’t occur very often. Each time I seemed to leave my body and go to another place and time where I watched something happen that hadn’t really happened yet. Then I was taken back to my body. Later a twinge in my nerves warned me to find the place I’d seen in my spell. Each event always involved my saving somebody.
I don’t mind telling you, this thing scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, was I dying? Was this the side-effect of some kind of disease, like cancer, or worse? Would I have one of these spells and go away to some dark place only to never come back? I felt all alone, burdened with a power — and responsibility — that no one else had.
I tried to find somebody to talk to about it. I told my best friend, Kenny, and his eyes bugged out.
“Wow!’ he said. “You mean nobody can see you? You should go into the girls’ locker room at the gym when Leia Roberts is in there.”
That wasn’t the kind of sympathy I was looking for, so I blew him off. I didn’t bother to tell him that I’d already tried that, and it didn’t work. This force wouldn’t let me leave the place where I was to make my rescue.
I tried to find out why I was so “lucky.” I spent hours in the library, which surprised and thrilled Ms. Nolina and my other teachers. I studied books and articles on epilepsy and on the supernatural, but I couldn’t find anything to explain my gift or, perhaps, curse was a better word. Of course, I didn’t believe epilepsy had anything to do with it. The doctor didn’t know what happened during my spells, and I wasn’t about to tell him.
I’m into comic book superheroes, so I had to have an alter ego. I spent a lot of time working on a name. Superman, Spiderman and Batman were out, of course. All the good names were already taken. I finally settled on Time Twister, never mind that I seemed to be the twistee instead of the twister.
Next came the costume. I ruled out a cape. I couldn’t fly, so I’d never be able to get the thing to swirl out behind me. Plus, a cape was too bulky to hide under my everyday clothes. I went for the Spiderman look — a mask, which was actually a gray ski mask made from a thin, sock-like material and which I hid in my book bag. I blew two weeks worth of lawn-mowing money on a maroon spandex neck-to-ankle leotard from the fitness center.
The first time I wore this get-up, I couldn’t find a place to make a quick change, so my everyday clothes stayed on over my costume.
The next time, I changed too soon and had to hang around while everyone pointed at me and laughed, and I almost blew the rescue.
I finally gave up on the costume and along with it my fantasy of charging in to do my thing before rushing away, leaving a bunch of young girls — hearts a-flutter — to look after me and ask, “Who was that masked man?”
Without a costume, an alter ego was a waste, so I dropped the name, too. Since my job involved sidetracking the victims before disaster hit, nobody really knew they had been saved. My adoring public didn’t adore me after all. They didn’t even know I existed.
* * *
My latest escapade placed me outside a convenience store on a run-down section of Seventh Avenue. I watched a guy with long yellow hair come out of the store carrying a paper bag of groceries in each arm. His face was angular, with a square jaw, sharp cheekbones and a brow ridge that overhung his eye sockets and left his eyes in permanent shadow. He looked like a statue whose sculptor had shaped the face but forgot to soften its rugged edges.
I sauntered down the sidewalk toward the man and lurched at the last moment, knocking the bags from his arms.
“Hey,” he said.
“Sorry.” I knelt over the fallen supplies. I peeked out of the corner of my eye and saw a dark-haired, bearded guy — the one I’d seen during my “spell” — scowl as he walked past. I also saw the nickel-plated .22 stuck into the back of his jeans. The tingle in my spine faded.
“That was clumsy of me,” I said. “I’ll help you pick up this stuff.”
The yellow-haired man seemed a little huffy. He paused. “You can help me carry it to my apartment, too. It’s the least you can do.”
“Right down this alley.” He hefted one of the bags and walked down a narrow passage between a couple of paint-cracked cinder block buildings. I followed with the other bag. We reached a side door near the end of the alley. The man pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and unlocked the door. “Come on in,” he said. “I’ll get you a Coke.”
A warning bell sounded in my head. “No thanks.” I dropped the bag of groceries, and turned to run down the alley.
I’d only made a couple of steps when a rough hand grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me up short. He put his left arm around my shoulder in a gesture that looked friendly but felt dangerous. I heard a click, and I found myself looking at a long slender switchblade, open for business.
“I insist,” the man growled.
“But... but, I just saved your life. That black-haired guy was going to kill you. I knocked the bags out of your hands to save you.”
“Yeah, right. What are you, psychic?”
“Nice try.” Then he smiled, showing teeth that matched his hair. “C’mon. We’ll have some fun.”
This can’t be happening, I thought. I stared into his gray eyes. Maybe this is another premonition. I’m just seeing something that is going to occur. I waved my hands in a flourish. Nothing happened.
The man’s eyes widened in surprise, and I realized he thought I was trying to use some kind of kung fu move on him. I saw his fingers tighten on the knife handle and I thought: So that’s it? I don’t get to save myself? I closed my eyes.
I heard a thwok! and the man’s arm released my shoulder. Then I heard the clatter of metal on pavement.
“Ow!” The man had dropped his knife and grabbed his head. Blood trickled between his fingers.
I spun and looked down the alley. A black kid was standing with his legs spread, a red towel sewn Superman-cape style to the shoulders of his sweatshirt. He held a slingshot in his left hand.
“Run, fool!” he shouted.
Copyright © 2020 by Tom Hooker