Forked Logic

The Golden Hour

Cover Image for The Golden Hour

At 6:15 on the second Monday morning in September, Lisa Stanhope woke up and left her house to hang signs advertising her sister-in-law's yard sale. Lisa had been given the day off after working overtime on both the Friday and Saturday before. Marcy, her younger brother Jackie's wife, was eight months pregnant with their first child. Neither of them let on, but Lisa knew money had gotten tight and would only get tighter once the baby was born, so she had volunteered to organize the yard sale to help them raise some extra money.

She showered, got dressed, ate a simple breakfast- half a cantaloupe and a bowl of oatmeal, and left her house. Before hanging any signs, she stopped at the Citgo station on the corner of Church Drive and Bethesda Road. As she filled her gas tank, the smell of the gas fumes sparked her memory. She had loved the smell of gas ever since she was a little girl. She remembered sitting in the back of her family's great blue Chevrolet Nomad station wagon while her father filled the tank. He used to whistle while the gas pumped. To this day, more than thirty years later, whenever she smelled gas fumes she thought of her father's whistling.

Once the tank was full, she took a roll of scotch tape and two of the yard-sale signs out of the backseat and went into the store to buy a cup of coffee. As she was leaving, she taped the two signs on the windows of the gas station. When she turned on her car, the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun" was playing on the radio. It reminded her of how her bed had felt that morning, the light coming through her window, the softness of the jersey knit sheets underneath her, the warmth that came from her own beating heart and breathing lungs, caught and wrapped into a cocoon around her by the comforter she could now faintly feel against her cheek. She wished she was still there.

It wasn't that she minded being up early. In fact, she enjoyed the morning. It was slower and quieter than the other parts of the day, and people tended to be nicer. -maybe not nicer, she thought, but at least more subdued. She guessed it was probably because their brains were still half-asleep, only just awake enough to perform the very minimum it would take to accomplish whatever it was that had gotten them out of bed in the first place. Or was it that she wasn't yet awake enough to care to analyze their behavior and judge them for it?

There were also those bright, chipper people who were most awake in the morning. These self-proclaimed "morning people" were always beaming early in the day, talking about how great it felt outside, telling you about the birds they had heard singing as they left their house that morning, about how beautiful the sunrise they had woken up at 5:30 to see had been. Their enthusiasm tended to wane as the day went on--although one of her workmates, Rodrigo, held on to his throughout the entire day. If she was honest with herself--which was easier for her in the early hours--she couldn't deny that she despised Rodrigo for his endless positivity. She felt like he was rubbing her face in how much happier and more enjoyable his life was than hers. That, or he was showing off how much better he was than her at pretending to be happy. Either way, she couldn't help but roll her eyes whenever she heard his buoyant, brassy voice.

The light turned green, and she started forward across Church St. As her attention was drawn out of her own thoughts and back into the world around her it occurred to her that she might be wrong about Rodrigo. Maybe his positivity was his way of coping with his own worries. Maybe it was his way of taking control over his life, his way of asserting himself. No matter what life threw at him, he could always choose to respond positively. He could always choose to project optimism. Her stomach turned and she became oddly conscious of her hands on the steering wheel as it dawned on her that she was jealous of him. Why couldn't she stay positive like that? Why did her problems always seem to weigh her down? She told herself that she would try to do better with Rodrigo; maybe she could learn from him. Then she remembered his voice and she knew that she would not be able to keep her promise.

The next place she stopped was at the corner of Bethesda and Martin Lane. The plot of land was a little more than an acre, bound by Walker's Creek on the north and Martin Lane on the south. A dense patch of woods formed the eastern border of the lot and Bethesda ran along the west. She knew the large, forest green, antebellum-era house that stood in the center of the lot had been empty for at least two years. The exterior paint was quickly losing its grip; flakes littered the ground all around, leaving in their places empty spots of wall that faintly reminded her of freckles. There was a small, drained pond to the north of the house just above the creek and a tin-roofed barn was gradually rusting away in the backyard. With her coffee in her right hand and the signs in her left, she hopped out and walked over to the wooden telephone pole just beside the intersection. Bethesda was one of the major arteries of the area, and she felt confident that people would see the sign.

She was in front of the pole when she realized she had brought her coffee instead of the staple gun. She couldn't help but laugh at herself as she went to retrieve it; she was always forgetting little things like that. Once, a few years before, she had driven two hours to a boutique in Fleming, hoping to return a dress she had been given as a gift. It was only after walking into the store that she realized she had left the dress back at her house. Her husband, Jeff, had laughed himself to tears when she had told him what had happened. It was, much to her chagrin, still one of his favorite stories to tell.

She sat her coffee on the roof, opened the back door, and picked up the staple gun off of the backseat. Once she got back to the telephone pole, she positioned the sign about six and a half feet high and put a staple in both the top-left and top-right corners, straining to reach on her tip-toes. As she was stapling the bottom-right corner a loud scraping noise behind her startled her. She turned to look and was blinded by a flash of white light.

Michael Jones woke up at 6:30, thirty minutes earlier than usual. His head throbbed. He had gotten, at the very most, three hours of sleep. Stumbling into the kitchen, he filled a glass of water and drank it down without drawing the cup from his lips. After repeating this two more times, he went into the bathroom and pissed for what felt to him like three full minutes but what was in fact a still impressive forty-two seconds. Barely alert enough to be considered half-awake, he returned to bed.

The next time he opened his eyes it was 7:00. He jumped out of bed and rushed to get dressed. There was no time to shower or brush his teeth. He could get breakfast when he got to work. Once dressed, he pulled a wooden box from underneath his nightstand and carried it out into the living room. He sat down on the couch and opened it on the coffee table. There was a small plastic bottle, a baggy of light brown powder, a small mirror, and an old hotel keycard. He took out the bottle and the baggy of powder.

The top of the bottle was shaped like the point of a bullet, and that's what the device was called. There was a hole in the tip that led to a small chamber. A wheel on the side controlled a barrier that connected the chamber to the main emptiness of the bottle. He unscrewed the top, emptied the powder into the bottle, replaced the top, turned it upside down, gave it nine quick flicks with his index finger, and turned the wheel. When he did, a pinch of the powder fell into the bottom chamber of the bullet-shaped top. Covering his left nostril, he held it up to his right and sniffed. The bitter, brown powder in the bottom chamber rushed into his nose. He closed his eyes and let the drug wash over him. The pain in his head melted into a warmth that radiated through and invigorated his whole body. He repeated the process with his left nostril, again closing his eyes and tilted his head upwards.

For a moment, time seemed to stop and he hung suspended on the peak of a soft, ecstatic pulse. Once he came back to himself, he put the bottle back into the box, returned it to its place in his nightstand, locked the front door, and left out the back.

The drive from his apartment to the convenience store where he worked took thirty minutes. He was supposed to be there at 7:45. Local construction crews and landscaping teams came to the store for breakfast each morning around eight, and he needed to be there to run the cash register so his boss, the store's overstressed and overweight, constantly red-in-the face owner, Rick, could prepare sausage and cheese biscuits and fried bologna sandwiches for them. Michael could smell the grease, hear the crude jokes the laborers told everyday, see Rick's stubby fingers wrapping biscuits in their aluminum foil wrappers. It was all repulsive to him. In no mood to be yelled at, and having already been chided for his lateness in the mornings, he sped through traffic, weaving in and out of the other commuters.

The combination of his exhaustion, the low-quality heroin, and the adrenaline from the speed he was driving sent his mind racing. He couldn't keep himself from thinking about all the things that he normally tried to keep himself from thinking about. He couldn't hold them back, and he couldn't find any way to distract himself from them. He thought about his parents. He hadn't talked to them since he stormed out of their house four months ago when they had confronted him about his drug use. He knew they hadn't deserved to be treated the way he had treated them, he knew they were worried about him and wanted to help him. He also knew that he would never accept it. He knew that he didn't want it. He thought about his girlfriend. They had fought last night and he had left angry. He couldn't remember now what had started the fight or even what it had been about, but he did remember the look on her face and how she had gone silent after he had pulled the bullet from his pocket and taken a hit.

Did they really think he didn't know how destructive his decisions were? Did they not understand that that was the whole point? That he didn't want any recovery, any return to normalcy? Normalcy is what had driven him here in the first place. All those self-righteous self-lovers with their inflated egos and distorted realities. No. He couldn't stand normalcy without heroin and normalcy couldn't seem to stand him with it. What was the point? To work in a dead-end job so he could afford his piece of shit apartment? To enjoy his life with his girlfriend and family who saw him as a degenerate? He couldn't take it anymore. He had to take action. He had to change something. He turned up the radio (the finale of the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun"), closed his eyes, and pushed the throttle to the floor.

Tom Mayfield's alarm went off at 7:15. His wife Sarah got up to take a shower. Though he was completely awake, he lay motionless in bed with his eyes closed, listening--to the overhead fan, to his own breath, and finally to the shower once it turned on. Rolling over on his back and stretching his arms and legs wide, he felt the warm spot where his wife had been sleeping. The shower turned off, and he opened his eyes. Just as he did a loud squelch erupted from the handheld radio on his nightstand.

"10-26, we've got a report of an accident at the corner of Bethesda and Martin." The dispatcher's voice shook every ounce of sleep from Tom's mind. His house was only three hundred yards from the accident.

He got dressed, strapped the radio to his belt, grabbed his extrication glasses off the kitchen table, and left the house. He could see the wreck as soon as he pulled out of his driveway. There was a crumpled black sedan sitting in front of one of the two oak trees that stood along the driveway of the old, empty, house on the corner of Bethesda and Martin. The way the roof was collapsed meant that the car had either somersaulted into the tree or skidded on its nose into it. A silver sedan was parked in the pull-through behind the tree.

Passing the house on the opposite corner, he noticed two long skid marks on the side of the' driveway. It looked like the driver had hit the side and been thrown into the air-. The next set of tire marks didn't come until he had crossed Martin. He figured that the impact of the landing must have caused the back end to rise up, throwing the roof of the car into the tree.

His adrenaline was already pumping as he turned into the driveway. It calmed him, helped him to focus. Time seemed to slow down. Looking to his right as he pulled in he saw a woman's body lying in the ditch a few feet away. There was a staple gun and stray papers littered around the body. Her head was lying at least twenty feet further down the ditch. The lower jaw was missing, and the contents of her skull strewn across the grass. Trying to piece things together, he noticed blood on the post of the stop sign. She must have been hit by the car and thrown into the stop sign. He knew there was nothing he could do for her, so he focused his attention on the black sedan. He parked the truck, jumped out, retrieved the acetylene torch from the toolbox in the bed of his truck, and raced to the car.

As he got closer, he could see movement behind the driver's window. He could feel his heart pounding behind his ears. Once he got close enough, he let the driver know he was there and assured them that he was going to get them out. There was no response. The spastic, uncontrolled nature of the driver's movements made Tom suspect brain trauma. During his EMT training, he had been taught about a concept known as "The Golden Hour." Studies had shown that in cases of extreme trauma patients' survival rates took a nosedive if they weren't in the hands of a surgeon within the first hour after injury. The body, it seems, doesn't settle in to its new mangled state immediately.

To get the driver out, he would have to remove the roof of the car. There were six joints that connected the roof to the frame. As he started cutting the first joint, he checked his watch. 7:32. He figured the wreck had occurred around 7:20, which left 48 minutes in the golden hour. It took him two minute and fifteen seconds to cut through the first joint. Before he started the second, he called into his radio.

"Dispatch this is 1014, we're gonna need helicopter evac for this accident at Bethesda and Martin."

"10-4 1014, we'll get them headed your way."

Tom put the radio back on his belt and got back to cutting. The second joint took him longer than the first. The third went faster than both of the first two. After finishing the first three, he rushed to the other side of the vehicle. Before he relit the torch, he checked his watch. 7:38, 42 minutes left in the golden hour.

He focused on cutting the remaining three joints as fast as he could. Sweat poured off of him as the heat from the torch rose up in his face. He finished the last joint, put the torch down, and hurriedly removed the roof. The driver was the only person inside, and he was in bad shape. As Tom climbed into the car to help him, he took stock of the injuries he could see. Both femurs had snapped and were protruding from the thighs, there were four visible fractures in his skull, and based on the contour of his back he had several broken vertebrae. He was unconscious, but his arms were twitching at his sides, a result of all the pressure on his brain. Tom stood in the seat behind him, grabbed him under the arms, and hoisted him out of the car. He could smell the metallic, chalky powder from the airbag, and the combination of it and the sweat from his brow made his eyes burn. Once he got the driver out of the car, he strapped him to a stretcher and checked his watch. 7:46, 34 minutes left in the golden hour.

The helicopter should get here any minute, he thought. It should take around ten minutes to get to the hospital, and maybe another five to get to an operating table. That leaves about twenty minutes in the Golden Hour. He knew the driver's chance of survival was slim, but he also knew better than to doubt modern medicine. He had seen too many unbelievable recoveries first-hand; he knew the kinds of miracles that happened every day.

An ambulance arrived and two paramedics got out. One immediately walked over to the driver and started assessing his injuries. The other went to talk with Tom's supervisor.

"Where is the helicopter? Seems like it should be here by now." Tom asked Terry, a fellow volunteer, after a few minutes had passed.

"Paramedics must have cancelled it." The paramedics were the highest authority on scene, and had the final say on the course of action.

"Really?" Tom replied, the leftover adrenaline fueling his surprise. "Sure, the guy's in bad shape. But you can't tell me you haven't seen seen people worse off come out the other side."

Terry shrugged his shoulders, "Apparently they disagreed."

Tom stood and watched with the other volunteers. He watched as the helicopter didn't come. He watched as the paramedics loaded the driver into the ambulance and pulled away, headed for the hospital, at least twenty-five minutes away. As they were leaving, he checked his watch. 7:56, 24 minutes left in the golden hour. And what about 8 o'clock traffic?

He loaded up the torch, got in his truck, and drove back to his house. He always felt an odd tension walking into his house after working an accident. The calming, comfortable feeling of arriving home clashed sharply with the adrenaline-fueled, chaotic, accident scenes. He spent a few minutes petting his dog, then went back to the bedroom and took a hot shower. There was a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. His couldn't stop thinking about the paramedic who cancelled the helicopter. He wondered if he would have made the same decision. If he even could have. His role as a volunteer firefighter and EMT was simple, keep patients alive and do your best to stabilize them until the paramedics arrive. While it would have been nice to get paid, a lot of other pressures come along with that. A paycheck meant a business, and a business meant a bottom line. How did it affect the ambulance company's bottom line when a helicopter was called in? Did they forfeit their wages? Did they split them? If they did, wouldn't that give the ambulance company an incentive not to call in helicopters? They couldn't possibly ask the paramedics to weigh that incentive against a person's chance of survival, could they?

It all seemed so wrong, so broken, and in that moment he honestly wished there was something he could do about it. What could possibly be done? As long as it cost money to provide healthcare there would be issues like this, and as long as it took money to build hospitals and buy equipment and research treatments and pay doctors it would always cost money to provide healthcare. As the water beat down on him, a calmer, quieter, voice came into his mind. It whispered that he shouldn't worry about it, that it was wiser to do nothing because there was nothing that could be done. It reassured him that his life would go on as usual, that the world would keep spinning, that this window into one of the mean realities of life would close and he would resume his everyday routine. It reminded him that there had always been and would always be things that were broken, that some things were out of his control, that some things he just had to accept. It comforted him. It made him feel like he was a child, powerless in a world too big and too mean to stand up to.

What it didn't mention-what Tom refused to see-was that it was this acceptance, this willingness to ignore the things that stirred his conscience into a rage, this desire to listen to the voice that comforts and subdue the voice that enrages, this same need, multiplied millions of times over by people in every corner of the world who saw and knew and did not act, that kept the world broken, that enabled evil to fester and spread.

He turned off the shower and dried himself off. After he shaved he stood and looked at himself in the mirror, staring at his reflection. As he looked he relaxed his eyes. His reflection blurred. He stood and stared intently, focusing not on himself or the reflection, but on the glass of the mirror itself. As he watched, his reflection slowly began to fade. Now he was in front of the wall, now its pale gold wallpaper shone through him, now the wall was all he could see. With a clear, calm, mind he got dressed and ate the breakfast his wife had left him on the kitchen counter--three pancakes, two slices of bacon, and a handful of fresh blueberries. When he finished, he turned off the lights and walked out the back door. The blue-green glow from the clock on the microwave read 8:25. The golden hour had passed.

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