Monthly Archives: August 2017

THE RUSSIAN CLOWN: CHAPTER 22

 

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The next day. The 101 Freeway. The Highland exit. My mom drives over a bump in the road and says, “There. That bump. That’s when you turned into a little ball. She drives a bit farther, narrating her tale for me. “So I came down here and I couldn’t find anything, I mean, where do they expect you to pull off?” and I scan the horizon, trying to find the trees that I saw. She points at a bus stop and says, “There. That’s where I parked.” I look across the street and see the small grove running parallel with the Hollywood Bowl.

 

“So crazy,” I say and my mom says, “I know.” She is talking about the seizure while I’m staring at a man standing on the corner condemning people to hell dressed in an Elmo costume.

 

We end up deep in the heart of Hollywood, a maze of busy streets and traffic lights to which no freeway leads. Like David Bowie’s labyrinth, there are no true shortcuts.

 

We pull up outside of an unmarked brick building and make our way to the second floor. Inside, everything is from the ’70s—the wallpaper, the art, the doorknobs—but not in that good way that is intentional. I enter a small office clad with crusty shag carpet and worn wool couches. “I have an appointment,” I say to the young receptionist. She asks me to sign in and have a seat. I pick up a copy of Lava Lamp Monthly and flip through the pages. Two other patients, both young males, are seated with me, both of their eyes so red it looks as if they’ve just left their mothers’ funerals.

Both try to casually eyeball me, a twenty-six-year-old bookended by his mother and wife. They glance at me out of the corners of their rose-colored eyes and must think I’m a complete mess, a ghost in clothes, a dead man walking. A heavy oak door opens and someone calls the first boy’s name from the revealed darkness. He enters and disappears into shadows, the door slowly swinging closed on its own accord and then ominously clicking shut behind him. I turn back to my magazine and read about the history of lava lamps. Invented by Edward Craven Walker in 1948, began mass production in 1963, originally named the Astro Globe. A few minutes later, the boy exits, staring at a small card. He pockets it and leaves. The second boy’s name is called and it’s second verse, same as the first. I have just enough time to read about how the largest lava lamp in the world is 4 feet tall and contains 10 gallons of super-secret-lava-formula before the door opens and the second boy exits. I watch him leave and am just amazed at the speed and efficiency of this doctor’s office, which, seeing how quickly everything is progressing, really shouldn’t be allowed to call these four walls a waiting room.

 

My name is called—Brukbag—and I tell my posse to stand down cuz I’m goin’ alone into the shadows. I find what happens next to be so absurd that it borders on satire.

 

I enter an ominously dark office, lit only by the slightly cracked blinds. An oddly shaped silhouette sits behind the desk and a scruff voice says, “Cum een, cum een.” I take this as Come in and close the door softly behind me. The figure signals for me, with a bony hand, to sit, and as I do, my eyes adjust and I see what can only be described as a Russian clown impersonating a doctor.

 

This woman has chunky blonde hair that’s been pulled into two ponytails, each spitting off either side of her head. She wears wire-rimmed glasses that magnify her eyes into enormous green watermelons and her make-up looks as though a blind person with Parkinson’s applied it. The lipstick smears off the lips and into that unnamed area between mouth and nose, smudging and smearing in large circles a red color so intense that it’s nearly neon pink. Her cheeks are flushed with blush, making her look chronically embarrassed. Emerald green circles surround her eyes the color of, well, emeralds, the glasses magnifying her pores, turning molehills into mountains. Her eyebrows are unplucked pubic bushes above her ocular orbs. Her name is Galina.

 

Sitting at a dinner once, speaking with an eye doctor about graduation statistics, he leaned in close to me and says, “Do you know what they call the medical student who graduates very last in his class?” Stumped at his riddle, I shrugged, and he said, “Doctor,” and then chuckled to himself.

 

For anyone not versed in the legalities of this protocol, here’s how it shakes down. Galina acts as the gatekeeper. It is her job, as a doctor, to examine each patient and decide if they are in need of a medical marijuana license. If she approves of your disease, you pay her your $100, get an ACCEPTED stamp and walk out the door with a license. You then go to a second location (a dispensary) to purchase your medicinal herbal supplements. Scanning her desk, I can’t help but notice that there is no REJECTED stamp next to her envelope filled with money.

 

I sit down and she says, “What . . . eez rong?” I flop a manila envelope puking with doctor’s reports onto her desk and say, “Well . . . I have cancer . . . ” and she lights up like a Christmas tree. Someone with a sickness! A real sickness! Finally! I can use THIS! And she pulls the stethoscope – I’m not kidding – off her neck and, with a bit too much zest, pops out of her chair and signals me to a couch that looks like it belongs in Freud’s office.

 

I lie down and she, nervous as a virgin, says, “I must . . . exameen yoo.” She shoves the ear pieces into her head and places the circular plate against my chest. “Breeth . . . yes . . . agein . . . . ”

 

I take a deep breath and think to myself, “This should be good.” I let it out and she taps a little hammer on my knee, testing my reflexes. I say, “Do the legs still work, doc?” and she says, “They seem to bee fine.”

 

She sits back behind her desk and says, “Doo yoo dreenk tap water?” and I say, “Yes,” and she says, “Thees . . . Thees ees the problem. There is sometheeng called alkaline in tap water. You must not dreenk it. You pay me three hundreed dollers and I will give you filter. Very good,” and I say, “I think the problem might be the cancer on my heart . . . and lungs . . . and the lymphoma . . . and the chemo I’m getting. I can’t eat,” and she says, “Yes, yes, but . . . thees will help. Three hundreed dollers. Plus one hundreed for medical lizence—four hundreed, very cheep. You be well in I say, one, maybe too munths.”

 

I nod and say, “I sort of don’t have a job right now so that seems a little steep,” and she says, “Two hundreed for Alkaline filter, one hundreed for mari-wona lizence. You cannot find this deel anywhere else,” and I say, “I believe that’s true. However, I am going to have to politely decline,” and she sighs and signs the license and hands it over to me. “Yoo come back, you change your mind.”

 

I shake her hand and leave.

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PRESIDENT BUSH: CHAPTER 21

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When I wake up, the first thing I notice is a group of trees in the distance, far away and small. Maybe pines? The second thing I notice are innumerable cars racing back and forth between myself and the trees. The third thing I notice is a man I’ve never seen before hovering over me in a blue suit. He’s holding my shoulder and telling me to relax.

 

I breathe slowly and deliberately and try to look around. Standing on the sidewalk is my mother, her eyes red and glassy, her hands shaking; another, slightly heavier man, stands next to the first, also wearing a blue suit—no, not a suit. A uniform. I turn my head and see a red truck—an ambulance. Paramedics.

 

The man with his hand on my shoulder tells me to take it easy and to have a seat and I see for the first time that the heavy man has a wheelchair. I get out of the car—Whose car is this?—and sit in the wheelchair—How did I get here?—and the heavy man kicks a switch and the wheelchair reclines and the feet kick out and, just like that, I’m on a stretcher.

 

I have no idea where I am or why. I have no idea where I was going or where I was coming from or what happened to me in between the two and it isn’t until this very moment that I remember that I don’t remember anything. My past is abyss; just blank space that rolls into the horizon.

 

The men push me into the back of the ambulance and I say, “What’s—I’m sorry—what’s happening?” and the main paramedic, crawling in behind me says, “You had a grand mal seizure, and your mom called 911. Can you tell me what year it is?” and I say, “2001,” and he says, “OK, it’s 2008, Johnny,” and I cock my head to the side feeling as though I’ve had nearly a decade of time stolen away from me. Where have I been? What was lost? And he says, “Can you tell me who the president is?” and I say, “Bush—President George Bush,” and the paramedic says nothing, so I say, “Am I right?” and he says, “The President is Barack Obama,” and I shut my eyes. What is happening to my brain? Don’t take my brain! Don’t take my brain! It’s all I have! My nuts are gone, my health is gone, my HAIR is gone! Leave my brain!

 

He says, “Do you know where you live?” and I stare at the paramedic . . . and then I look out the back doors . . . and I hold my breath, feeling like if I just buy some time I can find the answer. If I just have a moment to rummage around in my memory banks I can pull it up and then they’ll know that I’m not as sick as they think; this was all just a mistake. I know it’s there, the information, somewhere. I sigh and say, “Somewhere . . . in the Valley . . . ” and he says, “Do you know who your wife is?” and I say with complete confidence, “Jade Brookbank. My wife’s name is Jade Brookbank.”

 

It’s the only thing I can remember.

 

The doors swing shut behind me and I find myself in a claustrophobic steel box, the paramedic leaning over me. I shut my eyes and just can’t believe this is happening. Everything is getting worse.

 

The paramedic turns and comes back with an oxygen mask that he tries to place over my mouth but I brush him away and say, “No—no oxygen,” and he says, “It’s OK, just relax,” and tries to put it over my mouth again. There’s some light in the back of my brain, some glimmer of a memory; I hear a doctor saying, “The bleomycin will effect your lungs—you can’t have pure oxygen—it will damage the lining. You can’t scuba dive, you can’t have oxygen masks,” and so I brush it away again. The paramedic raises an eyebrow at me and I say, “I can’t have it—it’ll hurt me,” and he says, “Everything is OK, just—“ and he tries to put it on one more time but then, behind him, The Mother Bear comes to the rescue of her cub.

 

“STOP!” and the paramedic looks over and she says, “He can’t have it,” and the paramedic slowly puts down the mask and says, “Oh, uh, ok . . . . ”

 

He gives me an IV while I have a panic attack, seat belts me in/straps me to a slab, takes a seat, and says to the driver, “Hit it,” while spinning his finger in the air.

 

The driver/heavy paramedic twists the key, flips a switch, and punches the gas. The cherries flash on, the sirens wail, and I feel the ambulance drop off the curb and then blow 70 miles an hour down the freeway.

 

We’re at the Burbank hospital in a matter of minutes. The paramedics wheel me inside and leave me in a hallway, pressed against a wall on my gurney, alone. I stare at the ceiling, feeling out of place, while various patients and visitors walk past me; I’m a sideshow or a misplaced trinket. Where is my wife? Where is my mother?

 

I wonder if she’s gotten lost somewhere in the city, unable to find her way out of the rat’s nest that is Hollywood, and then time bends and refracts and they’re both suddenly at my side. My mother, she wraps her trembling fingers around my skeletal hand and kisses me and says, “You scared your ol’ mama, little man,” and I realize then that it’s how she still sees me—just her little boy who she raised from birth, now lying in front of her, looking like the recently dead rather than the slowly dying, my weight dropping, my eyes sinking, my cheeks going sallow and pale. She sees a little boy on a tricycle with white hair, straight as straw. She sees a little boy on his first day of school, crying and afraid. She sees the little boy who used to sneak into his mother and father’s bedroom at night and sleep on the floor at the foot of the bed. No matter how old I become, she will forever see me stuck in time and now Cancer is poisoning that child and those memories for her.

 

She tells me that we were chatting on the freeway, taking the exit, taking the bend and then my head hit my knees and I curled into a tight ball and began to growl.

 

I say, “What?” and she says, “At first I thought you were just being John Lowell and trying to be funny but then you didn’t stop and you started leaning into me,” and I say, “What?” and she says, “I just put my arm out and tried to hold you back—you had your seat belt on but . . . I came off that exit and there was no shoulder and nowhere to pull off, I didn’t know what to do. As soon as I saw a sidewalk I just pulled onto it and stopped.”

 

“You drove on the sidewalk?” and she says, “I didn’t drive on it. I parked on it—and I was terrified. John, I don’t know where I am. I just started praying to God for help—you were—I don’t even know—and I don’t know where I was and—I called 911 and they asked where I was and I couldn’t see any street signs and I couldn’t remember the name of the exit we just took and then . . . a little family of angels showed up,” and I say, “A whole family?” and she says, “A mini-van pulled up behind me and a man and a woman got out and approached me and asked if I was all right. I told them what I could and then the man took the phone from me and spoke to the dispatcher . . . and then they waited with me until the ambulance arrived. One of them held your hand while the other one held your head. They were my little angels that Jesus sent.”

 

I say, “Well. At least I wasn’t driving,” and my mother says, “John Lowell. Yes, at least. I swear.”

 

A nurse pushes me into a side room, closes the curtain around us, and says a doctor will be with us shortly. The doctor enters and says something about my absent seizures or petite mal seizures; the little space outs that I have. He says they’re caused when one little part of my brain misfires. Petite, little.

 

But he says that, depending on a number of factors (lack of sleep and not taking the prescribed dosage of medication among them) that one misfire can signal a second can signal a third and so on and so forth until it grabs an entire section of my brain, effectively causing a grand mal seizure. Grand, big.

 

He tells us this should be an isolated incident and then my wife says, “He has cancer,” and the doctor says, “Cancer?” and he flips through his papers, “What kind of cancer?” and my wife says, “Stage 4. It started with testicular and then turned to lymphoma and now it’s in his heart and lungs,” and the doctor tries to sell it but he fails. You can see the muscles in his face tighten and his eyes narrow ever so slightly; he’s in a spaghetti western standoff and he doesn’t want to trigger any alarm from the opposition.

 

He doesn’t say the words but he might as well have shouted them in my ear.

 

Brain Cancer.

 

He coughs into his hand and says, “OK, well, we’ll just do a CAT scan—very typical for all first-time patients—make sure everything is clear and then—I’ll send someone in right now,” and then he disappears behind the curtain like a magician after a show.

 

None of us says a word. My wife holds my left hand and my mother holds my right hand and I shut my eyes and try to picture the tumors that are now probably resting directly behind them, throbbing and rotting away at me.

 

When I first started dating my wife in high school, her cousin, a seventeen-year-old football player, was fighting a losing battle with brain cancer. The first time I met him he was sitting on a couch, covered in blankets, his eyes nearly closed. His mother said, “Nate, this is Johnny,” and I, eighteen at the time and only one year older than this kid, held my hand in the air and said, “Hi.” I remember Nate lifting his hand up until it was level with his heart, not even having the strength to tilt the fingers toward the ceiling. They just pointed straight toward me like a salute.

 

The next time I saw Nate was at his wake.

 

A male nurse pushes my gurney down to the basement; they stick me inside The Mechanical Donut, push the dye in, make me feel like I’ve pissed and shit myself, and then wheel me back upstairs and into my room where my mother and wife look as sick as I do.

 

Two hours.

 

We wait two hours for the test results to come back with no word from a doctor or nurse or anyone outside of the curtain. There is nothing in our room but the three of us. We talk, speculate, avoid the elephant tumor in the room and wait, all of us silently saying prayers in the back our of minds until finally we are all praying out loud together with words that couldn’t possibly contain more faith or desperation. Please, God. Please, God. Please, God. I can’t take it. Please let the tests come back negative. Please, God. Not my brain. Leave me my brain! And visceral images of me not being cognitive or conscious come to me. An image of me sitting on a couch, covered in blankets, too tired to raise my hand. Me in a coffin, my wife standing over me, weeping. My mother standing over me, weeping. Me, dead. Images of my wife getting married again and me being a story her new husband is told. Me, existing only in photographs and anecdotes and popular paperback book form.

 

The doctor enters and hands me a piece of paper. I turn it around and see a black and white scan of my brain. Printed across it in large black letters, all caps, is the word NEGATIVE and I choke and say, “Negative—that’s good, right? That’s good? Do I have brain cancer? What does this mean?!” and the doctor says, “You do not have brain cancer,” and I just weep in a way that has never overtaken me before or since.

 

Both my hands are squeezed until my fingers are white and numb and crushed with wonderful pain that I can feel for another day that is mine.

 

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RLS: CHAPTER 20

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It’s Wednesday or Sunday and it might be getting close to noon because I can hear Dr. Oz promos on the television. I’m lying on the bathroom floor, staring at the pipes behind the toilet and wondering how many gallons have gone through them. I try to imagine how much water is used in one flush and how many flushes my city block goes through in a day and I try to imagine how many flushes it would take to empty the ocean.

My mother pokes her head in and asks me if I’ve taken my fish oil today and I say, “No,” and she lowers her hand to me. Ask and you shall receive. Fish oil. I stick it in my mouth, gag, drink water, gag, puke, and put the pill in the toilet. My mom says, “Can I get you anything?” and I say, “My wife.”

Jade enters a few minutes later and I say, “I want to try cannabis. If it doesn’t work and it doesn’t make a difference, then fine, I’ll stop, but these pills aren’t working and it’s all bullshit. I keep puking the anti-puking pills up and the pain in my body makes me want to stick a gun in my mouth.”

She sits down on the floor with me, pulls out her smart phone and begins punching something in. A few moments later she says, “There’s a doctor in Hollywood. We can schedule you an appointment today—” and I say, “I can just call Bernard. He’ll hook us up,” and her face goes red and she says, “Listen to me! I’m not dealing with cancer and a pot head. If we’re doing this medically then you need to be responsible about it and only take it when you need it. OK?” and I say, “Oh-kay,” and she says, “And if I ever hear you use the term wake and bake we’re done, OK?” and I say, “Yes, oh-kay,” and she hits the call button on the phone and schedules me an appointment for tomorrow early afternoon.

That night, like the last ten days, I sleep a total of forty-five minutes in scattered and broken chunks. I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling and stare at the fan and smell the blankets and touch my wife’s back and sometimes I cry. I just sit in the dark, in the silence and let tears run down my face and feel sorry for myself and then I call myself a pussy and tell myself to man up. The hatred I feel for my own weakness is palpable.

 

I feel so alone.

 

The sensation of needing to stretch my legs washes over me and so I push them out but it doesn’t go away. I crunch them up to my body and then try again but still the feeling abides. This is restless leg syndrome, RLS, something I would have thought was a total joke—some new-age medical Make Believe to help sell over the counter, bottled placebos—until I had it myself and it kept me from sleeping.

I shut my eyes and the sensation washes through me and so I wiggle my toes but it just digs in deeper. I move my ankles from side to side and then roll over onto my stomach and bury my head under a pillow, my preferred method of sleep.

I’m out . . .and I’m just starting to dream . . . and then I’m awake again and the sensation is back and so I lift one leg in the air. My wife wakes up and asks, “Are you all right?” and I say, “I think I have RLS—that’s, uh—restless leg syndrome,” and then, because I think it somehow makes it more legitimate, I say, “It’s a real thing, you know,” and she says, “Uh-huh,” and then I can hear her heavy sleep-breathing again.

Finally, exhausted and angry, I stand up on restless legs and give them what they want—a short walk into the living room where I find myself craving Cinnamon Toast Crunch, one of the only things I find I can actually stomach, even in small quantities.

I pour myself a huge bowl—sixteen toasts deep—grab my copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, and throw myself down in My Yellow Chair. For the next two-and-a-half hours, I skim pages, trying to fight my way to the end of Patrick Bateman’s free-flowing, psychotic narrative.

It’s the last book I’ll be able to read until The End.

Finally, hearing birds chirping outside the window, I decide to make my way back to bed, lie down, and shut my eyes. When I wake up, it’s morning and my wife is getting ready for work. She tells me that my appointment with the weed doctor is at 2:30 and she’s emailed me the address and then says, “I did some research and I think our best bet is going to be to get you a vaporizer because it’s the cleanest—cleanest, honestly—way to go. Better than joints,” and I say, “I’m fine with buying a pipe,” and she says, “JOHN, NO. Do you hear what I’m saying? It’s cleaner. It’s cleaner, whatever that means. You have lung—did you just space out?” and I say, “Yeah.”

 

Space out, zone out, daze out—this is what we call the absent seizures I’ve had since I was a kid. My eyes roll back in my head for a few seconds, taking me out of reality, before I suddenly snap back, aware that something strange has happened. I don’t fall down or convulse; I simply . . . blank out. I was diagnosed in seventh grade, and after literally years and years of trial and error with different seizure medications, the doctors and neurologists were finally able to peg a specific cocktail that eradicated my seizures completely without causing mood swings or stomachaches. The medication keeps them tame and at bay but they tend to make special guest appearances when I’m really tired or when I don’t take my pills. Which I haven’t because I simply throw them up. Which I am because I have RLS and haven’t been sleeping. I tell her this and she says, “Well, knock it off—start taking your pills. Why are you messing around with this?” and I say, “I PUKE. THEM. UP. I can’t swallow anything! You think I want to be spacing out like—”

“It just happened again! Take your pills!” and she storms out of the room and comes back with a pill. I take it and she leaves and I lie in bed for the next twenty minutes, trying to keep it down.

Eventually, I lose and watch the little red capsule float, half dissolved, in the toilet.

When I walk into the kitchen, my mom asks me how I slept and I say, “I think I have RLS,” and she says, “Oh, nooooo. What is that?” and I try to explain it but just give up because it sounds so stupid rolling out of my mouth.

She asks if I want any breakfast and I tell her that a 10 oz. steak and eggs would be nice. She chuckles and takes a sip of her coffee while I ask her, a traditionally conservative person, what she thinks about this “marijuana thing”. She smiles and says, “If it helps, it helps.” It’s the closest thing she’s going to say to, “Go smoke weed, dear.” I nod and smile.

The TV rolls on and on with various daytime television shows and I watch the shadows shrink on the floor as the sun shifts across the sky (or, as I go hurtling past it in space) and I think about the journey in front of me; not just the one I’m taking into Hollywood today but the whole journey, The Cancer Journey. I wonder what the next few rounds are going to do to my body. I’m already sore and depressed and weak. I try to imagine how it could possibly be worse. I feel like a cat in some animal-testing factory; locked in a cage and forced to undergo experiments until I either, ultimately, live or die.

I wonder what That Guy is doing in my edit bay at work right now, not thinking about a thing, making my money, working on my projects, sitting in my chair, eating cookies from Cookie Dave that are supposed to be mine and wondering what he’s going to eat for lunch while I eat nothing and—

 

—space out.

 

Thanks to the chemo, I’m freezing everywhere I go so it’s not unusual for me to be wearing a long-sleeved thermal, then a T-shirt, then a sweater, then a light jacket with a scarf and beanie underneath a large winter parka designed for South Dakota blizzards, fuzzy hood pulled up and covering my face. I’m constantly shivering, an army of goose bumps standing at full attention around the clock like fleshy militia men, my nipples always fully erect and easily 7s on the mineral hardness scale. I live and die in these clothes. In my chair, in the car, in bed, in the hospital, this is what I’m wearing, bundled up like a baby chick in a cotton incubator.

My mom puts on a light jacket over her T-shirt and grabs her car keys while I sit in my chair, ready to take on life. As long as life doesn’t entail anything more exhausting or hazardous than sleeping. “You ready to go?” she asks and I say, “This is me. Anything that happens—this is what you get. It isn’t much but it’s all I have,” and she says, “Come off it,” and I roll off the chair and lie on the ground and say, “I want to buy a wheelchair,” but when I look up she’s already walked out the door.

We stop at a gas station to fill up and my mom asks me if I want anything. I tell her that a Yoo-hoo is sounding about right, and when she brings two out, I drink the first all in one long hit like a wino slamming a 40 of Olde E. I can’t help it; it’s just so delicious. Nothing has felt so sweet and refreshing on my palate for . . . how long?

We get on the road and I crack the second Yoo-hoo, get through half of it, and then ask her to kindly pull over the car. I open the door and puke up delicious “chocolate drink”. This activity has become so regular that my mom doesn’t even ask if I’m all right anymore. Instead she just starts flipping through radio stations, trying to find something that sounds like The Jackson 5.

I shut the door and put my seatbelt back on and just nod and she puts the car into drive and away we go. This is chemo shorthand.

Now, it should be said that my mother is not one for driving in big cities. On family vacations while growing up, it was typically my father who would sit behind the wheel, navigating us down congested freeways and through strange cities, and even now, as an adult, whenever my parents travel together, it is my dad who drives.

So, having my mother live with us for six months was going to require her to acclimate to highways and on-ramps and carpool lanes and aggressive drivers and traffic jams and tailgaters and honking and all the horrible things that come along with big cities.

She’s white knuckling the steering wheel, cruising down the 101, driving in the far right lane as slow as the law allows, cars flying past in the other four lanes and honking. “What do they want?” she asks me and I say, “I think they want you to break 45,” and she says, “I’m comfortable here,” and I say, “I’m comfortable here, as well.”

I look at my phone and read her the directions, “In three-quarters of a mile you’re going to take the Highland Boulevard exit. The road is going to sort of bend around and then force you onto Cahuenga, but it becomes Highland—here it is—just keep following that white car—see how the road—”

And then my mind and body, without warning, completely shut down.

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