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William needed a vacation; some time in the woods usually did the trick. He cleared his schedule for two weeks to hike the River-to-River Trail in Southern Illinois. He had cancelled three previous times, but this time his schedule looked pretty good to go this coming weekend. The survey for the farmer’s co-op was a big job that was going to take some time, more time than he was willing to wait. The trail was usually void of hikers in the heat of the summer and William wanted to do some night hiking. First he had to finish a small road improvement project.
This was going to be the first stoplight in St. Elsewhere, at the intersection of Interstate Drive and U.S. Highway 40. His job was to locate everything at the intersection and make a digital map for the design engineer. Even if the plan got funded, it would be two years of state and federal red tape before the bids were let. The money had been approved for the preliminary design, which included surveying, so it was all a big rush now. He figured he could do both tasks in a day, so he loaded his trusty robot, which he had nicknamed Lance, after an ex-coworker, and they headed for the jobsite.
He found a good, safe location to set Lance up in a neighboring front yard under a big sweet gum tree. He spoiled Lance that way, mainly because he still had two more years of payments on him. He then made a sketch of the site and took some notes. Now that the prep work was done, it was time to put Lance to work. William grabbed his staff and Lance’s controller and headed for the highway.
The first rule of working in traffic is to keep your head up and pay attention. However, in order to control Lance and type observation notes, William’s head was down most of the time. He set out all of the brightly colored “survey” orange signs and flags required by the Department of Transportation, better safe than sorry. It was a slow crime day in St. Elsewhere, just like every other day, so the day shift policeman, Chief O’Coglan stopped by to say hi and watch his back. The Chief was also the only canine unit in the county. His latest canine partner was from the same litter as William’s dog, Grace, but he had to train hard and work for a living so he was named Payday. Everybody in town loved Payday, especially the kids. Chief O’Coglan made surprise visits to the schools with him and they weren’t sniffing for candy bars.
“William … hey William!” Chief O’Coglan hollered.
“Hey Chief, what’s up?”
“I was about to ask you the same question.”
“I’m surveying for the new stop light here.”
“Great! I’ve been lobbying for a light at this intersection for ten years now,” the Chief said.
“It may be awhile before it gets built, but the process has started,” said William.
“How long do you think you’ll be here?”
“Probably a couple hours.”
“I’ll hang around for awhile and turn my lights on so people will slow down.”
“Thanks Chief, they don’t respect my signs, but your car will slow ‘em down.”
“You’re welcome, just doin’ my job.”
This was the type of work that William couldn’t get excited about, boring but lucrative. For that reason, his mind was wandering ahead to the backpacking trip. He was taking mental inventory of his backpack, planning meals and campsites. At the same time, he started working on Interstate Drive, moving towards U.S. Highway 40.
A couple miles west of town, one of St. Elsewhere’s more colorful characters was heading home after spending most of the morning at the public aid office. Not only had she given up her morning due to an office error, she had her three kids and her sisters’ two with her the whole time, so her mood was somewhat sour. The cousins didn’t get along at home let alone in public or in a car.
Pearl was a small woman that shouldn’t be underestimated. She’d had a rough life and it often showed. Sailors would have been embarrassed by her use of language. Everybody in town knew this and accepted her gift of the tongue as part of her colorful charm.
Her car had seen better days too, probably 25 years ago. The old Chevy was not a classic, an antique or even basic transportation; it was a piece of junk that happened to start that day. Her boyfriend at the time had used it in the demolition derby at the county fair last year. The bumpers were wired on with baling wire and he replaced all of the light bulbs, but it was far from being road worthy. He was a big Dale Earnhardt fan and to show his loyalty he had hand painted the car black, freehanded the number 3 in white on the doors and wrote “The Intimidator” on the crinkled hood.
Pearl stayed on the back roads as much as possible, but to get to her house, it was easier to take the highway the last mile or so. Her day was about to get worse.
The kids were fighting and screaming in the back seat. Pearl was watching them through the rear view mirror, screaming threats upon deaf ears. What she wasn’t doing was paying attention to the road. The brightly colored “survey” orange signs and flags went unnoticed. She did not even slow down to the speed limit when entering town. A flashing caution light at the intersection where William was working may not have caught her eye.
William finished surveying along Interstate Drive turned and headed east along Route 40 walking with his back to Pearl’s oncoming jalopy. Pearl was about one hundred yards away when the police car caught her attention. She was driving with her license suspended and the tags on the car hadn’t been renewed for a few years and came off of a different car! Pearl instinctively slammed on the brakes causing the car to lock the tires. The old car’s front end began to shimmy and wheel hop. It had been hit too many times and something had to give. With a loud “clunk” the front axle broke and she lost control. Pearl and the kids really had something to scream about now. The screeching demo derby car had picked its next victim and it was William. He didn’t hear it or them until it was almost upon him. He turned around just in time to see the fear in Pearl’s eyes and five screaming kids with their mouths wide open like a nest of hungry baby birds.
The big old lead sled hit William and threw him forward, up and over a fence and right into Oakwood Cemetery. Not a good sign for William. The car slid to a stop. Chief O’Coglan was in the right place at the right time. He called for fire and rescue and a helicopter for William. He knew it was going to be bad. He then ran to Pearl’s car to get her and the kids to safety. They were obviously shaken up and still screaming, but appeared to be okay. Payday helped calm the kids down, but Pearl was in big trouble.
The Chief and Payday jumped the cemetery fence to check on William. Payday licked his face while the Chief checked his pulse. He was alive, but only God knew for how long. He was unconscious and his mind had separated itself from the body, like some primeval coping mechanism. His life began to flash before him like an early silent movie. It was the weirdest feeling he had ever experienced. He was a spectator watching and reliving his past.

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