IDENTITY CRISIS! – Chapter 4 – Family Values / Foreign Accent

My family has always been the traditional type. Home-grown Texans through and through. It would be a reasonable guess that until my generation, none of the Brocklee family would have left the state, let alone gone abroad. Our world has been small, but for the most past we’ve been perfectly content about that. I know for sure that my folks have always been just that little bit afraid about how different the outside world could be, and what that might mean. The disadvantage of having strong foundations like an oak is that we’re not flexible.
But for the most part it hasn’t been a problem. Until I got into an accident.
For context, I’m 27 and I have no real idea with what I want to do with my life. Taking my surroundings for inspiration, the men in my family have either done handyman jobs, worked in heavy industry (y’know, metalwork and things like that), or work in agriculture. Anyone who deviated from those kinds of professions were either exiled by the family at large, or have ended up dead (a number of the deaths by their own hand… it’s sad). I can’t call myself a teenager any more, but a younger, more rebellious side of me thinks all those jobs are dead ends – boring and not really ‘me’. I’ve not had a lot of opportunities to do what I want in regards to life choices, but I draw the line at a preordained future where I make a living shovelling horse poop.
I guess that put me in some kind of… quarter-life crisis. Even without having made a real living for myself, I was already stagnating. I did what all those cliché forty-somethings do – get a leather jacket; learn to play the guitar really badly; become pretentious about spirits (and where I’m from there’s no shortage of places to get boozed up at, let me tell you). And then I resolved to buy a motorcycle. Driving a truck was no problem for me, and even though the two modes of transport are entirely different, I figured being a biker would be a snap.
Skipping over the boring tales of my multiple failed driving tests, I eventually passed and got a beauty of a bike. At least I thought so – I had no real frame of reference to compare it to. But it was new and shiny and different, so to me it could have been the finest machine to ever grace the planet.
But then of course, even though I passed my driving test, I was still pretty useless at handling the thing. My parents, my grandparents and my uncle were all dissenters, saying that the rebellious look was unsuitable to my nature, and I would soon regret my choice. Turns out they weren’t just talking big – about a week after getting my licence I was driving down one of the many country roads surrounding our town I got hit by a passing truck.
The pinpoint of vehicular violence burned the whole scene into my memory. As quiet as they tend to be, country roads are beautiful in the evenings. The air is still warm and the sun paints everything in coral and gamboge. Like a Tequila Sunset. Roads like this were great to roar down, largely quiet and open, with long, lazy curves and a warm breeze that ran its fingers through my jacket. I tried to write poetry at one point.
Then, over the thrumming of my bike’s engine, I heard faintly the sound of another engine coming closer. These rural roads don’t have streetlights, and so navigating traffic in the dark can be difficult. Granted, I was going way over the speed limit, but upon hearing the distant engine, I decreased my speed.
The eighteen wheeler truck, however, did not. It burst from around the corner – menacing and wide – the trees at the side of the road shedding leaves in the slipstream. The horn blared deafeningly as the headlights flashed me, but this thing was moving way too fast for either of us to get out of the way entirely. Desperate to not meld my skull with the truck’s chrome grille, I swerved my bike to the side, forgot all knowledge of how to handle emergency situations in my panic, and clipped the right side of the truck as it started to slam on the brakes. While the collision was a glancing blow, the sheer weight of that behemoth flung me and the bike into the air. The small period spent airborne seemed to extend indefinitely; like the world had been set into extreme slow motion. The fishtailing rear of the trick came swinging round, a cobalt blue tarpaulin steadily closing in to meet me. And then-
-I woke up in a hospital bed. Bandaged, bruised, aching. But alive – that was the important thing. My head throbbed in an unusual place, like there was a vibrating marble lodged somewhere in my brain. My mouth was dry and tingling with a weird sensation, like all my facial muscles were tensed and slack at the same time. Feeling was returning to my face and fingers, moving like a wave from top to toe, as if all the nerves underneath my skin were awakening in sequence. I was alive – fancy that.
The room was small, but I was seemingly alone – from my limited viewpoint (I couldn’t twist my head, some kind of brace was preventing me), I could see the corners of the opposite wall and the door, where busy doctors and nurses shuffled past at regular intervals. How did I even get back here? Did the truck driver carry me to the hospital himself? Did someone notify my folks? They’re going to flip a table when they hear I managed to get into a road accident – it’s exactly as they’d predicted, and I’m never going to hear the end of this. They’ll never let me out of the house again, it’s all over.
I sighed heavily, which quickly turned into a coughing fit as my lungs struggled to catch up with my angst. Something stirred to my left, but just out of my field of vision. The inability to see who… or what it was made my heart race.
H-hello?” My voice came out strangely, the familiar feeling of my tongue rolling around in my mouth to make the generic everyday pleasantry coming across as different… so slightly alien, as if someone else was moving my mouth for me. I heard more stirring, and then a figure moved into view. My heart stopped racing like a runaway train as I recognised the face instantly. It was my brother, Nelson.
Warren! You’re awake, oh thank the Lord I didn’t think you were ever going to wake up.” He bent over the bed and wrapped his arms around me, my aching body protested, but the warmth of seeing a familiar face and knowing that there was someone looking out for me was comforting. Eventually he let go and stared into my eyes. I could see tears welling up in his, either from his relief at seeing me conscious, or maybe my face had been disfigured in the accident in some way, I couldn’t tell. There was an awkward pause, as we both waited for the other to say or do something. I decided to break the silence.
So… how long ha-have I been in here for?” There was that odd sensation as I talked again. It was getting disconcerting. It sounded strange, too. However, Nelson seemed to not pick up on it.
You were knocked out cold for three days! Mama was acting like you were never gonna wake up; going on and on about that motorbike of yours. And I agree with her – what on Earth were you thinking when you bought that thing? We Brocklees aren’t the reckless type.”
It was nice that our mom was showing some kind of concern for my well being (considering the most I usually hear out of her is how disappointed she was in me), but I couldn’t help but have a twinge of annoyance over Nelson taking her side on the whole motorcycle thing. I thought he understood me a bit better than that – and it’s not like the accident was even my fault. Not really.
What ha-happened to my bike, anyway?” I pulled a face as I concentrated in getting my voice under control. This was seriously weird.
Totalled. Seemed that the thing took all of the impact and threw you clear. The thing saved your life, but I’m glad it’s gone. Promise me you won’t do something like this again – we don’t want to lose you. I don’t know what I’d do.”
That’s a real shame, but I guess I should be lucky to be alive. Though Nelson… you’re not seriously telling me you don’t want me to find a way out of here? Who cares about the motorcycle thing, I’m so stifled here. I thought you understood that.” Even with some effort and trying to speak slowly, everything I said came out strange. Not unintelligible or anything, but I couldn’t even recognise my own voice. As I spoke, Nelson began to form a puzzled expression, as he slowly caught on that something was up.
Warren, you sound funny. Stop putting on that silly accent, I’m trying to be serious here!”
Accent? I know I sound a bit st-strange at the moment, but I’m not messing you around or anything.” And with that, the strangeness faded, like I’d never had it. Bizarre. There goes any inclination that it was something I was doing involuntarily in his eyes.
At any rate, he shrugged.
Fair enough. But I’ll go and get the doctor now that you’re awake. I had better go and call mom too, she’s worried sick.” He gave me one last hug, and began to start crying again. I felt his tears run down the side of my face and start to soak the collar of my hospital gown. He stayed in that position for several seconds without saying a word; and then finally with a heavy sob, he released his grip on me and made for the door to the hallway, wiping away his tears.
I was fully alone, and not entirely sure if I wanted it that way. On the one hand, I knew for sure that after this, my fate of being locked down by family tradition was as good as secured for the rest of my days. Mama was always great at cajoling the other members of the family into doing what she wanted, and it would be a sure thing that if I tried to make tracks, it wouldn’t be long before an uncle tried to track me down. An identity change could be possible, sure – but that seemed like it would be defeating the point somehow. The aim isn’t to be a different person, just to be free.
On the other hand, I began to realise that without my family, I truly was alone. Any childhood friends I had as a kid grew up, gained aspirations, and left town – searching for something in light industry or media. All the media types fled for the hills. I’d love to take the same kind of goals, but I never really saw myself as the painterly type, or a journalist. A small part of me once hoped that my brother would run away with me – so I wouldn’t be starting entirely from scratch – but now it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. Darn.
And then there was whatever in the hell was going on with my voice. I could tell that something wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t place it. Whatever it was, it was bad enough for my brother to notice. I guessed it had to be a result of the accident – no one’s responded to me like that before. Maybe it’s just the medication; I had no idea about the kind of damage – or the kind of treatment – that I’d taken. Who knows.
At that point I tried to sleep – but every time I closed my eyes I saw the intense headlights and the loud roar of the horn, and I jolted awake again. I wasn’t going to be able to sleep again for quite some time. I figured it would be better to wait for Nelson and the doctor to show up again.
It was about half an hour before the doctor appeared – today must have been a busy one for the rest of the hospital. He was a tall and imposing man – broad shouldered, with grey hair, a full beard, and glasses with rims so thick it was almost like he was wearing a bandit mask. When he saw I was awake, a smile passed across his face, but only slightly. This doctor was clearly terminally serious. Without saying anything, he walked over to my bedside, checked the wires and tubes embedded into my arms and chest, checked the machines. He pulled a torch from his lab coat, grabbed me firmly but gently by the face with one large hand, and shined it in my eyes, moving the torch back and forth between them. Eventually he spoke.
You’ve been unconscious for three days. Do you feel any discomfort now that you’re awake?”
Yes, I know. Nelson told me. I’ve had this throbbing headache, and I think my throat’s gone a bit funny,” I said, cursing inwardly at the abnormal feeling coming back. “Can I have a glass of water? Actually, make that brandy.” Nelson snorted as the doctor slowly shook his head.
There’ll be no alcohol for you, but I can go and get some water. The headache may be nothing, but you suffered from some major trauma during the crash, so we want to make sure that you’ll be operating at full health. You have a CT Scan scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at 3pm. Until then, I’m afraid you’ll have to remain here.”
All right, doc. Though one other thing. Who admitted me here? No one knew I was out that night.
“A couple found you and your motorcycle on the country road a couple of miles from town. They said you were just lying on the side of the road next to your bike, and there were heavy skid marks everywhere. They called the police and an ambulance. The police have been eager to question you – I’ve prevented them from seeing you until we know that you don’t require any kind of advanced treatment. If the CT Scan goes well, we’ll most likely have to release you and let them put you in to questioning. I’m… sorry about that.”
So that truck driver had left me for dead. The bastard. Still, it was the kindness of strangers that meant I was still alive – and this doctor really seemed to care about my well being, rather than just another patient that he had to get out of the way.
I’m fine with being questioned,” I said with earnest. “I could forgive that truck driver for the accident, but he didn’t care whether I lived or died. Life is too precious to just throw to the side of the road.” Still silent and in the background, Nelson pulled the same confused face as he did when he accused me of having an accent. The doctor remained emotionless and just listened and nodded slightly at all the right times. It was hard to tell if he thought there was something wrong with me or not.
You’re a strong man, Mr. Brocklee.” With those final words, the doctor bowed slightly and exited the room. Nelson was still staring at me with that now somewhat infuriating gormless expression. He was starting to wear on my patience.
What are you staring at?” I accused. The prompt was enough to get him to realise his indiscretion, and then he shuffled out of the room again, leaving me alone once more.
It was the next morning before I had visitors again. At regular intervals a nurse came to check that I was still breathing and brought food – if you could call vitamin-enriched vegetable mush food. I tried to get some sleep, but that definitely wasn’t working out. I felt like I never wanted to sleep again, and at the same time I would be entirely okay with sleeping for a few hundred years. During one of the nurse check-ups, I asked if they had anything to read, and I was quickly supplied with a few magazines and a collection of short stories. The magazines were all niche interest titles, interests that I didn’t really subscribe to. How they manage to produce monthly periodicals about fly fishing or rock climbing was beyond me. Aside from that, all those photographs of strong, free spirited people who had made the world their oyster filled me with a bitter jealousy. I knocked them off the bed, and started to read the story anthology. It included Reasons to Be Cheerful by Greg Egan; a story I had read in high school.
It concerned a man with no emotions, and how he was artificially given the ability to choose whether he liked or disliked things. As with many science fiction stories when man tampers with the forces of nature, he ended up lamenting his decision; but as I read it I began to disagree heavily with the message it was giving.
Everyone has a flaw with their personality that they would rather have removed, and having a method of bottling it up and shipping it off somewhere else seems like a great idea. And in this guy’s case, not having such basic emotions seemed like way more of a curse than an artificial remedy – not to mention that in choosing his preferences he became more liberated than most humans.
I remember back in high school, my best friend was a, um, closeted homosexual. He was terrified that if he came out to anyone but me and a few of his closest friends, everyone would treat him like an alien or a demon. At the time I shook my head and disagreed, but I think back to all the things my folks have said about gays when they see them on television or in the news. Hateful things; fuelled by religious dogma and ignorance. I heard it so often, I was starting to take it as actual fact, up until my friend came out and I realised that we would still be buddies regardless; and I didn’t think any less of him. I wouldn’t be able to bear that kind of vitriol my parents had towards gay people – and I was already dealing with the ire they put me through for not keeping my head down and being like them.
What would have my high school friend done in that situation? If offered with the ability to artificially change himself, would he take it? He could just become straight, and then all the problems and the bullying and the hateful language would just go away. Sure, it would be a much better solution to just change everyone else – but even with a magical personality-altering machine, it would be an impossible task.
And what about myself? Heck yes I would change myself. This burning desire in my gut to be different; to go somewhere else; is eating me away from the inside and has caused me nothing but problems and pain – and in the end I’m still trapped. Trapped in Texas, trapped with my family, trapped in this damned hospital. I could make that all go away, be at peace with myself.
Because inner peace is the key to happiness, right?