“Asleep at the Wheel of Time” – First Chapter

Chapter 1

Friday, January 10 (Day -90)

Patrick Murphy slammed on the brakes and skidded to a stop beside a little general store at the edge of a tidal inlet. He could scarcely believe that he had actually made it. He opened the door, leaned back against the seat of his Honda Civic hatchback and savored the sound of surf. After his long drive he could easily have fallen asleep, but he squeezed himself past the steering wheel and stepped onto the icy asphalt. At 270 pounds and a hair under six feet, he was no longer the ten-year old boy who had stood on this very spot–in Anchor Beach, Maine–so many summers ago.

A cold wind blew off the sea, but in the shelter of the storefront the sun was surprisingly warm. He stretched and walked over to where he could see the waves breaking on the beach. He must be crazy–did he really expect to meet a whale in the middle of winter in a boarded-up Maine resort town? Well at least he had taken a first step. This was the beach he had visited as a child and to which the haunting images of his dreams had driven him.

Standing in his brown work shirt, breathing in the salt-bitter air, he rubbed his broad hands vigorously over naturally-insulated ribs and shoulders. Collar-length brown hair, a little darker than his mustache, had thinned on top. His face, at forty three, still reflected the good looks of his youth, but those extra pounds now slurred the effect, like an ice sculpture melting out of focus.

He heard the squeal of a door hinge behind him, then an elderly woman’s voice. “We’ve got a fresh pot of coffee going. I could make a sandwich.”

He turned towards the front of the store, surprised that it was open, and squinted against the brightness of snow and white lap strake siding. His long drive down from Montreal, broken once by a sugar and caffeine stop five hours earlier, suddenly caught up to him. He felt dizzy as he tried to focus on her face. “That sounds great,” he managed to stammer.

He followed her into the store. Without asking, she brought over a cup of coffee and set it on a table in the small luncheonette area near the front. He drank standing up. When she disappeared into the back, he wandered over to a line of windows that looked across the inlet. He closed his eyes and drifted into the muffled crashing of the waves.

Strange how he had been thinking so much about his younger brother, John, lately, especially since crossing the U.S. border that morning. Maybe he should call, assume his role as older brother, but what could he say after so many years? “Hey, John, I’ve developed this interest in humpback whale songs, so I quit my job and drove down to Anchor Beach, Maine.” He knew he wouldn’t call. His successful brother, John, would immediately see this most recent instability as further evidence of Patrick’s fundamental inability to make a real life for himself.

Her voice startled him. “Hope you like turkey and cheese.”

Turning around, he saw a twelve inch submarine sandwich on a large plate, surrounded by pickle slices, potato salad, and black olives.

The aroma of fresh coffee steaming in his cup greeted him as he sat down at the table. He demolished half the sandwich and all the potato salad in a kind of stuporous inhalation. When he finally looked up, he was surprised to see that the woman had been joined by a man who, like herself, appeared to be in his early seventies. They introduced themselves as Hank and Emily.

“What brings you to Anchor Beach this time of the year, son?” Hank inquired. Good question.

“My brother and I stayed here a long time ago in one of the cabins down the road,” Patrick said, intending to avoid the issue of how he had felt compelled to come back here against all rational considerations. Then Patrick listened helplessly as some buried part of himself kept talking. “I needed to get away from everything. Boy, was that long overdue. My brother had the right idea–he abandoned our sinking ship more than twenty years ago, and never looked back once at our screwed up little family. So, this morning, at three a.m., two decades too late, I left Montreal and drove straight here.”

Hank was looking at him with a concerned expression on his wrinkled old face and Patrick wished he could take back the bitterness he heard in his own voice. This nice old couple didn’t need to know how Patrick’s life had taken a wrong turn somewhere. And they definitely didn’t need to know that Patrick considered himself a complete failure in life.

The best thing would be to pay for his sandwich now and leave, but Patrick couldn’t stop himself from continuing. “John left Montreal with a scholarship to MIT at eighteen. Then he moved to sunny Albuquerque and before anyone knew it had married the prom queen and was a full professor of Astronomy. What did I do? I hung around a few miles from where I was born, looking after a bitter, senile old mother.”

In horror, Patrick heard himself picking up steam. His own voice–like some opportunistic puppy bolting for freedom through its owner’s legs–now moved on to their mother’s death. He told the whole wretched story: how even then, John had not returned; and how he, Patrick–the miserably unprodigal older son–had spent the worst day of his life sitting alone beside their mother’s coffin, as relatives and acquaintances reminisced about his brilliant younger brother. “Your Mom was so proud,” he heard repeatedly–and everyone knew that it wasn’t Patrick’s temporary jobs as a computer programmer or his sullen wariness of all fellow humans, that had made their mother’s eyes shine.

After fifteen minutes, Patrick ground to a halt. He stared at the untouched half of his submarine sandwich, feeling raw and exposed. An unpleasant whiff of perspiration accosted him from his damp shirt. What had possessed him to dump on these complete strangers? Flustered and angry at himself, he asked how much he owed. To his embarrassment, they declined payment, and when Emily said in a wavering voice, “I just took a lemon meringue pie out of the oven,” Patrick suddenly felt overwhelmed by shame. He had given this old couple a guided tour of his emotional and psychological frailty, and couldn’t stay a moment longer in their presence.

He hurriedly left the store, climbed into his car, backed up, and had shifted into first gear when he heard the screen door bang. He spotted Hank limping across the icy roadway and reluctantly rolled down the car window. The old gentleman handed in something wrapped in wax paper. “Em thought you might want the rest of your sandwich, Patrick. Well, good luck to you, Son.” Glancing at the old geezer, Patrick squirmed uncomfortably under his direct gaze. He hoped it was just the wind making the old man’s eyes water, and cringed inwardly at the alternative.

He muttered, “Thank you,” and drove away. He planned to drive for a few more hours, but suddenly he needed to be outside. He swerved left at the first opportunity and headed down a snowy track towards the beach. It ended at a parking lot which in summer would have been crowded with cars from Portland, but which on this early January afternoon, offered a few boarded-up concession stands with deep snow drifts on their north sides.

He pulled his car close to a stand, locked up, put on his gray wool coat, hat and gloves, and headed down to the beach. Loose sand and snow grabbed at his boots, revealing how out of shape he was, and his coat was way too tight–but the brisk sea wind felt wonderful blowing over his face. When he reached the hard packed beach, glistening at low tide, he raised his arms over his head and shouted into the wind. “Freedom at last!” The seam ripped in the back of his coat, and he laughed out loud. That’s one way to get freedom. Then he laughed again, relieved to discover that he had not forgotten how.

He headed north, back toward the general store, walking as close to the breaking waves as he could without getting his hiking boots soaked. Strands of kelp cluttered the dark sand–their slippery feel reminding him of wet lasagna. To his left, the sandy beach rose up into low dunes that were white with snow. The sound of waves beating on the hard beach and the acrid smell of salt felt deeply familiar–in spite of the fact that he had only been to the ocean once before.

After walking for ten minutes, Patrick came to an area where sandbars, separated by pools of water, led to a rocky spit a half mile out. Ten minutes later he was clambering up onto the rock.

From the top he could look in all directions: eastward to open ocean, westward back to shore. And just beneath his feet, he saw an indentation in the rock–a natural lounge chair, carved in stone. Suddenly he felt very tired. He’d driven non-stop for eight hours on an almost empty stomach, then sprung that emotional leak in front of strangers.

Moving carefully along the steep rock face he made his way down and lowered himself into the rocky couch. Not half bad. He stretched out his legs and leaned back into a kind of rocky cocoon. A ledge on his right blocked the brisk ocean wind, while allowing the afternoon sun to beat directly onto his chest. He raised his arms so that his gloved hands formed a pillow under his hood. He felt warm and safe, high and dry above the surf crashing against the rocks below.

A small freedom seemed to open up for Patrick. How had he ever allowed his life to become so dominated by obsession? Now it seemed scarcely credible that he had sat in front of a computer screen virtually every night for a whole year. Looking for what? Patterns? An alphabet? A vocabulary that he could somehow relate to human language? Ridiculous. The best scientific minds had no idea how to approach an unknown language.

He had talked to professionals–from linguists to pattern-recognition experts, to whale experts–hoping to find a secret passageway into the language of whales. He had also seen a therapist to see if she could make his obsession go away. But therapy had made it worse–as if something that didn’t like being threatened with eviction had taken up residence inside his mind.

Whatever he noticed in his waking moments was the tip of a gigantic iceberg. Beneath the weirdness that invaded his daily life was a vaster landscape he visited in dreams. Sometimes he wrenched out of sleep stammering incomprehensible phrases–his heart pounding with fear. Often he woke up feeling guilty. Was that why he hadn’t left his mother for all those years–was he condemned to penance for a crime he couldn’t remember?

Usually there were whales and dolphins present, but sometimes he was in a different world entirely. Then when the faces of creatures peered into his eyes, he knew he had gone crazy. Yet he had quit his job to follow the scent of these crazy visions.

He took a few deep breaths of the ocean breeze. Every now and then, after an especially loud crash on the rocks below, traces of sea spray blew over him like fine cologne. Stretching out on the comfortable rock in the warm afternoon sun, he yawned. The exhaustion of his long drive–and perhaps of the way he had lived these last few years–announced itself from deep within his body. It would feel good to rest for a moment out here, on this rocky couch in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The warmth of the sun seeped into his tired body, as another world, repellant but fascinating, lapped at the edges of consciousness. Sometimes it seemed that his mind was breaking apart; yet he did not have the strength to turn away from these visions–which had showed up unannounced one day about a year ago, like distant relatives from another country.

For a moment he tried to hold back. But soon the one who was trying to hold back wasn’t there anymore. His body seemed to lengthen in the direction of living time, arms and legs and hands turning homeward. Then he was a dark, glimmering shape, diving into another world.

Far below the ice, his own body vast and sensitive, he watches as two human beings–a father and son–come plunging downwards. They drift down through the beautiful blue light, dragged along by some dark, heavy thing, as life and breath are torn from their lungs. The son is tied to the dark body, but why is the father still holding on? He could let go at any time, yet he keeps chewing the cord that binds his son, with jaws now feeble in the deathly cold.

We rise up into brightness, rising towards the wondrous light. This light, sung about from the old time, is shining inside the father two-legs. How can that be? How can the light be shining forth from one of them? One of them who kill for no reason.


The sensation of a heavy body slithering across his face tore Patrick from a deep sleep and he couldn’t move a muscle to push it away. Something passed over him–alien but strangely familiar–like an embodied remnant of a nightmare. Then he recognized his own arm, numb from having lain pinned back under his head while he slept.

He felt bone cold, shadow covered most of the rock, and the waves crashed directly in front of him. His beard was stiff with frozen spray and sheets of thin ice broke off his clothes when he moved.

He struggled to his feet, almost slipping down the icy surface into the seething water. To the west, a smoldering, red sun had begun its descent beneath the cold rim of the sand dunes.

Stay calm. No need to panic. How high could the tide rise in a couple of hours?

He clambered across the slippery rock until he reached its highest point. Then his mind did its best to reject what it saw. The rock on which he was standing had become an island. He was surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.

Where was the meandering path of sandbar he had taken out? In its place, open sea raced unimpeded towards the shore. This isn’t possible. All he had done was stroll out to the end of a sandy peninsula, and then lie down for a moment.

He looked around. Here and there, waves were breaking, the ruddy glow of the setting sun infusing their sudsy foam with a cold beauty.

A voice started up in his head. No way you’re going to die out here. Just calm down and work it out. People don’t die because they stroll out to a rock.

Someone would see him and come out in a boat. This wasn’t the Arctic Circle. It was a tourist area in Maine. Off season, admittedly. At worst, he could hold onto this rock during a terrible, freezing night. That prospect felt horrifying, as he tried to rub some sensation back into his numb left leg, but surely this rock would remain above high tide.

Suddenly, with a surge of optimism, Patrick remembered the old couple who ran the general store at the end of the beach road. Maybe they were looking for him and would find his parked car.

A splash of icy water lashed Patrick’s cheek and he gasped. With that one terrible sting across his face he suddenly understood that no warm-blooded being could survive a night on this rock. The frigid waters of the north Atlantic were rising and he would die if he didn’t get to shore. He couldn’t believe it. His visions–and the taste of freedom he felt when he finally followed them–did they mean nothing? Was it all just to get washed up bloated and half-eaten by fish?

Patrick seemed to wake up a second time. He flailed his arms, shouting and shouting until his throat hurt.

Cold recognition gripped his heart. The beach was completely deserted, no one knew he was stranded on this rock, and the sun was setting. He looked down at the base of the rock, where the sudsy water lapped at a dark vestige of sandbar–all that remained of the causeway to shore. I can’t. I’d freeze to death before I got anywhere.

But the path he had taken out must still be there, his mind insisted, just below the surface. Someone who knew exactly where to step could make it. Maybe.

He looked at the beach. It was harder and harder to spot any kind of landmark. Where was that piece of driftwood poking through the snow that had stood out from the salt grass so dramatically in the bright afternoon sun? Now he couldn’t be sure. Someone could be walking along the beach right now and they wouldn’t see each other. Patrick shouted again. But his voice was weak and hoarse. He knew that a person on shore, half a mile away, would hear nothing but the surf crashing.

Patrick could see some of the waves partially breaking before they reached the shore. Probably on the submerged sandbar which he had taken out, he thought. Could this vanished sandbar really be his only hope? If that was where the waves were breaking, then he would be drenched in the bitterly cold sea for as long as it took him to make it to shore. On the other hand, if there were stretches where only his feet were submerged, maybe he could keep hobbling for a while.

He tried to tear his mind loose from these pointless speculations. The decision was a simple one. If there was a chance of being rescued, he should wait. If there wasn’t, then every second counted. Every passing moment gave the ocean, and the night, a further, murderous advantage.

But Patrick couldn’t make his body move.

Then another dreadful flail lashed him full in the face and Patrick started crawling down the icy rock to the water.

Childhood memories of swimming on this same stretch of beach as a kid did not prepare him for entering the north Atlantic in January. The nerves in his feet and legs experienced a scalding numbness, as if he had stepped into the mouth of a moray eel whose teeth were dipped in Novocain.

Patrick gasped with shock but kept splashing forward. The sandbar was only a few inches under the water and he made good progress toward shore.

A strange kind of clarity came into his mind. He understood that he could die in the next few minutes, and a part of him was ready to experience whatever happened. With ragged, gasping breaths, he heard his own voice. “If this is the end . . . you have a lot of catching up to do . . . You better show a little backbone . . . now . . . if you want another chance.”

The water remained shallow as he steadily pulled away from his condemned island. He even began imagining that he could make it, if only his legs didn’t collapse under him. Whenever the water became deeper, he turned to either side until he found a direction away from the drop-off. Even after he could no longer feel his legs, he managed to keep on his feet.

Amazing–he really seemed to be doing it!

Perhaps once he got out of this situation, he should visit his brother. It was a shame, really, that there had been so much pain in their family, that he and John had never become friends. Why was that exactly? Brothers should be friends. Especially now that it was only the two of them. Only the two of them.

Then a wave hit, and Patrick fell. It seemed surprisingly comfortable to have his face under the water. He tried to fight off the lethargy and willed his legs to seek the sandy bottom, but all he felt was the bobbing sensation of waves passing overhead. It was as if his body and mind had stopped talking to each other.

His eyes remained open, but it was too dark to see anything other than an undifferentiated murkiness. If there was a sandy bottom below his face, he couldn’t see it.

He had enough light, however, to see the eye that appeared within three or four inches of his own!!

Then the dark glimmering vanished, and a few seconds later he sensed something pass between his legs and push him into the air. He gasped for breath. Then, as he fell face forward towards the water, a strong presence slipped beneath his chest. He felt ridiculously safe, like a child whose loving parent has lifted him up and hugged away the hurt.

For many years Patrick’s only friends were animals. A whole lineage of stray dogs had unquestioningly come home with him, like old friends falling into step side-by-side. But could this be really happening now? A dolphin?

Patrick could no longer feel his body, or open his eyes, but he willed his arms to embrace this new friend. And then he dreamed his oldest dream.

His father was carrying him in from the car. The wooden crib creaked as he was lain down on the mattress and a knitted blanket pulled over him. The blanket was blue and yellow and white. But the father had no face, just the warmth of an unknown man who loves his baby boy.