An essay by Dr. Deitolf Hamm, as provided by Eryk Pruitt
The specimen is Sam Tuley, chosen not just for his overzealous sex drive, penchant for alcohol and violence, and inability to make the most of a second chance, but rather because, try as he might, he will forever be damned to a hospital bed with tubes going in and out of him. This is where I found him. This is where our journey began.
Ask him what he remembers most about being awake and alive. To a pretty nurse, the cut of her figure may catch his eye, but the sparkle is long gone. Through cracked lips and a dry throat he will creak three cranky syllables:
Then, as if he’d summoned every last bit of his being to produce that much, his body will collapse back into itself, further into his hospital bed. The machines keeping him alive and reporting his condition will crank and whirr, beep and whistle for a bit, then fall back into their syncopated rhythm.
The poor bastard will be left to his dreams.
So I decide he will be the perfect candidate.
Ask him what he remembers most. Thirteen steps. At first, it puzzled me as well. There are twelve steps to a sobriety program. Most self-help books offer ten steps. What on earth does he recall about thirteen particular steps? I held his hand in mine and let him confide. The first time he told me, he collapsed into choking sobs. I stroke his hand and smile.
“There, there,” I tell him.
Sam Tuley stands outside Melinda Kendall’s apartment. Tears no longer fall from her eyes. She made promises to herself a long time ago. He stands in idiot fashion, his arms useless at his side, mouth hung open like a forgotten cave. He’s so good with words when it comes to women.
“Is this what you want?” she finally asks.
He tells her he reckons it is.
She makes a face like she’s been punched in the gut. She collects herself. She looks up at him with eyes he will never be able to shake from his head and says equally poignant words: “Will you come upstairs with me?”
He can’t believe his ears. He tells her so.
“Come upstairs.” She takes his hand in hers. “One last time.”
Upstairs. Up thirteen wooden steps, through a skinny, cramped hallway and into a room he’d been so many times.
That’s when I close my eyes and say, “Ahh. I see.”
I studied in Germany, in Brussels, and later in Princeton. I am known in circles and not very highly regarded. I built up an internet presence and gained quite a following. The United States Government paid attention and I lowered my profile.
But this article is not about me. This article is about Sam Tuley and the Helicopter Apocalypse. When you ask Sam, he will say the story is about Melinda Kendall, a girl he’d dated since finishing college. They broke up because one woman could not hold his interest long enough until he could no longer have her, then he became consumed by her. He drank and he drank and he punched things until new things hurt more than the old things did.
He would call her late at night.
“I been wailing like a broke guitar all over North Carolina since the day you done took off,” he told her into the phone. “Why won’t you come see me?”
She would never speak at first and the sound of her precious little breaths were all he had to let him know she was still there.
“Mel, remember when you asked me one last time?” he said. “Remember when you took my hand and wanted me to go up them stairs?”
And those little breaths would stop short.
“Mel? Mel, you there?”
“Leave me alone,” she said. “Please don’t call me anymore.”
For the rest of the night, her phone stayed off the hook. The next day, she’d have the number changed.
Or he’d see her at the bar. She’s out with her friends and she looks great–has she been working out?–and he plays it cool from the other side of the room. He knows she sees him, but she keeps racking them up and dropping them in the corner pocket like it’s no big deal. His drink never runs dry … not Sam’s. He packs a big swallow and crosses the room where she’s planning her shot: six ball, side pocket.
“Lips and a smile like that have got to have a body count,” he tells her. Her shot sails wide and she goes pale. The other girls know something is wrong but they don’t get involved. These were girls she hung out with before she and Sam began dating. What do they know? She smiles weakly and pretends he’s not there.
To get her back, he returns to the bar and cozies up to nearly every girl within his radius. He plans to teach her a lesson. He drinks more and can’t stand that she’s that close to him, that those arms are no longer wrapping around his neck, that …
He stalks to the pool table and slaps the pool cue out of her hand. A bartender starts to protest and he’s up and out of there before anything can happen.
Sam Tuley’s no fool.
The idea for the Helicopter Apocalypse came to me during a golf game. Mulligan. The concept rocked me to my core. The notion of a do-over had consumed scientists and science fiction novelists for ages. During my early days in Germany, the advancements in Physics were heralded much like Olympic medals. Then came Alamogordo, Nagasaki, and Potsdam and we began playing closer to the vest.
I thought of my early days in Germany often as I assembled the machine. If given a mulligan, would anyone erase what had been done by our leaders during that time? Would assassinations be stopped? Would wars be prevented? I kept journals detailing these questions and more.
And on the maiden voyage, we would be sending a man back in time to procreate with the proverbial “one that got away.”
But ask Melinda Kendall and she reminds you that she did not get away. Her version recounts that it was more like cast aside. And the last time they broke up was far from the first. Once he telephoned her and said it was over after he’d met a pretty young thing at a bar who wouldn’t go home with him as long as he had a girlfriend. She had been playful as a kitten with an attention span to match and pretty soon, Sam came back around.
Another time he broke up with her on a Friday afternoon, and come twenty minutes after the bars closed, there he was, beneath her window, howling like an alley cat. Every time, she’d take him back. Every time, she’d open the door and let him in.
“I knew we wasn’t done,” she’d say each time. “He can say it all he wants, but I know it ain’t so. We didn’t have no closure.”
So why that time? Why that time with him at the bottom of her thirteen wooden steps, when he refused to take her hand and go upstairs … why that time did she end it?
It drove Sam Tuley out of his wits. He walked the streets and ducked in and out of bars. He drank until he no longer felt welcome, then headed down another alley or two. He made time where he could with whom he could. He found her on the internet one day. She was married with a kid. He went to pieces and found her phone number.
“You can not call me here,” she shouted into the phone. She must have remembered where she was, because she abruptly switched to whispering. “Please, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. What I did was wrong.”
“No, what I did was wrong,” he moaned. “It’s all my fault. I wish I could take it back.”
And after a little while, she whispered, “Me too.” Then she hung up.
The first day Sam woke up, I made sure I was there. Studies have proven that men who sustain the type of injury from which Sam suffered take a considerable time to regain all of their faculties. That is, if they ever do. Sam’s eyes weren’t used to the light, so I immediately dimmed it.
“Drink this,” I told him. I’d kept a vial of LiCida 412 (please see my notes) at his bedside with specific instructions should he wake and I not be present. For the past week, however, I rarely left his side.
He protested, but his throat would be scorching. He drank from it.
“Where am I?” he asked. “Who are you?”
“It will come back to you in a moment. Just relax.”
He drank more of the liquid. He raised a hand to his head, which is when he acknowledged the tubes and wires running to and from his body. He panicked.
I held him fast to the bed and demanded he tell me what he last remembered. He kicked and punched, squirmed and wiggled and refused to look me in the eye. I prepared for this. I held him steady, let him know I wasn’t going anywhere. I asked him again.
“Thirteen steps!” he shouted. “Thirteen goddamn, piece of shit steps!”
And like that, he was out like a light.
Sam runs his hand along the shell as if it were a vintage muscle car, only fourteen left in existence. The Helicopter Apocalypse is much rarer than that, I assure him. His eyes gleam, yet he is cynical. The room where it’s kept is large and spacious. The air conditioner hum is sometimes all I ever hear here.
His gait around the machine is relaxed, easy. Twice he opens his mouth, but says nothing. His fingers leave little streaks along the exterior, which I quickly see to with a chamois.
Finally, he speaks: “This is it?”
“Yes. It is.”
“It doesn’t look like much.”
I shrug. I know there is no frame of reference in this universe.
“And nobody knows about it?” he asks.
“No,” I tell him. “Just you and I.”
He gets to the seat and stares at it. He wants to go now.
“Not yet,” I tell him. “We have so much more to talk about. I have something to show you.”
Sam Tuley kicked and kicked at the door. Every dog in the neighborhood raised hell at the disruption. Finally the neighbor woman came to the foot of the stairs, armed with a Doberman.
“Don’t nobody live up there!” she called to him. “I don’t know who you are or what you want, but don’t nobody live up there no more. Ain’t nobody lived up there for years.”
Sam didn’t care. He kicked at the door some more and the Doberman kept at it, barking until she tugged on the leash and dragged him home by the neck. He grew tired and fell to the landing a sweaty mess. He wanted a drink desperately. He started down the steps when the whole world set to spinning and the bottom of the stairway came up to greet him.
He woke in the hospital, and there I was.
“This is how it happens,” I tell him.
Sam says nothing. He stares at the ceiling and I wonder what he finds up there that could possibly be more comforting than anything I have to tell him.
Every day after he comes to, I am there at his bedside. I open the windows and let in the light. I dilute his water or juice or milk with LiCida 412 and I read stories aloud to him. On more than one occasion, he demands me removed, but I return the next day and, after a while, I think he is glad to see me.
“Do you still not recognize me?” I ask him. He shakes his head, but I can see pieces starting to fall into place behind his eyes.
And one day, it is raining outside. I open the window to grey clouds that give the entire room a seven o’clock feel and he asks me, “Did we used to play golf with each other?”
“Why do you ask?”
He looks at me with an expression of utter hopelessness.
“Mulligan,” is all he says.
“I can introduce you to Cleopatra,” I say to him. He shakes his arm free from my grasp and climbs inside. “I can put you in the cell with Joan of Arc on the night before she is executed.”
He smiles, but I know he is angry. Sam Tuley had rarely been anything but angry. Even on this, the eve of the greatest night since Armstong walked on the moon or Oppenheimer read the Bhagavad Gita, he is angry and spiteful and his insides call the world a motherfucker. I have no doubt that if the Helicopter Apocalypse could reset the entire universe, Sam Tuley would take no less time to press the button.
“Do you like London?” I smile. “I will bring you to a woman one week before she is taken by Jack the Ripper. You can show her what it is like to love.”
“I’m ready,” he whispered.
I have so much to tell him. It will never matter. His decision has been made and will always be made. No matter how many times we do this. No matter how many times we try.
I close the door to the Helicopter Apocalypse. I stand back and open up the small book in the rear pocket of my trousers. I read aloud the passage I have oh so memorized by now.
“And in those days men shall seek death, and shall in no wise find it; and they shall desire to die, and death fleeth from them.”
And I close the Bible given to me so long ago.
She punctuates her point by putting her hand in his. He’s always been a sucker for those Carolina baby blues of hers, even when they’re wet as they are. Today is no different, not the way his heart beats.
She asks if it’s what he really wants and, even though it was back then, it’s not anymore. It hurts to say it out loud.
“I reckon it is,” he says.
Her mouth makes a tiny little O and he wants to put his arm around her. Not yet, he reminds himself. It takes forever, but she asks him upstairs. After long last, she asks.
“I can’t believe you’re asking me,” he breathes.
She takes his hand and asks him upstairs. “One last time,” she whispers.
And so they go. It’s hot outside and he supposes they’ll have to hose down the bedsheets when they’re through the way he plans to go at it. He doesn’t know how long it’s been or how long he’s waited, just what exactly he’s gone through and what he’s done to be there, but he’s there. He takes it all in, each step, the cedar smell of the tight stairwell, the sound of his boots on her hardwood floor. She leads him to the bedroom that he never forgot.
She’s going to speak but he doesn’t wait. His mouth is on hers, aiming for her mouth but getting everywhere. He could devour her. They fumble to the bed.
His shirt never makes it, hers lands on the lampshade. In no time they gather their bearings and there they are, struggling to get each other’s clothes off when she pushes him down to the bed, stands up and says no, no, I have something special for you and I’m pretty sure I know what it is. Over time he recalled her every scent, nuance … He’s imagined this forever, this one last time … He lies back, she stands up, looks at him, her standing in her bra and unbuttoned blue jeans just pretty as a picture. One last time … She smiles, reaches into a drawer and produces a shiny little pistol, points it at him and fires into his face and suddenly the frequency changes.
He can barely hear anything except beeps and whistles, crankings and whirrings. Long, loud shrieks. His head lolls from side to side, flopping a bit like a fish with only seconds left to go but barely anything left. She gently lays the gun down on the desk and watches him a moment. She’s thought about this for some time as well. Did it turn out the way she’d planned? Judging from her expression, probably not.
“Are you still alive?” she asks. She kneels down in front of him. Her breath smells like Wintergreen gum. “Are you still in there?”
His head rolls from one side to the other. Drool pools at his lip and will spill at any moment. His hands can do nothing to stop it. His vision blurs.
“Can you hear me?” she asks.
He can’t answer. All he hears are beeping machines, somewhere in the distance. This is where he is now. This is where he’s always been.
She touches his cheek. “I love you. Do you hear me? I love you.”
His head lolls to the side.
“I have to move on,” she tells me. “But I really needed some closure.”
DR. DEITOLF HAMM was born in Stuttgart, Germany and studied in Mainz, Brussels, and Princeton. His work was largely controversial and caused him scorn and ridicule in professional communities. His pamphlet “God and the Helicopter Apocalypse,” a treatise on time travel, caused him expulsion from the academic community. His website, long discontinued, was shut down by the United States government. Following an investigation by authorities after reports of large purchases of suspicious materials, he went into hiding and has never resurfaced.
Eryk Pruitt is a writer, screenwriter, and former restaurant professional living in Durham, NC. His short dark comedy “Foodie” has won awards at screenings in film festivals across the United States.