IT'S SO DARK THAT FOR A WHILE - JUST HOW LONG I DON'T know - I think I'm still unconscious. Then, slowly, it comes to me that unconscious people don't have a sensation of movement through the dark, accompanied by a faint, rhythmic sound that can only be a squeaky wheel. And I can feel contact, from the top of my head to the balls of my heels. I can smell something that might be rubber or vinyl. This is not unconsciousness, and there is something too ... too what? Too rational about these sensations for it to be a dream.

Then what is it?

Who am I?

And what's happening to me?

The squeaky wheel quits its stupid rhythm and I stop moving. There is a crackle around me from the rubbersmelling stuff.

A voice: 'Which one did they say?'

A pause.

Second voice: 'Four, I think. Yeah, four.'

We start to move again, but more slowly. I can hear the faint scuff of feet now, probably in soft-soled shoes, maybe sneakers. The owners of the voices are the owners of the shoes. They stop me again. There's a thump followed by a faint whoosh. It is, I think, the sound of a door with a pneumatic hinge being opened.

What's going on here? I yell, but the yell is only in my head. My lips don't move. I can feel them-and my tongue, lying on the floor of my mouth like a stunned mole-but I can't move them.

The thing I'm on starts rolling again. A moving bed? Yes. A gurney, in other words. I've had some experience with them, a long time ago, in Lyndon Johnson's shitty little Asian adventure. It comes to me that I'm in a hospital, that something bad has happened to me, something like the explosion that almost neutered me twenty-three years ago, and that I'm going to be operated on. There are a lot of answers in that idea, sensible ones, for the most part, but I don't hurt anywhere. Except for the minor matter of being scared out of my wits, I feel fine. And if these are orderlies wheeling me into an operating room, why can't I see? Why can't I talk?

A third voice: 'Over here, boys.'

My rolling bed is pushed in a new direction, and the question drumming in my head is What kind of a mess have I gotten myself into?

Doesn't that depend on who you are? I ask myself, but that's one thing, at least, I find I do know. I'm Howard Cottrell. I'm a stock broker known to some of my colleagues as Howard the Conqueror.

Second voice (from just above my head): 'You're looking very pretty today, Doc.'

Fourth voice (female, and cool): 'It's always nice to be validated by you, Rusty. Could you hurry up a little? The baby-sitter expects me back by seven. She's committed to dinner with her parents.'

Back by seven, back by seven. It's still the afternoon, maybe, or early evening, but black in here, black as your hat, black as a woodchucks asshole, black as midnight in Persia, and what's going on? Where have I been? What have I been doing? Why haven't I been manning the phones?

Because it's Saturday, a voice from far down murmurs. You were ... were ...

A sound: WHOCK! A sound I love. A sound I more or less live for. The sound of ... what? The head of a golf club, of course. Hitting a ball off the tee. I stand, watching it fly off into the blue ...

I'm grabbed, shoulders and calves, and lifted. It startles me terribly, and I try to scream. No sound comes out ... or perhaps one does, a tiny squeak, much tinier than the one produced by the wheel below me. Probably not even that. Probably it's just my imagination.

I'm swung through the air in an envelope of blacknessHey, don't drop me, I've got a bad back! I try to say, and again there's no movement of the lips or teeth; my tongue goes on lying on the floor of my mouth, the mole maybe not just stunned but dead, and now I have a terrible thought, one that spikes fright a degree closer to panic: What if they put me down the wrong way and my tongue slides backward and blocks my windpipe? I won't be able to breathe! That's what people mean when they say someone swallowed his tongue, isn't it?

Second voice (Rusty): 'You'll like this one, Doc, he looks like Michael Bolton.'

Female doc: 'Who's that?'

Third voice-sounds like a young man, not much more than a teenager: 'He's this white lounge singer who wants to be black. I don't think this is him.'

There's laughter at that, the female voice joining in (a little doubtfully), and as I am set down on what feels like a padded table, Rusty starts some new crack-he's got a whole standup routine, it seems. I lose this bit of hilarity in a burst of sudden horror. I won't be able to breathe if my tongue blocks my windpipe, that's the thought that has just gone through my mind, but what if I'm not breathing now?

What if I'm dead? What if this is what death is like?

It fits. It fits everything with a horrid prophylactic snugness. The dark. The rubbery smell. Nowadays I am Howard the Conqueror, stock broker extraordinaire, terror of Derry Municipal Country Club, frequent habitue` of what is known at golf courses all over the world as the Nineteenth Hole, but in '71 I was part of a medical assistance team in the Mekong Delta, a scared kid who sometimes woke up wet-eyed from dreams of the family dog, and all at once I know this feel, this smell.

Dear God, I'm in a body bag.

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