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Forget The Present Tense

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Erik Lehnsherr has always had difficulty with the concept of penance. The notion that crimes might somehow be atoned for, paid off like high-interest loans, has never jived with his sense of justice. Oh, he isn't concerned with petty evils: the little white lies, selfish moments, and daily unkindnesses that make people… people. He doubts any (entirely theoretical, in his mind) G-d would be, either. But human beings have more than those trifles in their repertoire. Rape, murder, torture, genocide… how can people stand there and say they're sorry, that they were simply unbalanced, or have no idea why they've done these things? How on Earth could they claim that they'd just been following orders?

It's been a stumbling block for him since he became old enough to grasp the historical context of his own religion. Mama was always patient with him, stressing kindness tempered with an understanding of man's baser instincts. She would remind him that G-d must unfortunately allow for great evil in order to grant the precious (and often abused) privilege of free will. 'Yetzer hara'-- the human inclination to violate divine justice. Dad was always much less philosophical-- he believed the universe had been set a certain way, with rules and commandments and mitzvahs, and that was pretty much it.

Perhaps, if she had lived, Mama would have eventually persuaded Erik to her point of view. So much died the night she did, in the rain and the twisted carcass of the station wagon, while that low-life slurred 'Oh, shit' over and over again. The bastard had run-- or tried to-- when his actions finally penetrated the haze of booze. Fled like a coward when he could have helped Mama and everyone else in the resulting pile-up. Erik had watched the man, the unbalanced loping shape of a neon-green windbreaker, while he himself had struggled and shouted, pinned between the door and another car's tire. Mama had been alive, at first-- but he couldn't even reach her, couldn't even hold her hand while she slipped inexorably into the pulseless void.

At the final trial, the judge had given the man a chance to speak-- to apologize or to explain. Erik, by then fifteen and fuming beside his father in the gallery, simply stood up while the man was in mid-sentence, turned around, and left.


He's never claimed to be a good person. He took lives in Iraq, both by deliberate action and by tangental consequence. The weight of what he may have done to Charles-- of what the dreams insist he has done to Charles-- carries all the crushing pressure one finds in the dregs of the Mariana Trench. Impossible to endure or deny, to rise to surface life, without some sort of implosion.

There's no penance for that. There's no price to be paid, in blood or return suffering, and there sure as fuck aren't any words.

(And so _you_ ran, this time. It was your back he saw disappearing, the silhouette of a coward. It's stupid, but its instinctive. There's no running or hiding from something like this, 'cause at the end of the day you'll always be alone with yourself.
Whatever that dear man saw in you was nothing but a heat mirage.)


The 'Beach Dreams' are never linear; the mirror room may or may not be followed by the flight in, their last morning at home, or those awful damning moments on the sand. What lingers after waking is the relentless feeling of unreality beating through each experiential moment. The contextual, dream-Erik barely believes some of the events are happening, though he fights and struts and gives oration well enough to hide it.

("Are you ready for this?"
"Let's find out.")

He wasn't ready-- he's the worst kind of fool. Though the exact details aren't clear, Erik knows his dream-twin ruthlessly compensated for many dark outcomes, but never for this. The painful, ungainly crumpling of that lone brother-in-arms is quite beyond even his violent imagination, ergo it must be real. Those eyes were never a more vivid or impossible color, and though there was an aching cavity of nothing in Erik's own head, he knew exactly the words shouted by that brilliant mind. You. How could you?


Presently, Erik nudges the paperback copy of The Once and Future King with one loudly aching knee, thinking derisively of the the arrogance with which that poisoned love-inscription had been authored. 'My Galahad,' his own mind echoes, and there is a terrible texture to it, like wet silk clinging to cold skin. And what happened to that eponymous knight, the original saintly youth? Struck dead, if Erik recalls correctly, from the glory of achieving his vision.

'Not much chance of that now, is there?' He's never been willing to cut himself much slack, and he finds he has even less for the other Erik Lehnsherr. In all likelihood because he sees in that night-twin all his own sins and flaws merely cunningly rearranged. 'You thought you margin for error could be calculated, and that you could always take him with you if things went south.'

The other dream, in which he hadn't even *tried* to help Charles, doesn't bare thinking about. He can't put any of this in sequence, either within the individual dreams themselves or between the series. Memories dressed up in greasepaint; blurred and coruscating to blunt their force. How well he knows that last little mental defense, having lost time both before and after the bombing, never mind the wreck from his childhood. Such things are to be expected, or so every psychologist claims.

Lost time.

Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?' That's Dickens-- about thirteen hundred years off the Arthurian theme, but Lehnsherr is more than willing to make the reach. Guilt makes a person desperate, like a drowning man seeking air. The only penance for this sin would be to make it Not So.


Embroiled in these miasmal considerations, Erik at first accepts the sound that penetrates the stillness as one of the innumerable audible ghosts of an on-coming panic attack. The background hum of base activity is one of those weird recurring flash-back echoes, even after all this time stateside. Not the hail of gunfire overlaid in some Hollywood drama, but merely the rhythm of his old Army life-- that sensation that he is out of sync and the real world is going on without him, somewhere. His knuckles are white, nails biting into his palms, and he's given up all pretense of not holding Charles' copy of the novel as close to his chest as any child's blanket. He almost starts counting backwards, concentrating on visualizing open breathing passages; all the kitschy little therapy tricks.
It hits him quickly, however, that the current rev of a diesel engine turning over is no phantom.

He's on his feet in the same moment, scrambling up to the window with Charles' leather-bound book still clutched in one hand. When the view of the front drive yields nothing, Lehnsherr whirls around to the window on the perpendicular wall. It's impossible, but that too is a bust. The eerie silence-- the peculiar life-blood of this anachronistic house-- takes command once more.

"You could have been wrong," he says aloud, mostly for the relief a living voice offers. His own will have to do, and even that seems swallowed by the determined stagnancy of his surroundings. He might have been wrong-- yeah, okay, but he doesn't buy it. He's done doubting himself, and there is something wrong with this place. It isn't a crypt, for all his half-mocking notions of ghosts and horror-movie props. Everything-- the way the shadows fall, the convenience of the cubby-hole yielding up its artifacts, even those damned synchronized light-fixtures-- feels deliberate. Not staged, exactly, but preserved.


("This place is a museum," Raven says, rolling her eyes. She throws herself on the couch beside Sean, toeing off her heels with practiced movements of painted digits. Even as she begins scolding, her hand is stealing into the younger boy's bag of chips. "Do you have any idea the sort of inhuman sounds Sharon would make if she could see you *snacking* on her Neoclassicist Chippendale sofa?"

"Poor little rich girl," Erik says, not bothering to keep the acid out of his tone. What he wanted was fifteen minutes of news programming for intel; what he got was two teenagers hovering, waiting to turn the channel over to some technicolor nonsense or another.

"We could sit on plastic covers, like at my grandmother's," Sean suggests, not pausing in his steady decimation of the snack.

"Don't bother on our account." That's Charles in the doorway behind him and, while Erik is too practiced to flinch outwardly, he does muffle an inward curse. He could say he didn't know the professor was standing there-- claim the dig was aimed at Raven and meant nothing in particular-- but it would take no special talent to spot that for a lie. He's been needling over this… tactical resource… all day, once again struggling to reconcile the gentle scholar he knows with all the stereotypes and assumptions he hates.

"I'm not advocating wanton destruction, mind," Xavier continues, all casual cocktail smiles. "But a house is meant to be lived in, don't you think?" For the first time in a long while, he comes to sit not beside Erik, but to perch on the arm of the sofa nearest his sister. "It's impractical to create useful items solely for decoration. Besides," his tone becomes confiding as he taps his temple, "I have it on good authority this is a rather shoddy reproduction."

"Only bad boys tell tales out of school." The girl smiles up at him, giving him a gentle chuck on the chin, and Sean laughs. In that moment-- as Charles favors Raven with a soft gaze and a fond smile-- Erik can see the family of two they have comprised for so long. They are diametrically opposite but lovely, at the moment almost perfectly arranged for a clandestine photo. Even when Sean leans over to share some smart remark, there is still an air of commiseration that eliminates Lehnsherr from the picture.

Erik surprises himself with how very little he likes or appreciates this. So many of his actions since reaching the manor have been aimed at distancing the professor, punishing the young man for an endowment of birth as equally inescapable as it is opposite of Lehnsherr's. Yet he dislikes being robbed-- and yes, that is the term he instinctively uses-- of Charles' attention. Something of this must show on his face, for Raven flushes with coy assumption and Xavier's jaw sets hard, one eyebrow raised. Pressing a kiss to his sister's hair, Charles slides smoothly from his perch.

"I've arranged for the grocer to make a delivery," he says over his shoulder, the calmest of hosts. "Hopefully we can have more than gas station snacks tonight. Don't ruin your appetite!")


Such a paltry thing, this memory, but astonishing in its clarity. The real Erik (and he is real, he tells himself) is taken aback by the specifics, which are often inaccessible even within the dreams themselves. It's the first time he's really been aware of anyone besides Charles in a more than peripheral sense, much less been readily able to remember their names.

'The longer I stay here, the easier its going to be to reach these things,' Erik thinks, in a mixture of anticipatory wonder and fear. These pseudo-memories, rising to the surface the way drops of dye bloom on pure linen. Are they external, streaming or broadcasting like the rough accented version of his voice he heard outside, or are they in his under-mind already, eddying between the alpha-waves of consciousness and the delta-waves of sleep?

It's hard to tell and, while the mechanism might be important, he isn't going to figure it out today. Absorbing information during a day visit is fine, but suppose he stayed the night here?
'You might not be able to turn it off,' Lehnsherr admits to himself. It is utterly, breathless terrifying, as if he's a hard-drive being overwritten with foreign data. At the same time, its as tempting as the ripe, vibrant fruit first offered in the scaly coils of Ha'Satan. If he should stay the night, he might not be able to function outside, in the 'REAL WORLD'. For a moment, he struggles to envision that other sphere, so crowded with people and noise, commercials and cellphones. 'White Plains, the New York Yankees, McDonalds,' he thinks. 'Google, my laptop; Starbucks, vitamin water in as many shades as they make for nail polish.' It's a bizarre catechism, but it really does help. Keeping an eye on gas prices, clock in at 6AM and out at quarter to five, oh boy. Spreadsheets full of construction materials and assets, every over-priced item in the vending machine, and all the coffee he consumes powering through database maintenance.

'This is me,' thinks Erik, formerly Sergeant Lehnsherr of B Company ('Bulldogs-- we disarm and dispose, anytime and anywhere'). Magda's standard "plus one", Edie's mossik, the terror of Anderson High School lacrosse. He pictures the two discordant sets of experience as circles, clear delineations, but he's afraid the situation is more like a Venn diagram. Overlapping circles, interlocked, with that third oval forming in-between. The common denominator is as simple as it is gut-wrenching:


The book in Erik's hand-- the book he somehow knows Charles often fell asleep with, the one in which a very young Xavier wrote his name-- has taken on an almost talismanic quality. Slowly, the interloper begins gathering the other items, carefully placing them back in the gaudy Flash Gordon tin. When he replaces the wood paneling, the only thing Lehnsherr leaves in the old cubby are the vials and their attendant needles. They represent no temptation for him, but he wants them gone none the less. Whatever they have done or can do to Charles will be remedied, or prevented from happening at all. Not because the professor is somehow incapable of looking out for himself, but because it is the least Erik owes that gentle soul.

And, because better than penance is the tantalizing possibility of erasing your transgression altogether.

* * * * * * * * *

Erik finds himself oddly comforted by the solid weight of Charles' things, now carefully ensconced in his saddlebag, as he picks is way back through the overgrown woods towards the road. Like the strong arms which caught him up in the dark waters of unconsciousness and pain, they provide a solid connection to events others might dismiss.

('…you're not alone, Erik…')

He has the bag slung across his shoulders, having downed four Advil and half the Mountain Dew before even attempting the trek back to the motorcycle, but his ungrateful hips and ankle are having no part of it. They'll make him pay for his adventure tonight, which is why Erik's only plans after sending off his latest paper and posting to the class message board revolve around an extremely hot bath and a good swig of Everclear. Nothing stronger than oever the counter meds for Sergeant Lehnsherr now, no sir. He figures he's excused in making that counter a bar on occasion; there's only so much pain the body-- and more importantly, the mind-- can take. There's certainly no hope of seeing Charles tonight, for the dreams have abruptly stopped.

The mission, such as it is, has at least been a success. Charles' loadstone may in fact be Erik's cornerstone. Any disappointment he feels is irrational for, though he has less than he desired, he has far more than he could have reasonably expected. There's no doubt in Erik's mind that he'll return-- with spade and shovel in hand, if it comes to that. Part of him bulks at yet another cinematic psycho-thriller cliche, but a far larger portion trusts the overwhelming dream-impressions that something

(" stepfather was quite paranoid about nuclear war…")

lies under the manor that may be even more inexplicable than the house itself. He'd found no basement access during this sweep, but he can't give up now.

And if he does find Charles-- who, despite the mismatched religion, is now definitely his holy grail-- what then? Instinct says he'll fall to his knees in worship. Which seems a bit excessive, despite the molten sea of flame it ignites in Erik's groin. As he clears the last of the trees, Lehnsherr decides to make that last bit a hyperbole; that's his story, and he's sticking to it. Like his mother before him, Erik's deep romanticism has always been hidden by an equally fervent practicality. It's embarrassing, almost enraging, to love someone to this degree-- never mind their debatable status in reality. Lehnsherr is in no way comfortable with the emotion, mindful as ever of the gross vulnerability and potential for desolation. No one would ever want this feeling-- an almost literal soreness of bruising of the heart-- if it were properly explained to them. Yet now that he's been cursed with it, Erik would not be shed of it even if he had a choice.

Even before he looks over his shoulder, Lehnsherr knows the woods have already gathered behind him, obscuring the house completely. Trees- pine, copper beech, chestnut-- closing ranks like well-trained infantrymen.

('Mama, mama, can't you see?' they sang in bootcamp, 'what the Army's done to me?')

There is a thickness to the silence, broken only by Erik's less-than-stealthy progress away and the fluttering of birds in arthritic branches, that is suggestive of separation from the larger world. The disconnected snapping and rustling do nothing for Erik's nerves, which (thank you, PTSD) never quite let go of fight-or-flight mode. It's a million miles away from the tree-lined streets of suburban White Plains, all neatly manicured lawns and respectable, easily curtailed Bradford Pear trees. Erik's youth

(Do you hear me? My youth-- I don't want your pain or your past)

in clever little cul-de-sacs and neon blue community swimming pools. Ah, no. This is almost a fairytale forest; fee-fi-fo-fum.

(The blood of an Englishman; pale satin under freckles, the way Charles blushed as though he and Erik hadn't just spent the night doing every filthy, loving thing they could think of and a bit more besides. Once, he'd pinned his lovely professor, kissing at the other man's entrance and then transferring the earthy taste in a battle of tongues. He'd called Charles his 'English Rose' only in that instance, and Xavier had promptly bitten him in revenge.)

No fairytale or epic adventure this-- just real life, with all the toil and disappointment that brings.

Besides, Erik knows that being cast as the knight does nothing to hide his own bloody wolf's claws.

* * * * * * * * *

Erik's father was fond of saying that no lock was ever created without a key to open it. His version of 'where there's a will, there's a way'; Jakob Lehnsherr always preferred tangible concepts, concrete analogies. He was a banker who, in a rare moment of paternal camaraderie, once told Erik he envied the bulky safes and heavily cast coins of the past. More more honest than the ones and zeroes of twenty-first century commerce.
Something you could hold
(move the coin, or…)
in your hand.


Keys, locks, and doors. Just basic word association, so simple they don't even bother with it on a Psych Eval. Nothing revealing about it, just a logical progression.

(Except that they found the drunk driver's stolen set melted together in the pocket of his jeans; except that Erik survived a crash that should have sent the metal passenger door crumpling in, metal and glass free to spear his own small frame.

And, by the by, the other two people who survived the marketplace bombing? Had been on the opposite side of the square, nowhere *near* as close as Erik had been to the blast center.

Never mind the screaming, almost-to-blows fights Erik had with his father because Mama's magen david kept turning up the teenager's nightstand drawer.

"I asked you not to take that, Erik," his father would say during the more reasonable preliminary part of the arguments. "It was special to your mother, and that makes it important to me."

The boy Lehnsherr had been, screaming in the final and more resentful rounds: "And don't you think it's important to me, too? Or do you think you're the only one who loved her?"

Fucking hell.)


Madga, a linguist despite the less-than-glorious museum position she's taken, insists that even ordinary words are important. Perhaps more important than the impressive
('You mean pretentious,' Erik would throw in) three-dollar ones. The scrabble-smashers. For example, the word 'janitor' comes from the Latin; in those days, it meant 'gatekeeper'. And they still have the keys to the kingdom, no doubt about it, but the prestige of the position has gone. And 'key' itself-- possibly from the Middle Low German 'keie', meaning lance or spear.
Long ago, the Romans threw open the gates of Mars Ultor when they went to war and, when those doors closed, the dead were the dead. No take-backs.

There is something, however, that people-- particularly those of the modern, ultra empirical world-- often forget. Erik will see it himself, in hindsight, but for now the simple fact has escaped even his notice.

Sometimes, a door only goes one way.

Erik Lehnsherr has been looking for a key and a door, but what he finds is hardly what he envisioned.


It happens like this:

The Kawasaki is in its little wooded ensconcement right where Erik left it, unmolested. Once he clears the final guard of milkweed and underbrush, the young man feels as though he has once more set foot on solid ground. The change is hardly something he can articulate-- whatever dimension or perception Xavier's mansion provided, it is as subtle as it is disturbing. Perhaps it was only in his mind; perhaps Lehnsherr might actually be able to believe that once he's fully away from the influence of the house, and Westchester in general. Out here on the road, the shadows at least fall correctly, and the sunlight has lost its disturbingly over-yellow cast. Depth and color have regained the solidity he's used to, and the bike feels like an affirmation of reality as he maneuvers it back onto the asphalt.

His cellphone buzzes helpfully from his pocket, a timely little reminder of the twenty-first century. Unlocking it with a quick swipe of his finger, he's amazed to find the clock function reads 3:24PM. It had not occurred to him to check the time when he first tooled to a stop here, but he feels an instinctive discordance with his own internal chronology. It was 11:20AM when he left the VA, and Westchester was an hour and a half out of his way. Lost time again. He hardly needs any help with that.
Whatever hour it is, he's way overdue for a nice trip back to the rational world.


The phone's alert is for a text from Magda, which Erik reads with an unconscious smile.
'Wonton Wednesday tomorrow @ Golden Lotus y/n?'
He texts back, 'Y. 19:00?', knowing she'll scold him for using military instead of 'people' time. He jams the slim casing into his saddlebag and, once that's secure, mounts up and pulls down the road. He doesn't go back the way he came, mostly because he wants to see if there's any evidence of the house visible from the front. He'll kick himself (or rather, his aching ankles and hip will) if it turns out there's an easier point of ingress, but he doubts it. From the Google Map, he at least knows that Graymalkin Lane runs further east, where it joins up with an old three-county highway. He'll be able to head home without going back into town or (hopefully) running to any of obstructions caused by the recent rain.


Would going back have changed anything, in the long run? Ze ma sheyesh. Who can tell? In a traditional physics experiment, once can easily point to a catalyst and say, 'there-- remove that link, and the chain falls apart.' But does that account for gravity? Not the gravity those self-same physicists discuss, but the pull of events. The grooves life falls into, the way planets are forced into their orderly procession around a star. People flippantly call it destiny and thus dismiss it, leaving it ephemeral and vague. Yet one supernova, one meteor impact, can throw those heavenly bodies into temporary chaos, before essential forces move to compensate.
The Universe, correcting itself.


Slowly, Erik cruises along the remaining wooded road, unable to detect any other signs of Xavier's home. As the trees begin to thin, he picks up to a reasonable speed, leaving the visor on his helmet open to enjoy the spring breeze. He passes empty fields throwing off winter's blandness for their beginning hints of green, abandoned acreage in unkempt sprawls around faded barns and collapsing sheds. At one point, there's a large billboard which proclaims in blocky futuristic letters that TRASK INDUSTRIES will soon be revitalizing Westchester with commercial growth and innovation, and you-- yes, you!-- can apply now online.

Lehnsherr unconsciously makes a face at this. Normally, his opinion of the business world is pretty uniform; namely, that they're all crooked. The Almighty Dollar will always be the bottom line, and woe betide the mere mortal who dares to stand in its way. Which is not to say that Erik is a particular supporter of any one particular system or another-- it is more that he is a student of human nature. It doesn't matter what sort of high-minded philosophy you construct-- you can't make people be good.

Trask Industries is an exception in that they get Lehnsherr's blood boiling with little to no effort. They're not just a manufacturer or technological development firm-- they're *the* biggest military contractor in the country. They do 'private security' contracting too, which means Erik had to deal with a number of their machismo-fueled would-be soldiers, condescending bureaucrats, and thinly disguised mercenaries while he was in Iraq. You can just stick that right in the box marked, 'Portions of Military Service Not to Be Revisited'. A perfect example of people who expect money to buy loyalty, or change the truth.

'Take the king's shilling,' Erik thinks as the billboard mercifully disappears behind him, 'and you kiss the king's ass'. Ahead, he can see where the road quickly begins to wind back through more worded areas, though it intersects first with a little one-lane road coming from the south. To Lehnsherr's surprise, there's another vehicle-- a dusty blue pickup-- on the road. It's the first sign of life he's seen since leaving Westchester's main drag. It turns ahead of him, piled full of teenagers. Erik slows down to keep a little more distance between them; he knows full well how unpredictable new drivers can be, having been one not long ago himself.
'More than a decade ago, now,' a little voice reminds him. It seems bent on making him feel old and out-of-context today.


In defiance of safety, several boys are piled in the truck bed, along with what appear to be gallon drums of gatorade and packs of soda. They're wearing basketball jerseys, blue and white, and might actually be the same group Lehnsherr saw in the gas station. He thinks he remembers seeing that same blond-- SUMMERS 03, his jersey reads-- in a similarly labeled hoodie. The boys peer at him with undisguised but vague small-town curiosity, but whomever is driving obeys the signs warning of steep curves and advising slower speeds as they approach the next wooded area.

Narrow, winding spots like these are tough on inexperienced cyclists, but Erik's been riding since his freshman year of college. (And boy, wasn't that one of the decisions that resulted in a shouting match with his father.) Up ahead, a HIDDEN DRIVE sign blares in yellow and, through the thick trees beyond, Lehnsherr can just make out the white bulk of what might be a service van. The pickup ahead slows appropriately, and then stops to allow whomever is pulling out of the drive to have the right of way.

Erik idles behind it, close enough to read the truck's worn bumper-sticker-- something about how the real world is nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there. The boys must get the wave-on, though, because the van stays put as the pickup moves forward. Erik makes no assumptions about being let through, but there's no way the van doesn't see him pull up to stop and, more importantly, the diver has to know the bumper of the passing truck hasn't cleared yet.


What follows takes less than a minute of objective time, but-- like that day in the marketplace, under the merciless foreign sun-- Lehnsherr experiences the events as if swimming through molasses, each visual warped in convex glass.

The van's tires screech as the vehicle goes from a stand-still to peddle-on-the-floor, slamming through the insufficient space between truck and motorcycle. Erik jerks his bike to the right instinctively, trying to ditch in the small area of underbrush on that side, woefully made even narrower by the abrupt angle of the hill. It's the best of two crappy options-- on the left, there's a guardrail and a steep embankment beyond. He can tell its not going to work even as he thanks any (still theoretical) divinity that he's wearing a helmet and sturdy clothes.

As he goes sideways, he has time for two images to blaze against his retinas, like photographs they used to take of the dead. The first is the look of fear and confusion on the Summers boy's face as the teen next to him is thrown violently from the truck. The second is the thick black and red lettering stenciled on the van itself: TRASK INDUSTRIES. Perhaps equally as shocking as the two visual impressions are the sheer number of thoughts his brain has time to process. Drenched in adrenaline and millimeters from agony, he experiences a kind of total recall and awareness he doesn't remember from either of his previous injuries. Like a note of perfect crystalline pitch, it occurs to Erik that he probably won't remember this, either. Then, in a cavalcade of terror, it comes to him that he is more afraid of living through this accident than he is of dying. He's afraid he doesn't have the strength to drag himself through the morass of pain and recovery, afraid of his old demon vice which they will inevitably give him to ease that pain. He's not sure he can handle it if he wakes up in one of those white antechambers, echoing with the sanctified choral sounds of machines and pumps, as if no time really passed between Landstuhl and the present day.


And, just like that, the strange parenthetical is over. Time's up; time speeds up. He goes down on the road and, like any good cyclist, lets go of the bike so it can't drag him on its own deadly trajectory. A seemingly endless stream of cans and gatorade spill from the truck-bed, adding to the confusion. He can't see the others, but he can hear the hideous drumbeats of bodies tumbling, of tires squealing in a vain effort to avoid sliding off down the embankment. In a moment of disbelieving horror, he sees the van back up and drive forward again, as though battering against some immobile and inanimate barrier. With an ominous crescendo of metal scraping like a war-cry, Erik and the cans and the already fish-tailing truck-bed roll with that implacable force. The guard-rail is already broken from the first impact; the truck tips like a teeter-totter, forcing Lehnsherr to roll further left to avoid both lunatic van and levering sets of axels and tires.
Gravity, of course, takes care of the rest.

It's impossible to distinguish the sound of breaking branches from shattering bone as Erik tumbles into the ravine.