Voices. Millions of voices, chaotic noise, buzzed in her head. She couldn’t focus. She was scared. Pain infected everything.
“Paddles! We’re losing her!”
She slowly became aware. The edge of a storm, a line that blends the white and blue horizon into gray, abstract parts seen coming. It’s as if thin fingers rake through the soupy sky, the storm speeding closer, drawing the moisture down. From far away it’s like a calm mist that’s being pulled toward the ground in slow motion. But it isn’t. It’s a brew of thick moisture and tumultuous wind and molecules that come together forming a moving, breathing entity that can’t be controlled.
Whirling air drives people to seek shelter, heart rates gallop at what seem to be unstoppable speeds. Fear is a permanent lattice across the skin, hairs on arms dancing to greet what’s coming. Lightening slices the thick and heavy blackening atmosphere in abstract patterns, the wildness bringing hail, causing debris to rip apart the landscape. It touches lives with a menace only the devil would deliver with glee.
But she hadn’t seen the storm coming, didn’t see what held her now in its grip. She was floating. A stillness that was all wrong. She was all wrong. Something was gone. Missing. What had she forgotten?
Hello? Her lips didn’t move.
The woman tried to wiggle her toes. Still, she remained suspended, motionless, trapped in what felt like nothingness. Oh, but she felt fear. Her mind in the soupy thickness of its tendrils. A fear that held her like barbed wire synching ever closer, cutting and slicing. It was the storm just outside her skin and if she moved the barrier holding it back would break and tear her apart.
What had happened before this existence?
Racing panic crept into her consciousness and she tried to breathe through it but when she went to open her mouth for air nothing happened. Not even her jaw moved. She needed to breathe. Oh, God! This made the storm dance macabre across her skin as if it were laughing at her.
“You have to go back,” a voice jarring her said, its echo all around, inside and outside of her, like a pitchfork vibrating through her whole being.
“What do you mean?” she said inside her head. Her jaw, her voice still not working. Did she want to go back? She wanted to go forward. Something was ahead of her. The woman was sure of it. Whatever it was, it was where she needed to be. A great sadness swelled inside her, pushing and pulling like the tide sluicing over her like she was sand and she would erode more over time finally disappearing into the nothingness that held her.
Flashes snapped in her mind as sadness turned into fear.
Fire. Metal. Hands pulling, voices screaming. No, no, no! She screamed. And then the blackness enfolded her again while the storm still raged. Silence.
“You have to go back,” the voice said again. Her mind opened, an aperture letting in the calming voice. She was glad. She didn’t like the storm. Or the dark. She didn’t want to see the awful images in her head. She wanted to forget. Forget the loss, the emptiness that pitted in her belly.
“Why?” She asked.
“You’ll see. Go back. Go back.” The voice said fading gently, it like hands soothing with a touch. “Go.”
The woman tried to define the voice in her mind. The inflection seemed small and innocent, not touched by the world, the temptation, the agony it could cause. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. She needed to move forward. But the voice said to go back. Should she? What had she forgotten? She couldn’t remember and it made her heart hurt as if a weight kept pressing down on her chest. The weight was growing so heavy that it was crushing her.
“I have to go back.”
“You’ll see.” The voice was a whisper so small she almost didn’t hear it. “It’s important.”
“What?” The weight pressing down on her was forgotten.
The resonating voice suddenly went silent. “Nooooo! Come back. You have to come back and tell me what to do.”
Her mind went blank.
With unexpected speed, the weight returned to her chest like an anvil after anvil was being dropped on her heart. If she was breathing she would have passed out. But the weight kept getting heavier and heavier. What did she do? What could she do? What was she forgetting? What had happened? Why was she here? She was scared to go back. Pain awaited her if she went back. She knew it. Felt the truth of it in her mind. But the voice said she should go back. But peace lies forward.
Silence enveloped her as her mind whirled and the storm outside of her skin cinched closer and closer. That barrier shrinking into her pores until it burst.
Chaos swirled around her in beeps and whirs, metal against metal. Silver flashes. Silver. A rush of sound overwhelmed her as her eyes opened to bright light, watering as she tried to focus. Voices gave clipped orders and the body she was in screamed through the silent maw of her mouth.
“Miss, can you tell me your name?”
“My baby!” An inhuman keening echoed, bouncing off the walls. Was that her?
She blinked and tried to concentrate on the face asking the question.
What was her name?
Someone yelled in the bright room. Her breathing was becoming ragged. She couldn’t remember her name. Her head began to turn side to side, her panic increasing. She needed to do something. The people leaning over her began to blur.
“Miss, you have to calm down.” The man over her was holding her shoulders as her mind screamed for her to get off the table, to find the face that matched the voice in her head. The more they pressed the more she panicked. Her body started to shake and spasm. Her arm radiated with pain and hung useless at her side, her legs seemed to be on fire and pain ricocheted tearing through her skin, her bones and her heart.
“Have to go back,” she gurgled nonsense.
“What?” the man said.
She tried again. “Back.” She needed to go back. Back to the voice. Back to the nothingness. Peace.
“What’s your name?”
Her head began to shake back and forth again.
“I need 5mg of Diazepam IV push STAT!”
She saw the doctor take something from someone and he hovered over her. Her eyes widened. She stared at him and his eyes seemed to soften and hers began to close, get heavy.
“You’ll be alright. Everything will be fine.” He reached out and touched her cheek as if time seemed to stop with the motion. “You’ll see.” The man shook his head and blinked.
You’ll see. You’ll see. You’ll see. The words repeated over and over in her head. Where had she heard those words before? Limbs heavy, eyelids drooping she continued to hold the doctor’s concerned gaze as his hands moved over her. There was a burn along with the darkness that was gradually pulling her lids closed. The last words she heard over all the chaos were, “You’ll see.”
Karo, which wasn’t her real name, woke for what seemed to be the hundredth time in the hospital. Her mind identified the noises she’d cataloged over the days she’d remained in the bed with white sterile sheets and cloying smells and noises that were just as unpleasant. The incessant squeak of rubber-soled shoes. The knocking wheel of the food cart and the beeps and alarms that were the music dancing along the corridors of the hospital kept her awake too often. And don’t forget the formidably atrocious scent of Pine-Sol and urine.
“Karo!” The nurse named Nurse Ratchet clapped. “You’re awake.” Karo smiled. For all the pain, she’d suffered so far, Betty Ratchet was the highlight of her days. One, Nurse Betty was not the Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which for some reason she could remember watching, but not where and with whom. Two, she was as sweet as spun sugar and cared deeply for her patients. Whenever she’d come into Karo’s room it brightened like the sun had stepped into the room.
“You ready for physical therapy today, cookie?” Karo laughed and pouted. Betty had started calling her cookie soon after she’d chosen the name Karo.
She leaned over the wheelchair and whispered in Karo’s ear. “I snuck in some sugar cookies from my friend Angel’s bakery.”
“Thanks, Betty,” Karo said and grabbed the woman’s hand and held on tight. Try as she might she still couldn’t hold back the tears that escaped. She quickly let go and wiped the unwanted tears away. She’d cried enough. Things were going to change again and she wouldn’t see Betty every day. The woman was her touchstone and kept her grounded. Karo feared to let go. Afraid that she would spiral down again into a depressive abyss and not be able to get out.
She shook the pain and fear out of her mind. Karo would be positive, consider the future, and try and forget what she couldn’t remember. Instead, she recalled the first day she met Betty.
The staff had called her Jane when she couldn’t remember her real name. It made her sad to think she would be called Jane Doe. Not knowing her name, she wanted to pick one to make a new place in her uncharted reality. The police hadn’t found any information in her car. Not a purse, or a registration. The car they had pulled her out of had burned through and through.
The memory of that day burst forward in her mind. A morning in physical therapy, when the pain was so great she could have screamed until her voice was shredded.
“I don’t want to be called Jane,” she’d said to the nurse in floral scrubs. She had white blond hair and a thin but muscled stature. Betty had grabbed Karo’s wheelchair and rolled her out from the first day of physical therapy taking over her case while Karo tried to catch her breath through the lingering pain and depression.
“What do you want to be called, sweetie?”
When Betty helped her back into bed she’d looked at Karo with a tilt of her head, bright eyes and with arms crossed, she nodded once. “Alright cookie,” she’d said with a laugh. Karo couldn’t help but smile because Karo knew why she’d picked it even if Betty didn’t get it, she seemed to understand.
Karo thought of it now. Cookies. She had been making cookies in the memory. And she was happy. Really happy.
Karo saw herself pouring and measuring. Her hands were smaller, softer, younger, as she held the red and bronze labeled curvy bottle of syrup in her hand. Batter blended together as she stirred over and over folding in the thick syrup. Wrinkled hands, not hers, she noted as she looked down at her own, were framed in the snapshot but when she tried to look up to see into the face a pain would slice through her forehead and make her grab the sides of her head. Something was blocking her from the wonderful view.
She hadn’t told anyone about the memory. It was private and hers. No. She wouldn’t share.
As Betty rolled her out of her room for one of the last times Betty spoke about the small town where she grew up. “You’re going to love it, Karo. Angel’s bakery sells the most delicious cakes and cookies and pastries.”
When Karo heard the word angel images of her floating in the storm flooded her mind. Angel. She put away the thought for later. She didn’t have time to think about it right now when she was going in to be stretched like a rubber-band. One that she hoped would find its shape again.
“Even the recipes we concocted when were out of control twenty-somethings Angel still uses on occasion,” Betty continued not sensing Karo’s distress. And then the woman laughed like she was remembering how much trouble she got into and Karo looked at her over her shoulder to see, yes, a wicked smile from the remembering. Karo laughed.
“What kind of trouble did you get into, Betty? You seem pretty uptight and straight-laced to me.” Karo pressed her lips together trying not to laugh herself.
“Oh, you! I’m definitely not all starch young lady.” She whopped her on the head gently.
Before she knew it, they were at the entrance to the TP room.
“Hi Trevor,” Karo said. “I’m ready for your idea of a walk in the park.” Trevor looked up at Betty as she stopped her in front of the padded vinyl covered table.
“Alright miss, let’s see what you got today.” He nodded to Betty as she locked Karo’s ride and Karo gripped the chair handles. Trevor tipped up the footrests. He was there to support her if she needed it but didn’t touch her until she stood. Karo gritted her teeth as her skin grafts, not so freshly pink, pulled and stretched unnaturally with the effort.
Trevor helped her up onto the table for the first big push of the morning and then they got down to business.
She looked down at her legs, the burns not as bad as when the emergency bay was the first thing she remembered. Her rescuers had gotten her out in time.
Karo pulled in a slow breath that she released just as slowly so she wouldn’t remember what else they’d told her not soon after she woke up. She touched her stomach, her fingers shaking as Trevor pushed her leg up to give it a good stretch.
His lips pinched a bit when he saw where her hand lay. He looked quickly back down. It was a sadness they shared. He’d lost a child too, but his memory wasn’t faulty. She couldn’t even remember being pregnant. Was the baby’s father important? Did she need to find the man? Did she love this person? She wouldn’t know. She couldn’t remember any damn thing. Her anger she used and pushed it through her limbs too hard. A grunt alerted Trevor to the discomfort and he pulled her back from the edge. Sweat gathered all over her skin and soaked her clothes that Betty had bought her. She kept working the routine as hard as Trevor demanded. Maybe if she could fix her body, her memories would return too.
She shook her head.
“Settle down, Karo.” He sighed, as she brought her leg down for the last time that day.
She wiped some of the sweat and swallowed almost a full bottle of water Trevor handed her.
“I’ll miss you, kiddo.” He sat next to her on the bench. One foot on the floor the other bent and on the table. “I’m glad you’re getting out of here. I hope you’ll find some peace.”
He helped her sit up, her arm sore but okay now. It had only been dislocated.
“You know what you’re doing, where you’re going?”
Karo nodded. “Yeah. Betty’s set me up to work with her friend Angel. One of her employees is going back to school. Angel’s also got a vacant room above the bakery.”
“That’s good. You’ll be happy working with all that goo and sugar.”
“Just remember it’s not good to eat too much of what you love. You still need to get into tip-top shape to keep up with the healing process. You’re doing great but you’ve still got a lot of therapy in front of you.” He tapped her head and her heart and her knees.
“I’m quite aware of how far I still need to go. At least I have someplace to go.” She scrubbed her face with a towel with tired shaking hands. “The police came to visit me again. Officer Clomb was really nice about telling me they never were able to find any information about where I’m from. I wouldn’t have anywhere to go if Betty hadn’t suggested it.”
“You be fine. You’ll see.” She had been looking at her hands lying in her lap when her head snapped up at his words.
“What?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” she answered shaking her head to clear it just as Betty walked in.
“All finished?” she asked and smiled with a sparkle in her eyes at Trevor. Karo was sure there was something between them. It was the only time Trevor seemed to smile a genuine smile.
“Yep,” Karo replied. She looked up at Trevor his hairs grayed at the tips, and the smile wrinkles ingrained around his eyes. “Thank you, Trevor.”
He didn’t say anything just came over and kneeled to give her a long hug once settled in the wheelchair. He touched her cheek and held it as his stare started to sink into hers as if he wanted to tell her something but couldn’t get the words out, just the emotion. Then he gave her a short peck on the cheek, stood up and took a quick step back. They’d adopted her it seemed and become like her little family. She wiped a tear from her cheek. He smiled, nodded, and went to his desk in the corner and started to write something down.
As Betty rolled her out of the room Karo’s head was down, not paying attention. Her thoughts stuck on a list she was making in her head of the things she would have to do when she moved to the small-town Betty had grown up in. It was only a few miles and minutes away. It would be a fresh start she told herself. She was nervous. Excited. Scared. And then none of that mattered because Betty’s running monologue about things to know about the small town was abruptly cut short. There was a loud crash as they turned a corner. Karo screamed and moaned as her leg met silver metal. Silver. Silver. Silver. Her heart started racing and her mind was struck by a streak of white light reflected off a small silver object moving too fast to get out of the way. Memory twisted with reality as past crashed with the present. She whimpered. What was real? She tried to shift away from what was falling toward her but Betty was locking the chair and coming around to her. Karo couldn’t move. Images that blurred one after the other took hold of her as Betty’s voice tried to creep in.
The images fled, metal crashed to the floor along with the man who was carrying it. Crutches met the linoleum and a hand came down to the wheelchair right next to hers. Betty was on the other side. She was asking if Karo was okay and put a hand on the man too also trying to get his attention. Harsh breaths came out of his mouth burrowing heat across her compression bandaged legs. All Karo could see though was the man at her feet bent over her legs holding the wheelchair with white knuckles.
Her voice shook. “Are you okay?”
Dark hair was spread across her lap as people raced from down the hall to help. His breathing was heavy and she noticed his hands again. They gripped the chair as if once he let go he would keep on falling.
She reached out and touched the man’s head. “Hey?” She said and couldn’t help but stroke his hair. It was thick and long with iridescent strands of black scattered with dark browns. It was beautiful and lush.
“I’m sorry,” his words whispered across her skin. Karo shivered she didn’t know if it was the unexpected pain or the man’s touch.
He looked up and their eyes met. And something inside her settled with inexplicable peace. But it didn’t last long. His gaze bored into hers. It was so dark she thought she was looking into lost caverns deep on the ocean’s floor, they were that deep of a blue. There was pain there and she wanted to make it go away.
“Able Prescott, you know you’re not supposed to leave your room!” A nurse was sprinting down the hall alongside another woman.
“Dammit, Jacklyn! I can’t stay in that room another second.” When he spoke, his head jerked around and he almost fell in Karo’s lap.
She squeaked when he landed on her again. The pressure uncomfortable because she still wasn’t fully healed.
He moaned and the hand that didn’t have a white-knuckled grip on the chair went to his head and their fingers touched. She sucked in a breath as an energy tingled through the contact. He turned back to her and their eyes met again and held. Her heartbeat tripped up and she asked herself, who was this man. Why did his glance put her at ease?
And within seconds the connection was broken. People moved all around them to get him back to where he had escaped from, she guessed. Her fingers dragged across his jaw, the rough hairs making her tingle again, as he was helped up. Then the woman who had yelled at him was at his side.
“Able! You know I don’t like it when you call me that.” She said with almost a chihuahua growl. Karo looked between the two.
“Step-mother quit coddling me. I feel like I’m suffocating in this God-awful place.” And as people got him into a chair like hers he really did growl, but more like an alpha wolf. It made her shiver. “Dammit. I can walk.” His head turned slowly back to hers but he turned away when the woman started chirping words at him. He grabbed his head again.
“Obviously you can’t since you were practically laid out in that woman’s lap.”
As their words drifted down the hallway Karo was struck by the feelings that had enveloped her when their fingers touched. She felt less indifferent to her fate. It gave her hope that she would feel something. Less empty. She touched her belly again. She wanted to feel full. And maybe once she started her new life in Buckington doing what she remembered things would be okay. She’d see.