A flash of bright white light.
Heat searing through my bones.
The feeling like someone has taken a hot knife through my spine.
I wake up, and it’s like someone’s filled my head with cotton and molten lead. My body doesn’t feel like my own, like I’m thinking from outside of it, or swimming through molasses. My leg hurts, numb and aching with pins and needles. My eyes come into focus, and I’m looking at a heart monitor.
I’m in the hospital.
“What happened?” I ask, or rather, try to. It comes out more like a groan. There’s an IV in the back of my right hand, so they must have me on some pretty good drugs.
A girl I don’t recognize starts sobbing. She clutches at me, a half-hug and half-suffocation. She’d be pretty if she didn’t look half-dead, with sunken-in eyes and skin so pale she might need her own hospital bed soon. Her hands are freezing when she grabs mine.
A man I don’t recognize either puts a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s going to be alright Kelly,” he reassures her, “Jake is strong, he’ll get through it.”
He looks at me when he says this. I guess my name is Jake. It doesn’t feel right; I could have sworn my name was…guess I can’t remember. But then, I guess I can’t remember my family either, if that’s who these people are. I can’t remember why I’m even in the hospital.
Another man, this one in a white coat, starts shining a little in my eyes, and I flop back onto the bed and groan as the light makes the room start to swirl, colors flashing behind my eyes.
“Jacob,” what I presume to be the doctor says, “Jacob, can you look at us?”
“What happened?” I ask again. It comes out clearer this time.
“What do you remember?” The doctor asks.
“Uh…light I guess? Heat? I don’t really know. I just woke up here.” I answered.
The doctor frowns down at a clipboard, my chart I guess. He runs through some questions.
“What’s your name?”
“Jac…ob,” I answer, looking at the girl, Kelly, for confirmation. The doctor frowns down at the clipboard.
“What month is it?”
And it continues like this, with the doctor nodding and taking notes, and me avoiding eye contact with my family that I can’t remember. When the questions end, there’s a whole list of tasks to test my brain function. Which are made exponentially more difficult by the wires, bandages, and painkillers.
Grab a pen.
Follow a light with my eyes.
Tie a shoe.
Touch my finger to my nose.
Draw a circle.
Kelly gives me a weird look when I pick up the pencil. When I put it down after drawing the circle everyone is frowning at me.
“What?” I ask, self-conscious.
“You’re left-handed Jake,” Dad says cautiously.
The doctor notes it on the chart without a word. They have me try to draw a circle with my left hand, but it comes out wonkier than the first, which is saying something when you consider the tape and IV covering my right hand.
The diagnosis is expected: retrograde amnesia. The doctor starts droning on about autobiographical memory loss and the retention of my procedural memory, but while Dad and Kelly hang onto every word, I fall back asleep.
When I wake up, the heart monitors are freaking out, and for the first time I realize I have a roommate. But he’s wheeled out in a rush of activity before I can even ask who he is.
When he wakes up, he is in a room alone and he cannot remember his own name. He tries to sit up, and when he shifts his weight he can’t even feel his toes on one foot. He figures whatever happened has to be pretty bad to be this drugged up and confused. His head is killing him. The monitors start freaking out as he pushes himself up, but he’s unconscious again before anyone gets to him.
Dad and Kelly come back to visit the next day, and Kelly looks a lot less like she’s about to keel over, so I guess she got a full night’s sleep. They ask how I’m doing, and after a couple of minutes of awkward, stilted conversation, I ask the question I still haven’t gotten a straight answer to.
“So, what happened?”
Kelly doesn’t meet my eyes, but I hold my dad’s gaze. He sighs.
“What do you remember?”
“Pretty much nothing. Some light I guess.”
He sighs again. “You and Brennan were tinkering with that old machine again. You’d been saying that it was going to be your senior project, to repair it. Something went wrong, and you boys got hurt.” A pause. “That was six days ago.”
“Oh.” Another pause while we all think on that. “Who’s Brennan?”
Kelly answers that one, “Your best friend.”
At my confused look, dad tilts his head to the empty space where the hospital bed has been wheeled out.
“Is he going to be okay?” I ask. I almost want to ask if I’m going to be; I still don’t know what’s actually wrong with me besides the memory stuff, but I’m too scared to ask.
“If he stops seizing” Dad answers, before continuing, “We were really worried about you having seizures actually, with your history, but the monitors haven’t picked up on any yet, so they’re thinking you’re pretty much out of the woods now.”
I don’t remember ever having a seizure, but it doesn’t seem like something I’d want to remember anyway.
“Do you want to ask us about anything else” Kelly asks, somewhat desperate to be useful in the hospital room where she is clearly out of her depth. I don’t remember how old she is, but she’s definitely younger then me, and still in high school. I wonder if we’re close, or if there’s something else going on that’s making her look so tired and defeated.
There is another question that’s been nagging at me, one I’ve chickened out of asking before. I stare at the empty space where the other bed was, and I decide I really don’t want to ask about the gory details yet, because there’s probably a reason everyone, doctors included, keep skirting the issue. So, I ask another question that’s been bothering me:
“Why are you two the other ones who have visited me?”
Kelly’s face loses all its color again, and she gets up and walks out of the room without a word. Dad watches her leave before looking at me.
“Why do you ask? Do you remember anything?” he asks me, just as on edge as Kelly, but better at hiding it.
“Not really” I say, “but there’s been like, a dozen different people here for Brennan and just you to for me.”
Brennan, despite still being unconscious and apparently now bad enough to be whisked out of our room in the intensive care unit, has had his parents, three siblings, and a handful of other family members, including several young nieces and nephews, come visit him in the approximate two days that I can remember being conscious for.
“Brennan’s got a big family” Dad shrugs, content to leave it at that it seems.
He looks like he wants to follow Kelly out of the room. I feel bad, but since I barely remember myself, let alone anyone else, my desire to know outweighs my desire to keep him comfortable. My head is pounding, but this conversation has to happen before I chicken out again.
“Why’d Kelly leave the room like that?” I ask.
Dad looks sad, and says, “She knew one of us would bring up mom.”
“What about mom? What, is she afraid of hospitals or something?”
Dad winces, and says so softly I can barely hear him, “Mom left.”
“What are you talking about?” I demand. I might not remember much, but I have a bone deep certainty that he’s wrong.
“She left two years ago. She hasn’t contacted us since. You know this.” Dad tries to convince me, a desperate edge to his voice. But it just didn’t sound right.
I was going to argue the point some more, but they wheeled Brennan back in, and dad took the out, saying “I’m going to go find Kelly.” Leaving me alone with the unconscious roommate.
I’m in the car, and my feet don’t reach the floor of the back seat. The car behind us rams into us at full speed and the car flips over. Its loud, and it’s hot, and everything hurts. The paramedics come cut me out my seatbelt, and they leave my leg behind. Crushed like the car.
The dream changes.
We’re in a garage. The projects change: a hoverboard, an unidentifiable mass of wires and circuit boards, a motorbike. The last one, an old-school transporter, the prototype-kind used half a century ago, that were just as likely to leave half your organs behind as put them in the wrong place. We aren’t looking at the wires, and a fuse blows. There’s heat, and light, and then the world goes dark.
I wake up the next morning, head-pounding and shaken from my dreams. My legs almost feel disconnected, like they belong to another person, another body. I flip the blankets down, but I have both my legs intact. I figure it was half a nightmare mixed in with newly surfacing memories of the accident that got me here in the first place.
When I look over, Brennan is still asleep, but twisting around. Like he’s having a nightmare of his own.
The days blur together, and the hospital room becomes a revolving door of faces, some halfway familiar looking and some I might as well have never seen before in my life. There are family members on both sides, and classmates bearing flowers and well-wishes who direct their tearful sympathy to me for the both of us, since Brennan hasn’t woken up yet. I almost envy him.
One of these faces is Leah, Brennan’s longtime girlfriend. Leah has visited everyday, but it took me a week to realize I recognized her face. Though that isn’t bad, considering I’m still having trouble remembering Kelly’s when I’m not looking at her.
“Hey Jake,” Leah says. We talk pretty much everyday, since there isn’t much else to do. And it’s not like Brennan can speak to her. We don’t mention the fact that I can barely remember Brennan.
“Hey Lee,” I respond. I don’t remember ever deciding to call her Lee, but it just came out when she first reintroduced herself to me, and she hasn’t asked me to stop. Apparently Brennan and I call her Lee all the time. I have, apparently, called her Lee since we were in kindergarten together. She’s come to the hospital everyday since Brennan’s seizures stopped. She wants to be here when he wakes up. Until then, she’s got me and my amnesia to entertain her.
The conversation is more subdued today, and we both keep looking over at Brennan’s bed. The doctors said that he’s been stable for a few days now, and they started weaning him off the propofol that kept him asleep. The seizures got worse when he tried to wake up a few days ago, but the seizure activity has been dying down. We’re watching for any muscle twitch or change that might indicate his waking up. I still hadn’t seen his face, with how he was laying down.
And when he woke up, I was looking at my own face.
We’re argueing, and its stupid. Jacob wants to go away for graduate school, off-world to a military science training program he knows I can’t follow him to, not with my leg. They’d never let me in. We haven’t been in separate classes since kindergarten, but he says he can’t stay in this town, knowing there’s nothing he can do about Kelly crying every night. He can’t bring his mom back. But he has me and Lee here, he shouldn’t have to leave. But he insists, and he says, “I’d take your life any day.”
We’re crossing wires while we argue. Hacking away at this machine, trying to rebuild it better. A thesis good enough to get him into his far-away graduate school.
Then, the world goes dark.