Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
My eyelids feel like anchors. There is a drill pounding into the back of my skull. My lungs feel as if someone has dumped a sandbox inside of them then turned on a blender. I inhale and my ribs bark in reply.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
My alarm clock is going off. It must be that my alarm clock is going off. I force one eye open, and it just barely complies. The other follows, breaking free from a heavy, cracking crust that coats my lashes. I try to swivel my neck – where is that alarm clock and how do I get it to stop beeping? – but discover that it’s immobile, swaddled, in a brace, in a pillow of sorts that is holding me together.
No. No. Where am I? I dart my eyes around, my breathing more labored, the beeping increasing with each tightened gasp of air.
In the corner, a tall man with the sloping shoulders of a former football player hovers with a woman whose lines have long ago sunk into her eyes. They are both disheveled, worn, fraying on all sides. His brown hair is tucked under a baseball cap, his three-day old stubble shadowing his face. His ivory Dick’s Drive-Thru t-shirt has two coffee stains on the hem, his jeans marred with a splatter of ketchup. She looks no better in a flowy, used purple dress that could double as a nightgown, her kinky graying hair pulled into a knot on top of her head, reminding me of a mushroom.
“What do you mean she was pregnant?” The man whispers. I want to sit up closer to hear them, lean in and understand, but I am either too sore or too immobile to move. I’m not sure which just yet.
“You didn’t know?” She replies.
“No,” he says, then sinks onto the arm of a chair wedged next to him. “I didn’t know.”
She rubs the small of his back and stares out the window to the open landscape of beige dirty rooftops, one of those long stares that betrays her stoicism, that makes you wonder if she isn’t about to fall apart entirely.
I try to grunt, to let them know that I am here, that I am watching, but my mouth is too dry, my tongue unused for too long.
“I’ll go get coffee,” the man says, rising.
Look at me! Look at me! The beeping accelerates. Beep beep beep beep beep.
Finally, he does.
“Oh my god, Nell, you’re awake!” He rushes over and clasps my hand.
I nod. Or I think I nod.
The woman is by my side in an instant, then just as quickly turns and shouts out the open door, “She’s awake! Page Dr. Macht!” And then she is back, crying now, rubbing my forehead, then pressing into me, “Oh my god, thank god, Nell, you’re awake.”
Before I can understand who she is or what this means, a steady, heady figure appears at the foot of my bed, checking a chart, fiddling with the machines, watching the numbers, the beeping. He nudges his glasses up his nose, smoothing his hair – graying at the temples but thick and wavy all the same – with his right hand. Then he whisks the two of them aside, casting them off like lint, and stares down at me.
“Nell, I’m Dr. Macht. We’re very happy to see you. Do you know where you are?”
I glance behind him. A wave of anxious faces – nurses, strangers – have gathered, filling the room and trickling into the hallway.
I don’t answer, so he asks me again.
“Nell. You’ve been in an accident. Do you recognize where you are?” He flits his hand in the air and turns his head abruptly. “If you’re not part of the core treatment team, please exit the room.” No one moves. “Now.” Slowly, like the draining of a reservoir, the audience ebbs. A smattering of nurses, the man and older woman, and Dr. Macht remain.
“Nell,” he says and sits carefully on the bed. “Nell, you were in a plane crash. What can you tell me about what you remember about it.”
My eyes circle around, my teeth gnash my bottom lip. I try to search about my memory – what do I remember? A plane? Did I get on a plane? No, no, that wasn’t me. I don’t think I did. A crash? How could I not remember a crash? No, impossible, couldn’t have been me.
“Nothing,” I manage to whisper, the air burning the back of my throat. “I don’t remember a plane crash.”
The older woman who reminds me of a mushroom places a cup with a straw in front of my mouth and nods, so I work my tongue around it, hold it with my teeth and gulp.Yes. Like manna in the desert. The water works its way in me – I can feel its coolness sink down my larynx and into my belly, softening the arid ground within me.
“Okay, this is very normal.” Dr. Macht turns to the tall man and the woman. “We expected this. Remember this is all normal.” Then to me, he says. “What do you remember? Let’s start there. Can you tell me what you remember about your life?”
I shake my head, as much as my brace will allow.
Dr. Macht ushers the man closer to the bed. He runs his fingers down my matted hair and starts weeping, silently, violently weeping.
“It’s okay, Peter,” the woman says. “It’s going to be okay.”
He nods, and sort of yelps – a dolphin call - as a way of pulling it together. The tears abate, though his eyes, red-rimmed and sagging beneath his baseball cap, tell me that he is so far from pulling it together he doesn’t even know what that means anymore.
“Him,” Dr. Macht says, pointing up toward Peter. “Do you know who he is?”
I squint and gaze at him and try to remember. I stare at the spread of muscle under his t-shirt, at his wayward brown strands poking out from his cap, at the veins in his arms that announce themselves all the way down to his palms. Something about his generic, looming handsomeness sends a response trigger to my brain, but I can’t pinpoint what it means, who he is, how he might be important to me.
A nurse hands Dr. Macht a mirror and he thrusts it in front of me. I see my eyes widen at the sight. This is me? This is me. I have no expectation of what I look like, no real map of where my freckles should sit, how my lips should pillow. As it is, there is a purple welt the color of port wine that extends from my left temple down below my eye, and my upper lip has a nasty gash that my tongue flicks over on instinct. My hair is greasy and parted at an angle that illuminates the wan, waxy pallor of my cheeks, and the color of my strands is too close to brown to really be called a natural blonde.
“Does this help?” Dr. Macht says.
Does this help what? I want to ask, but instead, I stare at myself until my eyes go double. Trying to connect to the face in front of me, the face I’ve worn my life through but whom I’d never now pick out of a line-up. I am still trying to connect, trying to remember when the beeping – that damn beeping – creeps back into my ears again. This time louder, more frantically.
Remember goddamn it! Remember!
I am fading. I feel myself fading, the blood throbbing in my temples, behind my eyes, shortening my breath, reverberating in my chest cavity – a headache that feels akin to a small death.
Peter clasps both of my cheeks in his oversized hands, forcing me to stay awake, to focus.
“No,” I reply with every last ounce of energy I have. “I’m sorry. No, I don’t remember.”
“I’m your husband,” I hear him say, though it sounds like an echo, a faint echo from so very very far in the distance, just before I drift away. Just before everything goes silent once more.
When I wake up for the second time, the mushroom woman is asleep in the chair beside my bed. The beeping has slowed now, a mimic of my own heartbeat, such that I barely notice it. It’s there, of course it’s there, but it’s white noise almost, that spot where your brother has pinched you so many times that you no longer feel it.
The TV is on in the corner, low enough so that it won’t disturb me, loud enough so that I can still eke it out.
The news reel is spinning in blaring red urgency on the bottom of the screen, and at the forefront stands a man in front of a hospital. An ambulance whines in the background but either he doesn’t hear it or he’s too much of a pro to notice it, and he continues without so much as a flinch.
“It was reported earlier today that Nell Slattery, one of only two survivors of the crash of 1715, has emerged from her coma. As viewers may remember, Ms. Slattery was found about 200 yards from the debris field, still strapped into her seat, next to Anderson Carroll, the actor – we all know his story - and the first and only other survivor found on the scene. Investigators believe that their seats were somehow propelled fully intact out of the plane upon or just before impact. Ms. Slattery has sustained remarkably few physical injuries but suffered a severe concussion and initial brain swelling, and doctors were unsure as to her prognosis until she awoke today. That she woke at all is, they say, very, very good news.”
“I am very pleased to announce that what you have heard is true,” I hear and then see Dr. Macht say on the screen. He is standing at a podium, flashbulbs illuminating, microphones thrust upward from jutting arms. “Nell Slattery woke up for about seven minutes today. I cannot give you the full details of the situation, per hospital policy, but I am happy to say that yes, she is conscious, and someone will keep you posted as to her progress.”
Me. They’re talking about me. Nell Slattery. I roll my name around in my mind. Yes, it sort of feels like it fits. I try once again to remember the crash, of being ejected from a fireball, of being tugged by gravity down toward an inevitable death, but still, it is blank space, a void of nothingness.
I return to the screen.
“As you already know,” the reporter is saying. “Ms. Slattery’s story – and that of Mr. Carroll– has captivated the nation. That she has finally come to has bolstered spirits around the hospital and around the country.”
“I just can’t believe it! It’s like God has granted us a miracle!” A woman cries into the camera. “God bless that girl and Anderson Carroll! They’ve given us all a reason to believe again!”
“And that,” the reporter says, “Is what is being said around the nation today. A day of hope, of thankfulness and of possibility. Nell Slattery, found one week ago in a field in rural Iowa, after the devastating crash of Flight 1715 that left 152 other people dead, has regained consciousness. We’ll keep you posted from here. This is Jamie Reardon, happy with the miracle we got today, bringing you more news about it as it breaks.”
He nods as a sign off to the newsroom, and I wish he wouldn’t, wouldn’t sign off. There is something comforting about his face, about the way he lays out the facts without sounding too factual, about the way he’s talking about the most crucial details of my life and somehow not terrifying me.
Jamie Reardon, Jamie, Jamie Reardon, why don’t you hear them? A melody weaves through me, a compilation of notes, a made-up song that somehow hums out of my lips. I feel the notes reverberate in my throat and almost laugh from the surprise.
The woman in the chair stirs and on instinct, glances up at me before even wiping the sleep from her eyes.
“Nell!” She is by me in less than a breath, folding her breasts over me, and I recognize the hint of her honey-smelling soap. It’s a fog, a memory of a memory, intangible, ephemeral, but warming, calming too. “I’m your mother,” she says, pulling back, her gold bangles jangling. She holds my cheeks in her hands, her palms soft against me, and then she mimics the melody I’d just created.
Our smiles echo each other.
“You did that as a child,” she says. “Made up songs about anything. Everything. Sometimes, you’d be generous enough to let me join in. Harmonize.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I could remember.” My smile falls and then my voice cracks, but she just says, “Shhhhh.”
“Don’t cry, don’t apologize, sweetheart. You’re alive. You’re here. And I’m so thankful for that. Don’t waste another second being sorry.”
“That news? Is it true?” I nudge toward the TV.
“Oh, let’s not keep that on dear. It’s only upsetting.”
“But is it? Is it true? All of those people killed?”
She sighs and intertwines our hands. “Yes. You were on a plane flying from New York to San Francisco. Two hours in, it crashed.” The blood drains from her face as she tells me this. “They don’t yet know why.” She waves a hand, the twinkling of her jewelry singing between our silences. “Let’s see if I can help remind you of anything: You work in an art gallery. You are 32 years old. You live in New York.” She pauses. “Does…does any of this bring anything back?”
I shake my head no.
“And Peter? Peter is my husband?” I scrunch my face, trying to imagine a world in which I avowed myself to him, that man. I can’t see it. More importantly, I can’t feelit. Really? I think. Him?
“Enough for tonight,” my mom says, pulling the sheet up to my chest, tucking me in tighter like I’m a toddler. She leans over and kisses my forehead, humming that same tune, like it might calm me, be the balm to cure me. “Enough for now. Let’s put you back together, back to how you were. Then we’ll have time to answer all of these questions.”
Yes, I think. Let’s put me back together, back to how I was. Then, there will be time for everything else.