A smoky fog pressed on her brain. How long had she been there? She stirred, weighted in darkness, trying to free herself from unseen shackles.
A sound, in the distance. Repeated at intervals. The chiming of a bell?
Was she dreaming?
She felt broken, fractured. Then—reverse diving, swimming up in her mind. Breaking through a shell, trebucheting over the bend...
She opened her eyes.
A bright white ceiling. All lights snapped on to full wattage. The smell of bleach emanating from the firm pillow under her head.
She tried to swallow, but the saliva burned her throat. She shifted her head.
She was in bed. But...not her own bed. At least, she didn’t think it was her bed.
Starched white sheets. Scratchy. Her hands felt heavy when she lifted them.
She tilted her head again.
There was something on her arms. Tubes: thin and clear. The end of one punched between two knuckles of her hand. Everything tethered to various machines that beeped and whirred about her.
There were bandages on her arms, splayed across her skin. Distantly, she noted that her fingernails were exceedingly long, with thick white tips shaved into squares—all save her thumb and two outermost fingers, where the nails were broken almost to the quick.
She considered these details for a stretch of nearly half a minute, looking around herself in a daze.
I’m in—this is... She strained for the word, then latched on: a hospital. Yes. She was in a hospital.
Why am I in a hospital?
A tickle ignited in her throat, and she coughed. Hard. She moved her hand to cover her mouth when something released, and the machine next to her exploded in a series of alarms.
The sliding of doors, a gasp of wind. A large nurse in green scrubs lowered a plastic rail beside the bed and bent to inspect her. She clicked buttons on the machine, touched the tube in her hand. Then the nurse leaned close, so close that two silver studs winked at her from the woman’s earlobes.
“Hi there. My name is Theresa,” the woman said. “I’m your nurse. Can you understand me?” She spoke very slowly and very loudly.
“Can you speak?”
She coughed again, dislodged stale air. “Yes.”
“How do you feel?”
She searched her body for clues. She felt heavy, like a stone. A whirlwind threatened to suck her in. “Dizzy,” she managed.
“Okay. Try to take a few breaths.”
She did. The room started to slow, and then stalled. Her stomach picked up, settled. She drew another breath.
“Would you like some water?”
She nodded and closed her eyes. When she opened them, the nurse held a clear plastic glass in one hand and pressed a nearby button with the other, causing the bed to rattle upwards with vibrating clicks. She shakily accepted the water and Theresa tilted the rim to her lips. The water was cool, almost room temperature, and she felt it slide all the way down her throat and into her stomach.
She thought she had drained it all, but when she released the glass, she was surprised to see it half full.
“Better?” Theresa asked.
“Do you know where you are?”
She nodded again. “Hah—hospital.”
“Good. Do you know your name?”
She stared at the woman and the moment stretched between them. It was there, just beyond her mental reach. The answer. Her answer.
“Do you know your name?” the nurse asked again, more intently.
Oh God, she thought. What’s happening? She felt suddenly hot, winded. Afraid. What nightmare is this? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I remember? Panic squeezed her throat.
“Shhh, you’re okay.” Theresa reached down and managed to clasp her shoulder through the web of wires and tubes. “The important thing is that you’re awake. The rest should come back. Just try to relax and I’ll call the doctor, okay?”
And then she was falling back into a wave, and the darkness slammed over her as solidly as a coffin.
* * *
Someone was peeling open her eyelid. Then white light, shooting into the back of her skull. Darkness again, and then an explosion in her other eye.
She felt warm breath on her face, and then suddenly everything snapped into focus. It was a man, one eye obscured by the light, the other peering at her intently. “Hello, I’m Dr. Porter,” he said with some authority. He was in a long white lab coat, gray shirt, and striped tie. “You were in a car accident and sent here to New York Presbyterian Hospital. Do you understand me?”
“Good. Your nurse tells me you were feeling dizzy earlier. How do you feel now?”
“Um…” She considered. “Not dizzy?”
“Okay. Does your head hurt at all?”
She tried to lift her hand to show him the point of pressure, but her limb felt like a paperweight. “On my eye.”
“Okay.” He looked at her carefully. “Can you tell me your name?”
Her name. Her name. She felt panic starting to boil, but managed to suppress it. She thought for a long moment, and then knew the first letter: V. It began with a V. “Begins...” she started to say, but her voice was slurred. Is this how I sound?
“Good,” he said encouragingly. “Try again.”
“Begins with...” She took in a breath, forced the rest out, “...with V.”
“Your first name begins with a V?”
He smiled at her, but his eyes were not amused. “Well, it’s a start. I guess ‘Jane Doe’ won’t cut it any more. Maybe Veronica Doe?”
There. She caught it. “Vickie,” she said. “My name...” She drew a breath. “Vickie.”
“Okay, Vickie.” He held up one long finger, only inches from her eyes. “Follow my finger, okay?”
It moved to the right, left, then up and down.
“Good, good. Can you puff out your cheeks?”
She looked back at him. What?
“Like this.” He inhaled, pinched his lips, and blew. His cheeks inflated like two balloons. She followed him. “Good. Now stick out your tongue.”
She closed her eyes and opened her mouth, and he examined her for several seconds. “Can you smile for me?”
“Bigger. Like this.” He took on the look of a circus clown.
Vickie smiled so enormously she suspected he could see her molars.
“Great. Can you frown for me?”
Frown, she thought. Okay. She tried to pinch her eyes together, but had trouble.
“Try again,” he said.
“Hmm.” He picked up a chart, jotted a few notes.
“What?” she asked him.
“Could be a number of things. Perhaps some neuropathy, but maybe...” He leaned close, then started inspecting various sections of her face. Her forehead. The sides of her eyes. Around her lips. “Have you had any Botox recently?”
She stared at him blankly.
“Injectable fillers? Wrinkle minimizers?”
There was a long pause. Theresa called from one of the machines, “You know. Botox?” Another pause. “Restylane? Juvéderm?”
“I don’t know…” What are they asking me? What do they mean?
“Here, in the nasolabial folds...” He touched the skin between her nose and mouth. “There’s slight bruising inconsistent with your other injuries, and you’re having difficulty moving some sections of your face. But your epidural hematoma wouldn’t account for this type of maxillofacial nerve paralysis…” He scrutinized her again. “It’s a bilateral pattern more suggestive of a recent series of facial injections.”
His words were starting to bleed together. Injections. Facial fillers. Is he asking if I purposefully injected something into my face? Why would I do that?
He must have seen her frustration, because he said, “It’s okay. We’ll worry about that later. Now, Vickie, I need you to think back—”
But sudden movement stopped him. Doors slid open, and a new voice crackled, “Is she awake?” A man’s face punched into her vision. Two-day stubble. Rimless glasses. Brown, flat hair. He was waving a form. “Great! I need her to sign this confidentiality agreement...”
But the nurse intercepted him. “Sir, I’ve already told you—”
“Yeah, yeah. If she could just sign this…” He clicked a pen. “It’ll only take a second...”
Dr. Porter snapped the form from his hand, pointed to the door. “Either you leave or I call security.”
He shot the doctor a look of warning. “Do you even know who I represent?”
“I know exactly who you represent and I don’t care. You have two seconds to get out of this ward or you’ll be kicked out. Understand?”
The man sighed. He snapped his pen, glumly abandoned the paper. “Fine. Have her read it over. And you can tell Mr. Post yourself—”
“Out!” said Theresa, fairly pushing him. After he grudgingly slinked out the doors, Theresa returned to the bed and whispered sheepishly to the doctor, “I wish it were Jack Post coming here instead of that lawyer.” She sighed. “God, don’t you just love his movies?”
Dr. Porter studied the various screens that glowed with fluctuating numbers and percentages. “Sure. That’s probably why he makes more money than the rest of us put together.”
Vickie watched them with some detachment, when something knocked behind her lids. “Ooh.” She groaned, closed her eyes. “My head...”
Dr. Porter redirected his attention to her. “Are you having a headache? How would you rate your pain? On a scale of one to ten?”
She opened her eyes and saw him pointing to a laminated poster of cartoon faces, each etched with mounting levels of pain. “Maybe...” She considered, then pointed to the little red face with lips caught somewhere between a straight line and downturn. “Maybe five?”
“Moderate to severe pain?”
She nodded, and then peered closer at the images. She noticed two words adjacent to her chosen face. She said them in her mind: Dolor fuerte.
She knew these words. They meant “strong pain.”
But how do I know this?
Suddenly her mind was gripped in a vice-like pain. The doctor spoke to her again, explained future tests, procedures, and steps to be taken. It all started to blur. The nurse gave her two small pills and the rest of the water. After downing the pills, Theresa arranged her pillows—stiff from the plastic beneath the case—and helped her settle in.
It was only when the nurse left that Vickie realized she still didn’t know how she got there. And all she knew was her first name.