I pulled up to the cabin in my Jeep and cut off the engine, heaving a sigh of relief and just sitting a moment, taking in the familiar view of the log walls and blue lake and sky. Finally I got out and set to work hiding my tracks. I didn’t need any nosy parkers following my trail to the lake and interrupting my peaceful grief here.
I pulled a few things out of the boathouse before parking the Jeep inside and covering its shiny redness with a moldy blue tarp I’d found in a corner. Then I spent the next couple hours scuffing out my tire tracks for at least three hundred yards from the cabin. By the time I was done, I was covered in loose forest dirt and pine needles up to mid-thigh, and I’d wiped my hands and arms across my face so many times my skin felt tight with grime and cracked when I grimaced.
I wanted nothing more than to collapse into bed and sleep for a couple days, but once I got inside the cabin, leaving my crusty boots at the door outside and my crusty jeans at the door inside, the memories came flooding back to me, and I was wide awake and somehow refreshed.
The last painting my family owned done by my grandfather still hung on the wall in the living area, and his ashes still rested in an urn on the rough-hewn mantel above the fireplace. Even though he’d been gone since I was a child, and I’d spent more years here without him than with him, this was still his place, and stepping inside was like stepping into his warm embrace one last time.
The couch was covered in a sheet of clear plastic, but I could see the same old heavy blue-jean quilt lying over the back, waiting to warm me when it got cold again. Next to it, my dad’s worn armchair, wooden arms dark and shiny with decades of body oils. The rug my mom found in a thrift store and declared “just perfect” for our vacation getaway, our home away from home.
It was all perfect, and exactly how I remembered it. I walked further in, stripping my shirt over my head, careful to keep the dust and twigs inside the cloth, and froze when I reached the kitchen.
There was the yellowing Amana fridge, and held onto its face with alphabet magnets, a crayoned landscape made by yours truly at nine years old. The years had given me fresh eyes although the picture felt deeply familiar, and I saw my own potential as a stranger might have. Pride swelled briefly in my chest before I remembered that part of my life was put forever behind me with the loss of my wife.
I crumpled into a chair at the dining room table and cried for what felt like forever. I came here because she never had, because this was the one place that I thought I could live for a while without seeing her face every time I blinked, but I was wrong. I couldn’t breathe without seeing her face. She was my whole world, and now she was gone.
I cried myself to sleep at that table, and when I woke up I was in so much pain I could hardly stand. My joints creaked audibly, and my shoulders protested my efforts to put my arms down at my sides from where they had pillowed my head throughout the night. My back screamed in agony at my hours of poor, stiff posture.
I refused to turn the generator on, so I knew the water would be ice cold, but I stepped into the shower still in my bra and panties. I turned the knob, and the water was so cold I tried to scream and couldn’t. I knew hot would have been better for my sore muscles, but the massage of the pounding drops was better than nothing, and my skin grew numb after a few moments.
I got out when my teeth started to chatter, and, unable to face the bedroom alone, unable to face any bedroom alone just yet, I pulled the plastic from the couch and wrapped myself in the blue-jean quilt before collapsing onto the worn cushions. I shivered for a long time before dropping off into a slightly more restful sleep than I’d gotten at the table.
When I woke I was warmer, even though my short hair and the underwear I’d slept and showered in was still damp. I realized that I hadn’t brought my bag in from the Jeep, and so had no fresh clothing to put on. I slipped on a pair of the clogs that we’d always kept by the front door for running out to fetch more firewood and went to the boathouse in my undies. My family owned this land for miles, so I knew I didn’t have any neighbors across the lake to ogle my nakedness.
I flipped the tarp out of the way and pulled my duffel from the backseat. The tears threatened again, and I quickly covered her Jeep back up. God, I missed her so much. The pain in my chest felt like nothing could ever make it go away, like it was something I would live with for the rest of my lonely life. I smoothed the tarp over the back windshield and headed for the cabin, my right hand fisted against my chest to keep the pain from bursting out of my body.
I dropped my bag on the table just inside the door and considered how lucky I was that the bathroom was the first door down the hall, that I wouldn’t even have to pass my or my parents’ bedrooms just yet. I kicked the clogs off, nudging them back into their rightful place to the other side of the door, grabbed my bag, and returned to the couch.
I let my wet underthings slap the carpet beneath my feet as I stripped down, and I dressed myself in the first full set of clothes I pulled from my bag. Luckily enough, it was a tshirt and a pair of sweatpants. My hand rested on a pair of wool socks, but I decided against them, shoving them back, deep into my duffel. I slid the bag to the floor and curled up on the couch again, beneath the heavy comforting weight of the quilt. My mother would never know that I left wet clothes on her precious thrifted rug.
I knew it wasn’t good for me to sleep so much, but right then, I didn’t have anything but sleep to help my state of mind. I succumbed again, a willing victim of sleep.
This time I didn’t dream of her.
I look around the circle of faces, but no one in the group was remotely familiar to me. The doctors tried to shove it all under the rug of amnesia after my accident, but somehow, I know better. This is more than just a bump on my head. A lot more.
And they won’t listen. Such gloriously educated and highly respected medical professionals, and they just won’t listen to me. Because I’m nobody.
I’m nobody, who are you? Are you nobody too?
Every now and then a whisper rings true, a faint tickle on my temporal lobe. It’s like the prophetic dark clouds hovering over me, eagerly awaiting the right moment to release their rain droplets. And then it’s gone, like nothing ever happened. Like the only things I’ve ever known are the things that I can remember now.
These precious few.
Sometimes when I close my eyes there’s a shack in the woods. I don’t know if I lived there or not, if I built it or not, if it’s real or not. Sometimes when I close my eyes it’s all darkness, and I have to open them again and turn on all the lights or else I’ll scream and scream and scream.
Silence. I forgot that I was in group therapy right now. They must be waiting for me to talk. I hate it when it’s my turn. I don’t have anything to say. I don’t remember if we’re still doing introductions. Did I already say my name today? Not that it matters anyway, not in a group for a bunch of people with brain damage.
I stand up.
“Kristy Patterson, 26, car accident.”
I sit down.
They’re still looking at me. We must be past the introductions and on to some topic or other.
“I don’t remember what we’re talking about.”
This is the only place I can say that and nobody makes me think about why I don’t remember. Nobody wants to know what I was doing with the few brain cells that still work instead of paying attention to whatever it is I’m supposed to be paying attention to. It’s the little things that comfort me. The few secrets I have left.
I guard them with my life.
Somebody’s talking, trying to catch me up on the conversation, but I’ve already tuned them out again, closed my eyes to explore the cabin. It’s there this time, not the darkness. I open the door and enter.
It’s like I’ve stepped onto a movie set. Bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire in the stone fireplace. Ancient plaid couch covered in handmade quilts. The smell of hot cocoa creeps softly into my nostrils, and I inhale deeply. I’m home.
Someone’s shaking me. I open my eyes to a stranger’s hand on my shoulder. I brush it off forcefully, and he stumbles back a bit, not expecting me to react as I have. What kind of a person just touches somebody else and shakes them when they’re obviously busy?
I stand up and make a fist. He starts to say something to me, so I punch him in the face. Serves him right, touching my shoulder without considering how I might react. I could be missing the part of my brain that’s in charge of impulse control.
It was a good hit, if I do say so myself. He staggers back a step and reaches up to wipe the blood from his mouth where I’ve split his lip on his row of straight white teeth. I don’t need teeth like that telling me what to do.
I sit down and close my eyes again. Just for a second, just to finish exploring the living room of that little house on the prairie. In the woods. But the door’s locked this time, so I open my eyes again.
I should know better by now. I really should. Every time, it’s the same damn thing. I do remember things since I woke up here just like everyone else does, you know. And here they are, just like every other time I hit somebody.
Two techs, a man and a woman, rush in the group room, the man holding a syringe. It feels like only seconds have passed since I punched that jerk in the mouth, but his shirt is a bloody Rorschach now. I could have sworn that he wasn’t bleeding badly enough for that. Maybe this time someone will press charges and I’ll finally have my ticket out of the hospital and into the world, even if it is jail.
But no dice. I pull my shirtsleeve up for the syringe and follow the woman to the same room I always go to. The man follows me, but they should know by now that I’m not going anywhere I’m not supposed to go.
I just wish people wouldn’t touch me. If he hadn’t touched me, his shirt would still be just fine and dandy. Swear.
I curl up on my side in my bed and pull the blanket up as the world begins to slow down and the colors begin to swirl together.
When I close my eyes, it’s the screaming darkness, but I’m too drugged to escape it.
The scream echoes in my head forever, and I can’t wake myself up.