She's Not There
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
She was floating inside a blue-green bubble. It felt cool and peaceful and she could taste salt on her lips and feel the sting of it in her eyes. Then, suddenly, there was a hard tug on her hair and she was yanked out of the bubble, gasping and crying.
Her eyes flew open. It was dark and cold. And her hands . . . When she tried to bring her hands up to her face, she couldn't move them.
The voices were back. She had heard them whispering before, but now they sounded sharper and closer. And now she could understand what they were saying.
You better page Haskins.
A light came on, making her squint. She blinked hard, and a woman's face came into focus, hovering above her. She could feel the gentle press of something warm on her forehead, and it took her a moment to realize it was the woman's hand. She tried to talk but it came out in a strangled moan. The woman was stroking her hair now and making shushing sounds.
"It's all right. You're going to be okay."
She closed her eyes.
She had dreamt it, she realized, the floating in the blue-green bubble. But she knew it was a real memory from long ago, one that she had forgotten until now. She was six years old and had walked out into a lake and the sand beneath her feet had given away. Her mother told her later that she would have drowned if someone hadn't pulled her out by her hair.
Mother . . .
She realized suddenly she couldn't remember what her mother looked like. She couldn't even remember her mother's name.
The cold swirled around her and she began to shiver violently. She couldn't remember her own name.
"Get her another blanket."
The salt taste was on her lips again and she licked away a tear.
Who are you?
The voice was back again. She opened her eyes and the blur of pink slowly formed into a woman's face. But not the same woman as before. This woman was wearing a white coat and glasses.
"I'm Doctor Haskins. You're in the hospital. You have a very serious concussion. Can you tell me your name?"
She tried to open her mouth but couldn't. Her jaw hurt but she wasn't able move her hands to touch it.
"You had no purse or ID when you got here," the doctor said. "Can you tell me who you are?"
She felt a hard knotty pressure deep inside her breast, and when she tried to take a deep breath, she couldn't.
"Can you tell me your name?"
"I . . .don't . . ."
"Do you know what day it is?"
She stared at the doctor.
"Do you know what year it is? Do you know who the president is?"
What year? President? Why was this woman asking such stupid questions? But then she realized she didn't know the answers. She swallowed hard, and the pain shot through her chest. She tried to move her hands but again she couldn't. When she looked down at them, she saw that her wrists were tied to the sides of the bed.
"I think we can get rid of these now," the doctor said. She began to untie the gauze. "We had to do it because you kept trying to pull out your IV."
When her wrists were free, she tried to massage them but the pull of the IV line made her arm ache so she gave up and just lay still. She ran her tongue over her lips. They were cracked and dry and the lower one felt fat and tender.
"The light hurts my eyes," she whispered.
The doctor got up and went to the window, closing the blinds. "That's normal," she said, coming back to the bed. "Do you have a headache?"
"How bad is it?"
How bad? It felt like her brain was sloshing loose in her skull.
"On a scale of one to ten."
"Well, we'll give you something to help, but first I need you to stay awake for a little while longer and try to answer some questions, okay?"
"You suffered a hard blow to your head, some bleeding in your skull, and you have a brain bruise," the doctor said. "You're going to have headaches and dizziness for a while and some amnesia, likely retrograde and possible anterograde."
The doctor kept talking, her words tumbling out, and she had to watch her lips move to try to make sense of them. It was the harsh B-words she grasped: Blow to the head. Brain bruise. Bleeding. What had happened to her? Why couldn't she remember anything? Why couldn't she even remember her own name?
Amnesia. The doctor had said amnesia.
She tried to concentrate, tried to conjure up something from her memory. Faces, names, images . . . but nothing was coming. It was like being back in that blue-green bubble. She was just floating, with no strength to swim up to the surface.
"How did I get here?" she whispered.
"Someone dropped you off here in the emergency room."
"Yes, a man brought you into the waiting room."
A man . . . she was trying to see a face, any face, but nothing was coming. "Who?"
The doctor let out a slow breath. "We don't know who he was. He sat you down in a chair and left. The admitting nurse found you, and you were brought up here to the ICU. We only know this much because he was caught on the security camera."
She stared at the doctor. "What happened to me?" she asked.
Again, the doctor was slow to answer. "We don't know. I suspect, given your injuries, you were in a car accident. In addition to the concussion, you have a large bruise across your chest and two broken ribs. You might have hit the steering wheel."
She struggled to remember, but there was nothing in her head but a black swirl, like a dark sheet of hard rain advancing toward her. Then came a wave of nausea, and she had to swallow hard to fight it back.
"How long have I been here?" she asked.
"About forty-eight hours," the doctor said. "We called the police, but no one with your description has been reported missing."
Missing . . . no one was missing her?
She reached up to touch her throbbing lip, but the doctor gently pushed her hand back down to the bed.
"Your lip has a bad split, but it will heal." The doctor paused. "You have a very bad cut on your chin, and you have some stitches there. You might have a small scar."
"Can I see a mirror?" she asked.
"Maybe tomorrow, okay?"
She shut her eyes. Red flashes exploded on the screen of her eyelids, and for a second she could glimpse a man's blurry face and dark hair but then he vanished.
When she opened her eyes she blinked hard to keep from crying. She realized there was a television mounted on the wall. The sound was muted and all she could make out on the screen was a blur of moving colors.
A scraping sound made her look back to the doctor. She had pulled a chair near the bed and was typing something on a black tablet. The doctor was so close she could see every detail on the woman's face, right down to the mole near her upper lip.
Why could she see this but not the TV?
Something clicked in her mind. "I wear contacts," she said.
"Yes, that's right," the doctor said. "We had to take them out."
The doctor began to tap on the tablet again and the click-click of her nails sounded very loud.
"We need to figure out who you are so we can call your family," the doctor said.
Why was no one missing her?
"Maybe if I tell you what else we know about you it will help you remember something."
She nodded slowly.
"You're five nine and weigh one twenty-six. I'd say that's on the thin side for your height but you have excellent muscle tone. We did some X-rays, and you have two bone breaks in your left foot but they're old breaks. Your feet are quite callused and you have some blackened toenails. Are you an athlete, a marathon runner maybe?"
"I don't know."
More tapping. "You were wearing a black cocktail dress when you came in." She looked up. "Chanel."
"Chanel? That's French." Why could she remember that when she couldn't remember her own name?
"Yes, your dress is in the closet," the doctor said. "But you didn't have any shoes on when you came in."
"What else do you know about me?"
"You've had a recent manicure. You've got hair extensions and you're blonde, but it's not natural. You probably go to a tanning salon. Does any of this trigger anything?"
She let out a tired sigh and shook her head. The tapping sound resumed.
"Oh, this says you were wearing a wedding ring."
She slowly brought up her left hand. It was bare, except for a faint white tan line on her ring finger.
"Where's the ring?" she asked.
"It's in a safe at the nurses' station."
"I want to see it."
"I don't think—"
"Let me see it, please."
The doctor hesitated and then nodded. "Okay, maybe it will help trigger your memory. I'll see if I can get it for you." She rose, holding the tablet against her white coat.
"You're going to be all right," the doctor said.
She didn't want to cry, but she couldn't help it. The tears fell, pooling hot on her neck. The doctor held out a tissue, and she took it with a shaking hand.
"I know this is very frightening," the doctor said. "But you're going to be all right."
The doctor's voice was soothing, but the voice inside her head was screaming: You don't understand! I am afraid! And I can't remember why!
The doctor smiled and held up her black tablet. "Your brain is like this computer," she said. "It's like your memory board has been temporarily erased."
"Temporary? When will it come back?"
"Well, I can't tell you exactly. It will be gradual, as you heal. Little things will trigger other things, like smells or songs. But it will come back, I promise."
She shut her eyes.
There was a murmur of voices, the doctor talking to someone, her voice brisk and business-doctor now. Then the voices were gone and there was just a soft mix of sounds—a beeping from somewhere above her head, a phone ringing somewhere far away.
She felt herself drifting into sleep, but suddenly the dark-haired man was there again. The man who had brought her here? Or someone else? And if he had helped her, why did she feel an awful tightening in her chest when she thought of him? What was she afraid of?
Maybe it wasn't about not knowing who he was. Maybe it was about not knowing who she was. What if the doctor was wrong and her memory never returned? That happened to people, didn't it? What if her life was gone forever? What if she was gone forever? What if the awful emptiness inside her never went away and the only thing she had was that faceless man?
No ugly. Make ugly go away. You try make pretty.
Who was talking to her? It was a man and the accent was foreign, maybe Russian.
Make ugly go away. She pushed the dark-haired man from her mind and tried to fill the black void with something else.
Her head was pounding, and she shut her eyes tighter against the pain. Then, very slowly, images began to form. Just blurs of color at first—blues, whites, and greens—that began to move. Clouds drifting against a blue sky and stabs of green that she realized were the swaying tips of palm trees.
Next came the feel of sun hot on her face and body, and a sharp medicinal smell like . . .
Chlorine. A swimming pool.
Something cool and hard under her feet, and in her mind she looked down and saw her bare feet against white marble and the edge of a black-and-white rug, like a zebra skin. Clothes hanging in a big closet, and a red chair. The feel of fur on her skin . . .
"Brody," she whispered.
"Is that your last name?"
She opened her eyes. The doctor was back.
"Did I say something?"
"Yes, you said 'Brody.' Is that your last name?"
She closed her eyes in exhaustion. "I don't know."
The doctor was holding a small manila envelope. "I have your ring," she said. "Normally, you'd have to sign a form for this, but that can wait until you remember your name." The doctor shook the ring into her palm and held it out.
She took the ring. It was a large square-cut diamond. She had been expecting a wedding band and looked up at the doctor. "You're sure this is mine?"
"You don't recognize it?" The doctor sounded disappointed.
"No." She put it on her finger. It fit perfectly.
A nurse interrupted them. "Dr. Haskins, they're still waiting for you down in neurology."
"All right, I'm on my way." The doctor turned back to the bed. "I'll put in the order for something for your headache. And something to help you sleep."
She looked up at the doctor. "I don't want to sleep."
What could she tell her? That she was afraid that if she slept the man's face would be there in her dreams?
She brought up her hand to look at the ring again, and that was when she noticed the white hospital band around her wrist. She turned it so she could read the writing. Some numbers, one set that looked like a date, and above that, JANE DOE.
From somewhere deep in her head, she heard a violin playing. Vivaldi, it was Vivaldi's "Winter." How did she know that? Then she could feel someone's hand holding hers, feel the hand slipping the ring on her finger and she could hear the words . . .
I take thee, Amelia.
Her eyes flew up to the doctor.
"Amelia," she said. "My name is Amelia."
He came to an abrupt stop just inside the doorway and stared at the woman in the bed. She was covered in a white sheet and was lying so still that for a moment he thought she was dead. But then he saw the steady blip of her pulse on the monitor. His eyes took it all in, even as he could feel his mind racing to make sense of what he was seeing. Her swollen face, turned slightly toward him, a gauze square on her chin standing out stark white against the ugly splash of purple and yellow bruises on her cheeks. Her hair like wet rope against the pillow. Her lips, fat and tender looking. One nostril crusted with dried dark blood.
He brought up a shaky hand and ran it over his face. Was it her? She looked so shattered, so different, he wasn't even sure.
As he moved closer to the bed, his eyes locked on the tubes snaking down from the plastic bags above, down to her thin bruised left arm, then to her hand and the diamond ring.
He carefully picked up her hand. It was warm. He pressed it between his own and closed his eyes.
He turned. A nurse was standing there, holding a plastic bag of clear liquid.
"No one is supposed to be in here," she said.
"I'm Alex Tobias. She's my wife."
The nurse's face softened.
"I just got a call from the police. They said she was in some kind of accident. Is she . . . in a coma?"
"Coma? Oh, no, she's just asleep. I just gave her a pill."
"Do you know what happened to her?"
"No, I just came on duty. I'm sorry, sir, but you'll have to move aside. I have to change her IV."
Alex set his wife's hand on the sheet and stepped back to the corner, focusing on the smiling cat faces on the nurse's bright blue scrubs, watching her pink hands flutter like fish over his wife's body. His head was pounding, and there was a hard nub of something he imagined as gray stone forming in his chest.
"Are you all right?"
He looked up into the nurse's chubby face.
"Do you need to sit down, sir?"
"No, no. I need . . . where is the doctor? I need to talk to a doctor."
"Dr. Haskins is on her rounds right now. I'm sure she—"
"Can you call her? I need to talk to someone."
"She'll be back up here soon, Mr. Tobias."
The nurse was checking a chart, and when he started to move back toward the bed she stopped him with a firm hand on his arm. "She needs to rest. Let's go outside."
Alex followed the nurse back into the hallway. He saw flashes of green as people in scrubs moved quickly by him. Carts rattled down the hallway. Telephones trilled. Everything felt sharper, louder. He couldn't think.
"The police wouldn't tell me anything over the phone," he said. "What happened? How did she get here?"
"As I already said, sir, I don't really know. But Dr. Haskins will be back in about a half hour. I'm sure she'll explain everything."
He glanced around and ran a hand through his hair. "God, I can't believe this. Is there—Jesus, look at me, I'm shaking—is there someplace I can sit down?"
"There's a cafeteria just down the hall. Why don't you go down there and get some coffee? As I said, Dr. Haskins will—"
"I want to stay close by. I have to be here when she wakes up."
"There's really nothing you can do right now," the nurse said. "I gave your wife a sedative. Please, Mr. Tobias, go wait in the cafeteria. As soon as Dr. Haskins gets back I'll tell her you're here."
She gave him a gentle nudge and he moved away, following the signs on the walls that directed him toward the cafeteria. It was a large room, with a lunch counter, vending machines, and orange plastic tables and chairs. Alex got a coffee from the machine and slipped into a chair near a window.
He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and raised the plastic cup to take a sip of coffee.
His hand was still shaking.
Jesus . . . he had to pull himself together. He couldn't let Mel see him like this when she woke up.
When he took a drink, the acrid coffee burned down the back of his throat and settled into his stomach, mixing uneasily with the vodka. When had he last eaten? He couldn't remember. But the churn in his gut right now came from something other than hunger.
Alex looked out the window, trying to clear his brain, trying to focus on something, anything that would help him calm down. He stared down at the street. He had driven here so fast he didn't even know where he was exactly.
Andrews . . . that was Andrews Avenue below, he slowly realized, the road that he often used as a shortcut from his office to the airport. It was an ugly street that had been bypassed by the wave of gentrification that had produced the glass-tower condos and boutiques of downtown Fort Lauderdale. The street was home to bail bondsmen, chiropractors, dive bars, and pizza joints.
His eyes settled on the sign on a peeling pink stucco office.
DAVIES & CORMER. SE HABLA ESPANOL. IMMIGRATION. PERSONAL INJURY. WE CAN HELP! SOMEONE SHOULD PAY!
Someone should pay . . .
Oh yeah, someone always paid, didn't they?
The ring of his cell—Bach's Prélude from the movie Master and Commander—jerked him back. He grabbed the cell from his jacket pocket and checked the caller ID. It was Owen.
He hit "End Call," but he knew he should have answered it. There was only one reason his partner would be trying to reach him on a Sunday. It meant that the Swanson-Leggett merger had hit a snag, the investors probably finding out that Swanson was being invested by the SEC for securities fraud. It was a bogus charge, but when people were asked to put up millions, they tended not to trust a CEO whose future might include a stint in federal prison.
His phone chirped with a text message:
Swanson out. New money in.
Deal done. Opening Cristal.
Where R U?
He heard the rasp of the door again and looked up. A woman in a white coat and glasses had stopped just inside and was scanning the room. She spotted him and came to the table.
"Mr. Tobias? I'm Dr. Haskins."
He started to get up, but she motioned for him to sit back down with a nod to the chair. She took the chair opposite.
His words rushed out in a torrent. "What happened to Mel? The nurse said she had a concussion but no one will tell me anything else and I need to know if—"
"Take a breath, Mr. Tobias," Dr. Haskins said.
Alex realized he was still clutching his cell. He set it facedown on the table and pulled in two jagged breaths.
"First, your wife is going to be all right."
Alex stared at the doctor for a second, and then tears formed in his eyes. He looked away.
"She suffered a cerebral contusion and an intracranial hematoma that—"
He came back to her. "I'm sorry, what does that mean?"
"She has a pretty bad concussion and there was some cranial bleeding, but we've got it under control. However, her brain was bruised and this has manifested itself in amnesia."
"Amnesia? She's lost her memory?"
"I don't know how bad it is yet," Dr. Haskins said. "Your wife regained consciousness only about an hour ago so I haven't had much time to assess her condition. I'll know more when we do cognitive tests. Right now, I'd say the amnesia appears to be retrograde, meaning she remembers nothing that happened to her before she was injured."
"Nothing? Does she remember me?"
Dr. Haskins hesitated. "At first, she could only tell me her name was Amelia. But when she remembered her last name, the police ran her driver's license, and that's how they found you."
Alex stood up abruptly. "I need to see her."
"Please, Mr. Tobias, not now. We've got to do more scans and tests. We'll know more tomorrow. But right now, the thing she needs most is quiet."
Alex sank back down on the hard chair, putting his head between his hands.
"Amnesia from head trauma is quite common—car accidents, sports injuries," the doctor said. "My nephew got a concussion playing high school football and made a full recovery. The only thing he can't remember is getting hit in the game."
Alex said nothing, didn't move. The doctor kept talking, her voice dissolving to a painful buzzing in his head. She was saying again that Mel would get better, that her memories of her life, friends, and family would come back, that any image, sound, or even smell might trigger things. But that it would take days or weeks for the whole picture to form again.
Mel . . . my Mel . . . what happened?
"The police couldn't tell me anything," he said. "Do you know anything about what happened?"
"Not really," Dr. Haskins said. "She was dropped off here."
"Dropped off? What do you mean dropped off?"
"The admitting nurse found your wife in the emergency waiting room. She had fainted in the chair and—" Dr. Haskins paused, pursing her lips. "Well, to be honest, no one noticed she was there for at least an hour."
"What? How the fuck did you—"
"Calm down, Mr. Tobias. This happened late Friday night. Do you know what a county hospital emergency room is like on a Friday night?"
Alex stared at the doctor. Friday night? Mel had been gone for two days? He shut his eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Go on, please."
"It was only later, after she was taken to the ICU, that we started to put things together."
"What do you mean?"
"We checked the security tapes. The cameras in the emergency entrance and waiting room showed a man bringing your wife into the room and then leaving. He drove away in a truck. That's all we know. The police have the tapes and are looking for him."
"Do they think he . . . this man, do the police think he did this to Mel?"
"I don't know. You'll have to talk to the police. There was an officer here earlier. He said he was coming back." The doctor paused. "Look, I know I shouldn't speculate about anything but your wife has a bruise across her chest that is consistent with hitting a steering wheel. I think she was in a car accident and this man found her and brought her here."
"Car accident? Why didn't he just call an ambulance?"
Dr. Haskins shook her head. "I can't answer that."
The doctor looked up suddenly, toward a speaker in the ceiling. Alex heard it, too, a page for Dr. Haskins.
"I have to go," she said, rising and starting away.
The doctor stopped.
"Your nephew," Alex said. "You said he couldn't remember getting hit?"
"You said that after he got hit, he couldn't remember it."
The doctor gave an odd smile. "He couldn't even remember the game. Three years later, he still can't."
Dr. Haskins turned and left. Alex slumped down in the chair and closed his eyes. His cell chirped and he turned it over. It was another text from Owen.
CALL ME NOW
It took all Alex's energy to sit up and dial. Owen answered on the second ring.
"Where the hell are you?"
"Broward General. Mel's been in an accident."
"Accident? What kind of accident?"
"I don't know exactly. All I know is some guy found her and brought her in. She has a concussion."
"Jesus . . ."
"Look, Owen, I can't talk now. I have to—"
"Is she okay?"
"No, she's not okay. She doesn't even . . ." He was on the verge of crying. He couldn't let Owen hear him bawling like a girl. "Owen, I'll call you when I know more."
Alex hung up.
He sank back in the hard chair. Soft sounds swirled around him—the door opening, the intercom belching out a page, the swoosh of something in his ears that he finally recognized as his own pulse. There was another sound, and at first he thought it was Muzak, but he realized it was coming from somewhere deep inside his head.
A memory pushed forward. It was music, but he couldn't tell what it was. Then he heard the violins and remembered the name "Vivaldi" and how Mel had told him the music was perfect because they were getting married in December.
The music was suddenly gone.
He had to see her now.
He jumped to his feet and went quickly back down the hall to the nurses' station. The nurse in the blue cat scrubs was coming toward him and blocked his way.
"Mr. Tobias, did Dr. Haskins find you?"
"Yes. I want to see my wife now."
"I told you, Mr. Tobias, I gave her a sleeping pill—"
"I just want to see her."
The nurse touched Alex's shoulder. "Okay, you can go in for a few minutes, but please don't try to wake her up."
He nodded. The nurse disappeared around a corner and Alex stood for a moment, one hand on the desk to steady himself. Then he went slowly down the hall to the last room on the left.
When he went in, it took several seconds for what he was seeing to register—the bed was empty.
He moved closer and looked down at the end of the IV tube lying in the tangle of sheets. A small stain of blood stood out dark red against the white.
He spun and went outside, scanning the hallway. The nurse in the blue cat scrubs was coming toward him.
"Mr. Tobias, are you all right?"
"Mel, my wife," he said. "She's not there."
© P.J. Parrish