Where There Is Life – Chapter 1
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SPOILER ALERT – If you’ve not yet read the book When Comes The Joy (previously titled Skinny Me), this excerpt has spoilers for it.
My head fills with the sound of metal crunching into metal, the sensation of my body flinging forward then back, a scream that I’m not sure emerges from my throat.
“Autumn, can you hear me?” My mother’s voice filters through the noise. “I think she’s waking up, Leo.” Bright light shoots into my eyes. Stabs of pain, like a million nails, drive into my head. “Autumn? Are you awake?”
I try to speak but my throat is dry. I swallow, working up enough saliva to let my tongue move naturally. “Mom?”
“Leo, Leo! She’s awake.” My mother’s voice makes the nails drive in deeper. She leaps from her chair and races to a door. In a moment she’s back again at my side. “Can you hear me?”
“I hear you.” The words are less than a whisper. My eyes adjust to the light. The room I’m in is tiny, bare. Pale yellow curtains sway gently in the breeze. They remind me of the curtains I had as a girl. I turn my head at the sound of my father entering the room then groan at the shoots of pain that accompany the motion. My parents hunch over with expectant, nervous faces. My father doesn’t look like himself. He’s grungy. His face unshaven. “Dad?”
“It’s me, baby.”
“Where am I?” My parents look at each other—their expressions scare me. I try to prop myself up but can’t move my right arm. Something holds it rigid—some kind of plastic sleeve keeps it in place. “Mom?” My voice shakes.
“Honey,” Mom looks away from my father then back at me. “What’s the last thing you remember?” I close my eyes and try to think. It’s difficult. There’s so much pain. The throbbing pushes itself through my skull. I remember the sound—the metal—but it’s all so fuzzy. My mind travels to the last thing that’s clear.
“The wedding,” I say, a feeling of warmth caressing me. “I remember the wedding.”
“Oh dear,” says Mom. My head feels heavy and I start to drift back into sleep.
“Why?” I force the word out but don’t hear an answer.
When I wake again the room is dark, the only light trickling in from the hallway. The window has been closed, the blinds drawn, and the curtains lay perfectly still. I scan the room and see my mother sitting in the corner, her head resting on a sweater, leaning against a wall. I think of calling out to her but she looks so peaceful. My head still throbs, my mouth is still dry, and my face feels tight. A glass sets on the table beside me and I reach for it, surprised again by the weight of the contraption on my right arm. A stainless steel sink and a counter makes up one wall of the small room. My bed has metal railings and is propped up slightly. It’s a hospital room. There are no beeping machines or I.V. stands like there were in Billy’s room, but this is definitely a hospital. My throat feels blocked and my mind fights with itself in an effort to piece together this information. “Mom,” I say in a panicked whisper, but she doesn’t move. “Mom,” I repeat, louder this time, but she doesn’t hear. Her question, the last thing I remember, comes back to me—the wedding. As I ease back into that memory my panic starts to lessen.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day. Bright sunlight filtered over everything. It was warm but not too warm—a wonderful 25 degrees Celsius. I’d been scared of rain. A beach wedding could be tricky after all, but every cloud in sight was white and fluffy and perfect. My dress flowed in the light breeze. My happiness was so intense it seemed surreal. I can almost feel it now. As the music started I turned to my bridesmaids—Allison, Julianne, Eloise, Tracey, and then there was Jennifer, holding my hand. When it was my turn to walk from behind the sackcloth barricade I looped my arm in my father’s, stepped out with a deep breath, and there he was. Matt, my love, waiting at the end of the satin aisle … Matt.
“Matt. Matt.” I say, breaking from my reverie. If I was in a hospital room, a hospital room where I’d seen Mom and Dad, where was Matt? Mom rouses from the corner and rushes over to me. She slips into a chair and grasps my hand. “Shh, calm down, baby, calm down.” Her other hand traces over my head, soothing. “It’s okay, baby.”
“Where’s Matt?” My voice strains with the words, terrified I know the answer.
Mom lets out a breath and I can see her eyes crinkle, her lips purse the way they do when she’s prepping to say words she doesn’t want to speak. “What do you remember?”
“The wedding,” I say, “and then earlier today, here, you and Dad, you asking me … Where is Matt?”
“There was an accident,” she says, then pauses too long. He’s gone, I think. He’s gone. But I don’t want to accept it. I can’t accept it. I can’t. The last thing I remember is the wedding—walking toward him, the way he looked at me, the tears in his eyes. I remember the vows, the kiss, our first dance … everything after that is a blur. “You’ve been,” she hesitates, “well, we’ve explained it all already.”
“What do you mean?” My breath comes quicker now. Mom is wringing her hands, like she’s washing them, like I’ve seen her do so many times before. I try to focus on this action, to let it hold me steady. I start to shake. “What do you mean?” I ask again, as the panic returns.
“You’ve been in and out. Sometimes you seem to remember and sometimes—”
“Mom—” I say, anger starting to flare. “Where is Matt?”
“There was an accident,” she says again and I want to scream, but I don’t. Instead I cry.
“Mom?” I say, and remember what she’s referring to, how she’s explained this all before. My own memories trickle back to me.
“After the flight you landed and were heading to the hotel …” We were heading to the hotel. Matt had been nervous on the plane. I’d teased him and tickled his side, told him he needed to get used to it—There’d be a lot of flying in our lives. He’d kissed me then, on my temple, the scent of his shampoo wafting over us as he brushed the hair off his forehead. My flesh tingled.
‘Pinch me,’ I’d said, looking into his amazing blue eyes.
‘I’m so happy,’ I’d grinned. ‘I need to know it’s real.’
“It was rush hour,” Mom says.
He pinched me then, and I’d swatted him for it. ‘Not that hard,’ I’d said as I leaned into his side and watched him hail a cab. He picked up our luggage with such ease and I admired his muscles as he carefully placed the bags in the trunk. Matt wasn’t the first man I’d dated who looked like a Greek God but he was entirely unique in other ways. It was his heart I’d fallen in love with, his mind.
“The truck ahead of you, its load slid off.”
We’d slid into the backseat. He’d squeezed my thigh. ‘London,’ he’d said.
‘Europe.’ I’d replied. We drove along the highway and then suddenly we weren’t driving anymore.
“Stop.” I say. “Stop.” The pain flies back at me. Such pain. Pain that made today’s agony seem like nothing. I see again, Matt’s body fling forward and back and as it does our eyes meet. A shard of something, a metal tube maybe, flies from the front, pinning his neck into the headrest. Blackness crowds in then, which transforms into a fuzzy veil. I have flashes of clarity—words, images—but the next thing I fully remember is Mom leaning over me, running to the door, calling for Dad. “He’s gone?” My voice sounds so tiny, so soft, I’m not even sure I’ve actually spoken. “Matt?” I say louder, as I feel my skin grow cold.
“Yes, baby,” she says, and she’s crying so hard now, hugging me, crushing me. My whole body aches and I just want her to get off of me. I just want to get out of here, to get anywhere, to go back. I have to go back. I have to make this not real. Matt is my life, my future. We could get in a different taxi, a different plane, a different anything.
“No.” I say.
“What?” She looks up, pulling her head from my chest, easing her grip on me.
“No.” I say more firmly. “No. He’s not gone.”
“Autumn,” she wipes her hands under her eyes, smearing the tears. “I’m sorry, baby. It’s—”
“This didn’t happen.” I say. “Matt’s okay. Matt’s—”
“No,” she says with a tone that makes my confidence waver. “It did happen. We all wish—”
“I want to see him.” It’s a bad joke. That’s all it is. Or a mix-up, a confusion. This happened to someone else. Some other couple. Not us. “Now. I want to see him now.”
“Baby,” she says. “You can’t see him. He’s not here.”
“What do you mean?” I whimper. “Where is he? I want to see him. Now.”
“They shipped his body—”
“Now!” I scream and start to push myself off of the bed. Her hands grasp my shoulders, pinning me down while she cries for the nurse. I try to push her away but the effort sends shards of pain through my body. A woman runs in then dashes away again as my mother and I struggle. She returns with two other women, all in scrubs, and they join my mother in this battle to restrain me. One woman stabs my arm and almost instantly the fight leaks out of me. I raise my arm one final time, trying to swat my mother away but she grasps my wrist, sets my arm down. She rubs my hair, the side of my face, her mouth saying shh, shh, and the tears coat my cheeks. They’re warm and I want to wipe them away but I don’t have the strength to move. I want to get out of the bed but my body isn’t listening. Soon I can’t even manage to keep my eyes open. One of the women says I’ll be out for a couple hours and my mother gently thanks her. I try to say his name but there is no more sound.
When I wake again my mother and father are sitting next to my bed, their hands clasped, my mother’s head on my father’s shoulder, his head on hers. The tears return before they even realize I’ve joined them. “Autumn?” My mother questions. I keep silent and she glances at my father then looks back at me. “You remember?” I nod. “Oh, baby,” she says, reaching her opposite hand out to clasp mine. “I’m so sorry.”
“What happened to him?”
“He didn’t make it,” my father says, “He—”
“I know.” I snap. “But how, how did he? Was it the—”
“You don’t want to focus on that,” says Mom. “You just need to focus on getting better.
“Listen to your mother,” says Dad. I’m too weak to fight back so I nod, close my eyes, and keep crying until there are no tears left. When I’ve laid silently long enough that I’m sure my parents assume I’ve drifted back into sleep, I ask, with my eyes still closed, “What happened to my arm? Where am I? How long have I been here and when I can leave?”
“Eight days,” says my mother. “You’ve been here eight days. You’re in London still, in the hospital.” These answers don’t surprise me, they seem like remnants of something I already knew. My father sees the doctor in the hallway and waves him over.
“She’s awake, is she?” he says, “Do you remember me, Autumn?”
“No.” I’ve been in here eight days, that means Matt’s been … his body, it would be …
“I’m Dr. Fassbend. Do you remember the accident?”
I shrug and look away. I don’t want to talk about the accident, don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to know about the driver … if Matt didn’t make it and he did, and I did, it’s better not to know.
“What does she remember?” The doctor addresses my parents as they relay the information.
He’s young and has a lovely accent. Jennifer would find him sexy.
“That arm is mighty uncomfortable, I imagine,” says Dr. Fassbend, “it’s been crushed in several places. The vehicle rolled.”
If I’d just happened across him at a cafe or in a park I would have told Jenn about him when we got back home …
“The reconstruction went well. You’ve got steel rods in you now—the bionic woman.”
… Joked she should take a flight to England, try to find him, he may just be the man she was waiting for.
“What we were really concerned about was your head injury and the internal bleeding that caused swelling and pressure those first few days … we just didn’t know. But you’re a fighter. You’ve pulled through.”
Jenn probably wouldn’t be interested in this doctor though, another accented man seems to be drawing her attention.
“The fact that you’re starting to remember. That’s brilliant. A very good sign.”
At the wedding reception Rajeev and her were alone on the deck. They took a walk on the beach.
“You’ve got cuts and contusions—stitches in a couple places,” he glances to my parents and they shake their heads for some reason. “But nothing life threatening. That’s what you need to be thankful for.”
Matt came up behind me as I watched them.
“You’ve been stable for several days now. All we were waiting for was your memory. Since it seems you’ve got it back—”
He squeezed his arms around my middle, whispered in my ear, the sweet citrus scent of Grand Marnier on his breath, ‘hmm, well will you look at that.’ He kissed me so gently, right against my temple, that I wasn’t even positive he really had.
“—we won’t have to keep you much longer. We’ll do a few more tests, make sure all the pressure against your brain has dissipated.”
Matt, whose voice I’ll never hear again, who is trapped in some coffin, who—
“You’ll get to go home.”
Home? I stare at the doctor. Matt and I can’t move into our new home for three months. We …
“There’ll be some rehab but with your background as a trainer that shouldn’t be—”
The tears start quickly, cutting off his words, and turn into choking sobs. The doctor stares back at me, his mouth slightly agape. “We can discuss this later,” he says, “Tomorrow.” My mother nods at him, “Thank you, Doctor.” She puts her hand against his upper arm in that way she has and as I watch this, all I can think is Matt. I squeeze my eyes and try to will myself back to the reality that was supposed to be, instead of the reality that is—the one I can’t believe. If I’ve been here eight days Matt and I would have finished our tour of England by now. We would have arrived in Scotland yesterday. We’d be cuddling near a castle, holding hands as we explored a Moor, having a few pints at a pub. I keep my eyes closed tight and hold onto these hopes, these dreams. At last the tension releases but I keep my lids down. Dreams, that’s all they are and all they’ll ever be.
I stay this way for some time, my parents still in the room. I can feel them looking at me but the doctor left long ago. I try to search within to find something to say, something so that they don’t have to be looking at me the way they must be, feeling the way they must feel, but I have nothing. I open my eyes and there they are. They seem almost comical standing there like that, so eager with worry, staring at me like I’m this fragile thing, ready to crack at any moment. But I am this fragile thing. The realization makes me queasy, and cracking doesn’t seem like such an impossibility as I thrust myself to the side of the bed, purging whatever food I can’t even remember eating.
My mother is immediately there, holding my hair back, making her soothing noises, but I don’t want any of it. I don’t want to be soothed. I don’t want to need to be soothed. None of this can be real. This is not my life. My life is wonderful. My life is beautiful. My life is just about to turn into a brand new adventure. I’m going to tour Europe with the man of my dreams then go back home to open a fitness studio with that same man, the man I love. We’re going to be successful, have babies, do all the things we talked about. I rest my head back on the pillow again, shutting out my parents and their stares as I shut my eyes. But that’s not my life anymore. All of these plans that were only dreams before him are nothing now. I’d been talking about opening my own studio for years, about travelling Europe for even longer, but I never took a step to do either before Matt was there to do them with me. I was too frightened something would go wrong, that I’d fail. Knowing Matt would be there beside me gave me the courage to make concrete plans. Without him these dreams are nothing.
I try to roll onto my side, away from my parents, but this blasted whatever it is around my arm prevents me, sending up a streak of pain in warning, and so I stay on my back and stare at the ceiling, wanting to sink through the bed, through the floor, through the earth, and join Matt wherever he is. I breathe, but the air seems hollow, seems somehow not enough. I don’t speak when my parents talk to me. I just stare at the ceiling. The off-white, water stained ceiling. I eat when they ask me to eat, letting my mother spoon feed me. I take the pills the smiling nurse hands over and hate her like I’ve never hated anyone before. Really, I have never hated anyone before and I know I don’t hate her either, not really. But concentrating on that emotion feels better than the alternative.
Once the woman leaves the room I turn to my mother, “I need to use the washroom.”
“Do you want a bed pan or …”
“I can walk, can’t I?”
“Yes,” says Dad. “Yes, you can walk. They just didn’t want you to for the first few days—the head swelling and all.”
“But the doctor says everything seems fine now. Here, let me help you—”
“I can do it,” I say as Mom reaches out for me. Grasping the bed remote, I raise my torso as high as it’ll go then move my legs over to the edge and let them dangle. They feel heavy. Lazy. I stand, using my good arm to help prop myself up, and the room spins. My father is there, his arms under mine as I lose my footing.
“Oh, just a moment,” Mom says. Rushing to the bathroom, she opens the door then closes it behind her. The sound of rustling emerges just before she does, all smiles. I look at my father with a question. He shrugs.
My father supports me as I make my way to the bathroom. “I’ve got it from here,” I say. “Thanks.” Dad smiles at me. He looks so tender. It’s unnerving and puts me in danger of another round of tears. I turn from him and step into the bathroom. “Mom?”
“Yes, honey?” She’s at the door in an instant.
“What’s this?” A towel hangs over what I imagine is the bathroom mirror.
She stands between me and the towel, looking sheepish. “I just thought we could save that for later.”
“Save what for later?”
“Well, the bruises, the cuts, your face, the” she hesitates here, “the hair.”
“Hair?” I lift my good hand and feel my head. The left side, the side she’d always touched as she soothed me, is fine but as I move my hand over I feel that the right is shorn in spiky clumps with a bandage of some sort covering a spot almost as big as my palm. I reach for the towel and she blocks me.
“Honey, don’t. You’ve got enough to deal with right now.”
Pushing her arm away, I pull the towel down. As it falls I whip away from the person I see. Mom’s arms are waiting for me and I bury my head on her shoulder, trying to breathe. This is some mistake, some … this isn’t me. This isn’t my life. Mom pats my back then steps away from me. She grabs the towel and starts to put it back up. “No,” I say and step back to the mirror. The woman there isn’t me, or she is, but only half of her. My left side is pretty normal. A little haggard looking, with a stitch above my eyebrow, but nothing alarming. My right side is a monster. The skin is a disgusting mix of purples, greens, and yellows. The flesh swells up with these colours that make their way down to my lip, which puffs out with another cut. Within this mess of colour is a large gash that’s been stitched together and above all that is my hair—shorn—just as I felt. It’s basically bic’d around the bandage. A little further out is about a week’s growth and then shorter clumps sticking up here and there on the whole right side. I start to peel the bandage away but Mom grabs my wrist. I shoot her a look and she lets go. The skin is bumpy and swollen. Large black stitches keep the flesh together. It’s clear it’s starting to heal, but it’s so rigid looking. So raised. This will be more than a scar.
“The hair will grow over it,” she says. “It’ll be hardly noticeable.” She’s quiet for a moment and so am I. She smiles. “Before you know it you’ll be just as beautiful as you always were.” I place the bandage back down, smoothing the edges and making sure it sticks. “It would have looked better by now,” she says, “but they had to open it again once or twice … the bleeding.”
I nod. “And my cheek?”
“It’s just a scar. Everyone has scars.”
“I’m going to use the washroom now.”
“Oh,” she looks sheepish, embarrassed, “Yes,” and backs out of the small room. I close the door and stare at myself a little bit longer. I’m glad Matt isn’t seeing me like this, I think, and then realize. I sit on the closed toilet lid and find myself in tears yet again.
“Autumn?” Mom knocks at the door. “Are you okay, baby? Do you need help?”
“No. I’m okay.” I stand up and try to ease my pyjama pants and underwear off. It’s only at this moment that I realize I’m even in pyjamas—they’re not mine. I hadn’t brought any pyjama pants with me—just sexy lingerie. I lean forward on the sink, using my good arm to brace myself. My right arm is essentially useless. It just hangs there straight and rigid in its plastic prison. Matt hadn’t even gotten a chance to see my new lingerie, so carefully purchased for what I thought he’d like best. We hadn’t even gotten a chance to—I slam my hand on the counter. I was so tired after the reception. We didn’t get back to the hotel room until after three in the morning. ‘You wanna?’ He’d said, a gleam to his eye.
‘I’m exhausted,’ I’d said. ‘Lets wait till we get there. Till it can be really special.’
‘Alright,’ he’d wrapped his arms around me. ‘A kiss?’
I stand again, avoiding my reflection, and work my clothes down with one hand. When I exit the bathroom my parents are standing in the middle of the room, eyes upon me. My father takes several steps closer. “You need help?”
“I’m fine,” I say, with a snap to my voice that I instantly regret. They’re just trying to help me. “Thanks though,” I say, my voice softer this time. He nods, always a man of few words. I think back to several years ago when it was him in the hospital room, him looking scared and weak. It was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through, seeing Dad like that. It was terrifying. He’d lost thirty pounds and only looked like the shell of my father. It was the first time in my life things hadn’t really gone according to plan, but then they did, and here he is—cancer free for over eight years—healthy and robust. I smile at him but it feels like a betrayal to Matt, and the smile leaves my face almost as quick as it arrived. With effort, I ease myself back into the bed.
“Do you need anything?” Mom asks.
“Anything—food, a book, a movie, anything?”
“No,” I say and go back to looking at the ceiling. Mom and Dad both take their seats beside me. “Am I a widow?” I ask.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see them look at each other. Neither one says a word.