***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by M.D. Waters
C H A P T E R 1
My mind wakes, but the words essential to describe the stirring of my consciousness escape me.
White light fills my vision, blindingly bright, darkening my peripheral to pitch. I have no words for variations, either, because while I understand shifts of color and luminescence in my surroundings, I cannot hold knowledge in my mind.
Voices articulate words—No, we don’t need her anymore; put her with the others—and I struggle to make sense of them to no avail. I know what they say is important. So important. Vital. Yet all meaning flashes through the vast darkness of my mind, fleeting streaks of lightning. Alluring, coaxing, but gone before I can decipher patterns in the chaos.
Dust particles float in the air, a fluid, graceful contrast to the vibrating hum of the light hanging above me. The motes dance around my slim, pale fingers, escaping my grasp, frustratingly transitory, like everything else I experience.
A hand pushes aside the sterile aluminum lamp seconds before a face appears. Cold fingers pry up the lid of one of my eyes. Gray eyes stare, unblinking, between a green cap and surgical mask. A pinprick of light forces tears. I squint and jerk my head, but the strong hand catches me around the forehead, fingers snagging on attached wires, and repeats the process on my other eye. I feebly bat his hand away.
The man leans straight-armed onto the table and stares at me. “Hm.”
“Hm, what?” This voice comes from a man out of my line of vision but sounds very close.
The gray-eyed man lifts his head and pulls down the mask, revealing a bulbous nose and pockmarked skin. Matching gray whiskers shade his upper lip. He glances between me and the man who has yet to show himself. “It’s too early to tell.”
“But . . .” The gray-haired man trails off and sighs. He scans me from head to toe, eyes narrowing. “But I think we have finally done it.” A soft chuckle sounds behind me. “You, my old friend. You have finally done it.”
This gray-haired man reaches for my face. I instinctively jerk my head away, but he only pulls colored wires off my forehead, gathering a group of them in his palm. “Only time will tell,” he says.
The moment drifts away as the words are absorbed into the vast space of my mind. By the time I think to be frustrated, it is too late. Nothing has meaning. Not time. Not words. Not the reason I am here.
I am simply tissue, blood, and bone.
In the beginning of life.
The vibrant green leaves turn into shades of orange, red, and yellow. Sweltering heat becomes cool breezes through narrow slits in large, square windows.
With the passing of time comes a lasting comprehension of language, color, texture, and scents. He says I knew them all along, and what I have yet to learn, he will teach me. I think he will reward me one day if I can only get my lessons right. Except today he tells me something new, and one word I do not understand.
“You are my wife,” he tells me.
I study his lips while they frame the words. He has a lovely mouth and I reach out to touch it often, but he never lets me. He says I must focus on one thing at a time.
“I am your wife,” I say carefully, and the words sound right, so I smile.
His head falls forward and broad shoulders lift with a heavy sigh. Dark hair spills forward, hiding his expression. He is upset with me but I do not understand why. I tell him what he asks of me and only that. Is this not what he wanted?
He lifts his head, and eyes the color of seawater stare back at me. I know this color because it is in a large photograph in my room. They tell me the photograph is of the sea before, but they do not tell me before what.
“I do not understand,” I say.
He leans back in his chair and combs hair away from his face with long, slender fingers. The dark strands slick back and hold in their usual style. “You’re repeating my words only to please me.”
He turns his head and squints into the sun shining through the windows. With an elbow propped on the chair’s arm, he raises a hand to his chin and massages his jaw.
Leaning forward, I attempt to catch his gaze with my own. “This is what you wanted,” I whisper.
Those beautiful eyes turn my way and he stops rubbing his chin, still saying nothing. He only watches me in agonizing silence. Then, abruptly, he stands and buttons the front of his suit jacket. It is dark blue today. I like this color on him.
Bending over me, he presses a whisper-soft kiss to my temple. “One day you will say it and believe it.”
He leaves the room and now I understand. I must learn about this word “wife.”
We spend day after endless day in this lounge, and I think I finally understand. “You are my husband, Declan Burke. I am your wife, Emma. We were married in a small ceremony with only our closest friends atop our mountain.”
His smile, after so many weeks of frowns, warms my heart and brings a flutter to my stomach. He has an amazing smile. When he smiles, his cheeks crease deeply around the corners of full lips.
This particular smile brings a gleam to the sea in his eyes. “Yes, Emma, that’s right. You were absolutely beautiful.”
He reaches forward, carefully, and slides loose strands of my hair behind my ear. A tingle follows the trail of his fingers across my skin. I want more. Have wanted more than these fleeting touches.
“Do I frighten you?” I ask.
He chuckles and leans away, draping both arms over the top of the beige couch with red accent pillows. His fingertips dip into the beam of sun from the large windows. “No. Should you?”
I match him gaze for unblinking gaze. A smile twitches the corners of his lips and I cannot imagine why he finds this amusing. Is not a husband supposed to touch his wife? Am I not allowed to touch him in return?
I pull my feet up into my chair and twist to prop my elbow over the cushioned back. With my free hand, I pick at an imperfection of thread in the knee of my white scrub pants. “Is touching forbidden?” I ask him, casually raising my gaze to peer at him through my eyelashes.
I am learning about these rules, which they say are for my safety. Some I do not understand. Why should I not leave my room after seven each night? I want to see the stars. Need to see the stars. They pull at the core of me for reasons I cannot explain.
“I don’t want to rush you,” he says. While the amusement still tugs on his lips, he averts his eyes.
Rush me, I want to tell him, but do not. He knows what is best for me, but I believe I am ready for this step. No, I know I am.
Unfolding myself, I stand and hold out a hand. “I would like to see the gardens. And I wish for you to hold my hand while we walk.”
He watches our hands meet, his twice the size of mine and barely a shade darker. Olive toned he calls it. He says when I am in the sun more, my skin becomes golden and rich in color, but for now, my skin is dull by comparison.
We leave the lounge where we meet every day, entering a sterile white hallway. The only color comes from a wall of paintings with random splashes of color. Declan calls it art, but the canvases look as if a child was set loose with a paintbrush. On more than one occasion, the idea that I could have done far better flits through my mind.
Opposite the wall of paintings, sunlight glares at us through large, square windows, but no worse than in the lounge, where the rays reflect off car windows in the parking lot. A rectangular lot cluttered with the same cars, day in and day out. Parked in the same exact places. Nothing changes in the surrounding manicured lawns sprouting trees and perfectly square hedges. Only the changing colors of the season. From my vantage point fifteen stories up, in this U-shaped building, these colors are my only proof that time passes at all.
We enter the enclosed garden area with exotic flora and a great domed roof with only a tease of sunlight through opaque windows. The space is heaven in shades of every color imaginable. The men in blue lab coats leave us to our walk without interruption. No one looks us in the eye, and I wonder why, but do not ask.
I wonder if I am scarred from the accident. Declan assures me I worry needlessly, but I have yet to see my reflection for myself. I only catch the short, angled tips of straight dark brown hair when it falls forward. I cannot recall my appearance at all, actually, so it pleases me to know this much.
“You’re in a better mood today,” Declan says mildly, which is saying something for a man with such a deep voice. “No nightmares last night?”
I shake my head. “Only good dreams last night. I think.” I chuckle and pull close to him, hugging his arm. My hands wrap around a tight biceps. The top of my head just reaches his shoulder. Touching him like this, being this close, brings a warm sensation to my chest. “They must have been if I do not remember, yes?”
“Yes, I should think so.”
“Maybe I have seen the last of them.”
He kisses the top of my head. “We can only hope.”
I float upright in a tank full of water. The occasional bubble sneaks past me and pops just above my head, but I cannot move my head to follow it.
I cannot blink.
I can only float and watch the world around me go on as if I do not exist. People come and go in silence, never staying long. They speak in whispered tones, leaving me to guess at their conversations. Any attentions they pay me are with furtive glances.
The room is pale gray with cracks snaking up walls into the ceiling. Unevenly stacked boxes rest in the middle of a tiled floor heavily decorated with black scuff marks. Tables topped with laptop computers line the outer walls of the large space. A monitor nearby beep . . . beep . . . beeps. Another, separate monitor beepbeepbeeps a quicker rhythm.
A woman, thin and tall, wearing a dark green jumpsuit under a white lab coat, checks the monitors regularly. Everyone calls her Sonya or Dr. Toro. She is dark skinned with hair cut nearly to her scalp. Like the others, she rarely looks at me. She watches the monitors and occasionally she watches . . .
He sits in a folding chair at an angle to my tube of water, head bent forward, elbows resting on his knees. I cannot see his face. Layers of dark blond waves curl to his chin.
“Noah,” the woman says. “You should get some rest.”
The man does not turn around, but lifts his gaze to where I float helplessly in a tank of water I cannot escape. And I want to escape. I need to escape. But he will not let me out.
He never lets me out.
C H A P T E R 2
I wake up panting and clawing at my sweat-soaked tank top. For a long moment, I believe I cannot breathe, that I float in water. But as my ragged breaths grow harsh against my raw throat, I remember where I am and tell myself for the millionth time that the nightmare was not real.
“Lights,” I say, and the word is a croak.
Square panels on the lower halves of the walls flicker on with a soft hum and glow, illuminating my small room. Even the low setting makes my eyes water. I squint until they adjust.
I stand on shaky legs and clumsily run into the table with my pitcher of water and empty glass. The room-temperature water soothes my dry throat.
“Everything okay?” a male voice asks.
The abrupt sound startles me and I turn narrowed eyes up to the speaker protruding at an angle from the tan wall. The speaker is the only thing in my room that stands out and forces me to remember how I am never truly alone. The camera from which they watch me, I cannot find.
“Fine,” I say.
Perched on the edge of my bed, I lean into the bouquet of indigo flowers delivered earlier in the evening. I had admitted my love for them to Declan on our walk and he had them arranged. The petals add color to my otherwise lifeless room, where even the green leafy plant in the corner is fake.
I spend the next few minutes searching the one large photograph in my room for something new. A dip in the sand I may have never noticed before or a new color in the sunset I may have just learned about. Are there more seagulls today? There never are, of course, but I still look. It calms me to look.
“Will you need a sedative?” the voice asks.
The time I take to consider this offer is short. I am too frightened to sleep on my own and need to sleep so I can be rested for Declan’s visit tomorrow.
“Yes, please,” I tell the speaker.
A whoosh of air precedes the arrival of a tube in the narrow air lock by the door. A tiny door opens and I reach inside for the slim aluminum cylinder. The top rolls aside and I tilt the end over my palm. One tiny, round white pill falls into it, wrapped in a clear plastic square.
A knock on the door startles me, a sign my nerves are still raw. I press a button by the door and Dr. Travista’s face appears on the screen: spectacled gray eyes and pale skin scarred from some pocked ailment in his youth. He is much older than Declan, though Declan acts as if they were childhood friends.
“Yes?” I say into the tiny microphone under the screen. “May I come in?”
His voice grates and I am too unnerved to listen to him and answer his many questions, but I cannot tell him no. I press another button and the door slides open with a barely audible shiff.
“Are you working late?” I ask amiably.
He nods, rocking slightly on the balls of his feet, and tucks his hands into the white lab coat he wears over a teal button-down shirt. I do not like this color teal. “You had another nightmare.”
This is not a question, so I do not respond.
He motions for me to sit in a nearby chair. He kneels before me and begins taking my pulse with cool fingers. “Can you tell me about it?”
No! a voice yells inside my head. Don’t you dare!
I listen to the voice because the voice belongs to me and why would I not listen to myself? I must have a reason to hide the truth, but I cannot think it is anything more than my uneasiness with this doctor, who is my husband’s closest friend.
“I cannot recall,” I say, if for no other reason than to calm the voice. She is always nervous I will tell Dr. Travista too much.
Gray eyes glance up at me over the rim of wire-framed glasses. “Hm.” This is always his response. I dislike this, too. “Odd.”
I tilt my head. “What is odd?”
“After all these months, you never recall the details of this nightmare you experience nearly every night. It’s odd.”
I shrug a single shoulder. “I suppose it is.”
Dr. Travista continues checking my vitals without another word but watches me carefully. I cannot begin to guess what he looks for in my expression, which I keep carefully neutral. Experience has taught me that the calmer I act, the quicker he leaves.
Finally, he slaps his knees and stands. “You have your sedative and water. Is there anything else you need?”
I affect a pleasant expression. “No. I do not believe so. I will take it right now and go back to sleep.”
“Good. Call if you need anything more.”
I walk him to the door I am not allowed to pass through and lean into it when it slides closed behind him. The metal is cool against my warm skin and I roll my forehead over the flat surface.
“Stars,” I whisper a moment later. “I should have asked to see the stars.”
The stars shone bright tonight, but they always did this far from the city. These trips were always about taking the good with the bad. I hated them, but they were necessary.
“Time?” I asked.
I lay down on the grassy knoll, ignoring the uncomfortable attachments to my black uniform. Or I tried to. I didn’t dare remove anything.
Foster laughed. “What are you doing, Wade?”
Tucking my hands under my head, I settled in with a sigh. “I’m looking at the stars. Don’t you miss the stars? They tell stories, you know.”
He dropped to a knee beside me, a grin spreading over his face. His black curls peeked out from under a black cap and night-vision goggles, and his warm chocolate complexion looked darker under the night sky. Only the pale gray-blue hue of his eyes remained true in the dark of night, reflecting the moonlight.
“You can be such a girl sometimes,” he said.
I reached up and smacked his uniformed shoulder. “I am a girl.”
“No, you aren’t,” he said and shrugged. “Well, not always.”
“My husband would tell you I am all the time.”
“Your husband gets to go places no man has gone before.” With a grunt, he dropped to his butt next to me. His heavy gear rustled and shifted while he settled.
I rolled my eyes. “Jealous?”
“Absolutely.” Foster leaned back on his elbows and dropped his head back to look up at the sky. He released a deep sigh. “Wow. That is nice.”
The tiny pinpricks of clustered light must have reached past a billion, more than I would ever count. In the city, I never saw this many. “It’s hard to believe men used to guide themselves using them,” I said. “I would get lost.”
Foster swiveled his head toward me and shot me a lopsided grin. “Not you. You’ll always know your true north.”
I wake with a start but remain perfectly calm. This was no nightmare. I liked this dream. It had been so real I could almost feel the items on my belt pressing into my hip and back. But it is the stars I want to remember, so I close my eyes and attempt to bring the image back. It is not the same but is good enough for now. It is more than I could have asked for.
A knock on the door brings me out of my dreamy half sleep. “Yes?”
I slide out of bed and am surprised to find the floor cooler than normal. I hiss and pick up the pace on tiptoes to press the unlock and open buttons. Randall, expression as impassive as ever, strolls right past me and sets my tray down. Like all of Dr. Travista’s nurses, he wears gray scrubs over his skeletal frame. Thankfully, the orderlies wear yellow scrubs, or I would never know the difference between the two groups of his all-male staff.
I eye the plate of fruit and whole wheat toast and stifle a groan. Randall hates when I complain, and it does me no good anyway. He is simply doing what he is told despite the fact that he considers it below his job description to serve me breakfast in bed, as he so curtly muttered under his breath a time or two.
Randall lifts the tiny cup of pills and holds them out with a glass of water. The routine never changes. Swallow the pills in silence, open mouth and lift tongue to prove they are really washed down. Then he takes my blood pressure and shines a light in my eyes. He asks me questions about my hearing: better or worse? Does my sense of touch feel any different? More sensitive? Less? Any aches or pains? He checks my reflexes.
I do not understand the expectations. Nothing ever changes and I say so every morning.
I follow through these steps without question, ignoring his bored expression, trying not to take it personally. He simply hates his job and it has nothing to do with me.
Randall leaves me within heartbeats of finishing his notations on a computer tablet, and I cross the hall to the mirrorless bathroom. The space has many stalls and a shower area around a corner. It is meant to be shared, but I am the only patient on this floor.
I wash up and return to my cold, bland breakfast. The fruit is tasteless, probably not in season, and I long for something sweet.
I remind myself that it will not always be like this. My life is in a house in the mountains away from all this. I am much better now and they will let me go home soon.
Until then, things will continue as they always have. One new day at a time.