She woke up underwater.
The whole world smelled like what she assumed the inside of a spoilt cheese breakfast would. It was bitter-sweet but with the emphasis on the former. She was drowning but there was no water in her system, no strange presence in her lungs, just a constricting pressure that would not let go. She was unsure if she was floating or standing upright.
She just was.
Her eyes fluttered open to a world of criss-crosses and blurred lines—a world surrounded by a blurry haze of mechanical equipment and drab beds. She could not feel her legs and the constricting pressure she felt at her neck remained. She could barely angle her head downwards to see what it was that was restricting her movement. A slow awareness seeped through the cracks of her mind until a grim understanding began to present itself with the pitch of machines, beeps, low clicks and hushed whispers. As her head lifted a little, something like a bolt of lightning zipped down through her eye sockets and struck the base of her skull. It was as terrible as a slow death under the watching hands of a clock that ticked at each passing breath and drew farther apart until it met silence. But hers worked in reverse—like finding the air when a person thought they were going to drown—breaking through the surface into the light.
She lifted her right hand and thankfully, that one chose to follow her commands. The effort alone was tiring. She stared in puzzled fascination at the tubes and tapes running along the length of her hand. There was a cacophony of beeps as each machine in the room tried to outdo the other. An array of bright lights twinkled from the display of each machine: bright red, yellow and green.
She tried hard to remember how she had got here, wherever here was.
A hospital. Here was a hospital. At least the antiquated equipment told her that much. The room itself seemed like a cut-out from some of the old medical journals and magazines back in the era. The era. At least she remembered what that was too. She found out that just by angling her head a certain way, she could see more of her surroundings.
Plastic tubes, wires, and lines spread across her arms. A small oxygen mask pressed hard upon her nose and mouth, suffocating in its arrangement like a hand bearing down with the intent of a criminal act. Her racing heart stumbled before starting again even faster than before. It was an older hospital—one of the ones that needed to be torn down long ago and lacked the technology that newer facilities afforded. There was no medical interface on the wall to show her exact vitals in a way that she could understand them, and it appeared the doctors used a charting system, which went out with the dinosaurs. The sink near the door looked like just an ordinary wash station. No red or green lights and sensors to indicate that a doctor had adequately sterilized his hands before examining the next patient.
She realized that there was someone else in the room with her a microsecond before she heard a male voice say:
“Thank goodness you’re up! Don’t try to move just yet.” The voice sounded ecstatic, elated even but at the same time, it seemed mechanical as if each word was carefully sorted in the man’s mind before it was uttered.
“Where am I?” she asked.
There was no response from whomever it was that had spoken to her earlier.
“Where am I?” She repeated her words and noticed with some fascination that the effort to speak made the constriction in her throat abate some. Then she noticed with some horror that no actual words had come out. The voice had been in her head but it had just not come out when she wanted it to. A sharp pain rang through her head as she instinctively tried to sit upright in alarm. It was sharp and needle-like and it disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared.
“What’s wrong?” The man asked with a note of concern apparent in his voice. His face came into focus. She did not recognize him. The sudden burst of recognition like a light sensor going off never happened. He was an absolute stranger. The man seemed kind with his gentle words, but his dark eyes pierced her as if he tried to read something beyond her gaze. Her breath came in gasps, as if running some extreme miles on a long, desolate trail.
Another man stepped into the room just as she felt the beginning of another panic attack. A loud wail emanated from one of the nearby rooms. The sudden sound was not jarring but the stranger that had been in the room with her and the newcomer did not seem particularly alarmed by it. The newcomer was dressed in a white lab coat that was still standard issue in hospitals despite the surge in technological advancements. He approached the bed to study the monitors and graphs. He refused to look at her—refused to speak. His actions were mechanical; to him, she was just another patient that had been dumb enough to get herself hurt for whatever reason. Was there a reason for his cold indifference? Finally, her throat constricted and convulsed, but the scream never surfaced. Perhaps the cry was beyond human hearing and no one else could catch the noise through her parted lips.
“Do you remember anything? Do you know why you are here?” The first man asked.
She thought hard about this but she did not feel the flashes of tit-bits of her memory run like a movie montage before her eyes. Who knew Hollywood could be as wrong about something as mundane as amnesia. Was it amnesia or could it be something worse? What if the reason she could not remember anything was that there really was nothing to remember in the first place. What if this was all there was? What if this was all she was? What if she was just a blank sheet that not even a doctor could be bothered to even feign concern for? She felt the onset of yet another panic attack. As the unnatural palpitation of her heart grew stronger, she put a hand to her chest. Her skin was pale and ice cold. Tears filled her eyes and she knew instinctively that something was wrong, very wrong. The monitors beeped faster and somewhere in the distance, an alarm rang out. The sound was shrill and sudden. A nurse rushed into the room. Even in her state of panic, she observed that the nurse looked so young.
The doctor moved swiftly towards her catheter and inserted a needle into it. What was he putting into her bloodstream? What would it do to her? Why was she here? Why could she not remember anything and then more importantly, why was her mouth not working so that she could scream these questions at somebody? Well, technically, her mouth was working but it still wasn’t at the same time. She did not have much time nor energy to expend on her confusion again as she felt the world slowly sliding away from her.
Just before she slipped away into oblivion, just one thought was prominent on her mind: her name, what was her name?
There was a certain urgency to the word. It beckoned to her from across the barren plain of her consciousness. It seemed she was supposed to recognize the word and she did. Her subconscious was not floating this time, the feeling was more pleasurable. There was certain dampness on her skin but she welcomed it, it soothed her.
“Alexandra.” The voice came again.
She reluctantly opened her eyes.
“Ah-ha, Alex!” the man pronounced with enthusiasm.
It was still the stranger from earlier. People said things like “ah-ha or ta-dah,” when they finished a magic trick or wanted to put emphasis on a word they just said. It seemed wrong to indicate that by opening her eyes, some kind of declaration warranted excitement. She wondered if her name was really Alex. He said it like it was supposed to be but she still had a bit of skepticism to get rid of. The man smiled kindly down at her and rubbed a wet piece of cloth along her forehead. He did it with a form of familiarity that killed whatever protest that had been forming at the back of her mind. The motion of the material had a lulling effect on her. She had a whole lot of questions to ask. She struggled with the words but still, the only sound in the room was the steady beeping of the machines.
She gave up on trying and instead shut her eyes and tried to relax. She prayed for sleep to come so she could retreat to the safety of her subconscious. She did not have to wait for long.
The next time her eyes opened, the room was shrouded in darkness and the only illumination came from the stream of moonlight that filtered through the blinds and the twinkling light on the machines. The stranger was still by her bedside. She wondered if he ever left at any point. Did he not have a home to go to? A family to return to? Was she family to him? And even if she was, why was he the only one that was ever around for her? And why did he like the darkness so much? The rooms on either side of hers were bathed in bright white fluorescent light so she knew that there was no issue to the sensors in her area? Or was the light off because she was more attuned to the darkness? That could be the more likely scenario because she found out that she was more at ease in the darkness, her thoughts flowed more freely and were more coherent. She closed her eyes once more and let the waves of her thoughts wash over her.
When she opened her eyes hours later, it was morning. The man was still there by her bedside. And so the pattern was formed. No matter when she awakened, he was always there, his voice constant and soothing. The days faded together, the shadows crept across the room, and cold moonlight slanted through the small window letting her distinguish day from night. The man remained. She felt disoriented by the force of his friendly brown eyes, confused because he could have been an older brother, father figure, or maybe, an older boyfriend. What was he supposed to mean to her?
She started staying awake for longer and the more her periods of wakefulness grew, the more she started to learn about her environment.
Her name was Alex. At least a lot of people seemed to believe it was because that was what they insisted on calling her. She also grew accustomed to the wailing that would periodically emanate from the ward room to her left. Whoever was staying there must have a world of pain to scream like that. Alex often wondered if she would also have been reduced to a screaming wreck if her vocal cords had been working the way they should. But when she went to the bathroom, the face that stared back at her in the hazy bathroom mirror was as strange as that of the stranger with the kindly brown eyes that was always at her bedside. The blue-gray eyes looked like that could conjure a piercing stare when necessary but at the moment, they seemed like they belonged to a ghost.
The benevolent man continued to encourage but her encumbered mind sought refuge and her unresponsive voice desired a way to communicate. Healing was not lacking difficulties either, and most days she felt imprisoned behind an unbreakable wall with some powerful force content to keep her an invalid.
But while the time passed, her broken bones healed and her muscles started to function as they should. At least now she could turn her neck without wincing in pain. She later discovered that the constriction of her throat was due to a brace placed on her neck. That was removed when the doctor decided that she was sufficiently healed enough not to need it anymore.
She got to know some of the nurses too but not by name. The young one with the mischievous eyes was always coming around to her room to check the old charts bearing her vitals. Then there was the sad one who always seemed to force a smile anytime she was around the room. The only time Alex had ever seen her appear chipper was when she was gossiping with the other nurses. Some of what they said seemed like the normal things that people talked about. Other times, it appeared they were trying to diminish other nurses or complain about the patients. They made many excuses and passed the blame. Sometimes they spoke about her and perhaps it should have made her feel better that they described her as a good patient or a perfect patient. But it didn’t. Occasionally, when they realized she could hear them; they slammed the door. It troubled her that these nurses had gone astray—as if people caring for others needed to be virtuous and compassionate.
Then the doctor would make the ward round every morning. She had never seen him crack a smile when checking her vitals even if the other nurses had been so ecstatic about how fast she was healing. But there was one thing everybody seemed to agree on and that was by how often they said it. Everyone said she was lucky to have awakened from her coma and survived but from what, she did not know.
She realized she was lonely, despite the man watching, seeking the company of someone familiar yet forgotten. She searched for him in the same darkness where her dreams emerged, without resolution, unable to identify if he was real or imaginary. She felt lost in a world of familiar strangers.
She was also starting to find out more information about herself and that in itself was a source of amazement to her. She could remember basic things like her age; fifteen but was hard put to remember her own name unless someone uttered it. Why did she crave reading mysteries or historical documents when she couldn’t even recall if she had ever read some? Why did she feel like screaming and yet, no sound would come? There was only silence—a haunting noise of insanity.
Her whole life was starting to become a series of patterns and nurse visits until one day, the strange man told her crisply:
“You have been discharged.” Andy. That was what he said his name was. He had taken a long look down at her with those brown eyes one day and had said, “My name is Andy. It is not short for Andrew or Andromeda or Anderson. Frankly, it isn’t short for anything, just Andy.” Alex had nodded and slowly crept back into Dreamville.
The words “you have been discharged,” crept back into her head and she wondered why she felt so disappointed at the fact. She did not have a special attachment to the hospital but she was slightly angry that the decision to discharge had not been run by her first. They all seemed to trust this Andy.
There was a nurse in the room with them and Andy asked her,
“Do you still have some of her old clothes?”
“Nobody could have worn those. Not anymore. She was brought in very bad shape and her clothes were in even worse situation. We had to throw those away.”
“But she can’t well go home like this.” He pointed to her in the flimsy blue hospital gown. “Is there a donation closet of sorts here? Patients must leave their clothes behind all the time.” He left the meaning of his words hanging but Alex well knew what he was implying. She did not quite like the idea of wearing some dead person’s clothes.
“Oh, I wish! We get rid of those too.” The nurse replied with a grin on her face. Her responses, it seemed to Alex, further enforced the ineptitude of the staff.
Andy said with perhaps some mild exasperation, “I can’t take her home in a hospital gown. It’s a long journey and quite frigid where we are going.”
The woman shrugged her shoulders.
“Can someone donate a pair of scrubs?” he finally asked.
“Oh sure,” she said. “We got those.”
Andy set Alex back on the bed, his fingers reaching for the thin spaghetti ties. Alex shook her head. It was one thing to have a nurse assist with dressing but not him. The nurse hurried into the room with a pair of slate blue scrubs. She was away in a flash as if she had much better things to do.
Turning his back, Andy said, “Go ahead but please understand that you will need to become accustomed to me. Unfortunately, there are not any women where we are going. You’ll be quite alone in that aspect.”
Alex felt stunned and wondered what exactly that meant.
Once removed from the relative familiarity of the hospital, the awareness that something sinister waited “out there” flooded her thoughts. It was like walking into a dark hole of the world. Windowless buildings were marked with heavy graffiti. Everyday sights seemed foreign and unwanted. Ominous. Everything seemed devoid of light and optimism. Garbage littered the sidewalks. Her stomach and back muscles suddenly tightened.
Whether she wanted to admit it or not, the feeling that someone hunted her might have simply been paranoia but her instincts said otherwise. Something was coming for her. Someone, some beast, hated her and might eventually kill her in his inability to let go.
As the hospital fell behind them and tall buildings blocked the sky, the rush of people and the blare of horns and street noise assaulted her senses. Quality of life seemed disrupted by the disturbance as if things were never supposed to happen this way and she thought to herself, Oh God. Make it stop. Her hands pressed over her ears to block the sound but it still filtered through her fingers like little infectious burrowing worms. Pollution fouled the air she gulped and noxious gases turned the small sliver of sky peeking through the buildings into to an unnatural amber.
“It’s not usually this foggy,” Andy offered. “But there’s a rare temperature inversion today. At least according to local meteorologists.
They left the center of the city and moved to more opulent areas. There was less graffiti here and the buildings were better constructed. It was also obvious that the residents here paid some level of attention to keep the garbage off the streets. After a while, they left the city altogether.
Outside the city, her claustrophobia eased as they entered quiet, residential neighborhoods. But even there, the damage caused by acid rain had changed the color of the lakes and soil. It all seemed dead.
They came to an airport and Marcus drove the car into the darkness of a private hanger filled with an acrid but somehow familiar smell of fuel. The brilliant twilight haze faded. Someone opened the bay door for them and a small, oval vessel waited on the landing pad. Runways didn’t exist anymore, or airplanes for that matter. A thick concrete square provided an area for the craft to lift into the sky. Marcus situated her in the wheelchair again for the short trip up the ramp and into the waiting ship.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said.
He set her into a soft flight chair and secured the seatbelt. A moment later, she heard a yelp, and a large, white, fluffy head pushed into her chest. With a rush of joy, she realized she knew the wolf and grabbed the animal around the neck to hold him tight. Scalding tears rushed down her cheeks and dampened his fur. His yellows eye sharpened with recognition. She felt certain that this elusive creature had perched on the edge of her memory waiting for recognition.
The wolf climbed stiffly into the seat beside her and his shaved body beheld a multitude of bruises and sutures. One front paw swelled painfully. Whatever happened to her claimed them both. They had suffered and survived together.
“I saw the wreckage of the truck a few days ago, and I still can’t believe you’re both here now. It’s truly a miracle,” Marcus said.
She assimilated the information to chew on later. Would he tell her more if she figured out a way to ask? She looked at the wolf and a name came to mind. Amandas. Surely, this was some kind of breakthrough. It was his name, right? It felt like a solid, unobstructed thought. She mouthed the silent word, his name, and the wolf looked at her with large, wise eyes. Marcus clipped the seatbelt around the wolf and then disappeared toward the front of the ship.
The engine soon roared to life, trembling slightly against the gusting wind. A blast of air propelled them into the sky. She was going to a new place, a new home, and a flicker of excitement stirred her heart. She would be far enough away that hopefully nothing evil would find her again.