Dr. Rita Brooks was thinking about falling in love. Considering it, the way one would consider buying a car or a house; the pros and cons, risks, comfort levels. It had been a long time since she’d let herself entertain such a thought. That the man in question lived 1500 miles away in New Orleans actually made things easier. That they’d never met wasn’t important.
As a side hobby, she scrounged through flea markets for things she could sell at on-line auctions. Brian LaPorte had emailed her about a dagger, and soon they were writing back and forth. They had eased right past easy camaraderie and flirting and moved to a deeper relationship.
She ran through the cold rain to her car, her Chinese take out in a brown paper bag. For a second, the air froze in her throat. A shadow shifted behind her car. She blinked, and it was gone. She glanced in the back seat, just to make sure, before sliding into her Volvo S40. She locked the doors, turned the engine, and pulled out of the parking lot. A car two spots away did the same and fell into place behind her. That was probably the shadow she’d seen; someone else getting into their car.
Heat slowly emerged from the vents. Her cheeks stung from the cold, and she aimed one of the vents at her face. The dark, blotchy sky dumped down slushy rain that glowed in the street lights. The Montreal Express was in full tilt, the northern wind crushing Boston in its winter grip.
She’d been putting off Brian’s request for a photo exchange with excuses about finding the right picture. Truthfully, she had this fantasy of him based on the poetic way he spoke and didn’t want to spoil it. It was time, though. She’d gone through boxes of photos last night and found a decent shot where her light blue eyes weren’t washed out and her wavy hair wasn’t a brown cloud. Tonight she’d scan it and surprise him.
The next step would be face to face. What harm could come from that? A safe, public meeting of course, in case she’d misjudged him. But she doubted it. She was trained in judging people after all. They’d take it slow. And maybe, just maybe, this would go somewhere. Her heart spun with possibilities.
The car that had followed her out of the parking lot was still behind her as she navigated the icy highway. Right behind her. Its headlights blinded her in the rearview mirror. She pushed down on the gas but lifted her foot again. “I’m not going any faster, jerk. You want to kill yourself on these roads, go around me.”
The car did start to pass her. She glanced over, expecting to see it full of teenagers. Her heart jumped at the sight of an inhuman face. Before she could make any sense of it, the car slammed into her.
The wheel pulled out of her hands. She grabbed it as her car swerved toward a concrete barrier. She had no time to scream or pray. Only to realize that in her haste, she hadn’t put on her seat belt.
Rita, what’s wrong with you?
First the words resounded through her mind in her mother’s voice, a rail-thin woman glaring at the sloppy job a nine-year-old Rita had done making macaroni and cheese.
Rita, what’s wrong with you?
Then it was her father Charlie’s voice chastising her for daring to intrude into his sacred office to bother him over a broken finger.
Rita, what’s wrong with you?
Bill’s voice now, as she made the passage from one place to another, all in the dark recesses of her mind. When the voices and sounds from the outside world faded, when her friend Marty’s voice wasn’t commanding her to “Wake up from that damned coma! You know how I hate hospitals!”, when Rita didn’t feel the prick of a needle or anything else to remind her she was still alive, that’s when she made the journey.
At first she felt herself swimming beneath the sea, the surface becoming a muted reflection of the life that went on around her. Everything was dark and liquid, and she became liquid with it as she tried to swim free. The thickening liquid held her arms and legs immobile. She imagined herself a piece of fruit suspended in a dark blue ring of Jell-O.
That’s when the voices would come, snatches of words and memories. She didn’t know what was real anymore. Was she a little girl again, wishing her mother would come home from the bar she tended…dreading it at the same time? Was she a teenager, wearing an outlandish outfit in hopes that her father might notice her? It seemed odd that she should see the scenes, hear the words, and not feel the pain. Maybe this was the place between life and the hereafter, where one came to terms with their grief, shortcomings and fears.
She never had enough time to contemplate it thoroughly, for soon she would pass into the gray place. It seemed to go on forever, shimmering waves of gray. When she’d first come, she thought it must be where your sins were called up, where you watched every mean, selfish thing you ever did and begged for forgiveness.
There were others in this place. No one spoke or smiled or even looked at her. The gauzy texture of the air made it hard to make eye contact. This was where she went when no one pulled her back to reality. The strangest part, she thought, was that it didn’t seem strange at all. She and everyone else were supposed to be there, together, yet locked in their own worlds. A sense of waiting permeated her whenever she came here. Waiting to go back; waiting to go on.
On this journey into the gray, she felt a throbbing pain in her head, an overwhelming fatigue in a body she had not felt at all for so long. She wasn’t supposed to feel pain here in the gray place. It had followed her, as did some of the other sounds from the world: blips and humming noises, voices. The others were there, as always, though they seemed gauzier than usual.
Except for the man. He moved through the people, his journey purposeful somehow when everyone else moved lethargically. He came to a stop in front of her. He was handsome, with blond hair and blue eyes filled with urgency and clarity. His presence infused her with warmth. Had he come to lead her onward?
She wasn’t afraid. But when he reached for her, set his hands on her shoulders, violence shattered the peace. A barrage of images flashed through her mind, so fast she couldn’t hold onto any of them. She could feel them, though, shock and pain and fear, especially fear at the end. Then she was falling, her arms flailing, a scream caught in her throat. A scream that was her name. Before she hit the ground, she felt a gust of air rush through her body.
When she came to, she hardly had a chance to register shock that she’d been in a coma for four days. And that her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in three years, had played doting mom for the first time in Rita’s life. She could hardly register the humility of being an inconvenience to everyone. She could vaguely remember the place of bad memories. There was something else, too. Something important. But she couldn’t quite remember.