This story is by Madeleine French and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
When Ben’s monitors ding me awake, I don’t open my eyes. In my dream, Jack’s face is right there, close enough to kiss. Though I’m an idiot for still loving him, I’ve mastered every trick to avoid facing my life alone. If my eyes are closed, then I’m not really awake. It’s not my anniversary, and I won’t have to keep my lunch date later today.
But the nurse’s cool contralto breaks the spell.
“Do you know where you are, Ben?” Her name is Jenna, but I don’t care. Not when Jack’s gone—again—his smile dissolved into the arc of her braided ponytail swinging toward my recliner. I hate her for that.
“It’s, you know, the place for sick people,” Ben rasps. “Starts with an H.” Searching for words is normal after a traumatic brain injury, they’ve told us. An orthopedic surgeon, Jack could have explained. If he were here. I squash that spider of a thought, fast.
“They keep asking questions, and I don’t know the answers,” grumbles Ben. “It’s so—awkward.”
“I know. They have to ask, Ben. It’s ok. You’re going to be ok.” I pour all my wishing into the words, to make them true.
Given the neuroplastic changes they’ve observed in other cases, said the attending neurosurgeon, there’s no reason to believe Ben won’t fully recover from his injury. With her circuitous syntax and double negatives, she’s no different from Ben, talking his way around the words he can’t remember. Until the swelling in his brain resolves, he’ll stay in the ICU. We just have to wait.
Ben coughs. “Can I get some water?”
Quietly, I kick the footrest back, scrambling less-than-gracefully out of my lumpy lounger. Ben says the overhead fluorescents hurt his eyes, so in the shadows, without speaking, I pour water, reposition his straw, and slide the plastic cup over until it touches his right hand. He drains it, swallows pills, and I fill it again. Keppra to prevent another seizure. Topamax for the headache. And whatever else he’s getting in the IV. During this endless night with Ben, I’ve learned the drill. Jenna’s here every 90 minutes. Really, it’s a miracle the kid has even slept. Typing notes into a laptop, Jenna’s fine with whatever I do, as long as I don’t make any noise and I stay out of her way.
“And who’s this?” Jenna’s relentless questions are meant to orient Ben to person, place, and time. He is demonstrably not oriented. I’d say it’s heartbreaking, except Jack’s already broken my heart. Maybe today, I can flex the psychic muscles I’ve toned in therapy, and move on.
“She’s my aunt,” Ben replies, with a half-wave to me. Since the accident, he hasn’t yet said my name. I tweak his size-13 foot, raising my eyebrows at the yellow hospital socks that barely clear his heels.
Don’t ask, Jenna. Just don’t.
“And her name? Can you tell me?” I wonder, if I grabbed Jenna’s braid and threw her out of Ben’s cubicle, would she land daintily on her chair at the nurse’s station? Maybe, if I aimed just right.
“Mercy. Beg for Mercy,” says Ben, with a crooked smile.
“Sorry?” Jenna looks up from retaping his IV.
“Mercy. That’s her name. My—all of us, we used to say that. Beg for mercy.” Ben’s a little smug, taking Jenna down. Or maybe that’s me, projecting.
A tear spills down my face, then another. When Ben and my girls wanted permission from their parents—Miranda and Bishop, or Jack and I—they had a secret password. “Beg for Mercy,” they’d chant, because one of them could always convince me to say yes. My sister and I had raised our kids together. Four of them, against four of us. Except it’s three of us now. I squash that thought, too. They’re all grown up, my daughters and my nephew. So what if our team is down one man? And I’ve grown stronger, on my own, embroidering the scraps of my heart into a mismatched crazy quilt no one could tear apart.
“But her real name is…you know.” Ben’s becoming agitated. “The car, with, like, the peace sign. Starts with M. Tell her.”
His voice rises an octave, and the dings tracking his heart rate speed up. Ben closes his eyes, grimacing. Could be his headache, or the effort of striving to snatch the slippery fish of my name out of his memory’s murky waters. Suddenly, his face clears.
“Mercedes. That’s you.” Ben’s laugh is a drawn-out rusty creak, like a door opening. For a second, under the shaggy beard, beneath the bedhead and the bruises, he’s all there.
“That’s me. Mercedes, like the car.” I muster a smile as Ben’s eyes meet mine, revealing a spectacular shiner. In good light, the skin around his left eye would be a kaleidoscope of purple and red.
“Oh, yes. I see.” Jenna’s disinterest is palpable. My name doesn’t matter; she just needs her answers. Adjusting Ben’s IV by touch, she’s focused on the monitors. Her Danskos scritch as she crosses behind me to the other side of the bed, giving me the side eye for encroaching on her space.
“And your birthday?” Jenna’s hand is already in her pocket, reaching for the penlight she’ll check his pupils with next. “Ben?”
“Oh God,” he mutters. “August?”
Last neuro check, Ben actually got it right: “Ten, twenty-one, ninety-eight.” But that hasn’t happened twice in a row. At this point, not knowing his birthday is, in neuro-speak, “not unexpected.” Ben’s frustration is an extra person, crowding this alcove that’s no bigger than my closet. Still, being unable to remember might just make Ben lucky. I’d be happier today, if I could escape this anniversary, and this misguided lunch I should never have scheduled.
“Ok, Ben.” Jenna moves right along. “Do you know who the president is?”
My nephew and I both squeeze our eyes shut. Ben never gets this one.
“I don’t know, I just don’t. I’m—I don’t know. I’m tired.” Ben is angry now. He’s had enough, and Jenna knows when to back off, I’ll give her that. “My head hurts.” This last is almost an apology, but not quite.
Finally, Jenna’s through with her exam, leaving the echoes of her footsteps as she squeaks off to the next patient.
“My parents, they’re coming back?” If he’s concerned or worried, Ben makes the same inquiries, over and over. They call it perseverative thought.
“It’s just me tonight. You’ll see them in the morning.” Exhausted after two nights here, Miranda and Bishop went home to shower and sleep. They’ll be back by six, when the gaggle of doctors begins rounds.
“My head hurts. Why am I here, do you know?”
“You had an accident, Ben. You hit your head. You’ll get better soon.”
What’s known is a sequence of facts, stark and frightening. Ben fell and hit his head after a night out drinking with friends, and had a seizure. They all saw him fall backwards, watched his head smack the handrail, the steps, the sidewalk. It happened quickly, before anyone could stop it. What’s unknown is “the mechanism,” or why he fell. Did the fall cause the seizure, or did the seizure cause the fall? Impossible to say. Never mind, Miranda insists, let it go. That’s the least of it. What happened isn’t anyone’s fault. Not Ben’s, not his friends’, not even Jenna’s.
Weeks of rehab, then months of outpatient therapy lie ahead, beginning no one’s sure exactly when, for no one can tell us precisely how long. He’ll climb a difficult, uncertain path, not back to where he used to be, but to a point where he can begin again. None of this means Ben will be quite the same. I know something about that.
“Your husband—he’s—he’s not here. It was sad. You were really sad.” Ben seems to read my mind, in that uncanny way our kids do sometimes.
“I was. I’m better now, though, right?”
It’s stupid that I still love Jack, after all this time. My therapist asked why I’d believe that.
“Husbands die,” she said, “and wives still love them. They cheat, and wives still love them. You’re not stupid, you’re human. Whatever you feel, you can face it and move forward.”
A few minutes before noon, I’m outside the restaurant, fresh in my sunflower sheath and sandals, wearing enough concealer to erase the ICU overnight from my face. Dressed up, I hope, without really trying. Weeks ago, in some grand dramatic gesture, I’d insisted on this lunch date. Was it vindication I wanted, or revenge? I hear footsteps behind me, and then a smooth tenor voice stops me cold.
“Mercy.” Just my name, like a prayer.
Maybe it’s this unexpected, salty tang of anticipation as memories wash over me. Maybe it’s neuroplasticity firing up my synapses, burning a new path around the damage. With a deep breath I turn around, ready for whatever comes next.