Meridian

 

E. G. Fabricant

 

From Matters Familiar. An amnesiac accident victim recovers more than his health among strangers in a small Southern town.
Adult situations, language.

 

Light came over him, slow, dappled, and indistinct.

It was the thick gauze that bordered his eyes, along with a single layer draped loosely over them, which accounted for the lack of definition. It seemed the strongest source was to his left. He turned in that direction; hot pain shot from his trapezoids through the cords in his neck to his temples. Its shock tensed him and the exertion, combined with his drugged and weakened state, relaxed him just as abruptly.

“Brace own yuh neck.”

Startled, he tried to focus on the area from which the words had come, somewhere just above and beyond his feet. His pupils fought with the cotton web and his vision was monochromatic, so he labored to process the high-contrast details of the figure seated against the wall. Hat? Face? Torso? The bed rail behind his feet masked everything below there. His attention drifted upward. Wide dark eyes shone beneath full, angled brows as light as the gauze framing them, against darker, deeply lined leather. The grizzle of high contrast mustache and stubble and a halo of thick hair hugging the head under the hat completed the picture. The lips parted and a tongue wagged in near darkness between rows of brilliant ivory.

“Thet ahron thang keep yuh head fum toinin’ ‘round. Much pain?”

I…don’t…understand. He signaled an extremity and a…hand?…appeared before his face. He turned it slowly, wiggling its fleshy digits arrythmically. Left? He saw the figure beyond rise abruptly. Pressed into him was a zippered bag, its dual handles looped around hands and wrists for…why? He tried to track his movement, but another stab of pain put his lights out.

Sensations of warm breath and cool taps against the gauze at his temples revived him. His eyelids fluttered. He started and recoiled slightly, until he managed to focus on a pair of rich umber irises and black pupils; they receded, joined by soft angular facial bones and a full smile.

“Don’t pay him no mind; he’s crazy.”

She arose from his side, dark hair falling onto her bosom. The starched cap distracted him until she straightened fully; he traced her from her shimmering hairline to her slender waist. Ganglia came to pleasing life in the center of his body, giving him confidence that at least one piece had been added back to his puzzle.

“Can you talk yet?”

Talk?

She touched his barely exposed lips gently. That sensation activated another sector and he heard himself rasping. She tapped his lips again and wagged a finger. He stopped.

“That’s all right; let’s not rush it. I know you’re in a lot of pain.”

He watched her turn a translucent dial on a snake of tubing above his head. She smiled broadly again and warmth bathed his sharpening present. Hopeful?

“You rest now.” She placed two fingers against his wrist and looked at the metallic object on her own. She turned and he followed the rhythm of gluteals undulating beneath her uniform skirt; his pubic nerve endings fired again. After she was gone, he turned away and wallowed in this state of satisfied confusion until the edges bled away into narcotized slumber.

Another specter came into his focus—different. The effect was startling, since it became apparent to him that the gauze had been removed. Her hair was shiny black too, but there was no cap and her face, while pleasant enough, was broader with flatter features. He felt her rough, strong fingers creep past his cheekbones and down the sides of his neck. Her palms slid across his shoulders, their warmth penetrating the gown; she monitored his eyes and facial muscles for sensation. She seemed satisfied. She rose and receded toward his feet, gently uncovering them. He lifted his head slightly to watch and was surprised, happily—no pain. His range of motion told him that the neck brace was gone, too. He felt himself smiling as he caught her thrusting a thumb and forefinger at his left heel pad. An electric charge shot up his leg and flashed hot in his frontal lobes.

She studied him. “You felt that? Good.”

Good?! Shit—OW!

She played off his scowl. “What I mean is, you have feeling in your extremities. No paralysis. That’s good. Doctor wasn’t sure; said your spinal cord was pretty bruised.” She noted his uncertainty and came to his side again. Her upper thigh made contact with his, warming it as she sat. Smiling, she lifted his hand and pulled its digits gently; his reaction made her smile broadly. “I’m Coretta, the physical therapist—leastways, what passes for one around here. We’re going to work together to try to get you back on your feet.” She squeezed his other hand. “Do you remember anything about the accident?”

Accident?

A jumble of partially-assembled images played nonsense in his head, nothing amounting to a full picture. He saw—Coretta?—reach above him for the valve and within moments those indistinct structures melted away like a child’s sand castle in surf.

“John?”

He stirred. John? Who’s John?

It was Apparition Number Two. He was pleased. “Hi—I’m Rosa. How are you feeling?”

“Am—“ The throaty fullness of the word brought him up short. “Am I, ‘John?’”

Her laugh was what music must be, he thought. She covered her mouth momentarily, embarrassed at the breach in her professionalism. “No; that’s just what we call you, or anyone else that we can’t identify: ‘John Doe.’ Do you know what your name is?”

“John” shook his head, gravely.

“Let’s try something.” Rosa reached into the nightstand drawer and produced a framed object. She pushed it toward him until her face was edged out by the reflected growth of another. Aside from the freakish sutures that snaked around his forehead and across the bridge of his nose and an eye socket the color of an eggplant, he found himself drawn to what he saw. Light, mottled skin, close-cropped hair, and pale-bright eyes were visible there. John watched them cloud as any association he’d expected failed him. She lowered the mirror and the sight of his disappointment deflated her expectation as well.

“Worth a try,” she said softly as she laid the glass aside. “You talked a lot in your sleep last night. Do you remember?”

“N-No. What did I say?”

“Nothing worth repeating.”

He studied the room as if for the first time. “How long have I been here?”

“Six days.”

“How did I get here? That other girl said ‘accident.’”

“Ambulance brought you. Your car slipped off the highway in the rain last Saturday evening, dozen or so miles north of here, and rolled over. This was the closest place, given your condition.” She looked again for any glimmer. He shrugged.

“Good afternoon, Mr.—?”

A tall, white-coated man appeared in the doorway and glanced at Rosa, his eyebrows raised. She shook her head.

“—Doe. How are we feeling today?” Close dark hair salted with gray framed his head, as did the mustache surrounding another expansive smile with strong teeth.

Terminally confused—and you?

“I’m Doctor Dunbar. Stitched you up last weekend, up to the limits of a General Surgeon’s abilities. Since then, we’ve just watched and waited to see what Nature brings.” Glancing at the parti-colored digits and squiggles on the vitals monitor, he unpocketed a fluoroscope and peered into John’s eyes and ears. Seizing his hands, he drew John’s arms parallel in front of him and manipulated them like jump ropes. He moved down the bed and tapped the cartilages below his patient’s kneecaps until they jerked. He pulled back the sheet and knifed John’s arches with the edge of his hand. John felt the concussions dart from the brow of his skull back toward his ears.

“Well, sir; I’d say we’re about ready to get you on your feet, if you’re up to it. I’m going to ask Nurse Scott here to dial down the painkillers a bit so’s you can get a better idea how you really feel. I’ll check in tomorrow.”

“What happened to my face?”

“Hit that air bag pretty hard, you did. Lacerations—cuts—accounted for by partial roof collapse and flying glass in the rollovers. Other than that, you were pretty lucky. That seatbelt held you in tight; bruised clavicle and pelvis was the worst you got from that.” Dr. Dunbar leaned in a little and modulated his voice. “Truth is, that nippin’ flask he—they—found under the seat helped keep you relaxed. Good thing it was late and that passer-by wasn’t the law.” He winked.

John grinned a little, not fully understanding why. “What about my memory?”

Dr. Dunbar scratched his head. “How long you been here?”

“Six days; but what—?”

“See, you’ve got short-term retention and that’s good. What it is, is traumatic amnesia—total memory loss caused by sudden shock and physical injury. I could explain it better if I was a brain doctor. Best we can do is get you clear-headed and moving around some and see what develops after that. Could be that some association might trigger a longer-term memory function. Give it three or four weeks; if there’s no improvement by then I’ll make some calls down south to see about a neurological consult. Meantime, you just focus on getting better.”

“What is this place?”

“Convalescent center,” the doctor said. “Ambulance took you to Jeff Anderson. I was on call and had you transferred here when you stabilized.”

“Where?”

“Meridian.” Dr. Dunbar paused. “Mississippi. Accident happened partway up 19 near Okatibbee Lake.” Another pause; he and the nurse traded glances. “You were headed here from Philadelphia, apparently.”

“Oh.” John blanked.

Dunbar motioned at Rosa with his head and they adjourned to the open doorway, whispering.

“I’ve directed Nurse Scott to leave that drip open enough to give you one more good night of knockout sleep.” Doctor and nurse departed; over his shoulder he said, “Courage, Mr. Doe. Time is on our side.”

John sagged at his armpits over the parallel bars, panting and aching from every pore; the area between his hip sockets and slippers was jelly.

“C’mon, John; two more steps and we’ll call it a day.” Coretta stood at the end, beckoning him with both hands.

“Oh, Jesus, Coretta—it hurts so bad…”

Coretta flushed and straightened up. “If you’d call His name in a helpful rather than a hurtful way, you’d be dancin’ by Friday night, I guarantee.”

“Who?”

Coretta’s lacquered nails flashed against her white hips. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, is who!”

“I’m sorry, Coretta,” John said, puzzled. “I don’t…”

 

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