He stood under the rain, a strand of red hair sticking to his forehead under his grey hood. Staring, waiting, he pulled his jacket tight around him, the leather cold, and sleek. The building looked as miserable as he did. The brick had become black, mutated by wind and storms. Low branches bent against it, weighed down by age. Even the girl standing at the window looked ashen. Or maybe it was just the curtain of falling water that filtered everything into a melancholy painting.
There was never any question in his mind. Not even before she appeared at that window. Catching a fleeting glimpse of her black hair, her pale skin or her blue eyes was enough to justify standing here, under a deluge. Not even when he hated seeing her like this. It was worth it.
Now, like every day, she looked out, her forehead resting against the glass. He could almost feel the cold, smooth surface against his own skin.
Her eyes were averted from him, staring into the distance of the pavement. Her hair covered most of her face, but the moment was coming, he could feel it in the pit of his stomach. Whether it was a subtle change in her posture or in the tension of her neck, he didn’t know, but he was ready for it, for her head lifting, and her eyes pointing his way.
He followed the direction her pupils took from the blankness of whatever it was that caught her attention as they came back to reality. His reality.
His insides twisted with anticipation. An era had passed since those pupils stared back into his, a smile onto her lips, a caress at her fingertips. There was such a time. A time when he would come to pick her up, and her eyes would light up. When he could push her black hair off her face and graze her cheek in the process. A time when she would wrap her arms around his neck and push herself up to kiss him. But now all that felt like a dream. When was the last time he felt her lips? He couldn’t even tell.
Now all he could wish for was a quick glance through distant glass and space, with the only embrace of rain to comfort him. Quite the opposite, really. Was it raining that day too? He couldn’t quite remember.
The girl broke away from the grasp of the window and slowly straightened, her eyes slowly lifting, like they did every day. To him. Or, rather, in his direction.
Their eyes never met, not really. They were too far apart, but he knew she could see him. It had been two weeks since he came for the first time. Even then, they had looked in each other’s direction. It was only a split second, a moment between moments before she turned away and disappeared inside the small hospital.
What had he done?
A chill went through her back. It felt cold next to the windows of the small kitchen. She pulled her housecoat tighter around her body and waited for the kettle to boil. It smelt of burnt toast and disinfectant. Everywhere smelt of disinfectant, a very unnatural smell.
She liked looking outside, where there were no nurses and no doctors, and nobody looking at her with slanted eyebrows and the subtle shake of the head.
There was a park across the road, and she could imagine the smell of the recently cut grass. She could imagine the sound of the rain on the already wet grass, like on a tarp, and the freshness embracing her.
The water came out steaming from the kettle into her mug. She enjoyed the golden-brown swirl of colour as it hit the tea bag, the soft clinking of the spoon as she stirred. Her mother had brought her favourite brand because the hospital didn’t use it. At least her mother said it was her favourite brand.
After adding the milk and sugar, she picked the table closer to the window. Even though it was cold there, she still liked to look at the park. She did glance towards the left, but the boy wasn’t there anymore. She couldn’t help wondering who he was and why he was never there when she looked the second time.
She had seen him for the first time at the beginning of last week. It wasn’t raining then. It was early and, like today, she had been waiting for the kettle to boil. If they had been closer, she might have been able to make out his features. From this distance, all she had seen was a mass of untidy red hair and broad shoulders. He even seemed to be looking in her direction, maybe attracted by the movement at a window. They looked at each other for a few seconds, maybe longer. Time had stopped making sense then. By the time she sat down with her tea, he was gone. She didn’t know if he stood there waiting for somebody or if he was coming into the hospital to visit a friend. It seemed unlikely he was coming for treatment.
The second day she instinctively looked in that direction, and there he was. He had been there every day since. It had become a part of her routine. Almost fourteen days later she still didn’t know anything about him, but then why would she? He wasn’t here for her, was he? Maybe tomorrow she could walk down to the lobby and watch from the stairs to see if he came in. The thought of it made her heart hammer in her chest.
She had almost finished her tea when her mother sat next to her. She bent down and kissed her on the forehead, making her tense and uncomfortable, although maybe less than her hugs. Those seemed to last forever, as if she was afraid to let go in case she disappeared into thin air when she wasn’t looking. They were cages, meant to keep her safe, keep her close. She had seen her every day since she woke up, from nine in the morning to seven in the evening, when she left with her father.
All this time, she studied the woman’s face, from her light brown hair to her freckles, to the shape of her eyelashes, trying to find something familiar. She did the same with her father when he came in the evening, before taking her mother home. None of his features felt as if she knew them either. The only thing that she recognised was his black hair, but probably because she had black hair too.
The fact was, she didn’t remember them, nor did she remember anything else since the accident. She couldn’t remember her childhood best friend, or the teddy bear now sitting on her hospital bed. She couldn’t remember which high school she had attended or where her house
They went through dozens of pictures, all with questions. Who was this or do your remember that time? She barely recognised herself in the photos. Her father didn’t ask any questions, afraid maybe he would be putting pressure on her. Then they would go home, and he would give her a half hug. She felt guilty for looking forward to that time when she was left alone and couldn’t disappoint anybody. She watched TV or read one of the books her mother brought her.
‘Did you sleep well?’ her mother asked. ‘Sarah…’
‘Hmm?’ she didn’t know if she could cope with another morning of pointless chitchat. ‘Yes, it was ok.’
Her mother told her what she had for dinner last night, and what her father said, what was happening at her job. Sarah wondered if her mother was as bored as she was. She must be, after taking leave from word to take care of her. Her hospital stay was dreary, and all that got her through was waiting for her the next meal. It was difficult to say if her mother’s visits made it any more bearable.
After breakfast, they sat in Sarah’s room and went through the photo ritual. She searched her mind for any vestige of information to help her identify the image in front of her. Had she even known that many people? Every time she kept silent, and every time she could see the hope slowly draining from her mother’s eyes. She must wake up every day telling herself this was going to be the day. Today, Sarah would get to remember something or even recognise somebody as familiar. She would probably settle for any glimmer of improvement. Sarah was tempted to lie. Even though she didn’t recognise her as her mother, it was hard to be indifferent to human’s suffering, one who was showing so much devotion to her.
But she couldn’t. The one time she tried, the woman’s face became so full of light. The more she watched her, the more the idea of her disappointment weighed her down with guilt and embarrassment. She could never fake it again.
By the time they brought lunch, Sarah was exhausted. Her mother went to eat something, giving her some time to recover. She didn’t insist with the pictures in the afternoon. They looked through magazines together and talked about whatever caught their attention. Sarah didn’t mind this so much. Sometimes it was gossip about celebrities she didn’t know and sometimes it was fashion. Sarah didn’t care about either, but it was better than sitting in awkward silence.
When her father arrived that evening, Sarah was already counting the minutes until they left. Still, her father always had exciting stories from work. There was something about the way he spoke about his co-workers that made her laugh.
‘Right, it’s time we got going,’ he said, squeezing her shoulder.
‘We’ll see you tomorrow, my dear,’ her mother hugged her.
Somebody knocked at the door. Doctor Habib walked in, a file in his hands.
‘Mr Morgan, Mrs Morgan, nice to see you again.’
‘Dr Habib, how is Sarah doing?’ her mother asked, eager.
‘Let’s find out,’ he said with a smile. He was a nice man, with shiny, black hair and clean-shaven. Half of the nurses and some of the non-medical staff had their eye on him. ‘How are you feeling today, Sarah?’
‘Not too bad.’
‘Good, good. No pain, no headaches?’
‘None at all.’
‘Great! Well, your test results came back clear. Physically, you’re fully recovered, which means you can go home as soon as tomorrow if that’s ok with you?’
Tomorrow? That was not ok with her. It was way too soon. The idea of leaving the hospital with two people she didn’t know forced tears into her eyes, but she pushed them back. She didn’t want to go, but two expectant faces were turned towards her.
‘But I still can’t remember anything!’ she blurted.
‘I am aware of that, but there is nothing else we can do here for you. We have already discussed the possibility that your memory might never come back. I know that’s hard to accept, but you should keep it in mind. This said, there are some therapies we recommend, as well as support groups. I will include a list of recommendations with your release letter tomorrow.’
There was a silence during which Sarah struggled to make up a reason not to leave the safety of the hospital. Maybe she could fake being in pain tomorrow. Wild ideas of stabbing herself or throwing herself down the stairs flashed through her mind, but, of course, she wouldn’t go through with it. Her mother still looked at her with excitement, but she couldn’t help seeing apprehension in her father’s face.
‘Shall we get it all ready, then?’ the doctor asked.
‘Sure,’ her voice quivered.
Her parents left shortly after, her mother already making a list of everything she needed to get ready for her. She warned Sarah she might be a bit late in the morning since there was so much to do. They hadn’t expected her to come home this early. Her mother gave her a longer, tighter hug than usual, while her father’s hug became looser.
‘I am so happy,’ her mother whispered as she left, behind her father.
‘Rest for a while before dinner, I know this is all very exciting,’ Dr Habib said, her file under his arm.
As her bedroom’s door closed, her eyes filled with tears, and this time there was no reason to hold them back.
The night stretched on forever as she kept waking up, afraid it would be morning already. She had nightmares of her parents standing outside the hospital with packed bags, nightmares about a house full of people she didn’t know. Eventually, when there were only a couple of hours left till dawn, she fell asleep.
It was the nurse who came to take her blood pressure that woke her up. By the time she got to the kitchen to have her breakfast, it was already ten o’clock. She did look out of the window, just in case, but there was nobody there. She had expected it, yet the disappointment hit her hard. The knot lodged in her throat was utterly unreasonable. She had never met that guy, what was it with this feeling? But no matter how much she chastised herself about it, she couldn’t push it down. It was just one thing too many today.
She could barely swallow her tea. Her stomach felt tight and unmoving, as if one ounce too much food would make it explode. A cold sweat came over her, and her hands shook. Her mouth filled with saliva. She had to get out of there. There was only one place to go.
She left the kitchen and walked to the emergency exit, where the stairs were. Instead of going down, she went up. It was on the last floor. She had discovered it by mistake once, a few weeks ago, when she was wandering the hospital for something to do. On the last floor, in the stairs, if she stood against the north corner, there was something about that spot that made her feel better. The air was easier to breathe and she felt more alive than anywhere else. It was like standing in the current on a very hot day. She had gone back to it a few times after, when she had felt worried or overwhelmed. It was almost as if the place called her.
She ran up the stairs, her heart pounding and not only because of the effort. She pushed her back against the corner and forced herself to take deep breaths. Sliding down, she sat on the floor, her head resting on the wall behind her. It took a few seconds, but the nausea disappeared, and her hands stopped shaking. Relieved, she sat there for a while longer. She was in no rush to get back. If only she could stay here.
But she knew that couldn’t be. Nobody could stay in the hospital forever and, deep down, she didn’t want to either. The problem was, she didn’t want to go home with people she didn’t know. Home wasn’t home.
The idea of being in a house, locked-in with these people who swore were her parents, made her feel sick. The thought alone made her shiver. The frustration of having forgotten nineteen years of her life was too much to bear, but it reminded her of one thing. She was an adult. She could go along with treatment and hope for the best, but it would eventually become clear there was nothing else to do. Then, she could get a job and rent an apartment and be her own person. Not whoever she was going to be a month ago. Not the person her parents expected her to become still, but the person she was going to be now. That was her plan. It might not be a great plan, but it was all she had.
When she got back to her room, a woman was there, busy packing her bags. She had the long brown hair of her mother, her short stature, like her, even her blue eyes and the same crooked end to her nose. When the woman turned around and faced her, she paused. Their eyes met, and there was nothing there. Then the moment passed, and her faced livened, a smile ear to ear made her mouth human, and a light came on behind her eyes.
‘Hi, sweetheart! I’m just about done packing your stuff. Here, I brought you some clean clothes.’
The woman gave her a quick hug and went back to the bags.
‘Your father will be here in a minute; he’s parking the car.’
‘Isn’t he working?’
She paused, a t-shirt held in mid-air, then packed it in the bag.
‘No, no, he took the day off. Because you’re coming home, you know.’
She had her back turned to her, but Sarah could see her reflection in the mirror. Although her voice sounded joyful, her reflection was that of a blank expression, her eyes focused on what she was doing, her hands moving mechanically. A chill ran through her spine, and she found it hard to swallow.
She turned, determined to walk out. Something was very wrong. Instead of getting out of the door, she bumped head-first into a shadow. Nothing there, just darkness. As she stepped back, sweat accumulating on her forehead, she saw the shape of her father, his curly black hair, the black of his eyes, the width of his shoulders. And the blankness in his stare. But again, the moment lasted no time at all. He gave her a full hug, and she noticed no smell came off him.
‘In a rush to leave, I see!’ he laughed, and the woman laughed with him. ‘We’ll be on our way soon. Have they brought the letter yet?’
Sarah shook her head, unable to say a word and trying hard to keep her hands from shaking. They both sat as she walked into the bathroom to get changed. Turning to close the door, she caught a glimpse of them, staring ahead blankly. When her eyes focused, they were smiling and talking to each other.
A chill ran down her back.
As she stared at herself in the mirror, one thing became clear. Whoever they were, those people were not the same people that had come to visit her daily. They were not her parents, she thought, locking the bathroom door behind her. Suddenly, throwing herself down the stairs didn’t seem such a crazy idea after all.