The twack of a branch breaking, an explosion of red, the impact of hard ground, she remembered only that. She must have lost consciousness, the sun was higher. Or lower. Which? She felt no pain but when she tried to sit up she discovered she couldn’t, except for a little head movement—and there was the pain, a dagger at the base of her skull. A stirring of panic began and she called out.
No answer. The children would still be at school, and Jarrett—where was he? Away, somewhere. Panic swelled, propelled her voice with a rasp. “Can anyone hear me?” It exhausted her. She closed her eyes, squeezed them to make the pain stop, felt her cheeks burn, her mouth taut. Why couldn’t she get up? A mourning dove called. She opened her eyes again. A pair of squirrels chased through the pines over her head. She couldn’t judge time: time was stalled. She was out of time, drifting. Her body, absolutely weightless, hardly seemed to exist. Except for her head, which she wanted to flee when the pain struck again. Her breath stopped against it.
More time. How much? Maybe she’d passed out again. The sun tilted over a pine tree; still she couldn’t recall which way it had moved. A child yelled, there was the soft whirr of bicycle tires. Paper boy? Kids riding by? She tried to call again, as loud as possible. Help? Can anyone help?The words sounded weak and distant.
Nothing. She was somewhere else, younger, lying on the ground after a fall. Camila peered into her face. Camila said Make a loud noise, no words, just loud. Use your throat. The dove called again, another answered. Roseanne let her voice out and held her throat open as long as possible, a guttural hawking croak.
Clouds floated in circles over her head, trees stirred, bending in a circle. Time.
An audible motor, then it turned off. Camila was there again, holding her hand, speaking, but Roseanne couldn’t hear her. There was a blur of people, she sensed unsteady movement. She was traveling, wheels on road. The woman who peered into her face and held her hand was not Camila. She looked Indian. She wore a blue work shirt with a patch: Allied Services. A laminated photo was clipped to her pocket with her name: Leela Tatapuddy. I tawt I taw a Tattapuddy.
Roseanne tried to nod but it hurt too much. She moved her lips, a whisper. “Yes.”
“Do you feel my hand holding yours?”
Roseanne didn’t feel it, she saw it. She closed her eyes, retreated to wherever she was before the woman spoke. She wanted Camila again. So long it was, since she’d seen her. Roseanne floated high and below her was a plum-colored ocean.
The woman spoke again. Roseanne fluttered her eyelids, hoping that was sufficient. Where did Camila go? Suddenly she was in a room of too-bright lights. She remembered this room—she was looking for Camila. A hospital. She needed to find her in here. Camila was in trouble. Fuck the harsh lights. They hurt her eyes though her eyes were closed. Camila was somewhere. Ahh, moving toward her.
A man stood next to her, the lights draining color from his skin. “Vitals?” he asked. He was speaking to someone she couldn’t see. Roseanne tried to turn her head but couldn’t, the dagger still there. She tried to lift her hand but the hand wouldn’t obey. Her body had a mind of its own or no mind at all, just fire running through it, metal things on fire inside her, somewhere she couldn’t locate.
“Unstable. Low BP, tachycardia, possible fractures of C4/C5,” a woman’s voice responded. “Respiration stable. We’re setting up an MP drip and taking her to radiology. She’s grimacing, may be in pain.”
They were talking about her. “Yes,” someone who sounded like herself said, “pain.”
The man leaned over her. “You’ll have relief very soon. It may not be much comfort, but it’s a good sign that you have pain. Tell us where.” He spoke matter-of-factly.
“Hot things in my head. My legs?” Her voice was stronger. “I don’t know. I can’t tell.”
Someone came into the room with an IV pole trailing and hovered over her arm, a woman in nurse scrubs.
“That’s good, in your legs. Can you wiggle your toes?”
Roseanne tried. “Did they wiggle?”
“They kind of twitched,” the man said, smiling at her. Was he lying? The nurse was working on her right arm but she didn’t feel anything.
The first woman spoke again. “I’m Dr. Schwirsky. I’m assessing your injuries. We’ll be making decisions soon.” She wrote something in a chart. “Dr. Gleason’s taking over but I’ll be back.”
“Decisions?” Roseanne repeated, trying to be alert. “What decisions? God, my head hurts.”
The doctor gave her a smile, then she left. The IV pole was attached to her arm now and the nurse left also, brisk, like a TV nurse. A soap opera. She was in a bad episode, starring role. Here was the handsome doctor lifting her eyelids and shining a light into her eyes. He asked her to count backwards from 100. “99, 98, 97, 96, 95. Can I stop?”
“Try it from 50.”
“50, 49, 48. Silly.”
“Yes. I’m going to do more silly things.” He was fooling around at her feet though she couldn’t tell what he was doing. He gently lifted her arm, caught it himself as he let it drop. “Are you hot or cold?”
“Good.” Was it her imagination or did he wink at her? He was playing the role too hard. Another brutal wave of pain trounced her. She tried to squirm away but her chin was propped on something, her head held in place like it would topple off. After the rush of pain subsided, she tried to ease the tightness in her jaw with a deeper breath, but she couldn’t. “What’s at my chin?”
“You have a cervical collar.” The nurse was back, leaning over her other arm, seemed to be injecting her with something.
“What’s wrong with my neck?”
“We’ll know more after we X-ray. We’ll also be doing an MRI.”
“MRI?” Camila had had an MRI. “I’d like Camila to be here.”
“We need the phone numbers for your next of kin. You had no ID. We couldn’t find a neighbor at home.”
“What time is it? Is school out?”
“Not yet. It’s close though.” He was waving someone in. “You have children?”
“Yes. Someone has to call Jarrett. And Aunt Larraine.”
“She’ll get your information.” He was inclining his head toward a woman in pastel print scrubs who came in with a clipboard. Everyone else left the room. She asked questions, Roseanne gave answers: a cell number for Jarrett and Aunt Larraine’s home number. Alert now, she instructed the aide to ask Larraine to pick her kids up and keep them until Jarrett came.
She was exhausted. Numbers floated on the ceiling. She closed her eyes, she needed to drift again. She was going back to that ocean.
Cold. She took Camila’s hand and it warmed her, like sitting in the sun. They seemed to be floating together, not anchored and not moving. We have to plan. Camila spoke calmly. Roseanne gave a little push on her arm. You always plan. I never plan. Camila wrote a series of phone numbers in a notebook and Roseanne watched, the joy of being with her like some perfect thing happening, familiar and new at the same time.
Another man, not the handsome doctor, stood beside her. “Hi, Roseanne. Can you tell me what you feel, and when you feel relief? Keep talking to me, okay? Tell me what happened.”
His voice was warm, more intimate than the others. “I don’t know. I climbed a ladder. To prune the tree? Am I okay?” Her voice sounded so small again.
“We don’t know much yet.” Was he was lying too? Did they all lie?
“Who is we?”
“My name’s Danny Reilly. I’m the nurse anesthetist. You have a neurologist looking after you and the attending physician from the ER. The neurosurgeon’s coming soon. We’re deciding on the surgery. I’ll do the anesthesia.”
“Surgery?” Why hadn’t she felt afraid? What was the matter with her?
“You injured your neck. You have trauma to your head, possibly a bleed. We don’t know when you were injured. I’m hoping you can tell us more.”
The pain had disappeared. She was slipping off something like a raft, into the ocean, through its purple hues. “I was in my backyard.”
“How long did you lay there? Was anyone home?”
“My children are at school,” she said. She felt kind of giddy. “God. If they’d found me…”
“It would have gotten you here sooner.”
She and Camila were in a private room, watery itself, a sea chamber, though nothing was wet, only smooth and clear like water, except the surface far above them which was roiled and distorted. It was not easy to breathe. Camila was wearing a white top, a white shawl. Roseanne couldn’t remember where she’d seen those clothes before. Camila passed pink lilies to Roseanne, then red gladioli and closed white rosebuds. Her hair was light and glossy. You hold the flowers. I’m making notes, Camila said. We’re going to change.
Clothes? Roseanne asked.
Sure. Off to the right was a swirl of gulfweed.
Clothes? she asked again. She could see into the dense mass, a dazzle of colors. Camila disappeared abruptly and Roseanne was bereft. Camila? Camila!
She opened her eyes. Voices, words drifted in from the hallway …traction…surgery… can’t accomplish…damaged…could prevent…. A debate. Where was Danny Reilly?
“Where’s Jarrett? My husband.”
“I don’t think they’ve reached him. Cell phone seems to be off.” Dr. Gleason again.
“Out of reach. Happens all the time.”
“How’s the pain?”
“No pain. I need to talk to Camila again.”
There was a mirrored surface. She could see herself in it, her gardening pants, her grubby loafers. She shook off the heavy gloves, wiped her cheek, which was smudged with brown. I do need something nicer to wear. She walked into the floating mass of color.
First we should play Scrabble, Camila said. Now she wore something blue and shiny, metallic, fluid. Camila always loved games. Here are your letters. She gave her a Q, a Z, a T, an S, a G and a W. The she handed her two more letters. But just use these.
Roseanne put the two letters on the board, an N and an O.
Camila offered to get clothes for Roseanne. After all, you can’t walk. Roseanne waited a long time but Camila didn’t return. The chamber had become the horizon again. There was the sound of the mourning dove. Camila. Roseanne called. I’m looking for you. I can’t see you now.
“I don’t want surgery.”
“The neurosurgeon’s very good. He won’t operate if it’s too risky.”
“No surgery. No to surgery. I can’t walk. Tell me the truth”
“The X-rays show some fractures in the neck vertebrae. Nothing conclusive. With surgery we may be able to fuse them.”
“We don’t know.”
“You know. I say no surgery.”
“You might not have a choice.”
“I have a choice. Uh-uh. I don’t consent.”
The doctor threw his hands up. “You really don’t have a choice.”
“I have a choice.”
“Look, I don’t know how else to say this. Your life is in danger.”
“I am in danger. I want to talk to Danny Reilly.”
The doctor left and she waited, a long time it seemed. No more Camila. When Danny came in, she looked at him, pleaded with her eyes.
“Camila gave me the N and the O.”
“Camila.” Danny cleared his throat. “Roseanne, we asked the social worker to locate your sister. Your aunt said the only sister died years ago.”
“Yes. We are twins. But we don’t look alike. She was here.”
“It’s easy to get things confused after an injury like this.”
“She was here. I touched her, I put my hands on her arm, she was warm. We talked, like we always did.” Tears dropped from the corners of her eyes down toward her ears. Danny wiped them with his hand. “I’ve missed her. You can’t imagine.”
“Roseanne, you need to stay awake, if you can. We’re getting information as fast as possible. Let’s see if we can get Jarrett here.”
Roseanne wasn’t listening. She was concentrating on something. She was still weeping and she didn’t see Camila. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Tell me what to do.”
“You need the surgery.”
“You say. Talk to me. I had a friend in grammar school named Danny. Camila and I played board games with him.”
“I had a friend in grammar school named Roseanne.”
“Old friends. You tell me. Am I paralyzed?”
Stay with me, Roseanne. It’s better here. Camila spoke in the most beguiling way. She could charm the feathers off a bird. I’ve missed you so much. Remember, you wanted to, before. It would be easy now. Remember. You wanted to. Camila turned her face away. We can’t forget each other again.
Roseanne was shocked. I never forgot you. Did you forget me? You did, didn’t you? You were the one who left.
Camila wouldn’t answer. She had a cryptic expression on her face. Mystery woman. La Belle Dame. Roseanne wouldn’t let her go this time, no matter how elusive she tried to be. But Camila was fading anyway. She was speaking through a void.
She opened her eyes. There was Danny. She tried to bring his mind in more clearly. She and Camila used to do that with each other, wordlessly, since they were little. She recognized the sensation with an involuntary twitch, almost a shudder.
“Do you have a sister?”
“I did. Mine died too. Years ago also.”
“Were you there?”
“Huh?” He looked startled. “Yeah.”
He thought she wasn’t lucid, but she was. She was lucid all right. “I knew it. Tell me what happened.”
He was resisting. She pressed him as hard as she could, with only her mind working.
“You’re afraid you’re dying, Roseanne, but I think we’ll save you.”
“I’m not afraid. You must not save me.” He looked distressed. She could feel the void left by Camila but also the space Danny occupied. “Did your sister talk to you when she was dying? Did she tell you what was happening? You were there.”
Danny looked exasperated. Or more like desperate. Medical people, they shut out these spaces.
“We used to hear each other think. No one believed us, of course.”
Danny was silent.
“Tell me. Tell me about your sister.”
“She was beaten up by someone, a boyfriend we think. She was kind of a wild teenager.”
“Did she want to die?”
“Didn’t you let her?”
He looked really disturbed now. Maybe he was angry with her.
“I’m a goner. I know it. You know it. Now help me.”
He leaned toward her and she looked in his eyes. She was so clear about this. Wasn’t she speaking to him with ordinary words? He could understand the whole of what she meant, she knew he could. He just didn’t want to. “What happened to you when your sister died?”
“I felt very close to her.”
He was remembering.
“I held her hand so long I had to lift her fingers off. I felt her release.”
“Yes. What else?”
He was silent a few minutes.
“I felt like I went part way over with her,” he sort of laughed. “I wasn’t altogether in this world.” He broke away from her gaze, leaned back.
“Danny. Don’t look away.” He felt her now, she was sure. He was an ally, even if he didn’t want to be. He’d spent time with dying people, unconscious people. He’d been in sight of that boundary. “A person’s mind keeps something apart from the medicine, doesn’t it? It moves, out and back, doesn’t it?”
She felt him wanting to leave the room and she let him go. He was at the door when a woman bumped into him. “What about the husband?” he demanded.
“I was just coming to say. I finally reached him. He’s up near Canton. It’ll be a little while before he gets here. I talked to the aunt again. She’s got the children.”
Roseanne groaned. Camryn. Brian. Willie off at college. The water around her heaved, eddied. She could easily drown. Not the same as dying. Think of her children and everything perished. She heard Danny in the hallway, talking to someone.
“She’s refusing surgery. I think she’s hallucinating. Not someone able to make a decision.” He hesitated. “She knows she could die. She’s wanting to. You don’t see that when someone’s got kids.”
He came back into the room and she beckoned to him but he didn’t seem to hear her any more. Then the attendant came to take her for the MRI.
Danny was there when she opened her eyes, briefly, and shut them again. With effort she held them open. Her bed had been slightly cranked up and she could see him clearly. “Time to decide,” she said.
“Yes. Got to make that decision.”
“No, no,” she said. “What we’ll wear. We’re deciding if we should wear the same dress.”
“Roseanne, stay awake.”
“I’m so awake. The sun on the water’s amazing.”
“Keep your eyes open.”
She looked at him. “Okay.”
“We need to do surgery. We may be able to repair some vertebral damage.”
“No guarantees. Jarrett will be here soon.”
“Don’t let Jarrett in here. Send him home. He has to be with the kids. I don’t want him here.” She was panicked again. Jarrett. A sucking pull from the water, a great whirlpool of misery. She couldn’t feel him and stay afloat. He would drag her out and she’d be a limp fish, flopping on sand the rest of her life. All of them tending her. No life for herself or them.
“You need to consent. Just verbally agree.”
“No. I won’t do it, not to my family.” She closed her eyes. “It won’t be good.” She was pleading with him. It was hard to reach him again. The urge to disappear was so strong.
“Roseanne, think. Your family needs you. The surgery may save your life.”
“I can’t move. Don’t lie to me. I don’t want them taking care of me forever. You understand what I’m saying. Please.” It was so hard to keep looking at him, to penetrate his resistance. It took a great effort, everything available, but he was unsettled again, she could feel it. “Okay?” she asked. She was losing control over her eyes, they kept going dark, seemed to close down, and tears leaked out that she couldn’t stop. “Speak to me. I’m losing ground. My children will be okay. Camila said. Jarrett will be okay.” The words came out with a gasp. A shudder passed across her face. She could feel her mouth twitch. “I don’t know how to leave them.”
Someone entered, said they needed to get her to the OR, the brain stem was at risk. Danny reported that her blood pressure was dropping, respiration was poor, pulse racing. She was having trouble breathing. Roseanne listened. At least her ears were working.
“But she’s still refusing surgery.”
“We have to take her anyway.”
Her eyelids flickered. He was sweating, she could almost hear him thinking. “She refused.”
The surgeon snapped. “You said she was hallucinating. Get her ready.”
People were whisking around the bed, someone was pulling her hair to the side, putting something cold and moist on her scalp. She heard Danny snap at him, tell him to leave the room. I’m doing what I can, but we don’t have long. She fluttered her eyes again. She didn’t need long. There was a knock. When had the door been closed? Danny walked to the door. A flurry of sounds, activity in the hall. Danny was speaking to someone.
“She won’t survive the anesthesia.”
Roseanne drifted off. She’d won something.
She was brought back to the room by a woman’s voice. The monitors in her room began beeping and someone was running. There was such a flash of lights and popping noises, it was like a party, champagne corks and distant fireworks, muffled the way those little Chinese poppers sounded when they tossed them on the street the year she and Camila went to the coast with their parents for New Year’s.
Again she didn’t know if time had passed, slowly or quickly. Jarrett’s voice came calling down the hall, demanding where she was. She was already safe now. A doctor spoke. “I’m so sorry. She died before we could get her to surgery. I’m afraid she broke her neck in the fall, what we call a complete cord injury. It left her paralyzed.”
His footsteps came like thunder into the room. An enormous wave rushed toward her. She felt him at her side, bewildered. “Roseanne,” he whispered. He sounded so weak. He put his hands on her shoulders, his forehead against hers. “You can’t go. You can’t go.” He lay his cheek on her breast, murmuring her name. When he lifted his head he spoke. “She’s warm.”
“Yes, she’s warm.” It was Danny’s voice. He was working, removing the IV line.
Jarrett was agitated. She tried to touch him but she couldn’t. She’d thought she might be able to move again once she stopped breathing, but no, she was still paralyzed. She grazed him with love, the kind they felt only during their deepest sexual intimacy. He had to feel that.
“I’ll leave you a while,” Danny said.
Jarrett was sitting on the bed, kissing her face and hands. “Roseanne. Roseanne. I love you so much.”
She could feel his shock. She kept trying to soothe him, to hold him with her mind. He wanted to pull her into his arms but the neck brace interfered. Take it off.
Danny fumbled with the closure at the back of the brace and removed it. Jarrett lifted her and held her against him. “Stay with me. Stay with me.” He held her like that and the flood of his tears spilled into the sea around her.
Jarrett. It’s okay. I’m okay now. I’m right here. I am. You know me, Jarrett. I know it confuses you. But it’s me. I love you.
That was all she could do, just that. She’d said goodbye and she would have to go. But it wasn’t as easy as she thought. She tried to pull away, go where she belonged now, wherever it was. She felt like one of those balloons in old British movies, metallic war balloons, giant inflated silver things tethered with heavy ropes so they couldn’t float away, anchored to a building, or however they did it. She couldn’t release herself and drift off. Jarrett held her. It would wrench her too much. Her mind—though this wasn’t consciousness, but whatever it was now, bigger—would be twisted, fractured. She had to wait for him to let her go.
Or was it herself holding on? To leave was impossible. Jarrett. Her children. Another thought like that and she could never let go. Where would she be then? Jarrett, the children, they were off in their own safety, and maybe she’d be able to watch them once she was gone, maybe that was allowed. Like a movie angel watching loved ones. Being dead was so new—what was possible? Was she only half-dead, neither alive nor dead, not able to return, not able to leave?
Danny came back. He stood by the bed with Jarrett in silence until Jarrett spoke.
“She’s gone. I felt it when she left. She wasn’t dead when I got here, not at first. Nevermind what the machines. She was here. Her body gave a little shudder when I touched her.”
Danny nodded. “That happens sometimes after death.”
“That’s not what I mean. She was here and then she wasn’t and I couldn’t get her back. She could hear me, then she couldn’t. You understand?” He sat with his head in this hands. “How do you know someone dies the minute the heart stops? How do you know that? You don’t know that.” His voice pinned Danny like a wrestler.
Roseanne wanted to shake him. I’m still not gone yet. You don’t understand either. I’ve just lost transmission. Incommunicado. Surely this wasn’t what being dead was.
Danny shook his head. “You’re right. I don’t know. We only know what happens to the body. The rest, we don’t know about that.”
He dimmed the lights, the air in the room as violet as twilight, then he pulled a chair over for himself and sat with Jarrett, his arm around him.
She felt terrible anguish, the feeling that had been waiting to swamp her all this time. When she was giddy, when she was disturbingly calm, even when she was panicked, all of that was a screen against this letting go that would knock the final life out of her. After that, maybe peace, maybe ever-presence, maybe even Camila. And Uncle Charlie and the others who’d died. Maybe nothing. Whatever death was. But this anguish was bearing down on her like a tsunami, the pressure in the air changing as it got closer. It would hit her in a moment. Then she’d be gone.