Almost There (NYC Midnight Entry)

Entry for the NYC Midnight 2015 Short Story Challenge (http://www.nycmidnight.com/Competitions/SSC/Challenge.htm

Genre: Drama

Subject: Calling off a wedding

Character: A cancer survivor

This story was one of the most difficult for me to write (I have limited experience in writing drama/romance, not to mention writing about calling off a wedding…) Anyways, the results have not yet come out, so I’m still waiting…

“Almost There”

Plot: Julie was there for her when Diana was struggling with cancer, and now, with Julie involved in a car accident a week before her wedding (making her forget everything about her fiancé and friends) Diana decides to return the favour.

 

Everything aches… Where am I?

I don’t remember. I don’t know.

It was a car, a red sports car. The light had turned yellow. It just kept speeding along the road, like a streak of paint across a blank canvas.

There was a little girl, I remember. She was wearing a yellow shirt and her hair was in two pigtails. She was running and laughing alongside her fluffy white dog. 

The sports car didn’t stop. 

I remember that I ran towards the girl and her dog, picked them up in my arms, and flung them to the other side of the road. 

And then there was red, and everything swam before my eyes, and then black. 

Where am I?

I don’t remember. I don’t know.

“DIANA! HEY!”

I looked up from doing paperwork to see Lisa run into my apartment.

“Yeah, what?”

Lisa always came to my place after work, since she lived two doors down. Our apartments weren’t next to each other, but if they were, she’d still come to my room anyway. At least, that’s what she said.

Usually, Lisa looked cheerful, but today she ran urgently into my kitchen, panting with effort, her forehead creased in a frown.

“What?” I said again. “Did you spill your goldfish down the toilet?”

This was a private joke of ours. Lisa was so klutzy that even my cat steers out of the way when she goes by.

I opened the fridge and pulled out some apples. As Lisa calmed herself, I washed and cut them, making sure to remove all the seeds.

“Di – Diana,” she huffed, gesturing at her cell phone.

“Did Addie call you about her party? Because she’s already called me twice.”

“It’s Julie – ”

Immediately, I snapped to attention.

“What?” I said, dropping my knife. “What happened? Is she okay?”

“Hospital,” said Lisa, sinking into the couch.

What?

– – –

“Tom called,” Lisa explained, as I shoved my papers into my desk. “Apparently, there was a car that drove during a yellow light and she saw a girl who was running – ”

“Sounds like Julie,” I said. “Let me guess, she pushed the girl out of the way and didn’t even notice the car coming.”

“Yeah.” There was a pause, and Lisa accepted the cup of water I offered her.

“They’re at Redstone right now,” she said, gulping down the contents in the glass. “Zeke and Cassandra.”

“Right,” I said. I scooped the car keys from inside my drawer. “You coming?”

– – –

When we arrived at Redstone Hospital, I parked the car, locked it, and we sprinted into the hospital, where Cassandra was waiting.

She watched us impatiently, arms crossed. When we caught up, she jerked her head at the elevator, and we entered it.

I slipped my keys back into my pocket, ignoring the fact that my teeth were clenched so tight they had begun to ache.

“So,” Lisa said weakly, “how is she? Did Julie, you know, get any serious injuries?”

“Of course she did,” said Cassandra abruptly. “Hit her head hard. The doctors have been at it since yesterday. I think this is our floor.”

We ran into the hall, and Cassandra led us to the waiting room.

Zeke sat there, his smile replaced by a wide-eyed, bleak expression.

“Where’s Wren?” I asked him. I couldn’t see my friend anywhere.

“At home, taking care of the baby.”

“Where’s Julie?” said Lisa.

– – –

She was lying in a spotless white bed, her short curly hair splayed out messily around her head. She’d never looked this peaceful before. Even in her sleep, a slight smile lifted the corners of her mouth.

“Is, well – ” said Lisa.

“Jacob?” Cassandra said. She gestured at a figure I hadn’t seen before, sitting on a chair at the opposite side of the room. “He’s really upset about this.”

The nurse looked sympathetically at all of us.

“She’s still in a coma,” she said. “I’m sorry. I heard her wedding was next week.”

“Yeah,” I whispered.

Lisa sank into a crouch, her bangles clinking quietly.

“Honestly, how could this happen?” she said quietly. “She’s Julie. She can’t be – she can’t miss – I don’t – how – ”

“I know.” I put my arm around her. “I don’t like seeing her like this. She’s usually so – ”

“Alive,” put in Cassandra. She sat, playing with her fingers.

“What about the wedding?”

Zeke put his hands in his pockets. “I think it’ll be put off for a while,” he said, “until Julie recovers.”

There was an unspoken phrase that drifted from his words.

If Julie recovered.

– – –

The others were going out for some takeout.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” Lisa said.

I shrugged. “Go help cheer Jacob up. Someone needs to watch Julia, you know.”

Lisa sighed. “Okay.”

As the others walked out, subdued, I heard Cassandra say, “She’s taking this the hardest, you know. They’ve been friends since they were kids.”

I sat down, and tucked a strand of hair behind Julia’s ear.

“You need to hurry up and get better,” I said, ignoring the wobble in my voice. “You’re getting married next week, remember? You said Jacob proposed at a café, when you were eating your favourite strawberry shortcake.”

I laughed. “You were so surprised you choked on the cake. But you said yes, didn’t you? You said it was the best day of your life. I remember you said you wanted all of us, all your friends, to be your bridesmaids. You helped choose the decorations. You even arranged an evening meal for after the wedding!

“You can’t give up on that now, Julie. You can’t.”

I felt my eyes burn, and I clenched the hem of my shirt.

“You can’t!”

My vision began to blur, and I stared at the ground.

You can’t.

 

You helped me when I thought I was going to die. When I found out I had cancer, and everyone expected me to live only a few more months. You were the one who told me to fight, to hold on, to not give up.

 

You can’t go now.

 

Not now.

I wiped my eyes. Maybe I should go wait for the others in the lobby.

Standing slowly, I was just turning around to leave when something tugged at my hand.

“Diana?”

I felt my jaw drop.

“Oh my gosh… Julie!”

I inhaled sharply.

“Wait – you’re supposed to be in a coma – what – why – how – ”

Julie sat up slowly.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t remember a lot. Where am I?”

“Redstone Hospital,” I replied. “Just a minute – Jacob needs to hear about this!”

“Jacob?” I thought I heard her mutter, but I figured it was probably my imagination, so I dug my phone out and dialed Lisa’s number.

“Lisa, guess what?”

“Calm down! We’re nearly there, I know you’re hungry!”

The door opened, and in came Lisa holding a box of takeout, Jacob behind her heels.

“Here,” said Lisa. “Zeke went home and decided to drop off Cassandra, by the way. I’m sorry we couldn’t get the kind of iced tea you like, but – ”

Her eyes bulged.

Jacob turned. “Lisa?”

Trembling, she pointed her shaking finger at Julie.

– – –

Lisa went to call Cassandra and Zeke, while Jacob, shaking with shock and relief, slumped into his chair.

“J – Julie?” he muttered in disbelief. “I was so worried – you’re all right – you’re all right – ” He wrapped his arms around her, his tears slipping onto the bed sheets like little dots of rain. I couldn’t help smiling as he enveloped her in a gentle embrace, the corner of his eyes crinkling as he squeezed his eyes shut.

Jacob laughed weakly, and I realized that there were wet streaks on my face as well. I wiped them away with my sleeve, cupping my mouth in my hands. I don’t believe it, thank God…

Finally, he unfolded his arms from Julie, and put his hands on her shoulders. Julie’s eyes stared at his face, filled with some emotion: detachment, maybe, or confusion…

She put her arms protectively around herself, looking awkwardly at me.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” she said, “but who exactly are you?”

– – –

The world was so bright, so bright in its starkness. The place she was in – Redstone Hospital, she corrected herself – was so white, too white –

 

She stared upwards at the tall man: light-haired, dark-eyed, and looking at her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. Behind him was Diana – someone she could remember. Who was this stranger, and why was he embracing her like she knew him?

 

The stranger and Diana – colours in a world washed in white. She gripped her hands, and waited with bated breath as they took the brightness away.

 

– – –

“What – What do you mean?” I stammered. “Julie? This is Jacob. Don’t you remember Jacob?”

She only stared, puzzled.

 

“He’s your boyfriend. He has been for years now. He proposed, remember?” My voice began to turn shrill and panicked. I stared at Julie.

Her eyes held no recognition in them, only polite uncertainty.

“Your wedding is next week. Julie, don’t you recall anything?”

“I remember you,” she said. “And I know that we went to middle and high school together. But I think I’d know if I was engaged to be married in a week.”

“That’s the point, Julie, I think you’ve lost your memory – we need to tell the nurse, we need to tell the doctor – ”

I frantically ran out the door, and crashed into someone. Dozens of fluttering papers burst into flight, swirling all around the floor.

“Oh! Doctor Lane! I’m so sorry!”

I helped him gather his papers, and he smiled.

“No problem,” he said. “How may I help you?”

“There’s something wrong with my friend, sir. She’s engaged to be married next week, but after she woke up from her coma just now, she can’t remember her boyfriend at all…”

– – –

“No memory of this young man?” said Doctor Lane to Julie. “None at all?”

“No, sir,” Julie answered, and the doctor scribbled something in his notepad.

Doctor Lane set his pencil down and looked at me, Lisa, and Jacob. He tapped his notepad.

“I have a few theories,” he said, “and we’ll look into this as soon as we can, but our temporary conclusion that seems to fit all the symptoms at the moment is that Julie has retrograde amnesia.”

I let out a breath.

“How long will it take for my memories to come back?” Julie said in a small voice.

“We’re not sure,” Doctor Lane answered. “They will come back in fragments, as you gradually heal.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said after a long while, “for your help, I mean. I’m sure the wedding will be re-scheduled soon.”

But even Jacob, who looked dazed and unfocused, could tell that I was lying through my teeth.

– – –

Over the next week, Cassandra, Lisa, Wren, Zeke, their children, and Jacob visited the hospital to check on Julie, as well as a vast array of friends and family. Everyone brought flowers, food, and condolences, and nice as it was to see everyone’s concern for her, Julie seemed a little embarrassed after every visit.

“I don’t even remember half of them,” she said. “Except for my uncles and aunts.”

“Your memories will come back,” I reassured Julie.

She nodded. “I’m not worried about that,” she said. “What I’m worried about is how long it’ll take. I don’t like upsetting Jacob –” she stumbled over his name “– or Cassandra, or Lisa. It’s like a blank spot, Diana, like there are memories constantly scratching at the back of my mind.”

I cut a muffin, a recent get-well present from Julie’s great-aunt, in half and buttered it.

“Jacob’s gathered photo albums and yearbooks from everyone.” I gave her the plate of muffins, and she helped herself. “Every day I’ll let you look through them and I’ll tell you who’s in the pictures. You’ll get your memories back, Julie. I know it.”

“I know,” Julie answered. “I trust you completely, Diana.”

I turned to hide my apprehension. I’d seen absolute trust in Julie’s face. She was relying on me to help her, to fill the blank spots. She trusted me.

As she ate another muffin, I felt a bit daunted by the assurance in her gaze.

Julie trusted me with her problem. But what if I wasn’t able to solve it?

I could, and I would. Julie was there for me when I was the one in the hospital, hopeless unable to hold on.

It was time to return the favour.

– – –

I soon learned that patience and hard work was required to help a person build up their forgotten past. Every day was spent on looking at photographs: of Julie’s childhood, her friends, her college years; every minute I reminded her of everything she’d done at university, every friend and colleague that she’d ever mentioned in a conversation.

We scanned letters, postcards, and clicked through pictures on Julie’s old camera. Wren, Cassandra, and Lisa collected trinkets (from train tickets to key chains) in shoeboxes and brought them in for us. We even looked at old emails Julie had sent to her friends long, long ago.

One day, I began to tell Julie about university.

“All of us went to different colleges,” I said, as she swung her legs over the edge of the bed. “We all had different interests, so we decided to go to separate schools. But we never stopped contacting each other. We all made it a point to– ” I stopped. “What’s wrong?”

Julie stared at the ground.

“What if I don’t get my memories back?” she burst out. “What happens then? It’s taking so slow, Diana, and I only have little flashes.”

I put my arm around her.

“It’ll be all right,” I said. “You know your memories will come back. Doctor Lane said so, too. We just have to keep going. We’re almost there, Julie.”

Julie gave a shuddering gasp and wiped her eyes. She sat up again, smiling sheepishly.

“Yeah. We’re almost there.”

– – –

She doesn’t know what to do.

 

Her memories lie scattered like a jigsaw puzzle with all the wrong pieces. Little snips of conversation and people’s faces flash through her mind’s eye, but she doesn’t know where they belong: in her past, or in her imagination.

 

She struggles as Diana shows her picture after picture of a stranger’s life.

 

I will remember, she tells herself. I will.

 

She keeps on trying. She imagines herself and Cassandra going to the beach. She thinks hard about the time Wren and Lisa brought her to her favourite shop on her birthday.

 

And one day, she looks at Jacob, uncertainly smiling Jacob, and remembers shortcake.

 

Creamy, whip-cream filled, berry-topped shortcake.

 

Strawberry shortcake and a proposal she will never forget again.

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