Cold metal hands shove me. I slide, land, on something rough, sharp, like a thousand tiny needles on my bare skin. My eyes refuse to open. I concentrate, force them to. Before me, a ramp moves upward into a dark rectangle suspended in midair like a hole cut into the surrounding trees. As the ramp rises, the dark rectangle contracts to a sliver, and then vanishes as if it had never existed. The air in front of me shimmers. A whoosh of air chills me and I'm alone. The word strikes me. I wasn't alone before, but now I am. I try to move, command my muscles to work, nothing. I'm paralyzed, alone and cold. I panic, want to scream, can't.
I'm so very cold, and I need to pee, need to so badly I can't control it. I order my body to turn but all I feel is a growing warm, wet spot beneath me. I want to cry, can't cry, too old to cry, I cry anyway.
The cold seeps in. I fight to stay awake. Lose.
I'm warm, open my eyes, see the fur collar and arm of a jacket covering me. It smells used, friendly.
"Okay, young lady, we're just going to turn you over onto this backboard."
I'm confused, try to move my eyes. Is there a girl here?
Someone pulls the jackets off me. Cold again. Many hands lift me, turn me.
"Correction, young man."
Of course, I think. Are they blind? And why are they calling me young?
"What do we do with all this hair?" another voice says.
"Just try to keep it together and don't let it get caught in anything."
I feel a tug on my head. I don't have long hair.
I don't know where I am or what's happening. I want to ask, want to be able to speak. Then someone covers me with blankets, wonderful warm blankets. I start to drift back to sleep. The man who seems to be in charge is handing a young couple their jackets. They look like nice people. "You saved the little guys life. He would have died of hypothermia if you hadn't covered him with your coats. They'll have to be cleaned."
She shrugs. "No good deed goes unpunished."
I want to apologize, thank them, strain to, but still can't move. I'm frustrated, worried, scared.
"You'll have to stay here and talk to the police." The man holds up a hand. "Just routine where a child is involved."
I'm not a child. Then it struck me, I didn't know how old I was, but I was pretty sure I wasn't a child. I started to panic again, but was too tired.
They rolled me into an ambulance. I'd never been in one. Why did I know that and not my age?
I was about to drift off when the man in charge uncovered my arm and took my blood pressure. I just wanted him to stop and let me sleep.
"Little poke here."
I felt a shooting pain in my inner elbow.
"Damn. He's dehydrated. Sorry kid, got to try again."
Again the pain, this time followed by a feeling of cold moving through my arm.
"Got it that time. You just go back to sleep there, son."
I would have ground my teeth if I'd been able to. I'm not your son.
In spite of my annoyance and the scream of the siren, I fell back to sleep.
I smelled antiseptic. A woman in white pulled my eyes open and shined a light in them. "Let's get a CT."
Many hands moved me from the gurney to a bed. I was cold, wanted more blankets. They rolled me down many hallways into a room.
A woman in scrubs strapped my head into a cage.
She peered at my forehead. "We'll make sure not to put any pressure there." She saw my eyes were open. "Go back to sleep, hon. The CT scan will be over in no time."
Someone used to call me hon. Couldn't remember who. I wanted to tell her I'd go back to sleep as soon as she quit playing with my head. She did, and I did.
My sleep was interrupted by a doctor poking my foot with a pin. It hurt. I wanted to punch the guy but still couldn't move.
"Sensory nerve function seems normal," he said.
Whatever that meant.
He pulled my eyes open and shined a flashlight in them yet again. I was now blind as well as paralyzed. Thanks.
"Possible concussion," he said.
"Little poke here." I shifted my gaze to a nurse by my other side who proceeded to shove another big needle in my arm.
I wanted to get away from these two jerks.
"Sorry, kid." I could barely see the nurse through the spots the flashlight left. "Gonna draw a little blood."
His idea of, "a little blood," was half a dozen glass tubes with different colored tops. Seeing them made me queasy. These guys seemed to have a weird idea of how to make you feel better. I wanted out of here.
The doctor gave the nurse orders and left. A minute later the nurse injected something into the IV line and left. As I waited for the nurse to return, I could feel my level of panic drop which was good since, when he returned, he asked, "Know what a catheter is?"
In spite of the drugs, my eyes went wide.
"Looks like you do. Just try to relax."
Relax? Nobody touches me there!
It was probably over in seconds but felt like forever. I wanted to crawl away and hide ― wanted to deck him but could do nothing.
"All done." He put another warm blanket over me and the drugs lulled me back to sleep.
My eyes flew open. A man in scrubs stood by my bed giving me a bath. The warm water felt good and I stunk, but I was old enough to bathe myself and didn't like having a guy touch me.
"Hey there, little guy," he said.
I'm not a little guy. Why do they keep calling me little? I'm... I'm... I couldn't remember for sure how old I was, or how big, but being a little guy didn't feel right. And why wasn't I sure?
His voice pulled me back from the edge of panic. "Just going to bathe you and see if you've got any more owies."
Baby talk – this guy worried me.
He washed my front, very professional. It felt good to be clean again.
"Gonna roll you on your side now."
He moved me like I weighed nothing. I felt helpless, defenseless.
That was not comforting when a guy was staring at my butt.
He dropped a mass of reddish-brown hair in front of me. "Don't know how I'm going to wash all this."
The hair color didn't look right and why was there so much of it?
He finished my back and legs and examined my scalp. "The hair's gonna have to wait." He laid me on my back and covered me with a blanket. Then he looked me in the eyes, moving his head back and forth. "You understand me, don't you? The other scan didn't tell us a lot, so you're going to have an MRI. That's another way to see inside your skull. Your head's going to be inside a metal tube and it'll be real noisy. Keep your eyes closed and it'll be over in about half an hour."
I was glad he'd warned me. I'm not good in tight spaces. I wasn't sure why I knew this when I couldn't remember so much else, but didn't have time to think about that. He and another man rolled me into another room where the lady from the last time, once again, locked my head into a device to hold it still. She put in ear plugs but it still sounded like being in a tunnel with a jackhammer. Even with my eyes shut tight and the drugs, I was shaking when it finished.
A pair of young men on either end of the bed rolled me through hallways, overhead lights flashing in my eyes. They put me in a room with a boy who was moaning and turned out the lights as they left.
In the dim light from under the door, I saw the steady drip, drip, drip of the IV bag as its contents made its way into my arm. The bed had rails like the bars of a jail. That brought hints of sad memories I couldn't dredge up. I couldn't move and knew I'd been confined to a bed before but, once again, couldn't remember the event. Even with the drugs, I still wanted to scream. That's when a voice in the back of my head said, Calm down. You're going to be all right. You'll recover from this. Go back to sleep.
I froze. The voice sounded like me -- or at least what I thought was me. Did I have multiple personalities? Was I paralyzed and crazy too? Yet somehow the voice calmed me. I decided it must be caused by the drugs.
The moaner continued his steady chorus. I fell asleep anyway.
In the morning, I woke from a dream of metal hands carrying me. The nurses were changing my diaper and cleaning me off. It was smelly and humiliating. I wanted to hide, run, curl up in a ball, just move, but could do nothing except lie there trying to ignore the indignity. They were nice about it, but it was too embarrassing. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.
My mind was clearer today, so I tried to figure out where I was. I knew this was a hospital, and that I'd been found on a trail in a forest. And that was about all. I had no idea why I was on that trail, or even where the trail was. The longer I tried to remember, the more confused, frustrated and frightened I became. I wanted to move. I wanted to get out of this bed. I wanted to ask someone where I was. Hell, I wanted to be able to speak.
I was close to panic when the voice in my head chimed in again. Nothing makes sense now, but eventually it will... That's it. Just relax and sleep.
His voice -- my voice, was soothing. I wasn't sure I believed the voice, in fact, I was pretty sure hearing voices meant I was totally bug-shit nuts, but I did calm down.
I was about to doze off when a middle-aged woman with graying hair came in and stood over my bed. She was wearing a navy blue suit that, judging by the fading, she'd owned for a decade. It looked like she'd gained a few pounds since she'd bought it. She critically examined me, frowning. "Goodness," she said to no one in particular and finally met my eyes. "The doctors tell me you can understand but can't speak." She checked to see I was looking at her. "I'll assume they're correct. I'm Ms. Darling from Child Welfare Services."
I was glad I couldn't move at the moment, because I would have had a hard time not laughing at her name. She must have interpreted my smile as friendly, because she smiled back.
"I'll be taking care of you. We're going to try to find out who you are and why you were left on that trail." She put a hand on my shoulder. "The doctors here are excellent. You're in good hands. I've contacted the Sheriff's office, so I'm sure one of their officers will pay you a visit. For now, put all your effort into getting well. I'll be back from time to time." She smiled again, trying to look reassuring, but instead, looked concerned.
I tried to sleep again, but two young women came in and stood on either side of my bed. They had on uniforms, but not nurses' uniforms. One leaned over the bed and gave me a big smile. I smiled back at her. "I'm Carmela." She pointed to her tall blond companion. "And this is Heather. We're nursing students doing our clinical rotation here and we're going to wash your hair." I wondered why it took two women to wash one head.
They unlocked the wheels on the bed and rolled me toward the door. I got a glimpse of my roommate. He was maybe eight and pale. He'd stopped moaning. There were tubes in his nose.
They rolled me into a room with a huge sink and took the blanket off the bed. Luckily I had a hospital gown on. "All right," Carmela said, "we need to sit you up so we can get all of your hair out from under you."
The two tilted me forward and Heather held me with an arm around my chest. Being held by a pretty young woman left me with the vague notion that I should be feeling something, but like everything else, I couldn't remember what.
Then I saw my legs for the first time. I would have screamed if I could have spoken. Those scrawny, little, lily-white things weren't my legs. I had plenty of time to stare at them while the two moved something from under my back.
Nothing was right. Nothing was me. Not that I could remember who me was. More and more that absence was playing on my mind. I was a vegetable and probably a nut case. I didn't want to be me, whoever me was.
Finally they laid me on my back.
"It's beautiful," Heather said. In her hands was a yard or more of the reddish-brown hair I'd seen twice before. When I felt a tug on my scalp, I finally realized this was my hair. I might have panicked again, but I was too interested in watching the girls.
"How are we going to get the tangles out?" Carmela asked.
"A ton of conditioner and a lot of very slow combing." Heather answered, and with that, they went to work.
Around half an hour later, the hair was arranged on towels on either side of the bed as the two tried to comb it without ripping it out of my head. They did a good job. I was propped high enough to see the length of my hair. It had to be what was covering me when I was on the trail.
"It's actually longer than he is tall," Heather said. "It couldn't have ever been cut and be this long. And it's all the same shade of auburn from root to tip, no fading. That's odd, but judging by how pale he is, I don't think he's been in the sun much."
"Any suggestions on how we keep it from becoming a mess?" Carmela asked.
"We'll braid it."
I returned to the room with a braid thicker than my scrawny legs.
The nurses got a kick out of my braid. It was getting annoying. One of them finally came in and said I could have liquids. The idea set my stomach rumbling. She brought in a glass of fruit nectar. It took a few tries and I nearly choked once before I could get everything coordinated to sip and swallow. A speech therapist helped talk me through the coordination of swallowing. Slowly I was getting some control over my face and head.
One glass was about all my stomach could handle. I tried to stay awake but drifted off anyway.
A policeman stopped by that afternoon as Ms. Darling had predicted. In spite of the cropped hair and strong jaw, he looked friendly enough. Still, I felt my body unconsciously tense at the sight of him and had a vague, half-remembered feeling of dread. I thought about pretending I was asleep but couldn't force myself to close my eyes.
He stood by the door with one of the doctors who'd treated me. They talked quietly, but I could hear what they said. "Is there a reason he's this pale?" the policeman asked.
"Nothing medical. The blood tests don't indicate anemia and he's not albino. The boy doesn't appear to have ever been in the sun. His hair was never cut and it shows no sign of sun fading."
"Anything else strange?"
"All his nails were blunt cut, no attempt to round the corners and no wear on those sharp edges. It's a small thing but I've never seen it before for all fingers and toes."
The policeman scratched his head. "Approximately how old?"
"Around ten judging by his teeth and general appearance."
Ten? I should be years older than that.
"How bad was the head injury?"
"Skull fracture, not bad. Possible concussion. No indication of brain hemorrhage. It doesn't explain the paralysis. We're at a loss to understand that."
"Have you tried to question him?"
The policeman came to the bed, leaned over me and stared into my eyes. "Hi there, son. I'm Officer Bill. You understand me, don't you?"
Sure I did, but I couldn't speak and I was not his son. I felt the echo of voices from my past, strong but indistinct, warning me to curb my temper. I tried to ignore my annoyance.
He sat by the bed. "Tell you what we're going to do: I'll ask you some yes or no questions, you blink once for yes, twice for no. Okay?"
That, at least, was helpful. I blinked once.
"Great. Do you know where you are?"
I thought about that for a moment. I hadn't recognized anything I'd seen since I woke on that trail. I blinked twice.
"You're in Mad River Hospital in Humboldt County, California. Do you know where that is?"
I knew that place had something to do with weed, but that was all. I blinked twice.
"Do you know who hit you?"
That was one of many things I couldn't remember. I blinked twice.
"Do you know what your name is?"
That stopped me. I had to know my name. I tried to remember but my mind remained blank. My stomach twisted in a knot. I took a deep breath to calm my growing anxiety and blinked twice.
He sighed. "I'm going to take your fingerprints in case your family registered them with the police." He got out a fingerprinting kit and went to work.
"What do you think the chances are," the doctor asked, "that he was registered?"
"Judging by his appearance, slim. He must have spent his entire childhood indoors." The officer wiped the ink off my fingers and the two of them walked toward the door. The officer spoke softly to the doctor, but, again, I could hear him. "This may be an abuse case. He may have been locked in. It's possible he doesn't want to remember."
That didn't sound right. There was no feeling that I'd been brutalized. I had a feeling there was pain but only help. I wasn't sure of anything.
I couldn't sleep because of the many unanswered questions. So, of course, the voice in the back of my head started talking. You'll remember everything eventually.
It seemed stupid, even crazy, talking to myself, but who else did I have to talk to? Why not now? I asked.
It's for your safety.
I could feel my temper rising. So explain how this keeps me safe?
It didn't answer.
I lay there staring at the ceiling and the thought of being trapped in this bed started to overwhelm me. This wasn't so much fear as depression. This wasn't the first time I'd been confined in a bed.
When the voice finally spoke, it tried to be upbeat, but even it seemed down. You need to get out of here -- to remember how to move.
At least it was saying something useful and the attempt would take my mind off worrying. All right. How?
We'll start with your right hand. Can you feel your fingers?
I'd do anything, even listen to the internal voice that proved I was crazy to get to where I could walk. I concentrated on the fingers. Yes.
Concentrate on the index finger.
Imagine curling that finger into the palm of your hand.
I concentrated until I could feel beads of sweat on my forehead. And the finger moved, a twitch, but it definitely moved.
Good, the voice said, now do that with the other fingers.
It was painfully slow, but the movements went from twitches to slow, controlled motions.
The braid had tilted my head toward my roommate. He'd been breathing raggedly for a few hours and chose that moment to start gasping and choking.
I recognized death, heard it, felt it, smelled it -- knew it. My body shook. Somehow I knew the machine by his bed should have sounded an alarm, but it didn't.
You see the red button above your right hand? the voice asked. Even it sounded shaky.
Of course! You couldn't see it if I didn't.
You've got to push it or that boy's going to die. Concentrate.
The button was looped over the rail. I made my shaking fingers drag my hand toward the edge of the bed and climb the bed rail. The gasps from my roommate grew weaker. I tried to grab for the button and my hand fell back to the bed. The boy made a croaking noise and something in my mind snapped. I felt strength pour into my arm. As the rest of my body trembled, my hand climbed the rail again, reached carefully, grabbed hold of the button and pushed as hard as I could with my thumb. It took a second before the button finally clicked. I saw a red light come on. Seconds passed as my body spasmed with its increased energy. The other boy stopped gasping. I panted from the effort, eyes riveted on the still body in the bed beside mine.
A nurse came in and leaned over my bed. "Did you push that button?"
I pointed to the other bed, finally getting my finger to tap on the sheets till she noticed it. She glanced at my roommate and went into action, pressing a button on the panel above my bed. "Code Blue room 521!"
The next few minutes were a blur of motion. Doctors, nurses, others, rushed in and out. A tube was inserted into the boy's throat. His gown was pulled off. I could see his skin was already growing a pale blue gray. A nurse compressed his chest while another coated paddles from a cart that had been rushed into the room and a third placed sensors on him. The nurse with the paddles yelled, "Clear!" and placed one on the boy's chest and one on his side. The small body jumped and all watched the display. A slow, steady blip and the assembled staff breathed.
As the crisis ended, my energy level plummeted. I felt wrung out and slept.
Hours later, the nurse came back and sat by my bed. She looked tired but calm. "He's stable. You did a very good thing." She took my right hand. "Can you move this hand now?"
I moved the fingers. They had no strength and the movements were unbearably slow and jerky but she was pleased. "You're making progress. We'll get you into physical therapy."
If there was ever a profession for a sadist, it's physical therapy. The guy I got, Hans, looked like a picture of a Viking raider -- young, tall, blond and a body builder. He was determined to get me to move even if it killed one of us, and I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn't going to be him. I started moving as a survival strategy. The worst part was moving my head dragging that ton of hair. By the end of what felt like twelve hours the first day he had me moving both arms, all my fingers and a couple of toes. When he said, "We'll make more progress tomorrow!" I wanted to cry.
My new roommate was a kid of maybe six who'd had his appendix out. He was quiet, but his parents sat there talking until they were finally tossed out. Then we both got some sleep.
I was awakened in the middle of the night when the fingers of my left hand contorted with muscle cramps. The pain was intense. I managed to grab the red button and push it. When the nurse finally arrived, I was vainly trying to move the fingers of my left hand with the useless fingers of my right hand. She figured out the problem and tried heat and massage to end my misery. The night doctor ordered a shot and slowly the fingers relaxed.
The rest of me relaxed as well. Even the voice in the back of my head was mellow. If I'd had any sense, I would have taken advantage of the situation and tried to get some information out of the voice, but I was too out of it.
I slept through breakfast and my morning bath and would have slept through the rest of the day, but Hans the Hun ripped open my curtains and rousted me for physical therapy. I had a headache. What I wanted was to punch the guy's lights out, but I didn't have the strength or coordination to threaten a cockroach.
Hans got my legs moving, flopping mainly, but noticed that my head kept falling to whichever side my braid was on. As he was wheeling me back to my room he asked, "Do you like having all that hair?"
I gave him two emphatic blinks.
He crouched by the side of the bed. "Do you want to get rid of part of it?"
"All of it?"
"Okay. I'll talk to Ms. Darling. They'll probably have to consult their lawyers before we can do it, but I think we can make a case that it's hampering your recovery. If they give the okay, I've got a friend who works with Locks of Love, the folks who make wigs for kids with cancer, and I'm sure they'll want it. Does that sound good to you?"
I blinked once. I'd be happy to give it to some kid who needed it. It sure wasn't doing me any good.
In the interim, my days consisted of eating and two rounds of physical therapy with exhausted sleep in between. My torturer ensured I made progress.
It took several days and a visit from the Child Welfare Services lawyer, to verify the hair was hampering my movements, but one morning Hans came in with a young woman who must have been a real good friend judging by how close he held her. I found I had trouble taking my eyes off of her hips when she moved.
Hans brought her to the side of my bed. "This is Monica." I waved and she smiled and waved back.
Hans uncovered my braid and the woman gasped. "Oh my god! That is amazing. I have never seen hair that long." She examined it. "It's perfect." She moved within an inch of my face. "Are you sure you want me to cut this off?"
I'd gotten enough control of my neck muscles that I could nod and did so, once I broke myself away from the sight of her bent down so close to me.
"The lawyer said I'm allowed to cut it to your shoulders. He said they were afraid it might have been grown for religious reasons. But you want me to cut off as much as the lawyer says I can?"
I raised my right hand and made a clipping motion with two fingers.
She turned to Hans. "Help me get him into a chair."
Hans lifted me like I was weightless. They put me in a reclining chair and she said, "Here goes." I heard the shears laboring and a minute later she held the three-foot braid in front of me like a trophy. My scalp immediately felt better. She spent a few minutes trimming what remained. Hans swept up the loose hair and half a dozen kids were part way to auburn wigs.
When she finished, she pulled out a mirror and said, "There. How do you like it?"
I hope I didn't show my shock and horror. This was the first time I'd seen myself in a mirror. Staring back at me was a wide-eyed kid with a shock of reddish-brown hair who was so pale he might already be dead. The eyes were emerald green and they stared at me, wide, frightened. They held me in stunned silence. I didn't recognize this person, but every time I moved, he moved. I was as sure he wasn't me as I was sure of anything, which wasn't very. She must have sensed my discomfort because she put the mirror away and gave me a hug.
Hans took his girlfriend's hand and led her to the hospital room door. "I'll be back," he said, and it did sound ominous.
After a week, the doctors decided my head injury was sufficiently healed that I could be transferred to a rehab facility in Eureka. A speech therapist also started working with me and I managed enough grunts in the first couple of days that she was convinced I'd eventually speak again.
I got to spend even more time with my buddy Hans. As if to add to my humiliation, Hans decided I needed to learn to crawl again.
The voice in the back of my head was sympathetic to my embarrassment but agreed with Hans. The voice said I needed to rebuild and reinforce the connections to my brain. The connections were there, it said, but they'd never been used. And, of course, it wouldn't explain what it meant by that.
One morning when I'd fallen for about the ninetieth time, Hans picked me up and said, as always, "A little further, son." I growled at him and he laughed. "You don't like it when I call you son, do you?" I shook my head. He sat beside me and put an arm around my shoulders. "So, what shall I call you? Tony? Arthur? Justin? Andy? Mike? Joe?"
I nodded instinctively at the same time the voice in the back of my head screamed No!
"Then Joe it is." And Hans patted me on the shoulder. "So let's get back to crawling, Joe."
Once in my room, I tried to get the voice in the back of my head to tell me what was wrong with the name Joe. After a very long pause it finally said, Because that is your name. Even with the suppression, it still had meaning for you.
It might help if I knew why my memories were being suppressed.
That's part of what's being suppressed. Wait. In time you'll remember everything.
How long? I'm already tired of waiting. This was frustrating as hell. Whatever this voice in my head was, it held all the cards.
Long enough that you don't reveal any more of who you are. That may be years. Get used to it.
Do I have a choice?
Some, but every time you choose to know more than what comes naturally with time, you increase your danger.
So what am I supposed to do about Hans calling me Joe?
It's too late to change it. You're Joe... again.
Next day, Hans gave me an incentive that made the nerve endings click into place. "When you can go to the bathroom on your own, we can place you in a home and you can leave rehab."
I crawled until my knees bled.
The people in the rehab facility were kind, but I felt alone, confused, bored -- and confined, and that got to me more than anything. I wanted out. It was a couple more weeks before I could reliably make it to the bathroom. My legs were in braces and I needed a walker, but I could make it in time, even during the night.
I met my new family in the parking lot outside the rehab facility. Ms. Darling had made arrangements for my foster family and fluttered around my room all morning making sure I was ready. I had to get Hans to shoo her out so I could take a shower.
Hans walked me to the door of the facility and helped me put on my jacket, all the time complaining what a "wimp" I was to be wearing it because it was a warm day for Eureka -- the temperature was in the mid-sixties. Then he took me in his huge arms and gave me a hug. I think he was crying. "Good luck, Joe." I hugged him back as hard as I could.
Ms. Darling told me that my new family consisted of a husband and wife in their fifties and another foster son who was twelve. My foster mother's wide smile and rosy cheeks gave me a good feeling about her. She wasn't fat but was soft enough when she hugged me it felt comfortable. "I'm Sara. My husband is Andrew and our other foster son is Luke."
Luke shook his black hair out of his eyes and nodded at me when introduced which tipped the hair back into his eyes. The lanky boy looked like he might be Hispanic and, judging by the frown and the way he avoided eye contact with me, wasn't happy about the new addition to the family.
Andrew nodded the greasy NAPA ball cap that partially covered his graying hair. I shook hands with him with one hand still on the walker for balance. He took my bag.
"We live a little ways out of town," Sara continued. "Andrew will be able to take you to your physical therapy on his way to work and I'll pick you up on my way home from school. I work in the kitchen at Luke's school." We started walking to their car, a beat-up Buick. "You and Luke will share a room. He can help you out."