At first, only flat blackness.
Then, points of flickering light. Shimmering, darting. Up and down. Side to side. Now collecting in a circle. Concentric rings forming, receding into space and bending out of sight, like mirrors within mirrors. A “tunnel” of light-rings.
A feeling of falling into this tunnel, falling through it. Falling, falling. Not down, but up. A dizzying release of gravity.
Motion slows to a stop.
Lids flutter open. Light blinds the eye. White, sacred, pure. Strings of golden light coalescing from within the brilliant whiteness. Endless strings of shimmering, singing light—billions, trillions of strings—intertwining and vibrating. The light is made of music. The music is made of light. Harmonies within harmonies within harmonies.
And then: a change. The music retreats, as if pulled into a vacuum. The strings of vibrating light freeze into shapes.
Walls. Ceiling. Doorway.
My head jerks from the pillow with a neck-cracking start. What just happened? My heart feels like it’s been paddled awake. What room is this? Whose house am I in?
What stupid damn thing did I do last night?
Oh. Wait. Shit.
Narrow bed with metal railings, digital gadgets on wheeling poles, hideous painting of Dutch milkmaid.
Art so combatively bad can exist nowhere but on institutional walls; this I know.
I look down at my body. It’s clad in a hospital johnny—cowboy-boot-patterned for no conceivable reason—and draped in a bedsheet. From the hall come the sounds of a medical device pinging, a loud phone ringing, a speaker paging Dr. Mukherjee.
Shit, shit, shit. When was I admitted? What for?
Elective surgery? Emergency?
Not a clue. I give it a few more seconds. Still nothing. Maybe I’m coming out of… Anastasia? Anesthesia. That can take time. I wait again.
Why isn’t it kicking in, my “system reboot”? My sense of me-ness? That list of daily dreads that clicks into place a moment after you awaken?
I reach up to touch my head but my hand snaps back like a charging dog that’s run out of chain. That’s when I notice my wrists are strapped to the bed frame on either side. Someone thought I might try to injure myself. Or someone else.
Or that I would try to pull out tubes and needles.
Am I intubated? I rotate my head to one side, then the other. Equipment sprouting tubes and wires surrounds me—an IV unit, a couple of patient monitors, a sphygmomanometer—but none of it seems to be attached to me. A hopeful sign?
The fact that I know the word “sphygmomanometer” but not my own name? Not such a hopeful sign, perhaps.
Something feels off in my cranial region. A sense of pressure extends backward from my frontal bone—my forehead—and over my parietal bone like a cap. Bandages, tightly wrapped?
Bandages + memory loss = head injury. I’ve suffered a head injury. Right. My heart punches my ribs from the inside, one-two.
Fear tries to hijack my mind.
Easy… easy… you’re having a bad reaction to anesthesia, that’s all. It happens.
Calm down. Breathe and assess. Breathe and assess.
Okay, cognitive system seems intact. Senses seem functional—I can smell disinfectant in the air and a trace of fresh paint. (What do you call this room color, by the way—Yesterday’s Guacamole?) I can hear the thump of an old Eagles tune in the wall. Someone’s getting a peaceful, easy feeling. Not I.
But still, being able to name the recording artists is a good thing, yes?
If I have a head injury, it’s not a catastrophic one. I’m sure any second now I’ll be A + O x 4—“alert and oriented” to time, place, identity, and reason for being here.
Meanwhile, why this strange sense of “second awareness”—as if I’m living this experience and watching myself live it at the same time?
A sound hooks my attention.
Rubber-soled footsteps, squeaking slightly, growing louder. My senses go on alert. A flurry of blue motion passes my partially open doorway.
The footsteps stop. A figure leans back, looks into my room. Woman. African American, size fourteen, dark-framed glasses, light-blue scrubs, burdened shoulders. She flashes a smile, but it tightens quickly.
“Well, well, do tell, look who has decided to join the living.” She shuffles to my bed. “How are you feeling, Mr. G.?” It takes me a second or two to realize a response is called for. By then the moment has passed. “Do you know where you are?”
“Huff-pull,” I say. Well done. My tongue feels four inches thick. “Huff-pull,” I try again, going for “hospital.” The voice from my throat—gravelly, male—sounds alien to my ears.
“Do you know which ‘huff-pull’?”
I heave a random muscle in a shrug-like manner.
“St. Clownifer’s in Poopdale.” She looks me straight in the eye, no trace of humor showing. A trickle of unease runs through me. “Just kidding,” she says, still not smiling. “Testing your responses. You are at Emblem-Triad. Does that name ring any bells?”
Emblem-Triad. Sure—huge medical conglomerate, hospitals and medical centers all over creation. But which location I’m at? Clue zero.
“What do you remember about arriving here?”
A throat-rattle is all the reply I can manage.
“We need to get you lubricated. I’m going to fetch you some ice water. I’ll be back in two shakes of a viper’s tail, Mr. Greenbird.”
She turns with a chirp of crepe soles and exits.
A spike of disquiet shoots through my nerves. Two shakes of a viper’s tail? Who says that? Especially to a hospital patient who’s obviously in trauma?
But that’s not the main cause of my unease. No, that stems from the name she just called me. Mr. Greenbird. I know virtually nothing about myself at this point, but of this I am certain: Greenbird is not my name.
That’s a mistake you don’t like to see people making in a hospital setting.
Clerical error. Don’t freak out. They’ll catch it. Until then, what are some facts I can nail down?
The room has no window, so no help from the outside world. I crane my neck to examine the milkmaid painting. The freakishly cheerful lass rendered in faux oil is wearing a Dutch cap and carrying two pails of milk on an over-the-shoulder yoke. She’s standing outside a barn—strange, I could have sworn she was inside the barn—as a black cow lurks in the doorway behind her with lugubrious eyes.
Holland, my brain spits out, unbidden. The Netherlands. Lowest elevation in Europe. Dikes. Tulip mania.Amsterdam. Red-light district. Former weed capital of the free world.
Impressive. Long-term memory intact. What about short-term? What’s the last thing I can remember?
I close my eyes. Nothing comes.
Check your body. Any injuries except to the head?
I lift my hands as far as the wrist straps will allow and wiggle my fingers; all digits functional. I open my mouth, moving the jaw joint from side to side—check. I try to bend my legs beneath the bed sheets.
No joy. My right leg doesn’t want to budge. And oh, what’s this? The outline of my right foot beneath the sheets is fatter than the left. A leg cast?
My heart-rate shifts from trot to canter. I close my eyes again and try to tamp it down.
From out of the mental darkness, a voice shouts, “Okay, let’s get a splint on it.”
I’m sprawled on my back in rocky dirt, looking up at converging columns of green: a trio of young palo verde trees, an ocotillo plant with spindly stems, a fat saguaro cactus with a gray-brown decay hole. Flashing red and blue lights paint the plants in a repeating pattern. The smells of gasoline and burnt rubber hang in the air. I lift my left arm to find a chunk of dead cholla cactus stuck to it, a hundred of its barbs impaling my flesh like fish hooks.
A man and a woman crouch beside me. Blue polo shirts, medical insignias, earnest eyes. A police officer, female, stands behind them, training a flashlight on my lower body. I crane my head to look around, but the male EMT says, “Don’t move, sir. You’ve been injured. We’re going to get you to a hospital just as soon as we can.”
The memory-image goes black. My eyes fly open.
Okay, okay, quick, what have I gathered? One, I’ve been in a car accident. (Where was I going? Was I alone?) Two, I am in Arizona, somewhere in the southwest quadrant. I know this because the lower left corner of the state is in the Sonoran desert, the only place in America where the big saguaro cacti grow. My gut says Arizona is not my native home, though. And yet, the names of the plant life came effortlessly to me—which tells me I’m more than a tourist.
There are two main cities in Arizona’s Sonoran region, says my inner Google Map—Tucson and Phoenix. Odds are, I am in or near one of those two cities. I mentally reel off the names of the towns around Phoenix. Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, Scottsdale… Scottsdale feels “hot.” Scottsdale, Scottsdale. A street lined with boutique-type shops. My inner eye homes in on a storefront, a coffee place starting with “Ca—.” Before the image can resolve itself, my mind springs back in retreat, like a hand burned by a stove.
The milkmaid in the painting grins at me in a conspiratorial way. That’s not the expression she was wearing before, damn it. What is wrong with me? I shake my head to clear the fog. Everything feels swimmy.
Could be the anesthesia, still wearing off. Or some other drug.
Focus. What day of the week is it? Nothing comes. Not even a specific year jumps to mind.
Check for time-and-place clues. No calendars or clocks on the walls—only beige-gray power cords and outlets. A vase of flowers sitting on a shelf has a gift tag on it. From whom? That might be the log that breaks the jam. But it’s too far away. A whiteboard near the door reads, “Tues-Wed,” with “Ruth” and “LaTisha” below it—nurses’ names?
Tues-Wed. So is today Tuesday or Wednesday?
Probably should nail down the year first. The decade.
My hands, what do they tell me? Age spots, skin a bit crepey. I’m not in my salad days, that’s for sure. A wedding ring, shaped like the branch of a tree, adorns my left hand. A vision of a woman’s hand appears next to mine, wearing a similar ring. The shadow of a third hand creeps across our two. Again my mind springs away, as if afraid of being burned.
A knowing hits me. The reason I’m having trouble recalling personal data is not that I can’t remember, it’s that I don’t want to. Some part of me—a major shareholder, I think—is terrified of acquiring the knowledge of who I am.
I glance up at the Dutch milkmaid. She grins her agreement in that leering, conspiratorial way. And holy shit, did she just wink at me? Not possible. But my heart revs anyway.
The nurse re-enters my room holding a giant pink plastic mug with a bent straw sticking out the top. Thirst hits me like a flame thrower.
“Here, let me sit you up,” she says. The head of the bed angles forward, lifting me to a sitting position. The nurse holds the straw up to my lips. I pull in a mouthful of water.
It tastes like peace, love, and understanding.
She allows me another drink then pulls the mug away as if I’m trying to steal it and sets it near the flowers.
Suddenly, apropos of nothing, her eyes go wide, and she shouts, “Now if you don’t calm down, Mr. Greenbird, I’m going to have to calm you down!”
I haven’t moved or said a word, and my wrists are hog-tied to the bed.
“I said, calm down!” she repeats, pulling a syringe from her scrubs pocket. What the hell is that for? Without explanation, she throws her weight across my body as if to pin me down and slides the needle into my left arm, depressing the plunger.
What the fuck?
She rises, brushes herself off, deposits the used syringe into the sharps disposal unit on the wall, then sashays toward the door as if nothing has happened.
“All right, then, Mr. Greenbird…” She turns to me before she leaves. “The doctor will be in to kill you in a few.”
My inner ear is scrambling its output signals to my brain, that’s the explanation. “The doctor will be in to see you in a few” is undoubtedly what the nurse said. Small comfort there—the prospect of a damaged brain causes a finger of ice to trace my spine.
I’m anxious to hear the doctor’s report—diagnosis, prognosis, treatment plan. What did the nurse mean by “in a few”? Is the doctor coming in a few minutes? A few hours?
I barely have time to entertain the question when drowsiness mugs me from within. My consciousness drops like an elevator weight. This isn’t normal sleepiness. That injection the nurse gave me, it must have been a sedative or hypnotic. Why? I was being a good little patient. What drug is it? She gave it to me intramusc…
I awake in almost total darkness. It feels wrong, but I can’t say why. How long have I been asleep/unconscious?
The sound of drumming has stirred me from sleep. A hand-held skin drum, not far away, pounds a one-two-three-four rhythm. It’s been going on for some time, I think.
The drumbeats reverberate as if trapped in a long, narrow space.
I try to sit up, only to discover—rediscover—that my hands are strapped down. And then I recall: hospital. Damn. Fuck. Piss.
Wait, though. Then the sound of a skin drum makes no sense. Nor does the near-total darkness. With all the LED-lit gadgetry and ambient light in a hospital, it’s impossible to blacken a patient’s room to this extent.
So that means what? My bed’s been moved to a new location? Is that why I was drugged? My chest tightens. I force myself to breathe from the diaphragm. Belly in, belly out. There’s no reason to panic. Unless, of course, there is.
One-two-three-four goes the drum.
Three glowing skeletons shuffle into the blackness of my room—yes, they do—moving to the beat. They stand in a semicircle at the foot of my bed.
I try to shout, but my throat closes up.
The three figures are naked humans, smeared with luminous white body paint in skeletal designs. (The designs resemble those of the Chimbu tribesmen of New Guinea—why I know this, I can’t say.) Their eyes and nose-holes are black and empty, their painted cheekbones sharp and white. Grinning mouths, huge and toothy, wrap halfway around their heads.
My flesh wants to jump off my body.
The three glowing figures begin to dance to the drumbeat, which now shifts to a more complex pattern. They shimmy their shoulders in a loose-jointed way and hop from side to side in a half-crouching posture. The leftmost one has swaying breasts beneath her rib-bone paint; the other two are male, one tall and beefy, one very tall and thin.
As the dancers move, wavy after-traces of light linger in the air behind them, creating their own ghostly dance-show. I must be hallucinating that effect.
News flash: I’m hallucinating the whole thing.
When the rhythm hits a climactic beat, the dancers thrust their faces at me in unison, eyes wide and real mouths grinning.
Again I try to scream, again my voice is choked off—like trying to scream in a dream.
That is what’s happening here, of course. I’m dreaming. The nurse gave me a powerful sedative-hypnotic, and now I’m experiencing “vivid and disturbing dreams,” a side effect of many psychoactive medications.
But no. As I pull against the wrist straps, the foam-lining of the cuffs digs into the pores of my skin. I can sense the pressure of the bandages on my head and feel individual drops of perspiration trickling down the hairline of my neck.
These sensory details tell me I am fully awake.
Adrenaline courses through me, electrifying the nerves in my arms and legs.
A chant arises from the dancers.