At last, the darkness dissolved into hazy images, broad brushstrokes across empty canvases. Blood covered the walls and the ceiling. A swooshing red river pulled at Katie’s ankles. She almost lost her balance.
The pain in her head intensified. She heard gulping sounds. There wasn’t enough air in the room. She felt her own throat constricting and gasped. The river was rising. It was almost to her knees. She tried moving her feet, but it was as though something was pulling from below.
The smell of iron threatened to knock her out. Laughter rippled the air, sending waves of pain through her head. Someone was opposite her, the river now raving around their hips. Katie gasped again, this time not for lack of air. The creature wasn’t human. It only had one eye and there was a gaping hole where the other should have been, as though someone had tried to claw its way into the skull. Katie blinked, and it duplicated. She heard crying above the roar of the river and tried to move her feet towards the sound, but they were glued to the floor. The creatures closed in on her from both sides. She tried to scream. Then their hands were on her neck and she felt the air leave her.
The picture dissolved, and Katie stirred.
She couldn’t move and for a second, she was afraid she was still standing in a river of blood. Far away, there were muffled voices. She blinked. The overhead lights burned in her eyes and she closed them again.
“No sign of her waking yet.” Katie blinked as a voice broke into her consciousness and the hazy outline of a woman swam before her eyes. She tried to focus, but the woman dissolved.
“You should have died as well.” A whisper from her other side. A different voice this time.
Katie opened her mouth to scream, but no sounds came. The fingers of the creatures clawed at her neck again, and she gasped and ripped open her eyes. The images from the dream faded, and she finally focused on a face.
“No,” she whispered. Then the void opened, and she felt herself falling.
A week later, Katie woke without a single trace of a memory.
Three years later…
Thunder rumbled in the distance as the wind blew through the cobbled streets of Leipzig. Heads turned upwards. A heat storm was coming, and it wasn’t long now before the rain would come pelting down. A group of students with beer bottles in their hands stumbled along, hooting loudly, as though they were slow dancers caught in the crescendo of a waltz, unaware of the world around them. Tram tracks cut through the already cracked, empty roads. Cranes lining the horizon glowed orange as the evening sun slipped past the edge and disappeared.
Students, parents and teachers crowded outside a private university building north of the centre, every now and again stealing glances at the charcoal sky. The students glowed with pride from below their black graduation caps as their parents snapped away with their phones.
Katie caught one of her classmates’ eyes and congratulated her.
“I can’t believe three years have gone by so quickly.” The girl, Philippa, laughed and threw her arms around Katie in a giant hug.
“You guys were thinking of going somewhere to celebrate later this summer, right?” Katie asked, pulling back.
Philippa nodded. “Well, we’re off to Barcelona in two days. We found this amazing apartment for all of us there.”
Katie’s eyebrows shot up. This was the first she’d heard of a trip anywhere. “Oh wow! I didn’t know. All of us?”
“Sophia, Leah and Hannah definitely. I think Nina and Annika are, too. They hadn’t booked their flight yet last I heard.” Philippa rolled her eyes and laughed.
Katie gulped. Those were all the girls she ever talked to in class. She tried to joke. “Any chance there’s space for one more in the flat?”
Philippa hesitated. “I didn’t realise you wanted to come.” She sounded apologetic. “We’re actually tight with six people already, so…” she trailed off.
Katie nodded. Beside her, she felt Ronny squeeze her arm. She hadn’t noticed her best friend sneak up behind her. “Of course,” Katie said, swallowing the lump in her throat. “Enjoy Barcelona though!”
Philippa looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry we didn’t ask you before. I thought you weren’t into trips.”
“You know… Because of… I just thought you have enough on your plate as is. You’re usually not that keen on joining social things.”
Because Katie suffered from retrograde amnesia ever since an accident three years ago. She creased her brows, but before she could say something, Ronny cut in. “Going on a trip would have been a great distraction though, as you might have guessed. Never mind, we’ll go somewhere else, Katie.”
Katie mouthed her thanks to her best friend before saying goodbye to Philippa.
“What was that all about?” Katie’s boyfriend, Marc, joined them as they turned the other way. The single curly lock of hair on his forehead gave him a striking resemblance to Tintin. They’d gotten together in Berlin shortly before Katie’s accident, but he hadn’t left her side since and even moved to Leipzig a year later just to see her every day.
“They just don’t get how fucking hard it is to be social when you can’t remember anything,” Ronny spat out, barely keeping her tone down to a whisper. She was almost a head shorter than Katie, hair scrunched into a messy top bun and large golden hoops swinging beside her face. She lived over an hour away in Berlin, but the friendship they’d had since kindergarten was still strong despite being long-distance. Ronny never questioned the drive down and visited almost every other weekend.
Katie wanted to throw her arms around her best friend. Beyond the past three years, her brain was a hazy wilderness of half-remembered thoughts. She’d tried her best befriending her classmates, but whenever something came up, she was always excluded or added as an afterthought. As though she was too vulnerable to be out in public.
At least Ronny and Marc were always there for her. Even after Katie had woken from her coma and not remembered or recognised either of them, they’d stuck to her side and never left. Katie linked arms with both of them.
“Thanks for being here for me, guys.” Then she glanced around at the groups of people that were slowly dispersing in every direction. It still wasn’t raining, but the thunder rumbled closer than before now and it would likely start soon. “Where’s Jen?” A minute later, she located her, standing hunched with her back to them. “What’s she doing?”
“On the phone, I think,” Ronny said. “So where d’you wanna go?”
“Oh, it’s fine. We don’t have to go on a trip just because.”
Marc rolled his eyes on her other side. “You should though. Take some time off.”
Katie unlinked her arms. “It’s not the same.” She knew she sounded unfair, but she just wanted a normal life. One where she could make new friends and keep them. One where those friends genuinely wanted to spend time with her. And it wasn’t the same with Ronny and Marc, who’d been pampering her since she’d woken from her coma. Eager to change the topic, Katie said, “Who’s Jen talking to, anyway?”
“Just some work person,” Ronny said, but Katie was already walking towards her. This was supposed to be her day, not Jen’s.
She’d been living with Jen since the accident. An old friend of her father’s, who’d been asked to keep an eye on her, as her parents weren’t around. No one would tell her where they were and after a while, it no longer mattered. If they weren’t keen on being there for their daughter, what kind of parents were they even? Jen had put a roof over her head and kept her fed, while Katie could figure out her life and do the degree she’d applied for before the accident. The doctors had marvelled that she’d wanted to go to college when she couldn’t remember anything, but to Katie it had felt like the most obvious thing. She’d only lost her autobiographical memory, so it was like she’d just forgotten how she knew things. Focusing on a degree had served as an escape from an otherwise unbearable blank.
Katie reached Jen and put her hand on her shoulder. The perfectly styled dark curls barely moved as Jen jumped and hurried to end her phone call. “Who was that?” Katie asked.
Jen waved it away. “How long have you been listening there?”
Katie creased her brows. “I haven’t. I just came over because you disappeared.”
“Work, right?” Ronny asked, as she and Marc joined them.
Jen stared at her, then nodded. “Work, yeah. Just for my next article.” She shook her head and blinked. Then she smiled. “Sorry, Katie. Wow, I can’t believe you’ve graduated.”
Katie glanced between Ronny and Jen, but whatever look had passed between them was gone now.
Oblivious to the change in atmosphere, Marc said, “you booked a table at the Gewandhaus restaurant, right? We should get going if we want to reach it before it rains.”
“You guys go with Marc,” Jen said quickly. “I’ll follow. I need to make another quick call.” She hesitated before turning to Katie. “By the way, did you find a flat yet in Aarhus? You were going to try that Facebook group, right? Cognitive Science at Aarhus University or something.”
Katie lived in a maisonette west of the centre with Jen. The large Gründerzeit building, that wasn’t as white as it once must have been, was lined with bicycles either side of the entrance. Though the flat was at the very top, the view yielded little more than the building opposite and the Elstermühlgraben that wound its way towards the centre of the city.
The heat was unbearable that summer, packing the rooms so tightly, Katie felt herself suffocate, even though the summer was now coming to an end. Inside the flat, beads of sweat rolled down her forehead towards the high arches of her eyebrows. She tried to fix the loose strand of hair that had fallen out of her post-work-out ponytail. Each movement was a struggle, but she grit her teeth and threw open her closet. “I’m not coming back,” she repeated, fanning herself. She’d finally found a flat in Aarhus.
Marc sighed from his seat on the couch. “I know. You say that now–”
“No,” she interrupted him with a glare in her eyes. “I’ve said that for weeks. Ever since that stupid graduation. And I will keep saying it until I’m goddamn out of here.” She grabbed a pile of jumpers and threw it into one of the two empty suitcases on the floor between them.
At six feet tall, Katie almost towered over her boyfriend, something that had always bothered her on the periphery. Or maybe it bothered her now that she needed something to be bothered about. She grabbed her shirts and dropped them on top of the jumpers. She stared at her closet. This was hopeless. It would never all fit. Her sleeping bag still had to go somewhere. So did her pile of books and the few kitchenware she’d bought at extra reduced prices.
Her phone pinged, and she glanced in its direction. Probably just Ronny, confirming she was coming down tomorrow. Katie didn’t get why everyone made such a fuss of her leaving. Couldn’t they see she had to get out?
“Who’s Sam?” Marc’s voice sounded odd, and she looked over. She hadn’t seen him pick up her phone. She sighed, rolled her eyes, and held out her hand.
Marc didn’t hand her the phone.
“My new flatmate,” she said, impatience evident in her voice. “Can I have that, please?” He didn’t hand it to her. He was still staring at her phone, his brows creased. She felt her chest clench. “What is it?”
“She sent you a photo.”
Katie laughed out loud. He sounded like she’d been sent a nude. Katie doubted it. “Yes, we agreed we’d send each other pictures of what we looked like. You know, to get to know each other. And she doesn’t have a profile picture of herself on Facebook, so it makes sense.”
Marc looked over at her, disbelief in his eyes. “This is supposed to be her?”
“Why? What’s wrong with her?” Once more, she held out her hand, but Marc didn’t make a move. She really had to change her passcode.
She took two strides over the suitcases and grabbed it out of his hand. Then she sucked in a breath.
“That’s you, Katie,” Marc said, standing up and looking over her shoulder.
Katie kept staring. In the photo, the sun blared from the left and almost half the face was washed out. But even with the bad lighting, the pose and smile were unmistakably her own. She couldn’t remember this photo. She couldn’t remember a place that looked like this either.
Great, she thought, a bitter taste in her mouth. There was nothing out of the ordinary for her not to remember.
Katie zoomed in on the face. Maybe it wasn’t a photo of Katie after all. Maybe they just resembled each other a lot. “I heard of a girl who met her double once,” she said. “They weren’t related. Had never heard of one another.” She shrugged. When you couldn’t remember your own life, that wasn’t much of a reassurance.
“Are you serious?” Marc shook his head. “This is some kind of sick joke. You definitely won’t be able to live with this girl. If it’s even a girl. Wasn’t there another place you thought of moving?”
Katie closed her eyes for a second, struggling to keep her voice calm. “No, Marc. There was and is no other place.” She turned away from him, switched off her screen and put her phone in the pocket of her shorts, where he could no longer reach it. “I’m moving in with her, whether you like it or not.”
“Katie, that’s insane! You can’t do that.”
She ground her teeth as she crossed back over to her closet, disliking his authoritative tone. “I can and I will.”
He sucked in a breath. “You would never have done this before.”
She spun around. “Before? Haven’t we had this conversation before? I’m sick of it, Marc. I’ve changed. I know that’s a foreign concept to you, but I’ve changed. I don’t know what I was like and I will probably never know. But I do know that I’m different now.”
Marc looked at her with pity in his eyes. “People only change if they’re running from themselves.”
She gave an exasperated shake of her head. “People change for all sorts of reasons. And if they can’t remember a single thing from eighteen years of their life, it’s inevitable they change. I’m sorry, you don’t like the,” she made quotation marks in the air, “new me anymore.”
Marc’s eyes widened at what she was implying. “That’s bullshit! I love the new you, too. You know I do. I moved down here to be closer to you.”
Katie bit her lip. She shouldn’t have turned this on him.
“I tried,” he said and took the lifeline she’d unintentionally thrown him. “I was always there for you and you know that. Do you know how often I asked whether you would move in with me? Too many times. But oh, it didn’t make you comfortable living with a guy you didn’t think you knew. You never trusted me.” He paused. “I can’t believe you’re trusting this stranger. You have no idea who she is.”
“I do know. She’s a new Cognitive Science student at AU. Just like me.” She didn’t tell him that’s where her knowledge ended.
“Bullshit. Of course, that’s what she would tell you.” He took a deep breath and softened his voice. “I’m sorry. I’m just worried about you. I wish you would stay. Please, just think it through before you say yes to her.”
Guilt swelled up in her, but she pushed it down before it had time to spread. She couldn’t give in this time. “I have to go,” she said. “And if this is the only flat I can find, I’m taking it.”
Marc stared at her. “God, I can’t believe you’re so stubborn.” Then he turned around and stormed down the stairs. Seconds later, she heard the front door slam.
Katie sank to the floor and unlocked her phone with her fingertip. The sunlit photo stared up at her.
She closed it and opened the messenger app. Haha, nice one!, she wrote. Then she smiled into her front camera and sent a photo of herself. Seconds later, a winking emoji stared up at her. See you soon!