The beginning is still pretty hazy to me, like trying to remember a dream. A lot of the first few months only comes in flashes. The beeping of hospital equipment, overhead fluorescents bleeding through my closed eyelids, the smell of antiseptics, someone using the phrase ‘covert consciousness’. Occasionally I dreamt, sometimes I was aware of what was going on around me, but mostly it was just nothingness. I now fear that death might be like that. Just unknowing, unthinking, darkness.
I had no real way of telling the passage of time, but sometimes I could pick up little hints. A running heater told me that it was cold outside, maybe winter. An opened window? Maybe spring. One time two people talked about an election, so that might have been around November.
So, yeah. A lot of stuff after the accident is blurry, but the accident is still perfectly clear to me. I was trying to leave Jamie.
We had been dating for almost two years, and I don’t think I was happy for a single moment during those last eight months. Their lease was ending after about six months of dating and they started pressuring me about moving in. I had plenty of space at my place, our relationship was going really well, and the idea of rent being cut in half was very tempting. So, I agreed. It didn’t take long for things to change after that. Jamie always wanted to know where I was. Always wanted to go through my phone. It was the outbursts that really scared me though. If I ever tried to speak up for myself or tried to tell them that they were crossing a line, they would blow up. I mean, red in the face screaming kind of blowing up. I never actually told anyone that Jamie was like that behind closed doors. I was too embarrassed that I had let things get that bad.
Finally, I reached my breaking point. I packed a suitcase as Jamie alternated between sobbing and screaming. Looking back, I’m so proud of how stern and strong I was. I walked out of the apartment and they followed me, continuing their tirade, but I just remained silent and determined to leave. I reached the stairwell, we lived on the third floor you see, and I had only made it down a couple steps when I felt hands smack into my shoulders.
The world spun around me like I was trapped in a washing machine and sharp pain burst from my limbs as they bent the wrong ways. Then the whole ordeal starts to bleed into my dark dream world.
Things are very broken and scattered after that, but I remember the first extended period where I was aware of things happening around me. It was thanks to my friend Ryan.
“Well I just want to talk to them,” Ryan spoke at a normal volume, but just the sound of my friend’s voice felt like a rope tied around my waist had been yanked. I was suddenly jerked out of the darkness. I heard the beeping of my EKG, the distant sound of a PA system calling for a certain doctor, the shuffling of feet. Lastly, I heard Jamie.
“The doctor told me that I should limit their visitors,” Jamie said, flatly and firmly.
“It might do some good, you know? Like, the sound of a familiar voice. I mean, we’ve been friends since high school so maybe-”
“Ryan,” Jamie began to speak softly, “I would if I could, really, but I’m just doing what the doctor thinks is best. It will all be worth it when they wake up.”
“But you’re allowed to be here all the time? I just don’t-”
A heavy door clicked into place and footsteps moved to my bedside. Warm, but dry, lips pressed against my forehead.
I’m not sure when that happened, but things were different after that. I started having longer stretches of awareness, and they were beginning to happen more frequently. To be honest, I think I started having more moments of clarity because I was more on edge. It’s like when you think someone might be trying to break into your house so every strange sound wakes you up a little. When you hear something that you think might be dangerous, you become more alert. So, I started becoming more alert every time I heard Jamie’s voice.
“I thought the realtor group that owned the apartment was paying for everything?” asked a voice that didn’t sound familiar to me. “Since they had that wobbly handrail that threw off their balance. Aren’t they paying for all the medical bills?”
“Yeah,” Jamie answered, so close to my side that I would have jumped if my body allowed it, “but there’s like tons of other stuff too. Like, um, the soap I have to get to wash them with or, you know, I have to pick up a lot of food. Since I have to be here all the time and… don’t have time to cook.”
“Alright, well, I’m good to start recording.”
“Great, let’s start.” There was a pause before Jamie spoke again, far more perky and upbeat. “Hello Patreons! As you all know, today is a very somber day for us. It’s been a full year now since the day that the love of my life-” they paused and sniffled. “Sorry, it’s just been so hard.” Another, louder sniffling sound before Jamie let out a breath and continued as if nothing had happened. “Today is the anniversary of when I found my sweetie here at the bottom of our apartment stairwell. I just wanted to record a little thank you video for everyone.” I felt Jamie’s hand slip into my limp fingers and a wave of repulsion crawled over my skin. “It’s only thanks to all of your kind donations that I’m able to keep up with the bills. But things are still very tight for our little family of two, so please send as many of your friends and family as you can to our Patreon or GoFundMe to help us out. And if you’re able to, even going up one tier on your monthly subscription could greatly help us. God bless all of you, and please pray for the both of us… Did that look good?”
“Yeah,” the cameraperson spoke, “it looked good. So…we heading back to my place now?”
“No,” Jamie said flatly, as if in a business meeting, “ABC news will be here shortly to film a segment about us so I have to get ready for that, but I’ll be over later tonight.”
I could kind of tell when it was night and day. The light through my eyelids dimmed, the bustle of the hospital quieted, and the room around me grew still. After I started having better moments of clarity, I would try to force my body to move when I was alone. In my mind I shouted at the top of my lungs and flailed my limbs, but outwardly my lips only pursed slightly and a couple fingers twitched. I had experienced sleep paralysis a few times prior to my ‘accident’, but what I experienced in that hospital was far worse.
Sometimes whole nights passed with me concentrating entirely on just opening my eyelids or clenching a fist. I doubt neurosurgeons concentrate as hard as I did on those nights. Eventually I gained the ability to slightly extend my main index finger. In total it was less than an inch’s worth of movement., but it was the most I had accomplished in over a year, and just gaining that much freedom was enough to send tears streaming down my cheeks.
I felt the familiar pull to consciousness when the sound of my mother’s voice broke the silence that had settled in the room.
“How are you holding up?” my mother asked gently.
“I’m hanging in there,” answered Jamie, doing their best to add plenty of emotion to their voice.
Feet shuffled and dull patting sounded. It dawned on me that they were hugging.
“I’m so thankful to have you taking care of my baby,” mom said into Jamie’s neck. They must have pulled away, because when my mother spoke again it was unmuffled. “Will you be coming to the Fourth of July? It’ll be at my place.”
“Of course! I wouldn’t miss it for the world, mom!”
As they spoke, my heart began thumping almost as loud as the synchronized beeping of the monitor hooked up to my chest.
“That’s been happening a lot recently, should we get a nurse?”
“No,” Jamie soothed. “That just means they’re having a bad dream.”
Over time, I gained more control over my finger. It became easier to tap it or extend and curl it. It still required more focus than just lifting a finger is supposed to, but it was something. As sad as it is to say, I became quite proud of it.
An opportunity came one day when some whistling brought my mind up from the abyss. Someone was in the room, maybe male? I couldn’t tell, but it certainly wasn’t Jamie. Besides the whistler, it felt like the room was empty, so I decided to try out my new found ability.
My hands were placed palms down on the bed at my sides, like usual, so I began tapping my finger. I knew that I couldn’t tap too rhythmically, like I was listening to music, or the person might dismiss it as some kind of subliminal movement. Now, I know practically nothing about morse code, but I know that SOS is either dash dash dash dot dot dot dash dash dash or dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot. With that in mind I just began tapping in a constant stream. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Taptaptap.
At first I kept it steady, but I started getting too excited at the idea of someone noticing me, so I began tapping faster and faster. When the whistling stopped, I thought I had finally caught their attention.
Then a hand held my tapping finger and I could have squealed from glee, until my finger was bent backwards with a muffled pop. The pain and shock made my whole body spasm. The bed sheet was being pulled up to my chin and over my hands when the whistler finally spoke from across the room.
“Got any trash for me Jamie?”
“No,” Jamie cheerfully answered, right beside me, “I emptied the bin yesterday. You’re all good.”
“Okay,” the man chuckled, “Well I see you’re tucking your sweetheart in for the night so I’ll get out of your hair.”
Tears welled up in my eyes as my mind fought to control the pain in my hand, but just as I was calming down, the finger was pushed back into place with a sucking clicking sound. The tears flowed freely as my breathing audibly grew louder.
“You better be careful,” Jamie whispered in the same cheery tone they had just used on the janitor. “If I see you trying to talk to anyone like that again, I just might have to snap off all your fingers.”
I knew Jamie meant it. If they were unstable before my coma then they had completely jumped off the deep end by now. They were constantly in my room, watching over me. They had control over my family, my friends, maybe even my medical decisions. I was Jamie’s plaything and nothing was going to change. I couldn’t do anything but lay there, silently watching as my life was piloted by someone else. I had been devolved into a pet that could be dressed up any way its owner wanted. And sadly? I just accepted that.
Things grew stagnant for a while. Any time I drifted to consciousness, I tried to go back into the void as soon as possible. I was content to wait patiently for my death. That changed one evening as a voice jarred me awake.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” called out a chipper voice. “My name is Andrea and I will be your caretaker for the foreseeable future. If any of you have an issue with that then just raise your hand.”
My chest heaved slightly as something like a laugh tried to escape me. It had been so long since I last laughed, and the realization of what I was doing made my heart grow a little warmer.
There had always been some kind of caretaker that had made rounds at night to read and record our vitals. I’ve sensed them, but they typically breezed in and out without uttering a single word. This young woman was the first breath of life this whole place had breathed in the time I had been there.
“Was it my imagination, or did you laugh at my joke?” Andrea asked from beside my bed. I had been so caught off guard by her entrance that I hadn’t even sensed her approaching. For the first time in ages, someone was actually seeing me. For once, I wasn’t an ornament for Jamie, I was a person. Despite this, I hesitated to answer. Almost everything I had tried to do to escape ended in failure, so why would this be any different? But I figured ‘what the hell’. I began tapping my left index finger. It was covered by the bed sheet, like always, but I could feel the fabric russling against my digit.
My heart skipped a beat when Andrea lifted the sheet off my hand.
“Sweetie,” she spoke in a shaky voice that was attempting to stay calm, “tap your finger once for yes and twice for no… Can you hear me?”
“Oh. My. God. Can you- ah- do you have purple skin?”
“Do you know that you are in a coma?”
“Have you been awake this whole time?!”
Tap. Tap tap.
“Yes no? Um, have you been awake for some of this time?”
“This is amazing! I’ll go notify the doctor and be ri-”
“What’s wrong? You don’t want me to notify the doctor?”
The last question was the only one to make me pause. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I knew the doctors monitored my brain activity, so to some degree they were aware of how conscious I was and that obviously hadn’t done anything to help me get control of my body. If it came down to some kind of medical procedure, then Jamie had probably obstructed them in the past and would probably do it again.
Ultimately, I had decided on ‘no’ and conveyed that to my very kind, very confused, nurse. It took her a while to calm down enough that I could convince her to finish her rounds. After she left I wasn’t quite sure what would come of Andrea knowing about me, but honestly it just felt good talking to someone again.
I didn’t have to wonder long about Andrea. I think it was just the next night when she pulled a chair up to my bed and had a real conversation with me.
“Hey sweetie,” she greeted me as kindly as she would any other patient. “Are you feeling good tonight?”
“Great! Were you awake all day today?”
“Part of the day?”
And it was true. I had been so eager to talk to someone that my consciousness kept bubbling up every time I heard a voice.
“Do you know how long you’ve been here?”
“Would you like to know?”
I hesitated again, but figured it would be best to rip the band aid off. I told her yes.
“You’ve been comatose for three years and nine months, sweetie.”
My finger dropped onto the hospital bed when I heard that. I had pieced together that it had been a few years, but having it confirmed was like… was like glass shattering. I was crying before I even knew it and Andrea just held my hand for the rest of the night.
After that, I began looking forward to nights. Andrea had plenty of responsibilities, of course, but she always made time to have a little chat with me. We even made a system where I could write messages by her doing the ABC’s and I tap my finger when she got to the letter I wanted. Believe me, it was just as painfully slow as it sounds, but it was worth it to tell her something more personal than just yes or no.
Since it was kind of exhausting for me to talk in much detail, Andrea did most of the talking. I was perfectly fine with that. Just having someone speak to me directly made me giddy. She could have read the dictionary to me and I would have loved it.
“Have I told you about my grandpa?” Andrea asked one night. I double tapped my ‘no’ and she continued.
“Well, he’s the whole reason I became a nurse! My parents fought a lot when I was little, so I got carted off to my grandparents often to be out of the battlezone. He had a small corn farm, I know, how typical for a small Ohio town, right? But I think he sold his corn as feed. Anyway, he always dragged me along and I would ‘help’ him tend to the farm.
“When I was in my young teens though, he began deteriorating. Alzheimer’s runs in my family and he started getting it bad. He even began to forget who I was, or who his own children were. Eventually he was put on hospice. I did all I could to take care of him and help out his nurse. I even moved in with my grandma to help take care of him. Thankfully this was during summer break, so I didn’t have to worry about school.
“He had been such a hard working and proud man in his life, but during that summer I was giving him sponge baths while he cried.”
Andrea fell silent for a bit, getting lost in the memory.
“After that,” she continued, “I knew I wanted to help people. Maybe in some strange way, I thought that if I can help others I could somehow go back in time and save him.
“Obviously that’s impossible, but” she patted me on my hand, “maybe I can help you.”
It took a little more effort, but I managed to raise my finger and sort of stroke her hand. That was the best way I could think to say ‘thank you’ to her.
Despite months of bedside conversations, Andrea didn’t dig much into why I wanted to keep our communications a secret. I was thankful for that, but she figured it out one night when Jamie stayed late to record a video.
“There!” Jamie exclaimed. “I got the hair perfect! Don’t you guys think they look cute?!”
With the amount of product glopped in my hair I can guarantee you that I looked anything besides ‘cute’.
“Now, let’s add some of this blush to liven up those cheeks of-”
“What are you doing here?” Andrea’s voice rang out, more authoritative and hash than I had ever heard it. It was certainly enough to rattle Jamie.
“Oh, um, I’m Jamie. I guess you’re new here. I’m their-”
“I know who you are, but visiting hours ended forty minutes ago.”
“I’ll leave soon, just need to finish up this video I’m shooting.”
I could hear Andrea’s padded soles stomp over to where a camera must have been mounted, because I heard a beeping sound just as Jamie began to object.
“This person has a right to privacy as every individual does. Filming their unconscious body for profit is disgusting and immoral and it will not be happening during my shifts.”
My skin could have blistered from the heat of Jamie’s growing rage, but they managed to sound calm when they spoke.
“Well I know for a fact that they would be fine with me filming videos.”
Andrea scoffed. “Until they sit up and say that for themselves you are not permitted to film anything, and I will make sure day staff know to stop you as well. Now, please exit the hospital for the night.”
“Stupid fucking bitch,” grumbled Jamie as they packed up their camera. The last thing they said as they stomped past Andrea was: “And that fucking lipstick makes you look like a whore!”
“Are you fine with them filming?” Andrea asked as soon as Jamie was gone.
I tapped my finger twice, and Andrea remained silent for a few moments.
“Sweetie… is Jamie the reason you don’t want me to notify a doctor about you?”
I tapped my finger and nothing was said for a long time. In that silence, I made a very grave error. I drummed my finger to let Andrea know that I had a message to write. She sniffled before reciting the alphabet.
“A. B. C. D. E. F. G. H. I. J-”
I listened to her write the letter down on a piece of paper. As soon as she started again, I stopped her on the first letter and she wrote that down as well. We kept going till we got to the last letter.
“-M. N. O. P. Q. R. S-”
I tapped my finger three times to let her know that this was the final letter of my note and she read it back to me.
“Okay, so you wrote, ‘Jamie did this’?”
“Jamie did what, sweetie? What did they do?”
My finger stroked the bed as I tried to think of a better way to explain, but I didn’t need to.
“Oh my god,” she whispered to herself a split second before her chair skidded back. “You didn’t fall down those stairs, you were pushed.”
She stated it as a fact, but I tapped in the affirmative anyway. I wanted to tell her to keep it a secret, to do nothing. I wanted to tell her that I just wanted someone else to know, but she shot out of the room before I could do anything. And now that she knew the truth, both of our fates were sealed.
“I know you told her,” Jamie hissed, sharp and harshly in my ear. The proximity and anger jolted my mind into awareness and I immediately felt dread squeeze my heart. “That bitch thinks that she can keep us apart, that she can spread lies and take you away from me, but she fucked with the wrong person!”
In an instant, my gown was jerked up and lips began caressing me from sternum to groin. I couldn’t even twitch my finger as the repulsion and fear overcame me. I just tried to not be there, to go away mentally. Thankfully, kissing is all that happened and my gown was neatly pulled back into place.
Jamie spoke as they wiped something off their mouth. “Good, let’s see her explain her way out of this.” Jamie shot up and stormed out of the room as they screamed: “Why is there lipstick all over my love!”
Andrea was gone after that. A couple weeks of silence would have been enough for me to know about what happened, but Jamie made sure to gloat about Andrea being fired to me every single day. Once Jamie started talking about suing Andrea and pressing charges, I completely lost it. Any time I was awake, I felt tears streaming down my temples.
Once again, all hope was lost. Andrea happening into my life was a one in a million chance, and I blew it. I was trapped. Forever. And ever.
I just wanted to die.
To get away.
To be free, if only in an asomatous sense.
“You think just because I was fired that this is over?” Andrea announced from the doorway, and never in my life has a sentence brought me more boundless joy.
That joy ended abruptly though when Jamie scoffed.
“How’d you sneak back in?”
“I still have friends here,” Andrea quipped.
“Whatever, doesn’t matter. You really think anyones going to believe you over me?”
“I don’t care. What you’ve done is monstrous and I’m not going to stand by while you ruin my patient’s life. I’ll tell anyone who cares what you did. I’ll tell everyone who doesn’t care what you did. I won’t stop until you’re not allowed within a mile of this hospital!”
Andrea panted, as if being furious at Jamie was draining their breath.
“You know, I kind of thought you might come back,” Jamie said as they rummaged around in something, “so I snatched this a few days ago.”
“A scalpel? Sure. Stab me. That will definitely help make your case.”
“Stab you?” Jamie asked, their wide grin audible in their words. “I never said I would stab you.”
An instant later, I felt a punch to the side of my thigh and all sound in the hospital ceased. Andrea must have been shocked, because she didn’t say anything as Jamie ran out of the room screaming: “Get away! Put it down! Jesus! You stabbed them!”
That’s when chaos took command of the coma ward.
Andrea was screaming at Jamie. Jamie and half a dozen other voices were screaming at Andrea. Someone else screamed that they were going to get a doctor and a cart for me. All while this was all happening, my body slowly started telling me just how much pain I was in. It was like a hot poker had been pressed into me and the skin around the wound felt like bugs were crawling all over it. My fingers started growing sticky from the pooling blood. Andrea’s voice grew fainter as she was dragged away by the mob. There was a lot for me to take in, but the only thing I could really focus on was how my leg jumped when Jamie stabbed it.
“Nothing to get between us now,” Jamie whispered in my ear with a chuckle before running after the crowd.
Now, I wish I could say that I was thinking about how much I hated Jamie at that moment. Or that I was sick and tired of feeling helpless and trapped. Maybe in a weird way I was subconsciously thinking about those things, but truthly, I was just scared that Andrea was in danger. So, I started running on pure instinct.
I raised my index finger, probing for the scalpel’s handle, and as soon as I bumped it, a fresh wave of hot pain pulsed through me. But also, my leg jumped again. Without even really thinking about it, I raised my finger as much as I could and looped it over the handle. Then, I pulled down.
The blade sliced through my muscles, pain spread like an electrical storm across my nerves, and my whole body began to rattle. As the knife twisted, a muffled sound began to rise in the back of my own throat. It sounded like a quiet whimper, but internally I was screaming with everything I had. Then, I managed to raise my middle finger and got that around the handle as well. The more pain I was in, the easier it became to move. My eyes cracked open. My whole hand clutched and dragged the scalpel. I began leaning forward in bed.
Finally, after years of being trapped in a nightmare, I woke up.
My voice was hoarse and ancient from disuse, but I still screamed a guttural sound like conjoined pain and euphoria as I shot up. I commanded my legs to lift over the side rails on my bed, but they ignored me. So I just threw my whole body over and crashed onto the floor. My head hit the tiles hard enough to blacken the room and make me see sparks of color, but I began crawling a second later as my vision slowly started to refocus.
It may have been on my hands and elbows, and I left a trail of smearing blood behind me, but for the first time in over four years, I left the coma ward.
So…that’s just about all of it, officer. If I think of anything else I’ll make sure to give you a call. Now, if you don’t mind, could you push my chair to the main lobby? Andrea should be there by now and we plan on going to a coffee shop together.
Joshua Jay Henry works as a goldsmith by day and wordsmith by night. He graduated from The Columbus College of Art & Design with a BFA in illustration and continuously skulks the streets of Central Ohio, on a never-ending search for great stories.
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