The First Person
The field didn't end so much as trail off, beaten back by the rusted-out trailer and the circle of junked vehicles surrounding it. As if they had forgotten how to be still, the girl's bare and bloodied feet tripped and stumbled over each other. Slowly, slowly, the momentum that had brought her through the night and into the cold gray dawn leeched away. She tugged at the garbage bag she'd refashioned as a poncho. It was worse than useless at keeping her dry, but its constant crinkle had been a steady companion, and now that she'd reached her destination it seemed wrong to let it be lost to the wind.
Standing still, she studied the "No Trespassing" sign spray-painted on a weathered chunk of plywood, waiting for something to happen. Certain that something would. She didn't know where she was, even her own name, but she felt sure of this.
She smelled the smoke only a split second before a girl stepped around the side of the trailer. Perhaps the same age as herself, this girl divided her attention between bouncing a baby on her right hip and taking little puffs of the cigarette pinched between her fingers. Mid-exhale their eyes caught and held.
They might have let the moment pass, pretended they'd never seen each other at all, but then the baby released a wild wail that was instantly answered by the screen door flying open and a heavy woman with an uneven gait thumping down the stairs. Her body moved slowly and awkwardly, but her eyes were quick and took in everything. The hastily dropped cigarette. The baby's hand curled right around a chuck of its own hair. And the stranger with bare feet, garbage-bag wrapping, short cropped hair stuck flat to her head from the rain, and hovering over her left eye, the red starburst scar that resembled a crack in a car windshield.
The Third Person
"Annaliese, let me interrupt you right there," Dr. Grimace and Gloom said. His eyes squinted at me in an attempt to be piercing, but only succeeded in creating the network of wrinkles across his face that had earned him his nickname.
"Now the girl with the scar—you also refer to her as the stranger. You do realize this person is you?"
Predictably the creases multiplied. The doc hated one-word answers.
"Then why are you referring to yourself in the third person?"
The third person. I liked that. I felt like a third person in this new life where they called me Annaliese and knew everything about me. Except the one missing piece—where I'd been for the past year. Unfortunately, no matter how many different ways they asked me, I couldn't answer this either. My memory only went back five days. One day made of walking. And the last four spent within the white-and-green walls of the hospital.
"Annaliese? Do you not understand the question? The third person is when you refer to yourself as she or her, as opposed to me or I," Dr. Grimace and Gloom explained this in an almost singsong way, like he was breaking down a difficult concept for a small child or the mentally deficient.
He'd placed me in the latter category before he'd even examine me in person. Several examinations and interviews later, he could still only see the brain scans showing extreme damage to the cerebral cortex, and not the girl in front of him who against all odds could not only breathe, walk, and talk but somehow also retained all of her mental faculties... with one small exception: any knowledge of who she was. To them, I went missing for a year. For myself, I might be gone forever. And without myself, how could there be an I? I didn't say any of this to Dr. Grimace and Gloom.
"You told me to write my story down. You didn't say to write it a certain way."
Dr. Grimace and Gloom knew more about the human brain than just about any other person on the planet. Everyone said this, in an awed voice, like he was some kind of rockstar doctor. He was pretty impressed with himself too. "I am a physician specializing in the field of neuroscience, specifically trauma and neuro-critical care." That was how he'd introduced himself. Not, "Hey, I'm the brain doctor."
Maybe he was a genius when it came to brains, but he didn't know anything about teenage girls, and my answer nearly killed him. The wrinkles in his face quivered and burned bright red.
"That is true." He shifted slightly on the hard chair he'd dragged across the room and parked besides my hospital bed. "However, what I am attempting to get at is the reason why you chose to write it this way, especially when you are now speaking of yourself in the first person."
"Yeah, well, it's different when you're writing something down and talking out loud, isn't it?"
His eyes closed, and his nostrils flared as he took several deep breaths. In. Then out. In. Then out. "Fine," he said at last, as if it pained him too much to concede this small point. "Let's move on to the sheriff arriving. You explained to him that you were searching for something specific."
I looked down at the bound pages of the journal. It was a gift from the parents. They said I had liked to write. That I'd even won some sort of poetry prize. They seemed real impressed by that. When I stared at those blank pages, the only poem that came to mind began, "There once was a girl from Nantucket."
So I skipped the poems and instead filled seven pages writing this girl's—my—story down in painstaking detail. But now Dr. Grimace and Gloom just went and skipped ahead to the sheriff coming. He didn't want to hear about how after the heavyset woman came flip-flopping out of that trailer, she—in the same breath—said I looked like trouble but I'd best come on in and sit down anyway, turned to her daughter and told her to stay out of her damn cigarettes if she knew what was good for her, and ordered the baby to stop crying. And all three of us had nodded and yes-ma'amd her, because she was the kind of person to make you do that sort of thing. Even that little baby, who must have been older than I'd first thought, lisped out a little, "Yessum."
I closed the journal. He already knew this story, or the parts he wanted to hear about anyway. And I didn't need the journal to recall what had happened. When your memory only contains five days, you don't have to worry much about forgetting the little details. My head was like a pantry where all the nonperishable memories got stored. I opened it, and there they all were—lined up in a neat little row—no need to push things around, or hunt for anything. Easy accessibility was nice, but at other times I opened that memory pantry hungry for something that wasn't there.
"Annaliese," he said the name I still didn't recognize as my own verbal nudge, prompting me to answer his earlier question.
"I told him I was trying to find myself," I answered in a flat voice, annoyed he was making me say it out loud, making me hear again how stupid it sounded.
All five of us were in the cramped main room of the trailer. I sat in the middle of the room with a sagging cough, with Deenie—the mom—on one side, and her two kids, Lacey and baby Robby, still tugging at his own hair, on the other. They'd introduced themselves when we came inside, and having no name to give in return, I gave them nice manners instead. "Pleased to meet you."
When the sheriff arrived, he took the recliner chair and immediately kicked back in it, apparently not afraid to be seen lounging on the job. "Well, EMT's will be here shortly. Couple kids ran their cars into each other over near Route Fifty-Six, and they need to finish sortin' that out. In the meantime, we can relax and get the basic information I'll be needing for paperwork and whatnot."
A bit of the tension that had been holding my shoulder stiff released. The way he spoke, where a car crash was something that could be sorted out and a girl appearing out of nowhere caused no more trouble than filling out some forms, took some of the terror from my situation.
"Now," he said in a low drawl, almost sleepy sounding, "what's yer name, sweetheart?"
The name problem. Again. My shoulders went tight once more. "I don't know."
Deenie stepped in here. "She looks like the girl from that Dateline we saw on TV the other week. Remember, Bobby?" It took me a moment to realize this was the sheriff. "What was that girl's name? Something kinda funny—like a regular name that somebody tried to fancy up."
The sheriff—I couldn't think of him as Bobby—frowned at her, not for interrupting but for dropping that detail about them being together. I wanted to tell him that I already knew. When Deenie had gone to refill the plastic Thomas the Train cup with more water, Lacey had told me. The sheriff was Deenie's steady boyfriend, despite having a wife and a full-grown boy at home. Lacey didn't really care about that; what upset her was that the two of them worked together to scare away the boy she liked. "They got the whole high school thinking I'm a narc."
"Nobody knows how to have a quiet affair no more," the sheriff finally grumbled, but he didn't seem too upset about it either.
"Affair?" Deenie shot back at him. "Hmph. Five years in and he's still calling it an affair."
"Five years in and you still don't know I never can stay awake more than ten minutes after you turn on one of them news shows. By the way, Bethany says hey."
"That's his wife," Lacey informed me, with a roll of her eyes that seemed to say, Can you believe these people?
I was so caught up in this back-and-forth that I let my guard down. In retrospect, it was a fine interrogation technique. When the sheriff abruptly turned toward me and asked, "So, Dateline girl, whatcha doin' way out here anyway?" I answered truthfully, without hesitation.
"I woke up, I'm not real sure where, and I had this feeling, and I kind of started following it. I didn't know where I was or who I was, but I felt like maybe I could find some answers... could maybe find myself here."
They all stared at me, and I realized that while they were strange, being so open about their messy private lives, they were not a girl with bare-feet and a funny scar wrapped up a garbage bag, who had followed a feeling to their door.
I was beyond stranger.
"Find yourself, huh?" the sheriff said at last. "I think that's what Tim Butler's wife said when she ran off with that orthopedic shoe salesman"
His voice was light and teasing, but there was no missing the look he exchanged with Deenie. It said she had been right. This girl was trouble for sure.
Kind Of Normal
"And what did you mean by that?" Dr. Grimace and Gloom asked.
I'd meant exactly what I'd said. The afternoon before I'd arrived at the trailer, I'd woken up in a one-room wooden cabin with a dirt floor. The only thing in it other than myself was a plastic milk jug full of water and a garbage bag beneath my body acting as a bed. I wore a T-shirt and jeans that despite being covered in faded stains had the clean smell of soap. I wasn't scared. Scared would come later. At the moment, I was just confused. I wouldn't think why I would be there. Or who I was. Or where I should be. The whole thing felt unreal.
Pushing aside the sheet of plastic that covered the doorway, I'd step outside. That's when I felt it. The pull. Something telling me to walk. Like some internal GPS had been activated, I'd crossed through some swamplands while the frogs and crickets croaked and chirped in alarm all around me, and then there was that long field that stretched through most of the night until I reached the trailhead.
I shrugged. "I don't know. I was just trying to figure out what was going on."
The doctor said nothing, but his eyes turned into the tiniest little slits and his frown twisted into a sneer. "I have been a physician for more years than you have been alive. Do you have any idea how many brains I have studied in my career?" His voice changed with this sudden shift of direction, becoming more directly challenging. Menacing.
"I don't know." I shrugged again.
"Seven hundred." Pause. "And fifty-two."
"Out of those seven hundred and fifty-two brains, only four have behaved in ways that I could not understand. In all four of those cases, I determined after extensive testing that those brains were aberrations to the point of no longer being technically human."
Spittle flew from his lips and he was no longer Dr. Grimm and Gloom. He was Dr. Crazypants. Dr. Nutso and Insane. Dr. I Will Kill You While You Sleep. I inched my fingers toward the call button on my bed rail.
"I have remained silent concerning these findings," he continued, "because those brains all came from cadavers. But yours is the fourth brain. And that makes you my first living monster."
My fingers, instead of pressing the button, went to the indentation on my forehead. What had he seen in my brain underneath the skin and bone?
He stopped, clearly wanting me to say something. Maybe my confession. Or defense. I had neither.
The rage seeped away into the silence, leaving him grimmer than ever. Leaning back, he studied me over steepled fingers.
"People prefer to believe in miracles over monsters. And so tomorrow, I will give my recommendation that you have survived some traumatic event through unusual and, yes, perhaps even miraculous means. You'll be released to your parental guardians immediately. But first... first I want you to tell me one thing. One honest answer from you."
He leaned forward once more. "I want to know what it feels like."
I gulped. I didn't know if I wanted to go home with my parental guardians—those strangers I met yesterday after the DNA tests went through and I was officially declared Annaliese Rose Gordon. I did know that I didn't want to stay here, near Grimace and Gloom and all the other doctors who might not have said it as directly as him, but with all their questions seemed to also imply that I was some kind of monster.
Looking directly into his beady little eyes, I answered as truthfully as I could.
"I don't know." The three-word phrase that had quickly become my signature exited my mouth before I could recall it, and Dr. Grimace and Gloom's brow darkened. Hurriedly, I added, "I mean, I don't know anything about myself except from these last couple days, and I know what happened to me is weird and no one can explain it, but somehow I just, I don't know, I feel normal, I guess."
"Normal," he repeated.
I nodded miserably. "Yeah, I mean, kind of normal."
He left without another word.
I didn't sleep that night.
Wondering if I had passed his test.
Wondering if he was right about me being a monster.
Wondering exactly how he expected a monster to feel.
How he expected me to feel.
I still felt normal.
Whatever normal was.
It wasn't until the seven AM nurse-shift change, when the night nurse said good-bye and good luck, that I realized I was leaving. Going home. Whatever and wherever that was.
All of the many doctors I'd seen during my four days at the hospital made a point of coming by my room and wishing me well; some even told me to keep in touch. Only Grimace and Gloom stayed away. I guess we'd already said our good-byes.