I am scared. But I don’t know why I would be.
I’m in a nice room. Nothing is out of place. The couch I’m sitting on is plush and comfy. My beautiful wife, Lauren, is curled up against my side, napping. She’s been my bride for five years now, the love of my life for eight. I met her just after I started college. She looks a lot like she did back then; same rosy cheeks, same soft raven hair, and, if she were to open them, the same glittering green eyes. In fact, most people would say she looks like she hasn’t aged a day.
Maybe that’s why I’m scared. Lauren may still look like the angel I fell in love with, but five years of her cooking—and, I admit, being too lazy to go to the gym—has taken its toll on me. My belly hangs well over my belt, swollen the way a water balloon is when someone squeezes the bottom in their fist. My muscles have lost their definition. They’ve become little more than clumps of soft dough molded around the twigs that are my bones. My face has gotten loose, a few shallow wrinkles forming at the corners of my mouth and eyes. Lauren must have noticed these changes by now, must know that I’m slowly easing out of my prime. And I know she realizes just how voluptuous she still is. Maybe she’ll take advantage of this knowledge. Maybe she’ll leave me, go out to find a younger, fitter man. I’ll get a letter in the mail, a simple note printed with the words “it’s not you, it’s me”, paper clipped to a divorce notice. Maybe—
But no. That can’t be it. Lauren wouldn’t leave me. Our love is too strong, she’s too loyal, unlike Becky and Suzan and Jessica, and all those other snotty cheerleaders from high school. My Lauren loves me, and I practically worship the ground she walks on. That can’t be what I’m scared of.
I’m not exactly sure what’s on TV. Some old cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid, I think. It’s hard to make out. There’s a slight glare on it from the window, which is flung wide open, casting its soft yellow glow on the room, revealing it in its true nature: neat and white and clean. Very organized, very nice. A comfortable room. It makes me even more confused as to why I’m scared.
My eyes wander to the pieces of paper taped to the wall around the TV. Children’s scribbles, drawings that were gifts to me from the kids in the kindergarten class I teach. Some of them are self-portraits, some are of me with a background full of hearts, some are of a little puppy that vaguely resembles the one from the book we’ve been reading, Patches and the Great Big Mud Puddle. There is writing on all of them, messages hoping that I get well soon, that I’ll come back and teach them so we can finish the story.
Maybe that’s why I’m scared. Maybe I’m terribly sick. Maybe I have cancer, and I don’t have much longer to live, and I’m staying at home with Lauren to spend the last of my days in peace. The kids wouldn’t know, of course, because they wouldn’t understand. Eventually, though, they’ll have to know. The substitute will tell them. They’ll be so confused, and they’ll—
But no. No, no…That can’t be it, either. I feel fine. I haven’t had so much as an allergy attack since I was twelve. Besides, Lauren wouldn’t have let me mope around the house; she knows I love teaching too much for that.
So I sit and think, trying to calm myself, to make my pounding heart slow down enough to match the soothing rhythm of Lauren’s gentle breathing. There’s a clock hanging on the wall, well above the TV and the children’s drawings. It reads five o’clock. For some reason, this frightens me even more.
Why am I so scared?
Maybe I’m not actually scared. Maybe I’m just anxious, wired after a long day. My eyes drift over to the bed in the corner, covers and sheets smoothed to perfection. A wolfish smile slips into place on my lips. Perhaps a little fun with Lauren will help calm me down.
I place a light hand on her shoulder, intending to wake her gently, but there’s a sudden knocking at the door.
It opens, and two men walk in. Both are young, maybe mid-to-late twenties. One has dark hair and a goatee, the other, sandy hair and a clean-shaven face. Both are wearing loose cotton scrub suits, entirely white, just like the room. Another spike of fear pierces my chest as I look at them.
“Um, may I help you, gentlemen?” I ask, fighting not to let my voice shake. The dark haired one smiles warmly.
“Mr. Day, do you remember who I am?” he asks. When I don’t say anything, he continues. “It’s me, Danny. I’m one of the nurses here. And this is Andy, our newest staff member. It’s time for you to take your medicine.”
“Medicine?” I repeat, dumbfounded. “What are you talking about? I’m perfectly healthy! Now, who are you, and what are you doing in my house?”
The blonde—Andy—raises a nervous and curious eyebrow at Danny.
“It’s the meds,” Danny mutters, just loud enough for me to hear. “They mess with his head a little when they knock him out. Wipe his memories a little. Some days are better than others, but this looks like one of the bad days.”
“What are you talking about?” I say. Now I’m angry as well as scared. “I demand some answers!”
Next to me, Lauren stirs. She yawns, blinks her sleepy eyes open to look at me.
“Johnathan?” she asks groggily.
“It’s alright, Lauren,” I assure, patting her arm. “I’ll take care of this.”
“Who’s Lauren?” Andy whispers to Danny. Lauren looks around at the voice, staring at the strangers.
“One of the hallucinations,” says Danny. “Mr. Day thinks he has a wife named Lauren.”
“Johnathan, who are these men?” Lauren asks, cowering against me.
“I don’t know, honey, but it’ll be okay, I promise.”
“Alright, Mr. Day,” says Danny, stepping a little closer. “Lauren’s not real, remember? She’s not there. Now, it’s time for you to take your meds and—”
“What’s wrong with you? Of course she’s real! She’s sitting right here!” Danny is still moving towards us. I jump up, shielding Lauren, and he stops. I glance around, trying to find something to fend off these mad men. “I don’t care who the hell you people say you are! I want you gone! Get out of my house!”
“He’s agitated,” says Danny, glancing at Andy. “I’ve dealt with this before. I’ll hold him, you give him his shot.”
Andy nods, and suddenly, Danny is on top of me, pulling me back towards the bed. I kick and struggle, but the man is strong for his age.
“Johnathan!” cries Lauren. She’s not running, not trying to fend off the intruders, just sitting on the couch, hands clasped over her chest as she watches in fear. “Johnathan!”
“Run, Lauren!” I scream. “Run!”
But in my mind, another voice is screaming right back: No! Stay! Don’t take her from me! Don’t leave me again!
“Now, Andy! Hurry!” shouts Danny. Andy is at our side in a flash. He dodges one of my flailing arms, grabs it, and plunges a syringe into it.
I cry out in pain and shock. Within moments, though, those feelings vanish, replaced by deadened muscles and the idea that a fog has lifted from my mind. Memories start flooding back in bits and pieces, words like “dementia” and “institutionalized”.
I look around, though it’s hard, as my eyelids are growing heavier. This is not my home. It’s a hospital room. The TV is turned to static, and the children’s drawings, bright and fresh only moments ago, are now faded and starting to yellow at the edges. I turn my attention back to the couch. Lauren isn’t there. There’s not a trace of her left.
They’ve taken her from me.
“There. All done,” says Danny, and with his voice comes more memories, of comforting hands and long talks by the window, of a dark haired young man listening to stories of Lauren with a kind smile and sorrowful eyes.
“D-Danny?” I ask, looking up at the now-familiar face. My tongue is like lead in my mouth.
“I’m here, Mr. Day,” cooes Danny, in that kind, soft voice. I feel one of his hands rubbing my shoulder as the other gently pushes me back to lie on the pillows. “It’s alright. You get some rest. We’ll go for another round tomorrow.”
My eyes finally close, and, as I steadily slip into unconsciousness, I imagine going through all of this again tomorrow.
An image of Lauren, now ghostly as an old photograph, blossoms on the back of my eyelids. With her come thoughts of love, happiness, and loss, all rolled into one.
Now I remember.
Now I know what I’m scared of.