The Time of Your Life
I got back from lunch to find they’d cleaned out my room. They’d even taken my nameplate off the door. According to Addington Hospital, EMBER LEFERRIER had already left the building.
And I would be on my way, in just a few minutes. Strange that I’d slept in this narrow metal bed for eight months. Looking around, I could already feel my time here losing shape. I’d never felt real at Addington. I’d never been me here. I’d been a restoration project, and now I was done.
Earlier this morning, I’d jammed eight months into two brown cardboard boxes that were now in the lobby, ready to load into my parents’ car. I’d rechecked under the bed, in the cupboard, inside each desk drawer.
Yep. I was finished. I was gone.
Maybe I needed a final gesture. A secret note for the next broken person. Should I use a file to scrape my initials E.G.L. into the windowsill? Or I could carve out some vintage Green Day: “I hope you had the time of your life.”
Or…was that just mean?
Skip it. Mean was the last thing I felt.
Fragile. Freezing. Lonely. I felt crudely refashioned, like a Frankenstein monster. Barely on this earth, like a ghost.
You’re Always Embie
But the terror didn’t hit me until I buckled in. My parents had driven up in their new Prius—a different car, of course, from the family Volvo that I’d totaled. They’d leased it some months ago, but I’d never seen it.
Now they were taking me home in it.
On the hospital’s front steps, I hugged Summer and Gab, my two favorite nurses. Even Dr. P had braved the cloudless glare of October sunlight. He fit his arm around my shoulders—“okay, and you’ve got my email, my cell”—shook hands with Dad, and kissed my mother on the cheek.
Then he whispered something in Mom’s ear, something kind and supportive, probably. I couldn’t hear what, but I saw her eyes fill. I wanted to do something, too. Squeeze her hand, tell her I was okay. But it felt more important to be still, to show calm. I’d had so many meltdowns, there had been so many tears. If I could stay on the verge, then I wouldn’t tip over.
And now we were off.
It might have been my father’s harmonizing to the radio. Or my mom’s twist-arounds to check that all of my needs had been met.
“Are you cold, honey? Or maybe it’s stuffy, a teeny bit hot in here? Would you like some water? Hang on, I have a bottle.” Mom always had deep concerns about hydration.
Or it could have been that final turn out of Addington’s harp-shaped iron gates.
Whatever it was, being confronted with the fact that right now, the thing I’d wanted most for eight months was actually happening, I felt the fear begin to take hold of me. I wasn’t ready. I’d been put in a dunk tank, only instead of water, I’d plunged into a bottomless panic. I bit the insides of my cheeks. What was scaring me? This didn’t make sense. There were no surprises where I was going. Just nice, boring home with my nice, boring parents and my nice, boring life before the accident.
The accident, the recovery. What had happened in February sometimes sounded like another person’s dream, endlessly retold to me. Even yesterday, Dr. Pipini was still warning me about case studies where brain-trauma victims are forever attacked by headaches and auras or episodes of vertigo. That we’re susceptible to night sweats, tremors, and ringing in the ears. Sometimes we regain memory—a smidgen, or about half, or sometimes even all of it.
But sometimes everything is lost.
Studies had proved so much. In fact, every single thing I’d experienced in connection with my accident seemed to have another person’s case study already stapled to it. Dr. P said I was lucky to have lost only six weeks of memory before the night of February 14th. According to Dr. P, this wasn’t a lot.
Studies had proved the normalcy of my ordeal.
As the car E-ZPassed over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and then hooked up with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Atlantic Avenue, I breathed through the kink in my stomach. For weeks, the urge to get back to Brooklyn had been strong as a riptide inside me. So why did every mile that went by between me and Addington increase my desire to return to the safety of the hospital?
I felt light-headed, empty-handed. Like I’d forgotten to pack things. Big things. Things I needed. No, no, no, I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t complete, I couldn’t face down the real world.
Because Addington hadn’t been the real world. It had been a space to rebuild myself from parts. To practice being human again.
Dad drove impossibly slowly and smoothly, as if the car were filled with crates of eggs and bowls of goldfish. Onto Atlantic, left on Hicks, and another left.
Same thin brownstone. Same balding olive carpet, same rummage of catalogs and flyers on the front hall table. My parents were a tag team of worry.
“Ember, why don’t you leave your suitcase for us to take up with the boxes?”
“Some tea, sweetie? You look tired.”
“No, I can handle it. I’m not thirsty. I feel fine.”
I left them downstairs. Would it always be like this? Then again, it had always been something like this. Mom was a math professor and Dad up till his retirement last year had taught music, and their personalities played out along those roles. Right down to my mother’s logical list-making and Dad’s inability to exist in a room without layering a harmony into it. But when it came to me, my parents wore their worry in a matched set. Batting at me like catnip with the nervous paws of their excess fears.
On the landing, I felt faint. I caught the railing and my breath. I waited a moment, gathering myself, before I opened the door into my past. Hello, bedroom of slanted pine floors and wildflower wallpaper. Hello, faded friendship quilt. Hello, braided rug, ballet bar; hello, farmhouse door that Dad refinished three years ago, the summer I turned fourteen. All that July, I’d watched him sand and finish it, then paint it my specially-picked-at-Sherwin-Williams color, periwinkle, and mount it on blocks for me to use as a desk.
The room had that same walnut-gingerbread smell, but it was also musty and unused—despite the ferny bloom of marigolds Mom had placed on my windowsill. Almost everything in this room was as natural as my own voice.
The back of my neck prickled hotly. My room wasn’t quite as I’d left it. Something was wrong here. Something was off.
Deep breath. I was just in shock to be home.
And maybe I was overreacting to tiny things, like these fancy arty pens, fanned out in the lopsided glazed pot I’d made in fourth grade. When had I bought them? Slowly, I picked up a silver pen, popped its cap, sniffed the ink, and then marked my hand with a funny-looking sideways A.