Darkness surrounds me - a thick black cloak that's heavy against my skin. I shudder as it wraps me in its deadly embrace.
My hands grope for something solid but find no purchase. All the while, the blackness presses ever closer. Soon I can't move my arms and legs at all. Screams tear at my throat, but there's no sound. The air is viscous and every breath is agony. I'm wracked by painful spasms as my lungs try to rid themselves of the choking blackness. My muscles tense against my invisible bonds.
A memory breaks through the panic. Carla. What happened to her? Did she get out?
Then a glowing warmth flows through my veins and the tension melts away. My body goes limp as a broken doll's and my eyes close. Colors swirl behind my eyelids. I feel the blackness enfolding me once more, this time as tender as a lover.
At first there is nothing. Then there are sounds, floating in the blackness. My body feels like lead, but the crushing pressure is gone now. I try to move my arms, but nothing happens.
Beeping. Voices. I recognize these sounds.
He's coming around.
I open my eyes, but everything is too bright. Squeezing them shut, I groan, but the only sound that comes out is a strangled squeak. My throat is on fire; I swallow against the pain. Someone grasps my hand.
Blinking, I open my eyes again. Everything is white and the smell of antiseptic assaults my nose. My head is throbbing. I try to sit up, but my muscles don't seem to want to obey me. White fades to gray and I let my eyes slide closed.
Squeeze my hand if you can hear me.
It's a supreme effort, getting my fingers to work. For a moment, I'm not even sure they've moved at all.
I try to speak, but no words come out.
Do you know your name?
Of course I know my name. What a stupid question. Wait a minute, what is it? It's hard to think with this pounding in my head. Okay, I've got this now. Taking a deep breath, I try my voice again. This time, I manage to force words from my aching throat.
Do you know why you're here?
At first all I can remember is the suffocating darkness. Then it comes back in bits and pieces. A stormy night. An accident. The blinding flash of light. My body breaks out in a cold sweat and my vision turns to gray. I fight to keep my eyes open, to get the words out.
"Carla... Is she okay?"
Exhaustion claims me and everything goes black again.
I open my eyes. The lights are too bright. Squinting, I sit up slowly, waiting to see if my body is going to cooperate. My head feels wrong, like maybe part of me is still out there, suspended in the blackness. Still, I'm able to sit up. I'm getting stronger.
Carla. Where is she?
Sighing, I lie down again. I'm only nineteen but I feel a hundred years old. Everything aches and even the smallest tasks are taxing. Staring out the window, I wonder how long it will be until I feel like myself again.
It's Carla. My heart pounds as I turn to face her. Behind her black-framed glasses, her eyes are scrunched up with concern, and she's twisting a strand of her long brown hair between her fingers. Besides her obvious unease, though, she looks as well as she did before the accident.
My mouth feels like it's stuffed with cotton and it's hard to get the words out. I reach for the hideous pink plastic cup beside my bed, feeling the water sloshing in it as I take a sip. By the time I'm done, she's at my side.
"I got you something." Carla hands me a box wrapped in purple paper.
I thank her and tear at the paper with clumsy fingers. She looks expectant, then tense, as I work to free the gift from its wrapping. Finally, I open the box and examine its contents. I look at Carla in surprise. Inside is a geode, an almost perfect half-sphere of rough gray stone. Its center is a cluster of glittering purple crystals.
"It's beautiful," I say, the words catching in my throat. "You didn't have to get me anything."
"Of course I did. It's my fault you're here in the first place."
"Are you kidding me?" My laugh is more like a croak. "You're the one who pulled me out of the car. If it weren't for you, I'd be dead."
"But," she bursts into tears. "I wouldn't have needed to pull you out if I hadn't been a dumbass and driven off into the river."
"Hey." I cup her chin in my hand and look straight into her eyes. "It's nobody's fault. And I'm going to be fine. It's all right."
"No it isn't," Carla says, her voice still shaky. She leans in and plants a kiss on my lips.
I reach out and hold her in my arms, so happy to have her with me at last. Pulling her to me, I feel alive again for the first time since I woke up here. She wraps her arms around me.
All of a sudden, the darkness is back. This time it's in my mind, pervading my thoughts and choking me from the inside. I try to scream, struggle to break away, but I'm paralyzed. The blackness snakes its way through my brain, seeps into every pore and perfuses everything that is me. It has a hold on me again; this time I know I'll never escape.
Something gives way inside my head, and everything fades to nothingness.
When my vision returns, the first thing I notice is a shrill, high-pitched whine. At first I think it's one of the machines they still have me hooked up to. Then I realize it's coming from me. Just then, Carla breaks our embrace. A thought fills my head - it doesn't feel like my own.
Did I really just do that to you, Matt?
Carla doesn't even look me in the eye as she dashes from the room. Yanking the tubes from my arm, I launch myself from the bed and across the room. I almost make it to the hallway before my knees buckle. Pain shoots through my head and I clutch at the nearest wall for support. Gritting my teeth, I force myself to keep moving forward.
Images fill my mind, slammming into me with an almost physical force. They stop me in my tracks.
Carla bending her knees and leaping. Flying through the air in a perfect arc. Slipping beneath the surface.
All the air has gone out of the room. I'm gasping for breath and my vision is graying in and out. As I cling to the wall for dear life, I wonder if I'm going to be sick. Closing my eyes, I rest my head against my hands.
I'm not sure how much time passes before I come back to myself. Though I'm terrified and confused, I'm able to catch my breath. I need to see if Carla's okay, but I feel too weak to go after her now. Thinking I can call a nurse to check on her instead, I decide to get back in bed. As I turn away from the hall, my eyes meet the gaze of a haggard, frightened man. For a moment, I wonder how he got here. Then I realize I'm looking at my own reflection.
I stare at the mirror on the bathroom door in disbelief. No wonder I didn't know it was me at first. My face is pale and covered in bruises and my eyes are sunken and shadowed. Enough stubble is sprouting on my chin to make me look unkempt and a little deranged. That's not the worst of it, though.
Before the accident, my hair was dark, almost black. Now it's so white it almost glows under the fluorescents.
I open my eyes and stare into the white. There's a dull ache behind my eyes and the bright lights only make it worse. I sit up anyway, my glance falling on the bedside table. A geode rests atop it, dull and gray on the outside, brilliant glittering purple on the inside. It makes me feel happy and sad at the same time, but I don't know why.
Matt, you're awake. The name sounds foreign but I know it means me.
A pretty blonde girl in purple scrubs is standing beside my bed. I don't recognize her, but she's smiling as if she knows me. Everyone here smiles at me.
How are you feeling today?
"My head hurts," I say. She hands me a paper cup with medicine. I smile. Everyone here wants to help me get better. Then I remember. Carla. Where is she?
When I ask where Carla is, the girl dressed in purple looks sad, then resigned.
She's not coming to visit today, Matt.
Opening my chart and making some notes, the girl in the purple gives me a look I can't read. Snatches of words fill my head as she goes back to her charting.
We tell him, but he never remembers. Jumped off the same bridge and all. So tragic, after surviving the first time.
When she's done, she offers a half smile and lays a hand on my shoulder.
Call me if you need anything, she says, and leaves the room.
A heavy feeling creeps over me and I don't know why. My chest tightens and my eyes sting. Then I look at the geode with its sparkling crystals and the weight is lifted. Whatever was burdening me, it's gone now.