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When she awakened, she felt as if she'd been asleep for a very long time, Rip Van Winkle arising from a twenty-year slumber. She had the oddest sensation of having been trapped in suspended animation while the world around her continued to turn. A series of tubes and wires that ran from space-age-looking machines to her bed, to her, did nothing to dispel the image.
Something beeped on one of the screens, and panic mushroomed inside her. Where was she? What had happened to her? She couldn't seem to remember.
She tried to bring her surroundings into clearer focus, but the effort was too great. Her eyes fluttered closed, and she could feel herself drifting off to a place that might have been home.
''Welcome back, honey.''
She hadn't even been aware that her eyes were open, but suddenly she saw a face peering down at her.
''Jane? Can you hear me?'' the woman in green scrubs asked anxiously.
What's wrong with me? she wanted to know, but the croak that came from her mouth frightened her.
''Take it easy,'' the nurse said soothingly. ''You haven't used your vocal cords in a while so they're bound to be a bit rusty. Plus you had a tube down your throat to help you breathe.''
A tube down her throat? That sounded serious.
The nurse leaned over her. ''do you know where you are?''
The woman beamed at her. ''That's right. Can you tell me your name?''
She searched her mind. There was nothing inside her head but a thick, gray haze. ''Jane ?''
''That's what we've been calling you because we didn't know your real name. Can you tell me now?''
Her eyes filled with tears as she shook her head.
The nurse patted her arm. ''There, there. It's understandable you're a bit confused after everything you've been through. Are you in pain?''
Her head felt strange, she realized. She tried to lift her hand to the source of the discomfort, but the nurse caught her wrist and brought it back down.
''Just lie still now. I need to let Dr. Wesley know you're awake. You've been drifting in and out on us for a couple of days now. He'll be glad to know you're finally alert. Hang in there, okay? I'll be right back.''
Panic welled inside her again. She tried to catch the nurse's sleeve, but her hand felt so heavy she let it fall helplessly to the bed.
''You're in San Bernardino County Hospital. You've been in Intensive Care for three weeks. It was touch and go for a while, but you're going to be just fine.''
Three weeks? She'd lost three weeks of her life? "What happened ?"
''You were in a car accident. You don't remember that, either? Well, don't worry. I'll get the doctor, and he'll explain everything.''
After the nurse was gone, Jane lifted her left handthe right was encased in a heavy castto her head, and felt a thick bandage that covered a good portion of her skull. All around the gauze was nothing but smooth skin. Her head had been shaved, and for some reason, that discovery terrified her more than anything else.
Dr.Wesley directed a penlight at her eyes, checking the dilation of her pupils. ''How are you feeling today, Jane?''
''Much stronger.'' She also felt more alert and focused than she had since she'd awakened from her coma the day before, even though there were aspects of her condition she still found very confusing. ''But I can't remember anything. Not even my own name.'' A note of desperation crept into her voice. ''You said temporary amnesia isn't unusual following a head injury, but it almost always goes away. Why isn't mine going away?''
''Every patient is different. I can't give you an exact timetable.'' Dr. Wesley flicked off the light and slipped it into the pocket of the white lab coat he wore over a faded T-shirt and jeans. He was youngish, no more than thirty-five, but his blue eyes radiated both intelligence and compassion, making her want to trust him. ''Maybe it would help you better understand your condition if I fill you in on some of the details of the accident and the injuries you sustained. Are you up for that?''
She nodded, although she wasn't at all certain that she was.
He pulled up a stool and sat down. ''The best we can tell, you were traveling alone down Big Bear Mountain. Does that ring any bells?''
She searched her mind. ''No.''
''There was a heavy rainstorm that night. The roads were very slick. Your car went over the side of the mountain into a deep ravine. According to an eyewitness, the vehicle rolled at least twice. If you hadn't been wearing your shoulder belt, you would probably have been thrown through the windshield.''
A horrifying image, made more so by the fact that she had trouble picturing her own face, even though she'd studied her features at length that morning in a hand mirror the nurse had given her.
She couldn't think of herself as Jane, either, but that was what everyone at the hospital called her. Jane Doe was the name they gave unidentified dead women, wasn't it? And contrary to her appearance, she was very much alive.
''At the bottom of the ravine, the car plunged into a river,'' Dr. Wesley said. ''Luckily, the man who saw you go over the mountain called 911 on his cell phone. He had ropes and a flashlight in his truck, and he climbed down the ravine to help you. But by the time he got to the bottom, the currents had swept both you and the car downstream. You must have still been conscious at that point because you were able to free yourself and swim away.
''When the man finally found you, you'd been washed up against an outcropping of rocks. He didn't know how badly you were hurt or how long you'd been underwater. He didn't even know if you were still alive, but once he got you out of the water, he administered CPR while he waited for the rescue team and the paramedics. He saved your life.''
She fought back sudden tears. It seemed so ungrateful that she had no recall, not even so much as a glimmer of this nameless, faceless hero who had saved her.
''You were suffering from hypothermia,'' Dr. Wesley continued. ''A broken wrist, multiple cuts and contusions, a severe head wound. You may have noticed we had to give you a new haircut.'' When his attempt at humor fell flat, he abandoned any pretense of a bedside manner and became briskly professional once again. ''You lost a lot of blood before the ambulance arrived. You were in shock. On the way to the hospital, you went into cardiac arrest.''
''Your heart stopped. You had to be resuscitated twice. Once in the ambulance and once in the E.R.''
She'd died and been brought back to life twice. Maybe Jane Doe was an appropriate name, after all.
''You slipped into a coma,'' he said. ''And until you woke up yesterday morning, we had no way of knowing the extent of the damage to your brain.''
She didn't say anything, but he must have seen the terror in her eyes because he hurried to reassure her. ''I know it sounds bad, but any trauma to the head can cause bruising of the cerebral cortex, which is the part of the brain that deals with memory. Amnesia is usually one of the first problems patients experience after a head injury, and it's one of the last of the cognitive functions to return.''
''But it does return. Right?''
''Most of the time.'' He hesitated, as if considering how much more he should tell her. ''There's still a lot about amnesia we don't understand, but what we do know is that different types of information are stored in different parts of the brain. What this means is that personal memories can be lost while more general memories are left intact. In other words, you can forget your name but still remember how to talk.''
''That's something to be thankful for, I guess.''
''It's a great deal to be thankful for. I've heard of patients who've had to relearn how to talk, how to walk, how to feed themselves. I think, under the circumstances, you can count yourself lucky.''
She felt ashamed of her self-pity. After what he'd just told her, it was a miracle she was alive.
''But to be honest,'' he said slowly, ''I'm a little concerned that your memory loss is as complete as it is. Normally, in retrograde amnesia such as yours, there are isolated events that the patient remembers quite well. Incidents that occurred a few weeks, months or even years prior to the injury. These 'islands of memories' can help trigger other memories. Usually during the healing process, the islands get larger and larger until memory is restored. In some instances, the use of photographs or personal stories from the patient's past can also help, but since your identification was lost in the accident and we don't know how to contact your next of kin, there's nothing much we can do but wait.''
''For how long?''
''As I said, each patient is different. Most memories are recovered within seventy-two hours or so after the injury is first sustained. In your case, the coma may have complicated the process. On the other hand, it also gave your brain time to heal.''
She stared up at him anxiously. ''What are you trying to tell me, Dr. Wesley?''
He met her gaze. ''The fact that you're still unable to retrieve memories three weeks after the trauma occurred could indicate that the damage to your brain is more severe than we anticipated. It's possible you may never get your memory back.''
By the end of the week, Jane was well enough to be moved from the ICU into a semiprivate room on the third floor. The other patient was an elderly woman with dandelion fluff for hair and blue-veined hands that fluttered like restless butterflies against the white sheets. She watched with avid curiosity while the nurse helped Jane settle in.
''I'm Addie,'' she finally blurted, as if she'd remained silent for as long as she could stand to. Propped up against a stack of pillows, she looked frail and wan, about a hundred years old, but her eyes gleamed with a kind of mischievous vitality that age and illness were hard-pressed to subdue. ''I have leukemia and I'm dying, but I'm not saying that to get your sympathy. I just don't want you lying there wondering why I have no eyelashes.''
Jane didn't quite know how to respond to such candor. ''They call me Jane Doe,'' she said hesitantly, ''because I don't know my real name. I have brain damage, and I've already clinically died twice.''
Addie stared at her for a moment, speechless. Then she burst out laughing. ''Okay, you win. Brain damage, amnesia, a double flat-liner. That makes leukemia sound downright boring.''
Jane hadn't meant to be funny, but Addie's laughter was infectious. She found herself grinning back at the older lady, as if the two of them shared some hilarious, private joke. The nurse paused at the door, gazing back at them and shaking her head, no doubt thinking they were both crazy. Her expression made Addie laugh even harder.
From that moment on, Jane didn't feel quite so alone. It was hard to explain, but she was drawn to Addie from the first, perhaps because they were both facing the unknown. In some ways what lay ahead of Jane seemed a little like death. A dark, one-way journey with no recognizable exits, no U-turns, no going back to the life she'd once had.
It was a frightening prospect, her future, but Addie had a way of helping her find humor in even the most unlikely circumstances. ''I like your hair,'' she'd remarked quite seriously the day Jane's bandages had come off, and she knew Jane was feeling particularly self-conscious about her appearance. ''Not everyone can wear a buzz cut, but it looks good on you. Of course,'' Addie added, smoothing her own cottony tufts, ''chemo has done wonders for my glorious tresses.''
Another day, when Jane had been brooding about her memory loss and how she would cope once she was out of the hospital, Addie had announced out of the blue, ''I think I'll call you Beth.''
''Why Beth?'' Jane asked reluctantly.
''It was my late granddaughter's name, and I've decided that you remind me of her.'' A rare shadow drifted across Addie's features, and her smile seemed to falter a little as she met Jane's gaze. ''I think she'd like you to have her name. It suits you.''
And somehow it did. Somehow, in just saying the name aloud, she became Beth, and it was a relief to let go of Jane Doe, a woman with no name, no memory, no past. She had a real name now, a real life, and because of Addie, the future didn't seem quite as terrifying as it once had.
And then the police came.
They were waiting for her one day when she returned from physical therapya young detective and his older sidekick. Addie was nowhere in sight. The nurse who helped Beth back to bed said the older woman had asked to be taken for a walk, but Beth suspected Addie's absence had been arranged by the police.
''I'm Detective MacMillan,'' the younger one told her. He was tall and lanky with a nice smile and a soft-spoken approach designed to put her at ease. It didn't. ''This is my partner, Sergeant Marsden. We've come to help you if we can.'' He nodded toward the second man, who remained just inside the doorway.
Beth glanced apprehensively at the other detective, a burly, middle-aged man with bitter lips and a hard, seasoned gaze that measured her mercilessly from across the room. When he bent to set his briefcase on the floor, his suit jacket gaped, revealing a gun tucked into a shoulder holster.
There was something about him, a hint of cruelty in his eyes, that made Beth nervous, frightened even.
She was glad he seemed content to keep his distance and let the taller, younger man do all the talking.
''The doctor says you're doing much better.'' MacMillan took a pen from his jacket pocket and flipped open his notebook. ''All right if we ask you a few questions?
''Yes, but I don't know if I'll be able to answer them.
''Let's give it a shot anyway.'' He glanced around. ''Mind if I sit?'' When she shook her head, he pulled up a chair next to her bed. ''Dr. Wesley told us you have amnesia. Pretty ironic, isn't it? Here Marsden and I have been waiting around for you to come out of your coma so you could tell us who you are and why you were in such a hurry to get down the mountain that night, and now that you're finally awake, you don t remember what happened.
When she said nothing in response, he cocked his head. ''You don't remember anything?"
''Nothing at all? You have no idea who you are?'' She shook her head.
He sighed. ''Well, that's a real problem, because no one else seems to know anything about you, either. Any identification you were carryingdriver's license, credit cardsmust have been lost in the crash. Or in the river.'' He paused, studying her with a pensive frown. ''It's a little strange, though. You've been in the hospital for, what? Three weeks? The nurses tell us that not one single person has been here asking about you. No one's called or been by the police station to report you missing, either. It's as if you appeared out of the blue on the mountain that night.