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Sean MacNeil gripped the steering wheel of his Ford Explorer and stared out the front windshield at the aging building. Ivy climbed up the side of the red brick, stretching and curling, reaching out for life.
But inside there was no life. Only souls passing time until they reached their next stop, empty minds content in mindlessness.
The windshield wipers stroked away the rain, now coming in torrents over the New England countryside. He wished that just for today he could forget who he was, who she was. That just for today, he could go to a ball game or movie without thinking of her. She'd never know the difference. She lived in a land of contentment sitting in her corner, rocking, humming, shutting out everything that happened before last spring, when deception had obliterated her calm, happy life.
The chain grew heavy around his soul; the only relief was his obligatory visit. Except for this past month, he'd done his weekly chore. He'd driven out to the remote hospital and checked on the patient they'd named Mary, the woman he knew as someone else.
If only he could rid himself of this curse. But some mistakes were eternal ones. And "Mary" was his.
The rhythmic swish of the wipers calmed him somehow, the frantic pace of his heart slowing to a steady beat. The rain was letting up. Maybe he'd spot a rainbow or two before the day was out.
He swung open the door and stepped onto the slick asphalt, hesitating before he made the twenty-yard trek to the front door. The staff would be pleased that someone cared enough to visit. A nurse would lead him to Mary's room, where he'd find the twenty-seven-year-old woman huddled in a corner, her fingers wrapped around a tattered stuffed animal. A rabbit? A dog? He wasn't sure. He'd never gotten that close.
Flipping his raincoat collar to shield his neck, he vaulted the brick stairs two at a time. He reached the landing and gave his head a shake, ridding his hair of excess moisture.
He knocked on the door. Paced. Waited. Knocked again. Damn, he wanted this over. He wanted to perform his duty, turn tail and race the two hundred miles back to the City.
"One moment please," a voice said through the intercom.
He glanced over his shoulder at the Maine countryside. Trees glowed yellow, orange and red with the coming of fall. Peaceful. That's what he hated about the country. It promised something he knew didn't exist.
His gaze drifted down to his black high-tops, remembering a time when the shine on his shoes was more important than his next meal.
The front door creaked open. Nurse Redmond greeted him with a scowl, her face pale, her gray hair pulled back into a taut bun.
"Mr. MacNeil, we haven't seen you in a while." She escorted him to the main desk where he scribbled his name in the visitors' log.
"I've been out of town on business," he said.
"Mary will be happy to see you."
Happy? Mary? Hell, she didn't know where she was, who Sean was. "If you say so."
"You must have faith," Nurse Redmond said. "I've worked in many hospitals and have seen some amazing things. Miracles can happen."
Her eyes were so round and serious. He couldn't laugh, not in the woman's face. Let her float in her bubble of fantasy. Let someone still believe in miracles.
"I'd like to see Mary," he said.
She pursed her lips and led him down the hall to the north wing.
He ignored the cries of patients that echoed down the barren white hallway. Every time he left this place the hollowness of their cries haunted him at night, waking him with their agony. Nurse Redmond greeted another, younger nurse.
"Lydia. This is Mr. MacNeil. Could you take him the rest of the way? I have to check on Mrs. Banks."
Nurse Redmond avoided eye contact with Sean. She lifted her chin and marched down the hall, disappearing into a room.
Contempt. That's the weapon she'd aimed at him. Contempt for not believing in miracles.
The same expression that stared back at him every day he looked in the mirror.
He turned his attention to Nurse Lydia. Young and fresh, like Mary probably looked ten years ago.
"Are you okay?" she asked.
He shoved his hands into his raincoat pockets.
Tired of life. Tired of death. Tired of serving a sentence he didn't deserve.
She smiled and led him down the hall toward his "wife's" room. He followed slowly, struggling with each step. God, why hadn't he listened to Connors? Why hadn't he stuck with the original plan instead of improvising one of his own? What had he been thinking?
That's the point. He hadn't used his brain; he'd acted from the heart. Never again. "Will you be coming back Saturday?" the young nurse asked.
"We have a special variety show planned."
"Today is the only day I can make it." The only day I can muster the emotional strength.
They turned the corner to Mary's room. "That's a shame. It's a great show."
Great for whom? Not for Sean, who fought back an inferno of pain each time he visited his "wife" and knew that he was to blame for her condition.
"Mary's the star of the show," the nurse continued.
"She doesn't even know where she is."
"Maybe not. But she knows she's going to be in the show. She's very exited about it. She told me herself."
She told me herself. Impossible.
He touched the sleeve of her white polyester uniform. "What did you say?"
She glanced over her shoulder at him. "I said, Mary told me she was excited about performing."
"Mary hasn't spoken in nearly six months."
"We've made great progress in the last month. Dr. Zinkerman's new drug has done wonders. Mary can even write her name." She opened the door and he followed her inside. "Can't you, Mary?"
He glanced across the room. The woman they'd named Mary sat in her rocking chair, staring out the window as she had so many times during his visits.
Only this time, she turned at the sound of the nurse's voice.
Something was different. They'd cut her hair, feathered it back about her face like she'd worn it as a teenager. Her shirt didn't list off her shoulder, her cheeks were more pinkish than white. She looked almost normal. He absently took a step back, bracing himself against the wall for support.
"Mary?" Nurse Lydia said.
The sound of Nurse Lydia's voice put Mary at ease. Nurse Lydia was kind and helpful, and today she'd even brought a visitor. Maybe it was someone who could tell her who she was and where she'd come from. She put her glasses to the bridge of her nose to get a better look.
Her heart stopped cold and she choked on rising panic.
Oh God, no. Not him. "Mary? What's wrong?" Nurse Lydia asked. She couldn't speak, her voice frozen in her chest. Rain slapping the car window; tears streaming down her face. Blinded by bright lights...coming toward her...jerk the wheel. Her breath torn from her chest.
"Nooo," she moaned. Voice—her own voice. Speaking, pleading.
Get him out of here, she wanted to cry. Out of her room. She didn't want to crash, didn't want to get hurt again. "Gooooo!" she cried. They'd have to make him leave, wouldn't they? They wouldn't force her to be with him in the same room, alone. She'd just learned to use her mouth, her tongue, to form words. She couldn't use it before, afraid of what would come out. That sound. The shrill screech that rang in her ears. Her piercing cry for help.
She gasped for air, but her throat constricted. Stars danced before her eyes. She struggled to focus on the picture across the room. It showed an enchanted castle on a mountain. That's where she belonged. Not here, surrounded by sick people. She grabbed her throat, willed it to relax, to open up. Her eyes watered and her mouth went dry.
"Help me get her on the bed!" Nurse Lydia said. No. He'd touch her. He'd hurt her again.
"Noooo," she cried, using her last breath to fend off the monster who stood motionless in the corner of her room. She knew she was weak.Vulnerable and at a disadvantage. But that wouldn't stop her from fighting.
"Station One, we need a doctor up here, right away," Nurse Lydia called into the intercom.
Mary curled her fingers tighter around the arms of the metal chair. The man stepped closer.
"It's okay, Mary. You'll be okay." The nurse approached her.
Mary couldn't take her eyes off the huge man dressed in black, eyes like ice.
"Go to her." Lydia motioned to the man.
No, not him!
He took a step. Then another. He didn't look as if he wanted to help. Of course he didn't. He wanted her dead. He crouched in front of her. She clenched the arms of the chair for strength. What would he do? Strangle her? Right here in front of Nurse Lydia?
She looked away, searched over his shoulder for Nurse Lydia's calming eyes and warm smile. The man cupped her chin with his forefinger and thumb and guided her gaze back to his dark, icy stare. She closed her eyes, not wanting her last image on earth to be those cruel, green eyes. She struggled to inhale air through her nose. Nothing worked. Everything broken. Her leg, her hip, her heart.