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"Rolland, you're doing great."
Rolland Jones didn't doubt for a minute that he was doing better than great. When he'd first arrived at Ryder Rehabilitation and Spinal Center, he couldn't even sit up without help. Now he was in a mad race to the finish on his stationary bike against Horace, his physical therapist.
Horace perspired like crazy as if they'd been riding for hours, when they'd been on for only twenty-five minutes. Rolland couldn't help but laugh at the enthusiastic man who never seemed to have a bad day.
"Okay, big Ro," Horace challenged. "What is a bi-athalon? Forty-five seconds."
Rolland's legs were longer but he stayed at a moderate pace as he'd been taught. "A biathalon is a cross-country skiing and shooting event."
"Correct." Horace pumped his arms in the air cheering. He picked up his water bottle and used it as a pretend microphone. "And now for the final two thousand points, and to be crowned the unofficial, unolympic winner of the miniature-size trophy of a chocolate candy bar with peanuts, you must answer this question correctly."
Rolland was already laughing. "Give me the question."
"Sir, don't rush the announcer. Who is the all-time highest scoring male basketball team of the U.S. Olympic Games? Sixty seconds." He started an offbeat drumroll that spun crazily throughout the workout room to the other patients and therapists.
Shelby, a physical therapist who occasionally worked with Horace, stopped by. "You're looking good, Rolland," she said, mischievously.
Rolland had no problem identifying Shelby because of her green eyes and red hair. One of the first things he'd learned with his injury was how to associate people with their eye and haircolor.
"Shelby, don't cheat and help him, or when you need chocolate, I'm not going to help you."
Shelby's mouth dropped open in mock hurt. "Are you accusing me of impropriety? I thought Horace and I were friends, right, Rolland?"
"That's right, Shelby. I'm hurt for you."
"Shake your head, Rolland," she told him, and he did.
Horace didn't buy it for one second. "You two are full of hot rocks. Shelby," Horace stood pedaling fast, "if you tell him, you're going to suffer. You know how you get. You're gonna need some chocolate."
Rolland laughed. "Give me a hint, Shelby. Come on, my friend. I know where he keeps the candy stashed."
She pretended to fall asleep, with her hands by her cheek. "I'm so tired. I can't wait to go home and have sweet"
"The Dream Team!" Rolland shouted just as Horace hopped off the bike and ran after Shelby who sought refuge behind two large male nurses.
They grinned at Horace who was the most senior therapist because of his candidacy for his Ph.D. But he maintained a sense of humor about himself and made everyone laugh by jumping around, never quite reaching Shelby.
Horace went around the room, harassing other patients by doing a couple squats with Harold, and some legs lifts with Lavenia, and some arm curls with Maven, until their therapists shooed him away.
Rolland mopped his brow while Horace guzzled water. "Four miles, man. I swear, I think you're trying to kill me."
"Me?" Horace shook his head. "I've lost fifteen pounds since you got here. My wife thinks I've got another woman. I keep telling her it's you." He chuckled. "She can't believe I'm losing weight because of a dude." Horace tried to look disgusted, but lost his frown to a smile. "You're not even my type."
"And people think I have the brain injury," Rolland said, playfully shoving Horace as they headed for the weight room. Everyone applauded as they walked by.
Horace bowed on his way out. "Second show, three o'clock," he called.
"Do you think I was in shape before the accident?" Rolland asked him when Horace caught up in the state-of-the-art weight room. They passed the therapy tables where Rolland remembered spending many a day getting his knee back to working order.
"Yes. You had good muscle tone when you got here two months ago. You spent a month in that hospital in Las Vegas and that was to heal the fractures and for reconstructive surgery of your knee. You had good muscle memory. That told me you'd been athletic."
They passed a mirror and Rolland didn't stop and look at himself as he used to. He'd had work done on his face, too, but he was healed for all intent and purposes.
Most of the people here were in some form or another of reconstruction. Be it physical or mental. Fortunately, he was, physically whole. It was his brain that didn't know who he was.
"Come on and show me what you got," Horace said, adjusting the weights to forty pounds for the chest press.
Rolland sat down, planted his feet and breathed through the first ten reps.
"Good. You got ten more in you?"
Rolland nodded. "With this brain injury, do you ever remember your favorite color?"
"Possibly. Good," Horace praised. "Even if you don't, you develop new taste. It's like, do you like green now? Is that important? Is your wife green? Does that matter?"
Rolland laughed. "You're sick, you know that?"
Horace shrugged. "Yes, sir, I do, and I appreciate my gift. You're meeting someone new today. Melanie Wysh. W-y-s-h. Wysh. It's not the conventional way you'd spell wish."
"No. That's w-i-s-h. A good sentence would be I wish I was taller than you. You're an average-looking bloke at six-feet tall, and I'm smashing looking at five-foot eight. Want to try ten more reps?"
"Yes." Rolland did eight and struggled through the last two. He was almost done at Ryder and this Melanie would have a lot to say about his next steps in his life.
Horace handed him ten-pound weights. "Are you comfortable with the weights?"
"Yes. Is Melanie already here?" Rolland asked the same questions each time he was introduced to someone new, but Horace never got tired of them.
"Yes, she is."
"Have I seen her before?"
"Occasionally. She's a tiny woman. About five-four. She wears dresses all the time. Brown-skinned. Nice lady."
"Is she black?"
"Yes, she's a black lady."
"Okay." Rolland closed his eyes and tried to picture her, as his brain flipped through the women he'd met at the facility. He still couldn't place her, but the frustration he used to feel from not remembering someone didn't come today. "What else do you know about her? Is her hair short like Purdy's?"
"Nobody's hair is like Purdy's, and you don't want it to be with that permanent hairnet she wears."
Rolland laughed and pumped the weights. "I don't think I've met Melanie. Has she seen me?"
"No. She hasn't seen your crazy-looking self."
Rolland took the ribbing in stride. "I'm a lot better than I was. I don't know what I looked like before, but this isn't bad, right?"
"You are correct there, my friend. Do ten curls, slowly. Melanie arrived two months ago, but she had to go through training on how to do things the Ryder way, and then she took over cases for Barbara Greenspan who went out early on maternity leave."
"The lady with the cats." Rolland chuckled. "I'm glad she's gone."
Horace held his curled arm for a second, then guided it down. "You scared of cats?"
"I don't know, am I? She had like fifteen cat calendars, cat mugs, cat hats and cat chair covers. Her office is enough to scare anybody."
Horace laughed and Rolland kept pumping iron, alternating arms. "She had a cat clock that chased a mouse. Do they screen people before they hire them here?" Rolland put the weights on his leg and watched Horace lie on the floor and laugh. "Get up. You're making me look bad."
"You'll like Melanie," Horace told him. "She's really good. She'll help you return to society with hardly any glitches."
"Not if she has cats, she won't."
"Now listen, in all seriousness."
Rolland stopped moving. This was their code phrase when to listen closely. "You're almost done here. Physically, you've passed every test. The four-mile ride, and then you shook your head when Shelby was talking to you. Coordination, balance, stamina. You did it."
Rolland leaned back and smiled. "Really? Well I'll be" he frowned. "I'll be what, Horace?"
"A son of a gun."
"That's right. I'll be a son of a gun. Why aren't we celebrating with some of that bad chocolate cake Purdy cooks in the lunch room?"
"You have high-class taste buds, too, but don't say that too loud. I like Purdy's food." Horace looked around as if Purdy had spies. He crouched down in front of Rolland. "The truth is that physically you're healed. You might have a little difficulty with balance, but otherwise you're okay. And you've got your cane, if you need it."
"I don't need it."
"Okay," Horace said, putting his hands out, knowing how Rolland felt about it. "We didn't know Barbara was going out early on maternity leave, or we'd have already started you with someone on the last phase of your treatment."
"I'm not mad about that, Horace."
"I know the cat thing. Melanie is taking you on as a favor to Barbara. You have to get past Melanie Wysh before you can go into the world. You may never remember your old life, but you can start a new one. She's the gatekeeper."
"Melanie has the key, right?" Rolland said slowly.
"That's right. Your memory is getting better every day. You're remembering all the new things you've been taught. I feel as if my child is growing up and going off into the world."
"I'll miss this place."
"You can always come back to visit, but once you're gone you're going to be fine. I promise. Besides, you'll always know where to find me. Let's finish up and get some cake."
Rolland did ten triceps presses and stretched. The other therapists watched him and he realized they'd been charting his progress all along. These people had become his friends to replace the ones he didn't know if he had.
"Horace, I'm going to shower and change. I want to meet Melanie today. Let's get this last phase started."
The door to the gym opened and Horace looked around him. "I guess you're going to get your wish sooner than later. There's Melanie now."
"Dude, I'm sweaty." Rolland threw the towel over his face and mopped himself dry.
"She won't care. She's down-to-earth people, like me. Melanie," Horace called. "You might as well meet your new client. Melanie Wysh, this is my pal, Rolland."
Rolland pulled the towel off his head and shoved it under his arm before extending his hand. "I'm sorry for my current state. I'm Rolland."
Her eyes were the color of rust, her skin warm-looking like honey-baked bread. She'd been smiling as she walked, her hair bouncing in frivolous curls. Then she gasped twice and her hand flew to her cheek.
Her lips lost their smile, and she licked her teeth showing just a hint of pink tongue.
"Is everything all right?"
She nodded in a jerky manner.
Her hand fluttered in mid-air and he took it, knowing it would be as soft as it was. He'd learned people would sometimes react oddly to him and he forgave her.
"I'm Melanie Wysh," she said. "And your name again?" She reclaimed her hand and put it behind her back. Her hair was red. He loved red hair.
"I don't know. Three months ago it became Rolland Jones."
The colored letters on the side of Rolland's case file seemed to follow her as she walked barefoot through her cottage home. Melanie carried the glass of wine to the living room sectional and sat down, folding her legs beneath her.
Plumping the pillows, she leaned back and felt her back relax, yet the tension in her body remained until she reached for the file that had dominated her mind. She used her fingernail and opened it.
John Doe aka Rolland Jones had been in a car accident in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 16, a little over three months ago.