The Girl in a Coma

The Girl in a Coma

by John Moss


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781929345243
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date: 08/02/2016
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 14 - 17 Years

About the Author

John Moss has published books on a number of subjects, including murder, Ireland and the Canadian Arctic. He has been a literature professor, an endurance athlete (Boston Marathon, eleven times; the Ironman in Hawaii, once) and a scuba diving instructor. He has kept bees and swans, and raised horses and dogs. He and his wife, Beverley Haun, have travelled to over seventy countries. They are restoring a stone farmhouse in Peterborough, Ontario, which is older than both of them put together.

Read an Excerpt

The Girl in a Coma

By John Moss

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2016 John Moss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-929345-24-3



Imagine you can't move. You can feel yourself being touched but you can't tell where. You think you are lying down but you can't be sure. You can see nothing, taste nothing, smell nothing, but you remember what it was like to do these things. It is not as if you have been this way forever. It's like being dead but you're not dead.

My name is Allison Briscoe.

They say I'm in a coma.

They think I'm a vegetable, for glory's sake — they call it a persistent vegetative state.

They don't know I'm listening when they discuss my case.

I lie here as still as a corpse. They don't know I can think. My heart beats, I can feel it inside my skull, but no matter how hard I concentrate I can't make the blood rush any faster. I can't slow it down. If I could, maybe I could signal I'm in here, I'm alive, this is me. But I can't.

When they took me off life support I didn't die. Now they don't know what to do with me.

My brother, David, calls me Potato.

When he first called me that, my mother was horrified. He knew I would think it was funny. He's two years older than me. He's kind of gawky, while I'm more on the pretty side. Or was. Still am. He lives at home. I live in a hospital, if you can call it living.

Well, yes you can, and I do. I may be as still as death, but I'm alive. And I'm going to stay that way — for a lifetime, at least.

I can identify most of my doctors and nurses and orderlies by their voices and by their different touches. Touch is like a signature, even though I can't tell what part of me they're touching.

My only visitors these days are David and my mother. I don't have a dad, to speak of. When my mother comes in, she tries to wrap me in sadness. "Allison, Allison." She chants my name over and over. "Allison, Allison, Allison." She doesn't know how to mourn for a daughter who seems to be dead but refuses to die. She cries a lot. But you can't cry forever. Me, I'd rather be locked in my head than be nowhere at all. I mean, they haven't buried me yet!

So no tears, that's my motto.

No tears.

Imagine being music that no one can hear. That's what it's like. Except when I sleep. I call it sleep but I don't know whether anyone else can tell the difference. I mean, I'm just lying here, eyes closed, same as always. I dream a lot.

Lately I've been dreaming about this one girl over and over, and I remember the dreams. They're not like regular dreams that fall apart when you wake up. These dreams tell me a story, they seem to be trying to give me a person to be when I can't be myself, someone who can walk and talk and run and laugh.

The girl I'm dreaming about, she's dead, I guess. She must be, because she lived a long time ago. But she's as real as anyone ever was.

When I'm dreaming, it's as if I'm inside her life. I'm still fifteen when I'm her but I wear dull colors, shapeless dresses with long sleeves and no collar. I wear coarse black stockings and a black pinafore done up with pins. There are no zippers, no buttons, no hooks and eyes. My hair is parted in the middle and held back with a piece of twine.

Personally, I like bright colors with neat names: chartreuse, magenta, vermillion, azure, topaz, indigo, emerald.

The girl in my dreams sees colors like that all around her but she doesn't have names for them. They're part of God's grandeur, she thinks.

Myself, I've never had much time for God. Long before I was shot in the head I stopped going to church. In my dreams I believe in God, I believe in religion. To make religion work, you have to believe that it works. In my dreams I am a Mennonite. We sometimes call ourselves the Plain People. We like things to be plain and simple.

We live in a time warp. We live in the past: it's how we imagine the past must have been. But nothing is really that simple when the rest of the world moves ahead.

I don't actually know whether Mennonites like to live in the past but that's where they live. And not just any past. They live in the times when their religion was invented, about five hundred years ago. That's when their ancestors rebelled from the established church so they could live plain and simple lives closer to God. That's what they believe. When I'm asleep, I believe it too.

When I'm awake I'm in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, North America, planet Earth. When I'm asleep, I'm in Pennsylvania. That's in the United States but in my dreams the United States doesn't exist yet.

When I'm awake, it's now.

I'm here.

I must be in a hospital room: I imagine there's a window and then in my mind I see a window. There has to be a door, so there's a big door. There's probably a table or a dresser but no television. I mean, what's the point?

My days are uneventful. It's not like when I'm working at Tim Horton's. Every day at Timmy's is different, and yet each is sort of the same. I was planning on going to work there full time as soon as I turned sixteen. I'm thinking now maybe I'll stay in school. I like it at Timmy's but I don't want to serve coffee and doughnuts for the rest of my life.

David will graduate next year. He wasn't impressed when I told him I was going to drop out. My mom doesn't care but to him it's a big deal. He's very smart. I don't know whether he's smart because he stayed in school or if he stayed in school because he's smart. Maybe it's all the same.

If you want to know how smart I am, just ask Jaimie Retzinger.

No, don't bother.

Come on, Allison, think about something else. That's me, talking to myself —

Sometimes I used to try really hard not to think of anything at all.

Thinking can make you unhappy.

I think a lot now. There's nothing else to do.

Sometimes I think about taking a bullet in the head.

I don't dwell on it, but it's hard to ignore.

I worked late at Tim's one night last winter. I helped to close up. On my way home, there was a gunshot, there was screaming. I was screaming. And then there was nothing. Now I'm in a hospital, in a room with a window and a big door.

In the mornings the doctors arrive with their assistants. They discuss my case. I don't change much. They say I'm not getting better, but I don't think I'm getting worse. And I'll tell you, I'm not ready to die. So I persist. Remember: persistent vegetative state. I persist.

They say it was a random bullet but it wasn't. I can't figure out why anyone would shoot me but I know whoever it was, he did it on purpose. Someone wanted me dead.

It was a male, I'm pretty sure of that. I wonder if he's satisfied now? Or does he need to finish me off? It hardly seems worth the effort. There might have been someone else in the car, sitting in the shadows. I'm not sure.

I don't know how long I've been like this. There were times when I wasn't aware of time passing. I was in a deep coma. Then I came out of it but nobody noticed.

Right now, I'm aware of every second of every minute of every hour, except when I'm dreaming. When I'm in a dream, I live inside time like an ordinary person. When I'm awake, it's more like I'm on the edge of time, looking in from outside.

Each night, when this place quiets down, I drift off to sleep and enter my dream. And that's when I'm real.


The girl in the black pinafore looked at herself in the window. It was a dull day and she could see her reflection floating in the glass. She wondered if she were pretty. She felt guilty for wondering. She had never seen herself in a mirror. She blushed and lowered her eyes.

Rebecca Haun was sure Jacob Shantz thought she was pretty. He would never say or admit such a thing. Rather, he might confess to being a little put off by her slight frame and high spirits.

Jacob was almost sixteen. He had finished his studies last summer and now worked alongside his father and brothers on their farm.

A boy and a girl never shared a desk at school, but for the last three years Rebecca and Jacob had shared an aisle, so that she was almost as close to him as to Sharon Ebie. Sharon had been her seatmate since the first grade, or what they called the first book.

Rebecca always sat close to the edge of her seat to be closer to Jacob. She was sure Jacob did the same thing, although if anyone ever noticed he would have become angry and denied it.

When he got angry his cheeks turned bright red. When he laughed, they turned bright red. Actually, whenever he allowed himself feelings, his cheeks turned bright red.

Usually he kept his feelings to himself. He never told anyone about his father but everyone in the school knew he beat him. Even the teacher. Sometimes Jacob came to school with swollen eyes and it wasn't from crying. He had bruises on his arms, one on top of another. New ones appeared before the old ones had healed.

After Jacob left school, Rebecca saw him mostly on Sundays. He would drive his smaller brothers and sisters to church in a farm wagon and nod in her direction when their buggy came close. He was now old enough that he wore a broad-brimmed black hat like his father. When he nodded, his cheeks were bright red.

Rebecca worried. She thought his high color was from seeing her, and that pleased her, but she also knew he was feeling overwhelmed. He believed in God and the wrath of his father and in George Washington. That was a dangerous combination. Almost everyone else in Warwick, Pennsylvania, believed in God and King George.

It was almost impossible among Mennonites to separate the King from the Lord who appointed him. Their loyalty was not to the British crown but to God.

The Revolution loomed ominously over their lives. Men in Warwick talked openly about what Washington's rag-tag army was fighting for. Women talked quietly among themselves. The women spoke about the horrors of war. The men talked about the evils of war. They all accepted their holy obligation to stay out of it. The world beyond their Mennonite community in Lancaster County was their concern.

That morning in early April, Rebecca helped her brothers and sisters get ready for church. They always wore clean clothes on Sunday and their outfits were always the same. During the long service she kept the young ones in order with a scowl, but she was restless herself. After church, Jacob looked her directly in the eye as the families around them were clambering into black buggies and battered wagons or standing in the shade to exchange small talk and chat about last year's crops and next year's weather.

Jacob and Rebecca were still too young to be courting. In a year or two, he would be able to visit on the occasional Sunday afternoon for an hour, and a year later they might take buggy rides through the countryside. She wondered if that was when she would be overwhelmed by love. She liked Jacob, he was her secret special friend, but she didn't love him yet. She hoped it would happen before they were wed.

Jacob indicated he wanted to talk to her privately.

Rebecca would never disobey her father so she did not ask for permission to slip away, she just did. She knew it was wrong and this upset her, but she felt she had no choice.

She and Jacob met in the shadows on the far side of the church, and for the first time in their lives they talked directly to each other. Jacob's cheeks were bright red and Rebecca's heart was beating so fast she could hardly breathe. Perhaps this was the beginning of love. She hoped so, it would make everything easier.

"Rebecca, I will be leaving tonight," he said very formally. "I am going to join up with General Washington."

"You should not tell me!" she exclaimed. His confession seemed an unbearable secret. Then she recovered herself and addressed him with a formality equal to his own.

"I am sorry to know that, Jacob. You will never come back

"I might."

"We are Plain People, not soldiers. The war is not our concern."

He shuffled his boots in the spring dirt. He was not searching for words, he was simply waiting for her to realize there was no argument that would change his mind.

She found his commitment exciting, though she had no words, either, to describe the unfamiliar feelings running through her.

"You will be killed, Jacob," she at last declared with conviction.

"Perhaps not." His eyes glowed.

"You will not be allowed to come home. The elders will never permit it. And your father ... aren't you afraid of your father?"

He smiled his rare private smile. Rebecca offered him a smile in return, but hers was neither rare nor mysterious. She was often admonished by her teachers and parents for smiling too easily. This world was not such a happy place as she seemed to imagine.

They stood facing each other, close but not touching. She had no right to tell him what he could do. But she felt her future was being reshaped as she looked into his eyes, trying in vain to see her reflection.

Suddenly they kissed. It was a sweet kiss, their lips were pursed, their arms remained at their sides. Rebecca realized that Jacob didn't kiss her, they kissed each other.

Then Jacob stood back. He was beet red. He lowered his eyes, wheeled out into the April sun, around the side of the church and out of sight. Rebecca remained in the shadow of the church, trembling.



When I wake up, I remember everything I dreamed about Rebecca. It's hard to believe Rebecca doesn't remember me. But then Rebecca was alive two hundred years before I was born. I am a vegetable in a hospital room in Peterborough, Ontario, and Rebecca was a kid on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Maybe I'm just making her up out of stories I heard from my Grandmother Friesen.

Nana can't get here to see me. She lives in an old house in Niagara-on-the-Lake. She uses a walker and gets around town but it's difficult for her to travel. And there's not much here for her to see.

Nana is a Sunday Christian but she used to talk about our Mennonite ancestors who came up to Canada during the American Revolution. They were called United Empire Loyalists because they were loyal to King George and the British Empire. Americans thought they were traitors and were happy to see them leave. Loyalists and traitors: it's funny how you can be opposite things at the same time.

It's like me, being alive and dead, when really I'm neither.

Anyway, in the evening, David and my mother visit together. When they leave, I lie very still, waiting to hear the heavy door close, marking the end of my day. The door closes, the lights must be out. I want to sleep now and enter Rebecca's world again. But I can hear breathing and it isn't my own.

I wait for something to happen.

Nothing happens.

I can hear myself being watched.

Is it him? Is he thinking about how he shot me?

Time passes. It's torture when you're waiting and don't know what for. Then I hear the door swing open again. I can feel the difference in the air. He's gone.

So what was that all about?

How can you be scared when you're a vegetable? What's left to be afraid of? Being sliced and diced, chopped and shredded? I dunno, but I am. The little life I have left is all that I have; it is precious. When I drift off to sleep, it's a tremendous relief.

Nighttime for me will be another day for Rebecca Haun.


There was a commotion outside the window of the upstairs front bedroom Rebecca shared with her sisters in the weathered farmhouse. She could hear men's voices; they were speaking urgently. The boys were still asleep in the next room. Her mother and father had been doing chores for an hour, well before the sun had broken over the horizon.

She scrambled from bed and looked down. Johannes Haun, her father, was staring up at her window. Rebecca was one of four sisters and four brothers, but she knew that the men were talking about her. Her father saw her through the glass and waved for her to come down.

She dressed quickly ran down the narrow stairs, splashed icy water on her face from the basin in the sink, and slipped on her boots. She grabbed a shawl from behind the door and walked out into the yard.

"Rebecca," her father said in his sternest voice, "what do you know about Jacob Shantz?"

"I know him."

"He has disappeared. What do you know about that?"

She couldn't lie, especially to her father. But she didn't know what he wanted to hear. The two men beside him were British soldiers. One thing she did know was that Jacob was in trouble.


Excerpted from The Girl in a Coma by John Moss. Copyright © 2016 John Moss. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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