Death Angel (Chapter Eighteen)

SHE SWAM IN AND OUT OF CONSCIOUSNESS. SHE PREFERRED "out," because then she wasn't aware of the pain. The pain was a bitch. It was the biggest bitch she'd ever tackled, and most of the time it kicked her ass. There were times, when the drugs were either wearing off enough to let her think but still keep the pain somewhat at bay, or when the drugs were taking hold with exactly the same result, when she knew that this was the price she had to pay for that second chance. There was no magic healing, no easy trip back to the land of the living. She had to grin and bear it, though there was no grinning and an awful lot of bearing.

Every decision she'd made in her life, every step she'd taken, had led her straight to that deserted road and the accident. That was the point at which she'd exited, and the point at which she'd been tossed back. No detours allowed, no shortcuts from dead to perfectly healed.

She remembered, with a clarity even the drugs couldn't affect, every moment of what had happened after she died. Real time, though, was more hazy. Sometimes she would hear the nurses talking when they were in her ICU cubicle, the words drifting in and out of her brain and sometimes making sense, but just as often not. When she did understand the words, she felt a detached wonder: a tree stuck in her chest? That was ridiculous. But hadn't she looked down and seen something like that? Her memory of that time before, or between, was fuzzy. Though if she'd had a tree stuck through her, it would certainly explain how she felt physically, and why the agony in her chest seemed to expand to every cell of her body. She had no sense of time, of what day it was, or anything beyond the bed she was on and the unceasing battle she fought with the Great Bitch of Pain.

The nurses talked to her, too, explaining over and over what had happened to her, what they were doing, why they were doing it. She didn't care, so long as they delivered the drugs that kept the Great Bitch at bay. Of course, there came a time-way too soon, by her way of thinking-when her surgeon ordered a decrease in the drugs. He wasn't the one in agony, with his sternum cut in two, so what did he care? He was the one wielding the saw and scalpel, not the one on the receiving end. She had only a vague idea which of her visitors was the surgeon, but as her mind began clearing she memorized some particularly salty things she wanted to say to him. Okay, so he'd had to cut her sternum in half, but cutting her drugs in half? Bastard.

If everything she'd seen and experienced was supposed to make her sweet and forbearing now that she had a second chance, she'd already failed that test. She didn't feel at all sweet or forbearing. She felt like someone who'd had her sternum sawed in two and her heart hauled out and used as a soccer ball.

As she gradually left the drug-induced fog, for a while she couldn't think of anything except the Great Bitch and how she could get through the next hour, because without the full power of drugs she and the Bitch were constant companions. By then the nurses were getting her out of bed a couple of times a day, moving her to a chair so she could sit up-yeah, as if the hospital bed wouldn't crank to a sitting position and she wouldn't have to choke back the screams of agony every move brought. All they had to do was press a button and the head of the bed would rise and, hello, she could just lie there and ride it like a wave.

But no, she had to get up. She had to walk, if what she did could be called walking. She called it the hunched-over-in-agony shuffle, accomplished by sliding her feet instead of actually lifting them, and dealing with all the tubes and lines and needles and drains in her body, and trying to keep her ass covered at the same time because all she could wear-sort of wear-was one of those miserable cotton hospital gowns and it wasn't even tied, just kind of draped over her with just one of her arms actually through a sleeve. What modesty she'd had was quickly abused; a hospital wasn't the place for privacy, of any kind.

The nurses talked to her all the time, encouraging her each and every step, whether it was actually making it the two steps to the chair they made her sit in, or managing to take a sip of water by herself, or even the spoonful of applesauce she took on her own when they started letting her have some actual food. They constantly asked questions, trying to get her to talk, trying to get information out of her, but something more had happened to her than a miraculous second chance: she had stopped talking.

When she was conscious, her brain never stopped working-slowly, perhaps, but it still worked. After the surgeon began weaning her off the drugs, she felt as if her head was teeming with thoughts, more thoughts than her skull could hold. At first the lack of connection between her brain and her tongue bothered her, but as her thoughts gradually cleared she realized that the cause of her silence wasn't brain damage, it was a sort of information overload. Until she had things sorted out for herself, this verbal short-circuit was her mind's way of protecting her.

There was so much she needed to think about. They didn't seem to know who she was, because on each shift, a nurse would ask her name. But why wouldn't they know? Where was her purse? Her driver's license was in her wallet. Had her purse been stolen? She didn't think so. She had a memory, she thought it was a memory, of him-the man, the killer-getting her purse, then tossing it into the car. Would he have gotten her driver's license? Why on earth would he want it? But even though she couldn't think of a reason for him to take her license, that had to be why no one knew who she was. Had he inadvertently done her a favor?

She wasn't certain who she was, not any longer. Drea, the creature she'd invented, was dead. She had been Drea, but now she wasn't. She wasn't certain who she was now. Names…what did a name mean? To Drea it had meant a lot; the plain Andie had been left in the dirt, and the fancy Drea had taken her place.

There was nothing wrong with fancy, but there had been a lot wrong with Drea. Lying in the windowless cubicle, unable to tell if it was day or night, time marked only by the shift change of the nurses who took care of her, she looked at herself, her old self, in the harsh light of a new reality.

She had been incredibly stupid. Instead of using men like Rafael, and taking pride in it, they had been using her. They had wanted only her body, and that was what she'd given them, so exactly how had she been using them? They'd been willing to pay her and she'd been willing to be paid, so that had made her exactly what she'd always sworn she wasn't: a whore. Not one of them, and especially not Rafael, had cared one whit if she had a thought in her head or any emotions or interests, likes or dislikes. Not one of them had seen her as a person, because none of them had cared, one way or another. She'd been completely disposable to them; the only value she'd had was a sexual one.

But they had held her cheaply because she'd held herself cheaply. She couldn't remember a time in her life when she'd ever valued herself, when she had ever held herself to a higher standard. Not once as an adult had she ever made a decision based on what was right, what she should do; instead, she had gone for whatever paid her the most, benefited her the most. That had been her only criterion. Maybe most people also used that as the basis of their decisions most of the time, but they also went out of their way to help friends, they sacrificed their own material needs to provide for their children, or their aged parents, or they gave to charity or something. She'd done none of that. She had looked out for Drea-first, last, and always.

Now the harsh eye she turned on herself was merciless. She saw all of her faults, the basic dishonesty with which she'd lived her life. The only time-the only time-she hadn't played a role was when she'd been with him, but she'd been too frightened then to hold the act together, and in any case, he'd already seen through her. He was the only man who ever had. Was that why she had such an over-the-top response to him, both emotionally and physically? She couldn't say he'd broken her heart, because obviously she didn't, hadn't, couldn't love him-hell, she didn't even know his name!-but at the same time his rejection had hurt her more than anything except losing her baby, so obviously something had been there. But she didn't know what-just something.

Alban. Dorky name; she'd never have named him Alban. But for there, that place, the name fit perfectly. She knew, without knowing how, that it was an old name, dating back centuries. And the woman…she hadn't introduced herself, but her name was…Gloria. One by one, mentally reviewing the eleven people who had looked at her and decided whether or not she deserved a second chance, she knew their names as well as if they'd worn signs. Gregory, the undertaker. Gloria had used his name, so that one was obvious. But what about Thaddeus? And Leila? And all the others whose names sounded so gently in her head when she saw their faces?

In her mind she drifted between that world and this one. She didn't want to leave that world, and she sure didn't want to be in this one, with her constant companion, the Great Bitch. Her second chance wasn't really at this life, it was a second chance to earn that life. If she wanted that, then she had to do this.

It came down to good decisions and bad decisions, she thought as she drifted. Bad decisions were everywhere. Making one was easy, like picking fruit off the ground. The good decisions were mostly the ones that were difficult, like climbing a tree to get to the fruit at the very top. Yet sometimes the good decision was right there, lying on the ground in front of her, and all she'd have had to do was bend over and pick it up. But instead, she'd looked around and picked a bad decision-sometimes even going out of her way to get it. That was how wrong-headed she'd been.

Making good decisions didn't mean being a saint. That was lucky, because even with her new knowledge she didn't think she could ever reach that level. In fact, she was beginning to feel cranky about this whole business. Okay, she'd try. She'd try like hell, which maybe was a bad analogy, but she wanted to go back to that place, she wanted to see Alban again. She wasn't his mother there, she understood that, but for too short a while they had shared the closest of connections, her body giving him life, and she wanted to feel the echo of that love again.

Her thoughts were interrupted time and again by the hospital staff, who were growing more and more perturbed by her lack of speech. The nurses constantly asked her questions, talked to her, even gave her a notebook and pen to see if she could write. She could, but she didn't. She had no desire to write anything, just as she had no desire to speak. She simply stared at the pen in her hand until they gave up and took it away.

The surgeon, against whom she still held a big grudge, shone a bright light in her eyes and asked questions, none of which she answered. She didn't even punch him while he was that close, though she thought about it.

The surgeon called in a neurologist. They did an EEG on her and discovered her synapses, or whatever, were firing wildly. They did a brain scan, looking for damage that would explain her loss of speech. They discussed her, standing right outside her cubicle, as if the sliding glass door wasn't open and she couldn't hear every word.

"The medics made a mistake," the neurologist said flatly. "She couldn't have been dead. If she'd been without oxygen that long, she would, at the least, have significant brain damage. Even allowing for the most extreme variables, and we've both seen cases like that, if she had no heartbeat and no oxygen for an estimated hour, for God's sake, there's no way she could come through without any brain damage at all. I don't see anything that would explain her lack of speech. Maybe she couldn't speak before; maybe she's deaf. Have you tried ASL?"

"If she were deaf, she'd be using sign language herself, trying to communicate," the surgeon said drily. "She doesn't. She doesn't use another language, she doesn't try to write or draw pictures or even indicate she hears us. If I had to compare it to something, I'd say this complete lack of communication is symptomatic of autism, which I don't think she has because she makes almost constant eye contact, and she does everything the nurses want her to do. She understands what we say. She cooperates. She just doesn't communicate. There has to be a reason."

"Not that I can see." She heard the neurologist heave a sigh. "The way she looks at people…it's almost as if we're another life form and she'd studying us. We don't try to communicate with bacteria. It's like that."

"Right. She thinks we're bacteria."

"She wouldn't be the first patient to feel that way. Look, my recommendation is you call in a psychologist. What happened to her was traumatic, even by our standards. She may need help getting over it."

Traumatic? Had it been? What had come before had been traumatic as hell, but her actual death…no. She couldn't remember being impaled. She knew it had happened, had that hazy memory of seeing herself, but all in all she was glad she'd died, because otherwise she wouldn't have seen Alban, she wouldn't have known that wonderful place existed, that there was something else waiting out there. This life wasn't all there was; there was more, much more, and when people spoke of death as "passing" they were exactly right, because the spirit passed on to that other level of existence. Knowing that was the most comforting thing she could imagine.

So a psychologist, Dr. Beth Rhodes, came several times to talk to her. She said to call her Beth. She was a pretty woman, but there was trouble in her marriage and she was truly more concerned with that than she was about any of her patients. Drea/Andie-or was it Andie/Drea? Which one was first, now?-thought Dr. Beth should take some time off and concentrate on what was important, because she loved her husband and he loved her, and they had two kids to consider, so they should really get their shit together and work things out, and then Dr. Beth would be able to give her full attention to her patients.

If she'd been talking, that's what she would have said. But she felt no compulsion to answer Dr. Beth's questions, at least not now. She still had some thinking to do.

For instance: no one knew who she was. As far as the world was concerned, Drea Rousseau/Andie Butts was dead. She was safe from Rafael, safe from the assassin. She truly could start anew, as the person she chose to be. That could be a problem, because one of the people who came regularly to her cubicle was a cop, a detective, who wasn't investigating her for any crime or anything except driving a car with a tag that didn't belong to that car, and not having a license, nothing of a hugely felonious nature, but still things that had to be resolved. She was also officially a Jane Doe, and he was as interested as the hospital staff in finding out who she was.

The day came when she was transferred from ICU to a regular hospital room. As her nurses got her ready for transport, removing tubes, chattering to her, telling her how great she was doing and that they'd miss her, suddenly she focused on one nurse in particular. Her name was Dina, and she was the quietest of the nursing squad, but she was invariably gentle and unhurried, and her concern was evident in her touch.

Dina was going to fall. Andie/Drea saw it happen. Not clearly, the surroundings were fuzzy, but she saw it. Dina was going to fall down some stairs…drab, concrete stairs, like the stairs in a hotel or in a…hospital. Yes. Dina was going to fall down the stairs here in the hospital. She would break her ankle, and that would be a bitch because she had a ten-month-old baby who could crawl at the speed of light.

She reached out and caught Dina's hand, the first time she had initiated any interaction with them at all. The nurses looked at her in surprise.

She wet her lips, because after all this time she had almost forgotten how to form the words, the connection tenuous between her mind and her mouth. But she had to warn Dina, so she pushed harder and finally the words actually happened.

"Don't…take…the…stairs," said Andie.