The Compromise, by Catt Moran
A nagging pain wakes me from a deep sleep. It’s a dull ache, throbbing constantly through my body. What have I done?
Before opening my eyes, I run through the prior day’s events. Did I get knocked down in the soccer game? Fall down a flight of stairs? The ache is all over. I don’t remember ever feeling like this before.
Something else is wrong, too. The sheets are cool and smooth, not the cozy flannel I’m used to. My eyelids peel apart slowly, and I blink from the light. It’s too bright, and I close my eyes again, wondering what time it is. Did the alarm go off? Am I late for school?
No, now I remember. It’s Saturday. We celebrated winning the state cheering championships yesterday. My best friend Gina picked me up for the party at six, and Mom said we could stay out past our eleven o’clock curfew. The memories flash in rapid succession – me drinking a Lowenbrau, Gina giggling and spilling wine, Robbie holding me by the waist and kissing me, his lips clumsy and wet with beer.
But that’s all I can remember.
And there’s a funny smell in the room; a combination of medicine and sweat. I open my eyes again, and squint past the light streaming in through the window. This strikes me as odd, because the light is shining in from the right and my bedroom window is on the left.
The ceiling and walls are beige, not the pretty aquamarine Dad painted on my walls. Drab paintings of covered bridges and flower vases take the place of my treasured Aerosmith posters.
I struggle to get up, but can’t. A thick strap runs across my chest and my wrists and ankles are pinned into place. The long narrow bed isn’t mine. My toes just barely stick out from under a blanket and I’m dressed in a thin shift.
My body seems too long, too large.
The room pulses and spins.
I struggle against the straps, but I can’t move. Panic sets in and I scream. Maybe if I’m loud enough, someone will hear me. Maybe my parents are close by.
I scream again and the sound is ragged and foreign.
The door bursts open and a man with slicked-back hair and a thin line of a mouth approaches the bed, a syringe in his hand. I immediately fall silent, eyes fixed on the needle. What is he doing?
“Who are you? Where am I?”
But the man says nothing. He draws back the blanket and jams the needle into my arm. The pain is sharp and intense. I howl.
“Shut up,” the man hisses and jerks the needle from my arm. His eyes are visceral and dark, his expression unkind. I flinch and obey, closing my mouth. A strange warmth spreads from my belly to my chest and I watch the man leave, slamming the door behind him.
The blackness closes in.
Later, the room is awash in watery light. It takes me a minute to orient myself. But then it comes back: this strange room, the angry man, the needle jabbing into my arm.
I blink and peer out the window. A full moon hangs bright in the sky but there are no stars.
What’s happened to me? How did I get here? A heavy dread descends, weighing me down in the bed. I’m powerless, at the mercy of . . . someone. Was it something I did? Surely Mom and Dad didn’t put me here. The last time I saw my parents they waved to me from the front step with wide, happy smiles on their faces. I got into Gina’s car and blew them a kiss. We were off to celebrate. They were proud of me.
How had I gone from that to this? Were Mom and Dad coming for me?
I glance down at my toes. My favorite pink polish is gone, and the nails are long and jagged, in need of a pedicure. They don’t look like my toes at all.
The blanket covers me, chest to feet. My body appears heavier than normal, but that can’t be. It must be a trick of the light, or the effect of a drug. Perhaps whatever Angry Man injected is skewing my perception. I wrestle again with the straps but they’re solid and unmoving. I’m a prisoner.
A memory flashes before me. All of us girls laughing and posing for pictures – the state champion cheerleading squad from Alberta High, all dressed in red and white. My blonde hair is pulled back in a ponytail. Gina’s black curls bob along the neckline of her jersey. Gina – my best friend – is the captain. Beautiful, talented and popular – everything comes easily to her. I’ve always secretly wanted to be Gina, to walk in her shoes. But for now, I’m content – and proud – to walk by her side.
A feeling of exhilaration overwhelms us and we revel in the gushing faces of the crowd, clapping and cheering for us.
Then another memory of Gina, giggling, stumbling, gripping a bottle of wine. And me, leading Robbie by the hand, opening the car door.
The memory dissolves as the door creaks open. If it’s the Angry Man, I’ll try to reason with him, promise not to scream again. I’ll plead with him. Ask for my parents.
Instead, a short, plump woman enters the room carrying a tray. She stops and peers at me.
“Good, you’re awake. I’ve brought you something to eat.” She sets the tray down on the table.
I watch her, my forehead wet with sweat. She notices my eyes flickering to the steaming bowl of soup.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to hurt you.” She moves to the bed and reaches behind me. I try to shrink away, unsure of what she is doing. Then I realize the bed is rising, moving up until I’m in a sitting position. The straps hold me in place but the blanket rolls down a few inches.
The woman smiles and picks up the bowl and a spoon. “That’s better. You must be hungry.”
I am hungry. I have no idea how long it’s been since I’ve eaten.
“Who are you?” My voice comes out raspy, unfamiliar.
“I’m Verna, your nurse. You probably don’t remember me. You usually don’t.”
“Where am I?”
Her smile fades. Instead of answering, she offers the spoon again. “Why don’t you try some soup.”
“No. I want to know where I am. Why am I being held here?”
Pity spreads across her face but she says nothing.
“Where are my parents? ”
Verna sets the bowl back down on the tray and wipes her hands on a napkin. “You should stop asking questions and try to eat.”
“Please let me go. I have to go home. I need to go home!”
She sighs and shakes her head sadly. “I’ll leave the soup and check back later to see if you’ve changed your mind.” She turns to leave.
“No, Verna, don’t leave. Come back. Please help me!” My voice rises to a shout. Verna whirls suddenly, pressing a finger to her lips. Immediately, I think of the Angry Man with the needle. Did he hear me yell?
“Keep your voice down,” Verna says in a hushed voice. “You don’t want to rouse Philip.” And then she is gone.
Philip. Tears spill down my cheeks. Sobbing, I lick the tears away and realize that my bottom lip seems swollen. Did someone hit me?
Verna’s left me sitting up. The light’s still on. The blanket has fallen down to my waist, exposing my arms. But instead of seeing smooth toned muscle, the flesh is thick and white, creased with flabby folds.
I look again at my feet, the puffy ankles and the cracked toenails tinged with yellow. And then I think of my voice, so odd and unfamiliar. The swollen lips, the sagging white skin. The body, seemingly older and larger than my own. It’s not a trick of the light. It’s not the medication.
This time I’m unable to hold back the screams.
This time I welcome the sharp stick of the needle, and the comfort of nothingness.
The days pass. I am a prisoner held captive in a foreign body. I’ve no choice but to accept my position, locked inside a stranger’s body with no explanation, no reason, no understanding of what’s happened. No one tells me anything – how I got here, what’s happened to me or where my parents are. Eventually, the horror wears off and a hazy resignation sets in. Verna comes and goes, sometimes to feed me, sometimes to help me to the bathroom, other times to clean me up. She is the only person I see other than Philip, who arrives periodically, mostly when I lose control, to deliver the mind-numbing sedative.
They are the only two people I ever see.
Life is nothing but a series of mundane events and the memories I summon in the long hours spent alone. Memories of my parents and home. Memories of high school, of passing notes in class. Of cheer-leading, and how long it took me to qualify for the team. Of Mom’s encouragement, and Gina, tirelessly helping me practice the routines, wanting me to make the team almost as much as I did. The tears roll from my eyes in the hours spent alone. The memories keep me from losing my mind.
Despite her kindness, Verna will not – or perhaps cannot – tell me anything. She is kind but stalwart, at times casting me such a pitying look that I cry.
I teeter uncomfortably on swollen feet when Verna helps me from the bed. All of the joints still ache, and my limbs are flabby and weak. So much time in bed has left me unbalanced, struggling for breath from the exertion of walking to the bathroom. I try to remember my young body, healthy and strong, but it eludes me now. In fact, I have no idea what I look like at all.
There are no mirrors in the bathroom. There are no mirrors anywhere.
Most days roll on, running into one. Then one day there are voices outside of my room. Straining to hear, I catch pieces of the conversation:
“Not ever supposed to happen.”
“. . . unexpected. No one could have anticipated.”
“The coma . . . cannot re-induce . . . “
Footsteps move from the door and the voices fade.
The next time Verna straps me to the bed, I grab her hand. She tries to jerk back but I hold her firmly. “Verna, will you bring me a mirror?”
Her eyes narrow. “No.”
“Please, Verna. I don’t ask for much. I want to see what I look like.”
“It would not be good for you.”
I squeeze her hand. “I can handle it.” I need to know. Am I still myself or have I been mutilated in some way?
Verna’s brows knit together, but she nods slightly. I release her and she straps my wrists to the bed frame before leaving the room. She returns minutes later, a small mirror in her hand. She stands close to the bed.
“First, give me your word that you won’t tell Philip.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Verna holds the mirror out in front of me, and I strain to see my reflection. The person peering back at me is not the teenage girl with the wide eyes and long slender nose I’d expected. No, the face in the mirror is old. Crows feet line the corner of her eyes – brown, not blue – and wrinkles crease the forehead. There is a double-chin. The salt-and-pepper hair is coarse and cut short.
“My God. This isn’t possible.” Somehow, I’d convinced myself that the aches and pains, the sagging skin and wrinkles were all due to a medical condition; perhaps I was a guinea pig of sorts, being given massive doses of steroids or some other experimental medication to purposely alter my physical state.
But the face in the mirror belongs to a different person altogether.
Verna snatches the mirror away. “I shouldn’t have shown you. I shouldn’t have let you talk me into it.” She scurries away, leaving me alone in a state of shock.
It’s the first real emotion I’ve felt in days.
Verna avoids eye contact after that. She acts guilty and frightened, like she’s done something wrong. She’s worried I’ll tell Philip about the mirror. Nervous and distracted, one day she forgets to strap my wrist to the bed. I lie quietly, watching her go, praying she won’t notice her error.
Once the door closes I go to work. Since seeing myself in the mirror, I’ve developed a renewed sense of urgency. It’s suddenly critical to solve the mystery of my fate – and to escape. It’s no longer just about me – it’s about the face in the mirror as well. Who is she? What cruelty has bound our lives together?
I’ve spent many hours watching Verna tie me down. The straps are simple contraptions, and remind me of bundling up our cheering gear for events. All I need is one hand to loosen the first buckle. Within minutes, I free my chest and my other hand and finally, my feet. Groaning, I stretch and swing my legs over the side of the bed. Today I am dressed in pajamas. My feet are bare.
This is the first time I’ve walked on my own and I carefully ease myself onto the floor. Unsteady, I take baby steps across the room. What if Verna comes back? What if Philip comes in to check on me?
I open the door and peek outside. A brightly lit hallway stretches out before me. There are several doors along the corridor, and I wonder if other people are held captive behind those doors. A chemical smell wafts in from the hall. I wait, listening for sounds. Minutes pass, and there is no sign of life.
I sneak down the hall to the double-doors and peer through a small glass window. There is another hallway on the other side, and it veers sharply to the right. More closed doors line the hallway, but the ones closest to the right-turn have windows and appear to be administrative offices. Still, I see no one. The halls are deserted.
Emboldened, I push through the doors, cringing when they creak, sure that someone’s heard. But no one comes running, and I proceed down the hall. My palms sweat and my heart beats madly. I am determined to escape.
The smell reminds me of grandmother’s nursing home. Mom and Dad dragged me there to visit, despite my protestations. The stench of pee and medicine turned my stomach, and I never understood how grandmother could stand it. Now I see that she simply accepted it. She had no other choice.
I freeze at the turn because there are voices speaking in hushed tones. They’re coming from a nearby office. The door is open so the sound carries, but I can’t make out what they are saying. I creep along, pressed against the wall, trying to get closer. Finally, when I’m close to the opening, the words are clear above the blood pounding in my ears.
“A decision needs to be made soon.”
“Yes, but we’re waiting for the go ahead from the Board. We can’t act on our own.”
“The Board. Useless bunch of talking heads, that’s all they are. That’ll take too long. In fact, it already has. No, we’ve got to force the decision. Take things into our own hands.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“For starters, Patient B is no longer viable for incubation. It’s ridiculous to spend this kind of money on a deteriorating body.”
“Unhook the machines.”
A sigh. “We could get some flak for that. The families . . . “
“Screw the families. They’re in denial. It’s not working. Patient B was a poor choice. Unhook the machines. Figure out how to manage the damage control and move on.”
“And what about Patient X?”
“What about her?”
“She’s been conscious for weeks. What’s your plan?”
“There is no plan. At least not yet. I’ve been discussing options with the surgeons.”
“Not feasible. Even if we could re-induce, there’s no guarantee she’ll stay unconscious. We don’t even know why she woke up in the first place.”
“But she did, and now we have a problem.”
Coma. Re-induce. The words ring in my ears, the same ones uttered outside my room. They are talking about me. I am Patient X.
Another sigh and I hold my breath as a chair creaks. “Well, we can’t just keep her locked up in a room forever, either. The body’s wearing out but the mind is still young. She’ll become uncontrollable at some point.”
“We can’t just cut her loose. You know what would happen . . . “ the voice trails off.
“Yes. The families.”
The families? What would happen?
There’s a pause and someone taps on the desk. “Let me ask you this. It’s been forty years. Who’s left? Of the families, I mean. Is there anyone out there who cares? Anyone who inquires or asks to visit?”
“No. Not since . . . “ Papers shuffle. “Nineteen-ninety five.”
The world tilts. Surely I hadn’t heard correctly. It’s nineteen-seventy-six. I’m a teenager at Alberta High. A champion cheerleader. Blonde, blue-eyed and with a crush on Toby Freeman, our star quarterback. I grip the wall to steady myself.
“In that case, I think we know what to do.”
Another pause. “I don’t think I could . . . “
“I mean, in good conscience . . .”
An angry smack on the desk. “Screw conscience! The experiment was classified. The families were the only ones who knew what was going on. If they’re out of the picture, we make the problem disappear. Do you understand?”
“You’re talking about murder.”
“Not if she’s a vegetable.”
“But . . . “
“Make it happen. We’re done here. ”
The other man pauses again and I begin to slide back along the wall, fearful he’s about to storm from the room. Instead, he speaks.
“Consider it done.” His chair creaks, and I dash away from the door. Footsteps echo behind me. They are too quick, too close. The double-doors are too far away. I choose the first door on my right. The room is dark, and I close the door with a click, praying that I haven’t been seen.
I press my ear to the door. The footsteps grow louder and I hold my breath until they fade down the hall. Is he going to my room? Will they find out I’ve escaped?
And then it strikes me. So what if they do? I am Patient X.
They are going to kill me.
I burst from the room. I don’t know where I’m going but I have to escape. The door to the office is closed now so I dash past, my bare feet slapping the floor. I curse the body I’m in; it is slow and logy. My steps are heavy and my lungs burn from the exertion of only a few feet. I focus on the opening before me. It is close and appears to lead to another hallway. I don’t know if I’ll make it.
A hand drops onto my shoulder and I shriek.
“Sshhh. It’s me. Come quickly.”
It’s Verna. Before I know what’s happening, she throws a bathrobe over my shoulders and leads me by the hand. I decide quickly to trust her. She’s the only one who shown me any kindness at all. And really, what choice do I have?
We stumble down the hall and then Verna pushes open another door. We burst out into fresh air and blinding sunlight. The heat warms my skin and I gulp air greedily.
“Keep moving. I need to get you into the car.”
She’s surprisingly strong for an older woman. “Where are we going?”
She doesn’t answer, just pushes me along. “Wait here. I will bring the car around.” She leaves me standing on a curb. Behind us, the sidewalk stretches back to the building.
Keys jingle in Verna’s hand as she hurries off toward a parking lot full of cars. I blink in wonder. The cars look completely different from the ones I remember. These are small and sleek with smoothly rounded features, not at all like the steel muscle cars I’m used to.
Verna pulls up in a tiny blue car just as an alarm sounds. Verna yells at me to get into the car. I hear shouts behind me and scramble in through the passenger door. I fall into the seat and Verna’s stomps on the gas. We screech from the parking lot, leaving rubber and dust in our wake.
“I am Patient X.”
“Yes.” Verna’s eyes flicker between the road and the rearview mirror.
“My name is Debbie. Debbie Burn . . . “
“Burnham. Yes, I know.”
We squeal around a corner and speed up a ramp. Within seconds, we’re on a highway.
“They were going to kill me.”
“Yes. I was there when they gave the order to Philip.” She glances at me briefly. “I couldn’t let them do it.”
“You saved me.”
“For now, yes. I’m not sure how far they’ll go to find you. Us.” She presses down on the accelerator and I watch the needle move up to eighty.
I have so many questions. I start with the one Verna will most likely answer first. “Verna, where are my parents? Are they okay?”
Verna sighs and shakes her head. “I’m sorry. There’s no good way to tell you. Your parents are dead.”
The air grows cold and I suddenly can’t talk.
“I’m sorry,” she repeats, pursing her lips.
“How? When?” I finally whisper.
She glances at me. “Years ago. They died of old age.”
“Old age?” But my parents are healthy and young, in their forties. Unless what I heard in the hallway was true. Unless it really isn’t nineteen-seventy-six. Unless I’m really not sixteen.
“Debbie,” Verna says quietly. “You’ve outlived them.”
I dream of a car crash. I see Gina’s terrified face. I hear Robbie shouting from the back seat. Bright lights cross the road and careen straight for us. Glass shatters and metal twists and the dashboard crushes my chest, cracking bones in my back, snapping my limbs, trapping me beneath a mass of iron and wire. I awake with a start, and once again I am in a strange room.
Verna sits next to the bed. There are no straps holding me down. She hands me a cup of tea.
“I’m sure you have questions.”
I nod and sip the tea.
“This is not going to be easy for you.”
I laugh bitterly, almost spitting out my tea. “Right.”
Verna hesitates. “The year is two-thousand and ten. You were in a car crash the night of May tenth, nineteen-seventy-six. Your friends Gina and Robbie were killed.” She waits, watching my face. Watching her words sink in.
I think of my dream and realize that it was more memory than nightmare.
“Your body was completely destroyed in the crash, but your brain was functioning properly. Your parents were desperate to keep you alive. Unfortunately, your body was no longer viable, no longer able to sustain or support your brain. There were decisions that had to be made. Your parents were not ready to make them.
Your friend Gina was declared brain-dead. A vegetable. And while her body was badly injured, it was nowhere near the destruction of yours. Her parents agreed to allow the hospital to harvest her organs. It was then that they were approached by a group engaged in some . . . experimental procedures.”
Gina’s pretty face flashes before me. I try to imagine her lying in a hospital bed, brain dead. A vegetable. Just like Patient B.
Verna continues. “They talked to Gina’s parents in secret. Then they approached your parents. The procedure they wanted to conduct was radical, unheard of. Unprecedented. And therefore, highly unethical.”
I nod, trying to absorb everything she’s telling me.
“But your parents were desperate. They, along with Gina’s parents, agreed to the procedure. They so badly wanted their daughters back that they compromised, said they’d settle for one. Organ harvest was halted. You and Gina were transported to a secret facility, similar to the one from which you just escaped. Contracts were signed. No one was permitted to speak of the experiment. Hopes were high. Your parents prayed for your safe return.
“But something went wrong. The experiment didn’t work. You fell into a deep coma, from which you never woke up. That is, not until about three weeks ago.”
The teacup rattles in my hand. “You mean, I’ve been in a coma all this time?” The man’s voice from the institution rings in my ears. It’s been forty years.
“Yes. We removed the machines when you woke up. For a while, you’d forget. Your memory was damaged, and you’d scream for hours until Philip sedated you. But three weeks ago, you woke up for good and your memory stayed intact. You were finally conscious. Exactly what your parents had been hoping for all those years.
Your parents visited up until the time of their deaths back in the early two thousands. As did Gina’s parents. They are dead too. There is no one left. I have been assigned as your nurse for the past twenty years. I tended your IV’s, fed and bathed you, exercised your limbs to avoid atrophy. I’ve been here for most of your life.”
My head spins. “And… now? They want to kill me?”
“Yes. They can’t allow you – or now, me – to tell anyone what they’d done. There are many more experiments going on, you see, on human beings. If the authorities found out, they’d go to prison for a long, long, time. But we should be safe here in my brother’s house. He’s a former navy seal and a bit on the paranoid side.” She smiles slightly. “Built a home deep into the side of a mountain. No one knows about this place.”
“But what about Gina? What happened to her?”
Verna takes the teacup from my hands and reaches into the drawer of the side table. She retrieves a mirror and wordlessly hands it to me.
“Your brain,” Verna says simply. “Gina’s body.”
Catt is a writer of fiction and fantasy who likes to challenge the human condition, i.e., she likes to make her characters suffer. A resident of Portland, Maine, she is a lover of food and drink and writes restaurant reviews starring local eateries at wwwHungryGals.BlogSpot.com. When not writing, Catt works at her day job, parties on Twitter and spends time with her family, including the hungrygals – Abby and Josie. Catt is a member of the Backspace Writer’s Organization.
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Tags: accidents, Catt Moran, death, lies