In movies, right before a traumatic accident happens, the screen cuts to black. When it reopens again, it’s in The After. There’s no hospital with all the tubes and machinery, no physical therapy, no one holding up the attractively scuffed main character while he tries to remember how to pee straight. They’re just home. Sometimes there are crutches or a few bandaids, but never any bedpans.
Life would’ve been so much better if it were like the movies.
I didn’t get to wake up in The After, when all the nasty bits were behind me. I was in a hospital bed, a respirator down my throat, something beeping in my ear, IV stuck into the back of my hand. Everything was bright and everything hurt. Mom was there. She was the first thing I was able to really focus on. The only thing that made sense. She cried.
They asked me what I remembered. Not much. Did I know I’d been in a car accident? Kind of. What was the last thing I remembered? Lena. They found that sweet, in a sad kind of way.
And then the doctors left and Mom pulled her chair close to my bed. She took my hand. She told me Lena had passed away after our car had gone off the road and hit a tree. She was gone before the paramedics arrived.
It was the only word that came to mind. Mom didn’t seem to know what to make of it. I didn’t either. It was the shock, maybe. Lena had been my girlfriend for seven years, since our senior year of high school. That should have deserved more than an, “Oh”.
Mom left (reluctantly) that night. I was alone in the hospital room. My painkillers were keeping me company. Even with them running through my system, I felt like death warmed over. A spot on my leg, down by ankle kept itching. It was a struggle to sit up, but I got there in the end, and I pushed back the bedding to reach the offending spot.
A blistered, half-circle wound seemed to be the source.
I stared down at it while I scratched around it. Shreds of memories poked through the fog in my brain. Lena in the passenger seat. The car lighter. Something. Then nothing. It made my head hurt to try and piece any of it together, so I let it go.
The thoughts of my late girlfriend stayed gone for the next few days. Most thoughts did. I just kind of existed in a drug-induced haze. I had nurses to help me go the bathroom, who brought me meals three times a day, who bathed me. My parents took turns visiting. I learned one of my ankles had shattered and had to be rebuilt with plates and screws. My left arm was in a cast. A lung had collapsed. Cuts and bruises all over, inside and out. They were worried about my head injury most. I’d been in a coma for a week. Apparently that falls under the “Not Good” category in those charts they keep at the foot of the bed.
Still, I was told I was lucky. I’d lived. With some therapy, I’d walk again, although possibly with a limp. Nerve damage in my hand was likely. Good thing it wasn’t my dominant one, they said.
No one said anything about the burn on my uninjured ankle. Small potatoes, I guess.
It bothered me, though. Everything else hurt, but that bubbly white spot itched like crazy. It kept me up at night when my meds should’ve knocked me out.
About a week after the accident, I was propped up yet again, shoving back my blanket to reach that damned burn. In the dim lighting that came in through my partially open room door, I noticed that a thin red line had sprouted from the burn. It wound its way around my ankle. I traced it with my finger.
“The red string of fate,” I heard Lena say.
She used to like to tell me about it. How two people who are meant to be together are eternally bound by an invisible red string. It can stretch and tangle, but it never breaks. Usually it’s tied around fingers, but Lena said mine was around my ankle. She was my ball and chain, after all.
When I looked up, Lena was standing at the foot of my bed. She was beautiful, even covered in blood like that. Even with the way her head sat a bit too crookedly on her neck.
“Forever,” she whispered. It came out croaky.
“You’re dead,” I replied.
The statement came from a numb place. I’m not sure I’d even fully accepted she was gone at that point. I knew what I’d been told, but so far, it hadn’t hit me any harder than someone saying the sky was blue or meatloaf was for dinner.
Lena stared at me from the end of the bed. She didn’t blink.
“Forever,” she said again.
“Ok,” I said.
I lied back down and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, Lena was gone.
I had disjointed, feverish dreams that night. There was screaming. A reverberating slap. A car lighter. Lena.
The next day, the thin red line that circled my ankle had started to climb upward. It was only a little, and kind of faint, so I ignored it. I had therapy to keep me busy.
But when I was alone, Lena came back. She looked worse than before, dirtier, and she was scowling at me from the foot of my bed.
“Forever,” she hissed.
“I know,” I said.
I didn’t want to see Lena anymore. I also didn’t want to keep using all the painkillers they were giving me. I was tired of living in a void. It would hurt, they told me. I understood. And it did. I was delirious with it. Sweating and on fire. But I refused any more of the offered morphine. I begged to be left alone. To rest.
The red line continued to stretch slowly up my leg.
The next time I saw Lena, she was crouched, gargoyle-like, on the footboard. Her fingers had become withered and pointed. Claws. The flesh of her face sagged. A wild light shined in her dark eyes.
“Mine,” she said. There was a gleeful note to it. “Forever.”
“Lena,” I mumbled. “Are you really here?”
I groaned and clamped my eyes shut. I heard her raspy giggle. My thoughts crashed like thunder and waves in my head. Never settled, still not clear. I grasped at them, trying to piece together everything that had happened.
There were flashes of substance: Music from a party. A house full of people. Lena screaming. Not in fear. She was mad. At me? It felt…familiar. We were getting in her car. She was still yelling. The words were jumbled and overlaid with an insistent, croaking whisper.
I was clearer the next day. Things were coming back to me. My life was starting to come back to me. I remembered my nurse’s name for the first time. I could pick my own lunch. I even smiled at Mom and Dad when they came by. But underneath it all, I still felt feverish and weak. And I couldn’t get Lena out of my head.
We’d had our differences, especially lately. The relationship hadn’t been perfect. But we’d been together so long. She was my girlfriend. I loved her.
I cried the moment I was left alone. The red line around my ankle continued to grow upward. It was just past my knee now. I’d started thinking of it as my red string. My ball and chain. My tie to Lena.
My fever continued to spike. My energy, which I’d thought had been returning, was waning quickly. I shivered one moment, icy cold, and then boiling. I’d been on meds so long, I thought I was going through withdrawal. I didn’t want to worry anyone. I felt like such a burden. I just wanted to sleep.
I shut my eyes. I was back at a party. Troy’s party. He was my friend. It was his birthday. I’d gone with Lena. She was just being herself, telling me to bring her a drink, having me introduce her to people she didn’t know, dragging me around. She called me a few names when I didn’t do exactly what she wanted. That was just how she was. I was used to it.
I brought her the wrong drink. She was already drunk by then. She punched my shoulder, called me stupid, told me to redo it. Typical Lena.
Troy’s girlfriend saw. She interfered and told Lena to knock it off. I tried to say it was fine, but she told me I didn’t have to put up with that kind of abuse. Abuse? Lena was barely five feet and weighed less than a hundred pounds. Tiny compared to me. She couldn’t abuse me.
I didn’t stick up for her right away. That only made her angrier. Lena got in the girl’s face first, and then slapped me across mine. Was I cheating, she screamed at me. Why wasn’t I putting that other bitch in her place? Everyone looked shocked. I didn’t know why. Lena lost her temper all the time with me. It was ruining the party. Troy asked us to leave. I told Lena I’d drive, I was sober. I had to wrestle the keys from her anyway.
She was screaming at me as I buckled in her in to the front passenger seat. People watched from the front door.
“Who was she? That bitch!”
I explained it was just Troy’s girlfriend. That didn’t calm her down. We pulled away.
“You think you can leave me for her?” Lena slurred drunkenly.
I told her no. I wasn’t thinking of leaving her.
“You’re mine,” she screeched over and over again, getting more furious.
She kicked the dashboard, hit my arm, pulled at my hair and shirt. Lena’s tantrums weren’t new and I just did my best to lean away. If I even raised my voice, I knew she’d dissolve into tears and ask why I was shouting at her, didn’t I love her? I hated when she asked that.
Suddenly, she was holding the car’s lighter. She jabbed it at me, trying to press it against my arm. I pulled away, asking what she was doing.
“Prove you love me!”
She swung it around, still attempting to burn me. I grabbed her wrist. It only made her angrier. We struggled a little, and then the lighter fell from her grip. It bounced off my seat, hit my ankle, hot end against skin, and then rolled away. I yelped.
“You can’t leave me!” Lena screamed in her drunken rage and grabbed at the steering wheel. “You’re mine! Forever!”
I tried to push her as gently as I could back into her seat, but she wouldn’t have it. She punched me twice, her knuckles cracking soundly against my cheek, and she yanked the wheel hard to one side.
The car skid. I didn’t have time to break. The headlights lit up the tree as we veered toward it.
My eyes snapped open. I was back in the hospital room. I couldn’t breathe. My chest burned. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t inhale.
Lena was sitting on my chest in the same gargoyle pose as before. Her drooping skin has greyed and sloughed away in some places. The left side of her skull was visible over her ear. She held up her wrist, brittle and thin, and revealed the thin red string tied around it. I gasped, trying to draw in air, while she traced that string all the way to its other end, tied around my ankle. She bared her teeth into a grin.
“Stretch it. Tangle it. It’ll never break,” her blackened tongue has trouble forming the words. “Mine. Forever.”
My heart rate monitor squealed. Dark spots had appeared in my vision. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe! And Lena just laughed.
The next few days were spent in the intensive care unit, where I was placed after the night nurse discovered me having a seizure. The doctor said it was from septicemia. Blood poisoning.
The burn I’d gotten from the dirty lighter, small and overlooked, had become infected. My “red string” had been the first sign that something was wrong. Other symptoms, I read while on my intravenous antibiotics, included lethargy, trouble breathing, seizure, and hallucinations.
That explains it, I thought with heavy sadness. Lena was gone.
Thoughts of my girlfriend were confusing. Painful. I wasn’t ready to think about her yet.
My hospital bill was reduced slightly so I wouldn’t sue and, after the remainder of my treatment, I was sent home. The red line had faded by then. My parents let me stay with them and set me up in my old room. I noticed all the photos of me and Lena had disappeared.
Mom tucked me in like she used to when I was a kid and left me to rest. At first, I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep, but little by little, my eyelids drifted shut.
Lena was sitting atop my chest again. Her white, bony hands at my throat. Her eyes burned, unblinking. Every breath was a hiss.
“Mine!” She said. “Forever!”
I shot upright from my dream, my heart beating against my rib cage. I could feel beads of sweat along my hairline. I looked around my room. Familiar and empty. I sank slowly back into my pillows and swallowed hard.
It was just a dream.
As I shifted, something tickled against my ankle and caught against my sheets. The hairs along my arm rose. I fumbled for my bedside lamp and clicked it on before yanking my comforter back.
The air rushed from my lungs. I felt like I couldn’t breathe all over again.
All I could do was stare.
A thin red string was tied around my ankle, its loose ends knotted tightly into a bow.