“You think that’s what was on my mind when I was dying?”
“You always were a tattletale.”
I can’t help smiling at that. Her words take us back to a time when there was no silence between us. Suddenly we’re six and seven again, fighting in the smelly backseat of Mom’s VW bus. “You’re right. And, yes, I told her.”
“What did she say?”
“She told me to wake up. It’s good advice.”
Stacey reaches out, brushes the hair from my eyes. “When you were . . . sleeping, I didn’t think I’d get another chance with you.”
I don’t know what to say except, “I know.” The nurses have told me that her devotion to me was legendary.
“I was there at the hospital, you know,” she says. “From the second we heard. I almost never left.”
It’s what I would have done for her, too. “I missed you, Stace.”
She finally smiles. “I missed you, too.”
By the end of my first week at home, I’m ready to scream.
I spend the better part of my days on pain pills, trying not to move. Everything hurts, but pain is not the worst of it. What I hate most are the nights.
I lie in bed, staring up at my ceiling, trying to tell myself that the rainforest was a construct of my own mind. Before the plane crash, I was lost and lonely, desperate to want someone and be wanted in return. I can admit it now; losing both my sister and my husband unhinged me somehow. Without them, I was adrift.
So I made up the man I wanted to love me and the boy I wanted to love.
In the cold light of day, it makes sense. I was tired of hot, dry Bakersfield; I imagined a magical world of green grass and towering trees and impossible mist.
On paper, it pencils out, makes perfect sense in a psych 101 kind of way. At night, however, it’s different.
Then, the darkness—and my loneliness—just goes on and on and on. For the first time in my life, I can’t read to pass the time. Every hero becomes Daniel; every heartfelt moment makes me sob. Even movies are useless. When I turn on the television I remember Miracle on 34th Street and the Grinch; not to mention the fifteen Winnie-the-Pooh videos we watched.
God help me, in the darkness, I believe. Over and over again, I try to “return.” Each attempt and failure diminishes my hope.
I can’t stand it.
It’s time for me to either fish or cut bait. I’ve spent too long floating on a drug sea, dreaming of one place, and sitting in another. I need to believe in my rainforest, to find it, or to let it go. It’s a cinch what my shrink would advise. There’s no room in the real world for the kind of fantasy realm I’ve imagined. But I keep thinking of moments—the way Daniel and I said “fate” at the same time; the way our wish on the star was the same. The television broadcast with Stacey. I didn’t hear her broadcast from my coma; I saw it. And there’s the fix-it list Bobby had on Christmas morning. Maybe that was somehow real. If it was, I was there, however impossible that sounds.
What I need is evidence. And if there’s one thing a librarian can do, it’s research.
Throwing the covers back, I hobble out of bed, get my crutches and then turn on all the lights. In the garage, I find what I’m looking for: my files. I take several—the Pacific Northwest, Washington, and North American rainforests. Clutching the manila folders to my side, I return to the desk in my living room.
Beneath a light bright enough to dispel shadows and sharp enough to illuminate the truth, I begin laying out my materials, organizing them into piles. Then I turn on my laptop and search the Web.
It doesn’t take long to identify the core problem.
All I know about my dream life is that it took place in a rainforest in Washington State. According to a Googled statistic, the Olympic National Forest is roughly the size of Massachusetts.
And I am trying to find one—imaginary—lakeside town that probably has a population of less than one thousand people.
Oh, and let’s not forget that I don’t know the name of the town, or the lake, or Daniel and Bobby’s last name.
A woman less impressionable might say that if fate exists, it doesn’t want me to find my way back.
Still, I trudge ahead, unwilling—unable, maybe—to give up. I make my own map, underline possible towns and lakes and call information for each city I can find. There is no listing for a Comfort Fishing Lodge. Then I call realtors. There are two fishing lodges for sale in the area; I’ve gotten e-mail photos of both. Neither is the one I remember.
Finally, nearly eight hours after I begin my search, I shut my laptop and lay my head on top of it, closing my eyes. By now, the walls of my living room are studded with pieces of paper—maps, photographs, articles. The place looks like a task force command center.
And none of it helps.
I don’t know exactly how long I remain there. At some point, I hear a car drive up.
I glance up, and see Stacey’s van pull into the driveway.
I grab my crutches and head for the entry.
At her first knock, I open the door.
She is on my porch, holding a casserole pan in gloved hands.
It’s Mom’s chicken divan recipe. Chicken, cheese, mayonnaise, and broccoli. “I guess you forgot about them restarting my heart.”
Stacey pales. “Oh. I didn’t . . .”
“I’m just kidding. It looks great. Thanks.” I wobble around and make my way back to the living room.
Stacey veers into the kitchen, probably puts the casserole in the oven, and then joins me. In the living room, she comes to a dead stop. Her gaze moves from wall to wall, where papers hang in grape-like bunches.
“Welcome to Obsessionville,” I say. There’s no point in trying to explain. I make my halting way to the sofa and sit down, planting my casted foot on the coffee table. “I’m searching for the town.”
“The one you never went to.”
“That’s the one.”
Stacey sits in the chair opposite me. “I’m worried about you. Thom says . . .”
“Let’s not start a conversation like that. It’s your turn to care about what he says.”
“You’ve been home almost seven days and you haven’t let anyone visit except me. And now . . .” She lifts her hand to indicate the walls. “This.”
“Bertie and Rayla have both stopped by.”
Stacey gives me “The Look.” “Bertie called me because you said you were too tired to see her.”
“I’m in pain.”
“Is that really it?”
“What are you, my keeper?” I don’t want to explain the inexplicable.
“It’s that dream, isn’t it?”
I sigh, feeling my defenses crumble. All I can tell her now is the sad truth. “I can’t let go of it. I know it’s crazy—that I’m crazy—but the pictures are so familiar. I know how it smells there and feels there, how the mist floats up from the grass in the morning. How do I know these things? Maybe when you develop my film, I’ll get an answer.” It’s the dream I’ve clung to.
As I say the words, I see my sister frown. It’s a quick expression, there and gone, but if there’s one thing sisters recognize in each other, it’s a secret being kept. “What?”
“You’re hiding something from me, and, given that your last big secret was my husband, I’m . . .”
Stacey stands. Turning away, she walks out of the room. A few moments later she’s back, carrying a manila envelope. “Here.”
I take it from her, though if I had two good legs, my instinct is to run. “I won’t like this, will I?”
“No.” Stacey’s voice is soft; that makes me more nervous.
I open the envelope and find photographs inside. I look up at Stacey, who shakes her head.
The envelope drops from my grasp. I turn through the pictures. When I get to the few taken in the airport, I gasp. There’s the plane, before the crash, and the crowd of hunters waiting to board, and the interior before takeoff. Riegert, giving his buddy the thumbs up.
After that, nothing.
No photos of the lodge or the rainforest or the lake. No spiderwebs dripping with dew, no clusters of old growth trees and the giant ferns at their feet. Just twenty-nine empty gray pictures.
“I wasn’t there,” I say slowly, feeling it for the first time.
“I’m sorry, Joy,” Stacey says after a moment, “but you have a real life here. And people who love you. Rayla says students ask about you every day.”
I can hear my sister talking, but the words are like smoke, drifting past me. All I can think about is the boy who made me promise to stay for Christmas. My heart feels like it’s breaking down the middle; it’s hard to breathe. It takes all my self-control not to cry at the smoky, blank photographs. Still, I know what I’m supposed to say, what she wants to hear. “I’m sure everything will be fine when I start working again.”
“Don’t you miss it?’
It takes me a minute to hear her. I look up. “Miss what?”
“The library. You used to love it.”
I know Stacey hears herself say love it; all I hear is used to. “What I love doesn’t seem to exist.”
“You’re starting to scare me.”
“Join the club, little sister.”
It is amazing how quickly a bone can heal. If only the heart were as durable. A little plaster, two months of bed rest, and voila! your broken heart is mended. I wish it were true.
By late February, I am moving well again. My headaches are all but gone and my leg is coming along nicely, according to the battalion of doctors who oversee my care. They urge me to consider returning to work, though, to be honest, I have trouble contemplating my future.
It’s because of the nights.
Alone in my bed, I can’t control or corral my thoughts. In sleep, I dream about the Comfort Lodge and Daniel and Bobby.
Even during the stark, bright daylight hours, I have problems. No matter what I’m supposed to be doing, I keep drifting northward in my mind. Everything reminds me of the pseudo-memories I can’t let go of.
My psychiatrist—the newest member of the post-crash-save-Joy-team tells me that what I’ve experienced is not that uncommon. Apparently lots of head cases are head cases, if you know what I mean.
My shrink says it’s because I’m not happy with my real life. She thinks I’ve let the accident paralyze me emotionally, and that when I wake up, I’ll quit needing a forest mirage as my ideal.
I tell her she’s wrong. I was emotionally paralyzed before the crash. This is just same old–same old. The difference is, now I know what I want. I just can’t find it.
Before the crash, I wanted Thom back.
Now I’m actually happy he’s gone. I worry for my sister that it’s dangerous to love a man who has already betrayed one wife, but she has made her choice, and truthfully, at his heart, Thom is a good man. I can only hope he’ll be a good husband to my sister.
I’m so deep in thought, I’m surprised when I hear my doorbell ring.