Woman in ChainsbyAdrian Leverkuhn©
Tracy Tomlinson walked down the stairs as quietly as she could. She slipped into the kitchen like a shadow and put on coffee, then walked outside and down the driveway; she groped around in the dark for the newspaper, nearly tripped over a football when she bent over to pick-up the plastic wrapped paper. It was still too dark out to see the headlines, but she hardly cared about them anymore. Mark kept up with all that stuff. The world would get along just fine without her knowing who had been fighting what war over this or that reason last week, and she knew she'd greet next week's war with about as much interest.
Once upon a time she'd cared about the world. She'd cared about how she looked, what she ate, what Mark thought of the way she looked, what her friends thought of her, even what her children thought of her -- but no more. She had grown tired -- tired of life, of living, of eating and breathing. Fucking, she remembered, had been the last to go. She'd always loved a good rough fuck, but Mark had lost interest somewhere along the way and now even that simple pleasure resided somewhere in the back stacks of unwanted memories.
She climbed the steps back into the kitchen and pulled down oatmeal and put water on to boil, then walked upstairs to her boy's room. Brian was on his back, his morning hard-on rising under the sheet from the center of his bed like the troops raising the flag on Iwo Jima. She shook her head and turned on his light, walked down to Stacy's room but heard the shower going in the hall bathroom and knew her daughter was already up. When she poked her head in their bedroom she heard Mark in the bathroom, the electric razor grinding away through day old stubble. Already the room smelled like Old Spice and the scent brought back a bundle of useless and unwelcome memories. She remembered the last time she'd touched herself down there: everything had felt cold and dead and lifeless.
'Like this waste of time I call my life,' she said to herself.
Once in the kitchen she pulled out a skillet and put it on the range, took eggs from the refrigerator and sausage patties from the freezer and set out what she needed to cook them, and then poured coffee for Mark and Stacy. Brian was still, she thought with the last vestiges of a smile, a little too young for coffee. Too young to do much this early in the morning besides hump his pillow and brag about how well he was doing at football practice.
She scrambled two eggs for Stacy and fried three for Mark, finished making Brian's oatmeal, then set out a platter of sausage patties on the table and poured orange juice for the three of them. As they flooded into the kitchen she walked by them silently and walked back up the stairs and into her bedroom. She locked the door and sat down on the edge of her bed; she felt like crying for a few minutes, then walked into the bathroom. She looked at the bottles of Prozac and Xanax in the medicine cabinet and wondered if this was all there would be now. Would there ever be anything more than oblivion to look forward to? Pills and a nap, again and again, then wake up and start it all over again.
She took her prescribed dose and lay down on the bed, listened as the kids got into the car with Mark and headed off to school. She hoped sleep would come for her, and take her far, far away.
She knew she was far, far away because the ringing in her ears was so out of place. Nothing seemed right. She was on a beach. Sitting, she was sitting; she knew she was sitting because she could feel wet sand under her legs and feet. The sun was hot; a soft breeze was blowing onshore, lifting her hair and filling the air with smells of a salt-laden sea. Mark was standing beside her, his back turned toward her, and he was holding a huge mass of heavy chain. She looked down and saw twisted and rusted links wrapped tightly around her thighs, forcing them tightly together.
Why... Mark, why? Why have you done this to me?
The ringing was insistent now and she turned, looked over her shoulder at rows of palm trees swaying in the wind. She wanted to walk into the trees, look for the ringing lost there because the sound seemed to be coming from inside the forest that lay beyond. Suddenly she turned back to the sea, remembered something. A huge sailboat sat offshore a few hundred yards away. A man was on deck, looking at her from time to time. She could see him clearly, but his face was almost invisible, like he was not quite a part of her dream. The man was playing a grand piano on the deck, and she looked harder at him now. She could just see strings attached to his arms and hands; some strings were stretched tautly, others dangled loosely, and all vanished in low, gray clouds just overhead. She could see that the man's movements were being controlled by these strings, and she gasped when she saw the man's helplessness.
The ringing grew louder still. She heard someone knocking at the door.
The door? On a beach?
She opened her eyes; she saw her bathroom door was open and felt herself adrift in a hazy, shaded ambivalence. She looked at the old clock on the table by her side just as the knocking started again. It was nine thirty. Daylight, she saw. She swung her feet to the carpet and stood uncertainly, fell back to the bed with practiced ease and let her head spin slowly, let the pressure in her chest subside, then she stood again and walked down the stairs.
She could see two policemen on the front porch; one was looking in the window by the door and he saw her, stood back and waited. She reached for the door, still not sure if she was awake yet, or if this was all part of her dream. She opened the door, squinted at the harsh light of day.
"Mrs Tomlinson?" One of the policemen said.
"Yes. Is something wrong?"
"Ma'am, could we come inside," the other officer said.
She was waking now; something was indeed wrong. Very wrong. She could feel it all around her now. Something was terribly wrong. She opened the door and let the men in and closed it behind them. She had the impression neighbors were standing across the street looking at her; for some reason this scared her. She led them into the living room, asked if they wanted coffee and what this was all about.
"Ma'am, there's been an accident. Is there someone we could call to be here with you?"
"An accident?" Tracy Tomlinson said, her eyes wide, her mind now fully alert. "What? Where?"
"Perhaps you'd like to sit down, Ma'am..."
"No, I want to know what's wrong..." Her voice bit into the air, hysteria rippled through the air around her. "Why are you here? Why?"
"Ma'am, does your husband drive a white 2006 Volvo wagon?"
"Yes! What? What... are you saying?"
"Ma'am, that car was struck by a train this morning at a crossing on Paterson Parkway. We've found three bodies in the car, but there was a fire, and well..."
"What? Where are my children?"
"Ma'am, we've identified the bodies in the Volvo, and, uh, I'm afraid they've, uh, your children have been, uh, they're gone, Ma'am..."
She was aware of time slowing, of the room spinning, growing dark, darker, darker -- the pressure in her chest was crushing, then all was quiet, and pure white. She was surrounded by clouds speeding by and suddenly she felt like she was flying. She was flying into the light, and yet everything was cold now, and very quiet. She felt like she was flying at great speed straight down. The sensation of speed was nauseous, and pain filled her thoughts.
'Why does my chest hurt so much?' she said to herself. 'How very strange this is.'
She opened her eyes.
There were people all around her; why was everybody dressed in green? Bright light overhead, sharp pain in her left arm, men in funny paper hats with masks over their mouth and nose. A bald man with soft kind eyes behind small round glasses was leaning over, looking at her.
"It's alright Tracy. You're going to feel a little sleepy now. Don't fight it, okay? You'll feel better when you wake up."
Falling again, further this time. Darker now, darker than before, but she felt warmth all around her, flooding into her.
'How much longer is this going to last?' she said to a reflection of herself down below. As she fell, lost in unknown motion, she became aware of a sound very much like the clatter of heavy chains being hauled across the floor of her dream...
She knew she'd been asleep for a long time, yet she knew she was still in her dream. Mark was here. She felt him, and him alone for a while, and she knew he was near because she heard the chains that had shackled her to him for so long. The chains made a horrible music, a forlorn note much like an oboe pierced the fog around her; the melody was painful, discordant, and she longed to find the oboist and correct him. She'd never held an oboe before, let alone played one, but an oboe was hovering in the air before her eyes now and suddenly she realized she knew how to play it. She saw chains materializing in the air all around her, hundreds of them, and each one was carried by Mark. Only there were hundreds of Marks now, all looking at her with pale, lifeless eyes, all holding their chains up, walking towards her.
The chains seemed to rattle but she heard music... music everywhere, all around her. She looked at another chain and it was a horn of some sort. She didn't even know the name of the instrument, and she looked at another and another and one by one the chains turned into musical instruments. They advanced on her and held her firmly in her dream just as surely as any chain might have. She was suffocating, trying to pull free but her hands were waited down by chains that writhed like coiling snakes, then as suddenly changed before her eyes into clarinets and piccolos and violins. In her dream she blinked and tried to turn away, but everywhere she looked it was the same. Chains rose, coiled in the air, readied to strike at her and as suddenly shimmered and mutated before her eyes. Before long she was surrounded by hundreds of instruments, each one being played by reflections of herself, and the sky filled with stars.
Todd Wakeman flipped through the chart and looked over entries for the past 24 hours. Nothing made sense. Chemistries were all in range, surgery to repair the small aneurysm in the base of her brain had gone off without a hitch, but for some reason the woman had never regained consciousness. She had been in a coma for two months now, yet on more than one occasion nurses had heard the woman singing. Well, not exactly singing. She was at first heard humming or singing notes from classical pieces, then launching off into impromptu solo sessions of totally original compositions; nurses began to hear a pattern in these episodes and noted the time and duration. These outbursts happened almost every morning around eight, and lasted anywhere from a few minutes to an hour.
Wakeman was in the fourth year of his neurology residency, and he'd neither seen nor heard of anything like this before. It was Something New, and usually when anything like this happened it tended to be a big deal, but the attending professors had looked her over, ordered more tests and scans, and then simply lost interest in her case. Wakeman had no idea what was going on; the episodes seemed to swarm, EEG recording went from almost brain-dead to near total brainstorm in a flash, and as quickly subsided.
He had a new group of medical students starting their clinical neurology rotation and he was going to present her case this morning to them, see what he could get out of them. He looked at his watch: 7:30. They would be here soon.
He closed the chart and walked out to the nurse's station.
"Next patient is a Mrs Tomlinson. Tracy, I think. Forty nine year old female suffered a moderate CVA after being told her husband and children were killed in an MVA. Surgery to correct two months ago was non-eventful, but she has never regained consciousness. Mother and a sister visit about once a week now, but no response from the patient. Vitals are good..."
Wakeman rattled off the recorded stats and the observations... all but the noted episodes of musical activity. He was about to go over how to assess the patient's neurological status when it began.
Gently at first, but insistently, she began to sing the prominent parts of a piece of music that seemed hauntingly familiar to Wakeman; it was the first time he'd ever been around at the onset of one of these episodes, and he still found it shockingly unnerving. Now he turned to look at her.
Her eyes remained closed, her body motionless, but her mouth moved precisely, methodically, the notes that came from inside her mind were as precise, methodical; they were, in fact, tonally pure and intact. Wakeman looked at the shocked expressions on the students' faces. He understood completely.
One of the third years, a girl named Judith Somerfield, stepped forward with a penlight and opened an eyelid, waved the light in front of her pupils, then the other.
"Equal and non-reactive," she said. "But, that's impossible!"
The girl took a ball point pen and went the end of the bed; she pulled up the sheet and ran the cap of the pen up the bottom of Tomlinson's foot.
There was no reaction. None at all.
"I don't get it," the student said. "Is this a gag, a joke?"
One of the other students, a teenaged boy with "MacIntyre" embroidered on his pristine lab coat, leaned forward, lifted the sheet covering her arms.
"The fingers," MacIntyre said. "They're moving! Playing notes!"
"What IS that song?" one of the other students asked.
Somerfield looked annoyed, like any dolt ought to know this music. "Romeo and Juliet. Prokofiev. The Death of Juliet! Geesh!"
Wakeman smiled; med students seemed ultra-competitive and always standing by with a ready put-down. At least some things never changed.
"Has anyone done EEGs when this happens?" Somerfield asked.
"Oh, yes, we managed to figure that one out for ourselves," Todd quipped. "Nominal coma until a sudden swarm, then total overwhelming cascades."
"Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy!" MacIntyre chimed in.
"MRI and PT are both clear. No spongy tissue observed," Wakeman said, and the boy looked crestfallen.
"Hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy?" Somerfield asked hesitantly.
"Good guess, but nothing in the surgical record supports that, and neither the paramedics or the cops reported doing CPR or any other breathing anomalies."
"Cardiac enzymes?" she asked.
Wakeman was brought up short by that one.
"Where are you going with this?" he asked. "An undiagnosed cardiac episode?"
"Possible, isn't it? If everyone was focused on the CVA maybe they overlooked an infarct. A small, transient..."
Wakeman rubbed his chin. "Possible. Where would you look?"
"Are the ER records up here?"
"First I'd get those, see if anyone did gases and enzymes, if anyone suspected cardiac involvement."
"Okay, y'all stay put. I'll go send for them."
'Could it be so simple?' Wakeman said to himself. 'These kids were just coming off a rotation through Cardiology, so of course that's where there head's at, but... could it really be so simple?'
MacIntyre and Somerfield stood outside Wakeman's office two days later, hesitated, wondered aloud once again if they should tell the head resident about the idea they'd had. Judy had been the first to figure out the key element, and she had talked to Ben MacIntyre after rounds the second morning.
"Did you notice? She gets about half way through the piece then stops, retraces her steps and tries again. She gets to that spot and tries a few times to work through it, then falls back into coma."
"It's a difficult passage," Ben said.
"You know it?"
"Of course! What kind of moron do you think I am?!"
"A young moron, Bennie. I still can't get used to an eighteen year old third year medical student..."
"Screw you," MacIntyre said defensively.
The door opened; Wakeman stood there sleepily, rubbing his eyes.
"You two gonna duke it out, or what?"
Somerfield and MacIntyre jumped back, startled.
Judy tried to look more assertive than she felt and just threw her idea out there. "It's about Tomlinson; we've been thinking..."
"Now there's a startling idea," Wakeman deadpanned. MacIntyre frowned.
"... thinking that, well, she gets through the piece, the Prokofiev, but gets stuck about a quarter of the way in. Like an old vinyl record. Stuck in a groove, almost. She keeps bouncing back to the beginning, starting over and getting to the same part. She did it three times this morning then fell back into coma..."
"It's the same music? The same..."
"Yes. Prokofiev. The Death of Juliet. From the ballet. That ending is regarded as one of the most evocative, emotionally pure pieces in the classical repertoire. I can't help but wonder why? Why that piece, and why is she stuck there?"
"And what if we kind of jump start her?" MacIntyre interrupted. "Somerfield and I were thinking; what if we played long with her? You know, from the beginning. When she gets to that part..."
"What? You talking a CD, or what?" Wakeman asked incredulously; he could see where this was going and was startled by the clarity of their proposed intervention.
"No sir," Somerfield resumed. "I play the cello; Ben the violin. We'd be set up, ready to go, in the early morning, waiting..."
Wakeman was startled by the possibility. If they could get Tomlinson past this stumbling point, what would happen? He rifled through the possibilities, wanted to ask a couple of the department heads, see about getting a video camera set up, call her family... Fascinating possibilities, he said to himself... Just fascinating...
The dream began again and she withdrew from it, wanted to run from it, wanted to get back to her other music. She resented the interruption, resented anything that took her from her music now. She worked constantly now; instruments she had never known had become her dearest friends, and she composed new pieces all the time in her other dreams. But this one piece kept coming back to her, and always it was the same.
The beach, the wet sand against her legs, the unknown cadence of Mark's chains... all of it was the same. Then it came to her as on an errant breeze: she was chained to this music just as surely as she had been chained to Mark. The wind, the trees swaying, the man on the huge sailboat playing the piano...the man...the man... the man in the stars...
Why did he always get stuck at the same place in the music? Or was the puppeteer? Did the puppeteer not know the music? Why? Why would the puppeteer not know?
But something was different about the dream today. Something about the sound was different. The piano was... no... what? New instruments? The puppet-man turned and looked at her; his smile. There was something different about the instruments! But...
She could see the puppet's face now! His eyes were clear, his smile full of mirth, yet proud too. She gasped as the puppet-man nodded his head, turned away, turned back to the piano, and his hands danced over the keyboard smoothly now in an uninterrupted run.
Tracy Tomlinson opened her eyes and looked skyward; she cried out and was blinded by the light of ten billion suns...
Wakeman looked on in awe as Somerfield and MacIntyre read the music and bowed their instruments; he couldn't help being swept away by the simple rendition of the music, by the noble majesty of the moment. He looked at Tomlinson's mother and twin sister as they stood beside the hospital bed, their whole being radiating both the hope and the despair they had felt during the past eight weeks.