Chapter 1: How'd I Get Here?
Don’t you hate it when everyone in the room is wearing clothes and you’re not? The doctor’s wearing a dress with a white coat on top, and the nurse has on one of those green uniforms. Mom’s wearing her new tweed suit – a bit wrinkled after a day at work and half the night sitting beside my bed – but still, a suit. And me? I have underpants. Period. I had a hospital gown that didn’t do up the right way, but they made me take it off. So now I’m wearing dark green Y-fronts and a smile, and that’s about it. No, I forgot. I have a bandage on. It isn’t doing me much good, modesty-wise, because it’s on my head.
The doctor introduces herself. She’s new. I forget her name immediately. I’ve seen the nurse before; her name is Angela. She’s okay. The doctor smiles down at me, pokes and prods for a bit, and lets me put on my gown again. That’s a little better.
“So you’re the boy who talks to himself,” she says, taking the laser out of her pocket. All right, it’s not really a laser but it looks like one, and it feels like one. The other doctors all had them too. “Angela here has been telling me about you.”
I don’t say anything. She tilts my head and shines the light in my eye. Ouch. Like a laser.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
Doctors have to go to school for a long time. Everyone knows how smart they are. They sure know it. But they must think the rest of the world is as thick as a brick because they ask really obvious questions. I’ve seen lots of doctors since I woke up, and every one of them has asked my name. Some of them asked more than once. And it’s not like it’s a tough name to remember.
“Alan,” I say. “Alan Dingwall.” Don’t say it. It’s my name; I’ve had to live with it all my life. “I’m still thirteen,” I say.
“Everybody keeps asking how old I am. I’m the same age I was a couple of hours ago. I’m still in Grade Seven. I still live in Cobourg. My birthday is still October 16th.” The doctor chuckles. “And my head still hurts.”
“Oh, you poor thing.” I can’t see her, but that’s my mom. Who was the English queen with Calais written on her heart? My mom has Oh, you poor thing on hers.
“We want to know how much you remember, Alan,” says the doctor. “That’s why we ask the same questions over and over again. You were unconscious for almost five hours. That’s a long time. We’ve done lots of tests, but some of them were . . . inconclusive.”
“You think I have trouble remembering my own name? Or where I live?”
The doctor tilts my head, stares up my nose. The last doctor did this too. What do they think is up there? Then she goes back to my eyes. “How much do you remember, Alan? Do you remember the accident?”
“I’ve tried,” I say. “I remember the rain and the mud. And the creek running high. Norbert was running too – I had a cold.” I try to take a breath. “I’m still really stuffy. Even stuffier than I was.”
“Norbert is a friend of yours?”
“Uh – kind of,” I say.
“I don’t know.”
“What about your other friend?” the doctor asks. “The little dark-haired girl?”
“Miranda? What about her?”
“She’s in the report from the Cobourg Hospital. She pulled you out of the river and called the ambulance. Don’t you remember?”
I shake my head. Ouch. Funny that I don’t remember about Miranda. Not funny ha-ha, funny weird. She doesn’t usually walk home from school with me. She takes a bus. Normally I’d remember being with her. And this afternoon she couldn’t have been with me. I know that, though I don’t remember why.
Drat. It’s like there’s a hole in my memory, and everything about the accident has fallen in – Miranda, the river, the collie dog, everything. I hope I can find them all again.
Wait a minute. Miranda has brown hair, doesn’t she?
“I wish I could remember more,” I say.
“That’s okay. You’re lucky to live in Cobourg, Alan. I’ve been there once or twice. It’s such a pretty place, right by the lake. Look to the left. And to the right. Don’t move your head. Just your eyes.”
I’m happy to keep my head still. It hurts when I move it. “I wonder if I’ll ever remember what happened,” I say.
“Probably. Don’t worry about it. You always wear green shorts?” the doctor asks suddenly.
“Huh?” I say.
“Your underpants. You like green ones?”
“I… not really,” I say.
“Good. I don’t either. And by the way, just for the record, are those green underpants clean, or did you wear them yesterday too?”
“Just trying to think of fresh questions. I don’t like boring my patients.” Now she’s shining the light in my other eye. I can’t tell if she’s smiling but she sounds like it.
“I’m not bored,” I say.
“Good. Don’t look at the light. Look left again. Now how about this – what’s the cube root of four hundred and eighty-nine?”
I blink. “I don’t know.”
The doctor turns off the light. I can see she is smiling. “Good,” she says. “I don’t know either. I’d worry if you did know.”
At that point the door opens and my dad comes in. “Is this the right room?” he asks. He’s moving fast, looking worried and important, until he sees me. Then he stops as if he’s been punched hard in the stomach. He takes a slow, careful step toward my bed. And another one. “You’re awake!” he says.
I smile feebly.
“I thought you were unconscious,” he says. “Sorry I took so long to get here. My flight didn’t get in to Toronto until midnight, and the cab broke down on the way to the hospital.” He notices my mom. “You said he was in a coma,” he says.
My mom is beside the window, looking out. I don’t know what she expects to see at this time of night. My dad is standing in the doorway. Whenever they’re together, which isn’t very often, my parents seem to drift to opposite sides of the room. You’d think they were two like poles of a magnet. Like poles repel, don’t they? After the divorce my dad’s company moved him away from Cobourg – first to Chicago, and then Minneapolis. Now he lives in Vancouver. Drifted right across the continent. Give him another couple of years and I’ll have to fly to Thailand every summer to see him.
The doctor goes over and introduces herself to my dad. I miss her name again. “Congratulations, Mr. Dingwall,” she says. “Your son is going to be okay. He was in what we call a light coma, but he came out of it earlier this evening.”
“Great,” says my dad.
Angela the nurse is holding my hand. Like I said, she’s nice.
“Can I go to sleep yet?” I ask. I’ve been trying to get to sleep since I woke up – that doesn’t sound right, does it, but I woke up a little after dinnertime and I’ve been yawning and yawning ever since. And they haven’t let me go to sleep for more than an hour at a time.
“Do you want something to drink first?” asks the nurse. “Some ginger ale or juice?”
“Oh yes,” I say. “Please.” I’m thirsty. And sleepy. And I have a headache.
Better than being in a coma.
My dad insists on staying with me. I wonder if he really wants to, or if he’s just trying to get my mom upset. She wants to stay with me too. “You look awful, Helen,” my dad tells her. “Why don’t you go home and get some rest? I’ll sit up with Alan.” And the nurse and doctor smile, like we’re a TV family where everyone cares. What we need is a dog, or maybe a pesky little sister. And a crazy neighbor who drops in during every episode.
“You look pretty lousy too,” she says.
“Not as lousy as you. Your hair’s a mess.”
“So is yours. And you spilled something gross on your shirt. Gravy, or something.”
“Yeah, well, I was in a hurry.”
“And you still turned up too late.”
“Too late for what? To see my son in a coma? And anyway, I can’t change the airline schedule. I came as fast as I could.”
A family fight; not the first one I’ve ever heard. Looks like we’ll have to cancel “The Dingwalls” in mid-season. Parents – who needs them? The doctor and nurse are edging toward the door. I wish I could go too.
“Look, I’ve traveled three thousand miles to see my son; I’d like to spend some time with him. Is that too much to ask?” My dad is sounding reasonable. A business voice. His job is in human relations. Mom’s a social worker, counsels kids in trouble. Ironic, or what? Like that old proverb where the shoemaker’s kids go barefoot, and the baker’s kids are hungry, and the candlestick maker’s kids are in the dark. Nowadays, instead of candlestick makers, we have managers and co-ordinators and directors, and their kids are unmanageable and unco-ordinated and lacking direction. Sometimes I think Lizzie Borden had the right idea.
“Why don’t we ask Alan?” says my mom.
“Yes, let’s ask Alan. Let’s ask him if he wants to spend a few minutes with his old man, who has flown across the continent to be with him. Let’s see if a twelve-year-old boy has more sense than his thirty-nine-year-old mom.”
“He’s thirteen. Don’t you even know how old your son is?”
“So I guess you’re forty, then. Unless you skipped another birthday. You were twenty-nine for three years in a row, I think.”
“I was waiting for you to buy me a birthday present. It took you three years to remember.”
But by then I’ve nestled down into the pillows, and closed my eyes. Maybe they’ll leave me alone if I pretend to be asleep.
My dad wakes me up. There’s no one else in the room. It’s later, I can tell. He’s trying to be gentle, bending over me; his face all screwed up. “Alan,” he says, shaking my shoulder. “Alan.” He looks like he’s in as much pain as I am.
“What time is it?” I ask.
“A little after four o’clock.” He sounds apologetic. “I didn’t want to wake you, but they insisted. They’re still a little worried about you.”
I don’t say anything.
“No, don’t go back to sleep. You’re not supposed to go right back to sleep. Sit up and talk for a few minutes.” He helps me sit up against the pillows. My head hurts.
“Where’s Mom?” I ask.
“She went home. She’ll be back in the morning.” Cobourg isn’t that far from Toronto. About an hour by car or train . . . only fifteen minutes by helicopter, which is how I came yesterday. Cobourg Hospital to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. I bet it was a really great trip. Too bad I was unconscious at the time.
Dad goes to the window, stares out at the night. Just like Mom did. Must be a great view from my room. When I can stand up, I ought to go over and take a look. “Alan, I want to say . . . I’m sorry for that scene when I came in the room. Your mother and I . . . we just . . .”
“Yeah,” I say.
“I don’t know why it is,” he says, “but whenever the two of us get together we act like . . .”
“Act like spoiled brats,” I say sleepily.
He turns around, laughs. “Yeah, that’s about right.”
Dad’s like me in coloring, very pale and with bright red hair. Now he’s blushing. Our blushes are sudden and spectacular, like tropical sunsets.
“I’m going to get myself a cup of coffee,” he says. “Can I get you some juice or pop or something while I’m up?”
“Sure,” I say. I settle back against the pillows.
“Don’t fall asleep. You’re supposed to stay awake for five minutes every hour.”
There’s a bed across the room, but it’s empty. I’m all alone. I listen for the nurses, for the doctors, for the maintenance staff who push those trolleys around – trolleys which must by some sort of hospital law always have one squeaky wheel. Nothing. Silence. I yawn some more.
I think about my dad in his office in Vancouver. And then the phone call – harsh, dramatic. His son is in the hospital. In a coma. He leaves in a hurry. He’s worried because he cares about his son. Because he loves his son. Doesn’t he? Well, doesn’t he?
I sigh. And hear a familiar, squeaky voice.
– So, Alan. I guess this is it, says Norbert.