It is all too bright. Red and blue flicker and collide, interrupted by the flashing of white beams. At points the world spins violently, but it will also settle for the briefest of moments. Then it will resume its whirling path, a freakish cyclone of light and emptiness. The only constant in this wild place is the searing pain that’s everywhere, everywhere but somewhere off to the left.
Sometimes Vivian wakes with a start, drenched in blood. Hot and sticky, she stumbles out of bed and to the vanity on the other side of the room. The oblong mirror flashes in the moonlight as she tips it upward to see her face, and staring back is someone she is only just becoming acquainted with: a pallid young woman with dark-rimmed eyes and wild hair. This girl breathes in time with her real counterpart, shallow and quick, and they both scan the room for danger with short jerks of their heads.
Eventually Vivian shuffles back to bed, drawing the sheets up to her chin. The blood she felt coursing down her body is simply sweat, but her heart still flutters weakly against the fragile cage her ribs make. This is not the first time the nightmares have threatened to swallow her whole.
“Everything’s going to be all right. Just keep talking to me. Tell me about yourself. What’s your name? Where do you live?” But what is her name? Where does she live? And what’s missing from her left side?
It has been two months since her autonomy was ripped away, and the few pieces left behind wither like fruit on the vine. In that time, Vivian has traveled to the hospital and back, but her location is the only thing that has changed. A light canvas sling still holds her arm close to her body. The shadows under her eyes remain dark and obvious. Though she is blameless in regard to what happened (and what did happen?), she quietly insists on assuming responsibility for all the workings of the universe that lie outside of her control.
Her cat (his name is Baxter, according to his tags; why is it so hard to remember?) is reluctant to leave her. He brushes against her left side incessantly, daring her to put her arm down and pet him. She only reaches across her body with her right hand to scratch his ears before returning to her general state of listlessness. This becomes daily routine; only the cat protests.
“You can’t just lie here! Viv, you’ve got to try to get better as much as we’re trying to help. We can’t do all the work for you!” Trying takes so much effort, though. Too much effort.
Another two weeks pass. Vivian has sensation in her upper arm once more thanks to Erin, her obnoxiously faithful warden and dearest friend, assigned to care for her by no one but unwaveringly present all the same. Despite Erin’s efforts and strict orders from medical professionals, though, Vivian’s fingers do not so much as twitch no matter how strongly she wishes them to. Instead they dangle limply from the edge of the sling. In the same way, Vivian dangles from the edge of existence.
Sometimes she stands on the balcony of her apartment, fixated on the traffic rushing by below and flinching whenever sirens shriek on their way past. Her eyes glaze over, empty pits that play tug-of-war with the city lights. The city lights nearly win, too; Vivian leans over the railing until the wind runs its fingers through her hair, daring her to join it in its dance through the sky.
Thankfully, Erin is always there to chase the wind away with tender words and firm hands. Inevitably, she steers Vivian back inside while reminding herself not to stop watching, not even for a minute.
“Maybe you should stay away from the balcony. It’s dangerous.” So is a dead limb. So is a ruined memory. The balcony isn’t any more dangerous than a tattered body and mind.
There comes a point where Vivian can wiggle her pinkie finger well enough to turn a page, and so she lays herself to rest in book after book. Vivian’s mother leaves new novels on the stoop every morning, and checks on her daughter’s progress most afternoons. Their conversations are clipped, punctuated not by long pauses but by apologies, and after each one, Vivian’s mother calls her ex-husband to inform him that nothing has changed save for the number of novels piling up in the corners of the apartment.
“She’s finished another. All she does is read, but at least she’s interested in something again.” The words are soft, just barely drifting in from the kitchenette, but they are still audible. They also beg the question: does the interest truly exist, or do hundreds of pages of fiction numb a wounded soul?
Erin, sleeping on the pullout couch, does not notice when Vivian slips outside one night. She squeezes through the front door and down the stairs, arm flopping about uselessly as she discards her sling on the cheap carpet of the lobby. Aimlessly she wanders out into the city streets, ignoring the pleas of the doorman to come back inside. The chill of the night air is nothing compared to the ice pumping through her veins and coming to rest in her heart.
At the edge of a busy street, one lit with headlights and lamplights and neon signs to bars that are miraculously still open, helplessness nearly sweeps her knees out from beneath her. She wants to collapse, to stare up at the city that has tried so hard for so long to nurse her back to health. So far, it has failed.
Fear keeps her from experiencing her undoing for a second time. The sudden memory of horns blaring, headlights flashing, and the fierce grinding of metal against metal as her car plunges off the side of the road assaults her in the middle of the street. She throws out her good arm just as a sedan slams on its brakes; a chorus of indignant honking breaks out. What is this madwoman doing, crying and standing over the double yellow line with her hand on the hood of a stranger’s car?
The police are called, followed by Erin, and she hurries to collect Vivian from the scene. Upon arrival, she finds her friend chilled to the bone and cradling her useless arm, not ready to die.
“I didn’t think she would try that. I don’t know what changed her mind, either.” Apparently, it is easier to ask what prevents death rather than what nearly caused it.
The change comes another month later. It is now four and a half months since the semi-truck ran Vivian off the expressway and into the worst rut of her life, and she finally stretches her left arm without the help of friends or family. Slowly she establishes a routine of lifting small dumbbells, water bottles, and other items of seemingly insignificant weight. Her atrophied muscles ache each time she attempts to move beyond her available reach, but she can feel it for the first time in four and a half months, and it’s the best ache she’s ever had.
Erin is present less frequently now, but when she stops by, she takes up residence on the couch she occupied for so long. As she busies herself with chatting or flicking through magazines, she slyly watches Vivian push her limits once more, as she stubbornly would have before the crash. This is the Vivian she remembers.
“I told her not to in case she hurt herself, but she did it anyway. Figures, right?” Well, of course it figures. There are things to be done. The apartment needs cleaning, the laundry must be taken downstairs, and someone has to bring Baxter to the vet. Sitting idly accomplishes nothing.
It is eventually decided that Vivian needs to be occupied with more than the contents of her apartment. A brief phone call to her boss ensures that there is still an open desk within a tiny cubicle that squats in the core of a skyscraper. It may not be the most cheery of environments, but it has waited faithfully for nearly five months as a gesture of good faith and hopefulness. A dreary job concerned largely with filing would normally excite very few, but Vivian greets the opportunity warmly, embracing it like an old friend. Within the week, she is taking the bus from home to work and back again, and the word in the break room is that she’ll be employee of the month if her dedication doesn’t waver.
“Can you believe how far she’s come?” No one can; five months was hardly expected, and five days was hopeful at best. But that was a long time ago, when optimism was hard to come by and fear was present in spades.
And so it seems that all is well. Yet there are still signs that point elsewhere. Every time a car horn is blown on the expressway, Vivian jumps and turns her head about, searching for the semi-truck she expects will appear any minute. If there are details of a car crash on the news, she excuses herself from the room under the pretense of having forgotten to do something important. These tells are noticeable to her loved ones should they pay close enough attention. There is one habit she has yet to break, one habit she has yet to share, though, because who really wants to admit that not everything is better?
Sometimes, the city lights call her to the balcony to play tug-of-war, and when she steps toward the railing, the wind invites her to dance.