The Turbulent Present
Abandoned and alone
Remi opened her eyes, her fists clenched. “It’s still not coming back.”
Her counselor sighed. “I’m sorry. That’s the only method I know for recalling memories. I think it’s time to see a specialist, someone who can help you in a more neurologic way.” The woman’s robust voice didn’t match her thin, aging body.
“You’re dumping me?” Another unexpected blow. Remi had found Joanne’s name in her phone contacts and assumed they had a history. Even though this musty, low-rent office didn’t give off a professional vibe, she’d counted on this woman to help get her life back.
“Please don’t see it that way.” Joanne scooted forward, her eyes troubled. “This situation is complex for me. During our earlier sessions, before the incident, you told me things about your past, about your guilt. Now that you can’t remember any of that, it would be unethical and probably counterproductive for me to remind you. So I shouldn’t see you until you’ve recovered.” The counselor reached for a notepad. “I’ll refer you to a neuropsychologist in Portland.”
Remi shook her head. “I can’t start over. It’s all been too much.” She’d had a sliver of hope when she’d walked in, but now she felt abandoned and alone. That would be the tagline on her gravestone.
“I’m still available by phone if you have destructive impulses and need to talk.” Joanne held out the referral note.
Remi let out a harsh laugh. Destructive impulses would be her footnote. “I’ll be fine. Thanks though.”
She bolted from the office, knowing she would never be back. Coming here the first time a year ago had felt like cracking open her own chest. She remembered the pain of that first session if not the details. Then two months earlier—just as she was able to get through a day without hating herself—she’d suffered the strike and woken up with unbearable pain and no memory. Pieces of her recent life in this town had come back, but the rest of her past was still a total blank.
What was the point of seeing yet another specialist? So they could tell her she was physically fine and to just be patient? The doctor who’d treated her in the ER kept saying that, and his indifference, especially to her physical distress, infuriated her. Remi reached for her phone to delete the counselor’s contact, but she’d left the cell in her car.
At the bottom of the exterior stairs, she swore. Not only was it drizzling—signaling summer’s coming end—some jackass had parked his crappy van too close to her Mazda. Now she would have to squeeze her wide hips in sideways like a contortionist. She shuffled across the secluded back lot, wincing at the literal pain in her ass and wishing she’d dressed warmer. As she grabbed the driver’s side handle, a flash of panic. Where was Tuck?
Behind her, the van’s sliding door clanged open. Instinctual fear made her spin around to run, but she was too slow. A powerful hand pressed a vile rag against her mouth and a massive arm wrapped around her rib cage. With a quick lift, the man heaved her like a sack of cement. From inside the van, someone grabbed her armpits and pulled her into the dark space.
“Motherfu—” She couldn’t form the rest of the word. Her tongue wouldn’t work and her brain felt woozy. Yet before she blacked out, a vague thought came together. Whoever she’d been hiding from had finally found her.
The Recent Past
Did you call me Remi?
July 3, two months earlier
Thunder boomed in the dark sky and Remi tensed. A storm hadn’t been in the forecast, so the sky-shaking noise caught her off guard. Every fiber in her body wanted to bolt for the building, but she had to round up the kids first. She ran toward the girls on the swing set. “Go inside!” She pointed at the back door. “Now!”
Remi pivoted toward the boys playing basketball and repeated her frantic message. Three of the kids went wide-eyed and followed the girls, but Trevor, a hyper five-year old, took another run at the low hoop. Panic made her heart pound in her ears. “I said now!”
The boy turned, shocked at her tone, but instead of running toward the daycare, he burst into tears and bolted to the corner of the fenced-in play area.
Shit. She didn’t have time for this.
The sky flashed, a light so bright it hurt her eyes.
“Get inside!” Remi dashed toward him, but he dodged her. Cursing loudly, she gave chase, catching him as he rounded the big metal slide. She scooped him up and tried to run, but he was heavy and kicked at her knees. Thunder boomed again, and her lungs fought for air against her tight chest. Almost there. As she reached the patio, the boy squirmed out of her arms and scurried in the door ahead of her.
A moment later, the air sizzled and a bolt of lightning knocked her to the ground. The pain was so intense Remi blacked out before her face hit the concrete.
She woke to the sound of concerned voices, a man and a woman talking softly nearby. Her eyes fought to stay closed like they did sometimes on sleepy mornings, but she managed to force a word out of her parched mouth. “Water.” Why did she hurt everywhere?
One voice came closer. “Remi, can you hear me? I see you blinking.”
Who was Remi? “Water.” She forced her eyes open.
The man, who seemed young and dressed in white, was rather blurry as he leaned in and offered a straw. The cool liquid soothed her mouth, and the room came into focus: a small exam space in the back of an ER.
“Why am I here?” Dread filled her chest as she realized she couldn’t remember what had happened.
“You were hit by lightning at the daycare.”
What? Confused, she sat up and peeked under the sheet. Her body had nice breasts that were starting to sag and a layer of pudge on her belly. How could she not remember this? Panic rolled in like a tidal surge, threatening to drown her.
“You should lay back and rest.” The man pressed a lever to raise the top of the wheeled bed. “I’m Dr. Azul Sanjay.”
“Did you call me Remi?”
A flash of concern. “Your work badge says Remi Bartel.”
She gulped for breath. “I can’t remember anything.”
“We’ll get you a CT scan and see what’s happening.” The doctor sounded calm, but his eyes were uncertain. “Your memory loss is likely temporary.” An uncomfortable pause. “I’ve never treated a high-voltage shock patient, but my understanding is that the effects are short-term.”
“Good to hear. Because I need to get home.” Remi didn’t know why, but the feeling was urgent. “How long have I been here?”
“Two hours or so.”
Remi glanced at the wall clock: 3:45. About the time she usually got home from work. The thought floated in and out, untethered to specific details. Still, it offered hope her memory would return.
Dr. Sanjay shifted. “You don’t seem to have any injuries except for the burns where the lightning entered and exited your body. As soon as you feel ready, we can release you.”
Remi touched the white bandage taped to her right shoulder socket. Where was the other burn? She started to ask, then realized she knew. The searing pain in her left butt cheek now made sense. “Have you given me any pain medication?”
“No. I wanted to see how you felt first.”
“Like I’ve been dunked in a deep fryer with a vice-clamp around my head, then branded on the ass.” She tried to smile. “So put some of the good stuff in my IV, please.”
The doctor looked surprised. “On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst pain you can imagine, what’s your level?”
“I thought I just told you, but I’ll say eight or nine, just to be clear.”
A long moment of silence. “Okay. We’ll get some anti-inflammatory in your line, and I’ll write you a script for ten Percocet with no refills.”
“Thanks. I’d like to leave soon.” And go where? Remi tried to visualize her home. A small brown cottage came to mind. No. That was her childhood home. “Where are we, by the way?”
It meant nothing to her. “Can you be more specific?”
“It’s a small town south of Portland, Oregon.”
The west coast seemed familiar and correct. Time to get out there and see it. Maybe the visual images would trigger actual memories. “Where’s my purse? With my driver’s license?”
“It’s likely still at the daycare. We’ll call them. Anyone else we should contact? A spouse? Family?”
Remi couldn’t think of a single person she might know. “After the CT scan, will you call an Uber for me?” Being alone with the pain and memory loss rather terrified her, but lying in this windowless room not knowing anything felt like a layer of hell Dante hadn’t experienced.
The Recent Past
Her life had once been more vibrant
A few hours later
Remi walked into KinderCare, blinking at the bright colors. If she worked here, she must like kids, but she didn’t remember this place. Or anything else. Her CT scan hadn’t shown an injury to her skull or brain, but her mind seemed to be lost in a thick fog. The sensation was bizarre and embarrassing and she wanted to get this interaction over quickly. Her headache had eased, but so had the effect of the anti-inflammatory, and her burns hurt with every movement.
“Remi!” The stout woman behind the counter desk beamed. “I’m so glad you’re okay. We’ve all been worried sick.”
Remi tried to be pleasant. “Thanks.” She glanced at the receptionist’s badge. “Cheri.”
“You’re wearing hospital scrubs. Are you sure—?”
“I’m fine. My clothes were burned and they cut them off me.”
“Oh right.” Cheri stood. “Let me get the rest of the staff. They’ll want to—”
“No. Please. I’m not up for it. I just need my purse.”
“Of course.” Cheri reached under the counter and held out a brown canvas shoulder bag.
Remi took it, dug around for a wallet, then stared at her driver’s license. The woman in the photo looked vaguely familiar: thirty-five or so with ash-blonde hair, hazel eyes, and round cheeks. Kinda pretty, but not really. The name read: Remi Lynn Bartel. She noted the date of birth and realized she was only thirty-one. She looked up at Cheri. “My memory is fuzzy. Do I have a car here?”
The receptionist frowned. “The green Mazda.”
“Thanks. I need to go.”
“Are you sure you should be alone?”
“I’m not sure of anything, except that I need to get home.” Remi also remembered the address on her license after glancing at it only briefly. That struck her as odd.
From an interior door, a young boy burst into the lobby. “Remi!” He threw his arms around her legs. “I’m so sorry you were hurt.”
Startled by his affection and concern, Remi patted his head. “Thanks. I think I’ll be okay.” She felt bad about not remembering his name.
He looked up. “Jason told me you were dead.”
Remi chuckled and stepped back. “Do I look like a zombie?” She forced a smile. “I was just asleep for a while. Now I have to go home and rest.”
“You’ll be back tomorrow?”
“Maybe not ’til next week. Bye for now.” She hurried out before anyone else confronted her.
In the car, which was impressively clean, she gave Google Maps her address and let its nagging voice guide her. As she drove through Wilsonville, the sign for Boonsferry Landing amused her, and directions to Coffee Lake made her smile. Had she grown up in this funky little town or purposely moved here? When the Nag told her she’d arrived, Remi stopped at the end of a short side street and stared at the two-story farmhouse. This wasn’t it. She noticed two mailboxes, then realized the driveway went past the house to another dwelling in back. Remi eased down the cracked, narrow concrete, spotted a cute cottage, and felt a little less intimidated. On the porch, a planter bloomed with purple petunias. Had she planted them? She stepped up to the door and panic hit her. What if she had a roommate or boyfriend inside? Would she even know their name?
Remi unlocked the door with the other key on her set and stepped inside. The air smelled of fried onions, a strangely comforting scent. Something banged in the back of the house, startling her. Rapid clicking sounds, then a little white dog with a brown face burst across the room. He leapt into her arms, wiggling and kissing her face.
Love surged in her heart, overwhelming her to the point of tears. She wasn’t alone. This little guy was her life—and remembering his name delighted her. She squeezed him tight, then sat on the bench by the door, letting him jump and rub all over her until he settled down. By then, pain screamed at her to get up, and she took one of the Percocets she’d picked up at the hospital pharmacy. She needed to put something in her stomach soon, or the oxy might make her nauseous, but she wanted to explore the house first.
The tour took all of three minutes, with Tuck padding along. In addition to the boxy living room and galley kitchen, she had two small bedrooms, a hall bath with outdated fixtures, and a closet-sized laundry room with a dog door leading outside. The main bedroom was tidy and simple, the only color a mint-green blanket, the only decoration a vase with dried flowers on the dresser. The simplicity suited her, yet also made her sad, as though her life had once been more vibrant.
“Not much to look at, huh, Tuck?”
He wagged his tail, and they wandered back down the hall. The spare room contained a narrow desk with a laptop, a dust-covered stationary bike, and a stack of empty retail boxes. They’d once contained a flat-screen TV, an electric can opener, and sets of plates, bowls, and glasses. She’d either recently purchased these things, or she never threw away boxes.
A memory tickled her subconscious, like the way her nose itched before a sneeze. Exhausted, Remi headed back to the kitchen. She needed to eat, take some aspirin, and rest for a while.
Halfway through a bowl of canned chili, with Tuck eating his share nearby, an image surfaced. She was stepping out of her car at a park, where she’d looked around and liked what she saw—a quaint, lush-green town where she could feel safe. Her backseat had some luggage, a blanket, and a bag of dog food. Tuck, of course, was at her side.
When had she moved to this place? By the look of the house, particularly the retail boxes, maybe only a few months ago. Yet she knew it had been longer, and she’d come here for a reason. Someone to be close to? No. Fear squeezed her heart. Someone to get away from. . . in yet another life she couldn’t remember.