Visiting hours were over. Thank goodness. I wanted to fall asleep, but I couldn’t make myself close my eyes. It felt like I was in a horror movie, and as soon as I let my guard down I’d be taken.
Instead, I stared at the closed blinds. All day long as random people visited me, my eyes had been drawn to the closed blinds. Light had streamed through and I so badly wanted to be outside instead of locked in here. I had never liked running, but for some reason I felt like I had years of pent up energy. I wanted to run around campus with the wind in my hair. It was an unfamiliar sensation and it made me start to wonder if everyone was telling the truth. Because I certainly hated running. But what if time had morphed into this alternate reality where I loved jogging? I shook away the thought. It couldn’t be true. I couldn’t be missing seven years of my life. I just couldn’t.
I continued to stare at the blinds. I knew it was nighttime, but there still seemed to be light streaming through them. How was that possible? And I knew I was in a hospital, but the night didn’t sound right. Like the blanket of sleep hadn’t reached anyone outside yet. It sounded like there were cars still honking. Like I was on Main Street during rush hour. What hospital was I in? Christiana, probably. That was the closest one to campus.
I slowly stood up. A nurse had unhooked me from everything earlier and said I was free to roam around the room. That it would be good for me to start moving again. That was probably why I felt the need to run. No one had told me how long I had been in here, but it must have been awhile because my legs felt weak as I walked over to the window.
The sounds of a busy street were even louder as I drew closer. I pushed aside the blinds to either side and stared down. And down. And down. To a city street far below. Yellow taxi cabs sped by, cutting off other cars, leaving so many horns blaring in their wake. New York City. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind about my current location. What the fuck was I doing in NYC? I took a step back, letting the blinds fall into place.
It’s just a bad dream. None of this is real. But when I reached out and opened up the blinds again, the same scene stretched out as far as I could see.
I hated New York. I hated the rude people and the lack of grass and fresh air. Even if everyone was telling the truth and I was 26 and married to an old man, I knew this couldn’t be. I would never in a million years move to New York City. I hated it here. I’d never do this.
I put my hand on my forehead. I was losing my mind. None of this was real. None of it. I took a deep breath and walked back toward my bed. I needed to go to sleep. And then I’d wake up from this nightmare. Everything would go back to normal. I’d ace my sociology exam. I’d stand up to Austin. And I’d be happy, albeit alone. I’d much rather be alone for eternity than doomed to a life in NYC with a strange man and stranger friends. I was used to being on my own.
Before I reached the bed, my feet stopped. I looked over at the bathroom door. Looking in a mirror would help me confirm that no time had been lost. That I was still the 19 year old girl I knew that I was.
I felt my hands tremble as I pushed open the door and flipped on the light. I warily stepped in front of the sink and stared into the mirror. I barely recognized my reflection. Not that I looked that different. Just small things that made me not recognize the person staring back at me. My face looked thinner than I remembered, but that was probably just from my hospital stay. My hair looked shinier and fuller than usual. Which was odd because I had been lying in a hospital bed for God knows how long. How did it look so good still? It was also a little shorter. Maybe the hospital staff had cut it. That was something they probably did for patients, right?
I touched the side of my left eye. The small creases that cut through the skin by the corners of my eyes couldn’t be as easily explained. I was probably just in desperate need of moisturizer. But really, my complexion looked great. I’d take the creases next to my eyes over the blackheads on my nose any day. I leaned closer to the mirror. My pores had never looked so clear.
Things like that didn’t just change overnight. I swallowed hard and closed my eyes. I’m imagining this. It isn’t real. I took a deep breath and opened my eyes, expecting my 19 year old self to be staring back at me once again.
But it wasn’t. I wasn’t the same. How was I not the same? I reached out and touched the mirror, like I was about to touch someone else’s face. But all I felt was the cold glass. I stared at the tan line on my ring finger and removed my hand from my reflection. My fingers left smudges on the clean surface.
The tan line on my ring finger could be explained. I was terrible with self tanner. It always left streaks everywhere on my pale skin. This was just one of those instances. A classic Penny self-tanning faux pas. Nothing a little scrubbing wouldn’t remove.
I looked down at my hands, arms, legs, and feet. Everything else looked familiar enough. Normal enough. I was still me.
I touched my stomach through my hospital gown and froze. My stomach felt bloated. Very bloated. It didn’t feel like my stomach at all. I pulled up my hospital gown and stared in horror at the sight of myself.
I had a small beer belly. That was the only way to describe it. There was a horizontal line with stitches beneath the protrusion. And there were two other smaller lines with sutures on either side of my stomach.
What the hell had I been in here for? I put my hand on my stomach. For a second I thought maybe I looked this way because I was pregnant. But that couldn’t be it. I’d feel different. I’d feel a baby inside of me. It was something I’d always wanted, way way in the future. And this was certainly not that time. Even thinking about carrying Austin’s baby made me nauseous. No, it wasn’t possible. Absolutely not. My parents would kill me.
Just the thought of disappointment on their faces made me know how impossible being pregnant was. I’d never get pregnant out of wedlock. I wouldn’t be able to handle upsetting them. That was why I always followed the rules. And got good grades. And did everything I was supposed to do. It was also why I was on birth control and made Austin use a condom. No mistakes. I lowered my hospital gown back down over my stomach.
I must have had something wrong with my intestines or liver or something. Liver. It definitely had to be my liver. I’d drunk alcohol before I was 21 and this was my punishment. When was the last time I had something to drink? When was the last party Melissa dragged me to? I doubted I had more than one beer either way. Could that have made my liver fail? Or maybe it had been two beers. I couldn’t remember. Either way, that was probably what did it. And my stomach was swollen because of whatever the doctors did to fix my failing liver. I was fine now. No one said I was dying so they probably didn’t have to remove it. They had just opened me up and poked around a bit. Everything would go back to normal soon. How important could a liver be?
Or maybe all of this was a bad dream. A horrid dream and I’d wake up in the morning in my dorm room and everything would be okay. I was just stressed out over finals. Knowing me, I had probably fallen asleep in the library with my head in a book and was just dreaming away.
I stared at my reflection. The reflection I didn’t believe. It’s all in your head. I switched off the lights. It’s all in your head. I climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to my chin. It’s all in your head. But I couldn’t erase the image of the city street below. Or ignore the sounds of the cars. Or the fact that a woman had stared back at me in the mirror. Not the girl that I knew.
END OF CHAPTER 4
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