Colin Cellars had been alert to their presence for almost a half hour, ever since the loud grinding noises had brought him out of a deep sleep and up into a subconscious state of semi-awareness.
The noises were loud, metallic, and seemingly random, like a piece of heavy machinery starting to tear itself apart. His frontal lobes didn’t like the sound of that at all, and were prepared to initiate flight-or-fight commands to his relaxed muscles the instant the sounds became any more threatening.
But his cerebellum, locked into the tonals, quickly detected an underlying and predictable sense of timing and rhythm that seemed more interesting than threatening. The cerebellum instantly fired a specific set of neural impulses, signaling the brain’s central reasoning and logic center that all was well … for the moment.
Satisfied that the loud grinding noises were, in fact, non-threatening, the frontal lobes reduced that incoming data flow to a minimal volume, set it aside --- knowing that the cerebellum would continue to monitor timing and rhythm --- and looked for other inputs that might require analysis.
They quickly discovered that the auditory cortex had been busy receiving and scanning a barely-discernable flow of words and sounds coming out of the two-way communication system built into the fMRI Unit --- essentially an audio-link between the patient in the fMRI and the instrument operators in the separately-RF-shielded Console Room --- for immediate relevance before placing them into temporary storage.
The frontal lobes immediately accessed this second data flow, determined there were two male voices --- one clearly authoritative over the other --- and began to listen.
“Did you see that?”
“Synapse activity … right in the center of that temporal lobe lesion.”
“I didn’t see anything … probably just noise.”
“No, I’m sure I saw something. I’m going to try shifting the background to black, see if that … there it is again! See it now?”
“You’re right. Definite synaptic action … weak, but it’s definitely there. It looks like he’s processing information in the middle of the lesion. I’m printing that out now.”
“Suddenly retrieving stored data, while unconscious, after --- what? --- three days of no activity at all? What kind of sense does that make?”
A hesitation --- a beat --- and the cerebellum instantly reengaged. Timing was its game, and it was always happy to multi-task.
“No, I don’t think he’s trying to retrieve stored data. Look at the synaptic pattern. It looks more like he’s processing incoming data.”
“But in that area?”
Another hesitation … longer this time. The cerebellum heightened its focus.
“He has some significant external head injuries. We could be seeing some major re-wiring; a classic example of neural plasticity in action.”
“Okay, but why would the re-wiring start in the middle of a lesion … and especially one of that magnitude?”
Another long beat, the frontal lobes rapidly assembling relevant data as the cerebellum continued to share the complex groove of the faint signal source with the basal ganglia, its close associate in composing rhythm, tempo and meter.
“So you’re saying his brain damage may be transitory; not necessarily permanent?”
That got everyone’s attention.
Significant head injuries?
The frontal lobes were still in the process of crunching the data --- seeking correlation and meaning from the stream of contradictory implications --- when the easily-frightened auditory cortex panicked.
An instant later, adrenaline began to pour into his bloodstream.
* * *
Semi-conscious awareness --- followed instantly by a flurry of discordant images, sounds and voices --- burst across the expanse of his clouded mind like a salvo of fireworks rockets suddenly erupting across a blackened sky.
He tried to make sense of the dizzying array of shapes and colors and echoing sounds, his frontal lobes demanding immediate and priority access to his hippocampus and interior regions of his temporal lobe as they desperately searched for the stored information --- the personal memories --- they needed to interpret the signals ASAP.
But there was nothing there.
Startled --- and then deeply frightened --- by a vast sense of emptiness never experienced before, his limbic system launched into action. Thousands of fear-flight-related neurons fired in timed and pre-planned sequences. The instructions were primitively simple: specific muscle groups were directed to move in a rapid and coordinated manner to get his brain --- and the rest of his body --- the hell away from the terrifyingly unfamiliar images right now, if not sooner.
But that didn’t happen ... couldn’t happen.
Instead, he became aware of a heavy and restraining --- but not suffocating, as the cerebellum noted with maddening precision --- membrane that seemed to encase his entire body.
He tried to lunge upwards, snarling and fighting to tear himself loose, but he couldn’t move … couldn’t move at all.
Stunned and ever more frightened now, the subconscious portion of his frontal lobes prepared to launch an even more desperate sequence of motor actions … but then hesitated when an abrupt surge of pain threatened to send him tumbling backwards into that dark-clouded semi-awareness from which he’d just arisen.
The grinding noises suddenly stopped, and there was the sound of a heavy door opening … and then rapid footsteps.
“Let’s get him out of here, now!”
One of the early voices --- male, young, with an underlying technical precision --- his frontal lobes decided after quickly scanning the cerebellum’s unceasing input. But the pitch was now shifted by a sharp, echoing and now-easily-discerned reverberation; the kind of effect generated by a medium-sized enclosed space with a lot of solid reflective surfaces.
He felt his still-completely-encased body being lifted and then moved --- horizontally and completely out of his control --- into a discernibly larger space with a lot of softer and much more absorbent surfaces … punctuated by the sound of a heavy door closing with a solid CLACK.
He tried to tear himself loose one more time, but to no avail. He was completely trapped and helpless.
Then, suddenly, a new voice --- this one much softer, melodic, and soothing --- penetrated the thick fog.
“Don’t fight it, Colin! You’re okay! You’re safe … you’re not in any danger!”
It was a familiar voice. Timbre alone told him that.
And it was also a safe voice. Memory residing in a short-term storage area of his brain told him that; but there were no corresponding long term memory data that told him who or why or how.
I should know that, he thought. In fact, I have to know that; it’s my job.
But he didn’t know who she was, or why she was designated as being ‘safe’, much less how he would know any of that.
Hell, I don’t even know what my job is. Do I have one?
“It’s okay, Colin,” the voice repeated in a softer tone that sent a torrent of dopamine into his nucleus accumbens --- the pleasure center of his brain. “Just relax now.”
“Feels good,” he whispered.
“What feels good, Colin?”
“Your voice. Feels good … feels wonderful.”
He willed his muscles to relax, feeling the oddly flexible but ultimately restraining membrane loosen slightly around his arms, legs and torso … and then gasped suddenly as another bolt of pain seared into his brain.
“What’s the matter, Colin?” she asked, her voice sending another dose of soothing dopamine into the depths of his still-anxious brain.
“Ankle … right ankle … better now. Keep talking.”
He felt a pair of hands pull a lower portion of the membrane away and take his bare right ankle in a firm, probing grip. Warm soothing hands. He could feel his nucleus accumbens humming with pleasure now.
And that got his attention.
He had been serenely aware --- at least at a subconscious level --- that distinctly separate portions of his brain had been performing their assigned tasks in a coordinated, inter-active and clearly discernable manner. And his awareness of those activities had seemed perfectly normal and reasonable … at the time.
But the abrupt realization that he actually knew the scientific name of one of the three major elemental structures of his brain’s pleasure and reward system --- much in the way he knew the names and functions of his hands and feet and knees --- and was consciously aware of what that specific structure was doing in real time suddenly seemed … odd.
Am I supposed to be able to do that?
He didn’t think so … but he didn’t have a frame of reference of what he was able to do, because that data had been stored in an area of his brain which seemed to have been --- what? --- razed? Burglarized? Emptied out?
That didn’t make any sense either, and he tried to dig deeper into the problem. But he kept on being distracted by the humming of his nucleus accumbens as the warm hands continued to gently massage his ankle. It really felt good.
Don’t stop, he thought contentedly. Keep on doing that … and that too.
“I can’t feel anything wrong with your ankle.”
“Broken,” he pointed out, annoyed by the cold analytical tones that had suddenly intruded into her voice, hindering the flow of his favorite neurochemical. “Felt it snap … should have stopped … but had to keep running. No choice … had to.”
“You haven’t been running, Colin; at least not for the past few days. And there’s nothing wrong with your ankle. See, I’m going to move it ---”
“No, wait --- don’t!”
He tensed against the expected lightning bolt of pain.
“--- and it articulates just fine. It’s not broken. See ---”
He felt the warm hands manipulate his bare right foot around in a series of rotational motions. No pain, just the delicious physiological and neurochemical warmth. Felt even better now. Wished he could remember what she looked like; but his hippocampus and temporal regions kept coming up empty. No matching image for that wonderfully soothing voice.
“You were dreaming, some kind of nightmare.”
“Didn’t feel like a dream. Felt real,” he grumbled through the membrane as he heard a second door --- this one far less solid --- burst open, and then someone approaching in what sounded like rubber-soled shoes.
“What happened?” a distinctly different and authoritative female voice demanded.
“He regained consciousness all of a sudden, and then started yelling that his ankle was broken,” the wonderfully soothing female voice explained.
“Get him out of the wrap, right now.”
Moments later, he felt and then saw the membrane --- some kind of thin, flexible, and opaque netting that he’d never seen before --- being disconnected and pulled away by three pairs of plastic-gloved hands. Suddenly, his hands and arms and legs were free. But his head remained securely clamped and immobile within some kind of clam-shell apparatus … and his neck, chest and lower torso were still tightly strapped to some kind of thick plastic platform.
At the same moment, his senses were assaulted by a huge and nearly overwhelming flow of aromatic data: soap, alcohol, and powerful disinfectants.
Some kind of hospital room, the frontal lobes decided.
He wanted to think about that --- how a tough membrane could hold a human body in, and simple volatile chemical structures out, yet allow the two-way passage of oxygen and presumably carbon dioxide --- but he was too busy using his left arm to shield his eyes from the sudden blinding brightness of the room lights.
As he did so, his blurred eyes locked on a plastic bracelet affixed to his wrist. He had to blink a couple of times to get his blurred eyes to focus on the small block letters.
CELLARS, COLIN 22572
Colin Cellars? Is that who I am? He asked himself, but got no answer … just a deep, dark silence.
If his frontal lobes knew the answer, they weren’t telling.
Confused, he dropped his arm down and found himself staring up at a pair of dark eyes surrounded by long tight ringlets of smooth black hair, and a dimpled smile.
The room smells had become more subtle now: cologne and other strong deodorants in the distance, being partially blocked by a far more intriguing and feminine scent that seemed to be emanating from that dimpled face.
Senses heightened. Smell, colors, sounds. Must be on drugs, he thought in a brief flash of analytical awareness.
Then he remembered.
Brain damage … head injuries … hospital. Okay, makes sense. Wonder how badly I’m hurt?
But then, as he continued to stare at her enticing face, he felt a warm and gentle glow permeate his entire body, and he realized that he didn’t particularly care.
Good old nucleus accumbens, he thought, smiling internally. He would have been content to just lay there and listen to the rhythmic flow of her voice; but several portions of his brain were still demanding information.
“Where am I?” he rasped with a voice that didn’t feel like it had been used for a long time.
God, she’s beautiful, a voice in the dark silent recesses of Cellar’s mind finally spoke up … and, in doing so, immediately set off a series of faint alarm bells --- more like distant bongs or chimes, he thought curiously.
“You’re in the prep room of our fMRI lab,” the dominant feminine voice answered.
He tried to turn his head in the direction of the voice, but he couldn’t move his head at all. So he continued to stare into the eyes of the young woman who, his frontal lobes had already decided, must be some kind of nurse.
“No, f-MRI. Functional magnetic resonance imaging.”
“A modification of an MRI that tells you where blood is flowing in the brain --- to feed synapses --- because the iron in hemoglobin makes it slightly magnetic,” he said before he could catch himself.
“You know that?”
“I guess so. Who are you?”
“Actually, that’s one of the questions we want to ask you.”
“Okay, fine,” he grumbled, annoyed by the fact that the pleasure stimulus he’d been getting from the sound of the nurse’s voice was now significantly diluted by the gruff tones of this intruder. “You first, then I’ll talk.”
“I’m Doctor Susan Grayforth, the director of this clinic.”
“As in medical doctor?”
“Yes and no. I am a medical doctor, but I’m also a research scientist. My specialty is neurophysiology.”
“So you treat brain damage?”
“We evaluate people with head and brain injuries, but not everyone we work with actually has brain damage.” Dr. Grayforth said the words smoothly, but there was a distinct evasive tone to her voice.
“Do you what?”
“Have brain damage?”
“You have some extensive head injuries that may have resulted in a significant lesion within your left temporal lobe.”
“A lesion? You mean like a scar?”
“No, a lesion --- in terms of neurophysiology, is simply an area of the brain that is no longer … functioning, due to scarring or inflammation.”
“As in dead?”
“No, as in not processing signals --- neurons not firing.”
“However, in your case,” the authoritative male voice spoke up, “we were observing some very interesting signal processing within the area of your lesion when you woke up.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“Yes, we presume it is,” Dr. Grayforth said calmly, and then paused for a beat. “So can I ask you a few questions now?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Do you know where you are at right now?”
“At whatever clinic you’re the director of, I suppose?”
“But do you know where our clinic is located?”
He thought for a long moment. “No, none.”
“Do you know your name?”
“My wrist band says ‘Colin Cellars.’”
“That’s the name on the paperwork we received when you were brought in, so that’s what we put on your bracelet. But the paramedics retained all of your outer clothing and other personal articles, and no one from your unit has shown up to confirm your identity, so that name may or may not be correct.”
“Yes, ideally someone you’ve worked with closely who has personal knowledge of your ID and the circumstances of your accident. Unfortunately, none of the guards assigned to your security team have that knowledge.”
“Or at least that’s what they claim,” the authoritative male voice added in a disgruntled voice.
“True,” Dr. Grayforth acknowledged.
“I … have assigned guards?”
“Several, actually, on rotating shifts, twenty-four-seven. We assume that means you’re a fairly important person to someone.”
“Or maybe a person that someone high up wants to keep track of?” he said, impulsively voicing the suspicious thoughts that were flowing through his mind.
“I suppose that’s possible,” the clinic director said, “but, in any case, you’re certainly not a prisoner here.”
“That’s nice to hear,” he said, all too aware of the head, neck and torso restraints that no one had bothered to release yet.
“In point of fact, the only information your security teams claims to have about you is that you were one of several individuals severely injured by an accidental explosion during a night training exercise, and that the situation at the scene was extremely confused. Their assignment is to keep you secure while in our care until things can be sorted out. Does any of that make any sense to you?”
“No, it doesn’t.
“Do you remember anything about an explosion?”
“Do you have any recollection at all of Colin Cellars being your actual name?”
He hesitated for a second.
“No recollection at all?”
“Do you have any other associated memories about you, your friends, your family, or any of your associates? Anything that might help us confirm your true identity, including your social security number; and thereby retrieve all of your relevant records from other medical facilities?”
A third beat, slightly off-set from the first two. His cerebellum was methodically digging at the underlying aspects of the shifting rhythm, while his frontal lobes quickly processed and then presented the unsettling idea that no one else seemed to know who he was either.
“No, I don’t have any memory of having family, friends or associates.”
“Yet you seem to know how an fMRI works?”
“I seem to understand the basic function of the various types of MRIs, at least in a theoretical sense,” he agreed. “But I don’t have any memory of ever operating one.”
“Do you understand the functions of other technical things?”
“Yes, of course.” Rapid response, out of phase and tempo. He could feel himself starting to get irritated.
“I don’t know, lots of things. Boats, cars, airplanes, tools, guns, radios. I mean, who the hell doesn’t …?”
“But nothing personal … nothing about you actually using any of these technical things yourself,” Dr. Grayforth pressed, ignoring the outburst.
“Look, I told you ---” he started to respond heatedly when he felt the beautiful nurse’s warm hand on his arm, and heard her say, “relax, Colin, everything’s going to be okay.”
An instant later, he felt the warmth of the chemicals as they came up through his arterial system and began to diffuse his brain.
He was starting to object when his awareness suddenly dissolved into a cobwebby gray nothingness.
He arose out of the foggy grayness smoothly and without incident, giving him the sensation of having been unconscious for only a few seconds.
But when he opened his eyes, and looked around, he realized that he was lying on a very different bed and in a very different room. The bed was considerably bigger and softer than the padded cart he remembered, and the room was much smaller and non-echoing ... the significant differences including the soft pillow that his head was settled into, the floor-to-ceiling white curtains, the brightly-patterned wallpaper, the oak-paneled closet, the adjacent oak door to a private bathroom, and the piles of folded sheets and towels on a cart at the foot of the bed.
Even more significant, he realized that his head, neck and torso were no longer secured by straps. The only thing that restrained him was a sheet and thin blanket that were tucked under his arms exposing his bare chest and arms.
Then he saw her.
“Hi, there, Cowboy,” the young woman in the white nurse’s uniform with the soft voice and long black hair said, walking up to the bed as he stared up at her beautiful dimpled face. “How are you feeling?”
He could feel the instantaneously soothing and pleasant effect of her deep, husky voice on his subconscious.
“Wow,” he whispered.
“Wow?” Her right eyebrow arched up curiously.
He blinked his eyes and shook his head, trying to clear the remaining cobwebs out of his mind that now echoed with the muted sounds of alarm bongs and chimes.
“To answer your question, my body feels pretty stiff and achy, like I’ve been lying in bed too long, and my head hurts; but your voice … that really feels good.”
“Feels good … as in you think you can actually feel my voice through all of your other aches and pains?” The nurse cocked her head in amusement.
“I definitely feel something very nice going on in my head every time you say something,” he said, nodding his head slowly. “Kind of like I’m on drugs … I suppose.”
“Actually, you are on drugs,” the nurse said. “Or, at least, you have been for the last half hour or so. You should be coming out of it by now.”
“You knocked me out in the MRI prep room a half hour ago?”
“You were starting to get anxious and irritated --- not a good thing when you’re restrained like that. The doctors just wanted to get you into a more relaxed setting before you came fully conscious.”
“Whatever,” he said agreeably. “Just keep on talking.”
“What do you want me to do, pull up a chair and read you a bedtime story?”
“That would be nice. Bedtime story, newspaper, phone book … doesn’t matter … just talk.”
“Hate to break it to you like this, buddy boy, but our relationship is going to be a little more conventional than that. I’m going to be the attending nurse who goes about her appointed tasks, and you’re going to be the cooperative patient who lies still and behaves.”
“Or you get to re-experience the Farmington-U Cocktail --- a very effective combination of sedatives and other drugs that keep you cheerfully mellow and cooperative --- on a regular basis … which is to say, during my entire shift.” She tapped her fingers meaningfully against what looked to Cellars like a small combination-locked aluminum briefcase lying on a mobile cart positioned near the head of his bed. “The doctors around here are pretty open-minded about that sort of thing,” she added pleasantly.
“And while we’re on the topic of being open-minded, how do you feel about answering to the name Colin Cellars for a while … at least until we get some better info. ‘Cowboy’ seems a little informal now that you’re conscious. Wouldn’t want you to get the wrong idea about our relationship.”
“I’m okay with that. From now on, I’m Colin Cellars … Colin to my friends, assuming that I’ve got any.”
“Good. Now that we’ve got your name settled, let’s just sit you up a bit … get a little more blood pumping through that brain and body … see if that helps your voice issues any,” she said, moving in closer to the bed and holding his forehead with one of her strong, soft hands, enveloping him in the scent of her perfume … and her. As she did so, the muted alarms in the back of his head instantly amped up into deeper bass tones.
Knock it off, he growled silently. She’s safe, remember … and besides, I want to hear her talk.
He felt the head of the bed start to rise up slowly until he was propped up at what felt like a thirty-degree angle. She slowly released his forehead and stepped back away from the bed, taking the flow of her scent with her. The amped alarms immediately fell back to their muted state.
“How’s that?” she inquired.
“That feels … better, I think,” he responded weakly, not really sure how he felt now that he was semi-horizontal. Light-headed, certainly. “You sure this gets more blood up into my brain?” he asked. “Seems like it’s having the opposite effect.”
“It’ll get your heart working more efficiently for a change; get you ready for standing up and walking around … all positive effects.”
“I … think I’d like that,” he said hesitantly.
“Good, it’s nice to see you awake. We’ve all been waiting,” the nurse said, the inflections in her voice sounding happy and truthful as she reached over to his headboard and pressed a button. He heard a faint buzzing sound from somewhere outside his room.
The exterior door opened and a white coated figure walked in. He was taller than the nurse by at least six inches, with a solid muscular build, wide shoulders, thick arms, short-cropped grayish-brown hair, a matching goatee and moustache, both neatly trimmed, dark Mediterranean skin coloring, piercing dark eyes … and a jagged, long-since-healed scar across his left cheek that seemed to erupt out of the goatee like a bolt of lightning.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Antonio Vargas.”
Cellars decided that Dr. Vargas looked formidable and accustomed to giving orders. He also decided that he didn’t like the man, although he really didn’t know why.
“Let them know he’s regained consciousness,” the white-coated man said to the nurse.
“Yes, sir,” she replied with a distinctive edge to her voice that Cellars picked up on instantly.
She’s pissed, he thought. I wonder why?
Vargas waited until the nurse disappeared out the door before turning back to Cellars --- who furrowed his eyebrows in confusion when his interior alarms suddenly ceased the moment the door closed shut behind the nurse.
What the hell …?
“You’ve been in an unconscious state for five days,” Vargas said after consulting the chart he removed from the foot of Cellar’s bed.
Cellars blinked. He had no sense of the lost days or …
“Time is it?” he rasped.
Vargas glanced at his watch. “It’s approximately nineteen-twenty hours,” he replied … and then, when Cellars didn’t respond: “approximately seven-twenty in the evening.”
Cellars remained silent.
Another pause while Vargas scribbled something onto the chart, then looked up and asked:
“Do you know where you are?”
Cellars looked around at the pleasantly decorated ward room for a moment, and then shook his head. “Some kind of hospital room, apparently; but I have no idea where … or why.”
“And, I gather, you have no idea who you are either?”
“I’ve already gone over this with Dr. Grayson,” Cellars said with an edge to his voice. “The bracelet on my wrist says I’m Colin Cellars. I have no reason to believe that’s not the case, and I’m perfectly willing to answer to his name; but I really don’t know anything about the fellow.”
Vargas nodded and made another notation on the chart.
“Do you remember anything at all about who you are, or what might have happened to you?”
Cellars started to respond with a sarcastic and irritated comment, but then hesitated.
“Yes?” Vargas prodded.
“It’s not something that I actually remember, but something I think I’m starting to know about myself,” Cellars said, choosing his words carefully. “I get the impression that I’ve got some kind of problem being in the presence of beautiful women.”
Vargas cocked his head curiously, and then smiled.
“You think you have a problem being around Lisa?”
“Is that the nurse who was just here?”
“Yes, Lisa Marcini, your floor nurse.”
“Then no, I don’t think I have a problem with her, specifically,” Cellars replied, shaking his head firmly. “I think she’s stunning and enticing; someone that any sane male would run off to an island resort with in a heartbeat, if he could talk her into the idea. But I don’t remember ever seeing her before an hour ago, when I woke up in the MRI lab.”
“So you think the problem is something in your past, something to do with other women?”
“I guess it must be,” Cellars agreed uneasily, not sure where this conversation was going, much less what it meant.
“What else do you remember ... about anything?”
Cellars thought for a long moment.
“Nothing concrete … nothing definable. I seem to remember fragments of a very scary event --- or maybe a dream, I can’t tell --- that drifts in and out, back and forth … but really doesn’t make any sense in either direction.
“One continuous event or dream?”
“I think so … it seems to play out that way. But everything else is blank --- completely blank --- as if all of my personal memories have been completely erased. But that doesn’t make any sense because ---”
“Yes?” Vargas encouraged.
“I seem to have a functional vocabulary. I understand the concepts of erased memories, erasable data, vocabularies, computers, MRIs, technicians, gorgeous and sensuous women like nurse Marcini. I … seem to understand a lot of things,” Cellars said as he pulled the thin blanket and sheet away from his lower torso and legs, slowly levered himself into a fully upright position.
Then he looked down, and realized that he was wearing what looked like a set of green military undershorts instead of a traditional open-backed hospital gown.
That’s weird, he decided, without having any real sense of why.
Then he looked over at his bare right ankle, expecting to see some massive bruising, at the very least; but it looked exactly like his left ankle: perfectly normal.
Okay, that’s weird, too, he thought, remembering the searing bolts of pain. Definitely not right. Can’t be.
“Is it okay if I try to stand up?” he asked.
“If you feel up to it,” Vargas said as he set the clipboard down on the bed. “Here, I’ll help you.”
Moving cautiously, Cellars shifted his legs over the edge of the mattress, slid forward to place his bare feet on the floor, and then --- bracing himself against the doctor’s steadying hands, and noting the scent of what he decided must be expensive cologne --- he cautiously stood up … and, in doing so, quickly confirmed nurse Marcini’s diagnosis that the ankle was just fine.
Then he noticed the I.V. tube sticking out of his left arm and leading up to a partially empty plastic bag hanging from a metal rack standing next to the bed.
“Is that dinner?” he asked, gesturing with his head at the bag.
“Yes, I assume so. Is that a problem?”
“I … don’t think I like having needles sticking out of my arm.”
“Do you feel like trying some real food instead?”
Cellars realized for the first time that his stomach felt cramped and empty.
“I’ll see to it that we get you something right away.”
“Thank you. I just don’t ---”
“Why don’t you sit back down,” Vargas suggested, and then firmly eased Cellars back into a sitting position on the bed.
“Wow, that was interesting,” Cellars whispered out loud, mostly to himself.
“Yeah, a little … but more than that ---”
What he felt, Cellars realized, was more tired than weak, and more mentally exhausted than physically.
Like I’ve been studying hard --- or writing intently --- for hours, or …
“You were saying?” Vargas pressed, picking up the clipboard again.
Cellars blinked, and then looked up to consider the white-lab-coated doctor and his presence in the room.
“I was going to say that I seem to understand a lot of things in considerable detail, but not with any personal context. And that doesn’t make any sense … at least not to me. Does it to you?”
“What you’re describing is certainly not a classic case of amnesia,” Vargas conceded. “You appear to possess a sharp clarity of mind, several relevant data sets of information, and awareness of context … or a lack thereof,” he added with emphasis.
“But nothing personal, nothing that tells me anything about who I am or where we are,” Cellars said, staring down at his bare hands and arms. “That dataset seems to be completely empty. But I seem to be in reasonably good physical condition … suggesting that I exercise or have a job that keeps me fit … and I see that I have a lot of interesting scars on my forearms and hands that I would think I’d remember getting. Do you know anything about them?”
“No, I don’t,” Vargas said as he set the clipboard on the bed, then stepped forward, took Cellars’ right arm and examined it for a long moment. “They appear to be recent in origin, but healing nicely.”
“How recent, would you say?”
Vargas shrugged. “Several days, to be sure. Five or more --- we know that with certainty --- but perhaps less than ten or twelve.”
“Do I have any head injuries or signs of a concussion? Anything physical that might match up with these scars or explain the amnesia?”
“You have some scars on your head and neck that appear to be at a similar stage of healing, and ---”
Vargas consulted the chart again.
“--- you were diagnosed as having experienced a concussion, probably as a result of being in the proximity of an explosion, but with no apparent physical brain damage.”
Cellars considered that information for a long moment.
“So you’re not a physician … not a medical doctor?”
Vargas smiled. “Why do you say that?”
“First of all, you seem far more interested in my mental awareness than my physical condition. And secondly, you haven’t made any effort to examine my ankle, or my head, or to remove an I.V. feeding tube that I’m clearly not thrilled about having stuck in my arm.”
“I’ll have nurse Marcini take care of that when she returns.”
“And finally,” Cellars went on, ignoring the response, “it doesn’t seem likely that I would know more about the healing of scar tissue than a hospital physician.”
Cellars nodded his head.
“How many days do you think?”
“Seven days at the most; more likely five or six. The tissue underneath is still a little tender.”
“So you think you received those wounds shortly before you were brought here?” Vargas pressed gently.
“It seems like a logical deduction.” Cellars nodded, staring intently at the doctor’s facial expression.
“But nothing about your wounds triggers any residual memories?”
“No, nothing at all.”
“So you’re a shrink.”
Cellars said it matter-of-factly, but there was a discernable edge to his voice.
“A clinical psychiatrist, actually; does that bother you?”
At that moment, the door to the room opened and Lisa Marcini walked in, instantly setting off the muted alarms in the back of Cellar’s head again.
“Mr. Cellars would like his I.V. removed,” Vargas said calmly.
Cellars managed to ignore the increasingly amped alarms this time, watching --- staring intently at, actually --- Lisa Marcini’s facial features as she stepped up close to the side of the bed, took his arm in her warm hands, smoothly slipped the I.V. needle out his arm, and then taped a pad of cotton over the small wound with practiced and efficient movements.
She placed the I.V. tube on a nearby stainless steel tray, and then turned her head to meet Cellars’ gaze --- her perfect mouth widening into a dimpled smile.
“You must be used to your male patients staring at you while you work,” Cellars said calmly.
Unlikely as it seemed, the dimples grew even deeper.
You can’t be real. You just can’t be.
The internal thought jarred at Cellars’ subconscious --- where did that come from? --- but he had no idea at all about the where or the why.
“Some of my patients do get a little flirtatious, every now and then. Some of them even ask for my phone number; but it rarely becomes a serious problem … at least not for me.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“Remember, I’m the one who administers the drugs,” Marcini said with a wink that registered in Cellar’s mind as somewhere between amused and enticing as she gestured with her head at a small stainless steel tray --- lying next to the lockable briefcase on the mobile cart. Cellars could see that the tray held a pair of capped vials containing of some kind of clear liquid, and a pair of small and medium syringes. “One cc of Farmington-C keeps everybody mellow and on cruise-control. But change that order to one cc of Farmington-U, and everybody’s off to dreamland … as you may recall?”
“The Farmington Cocktails were designed for patients with brain injuries or traumas,” the nurse explained. “The ‘C’ series is predominately a mixture of anti-anxiety drugs, whereas the ‘U’ series is mostly a mix of very effective and fast-acting sedative-hypnotics,” the nurse explained. “The ’C’ stands for ‘conscious’ and the ‘U’ for unconscious … something easy for us floor nurses to remember.”
“I remember what I assume was the U-series hitting pretty fast,” he said. “What’s in it, some kind of secobarbiturate?”
“No, actually a combination of five benzodiazepine derivatives --- the latest in a series of fast-acting sedatives that are a lot safer to use, and offer much less danger of an overdose,” Marcini replied, and then cocked her head curiously. “So, you know something about pharmacology too?”
“I … seem to,” he said hesitantly, and then shrugged easily. “But I’m probably just interested because it sounds like a pretty effective way of controlling us patients.”
“Only the ones who start wandering off the reservation,” she said, her eyes flashing with amusement. “But you haven’t been acting that way … yet.”
“It’s still early; I’ve only been awake for a few minutes. And besides, I’m still trying to understand something.”
“Oh, what’s that?” she asked, cocking her head and causing several strands of long dark hair to sweep across and partially conceal her right eye.
Cellars decided it was the most exotic look he’d ever seen … or, at least, the most exotic look he could remember ever seeing. But he had to concede that the data set was pretty limited.
One? Is she the only beautiful woman I’ve ever seen? How can that be?
Cellars hesitated, and then turned to stare at Vargas for a few seconds before answering.
“Something else that I’m beginning to understand about myself, Dr. Vargas: I get the distinct feeling that, deep down inside, I really don’t like shrinks.”
“Really? Why is that?” the deep-voiced doctor responded with an easy smile.
“I don’t know why,” Cellars said, firmly meeting the psychiatrist’s gaze as he switched the focus of his comments to Lisa Marcini, “presumably something from my past. If it was something clinical, you’d think I’d be nervous or upset --- or at the very least uneasy --- in our good doctor’s presence, but I’m not.”
“That’s an interesting bit of insight,” Vargas commented.
“I thought so, too,” Cellars agreed as he turned to focus his full attention on the dark eyes of his sensuous black-haired caretaker.
“So tell me, nurse Marcini,” he went on, “before I ask you for your phone number … and before I make a very determined effort to talk you into running off to some island locale with me … why would I be mostly indifferent to our good doctor’s mind-probing presence; but, at some subconscious level, scared every time you walk into this room?”
“You’re afraid … of me?” Lisa Marcini’s dark eyes blinked in disbelief.
“I seem to be.”
“But … why? I haven’t done anything at all to threaten --- much less harm --- you,” Marcini protested.
“I agree, everything you’ve done so far --- or at least everything that I’m aware of ---” he added meaningfully, “seems to have been directed toward my personal benefit, if not my libido.”
“I’m a professional nurse. It’s my job to take care of you. And besides,” she added skeptically, “you don’t look like a man who would be afraid of any woman, much less someone like myself.”
Cellars didn’t think the visibly-toned and -muscular nurse looked all that fragile or helpless, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he held out this right arm.
“Check my pulse if you don’t believe me.”
Marcini stepped forward, took his wrist with practiced ease, and paused for ten seconds.
“All right, you do have an accelerated pulse rate, and your skin is moist,” she acknowledged after a few seconds, “but that could be caused by … a number of other things, in my experience.”
Her lips formed another one of her dimpled smiles.
“I’m not in heat; not yet, anyway,” Cellars said firmly. “Look at my eyes --- check my pupils.”
She did so, and then stepped back quickly.
“Okay, you are showing some physical symptoms of being concerned about something … and you think it’s me?” she asked softly.
Cellars nodded slowly.
“So I guess this means you really don’t want my phone number after all?” Her eyes flashed mischievously.
Then, apparently concerned that she’d pushed the probing humor too far, Marcini glanced quickly over at the doctor, who made a slight motion with his head for her to continue.
Neither gesture escaped Cellar’s alert eyes.
“No, not at all,” he responded, shaking his head, “I really do want your phone number; or, at the very least, I’d like to keep seeing and talking with you --- because I love listening to your voice --- either here, or in whatever environment you’d feel safe doing so,” he added.
“You’re concerned about my safety, even though, as you said, I scare you?” She cocked her head dubiously.
“I don’t think it’s you, personally, that I’m afraid of,” Cellars said. “But there’s clearly something about your presence that unnerves me, at least at some subconscious level. I want to know what that is … and why.”
Cellars then turned to Vargas. “Are we getting somewhere --- making progress, doc?”
“Yes,” the clinical psychiatrist said, nodding slowly. “I definitely think we are.”
“Good, then can I get dressed?”
“Well ---” Vargas hesitated.
“I’m starting to feel pretty good right now,” Cellars said with a shrug. “Not so lightheaded. Mostly, my stomach feels cramped and empty. So I was thinking,” he went on, gesturing with his head at Marcini, “if my nurse has the time, perhaps she and I could walk over to the cafeteria --- I assume there is one around here --- and get something a little more solid to eat. That would give me a chance to stretch my legs, work on my memory a bit, and maybe even try to talk her out of that phone number, while she makes sure I stick to easily-digested foods.”
Vargas looked over at Marcini.
“I haven’t had my dinner break yet,” she said, shrugging agreeably.
“All right, then,” Vargas said as he walked over to the nearby wood closet and used a ring of keys that he drew out of his lab coat packet to unlock the doors. “I believe you’ll find a clean set of clothes in here.”
Cellars blinked, started to say something, and then hesitated.
“Yes?” Vargas right eyebrow rose expectantly.
“I’ve noticed that I’m not hooked up to a catheter.”
Vargas looked over at Marcini quizzically.
“We had to remove any and all objects containing even small amounts of metal from your person --- which included the catheter and the I.V. systems --- before taking you into the MRI room,” she explained. “Given your new state of awareness and presumed mobility, I thought you’d prefer not to have the catheter put back in. They’re not very comfortable when you’re awake, and the bathroom isn’t very far away.”
“Thus my ‘walking around’ attire?” He glanced down at his green shorts.
Lisa Marcini started to say something, and then caught herself.
“I was going to say that the floor nurses get a little tired of seeing guys wandering around the halls with their bare butts hanging out of their gowns,” she replied, her dark eyes flashing again, “but ---”
Cellars cocked his head? “But ---?”
“We’ll leave it at that,” Marcini said firmly.
“Okay,” Cellars nodded agreeably and then turned his head to stare at Vargas.
“So, Doctor, given my apparent history over the past few days as nurse Marcini’s patient, I’m thinking that it’s probably an odd --- and maybe even inappropriate --- time for me to start worrying about being undressed in front of her,” he said, briefly shifting his gaze and enjoying yet another dimpled smile. “But, at the same time, I imagine you all expect me to start acting a little more civilized if I’m going to be walking around in public?”
“Yes, indeed, we do … and you might as well start right now,” Vargas agreed as he reattached the clipboard to the end of Cellar’s bed and then motioned for Marcini to proceed him out the door. “Unless you feel you’ll be needing assistance, we’ll leave you alone to get dressed.”