Crash and Burn

Author’s Note: Here’s an old one. This 5,000 word story was on my old blog. Warnings for death and depressing themes.


‘Who am I?’

Odd words to come out of the man’s mouth, put together slowly as thoughjust to say them had been one of the hardest challenges that he hadever had to face. The little girl who was sat by his bedside, who hadbeen sat by his bedside whenever she had got the chance for the last few days – drawn out hours that seemed to no longer have any meaning – giggled at what he said.

‘Why, what a silly thing that is for you to say! You are Uncle Arnold, of course – who did you expect you would be this time you asked?’

So he had asked the question before. That at least did seem to make some sense, if only a slight amount, although the name Arnold and the title of Uncle did not. It told him that he had to have a brother then, or a sister, one who had helped to bring this little girl into the world. In his mind the man tried to picture the child, an attempt to remember what she looked like before he opened his eyes to see the girl who had spoken, to show him that there was nothing wrong with his memory.

He thought of a girl in a pale yellow dress, a flower laced through her dark hair and placed carefully atop those curly locks. Two shining green eyes appeared in his head, the beauty of which was only matched by her smile. Everything around her – even, it seemed, the dress that she wore – was pale in comparison, for the sun did not shine when she could not find it inside of her heart to show off that bold grin; nothing was able to match the sheer pleasure that was linked with knowing she was happy. It made him smile too, that wonderful image of the little girl in his mind, no older than perhaps five or six, so that when he opened his eyes he was ready and waiting to welcome her into his arms.

A round faced, ginger haired girl who spilled out of her clothing stared down at him from where she had climbed up onto the bed to get a better look at him. The man jolted, his disappointment not immediately registering alongside the shock of seeing the freckled child up so close. It was only when she moved away from him and sat back down in her chair, an adult sized seat that she only just managed to squeeze herself into, that he realised she was not the one who he had been hoping for.

She did not do that quietly; she shrieked loudly because she too had been startled, never expecting that the man would react so strongly to her presence. There must have been someone waiting just outside of the door who had been alerted by that sound, the door thrown open at the noise, a man and a woman rushing inside to make sense of what they had heard. The woman ran over to the girl and wrapped her arms around the child, likely unable to lift that considerable weight but still able to console the child as best she could.

‘Oh, Arnold,’ she said when she saw that he was awake, letting go of the girl and rushing to his bedside instead. She touched his shoulder gently, long red nails tapping onto his skin one by one. There was something about her face that he thought he could recognise but the memory was struggling to come back to him, his mind stuck in a loop of who am I and where am I and how did I end up here and who is the girl in the yellow dress. ‘Oh, Arnold! Thank God you’re awake!’

‘You gave us all a fright, old buddy,’ the man who had walked in with her said, his smile not quite reaching his eyes. It was a less than genuine look that did not pass by even the dazed Arnold.

‘You’re in hospital now, you’re safe,’ the woman added.

A hospital! He craned his neck, taking a look around at the clean white room that surrounded him and straining to see if there was anything further here that might help to bring back some of his memory. A vase of pink and blue flowers sat at the foot of his bed, a few measly personal belongings (a wallet, a watch and a pair of sunglasses) on the table next to him, a pile of clothes including pinstripe pyjamas were folded nearly on a chair in the corner. No photographs, all items that he assumed belonged to him but could not recall ever owning.

‘Who are you?’ he finally asked, the two adults who stood in the room with him looking at one another, clearly displeased to hear those words from him. The women chewed on her bottom, eyes filled with worry. ‘I don’t remember …’ he tried, really tried to force back memories of anything or anyone, to think of the last thing that he had known. The last person he had spoken to. The last film he had seen. Anything.

‘The doctors did say that you might have some memory loss,’ the woman said with a sigh, avoiding his searching eyes as she spoke. ‘Concussion, or something. They said it will probably return in time.’ Clearly she was not a profession on this matter, understanding little of whatever she had been told about his condition but enough to realise that probably was not good enough. ‘I’m … well, I’m your sister, Arnold. I’m Georgina.’ She passed the words off with a weak smile, a very poor disguise.

The name of his sister – surely that should be able to call up something? Arnold, a man who could do nothing more than trust that this was truly his name, squeezed his eyes shut and repeated it over and over to himself silently, trying his hardest to imitate her voice. It made him think of cookies and fairy cakes, bedtime stories read to him while he had been wrapped up in snug blankets, and squabbling over who got to play with which toys today. The smell of some sweet perfume, not strong enough to offend the senses, hit him and he was not sure whether it came from her or was also a part of the vague memories. A rose, petals moving gently in a summer breeze, bees buzzing around it merrily, spreading the pollen of that delightful plant. The images drifted in and out of focus, sometimes linked to a year of a date and others uncertain, as though he was watching them as an observer rather than taking part.

None of this was in any was definite; there was not a single thing that he could be certain about. He opened his eyes again and watched the woman’s face fall at the sight of him shaking his head, saying no, I do not remember who you are without having to speak the words out loud. There was no chance for her to try to explain herself again, for not a moment after he had destroyed her hopes the door was thrown open again, a tall and obviously busy doctor stepping inside. He checked the details on his clipboard before looking towards the bed and at Arnold.

‘Ah, Mr Wilson,’ he said, with the air of a man who was well aware that he knew more than anyone else in the room, ‘you’re awake at last. Some good news.’ After another glance over at his notes he stepped towards the bed, moving not to comfort or reassure but to check the readings on the machines that Arnold was connected up to. He took a stethoscope from around his neck, and for all that Arnold had memory loss he had absolutely no trouble predicting the next words. ‘Now, how are you feeling? No – do not try to get up. Headache? Too hot, too cold? Any pain anywhere?’ Arnold felt his privacy being invaded as his heartbeat was checked manually without any further warning.

‘I …’ he flinched back and away from the cool metal, but it was only pressed more firmly against his chest. ‘I don’t remember a lot at all.’ The doctor moved the stethoscope away and nodded as though he had expected this.

‘It is not uncommon for people who are in your condition to have some amount of memory loss. The shock, the impact …’ the doctor said as though he was counting off his favourite books one by one, ‘you’re lucky to be alive, Mr Wilson. Three of your ribs were broken when you were brought in, as well as the damage to your neck and the burns on your arms, legs and face – but for now, it is best that you rest.’

‘My condition?’ Arnold croaked. He wondered what he had done to cause so much damage to his body. The young girl in the pale yellow dress flashed before his eyes as he questioned the doctor – he had no idea why. The doctor cast a glance at both Georgina and the man who had come into the room with her.

‘I have done all that I can do for now,’ the professional carefully avoided the subject. At his waist, his pager flashed and made a noise, the doctor looking thankful that he had something to distract him from the man lying in the hospital bed. ‘You do seem to be recovering well. Pulse is normal, no pain you say?’ He only looked up long enough to see Arnold to shame his head: there was no pain, in fact there was nothing at all. No numbness as such, just the absence of any real feeling in his body, as though as he could not remember he also could not believe what had happened to him. ‘Good, good. I’ll have one of the nurses check in with you later, bring you some solid food so we can take you off the drip. Now comes the rest, the recovery, which is all up to you and the people who are around you.’

‘What can you do about his memory loss?’ Georgina asked him as he walked towards the door. The doctor looked back over his shoulder.

‘All that can be done is to wait,’ he said, before leaving the room. Arnold was at least glad that the man was honest. He watched the door swing shut and stared at the space for a while longer, wondering how long exactly he should be expected to wait for his memory to return, at what point he should give up on trying to remember and label is as a lost cause. There was always a chance that he would never be able to recall a great deal of his past, and he did not need to be a medical man to know that. It had been written across the doctor’s face.

The idea of never knowing any of it made him wonder what he had done before he had woken up in this hospital bed, what he had spent his life doing – and indeed whether it would be worth remembering at all. He looked over at his sister, the woman biting her nails anxiously as she stared at him, apparently waiting for him to make the first move and speak to her, to announce that he could already recollect parts of their childhood or his adult life, that more was coming back to him now. The other man, stood with the ginger haired girl, was looking down solemnly at the hospital floor, the child herself blinking rapidly at her uncle. Her head was cocked to one side as though she could not understand why he was not behaving as she was used to him doing.

He found that he was not able to speak to any of them. Sure, they knew who he was, obviously had fond memories of him, but he did not know anything about them and neither did he think that he could tolerate listening to them as they tried to console him. They could hardly begin to understand what it was like to have a mind that felt as though it was empty. There was nothing there, a clean slate, a blank space as though it was a canvas that was ready to be painted on by a nervous artist who had no idea where to begin. Pictures and sounds that made no sense floated through that empty space, only making him feel stressed as he had no understanding of where they had come from.

It was an effort, but he managed to raise his right hand out of the covers on his bed and reached out towards the trio who were gathered next to his bed. Georgina jumped to his attention immediately, avoiding the bruises and scars on his arm. ‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘What do you need, Arnold?’

Nothing, he wanted to say to her, I don’t need anything from you at all. Don’t look at me as though I’m useless just because I’m stuck in this hospital bed, I’m perfectly capable of doing things for myself.

‘Mirror,’ he grunted. At first Georgina looked as though she did not want to comply with his request, but Arnold held his gaze and she gave in, reaching inside of her handbag to pull out a small circular mirror. She passed it over to him so that he could get a look at himself. The doctor had told him that his face had been burned – what had happened to him? A house fire, perhaps – but if that was the case, then how had he broken his ribs?

He flipped the mirror open and pulled it towards him, almost dropping it when he saw himself in that tiny reflective circle. There was one blue eye on his face, bright and attentive, and then on the other side of his face a pupil surrounded by raw red flesh, the eyelid there drooping down and making him look lop-sided. On the same side of his face as that half obscured eye there was no eyebrow, instead a dark mark where one should have been; his nose was covered in blistered skin just as his cheek and neck were. His lip stuck out awkwardly on that side too, large and red where it should have been only a pale pink colour. Now that he had seen himself and knew what he looked like he could feel his face stinging a little, sore and difficult to move or to show expressions.

The mirror was put down with a grunt. He did not wish to look at himself for any longer, not when he would see that. Had he been a handsome man before this had happened to him? That seemed like a selfish line of thought – he should be happy that he was alive, his face disfigured or not – but it felt as though it was important at the time. Now he was not simply a man with no memory, he also only had half of a face.

His left arm was burned almost as badly as the left side of his face, all the way from his fingers (no nails there, just extremely sensitive bits of flesh that he knew would be painful to touch without needing to prove that), past the elbow and up to his shoulder. There were a few blisters on that side of his chest but they did not reach very far, the twisted and melted skin in no was as hideous as it had seemed to him on his face. Then too on the left leg there were similar marks, as though the flames had been licking that entire side of his body.

Perhaps now that he had seen the burn marks already, in a place that would be visible to anyone who saw him, the sign on them on the rest of his body did not affect him as much. He could cover his legs up, hide his arms with a long sleeve top, but his face was another matter entirely. Arnold passed the mirror back without looking at the woman who had called herself his sister.

‘Leave me alone,’ he said, and they did.

It had been a car accident. Georgina had told him that it had not been his fault, that the snow had been falling heavily that night and that there had been several accidents up and down the country at the same time. His sister and her husband Gary, who returned with her when Arnold was finally willing to speak with them again, had been very cautious when they had recounted the tale to him, telling him what the police had managed to piece together and leaving gaps where he was sure that there was more to be told. He still could not remember anything about it, nor much about what his life had been like before the crash, and with each passing day his hopes that he ever would were ebbing away. His car had been out of control and he had spun off the road into a tree.

He had been trying to move around on his own almost as soon as he had woken and that had caused a sharp pain in his side, one of the nurses rushing into his room to attend to him at the sound of his screams. She had given him a button to press should he have any pain or require any assistance; he had been using it so frequently because of the spasms in his back that they had him high on morphine almost every hour of the day. Arnold was sure that the medication was not helping his memory return to him, and eventually he was forced to admit that he would have to asked Georgina and Gary about his past, about everything that he wanted to know.

They visited him as often as they could do. This time they did not bring along their daughter, the ginger girl who had frightened him the first time that he had opened his eyes, before he had even been aware of his name. She was Victoria, she had told him excitedly, and Georgina had added that Tori was incredibly fond of her Uncle Arnold, but he had requested that she was not present to visit this time. He wanted to discuss important issues that he did not think the girl needed to hear. It would not do for the poor thing to listen to her uncle asking questions that he should have known the answers to, no need to involve her in an adult conversation.

‘Tell me,’ he said to them when they had sat down with him. He was in a wheelchair now, had been given one after pushing the nurses to provide him with a way to get around on his own. ‘Everything. I want to know. I’m ready.’

Just as she had been when she had given him the mirror, Georgina was reluctant to tell him what had happened to him, about his life and how he had ended up in the hospital. He insisted, and it did not take long for Georgina to admit that she would have to tell him eventually. Talk about everything, Arnold had told her, from the moment that he had been born until the accident, no matter how small or insignificant some of the points might seem to her, because anything might be able to trigger his memory. As resigned as he had already become to this life of knowing nothing about himself, there was still that glimmer of hope that could not be taken away so easily.

His sister told him that he had been born in a private hospital in London, April 17th 1964. She had followed him three years later, another brother (named Joseph) two after that. Joseph, it transpired, was no longer with them, taken away at the young age of fifteen when he had been the victim of a hit and run. The entire family had been distraught when that had happened and Arnold, as the oldest and then the only man left in the family after their father had left in ‘78, had apparently been the most affected of them all. He had lost his job when he had refused to leave his bedroom and as neither of the women had been making any money at the time that had thrown the three of them into financial turmoil. It had taken five years of hard grafting from each member of the family in order to get them stable again after the downward spiral that had gripped them.

That should have left him both heartbroken and guilt ridden. Being told about the death of his brother and how much damage he had done to what remained of his family should have been powerful enough to stir some dark memories in him, but in reality the words had a limited impact. He could not remember what Joseph had looked like or been like and there was no emotional pain from the story of the hit and run. So far, the life story that he was being told did not feel as though it belonged to him, as though he was no longer the person that Georgina was describing, and without his memories there was every chance that he was right. Would the personality that his sister and his brother-in-law knew him for be whole after this? Had he been damaged irreversibly, not just physically but also with a mental barrier that had left him with this awful amnesia, refusing to be pulled down? He needed something to cling to, something that was more real.

In ‘92 he had met his wife, Anna, a woman who was ten years his junior, and they had got married in ‘97. It had not been until eight years later that Anna had fallen pregnant with their only child Samantha, although they had been trying for a long time, and it was here in the story that Georgina faltered. She had chewed her bottom lip as he had seen her do before when she had been nervous and Arnold had wondered whether this was a piece of information that she had not intended to tell him.

‘Where are they?’ he asked her. The name of his daughter had caused something about his temperament to change: this had to be the girl in the pale dress, the one who was more beautiful than anything else. Only a father could look upon his daughter with the happiness and affection that Arnold associated with that child, and his interest was spiked at the thought of her. ‘Can I see them? Why haven’t they been to visit me yet?’

He wanted to add did I do something to make her run away, did I lose another job and end up in the toilet again? Did she take the kid away, oh God did she take that beautiful little girl away from me? He was too scared to ask in case he would not like the answer.

‘They …’ his sister said slowly, fiddling with her hands as she spoke. ‘Arnold, they …’

She did not need to finish that sentence for him to know what had happened to them.

Arnold burst into tears before she did, although from the sound of her voice she had been pretty close to breaking down from the moment that she had mentioned them. The one thing that he could remember vividly, the one memory that he was somehow able to cling onto, perhaps that would have been able to bring down the wall that stood between him and the memories of his former life and he had –

Oh God, she was dead and it was all his fault.

His wife too, but then as close as he must have been to her he could not yet remember her, all of his attention focused on the child that he had killed. A car accident! He had smashed into a tree and killed his own daughter!

‘Yellow,’ he gasped through the tears – and then it was so clear to him, then he could no longer understand why he had not been able to remember what had happened before, all of it flashing in front of his eyes like the last thought of a man looking back on his life. A yellow dress, laughter, childish jokes coming from behind the driver’s seat that were making him smile, but the road had been bad that day and he had needed to keep his concentration on the road. Snow had been drifting steadily down during their journey, only half an hour’s drive left, Arnold unwilling to pull over and stay in a hotel for the night when they had been so close to home.

Anna had told him that he was stubborn and he had cast her comment off with a laugh. They had not even been going all that fast when he had lost control of the wheel, although it had been enough to spin them out of their lane and the black ice under the wheels of his car had left them with nothing to grip. He had heard screaming coming from behind him, his daughter tired and frightened from the sudden spinning. Then they had gone off the road entirely, and –

SMASH!

The tree had been on the passenger side of the car, probably killing Anna immediately. She had been thrown sideways into him during the impact and all of the air had been knocked out of him, but the airbags had burst free and prevented most of the damage that could have been done to him. He had called for an ambulance and managed to pull Samantha free from the wreckage despite the pain that had been crying out in his chest (now known as his broken ribs), unable to so much as wake his unconscious – his dead – wife. He had been holding Samantha in his arms, the girl crying and clinging to him as she bled from the top of her skull – and then what had happened next? How had he been burned so badly? How had his daughter died?

He could remember being surrounded by flames, his mind jumping from the crash straight to the fire. There had been a fuel tanker on the road, the driver of the lorry hitting the black ice and spinning out of control as well … heat, the feeling of being trapped and the smell of burning flesh. Then he had realised that what was burning was his own leg, and the screams – Samantha had screamed louder than he had ever heard anyone scream before. It had been shrill, desperate, an expression of complete and utter pain and then they had been burning together, the driver of the lorry already dead on the snowy ground, the trees around them allowing the flames to lick at their skin.

Had Samantha died then, was she killed by the fire, or had she been brought to the hospital with him and died later? And Anna – oh Anna – he had ruined their family, everything that they had built together; it did not even matter that this had been an accident. He was a monster.

The doctor and several nurses had rushed into the room, ushering Gary and Georgina out, but not before the pair of them had seen what was happening to Arnold. They stood there in to corridor, Georgina crying into her husband’s chest, his arms wrapped around her, pinning her to him as though if he let her go for even a moment it would be to resign her to the same fate as her brother.

He had pushed the emergency button because his wife had been unable to move when Arnold had started convulsing. There was nothing that they could do to help him now, although as the tears ran down her face and dampened him shirt Gary wished that he could have done anything, his wife telling him that she should never have mentioned Anna and Samantha, that somehow in doing so this was her fault. Gary held her there silently, thinking that perhaps there were not even words that could comfort her.

It was what he would have wanted if his wife had been killed in an accident when he had been driving, if he had watched his daughter screaming behind a barrier of flames. What else would there be left to live for?

When the door to Arnold’s room opened they were approached by the doctor who had treated him, who announced with eyes that were practically brimming with tears that Arnold had not pulled through. He was gone and nothing else could be done. Georgina cried harder than before at the news, but Gary could only feel a wave of relief for his brother in law. It had not been difficult for him to spot that the biggest part of Arnold’s memory that had remained had been Samantha, and to know that he had watched the destruction of that beauty had to be more pain than Gary would have wished upon anyone. If he had been revived, Arnold still would have had to live with that knowledge for the rest of his life.

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