Henry Jackman, a pharmacist’s assistant working in a run-down drugstore in New York City, wakes up one morning to find his girl friend unconscious on his living room rug. Someone has attacked her. He calls an ambulance, and manages to get her to the hospital alive but comatose. There she progresses from coma to vegetative state, never quite becoming conscious… until the day Henry gives her Somnolux, a new-generation sleep aid.
Henry, an insomniac, has himself been taking Somnolux. He has been experiencing blackouts, something he doesn’t quite admit to, not even to himself. There is evidence he’s been doing some strange things in his sleep: women’s underwear turns up in his drawers; sexy women in his bed. Could Henry have attacked his girlfriend himself without any knowledge of the fact?
So, here’s the story. I get up like usual, shower, shave, and I’m right in the midst of putting this wad of gel in my hair when I hear something spooky in the living room: a little like the mewing of a cat, except I don’t have a cat. I crack open the bathroom door, and there it is again, only now it sounds more like a whine. I shuffle out into the hallway, this wad of gel still stuck on my right index finger, listening. The TV? The wind? I stick my head in the living room, and there, under the open window, I see something stretched out on the floor, something that looks like a person. I run in, and there she is, dead still, making the mewing noise I heard before.
“Sherry!” I shout, grabbing her in my arms. ‘What’s the matter?”
But she doesn’t answer. She’s squealing softly like a stuck pig. As scared as I am, I know I’m supposed to check her vitals, so I put two fingers to her wrist and right away pick up a good, strong beat. Her chest is rising up and down. So far, so good. Her eyes are shut, but I peel her eyelids back. Two big black circles stare back at me, one of them bigger than the other one, probably not a good sign, but then again, what do I know? Her hair’s matted with clotted blood, but there’s no open wound that I can see. Looking around, I see this heavy wooden African statue Mboso brought back from Ghana lying a few feet away from her on the floor. It looks like it’s got the sheen of the same sticky stuff that’s coating Sherry’s hair.
The room looks like it’s seen one hell of a struggle. The floor lamp is knocked to the floor; the glass on the photo of Sherry and me and the polar bears at the Bronx Zoo is smashed to smithereens, cabinet doors are open and spilling out paperbacks, magazines, batteries. From what I can see, nothing’s taken, but who gives a damn, really, all I’m worrying about is Sherry, and is she going to be all right. I shake her a little to bring her to, but she’s out cold. Not dead, I think. Not dead, thank you, God. I’m thinking the doctors’ll put her right. I call 911 and give them the address.
Nine minutes later the paramedics call from the outside intercom, and I buzz them in. They don’t bother with the elevator, just run up the three floors with the stretcher and into the open door of the apartment. Sherry’s still just lying there, splayed out on the floor, her eyes closed. They check her airway, breathing, pulse, immobilize her head and spine, ask me a few questions, then load her onto this long board and strap her in. She’s stable for the most part, they say, but there could be internal bleeding. Best thing is get her to the hospital where they can do the necessary tests and figure the extent of the damage. Don’t worry, they tell me; she’ll probably wake up in the hospital. Do I want to get dressed and accompany the patient to the hospital? “Yeah, of course,” I say. Then I promptly lose my cool and throw up on my rug. Leaving the mess where it is, I wipe my mouth on my pajama top, run to the bedroom and pull on some clothes. I manage to catch up with the medics on the staircase down, and join them in the back of the vehicle, cell phone in my pocket and plastic bag in my hand, in case I lose it again.
I still can’t get my head around how it happened. I didn’t even know she was there. Maybe she came in after I was asleep, I don’t know. Sherry had her own key. And she’s done that before, by the way, coming in in the middle of the night after I went to sleep. I can’t tell you how many times I found her in bed with me in the morning, when she wasn’t there when I went to sleep. A couple of times she insisted that I was up when she came in, and she couldn’t believe I didn’t remember it. But I think what she took for me being awake was really me picking my head up and saying, “hi” from my sleep, because I sure never remembered her coming in. Then again, why we just didn’t live together is another story. I asked her plenty of times, but Sherry never wanted to give her apartment up; she said she needed her freedom, and besides, I was just too hard to live with. As I said, that’s another story.
So we’re sitting in the back, the siren wailing but the ambulance taking its own sweet time in getting to St. Vincent’s, when one of the medics asks me what I think happened. I tell her about the open window and the statue on the floor.
“Anything missing?” she asks.
“Don’t think so,” I say.
“Did you call the police about the break-in?”
“No. I just called 911…” A big lump rises in my throat as I look over at Sherry lying there totally still, with an IV in her arm. “All I care about is her…”
“Just the same, it’ll have to be reported,” she says.
I guess I must look like I’m about to throw up again, because she leans over to put her hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yeah, sure.” Then I launch into this long, disjointed speech about how Sherry’s the best thing to ever happen to me, and why did this have to happen to her, such a decent person…always supportive, always complimentary even though all I am, you know, is Pharmacist’s technician at a rundown Duane Reade drug store on 108th and Broadway, while she’s this rising star at the big-name Vandenberg Institute. I break down, wiping my eyes on a bunch of tissues the medic hands me. I ramble on about how Sherry must have come in the middle of the night, even though I don’t have any idea how and when she came in….that the night before I had taken a Somnolux and how I must have slept so soundly I never heard a thing… Poor Sherry! She must have been scared as hell and yelling bloody murder, screaming and fighting and calling my name! How could I have slept through the whole freaking thing?
By now we’re gliding into the circle in front of Emergency. The motor cuts out, and I hear the driver coming around the back. Suddenly, double doors swing open to the glare of the sun. I hear someone pulling out the stretcher; and the contraption with the wheels popping out from under it. By then I can see the medics wheeling her away. I slam the doors and run after them. I try to follow as they carry Sherry on through the ambulance entrance, but I’m stopped by this heavy-set woman in a white coat and badge, who tells me in no uncertain terms that only staff is allowed beyond that point. She waves me through the door to the waiting room. I sit down and, after awhile, pick up my cell to call the store.
* * *
It wasn’t till hours later that they let me see her. I sat in the waiting room until someone came out and asked me who I was waiting for.
“Someone will be out soon to ask you some questions,” she said. Soon was another hour when another white-coated lady came out and got her vital statistics. I kept asking how Sherry was, but all the lady said was she wasn’t the person to ask, that she was just there to take information. Then she went back in, and no one came out for another hour or two. Finally, someone called my name. I looked up. There was a young man in a white coat, waving to me from the doorway.
“Is she all right?” I asked, running over.
“They’re still doing tests,” he said, “but you can go in and see her now. She’s in Room 410 East wing.”
“But…?” I said.
“She’s stable,” he answered, before disappearing into another doorway.
I took the elevator up and found Room 410 at the end of the corridor. I peeked in. IV lines and catheters snaked in and out of several parts of Sherry’s anatomy. Her head was bandaged, except for a small hole in her head where a tube came out and curved around, coming to an end in a half-full drainage bag. She had a small clamp on her finger, measuring her blood oxygen. A machine at the foot of the bed was showing EEG, EKG, and several other squiggly lines, none flat-lining, thank God. Sherry, lying on her back, seemed to be staring up at the ceiling. I tiptoed in till I was hovering over her at the bed rail. It was very creepy. Her eyes were closed. She looked either dead or at peace, I couldn’t tell which.
“Sherry,” I whispered.
“Sherry,” I tried again, a little louder.
“I doubt that she can hear you,” came a voice from the door. A young doctor walked in. “Dr. Mehta,” he said, putting out his hand.
“Is she gonna be all right?” I asked, putting out my own.
“Well, she’s got a fractured skull, and a small amount of bleeding in the brain. We’ve stabilized it, though, and put in a ventricular drain. We’re waiting for the rest of the tests. Are you the boy friend?”
“Yeah. Henry Jackman. Is she in a coma?”
“Yes. For the moment.” Dr. Mehta walked over to the bed, picking up Sherry’s limp hand, turning it over, setting it back down beside her.
“When will she wake up?” I asked.
“How long do you suppose she’d been lying there?” the doctor asked, instead.
“I don’t know. I was sleeping.”
“You didn’t hear anything?” he asked, stroking the soles of her feet.
“No.” I watched Sherry’s chest rise and fall. “Four, five hours, maybe. She was breathing when I found her.”
“That’s a good sign, of course. She probably didn’t sustain much hypoxia.”
Hypoxia, I was thinking. Oh, no.
“Damage to the brain from too little oxygen,” the doctor explained, straightening up.
“I know the term, Doctor. I’m a pharmacist.” I didn’t bother adding the technician part.
“Really. Well, then you’ll understand the problem. We’re giving her Cyclosporin A to counter swelling of the brain. The blow on the head has already led to defuse traumatic swelling.”
“But when will she wake up?” I asked again.
He gave me this sigh before going on for ten minutes on statistics and probability; how her Glasgow coma scale was 5, and that, of patients in the range of 5-7, 53% die or remain in a vegetative state; 34% will have moderate disability and/or good recovery. If she didn’t open her eyes within a month, prognosis was poor.
“Poor?” I said, grabbing the bed rail.
“On the other hand, two-thirds who are unconscious for two weeks or less should make a moderate to good recovery. How old is she?”
“Thirty-three,” I said. “It’s in her chart.”
He glanced down at the chart hanging on the bedside. “Well, her age is one thing in her favor,” he said, letting it drop back down. Then he shook my hand again and left.
I stood there gazing at Sherry for another half an hour. It was hard to see her so lifeless when in my mind she was still the way she had always been: smart and funny and wise.
Like the time we were walking through the Museum of Natural History. We had started in dinosaurs, of course, but ended up in insects, staring through a glass case at a colony of leaf-cutter ants.
“They’re all sisters, you know,” Sherry said, watching a conga line of ants marching up a stem, each waving a piece of leaf. “Identical twins, really.”
“What a dull life,” I said. “Cutting leaves, carrying leaves, day in day out. Ugh.”
“That’s what they do. They don’t think about it. They just do it.”
We watched for another ten minutes. The colony was fascinating: little robots marching back and forth, tending a crop of bacteria that fed on the leaves, a farm so organized and smooth-working you’d think someone was in charge. A million little cogs, each mindlessly doing its job, adding up miraculously to….a single thing.
“You’d almost think it had a soul,” I marveled.
“They call it a hive mind,” Sherry said. “A group mind with a single consciousness occupying many bodies.”
“But how can that be?” I asked, laughing at the strangeness of it. “How could there be one mind with so many bodies?”
“Who says there has to be one mind per body?” Sherry said, laughing, too.
That was the Sherry I wanted, not the one lying in bed, her hair in a knot, mouth open and drooling, eyes to the ceiling. I prayed to God that the old Sherry was not gone forever.