Yet another punchline.
The next morning, McCallister stood just outside the hospital room and reminded herself to maintain a cool, professional distance. She would keep her word and take the woman out into the city, and that would be the end of it.
She braced herself and knocked.
“Detective!” the woman nearly yelled when she looked to the doorway. “I thought maybe you were going to back out.”
She glanced to her watch to discover that her reluctance made her uncharacteristically late by 20 minutes. “I’m late. I’m sorry. I’m not backing out,” she said as she entered. “But are you sure you’re up to it?”
“I’d be absolutely thrilled to get out of here.” She rose from the side of the bed, and with a gesture of presentation, she asked, “How do you like my outfit?”
She noted pink sweatpants, green tennis shoes, and a white T-shirt with a large flower on it. A mauve jacket hung over her arm, concealing her bandages. Fortunately, the woman did not await her reply.
As she put on her jacket, she said, “A nurse was kind enough to stop at a thrift store for me. I sure hope this was not how I liked to dress.”
Trying not to laugh at her remark, she assured, “You look fine. I’ll just make sure we don’t stop anywhere that requires formal attire.”
The woman sniggered as she neared her, and McCallister almost gave into a reflexive move backward. Except, this was the first time they stood face to face, and McCallister was taken aback to discover they were close to the same height. And indeed, her eyes were blue—not as blue as Holly’s but blue nonetheless.
“Last chance to back out,” the woman said.
She shook her head. “I don’t need it. Let’s go.”
Fifteen minutes later, McCallister turned her car onto Main Street. “Do you remember if you like coffee or not?”
“Hospital coffee is a definite no.”
“Hospital coffee isn’t really coffee,” she nervously joked. “You know those big bucket wringer things they use when they mop the floors?”
“Coffee. Same kind they use at the police station.”
A moment later, she parked around the corner from Timmer’s Book & Bean. “If you know Granton at all, you have to know Timmer’s.”
They exited the car, and McCallister headed to the curb. She paused momentarily, hoping something in the woman would make her take an instinctive step in Timmer’s direction. When that did not happen, she gestured with her arm, and they began to walk.
Halfway there, McCallister asked, “Do you like to read?”
“I’m not sure. I would hope I do.”
“I saw the newspapers in your hospital room,” she said. “I figured that was a good clue.”
She half-laughed. “I was hoping I’d read or see something in there that would help me remember.”
They reached the front door, and McCallister opened and held it for her. She led her to the coffee bar, and the two perused the menu board on the wall. She watched her and sensed that she nearly willed herself to remember a preference, an abhorrence, anything at all.
Finally, she turned to McCallister and declared, “I’ll have what you’re having, Detective.”
“Good choice,” she replied.
She ordered two large cappuccinos, and as she waited, she grabbed sugar packets—just in case. Then, she watched Mr. Timmer work his magic with a frothing pitcher under the steam wand. Her mind raced ahead to imagine the predictable and quirky way he’d sprinkle chocolate on the finished cup. He did not fail her.
“Have a good day, Laura,” he said as he handed off her order.
“You, too, Mr. Timmer,” she responded.
The blessed familiarity of the exchange made her wonder what it would be like suddenly to have no recollection. The inability to recognize Mr. Timmer, her favorite beverage, her love of reading… Her mind raced to a vision of Holly and the kiss she had given her that morning when she left for work. She depended on her presence, and she relied on others’. She required things—simple things, but things nevertheless. She shook the thoughts from her mind, turned, and scanned to find the woman on the other side of the store.
She approached, and when she saw the section the woman browsed, she declared, “Aha, you’re a philosopher.”
With a laugh, she said, “I somehow doubt that.”
“Do you want a book to take back to the hospital?”
She shook her head. “No thank you.” She hesitated and then added, “This is so frustrating. How can I remember how to read but not remember what I like to read?”
She reasoned it best to leave advice to her doctors, but she couldn’t resist. “You’ll remember when your mind is ready for it. In the meantime, you get to experience everything for the first time—all over again. There’s something kind of magical in that, isn’t there?”
Smiling, she took the cup McCallister extended to her and then stared at her for a moment. “And I get to do that with you,” she said. “You’re good to me, Laura. You’ve always been good to me.”
McCallister winced to hear her use her first name, and yet, it made her smile. Seconds later, she caught herself and forced a stoical expression. Cool, she reminded. Professional, she reminded. Do not get emotionally involved, she reprimanded. Changing the subject, she suggested, “It’s nice out. How about a walk?”
“A walk sounds great. I am so sick of that hospital room.”
As they meandered down the block, McCallister asked, “Did your doctor give you any idea when you’ll be released?”
“I suspect he’s finding every reason he can to keep me. I mean I don’t have anywhere to go, and I think he feels sorry for me. The psychologist tries to get me to agree to go to the psychiatric unit.” She hesitated before asking, “Does having amnesia make me a nut case?”
“There are lots of psychological things that can go wrong that don’t necessarily make someone a nut case.”
Immediately, her mind sped to Granger Bridge and then to the lifeless faces of three boys. “Depression, for one. It can make people feel and even look crazy, but that does not mean they are.” Again, she thwarted an attempt by her mind to head in an inappropriately emotional direction. And once more, she changed the subject, “Where are you going to go? I mean if you don’t get your memory back before you’re released.”
“I don’t know. I have some money, apparently,” She paused and completed the walk to the stoplight before she asked, “Detective, why would someone have $10,000 in cash with them?”
“Nichols feels certain you didn’t rob a bank.”
“Good to know.”
“But, I don’t know why. There are hundreds of guesses, but what good do they do?”
“None of the guesses are good, though, are they?”
“Sure, they could be. Maybe you came this way to start a new life, and even if that was done to run away from something terrible—something your mind would prefer you forget—it’s still a good thing. You got yourself out of whatever it was.”
The crosswalk light turned in their favor, and they hurried to the other side of Main Street.
McCallister said, “There’s another place down here that’s kind of an institution. Kessler’s Variety Store is one of the oldest businesses in Granton. It’s been here longer than me.”
“Were you born and raised here, Detective?”
“No,” she answered. “I came up here for college but ended up at the police academy. I grew up in Hayden Ridge, about two hours from here.”
“Hayden Ridge,” she repeated as though trying it on for size.
They reached Kessler’s, and as McCallister pulled open the door, she said, “This is the place to go if you’re ever feeling small. They’ve got shelves no higher than my ankles.” When the woman laughed, she added, “Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but if you’ve ever been in here, you will remember them.”
They entered, and McCallister nearly ran right into her when she froze in her tracks.
“Do you remember them?” When she didn’t answer, she moved so she could see her face. The confusion there prompted her to declare, “You do remember something.”
She shook her head as though dislodging whatever thoughts—or memories—transfixed her. “No. … No. Not really.”
But McCallister remained unconvinced. “Let’s look around. A variety store means there’s an infinite number of things to jog your memory.”
“Ever the optimist?”
“Something like that,” she replied.
She led the way up and down several aisles, loudly identifying the things she saw and briefly waiting for a reaction that never came.
“Office supplies,” McCallister announced as she grasped the woman’s arm and steered her into the fourth aisle. “Pens, paperclips, bubblewrap…” She announced every single thing she noticed while tugging her along. Then, she came to a breakneck stop. “Oh, art supplies! Maybe you’re an artist.” She grabbed a children’s art set from the shelf and held it out to her. “What do you think? Artist?”
With narrowed eyes, she stared at the hodgepodge of pencils, pastels, and paints.
“Anything?” McCallister asked. When she shrugged, she offered, “Maybe that was why you remembered the blue from my business cards. Maybe color is important to you.”
Instantly, her blue eyes teared up, and McCallister apologized, “I’m frustrating you. I’m sorry.”
She clutched McCallister’s arm. “It’s not you.” With the back of her other hand, she wiped her eyes. “It’s like trying to see through fog. Everything’s right there, but it’s just too vague.”
“Still, I’m sorry.” She wiggled her coffee cup and smiled reassuringly. “Let’s just go back outside. We’ll do nothing more than fill you up with coffee and fresh air before you have to go back.”
She nodded, and McCallister led the way.
The door had barely closed behind them when the woman said, “On second thought, I’m going to run back in and get a pack of gum to take back with me. Do you need anything?”
She shook her head and thought to complete the task for her.
“I won’t be a minute,” she said and disappeared into the store.
McCallister took the occasion to seat herself on a nearby bench. She took a big gulp of her cappuccino. As she did, her mind wandered back to when she first moved to Granton, fresh out of high school and overly eager to claim a place in the world. With a penchant for the science of the unseen, she intended to get a degree in microbiology at Granton University. But things changed, drastically, and she ended up at the academy, pursuing a career in law enforcement. She always figured the two were quite similar. Then, she recalled the woman comparing amnesia to trying to see through fog, and she acknowledged that similarity as well. She wished there was something she could do to help her. Pushing her was obviously not one of those things.
Moments later, Kessler’s door opened, and McCallister watched the woman exit.
She waved a white pack of gum as she plopped onto the bench with a loud sigh.
Concerned, McCallister scrutinized her. “You look pale. Let’s get you back to the hospital.”
“I really don’t want to go back yet,” she said, “but I am tired.”
“Sit here and finish your coffee,” she told her as she jumped to her feet. “I’ll run and get my car and pick you up.”
“You don’t have to—”
“I insist. Your doctor will sit on me if I let anything happen to you.”
Five minutes later, McCallister eased into a no-parking area in front of Kessler’s. With her foot firmly on the brake, she stretched and opened the passenger door. The woman slid in and smiled at her.
They drove in silence, both seeming to be consumed by thoughts.
When St. Mike’s came into view, McCallister said, “I’m sorry our little field trip didn’t help you remember anything.”
“Maybe it did,” she replied. “Maybe it helped thin the fog.”
“I hope so,” she said as she pulled into the parking lot.
“You don’t have to take me up to my room. Just drop me at the front door.”
“No way. You’re pale as it is. I’ll just—”
“No, really. The front door is fine. Feeling a little independent would do me good. I insist.”
Reluctantly, McCallister did as suggested.
“Besides, you’ve done enough for me already. I really appreciate it.”
“Just trying to help.”
“I know,” she said and opened the door. “Thank you.” She got out but then stopped and ducked her head back into the car. “Detective, would you run away screaming if I had the nerve to ask another favor?”
McCallister laughed at the imagery. “I guess there’s one way to find out. Try me.”
She sat back down, looked at McCallister, and then seemed to lose any nerve she had mustered.
“Go ahead,” McCallister encouraged. “I promise I won’t run away screaming.”
She smiled and seemed to relax. After seizing a deep breath, she explained, “You’ve been kind enough to take me out here to see if anything’s familiar. … Would you consider taking me to where I had my accident?”
Dumfounded, she clarified, “You want to go to the crash scene?”
“It sounds morbid, doesn’t it?” She looked away but not so far that McCallister could not recognize the pain in her eyes. “If that’s where I lost my memory, maybe that’s where I’ll find it.”
She had little choice but to respect her determination. Something inside instinctively knew to expect no less from her. She reached and gently squeezed her shoulder. “I’ll take you.”
Her teary eyes darted to McCallister. “Would you really?”
Vigorously, she nodded. “Clear it with your doctors and then give me a call.” With a chuckle at the irony of it all, she added, “You have my card.”
“That I do.” Again, she disembarked only to lean back in. “Maybe having your card meant you were going to help me. Maybe it was fate more than anything.”
That theory, the mention of fate, made her uncomfortable. Why did she have her card? With absolutely no factual basis, something inside her was slowly drawing conclusions that both unnerved and enthralled her. Once more, she deflected, “Just call me.”
“I will,” she said. “And thank you. Thank you for everything.”
McCallister flinched at the look of affection on her face, and in her mind, she imagined herself drawing a new line in the sand, fifty paces ahead of the deep one she had deliberately drawn that morning and then obliterated with her own footsteps.
Impatiently, she waited for the woman to enter the hospital and for the door to remove her from her sight. Then, she hurried back to the station, filling her mind with thoughts of boys and bridges: priorities and promises—indelible, starkly black and white, nonnegotiable lines.
By 1:30, she had a plan and Greeley’s lackluster agreement to provide resources. Her car sped her in the direction of Granton High School East.