For the first few days she believed she was dead. Apropos of nothing, she found herself on the pavement outside their flat. She couldn’t find her keys. When she thrust out her fist to knock on the door, it slid through as if the world and not she was made of mist. No-one could see or hear her. She screamed in her husband’s face, but not even his pupils expanded. Since that was more disinterested than even he generally was, she thought fuck, I must be dead. She had just achieved a state of sad resignation concerning her death when she learned she wasn’t dead. She was in a coma in a local hospital courtesy of a cyclist who had been freewheeling along the pavement and collided headlong with her as she’d stepped out of the local off-licence. She also learned being in a coma was far worse than being dead as far as her relatives were concerned. She had begun haunting her family – or astral-projecting herself, whatever the correct term was. Partly out of boredom, partly out of lack of anywhere else to go, and partly out of some absurd hope that they’d actually be missing her or hoping for her recovery. For a couple of weeks her husband, mother, brothers, acquaintances and so forth maintained a discreet silence about her, lying inert in a hospital bed. But after a fortnight passed and she showed no improvement, they complained tirelessly about the situation. Everyone, from her mother to her third cousins, agreed that she should have done the decent thing and died, and they could have had a nice, sombre funeral and gone about their business. Now they were stuck with an everlasting routine of hospital visits, purchasing flowers, sitting solemnly by her bedside and trying to look hopeful instead of bored when the doctors reported on progress (or lack thereof). None of them bothered to speak to her. Her husband cried off after a few visits, muttering that it was too difficult to see her like that. She watched him go, contempt radiating from her insubstantial frame, before she turned to look at herself, lying with eerie stillness, her face grey as old newspaper. The visitor came just after lunch. It was a young woman. The tips of her black hair touched the packs of her eyes, and her eyes were green as moss and pondweed, outlined in red. Everything about her was stuffed full of sorrow. ‘I hope you don’t mind me visiting you,’ the woman said. ‘I just want to talk to someone. My little nephew’s upstairs. He’s ill – really ill.’ Pause. ‘I can’t go and see him. I want to – but I can’t. I haven’t seen him since he was ten months old. I haven’t spoken to any of my family in eight years.’ Quiet. ‘My name’s Jessica, by the way. You’re Mara, it says on your cards. Nice to meet you.’
Jessica appeared during silent, unshared times, when the nurses were busy or no-one was visiting. Mara waited, ghostly, eagerly, for her arrival. Jessica, she learned, was the cuckoo among her hedge-sparrow siblings. She’d eschewed the family business (motor insurance) and its substitute, marriage, in favour of art. She’d done comparatively well, sold a few pieces, but her parents had been furious at her defection, her refusal to concern herself with policies and no-claim discounts, at her perennially single status. After yet another window-rattling row her father had a heart attack. He survived, but the incident was sufficient excuse for her mother to disown her with impunity. Jessica told her all this in snatches of precious time. She drew pictures on the backs of the Get Well Soon cards littering the bedside table. Her nephew as a baby. The house she grew up in. Wild swans on the lake near the hospital. One day, Jessica brought her sketchpad and drawing pencils and sketched Mara herself. Not lying stricken in a hospital bed, but how Jessica imagined she lived out her life before the accident. Mara walking through woodland, Mara at dinner with friends, Mara at a salsa class. Jessica showed her inert self the rough sketches, full of vibrancy. Mara, standing peering by her own beside, felt a sharp sensation in her stomach, as she recalled the dull, colourless days of her life. The excruciating politeness that existed between her and her husband. Her mother, incapable of being satisfied with anything, even something so small as her morning cup of coffee. Her brothers, bored with life and trying untiring to drag everyone around them into the desolation of boredom. ‘You’re lucky, in a way,’ she whispered to Jessica, who sat sketching. ‘You have something you were prepared to give up everything for. I wish I knew what that felt like.’ Jessica stopped sketching, glanced around, as though trying to trace the origins of a muffled sound, or mysterious movement, then shrugged and bent back over her drawing. One day not long after, Mara followed Jessica up to the children’s ward, an unseen shadow. Peered from the doorway at a little boy, lifeless under a teddy bear blanket, his black fringe unyielding against his pale face. Mara went and sat with him when Jessica had scurried away. She trailed a transparent hand over his sunken cheek. ‘Don’t die,’ she murmured. ‘Stay alive. Do it for your Aunt Jessica. She loves you more than anyone ever loved me.’
She woke up on a Thursday. There was no flashing of blinding light, no solemn old man come to accompany her back to her body. She blinked and found herself horizontal, eyelids glued shut and her entire being one big ache. ‘Fuck, that hurts,’ she said in conversational fashion to the nurses who’d been summoned by her crazily-beeping heart monitor. ‘We’ll ring your husband,’ a doctor said joyfully. She would have rolled her eyes if even her eyeballs hadn’t been hurting. ‘Stuff him. Can you fetch Jessica?’ she asked.
CarysCrossen has been writing stories since she was nine years old. Her fiction has been published by Mother’s Milk Books, The First Line journal, Dear Damsels, Cauldron Anthology and others. Her first monograph is forthcoming from University of Wales Press, and when she isn’t writing she’s reading/contemplating nature/walking dogs. She lives in Manchester UK with her husband.