A Christmas Caroline by Camilla Isley
As I jump off the last step of the stairs at my parents’ house, my feet land on the white sterile tile of my hospital room instead of the living room carpet.
I’m back where this nightmare began, except, even in the present, there are two of me. I’m standing next to the bed while my counterpart is lying, eyes closed, hooked to various tubes and monitors. I don’t even look like myself.
In a burst of light, Melodie appears beside me, panting. “Way to make an exit, Wilkins, it’s hard to keep up with you.”
“What’s the meaning of this?” I ask, pointing at the me lying on the bed.
“Seems pretty obvious to me…” Melodie says, then taking in my baffled face, she adds, “Or not. This, Caroline, is your visit into the present Christmas.”
“Why? I already know what’s going on in my life. I don’t need a refresher.”
Melodie grabs her chin sardonically. “And don’t you think that landing in a coma while trying to escape New Jersey deserves a moment of reflection?”
“Are you not interested in seeing how this affected your family?”
“If you’re about to accuse me of ruining Christmas by slipping on the ice and hitting my head by accident, then, no.”
Melodie raises her hand in a surrendering gesture. “All right, I’m not touching that, got it.”
“How long do we have to stay?” I ask. Even in the spiritual dimension, hospitals still give me the creeps.
Before Melodie can answer, the door opens and my mom walks in. A nurse follows her, carrying a blanket and a pillow.
“I’m sorry we don’t have any spare beds,” the nurse says, dropping the blanket and pillow on the blue leather armchair flanking the bed. “But you wouldn’t believe the number of domestic accidents we see at the holidays. People falling off roofs, drunken mishaps, kitchen disasters. But these chairs are the next best thing.” The nurse fumbles with a lever in the back. “If you get tired, pull this down and the backrest reclines.”
“Thank you,” my mom says. “And merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” the nurse replies. “If you need anything, just push the big red button above the bed. I’ll come back at three a.m. for a routine check.”
The nurse exits the room, leaving my mom and Comatose Caroline alone in the silence.
Mom tests the chair mechanism and once she’s grasped the operating principle, she sets the pillow and thin hospital blanket on the armchair as if she was making a bed. Before sitting down, she comes by the bed and caresses my hair.
“Caroline, my Caroline, you were such a happy child. And now you’re…” She never ends the phrase, just bends over to kiss my forehead.
Then she drags the armchair a little closer to the bed and switches on the overhead light. After taking a book out of her handbag, she settles in.
The cover is so worn the title is no longer readable, but even if I hadn’t seen the novel in its original state just a few minutes ago, I’d still recognize it among a million.
“The doctors say it’ll be good for you to hear voices, and this was your favorite story as a child…” Mom opens the book on the first page and begins reading aloud, “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. ‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.”
“Spirit,” I ask over my mother’s voice. “Does she plan to spend the entire night reading to me?”
“I imagine so.”
“But why?” The possibility of my fall being more severe than a freak accident crosses my mind for the first time. “What did the doctors tell her? I mean, I’m going to be okay, aren’t I?”
“Yes, Caroline, you’re more headstrong even than that ice you smacked your head on. Your prognosis is good. You have a serious concussion and they’ve preferred to keep you sedated overnight to give your brain time to recover without excessive stimulus. But other than a splitting headache you shouldn’t suffer any long-term consequences—”
“The coma is medically induced?”
“Then why didn’t you say so from the beginning?”
Melodie shrugs. “I have a flair for the dramatic.”
I stare at my mom while she keeps reading in a low, calm tone.
“But if I’m going to be okay, why doesn’t she go home? She has back problems and no matter what that nurse said, the chair can’t be that comfortable.”
“Ah,” Melodie sighs cryptically. “Nothing is more powerful than the love of a mother for her child, but you wouldn’t understand that, of course. Do you want to go or should we stay awhile?”
“I want to listen a little longer, can I?”
Without waiting for Melodie’s reply, I sit on the chair armrest, reading Little Women over my mom’s shoulder along with her.
Mom falls asleep about halfway through the book. Her hands drop in her lap while she’s still holding the novel, and her head lolls to the side. The blanket slides lower over her chest, uncovering her shoulders. I reach for it to tuck her in, but my insubstantial hands have no effect on the blanket.
The air on my other side brightens as Melodie and her weird luminescent hair come standing next to me.
“We have to go now, Caroline.”
I nod and, even if I know she won’t feel it, I kiss my mom on the temple before getting up.
“Where to now?” I ask.
“Ah, this is the bleakest part, I’m afraid. On to the future.”