I have no recollection of the accident, not even one of those fragmented pieces of memory that surges suddenly out of a half-sleep with glimpses of tumbling sky or shiny asphalt.
My three children were at home with their baby sitter and I was on my way to the city to see a play. I was going to meet my husband at his office. All that I can remember clearly. Then, mysteriously, darkness falls over my mind and the next thing I know I’m staring at an open window.
My first reaction is annoyance. It’s January and the window shouldn’t be open. Who left it open? I want to tell somebody to shut it, not to waste heat, but I am incapable of speech.
Then I realize that sun is pouring into the room and everything is bathed in its milky light. The breeze accompanying it is balmy and scented with spring. Confused, I look around. A slender woman is sitting in a chair next to the window, reading a red book. She’s dressed in navy blue, and is about thirty I’d say. Younger than I. Her hair is scraped back in a tight bun. It’s a soft yellow. She dabs at her red-rimmed eyes, and her hands on the book tremble slightly as she turns the pages. Otherwise she’s perfectly still.
My eyes are the only things that work. I try to open my mouth to speak, I cannot. My fingers don’t even wiggle. It’s as if I’m not part of this body lying so lightly on the neat bed. And yet I can feel the slight weight of the sheet against my legs and the pink woolen blanket is itchy under my fingers. I can feel myself breathing.
There are no machines around me to suggest I’m in a hospital, but I know that’s where I am. The white walls, stark and bare, are proof enough. There’s a television set in the corner of the room, and the woman is sitting on a folding metal chair. She turns another page and dabs at her eyes with the tips of her fingers.
Who is she? I make a huge effort to raise my hand, and a sharp pain, like a tiny needle, chases itself around my skull. It’s no use. I can’t move. Something is holding me pressed to the pillow. By shifting my eyes I can just barely make out the arm of some huge, steel contraption hovering over my head. It seems to be behind the bed. Suddenly I’m terribly frightened. I don’t remember the accident, but I remember my husband and my children. Someone must tell them not to wait for me. I picture my husband pacing in his office, and the children looking anxiously at the clock.
My panic grows, my heart starts to race and I’m drenched in cold sweat. Blood is pounding in my ears. The room darkens, tips, and I slide into unconsciousness once again.
This time my dreams are troubled. Voices I don’t recognize are all around me. Someone keeps repeating “Kelsey! Kelsey!”.
Who’s Kelsey? In my dream I’m sitting in a pink room. It looks like a little girl’s room. There are posters of ballet dancers on the wall and stuffed animals on the bed. A bowl of goldfish is perched on a white dresser. I can walk around, and I slowly drift from one thing to another, touching the stuffed animals, peering at the goldfish. I even dip my finger in the water, it’s tepid. I examine the posters on the wall. I pick up a doll and smooth her hair. I remember my daughter, only three, and I hug the doll tightly and feel tears sliding down my cheeks. My chest tightens. The room starts to vanish, but just before the scene fades completely away I see a little girl sitting on the bed. Had she been there all along? I didn’t notice her before. She looks at me. Her face is heart-shaped and grave. Blond hair falls straight to her shoulders. She’s terribly thin and pale. Her eyes, a deep, steely blue, hold mine. Then she slowly raises her finger to her lips. “Shhh,” she says. “Keep the secret.”
I opened my eyes.
I did it consciously. My eyes opened, and I saw a doctor bending over me. He was neither young nor old. He was Asian, and had gold-rimmed glasses. Behind him stood a rather stout nurse. And right behind her was the woman I saw reading. She’s the one calling Kelsey. She was looking straight at me and her hands flew up to her mouth.
“Kelsey! Kelsey, can you hear me?”
I don’t know who Kelsey is. My name is Vivian. But I heard her. “Yes,” I whispered.
The doctor smiled. The nurse took a startled step backwards. The woman gave a joyful cry and swooped down upon me. I realized that there was nothing pinning me to the pillow anymore. I was free. Only a whisper of pain remained. Tentatively I reached my hand up to my head. A bandage swathed it.
“Please,” I said. “What happened? Where am I?” My voice was raw and broken. Forcing it out of my throat hurt.
“Kelsey…” For some reason the doctor was calling me Kelsey too. “You’re in the hospital St. Anne in Nanterre. The operation was a success. We’ve managed to take out the part of your brain that was sick and replace it with a well part. Can you understand what I’m saying? Your cancer has been cured my dear.”
I nodded. The words were clear enough, but the meaning was obscure. “I had a brain tumor?” I asked weakly.
The doctor beamed and nodded. The slender woman was still holding my hand and smiling broadly. The nurse watched me strangely. Like a cat watches a viper I remember thinking.
“Kelsey darling, you’re going to get better now. Soon we’ll take you home.” The woman leaned over and kissed me. I was perplexed.
“Who is Kelsey?” I asked.
The woman gasped and jerked backwards. She looked at the doctor, her mouth opened soundlessly.
“You are,” he said gently.
“No I’m not,” I said firmly. “There must be a mistake.”
“The mirror,” said the nurse. “Show her the mirror, it will all come back.” Those were her first words. I didn’t like her voice. It was hard and grated in my head.
Silver flashed as the doctor picked up a hand mirror from the table next to him and held it up in front of my face.
Dark blue eyes stared back at me. Dark blue eyes in a heart-shaped, pale face. A white bandage hid the hair. But whosoever hair it hid it wasn’t mine. The eyes were not mine, nor was the face. “I don’t understand,” I said weakly. “Who is that?”
“Don’t you recognize your face Kelsey?” asked the doctor. His voice held the slightest trace of worry.
I started to shake. It was uncontrollable. My body was seized with an argue that blurred my vision and clattered my teeth together. “I’m n-not K-Kelsey,” I managed to stutter. “Please, w-what’s hap-pening?”
The slender woman started to speak, but the doctor put his hand on her arm. “Leave me alone with your daughter,” he said.
The nurse took the woman from the room and shut the door. The doctor waited a few minutes. We stared at each other in silence. Questions tumbled and jostled in my head, tangling up and making coherent speech impossible. The doctor seemed to understand this. He pulled up a chair and sat by my bed.
“Do you know what year we are?” he asked gently.
I did, and I told him so.
“And the month? The date?”
I frowned. That was tricky. If I had a brain tumor perhaps I’d been unconscious for a few days. Why wasn’t my family here with me though? I grew distressed. “It’s January still, isn’t it? The fifteenth?” I tried to remember when I’d left the house.
The doctor bit his lip. It was the first time I’d seen him look worried. He took my hand. His hands were so large, I thought. Mine was tiny and fragile in his. “It’s May,” he said. The tenth of May.”
My first reaction was relief. I hadn’t missed my husband’s birthday. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but that was my first thought. Then the gravity of the situation became clear. “I’ve been in a coma for five months?” I asked.
“Nearly five months, yes.”
“Am I cured now? Can I go home?”
“In a few weeks, I think.”
“But, but why isn’t my husband here?”
The doctors hands tightened around mine, hurting me.
“What is going on?” I asked.
“Do you remember your name?” He asked cautiously.
“Vivian Anne Marina Lanonne. I’m thirty-seven years old. I have three children. My husband’s name is Etienne, and we live just outside Paris in a lovely stone house with a large garden.” I smiled, well content with myself and my memory, which was seeping back with the irresistible flow of the tide. “I want to see my children, they must be absolutely crazy worrying about me. And Etienne, poor Etienne. Can I see him now? Is he waiting outside? I know you wanted to protect me from shock, I suppose after being in a coma for five months you were worried about me, but I can remember everything now, at least, most everything.” I smiled engagingly. “Please, can I see Etienne?” Tears started to burn my eyes and they trickled, hot, down my cheeks.
The doctor stopped smiling though. All the muscles in his face were drawn tight around the bones and his eyes burned into mine. “You can never see them again,” he said. “You must forget that you ever knew them.”
“Forget? What? Are they dead?” My voice rose to a shriek. My heart was hammering so hard in my chest it was shaking me.
“No, no. But, oh damn, I’m doing this so badly. You’re the first. The first person to ever undergo this surgery. How could I know? Kelsey, Kelsey! Answer me! Are you there?” He leaned over me, seized my arms and stared into my eyes. “Kelsey! Answer me!”
“I’m not Kelsey”, I whimpered. “Please, what is going on? Where’s Etienne? I want Etienne!”
The doctor sank back onto the chair and wiped his hand over his sweaty face. He sat in silence, collecting his thoughts, then he picked up the mirror again and showed it to me. “Your name is Kelsey Verdant. You are eleven years old. You had a brain tumor. Normally this sort of tumor is fatal. There is nothing we can do. But a few years ago doctors began to experiment with a sort of brain transplant. It seemed to work well with monkeys, and so we wanted to try it on a human. This type of tumor strikes very young children. It seemed a crime not to try and save you. You were doomed. When we finally got a donor you were already practically a vegetable and in terrible pain.
“We called your parents and they brought you in. It was in January, five months ago. We had a donor. A woman had been in a terrible car crash. Her brain was intact, but she was bleeding to death. Her spine was broken. We could not save her. Her husband agreed to donate her organs. We took part of her brain. We operated on you that very night. Thirteen hours. In the morning you were still alive.
“You have been in a coma for five months. We maintained you in a coma so that the brain’s activity was at it’s lowest, and so there would be a minimum of swelling and damage. When your brain waves started to show normal activity we woke you up.
“Vivian Lanonne has been dead and buried for five months. Your family has mourned you. Would you go back to them as you are now? You are an eleven-year-old girl, two years older than your eldest son is. How could you go back? But there is a family here who needs you. You were their only daughter. Your mother has been sitting at your bedside everyday for five months. Your father comes each evening and holds your hand and tells you stories. You can make them very happy. You can have a whole new life. Or you can destroy two families as well as yourself. You can try and be Vivian Lanonne. Eleven years old. Married with three children. Or you can be Kelsey Verdant. Adored daughter of Lucille and Paul. Please consider the two cases most carefully.”
I closed my eyes. The images were too painful. “Why?”
“No one could know that Kelsey would not wake up,” he said gently.
“But you suspected it. And the nurse too,” I added. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have had that big speech all made up.”
“When Kelsey came to us it was nearly over for her. I thought perhaps the brain waves looked different somehow, but we know precious little about the brain.” He bent closer to me. “If it had been your little girl, wouldn’t you have wanted to at least try? You were dead Vivian. You died in a tragic car accident. Tragic, but banal. You skidded on a patch of ice and hit a truck head-on. Then your car flipped over and struck a car in another lane. The truck driver died. It was a terrible wreck. The truck driver died instantly, but another man died slowly, trapped in his burning car. There were five cars involved in your accident, and one truck. You were the cause of it, I’m afraid. You were driving too fast on a slippery road.”
I gasped. “How dreadful!” tears blinded me again. “Why are you torturing me like this?”
“Because I want you to promise me something.”
“You must become Kelsey Verdant and have nothing what so ever to do with your old life. You must promise never to say a word of this to anyone. And in exchange I offer you a new life. A chance to start over. Think about it. You’re eleven years old. You have a healthy body, a loving family. You can do this for them, for me. Kelsey died, but part of her lives on. Think of your own daughter, and try.”
My breathing was harsh, uneven, and I was clutching my sheets with hands that were icy cold and slippery with sweat. My body was wracked in shudders and I couldn’t stop crying. My babies, my husband, how could I live without them? They weren’t dead, and neither was I, but we could never be together again. I’d killed myself, and, if the doctor was telling the truth, at least two other people.
Perhaps this was purgatory, and if it was, I must atone for my sins. I drew a shuddering breath and opened my eyes. “All right. But you must help me. Don’t leave me alone. I must be able to talk to someone.”
“I promise.” The doctor stroked my cheek. “Thank you Kelsey.” Seeing me wince he squeezed my hand. “You’ll be fine, I promise.”
When my “parents” came back in the room that evening I’d recovered a semblance of calm. The shots helped. The doctor gave me tranquilizers. He had decided to tell my parents that I was suffering from a near total amnesia but that it would slowly get better. And they were so pathetically glad to see me awake I was touched despite my pain.
Kelsey’s father was a tall, serious man. He looked Polish, or Russian, with high, flat cheekbones and Kelsey’s dark blue eyes. Her mother was typically French. She was fine-boned, with pale skin and warm, brown eyes. Her hair was dyed blonde, but it looked good on her. She stood very straight, and I noticed no jewelry except for a wedding band. Perhaps I could learn to live with these people, and then, when I get older, I could see my family again. My family again. it was the only thought that kept me from hurling myself out the window. That, and the fact the window had bars on it.
I grew addicted to Valium and other tranquilizers. They made my life bearable and at first Doctor Lee gave me as much as I wanted. When three weeks had passed he started to wean me off them. I was supposed to go home within a fortnight and he wanted me to be as healthy as possible.
I was a terrible patient. Sometimes I’d rant and rave at him, screaming and calling him the worst names I could think of. Anything to appease the desolation I still felt every morning when I woke up and knew I could never see my family again. Sometimes I’d curl up in a catatonic state and refuse all communication. Through all this Dr. Lee was very patient.
I read and watched television. My parents brought me books I’d read thirty years ago and every day a new stuffed animal found its way onto my bed. I turned their faces to the wall so I couldn’t see their staring, glass eyes. I hated them but didn’t dare say so.
I couldn’t get used to my new, frail body. Kelsey had been a dancer. Her limbs were absurdly long and thin. Everything about her was ethereal and flexible. Her hands were long and dexterous, her feet splayed outward from years of ballet. Her back was straight and seemed to be made of India rubber.
I tried to avoid mirrors at all cost, but I could feel the body, and it wasn’t mine. The feeling was so alien sometimes that it actually made me nauseated. Some days I lay perfectly still in the tepid bath water, the only place where I could stop feeling the body. I would close my eyes and try desperately to remember my old body and pretend it was still me in the tub. I was a middle age woman who’d borne three children. I was in reasonably good shape, although after three babies my stomach wouldn’t go flat anymore. I had nice breasts, and brown hair that curled naturally in soft ringlets and was without a doubt my best feature after my straight nose. I floated in the water and I imagined my children swimming in our backyard pool.
My sons were like playful otters in the water and my daughter bobbed about like a young seal. In my imagination I saw her head break the water and emerge, her hair sleek and her eyes closed. She gave a snort, blowing water from her nostrils like a baby beluga. The image was so strong that it shook me out of my reverie, back into the tiny, sparkling white-tiled bathroom where I floated in a tub of lukewarm water.
When Nurse Theresa came to get me out of the bath I was trying to drown myself.
It doesn’t work. I would not recommend that sort of suicide to anyone who wants the job done correctly. She hauled me out of the water, an easy task for her, and gave me a sharp slap on the face. Then she wrapped me in a huge, fluffy, white towel and rubbed me dry. All the while scolding in her deep voice. When I was dry and warm and dressed in a pink jogging outfit she dragged me in front of the mirror and made me look at Kelsey’s face for a half and hour. Until the tears had stopped. Until I stopped sobbing and just looked. Until I simply looked at the little girl’s face staring miserably back at me. When I stopped crying and stopped shaking she nodded in satisfaction, tucked me back in bed, and handed me a book. She sat in the corner of the room and waited for Dr. Lee.
“How are you this morning Kelsey?” he asked. He nodded curtly to Nurse Theresa, and she left without looking at me. I knew she made the sign of the cross whenever she came near me.
“How’s about a little smile then?”
I sketched a smile, but it hurt my face. “I don’t feel like smiling,” I said.
He nodded and wrote something in his notebook.
“When am I leaving?” I asked.
He glanced at the door, and then sighed. “When I’m sure you’re not going to throw yourself under the first train that comes along, or try and go see the others.” He’d taken to calling my family “the others”.
“I’m terrified of trains, and the ‘others’ wouldn’t recognize me, would they?”
His mouth twitched but he didn’t smile. “No, they wouldn’t. It would only confuse them and cause them more pain.”
“So I am the only one who must bear the pain.”
“It is your own pain. You must learn to live with it.”
I nodded. Suddenly the weight of my thirty-seven years seemed to finally reach the tender body I inhabited. I slumped against the pillow and lay the book down with shaking hands. I felt older than time then, older than a hundred, or even a thousand years. “Promise me something,” I said. “Promise me something and I will try my best to live with my nightmare.”
“Promise that you’ll never do this operation again, on anyone else.”
His cheeks turned red. Two bright patches appeared on his face. He looked away from me.
“Does that mean you won’t?” I asked tiredly.
“I can’t promise that. It’s amazing, the fact you’re alive.”
“I’m not alive,” I said, and this time it was my voice that was gentle. “Look at me. You’ve created a sort of living dead. Kelsey died. She didn’t survive the operation, or perhaps it was simply that my brain was too much for hers. A question of experience perhaps. Maybe my brain waves killed hers off.
And can you imagine what it would be like if she had survived? And if my brain had survived as well? Can you imagine two people trapped in this one, frail body? Can you imagine the madness, the confusion and despair?” I got off the bed and stood by his side. I touched his arm. “See? You flinched. You created a monster, and deep down inside you know it.” My voice was sad.
He wouldn’t answer for the longest time. And I didn’t try to touch him again. Finally he took his glasses off and wiped away the tears in his eyes. “I thought that I’d succeeded. I wanted so much to save that child. I want to save all the children. You can’t imagine how hard it is to be a pediatric neurosurgeon. I love children, that’s why I specialized in this field. But so many of them die. It breaks my heart each time I lose one. Kelsey was so sweet. She was so shy, and calm. She trusted me. I wanted her to live. When you opened your eyes I thought it was a triumph. I couldn’t face the truth. Even now, I can’t.”
“You must never do this again. Please. In a way I was lucky. Kelsey died, and I am alone in this body. You must think of others now, not of your glorious career.” That was hitting below the belt, I knew, but I had to make him promise. “I will play my part in this horrible farce, if you swear you won’t inflict this fate on anyone else.”
“All right.” He whispered. “But what can I say to the people who are consulting me in their last desperate hope?”
“Tell them I died,” I said. “Tell them it was all a hoax, and that it’s impossible, inconceivable. Wipe my records clean, send me to Kelsey’s home. And I will try to live Kelsey’s life for her, I will do that in honor of the memory of a sweet, shy child. And I will never breath a word of this to anyone.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
And then I leaned forward and gave him a kiss. A kiss on the lips. I knew what I was doing. Experience is a terrible weapon. When he looked at me again all trace of the doctor had fled. He looked at me as a man looks at a woman and he was shaking. He opened his mouth to speak, and then he got up suddenly, overturning the chair, went into the bathroom, and vomited.
I sat down on the bed. I picked up the book. I waited for my parents to come and get me. I was going home. I was terrified. I was closing the door on Vivian and now I was Kelsey.
Kelsey’s room was as I’d remembered seeing it in my dream. I supposed that it had been the last memory that had stayed buried in Kelsey’s mind. It was pink and white, with a goldfish bowl and posters of dancers on the wall. I opened all the drawers in the dresser and explored the closet. I found a diary in one of the drawers and settled down on the bed to read it.
“Dear Diary. My name is Kelsey Verdant. Today is my birthday, I’m ten years old.” I checked the date. It was the fourth of July. Nice to know one’s own birthday.
“I got this diary. I also got a gold fish and a gold pendant from Papa, and a new pair of ballet slippers from Maman. I’ve named the goldfish Arthur, and I’ve hidden the gold pendant in my secret drawer. That way my stupid cousin Laura won’t steal it. I ate three pieces of chocolate cake. I’m so glad it’s summer vacation. School is horrible. My best friend Sophie is going to Normandy. I’m stuck here in Paris. But Papa will take us all to Biarritz for a week in August.”
My head was starting to ache. Fatigue did that to me now. I put the diary down and went to the aquarium. “Hello Arthur,” I said softly. I opened the writing desk and searched for a secret drawer. In the end it wasn’t hard to find. My fingers touched a small latch and a tiny drawer popped out. Inside were a folded paper and a gold charm. I picked up the charm. It was a pair of ballet shoes. I smiled and put it back. Then I unfolded the paper. It had been well creased, and read and re-read.
“Dear Kelsey; I think you’re the prettiest girl in school. I dream of you every night. Join me in my dreams, and we’ll go flying on a magic carpet. Like Aladdin. I love you, Robert.”
I smiled. Robert was smitten, and Kelsey had kept his letter. I wondered what he looked like. I folded the love-letter up and placed it back in the drawer. As I did my fingers brushed against something else. There was another paper in the drawer, pushed out of sight. It was more recent.
“Hello. I’m writing this, but I’m scared. I am going to the hospital again tomorrow. Doctor Lee said he would operate as soon as he gets a donor. I hope it will be soon. My head hurts now all the time. And I can hardly walk anymore. It’s awful. I had a dream last night. It was dark, and then the dawn came. I was in a white room. A lady was with me. She was very pretty, and I thought she was an angel, but she just laughed when I asked her. She said we could play a game or she could read to me. Whatever I wanted. But I was feeling sick, so I just said I wanted to be hugged. She sat down and took me on her lap and she held me for a long time. Usually in dreams things happen, this time I just sat in the lady’s arms. She had such pretty hair. I asked her name, and she didn’t answer. She looked so sad though. I woke up and my face was all wet. And what was strange was my head was wet too, like she’d cried on my hair. I have to stop now. My head hurts so much I throw up a lot. I hope Dr. Lee knows what he’s doing.” It was written in a shaky, scrawling hand. I folded the paper back up and put it next to the love letter.
“Kelsey?” It was my mother. She knocked timidly on the door and I told her to come in. “How are you darling?” She asked me that a hundred times a day.
“Fine. It ’s nice to be back,” I said. “Arthur was happy to see me.”
She looked blank a second, then smiled tremulously. “You remembered Arthur, how wonderful. You’ll see, you’ll get your memory back soon.”
“Have I missed much school?” I asked her.
“Oh dear! Yes. I suppose you’ll have to do the last two years all over again, but don’t worry. Papa and I have decided to get you a tutor, so you can work at home and catch up as soon as you feel well enough.”
“I’d like that,” I said. “Are we going on vacation this summer?” I wanted to know. Having something to plan for in advance seemed terribly important for me.
“We hadn’t planned on it.” She came into the room and sat on the bed with me. She put her arm around me and hugged me tightly. I had gotten used to this and didn’t stiffen anymore. “Would you like to go somewhere?”
“Only if you and Papa do.” I spoke truthfully. I didn’t want to strain their relationship any more. Being in a strange body was hard enough, I didn’t want to become the daughter of divorced parents. I could feel stress and tension in the air with a queer sort of intensity. As if I’d grown some sort of antennae that picked up emotions. It threw me off balance. Right now Kelsey’s parents were stressed out and exhausted. They needed rest as much as I did.
“Perhaps we can go somewhere and relax then. Are you hungry? Dinner’s ready.”
“Let’s go.” I smiled. I was never hungry, but I knew I had to take care of Kelsey’s body. I’d made a pact with the dead child. I wouldn’t break it. I’d keep the secret.
We went to the coast of Normandy for the holidays. Maman wondered if we should stay in a hotel, or if we should rent a small house. In the end we stayed on a farm in a bed and breakfast. We visited charming, sleepy little towns and we ate crepes and ice cream in quaint restaurants. We went to the ocean and swam. I wasn’t sure how well Kelsey knew how to swim, so I pretended to paddle awkwardly around in the surf. My parents lay in the shade of a bright orange parasol and sipped chilled Perrier from green bottles. We talked about mundane things
My father loved to explain things, and I found it restful to hear his voice. He explained things simply and didn’t quiz me about anything to see if I’d been paying attention. I didn’t let my mind wander though. I concentrated more on the sound of his voice than anything else did. He would lean back on his elbows and squint into the sun. His eyes would take on a far-away look and he’d happily expound on the curvature of the earth, or the different sails on the pleasure boats we saw. My mother would put sun cream on her freckled shoulders and then carefully wipe her hands on a towel. She’d put on her over-sized dark glasses and read the magazines she brought to the beach. She loved Paris Match, Ici Paris, and Gala; gossip news and news about royalty.
It was in Paris Match that she read about Dr. Lee’s suicide. She gasped, and I thought for a minute that she’d be ill. A fine beading of sweat stood out on her forehead and her hands left wet marks on the glossy pages.
“What is it?” My father was at her side in an instant, holding her shoulder. He glanced at the open page and froze, and they both turned slowly to look at me. I was almost content at that moment. I was lying on my stomach licking a lemon-ice. I was licking slowly, trying to find out whether Kelsey’s taste buds were very different from mine. When I saw my parents I dropped my ice-cream in the sand, ruining it. I could pick up emotions much quicker now, and their shock was a palpable thing that hit me with the force of a blow.
“Why did he do it?” murmured my mother, after she’d composed herself.
The article gave no details. It just said that a prominent neurosurgeon had shot himself. I supposed that he hadn’t suffered. After all, if anyone should know how to shoot himself in the head it would be a neurosurgeon. For some reason his death was a weight off my shoulders. I had thought I would need him to talk to, but in the end the burden of my secret was lighter now that I was the only one to hold it.
I tested my reactions slowly, like someone dipping a toe into the water to see if it was too cold. I didn’t read the article for a week, and I would only let myself think about it for a few seconds at a time. When I was sure I wouldn’t fly to pieces I sat down and opened the magazine. I was sitting near a horse pasture, under an apple tree. The presence of the horses grazing calmly nearby gave me courage and served to anchor me in time and space. I drew a deep breath and read.
“Dr. Lee, a prominent neurosurgeon was found dead last night in his office. Official sources say he shot himself. He died instantly. He left no suicide note and close friends and relatives are completely mystified. One source did say that he’d been extremely depressed lately after revealing to the press that his successful brain transplant was actually a failure. “His research into the project took up all his time and energy”, a friend is quoted as saying. “And it became an obsession. His last patient died of a brain tumor and all his efforts to save him were in vain.” Citing professional fatigue and stress as a possible reason police are none the less looking into the death. He destroyed his records, and his notes have been confiscated, causing a scandal within the hospital itself.
“His death comes as a complete surprise,” say colleagues. Only his assistant, Mlle. Theresa Martins, had this to say: “Dr. Lee was completely different lately. He changed quite suddenly around a month ago. He became morose and snappish. It was quite out of character.” She goes on to add that his loss is a tragedy for modern medicine.”
I finished reading and leaned back against the apple tree. The rough bark was reassuring. I called to the horses standing in the deep grass. They pricked their ears at my voice and flicked their tails.
My sons had ridden at the pony club.
I tried very hard to put my mind to other things.
My hair started to grow back. At first people stared at me when I got out of the hospital and walked around with my bald head. I didn’t mind. When my hair grew back I looked like a boy for a while.
I tried to play with other children.
Most of them took me for what I was and would play with me. Once or twice a child refused to have anything to do with me. Like some animals who can detect a falsehood, they shied away from me.
Dogs were confused by me as well. Luckily Kelsey had no dog. They would come up to me, tails wagging, all goofy and panting, and then they’d sort of freeze. They’d turn their heads slowly from side to side, trying to see something that was not there. As if they could sense the ghost within me. They would often put their tails between their legs and whimper in fear or even growl. Some would just run away. I learned to avoid dogs.
Lesson number one. Dogs see ghosts.
My father was sensitive to things like that. He sensed what was not there. It pained him, I could see that. He was often looking at me strangely, a sort of shutter over his eyes. As if he sensed something wrong about me. And so far he hadn’t tried to hug me like my mother did a hundred times a day. My mother had no such reservations. Her love and pride shone from her face every time she turned my way. It was a warm light that gave me comfort even while I flinched away from it. I sat still when she hugged me. I couldn’t bring myself to give her a spontaneous hug. I knew she was waiting for this, but I wasn’t ready. I was having a difficult time pretending to be eleven.
As I tried to act out their daughter I started to feel more like a real child. I started to slip back into childhood. It started when I wanted to watch a particular TV show and my father told me I was too young. I pouted, then burst into tears; I wasn’t very good at handling emotions yet. Strangely enough this outburst reassured him. He gathered me into his arms and carried me to bed, crooning into my ear all sorts of silly nonsense that parents say to comfort their children. I giggled when his breath tickled my neck, and he laughed for the first time since I’d gotten back from the hospital.
It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have gotten close to him. I needed love, and I was an adult. I was shattered by my loss, and he was a young, good-looking man. I pressed myself to him and shuddered against him. All the longing I felt for Etienne was distilled into my caress.
His body stiffened and he stood up so suddenly he nearly fell over. Then he reached down and slapped me hard. My head rang and I cried out.
“I don’t know who you are anymore,” he said brokenly. “I don’t know who you are. But I do know one thing. I’ve lost my daughter. You’re not her. I wish you could just go away.” Then he seemed to get a hold of himself. “If you touch me again I will kill you,” he said softly.
I just nodded, too shocked for tears. I didn’t see him again for nearly a week. He managed to invent some business trip that took him away to the north of France.
He said nothing to his wife, but when he got back he found time alone with me. I was terribly embarrassed by the whole thing. It was not as monstrous for me as it was for him.
“I want to know what happened.” He said it calmly enough, but a nerve was jumping in his jaw.
“I can’t answer you.” I said honestly. “I don’t know what happened.”
“Do you know why Dr. Lee killed himself?”
I looked away. “No,” I lied.
He clenched his fist and then he said, “You’re not my daughter, are you?”
“In a way I am,” I said. I chose my words carefully. “I’m sorry about, about what happened. I won’t do it again. It’s just, it’s just I feel so lonely. I miss…” I stopped, conscious of saying too much.
“You miss who?” I didn’t answer and after a while he said, “I love my wife, and I loved my daughter.”
“Do you want some advice?” I asked. “Why don’t you try and have another child?”
“We ought to, I suppose.” He said brokenly.
He said one more thing to me. He told me that he’d never forgive me if I hurt his wife in any way.
“I don’t know what kind of a hoax you and Dr. Lee tried to pull. Obviously it didn’t work. But if my wife suffers because of it, you’ll regret it.”
I didn’t have the energy to explain that I had no part in Dr. Lee’s experiment. Perhaps it would be easier for both of us if he hated me, because I was still attracted to him. I decided to ask to be sent to boarding school as soon as possible. I knew that Kelsey’s father would agree.
I had to wait nearly a year. Kelsey’s mother got pregnant and had another baby. It was a particularly easy pregnancy and she was in a good mood throughout it. I was busy with school, I’d forgotten how time consuming school was, and so I was able to keep busy and not think too much about my family. Kelsey’s father was cool towards me but that went unnoticed by his wife, involved as she was with her new baby.
Little things kept on upsetting me. Homework assignments that reminded me of my son’s homework. A girl that looked like my daughter. I had to constantly hold myself back from calling them on the phone or trying to go see them. And time didn’t ease the pain. It simply warped it and twisted it to something that had sharp bumps and smooth sides. Sometimes it would dig at me, and other times my mind would slide over it. But it was always huge.
When I went away to boarding school life was much easier.
My new little brother took up all Kelsey’s parent’s time now. I slipped thankfully into the background.
I was happy enough in boarding school, and was even hatching a plan to go see my family. Just to go look at them, and not even try and talk to them. But fate intervened. Kelsey’s mother died suddenly while crossing the street. A bus hit her. Luckily the baby was home with the nanny.
I came home then. Kelsey’s father had retreated into a sort of shell and it was the nanny who’d called the boarding school and asked me to come home. She said her six months were up and she had to leave. I begged her to stay but she was adamant. I came home to look after the baby.
It gave me a new lease on life. I adored babies. I’d adored mine, and this tiny boy was no different. He took to me right away, and I kept him in my room and looked after him as if he were mine. Kelsey’s father drifted around the apartment for a few weeks. He went back to work and I made sure he had food on the table when he came home in the evening though half the time he didn’t eat anything. He lost weight and I worried about him, but I was terrified to speak to him.
The boarding school called and I told them I wasn’t coming back. I managed to organize things so I wouldn’t have to go back to school. I took care of the baby. He became my baby. I loved him fiercely.
When Kelsey’s father finally snapped out of his depression, with the help of a psychiatrist, he came into my room and watched me one evening as I took care of the baby.
“Thank you for taking care of Marc,” he said.
“I love him.” I answered simply.
He nodded. He wouldn’t look at me, but I suppose it was just as well. My emotions were raw; I was an adolescent now. Hormones controlled me, not my brain. I breathed normally only after he’d gone.
Life went on like that for a year. Marc thrived and he called me mama. I let him. Kelsey’s body turned fifteen. I cried in bed every night.
I was alone. Kelsey’s friends had sensed very early on that something was very wrong and they all had taken to avoiding me. I had no friends. I had no family. I only had Marc. He was mine.
And then Kelsey’s father met Anita.
She was a widow too. His boss introduced them. Anita was smitten. Kelsey’s father was like most men. Compliant. She wanted him; he had nothing better to do. She moved in.
She regarded me as ‘the rival’, and I suppose I was, although not for any reason she could ever imagine. She was jealous of Kelsey’s father. I wanted Marc for my own.
She arranged to send me back to boarding school, and I flatly refused. To further stump her I took an aptitude test and managed to get my equivalence in two months. I had my baccalaureate. I stayed home with Marc.
She then took to treating me like the maid. That didn’t bother me. I had nothing better to do. And at least I was with Marc. He was walking now, and followed me everywhere.
She grew more and more difficult, and finally Kelsey’s father asked me to leave. I was sixteen. He sent me to the university. He begged me to go. I couldn’t refuse. I said good-bye to Marc, although it broke my heart. Just before I got on the train I hugged Kelsey’s father. Then, without a word to Anita, I got on the train and left.
I studied law. I’d always wanted to. I did well. I went home for vacations, and Marc still loved me the best. Kelsey’s father was polite but distant. Anita never made the slightest effort. I didn’t care. I started dating and I’d started to make friends. I was finally catching up to life, leaving the terrible child-body behind and becoming a young woman. It was so much easier the second time around.
When I graduated, a small law firm in Switzerland hired me. I was glad to leave the country; I could finally start anew. At last the feelings of sorrow were starting to abate. I could think about my children and not moan. My husband’s face was a pleasant blur, not a sharp pain.
In Switzerland I took up skiing. I loved it, and skied every chance I got. One day, while I was waiting in line to get on the chair lift a dark-haired boy, about my age, skied up beside me and flirted with me.
There was something spookily familiar about him, but before I could put my finger on it he told me his name. It was my son. Immediately a sort of dark veil fell over my mind and I fell senseless in the snow. He picked me up and dragged me to the side and when I woke up he had gone. A man was bending over me.
“Where is the boy who was just here?” I gasped.
“He came to get me, then he left to ski. He said you fainted. Are you all right?”
He was a doctor, and he asked me if I suffered from epilepsy or if I’d ever fainted. I told him part of the truth; that I’d had a shock because I’d known the boy a long time ago, and had thought him dead. The shock of seeing him there had been too much. He smiled and patted my hand, and told me to go have a hot tea with lots of sugar in it.
I did. But I didn’t go back onto the slopes. The dizzy feeling I’d gotten when I’d fainted had frightened me. What if my mind decided to leave Kelsey’s body? Where would it go? Would Kelsey return? Or would she become a vegetable? I didn’t know. I returned to work and requested a transfer.
The law firm I worked in asked me to go to Paris. At first I was reticent, but I’d lived there so long, and I’d faced my demons there, so nothing more could hurt me. I was glad for one reason. I could see Marc whenever I wanted.
Marc was pathetically glad to see me. Anita and my father were estranged. Marc told me that they had started fighting soon after I’d left and they hardly even spoke anymore. But she still lived in the apartment with them. My father had started drinking. I was shocked by the change in him. He wasn’t an alcoholic, yet. But if Anita didn’t leave I thought he’d become one. Marc was having a miserable time of it. Only seven years old and no one took care of him.
I packed Anita’s belongings in boxes and put everything in the hallway. When she came home from work I was there, her things were out of the apartment, and I’d changed the lock. She screamed, pounded on the door, but finally left in the cab I’d called for her.
My father arrived after dinner. I opened the door. For a minute he just stood and stared at me. We hadn’t spoken to each other in years.
“Please come in,” I said. “I have to talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk,” he said. “I want a drink.”
“I’ll get you one.” I poured him a glass of cold apple juice. He threw it on the floor. Marc started to cry. I picked him up and put him to bed. It was late.
“Don’t you love your son?” I hissed.
My father rubbed his face. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said bleakly. “I don’t know who you are, or why Dr. Lee did this to me, but I’ve never forgiven him, or you.”
“What about my life?” I asked him, my voice breaking. “Did you ever stop and wonder who I was, really? Did you ever stop and think what I had to give up, just to keep your wife happy?”
He looked at me for a long time. Finally he said, “No, I never thought. Tell me.”
“I had three children. A husband I adored. A house in the country, and friends I could count on. I didn’t have a job. My family was my life. Everyone said I spoiled my children too much. But they were wonderful. I had two boys, handsome and kind, and a little girl. She was three years old. The light of my life.” My hands were shaking as much as my voice. I had to stop.
There were tears in his eyes. “I didn’t know,” he told me.
“Dr. Lee didn’t know either,” I said tiredly. I don’t know why I decided to defend him. He’d been dead for so long now. But I wanted to take the poison out of my father’s system. Hatred can kill a man. I got up and walked to the wall where a picture of a sailboat was hanging. “I love Marc. He was like my baby. It’s breaking my heart to see him so unhappy. Will you try and be a father to him? You were once such a good father to Kelsey.” I paused, then turned to look at him. I spoke softly. “I’m sorry she died. But I never wanted to hurt anyone. I only tried to live with my own nightmare.”
Now he was crying. His face was in his hands and great sobs were torn out of his throat. I wanted to comfort him, but I knew I could never touch him. There was too much longing on my part.
He took Marc and moved to the south of France where he had family. News, when it came, was letters from Marc. He was happy now. Father was wonderful. Father was getting divorced from Anita. Father was marrying a lovely woman. I waited for the invitation to the wedding, but all I received was a note from Marc and a photograph of the newlyweds. They were all happy. How was I?
I thought about committing suicide. Some days I would stand on my balcony and stare at the brown, swirling Seine River and wonder if I would ever jump. I was in love with two men. My husband, who thought I was dead, and my father, who wished I were.
Three months passed. I walked to work every day. It gave me the exercise I needed and the walk itself was very lovely; down the Blvd. St. Germain, through the old city, past the ruins of the medieval church-yard and through the beautiful St. Sulpice Cathedral square. The pigeons flapped noisily. Gray birds flying through the gray air. In the fountain the water was very dark, nearly black, and goldfish looked like glints of foil swimming through it. I would always stop and stare at them.
One day as I was leaning over the fountain a man spoke to me.
“Excuse me, but weren’t you the girl I met one day while skiing in Switzerland?”
I turned and found myself staring at my son again. His dark eyes were full of something I didn’t recognize right away because Mothers never see that look in their children’s faces. He was infatuated.
My hand gripped the rough stone so hard my bones cracked. “No,” I whispered, and tried to flee.
He grabbed my arm. “Please, don’t go. Speak to me. What’s your name? Tell me that at least.”
I turned to face him. Every centimeter of him, every hair, every movement, every breath he took was a torture to me. I loved him, but as a mother loves her first-born son. I loved him more than I loved myself. I wanted to touch him, to hold him, to sing a lullaby to him so he would sleep. I made my voice as icy as I could. “Please let go of me. My name is no concern of yours. I never saw you before. I am a happily married woman. Leave me alone.”
He let go of me as if I’d bitten him. “Excuse me, Madame,” he said, and his voice was cold as well.
I took the day off, calling in sick. I walked all over Paris that day. The sun went down and still I walked. It was cold, my coat whipped around my legs and my blond hair streamed about my face. Tears ran down my face. Sometimes people would stop me and ask if I was all right, if they could do anything for me. I always shook my head. Most people ignored me, or pretended to.
When my legs wouldn’t hold me anymore I sank down on a stone bench, put my face in my hands, and sobbed. I was tired. I was cold and hungry. I was twenty-two years old, I was forty-eight years old. I didn’t know anymore. A hand tapped me on the shoulder. I wiped my eyes hastily and looked up. A policeman stared down at me.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“I lost my son,” I said, my voice raw with grief.
He sat down next to me and put his arm around me. It was so natural. He knew how to comfort. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Was he a very young boy? You’re very young,” he added.
“Yes,” I said simply. I’m not sure what I was agreeing to, but I was too exhausted to explain, and who would ever believe me, or want to know? One of my reoccurring nightmares was of me trying to explain the whole story to someone and ending up in a mental institution. All of Dr. Lee’s notes were destroyed. I had no proof of who I was.
I was cut loose and incapable of creating a new person with Kelsey’s body and my own mind. I worked without joy, lived alone, walked by myself. Dogs hated me, horses were spooked by me. Cats made bottle-brush tails and hissed when I walked by. Even parakeets fluttered panic-stricken around their cages when I was near. If I walked into a pet shop it was instant pandemonium with every animal either howling in fear of screeching in rage.
The policeman walked me home. I hadn’t realized how far away I was. When I got to my apartment I hesitated, then invited him in for a coffee. I had never had any visitors. My one-bedroom flat was painfully plain, neat and devoid of any personality.
The policeman looked around but he looked uneasy. I thought I knew why. Policemen are always looking for clues. They love to understand puzzles. They need indications and explanations. My apartment was as blank as an erased chalkboard. There was nothing to tell him who I was.
I gave him a cup of hot coffee in a white china mug, we sat on my beige sofa, and I tried to think of something to say.
“Do you have any pictures of your son?” he asked finally.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I lied to you. I was crying because my father got married again without inviting me and I thought you would think it was a stupid reason.”
“No, I don’t think so.” He seemed relieved by my declaration.
I stood and got the picture from my dresser. “Look, there he is. That’s his new wife. Her name’s…” I broke off with a frown. “I forgot.” I turned the picture over. “Her name’s Diane.”
The policeman chuckled. “My name’s Pierre.” He had dark brown eyes with gold glints in their depths.
“I’m Kelsey,” I said, and we talked.
I told him about Marc, he told me about his sister Claire, and his parents who lived on a houseboat near the Eiffel tower. I said I’d never been on a boat and he stared at me, amazed.
“Never.” I shook my head. Neither Vivian nor Kelsey had ever been on a boat.
“So, Kelly,” he said.
“Kelsey,” I corrected him.
“Kelsey is an unusual name,” he said. “I have trouble remembering unusual names.”
“My middle name is Anne,” I said. “And I think I’ve always secretly wanted to be called Anne. If you want, you can call me that.”
“Anne.” He tried it out, looking at me closely. “It suits you far more than Kelsey.” Then he leaned over and kissed me. It was a shy kiss. “I think I’d like to see you again, Anne. Soon. Tomorrow,” he said, with a light laugh. I liked his laugh. “Say yes, please? I’ll come to get you after I finish catching all the criminals. You didn’t tell me, do you work?”
“I’m a defense lawyer.” I felt myself blushing. “I defend people accused of crimes.”
“I think we’ll get along very well,” he told me. Then he kissed me again. This time he was more sure of himself. I let my arms creep up around his neck. There was something urgent growing in me. I hadn’t felt it in so long; it bloomed like the sun in the pit of my belly. When we drew apart I saw it reflected in Pierre’s eyes. I smiled then. Maybe, just maybe, I would find a new life with Anne. She would be in love with Pierre and they would talk about the future together. I wondered if it would work out.
“One thing I have to tell you,” he said, apologetically, “I’m allergic to animals. That’s why I was looking around with such a worried expression on my face. By the way, I love you apartment. It’s so light and uncluttered.”
I closed my eyes. But I could still see the sun.