He blinked the sleep away.
“Oh, my baby.” She whispered. “You really are back.”
A wave of patchouli scented air forged ahead of the diminutive woman as she rushed to his side. Tears brimming, she reached out a trembling hand and brushed his hair back. “I had almost started to believe the naysayers. They told me you were gone, and that I needed to move on. But I wouldn’t accept it. I told them that if I generated enough positive energy, the universe would make things right.”
“It’s all right Mom. I’m fine.” He ducked his head away from her petting.
Sniffling, she gave him a watery smile. “It’s been so long Ash. A full year of worry.”
He pushed the buttons to raise the bed into a sitting position. “I just saw you last week Mom.”
She sighed and pulled the chair closer. She sat in a swirl of tie dyed skirts. “The doctor warned me that you had some amnesia. You have been gone a year, baby. It’s been the worst year of my life.”
“I don’t understand what’s happened, Mom. But I assure you, I have only been gone for a week. The fact that it seems to have been a year here, is somewhat worrisome.”
She patted his leg. “Don’t worry dear, it’ll come back to you eventually.”
He growled and flopped his head into his pillows.
She cleared her throat. “You don’t look like you have lost much weight this year.”
“No, Mom.” He closed his eyes. “Maybe a pound or two, that’s it. I’m really sore and bruised. That’s the worst of my pains.”
Silence stretched. He felt her fingers slide into his hand.
“Are you ready to come home? The doctor said that as soon as you were awake we could start the check out proceedings.”
Home. With his Mother. He suppressed a sigh. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
He opened his eyes to reach for the call button, but she pushed it before he could.
I wonder how long before I can get a new apartment
The door opened, and the curtain was pushed all the way to the wall. The same doctor from yesterday smiled cheerily. “So how are we feeling today, young man?”
Ashton opened his mouth to speak, but his Mother beat him to it.
“He still thinks he has only been gone for a week, Doctor.”
The doctor laid his notebook on the counter. “Not surprising. His memories will filter back in over the next few days to weeks, if they are to return. How is the pain today, Ashton?”
“The bruises have made him stiff and sore.”
The doctor winked at him as he took the pen light out of his pocket. Ashton squinted at the bright flash.
“Stiffness from bruises is also to be expected. Let’s take a look at that rash, shall we?” He pulled the gown away from the mark and studied it. “Have you been to the south recently? Do you remember? This resembles a STARI tick rash. I’ll be sending you home with enough doxycycline to finish out the antibiotic run I’ve started. If it doesn’t improve, you’ll need to come back in.”
Ashton shook his head. “No tick exposure.” And this is not a rash. I’m sure of it. I think.
The doctor prodded the mark with cool fingers and pursed his lips. “Ok, lean forward so I can get a gander at the back of your head.”
Ash winced when the doctor parted his hair and probed the goose egg on his skull. “Good, the swelling has gone down. The scan results show no extensive bleeding, so it’s just a localized hematoma. But if nausea increases, vision turns unreliable, or anything at all worries you, don’t hesitate to return to the hospital.”
He leaned back into his pillows. “Thank you, Doctor.”
The doctor smiled. “Your body has had a hard run recently. Take it easy and give it time to recover. Both physically and mentally.”
“Can I go now?”
“Yes. Once I finish signing the papers, you are free to go. Your clothes are in the closet.”
The doctor ushered his mother out of the room, giving him privacy to dress. He swung his legs over the side and groaned at the stiffness. Just get moving. It’ll work itself out. He dragged his folded clothes off of the closet shelf and set them on the bed. Untying the gown, he took it off, then wadded it up and tossed it on the pillows.
The mark over his heart caught his attention. Hesitantly, he touched it. A bright flash of memory, the image of a sharp horn descending to pierce his skin, took his breath. There and gone. No. Not a rash.
It took nearly an hour, when all was said and done, to get clear of the hospital. Ashton stared out the passenger window of his Mother’s Prius. The summer rain fell steadily on the country lane. Dark clouds hung low, triggering more memories to surface. Fiery eyes stared after him in a grey and desolate landscape. He rubbed his chest and pushed the recollections away.
The last hour of driving had stretched Ashton’s nerves. The preoccupation of piecing together the events of his missing week made conversation with his mother difficult. Thankfully, a few more minutes would see them to her cottage.
She slowed and turned onto her winding driveway. The cottage sat at the rear of the twenty acre parcel. The car meandered past tidy fields of organic produce that she grew and sold to local restaurants. He waved at the surprised face of his mother’s farm manager, as they drove by a plot of beans. He knew she loved her farm, but her passion, and the majority of her income, came from her pottery studio.
Lightning flashed and the rain increased, if that were possible. Thunder rumbled. The car silently rolled to a stop in front of a white picket fence. Flowers clung soggily to it, or lay flat on the ground. The little white house with bright blue trim stood as a merry contrast to the force of nature around them.
His Mother stared out the windshield. “Nothing has grown well all year. If it wasn’t for my pots the farm wouldn’t make it another season.”
His eyes jumped to her profile. “Has the weather been that bad?”
“That’s the thing, no it hasn’t.” She said. “Not really. Just can’t get the seeds to grow. If they come up at all, they are sickly, puny things more often than not.”
With a sigh, she opened her door and stepped out into the rain.
Not relishing the drenching to come, Ashton followed his Mother into her house. The inviting comfort of home enveloped him. He shut the door and the sound of the rain diminished. He shook his damp hair out, then accepted the kitchen towel his mother handed him. After drying his face and arms, he hung the cloth up on the hook by the sink.
For being a year away, nothing seemed different.
His stomach growled. His mother snorted.
“Your clothes, and some of the more fragile of your things, are up in your room. Most of your possessions, I stored out in the barn when I cleared out your apartment. Why don’t you go get settled in and I’ll make us an early lunch?”
“Ok. Call when it’s ready.” He took his shoes off by the kitchen door and padded in his damp socks to the hall stair. My room. It’s been a week for me. A year here. Yet, it feels like no time at all has passed since I was a teen, living here.
He opened his old bedroom door. Trophies from childhood still filled the shelves above the desk, but more recent belongings had been tucked in amongst them. Some of his personal work notebooks formed a stack on the back of the desk, next to his microscope. The bookshelf held the same dichotomy of possessions. Old comics had been moved over to make room for some of his books, both work related and pleasure reading. He ran his fingers over the spines.
As he looked around, his shoulders bowed under a heavy weight. He sank to the bed. His hand rested over the mark under his shirt. He imagined he could feel a low throbbing heat, different but a minor harmony to his heart’s beat.
What is real? I remember the last week. It’s fantastical. How can that be real? It’s much more sane to believe everyone else’s assertion that I’ve been somewhere for the last year.
Much more sane than thinking that I can move through different worlds with magical abilities. Resulting from a rash.
Or more precisely, a mark left from the breath of a NightMare.
What am I supposed to do now?
My job is gone. And they are under investigation by the police, anyway. I can’t tell the police what actually happened to me, because they would just lock me up and throw away the key.
Maybe they should.
Since, insane or not, I believe everything that has happened to me this week. The question I have now is, why has a year passed for everyone else?
Three days later, the afternoon sun streamed through the living room windows. A very welcome change from the soggy weather that had dominated since his return to his Mother’s house. Too bad stress can’t be dried up like the puddles.
Stress from keeping his returning memories a secret. Stress from the question of reality.
The mark on his chest burned. He pushed the pain down and made it subside.
I need to get my life moving again. I can’t stay smothered here. Mom is great, but… The telephone rang and he heard his mother’s voice in the kitchen raise in anger.
“How did you get this number? How did you know he was back? No he isn’t taking calls. Go the fuck away.”
He crossed the threshold in time to see her slam the receiver down. She looked up at him, guilt and fear warred on her face.
“Who?” He asked softly.
“It doesn’t matter.” She replied. “You’re back safe and sound. That’s what’s important.”
“Mom. I need to handle my life. You can’t shield me from everything. Who tried to contact me? And why?”
He glanced at his watch. Two thirty. Still time to get a start on things. I can return this call... His Mother’s voice drifted across his awareness. Too faint to catch her answer to his questions. The mark burned bright. He gasped. He needed to do something. Be somewhere. He stumbled a step. What was I doing?
Oh yeah, I need to get back to living my life. “I’m not a baby anymore Mom. I…
He looked up. He no longer stood in his mother’s kitchen.
The noise from the traffic penetrated his awareness. He stood on the street corner, across from the park where he met Josephine and Silren for the first time.
He glanced at his watch. It read three thirty.