Blank Slate
Laura looked out the bus window at the rain, which grew worse every minute, and said yet another silent prayer that all would be well. She finished the text message to her sister on her cell phone. She listened to the hum of women chatting nearby, and more specifically, to the two women talking in the seats in front of her.

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“And here’s one with my brother’s family—isn’t his son cute? I just adore him—and the one next to it is me and my fiancé.”

That comment drew Laura’s attention and she craned her neck to see the picture Adrianna, the woman she had met just that morning, held up for the silver-haired woman seated beside her. She felt a yearning in her chest as she saw the happiness on their faces, then scolded herself. Of course the picture was happy—no one carried around photos of people scowling. “He’s beautiful,” Laura said.

Adrianna looked back and smiled at her.

The comment could have applied equally well to any of those pictured—but it was the baby boy who charmed Laura. While her sister Sandra and best girl friends had all married early and started families, Laura seemed no closer to the goal at twenty-seven than she had been at nineteen. She felt a twinge of jealousy every time Sandra announced another pregnancy—and she just had child number four. A lot of the people Laura worked with were still single and happy with their freedom, but she couldn’t help wishing for something more.

“What are you doing back there?” Adrianna asked, peering over the seat.

Laura closed the message and passed up her phone. “It’s my electronic brain. I swear I’d never be able to keep track of things without it. Between church meetings and the fall school booster club schedule I’m always a bit distracted.”

Adrianna looked at it and shook her head. “My brother has something similar but I’ve never been able to run the thing. I’m strictly a day planner woman. I have a cell phone, but I’m not really great at remembering to charge it.” She scrolled through the menu, but looked lost. “Do you have Solitaire on here?”

“Of course.” Grinning, Laura set up a game for Adrianna. “Mind if I take a closer look at your pictures? Where were they taken?”

“My parents have this waterfall and pond in their yard. It’s the perfect backdrop.” Adrianna handed back her wallet and flipped to the next photo, which showed her with her fiancé. “When Brock and I got engaged last spring, we and my brother’s family went out for a visit. It was really nice. After decades of living in the city, my parents packed it all up a few years back and moved to Nebraska. Though their store keeps them plenty busy, Mom says she likes the slower pace there. After all the years she spent getting me into the symphony circuit, she claimed she needed a change. Their house already had the stream; they just shifted things around to make the waterfall.”

“It’s beautiful. They must really enjoy it.” Laura glanced up as the bus swerved slightly and again she hoped everything would be all right. There were an unusually large number of cars on the road tonight, a fact she couldn’t miss as the driver sat directly in front of Adrianna’s seat. Laura returned to studying the picture. She knew from asking earlier in the trip that Adrianna was two years younger than herself and was getting married in a little over a month to a symphonic conductor. Studying the picture only emphasized how much she and Laura looked alike.

It wasn’t just in their dark hair and eyes, height and build, but they could be sisters—maybe even twins. They both had oval faces with high cheekbones and rounded noses, though Adrianna’s was slightly thinner. Their eyes were dark brown, and both wore their hair long, but Laura’s was down to her waist—several inches longer than Adrianna’s. It was no wonder they’d been mistaken for each other throughout the women’s retreat to St. Louis.

The only noticeable feature that differed for them was the scar that ran along the underside of Laura’s right jaw—a remnant of a Little League softball game. No doubt Adrianna’s life on the symphony circuit meant she also lacked the numerous other minor scars scattered around Laura’s body—reminders of her many trips to the ER as a kid and some visits that were not so distant.

Laura looked up when the woman seated next to Adrianna flipped the light off over them. Her gaze was drawn out the window when something large and dark flipped in front of a pair of headlights. She felt her fingers grasp tightly on the wallet in her hand as the bus driver called out for everyone to brace themselves.

She clenched her eyes as a large white vehicle that had been heading north-bound on the other side of the freeway slammed into the charter bus. As Laura was thrown from her seat, she heard the sounds of metal ripping, windows exploding, and screaming women before everything went blank.

~~~

Gavin worked on a permit for a new home he and his partner, Jake, had just contracted to build—an event that was becoming more regular in their growing business. Though he could handle office work and the endless stream of forms contracting required, he’d much rather have been on the job hanging sheetrock or installing windows. He rubbed his eyes and double-checked the numbers. He couldn’t afford any mistakes on this form. If they were going to get the client into his new home on time, this plan had to be approved in the city planning meeting the next day.

Holding back a groan as he shifted in his seat, he tried not to think of the football game he would have to watch by DVR or of his grumbling stomach. If he focused on the paperwork for another thirty minutes, he would still be able to enjoy his leftover pizza and game tonight. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed his partner to clarify a detail on the contract. “Hey, Jake,” he said when his partner answered. “I had a couple of questions.”

“Adrianna’s been in an accident,” Jake’s voice said in a rush, jarring Gavin from his work. “Now’s not a good time.”

Gavin immediately hit save and stood from his computer. “Where is she? What happened?” He was fond of Jake’s little sister, and worried for his friend.

“I got a call from St. Joseph Medical Center in Kansas City. Her bus crashed.”

“I’ll meet you there.” Gavin pulled his keys from his pocket as he hurried out.

~~~

Hours passed while Gavin sat with Jake and his wife, Megan, in the waiting room. He flipped through ancient muscle car magazines and listened to the clipped footsteps of hospital staff hurrying past the door. Jake turned on a local news station for a while but other than the forty-five seconds the reporters spent on the accident, no one listened to the television.

The doctors hadn’t let them see Jake’s sister yet because she was in surgery. It sounded like she’d been banged up almost past the point of recognition. Since they’d grown up down the street from each other, Adrianna had always been part of Gavin’s world, if only on the fringes. Her life as a well-known piano soloist was light years away from his world of cement and 2x4s.

Jake, on the other hand, had been Gavin’s closest friend for over two decades. When there was trouble, they were always there for each other, so he waited. Midnight came and went, and still there was no word.

The clock ticked and the cushions on the seats seemed to thin by the moment. Other patients’ families came and went while the three of them continued to count the ticks of the clock. Though Gavin tried to get Jake and Megan to eat something, neither had seemed interested. When he grabbed food for them anyway, Jake finished his almost absentmindedly. Megan mostly picked at hers while she verbally reviewed good memories with her sister-in-law, interspersing her chatter with worries and fears.

Jake took turns sharing memories with his wife and talking with Gavin about the construction jobs they were handling. He cracked his knuckles every ten minutes, a nervous habit he’d had for as long as Gavin had known him. Finally, they all dropped into silence and waited while the clock hands slowly rotated around its face.

When sleep dragged at Gavin and he wondered if he’d be able to pull himself out of bed when the alarm went off in four hours, a woman in a white lab jacket entered the room. “Jacob Mueller?”

Jake and Megan jumped to their feet. Gavin rose more slowly, stiff from sitting so long.

“I’m Jake. Do you have news about Adrianna?”

“We’ve just finished the first round of surgeries.”

“The first round?” Jake looked stunned. When Megan reached out and rubbed a comforting hand over her husband’s back, Gavin shoved his fists in his pockets. He felt supremely useless. He saw the mixed relief and worry on Jake’s face and wished there were something he could do to help.

“There will be more if she recovers, but she needs to get stronger before we finish the basic plastic surgery. She was really beaten up. It’s a miracle she lived at all with the amount of damage the accident caused. They had to restart her heart several times before we got her to the operating table.”

Jake turned ashen at the news. “If she recovers?”

The brunette removed a pair of glasses and slid them into the front pocket of her lab coat. “She has an amazing will to live or she wouldn’t have made it this far. I have to warn you though; it might be a while before she wakes. She was unconscious when she came in, and she may remain in a coma for some time. The surgery went well but it’ll be touch and go for a while yet.”

“For how long?”

Gavin wondered if Jake would be able to stay upright and stepped closer, taking his friend by an elbow. Jake leaned against him.

“There’s no way to know.” The doctor looked solemn. “I think her chances of recovery are at least fifty-fifty, but it’s a waiting game for now. Come with me.”

A few minutes later, the three of them arrived at the room where Adrianna lay. She would be moved to the ICU in a while.

Gavin had never seen her looking so vulnerable before—not since she was in elementary school. No, he told himself, not even then. Weak was not a word one generally used to describe Adrianna Mueller. Her face was swathed in bandages, her hair had been cut short, nearly to the nape of her neck in some places, and she was deathly still despite the beeping noises and flashing lights of the machines all around her. A lump filled his throat as he wondered if he’d ever see her laughing brown eyes again.

Chapter Two

Machines beeped around her and light speared through the slits in her eyelids as she tried to open them. Her whole body ached, her hands felt heavy, and there was something on her face making a hissing noise. She moved a shoulder and moaned as a jolt of pain shot through her.

“Adrianna, come on honey, wake up. We’ve been waiting for you to finish your beauty sleep for ages.” The woman’s voice was young and gave off the impression she was teasing, despite the emotion that filled it. Her grip was tight and she gave the invalid’s arm a slight shake.

Blinking and trying to adjust to the light, Adrianna—that must be her name, as the woman seemed to be speaking to her—peered around the room. Her eyes were gritty, but though she couldn’t remember how she got there, or why, she could tell it was a hospital room.

She tried wetting her lips but her mouth was dry. Turning, she focused on the brunette hovering near her as she reached to touch something at the top of the bed. A voice came from a speaker above Adrianna’s head, startling her. “Can we help you?”

“She’s awake. You said to let you know,” the woman said.

“Yes, thank you. We’ll send someone right in.”

The woman looked back at her, tears in her eyes and a smile on her face. “Jake’s going to be so disappointed he wasn’t in the room when you finally woke. We’ve all been taking turns sitting with you as much as possible. Brock was here for days before he had to return to Chicago for practices. He’s been on the phone every few hours asking for updates. Your dad finally dragged your mom back to Nebraska only yesterday. She’s going to be so ticked that you waited until she left before you woke up.”

Searching her fuzzy memory, Adrianna couldn’t remember anyone by the name of Jake or Brock. A nurse walked in and started poking and prodding, asking her to move her fingers and feet, to squeeze the nurse’s hands. Then she gave Adrianna something for the increasing pain.

Before Adrianna had time to ask questions, she slipped back to sleep.

~~~

Gavin walked into the construction office and saw Jake headed toward him. For the first time in nearly two weeks, Jake wore a genuine smile. He stopped to pound Gavin on the back. “Adie’s awake! I was starting to wonder if it would ever happen.” He rushed out.

The door closed on the sound of Jake’s truck gunning out of the parking lot. A grin covered Gavin’s face until he looked at Tara, who was emptying her personal belongings from the desk. Her mouth was set, and she avoided his gaze as she shoved papers into a bag.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

She flashed green eyes up at him. “I’m wasting my life here. I’m an excellent office manager, but I’ve always known my future was on the big screen.”

He’d seen the way her eyes glowed over the past couple of weeks whenever she talked about acting—ever since she’d gotten a nice write up for her performance as Ado Annie in the community theater’s production of Oklahoma! Still, this was a shock. “Hold on. What?”

“I’d planned to give my notice a couple of weeks ago, but with Jake’s sister in the hospital I couldn’t do it to you. Now she’s awake and I’m not waiting another day. I’m sorry to leave you in the lurch like this.” She grabbed the bags and slung her purse over her shoulder. “I’m heading to LA in the morning.”

“Whoa, hold on! You can’t be serious?” Tara ought to give him at least a week’s notice, considering how many times he’d let her flex her work hours around musical practices. “Please, just give me another week. I need time to find a replacement.” He wasn’t above begging.

She shot him a smug grin. “Good luck with that.” She sailed past him and out the door with a “Ciao” called out behind her.

Gavin felt a headache coming on.

~~~

When Adrianna woke again, there was a man by her side. Tall, dark, and handsome, she thought, but completely unfamiliar despite the fact he held her hand. She felt a little stronger this time, though she still couldn’t remember what had happened. She moved to pull her hand from the stranger’s grip, but the movement called his attention to her.

“Hey, Adie, how’re you feeling?”

It took two tries to make her vocal chords work at all, and when she did speak, they ached and her voice sounded like sandpaper. “Awful. Water?”

“Of course, I’ll see if I can give you some. Just a minute.” He feathered his fingers down her arm, as if afraid he might hurt her, then gave her wrist a gentle squeeze. “I’ll be right back.”

A nurse bustled in with him when he returned. She asked Adrianna questions, poked and prodded, and adjusted her IV drip. She allowed her patient some ice chips, but nothing more. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

Adrianna tried to think back, but couldn’t. She shook her head, instantly regretting it. “No. I don’t remember anything.” Her throat ached, and she didn’t think it was only because it was dry or because she hadn’t spoken lately.

“Do you remember your name?”

What had that woman called her before? It was all fuzzy. She shook her head again. “I don’t know.” Her voice was still scratchy and it hurt to talk. Instead of continuing to speak, she chose to shrug—which sent pain shooting through her shoulder. She sucked in a breath, feeling helpless.

The man squeezed her hand. “You’re Adrianna.” His voice was filled with emotion.

When she looked back at him, she saw tears in his eyes. “Adrianna?” The name sounded foreign, but she liked it. It was a pretty name.

“Can you tell me what month it is?” The nurse brought the attention back to herself.

Adrianna looked out the window to see a few yellow leaves on the tree outside. “October?” It was a reasonable guess.

The nurse smiled. “What about the president of the United States?”

That one she thought she remembered, and judging from the relieved look on the man’s face, she must have been right. Several more questions followed, most of which she couldn’t answer, but she did know money was green and she lived in Kansas. However, she didn’t think those were noteworthy accomplishments.

By the time the nurse left, Adrianna felt drained and ready for another nap, but the man began talking to her.

“Everyone’s been asking for you. We were all sick with worry, not knowing if or when you’d wake up and how it would affect you.” He held her hand in his and ran his thumb over her palm, as if he couldn’t stop reassuring himself she was really there and awake.

“How long have I been asleep?”

“More than ten days.”

Ten days? When a search of her all-too blank mind turned up no identity for her companion, she looked up at the tanned face, which was tired and full of worry lines, despite the fact he couldn’t be more than late twenties, if that. “I’m sorry,” she paused to clear her throat, and immediately regretted it. “I don’t know who you are.”

His hands stilled on hers and he let out a low breath. When he spoke, his words were halting, as if it hurt to speak them. “They warned me there might be temporary memory loss, but that it’s not common. I hoped . . . well, I’m Jake. Your brother.” His voice broke and he swallowed, his eyes glistening with tears that didn’t fall. He closed his eyes and his lips pressed together for a long moment before he spoke again. “It’s okay, we’ll help you remember.”

Adrianna felt powerless in the face of his pain. What was she supposed to do or say? ‘I’m sorry’ seemed terribly inadequate. She frantically tried to find any reference to the man in her memory. She wished she could take away the pain she saw on his face. How long would this last, and would anything feel right again? She closed her eyes and sank back into darkness.

Second place winner in the 2008 first chapter contest hosted by LDStoryMakers in the Romance category.


Copyright by Heather Justesen

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Heather Justesen Written on Tuesday, 01 April 2008 19:45 by Heather Justesen

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