My first thought upon waking was that maybe I was dead. It wasn't until much later that I realized how accurate that initial, intuitive and seemingly irrational notion was. It popped into my consciousness as soon as consciousness itself appeared. It made no sense. It was based upon no reason. It was just there.
I must be dead.
And just as quickly as it had come, the thought was gone again.
I wasn't dead. I was cold. But it was an odd kind of cold, because it didn't make me shiver or feel uncomfortable, it was just an awareness of the fact. I was cold. And I was wet, too.
I opened my eyes slowly and blinked to wipe away the blur of sleep, for I must have been asleep. It was dark. Newborn darkness, though. It had that sense to it, though I wasn't sure at that moment how it was I could sense newborn darkness from any other kind. It wasn't something I would have thought came naturally to ordinary people. And it was certainly nothing I'd ever noticed before.
Or had I?
Oddly, I didn't remember, but I dismissed the slightly queasy feeling that notion brought to my stomach and focused instead on my surroundings. The immediate ones first. Beneath me, dirt. Solid packed, damp, but not muddy. A few scraggly patches of crabgrass and dandelions struggling for survival here and there, and looking proud of their triumph in such inhospitable conditions. All right, then. I was on the ground. Not flat ground, but a hillside that sloped precariously downward to a stretch of pavement at the bottom. And on the other side of that pavement, another patch of ground, sloping upwarda mirror image of the one on which I lay. And above them both
I was on the sloping ground beneath a bridge.
On either side of the bridge, rain poured from heaven's open spigot, soaking the road at the bottom, except for the part of it that was sheltered.
Why, I wondered, am I lying outdoors, on the ground, under a bridge, in the rain, at night?
Refocusing my attention on the things in closest proximity, I noted the damp sheet of cardboard that lay over me, like a makeshift blanket, and noted further that, aside from that, I wore nothing. It had that wet-cardboard smell to it, and as I flipped it off my body, I thought my skin did, as well.
I started to shake. Not from the cold, because the cold didn't bother me and that had me worried. Maybe my nerves weren't working just right, but at any rate, I was scared and I could feel panic creeping like ice water through my veins. I closed my eyes, firmed my spine, held my breath, then told myself, "Easy. Just take it easy. Just take it easy and figure this out. It can't be all that difficult to figure this out."
Nodding in response to my own advice, I opened my eyes again, and this time I looked down at my own body. I was long, and I was thin. Perhaps athletic, I thought, and it scared me that I didn't know if that was true or not. Maybe I was just sickly. Although I didn't feel sickly. And my body seemed more lean than skinny.
In fact, I felt
I opened my hands to see if they worked, then closed them again. I studied my slender arms, lengthy legs, small waist and hips nearly the same size, and my compact, round little breasts, as if I'd never seen them before. And then I noticed a lock of hair hanging over my shoulder, and I grasped it, lifting it to look and feel and smell it.
It was copper in color, the kind of hair they call auburn, I thought, and it was curly and long, long, long, just like the rest of me. But also like the rest of me, I had the feeling I'd never seen it before.
I stood up to see how long my hair was, and also to move around a bit. Maybe if I woke up more thoroughly, this fog in my head would clear and I would know who I was and what I was doing here in the middle of nowhere on the cusp of night, naked and alone.
So I stood there, noticing that my hair reached to the tops of my hipbones, until a sound jerked my attention away from it. Something running, scampering off in the distance. My head snapped toward the sound fast, and I felt my nose wrinkling and realized I was scenting the moist air. My eyes narrowed, and my mind thought, Rabbit. And then I saw it, scurrying from one clump of brush to the next, far in the distance. Perhaps as much as a half mile from me.
There was no possible way I could see a rabbit a half mile away in the dark, in the rain, much less identify it by smell.
And yet I had, and I realized, as my senses came to life one by one, that I could hear many things and smell even morethe flitting of a little bird's wings and the scent of the leaves in his nest, the hushed flight of a moth and the smell of the fine powder on his body, the bubbling of a stream somewhere beyond sight and the smell of its water and even the fish that lived in its depths. I smelled autumn. There were decaying leaves, their aroma so pungent and wonderful and evocative that it overwhelmed almost everything else. It was comforting, that scent. I heard the sound of cars that had not yet come close enough to see, and I could smell their exhaust.
My brows drew together, and I pressed my fingertips to my forehead. "What am I?" I whispered.
Lights came into view then. Headlights, as a vehicle rolled closer and closer on the road below. I started to move carefully down the hill. My feet seemed extremely sensitive to every pebble, and I sucked air through my teeth, tasting everything it carried in its breath, but I hurried all the same.
I stopped halfway down just as the car rolled under the bridge, and I heard the brakes engage as the vehicle came to an abrupt stop, still ten feet from where I stood.
I didn't move toward it. I just stood there, naked and waiting. There was something tingling up the back of my neck that felt like unease. Like a warning.
The car was black. Big and black. An SUV, I thought. An expensive one. My eyes slid toward the manufacturer's logo on the front of the thing, and I saw laurel leaves encircling a shield, with blocks of color on its face. I thought I should remember it, though I wasn't certain why. As I stared, unsure whether to move closer or turn away, the driver's-side window, which was deeply tinted, moved downward just a little. A man's voice said, "Get in."
The chill along my nape turned icy. I shivered, and everything in me went tense and tight. I felt as if I were coiling up inside myself in preparation for flight, though I didn't know why I should feel the urge to run. I ignored the impulse, but still I didn't move.
And then, through the tiny gap in that window, I saw the black barrel of a gun, pointing right at my head, and the voice was cold this time. "I said get in."
The spring that had been coiling up inside me released all at once. My body sprang into motion as if propelled by some outside force. I turned, I lunged, I leapt, soaring from the embankment to the pavement beyond the bridge, behind the car, where the rain was pounding down. Barely had my feet settled on the macadam before I was moving again. I accelerated into a dead run, the speed of which astounded me.
I heard tires spinning behind me, and then gunshots, three of them, so loud I thought my eardrums had split, but no pain came with those shots. The bullets, though certainly fired at me, had missed their mark. And when I dared to glance over my shoulder, I saw those headlights falling farther and farther behind me as I ran.
That didn't make any sense at all. The car was chasing me, speeding after me along the same stretch of road. And I was on foot, running through the pouring rain. And yet I was pulling away.
Almost as an afterthought, I veered left, away from the pavement, and sped over uneven terrain, through an open field that was lush with grass and far easier on my tender feet. I ran until the car was long out of sight, and then I kept on running, because there was an ecstatic rush to it that I couldn't understand.
I leapt over boulders and limbs that appeared in my path. I jumped over the stream I'd heard from so far away, expecting to land somewhere in the middle of it, but clearing it instead. I ran alongside a doe that I startled, and while she flared her nostrils and bounded away with her white tail flying its warning, I passed her, and kept on going.
God, what was this? How was this possible?
Finally, when I began to tire at last, I stopped and again tried to take stock of who and what I was, but I found nothing there.
Tabula rasa. The phrase echoed in my mind. Blank slate. It was as if whatever I had known or been before had been erased.
So instead of searching within me for answers, I took a look at my surroundings, because I would need, I thought, food and shelter and probably some clothing, if I hoped to survive long enough to figure out anything more. Those were the immediate requirements. And they were easier to face than the emptiness inside my mind. Thinking on that brought me to the edge of panic, and I had the feeling that, should I give in to it, I might never return.
I had run into a stand of forest, a woody little paradise, its floor lined with fallen leaves, and its trees awash in russet and scarlet and gold. I walked through it now, following my senses to its edge, where I could look out and see what lay beyond.
Another stretch of pavement, curving into what appeared to be a small town. I saw a tall pointed church steeple. I saw several oversize barns, and lots of little houses. They were clustered together in some places, farther apart in others. Smoke wafted from chimneys, and I smelled the wood burning, and the oil, too. But my eyes fell on one place in particular, a place well beyond a cluster of homes. I didn't know why. It was far away in the distance. A red house with white shutters. It had a red barn and a lot of green land around it, all of it enclosed by white wooden fences.
And then a flash in my mind. A man, kissing me. Unfamiliar, powerful, wonderful feelings rushing through my body. Lips on mine. My hands tangling in dark hair.
And then it was gone. Gone, just that fast.
I wanted it back. I wa...