Rose woke with the echoes of bad dreams like cobwebs in her mind and the memory of a kiss still upon her lips. Through slitted eyes she could see only the gauzy haze of dim lights, and when she tried to move every inch of her protested with an ache that went down to the bone.
A soft moan escaped her as she blinked away the brightness. Disoriented, she lolled her head to the side and at last could make out the shape of a person standing not far from her bed. The blur to her vision began to diminish and the shape came slowly into focus until she could make out a middle-aged woman with soft cocoa skin staring at her with wide eyes.
The woman spoke a few words in a language unfamiliar to her, but Rose understood her expression well enough—she was astonished to find Rose awake. Her garments were a soft blue with words in stitching on the breast: ST. MICHAEL’S HOSPITAL, which suggested some kind of nurse, though the spelling seemed odd to Rose.
The nurse held up a finger as though to indicate she should not go anywhere, an absurd caution considering she felt as though she had been trampled by horses, and then rushed from the room calling out for a doctor. Only, like the spelling of “hospital,” the word didn’t sound quite right in her ears, so Rose understood this must be the word for “doctor” in another tongue.
Left alone, she managed to glance around and saw curtains and chairs, as well as strange metal and glass structures… machines. Her mind supplied the word and she tested it in her thoughts and found that it fit. The machines beeped in quiet rhythm, light dancing across their glass faces in lines and blips. She tried to sit up, but the effort was too much and she felt consciousness slipping away.
Some time later—precisely how long she could not have said—she heard the murmur of voices. The murmur became a drone and then, as she opened her eyes, a full-blown conversation, at once both excited and concerned. But she knew this only from tone. The language still made no sense to her, as though the people around her were purposely speaking gibberish with the cadence of an actual language.
No… wait. There was her name—Rose—or something like it.
The nurse had returned with several others, including an ebony-skinned woman and a man with the exotic features and the dark complexion of the Middle East. Despite their differences, they all spoke the same nonsense language, words that made no sense to her, though they glanced at her and at one another as they conversed.
One man had thick glasses set upon the bridge of his long, proud nose and a ring of silver that was all that remained of his hair. He bent over her with a smile, eyes full of merry wonder. She liked him immediately, and some of her fear went away.
“Rose,” he began and then went on in that garble that made her despair.
The doctor paused, narrowing his eyes. He drew back in confusion, and she saw in his expression the very moment when he realized she did not understand them. The worry in his face filled her with a new rush of fear. A part of her had been hoping this would turn out to be some awful trick, but his reaction could not have been feigned. Their expressions showed that they expected her to understand, and the fact that she didn’t troubled them. Which meant something must be very wrong with her.
Rose felt her heart pounding in her chest, and she opened her mouth, trying to speak, but she managed barely a croak. Even if she could have spoken words they would have understood, that dry rasp would not allow her to utter them.
The hawk-nosed doctor gestured to the nurse, who hurried away and returned a moment later with a small cup of melting ice chips. As the others babbled on, glancing repeatedly at her, Rose closed her lips on the edge of the paper cup and sucked a few ice chips into her mouth. They soothed her throat, but still she could barely whisper, and even that took a good deal of effort. She could feel exhaustion weighing on her.
Her head began to loll to one side, her eyes to close, and then she saw the needles jutting from her arm, tubes taped to her flesh leading to a clear bag of fluid that hung from a metal hook. There were other tubes connected to her, and… what were they called? Wires.
What have they done to me? she thought, even as she slipped again into oblivion.•
The third time she woke to that strange bright room of doctors and machines, Rose felt better. Not a lot, but enough that she took a deep breath and felt some of the fear ease from her. Two of the doctors—the hawk-nosed man and the ebony-skinned woman—stood by the open door talking quietly. They did not seem to have noticed her waking.
“Rose,” a gentle voice asked, full of concern.
Weakly, she turned to her left and saw two women sitting in hard-backed chairs staring at her and, to her utter relief, she recognized them immediately. The woman on the left, her aunt Suzette, had a pleasant roundness to both face and figure and blond curls that hung to her shoulders like a young girl’s. On the right, Aunt Fay was her opposite, thin and gangly with jet black hair and pale ivory skin, small round glasses perched on her nose.
A rush of joy filled Rose, quickly dashed by the terrible fear that when her aunts opened their mouths, she would not understand a single word they spoke. But Aunt Suzette solved the problem immediately.
“Rose, my darling,” she said, cheeks flushing even redder than usual with delight. “At last you return to us. What a gift today is! So many times the doctors said you might never wake, but I knew.” She glanced at her sister. “Didn’t I know, Fay?”
Aunt Fay’s smile was thin and though she was obviously pleased to see Rose awake, it would have been unlike her to indulge in the kind of glee that Aunt Suzette exuded. Instead, she studied her niece as though worried that this good turn of fortune might hide some trick within it.
“You knew, Suzette,” Aunt Fay said. She looked at Rose with a familiar, amused glint in her eye. “She knew, Rose.”
“Auntie,” Rose said, practically shaking with her relief and happiness at waking to find them with her, these two women who loved her so much. “I was so afraid. I don’t remember what happened to me… how I got here. And I didn’t recognize anyone. And… I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I thought something was… wait, was something wrong with me? Obviously something is, but… oh, you know what I mean.”
Only after this rush of babble had ceased did she realize that the doctors had stopped to stare at her. Rose shifted awkwardly under the spotlight of their attention, and then she realized what had surprised them. When she had woken last time, she had barely been able to croak a syllable. But now…
The hawk-nosed doctor said something to her aunts in that same unfamiliar language. But she realized now that it wasn’t as unfamiliar as she had thought. The word French was in there somewhere. Aunt Suzette replied to the doctor in the same language, waving a hand in the air.
Rose fixed her gaze on pale, birdlike Aunt Fay. “They’re speaking English.”
Aunt Fay arched an eyebrow. “Of course,” she said, and then she frowned in sudden understanding. “You are having trouble with the language?”
As Aunt Suzette rose and went over to speak to the doctors, Aunt Fay leaned in and touched Rose on the hand.
“Your mind is playing tricks on you,” Aunt Fay said firmly. “Things like this can happen with a head injury and a long period of mental hibernation. Focus. Listen to them. French is our first language, Rose, but you learned English in school and you speak it just as well as you do French. Better. Listen.”
Rose watched Aunt Suzette with the doctors, concentrating on the shapes of the words. She made out “sleep” and “girl,” but nothing else until an entire phrase “different parts of the brain.” And then it felt like a curtain had been torn away that had blocked out an entire corner of her mind and the language flooded in; she understood everything they were saying.
She wished she had not.
“… possible that there are parts of her memory that Rose will never be able to recover,” the hawk-nosed doctor was saying. “Some skills can be relearned, even after a coma of this duration. If the part of her brain that knew the English language has been damaged, new pathways can open up. It is likely that she can be taught to speak English again, unless all of her language centers are disrupted, which she has just demonstrated is unlikely. Even lost memories may resurface after a time, but she needs to be prepared for the possibility that they won’t.”
Rose tried to sit up, muscles screaming in protest at the simplest movement. Her red hair fell across her face and she managed to reach up and brush it away from her eyes.
“But I might remember?” she asked.
For she could recall nothing of her life before today except for her aunts and their love for her. The hollow feeling inside her mind made her want to scream. Without her aunts there, she would have felt entirely lost.
Aunt Suzette clapped her hands. “There, you see!” she said in accented English. “You were worried when she didn’t understand you. The girl’s been comatose for two years. Of course her brain’s gone a bit soft in that time. It will all come back to her.”
Rose stared at her, eyes widening. “Two years?” she said, repeating the words in English. “But what happened to me?”
Aunt Fay shot Aunt Suzette a withering glare, then adopted a warm smile meant only for Rose.
“It’s awful, I know,” Aunt Fay said in French. “But you’re awake now. And Aunt Suzette and I are...