Melissa K. Beynon
Hours later, I wasnt sure quite what woke me from an exhausted sleep, but before I opened my eyes, I was aware of a breathy singing off to my left. I remembered having breakfast at the little kitchen table with Lauren - I do like eggs - taking a few painkillers, and feeling as childishly exhausted the whole time. Lauren had guided me back to that chair by the fire, wrapped me in a quilt, and given me a companionable pat on the head while telling me to go to sleep.
Now my lap felt like it was on fire, and for a moment I wondered if something else was wrong with me. When I realized that my hand was resting on a big ball of fur, I idly stroked it and heard a cats rumbling purr. Evidently, the horse was not Laurens only companion. Cracking one eye, I encountered pale yellow sunlight. Blinking to clear the cobwebs from my brain, I focused on the woman before me.
Wearing blue jeans and a green sweatshirt much too big for her, Lauren sat atop a high stool with her back ramrod straight. In her right hand she held an artists palette covered in shades of yellow, red, and blue with a big glob of white in the middle. I followed her left hand as she dabbed her brush in a pale spot of yellow and carried it to the canvas in front of her. That paint became a ray of soft sunlight streaming in through a window identical in size and color to the one she faced. The whole painting was utterly amazing, like looking at a life-sized photograph.
My gaze shifted to the woman responsible for this masterpiece. Her movements were quick and precise, and I knew that each stroke was done with care. I could only see her profile, but her face was animated concentration. Her rather almond-shaped eyes darted back and forth from canvas to subject so quickly I couldnt imagine how she saw anything clearly. Her full, naked lips were slightly parted and every now and then the tip of her tongue would peek out as she did some tiny detail.
I could tell she wasnt wearing make-up, and her hair was haphazardly done. I imagined she was a person with too many things on her mind to fuss with something like hair. It was a boyish cut, very short in the back tapering up to short, strawberry curls on top. She might have run a comb through them, if anything.
I sighed contentedly, and she looked back at me. Smiling sleepily at her, she gave me a grin, little white teeth flashing. Thats Milo, she said, pointing to the tan and black ball of fur on my lap, in case youre wondering. She came off the stool and over to stand beside me. Feeling better?
Yes, I answered, was I asleep long? My fingers continued to stroke Milos fur, eliciting further rumbling.
Lauren grinned. About three hours. She reached over and joined in petting her cat.
I feel so lazy and I dont care. As if to emphasize that statement, I gave a jaw-popping yawn.
That must be the medication talking, she smiled, because Ive never seen a man more fit. I grinned at the blush that stole over her cheeks. I mean aside from the bruise on your face. . .um. . .you. . . She blinked, gave me a bit of a self-conscious grin, and walked around to sit on the floor at my feet. While you were sleeping, she began, making me laugh at her abrupt changing of the subject, I was thinking about your name. Or rather what I should call you.
And what did you come up with? Fido? Rover?
Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of Spot. She chuckled. It suits you more. What with your shiner and all.
I joined in her laughter, remembering the man in the mirror. What was the name of that dog The Little Rascals had? Though I continued to laugh, it amazed me that I could remember details about an old TV show, but not my own name.
That question sent Lauren reeling with laughter. Petey!
Laughing for the moment, relishing how it eliminated all worries and problems if only for a while, I watched her double over so she nearly kissed her knees. I can see it! she gasped, tears now building in her eyes as she flopped back on the floor.
I smiled as I watched her explosive laughter turn to chuckles and then to a happy smile. Seriously, she said and giggled as though it was impossible for us to be so, last night you almost said your name. It starts with a J anyway.
Well, that narrows it down. My sarcasm made her giggle again. Why dont we make it easy on ourselves and just call me John. We could be right.
She sat up and waved her hand dismissively. No, no. Lets think about this. If we get close, it might trigger a memory. Lauren stood and went into the kitchen, where I heard her open a few drawers. Returning, I saw that she held a long pad of paper, probably her shopping list pad, and a Holiday Inn pen. All right. Lets see. . .
Put John at the top. She smiled and dutifully wrote the name with her left hand. I couldnt resist quoting some unknown figure from my past, Hire the left-handed, theyre fun to watch.
Lauren groaned and rolled her lovely eyes. Then she smiled and handed me the pen. Write something, Mr. Smarty-Pants.
I knew I was in for it when I automatically reached for the pen with my left hand. I took the paper in my bandaged right and switched them just to make sure. Even with the bandage, I could position the pen correctly, but it felt awkward, and I couldnt figure out how to make it obey orders to write.
All right, fine, I said as she gave me a haughty look, Im one of the weirdoes. I wrote her name at the bottom of the sheet with my left hand and gave both pen and pad back to her.
She smiled. So, what do we have?
Hm. . . Jack, Jeremy, James, Joseph, Jared, Justin, Jason, Jeffery - I stopped abruptly, having no idea just how many she wanted to go through. I didnt care what she called me, as long as she liked saying it.
Okay, well start with those. She smiled up at me before studying the list. You really dont look like a Jack. Its too tough. She rolled her eyes and clarified that. Not that youre a marshmallow, or anything. James sounds too stuffy, and I can tell that youre fun. Jaime might work, though, so Ill mark that one as possible. Jared. . . Definitely not.
Why not? I knew it was a good question when she blushed.
Well, you might not have ever watched it, but theres this show, she blushed more, on at night and the main character is called Jared. She cleared her throat. Well, I. . . You just. . . She cleared her throat again. I just dont think it would be a good idea to call you that.
I merely smiled.
Ignoring me, she said, Ive known too many Joes, Jasons, and Jeffs to even consider them. Those seem to be the names of most of my critics, she grumbled and I chuckled. I have a brother named Justin and a cousin named Jeremy, so theyre out.
You have a big family? I asked, suddenly curious about the rest of her life.
Oh, not so big. My dad had a lot of siblings, so I have cousins scattered all across America. Most of my family lives in the area, but I have a few big-city cousins. She pointed the pen at me with a mock scowl. We can discuss my lineage later, sir. Right now, I want you to have a name.
Im still in favor of John, I teased. Who do you know named John?
My lawyer, she answered with a grin. What about Juan? Or Joshua? I dont know any -
Joshua, I interrupted. Something about the way she said the name sent a shiver down my spine. Call me Joshua. I couldnt have begun to explain it, but that name was right.
All right, she whispered with a little smile, Joshua.
~ ~ ~
I spent the rest of the day watching Lauren paint and slipping in and out of deep, dreamless sleep. A few times I got up and wandered the cabin, looking at all the little trinkets that Lauren treasured. Cartoon figurines were mixed in with carved wooden boxes and interlocking metal puzzles. One single, red porcelain rose with a perfect dewdrop gliding from an elegant petal sat alone on its own small shelf in the afternoon sun.
Three of her own paintings captivated me as much as the one she continued to work on. Each must have been a scene from her childhood, full of color and energy, the children practically jumping off the canvas as their laughter echoed around me. A pool scene full of splashing and delighted screamers was above the sink in the kitchen. A brother v. sister tug-o-war on the wishbone of a turkey as they sat in a huge, vibrant pile of leaves was in the bedroom beside the vanity. The last one, the one over the fireplace, was my favorite. A pre-teen Lauren, covered in a colorful multitude of paint spots, gazed into the pride-filled and paint-smudged face of the man who had given her those slightly almond-shaped eyes and that brilliant skill with a paintbrush. She was so young and excited, as though she and her father had just finished some masterpiece together. I wondered, but didnt ask, if Lauren worked from memory or if she had a photo of that triumphant moment.
As I wandered, I was gleaning bits of information about the life of my angelic lifesaver. I suppose, in a way, I was not just studying what made Lauren Walker who she was, but also using her memories and treasures to substitute my own. I could sit back and imagine what that pool was like that day; paint myself into the scene beside Lauren, laughing and screaming right along with her. I could wonder about what prompted her to start that cartoon figurine collection or how long it took her to get those puzzles back together. And, of course, I could wonder if my life was full of delightful moments like hers seemed to be.
Did I have a brother or a sister maybe? Had I ever won a wish from the Thanksgiving turkey? Was my childhood one I could look back on with a quiet smile? Was my family large? Close? Had I ever shared a special moment with my father? One where we connected as father and son, man to man? A thousand more questions slithered through my scarred brain as I sat and watched her capture new memories on canvas.
~ ~ ~
A half-full mug of steaming coffee in my sock-covered hand, I stood on the porch, watching Lauren bring Murdock around for our mornings venture to the small town of Tucker. The sock mittens had been her idea; opting for navy instead of pink had been mine. That lambs wool and leather coat she had, which used to be her fathers, fit me better than her, and the knit cap she found in the closet was doing a fine job of keeping my head warm. Setting the now-empty mug on the banister, I met Lauren and Murdock at the bottom of the stairs.
No saddle? I asked.
She shook her head. I dont think they make them for draft horses. She smiled. I might be the only one that rides a Suffolk for transportation anymore.
I patted his broad back and murmured that he was a good boy while contemplating the best way to get up there without bruising my pride or my hide. Lauren, quick eye that she had, noticed and offered her advice.
Use your arms to haul your upper half onto his back, then swing your right leg over to the other side as you sit up. She paused and looked at me sternly. And dont you dare make your hand start bleeding again. The directions seemed easy enough if you ignored the fact that the thing you were hauling yourself onto was shifting around and might not want to be sat on at that particular moment.
How the hell did I get up here before? I panted from what felt like a mile above the ground, both legs squeezing a very warm body.
I did a lot of pushing.
We started down the trail and I soon noticed that her cabin wasnt far from the lakes edge, maybe some thirty paces from the porch steps. There was even a pier that stretched about twenty feet out, half of it sticking out of the ice ringing the island. I tried to imagine what this place would look like in the summer. My thoughts wouldnt stay on the subject, though. They kept straying to what might happen at journeys end.
I didnt know what the result of this pilgrimage would bring for a man sans memory. All the possibilities of identity kept bouncing around my mind as the horse plodded along. At Laurens cabin, at least, I had felt safe and well cared for. As soon as we reached civilization, Lauren was free to leave. And I knew, as selfish as it was, I did not want to lose her.
But what right did I have to her?
She was the angel I had assumed she was that night. She was laughter and smiles, lilacs and strawberry curls. Though I couldnt remember what my life consisted of, I did know that she held the keys to things I hadnt known in a very long time. Thats why I wanted to stay with her. I didnt want this fairy tale to end. I wanted all those things and the warm, lithe package they came in. My growing feelings for her were almost shocking, but also seemed quite natural.
Even now, knowing it wasnt fair of me to even think it, I wanted to move her scarf just a little lower and taste the smooth, pale skin of her neck. However, I didnt want to repay her for saving my life by abusing her trust. I might be lacking an identity at the moment and be a little tired, but she believed I wouldnt harm her. And that included any and all sexual advances.
Just a bit farther, Lauren said, and well reach the bridge. How are you feeling?
Fine, its a nice ride. And to take my mind off any further contemplation of the woman whose backside was tucked against my groin, whose thighs were pressed to mine, and whose back bumped my chest with every movement of her horse, I glanced around us to make sure it could be said that the scenery was the nice I referred to.
Every now and again a pine or maple jutted over our heads with gnarled and massive grandeur. Some of them must have seen a full century go by. All around us heavy snow pulled down branches, covered the ground completely, and turned shrubs into white mounds sparkling in the sunlight. Like last night, I was acutely aware of being far from everything and surrounded by three things: snow, trees, and Lauren.
Murdock gave a horse-like sound of dissatisfaction, distracting me. Lauren sat up straighter, alerting me. What is it? I whispered, looking around.
She swallowed and lifted her gloved hand palm upward in front of us. The bridge is gone.
~ ~ ~
Standing ankle-deep in snow, I thrust my hands into the pockets of Laurens coat as I surveyed the damage. One of those grand trees had fallen directly on the bridge. Both were old and had stood on borrowed time as it was from the look of the hollowed trunk and the way the posts of the bridge were crumbling with water damage. If we were more adventurous, we might have opted to cross the tree as it came very near the mainland side. However, neither of us wanted to risk falling into frigid water, no matter that this was where the lake was most shallow, and Murdock wouldnt have made it. Lauren had been particularly adamant that I not even attempt it, saying she didnt fancy fishing for a hypothermic salmon that had already been smoked and frozen once. Smiling to myself, I relented and requested time to stretch my legs and answer natures insistent call.
Why dont we go to the crash site? she asked, coming up from behind me. Maybe there are clues to your identity that survived the fire.
I shrugged. Truthfully, I didnt know what I was feeling toward the encounter. It could go one of two ways, really. Either I might remember something and be better for it, or I might feel the curiosity a passing motorist feels when looking at the twisted steel of an accident and nothing more.
All right, I said, lets get a move on. It looks like it might snow again.
The ride to the site was twice as long as that from the cabin to the bridge thanks to a dense crop of boulders blocking a straight shot. Needless to say, we had plenty of time to chat and think along the way.
This island has been in my family for six generations, Lauren mentioned as we came to the boulders. Angus Walker met and married a Yankton Sioux widow named Creeping Squirrel in 1804. He was one of the soldiers traveling with Lewis and Clark.
Thats an impressive family history.
This is my favorite part. She maneuvered Murdock close to one imposingly tall boulder and brushed away a ledge of snow. There, carved into the rock, were their initials inside a heart serving as the zero for the year. Since it was carved, she whispered with a faint smile, someone from my family has made it their job to keep the carving fresh. At the first sign of Spring, on the Fourth of July, when the first maple changes in Fall, and after the first snowfall. When my father passed away three years ago, it became my job.
Im sorry to hear that, I said solemnly.
She turned to look back at me. Oh, I like doing it.
I smiled. I meant about your dad.
Oh, she chuckled, patting my hand, me, too.
After a few minutes of silence as Murdock trooped along, Lauren spoke again. Joshua, theres something I havent told you about last night. There was a guilt about her quiet voice.
A sudden, horrific thought came to mind. What if. . ? Were you in the plane, too? I asked, terrified that I could have killed us both.
She stopped Murdock and turned to me again, her face confused. No. Then her eyes widened and she breathed, Oh, no, Joshua! I wasnt on the plane. I was out tending to Murdock and heard the plane seconds before I heard it crash. She placed a hand over mine. What I was going to tell you was, well, when I pulled you from the plane you werent breathing and your heart had stopped. Her golden eyes were suddenly glassy. You were dead. I had to breathe life back into you.
Like a dream, thoughts of that warm sea and the white light hovering over me returned. I sighed. I know. I didnt understand at the time, but I remember feeling calm and content to stay where I was. Then this little hand, I lifted her hand up and held it to my cheek, reached in and grabbed me up and away. I kissed her palm and held her hand to my chest, hoping she could feel my heart beating. You saved my life, Lauren, and Ill be eternally grateful.
She gave me a shaky little smile, and I wrapped her arms and then my own around her in a hug.
Finders Keepers by Melissa K. Beynon, Part Three