Cross My Heart And Hope To Die: A Case Of Mistaken Identity

Sirens wailed and cast red and blue halos that danced on the face of the hospital. Swarming bodies flocked efficiently about the ambulance’s back door, extracting stretchers and equipment that clanked and creaked like an old cast iron fence. A final whir of a siren and all panic seemed to lull at the hospital door. The pandemonium ensued in near silence with the stench of blood and burning flesh pungently lingering. Blue scrubs and sterile white walls went by in blurring motions until fluid crimson blinded the sight of the half dead girl they were trying so desperately to save.

“Thirteen vehicles were involved in the massive disaster and already, four are confirmed dead. The identified twenty one persons injured have been transported to the Cardinal James Hospital where doctors attempt to preserve and replace the limbs severed in the wreck…New reports describe a pedestrian finding what appears to be someone’s face. The mortified passerby depicted a pile of human skin that was in fact peeled off and encountered fifteen meters off the crash site. Police cannot yet identify who it may belong to but investigators on call suspect it is the face of a child…”

Her eyes were swollen from profuse sobbing and her hands shook as her pale fingers clasped her phone. She hated the sight of the thing. With one shrill ring it had successfully shattered her existence and become a messenger of death. The news report trailed off in her mind and was drowned by the fanfare of her own pounding heart, her resounding trepidation that threatened to tear her from within. The nearly tangible pain was impossible to silence, feeding on Dion physically with soul-draining weight just under her sternum. Her lungs struggled as her own fears compressed and strangled her. The insufferable agony of waiting continued in the dim lobby of the hospital, with Dion’s daughter getting closer and closer to death’s ineludible abyss. Many other families lingered about, with pale faces, shaking hands and feet dragging across the linoleum floor. Each claimed a separate corner of the lobby harboring their individual torments, private mourning and shared grievances. For a moment Dion considered what enormous calamity one nearsighted drinker had caused and how the fingers of disaster touched each and every soul in the room so intimately. The invasive feelings of hate, self-pity and despair seemed to take residence in everyone’s eyes and in the cries that were muffled by the embraces of each family, every assemblage of people waiting for answers just like her.  She prayed then, for the first time, shallowly weeping her deep sorrow.

Dion watched the IV solution fall drop by drop into her daughter’s veins. How she wished she to hold her hand, but would not dare. The child was every possible color of suffering; red, charred black and blue from a violent grinding against the asphalt of highway 96, and for now, faceless. Her head was a bulb of gauze and as Dion remembered her brown hair, grey eyes and once olive skin, she gathered the fortitude of will to speak. She hadn’t in days, all four of which had been spent in the hospital; nodding and humming at the sparse information tossed coldly at her by the staff. Dion had more chances to pray and now she felt new faith, however delicate and temporary, that maybe her love could save her child.

She knelt at the bed side and began, “Layla, sweetie? Can you hear me? I can only hope you can hear me now, in the far corners of your mind, somewhere in that big pretty head of yours.” Dion’s voice quivered and failed her, as tears enshrouded her eyes, slithering down her flush cheeks. “You are in a coma, love,” she said, clearing her throat that ached with the oncoming lachrymose display. “I wish I could ask what it’s like. I don’t know how you feel, if you feel. I am so helpless now but you are not alone. I’m here and I will continue to be regardless of how depleted I am without you. I am as relentless in my love as you are in trying to beat your high score on Temple Run.” Dion’s lips curled slightly then, remembering how furiously her daughter had tossed pillows across her bedroom when she fell just a few points short of success in the game, only to spend the rest of the night attempting it again after her tantrum. “I know. I’m awful with jokes. I miss all of yours…and I want you home and awake and telling me that you’re not a baby anymore. But you’re mine and I want to have you again. Fight this so I can hug you again, so I can throw you your sweet 16 next month and watch you graduate. Let me make up for all the nights I worked late and missed your recitals. I’m so scared you won’t get what you deserve of me. I failed. I failed you…so…so miserably.”

Dion dragged a sleeve across her eyes and watched her daughter, feeling every bruise, cut and scorch that defiled the child’s once flawless skin. “Please move if you can hear me. Lift a finger…Blink…Please, if you have the strength,” Dion pleaded and breathed the whisper: “Lord, help her move. Let her move so I know she is trying, so I know she forgives me…”

Nothing. Not a bat of a lash, a wiggle of a toe, or even a shallow rise in her chest.

Dion gave herself willingly to her weeping, lacking the strength to resist the engulfing urge. With her head nestled into the inside of her elbow she whimpered, a small puddle collecting in her jeans. The resident doctor overseeing Layla’s surgery stepped in after having listened to the latter part of Dion’s confession, feeling substantially uncomfortable. His hand rested on Dion’s back and she looked up with a jolt. “Layla?” she asked with hope that was quickly doused upon sight of the doctor. She stood to greet him. A limp handshake met his firm one.

“Forgive the intrusion, Miss Stanson. T-the operating room has been prepared,” he hesitated having seen the expectant look suddenly gleaming in her eyes. He apologized for bearing no optimistic news.

“That’s okay. You’ve given your word that you will do your best. I expect no more.” Dion said, trying to ignore the dismal predictions that had been made before, frantically refuting in silence the declaration of Layla’s surgeries as being “a shot in the dark.” The phrase ate at her.

“I will give no less,” the doctor assured, pitying both the child and her mother before the girl was whisked away to surgery. Again, impatience consumed Dion once the heartening hand of the resident had fallen from her shoulder that had grown thin and sharp, made to jut out from her once soft and feminine frame. Quite literally, her pain had consumed her, gnawing both at her physique and her forgotten happiness. All consolation was empty and futile.

It would be two days before she saw her child again and what immense distress wrought the bosom of this mother. She was drenched in black from head to toe and her eyes had gone dead with unfathomable melancholy as if the light in her had been snuffed out by tears and her bewailing. Black was a prolific symbol that dappled her life as of that dreaded night. It was the color of the burns on her child, the velvet and lace of her clothes, the circles round her eyes and the stains slowly encroaching on the once optimistic fissures of her heart. Dion looked at the body and wept, this time without fear of touching the burns, the exposed flesh of her other half, the marred fruit of her womb. In the grey morgue of the hospital basement Dion fell to her knees, as the resident doctor left her to howl in privacy.

The hour of farewell had arrived and the incinerator patiently burned. Dion watched the final resting place of her daughter; a miserable wooden box appearing to have been thrown together haphazardly by a drunk and careless craftsman undeserving of the title. It moved slowly on a short conveyor belt and was being swallowed by what looked like the mouth of hell. The last of Dion’s hope had just shattered, the last of her faith dwindled to nothing and her heart was beginning to sort the gruesome reality. Just then the box flew open, its cover falling with a crash to the ashes on the floor of the incinerator. There was screaming from both Dion and her daughter who was taken into the flames alive and kicking, wide-eyed and disoriented, terrified and helpless. Out of the coma she was welcomed into a blazing inferno with the grips of life laying two feet away, just outside of a plywood tomb.

Dion got a final look at Layla. It was the vision of gore and suffering so visceral it made her cringe, and her stomach seize with horror. Layla had been stripped of most of her skin and could feel everything in agonizing magnification as fire kissed her bare flesh and her thrashing caused splinters against the sides of her wooden prison. Both eyes were wide and full of anguish, palpable terror as she screamed loudly in the heat. Like banshees, cries from mother and daughter resounded and Dion scratched at the glass between them, too weak and bereft to break the locked door. Layla fell from the box and staggered towards it. She collided with the barrier, beating it wildly and looking her panic-stricken mother square in the eye, shooting daggers into her heart. She had no face but her eyes did the speaking her lips would have done. It was an indescribable stabbing pain to part her jaws to scream something intelligible but Layla surely did try. “Mommy!” made it out of her mouth, on her dying breath.

With that Layla collapsed onto the floor, and burned. Her bloody handprints smeared across the glass and Dion standing in front of it. “I failed you. I failed you. I failed you. I failed…” she repeated endlessly as the trauma seared her mind with revulsion and intense scorn.

Petrified, frozen in place and scarred forever by the sight of her twice dead daughter struggling in the flames, Dion just stood there, mouth agape with a cavernous wound somewhere within. She wondered why no one had come. Why did no one come to help her? How could they think her princess was dead? She hadn’t the strength nor the will to move but a light from the floor nearly blinded her with the assistance of the tears welling in her eyes; the metal name plate on the box. “Sherri Donovan. 1995-2014. Pronounced dead in vehicular fire on 21st January.” it read. Two misnamed patients, and one heartbroken, horrifically traumatized mother. Layla would have been alive, in a coma, with a fighting chance but had met a cruel fate under a carelessly bestowed, false identity and somewhere within the walls of the hospital, was a corpse receiving her treatment.

“Do you think we should go get her now? The screaming stopped,” one nurse suggested to the resident a half hour after the episode.

“No. Leave her be. It’s a private moment and we should respect it. Her daughter had her face peeled off for Christ’s sake. That’s deserving of an extra hour or so,” he contested.

“It’s a shame too. Three hours after she died the skin grafts became available. Another burn patient on floor seven is getting them. Sherri Donovan or something like that,” offered the nurse with a passive shrug.

“Sherri Donovan?”

“Yeah, what about her?” The resident paused with a furrowed brow and glanced back at Dion through the ajar door, thinking. “Doctor?” The nurse snapped her long fingers in his face.

“No-nothing…just…nah. Can’t be. Nevermind.”

“Okay then. See you on the next shift.” The nurse exited leaving Doctor Laine alone in the morgue. He watched Dion again, wondering how it felt and praying he would never find out, certain he would die without his four boys at home alive and well.

There was nothing readable on her face at that moment, with the blaze glowing orange against her countenance as it slowly died, as she slowly died and was blown away in the air conditioning that was laced with some ash and soot that had escaped from the incinerator. Dion dragged her finger across the floor, collecting some of it and left through the back exit. A dusty grey ex marked her chest as she casually walked into traffic, numb and flaccid with fatigue, prepared for swift and eternal relief.

By Rohini James
Copyright February 2014
All Rights Reserved