Story Two - Sleeping Beauty
"Emily, will you marry me?" asked Victor, gazing up at her from his down-on-one-knee position. Her response was to throw her arms around his neck, almost knocking him over.
There was a round of applause from the restaurant's other customers and a bottle of champagne on ice from the manager, but the newly engaged couple were largely oblivious of everything except each other. Victor slipped the simple diamond ring on to Emily's finger and watched her as she admired the way it caught the light. She turned her attention away from the jewel long enough to give him a smile of the purest happiness.
"Darling, it's the most beautiful ring I've ever seen!"
"You deserve to wear beautiful things," he told her, "because you are beautiful."
"I'm only telling you the truth. Plain, simple and unadulterated!"
She laughed then, her already exquisite face lighting up until his heart ached at her beauty. What had he ever done to deserve her, he wondered, not for the first time.
Soon after, they finished their meal and left. They decided to walk the mile or so to their home as the night was a pleasant one. It was early Autumn and there was a chill in the air but they had each other to cuddle up to. They walked slowly, commenting on the weather, their meal, how amazing it was just to be alive and together.
They passed an ATM and Victor stopped to get some cash out for the morning. Emily strolled on to the corner, turning back to wait for him.
The car came out of nowhere, mounting the pavement and knocking Emily to the ground before crashing into a lamp-post. The passenger door opened and a figure in jeans and a dark hoodie clambered slowly out, crawled a short distance and then lay still. There was no movement from the driver's side, which was badly crushed from the impact with the lamp-post.
Victor's eyes never left Emily's prone form but he could not persuade his feet to move in her direction. He stared in disbelief at the scene for almost a minute before he could process the information and convert it into action. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his mobile 'phone and dialled the emergency number still rooted to the spot.
"Emergency services; which service do you require?" asked a calm, efficient female voice.
"Er... ambulance, please. There's been a car accident. My fiancee..."
"What is your location, please, sir?"
"I'm... we were just walking home..."
"I see, sir. Where exactly are you?"
"Sorry... sorry... we're... my fiancee was knocked down! It came out of nowhere!" He could hear the mounting panic in his own voice but was somehow powerless to stop himself from rambling. He was also aware of the dangers of delaying the ambulance with this lack of useful information, which only worsened his panic.
"Please, sir... I need your exact location or the ambulance won't be able to reach you and help your fiancee..."
"I know, I know! I'm sorry," he drew a shaky breath, trying to reach beyond the panic to a place of calm, however brief his stay there might be. "I'm on the corner of the High Street and Wilson Avenue... just past the Greek restaurant..."
"Thank you, sir! The ambulance is on its way. Now, you mentioned your fiancee? Is she badly hurt? Is anyone else involved?"
"I... I don't know. I daren't go near her!"
"Please, sir, it will help the ambulance crew if they know what to expect when they reach you. Could you at least see if she's breathing?"
"Yes, of course..." He hurried over to Emily, then, suddenly released from the spell by the mere fact of being of some use to someone. Kneeling down next to her, he peered closely at her torso, trying desperately to see if it was moving. But she was lying in the shadow of the smashed car and he could not tell. "I can't see much," he told the woman on the 'phone. "I'll... I'll try touching her..." and he laid a trembling hand on her back. The oh-so-slight movement that he felt was the most wonderful thing he had ever known. "Yes! Yes, she's breathing! Oh, thank God! She's breathing!"
"That's really good news, sir! Now, can you tell me if there is anyone else involved? You mentioned a car...?"
"Oh, God! I never even thought of them! The passenger got out of the car and crawled a short way from it but isn't moving now. And the driver hasn't made any sign... The car smashed right into a lamp-post and that side of the car is pretty messed up."
"Thank you, sir. I'll send another ambulance, though, and a fire engine with cutting equipment. The first ambulance should be with you any moment, now."
Even as she spoke, he saw the flash of the lights and then the ambulance was there, looking like the most beautiful object in the world. The emergency services operator closed the call and he slipped his 'phone back into his pocket. Then the ambulance crew emerged from their vehicle and immediately got to work.
One went over to Emily and shook her gently but received no response. He called his colleague and between them they turned her on to her back, keeping her spine straight as they did so. All Victor could see was a mask of blood where her face should have been and he passed out.
When he came round, he was lying on one of the beds in the back of the ambulance, which was hurrying towards the hospital with its sirens blaring. His view of Emily was obscured by the paramedic who was still working on her.
"How... how is she?" he managed to ask.
"She's alive," was the brief response.
He lay back and tried to persuade himself to be positive.
The next morning, he awoke feeling stiff from sleeping on a waiting room chair. He went to the nearest nurses' station and tried to make sense of what he was told. Then he went to see Emily.
She was lying, still and pale on the hospital bed. Clear liquid dripped from a plastic bag along a tube and into her arm. She was breathing independently but showed no signs of consciousness. She had received a severe trauma to the front of her head when she fell but the only mark was a small scratch on her forehead. If he had not had the advice from the medical personnel to go on, he would have thought she was simply sleeping.
So that he could spend as much time with her as possible, talking to her about their future wedding, playing her favourite songs, even gritting his teeth to read from her collection of (in his opinion) terrible novels - all the things that the doctors recommended that he try. He left her side only to grab a hurried meal and a few hours of sleep and then returned the next day and the next and the next, but there was no any change. She lay like Sleeping Beauty, as though she would awaken at the touch of her prince's lips. He even tried kissing her but the spell never broke.
Her parents visited and stared at her with the same disbelief as he had when he first saw her. They also tried talking to her but the continued lack of response drained them of things to say. At the end of the visit, they hugged her and hugged Victor and promised to return soon.
At the end of his week's leave, Victor found slipping into the old routine something of a relief. Up with the alarm, shower, shave, dress, eat. He found himself chatting to Emily as he would have done any other morning, except that it was the pictures of her around the flat that he talked to. Was that normal, he wondered, or the first sign of madness? But the whole place spoke of her, the colour of the paint on the walls, the duck-shaped bathmat, the cuddle-chair in front of the telly; she was present there far more than she was in that hospital bed.
Of course, he stopped by the hospital on his way to work, too. He told her about the happenings in the world that he remembered from the news bulletin and shared his concerns about going back to work. In his mind's eye, he could see her getting angry over the oil spill, tearful over the family lost in a house fire. And he could almost feel her arms around him as she told him that work would be fine, they would all be so pleased to see him again and so on.
Finally, he had to leave. He kissed her and turned her mp3 player to her favourite track, looking back from the door to wave to her, hoping against hope that - this time - she would wave back. But of course she did not.
And work was fine and everyone was pleased to see him back and some how he made it through the day without screaming.
He told her all about it that evening, knowing just how she would have teased him about it.
Time passed as it is wont to do. A week became a fortnight became a month, six months, nine months. And suddenly, it was the anniversary of the night that he proposed to her. That night, he went back to the restaurant that night and if the staff thought it strange that he ordered for two, they said nothing. He took the single red rose from the vase on the table and took it to the hospital, where she still lay, perfect and beautiful and a million miles away.
One morning, it suddenly struck him that it had been ten years. He looked around the flat - unchanged since the accident - and thought of what life should have brought them. Exotic holidays - no - adventures! A house instead of a flat. Children - two or three at least, he thought. Perhaps a dog snoozing in front of the fire.
Instead, they had this no-life, this hopeless attempt to bridge a chasm between the living and the not-yet dead. He buried his head in his hands and sobbed like a child, the mask of coping, of being strong enough for both of them, finally torn away.
When the storm had passed, he looked at the clock and realised that he would not have time to visit the hospital before going to work. But what if this was the morning that she woke up and he was not there? Who would play her favourite track for her? The decision was made in an instant. He picked up the 'phone and called in sick, claiming to have eaten something that disagreed with him. Then he changed out of his suit and tie into t-shirt and jeans and spent the day with his fiancee.
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