When Aveny awoke, everything had changed. Sunshine illuminated the interior of the clinic, glinting off the shiny metal table and sparkling across an array of draconian medical instruments.
What time was it?!
A clock hung on the wall but Aveny could barely get her eyes to register its ticking hands, let alone read it.
It didn’t matter anyway. The sun was up. The woman would surely be back soon. And what would she find? An empty cage and a naked woman clutching a seal skin. What would she think of this blood-soaked golem?
Aveny doubted very much that she’d take the time to calmly assess, maybe ask her a few questions, and then happily call her an Uber.
More likely than not, she’d just believe what it looked like at first blush: That a crazy person had entered the clinic, killed the seal and taken off all her clothes. How could she not?
Aveny stood, momentarily losing her balance as a dizzy spell washed over her. She glanced anxiously around the room and locked eyes on the exit. Just as she was about to wrench it open, she remembered: clothes. People wear clothes.
She had no clothes. No clothes at all.
She quickly scanned the room and located a white lab coat.
Bottom: not so much.
No pants. That was a problem.
A click sounded and Aveny swung around to face the door. It remained closed. But someone was coming.
Quickly, she shut the cage and the door that separated the two rooms. Then she wrapped a spare blanket around her waist and ducked into a small space between a set of shelves and a table.
That’s when she saw the skin, laying on the floor beneath the phone. She darted forward, grabbed it and skittered back into her hiding place just as the door swung open. Terrified nausea bubbled at the base of her throat.
The woman entered, carrying a large stack of papers and balancing a cup of steaming coffee on top. A pair of purple glasses hung around her neck, dangling from a beaded chain of turquoise that shimmered in the sun. She had a pencil tucked behind one ear and a set of keys jangling from her back pocket. And she was humming … what sounded like “Baby Got Back.”
Aveny withdrew tighter into her cubby, grasping the skin to her chest and trying not to cry out at the pain of wedging her broken body into this tiny space.
The woman sat down at the desk and began flipping through her paperwork. Forty-five minutes later, she was still there. Aveny could no longer feel her legs. She wasn’t sure if the pain or the suspense would kill her first.
Then, mercifully, a sound emanated from the cage room and the woman perked up. Must be time for breakfast,” she murmured to herself. She stood and walked over to the fridge, passing within mere inches of where Aveny sat.
She continued humming as she withdrew various containers, swinging her hips back and forth in time to the rhythm. Then she straightened, turned and walked into the back room.
Aveny was out like a flash, stumbling only slightly over the blanket and praying the woman didn’t check her cage first. She tiptoed to the door and tugged on the handle.
Panic coursed through her body. She was trapped. She’d be discovered and sedated and locked away – used for scientific experiments and theatrical exhibition. There was no hope.
Then, she noticed the latch.
Locked from the inside.
She quickly twisted the lock, silently opened the door and fled down the long hall where, thankfully, she found a ground level window that spared her from venturing further into the building (and meeting who knows what along the way).
She opened it and painfully lifted one leg over the ledge. The thin window track threatened to dissect her – crotch to clavicle. But she managed to pull her opposing thigh onto the ledge for support, and promptly plummeted into the petunias.
Aveny very nearly lost consciousness all over again but a distant yell roused her.
The empty cage had been found.
She found safe harbor in a nearby cluster of trees. Secluded from view within, Aveny curled up and breathed through the pain. When the waves of suffering subsided, she cleared her mind and assessed the situation.
She had the seal skin – that was good.
She had no idea where she was – that was bad.
She wasn’t naked – that was good.
She was wounded – that was bad.
She checked her injury. It looked like Jabba the Hut’s oozing mouth. A brownish yellow liquid was seeping from the open wound down her side. That was bad. Very bad.
But she was still conscious – that was good.
She had no phone, money or car – that was bad.
She also had no explanation of where she’d been. That was really bad.
Aveny wasn’t sure which problem was most pressing.
She gazed up into the trees and watched the leaves dancing in the summer sun. Shafts of light popped through and disappeared again like twinkling stars that couldn’t quite make up their minds about shining. The breeze cooled her face, toyed with her wild tangle of hair and calmed her burning flesh. She slowly felt herself slipping into sleep. At least, if she died here, they’d find her human body.
No! She shook herself. She would not die. Not after all she’d been through. And being lost with only a lab coat, blanket, empty seal skin and crippling injury might be bad, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as being found dead under the same circumstances. Or being lost in the dark, for that matter. Whatever she was doing, she knew, she needed to do it now.
Aveny’s side seared with a new wave of pain and her path suddenly became clear. If she could get to a hospital, they could clean her up and stitch her wound. She could call Brand and the kids or – better yet – she could ask the nurses to do it for her. At the very least, she’d survive and Brand wouldn’t have to see her like this.
Guilt surged from her stomach and caught with a ragged breath in her throat. Oh God. Brand and the kids. How long had she been gone? She had no idea.
What had they been going through? What had she done? She should have known better.
She didn’t think of the girl or wonder if she’d successfully escaped. She didn’t ponder the men who’d injured her or wonder at their ultimate fate. Her mind hadn’t visited them since that first awakening. She thought only of her family.
A great heaving sob broke out involuntarily. Pain seared down her side in response to the unexpected motion.
But there was no time for that now. There was only the next right thing – and that was getting to a hospital. But where was that? And where was she?
Aveny peered around the edge of the bushes and withdrew in shock. A cacophony of flashing police lights now reflected off the animal rescue. She was a criminal. She’d stolen herself.
Aveny snuck in the opposite direction, ducking behind bushes and clinging to the shadows of trees.
Finally, she spotted a gas station. There would be help there. Aveny hoped she could convince them to drive her to the hospital, rather than calling an ambulance, which – being so close to the marine rescue center – might lead the authorities to connect the dots.
Finally, a glimmer of hope stirred in Aveny’s chest. But there was at least a block of exposure between that help and where she now stood. She was trapped all over again.
Then she remembered something a salty old musician she’d once interviewed for work had told her. “You can fit in anywhere if you do it with enough confidence.”
Aveny remembered her last trip to Seattle, where she’d encountered dozens of homeless people far more oddly adorned than she was now and no one had even batted an eye. Creeping secretively along the foliage would likely arouse suspicion, especially in the area of a reported seal abduction. But what if she just walked down the street like she belonged there? Maybe people would just look away. She hoped she was right.
Aveny waited until she was completely out of sight from the marine rescue center, then stepped out of the bushes onto the sidewalk. The lab coat danced dangerously in the mischievous breeze but her only witnesses were a few passing cars. The drivers didn’t even look at her. They just stared straight ahead.
Aveny limped down the sidewalk toward the gas station. Within minutes, she was pushing the door ajar. The icy blast of air conditioning momentarily choked her.
“Can I help you?” a voice demanded. The tone suggested its owner was interested in doing no such thing.
Aveny jumped, startled.
“Customers only,” the man said brassily. He was standing just behind the counter, wearing a black polo shirt that matched the darkness of his gaze. His blue eyes were accented by a crop of wavy blonde locks that made Aveny think he would have been handsome – under other circumstances.
Aveny frowned. “I just need some help. I’m … hurt. Do you know where the nearest hospital is?”
“On East Washington,” the man replied, waving his hand impatiently. “If you’re not going to buy anything, you gotta go.”
Aveny was taken aback. He hadn’t asked her what was wrong or what had happened. He didn’t even explain which direction East Washington was, or how far it would be. He clearly didn’t care.
“How far…” she began, but he cut her off.
“I’m sure you know exactly how far the hospital is – it’s probably not exactly your first time, is it? Or are you too strung out to remember?”
Oh my God, she thought. He thinks I’m an addict. Of course he does. Why wouldn’t he? I’m a mess. I’m wearing a lab jacket with a blanket for a skirt and I probably smell like the bottom of a seafood restaurant’s dumpster. But why should that mean I don’t deserve even a tiny bit of human decency?
Aveny stared back at the man, her mouth agape.
“Go on,” he urged, flicking his fingers dismissively toward the door.
Aveny found her tongue. “How far is the hospital and in which direction? I have never been there before, nor do I know where it is. I am hurt and I need your help.”
Her Queen’s English, accented by the word “nor” seemed to grab his attention. He narrowed his eyes and tilted his head skeptically to one side.
“You can tell me or we can call the police and you can explain to them why you’d rather let a human being hemorrhage out on your floor than answer a simple question.” The station’s lights danced blearily in Aveny’s vision.
“It’s about a 20-minute walk,” he answered, eyeing her suspiciously. “Over that way. You’ll see the sign. I can call you an ambulance, but you’d have to wait outside. Besides, they’ll take way longer than 20 minutes just to get here, and even then, they might not take you. It’s not a taxi service.”
Aveny narrowed her eyes. The man slid one hand under the counter, staring her down menacingly.
She pressed the skin, which she’d wrapped around her waist beneath the lab coat, to her side and inhaled. “I’ll walk,” she said, a crisp edge to her voice.
She heard the door bells tingle behind her before she even realized she’d strode away.
That walk was among the longest of her life. The estimated 20 minutes took closer to an hour. Her gimping pace weakened with every step. Fortunately, the seal skin helped contain the oozing and seemed to satiate the pain.
She shuffled along the city sidewalks, in search of the right street. She stopped to ask a few people for directions, but they just hurried away, uttering, “No cash,” as they went. Finally, she spotted a sign, which she followed to East Washington. There, a blessed Emergency Room sign glowed. She’d never been so relieved to see anything in her life.
She walked through the sliding doors into the sterile hospital air, and limped up to the reception desk. “I’m hurt,” she said. “I need to see a doctor.”
The receptionist held up a long, manicured finger. “Just a minute please.”
Aveny clutched more tightly at her side and waited, her temper growing.
Finally, the receptionist looked up. “Name?”
“Can you write, honey?”
Aveny frowned, annoyed. She almost responded, “Professionally.” But given her personal appearance at the moment, that answer would seem abjectly ludicrous. She already looked crazy enough.
“Ok. Please have a seat, fill out these forms and then bring them back up to me.” The receptionist pushed a clipboard over the counter.
“Can I see a doctor first?” Aveny asked. The room was spinning.
“What are your symptoms?” the receptionist asked.
Aveny considered for a moment and then abandoned all caution. She shifted the skin and pulled back the side of the lab coat. “This.”
The nurse peered over the counter distractedly and gasped.
“One second.” She picked up a phone and muttered a few words into the receiver. Soon, the doors behind her opened, spitting out two nurses and a wheelchair.
“Please have a seat.”
“I’d rather walk. It really hurts to bend.”
“Of course,” the nurse replied, taking her arm. Aveny noticed the nurse’s nose tightening at her scent, but the woman didn’t shy away. “Please come in here and we’ll have a doctor take a look.”
The nurses ushered her into a curtained area with a hospital bed, a sink, and a large screen.
“We’re going to help you undress and put this gown on,” one nurse said.
Aveny shook her head. “No, I can manage.” She didn’t want anyone seeing the skin.
“Ok, we’ll just step to the other side of this curtain. When you’re ready, just let us know.”
Aveny disrobed and wrapped the skin securely in the lab coat. She swaddled the bundle inside the blanket and tucked it behind a chair. Then she thought better of it, withdrew the skin and slid it beneath the hospital mattress.
She pulled the hospital gown gingerly around her shoulders and tried not to cry out as the pain intensified. Her body longed for the comforting presence of the skin.
“Ready,” Aveny said shakily. She climbed carefully onto the bed, which didn’t seem to want her there, as it started shifting automatically back and forth with a loud mechanical moan. Aveny cried out and collapsed face first onto the mattress, just as the nurses slid open the curtain and came rushing in.
“Oops, looks like you pressed the raise/lower button,” one of them said, as they helped Aveny roll over and lift her feet onto the bed.”
Aveny was surprised to realize she could feel embarrassment through all the pain.
A doctor in sea blue scrubs entered the room, pulled on a pair of gloves and strode briskly over to the bedside. “Can I lower the bed a bit?” she asked.
“Good,” she said, automatically lowering the head of the bed. Can you tell me your name?”
“What’s the problem today, Aveny?”
“I hurt my side.”
“Let’s take a look. Which side?”
Aveny lifted the gown to show her.
The doctor made a low humming noise. “That’s impressive. How did you manage to do that?”
Aveny froze. What could she say? What possible excuse could she give? “I don’t remember,” she muttered.
“This doesn’t look like a fresh cut,” the doctor said, gently prodding along the edges. “Not at all.”
Aveny let out a yelp.
“But strangely, it doesn’t look like it’s been open either,” the doctor continued. “I don’t see any signs of infection here – which is incredible, considering.”
“Considering what?” Aveny asked.
“Considering it clearly hasn’t been stitched up. When did this happen?” The doctor paused and her voice softened. “Do you know when this happened?”
Aveny shook her head. Lying seemed like her only option. Telling the truth would only get her committed. And she wanted nothing more than to just go home – if they’d let her.
The wound was cleaned, stitched and Aveny was given a very generous dose of painkillers. The numbing felt like a dream compared to the constant ache that had haunted her for the past … what was it? Days? Weeks? Years? It was all a meaningless haze.