Shannon Callaghan wakes up to a world and a life she doesn’t recognize. In the midst of such circumstances, she’s relieved to find that she has a kind and devoted fiancé in handsome, yet mysterious, Jack MacCarrick.
As time passes, however, it becomes clear to Shannon that this is no ordinary engagement—and Jack is no ordinary man. A wedding is impending and she has to make a decision soon, but the life she appeared to be living with Jack is one that she isn’t sure she wants to continue.
Available April 18 at all major eBook retailers.
“Poor baby,” Shannon cooed with a small giggle after Jack rubbed his eyes and yawned for the umpteenth time that morning. It was barely six o’clock in the morning and they’d already been up for three hours. Well, Shannon had been up for three hours. Jack simply didn’t bother to sleep the night before, which was pretty standard for nights when he had to catch a red-eye the following morning. He usually just slept on the flight. But that wasn’t happening this particular morning because Shannon woke up all excited and wanted to chat him up about wedding plans, so he happily obliged. Tired as he was, he couldn’t help feeling excited too.
This wasn’t just an ordinary trip to Austin they were taking. This trip was chock full of important activities. The first being Jack meeting Shannon’s mother for the first time, so, naturally, his excitement was spliced with quite a bit of nerves. The second was to pack up Shannon’s apartment in preparation for her move to New York, so his excitement was also mixed with total, utter, blatant giddiness over the idea that after nine months of wanting her there, she’d finally be living with him. Finally, they’d be visiting a few potential wedding venues, the idea of which, truthfully, kind of made him feel extra tired. But she was excited enough about that for both of them, so he figured he’d survive.
Shannon gasped as she tilted a magazine toward his face, her ring reflecting the light from the small window and causing him temporary blindness.
“Look at this, baby! It’s on top of a hill and overlooking one of the lakes,” she gushed. “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have the ceremony at sunset?”
He smiled and nodded. “That would be beautiful.”
She peered at him. “Are you sure you want to do this in Austin? We could just as easily have it in New York. Or anywhere else.”
“I think Austin is a great location. It will be easier for your friends and family to get there. And I have no problem making all of my peeps cough up the airfare.”
She laughed. “You’re so considerate and inconsiderate all at the same time.”
He shrugged. “I’m just well-rounded that way.”
He gestured at the flight attendant. “Another coffee if you don’t mind.” He turned to Shannon. “Want a coffee, babe?”
She shook her head. “I’m okay. Maybe you should skip that so you can sleep in the car when we land.”
He smirked. “You’re not driving.”
She shot him a teasing look. “I am a good driver.”
“I didn’t say you weren’t. I’d rather drive because I never get to drive.”
She laughed. “You don’t never get to drive.”
“Nope, I really don’t. You’ll see. Spend a year in New York and then you’ll see how much driving you do. You’ll be chomping at the bit to drive whenever you get the chance.”
“Ha, no. I like being chauffeured around.”
“It gets old.”
She laughed again and then paused silently as she gleamed at him for an extended moment.
He rubbed his chin. “What is it? I know I probably should’ve shaved before meeting your mom.”
She shook her head as she smiled. “Ma won’t care about your scruffy chin. I was just having a little moment.”
“What kind of moment?”
“I’m just…happy. You know? After all the crap last year.” She sighed as she leaned against his shoulder and nuzzled her head against his neck. “And I was constantly stressing over us.”
He draped his arm over her shoulders, pulling her close and kissing her head. “Really? What were you stressing about?”
“I just had serious doubts this would last until the moment you put this ring on my finger.”
He nodded. “I think I had moments like that too. Mostly because I was screwing everything up and couldn’t seem to stop.”
She squeezed his arm. “You did so well, Jack. I’m so proud of you.”
He smiled as he rested his chin on her head. “And we’ll never have to worry about us again.”
“Nope,” she agreed. “You’re pretty much stuck with me now. So just keep that in mind when we’re out looking at our fifth potential wedding venue. You signed up for this.”
He had to laugh. “I certainly did. And if visiting every wedding venue in and around Austin means I get to keep you forever, then I’ll happily do it.”
* * * *
The plane landed in Austin at nine o’clock on the dot and was greeted by a fierce, bitter cold, January rain storm. Jack and Shannon hurried through the airport to the baggage claim and then went to pick up the rental car.
“Whooo!” Jack hollered as he was pelted with frigid raindrops while holding the door for Shannon to slide in. “I think I’m totally alert now.”
She laughed as he hopped in the driver’s seat. “This should be nothing compared to the snow we left back in New York.”
“This is a totally different kind of cold than in New York,” he retorted, scrubbing his fingers through his damp hair. “This is wet cold. I feel like a stray cat.”
“That’s nothing,” she said. “Just wait ’til my hair dries. It’s going to be a wild, frizzy mess.”
“Mmmmm…” he growled, leaning over to kiss the side of her neck. “I love when your hair is a wild, frizzy mess.”
She laughed. “Only because it’s not on your head.”
“True. But I actually love it even more when I’m the reason it’s a wild, frizzy mess.”
She threw her head back and giggled wildly. “That’s the only time it’s acceptable for my hair to be that out of control.”
“Mmmm…” he growled again as he moved his lips to hers. The little make-out session only lasted a second or two before a loud honk from behind them jolted him back to reality.
“All right, all right,” he muttered. “Sorry, babe. We’ll just have to do this later.”
After pulling out of the airport and onto the highway, they were greeted by a mass of morning traffic, causing Shannon to let out a growl of her own.
“Ugh,” she groaned. “This sucks. I’m sorry, Jack. Traffic is always a nightmare here, and it’s worse when there’s even the smallest amount of precipitation.”
He waved a hand. “It’s all good. I told you I like driving.”
She shook her head, covered her mouth, and let out a massive yawn.
“Go ahead and take a nap, sweetheart,” he insisted. “I’ve got this.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “Are you sure? You’re not even tired? You haven’t slept since yesterday.”
“Nah…this is nothing. Besides, between the rain and the traffic there’s enough going on to keep me plenty awake.”
“Okay. Just remember, it’s highway 183 to 281, and when you see the Evant city limit sign, wake me up. It’s normally about two hours, but it might be longer with all of this.”
He nodded. “I got it.”
She smiled at him for a moment and then leaned over to kiss his cheek. “I’m really excited about all of this.”
He rubbed the top of her thigh. “Me too.”
She kissed him one more time and unbuckled her seat belt to lean over and squeeze his shoulders tightly. “Love you, love you, love you. More than I could ever tell you.”
He glanced at her face quickly and got a funny feeling that made him need to hug her as tight as he could. So he slipped his hand around her waist and pulled her closer to his side. She covered his neck with kisses, which caused him to grin.
“I love you more than I could ever tell you too.”
“I know, baby.”
He lifted her hand to kiss it as she sat back down in her seat, refastening her seat belt. “I hope you always know that.”
She smiled at him. “I couldn’t ever not know that, Jack.”
He drew in his breath deeply and sighed as he shrugged off the weird feeling as a symptom of being overdue for sleep. “I know.”
She nestled herself into the seat, leaned her head against the window, and fell asleep almost immediately.
As he navigated the stop-and-go traffic, he kept his eyes on the road with only the occasional glance at Shannon sleeping peacefully. After a while, he got the weird feeling again, and he couldn’t help reaching over to stroke her head, letting his fingers twist through the long spirals of her hair.
“I’ll love you forever, Shannon,” he said quietly, eyes still on the road. “I hope you’ll always know that.”
* * * *
Green hills sprawled in every direction, and the mist of fog settled on Jack’s face, leaving it cool and damp.
He sat cross-legged on a blanket across from her, the two of them occasionally sipping from a pint bottle of stout he’d swiped from Kerry’s refrigerator.
They sat in perfect, still, quiet for a very long time, until she giggled at him and spoke in her sweet, singsongy, Irish lilt.
The mist seemed to make her face a bit hazy, so he couldn’t quite see her, but he could make out her smile, and he noticed her hair.
Hair that was gold, a lot like the sun. The sun, which seemed to be hidden that day. He only just noticed it was hidden because it seemed he was now lying on his back staring at the sky, out of breath.
His shirt was also now missing, which was confusing because he didn’t remember taking it off.
He glanced to his right to see her, and there was his shirt. It was draped over her; her bare shoulders exposed while she was curled against his side in the shape of a question mark. Her fingertips tip-toed their way down his arm until they arrived at his hand, and she interlaced their fingers together.
Jaa-aack… she lilted again.
He reached a hand across to run his fingers over her cheek.
I love you, Penny.
She placed her hands on his face.
Jaa-aack…are ye okay?
Yeah. Are you okay?
Suddenly, she grasped his shoulders and shook him violently.
I am awake.
She shook him again.
I am awake. I’m right here. What’s wrong?
Another violent shake.
I’m awake, he insisted. Why are you doing that?
Jaa-aack…wake up. Yer goin’ to get us killed.
Penny, don’t say things like that.
Jaa-aack…wake up. Please wake up.
She began shaking him relentlessly, harder than seemed possible for a slender sixteen-year-old girl. So hard that his head was smacking against the ground below. She continued to shake him until she tilted her head back and slammed her forehead into his.
He instantly saw stars. His head spun and his face felt warm and sticky.
The warm, sticky feeling seemed to slowly be replaced by cold wetness, and he thought it was the fog growing thick. Eventually, he realized the fog had transitioned into a stinging cold rain and the perfect, still, quietness gradually morphed into muffled commotion.
People were shouting orders and speaking briskly. There was the dull roar of diesel engines, the crackle of static over radios, and the deep hum of something he couldn’t identify, but that sounded pretty large.
At some point, he felt it was necessary to open his eyes because he was moving, but not on his own volition. Several people stood over him and seemed to lift him onto something. He attempted to scan his surroundings, but he’d been strapped into restraints that prevented him from moving easily.
From his raised vantage point, however, he could see quite a bit.
There was utter chaos in every direction.
Police cars, ambulances, a fire truck, some other type of large truck with a mangled front end, something that looked like it had been a car at some point. A dark red car. Very similar in color to the one he’d been driving mere moments ago.
Mere moments ago, she’d been sleeping peacefully in the passenger seat. Now he couldn’t see her, and as the chaos around him began to make more sense, Jack began to panic.
“Hey there, sir,” a younger man said, leaning over his face. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Jack,” he answered. “Where is Shannon?”
“Is Shannon the woman you were with?”
“She’s still in the car right now. They’re working on getting her out.”
Still in the twisted red steel formerly known as the car. A wave of nausea washed over him, so he closed his eyes.
“Is she dead?”
“No, she’s alive. But she’s still trapped in the car, so they’re working on getting her out,” the young man said. “We’re going to get you to the hospital, and she’ll be right behind you.”
“I need to see her.”
“She’ll be on her way right behind you—”
“I need to see her!”
“Hey, Jack,” the young man said in a voice that was infuriatingly calm, “I know you’re worried about her, but the best thing you can do for her right now is let these guys try to help her. And you need to let us take care of you. I’m sure she’s just as worried about you as you are about her, so let us help you both, okay?”
He swallowed hard. Crying wasn’t going to help anything either, so he decided to save that for later when it would really be necessary.
“Can you please…” he pleaded, “just have someone tell her I love her.”
The young man nodded. “I sure will.”
* * * *
The next few hours—or maybe it was days…Jack couldn’t tell—everything was a blur of X-rays, scans, exams, pokes, and prods. He was numb, dazed, and subdued on painkillers for broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. He’d escaped the wreck relatively unscathed for what it was, and especially compared to what seemed to have happened to Shannon. He still didn’t know exactly what her condition was. Shannon was alive, that much he’d been able to ascertain through constant grilling of the medical team.
She’s stable, but she’s unconscious.
She’s getting a CT scan.
It appears she suffered a traumatic brain injury.
She’s still out, but stable. We’re monitoring her.
You can see her as soon as we’re done.
Soon was nowhere near soon enough for Jack’s liking, and in the meantime, he was trapped in the hospital with nothing to do but hate himself for allowing this to happen a second time and stave off nausea at the endless series of what ifs.
What if he’d killed her?
What if she, in spite of her “stable” condition, still didn’t make it?
What if she woke up, but the traumatic brain injury inhibited her from living a normal life?
He’d decided it had only been a matter of hours after the wreck when he was informed by someone that Shannon had been transported to a trauma hospital in Austin, which caused him to raise no small amount of hell that he hadn’t been told sooner so that he could accompany her. But yelling at doctors and nurses wasn’t helping the situation, so he simply discharged himself and called a cab.
After he arrived at the other hospital, it was just more tedious waiting.
At some point in his waiting, his phone began to ring. To be expected, the first person who called was Alicia, whose concern took the form of her being utterly pissed off.
“What in the fucking hell happened, Jack?”
“Hi, Alicia,” he stated evenly while propped up against a wall in the hallway as he continued to wait for permission to see Shannon.
He shook his head and lifted his gaze to the ceiling for a moment. “I fell asleep at the wheel and a huge farm truck T-boned the car.”
“And are you okay?”
“I’m fine. But Shannon’s—” He cut himself off before his emotions ran away with him. The pause was long enough for Alicia to jump to the worst-case scenario, and she gasped.
“Oh, God, Jack, is she dead?”
He swallowed. “No. But she’s in pretty bad shape.”
He shook his head and rubbed his chin. “She hasn’t woken up yet.”
“So is it a coma or something?”
He shrugged. “They can’t really give me a straight answer right now. All they said is it’s a traumatic brain injury.”
Just saying the words made him nauseated.
She paused for a long time, then cleared her throat and spoke in an uncharacteristically comforting tone. “I’m so sorry, Jack. I really am. I’m just so sorry.”
He nodded, unable to speak.
Alicia exhaled. “Okay, what do you need me to do? Do I need to come down there? Have you talked to Deb? Do you want me to call her?”
He sucked in his breath and blew it out in a sharp puff of air. “Would you mind? I just can’t…I mean, this is all…a lot. Just tell her I said that. She’ll understand. Let her know that I’m fine, and that I’ll call her soon. I just can’t right now.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“And cancel everything I have for the next…I don’t know. For the next six months, at least,” he went on. “If she pulls through, it sounds like there’s going to be a lot of hospitals and therapists and treatments. If she doesn’t…” He paused to shake his head again. “If she doesn’t, I’m just going to—”
“I’ve got your back. Don’t worry about anything,” Alicia interjected. “Hang in there, Jack. Shannon is young and healthy. She’ll get through this. You both will.”
He rubbed his eyes. “Thank you.”
“And call me if you need anything,” she added. “I won’t hesitate to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice if you need me to.”
As Alicia was speaking, he caught sight of a woman marching down the hall toward him, jaw set and eyes fixed intently on his face. Even though he’d never met her before, Jack knew her immediately. It was the hair. Fiery masses of curls, which she wore twisted into a fat knot on the top of her head. It was also her diminutive stature, fair skin, and piercing turquoise-green eyes, which, as she approached, appeared to be red and watery.
“Alicia, I need to go,” he hastily cut her off. “Thank you for your help. I’ll be in touch.”
He hung up and stuffed the phone into his back pocket and approached the woman, meeting her about halfway down the hall. They stopped in front of each other, and neither said anything just yet.
What was he supposed to say to this woman?
I’m so sorry I nearly killed your daughter. It seems to be a bad habit of mine.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to come up with anything because she spoke first.
“Jack,” she stated in a firm voice, an obvious attempt to maintain strength in the midst of something so unimaginable.
He cleared his throat and nodded. “Hello, Aine.”
“They’re tellin’ me she won’t wake up.”
He gave a small shake of his head. “Not yet.”
“And ’ave ye seen her?”
He shook his head again.
She gave a few assertive nods as she appeared to clench her jaw, her eyes scanning the hall and eventually landing on his.
“Are ye all right, lad?”
He pulled his lips in between his teeth as his eyebrows knitted, and then he lifted and dropped his shoulders, once again unable to speak.
She stared at his face with the firm, yet emotional, expression for only a second and then outstretched her palms and flipped her fingers toward herself.
With that, he allowed his face to fall forward onto her shoulder and he placed his hands on her back. The combination of his brittle state and the overwhelmingly maternal comfort caused him to momentarily lose control of his emotions. She patted the top of his head and rubbed her hand in circles over his back as she shushed him, swaying slightly and speaking quietly.
“I know what yer thinkin’ and ye need to stop. She has always been stronger than anything this world has thrown at her. This will be no different.”
She gripped his shoulders, pushed him back, and forced him to look her in the eye as he noticed a single tear trickling down her cheek. “Whatever ’tis ye believe in, ye need to be a man of faith right now.”
He nodded and wiped his eyes. “Of course.”
Just then, Dr. Everette approached them wearing an expression that Jack couldn’t decipher.
“Mr. MacCarrick, do you have a moment?”
Jack nodded and gestured toward Aine. “This is Shannon’s mother, Aine Callaghan.”
Dr. Everette nodded, and Aine gave him a firm handshake.
Then his indecipherable expression grew somewhat pleasant. “Would you like to see her?”
“Yes,” Aine answered for both of them.
“Right this way.”
They followed him down the hall and he gestured into a room.
“I’ll give you some time with her, and then I’ll be back in a little while to speak to you,” Dr. Everette said.
He and Aine stepped inside, and as soon as Jack laid eyes on Shannon, he had to turn around. If he didn’t, he’d probably have passed out, or cried again, or possibly even vomited at the sight of what his own negligence had inflicted upon the most important person in the world to him. The person he loved more than his very own life.
In the two seconds he’d looked at her, he noticed half of her face was almost completely mangled. One of her beautiful eyes was a sickly purple-gray-green and swollen shut. A large bandage covered her entire cheekbone, but it was clear that it concealed similar distorted colors and severe swelling. The rest of her face was marred with cuts, scrapes, and minor bruising.
And her incredible, incredible hair…
It was partially shaved off on the right side of her head, above and next to her ear. Whatever injury that necessitated shearing her like she was nothing more than a sheep was also covered by a bandage.
Beyond all of that, she was still and silent, breathing through an oxygen tube that was threaded across her face, attached at her nose.
And it was all more than he could process, so he simply refused to look.
He faced the back wall for a while, hand over his mouth, eyes closed, head shaking slightly. As he stood attempting to gather himself, he heard Aine speaking quietly to Shannon in Irish Gaelic. Some part of his brain retained bits of the language that he’d picked up during the few years he’d spent in Ireland as a teenager, and as Aine spoke, the words translated in his mind.
“Bí i do threis. Tá tú tréan, a iníon dom.”
Be strong. You are strong, my daughter.
“Tá cíon agam ort, a pháiste mo chroí.”
I love you, my dear child.
He drew in a silent breath and rubbed his fingers across his forehead as Aine continued to speak to her daughter in a low, slow, melodic lilt. He decided it was better for him to keep his distance for a while. Not only because he wasn’t ready to take in the sight of her injuries and comatose state just yet, but also because he knew Aine needed this. Perhaps Shannon needed it too. Just to hear her mother’s voice. It gave him a microscopic amount of audacious hope that it could somehow make a difference.
“Jack,” Aine’s voice carried from across the room after what seemed like millennia. “Why don’t ye come sit with ’er? She needs to feel yer presence too.”
He inhaled once again and braced himself to face the damage he’d done. He slowly turned and crossed the room, pulling a chair to the opposite side of the bed from Aine, and sat down. He picked up one of Shannon’s hands, stroking the back of it with his fingertips.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he said quietly. He reached up to stroke the remaining hair on the shaved side of her head, twisting his fingers up in the long, red spirals. “You’re as beautiful as ever.”
He rubbed a thumb over the strand of hair in his hand, recalling one of their last conversations. “Your hair’s not even a wild, frizzy mess.” He chuckled lightly at the brief moment in the car that morning, which seemed to break the dam of his stifled emotions, and opted to lean forward and rest his head on the hand he was holding.
And for a long time, that’s all it was—Aine speaking softly in Gaelic, Jack stroking Shannon’s hand and hair, both of them taking intermittent moments to cry quietly.
Hours stretched into days, days stretched into weeks, and there was still no change.
Jack grew stir crazy, dividing his time between sitting at Shannon’s side and pacing the halls, jogging the stairs, and sometimes doing push-ups in the room at the foot of the bed. Aine, on the other hand, remained steady, sitting next to the bed, uttering silent prayers, only stepping away when Jack absolutely insisted that she take a break to go shower or nap at the nearby hotel room he’d rented. But for the vast majority of the time, she simply stayed, explaining this was just what a mother is supposed to do for her child. This is what would help.
And for approximately five weeks, her efforts seemed to be in vain, until one afternoon something happened that could only have been described as miraculous.
Jack was pacing the room at the foot of the bed when Aine called out to him.
“Jack,” she said. “She’s awake.”
He whipped around and saw, for the first time in weeks, the beautiful turquoise-green eyes that he’d missed so much. She seemed to be staring ahead, her eyes looking more glassy and vacant than he was used to, but they were open and they were hers and she seemed to be looking at him, so that was enough for right then.
He crossed the room in a stupor and stopped to stand next to the chair Aine was seated in. He didn’t try to speak, knowing he couldn’t, but also because Shannon’s sudden alert state seemed so fragile that he felt if he even breathed, she’d be sent back into her slumber.
“Shannon,” Aine said in the same low voice. “Can ye say hello to Jack?”
Instead of responding, Shannon simply flicked her gaze from her mother’s face to his, staring at him. So he stared back.
“Shannon,” Aine tried again. “Say hello to Jack. He’s very worried about ye.”
But she just continued to stare.
Aine stood up and tugged Jack over to sit in the chair.
“Talk to ’er,” she whispered.
Before speaking, he picked up her hand and rubbed his thumb over the back of it as he so often did. She always used to reciprocate the subtle gesture of affection by rubbing her thumb over the back of his hand, but she didn’t do that right then. Right then, she couldn’t even move, and his simple acknowledgment of that fact was enough to nearly knock him off the chair with grief and regret.
But this wasn’t the time for him to be weak. Part of what he’d signed up for when he’d asked her to spend her life with him was the promise to be strong when she couldn’t. So he swallowed the lump in his throat and smiled at her.
“Hello, Shannon,” he said quietly.
She still didn’t speak and simply continued to stare at him with a blank expression.
“I’m so glad you’re okay.” He’d said it in spite of the fact that she was clearly not okay. Whatever this traumatic brain injury was, he began to wonder if it had taken her ability to speak. It was apparent that she could hear just fine because she turned her eyes to whomever had spoken to her. And that was something.
Because, after all, she was alive.
This wasn’t a repeat of Penny. He hadn’t lost Shannon.
She was still there, awake again, somewhat responsive, and—according to the medical team—in stable condition.
As he continued to smile at her and rub his thumb over the back of her hand, that same audacious hope began to rise in his chest. Aine was right—Shannon was strong. Alicia was also right—she was young and healthy. She would get through this. Maybe she couldn’t speak to them right then, but something in him chose to believe that would pass. She’d continue to improve. He knew it.
After all, Aine knew Shannon better than anyone. The way only a mother can know her child. She’d said Shannon had always been stronger than everything this heinous world had ever thrown at her. And Shannon was stronger than this too.
Whatever ’tis ye believe in…
He rubbed his thumb across her hand again. He’d never believed in much of anything before, but he definitely believed in something now.
The life they’d promised each other, during which they’d walk through the pit of hell together if necessary. This was definitely the pit of hell, and just as they’d said on the day they made that promise, they would make it to the other side if they only walked together.
So Jack heeded the words of his future mother-in-law and chose to be a man of faith.
Faith in her, faith in them, faith that nothing would keep them from living the beautiful life he knew was in store for them.
He felt more than a bit overwhelmed by his love for her, to the point that he couldn’t help reaching for her face. But, to his dismay, Shannon immediately recoiled from his hand and then looked at him through a face of sheer terror.
And that was the moment he knew something was very wrong. Even more wrong than he’d previously thought.
It wasn’t the coma, or the fact that she wasn’t speaking. It was the look of fear that overtook her when he tried to touch her.
A realization hit him like a punch in the gut and sucked the breath out of his lungs.
Shannon didn’t know him anymore.
And she didn’t just not know him. She was afraid of him.
Her first memory was a confusing one.
There was blinding white light.
There was frantic movement.
People in blue shirts looking at her, talking to her, talking about her, moving her, touching her.
She had an instinctual urge to leave, but found she couldn’t move. The feeling of being frozen in place scared her to the point that the chaos swirling around her hypnotized her back into a deep sleep.
Sometime later, there was a different type of sound. It was a familiar sound. A woman’s voice. She found it to be lovely and comforting, so she opened her eyes.
The first thing she saw was a man. A tall man with dark hair, who was walking back and forth across the room from her.
As the woman spoke, she turned her head to follow the sound of her voice.
The woman had a soft face and vibrant hair and eyes.
The woman continued to speak in the lovely, comforting tone for a while. She began to speak to the man, who walked over to stand next to the woman.
As he approached, she noticed his eyes. His eyes were similar in color to the shirts worn by the frantic people she’d seen earlier. They were beautiful eyes, so she continued to look at them until the woman spoke again, which caused her gaze to instinctively shift back to the woman’s face.
The woman said something while pointing to the man, so she flicked her gaze back to his eyes.
He sat down next to her and smiled as he held one of her hands.
Hello, Shannon, her mind seemed to echo his words.
She got an urge to say the words back, but there seemed to be a disconnect between her mind and her mouth.
“I’m so glad you’re okay.”
Okay? she wanted to say.
She didn’t feel okay. She felt everything but okay. She felt pain and worry. A vague sense of fear that she couldn’t seem to speak or move. Although, when the man reached a hand toward her face, it seemed she could move after all.
She recoiled and flinched, noticing her eyes squeezed shut involuntarily. Her heart rate accelerated and she curled her fingers into tight fists clutching the sheets at her sides. An instinctive notion inside of her sent out an alert that told her men—at least large, strong men like this one—were a threat.
Which was odd. He didn’t look the least bit threatening, and he seemed to be surprised by her reaction. He immediately turned to look back at the woman, who nodded and said something too quiet for her to hear, and then turned back around.
“Shannon,” he said again.
That was familiar too.
“Shannon, it’s Jack,” he went on, gesturing to himself and then to the woman. “This is your mom.”
She flicked her gaze to the woman’s face as her heart rate seemed to pick up again.
Shouldn’t she know her own mother?
She deduced that she should, but somehow she didn’t.
The rims of her eyes pricked and her breath hitched, which caused the man to reach for her face again.
A surge of fear pulsed through her veins and nerves, and it seemed to obliterate the barrier between her mind and her mouth, causing her to instantly cry out.
He froze, as a distinctly heartbroken look overtook him. Then he abruptly stood up and gestured for the woman to step away from her, and they spoke to each other in quiet voices.
The woman, who was her mother. This man, who was Jack.
She knew she should definitely know her mother, and it seemed she was supposed to know Jack too.
But she didn’t. She didn’t know either of them. She didn’t know much of anything, it seemed.
She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them.
There were no words to describe this type of disorientation.
The sense that something should be there, but you have no idea what it is or if you’d ever had it at all.
You’re in a place and you don’t know how you got there, and you’re not even totally sure what the place is.
And before you arrived at this place…there was nothing.
There was nothing.
And it was less like nonexistence, but more like…like a void.
Something should be there, but nothing was.
It was overwhelming. Suffocating. Like being a fish drowning in a sea of fresh air. Her heart felt like it would pound its way right out of her chest. Her throat constricted.
She eyeballed these two people in the room with her.
She understood the concept of a mother.
A mother who loves, who nurtures, who protects. A mother knows her child, and a child should know its mother. But she didn’t. That was not the way it should be. Something must have happened that caused it to change. It wasn’t that she knew of her mother and this woman just wasn’t her. It was that she had no knowledge of having a mother at all—although she assumed she did, and so she assumed this woman was her.
Jack was a man.
An adult male. She guessed he was thirty-something, which was strange because if she could guess his age she must have some frame of reference for what a man of a certain age looks like. But she didn’t seem to have a frame of reference for anything.
Her thoughts spun as she attempted to dissect and unravel the disorientation. There was general knowledge of general concepts about the world, but no information about her own life, who she was, or who these people were—other than what the man had just told her.
The disorientation was so overpowering that she seemed to be reduced to a stupor of sorts and couldn’t manage to do much else besides continue to stare at these two people.
These two people. Her mother and Jack.
She felt the need to keep mentally repeating what she’d been told, just in case the disorientation had a tendency to randomly reset itself and steal more knowledge from her.
After a moment, her mother and Jack approached the bed again, and this time her mother sat down next to her.
“Shannon,” she said.
That word again.
“D’ye know who I am?”
She stared for a moment and then opened her mouth to speak. And somewhat surprisingly, she was able to. Sort of.
“Mom?” That’s what she’d been told, after all.
Her mother nodded. “Yes.”
She pointed to Jack.
“Who is that?”
“Jack?” That’s what he’d said, at least.
Her mother nodded again. “D’ye know who Jack is?”
She stared at her mother’s face and then glanced at Jack, who was watching her with a somber expression and one hand on his chin. His blue eyes were red and teary.
It was quite apparent she was supposed to know who he was, but that didn’t change the fact that she just…didn’t.
Her mother glanced back at him and said something quietly, which caused him to nod and shove his hands into his pockets.
Her mother turned back to her.
She began to deduce that Shannon was her. She pondered that deduction for a moment or two, which caused another wave of fear and confusion to wash over her.
Why didn’t she already know that? Shouldn’t she know who she was?
“What’s the last thing ye remember?”
She opened her mouth in preparation to reply but hesitated as she wracked her disoriented brain for the answer to such a simple question.
After a moment, she could only come up with one response.
I was in a room with people wearing blue shirts.
She attempted to speak the information, but her mouth was infuriatingly uncooperative.
“Room,” was all she could get out.
“What kind of room?”
“Room,” she repeated, gesturing around her.
She huffed and shook her head.
“A room like this one?”
Her mother’s eyebrows lifted as her eyes began to well up. In spite of her emotional reaction, her mother smiled and nodded.
“That’s very good, Shannon.”
Her mother became quiet as she placed a hand on the bed, smoothing the sheet with her fingertips. Her gaze flicked from her mother to Jack and back again.
Ten million questions swirled around in her mind, and it was clear she had no ability to ask them. Frustration and fear gathered in her chest and she began to feel suffocated again. Tears stung her eyes and she brought her hands over her face, feeling startled at the fact that she had some kind of stitched wound on her cheek. She continued to graze her hands over her face, until they arrived at the sides of her head. One side was covered with a thick mass of hair, the other was essentially bald and there was another line of stitches.
So not only did she not know anything about who she was or how she ended up here, she was also severely injured.
She felt her eyes widen and her stomach plummet as her gaze darted to Jack.
Maybe that’s why her instincts told her he was a threat. She’d clearly been involved in a very serious altercation and as she stared at this very tall, obviously strong man, her gut told her he had to be the culprit.
She quickly looked back at her mother.
“Mom,” she managed to say again.
“What is it, child? Just try to speak slowly.”
Did he do this to me? she wanted to demand. But, of course, her mouth only seemed to be capable of spitting out single words.
She pointed an accusing finger at Jack.
Her mother shook her head in confusion.
“Hurt…” she prompted.
“Are ye hurtin’?”
The frustration between the two of them seemed to send her mother into a fragile state and she began to cry, which prompted Jack to cross the room and clutch her mother’s shoulders.
Her instincts began screaming at her that Jack was a danger to both of them, and the only thing she could do to protect them was shout.
Jack immediately took on a startled expression and his mouth gaped, but he didn’t say anything yet. Her mother shook her head and spoke through her tears as she seemed to finally understand what she’d been trying to say.
“’Tis all right, Shannon. He’s not going to hurt me. He didn’t do this to ye.”
Jack dropped to kneel next to the bed and looked at her with a calm, yet blatantly sad expression.
She shoved an aggressive finger toward him. “Back!”
He leaned back slightly and lifted his hands in a surrendering motion. “I’m not going to touch you. But I need you to listen to me.”
She panted as the panic caused every muscle in her body to tense, but said nothing as she glared at him with a fierce expression.
“It was a car accident,” he continued, speaking calmly and evenly.
She stared at him as she processed his words. “Car?”
He nodded. “We were on our way to your mom’s house and a truck hit us.”
He pointed to traces of healing cuts on his own face and turned his hands over to show her what appeared to be the remnants of scrapes and burns. “See? We got pretty banged up.”
Her eyes shifted.
He bit his lip and then lifted his shoulders as he went on. “I was driving and I fell asleep. So all of this is my fault. But…” He paused to shake his head and sigh. “But I didn’t mean for it to happen.”
She continued to stare at him. His eyes held a significant amount of pain and he wore an earnest expression.
Once again, he didn’t look like a threat, other than his large, muscular frame and towering stature, which told her he could probably hurt someone very easily if he wanted to. But the way he spoke was gentle and seemed honest, and she couldn’t help noticing the sound of his voice was almost as comforting as that of her own mother. Nevertheless, something in her continued to sound alarms that men like him were dangerous, and she couldn’t help wondering why, so she continued to press the issue with her limited communication abilities.
“Hurt?” she asked, pointing a finger at him and then at herself.
He pressed his lips together, closed his eyes, shook his head, and then looked at her. “Shannon…No. I have never hurt you. I’d never hurt you. I’d never hurt anyone.”
She drew in a deep breath as the tension in her body seemed to release, and then he stood up and stepped away from the bed.
She decided to believe him—at least until he gave her a reason not to.
At that moment, a man who was clearly a doctor entered the room, and she narrowed her eyes skeptically at him. But this man was much older, and he was a doctor, so she decided he was probably okay.
“Shannon,” the doctor greeted her pleasantly. “I see you’re awake. Welcome back.”
She stared at him, but said nothing.
He glanced at a chart and then at her mother and Jack. “Is she talking?”
Jack nodded. “She wasn’t at first. Now she seems to be able to, but it’s all just single words.”
She chewed a thumbnail as she watched Jack closely. He seemed to be sort of in charge of the situation, which made her wonder what his relationship to her was.
He was much younger than her mother, and he called himself by name instead of “Dad,” so she ruled out the possibility of him being her father. He also looked nothing like her mother. He had extremely dark brown, almost black hair and light blue eyes, compared to her mother’s vibrant red hair and emerald-like green eyes, so she figured he was probably not her brother.
That really only left two possibilities—Jack was either her boyfriend or her husband.
And given the fact that her instincts seemed to have a really bad feeling about him, her mind seemed to reel at exactly what type of life she had.
The doctor pulled a small flashlight out of his pocket and used it to shine in her eyes as he examined them.
“My name is Dr. Everette. Can I ask you some questions? You can just nod, but try to speak if you can.”
“What’s your name?”
“Shannon,” she stated hesitantly, going strictly on her assumptions after hearing her mother and Jack use the word repeatedly.
“Do you know your full name?”
Her eyes scanned the room until they landed on her mother, whose chin began to tremble again. She looked back at Dr. Everette.
“No,” she whispered.
He made a note on the chart.
“How old are you?”
She stared blankly at his face as the realization hit her that she probably wasn’t going to have an answer to any of his questions.
“Do you know what year it is?”
She exhaled in total frustration and shrugged again.
“Do you know where you live?”
“Manhattan,” she blurted without a moment’s hesitation and then furrowed her brow at her own response. She had no idea where it came from and had no idea if it was true or if her impeded brain had just randomly come up with it in a reflex of sorts.
Dr. Everette raised his eyebrows and turned to her mother and Jack, who both had a shocked expression on their faces.
Jack cleared his throat. “That’s uh…that’s where I live. We were in the process of moving her there. That’s a good sign, right?”
Dr. Everette nodded with approval. “I’d say so.”
She stared at Jack, who seemed to hold her gaze.
So the one and only bit of information her brain seemed to retain was where this man lived. Not her own mother, or even her own name, or anything else about herself—just where Jack lived. She wasn’t sure if she liked that or not.
And he said she was moving there. That meant she didn’t live with him yet. So he was probably not her husband. All of which meant she still had the opportunity to make a clean break from this guy if he tried anything.
“Can you tell me anything about Manhattan?” Dr. Everette asked.
She furrowed her brow as she thought. Manhattan was part of New York City. New York City was in New York State. New York State was part of the United States, which was part of the continent of North America, which sat on planet Earth.
So it seemed there was information in her head. Just no information about how she related to all of it.
She knew she wouldn’t be able to explain all of that, so she simply shook her head.
“Okay, that’s enough questions for now,” he said, setting the chart aside. He lifted the sheet and rubbed something across the bottom of her foot, causing her to jerk away.
“Don’t,” she protested.
He nodded. “Also a good sign.”
He eased into the chair next to the bed and looked at her with a kind expression.
“I imagine you’re probably feeling pretty scared and frustrated right now, aren’t you, Shannon?”
His empathy seemed to pierce her heart, and a lump rose in her throat. Her chin began to tremble as she nodded.
“Do you understand what’s happened to you?”
She shrugged and wobbled her hand back and forth in a sort of motion.
“You and your fiancé were involved in a very serious car accident,” he began, and Shannon flicked a glance at Jack.
Fiancé. Well, that answers that.
“A truck collided with the car on the side you were sitting on,” he went on, using his hands to depict the collision.
“Your head went through the side window, and it injured this part of your brain,” he explained, gently placing a fingertip on the wound on the side of her head. “That area of your brain houses your long-term memory, which is why you can’t remember anything right now. Does that make sense?”
She nodded and blinked, which sent a tear rolling down her cheek.
Dr. Everette patted her hand.
“Don’t despair,” he consoled her. “Like I said, it’s an injury, so there’s every reason to believe it will heal over time, and all of this will be a thing of the past one day.”
She exhaled a huge sigh of relief.
“Exactly,” he nodded, grinning at her, and then he pointed to her mother and Jack. “But remember, you have your mom and Jack. I’m sure you feel like you don’t know who in the world they are, but I’ve spent enough time with them over the past few weeks to know that they both love and care about you very much.”
Her chin trembled again as she glanced at them. Her mother wore an expression that she guessed mirrored her own. Jack looked as somber and heartbroken as he had the entire time. He seemed to hold her gaze, and she found herself wondering what was going through his mind. She wondered about him in general.
He seemed very kind and concerned. And his story about the car accident had checked out with the doctor. But what about this nagging feeling she had, not just about him, but about men in general? That had to be something. She figured time would tell if her instinct was right or wrong, but in the meantime she decided she’d try to have an open mind about him.
Especially since they were engaged. Clearly, if she agreed to marry him, he couldn’t be that bad. Right?
Dr. Everette turned to Jack and her mother. “She’ll need to see a specialist. There’s a neurology center in Dallas, so I’m going to refer you to them.”
Jack nodded. “Thank you.”
“When can we take ’er home?” her mother asked.
Dr. Everette chuckled. “Well, let’s see. Shannon? Are you ready to go home?”
She lifted her eyebrows incredulously and flipped her palms.
Home where? she wanted to ask.
He chuckled again. “She appears to be in pretty good shape for the shape she’s in, but I think we need to run a few more tests and have the occupational therapist come check her out. So I think we’ll keep her at least another day to keep an eye on her. And then I would plan to go to Dallas right away. The sooner she can begin working with a specialist, the better.”
Jack nodded again and shook Dr. Everette’s hand. “Thank you.”
Dr. Everette made his way out and her mother and Jack began speaking to each other in hushed tones, occasionally glancing at her. Her mother gestured assertively at him, while he shook his head and wore a doubtful expression. Her mother pushed a finger into his chest and raised her eyebrows while saying something that caused Jack to appear to relent, and he nodded.
She narrowed her eyes as she watched them, processing the information that her mother seemed to have the upper hand and was clearly not the least bit intimidated by him, in spite of his muscular build and the fact that he had at least a foot and a half of height on her. That had to count for something too. Right?
“Shannon,” her mother began after approaching the bed again. “I’m goin’ to make some calls. Jack is goin’ to stay with ye. Ye needn’t be afraid of him.”
She pulled her lips in between her teeth, hesitated, and then nodded.
Her mother patted her hand and kissed her forehead, and then stood up and gave Jack a small push toward the bed before stepping out of the room.
Once alone, she and Jack just stared at each other, him with his hands deep in his pockets, her chewing a thumbnail.
The situation felt stiflingly awkward. She didn’t necessarily feel afraid of him right then, just uncomfortable. And it was all made worse by the fact that she couldn’t even speak to him properly and potentially gather information about who he was and why she had such a bad feeling about him.
So, in an effort to simply be polite, she gestured at the chair. He waited a moment, still wearing that same sad expression, and finally sat down.
He leaned forward over his knees and rubbed his hands through his hair as he exhaled heavily, and then he sat up straight again.
“I can see that you’re afraid of me,” he began. “And that’s okay. I know all of this is scary and confusing for you. But I promise you that I never have and never would hurt you. You don’t have to trust me right now, but I hope that you can again someday.”
She peered at his face for a moment and then nodded.
“And even if you don’t,” he went on, rubbing his chin and resting it in his hand, “I’m still going to do everything in my power to help you get back to normal. I’ll find the best doctors and specialists available, even if it means flying us halfway around the world and back. You’re more important to me than anything, and I’ll never give up on you.”
He paused as he rubbed his hands together and stared at the floor.
“I love you, Shannon,” he said through a broken voice. “My worst fear was that you’d somehow not know that, and…and it seems that fear has sort of become reality.”
In spite of the fact that she still didn’t know or trust this man in the least, his words and obvious heartbroken state seemed to stab her in the chest. That, combined with the suffocating stress of the whole situation, caused her to instantly break down into tears. She leaned forward, covering her face, and cried quietly for a moment or two before she noticed out of the corner of her eye that he’d gingerly placed a hand on the bed next to her leg. Without even thinking, she placed her hand on top of his and squeezed it. He squeezed back as he continued to stare at the floor with his chin resting in his other palm.
After a moment, she wiped her face and looked at him again and he looked at her. She chose to smile, and he smiled back.
This felt okay. He seemed very kind and clearly cared for her a lot. After all, he’d said he loved her. And they were engaged. In her very basic and generalized knowledge of things, she understood being engaged meant, at some point, he had asked her to marry him and she had accepted. So surely, he was good. He had to be good. She couldn’t imagine agreeing to marry a man who wasn’t.
Still, she wished she could talk to him, but that obviously wasn’t going to happen. Instead, she tried to think of something else for them to do, and she scanned the room until her gaze landed on a large book on the table next to the bed. That was something. Maybe if he read to her, it would help her figure out the whole talking thing. So she pointed to it.
He glanced at it. “Do you want this?”
She pointed a finger at him and then back at the book.
“You want me to read it?”
She pointed at herself.
“Read it to you?”
He smiled and nodded back. “Sure.”
He leaned back in the chair and opened the book to a place that had been marked by the previous reader and then furrowed his brow. “Uhh…this is your mom’s Bible. Do you still want me to read it?”
She shrugged and nodded. It was just something for them to do, after all.
“Okay…” He cleared his throat and flipped one of the pages.
“O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways…”
She watched him as he read, his voice deep and steady and strangely comforting.
“If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there. If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me…”
She leaned backward and sank into the pillows, turning her head so that she could still see him, and she noticed the melodic sound of his voice seemed to be lulling her off to sleep. He paused to glance at her, so she reached a hand across the sheet, and he placed his hand over it as he continued.
“For thou hast possessed my reins. Thou hast covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well…”
She couldn’t hold her eyelids open any longer and let herself drift off while still holding his hand.
“Very good,” AJ, the occupational therapist, praised her. “Now tell me your age.”
“Twenty…?” AJ prompted.
Shannon hesitated. “Five.”
AJ nodded. “Now altogether.”
“Awesome,” she replied. “What’s your birthday?”
“March,” Shannon blurted.
AJ squinted. “Close.”
“Good,” AJ said. “Say it together.”
“And what year?”
AJ lifted her hand toward Shannon. “High five.”
Shannon laughed and they slapped their palms together. She liked AJ. AJ made her feel normal and not like she was a fragile, broken thing—which was how she constantly felt around Ma and Jack. But mostly Jack. Jack acted like she’d shatter into ten million pieces if he breathed on her wrong. It was annoying.
She was really trying to like him. Well, she did like him. He was always very nice, very gentle, soft-spoken, concerned about and considerate of her. But she was trying to like him the way she figured she probably should like a man whom she was supposed to marry. And it seemed like it should have been easy for her.
He was, after all, insanely attractive. Like, unrealistically, impossibly, almost absurdly attractive, with his strong, square jaw, chiseled features, icy blue eyes, dark hair, and persistent five o’clock shadow. He looked like he could’ve been a model or a movie star or something else that required a person to have perfect genes. He was so attractive she almost couldn’t look at him half the time.
Beyond that, over the course of the month or so since she’d woken up, she noticed he seemed like he was independently wealthy. He never worked, and yet he had the means to put the three of them up in luxury accommodations during their extended stay in Dallas. They had a private car and driver, and he seemed to be covering the cost of her therapy and the brain doctors—anytime a financial person approached them with a clipboard, Jack immediately filled out the papers and handed them back before she or her mother even had a chance to look at them. Not to mention, the ring on her hand seemed like it probably cost a small fortune with its massive center diamond and glittering band.
So, between him being nice, handsome, and rich, in Shannon’s semi-damaged brain, he was basically the perfect man, and she believed that’s all it should have taken for her to fall madly in love with him to the point that she was ready to waltz down the aisle.
But apparently, being in love with someone requires more than them being physically attractive and having a fat bank account and good manners.
She’d figured that being in love would have required her to know him. She still had no idea who he was, and really getting to know him seemed to be of much less importance than her therapy and treatment.
On top of all that, she couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling she had about him. She’d since decided it was not necessarily men in general who were a potential threat, just certain men. Men who were semi-close in age to her and men who were close in age to her mother. And not even all men who were part of that age range, just certain ones. She’d met her brother, Niall, who was about two years younger than Jack, and he didn’t make her feel worried or unsafe. She had yet to figure out the common factor that elicited such an uneasy feeling from her.
Fortunately, there seemed to be not an ounce of pressure on her to make any kind of decisions about marriage or living with him or continuing whatever life they had together before all of this. And that was a relief. It was hard enough to have zero knowledge of the entirety of your personal existence and also have to basically relearn how to speak.
At that moment, Jack and Ma entered the room, so Shannon stood from the chair and smoothed her head scarf, which Ma had given to her to cover the bald spot. Her head was still half shaved after a fruitless neurosurgery two weeks ago.
The surgeon had offered a lengthy explanation, none of which Shannon understood, other than the fact that there was really no fixing what was wrong with her brain. In addition to having her head cut open for apparently no good reason, the specialist she’d been seeing had begun to sound like a broken record. Not much he could do, no other options, nothing more to offer other than a list of names from which they could obtain second, third, fourth, and fifth opinions. So for the time being, Shannon just went to her therapy appointments, where she’d practice speaking and writing, and doing other activities to improve her fine motor skills.
Ma squeezed her shoulders and kissed the side of her face, and Shannon squeezed her back. She still didn’t have any memory of Ma, but she could see from her own reflection that she was clearly this woman’s daughter, and she couldn’t ignore the sense of calm and comfort she got from Ma’s presence.
Ma was the name that Shannon had been told she always used to refer to her mother. Ma was an Irish immigrant who had come to Texas before Niall was born. Which made sense, given the fiery red curls she, her brother, and Shannon herself had. So that was one more little piece of the puzzle to her elusive past.
Shannon nodded and smiled politely at Jack, and he smiled back, so she immediately turned her eyes to the floor. He was just way too attractive. It was baffling what he could have possibly seen in her to cause him to want to marry her. She always came back to the feeling she had about him. He’d given her literally no reason to think that he’d hurt or mistreat her, but she couldn’t help wondering if that was because she’d never been alone with him for any significant amount of time. Maybe he was only this nice and considerate because Ma was always around. Maybe he was with her because they had some kind of weird relationship where she was totally dependent on him and he lorded over her. Maybe they had some kind of emotionally manipulative arrangement.
But all of that was just a bunch of assumptions Shannon had come up with in her spare thinking time—which she happened to have a lot of. Just a bunch of time to think, while Jack and Ma made phone calls, did research, and had endless lengthy discussions about her. She usually hid in her room in their suite, where she either spent time reading book after book or practiced her balance and coordination. Sometimes she did little exercises too. Sit-ups and push-ups and lunges.
She spent a lot of time looking in the mirror in an attempt to familiarize herself with her appearance in hopes it would jog her memory. In her moments of staring at herself, she’d developed a habit of poking and pinching at her tummy, her bottom, and her thighs to see how they’d jiggle and squish between her fingertips. She didn’t consider herself fat by any means, just soft. And she’d decided it was from the time spent lying in a hospital bed, so she figured she could stand to strengthen her muscles a bit.
One afternoon in her boredom, she’d randomly decided to call the concierge to see if she could get a scale for her bathroom, and they’d pleasantly accommodated her. She was 114.7 pounds, so she set a goal to lose 4.7 pounds. Once again, for no other reason than it was something to do.
So, for the past month or so, this was Shannon’s life. Visits to the brain doctors and AJ, and staring at the mirror between exercises, all the while basically hating her existence and counting the seconds until she could get back to her real life.
Whatever her real life happened to be, that is. Surely, it was better than this. This had gotten very old very quickly, and none of it was making a lick of difference, and she just wanted to move on from it. But there was no moving on as long as Ma and Jack were in charge. They were convinced there was always something else that could be done to get the old Shannon back.
But the current Shannon knew there was nothing else, so she just had to go along with everything until they finally realized it too.
Jack was still smiling at her when she turned her eyes back up to his face.
“How’d it go today, Shannon?”
She nodded and focused intensely on putting words together. “It…went very…well.”
AJ patted her back. “She’s a pro.”
“Very good job, dear,” Ma said. “Ye ready to go back to the ’otel fer a little lunch?”
Shannon nodded and then waved at AJ. “Thanks.”
“See you next time.”
The three of them made their way through the building and down the elevator. Shannon kept her eyes trained on the floor to avoid seeing the stares. There were always stares. And people whispering. She tugged at the scarf to make it look less weird and silently wished for her hair to grow faster. She didn’t understand the staring. Plenty of other patients here seemed to be even balder than she was, and nobody seemed to stare at or whisper about them.
She, Ma, and Jack always left through the back doors, where the car was waiting by the dumpsters in the staff parking lot, which she didn’t really understand, but also didn’t question it. They always left from and arrived at the back of the hotel too.
After they arrived in the suite, Jack placed an order for their lunch. He’d learned by now what both Shannon and Ma would eat, so he didn’t ask anymore. Shannon sank down into one of the sofas and Ma began futzing with the scarf.
“D’ye want to take this off?”
Shannon’s gaze flicked to Jack’s face and then turned to the floor shyly.
“No, thank you,” she replied quietly.
Jack had seen her without it plenty of times, but that always made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t imagine herself being pretty enough for someone who looked like him even if she had a full head of hair, and she certainly didn’t think her half-bald state helped that situation.
Jack brought her and Ma glasses of water and then sat down in a chair across from them, leaning into the armrest with his chin resting in his hand while he looked at Shannon. She looked back, the two of them holding each other’s gaze, but not saying anything.
This was something they always seemed to do. The perpetual staring contest. If personal information and thoughts and intentions could be transmitted via just looking at someone, Shannon would have learned all she’d wanted to know about Jack by this point. But they couldn’t, so all she’d managed to accomplish was veritably memorizing every gray and green fleck hidden in the tiny seas of azure.
She’d also memorized the look he constantly wore during their staring contest. Tired, discreetly discouraged, but pleasant. He was always pleasant. Patient, soft-spoken, kind. She wondered if he was a ticking time bomb. That all of the obvious stress from this situation would eventually chisel away the gentle, long-suffering exterior and he’d snap, finally showing his true colors and proving to Shannon that her gut feeling about him was right.
Lunch arrived like clockwork, as it did every afternoon, and Shannon began the dissection of her sandwich. A while ago, she noticed, for some unexplainable reason, she felt uncomfortable eating around Ma and Jack, so she turned meals into a ritual of sorts to distract herself.
Take one half of the sandwich and set it aside. She never ate it. Splay the remaining bread; peel away the cheese and set it on top of the half she wouldn’t eat. Set the remaining components in a meticulous row—bread, turkey, tomato, lettuce, all in a line next to a tiny stainless steel ramekin of mustard. Then, eat the components in order as she worked her way backward from the ramekin to the bread, dipping each piece into the mustard and counting the bites.
She knew it was an odd way to consume her lunch, but she’d only started doing it as a way to give her brain a workout. The organizing of the food, the counting, and the intense focus on what she was doing made her feel like she was doing something beneficial to her injured brain.
The intense focus served a dual purpose. It not only exercised her brain, but it also distracted her from the annoying inevitable conversation between Ma and Jack about what to do next.
“The Mayo Clinic is ranked number one in the U.S.,” Jack went on as he flipped through a stack of papers.
“Where is that?” Ma asked.
“Hmm…looks like Minnesota.”
“’Twould get cold come winter.”
Jack chuckled. “We wouldn’t have to go outside.”
Ma chuckled back politely, and Shannon rolled her eyes and stood up from the couch, dumping her remaining food into the trash.
“Are ye not hungry, child?”
“Ye didn’t eat much breakfast—”
“I’m fine, Ma,” Shannon managed to spit out in a deft assertion. She timidly eyeballed both of them; Ma was looking at her with a lifted brow and Jack was wearing a similar expression. She sharply turned away from them and refilled her water glass.
So Jack continued.
“There are a couple in New York, which may be an opportunity to take her back to Manhattan like Dr. Hester mentioned.”
“I think that is a good suggestion.”
“Or,” Jack went on, flipping more pages, “there’s a place in Switzerland. It’s more experimental, but it’s non-invasive.”
Shannon’s stomach did an infuriated twist. She downed a glass of water and then shook her head.
“They’ve only done a handful of trials, but the success rate is almost one hundred percent—”
With that, Shannon slammed the glass into the sink, sending shattered shards flying across the counter and causing Jack and Ma to leap from their chairs.
“Shannon!” Ma scolded. “What in God’s name are ye doin’?”
“No, Ma,” she fired back. “What…in God’s name…are you doing?”
“What do ye mean?”
She pointed a furious finger at both of them. “You two…you two…you two…”
She clutched the sides of her head and squeezed her eyes shut as she focused all of her energy on spitting out the words that she needed to say. Words she’d needed to say for a couple of weeks now.
“You two…are living…in the past. This…this…is never…going to get better!”
Jack lifted a hand in an attempt to calm her. “Shannon, I know you’re frustrated, but we can’t give up when there are still options—”
“There are…no options…Jack! You are a…fool living in a…fantasy world!”
He closed his mouth and dropped his hand.
Ma’s jaw fell open. “Shannon, ye can’t speak to him that way—”
“I can too…speak to him that way!” Shannon retorted and darted a furious glare at Jack’s face. “I’m his…fiancée…whatever the…hell that even…means.”
Ma pressed her lips together and Jack lifted his hand again.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I know this has been a lot to deal with, and we’ve had more than our share of disappointment, but I just want you to take some time to—”
“You both,” Shannon cut him off again, “want…a girl who…who…who doesn’t exist anymore!”
She ripped the scarf off her head and tossed it at Jack’s face. “This…is all…you have left. I’m sure…that’s…very disappointing…for you. But that’s just…the way…it is.”
“Shannon,” he started to say, but she cut him off a third time.
“Why don’t you…just…deal with it!”
And with that, she walked to her bedroom and slammed the door.
She paced the room furiously and, out of nowhere, dropped to the floor to do push-ups maniacally. She continued to thrust the floor away from her until she felt a weird urge to vomit. She decided it was a combination of stress and the push-ups jostling her minimal lunch around in her stomach, so she hopped off the floor, marched to the bathroom, and vomited until she was empty. Afterward, she felt strangely calm as she washed her face and rinsed out her mouth. Both the push-ups and the vomiting made her somewhat tired, so she flopped on the bed and curled up on her side with the intention of taking a nap.
Before she could fall asleep, however, there was a soft knock at the door.
“What?” she said with a huff.
Jack stepped into the room, closed the door, placed the scarf on the nightstand, and sat down in a chair across from the bed. She found them locked into one of their intense staring contests for a moment.
She sat up, grabbed the scarf, and tied it around her head.
“Why…are you…doing this…to yourself…Jack?”
He leaned his elbow on the arm rest while he set his chin in his palm and continued to stare at her with a soft expression.
“I made a promise. So did you. It would go against everything I believe in to walk away from you right now.”
She sighed. “I think…you’re…crazy.”
He shook his head. “No. I just love you. And I want you to be happy.”
She abruptly perched on the edge of the bed, facing him. “Then stop.”
“Stop…all of this.”
“You mean your treatments.”
He drew in his breath and released it slowly.
“You’re not…doing this…for me…anymore,” she added. “You want…what you…had. You’re not…going to get…it back.”
He rubbed his hands over his face and leaned back in the chair. “I just want you to be happy, Shannon.”
“Then let…me have…a life.”
He hesitated a moment and then nodded. “Okay. I’ll talk to your mom.”
They settled back into their familiar stare and sat in silence for a while.
“Is that what’s really bothering you?” he asked after a while. “Your mom and I are a little concerned.”
She scoffed. “Isn’t that…enough? We live in…a hotel and…we don’t do…anything but go to…doctors.”
“We’ve just been trying to help you, Shannon.”
She abruptly flipped over to face away from him. “Well, none of…it is working. Can we…just…go home already? Wherever…home…is?”
He placed a hand on her shoulder and she shrugged it off.
“I’ll go talk to your mom.”
And he left the room.
She breathed a sigh as she noticed the mere thought of doing something other than constantly going to doctor’s appointments made her feel better than she could remember feeling. Maybe she’d feel even better after she got out of this obnoxious, repetitive routine, and back to whatever it was she was doing before all of this. Or maybe she’d figure out something new to do altogether. She just needed something, and she hoped going home could be that for her.