Light As Air: Guin

She wakes slowly, painfully, and she’s greeted by… light. The smell of antiseptic.

Where – ?

The walls and the lighting are too bright, too clinical. They make her raise her hand to shield her eyes, and suddenly, she knows. “Why am I in hospital?” she tries, her mouth dry and sticky from disuse. She looks to her side, but the only company she has is a forlorn-looking, nearly empty plastic water jug. Ah, the good old NHS.

She glances around – at the nurses and healers bustling round the ward, at the patients in the other beds, and then down at herself. She seems to be in one piece, luckily, but on her finger, something shines. A ring. A ring she can’t remember. She slides it off, bringing it closer to her face and staring at it in bewilderment. It’s not a wedding ring, thank God, so there isn’t some poor husband wondering where the hell she is; no, it’s simpler, silver twining around to embrace itself in a way that reminds her of…

She shakes her head. No, it’s gone. The memory should be there, but it’s gone, and she can’t find it and drag it back. She grits her teeth, feeling somehow like she’s failed herself. She sits there, mutely admiring the ring, the creases and grooves carved along it. She prays it wasn’t a gift. She checks inside it in case there’s an inscription, but finds nothing.

A nurse a few feet away seems to notice her predicament, and gives her a bright smile, hurrying over. Blonde hair, heavy eyeliner, very white teeth. “You’re awake,” she says with a clap of her hands, as if she’s a happy seal; the other claps and the honking don’t come.

The words are sluggish, croaked from a dry throat that’s as tired as the rest of her. She squints at the pretty, overly cheerful nurse, still confused and now also in pain from the lights. “Why am I here? What’s” – it comes out as more of a choking wheeze, so she tries again – “what happened?”

The nurse frowns, her eyes turning sombre. “You… really don’t remember, do you?” When she shakes her head, the other woman links her hands as if in prayer. Her patient wonders what kind of ordeal she’s asking to be guided through. “There was… an incident. You were found by the side of the road. We’re not entirely certain, but we think there might have been a vehicle involved.”

“Shit.” She catches herself. “I’m sorry, that was…”

The nurse smiles, shakes her head. “Take your time to adjust. The doctors are going to be along soon to do some tests, and the healers should come afterwards.”

The healers. There are a couple of them on the ward already, a man and a woman. The man is wiry and slight, dark-haired, and he’s sitting on the edge of a patient’s bed, what looks like a pocket watch open and lying in his palm. The woman is Asian, tall, with dyed red hair. Scholars, she remembers suddenly, seeing the watch chain going into the woman’s pocket – mages, with all the training. The female healer catches her eye and smiles at her. She tries to smile back, but it comes out a little shaky.

She’s always been a little nervous of them – healers, so businesslike and imposing, and Scholars in general. The thought of having so much power – being born with it – scares her a little. Magic, half of her whispers with a secretive delight. The other half of her is petrified at the thought. She knows a few – nearly everyone does – and they’re good people, but when she thinks about it too hard, she gets nervous.

“Do they know who hit me?” She’s almost afraid to ask.

Another shake of the head, and dammit, the woman’s talking about a car accident and that small, placidly understanding smile barely budges; it does soften, however, grow a little more sympathetic, and her eyes become sadder. “As said, you were by the side of the road. There was no one to tell us what happened.”

She opens her mouth to speak. Shuts it again. Her gaze drifts to the wall, away from the expectant, sad eyes of the nurse.

“Miss Smith?”

She answers to it; knows, suddenly, that it’s her name. Guinevere Smith. Guin. That’s something sure, something steady underneath her feet, and she swears she knows how to find her way home from here, but everything else… God.

“Miss Smith?”

Guin realises she isn’t exactly being good company, and she forces a smile. “Yes?”

“I’m Cecily. I’ll be looking after you for a while,” the nurse – Cecily – tells her. There’s a pause. “Are you OK?” Cecily asks, edging forwards and frowning at Guin like she’s an animal she’s afraid to spook.

Guin hesitates to reply, because she honestly doesn’t think she is. She squints, licks her lips nervously. “Those tests? Look, I think I need them. I… I can’t remember anything of this year.”

~

Somehow, in that big, sterile hospital ward, after the tests and endless questions, she falls asleep. Her dreams are odd.

She dreams of wings – not hers, someone else’s, on shoulders, but it makes no sense and everything is blurring, unsteady, she’s only seeing pieces and edges of things – and sunsets, and green tea, and…

She wakes struggling to breathe. There’s a hole in her chest where her heart should be, and her blood’s rushing in her ears. Her hands are shaking, and there’s a lump in her throat. It’s a bone-deep hurt, an ache and an emptiness that can’t seem to be filled – a sadness that crawls in and feels like it’s eating her from the inside.

The ward is mostly dark except for what little light is coming through the door, the main corridors no doubt well-lit and crowded; she hears snatches of words, sees people hurrying past the door, and she can’t help but wonder who’s come in now, who’s going home tonight. In the ward itself, there’s only a solitary light illuminating a desk several beds away: the nurses’ station.

Water. She needs water.

She reaches out to her bedside table before she’s entirely aware what she’s doing. Her fingertips brush the plastic jug, but she knocks it off the edge of the table instead of gripping it.

Shit.

Under her breath, she lets out a stream of curses, still panting a little. Hopefully she hasn’t woken anyone. She glances around to make sure. Three beds away, someone rolls over, but that’s it. Silence, except for snoring and the distant noises of the corridor.

She bends, straining for a few seconds before she realises she’ll probably have to get out of bed to mop up the spillage. She grunts at the aches and pains the action brings. She’s alright, mostly; just a few bruises and one sprained wrist. No-one’s quite sure why she was unconscious when they found her, or why it took so long for her to wake up.

When she looks up from the jug and the small, steadily growing pool of water, there’s a woman standing next to the bed, watching her levelly.

This nurse must be on duty for the night shift – she’s a new one, not the cheery smiler but a redhead, with a bobbed haircut and broader shoulders, and a thinner, turned-down mouth. On the wrong face, it could look permanently disapproving, but it suits her. She looks strong, reliable, like she could carry you out of a burning building and would still be there afterwards, calm, feet planted on the ground. Stupid as it is, Guin wants to trust her just from looking at her. She gets up, walks through the ward and comes to crouch beside the bed, picking up the cup before looking Guin in the eye. Her face is concerned. “Miss Smith?”

“I…” She sits up, and she’s still wheezing. She really shouldn’t be wheezing, the tests were all clear and they say her body’s doing far better than her brain… “I’m sorry. Just an accident. Don’t worry about it, I’ll deal with it…”

The nurse smiles; it’s small, unwavering, steady as the rest of her. She puts a hand on my shoulder, forcing me to relax. “You won’t. You need your sleep more than I do. I’ve only been up three hours.”

She goes to get paper towels for the spilled water, and Guin lies back down, looking at the ceiling and pretending that the thought of someone waiting on her, doing things for her, doesn’t make her feel awkward and more than a little unhappy. She hears the woman’s footsteps – she’s all but sneaking through the ward in an attempt not to wake the patients – and thinks of the small oasis of light that is the nurses’ station, holding out against the dark.

The ache in her chest stays, immoveable and permanent, until she slides out of consciousness again. She doesn’t dream, and she’s glad of it.

~

A week and a half. A week and a half of observation, poking and prodding, various tests… Nothing. They’ve found nothing, and they told Guin that with shifty eyes and the hint of a grimace. Great. She heard the word TBI muttered a lot in questioning tones, and when she got access to a computer, she looked it up: traumatic brain injury. Wonderful. That was just what she needed to hear. But apparently that isn’t her affliction – or so she was told, when she asked them to their faces in a sudden burst of anger. Something about being cooped up in a hospital ward for so long had got to her, and she found herself snapping the question at one of the nurses, who looked panicked and then went to fetch the doctors.

She apologised afterwards. She isn’t the sort of person who wouldn’t. Still, she was left with some new information: there was no damage. No damage whatsoever. No tissue damage, no kind of bleed, no degradation. In theory, according to her MRI, she’s absolutely fine, even though an entire year has somehow been scrubbed from her memory. That’s a relief, but it’s also immensely frustrating, for the medical team as well as her – there was only so long they could keep running in circles and asking the same questions before they admitted that they had no idea what the hell had happened. Since she was technically in perfect health, she was discharged, even if they were reluctant about it.

She’s taken two buses to get here; for some reason, she still seems to know the route by heart. Now she’s standing outside the block of flats where she lives, slowly breathing in and out, in and out. She stands in its shadow; it looms over her, tall and grey, watchful. There are memories here. The whole place has the ache of familiarity about it. Just the grass outside makes her think of a hundred journeys like this, of climbing what are always too many stairs, of putting her key in the lock. She knows this place. Grotty and underwhelming as it is, it’s hers. Maybe she can remember because she moved here before The Year That Wasn’t, as she’s taken to calling it in her head.

She enters the building, unsure why her stomach’s attempting to climb into her throat and her hand is shaking as she grips her key. Perhaps something terrible has happened to that place in her forgotten year. Perhaps that’s part of what caused the memory loss. Perhaps – even worse – she won’t remember anything once she gets inside. The climb up the stairs is even harder and less pleasant now that she’s been in hospital for a while – she grits her teeth, almost thinking that she can feel the muscle wastage. She gets into her corridor and arrives at a plain brown door with 5C on it in metal letters.

She’s about to enter her flat when a flash of light blue catches her eye. A T-shirt, she realises as she looks properly at its source.

A man is locking the door to flat 5A. He has his back to her, but she can tell a lot just by looking at him. He’s lean, but he’s probably in good shape. He’s also likely fairly young: he’s dark haired, and it’s arranged in that carefully tousled style that seems to be popular right now – personally, she thinks it could do with a little less gel, but that’s just her opinion. A pair of scuffed black converse catch her eye as he shifts impatiently, trying to put his key into his pocket-one-handed. There’s a slightly dented cardboard box under his arm. It’s heavy and pretty unwieldy, judging from the slump of his shoulders and the way his whole posture changes when he tries to move it.

He turns, and not quite, but very nearly, jumps when he spots her. A few expressions flit across his face – surprise, and something akin to sadness – before he schools it into polite cheerfulness. He smiles at her. It’s a good smile, she thinks, all white teeth and eye-crinkles, sweet and infectious. “Hi.” Then he ducks his head, and it becomes more of a sheepish grin than anything.

She makes to greet him, but something she can’t name makes her hesitate. A wave of familiarity hits her, one so intense she struggled not to stop and stare. She knows this man. She’s certain of it. Yet, hard as she tries, she can’t put a name to the face, can’t quite say where she knows him from. He must be someone from the past year, then – a year that doesn’t exist, according to her memories.

She can now see that the words K – Junk are written on the front of the box. It adds to her feeling of not-quite-there. She knows him, goddammit, she feels it, and that letter, that K, means something to her. She understands instinctively that she should know what it is, but she can’t quite… An initial? A room designation?

“Hi,” she says in return. Only a few seconds have passed, yet they feel like an eternity; long enough to make things awkward, anyway.

“I’m, uh… I’m in 5A.” He shifts the box under his arm again, sticking out a hand.

“I know,” she replies with a nervous laugh, but shakes his hand anyway.

She sees it dawn on him – she must have seen him at his door. “Oh.” He hefts the box until he’s carrying it properly, with both hands. “Daniel,” he says, after a moment. He has a hint of somewhere else in his accent, but he can’t quite name it; it definitely isn’t all British. She just can’t name it, and that, too, frustrates her.

“Guin,” she returns.

The thing is, she’s sure she should remember him. He has a face most people would remember. He’s handsome, in a sharp-cheekboned, startlingly blue-eyed way, even though he looks tired; he’s pale, with dark shadows under his eyes and a day or two’s worth of stubble. “Good name,” he says. “What’s it short for?”

“Guinevere,” she admits reluctantly, looking at the floor. It’s never been a subtle name; it’s the kind that either proves to be the making of you, or an albatross round your neck. Either way, nearly everyone remembers you, for good or for bad.

She half-expects a laugh or a joke about whether she’s “found her Arthur” yet, but instead he just says, “It’s nice. Is there a reason you shortened it?”

She shrugs. “Too memorable.” He nods, as if in understanding, and she asks, “What’s with the…?” She gestures to the box.

It’s his turn to shrug, and he offers her a slightly sad half-smile. “I’m trying to move all my stuff to my car. I’ve been doing it little by little, but I’m still not finished.”

“You must not have much stuff, then. Or a truly impressive car.” She cringes. Smooth, Guin; state the painfully obvious.

“I’ve only been in the flat a year,” he says, “and I’m not really… materialistic, I suppose.” A shrug, and a little awkwardness. His smile hasn’t fallen, though; she obviously hasn’t bothered him too much. It explains, at least, why she doesn’t really remember him; he wasn’t around much before the obliterated year.

“When are you moving?”

“In a week. I just want to get all my stuff out in advance.” He must know how odd that sounds, because he adds, “It’s a long story.”

That should be it; she should go on, should go into her flat. The polite little conversation a couple of neighbours would have is concluded. Yet for some reason, she pauses, not yet ready to let him go. That crushing feeling of familiarity is still there, refusing to recede, and the frustration of not quite knowing is getting to her. “I’m sorry… have we met?”

He stares down at his cardboard box for a moment, then at her, cocking his head and squinting. “I think we have briefly,” he tells her. “Guess I don’t make much of an impression.”

She winces, raising a hand to her temple. “I’m sorry, I’m – I’m recovering from a head injury…” She isn’t, not as such, but somehow that’s easier than saying, I woke up from a hit-and-run with a year of my memory gone and even my doctors don’t know.

“Oh,” he says, suddenly looking very apologetic. His grip on the box slips slightly. “I’m really sorry, I…”

“Never mind,” she says. “Are there any more boxes you need help with?” She wonders why she’s offering; the impulse came out of nowhere.

Another of those bright, infectious smiles. “I’m good, but thanks.”

She takes that as the dismissal it is and nods, turning and unlocking the door to her flat. She hears his footsteps, and then she feels him walk past – there’s a sudden spike in her awareness, almost like a breeze, then it’s gone as soon as it came. She feels his eyes on her, as though he’s looked over his shoulder, then his footsteps start descending the stairs and fade out of hearing.

She shuts the door behind her and stands in her apartment, looking around. It’s familiar as ever – it’s changed little in the year that she lost – but it’s still not quite right. The hollowness in her chest has been with her since the hospital bed, and time and time again, it’s been ordering her to go home. Yet here she is, and still that feeling nags at her. With it is the new, frustratingly unfulfilled sense of familiarity caused by seeing Daniel. She wonders if it will be like that with everyone she meets, and if so, she wonders how the hell she’ll bear it.

She looks to her side, and comes face to face with a pair of blank grey eyes. She jumps, but they’re small, certainly not human-sized, and she realises that it’s just Huginn, the stone raven that acts as a bookend. He stands on the bookshelf by the door, regarding her unseeingly. She smiles, running a hand over his head, and then looks for his companion.

Muninn is missing. A few books have tipped over, leaning drunkenly. A few are on the floor. Annoyance flares within her. Did she do this, or was it some other inconsiderate bastard? She crouches to take a look round the shelf, but Munnin is nowhere to be found. She lets out a laugh that sounds unhinged even to her own ears. Of course. The raven of Thought is still here, but Memory is missing. This must be some kind of metaphor. Jesus Christ, her life is turning into an awful novel.

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