My memory of the next few weeks was hazy. I remember getting dressed for the funeral at the hospital, but not the funeral itself. I recall being discharged from the hospital, but not the subsequent therapy and follow-up appointments.
I slept a lot then. Grandma attributed it to my continuing recovery, and I suppose that was part of it, but it wasn't the only reason. I slept whenever I was tired of crying. Since I couldn’t do much without weeping, I slept.
I wasn't sure what would happen next. Caitlin had offered to take me in. My dad's sister, Aunt Gail, wanted me to return to Japan with her to attend a prestigious Japanese immersion boarding school. Before I could get too panicked at the thought of seaweed for breakfast, my grandmother said she'd move into my family's house with me.
Then I went back to school. It was awful. My mind kept wandering in the middle of lessons, and I’d think things like, “I really don’t get that math problem. Dad will have to help me with it tonight.” And the next thing I knew, I was running through the halls with tears ready to spill the minute I reached the privacy of a bathroom stall.
At home, I missed being part of a busy family. The house echoed with just Grandma and me living there. It was especially bad at night when Grandma went to bed by 8:30. I wanted to eavesdrop on my Mom's calls with her editors and listen to my dad complain about his clients' unrealistic expectations for their investments. I wanted to trade snarky comments about television talent show contestants with Sara again. When I tried it with Grandma, she just chided me for being unkind.
Also, I didn’t know if anyone had the recipe for my mom's chocolate-and-vanilla bundt cake. It was my favorite—a marble cake that was fully cooked around the edges, but still a little raw in the middle. She made it for every family event and now it might be gone forever.
Having lost everyone at once meant no one else would remember the Thanksgiving when the handle on Mommy’s roasting pan broke as she was taking our turkey out of the oven. My mom had looked so gobsmacked in her frilly apron holding a lone handle in a potholder-clad hand that Sara and I had laughed until we couldn't breathe. Hearing Sara gasping like a fish out of water made me laugh even harder. Then Daddy had walked in, took one look at Mom and started laughing too. Mom glared murderously at us while she tried to scavenge the bird and stuffing from the floor.
I wasn't just sad, I was angry too. I was angry that my family was gone and that the world was moving on as if nothing had happened. I also felt guilty. Why had I lived while my family died?
In short, I wasn't a lot of fun to be around. My friends tried to be supportive, but I couldn't stand hearing Stacey yammer about boys or listen to Beth agonize over her grade point average. Over time, I stopped hanging out with them to spent more time alone writing. In my imagination I was with my dad when he won the charity golf tournament he played in every year and my Mom let me go with her to interview J.K. Rowling.
Six months after the accident and a month before school ended, Grandma sat me down in the kitchen. “Rachel, I’ve sold my house and we're going to continue to live here in Hartland," she said. "The only thing, honey, is that I don’t think it's good for us to live in this house. I’ve found a two-bedroom apartment in the Glades where we can make a fresh start.”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. I wanted to stay in my house, surrounded by the memories of my family, but I understood why it wasn't healthy. That didn't make it any easier to pack up my house over summer vacation though.
Putting my family's things into storage a wrenching experience. In my parents’ closet, I found a shoe box with birthday cards from me and Sara. They had kept all of them---even the ones that I’d done when I was two that were just scribbles where the other spouse had written “Happy Birthday! Love, Rachel” in a childish scrawl. I had been loved so much. I wanted to laugh and sob at the same time. I kept that box for my new room.
I kept some other items for the new place too, like mom's collection of beautiful perfume bottles and three of Sara's favorite stuffed animals. I kept a few of my dad's favorite T-shirts to wear as pajamas and a bottle of his cologne to remind me how he smelled.
I wasn't looking forward to living in the Glades, which mostly attracted old people. Even worse, it was across town, including a major highway, from my old neighborhood. It would make it hard to see my friends over the summer since I couldn't walk or ride my bike there, but I figured at least now I had a good excuse for spending so much time alone.
Fortunately, the building super introduced us to the Barretts right away. They were an elderly couple who lived below us. Their granddaughter Jennifer was my age and lived in California, but was due to arrive for a month-long visit two days after we moved in. She was thrilled to learn about my arrival.
We immediately bonded over Nicky, her horse. Before moving to the Glades, Jennifer's grandparents had lived on a big farm and Nicky had been the family pet. Now he boarded at a nearby stable and Jen took care of him when she visited.
I had never ridden before but Jen taught me the basics quickly, and soon we were spending our days at the stables together. I rented a horse and we went on long trail rides, coming back only when we were so drenched with sweat that we could no longer stand being outside. When Jen returned to California, her grandparents asked me to care for Nicky. I would have done it for free, but they were happy to pay me instead of someone from the stable.
I spent a lot of time with Nicky that summer and fall. He providing undemanding companionship as I worked through my grief. I didn't have to censor my feelings around him. As long as I groomed him, got him out of the barn, and slipped him an apple now and again, he didn't care if I was angry, sad, guilty or lonely.
By the first anniversary of the accident, I was tired of living on the verge of tears. I had to move on. I needed to let in people who loved me. The past year had helped me figure that out. I missed my family and having their love anchor everything I did, but I needed to let other people do it now. I resolved to call Caitlin back and go shopping with her and to take Stacey up on her long-standing offer to sleep over.
After that, I started having days when I could smile at my reflection in a mirror again without feeling like I was betraying my family. Without quite realizing when it had happened, I had created a new "normal" for myself.
The one thing that still troubled me were the dreams of the world I had first seen while in the coma. The first one happened a few weeks after I got home from the hospital and I had another one every few weeks.
With each new dream, I realized just how different this world was from Earth. Their technology was advanced. Families lived together with several generations under one roof and the dwellings looked small by Earth standards. My impression was that they took “living green” to a new level. Perhaps the strangest thing I noticed was that the adults regularly disappeared into thin air, and reappeared in other places or never reappeared at all. I was enchanted.
The dreams were beautiful, strange and unsettling. It wasn't just that they were impossibly detailed and that I could always recall them perfectly. The thing that bothered me most was the lingering feeling when I work up that the dream world was more real than the reality I inhabited. The feelings faded during the day, but they left me wondering whether my head injury had done more damage than anyone realized. I simply couldn't shake the feeling that the dream world was real.
I never mentioned the dreams to my neurologists. If they were a result of something wrong with my head, I'd rather live with the problem than have the doctors fix it and lose the dreams forever.
Freaky dreams aside, I was a regular teenage girl approaching her senior year. With no close family ties to worry about beside Grandma, I imagined an exotic future for myself. My fondness for the strange dream world convinced me that I'd like to travel the world. I planned on getting a job with the State Department after college.
To prepare, I took all the world history and sociology classes I could and set my sights on the Ivy League. Doing well in school had been really important to my parents and bringing home straight "A"s made me feel close to them. They had always said that if I was willing to work hard, I could do anything. I expanded my after-school activities beyond the Drama Club so that by my senior year, I was president of the Student Council and was vice president of the honor society.
When my acceptance letter came from Princeton, I danced around the house yelling, “I’m in!” over and over for half an hour. For the first time in over a year, I was on the way to having the life I dreamed of instead of one dictated by things that happened to me. Finally, I felt in control.