August 4, 2005
Somewhere between the car and the gymnasium, Violette lost her burnt umber. She’d seen it while packing her supplies that morning, and after going back and forth to the house three times to retrieve other items she’d forgotten, she would have spotted it if it had fallen out there. She wondered if she’d ever be organized enough to keep track of her possessions on a consistent basis. She doubted it.
“Back in a sec,” she called to the art student who was her assistant. The petite girl nodded and waved, then went back to mixing tints in paint trays. Violette retraced her steps to the car, making her way from the back gym door through the parking lot, her eyes glued to the concrete all the way. A few feet from the passenger door of her hatchback she found the tube—crushed flat and oozing its hue onto the blacktop. Only part of her groaned in frustration; the rest of her had to admit that the swirl of paint looked rather artistic. With one last look at the abstract mess squished into the pavement, she turned back to the gym. “Oh well,” she sighed. “A new task for Callie then.”
“Your cell rang,” Callie called when Violette walked back into the gym. With a sudden bounce in her step, she made her way to her backpack and pulled the phone from its pocket. She hadn’t had it long, and still thought it a bit silly; only three people had the number, and she was hardly the type who needed to be easily accessible. But knowing that Christian could call her any time he had a break in his schedule made it worth it. Sure enough, his number was listed in the call log, and she hit the speed dial as she rummaged through her supplies for her roller brush.
“Screening your calls?” he answered, voice teasing.
Violette laughed. “Yeah, this thing just never stops ringing!”
“How’s it going?” “Not as good as I’d hoped. Haven’t gotten that far, and my burnt umber took one for the team out in the parking lot.”
“Yeah, but oh well; could be worse. How’s your day been?”
“Depressing. Two couples bent on divorce and a third where the husband refuses to attend the sessions.”
“Doesn’t sound good.”
“It isn’t. Forget it, though. I’m bringing you guys lunch; what do you want?”
“You have to ask?”
She could sense his grin through the phone. “I assumed the usual, but with you I can never be sure. Burger Hut it is. Callie want cheese on hers?”
“Callie’s leaving at eleven thirty. She has a class.”
“Oh, all right then. Lunch for two. Even better—I’ll have you all to myself.”
Violette’s stomach tingled, and she felt the smile spread on her face. “See you in an hour then.”
Phone closed, Violette hummed as she pushed a new cover onto the paint roller and inspected Callie’s mixing. “Looks good, girl. Do me a favor and pick up a tube of burnt umber when you come back this afternoon?”
“No problem. What do we do now?”
Violette shuffled back a few steps and eyed the wall. “Now we paint a mural.”
Christian was still a new habit to Violette. It hadn’t been that long since they’d simply been friends, and here they were at the beginning of a full-fledged relationship. She hadn’t been looking for it— quite the opposite, in fact. But love did seem to be evolving. Sometimes she wasn’t sure she even wanted it, but how could she possibly tell that to Christian?
No, if she was honest, she’d admit she was happy about it. Not so long ago she had been convinced she’d be alone for the rest of her life, and here she was a girlfriend again. No more meals for one, no more holidays alone—how could that be bad? Christian was good for her: steady but not inflexible, rational but not boring, mature but not stodgy. He appreciated her and her art, and the latter was almost more important to her than the former. She’d changed a lot in the last few years, but her deep connection to her craft still remained, and finding someone who understood that instead of merely tolerating it was easier said than done.
Violette was, at her heart of hearts, at her very core, an artist. Her love of beauty affected the way she viewed the world, the way she interacted with people, the way she lived her faith. The way she manifested her artistic nature had shifted as she’d matured, but remained integral to her essence. She was no longer the quirky nonconformist who abandoned herself to every whim that crossed her mind or who deliberately adopted outrageous habits purely for the bafflement it caused others, but she hadn’t lost all her sense of adventure and love of the unusual. It was sewn into the fabric of her soul. When God had knit her together, he’d used some pretty funky yarn, the kind that changed colors every few inches and had little wisps hanging off it.
Even though art was so integral to who she was, Violette almost hadn’t allowed herself to attempt it. Her mother had been a celebrated artist in her hippie days, and for years Violette didn’t even try to create in case she couldn’t live up to her mother’s expec- tations. Not that Sara DuMonde had been a pushy mom; she’d simply assumed Violette had inherited her gift for composition and saw no reason to leave room for the possibility that she hadn’t.
When Violette finally allowed herself to experiment by taking an art appreciation class in high school, she felt as if a volcano had erupted inside her: the images and ideas just kept flowing hot and liquid from her brain through her hand into the brush, the charcoal, the pencil. It had been such a relief to discover she could draw. She’d never forget her mother’s face the day she brought home her first charcoal rendering: it was the look of happy shock that comes with finding a possession one thought was gone for good. Her mother was buried with that picture four years later when cancer got the best of her.
Being who she was made finding friends who would go with her flow somewhat difficult. When Violette met Alexine in college, she likened it to finding a soul mate. She was surrounded by artists— one expected it at an art school—but few lived and breathed it the way Violette did. Alexine had the same multicolored, wispy soul she did, and Violette was sure she saw traces of the sassy spirit she had so loved in her mother. Alexine became Violette’s roommate, surrogate sister, confidante, and business partner. Between the two of them they managed to get the rent covered and the utilities paid—although noodle cups and grilled cheese sandwiches tended to be the standard meal fare. They threw themselves into the starving artist role with abandon, content to skimp on what the world called necessities in order to fuel their obsession with beauty and art. Who said you needed new clothes every season? Who said three place settings weren’t enough for two people? Who said towels were useless once they were threadbare? As long as they didn’t freeze (not likely in Southern California) or starve, they could spend the majority of their money on paint and canvas. Both agreed it was the best investment.
College was eight years behind them, and still they both lived the life of the starving artist—although, by this time, the starving part was by choice. The opening of a gallery, Galleria Bleu, seven years ago by another of their college friends, Xavier Thomas, proved to be the defining point in their careers, and for the first time they could truly claim to make their living off their art. They were no longer roommates, but their friendship was as strong as ever, tempered by the trials life randomly throws at people. One best friend was good enough for Violette.
Of course, now Christian had entered the picture. Significant others had walked in and out of their lives before, and each time Violette had to relearn how to share her time. Sometimes the intruder eased right into their little world with minimal upset; other times he barged in with all the grace and gentleness of a hippo in heat. Christian, thankfully, had been one of the easy ones. For one thing, Alexine adored him, taking pride in the fact that she had been the one to introduce him to Violette. The feeling was mutual, although Violette doubted Christian would claim to adore Alexine; adore wasn’t the kind of word he threw around the way Alexine did. Also, by the time Christian appeared, the women were in separate houses and on separate schedules; their lives didn’t intersect as much as they once had. Sharing came a little more easily. But still, just knowing someone else wanted first dibs on her time made her balk just a little in defense of the other who wanted some of her too. It was the same part of her that wondered whether she should be in a committed relationship at all; life was much simpler when she was a loner.
She was doing her best, though, to open herself up to Christian. Most of her was on board with the relationship now; having eased into it with a friendship first made it easier to navigate. But still one corner of her heart remained guarded, refusing to fall for Christian entirely. Christian didn’t know—she couldn’t bring herself to tell him—but if things got any more serious she’d have to say something. It wasn’t fair to him that he wasn’t getting as much as he was giving. She still held out hope that something would change for her, that she’d be able to wrench that last bit of her heart out of the past and into a new future with someone who loved her.
“I finished the edging down here.”
Violette looked down from her perch on the top rung of a ladder. “Awesome. Thanks, Callie. Check for another roller and cover in the bag; you can start filling in the big spaces if you want.”
“Actually, I’m gonna have to run. It’s almost eleven thirty.”
Violette laughed. That’s what she got for not wearing a watch. “Well, that went fast. Have a good class. I’ll call you if I’m out of here before two.”
“All right. Laters.” Callie tossed a backpack over her shoulder and went to the door. Violette watched her go, and then cursed herself for forgetting her Walkman. She hated working in silence; it was so unmotivating. She started humming to herself, and then singing out loud, taking advantage of the echo of the auditorium that made her sound much better than she actually was. This would be the sixth mural she’d done. The first mural had been an Italian pastoral scene on her own bedroom wall; she hadn’t wanted to experiment with a new skill on a paying customer’s space. She had great fun with the Italian street scene in her favorite restaurant and a pack of stampeding mustangs on a high school’s front wall. She’d painted a relatively simple mural in a local children’s hospital hallway: a clear blue sky stretched above a field of sunflowers with children playing in it. And, of course, she had created the four-wall rooftop bistro scene in Christian’s waiting room.
That had been the most difficult project she’d ever done, and over the month that it took to complete, she and Christian formed the friendship that became the foundation of their relationship. She figured it was a good sign that he’d seen her at the height of her creative frustration—at one point she’d been forced to paint over an entire wall and start it from scratch—yet he still wanted to be with her. She knew she was not pretty when she got upset like that.
The first step in creating a mural is sketching out the big parts—this time, a row of knights on horseback whose shields spelled out the name of the school. It was easy in the sense that all the figures were the same; she’d just projected the tracing image on the wall eight times in a row. It was a difficult project in that each of the figures was nearly eight feet tall and three feet wide, so she would be spending most of her time on a ladder, something she did not enjoy. She didn’t feel it would be right to make Callie climb up there—this was Violette’s project, after all—so she let the assistant keep her feet on the ground and paint a three-inch edge around the inside of the sketch lines that could be reached from the floor. Violette did the same thing from the top, working down to Callie’s space, then painted inside the giant figures with one color. She would paint the details over the single flat color, one shade at a time, until all the details were complete.
She had half an hour before Christian would come with lunch, but her stomach was already growling at the thought of the Burger Hut meal she’d been obsessing on. Her mind, though, went quickly from the burger to the person delivering it. Again, her stomach tingled, then dipped uncertainly, but in the end a smile spread over her face. She began to belt “Fever” at the top of her lungs as she pushed the roller over the wall. If she could get this first figure filled in by the time he arrived with lunch, she’d consider the morning a success.
“Fever in the morning, fever all through the night.” Drag the roller through the tray, ease it back onto the wall to minimize splatter. “The sun lights up the daytime, the moon lights up the night.” Catch a stray drip with the rag in her other hand, smooth the blotted space with the roller to even the paint. “I can’t remember the next line,” she improvised, then leaned to reach the edge of the figure and felt the ladder list slightly. She grabbed the top, trying to steady herself, and saw the tray slip from its place on the ladder’s shelf. Dropping the roller, she lunged for the tray, then felt her foot slip from the rung. She screamed, groping the air for something to hold onto, but found nothing.
“Lunch has arrived!” Christian burst into the gym, paper bag in one hand and a cardboard drink tray in the other. The wall opposite the door had oddly-shaped spaces edged with paint; he knew they were eventually to be knights on horses only because Violette had told him. He felt badly, sometimes, that he was so clueless when it came to art. He wasn’t good at visualizing things that didn’t yet exist. When Violette tried to explain to him a project she was working on, he’d nod and do his best to ask intelligent questions, but in reality he couldn’t for the life of him see in his mind the finished product that Violette saw.
It awed him, though, to watch her work—to see indistinct shapes of color slowly become recognizable figures. He loved standing back and observing her; but he knew it made her selfconscious, so he didn’t do it often. Or, at least, didn’t let her see him do it. More than once he’d peeked in the door while she was transforming his dull waiting room to a New York rooftop restaurant. Before they’d begun dating, before they’d even really become friends, he had taken every opportunity he could to watch her as she sketched or painted. He had such a respect for her abilities— perhaps because they were so foreign to him. Stick figures and geometric shapes formed the whole of his artistic portfolio.
The ladder was on its side on the floor, and it took a couple of seconds for reality to register when he saw Violette’s motionless body beside it.
A foreign sensation like liquid ice ran through Christian’s veins. He started to shiver. The paper bag dropped from his hand and the drink tray with the sodas splashed down beside it as he slowly knelt next to her. “Violette?” His voice was suddenly hoarse. “Honey?” His shaking fingers reached out for her neck, and when he felt the gentle throb of her pulse the liquid ice warmed and he grabbed his cell phone from his pocket to call 911.
The dispatcher assured him help was on its way, but the rest of her words were lost on him as he stared at Violette and carefully took her hand.
“Not again, God. Please not again.” The words slipped out of him unexpectedly; his voice sounded unfamiliar. “Come on, Violette, open your eyes, honey. Be okay.” Christian was hardly aware of what he was saying after a while; the fear that her light pulse would stop altogether if he went silent kept him babbling.
Time inched on as he waited for the sound of the ambulance out in the parking lot. He didn’t know what to do; he felt lame just sitting there holding her hand, but he was afraid to move her anymore in case he aggravated an injury. He felt helpless, stupid. He continued to pray, chanting the same plea over and over: “No, God, don’t let her die.”
After an eternity, the wail of sirens could be heard, and he bolted from his place beside Violette to open the door so they’d know where to go. An ambulance, squad car, and fire truck were parking at random angles in the nearly empty parking lot. Two navy-clad EMTs jumped out of the rig and ran a stretcher toward Christian, firing questions at him as they approached Violette.
Once they reached her, he was commanded to stand back, and he watched unblinkingly while they worked, dying to ask questions but afraid to interrupt them. The rest of the rescue crew came in— some inspecting the scene, others asking questions of the medics or him, some standing back with crossed arms and watching what was unfolding. Christian thought of how Violette hated to be the focus of such concentrated attention—just hearing him recount her accident later would make her blush. Sooner rather than later, God, he begged.
The two medics carefully eased Violette onto a backboard, wrapped a collar around her neck, and pulled plastic straps over her body to keep her still on the board. One medic began to poke and prod her neck while the other cut her T-shirt up the center and attached leads to her chest. A machine began to beep in time with her heartbeat, and Christian felt himself relax just a little when he heard the steady pulse. “Airway clear. Give me the mask,” the poking medic said to the other, and an oxygen mask was strapped over her face.
“She’s not breathing?” Christian asked. He felt like he was the one who needed the oxygen.
“No, she’s breathing fine; this is just to be safe.”
“What’s that for?” The other medic had begun stringing up an IV.
One of the other rescue workers standing next to him provided the answer. “Just prepping in case they need to start meds quickly.” As the medic finished setting up the IV, the other began to cut off her jeans and inspect her legs and then arms with the help of one of the officers. “Just checking for any other injuries,” they assured Christian. “Don’t see any; let’s get her loaded.”
One of the firemen came up beside Christian. “Do you have a car, sir? If you do, we ask that you follow the ambulance to the hospital. Can you do that?”
“Uh, yeah, sure, sure.” The circus began moving toward the door, and Christian waffled—stuck between gathering Violette’s possessions and following the medics out the door. He finally grabbed her backpack and jacket and ran outside to catch up with the medics, who gently loaded the stretcher into the back of the ambulance.
“Beachside Medical,” one of them shouted to him before closing the doors. The lights and siren were activated, and Christian was almost paralyzed by the sound. When the rig began to move away, he jumped into his car and left skid marks pulling out after them.
The ER attendant smiled. “Ah, what’s your specialty?” Christian tried not to scowl with impatience. “Psychology.”
The interest faded from the attendant’s eyes. “Oh. Well, anyway, did you witness the accident?”
Christian huffed out a breath, sick of being asked the same questions over and over. He wanted answers. Tearing his eyes away from Violette’s still form on the hospital bed, he turned to the doctor and told him what little he knew. “She had fallen before I got there. I don’t know how long it was; could have been as much as half an hour, because her assistant was scheduled to leave at eleven thirty, and I arrived just before noon.”
“Can you describe for me the position you found her in?”
Christian closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This was the scene he most wanted to forget. “On her back, head rolled to the right. Most of her was on the pile of drop cloths, but her head was just beyond them. Her arms were…” He pantomimed the angles, then dropped his arms heavily to his sides. “Please tell me what’s going on. No one has told me anything.”
The attendant motioned to a pair of plastic chairs and led Christian to one of them. Sitting in the other, he folded his hands in his lap and crossed his legs, as though settling in for a long conversation. No simple answers then. Christian braced himself for the worst.
“I have to say that her injuries—or lack thereof—are nothing short of miraculous. Typically with a fall from the height we’re hypothesizing would have caused a broken neck or broken back— at least a broken arm or leg or ribs—but all we’re seeing here is some bruising. Of course,” he added quickly, seeing the light spark in Christian’s eyes, “she has sustained a very serious head injury, and despite her well-being in all other areas, we cannot guarantee her recovery.”
The colors of the room seem to fade, a film settling over everything.
“She won’t recover?” The doctor shrugged. “Most coma patients, especially those with as little trauma to the head as Violette, will come out of the coma in two to four weeks. But then she could have temporary or permanent damage to various fine motor skills, memory, or even personality. At this point it’s a waiting game. We just don’t know when or if she may come out or what her issues might be postcoma.” Machine beeps were the only sound in the room. Christian’s eyes drifted back to the bed, to the form under the white hospital blankets. “So now what?”
“Now we wait.”
Alexine was standing at the front desk when Christian and the doctor emerged from Violette’s room. Christian had called her on the way over, barking out only “Violette’s hurt” and the name of the hospital. Seeing a familiar face brought Christian some relief; at least he wasn’t in here alone anymore. “Alexine! Over here,” he called down the hall. She smiled at his voice, jogging down the hall to meet him, but her hope faded the minute his expression registered.
“What’s going on?”
“Is that all?”
He almost laughed. “All? Yeah, it is, so far; but trust me, we’d rather be dealing with shattered bones than this.” He raked a hand through his hair, trying to hold onto his sanity. “They can’t give me a straight answer on anything. No promise she’ll come out of it, no promise of what she’ll be like if she does.” The crumbling look on Alexine’s face wasn’t helping him any. The shock of the news was seeping into his brain, displacing every other thought. Reality had completely changed.
Alexine took his hand, pulled him back into Violette’s room, and ushered him into the chair he’d just left. Then she walked to the side of the bed and smoothed the sheets over Violette’s legs. Alexine bit her lip as she glanced over to the machines beside the bed. “Oh, girlfriend,” she sighed. “What did you do?” Turning to Christian, she asked, “So now what?”
He stared past her. “We just sit and wait.” His voice grew shakier with each pronouncement.
“Did they say anything about how to stimulate her brain? Can we encourage her to wake up?”
“The doctor I talked to didn’t tell me a whole lot. I don’t know what to do.”
“Not the type of work you psychologists usually deal with, huh?” She tried to grin.
A corner of his mouth lifted. “Not exactly.”
“All right then.” She pulled her car keys from her pocket and headed for the door. “I’m going to get some information. But first some basic needs. What do you want: lunch, coffee, candy bar?”
The word “lunch” conjured the plans he’d had for the day, and he groaned. “My clients.”
Alexine rolled her eyes. “That’s the last thing you need. I’ll swing by your office and post a note on the door that you’re out for the rest of the day.”
“All right then, week. But you haven’t eaten, right? I’ll bring you something.”
He mustered up a halfhearted thank you. She nodded and let herself out of the room, leaving Christian alone with Violette.
After a moment, he stood and moved the chair to the side of her bed. Snaking his hand between the bars of the bed rail, he grasped her hand and tried not to cry.