Los Angeles, The Burn Ward
Unfortunately, nobody had had the foresight to let me die and become a legend. I could have joined Elvis and Marilyn in the Dead Icon Hall of Fame, but nooo.
“Cathryn Deen? Cathryn Mary Deen? Do you know where you are?”
I blinked slowly, wrapped in a cocoon of painkillers and sedatives, that cocktail of drugs given to burn victims for the first few days so they won’t realize parts of their bodies have been deep-fried. I could barely remember my name, much less what had happened to me.
“Who?” I murmured.
If I could have seen myself, naked except for sterilized sheets and the huge bandages on my head, right arm, right torso, and right leg, my arms tied down, IV’s and monitor lines everywhere, and a catheter between my thighs . . . if I could have seen my swollen, hairless head with the mass of bandages plastered to the right side, I would have willed myself to go back to sleep again. Permanently. My head was grotesquely swollen, and even the left side of my face, the side that would look normal again eventually, was raw-red.
Thank God I didn’t know how I looked, yet. I heard myself mumbling in a weak voice. “Daddy? Granny Nettie? Mother?” They’d been visiting me. Daddy simply smiled at me. He’d never known what to say when I was hurt. That was the nanny’s job. Granny Nettie said, “Eat, girl. Every time life gives you biscuits and gravy, eat and rejoice.” In my dreams I stood in the kitchen with her, gazing out her wondrous stained-glass windows on Wild Woman Ridge, watching sunlight and shadows drape their smile on layers of enormous, blue-green mountains. This is no place for skinny sissies, those mountains whispered to me. The scent of lard, milk, sausage, flour, and butter filled my senses. Oddly comforting. Everything will be all right, if you find what you really want, Granny whispered. Cheer up, I left a home for you. It’s waiting.
My long-dead mother, who I’d discovered was much prettier than the photos in my scrapbooks, leaned close and whispered, Go home, yes. We’ll see you again, some day.
“Don’t leave me.” Too late. I was awake.
“Cathryn? Ms. Deen? I’m asking you again: Do you know where you are?”
My tongue felt swollen. I tested it, licking the front of my teeth. Helps your smile slide over your pearly caps. Looks sexy for the male judges. An old pageant trick.
“Ms. Deen, do you know where you are?” The voice was female and insistent. Not impressed by my teeth.
“Hell?” I finally whispered.
“No, it just feels that way. You’re in the burn unit. I’m your primary physician. You’re under the care of a large medical team.”
“In a manner of speaking. Now, listen carefully. I’ll let you go back to sleep in a minute. We just moved you out of Intensive Care. It’s been five days since your accident. We’ve deliberately kept you medicated for your benefit. The pain would be excruciating, otherwise. We don’t want you to move around. You’re hooked up to IV’s. You have a catheter in your bladder. Until a few hours ago you had a feeding tube down your throat. Your current situation is a little . . . confining, I know. We don’t want you feeling claustrophobic, so we’re keeping you medicated. That will get better in the next week or so.”
Of course, I thought. I’ll be fine. Probably just a few blisters.
My vision was a little blurry, and when I looked upward I saw something puffy and red. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was looking at the swollen underside of my eyebrows. I thought I was wearing some kind of pink-brimmed cap. I looked beyond it and found the source of the voice. It came from a white-swaddled shape hovering over me. The shape was masked and gloved, as if dealing with toxic waste. It might have come from another planet. It clearly had confused me with a serious burn victim.
“Get me to . . . a spa,” I told the alien. “Just need a . . . mud wrap.”
“Try to pay attention, Cathryn. There’s lots of good news to report. Your eyes are fine, your lungs are fine, you are very lucky. Your burns cover slightly less than 30 percent of your body, which gives you an excellent prognosis for full, functional recovery. Your burns are primarily second-degree, meaning most won’t need skin grafts, though there will be permanent scarring.”
“Your right hand suffered some deep tissue injury, so you’ll need surgery to ensure joint mobility in your fingers. But that’s very do-able.”
Do-able. I was do-able.
“The worst thing I have to tell you is that you do have several areas of third-degree burns. In those places, the skin was destroyed and so can’t renew itself. These areas include your right shoulder, on the right side of your neck and throat, and . . . on the right side of your face, from the corner of your eye and mouth to just behind your ear. Over the next few weeks we’ll take skin from your undamaged left side, and your back, and graft it. It will replace the burned skin.”
Okay. Essentially, I just needed a good exfoliant.
“The lower lobe of your right ear had to be amputated, but the rest of your ear is intact—though badly burned—and your hearing should be unaffected.”
Wait a minute. This creature from another planet must be joking with me. I could have sworn it said I no longer had an ear lobe on one side. Guess I’d save money on earrings. The Oscars were in a few weeks. Would Harry Winston still loan me the twenty-carat tiers Princess Di commissioned not long before she died? I could wear one on my good ear, and one in my navel.
“Very funny,” I whispered.
“I’m afraid this isn’t a joke, Cathryn.”
“Let me out of here. Have . . . work to do. Due in England on Wednesday. Photo shoot for Vogue, too.”
“Try not to worry about your career, for now. You’re probably going to be in the hospital at least six weeks. You’ll be undergoing numerous small surgeries, and also, I’m afraid, regular debridement. Debridement is a procedure in which we change your bandages twice daily and remove dead tissue from your wounds. It’s not very pleasant, I’m afraid. But don’t worry about that right now.”
Don’t worry? “Gerald! Gerald. My husband. Tell him. I want out . . . of here. He’ll handle this.”
“He’s very busy right now. Talking to the press, to your agents, all of that. Don’t worry.”
“I want him . . . here.”
“I’m afraid we can’t allow him, or anyone else, to visit you yet. The burn unit is a very sterile environment, Cathryn. Infection is a major concern for patients recovering from large-scale loss of skin. You won’t be allowed to have many visitors, and the ones you do have will be covered in antiseptic surgical outfits like mine.”
“Call him. I’ll call him.”
“You’re in no condition to do that right now. Plus your husband has requested that you not be disturbed. We don’t want any reporters trying to talk to you. You can’t call out, and no one can call in without his permission. He doesn’t want the media to harass you.”
“But . . . I need my . . . my friends. My stylists. Judi, Randy, Luce. My people.”
“I’m sorry, Cathryn. You have no ‘people’ here. Sometimes the burn unit feels like one of the loneliest places in the world. But you’ll be all right. You get some rest. You’ve got a lot of work ahead of you.”
She left. Other creatures from the toxic-waste patrol hovered over me. “We’re going to help you go back to sleep now,” one of them said. “We’ll play your favorite music to keep you company while you drift off. Your husband says you love Gwen Stefani.”
The creature put a CD in a sterilized boom box. Hollaback Girl, Stefani’s hip-hop anthem, began to pound me like a drum. I couldn’t really be trapped in a hospital bed listening to a thirty-five-year-old woman sing, “This my shit,” could I? I didn’t love Gwen Stefani’s music, Gerald just told people I loved it because his marketing people said she tracked to a young demographic who’d buy my cosmetics.
My favorite music? Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash, the Dixie Chicks. Wise women with guitars. Gerald said they were too old and too feminist for my fun-loving image, and they probably didn’t even wear makeup, much less encourage other women to wear it, but . . . where was he? And why wouldn’t he even call me on the phone?
“I can listen,” I mumbled. “I have an ear left.”
“Go to sleep,” a creature ordered, pulling a syringe out of a stint in my arm. “It’s better if you don’t think too much.”
I shut my eyes. Aliens in antiseptic jumpsuits said I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk to anyone, that my right earlobe was missing, that parts of my skin would have to be replaced, and that I was lucky to be alive. Plus they made me listen to Gwen Stefani. No one who knew me, no one I trusted, was here. Not even my own husband and my family ghosts.
My people were gone. Even the dead ones.
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