Authors: Kate Messner
For my big brothers, Steve and Tom.
I forgive you for beating up my stuffed animals
If you hit your head hard enough, your brain gets shaken up inside your skull. You might see stars or pass out for a few minutes, and after that, a bunch of things happen. It doesn't matter how you got hurtâwhether you slipped on ice or had a car accident or fell from a tree. People will start flashing lights in your eyes, talking about concussions and traumatic brain injury. And even though your head hurts and you're exhausted, they won't want you to go to sleep.
They'll shake you awake every couple hours, shining lights, asking questions. Your head will throb, and you'll be dizzy, and you might throw up.
But that's not the worst part.
The most terrifying thing about hitting your head so hard is when you wake up missing pieces of yourself. Pieces of the person you were before it happened.
Things you should rememberâwho found you after you fell from the tree stand, why you were dizzy and hadn't eaten lunch,
what kind of bird you were trying to see when you leaned forward too farâare gone. Things you could once doâkick a soccer ball without losing your balance, play air guitar with your best friend, climb into a kayak, or stand steady on the houseboat deck to pinch dead blossoms off the geraniumsâall gone. Erased. Whole pieces of you are missing because your brain bumped against your skull.
That's why I wanted to go to I-CAN. As soon as Mom showed me that
article about the International Center for Advanced Neurology, I could tell she thought it was the answer. The feature talked about I-CAN's revolutionary treatment program combining traditional drugs with light and oxygen treatments, exercise, and gene therapy. “MIRACLE CLINIC IN THE SWAMP,” the headline called it, and a miracle was what I needed.
I believed it, too. I thought if I went to I-CAN, I'd wake up found.
And all the missing parts of meâlost balance, scattered memoriesâwould snap back into place like the jigsaw-puzzle pieces Mom pulled out from under the wicker sofa. She blew the dust off and placed them into the holes in our carnival scene, one by one, until the last piece patched an empty gap in the sky. And then it was whole.
That was what I wanted. To be whole again.
There are plenty of hospitals around the country with head-injury clinics, but at first, Mom and Dad hated the idea of sending me away. Before I was born, they thought they'd never be able to have kids. Then I showed up, an only child, wrapped up in love. I'd never even been to camp, and that was fine with me.
When we read about I-CAN, though, everything changed. I watched Mom's and Dad's frustrated faces fill with hope and possibilities. Maybe if I went, I'd be normal again. Maybe I'd be happy again. Those maybes found their way into my heart, too. I told Mom and Dad I wanted to go.
Then everything came together so quicklyâthe referral from my pediatrician, phone calls, work schedules rearranged, plane tickets booked, plans whipped up as fast as instant brownie mix.
I didn't have time to get nervous. Not until Mom and I stopped for lunch at Camilla's Grille in Everglades City, right before I got admitted.
The air was thick and wet, full of mosquitoes and deerflies, and all around my feet, little black crabs scuttled up through cracks in the deck, playing hide-and-seek in the shadows.
The waitress almost stepped on one when she came out of the main dining room. Kelly, her name tag said, looked about Mom's age and wore a faded, rumpled apron tied over a T-shirt and cutoff jeans.
“Your order's about done,” she said, and propped open the swinging screen door with a big conch shell. A crab got trapped in the little triangle it made with the wall of the building. It kept running along the edges, looking for a way out.
Thunder rumbled, and wind fluttered our shade umbrella. “I hope this storm isn't bad,” Mom said. She slid the bucket of paper towels and ketchup to the side, reached across the table for my hand, and smiled a tight smile. “Remind me again. No more than eight weeks, right?”
“Look on the bright side,” I said. “Eight weeks without loud
music or soggy water shoes left on the kitchen floor. Fifty-six whole days before you find another sticky, peanut-butter-covered spoon in the sink.” Mom jokes that my favorite snack is the bane of her existence, so I thought that would make her laugh. Instead, her eyes welled up.
She blinked and spun the paper-towel roll around in its bucket. “I know this is where you need to be to get better.” Mom missed the old Cat, I knew. She wanted her daughter back, the one without the mood swings and headaches. The one who could have fun and be happy.
I wanted that, too. But it was still awful saying good-bye to Dad at the airport. Good-bye to the cool wind off the bay and our houseboat that rocked me to sleep at night. Good-bye to my bedroom with its faded denim bedspread. Good-bye to the big oak tree silhouette that Aunt Beth painted, branching all over one butter-yellow wall with little shelves that held my clay birds. I only brought one with me hereâthe cardinalâbecause it reminded me of Mom's reddish hair.
I looked up at her. The humidity here made her curls all frizzy and wild. I smiled. “You look kind of like Lucy's poodle right now.”
She laughed and then took my hand across the table. “I'm going to miss you so much.”
“It'll go by fast.” I looked down at a grease-stained newspaper someone left on our table. My welling-up tears blurred the headlines, but I could still read them.
â¢ TERROR SUSPECT NABBED IN LONDON â¢
â¢ FLORIDA SENATOR PROMISES CRACKDOWN ON NATIONS THAT
HARBOR TERRORISTS: WILEY SAYS MILITARY INTELLIGENCE
COMMITTEE HAS “SECRET WEAPON” â¢
â¢ CITY COUNCILOR CALLS FOR ADDED WATER USE RESTRICTIONS â¢
â¢ NEW NATURE CENTER OPENS DOORS TO VISITORS â¢
â¢ POACHERS ELUDE FISH AND WILDLIFE AGENTS â¢
â¢ DRY SEASON BRINGS RECORD WILDFIRES:
WEATHER SERVICE SAYS FORECAST OFFERS LITTLE RELIEF â¢
“Cat? You okay?”
“Of course.” I blinked fast and turned my attention to the four old guys eating oyster sandwiches at the table next to ours; one still had a price tag on his fishing hat. Beyond them, a young couple was smooching at a table way in the corner.
“Are you sure you want to do this? Becauseâ”
“I'm sure.” I wasn't, but I told Mom what she needed to hear and turned away from her, toward a tired-looking guy sitting by himself at the bar, next to the speakers. Mud streaked his pants and shirt and even the notebook next to his beer. The music was so loud the waitress had to shout over “Cheeseburger in Paradise” when she said “Hey, Brady!” and asked if he wanted the usual. He shouted yes; I could hear him all the way out on the deck. She asked what he was working on, and he shook his head and flipped some pages in the notebook, but I couldn't hear what else he said.
Then the waitress hurried back to the kitchen and picked up our platesâcrab cakes and salad for Mom and a cheese quesadilla for me. I wasn't hungry, but ordering was better than admitting my stomach hurt as much as my head.
The waitress pushed the newspaper aside to make room for my plate and frowned. “Haven't seen this kind of trouble with poachers in years,” she said. “Got a few fellows who come in here late, all covered in mud, with flashlights in their belts, and I wonder. Makes me worry about letting my boys go out in the canoe, but they sure do love to fish.”
Mom glanced at the waitress's name tag and smiled. “How old are your boys, Kelly?”
“Fourteen, twelve, and eight.” She pointed out the back window of the restaurant, where a short kid was practically tackling two taller ones as they played basketball. Kelly smiled and shook her head a little. “They're a handful. You need anything else?”
“No, this looks great.” But Mom frowned when the waitress walked away. “I don't like these poacher stories.” She sighed. “But the clinic building is a former military base. I'm sure it's safe, and I know this is your best chance for a full recovery.”
My head pounded under the words. It had only been a few months since my fall, but I couldn't remember a day without headaches, without losing my balance and my train of thought. I wondered if I'd recognize my old self.
Mom picked at her salad, and I moved tortilla triangles around on my plate until the waitress brought our check.
Mom took a deep breath and smiled. I could tell she was trying not to cry. “Ready to go?” she asked, tossing a twenty on the table and reaching for her backpack. “The airboat will be waiting.”
“Yep.” I stood up. That dumb crab was still trapped behind the propped-open door, running along the wall, back and forth, over and over. “One second.” I moved the screen door, reached
down, and cupped my hands around the tiny crab. It didn't pinch me, but its little legs prickled my palms. It was still frantic, looking for a way to escape. The second I put it down, it scuttled away and disappeared down a crack.
It made me wish I could go home, too. Back to San Francisco with Mom. Dad could pick us up at the airport, and we could all go to the houseboat and eat spaghetti and watch pelicans diving for fish out the window.
, I reminded myself.
Mom and Dad want you here, to get better. And you want to be here, too.
I ignored the awful knot growing in my stomach and followed Mom down to the dock.
“Watch your step; we don't want any more bumps on your head.”
Sawgrass Mollyâthat's what she said to call herâstood on the dock in muddy boots, work pants, and a long-sleeved shirt, with a red bandanna tied around her neck. A long gray braid hung down her back, and the skin on her face looked tough as a sea lion's.
Mom introduced herself and me, and Molly loaded our bags onto the airboat.
“Come on aboard, Miss Cat.” Molly reached down to help me onto the deck, but a wave of dizziness washed over me.
I closed my eyes and tried to catch my balance, but suddenly, I was there in the tree stand again, my stomach in knots over what had happened in the school cafeteria that day, and watchingâwas it a northern spotted owl? Closer . . . leaning . . . leaning . . . tipping . . . flailing back toward the platform too late . . . and falling . . . falling . . .
“Cat?” Mom said my name softly. She had to do that a lot, to bring me back.
“I promise you this boat is swamp-worthy,” Molly said, her brown, spotted hand still stretched out toward me. When I held it and stepped down, the boat dipped and bumped against the dock. I held on tighter.
“I'm fine,” I lied. Would I ever be fine again? “Guess I need to get my sea legs.”
I slid into a seat and rummaged through my bag for my bird book while Molly looked past me, waving to a freckly teenaged boy and a short, tired-looking woman walking beside him.