The eyes were focused on me but were looking through me, as though there was something of interest beyond. My instinct was to check behind and to the sides, but my curiosity won. I returned the gaze. I studied the face. Then began the familiar thumping in chest and head and the screaming in my mind.
“Hey, you OK?” The volunteer guide was ready to move on. The others were already at the next exhibit, but I was still staring at the face. The one-armed man, grey at the temples, sports coat, framed alone by concrete and street. I left him behind staring into space, and followed. The screaming needed to get out. Panic rising. Shaking. Can’t get air. It hurts. My head is going to explode!
My eyes are already open but I’m suddenly conscious. No process of slowly awakening. No gradual coming from slumber. The room is unfamiliar and I have no idea how I got there. But Jess is there, so it must be alright. Her eyes are darting beneath closed lids. Dreaming. She is peaceful, and my breathing falls in line with hers.
Years had given her character. The harshness of the drought years, and then the fire, had not been kind. Filtered light hid the physical scars. The mental scars were healing, and she was strength to others.
“Jess,” I whispered, “I can’t remember yesterday.”
She stirred. “Huh?”
“I know I went to the gallery to see the Jeffery Smart exhibition.”
She peered at me and focused. “You’re back then, I was getting worried mate.” She smiled and gave me a hug.
I’m always embarrassed when it happens, but I summoned the guts to ask, “How did we get here?”
“It’s OK, you had another black-out. You were waiting for me in the carpark, but you weren’t right, so I drove. We’re half way home. But you’re back, that’s what’s important.” Jess paused, and I could see her mind ticking. It was easy to see when she was scheming.
“When we get home, I want you to see one of my colleagues, William. He specializes in this sort of thing.” Jess kept her gaze on the road. She didn’t need to say any more. She knew that she had played the trump. With that one statement Jess had skillfully backed me into a corner and there was no way out. I had to agree. She had seen for months now that the blanks had been increasing. I was just not remembering things, important things, like when Craig brought my grandkids to visit. He rang to say they’d got home safely, and I had to play along, pretending to know what he was on about. I could tell later that they had been there; telltale signs of crumbs and things out of place, but I had no recollection, and that scared me.
“Will you drive?” I heard Jess’s voice somewhere distant. The Xanax I had slipped an hour or so earlier was wearing off and I was still in that in-between land.
“Maybe change at Ballarat?” I was clever to think of that one. That would give me time to get myself together and have a coffee at the Bakery Hill Maccas. Chris we’re way past there; nearly at Bacchus Marsh,” Jess sounded confused. And instantly my brain went into overload. Thoughts and questions and answers each vying for supremacy, each fighting to get to the surface. How do I get out of this one? “Chris it’s fine. I’ll keep driving.” Jess knew better than tochallenge me. She understood. And she kept driving, the city soon peeking between the hills.