It was morning, but the sun was hours from making an appearance and the moon, preoccupied with the fondling of the clouds, didn’t care to share her glow with those restless souls wandering in the dark and fog.
With the sound of her racing heartbeat echoing in her ears, Marjan made her way through the chilling countryside. The bluffs were less than a mile away. She could almost hear the singing billows in the distance, luring her, haunting her. She had often imagined herself standing on the tall solitary rock, looking down at the foaming sea, and then falling, quickly, and without regret. This was how she wanted to go, gracefully, poetically, not passed out on the couch after taking a fistful of antidepressants or drowning in a pool of her own blood. This was cleaner, and she was nothing if not neat.
She ached for a chance to rest, but she pressed on. The tenacious fog persisted making it more difficult for her to find her way. If only she had thought about bringing a flashlight, she would have been there by now. She shrugged away her own lack of foresight and decided to cut through the woods.
Why had it come to this? Where had she gone so wrong? She thought back to her childhood, when the world had been hers to conquer and happiness had been her ever present companion. She missed the innocence of her youth, the joy of running through the forests of Ramsar in search of adventures and then washing away all residues of her exploits in the murky Caspian Sea.
But today it was another sea that was calling to her, beckoning her to indulge in one final cleansing. She lifted the soiled skirt of her once-white nightgown and continued to dash by the sleeping maple trees.
She was blessed and she knew it. She had a loving husband who cherished her like a queen, two adorable children who were healthy and bright, and no great shortage of money in the bank. But it wasn’t enough. She had failed. Not as a wife, or a mother, but as an individual. She had wanted so much more than a perfect family for herself. She had wanted a career, something to excel at besides making a home. Her depression always took a nosedive when she remembered her classmates from university. They had all done so well for themselves; Samantha had landed that reporting job in Washington, Jessica had started her own PR firm in London, Luis had joined the UN, but she had done none of those things. Instead, she had gotten married and had children. How incredibly mundane of her! Perhaps her greatest dilemma was her unwillingness to accept her own insignificance. Maybe if she could come to terms with her own ordinariness she would be happier. But she couldn’t.
Suddenly overwhelmed by a sharp stinging pain in her bleeding feet, Marjan closed her eyes and indulged in a deep breath which she took through her teeth. Her eyes remained shut no longer than a few seconds, but that was all it took for her to miss a mischievous tree root that had decided to protrude from the soil. Before she could realize her own folly, she landed headfirst onto a massive rock and darkness took over.
It was the distinct smell of burning wood touched with a hint of dark roasted coffee that brought her back to her senses. With some struggle she forced her eyes to open and found herself lying on a brown leather couch in the middle of what seemed to be a hunting lodge, distinctly masculine with green walls and a hearth-like fireplace that was busy entertaining a group of dancing flames. An antique looking Turkish rug woven with thick burgundy and orange wool threads covered most of the floor and a rustic dining table with four sturdy chairs sat in the far corner in front of a large wooden door which Marjan guessed was the main entrance to the lodge. An additional door was on the opposite side of the room, but this one was smaller and appeared to lead to other sections of the house.
She tried to lift herself off the couch, but the greatness of her headache and the immensity of her nausea pushed her back down. Where was she? How long had she been passed out? Behrooz was most likely awake by now. Was he looking for her? Would he find her? Could she still make it to the bluffs? She needed to try.
She straightened herself up, this time with greater success, and was about to make a run for the door when she suddenly felt like she was being watched. Frightened but curious, she examined her surroundings. She appeared to be alone with the fire, but then, just as she was about to shrug away her suspicions and start for the door, she spotted her tiny observer under the rustic table. It was a young girl, probably four or five years old, with an exceptionally pale complexion, long golden curls, and an angelic smile. With great agility, the child emerged from her hiding place, wearing a bright red tutu and carrying a worn out doll with scarce brown hair and flapping eyelids.
“You’re not dead!”
With those words, the girl jumped forward and took Marjan into a forceful embrace.
Flabbergasted, Marjan looked down at the young head resting against her knees. She didn’t know why, but she noticed the delicateness of the lace pink ribbon holding back some of the golden strands.
“Ah, you’re up. That’s great.” The strange male voice addressing her from behind brought Marjan back to her senses. She turned to see a tall slender man standing in front of the fireplace with two coffee mugs in his hands. He had strawberry blonde hair, a thick beard, and a pair of round spectacles which did not hide the calming kindness in his eyes.
“You must be one heck of a sleepwalker,” and in three strides he was standing before her. “Meghan, sweet cheeks, let go of the nice lady.” The little girl unhooked her arms and released Marjan, but her enchanting smile persisted. “Here, some coffee to shake the chill out of your bones,” he said handing Marjan one of the mugs.
With a slight hesitation, she took the mug from him and brought it close to her face. He was right. Just smelling the aroma of the coffee warmed her insides.
“Good isn’t it? It was my wife’s favorite brand.”
Marjan sipped the hot drink as she whispered her thanks.
“Oh, you bet! Here, have a seat. Let’s have a look at your feet. They were bleeding pretty badly earlier.”
Gently he guided her towards the couch and sat her down. He then placed his coffee mug on the Turkish rug and took one of her feet in his hands. For the first time since she had woken in that strange place, Marjan realized that both her feet had been bandaged.
“You had a few deep cuts in your left heel. You might need some stitches, unless the bleeding has stopped.” He started to loosen the bandage.
“Are you a doctor?”
“I’m a vet, which is a good thing for you ’cause if the Lancaster’s Dalmatian wasn’t having her pups today I wouldn’t have been cutting through those woods at such an early hour. How’s your head by the way?”
“It hurts…a little,” she said rubbing her temples.
“You probably have a mild concussion, nothing too serious.” He unrolled the bandages around her left foot and started to examine her heel. “The bleeding has stopped. That’s wonderful. Some new gauze and a clean bandage and you’re good to go.”
“I’ll be alright. You really shouldn’t bother.”
“No bother. Meghan, can you please go to the kitchen and get my briefcase. It’s under the table.”
“OK,” and with a jolly strut Meghan left the room.
“She’s a real cutie, how old is she?”
“Five.” he said with a proud smile as he started to unroll the bandages off Marjan’s right foot.
“Is she your only child?” She had barely spoken the words before she realized the extent of her intrusion. Caught off guard, he looked up at her with a liquid stare, trying hard to keep his emotions in check.
“Sorry,” said Marjan bashfully. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
He put forth a weak smile and replied “it’s alright.” Then, after a few awkward seconds of complete silence, he said “Meghan is my only child…now. Her older brother Sammy and her mother passed away two years ago.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“They died in a car crash,” he lowered his head and busied himself with the examination of her foot. “They were on their way to a hockey tournament in the city. Sammy was the goalie,” he chuckled. “He was really good.”
“You must have been very proud of him.”
With great sadness he looked up at her and nodded. Another uncomfortable silence took over the room. Desperately Marjan searched for a new topic of conversation and then she noticed a thick bruise around the doctor’s neck.
“That looks pretty nasty, what happened?”
He reached with one hand and covered his neck. “I was just stupid.”
Meghan’s cumbersome entrance into the room drew both their attentions away from the bruise. Dragging the heavy briefcase behind her, she huffed and puffed her way towards them.
“Oh sweetie, I’m so sorry,” the good veterinarian got up and rushed over to Meghan, relieving her of her hefty load. “I had forgotten how heavy this thing really is.”
With a sigh, Meghan released the briefcase, took a few deep breaths and ran over to the couch, sitting herself beside Marjan and looking up at her with her enchanting smile.
“Alrighty then. Let’s change your bandages and make you as good as new.”
He proceeded to do exactly as he had said and when he was done he reached over and touched her forehead.
“You know, it’s never really quite as bad as we think.”
Somehow Marjan knew that he was no longer talking about her injuries.
“Thank you, you’ve been very kind. But uh, I really must be going,” she was once again beginning to feel uneasy. “My husband is probably looking for me.”
“I understand. Rest your eyes for a few minutes. Afterwards, I’ll take you to your husband, I promise.”
Overwhelmed by an unexpected burst of homesickness, Marjan closed her eyes and waited for the minutes to pass.
“Marjan, darling can you hear me? It’s me, Behrooz.”
She opened her eyes and found herself staring into her husband’s hazel gaze.
“Thank god,” he lifted her into his arms. “You’re awake. I was worried sick.”
“Where am I?” She asked the question just as she was beginning to realize that she was lying on a hospital bed.
“At St. Michael’s, the only hospital in this godforsaken town. I’ve already called Dr. Samuel in the city. He’s going to run a whole set of tests to make sure you’re OK.”
“Where is that man? And Meghan, where is she?”
“Meghan and her father. Did they bring me here?”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about. A local vet found you in the woods as he was coming back from a house call. You were really lucky, you know that?”
“Can I see him? Where is he?”
“Yeah, can you find him for me? I need to talk to him.”
With concern in his eyes, Behrooz stared at his wife. Tenderly, he reached for a loose strand of her hair and pulled it away from her face.
“Honey, how are you feeling? The doctors say that you’re going to be fine, that you’ve only suffered from a mild concussion, but I don’t trust this country folk.”
“I’m fine. I just need to see the vet. Can you please find him for me?”
Again, Behrooz looked at his wife with confusion and worry, then whispered “sure,” and left the hospital room.
Minutes later he returned with a short, slightly overweight dark haired man.
“Honey, this here is Dr. Johnston. We owe him a great, big thank you. If he hadn’t found you…”
“No. That’s not him!” Marjan didn’t understand what she was feeling. Among other things, it was a compilation of anger, bewilderment, and agitation. This was not the man in the lodge. She was sure of it. She looked up at her husband and the stranger beside him. They were both staring at her with shock. She took a deep breath and made one last attempt to understand what was going on.
“I’m sorry doctor. I don’t mean to be rude, but I distinctly remember another gentleman helping me. He took me to his hunting lodge, I met his daughter, he bandaged my feet and then I woke up and I was here. I don’t know who you are, but you are not him.”
Behrooz and the doctor exchanged a meaningful glare between themselves. Behrooz then cleared his throat and started to walk towards his wife.
“Darling, you’ve suffered an injury to your head. Now, the doctors…”
“Screw the doctors! I know what I saw. I’m not imagining it. Look. Look at my feet, he bandaged them for me.”
Hysterically, Marjan pulled the covers aside and revealed her bare, un-bandaged feet. Dumbfounded, she bent her knees, slowly reached for her feet and touched them. Then, suddenly overcome by exhaustion, she fell back onto the pillow with a blank stare in her eyes.
“Baby, you should get some rest,” said Behrooz as he sat beside her on the bed and reached for her hand. “I don’t want you to worry yourself about anything. You were probably dreaming.”
“But they were so real,” Marjan spoke in a low tone, more to herself than to the other two people in the room. “He was kind and gentle, and Meghan, she was so beautiful, with those big brown eyes and her golden curls.”
“What did you say?” This time it was the veterinarian’s turn to look perplexed. “Meghan? Was that the girl’s name?”
“Yes,” replied Marjan with renewed hope. “Do you know her?”
“That’s impossible.” A ghostly paleness took over the doctor’s face, and his round, button-like eyes seemed to bulge slightly out of their sockets.
“What is impossible doctor?” Behrooz couldn’t control the impatience in his voice. Nervously Dr. Johnston shifted his weight from one leg to another, looked about aimlessly, and ran his fingers through his hair.
“Doctor, please. If there is something you want to say, go ahead. My wife needs her rest.”
“You’re right, I should be going,” clearly anxious to leave the room, the doctor turned and started to make his way towards the door.
“Doctor, wait! You said you knew Meghan. If you know her, then you must also know her father. I have to find them and thank them. They were so kind to me.”
Frozen in his spot, the doctor hesitated for a few seconds before turning to face Marjan.
“What I’m about to tell you may seem foolish but…you have to remember that I am a man of science and for me to be saying these things, well, let’s just say it’s unorthodox.”
“Doctor, I’m sure I speak both for myself and my wife when I say that I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“About fifteen years ago I had just graduated from college and was looking to start my own practice in the city, but first I needed a break from all the studying so I decided to come up here for a few weeks of relaxation. During the time that I was here, the local vet, a man by the name of Stephen Whyte, smothered his five-year-old daughter while she was taking a nap after her ballet class, and then hanged himself from the ceiling fan in his kitchen. The young girl’s name was Meghan. Rumor had it that he killed himself and his daughter because he couldn’t take the loss of his wife and son who had died in a car crash a few years back. A couple months later, I moved here and took over his practice.”
Complete silence took over the room. Baffled at the story she had just heard, Marjan tried to organize her thoughts. The doctor cleared his throat and continued. “The locals believe that Dr. Whyte and Meghan have never left this town, that Dr. Whyte still visits his patients when they need him and is always present when the animals are giving birth.”
Marjan was still in the process of digesting the information she had just heard when Behrooz, making a quick transition from shock to humor, was suddenly overwhelmed by a need to mock the doctor.
“So let me see if I understand you correctly doctor, are you saying that my wife had herself a visit from two friendly ghosts today? Honey, are you sure the name was Meghan and not Casper?”
“I can understand your hesitation, sir. If I were you I would probably react the same way. But I am just telling the story as I know it. That is all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to be on my way,” and with a quick nod towards Marjan, he left the room.
“What utter nonsense,” said Behrooz as he got up from the bed and poured a glass of water from a jar sitting on the bedside table.
“Here, sweetie, drink this and then try to get some rest. Tomorrow we’ll be out of this crazy town and won’t have to come back here ever again. I know you like this place, but next time we’re going to the Caribbean for our vacation.”
Marjan took a sip of the water she was offered, relaxed her head back, and closed her eyes.
“By the way, I never asked you, what were you doing in the woods anyway?”
“I guess I must have sleepwalked,” she answered without opening her eyes.
“But you don’t sleepwalk.”
“I used to,” she lied, “when I was a child.” Then, before he had a chance to pursue the questioning any further, she told Behrooz that she was tired and that she needed to sleep.
“I’ll call the kids and tell them we’ll be home tomorrow,” and with a soft kiss on her cheeks he left the room.
She waited for the sound of his footsteps to disappear into the distance before she got up from the bed, walked over to the minuscule window, and watched as the often cloud-coated February sun bid an amorous farewell to the sad amethyst sky and disappeared into the horizon. The day had ended a lot more differently than she had expected. That morning she was certain and happy that she would never see another sunset, but now, she was eager to see her children, to hold them in her arms and smell the dust on their playful bodies. She was confused about her experience with Meghan and her father for she wasn’t a believer in the occult or the paranormal, but she did believe in second chances, and maybe, just maybe, this was hers.