Once More, With Feeling
by Abby Horner
When JD woke up the first time, he was nameless and alone. He was in the dark, he was in the cold, and he didn't know who he was. Freezing metal pressed into his back, and he could feel his breath falling back on his face, reflected off the wall just above him. He opened his mouth to scream, but could muster only a hoarse whisper that tore at his throat. He lifted his hands to slam against the walls surrounding him, so close he could feel the chill seeping into his skin, but they wouldn't lift, and the searing in his muscles made him stop.
It was the crying, finally, that led to his saving. Someone outside must have heard him, must have heard his choked desperation, his unadulterated terror; someone outside heard him, and at his feet a bright light appeared, flooded in, blinding, searing, scorching. He blinked away spots, tears, and felt the air around him shift; no, he felt himself shift through the air. Suddenly his entire world was bright, and big, and the walls were far, far away. People surrounded him, shouting to each other, but all JD could hear was a faded mimicry of their voices, like he was underwater. Someone tugged at his foot, and his head limply rolled to the side. JD watched an old man whose eyes were wide and face pale as he read the tag tied to JD's toe. Then, slowly, the old man looked into JD's eyes and shakily moved his hand in a cross over his chest.
JD felt a headache boring into his skull, so he closed his eyes and let sleep take him.
When JD woke up the second time, he had been named. He was in a bed with scratchy sheets, needles in his arms and machines to his left beeping out his heartbeat. Doctors came and went, asking him questions, sighing loudly when he couldn't answer them. Finally the doctors gave up, and the nurses took to calling him "JD."
"John Doe is too strange," said one, an older lady with a thick Irish accent, "you mighta been dead, boy, but you're alive now, and alive people need names." JD just nodded. She smiled wide and left with a promise to bring him a book next time she came back.
It was a week before JD was allowed out of his room. He still had to stay within the ward, but the ward took up the entire fourth floor of the hospital, so JD didn't really mind. It wasn't as if he had anywhere to go.
He wandered until he found a recreational area, squared off from the bedrooms with a wall of lumpy couches and chairs. An old TV sat on a stack of crates in the corner, and a baseball game was playing. JD sat on the end of one couch, tentative of the area's only other inhabitant. She was sitting in an armchair to his left, and couldn't have been more than eight. Her hair was a bright, shocking red, and when she turned to fix him with a curious stare, he could see that the entire left half of her body was mangled and burned. She glanced down at his neck, frowned, but didn't ask. JD wondered if it was taboo. She looked back up and smiled at him, a grotesque look, but cheerful all the same.
"You're JD, right? The nurses were talking about you." He nodded, and she turned back to the TV. "I'm Mel," she said, "Reeve is around here somewhere too."
"Reeve?" JD asked, wincing at the rasp of his unused vocal cords.
"He's the other alt here," she said, focused totally on the baseball game, "he's like the same age as you I guess. We're the only three here for now."
"For now?" JD asked, curious, but Mel only shrugged and said nothing more on the subject, so JD tried a different path. "I don't know how old I am," He said. Mel shrugged again, apparently engrossed in the game, and JD tried once more: "What's an alt?"
"Alternate citizen," Mel answered distractedly, "people who died and then came back even though they shouldn't have." JD nodded, and tried to focus on the game. He rubbed at his eyes; his mind felt frayed at the edges, and he could feel memories trying to bleed in through the cracks. Still, nothing made it through, and he was left frustrated at his own lack of information. Abruptly, he jolted to his feet, swallowing thickly. Mel looked at him curiously.
"Do you not know the rules?" she asked. He stared. "To baseball?" JD looked at the TV, then back to Mel, and slowly shook his head. "Reeve is the one who taught me, I didn't used to know them either. Maybe I can teach you?" She frowned at the floor. "Or maybe we should just find Reeve and he can teach you. He's better at it than I am."
Reeve, as it turned out, was a shitty teacher. That, or JD was a shitty student, and though Reeve fiercely claimed it to be the latter, JD was convinced otherwise. Mel found the two endlessly amusing, and even JD was (somewhat reluctantly) enjoying himself. Reeve looked ridiculous, waving his arms about as he tried yet again to explain what the point of a designated hitter was. He was a massive person, towering far over JD, who had thought himself to be fairly tall, at least in comparison to the hospital staff. And Mel, though JD wasn't sure she counted, what with not having hit puberty yet. There was a small wound, on the right side of Reeve's forehead; a hole, with a few scrapes around it, and JD could see hints of the off-white of Reeve's skull at the center.. The whole area was a shade of pale gray, interspersed with a sickly purple color, and a spattering of color bled through into his right eye, staining what should have been white with an uneasy red. A gunshot wound, JD guessed.
"Okay," said JD, giving up on the designated hitter front for the time being, "so what are the 'E' and 'H' for on the scoreboard?"
Reeve sighed dramatically. "'E' is for how many errors a team makes, and 'H' is for how many hits they get," he answered, a muscle in his jaw twitching.
"And what do errors do?" JD asked.
"They're for stats."
JD frowned. "What stats?"
Reeve threw his hands into the air (again) and gave Mel an incredulous look. "Where did you find this guy?" he groaned. Mel shrugged and smiled, scars stretching painfully across her cheek. Reeve's shoulders slumped, defeated, and he crossed his arms over his chest, tuning out JD and focusing in on the game. JD shrugged at Mel and they both did the same, sitting in companionable silence until the end of the game.
JD spent a lot of time in his room - not that he had that many options. He sat on the bed, legs tangled in the scratchy sheets, and stared at the wall for hours at a time, willing his memories to find their way back to him. He could always feel them, like needles, trying to find him but always missing the vein. They pressed into his skull, and they hurt, and he rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand, trying so hard to lessen the pressure, to—to find something, anything. Anything that would tell him who he was, before, who he wanted to be, who he loved, what he did, why he—
JD dragged long fingers over the bruises on his neck, sighing around an impossible breath, and let his arm fall to his side. The memories evaded his efforts, as they always did. JD pulled his blanket up around his shoulders and curled in on himself.
"How old are you?" JD asked a few days later, while he and Reeve were having blood drawn. The doctors ran these tests fairly frequently. Apparently a person coming back to life two weeks after dying was something worth studying. Even more worth studying, according to the doctors, was the fact that their wounds remained but no harm came of them. Reeve still had a hole in his head, but it never bled, never hurt. JD still had a crushed windpipe, but had no trouble breathing. And Mel, well. Mel was obvious, wasn't she?
"Twenty-six," answered Reeve with a crooked grin. "Why?" JD shrugged.
"Mel thinks I'm your age," he said. Reeve laughed, then winced as the doctor pulled the needle out of his arm, cursing under his breath. JD watched silently as the doctor at his arm did the same, labeling the tube and sending the blood away. Reeve grinned at JD as they stood.
"You look like you're like twelve dude, Mel has a warped sense of time." JD frowned, rubbing at his arm. "Okay," Reeve relented, "maybe you're like, twenty. I dunno. Not old enough to drink, I bet. You still don't remember?" JD shook his head, slowly, drawing his fingers over the place the needle had been, smearing a bit of blood across the crook in his elbow.
"I don't remember," he said.
"Maybe," said Reeve, "that's not such a bad thing." He rubbed mildly at his forehead, smiled at JD, then turned and retreated to his room.
A nurse JD didn't recognize came in after a few weeks to cut JD's hair, which had apparently grown out of control. JD himself tended to avoid mirrors, so he hadn't really bothered noticing. As he sat now, though, in front of the bathroom mirror, with the nurse reading a pair of scissors and a comb, he cast a disdainful eye upon his reflection.
His skin had never quite recovered its color, whatever that may have been, after he woke. He was pale, nearly sheet-white. His lips were tinged faintly blue, as was the skin around his eyes. The only true spot of color on his skin came from the ugly purple bruise that ran in rings around his neck. He looked for all the world a corpse. JD glared at his reflection for a moment longer, then dropped his gaze to his hands in his lap. He felt the nurse pull his hair away from his neck, felt the cold metal of the scissors against his skin, but he didn't feel anything as pale blonde curls fell to the bathroom floor. He just watched them, picking idly at a hangnail.
"Mel." Mel looked up from where she was meticulously sorting out puzzle pieces. "Is it like, rude to ask about... You know." Mel tilted her head and JD sighed. "Is it bad to ask an alt how they died, I mean."
"Oh," said Mel, turning back to her puzzle, "I don't know. I don't think so?" JD's brows furrowed. "I've never asked anyone, and no one's really asked me."
"But why?" he asked, frowning. She set down the puzzle piece she was holding and smiled at JD.
"Mm, I think because it doesn't really matter, you know?" JD shook his head. Mel bit her lip, continued, "Um, like, it already happened, and now we're all in the same place. It doesn't really matter how it happened, it just did."
"Why wouldn't it matter?" JD argued. "Mel, we died." Mel nodded, staring at JD with wide eyes.
"Yeah," she said, then slowly, as if JD were the child, "but we aren't dead anymore."
"Right," said JD faintly, and he got the overwhelming feeling they were having two distinctly different conversations. Mel watched JD for a few seconds, then picked up her puzzle piece and continued her search.
"You shouldn't let it bother you so much," she said quietly, "you'll make yourself crazy." JD's fingers went to his throat again, and he swallowed thickly.
"Aren't I?" he asked hoarsely. Mel smiled up at him, her scars twisting around her mouth, and JD couldn't help but think she was a little bit perfect.
"Haven't you been listening?" she asked, tucking loose strands of red hair behind her ear. "You aren't. Not anymore."
On game day, the three patients gathered in the recreation area, along with four nurses and two doctors. Reeve was easily the most enthusiastic, cheering on the Seattle Mariners with a fervor to be feared. Mel sat to JD's left, with Reeve on his right.
"I don't get what you like about them," said JD, ever the skeptic, "they've lost every game I've ever watched." Reeve elbowed him in the side, grinning.
"Dude, they're terrible, but they're my team, you know?"
"Uh, no," said JD, raising a brow. Reeve laughed.
"Whatever dude, cheer on the fucking Yankees like an idiot then." JD's mouth quirked up into a toothy grin.
"What did the Yankees ever do to you?" Reeve, clearly offended, threw his hands into the air in a move JD had become all too familiar with.
"Dude, it's like you're not even human!" whined Reeve, and Mel giggled.
"Well," she said, "I mean." Reeve lowered his hands slowly.
"Dude, we're still human, I mean. We're just zombies too. Also." Reeve scratched at his forehead, squinting at JD and Mel. "Man, whatever. Just watch the game."
Mel grinned at JD, who gave her a conspiratorial quirk of his lips in return.
"Okay," said JD, "but I think the Yankees are great, for the record."
The therapist re-crossed her legs for the fifth time, smiling at JD.
"I hear you've been very successful in making friends, John."
"JD." She tilted her head, raised her eyebrows. "Everyone calls me JD," he clarified.
"Ah," she said, and pushed her glasses up her nose, "of course, my apologies." JD gave her a half-hearted smile, looking at his hands in his lap. She cleared her throat. "So Joh- JD, I just wanted to check in on you and make sure everything is running smoothly for you here, given your... History."
"How I died, you mean."
She clicked her tongue, smiling awkwardly at him. "Yes, JD. How you died."
He shrugged. "I don't remember it."
She nodded, re-crossing her legs. "But you've been told."
"I hung myself," JD said, hand going to his throat again, "they told me."
"Right," said the woman, "and people with a history of suicide, ah, attempts, tend to—"
"I don't have a history of suicide attempts," said JD. She blinked at him.
"Of course," she said, "you don't remember." JD nodded slowly. She tilted her head, leaned forward, peering at him. "But regardless, you did kill yourself, JD." JD frowned, staring at his hands in his lap.
"I guess," he said, "but—" She looked at him expectantly, raising her eyebrows. JD scratched at his neck, tugged his hair, picked at a loose string on his pants. "I just—"
"Go on," she said, smiling, but it felt forced to JD.
"I don't think," said JD, then stopped, sighed shakily. He was so frustrated; he couldn't find the memories, the words, the feelings—why was everything so lost to him? He stared at the wall of the office, eyebrows knitting together as he tried to weave feelings into thoughts into words. He thought about Mel, with her burnt face and bright smile, and of Reeve, who yelled at baseball and didn't even mind the hole in his head. And then JD thought about himself, thought about his blue lips and his crushed windpipe and the bruises around his neck, and he thought about how he'd gotten here, to this room, to this life.
"I don't think," JD started again, not really sure what he was going to say, but sure it needed to be said, "that who I was—that that matters, really." The therapist made a thoughtful sound in her throat, scribbling something down onto her notebook, and waved for JD to continue. He took a deep breath, feeling his chest expand around a breath that shouldn't be possible, and spoke: "I'm never—I might not ever know why, you know, and I just—I'm not sure that the why really matters, not now that—that—"
"That?" She asked, watching him curiously.
"Now that I've got—" JD stopped, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath, steadying himself. "I didn't kill myself—I—someone else killed himself, and I was—was born, I guess." He shrugged, falling silent.
"That's an interesting way of looking at it, JD," said the therapist, and she smiled at him, and this time it didn't feel forced at all. JD smiled back, just a bit.
"I had some help," he said, and she nodded.
"So then, JD, do you not want to know? About who you used to be?" JD thought on this a moment, turning the question over in his mind.
"I do sort of want to know," he said finally, "but I don't really need to."