by C.L. Donley
Genre: Contemporary Romance
The Halcyon program has only grown in respect and mystique over their now fifteen years of matchmaking. When I went through it six years ago, they were still boasting 100% success of all the participants. Single, usually hopeless, candidates leave the program as part of a couple. The foolproof methods Halcyon uses to guarantee a soulmate comes from a blend of technology, biology, psychology, and, of course, sex. Naturally, with its high price tag, extensive, invasive testing, and painstaking process, only serious participants make it through, and everyone found success. Until us.
This is it. I’ve officially hit rock bottom. I’ve let myself go, with no signs of letting up. So you’d think I wouldn’t be surprised when the day comes.
Ever since I got back from Halcyon, I haven’t been able to eat my feelings fast enough. I went back to school, finished my degree at USC and drowned myself in fried cheese. I can’t bear to look at a scale, but I’ve been up and down enough that I’m practically an honorary dietician.
I know I’m 300 lbs now, at least. I just know that. And all I’ve done about it up to now is worry. I can’t bear to leave the house anymore for the shame. I sure as shit can’t go out networking and apply for jobs. I was trying to move on, or at least I somehow convinced myself that’s what I was doing. Anyone could look at me and see I was stuck.
And now? Now I’m literally stuck. For real. After flailing and wheezing and panting from trying to sit up it’s finally happened. I can’t get out of the bed.
Rock bottom. I woke up every day in fear of it. But I never expected it to be this… literal. I just lay on my bed weeping. Fuck! My sister Skye is on speaker with the phone next to me on the pillow. She just sits and listens to me being the most pitiful human being that’s ever lived. And I know it’s a lot to put on her. It’s a lot to put on anyone. But I literally can’t hold in another thing.
“Just move to Houston, Bria. With me,” Skye says sympathetically. Hardly any real solution, but that isn’t surprising. Skye’s solution to every problem was always, “just come with me to this thing.”
I sigh. “I don’t know, Skye. What would be the point?”
“Well, for one, wouldn’t be alone. For two, you’ll be far away from Mom, which we all need. You said you wanted to get from out of the Forrester shadow. And to do that you gotta leave L.A. The music scene is jumping in Houston. 4D Acres is building its next satellite office here.”
“That means getting on a plane…”
“Not right away. Just get yourself back down to your pre-Halcyon weight for now. I know you can do that in a pinch. What’ll that take, a month?”
The inner me was screaming in agony but I was done listening to that bitch. She’s insane. Look at me!
Skye was the only one brave enough to talk about my weight ballooning as a matter of practicality. Unless you count the paparazzi.
“’In a pinch.’ Because it’s so easy, Skye.”
“No, it isn’t. That’s why you should start now.”
The very thought of trying to scrape up enough willpower to get to the fires of weight loss Mordor is exhausting. It’s exhausting when I’m optimistic. Now there’s no relief in sight.
“No, Skye. I know when I’m not ready, and I’m just not. I’m just too beat up.”
“That’s your own doing, Bri.”
My heartbeat instantly doubles defensively. Not Skye too.
“How can you say that? After what’s happened? After what they posted?”
I showed up in the tabloids not that long ago. A slow day in tabloid history, for sure. But still.
“They’re just saying what you’ve already said to yourself a million times, Bria. You gonna get surprised when TMZ repeats it?? Do you believe yourself or don’t you?”
A single tear falls across my nose down to my pillow as my sister continues to massage my raw, stiff soul. The pain makes it hard to see the point.
“You should’ve been building yourself back up all this time. What good is it, trying to beat people to the punchline if you’re just gonna get upset about how they respond anyway?”
“I barely made it through last semester. Mom wanted a big ass graduation party and all this…”
“Stop worrying about what Mom wants. I’m not gonna sit here and say I know what it’s like to go through a program like Halcyon and come back with nothing. But you picked up and went back to school as if nothing happened.”
“And now I’m in hell.”
“You can dig yourself out.”
“You can. And you’re going to.”
I break down in tears, gasping for air.
“I need help!”
Skye didn’t answer for a long time. The struggle is both real and old for me, and Skye was always the first one to rescue me. She’s probably looking for a red-eye right now, getting her former trainer on the phone—
“Okay. Then get yourself some help.”
Oh. I guess it’s tough love time. Fair enough. I’ve done this to her enough times. She’s allowed to be tired. I feel a lump in my throat.
“So you’re done helping me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I don’t want Mom to know anything.”
“Well, that’s gonna be hard, but I think we can do it. I’ll make some phone calls, but you gotta be 100% transparent Bri. If you slip, don’t do it alone. If you’re not fine, don’t say that you are. Promise me, okay?”
“I’m proud of you. I’m so fucking proud of you, Bria. You know that?”
“Yes.” I wipe my tears.
We decide it’s best to call mom’s assistant Tyra to confidentially come in and remove my extensive snack stash and replace it all with fresh food. So I did. Best way to do it is no last hoorahs. Rip the band-aid off. Have someone else do it if you can.
The next day Aunt Pat comes over— my mom’s long-time hair and makeup stylist. She is not my mom’s or anyone’s sister, but I know if Aunt Pat’s at my door it means that Mom found out about what I was doing, even though I don’t know how. But Forresters leak like a sieve. And also, maybe the disgusting paps followed Tyra leaving the reclusive sea beast’s lair with four grocery bags full of Ding-Dongs.
Pat gives my hair her patented conditioning treatment. It involves Saran wrap and it’s the last thing I need to be worried about. But dammit, if I don’t feel like I’m gonna knock this thing out once I see my shiny and voluptuous hair in the bathroom mirror that’s just past my shoulders when it’s straight. I owe it to the world to chip away this gorgeous slab of marble.
Cooking for myself’s gonna be a bitch. Not because it’s hard, but because it reminds me of Halcyon. When Luke and I would cook on the weekends. Meals were like magic— follow the directions and they came out tasting exceptional every time. I wish I could remember some of those recipes. The night we had the chimichurri chicken was the night he asked me if I loved him. I admitted I did. I ruined the salsa verde enchiladas and they were still delicious.
Everything was of the highest quality. I even lost a few pounds without trying, and despite eating as much as I wanted while I was there. They really spared no expense. I was 80 pounds lighter then— still heavy, still constantly stalked by shame. I’d kill someone to snap my fingers right now and be back there.
By the end of day three, I already want to quit. It’s a hell sandwich. I go to sleep in my reclining chair instead of the bed and cry my eyes out. Hungry. And on top of it, the Halcyon nightmare is back.
It starts out well enough, with Luke’s hands on my hips. Luke moving underneath me hard and intimate. And then I hear laughing. It merely distracts me in the dream.
I’m not self-conscious at all until the dream changes and suddenly we’re not in the suite we shared for six months, we’re in the fucking dining hall. Or should I say, we’re fucking in the dining hall. On top of one of the shiny metal picnic-style tables. Somehow I knew it was an audition. The person wasn’t laughing at me, they weren’t even paying attention. Suddenly the dining hall is more full than it’s ever been. For some reason, I’m too embarrassed to simply pry my naked body from his and run out. I have to pretend that I meant to fuck him in the dining hall. I have to keep going. Luke is obnoxiously indifferent, as usual. The way he was when we weren’t lying down.
I wake up with a dull ache in my chest, not to mention between my legs. Note to self: next time that dream rolls around, get over yourself and ride him for all he’s worth.
I buy a calendar. Prep my meals. Fast intermittently. Cross off the x’s until Houston. I don’t go near a scale. It doesn’t matter, not anymore. This can’t be temporary. Not if I can’t map out a new way to live and stick with it. If I haven’t lost enough weight this month, I simply have to keep going until I do.
I’m awake. In a strange room I don’t recognize. I’m waiting for something to attack me. Something black and oozing from the wall. I hold my breath. Someone walks past the window and my heart leaps from my chest. But nothing happens. I want to say that it’s normal, but normal feels like it was only a dream. It feels inconsequential. And the dreams are what I’ve considered real for what seems like an eternity. Unbearably frightening. But colorful. With only the illusion of separateness.
Another person walks by without incident. A landline phone rings. I want to feel relief but I’m afraid to hope. Maybe I only see them but they don’t see me.
I need to test it out but I’m terrified. Don’t say anything don’t say anything don’t say anything…
At first, nothing happens. Then, a quiet-looking woman in scrubs.
Is this a hospital?
“Sir, do you know where you are?”
“Do you know your name?”
“Your whole name, Cliff.”
“Your parent’s names?”
“Nadia and Cliff Sr. Am I in the hospital?”
“Yes. What year is it?”
“…I don’t know.”
“Try to guess.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“…There was an accident. You’ve been in a coma awhile. In and out of consciousness for a few days. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I was… in a hell.”
“You were in hell?”
“In one of them, yes.”
“Okay,” she patiently replies, “Do you remember having an accident?”
“What kind of accident.”
“A… bus accident.”
I search my memory. The last woman I was with. She kicked me out. A conversation with a cop. On the side of the highway. Shit, that must’ve not been a dream.
“Is everyone okay?” I ask.
“Sorry, is who okay?”
“Was anyone else hurt?”
“…No, everyone else is fine.”
“What about the cop?”
“There was a cop. That talked to me.”
“Officer Rainier? He’s been visiting since you were airlifted here.”
I gulp. Damn, I should remember an accident bad enough to warrant a helicopter flight to the hospital.
“Am I… is anything broken?”
“Mr. Novak, just about everything is broken. Or was. Your surgeries went well, but it will take time to rehabilitate.”
“I want to see.”
The nurse takes a diplomatic breath and musters her most authoritative tone.
“There’s no way I’m having this conversation again. Get some rest now, Mr. Novak. We’ll brief you fully tomorrow.”
I get the sense that I should do what she says, which is easy because I’m exhausted. I’m afraid because I might wake up again to a fresh place. My sleep is dreamless, or maybe I am still awake, but the conversation outside my door bleeds into my consciousness and forces images to emerge, images that are probably a re-creation of the room that I’m in. A long window with a set of blinds. Twinkling moonlight that’s too bright to be from the moon. My bed on a hilltop.
“Any change?” I hear a male voice.
“Well, he didn’t try to yank out his catheter with his one good arm today. Also, he knows what year it is. And mentioned the cop.”
“Should be any day now, then. Did you get a hold of the parents?”
“I did. They were pretty shocked, said that they haven’t heard from him in over a year.”
“Are they coming here?”
“They were in Granada last I heard. Had to cut their vacation short.”
“Long as the check clears.”
“Also, he’s having nightmares. Clonidine?”
“Ask me again tomorrow.”
Maybe it’s the next day. Days feel more like scenes. It’s been a few scenes since the nurse told me to lie down. Another nurse came and told me there was an accident. I asked if everyone was okay and she said: “You’ll see.” Then my parents were here. They talk about me like I’m not here, like they usually do. They’re talking about a thing called Halcyon, which my brain knows. I was on my way there. It was something good and something bad. Sex and boot camp. Disneyland and college.
My parents are gone and another person enters the scene. I don’t recognize him, but he’s a cop. And a cop is one of the last things I remember. He must be that cop.
“How ya feel, Hank?” he says. He calls me Hank, which isn’t my name, I know that for sure. Nice guy. Interested in me for some reason, like we did something together. We didn’t just meet and become friends, I know that. He’s not like anyone who I would ever befriend or vice versa. A nurse comes and takes me and bathes me since I can’t do anything. I hope I can get out of here soon but I’m not sure why yet.
“We recommend moving your son back to Napierville where his rehabilitation will be much more cost-effective for both of you. I’ve contacted Dr. Krueger out of Lawrence Medical. A colleague of mine. He’ll be expecting you.”
My parents are back again in their recurring roles. I woke up yesterday knowing where I was, and why I was there. And the cop. But not much else. Meanwhile, a nurse has my right leg in her arms.
“How long until he regains his memory, Doctor?”
“His long term memory appears to be intact and his short term memory shows signs of recovery. He’s missing what happened the night of the accident. The officer maintains that it was a suicide attempt.”
“Impossible. My son would never do anything like that.”
“Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I say this would happen if you cut him off?” my mother scolds dramatically.
“Cliff still doesn’t have a memory of that night and honestly it would be a lot to expect of him.”
“He didn’t come home after leaving Halcyon. We couldn’t even get his discharge information from them. They wouldn’t give us anything. Now, he doesn’t even remember ever being there?”
Shit, that wasn’t a dream either. I was there? I feel anxious when I think about it, like it’s about to happen. I’m about to be taken there and left alone.
“My suspicion is that whatever happened there is related to his accident.”
“My son did not try to kill himself,” my dad says, like he’s in a movie. I don’t remember if I did or not, but I probably did, based on the context of my charmed life, that which I do remember. And the strength of my father’s telltale denial. I do remember my fiancee… dropping out of college… that I remember quite well. That was real. I was hurt, but I was getting over it. I wouldn’t have tried to kill myself over her. Not all at once. It didn’t do anything but solidify my bad opinion of women. How do I remember that and not Halcyon?
“Be that as it may, if the two incidents are linked, it may contribute to his inability to retrieve that information.”
“Who’s going to put my son back together?”
“We’ll do our best. We can nurse his body back to health. But ultimately the rest is up to him.”
Even though he’s now an hour out of the way, I’m still visiting this kid faithfully on weekends at the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center.
I’m starting to look forward to our visits. In any other universe, the two of us would probably never like each other. He’s a trust fund kid, although I think technically to be considered that you have to leave your parents’ house, which he apparently only did when forced. Me, I’m the kind of guy that knows how to talk to everyone. I always liked helping people. Always liked being the life of the party. Police work mellowed me out a bit, but otherwise, my wisecracking and jovial nature goes a long way with a lot of perps who end up going to jail anyway. But they’re always in a good mood when they go.
Cliff’s parents are loaded. The father’s in natural resources. Fairly old money. Clean coal, whatever the fuck that is. From what I’ve had to glean, Cliff’s the only child. Spoiled. Basically they raised a loser who leeched off of them. They would never use those words, of course. But I would. And I’m not leaving them off the hook either. Even with his memory still fuzzy, Cliff’s a bit of a blank slate. No direction, no ambition, no real passion. Not even for the girl that drove him to the ledge where I found him that night, the girl he can’t remember anymore.
But I’m working on changing that. For some reason or another, the kid’s got some kind of psychological damage. I got a chance to really imprint something on this guy that could have a lasting effect. Cliff was a crazed, sobbing mess of a man when we briefly met. Now he’s doing physical therapy, learning to walk, simply because he can’t think of what else he’d previously planned to be doing. On the off chance he hasn’t just faked this whole thing out of boredom or for attention, I hope, for his sake, the memories never come back.
I get to the hospital and check-in only a few paces from Cliff’s room. I can see Cliff’s room door’s already open so I confidently walk toward it, seeing Cliff in his familiar catatonic looking state on the edge of the bed while two nurses help put back on his trousers. Either he’s gone to the bathroom or been given a bath. Lucky bastard.
“Hank!” I greet him. Cliff’s big dark eyes are blank a moment longer before the delay of a wide smile registers the familiarity between us.
“Hey Felix,” Cliff says. It’s the friendly tone of a man that has an unexpectedly persistent visitor, not of someone who remembered once trying to jump off a ledge and was stopped by a highway patrolman.
“Your move, Hank.”
“Why do you call me that?”
“What, Hank? It’s from Regarding Henry. It’s the ultimate amnesia movie, bro.”
“Did he also have a zany friend that came to visit him?”
“Zany physical therapist.”
“You’re awfully quiet today.”
“I’m feeling contemplative.”
It’s warm enough that September afternoon to play chess on the balcony during my visit. Dr. Krueger thinks it’d be good for his amnesia to play games, particularly games he still remembered well enough to teach someone else.
“So, have you given any thought to what you want to do once you get outta here?”
“I have, actually.”
“…I think I wanna be a cop,” Cliff announces.
“Really?” I say, amused. Surprised, really. And I think I’ve earned the right to be flattered.
“You’re not doing that on account of me are you?”
“Hank, I’m touched.”
“You saved my life. You cared about me. Without knowing who I was.”
“Anyone would do what I did in my position.”
“I don’t think so. You help people.”
“How are the parents going to take this life decision?”
“They’re going to hate it. But I always planned to be a disappointment. Here’s my perfect chance.”
Uh… Thanks, I guess? Sounds a little too flippant for my taste.
“There are tons of other ways to help people, you know. Ways that are a lot less… thankless. Sure you wanna take the oath?”
“Why not? I’ve been a dickhead my entire life.”
“And now you want to help put dickheads away?”
“…Sort of. They need a sympathetic ear. After Harvard, I think I can survive anything.”
“Harvard, huh? Well. We’ll see.”
“Also, she told me once she had a thing for civil servants.”
I stop in my tracks. She??
Surely he’s not talking about the broad who started all of this. Like he suddenly gained his entire memory back.
Cliff sometimes says jumbled shit. Dr. Krueger says to ignore it, unless he doesn’t.
“Well, you know I’ll help you any way I can,” I reply.
“I know. Still got a lotta work to do.”
“I’m not worried. Doctor says you’re killing your physical therapy.”
“No, it’s definitely killing me.”
“Well, you’re recovering in record time. Everyone’s amazed, no bullshit.”
“How do you know?”
“I’m a cop, people tell me things.”
“Well once I’m well enough to walk on my own, they’re gonna boot me outta this place. I’m looking at at least another year.”
“There’s no rush.”
“For you, maybe.”
“I wouldn’t worry. It’s not like your parents wouldn’t let you—”
“I’m not going back there.”
I stop again, looking at the chessboard like I’m planning my next move, but really I’m stunned to silence.
I’m not going back there. It’s the same thing he said that night on the highway bridge.
“You remember,” is all I said. “Everything?”
“I think so.”
“At my last visit?”
“Well… that’s great,” I reason. “I take it I’m the only one who knows.”
“For right now.”
“Gonna enlighten anyone else?”
“Maybe Dr. Payton. If I can trust him.”
“He’s the neurologist here.”
“Not your parents?”
“It’s just better that they don’t treat me the way they treated their son. If that makes any sense.”
“It makes perfect sense.”
We play a few chess moves in silence as if afraid of the place being bugged.
“We had a therapist. At Halcyon,” Cliff moves his knight. “Met with us every week and stuff. His name was Dr. Payton too. It was weird for the first few weeks here. Like a phantom limb. I kept wanting to scratch this itch. Kept wanting to sit down with my doctor every week and it wouldn’t go away. It just sort of… pushed through.”
“And you remember the girl too?”
He ignores me, and for a minute I think he hasn’t heard me. I look up at him and I can tell that he did hear me. But he won’t say her name. Almost like he’s not ready to. But I remember it. Because it was a pretty unique name. Lyric. He hesitates before moving his bishop.
“’Course I remember… ‘the girl,’” he says. “I remember what you said about her.”
“What did I say?”
“You said, ‘before you jump, maybe you should talk to her first.’”
“And you thought that was a terrible idea.”
“Not terrible. Just impossible.”
“And what do you think now?”
“I think… one day at a time,” Cliff says.
It wasn’t all the time that going the extra mile got me a big win. In fact, most times it never did. There aren’t a whole lotta years between us, but to see this young man in his right mind, taking back control of his life is like watching a tap-dancing duck. It’s a sight to see, and it feels even better.
“I think I saw her on television, but I still have a little trouble understanding what’s real.”
“Wait, what now?”
“Never mind. It’s crazy.”
I look down at the board. “No fuckin’ way.”
“You’re terrible at this game dude.”
“I practiced online. I downloaded a fuckin’ book.”
“Thanks, man. For my life.”
I give Hank a little smirk as I reset the board. “Don’t mention it.”
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About the Author
C.L. Donley is a future New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author of multicultural and interracial romance, who believes romance novels that are impossible to put down are the only kind that should exist! Armed with a B.A. in English and M.A. in Writing, she is new to the romance game, having written her first novel, Amara’s Calling, after discovering the romance genre in September 2017. Donley writes in a style she calls “romantic realism” that is sophisticated yet simple, grounded yet unaplogetically escapist, and character-driven rather than plot-driven. This style creates a unique, modern reading experience ideal for book club discussions, personal epiphanies, satisfying re-reads, and the occasional spiraling reviewer! Love it or hate it, fans and critics alike can’t deny her talent, and always find themselves coming back for more!
She loves hearing from readers and discussing her favorite parts of her own books, so feel free to indulge her.