I am shown into a small, drab room, told to sit down and wait. Six empty brown plastic chairs face each other on tired linoleum. In a corner, a fake green plant, shiny leaves coated with dust. I do as I am told. I sit down. My thighs tremble. My palms feel clammy, my throat parched. My head throbs. I think: I should call our father now, I should call him before it gets too late. But my hand makes no effort to grab the phone in the pocket of my jeans. Call our father and tell him what? Tell him how?
The lighting is harsh, glaring strips of neon barring the ceiling. The walls are yellowish and cracked. I sit there, numb. Helpless. Lost. I long for a cigarette. I wonder if I am going to retch, bring up the bitter coffee and stale brioche I had a couple of hours ago.
I can still hear the screech of the wheels, feel the sudden lurch of the car as it veered sharply to the right, careening into the railing. And her scream. I can still hear her scream.
How many people have waited here, I think. How many people have sat here where I am sitting now and waited for news of their loved ones. I cannot help imagining what those jaundiced walls have seen. What they know. What they remember. Tears, shouts, or relief. Hope, pain, or joy.
The minutes click by. I watch the round face of a grimy clock above the door. There is nothing else for me to do but wait.
After half an hour or so, a nurse comes in. She has a long horsy face, skinny white arms.
"Yes," I say, my heart in my mouth.
"You need to fill out these papers. With her details."
She hands me a couple of sheets and a pen.
"Is she alright?" I mumble.
My voice seems thin and strained.
She flickers watery, lashless eyes over me.
"The doctor will tell you. The doctor will come."
She leaves. She has a sad, flat ass.
I spread the sheets of paper over my knees with trembling fingers.
Name, birth date and place, marital status, address, social security number, health insurance number. My hand still shakes as I print out: Mélanie Rey, born August 15th 1967 at Boulogne-Billancourt, single, 49 rue de la Roquette, Paris 75011.
I have no idea what my sister's social security number is. Or her health insurance number for that matter. All that stuff must be in her bag. Where is her bag? I can't remember anything about her bag. Just the way her body slumped forward when they hauled her out of the car. The way her limp arms hung down to the ground from the stretcher. And there I was, not a hair out of place, not a bruise on my skin, and I had been sitting right next to her. I flinch. I keep thinking I am going to wake up.
The nurse comes back with a glass of water. I gulp it down. It has a metallic, stale taste. I thank her. I tell her I don't have Mélanie's social security number. She nods, takes the sheets and leaves.
The minutes inch by. The room is silent. It is a small hospital. A small town, I guess. In the suburbs of Nantes. I'm not quite sure where. I stink. No air conditioning. I can smell the sweat trickling under my armpits, gathering around my groin. The sweaty, meaty smell of despair and panic. My head still throbs. I try breathing calmly. I manage to do this for a couple of minutes. Then the helpless, awful feeling takes over swamps me.
Paris is more than three hours away. I wonder again if I should call my father. I tell myself I need to wait. I don't even know what the doctor has to say. I glance down at my watch. Ten thirty. Where would our father be now, I wonder? At some dinner party? Or watching cable TV in his study, with Régine in the next room, on the phone, painting her nails?
I decide to wait a little longer. I am tempted to call my ex wife. Astrid's name is still the first one that pops up in times of stress or despair. But the thought of her with Serge, in Malakoff, in our old house, in our old bed, with him invariably answering the phone, even her mobile, for Christ's sake, - "Oh hi, Antoine, what's up, man?" - is just too much. So I don't call Astrid, although I long to.
Excerpted from A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay. Copyright © 2010 by Tatiana de Rosnay. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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