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Secret Stitches
By Tim Wenzell

On the evening of the day that Amy turned seven, her brother Paul-- after watching an episode of "Mannix"-- tied her up and made her walk across the hard tiles of the kitchen floor until she fell directly on her face. Their father Alex, down between the pages of the Daily News, heard the thud and the cry and finally Paul's gasp as the blood flowed from the kitchen above, thinking only that the sounds resembled the sounds of any other scuffles that had erupted between the two over the course of years. He finished his paragraph and ruffled his paper, then stopped at the curious silence. He turned his eyes finally to the top of the stairs, where Paul flashed the terror of his act and beckoned his father, without a word, from his recliner.

Amy spent the better part of two years in and out of hospitals--first the general ones, then a string of specialized buildings filled with foreign doctors. Because Amy's tied hands were unable to break her fall, her forehead had hit full force upon the tiles. Paul would later sob, over and over in waiting rooms, that he had seen her head bounce three or four times before it finally came to rest in a pool of blood, before her last whimpers settled into unconsciousness. Likewise on several occasions, his father sobbed and apologized for belting his son there in the kitchen immediately after the medics had carted Amy away, after he had to explain the knotted ropes to the men who had to kneel and unravel Paul's scoutsmanship. Paul, questioned in a corner, had elaborated in whispers, with trembling limbs, about the particular episode of "Mannix" which had possessed him to fetch the rope from the basement and grab his little sister by the waist. "It just felt like the thing to do during the commercials," he had said as he stared into the wallpaper pattern.

Suffering amnesia, Amy couldn't remember much of anything except that she had just turned seven, and of a television advertisement, word by word, for Life cereal. At first she remembered her name as Mikey. However, upon seeing her reflection in a mirror, she understood that she was neither a boy nor a commercial and dropped into a blank gaze which her father tried valiantly to penetrate by injecting various memorable events of her life.

Amy's father admitted her to St. Vincent's Neurological Hospital shortly after her ninth birthday. Dr. Ardizone, fresh up from Venezuela, probed her eyes with a powerful pen light and knocked about her head with repeated taps of his fist. "Not much we can do about the human consciousness," he said in his thick accent. "It's a deep dark mystery, especially with such a blow." He surveyed the long winding scar that tapered to her left ear and ran his finger along the ridge as if he were reading braille.

"When will the stitches come out?" Amy asked suddenly. The outburst, from her head of empty pages, surprised both her father and the doctor, who clicked off his pen light in amazement.

"You know about your stitches?" he asked. "You know that your stitches came out almost two years ago?"

"Yes but not those...stitches on the arm..." Amy fell back into her silence and reached into her well to identify from where she had extracted such a remark. Her eyes scanned the room.

"How do you remember arm stitches, honey?" her father asked. "How would you know such a thing?"

"I remember a time....I remember a time..." She could only utter that, for a wall had obviously dropped on her memory of the arm stitches and closed her off, once again, into her suffocating universe. Her father, hopeful that signs of recognition were returning and that perhaps she would leap into his arms crying 'daddy' at any moment, moved into dejection as her glassy eyes returned.

Dr. Ardizone pulled Alex into the hallway. "She is not remembering the stitches she had removed last year...she is remembering stitches from another time, I'm sure of it." he said. "Did she ever have arm stitches as a baby? Did she know anyone who had arm stitches?" The doctor could not contain his excitement, wild-eyed and curious to dig deeper into her mysterious outburst, certain that this unconscious revelation would fill another piece of the puzzle to which he had been working to assemble his entire adult life.

Alex could only rub his chin, tick back the years, and remember nothing. "Never a stitch, never a memory of a stitch," he told the doctor. "Up until Paul tied her up, she's never been hurt other than scrapes on the knee. Nobody's ever been hurt. Not Paul. Not me. Don't know why she remembers arm stitches."

"What about your wife?" the doctor asked. "Perhaps she..."

"The children don't know their mother," Alex snapped, almost in a shout . He turned to the wall, avoiding eye contact with the doctor. "She left when Amy was still in the crib, when Paul was four. She.....she left...." Then he braced his head against the wall, and Dr. Ardizone could see the painful memories returning to this particular consciousness as he delivered more space and let them escape. The hallway filled with the echoes of distant nurses, but it might as well have emptied completely of sound, for the stifling silence between them only resurrected the mystery of the departed wife, as Alex's past ground its torment to the surface.

"Tell me if there's any change," he told the doctor without eye contact and then: "Paul will be expecting grilled cheeses for dinner." He walked off towards the elevators without a good-bye to Amy (who wouldn't have recognized her own father anyway).
Later that night, after Betty the night shift nurse had finished her romance novel, a faint drone seeped out of Room 432 and issued itself down the hall like a fog. Amy, whom Dr. Ardizone later explained must have been caught in a dream, kept repeating "lavender" over and over, recanting the word as if ensconced in religious ritual.
"It was very frightening at three in the morning with the lights turned low," Betty wrote in her report. "Seated at my station, I was getting a piece of her memory over and over for near two hours, like some Chinese water torture."

Of course, Dr. Ardizone questioned Amy that next morning, and upon her father's arrival, took him aside and tried to dredge up a lavender memory. Alex, awake most of the night attempting to recount any possible stitching experiences, quietly rubbed his eyes . "Nope," he sighed in frustration. "Lavender doesn't bring back anything at all, save for the lilac bushes in May."

The doctor considered a question involving the departed wife, but quickly remembered the man's previous day with the wall. Ardizone was certain that stitches and lavender had some distant connection, perhaps tied to some accident of which Alex refused to recognize. He reminded himself, in some clipboard scribbles, to pursue the memory of the mother, after Alex had a few more sleepless nights and could perhaps make a more fertile connection.

"You know, some doctors, including myself, believe that returning memories occur chronologically," he said to Alex.

"So what you're saying is..." Alex raised his heavy eyelids and beckoned the doctor's explanation.

" I believe that she may be remembering things from very early on...perhaps from infancy."

"Funny, I was thinking about my earliest memory as I was lying awake last night, after you'd asked about my ex-wife leaving," he said. "I was trying to remember as far back as I could.... a thunderstorm coming in off the playground when I was four while my mother called me home from the back steps. The picket fence, so endless along the Luff's back yard....the lightning." He stopped and sighed, then gazed in anger at the doctor. "I was four, damnit. I can't possibly see how Amy could remember something from the crib."
"The dark well of the unconscious is sometimes clouded over by layers of memory. The older we get, the more difficult it becomes to remember things from long ago." Dr. Ardizone had planned to go on, to explain all about absence of language and how Amy's blank pages had taken her back to that time when the world filled itself only with unfamiliar shapes and sounds, to a place where no words encroached. In his own mind, things had begun to click into place--her view from the crib and what might have made her translate things into stitches: some intersecting lines, perhaps from a spinning mobile, patterned like the stitches running across her own head. And lavender: maybe it was the color of the walls, or a heavy blanket draped about her, or some sort of toy to which her eyes first focused. Perhaps she had marked up the wooden crib with a lavender crayon, or had seen the lavender curtains moving on a gust of wind. He was going to go on and theorize all this aloud, but Alex had begun heavy sighs of anger, so he simply made himself some quick notes.

Later that night beneath his desk lamp, Ardizone penned comments into his journal which drew conclusions about Alex's missing wife: in one entry, she had left with a lover, and the sight of the man had elicited rage from Alex and then some deep cuts that required stitching. In another entry, a lavender vase was tossed across the room, smashed into jagged fragments all about the crib. Then others: Amy was cut and stitched somewhere else early on, and Alex didn't want him to know because his temper and child abuse would be dredged up; Alex had murdered his wife and wrapped her body in a lavender tablecloth and dragged her into the yard as Amy, in her wordless world, looked on. These things would be looked into, Ardizone promised himself in writing. He would get to the bottom of her consciousness and begin to solve the mystery of the human brain. Symposiums, lectures, book tours, talk shows, he kept thinking as he shut off his light and listened to the rain.

All along, back to when she first was admitted to West County General, Paul wanted to speak to Amy alone in her hospital room and apologize for what he had done. He could not shake the image of her falling; he could not fall to sleep most nights because her head kept bouncing off the floor and pestering him. It was there, spreading like a cancer month by month. He knew he needed to speak to her alone, despite her not knowing him as brother. Trying to work up courage, he had thought of asking his father several times to leave her hospital rooms so that he could be alone with his little sister. Paul could never get the words to the surface; he was afraid of the monster that Amy had become. Often when visiting, he would stand at the far end of the room, beneath the mounted television, while his father tried to get through to Amy. He would eye him as he repeated detailed memories, or tickled her on the toes the way he had done since she was two, or rubbed her stitches to see if something monumental would return. This was not the sister Paul once teased, the one whom he had walled into the snow fort, whose slippers he had filled with shaving cream. He had taken some things from her room one Christmas and wrapped them all and placed each of them, with red bows, in a pile beneath the tree. He had to hold back the laughter as she plunged gleefully into the pile and opened them one by one. Their father sat puzzled and finally began to snicker himself. "Hey I already have one of these," she kept saying as she opened each one. When her revelation, and then her anger, and finally some hollow laughter came out from her spot there on the rug, Paul whipped out his real present and slid it across. That was the other Amy, and every time he dredged up the pleasant memories, it became all that more impossible to imagine some time alone with what she had become. But he needed to do it---most of her life had been wiped away, and he needed to let her know that he had made it happen and that he was so sorry about it all.

The colors on the television flicked in and out in a heavy magenta and it irritated Paul. Flesh tones would only hold for several seconds before they would give way: it was like an itch coming on, yet despite all of the finagling of the antenna and the turning of the Hue and Tone knobs, the itch persisted. He shut off the set in frustration and waited for the sound of his father's car. Visiting hours had ended, and he would be driving down Mill Road with a load on his mind again. He was hoping his father would make spaghetti tonight. That was the only meal he could make right. He could still taste the burned grilled cheeses from last night's dinner.

Just after nine, the headlights came through the curtains and flooded the family portrait. Like every other night, Paul was hoping for some good news, perhaps even the sound of two car doors slamming and a fully recovered Amy bursting into the room shouting "Paul Paul Paul." Only the one door: his father came quiet and perturbed into the room and dropped into his recliner, staring hard again at the paneling.

"Nothing again dad?" Paul asked. "No new memories?"

"As a matter of fact," his father replied "She came up with something out of the blue again. She's got a friend now, a black woman named Peggy." He returned his stare to the paneling and sighed: "A black woman named Peggy."

Paul sank back into the couch and thought for some seconds. "Maybe a teacher? Isn't there a black woman up on Pelham named Peggy?"

"That's April and she didn't know April. It's not April."

Something familiar was brushing at the edge of Paul's brain, touching the tips of his memory cells like a feather. Peggy, a black woman. It almost came to him, then faded entirely. Had he met this woman? Had they met her together? Perhaps on one of the days they had walked down to the pond, someone had stopped and spoken. He vaguely remembered something. Then Paul tried to remember his mother. Was she black? He dare not ask his father. He checked his white arms.

"Why do you have the set off?" his father asked.

"Colors were giving me a headache."

"Put it on black and white then. That's what I do. Only way to watch it anyway."
Black and white, he kept thinking as he clicked "Beverly Hillbillies" back on. He turned both knobs left until the colors faded, then sank back into the couch, adjusted the pillows, and took in the canned laughter. Where is my mother anyway, he kept thinking as he watched Ellie May by the pool.

In one theory, Ardizone had a black woman named Peggy, in a lavender dress, getting her stitches removed in an examination room. Alex, who had brought Amy to the doctor for her six-month check-up, mistakenly walked into the wrong examination room, quickly apologized, and closed the door. Not, however, before the fluorescent image of the black women, with her lavender dress and exposed stitches, had fully burned into Amy's memory cells. Ardizone commented, in parenthesis, that Alex would not remember such an event, so he was going to confront Amy about it instead.

Just after her breakfast, Ardizone entered Room 432 with his clipboard and got down to business. He had the memory all laid out and began forging questions in the hope that everything would come tumbling back. He knew that all it took sometimes was one word. One word, like a key, would unlock everything, and the memories would come flooding back. Amy, however, simply ran her fingers through her hair and shook her head. "Confused," she said. "Every day you come in here with things that I'm supposed to know and I feel dizzy every time you leave."

The doctor, so certain that he would elicit a spark with this theory, patted her on the back in subtle dejection. "That's a common side effect to amnesia," he sighed. "Much like thinking of food on an empty stomach. You're thinking memories on an empty brain."
"I do remember part of a dream last night though," Amy said.

The doctor readied his pen and moved close.

"I was tied up."

"You know that's how you fell. How you hurt your head."

"Yes I know but this time I was in a chair, and there was a bad man, or maybe two bad men, but I couldn't see him or them. I think he or they left me alone in the house. I think he or they left in a car or something." Amy watched the doctors furrowing eyebrows as he wrote everything down.

"I tried to get up. I needed to get out of that room because something bad was going to happen. I got up from the chair. I saw the door, the door knob. I...." She stared at the sunlight.

"Go on Amy. Try to remember."

"I think I fell."

"No one made you walk in your dream. No one was there with you?"

"No, I'm sure I was alone. I wanted to get to that door and I tried to go too fast. My feet were tied. I fell."

Satisfied for the time and filled with a thousand theories, Ardizone moved quickly out of the room and down the hall toward his office. His mind raced: murder, kidnapping, evil doings. Amy had witnessed something, that was for sure. Perhaps she would reveal some deep dark secrets that Alex had made sure to cover over. She had witnessed it all from her crib, or crawled into the hallway while her father had his wife bound and gagged in the middle of the living room. She had watched as her mother made a frantic attempt at the door, only to fall, just as she had done when her own brother pushed her to the tiles. Perhaps she needed stitches beneath her lavender dress. Perhaps her father had married a black woman and had second thoughts, and he later found the time to stuff her in a trunk. Or perhaps her father was tied to that chair, and some masked men had taken her mother away. They had come for jewels and money, certain that her father had some to spare in one of the dresser drawers. When they found nothing, they took her mother away instead. She kicked and screamed, and her father tried valiantly to get out of the chair and get to the door. His face required stitches, and the police never found his wife.

Ardizone decided he wasn't going to run these particular theories by Alex: they posed problems with their seriousness.and might cause the man to lose all control. Instead, he would check some incident reports down at the police station to verify any possible crimes. "Wouldn't that be something," he thought, "if I solved this puzzle, put together a better understanding of the human mind, and, at the same time, brought some criminals to justice?"

Alex arrived during afternoon visiting hours, just after he had picked up Paul from school. As usual, Paul stood in the far corner as his father hugged and kissed Amy and tried to get her to remember her first seven years. He spoke in whispers, in the way that doctors in every hospital to which she had been admitted over the past two years had instructed him to do. The intimacy of the soft-spoken word might bring it all back, they had all told him. She might remember that same voice from a bedtime story.
Paul looked away, first out to the sunlight coming off the roof of the atrium, then out into the hallway, where the lunch cart lady was gathering discarded trays of half-eaten sandwiches and such. He wouldn't need to be here quite as long today--they had hit some heavy traffic on the interstate on the way over and visiting hours were nearly gone. Soon, in twenty minutes or so, it would be time to leave and go back home, where he could sink back down into the couch and watch his television.

Ardizone came into the room with his clipboard filled with notes and his eyes filled with fire. "Well look who came to visit you again today," he said loudly to Amy. "Looks like somebody loves you an awful lot."

Alex smiled and stroked her hair.

Ardizone had just come from the police station, where, after poring over thick piles of reports for three hours, he had turned up nothing that could support any of his theories. He was, however, resolved to finding an answer--in fact, more now than ever. The case history of Amy Stidum would enable him to put it all together, to write his book and take his place among the elite of the field. So certain was he that the fragments had a connection. Anger or no anger, he was going to extract something from Alex today.

"We need to talk in the hall," he whispered. Alex followed him toward the doorway. Paul's heart began to race, for he realized that he would be alone in the room with Amy for the very first time since the accident. This was the moment he could not work up the courage to ask for, and now, the doctor was handing it to him.

"Make sure she doesn't escape," Alex said into Paul's ear. Then they were gone.

"How goes it Amy," Paul said. The awkward moment consumed him, and he wanted to open one of her hospital windows, drop to the atrium, and escape himself. He wished for a nurse, someone to usher him from the room because visiting hours were nearly done. He checked the hall for a white dress and stuffed his hands into his pockets. He looked back to Amy.

"I always get these little headaches," she said. "I guess I should stop trying to think or something." She adjusted a pillow.

"Thinking hurts me too, especially the night before math tests," Paul replied. He was hoping for at least a smile for that one, but obviously Amy had no conception of math, or tests for that matter.

"Look Amy, I need to say this." He was doing it; he moved toward her bed, with no one else in the room, in the scenario that he had imagined for two years. He took her little hand and looked into her puzzled eyes. "I'm sorry I did what I did."
"Did what you did? I don't remember what you did."

"I know, but I'm sure you've heard. I tied you up and made you walk. I didn't do it to hurt you. I thought it would be funny to watch you walk and I'm so sorry. It's just that, well, on Mannix..."

Amy pulled her hand away, and the puzzled look in her eyes suddenly vanished. Paul stepped back, as if some beam of invisible light had shot down from the ceiling and enveloped his little sister on her bed. Her face muscles tensed and her eyes grew wide.

"Paul," she said. "Paul."

"You...know me?"

"I know you...I know me..I know...where is dad?"

Paul could not believe the transformation which had occurred right in front of him. What had he done? What had he said? She smiled in recognition.

Everything rushed back to Amy: first her name, resounding like a gong across her brain, then the memories, one by one, floating in like so much debris down a swollen river. The swings, the burned playground grass, the sandbox, the big rotted maple. The deep woods, the box turtles, the faces of boys running up the path-- Joey Helmuth, Eddie Culp, Carl and then Paul in his muddy boots. The open windows, the garage filled with snakes, her room with the white vanity, the flower posters, the stained curtains. Her father pulling in the drive, the plastic seat so hot on summer afternoons, the smell of cigarettes lingering, Mill Road in the rain, the crickets so loud in August. I am Amy, he is Paul, I can hear my father out in the hallway shouting. I can write my name if I want, I can write 'Amy' if I want. And then Mannix: a man named Mr. Lavender, with stitches up his arm, tying Mike Mannix's black secretary Peggy to the chair. Setting a bomb, leaving in a car, and then Peggy, wide-eyed and fearful, trying to escape. Hopping across the room, trying to make the door, reaching for the door knob, falling, getting up, falling, getting to the door, getting out. A commercial, Life cereal, "I think I'll tie you up just like that" from Paul. Up to the kitchen, grabbed by the waist, the rope, the gag, the light overhead, the floor.....

Paul rushed out of the room. He did not realize that he had found the magic word, that the word 'Mannix ' had unlocked the door and sent her memories spilling out. His father, red-faced in anger, had backed Ardizone into a laundry cart. The doctor's clipboard had released its pages all over the floor and scattered notes about their shoes. It seemed to Paul as though his father were ready to punch the doctor, and he could see several wide-eyed nurses scurrying for help.

"Dad, dad, she can remember again, she can remember!" Paul shouted.

Immediately the doctor, then Paul and his father, rushed back into the room, where Amy, her memory intact, bolted from the bed and jumped into her father's arms. She told him about her spinning head, about the flood of memories still returning, about wanting to go home. "I'm me again, daddy," she said. "I don't need to be here any more."

The doctor moved close and examined her as her father, still bristling from their altercation in the hall, picked her up and held her tight. Ardizone checked into her eyes with his pen-light, tapped her head again with his fist, and stepped back while she kissed her father's cheek. Of course he felt relief. She had fully recovered and everything had come back to her, and that was always a good thing. But now his dream had died. He could no longer covet her case history and vault himself to stardom. All those scattered pages in the hall had become useless. He might still write a book, but it would not have the ending for which he had hoped. It would not have the flavor of an evil deed or a revelation that would jolt the medical world.

In all his theories, in all those long hours of note-taking, he had never considered the television; he knew nothing of 'Mannix' or any other American television shows for that matter. Had he known, had he theorized in that direction, he may very well have unlocked Amy's trapped memories himself. He may very well have written a best-selling book and visited talk shows and found his place among the medical immortals. "Television and the Unconscious," he might have titled his book.

"How did she remember?" he asked Paul. "How did you make it all come back?"

For the first time since he had forced his tied-up sister to walk, Paul's posture straightened. A thousand needles had just been removed from his heart, and he hugged his father and sister and almost found the tears to cry. Stepping back from the embrace and standing proud, Paul turned to the doctor and said simply, "I apologized."

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