Naya approached her nemesis with caution. This was where pain and exhaustion became unbearable. The place where she began to doubt herself, her ability and if she could continue.
She checked the pulse monitor on her wrist. In the target range. Glanced at her watch. A new personal best. Full of confidence, she pushed on.
And passed the 30K mark. Only twelve kilometres to go.
Easy route from here.
She’d run her first full marathon at eighteen and had immediately fallen in love with the sport. It wasn’t about the race. She only ever competed against herself. It was about the unequalled joy she felt as the road challenged her physical limits. Then with a general pig-headedness, she’d always ignored those limits and continued to glide across the terrain to the finish line.
She called on that familiar stubbornness to maintain her steady pace.
The sun peeked from behind the high, scattered clouds as she left the New Edinburgh neighbourhood and turned onto Sussex Drive that tracked the Ottawa River. Her feet pounded in a comfortable rhythm. She came up to a water station with its long line of volunteers holding small paper cups in outstretched hands. Without slowing she grabbed a cup to pour on her head, then threw the empty cup off to the side. She poured another on the back of her neck. Drank a third.
At the beginning of the race when the starting pistol had gone off, Naya had fallen in step amidst other runners of equal calibre. As the kilometres fell away, a few runners had passed her, many had fallen behind. Only a twenty-something man wearing funny red shorts had remained with her. Sometimes he was ahead. Sometimes she was.
At twenty-nine, though in excellent shape, she accepted the fact that she wasn’t a teenager with boundless energy anymore. It must be the sun beating down on her that had transformed her easy stride to one of slogging through knee-deep water. The cool breeze that wafted across the river refused to cool her. She never wore a hat while running, but now with the sun heating up her auburn hair she decided to consider one for the next race. Or maybe cut her hair very short. The strands were coming loose from the braid and falling in sweaty, distracting locks before her eyes. Also, next time she’d wear darker sunglasses. Unlike most people with light coloured eyes, her hazel eyes had never been sensitive to the sun. Until today.
The course now followed the Rideau Canal. As she passed the National Arts Centre across the water she envied the people on the outdoor patio and longed to rest in the shade with a tall glass of ice tea. Concentrate! Soon she passed her old alma mater, the University of Ottawa. The large eyes painted on the side of the biology building had always watched over her when she’d studied here. Even now they watched, encouraging her to keep going. Within moments the Queensway overpass came into view and she knew that the 40K marker was close. She’d cross over the Pretoria Bridge, then two kilometres to the finish.
A check of her watch reassured her that she’d definitely finish in under four hours. A quick glance over the shoulder confirmed that Red Shorts was out of sight. She could afford to slow to a walk briefly to re-energize.
But when she increased her pace again, the rhythmic footfalls that were as natural to her as walking eluded her. A little more than three kilometres to the finish line. For the first time, Naya noticed that several runners were zipping past. Then Red Shorts came up beside her, slowed long enough to acknowledge her with a look of concern, then sped up and faded into the distance.
She reached another line of volunteers, but this time she had to slow to be able to grab a cup. She threw the water on her face. Two more cups poured on the back of her neck. She barely held onto another to drink. As the moisture touched her lips, the sky darkened. She tilted her head to search for the storm clouds when a wave of vertigo, like a slap on the back of her head, knocked her down. She hit the pavement skinning her hands and knees. Water splashed up her nose with a burning sensation reminding her of the time she was learning to dive and hit the water wrong.
Sputtering, she fought to stand but hands held her down. Between short gasps, she told them she was okay. They weren’t listening. She slapped their hands off of her legs. Barely three kilometres left. When the fog thinned she saw that no one was holding her down. Her heart thudded in panic as she discovered that only a single volunteer was dabbing her forehead with a wet towel. He spoke in a consoling voice, saying things like, “Don’t worry. I’ve got you. You’ll be okay. Just relax. It’s over.”
Over? What? The race? She wasn’t giving up. She fought to sit. Had to stand. She had to reach that finish line. One last effort and the darkness swallowed her whole.
Naya felt a cool breeze on her face. Distant murmuring voices mingled with the buzzing in her ears.
An IV bag materialized above her head. She watched the silent drip, drip, drip. She needed to get someone to remove the line and discharge her from the First Aid tent so that she could get back to the course.
She heard soft footfalls and strained to turn her head. A nurse, dressed in a pastel blue uniform with tiny yellow ducks, floated into view. Damn! They’d moved her to a hospital. Robbed her of the chance to finish. Unless…
It wasn’t her fault that she’d left the route. If she could get back now – maybe they’d let her rejoin. She only had three kilometres left! Sure, any hopes of beating her own record were gone, but at least she’d have a finish time. She’d always completed a marathon. No way was she going to let a little dehydration stop her now.
Naya demanded that the nurse release her. The garbled sounds that left her lips terrified her. The nurse turned from the IV bag to look down at her with eyes that were both cold and comforting.
“Well, my dear, you’re finally awake,” the nurse said, her voice sounding artificially gentle. “Do you remember what happened?”
Naya opened her mouth to answer. This time a croak assaulted her ears. Trembling with rising fear, she tried to nod and with great effort her head moved.
The nurse’s eyes widened with shock for a quick second. The smile flickered, then reappeared looking strangely plastic. “I’d like you to squeeze my fingers. As hard as you can. Okay? Whenever you’re ready.”
Naya felt the nurse’s clammy fingers slip into her hand. She squeezed but the nurse just repeated, “Whenever you’re ready.” After a moment the nurse pulled the sheet up to uncover Naya’s feet. Those icy fingers made her gasp. “Tell me when you feel this. Blink your eyes.”
Naya blinked as fast as she could hoping the nurse would release her cadaverous cold grip. She sighed with relief when the nurse replaced the sheet and leaned over her. Then the nurse spoke slowly, deliberately, like she was talking to a child with developmental issues.
“Just relax, Ms. Assad. I’ll be back in a minute.”
The nurse vanished from Naya’s line of sight before she could stop her. She tried to wait for the nurse to return, to find out what paralysing drugs they’d given her. The drugs seemed to reach into her brain making the effort of forming a simple thought a monumental task. She closed her eyes and let the outside world trickle in.
Sensing someone near by, Naya opened her eyes to see a man with a fatherly smile leaning over her. From his tone she knew he’d been trying to wake her for a while.
“Hi, Naya, I’m Dr. Montgomery.” He patted her arm. “I know you’re tired but try to stay with me, okay?”
She blinked once. He nodded and continued talking.
“You collapsed during the marathon.”
She blinked once.
“Good, you remember. We thought it might be dehydration. It was very hot that day.”
“Good. I know you’re having some trouble moving and talking. Like you’ve been drugged. But we haven’t given you anything other than fluids.” He tapped the IV bag. “We thought it could have been a stroke … No, no, relax. It wasn’t a stroke.”
He left his hand on her shoulder. Its warmth quelled her growing fear as well as her impatience with his agonizingly slow explanation.
“We’ve already run several tests. They’ve all come back negative. I’m sending you for an MRI now. I don’t believe the paralysis is permanent. There’s been some improvement after three days…”
She blinked quickly, repeatedly, fighting to speak.
“Naya, it’s all right. Breathe slowly.”
Three days? No, it couldn’t have been that long. She’d just left the race.
“Naya, I’m sorry, I know this is very upsetting. But I promise we’ll find out what’s wrong and I promise you, we’ll do our best to fix it.”
He beckoned to someone out of her line of vision then returned his attention to her. He patted her shoulder again and she forced herself to calm down.
“I’ll see you when you get back,” the doctor said. He vanished from view and a porter loomed over her head. He unlocked the wheels of the bed with a slight jerk, then pushed her through the cubicle curtains and out of ICU. She rolled in an uncannily smooth motion down the hall as ceiling tiles and fluorescent lights zipped by with dizzying speed. Finally, he parked her against a beige wall below a flickering light. He leaned over her with a smile, patted her shoulder.
“Just relax. Won’t be long,” he said and left.
For a long time no one came to tell her what was going on, or even to check if she was okay. She waited, enshrouded within her own body.
She was startled awake by a touch on her shoulder and startled again by the sight of a young woman with frizzy orange hair, heavy green eye makeup and three eyebrow rings. Great. In a hospital full of medical professionals she had to get stuck with a wannabe rock star.
“Ms. Assad, we’ll be taking you into the MRI chamber now,” the woman said. “We’ll do all the work, so just relax.”
The word of the day must be relax. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. No one knew why. And they wanted her to relax?
Orange Hair pushed her through a thick metal door into a dimly lit room with a high ceiling. Out of nowhere, a male attendant appeared and helped transfer her onto a narrow table. She felt the edge under her hip and was sure she was slipping off the table. She tried to call out but only managed unintelligible noises.
“It’s okay, I won’t let you fall.” Orange Hair came into view. She slipped a foam wedge under Naya’s knees and instantly the unbalanced sensation left. Naya realized that it had been the edge of the cushion that she’d felt, not the edge of the table. The nurse secured straps across Naya’s chest and waist, further making her feel stable and safe.
“Ms. Assad,” Orange Hair said, “just to let you know that an MRI is painless, but very noisy, so I’ll be putting some headphones with music on you. It’ll help. I’ll tell you each time I start a scan. You’ll feel some vibrations at some of the lower frequencies. I noticed you’re able to move your fingers, so I’m going to put a call button in your hand. Give it a try now. Good. If you feel sick or just can’t take it anymore, push the button and I’ll pull you out right away. The scan should last about 45 minutes. Over before you know it. Okay?”
Naya gave her a single, slow blink of gratitude and a tiny smile, regretting her earlier thoughts. What’s a few facial piercings and orange hair between friends? She was the first person here to actually speak to her like she still had a working brain.
Through the headphones, Orange Hair said, “I’m going to move you into the chamber now.”
Slowly, the table slid into the long narrow tube, her face a few inches away from the top. Light came in from outside. Good thing she wasn’t claustrophobic. She slid past a thin blue line, then stopped. Cold air blew on the left side of her face, refreshing at first, until her cheek started to go numb.
Orange Hair announced, “I’m starting the first scan. It’ll last ninety seconds. Just breathe normally.”
Naya heard the distant sound of eight taps followed by eight louder taps of a different frequency. A few minutes after the first scan was over, the next one began. This one sounded like a series of electric guitar strums. Later, one series sounded like a jackhammer. Another consisted of a distant eight taps, followed by eight deep strums, so low in frequency that the whole chamber vibrated. Others made the fillings in her teeth tingle.
Cocooned in the chamber, with soft rock playing through the headphones, she allowed her eyelids to close.
Naya woke up in her hospital bed. Again, she watched the drip, drip of the IV bag for entertainment. This was certainly boring. Was this how she was going to spend her life, lying around watching dripping IV bags? She sighed and shifted her shoulders. They were incredibly stiff. She reached up with her right hand to rub her shoulder, eyes closing with relief as the knots gradually loosened. What she’d give for a full body massage from that really cute male nurse. She laughed aloud.
Her eyes snapped open at the sound. Laughter. And not that pathetic gurgling sound.
She stopped rubbing her shoulder and watched her right hand as she opened and closed her fingers. She lifted her head from the pillow and concentrated on the other hand. It moved too, but not the arm. Not yet. Wait. She was lifting her head! She laughed as tears filled her eyes.
Searching, she found the call button clipped on the top edge of her pillow. She strained to lift her right arm above her head and after three tries she snagged the cord with her fingertips. An extra yank and she had the call button in her hand. She pushed it and heard the duty nurse answer over the intercom, “Yes?”
“I…” Naya’s voice cracked. She swallowed several times. Finally, she said, “I. Can. Move. Now.”