The nursing home called just as I was heading off to school. Sherry, my dad's girlfriend, was on her way out the door to work, and I held up a finger to stop her. She came back to stand nervously beside me. Phone calls early in the morning usually weren't good news.
"Okay, I'll be right there," I told the voice on the other end of the phone and hung up.
"'Sup?" asked Sherry.
"Mom's awake. I've got to go see her."
Sherry frowned. "Dave's not due back until tomorrow. What should I do?" She always called my dad by his first name to me, never "your father."
"There's not much we can do. If you call him to come home earlier, she could be asleep again by the time he gets here. I'll go now and tell him what she said when he gets home. Can you call my principal when you get to work and tell her what happened?"
"Sure thing, Dag." She looked like she was going to kiss my forehead but then, as usual, shied away from physical contact. Poor Sherry. She never knew how she fit in with our crazy family. I waited while she pulled out from behind my third-hand VW Beetle, my sixteenth birthday gift. I pushed the speed limit a little getting to the nursing home; I didn't know how long I had with Mom.
The lady at the reception desk looked up and smiled. She knew me because I visited Mom regularly even when she wasn't awake.
"Hi, Dagmar. I'm glad they got ahold of you."
"It was close, Emily. I was almost out the door on the way to school."
"You have a good chat, now. When was the last time she woke up?"
"Six years ago," I told her as I kept walking. I wasn't going to waste time talking to Emily when Mom was awake.
My Mom was in what they called a semi-vegetative state. She had had a stroke when she was pregnant with me and went into a coma. All unknowing, she gave birth and later held me in her unresponsive arms while I was christened. She once had told Dad that if she had a girl, she wanted to name her after her grandmother in Denmark, so Dagmar I was. It made for unfortunate nicknames at school. Dad's mom helped raise me, as did a succession of pleasant, well-meaning girlfriends of whom Sherry was the latest and most permanent. "Very tragic life," you might say; "poor girl."
But there's a twist; there always is with my family. Periodically, Mom wakes up.
The first time was when I was three. Dad brought me into the chronic care wing of our local nursing home every week to visit, so it wasn't that traumatic to have the white lady suddenly speak to me. I don't remember much about that first time but Dad says she understood the situation and didn't seem too upset about missing the first three years of my life. The reason why it didn't bother Mom was because she had another life, in her coma world.
I had my first glimpse into her other life when I was six. It was a regular visit and Dad had left me with her to go get some juice for me from a vending machine. She woke suddenly and smiled at me.
"You must be Dagmar."
"Hi," I said calmly. It had all been explained many times to me.
"Sweetie, can you do me a favor?" Mom was too weak to lift her head, but one white finger reached out and gently stroked my arm where it rested on the covers.
"I need five apple seeds."
"Well, you see, there has been a terrible war. Einar's land once had apple trees on it but the enemy burned everything. We need those apple trees for something important but we don't even have any apples left to give us the seeds. I can bring five seeds back with me and grow them magically into trees in a few weeks. That's why I need you to get them for me, sweetie."
"'kay," I said and wandered down to the nurses' station. The nurses thought I was adorable and were usually cooperative.
"Can I have an apple?" I asked the head nurse.
"Sure, Dagmar, there's one in my lunch." She gave me a big green Granny Smith.
"Can you cut it up for me?"
"There you go, honey." She put the juicy, sticky sections in my hand and I went back to Mom's room. She was asleep again so I bit into the core, even though I hated that part of the apple, and spit it into my palm. I separated out five black seeds and puzzled over what to do with them. Finally I pushed them into my mother's slack hand and ate the rest of the apple. Dad came back. He had forgotten the juice, which meant he had been talking to Jenny, the nurse from the Alzheimer's floor, but I was okay, having eaten the apple.
"She woke up, Daddy," I told him.
"Really? And I missed it?" Dad never doubted my word.
"She say anything?"
"She wanted apple seeds, so I gave her some in her hand."
"Hmmm. Well, we'd better not leave that for the nurses to clean up." I was a sticky mess, so he took some paper towels from the wall dispenser and wet them in the sink. After wiping my face and hands, he looked in Mom's hand.
"There's no seeds here, sweetie."
I peered over his hands.
"No, they're gone."
Dad cleaned Mom's hand just in case. We never let things like disappearing apple seeds bother us.
Mom slept until I was ten and then she woke three times that year. The first time, I was at summer camp and missed her, so I never went more than fifty miles away from home after that. It meant that Dad couldn't take me to Disney World but I didn't mind much. There were lots of things to do around home. Dad got me a cell phone and left instructions that the nursing home was to call me at that number if they couldn't reach us at home. I was present the other two times she woke up that year, and she told me some disturbing things. Well, disturbing to a ten-year-old.
"You look like your brother, Keld," she told me, smiling palely.
"I don't have a brother," I said sullenly. It was a sore point with me that I had never had any siblings.
"Yes, you do. He's eight years old and blond like you. But he has his father's face."
I was confused. "He looks like Dad?"
"No, dear, like Einar, his father."
I must have looked very upset because she did her stroking thing again with her finger on my arm.
"I'm his sorceress, darling. It made for a very powerful union to marry me. Also, he needed an heir and our child's mixed blood protects him from the enemy's witchcraft."
"But you're married to Dad," I protested.
"Here, in this world," she said, and that seemed to be a good explanation. Still, when Dad wanted to know what she had told me (he had been on another business trip), I hesitated. He sat me down and took my hand.
"Dagmar, sweetie, I know what's going on inside your Mom's head because she's talked to me too. She asked my forgiveness for marrying Einar and I gave it to her because it's all in her head. It's not real. Her mind is hurt and it makes up these stories so it's easier for her to be asleep all the time. We have to understand and not get your Mom upset by being mad at her, okay?" I nodded but I remembered the apple seeds, so I went to the vending machine just after Mom fell asleep again and put a chocolate bar in her hand for my half-brother Keld. I sat and read a book for a while, and when I looked in her hand, the chocolate bar was gone.
Now, you'd think this disappearing stuff trick would draw some attention after a while, but, you see, it only worked just after she had woken up. I put lots of things in her hand when I visited, thinking that it all went with her to the other world. Then, one day, I was looking for a tissue to blow my nose and I found most of it in the drawer beside her bed. The nurses had been putting all the non-perishable items in there over time. After that, I stopped my care packages unless she had just woken up.
The third time she woke when I was ten, she didn't mention the chocolate bar. She looked worried and her eyes darted around the room until they fell upon my neck.
"I need your silver chain, honey. May I have it?"
My grandmother had given me that silver cross on a chain for my confirmation and I wore it a lot. I sighed and put it in her hand and she fell back asleep right away. After five minutes, I looked and the chain was gone. I told Dad what had happened to it and for the first time, he wouldn't believe me.
"You can't use your Mom as an excuse when you lose things, Dagmar."
I got spanked but I was equable about it. It was part of the complication of being in our family.
So here I was again, at sixteen, rushing to my Mom's room. I was excited because six years was a long time and at sixteen, I felt I was ready to argue with her. Her pale blue eyes were fixed on the door, as if she were waiting for me. Or else the nurses had told her that they had called me.
"Dagmar, I need . . ."
"No, Mom. I need." I thought that was a clever answer, and it confused her, making a few lines appear between her perfectly plucked brows. (I did that for her.)
"I don't understand," she said, and the slim white finger stroked an arm that wasn't there.
"I need you, Mom, back here. This has gone on long enough." Time for the child to be firm with the parent. I've tried that with Dad but it doesn't go over very well.
"I can't come back, Dagmar. They need me more there."
"There, with your husband Einar and your son, Keld. Your dream family."
"They're as real and you and David, honey, and they need my help desperately."
"More than a daughter for whom you've been awake for what, five days of her life?"
"I've needed you too, Dagmar. Without your help, we couldn't have made the applewood wands and chained the Witch of the Black Knife to the rock in the Grove of Silence."
"What about the chocolate bar?"
"Oh, that. Keld had that for his ninth birthday. He wanted to send you something but I can't seem to bring things over here."
"Oh, just grow up, Mom, and wake up. You should see Dad. He has to work all the time to afford to keep you in here. He dates all these really nice women who like me too, but he will never divorce you, not when you're like this, and, after a while, all the nice women leave because they want to be married and have kids of their own. It's not fair that you got to marry Einar." I was getting off track, forgetting Einar wasn't real. "So, wake up or . . ." I stopped myself in time.
"Or go ahead and die? That may happen if you don't get me a sword."
"Oh, jeez, Mom."
"It doesn't have to be a good sword, it just needs to be stainless steel. With it, we can defeat the Witch's master, the Overlord. Then the war will be over and, for the first time in a hundred years, the kingdom of Semir will know peace."
I was taking a grade eleven psych course which had replaced health and sexuality on our school's curriculum. I jumped on the hints in her statement.
"And when the war is done, will you come home to us?"
Her expression was anguished but she nodded. "I will come back to you."
"Ah, for God's sake, Mom, I'm not some oracle in a cave that you have to promise eternal servitude to in exchange for victory. I'm your daughter and I want some Mom/daughter face time."
She was silent, watching me.
"All right, damn it, I'll get the sword, but you stay awake until I get back, all right?"
She nodded and I spun on my heel and stomped out of the hospital. Emily at the front desk looked up and frowned.
"Everything all right, Dagmar?"
"Oh, peachy. I'll be back." I slammed the Beetle's door and chugged out of the parking lot. Getting a sword was no problem. They had a special display case at Knife Shack at the mall. I stopped at the drive-through ATM and withdrew all the money I had saved for an iPod. The mall didn't open until 10:00 a.m., so I sat outside in my car, fuming. I had really wanted that iPod. The security guard unlocked the big glass doors and I pushed by him. Knife Shack had a clerk inside the store but he was taking his time opening the cage doors at the front of the store. When he came over to haul them up, I recognized Carl Saunders who had graduated two years ago. He was an awkward combination of bad boy and geek and had obviously not followed the path to post-secondary education.
"Hey, Carl," I said as I made for the sword display case.
"Dag. Skipping school today?" Carl was actually looking pretty good. His skin had cleared up and his work clothes were pretty normal.
"My Mom woke up this morning," I told him, looking at the prices of the swords. Most were around two hundred dollars, which would wipe me out. No money left over for a chocolate bar for Keld. They all had names, like Ivanhoe and Excalibur. There was one tacky/wicked looking one called Dragonslayer.
"So why aren't you at the hospital?" Carl asked me. My Mom's situation was no secret. When I was younger, I referred to her as Sleeping Beauty and that gave me a certain cachet among the Princess Jasmine crowd.
"She wants a sword," I told him. I didn't want a dorky sword with fake looking dragons curled around the top. There were some nice ones with plain handles. The Excalibur seemed appropriate.
"That's cool but your Dad is going to have to come and buy it."
"What?" I spun on him and he stepped back a pace.
"We can't sell to anyone under eighteen. Your Dad is going to have to buy it for you."
"No way, he's on a business trip. She needs it now."
"I'll get in trouble if I sell it to you, and I can't lose this job, Dag."
"God, Carl, you don't understand. She's promised to come back to us, if I do this for her. She needs a sword to finish the story in her coma dream world. Then she'll come home. I need this sword."
"Dag, it's not like she has any control over whether she wakes up or not. I need this job to save for college."
"I don't know what to say, Carl. It's my Mom. I want her back."
I started to cry but don't get me wrong: I don't turn on the tears to get what I want, like some of my friends. It was just that I'd thought I had a real shot at getting Mom back. "I won't tell anyone, Carl, please."
He stared at me and I noticed that he had nice eyes, a kind of greeny-blue. He needed a better haircut, though.
"If you're jerking me around, Dag, I swear I'll . . ."
"Thanks, Carl, thanks so much." I kissed him on the cheek and he turned a bright red.
"Excalibur. Does it come with a covering thing?"
"A scabbard? Yeah, leather too."
The sword was heavy as Carl handed it to me. He had wrapped it well, in hopes that no one would know I was buying a sword.
"Will you come back some time and tell me how it turned out?" he asked as I gave him my iPod money.
"Yeah, sure, no problem." I was suddenly tongue-tied. "What evenings are you working?"
"Thursdays, 5 to 9."
"Okay. See you then." I stood awkwardly for a moment and then remembered my mission. Jogging back to my car, I worried that Mom had fallen asleep again. If so, it might be too late for her to bring over the sword. Not that I really believed this stuff.
Emily at the front desk frowned at my parcel as I came in.
"Artificial flowers," I told her, and pushed the elevator buttons impatiently. Mr. Peters on the sixth floor would often highjack the car and stand with his walker in front of the buttons pressing Door Open. I huffed impatiently and then took the stairs two at a time.
Mom was still awake. She looked thin and strained. I felt bad about taking the extra time to chat to Carl.
"Thank God, Dagmar. Hurry, give it to me."
I unwrapped it. "Do you want it in the scabbard or out?"
"Out. I may need it in a hurry."
I pulled the shining length of steel out of the scabbard and held it awkwardly, not knowing what to do with it.
"Put it in my hands, sweetie."
I arranged her like one of the effigies on those English tombs, with the sword resting on her legs and her hands crossed over the hilt.
"Remember your promise, Mom," I told her sternly.
"I remember," she said softly, and I sat down to wait for her to fall asleep. The silence stretched out and her eyes stayed open. Tears started to trickle from their corners.
"Mom, you got to go to sleep," I said, alarmed.
"I'm trying but I can't." The tears flowed faster.
It was the promise. It was keeping her from going back. It was sitting on her heart like a little black stone. What would happen to Einar and Keld if she didn't go back with the sword? Were they sitting by a bed watching a sleeping woman while the evil slaves of the Overlord pounded on their keep door with a big tree trunk?
"I release you from your promise. You don't have to come back."
"Oh, Dagmar, I'm sorry."
"For what, Mom?"
"For everything. For using you so I could stay in Semir."
"It's okay, Mom. Just go. They need you."
Her eyes closed and I sat watching her and the sword but it stayed in her hands.
"Dagmar, what the hell is that?" Dad burst through the doors. Sherry must have called him anyway. He reached out towards the sword but I stood up and grabbed his arm. He looked at me with astonishment.
"She needs it, Dad. Just wait a minute."
"That thing's sharp, Dagmar, what were you thinking?"
He turned back to Mom but the sword was gone. I wished I had been watching to see it go but maybe my gaze was what had been keeping it here. Anyway, now she had her sword with which to slay the Overlord. Excalibur was a good name for a sword. I was sure it would do her and me proud.
"Where did the sword go, Dagmar?" Dad's voice was shaking.
"Let's go get a coffee, Dad, then I have to go back to school." I nudged the abandoned scabbard under the bed with my toe and looked at Mom. What if, someday, I were to lie down on that narrow hospital bed beside her and put my hand into those pale cold ones? Would I be transported like the sword to Semir where I would meet my brother and be hailed as the beautiful daughter of the sorceress who had saved the land?
"Dagmar?" There was fear in Dad's voice.
"It's okay, Dad. Hey, I met someone. He's nice and his name is Carl. You want to hear about him?"
Dad studied my face for a few seconds and then nodded slowly.
"Yeah. I want to know all about him."
I tucked my arm under his and saw the surprised pleasure in his face. I didn't look back at the sleeping woman on the bed. We all make our choices.