The doctors said it was the most interesting case they had ever seen. To Gerard it was not an interesting case, but the loss of his wife. Physically Karen was still there, but she no longer occupied the same point in time that he did.
The doctors disagreed as to what was wrong. Some insisted it was early Alzheimer’s disease. Others said it was the effect of a series of minor strokes. A few said it was something entirely new. The doctors at Columbia Presbyterian hospital were writing papers about it and trying experimental medication, but nothing worked.
Karen had moved back in time 25 years. She did not understand why she was in New York, did not recognize Gerard; did not know her own home. She told the doctors she lived in Durham North Carolina in a small apartment with her husband Jerry. She thought Gerard was one of the doctors. She did not remember that he had stopped calling himself Jerry and started using the more formal “Gerard” years ago when he had become an Executive Vice President at the company in New York.
Gerard was not looking forward to today’s meeting with the physicians. They called him into a large conference room, where five doctors sat around a polished oak table. At the head of the table was the Chief of Neurology, Dr. Karpyshyn, looking very serious.
“Please be seated Mr. Hillerman,” the doctor said to Gerard. “We have the results of the tests on your wife. The scans show definite damage in the parts of the brain impacting memory. The damage appears to have come from some sort of virus rather than from trauma or any type of stroke. There are some slight similarities to certain other cases. There have been instances of people getting a related type of virus after eating contaminated shellfish. Those people see significant reduction in their ability to form short term memories.”
“Why do you say slight similarities doctor,” answered Gerard. “It sounds like exactly the same. As you know this all started about a week after Karen and I went to that new seafood place on 56th street. She had the mussels and I had trout. Six other people also got sick from the mussels. It was in the news.”
‘Yes, we are aware of all of that Mr. Hillerman. We have also examined all the other people who got ill. Some developed severe headaches or nausea but none have the memory loss your wife exhibits. All of them, including your wife, have some new mutation of virus in their system, but somehow your wife was more sensitive to the effects.”
“But if there have been similar cases in the past, then there must be some sort of treatment”, said Gerard hopefully.
“Well Mister Hillerman, your wife has much different symptoms than other people who experienced viruses that affected their memory. The usual symptoms are damage to the part of the brain that forms short term memory. The person impacted remembers perfectly everything up to the point of getting the virus, then from that point forward finds it very difficult to form new memories. Your wife, on the other hand has no problem forming new memories, but has lost a large section of her long term memory. She appears to be simply missing 25 years of her past.”
“So what’s next?” asked Gerard solemnly. “Will she regain those memories?”
“The truth sir is that we do not know. We do know that the virus has caused visible physical damage to your wife’s brain. Unlike many other types of cells in the body, brain cells do not regenerate. We will continue to study your wife and try various treatments, but you should prepare yourself for the fact that the most likely scenario is the memories your wife has lost will never return.”
Gerard left the hospital in a state of shock. When he got back to his apartment, he searched through the closets and pulled out the boxes containing the photos and other mementos of their life together. He and Karen had kept meaning to scan the old photos and upload them to the computer, but somehow had never gotten around to it.
Gerard sat in the middle of the living room floor. Around him were scattered all the pictures taken over the last 25 years. Gerard spent hours looking at them and thought of their life together.
He picked up one picture that had been taken on a vacation to the Outer Banks with some friends. Karen and Gerard were standing together smiling on the beach. Karen was beautiful in her mini-bikini, and Gerard in his bathing suit was showing off his massive muscles and washboard stomach. His brown hair was long in the style of the time.
“No wonder she doesn’t recognize me” Gerard said out loud to himself. “Karen still looks great but I have really let myself go.” He got up and walked over to the mirror. What he saw looking back at him was an overweight flabby middle- aged man with grey hair and glasses.
When he had first met Karen in North Carolina, he was a truck driver and she was a secretary at the trucking company. They fell in love immediately. Jerry was always ambitions and Karen said he was the hardest working person she had even known. He took every chance to work overtime, and even helped unload the truck himself, although the rules said he did not have to.
When they were first married they lived in a little apartment with an ugly shag carpet and bean bag chairs. They spent nothing on luxuries. They saved so that they could buy their own truck, and start their own company. They both worked ridiculously long hours, and Karen even took a job as a waitress on the weekends. When they had enough money for the minimum down payment on a truck, they started “K&J Trucking”. They got fancy letterhead and a phone number and pretended they were a big company. In reality, there was one truck and the office of K&J Trucking was a section of the cramped apartment where Karen manned the phone, negotiated the rates and sent out the invoices. They had never worked so hard or been so happy.
A few years later, K&J Trucking had two trucks, then three then five. Jerry picked up a picture showing Karen and Jerry standing in front of the new offices of K&J in an industrial park with all the employees around them. He looked closely at the photo and noticed that Karen still looked great but that he had started to put on a little weight and get a touch of grey in his hair.
K&J Trucking grew and grew until one day they got a phone call that would change their lives. A New York based company wanted to purchase K&J. It also wanted the two of them to move to New York and work for the company. Karen was not sure about it but all their friends told them to do it. Their friends said they would be crazy to turn down that much money.
So here they were all these years later. A successful “power couple” living in a luxury condominium in New York. They had even been mentioned in New York Magazine on several occasions. Everything was great right up until they decided to try the new seafood place.
The next day, Gerard gathered some of the photographs and went to the hospital. The idea was that the photos would bring back her memory just like what always happened in movies and T.V. shows.
It did not go like he planned. At first the pictures seemed to cheer her up; but then then she just got more and more confused.
“That’s a picture of Jerry and me at the beach, ” Karen said with a smile. Then she became agitated. “Why do you have that photograph doctor? Where is Jerry? Why am I in a hospital? Was there an accident? Was Jerry injured! What is it you are not telling me!”
Soon Karen was screaming at the top of her lungs. She jumped out of bed and was trying to find her street clothing so that she could leave the hospital and go home to North Carolina. It did not stop until a doctor rushed in and injected her with a sedative so powerful she fell asleep.
That was the last time Gerard went to the hospital to see Karen. The doctors advised him that his visits were only confusing and upsetting Karen, especially when he tried explain to her that he was her husband.
” With your permission, we will be moving her to a psychiatric facility,” said Dr. Karpyshyn. “There is nothing more we can do for her here. She will need therapy to accept what has happened to her. My recommendation is that you do not visit her until the psychiatrists believe she is ready.”
So Karen was moved to a psychiatric institute in New Jersey and Gerard lived alone in Manhattan. He went to work every day, but people there started to gossip about him. They whispered that he was planning on quietly divorcing Karen and finding a new woman. Some said he already had a girl on the side. All the signs of a romantic interest were there. First he got contact lenses instead of his glasses. Then he started having salads for lunch and working out at a gym after work. The more the pounds dropped off him the more his co-workers whispered that he must be having an affair. Then one Monday he came to work with his hair a luxurious brown instead of the grey it had been on Friday. It was hard for people not to burst out laughing.
Gerard continued to check in with the doctors at the institute but there had been no change. Karen was physically fine and was capable of intelligent conversations, but kept asking when she could go back to North Carolina and where here husband was. Any attempt to tell her that 25 years had passed made her hysterical to the point that medication was required. They told Gerard that the most likely scenario was that Karen would be institutionalized for the rest of her life. Of course, they would need his permission for this. They asked him to sign the commitment papers.
Instead, Gerard told them about the Time Machine he had built and how all their help would be required to get the machine to work. If Karen needed to live 25 years ago to re-join the real world, then his Time Machine would bring her there. The doctors fought him at first but finally agreed that a Time Machine may be the only hope for the woman.
Karen was in her room at the institute, sitting in a chair and staring out at the long well-kept lawn like she did most days. She turned sadly and looked at Dr. Epstein as he entered her room with a large assistant named Joseph.
“Mrs. Hillerman we have been able to locate your husband,” said Dr. Epstein. “He was apparently on a long-haul trucking run and was unaware that you had gotten ill.”
“Is he coming here?” asked Karen eagerly. “When can I see him?”
“It is better than that” said the doctor, with what he hoped looked like a genuine smile. We are going to drive you back to your apartment in North Carolina. We have the van all ready. I was going to go to a conference at Duke anyway so it will be on the way. We should start immediately. You can sleep in the van.
As they went to the van, Karen was so excited she could hardly keep still. “It’s a long drive from here, but I don’t think I will dose off.”
Big Joseph came along and his job was to make sure that Karen did fall asleep. When their long drive finally got into North Carolina, he offered her a soda. One which Dr. Epstein had carefully prepared. Karen fell asleep shortly after finishing it. The doctor and Joseph took turns driving so that they could go through non-stop while Karen slept.
When they arrived in Durham they followed carefully the directions Gerard had given them to the apartment building. Karen was still sleeping and they carefully lifted her out of the van and carried her into the apartment where Gerard was waiting. They lay the sleeping Karen on the couch and Dr. Epstein shook hands with Gerard.
“Is she alright?” asked Gerard.
“She is fine. We gave her a very safe medication. When you are ready I will administer an injection and she will wake up gently after that. Let me know when you want to start.”
Gerard was visibly nervous. “You know the idea seemed great at the time but now I am not so sure. I have been working on this for months. This apartment looks almost exactly like the one we used to live in. I got bean bag chairs. I even found shag carpet. God was that hard to find. It is so ugly no wonder they stopped making them. I have been working out and trying to make myself look as much as possible the way I did when Karen and I first met. But you know, there really is no such thing as a Time Machine.” Then Gerard realized that he was babbling so he stopped talking.
Dr. Epstein patted him on the shoulder and said gently, “You have done all that you can. You should leave the apartment now and I will give her the injection. Wait about 20 minutes and then come back in. If this works, she will recognize you as her husband.”
“And if not?” asked Gerard.
“Then sir I am afraid that she may never accept that you are really her husband.”
Gerard left the apartment and Dr. Epstein injected Karen. He and Joseph made coffee, and sat in the bean bag chairs. “Remember,” the doctor told Joseph. “Lots of small talk. If she asks about the trip just say she fell asleep and we were making such good time we decided to drive straight through.”
Karen opened her eyes and mumbled, “how much longer until we..” Then she sat up. She stood up and silently walked around the apartment. She examined each of the pictures on the walls individually and did not say a word. Joseph and Doctor Epstein exchanged worried glances. They put down their coffee in case they had to get up quickly to restrain her.
“Why we’re here already. You all let me sleep right through the best part of the trip.” Her voice quavered slightly like she realized things were not exactly right. “Where is Jerry? Where is my husband?”
“He called and said he would be here soon. You know Mrs. Hillerman, you have been at the hospital for a long time. Everything may not be exactly the same as before you got sick.”
Karen was about to answer when the apartment door opened and Gerard came in. Karen looked at him intently. A full two minutes passed in absolute silence. There were four people in the apartment and not one made a sound.
Then Karen ran over and threw her arms around her husband and said. “Jerry! Jerry! I missed you so much. I’ve been very sick and I couldn’t find you anywhere, but here you are.” Tears streamed down her face, and Jerry was crying too.
Jerry held her in his arms and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll always be here for you. Always.”
Dr. Epstein and Josephs got up quietly and slipped out the apartment door.
When the got back in to the van Dr. Epstein admitted. “You know I never thought it would actually work. It was just a way to keep Mr. Hillerman busy while his mind got reconciled to the fact that his wife would be institutionalized permanently. I never really though I would live to see an actual Time Machine.”
“What happens next?” asked Joseph.
“I have no idea. She might accept this new reality, or she might realize that something is wrong and have that trigger a psychotic episode. A colleague of mine from Duke Medical school is going to monitor the situation.”
Back in apartment Gerard Hillerman knew it would never last. As he hugged his wife, he knew it was only a matter of time before she knew it was a fraud. It didn’t matter how much he worked out, he was not the same man from 25 years ago. When Karen stepped out the door she would see that Durham was not the same town from a quarter century before, but now a large city.
What would happen then, Gerard did not know. All he knew was that right now right here he had successfully brought them back in time and the only woman he had ever loved was once again safe in his arms.