She always seemed to say that her father did what he did, and there was nothing to change that. That's what she always told me. But sitting there—the grandfather clock in the hall nearing midnight—the balance in the world righting itself—the life around us going on without a care—and watching her tear-streaked face… I knew there was something else beneath that strong exterior.
There was emotion.
That was something she'd gone without for a long time. Something she'd hidden for a while. But now… with me as the rock and her as the crumbling one, the one who needed support, I found that I couldn't help but wonder if there was some good in it. In him. I always shared what she shared, but with her dad it was different… I didn't know what it was like to live with… that. So I couldn't completely hate him.
So what if there was some good in him? Maybe he had always been like that… maybe Madison's mom knew he had hookers sometimes… maybe he'd told Madison's mom and she forgot… maybe he had a good heart and didn't want her to know… maybe he forgot about the HIV…
This time, though—unlike every other time I'd convinced myself that people who came off as cold-hearted really aren't cold-hearted but have some story behind it—it seemed to miss the mark a bit.
But I could at least try.
"You know, Mads…" I ventured, "you know, your dad… what if… what if he wasn't as cold-hearted as he seemed?" I wanted to say more, to tell her about my thoughts that he acted like that because he didn't know how to raise a child and that maybe she should step outside of herself and see it from his point of view. But I couldn't.
After a pause, she muttered, "No." Very simple. Without much consideration.
And that was the end to it. I couldn't defy her. I couldn't say more. Not because of her, but because of myself. Truthfully, I was afraid.
I sighed inwardly, looking around at the walls of the room, as if searching for an answer there, something it wouldn't give me. Sometime in those few moments where no one spoke and panicked voices served as our soundtrack, it occurred to me that this was more than ambulances. This was her dad dying. She'd never talk to him again. As much as she claimed to hate him, this had to be taking some sort of toll on her.
And how ironic. The one who gives a death sentence dies before the one who receives it.
I looked at her, wondering. I suppose it was different for her. I just couldn't see how she could hate him so much. But then… I didn't know fear like she did either.
"I'll call Ryan. He'll make everything better," I said. She didn't object, so I pulled out my phone and dialed his number.
Ten minutes later, and a few hisses I made at him for driving so fast so late at night (being that it usually took him fifteen minutes to get here in broad daylight), I led us out to the backyard, away from all the commotion. There was a swing out there big enough for four, and I pushed Madison down between Ryan and me. He instinctively put his arm around her shoulder. "Maddy…" he whispered softly in a voice that had been known time and time again to make people feel better. She just laid her head on his shoulder, and I could hear the onset of tears again. "Shh. It's gonna be okay."
"I hate him…" she whispered offhandedly. "Why…"
"We're never gonna know. I think it'd be better if we didn't know, don't you think? Don't want to lower your expectations and your thoughts of him any more."
"I don't think that's possible," she muttered, wiping a tear from her eye.
"Oh, I think so," he said with a bit of a grin. "He could be lowered to Dr. Atkins levels."
It emitted a light laugh from her. She'd just recently finished her time on the Atkins diet—a lengthy seventeen days—and had sworn off the diet profusely, having now moved on to the South Beach Diet, for the third time.
I watched the sky as I listened to them talk. He had that calming effect on people. You could just tell that, even if things weren't going to be right ever again, you would always have Ryan, and he would make sure everything was as right as they could be, if at all within his power. He always knew the perfect things to say. The jokes to make that didn't cross the line of inappropriate and didn't hit any soft spots.
The meteors were gone as far as I could tell. I saw one at the beginning of their conversation, but none had shown up henceforth. I suppose because the balance had to be righted once more. Madison was smiling a bit. With the tragedy almost gone, I suppose the beauty had to leave as well.
Somewhere in the conversation, Madison had been sobbing loudly and hiccoughing as Ryan wrapped his arms around her. He was that perfect. That was just it. Talking about him, he sounded as perfect as any guy could be, but it was different actually knowing him and living with him. He was a great friend, yes. But to all of us… that was all he would ever be, sadly. Now that I thought about it, I realized how great he was. But he wasn't someone that you dated, or that anyone dated. He was just a great friend.
Who knew just how to cheer people up.
"You'll be fine. We'll all be fine. Because we're here for you. Me, Riles, Jordan, and Whitney. We're all here for you."
That was the thing with us. This wasn't about me and my life and all my friends' occurrences circling around me. I was no different from any of them. I wasn't the pinnacle that united all of us. Ryan and Madison had been friends for years. Jordan and Ryan knew each other for a while, but they'd spent half that time being enemies, and through some event that still hadn't been revealed to any of us, they'd suddenly become friends a few years ago. Madison and Whitney had always been friends. To some extent, it had always been Madison, Ryan, and I. We all had this amazing friendship. Jordan and Whitney were included in our supposed group, but never to the extent that we were.
Five minutes later, a car pulled up, and Whitney appeared before us. I moved over and allowed her to sit between Madison and me. She gave me little attention, though not in a thoroughly cold way—for we had never been cold to each other, excluding the moments after I'd found out she was going out with Jordan—but just in a way that acknowledged each other's presence and little more. None of the bitch-like glares characteristic of so many girls lately, although I couldn't say I wasn't tempted several times.
She focused her attention on Madison, cupping her face in her hands. "We're all here for you. Don't forget that. We love you, sweetie. No matter what."
This, too, incited tears from Madison, and she began crying again and repeating 'why' over and over.
By the time they'd almost finished talking, it was well past one o'clock. I'd been somewhere else during the bulk of the conversation, or my mind had been, but I tuned in again.
"Listen… everything is fine. You're not going to die. You're gonna live and show him who's boss," Whitney said, while Madison was still crying and trying to maintain her composure.
"Gosh, I'm so stupid. This is stupid." She sniffed, wiping at her eyes. "Being this emotional. No. It's over. It's done. There's nothing I can do about any of this, and there's no use in crying about it certainly. No, I suspect not. Right." She hopped up, and even in the darkness, I could see her face take on her usual businesslike expression. "Nothing comes from crying." She began pacing. "I've got to organize the funeral and send thank-you letters to the hospital, and then there's the car to deal with. And the other guy. So I've got to call our lawyer soon. And then write his obituary. And check on the plots we'd bought a long time ago. God, what am I doing crying?"
And just like that, Madison had dropped all signs—apart from the faintness redness in her eyes—that she'd let down her guard and been anything but rational. The emotional side of Madison that rarely saw daylight was gone yet again.
It was Ryan who said anything next. "Well I guess we should get going." Everyone said their goodbyes, and then he turned to me and said, "I don't want you driving home by yourself at this hour. I'll take you. We'll come pick up your car tomorrow." He then turned to Whitney, who he'd never held as close to him as Madison and I, and asked, "You can get home, right? Only a few minutes, if I remember correctly?"
She must've noticed the difference with which he'd treated us, but she didn't acknowledge it, knowing that Ryan and I had always been close friends. "Yeah. Goodnight, Mads."
Ryan slung an arm over my shoulder and led me to his car. Walking along there in the night, I finally knew what being Madison was like. The constant fear combined with being such a wonderful person… being that rock for us all. She was our mind.
Just in the few moments we'd switched places, I felt like I couldn't do it. Not to the extent that she could. I was just trying desperately to hold everything together. It was like clutching a handful of marbles that kept slipping and spilling over the edge, and no one around to catch them.
It was amazing.
And then the night was over.
The day of the funeral I woke up, threw a few clothes and toiletries in a bag, and jumped in the car in my pajamas, heading straight over to Madison's house. It was a nice day. Sunny. I stopped in front of her house, where Ryan's car was already parked. Taking up my bag in one hand and my purse in another, I killed the engine and got out of my car, suddenly aware that I was wearing slippers as my feet hit the ground. Slinging the bag over my shoulder, I walked towards her door and knocked. Ryan opened it a few moments later.
"Good morning," I said, although it wasn't a good morning indeed.
"Hey. She's still upstairs sleeping. She says she doesn't want to go," he told me, not paying an eye to my attire. He was used to it. Ever since I got a car for my birthday, I'd driven to people's houses everyday, and he had gotten many a visit from me in pajamas.
I dropped my bag and my purse by the door and jogged upstairs. Her door was slightly ajar, and I pushed it open. She was lying on the bed with the sheets tangled around her legs and looking as if it wasn't not a very pleasant morning at all. I walked in and sat down on the bed beside her. "Madison?" I whispered, knowing that I should probably tread carefully today.
She groaned and rolled over away from me. I sighed. "Come on. We only have a few hours. You have to get up."
"Don't… want to," she yawned.
"Okay." I left and jogged downstairs into the kitchen to find Ryan looking through the cabinets. I stopped behind him and leaned down close to his ear and whispered, "Whatcha doing?"
He jumped and turned around. "Looking for flour."
I raised an eyebrow. "Are you planning on making her breakfast?"
He grinned. "Of course not. I figured you'd want to make her your wonderful pancakes and get her to come downstairs."
I tried not to smile. He knew me perfectly, for that's what I'd been about to do when I went into the kitchen. As much as Madison was obsessed with diets, she never quite managed to refuse good food, and I always seemed to make her something when I came over. "Right right. Get out the stuff for me to make something. Thank you."
He pulled down a bag from the shelf and set it on the counter. "You can get the other stuff." Grinning, he swept by me and took a seat on one of their bar stools. "I think I'll just watch."
"I'll bet you will."
Smiling, he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned forward onto the counter of the breakfast bar. "And it's a beautiful sight it is, I'll say that."
"Hah." I just scoffed and set about to making Madison her breakfast.
Fifteen minutes later, my hair was a mess, my clothes dotted with white everywhere, and Ryan had already managed to eat one of my beloved pancakes doused in what seemed like half a cup of maple syrup. Right on time, I saw Madison walking down the stairs, still half asleep and in her pajamas, her hair tousled and her head lolling to the side.
"Food. I smell food," she said.
I laughed. Like clockwork. "Alright. Come on. Sit." I slid a pancake onto a plate and put it before her. Before turning my back, I glanced at Ryan. "Don't steal her food," I warned. He smirked.
It was too long before we'd managed to get on the road. I was halfway out the door when Ryan called out, "Riles. I haven't been to many funerals lately, but I think they're still requiring that whole black thing." I looked down at myself and realized that in all the mess and trying not to upset Madison, I'd forgotten to change. It took all of five minutes, and I drove through the morning sunshine towards the cemetery.
We'd all passed by that road numerous times before, even laughed on that road. I remember a night when we'd driven by after a movie, laughing about some joke or other. I remember Ryan saying something annoying and me pointing to the cemetery outside, telling him I'd put him in there if he didn't shut up. Now it didn't seem quite as amusing. I couldn't apologize for not being perfect…
It seemed so surreal. Passing by, wondering who made their place there. And realizing that we were going there for the same thing others before had been there for.
In and of itself it was already something scary, something I didn't want to think out. For it to be so close to me was a feeling I didn't think I'd experience this early in life.
It wasn't just him. It was remembering people in general and remembering all the people I'd grown out of contact with over the years and thinking about how much I wanted them to be with me at this moment. It was thinking about the dreams and the things I wanted to do in my life and make of it and all those picturesque things that never seem to happen and just… making them happen.
It was the type of moment in your life that you always look back upon and think how motivated you were to live your dreams and all that other stuff you hear about in movies, and it was the type of moment that passes by without making any effect on the person, though you avow firmly that it will. Those moments always passed by.
We clattered in, heels clicking on the marble, and sat down. I don't think I was consciously there all the time. I just knew that there was a voice speaking constantly, talking about him. It wasn't until a man rose that I paid attention, hearing Madison's disgusted scoff. One look told me it was the man her dad had been with when he left her that one night.
"… he was the best friend you could have. Always stayed fun. He was like the life of the party…"
"Hah. Stayed fun. Enough to abandon his child," I heard Madison mutter under her breath.
"… knew how to have a good time. He always did what he thought would be best for other people and would spare people's hurt feelings…"
"Enough to hide the hooker," Madison seethed.
I took her hand beside me and squeezed it, in a silent request to be quieter, because there were people around us, yet telling her that she could rage all she wanted once we got home.
It was a long time before everyone had said a few words—Madison refused to lament—and we walked outside for the burial. There were so many people there who I'd never seen before, despite my habit of spending so much time at Madison's house after I got my car, and it surprised me. It made me wonder even more if maybe there was a good side to him, a side that was hidden by Madison's anger.
As we walked back towards the car, I saw her mom crying heavily into a tissue, and I knew that she'd loved him in some way. Ryan hugged Madison to him, yet she didn't cry. Throughout the whole ceremony, she didn't cry.
The ride home was silent.
As we got out of the car, she wrapped her arms around me and finally let loose, and like the other times, I knew that she wasn't crying for grief but for fury. "I hate him…" she sobbed.
"Some things we just never know. I'm sorry."
I looked up to the sky beyond her, and I saw Ryan. It was us. It would always be us, always there for each other. No matter what.
I managed a smile.