For seventeen years, three hundred and sixty-four days, eighteen hours and thirty-four minutes of my life, I had two loving parents who cared about me very much and provided me with food, clothes, shelter, and every other thing I needed, in addition to many things I wanted. Sure, we had our disagreements and our fights, as daughters invariably have with their parents, but the point is that my parents were kind and caring, if a little strict at times.

I also had a younger brother named Derek, who could be very annoying at times, and who got away with all sorts of things because he was the baby of the family. He was born when I was ten years old, and once I got a little older, I determined that he'd been an accident, although I certainly never asked my parents or anything crazy like that.

I suppose in a way it was good that Derek was so much younger than me. Siblings will fight no matter what, but since he was young enough to still care about cartoons and toys and I was old enough to care about boys and clothes, we generally stayed out of each other's way.

The rest of my family consisted of my Aunt Tanya, who lived in Florida with Grandma to take care of her, and Uncle Nathan, who lived in Colorado with his wife, Tabitha, and his children. Just my luck that we visited Aunt Tanya and Grandma in warm, exotic Florida maybe four times in my entire life, but we trekked to Colorado every summer to visit Uncle Nathan and Aunt Tabitha. I love them, though, so I guess it's all right that we didn't get to Florida so often.

My life changed dramatically the night before my eighteenth birthday. My friends took me out for dinner and a movie to celebrate my last night before I legally became and adult, and happily I went with them.

Only later did I learn that my parents had been planning a surprise birthday party for me. Mere minutes after I left with my friends, a girl in my class named Jennifer arrived at my house to baby-sit Derek while my parents drove into town to buy streamers and cake and all the other supplies they'd need for the surprise.

At ten minutes 'till six, my friends and I arrived at the movie theater and bought tickets for the six o'clock showing of the latest romantic comedy. At the same time, my parents turned off the gravel road outside our house and onto the highway that would take them into town.

At about six-thirty-four, a buck ran into the road. Of course, it's impossible to estimate exactly what time it was, but 6:34 is the time the police wrote in their report, and 6:34 is the time I believe the deer ran in front of my parents' car. Because the sun sets so early in the dead of winter, my dad, who was driving, didn't see the deer until it was too late. The deer, meanwhile, was blinded by the headlights, and didn't run out of the way.

My parents' car hit the buck with such an impact, their car sped off the road and into a ditch. My dad died immediately upon impact, but my mom was still alive when the car swerved cross the other lane, flipped over three times in a ditch, and came to a rest at the bottom of the ditch. I guess she wasn't knocked unconscious until the car finally came to a rest.

A few minutes after the accident, a Good Samaritan drove by and saw my parents' car upside down in the ditch. That person, whose name I'll never know, placed an anonymous call to the highway patrol that there'd been a car accident, and it was unknown whether anyone was hurt.

When the police reached the scene, they knew right away that my dad was dead. I guess he looked pretty bad- I don't know. Derek and I never saw our parents after the accident, which I guess is a blessing in its own way.

An ambulance rushed my mom to the hospital, and when the police ran a check on the license plate, they saw that my parents had at least one dependant- my name, age, and drivers license number came up. My parents immediately called my house, and reached the baby sitter.

As I understand the situation, the police mistook Jennifer for me on the phone, and told her there was a family emergency, and that she had to get to the hospital right away. Jennifer responded that she was just a baby-sitter, and that she wasn't supposed to leave the house until my parents came back. The police then described the situation to Jennifer and recommended that she bring Derek to the hospital.

After that, Jennifer tried to get a hold of me to tell me what had happened, but I'd turned my cell phone off when I'd entered the movie theater. While my friend tired to let me know my dad was dead and my mom was in critical condition, I was probably laughing at some stupid joke one of the characters was telling.

I guess that since I wasn't around to explain things to Derek, Jennifer took it upon herself to tell him that Mom and Dad were hurt, and that he might never see them again. I guess he started crying as soon as he heard the news, even though at his age- eight- he couldn't really grasp the enormity of the situation. He was probably just scared because Jennifer was acting scared.

When the movie was over and my friends and I decided to head over to a restaurant to get some dinner, I checked my voice mail. As soon as I heard one message from Jennifer, I didn't need to hear any more. I told my friends my parents had been in a car accident and that we had to get to the hospital right away, and they drove me there, then provided moral support while I looked for Derek and a police officer described the full extent of the accident to me.

I still remember every thought that flitted through my head after I heard the news. First, I thought about the news that my dad was dead. I didn't believe it. Sure, I knew the police hadn't lied to me, but I figured there had to be some sort of mistake. My dad couldn't be dead.

I hoped Mom would be OK. I'd probably have to take care of things around the house until she got better- and she would get better, it would probably just take a long time. I'd need to keep an eye on Derek, and I could probably send Jennifer home for the night. She'd been through enough. I hoped I had enough money in my purse to cover the cost of baby-sitting.

I found Jennifer talking to some of my other friends outside the girls' bathroom. "Is there any news?" asked Brandon, who'd been driving when I'd heard the news.

"Not yet," I said. "It might be a while. You guys can all go home, you shouldn't have to wait here. Jenn, I'm not sure how much my parents usually pay you for babysitting, and I only have twenty dollars in my purse . . ."

"Don't worry about it," Jennifer said quickly.

"No, you need to get paid," I argued. Debating the topic gave me something to think about besides what had happened to my parents, and I found a comforting intensity in insisting that Jennifer receive the proper payment. "You've been through a lot tonight, and you handled it really well. Just take what I have now, and I'll make up the difference to you at school tomorrow."

Jennifer seemed worried by my behavior, and so did some of my other friends. After a long, uncomfortable pause, Jennifer said, "Brittany, I'm not going to take your money," and walked away.

After that, I tried to keep an eye on Derek while I mentally came to terms with what had happened. He fell asleep on a chair in the waiting room, and I looked at a clock and saw that it was three in the morning. Then, I remembered that I had a paper due for my first period class the next day. I had it mostly written, and I'd meant to fix it when I got home that night, but it looked like I'd be out later than I'd expected.

I hoped I wouldn't get in trouble for not having the paper done. Then, I felt relieved, because I had an excuse not to be done. Then, I was angry with myself for being relieved about my parents' accident.

The more I thought about what had happened, the sicker I felt. It still seemed unreal, but my stomach tied itself in knots whenever I thought about the possibility that this might be more than a dream. In an effort to think about anything else, I turned my attention to my homework once more.

I remembered how my dad had always pushed me to do my best on each and every homework assignment, even those that were only worth five or ten points. Sometimes, I might have been tempted to blow off some minor assignments, but my father always pushed me to do my best. He believed that if I did well enough in school, I would someday get an academic scholarship to a prestigious college.

I didn't know about an academic scholarship, but all winter, I'd been hoping for the acceptance letter from Boston University. The big, bustling, historical Massachusetts town had seemed exotic and exciting compared to the tiny Iowa town I'd grown up in, and the college was my number one choice of all I'd applied for. I hoped I'd be accepted.

For the first time, it occurred to me that being accepted might not be enough. My dad was dead, as much as I didn't want to face that reality. My mom might end up paralyzed, or she might stay in the hospital for months. She might lose her job. Sure, the family would get insurance money, but that might not even cover the hospital bills.

If my family was short on cash, I might have to give up my dreams of college because we couldn't afford it. If my mom was seriously hurt, she might even need me to stay home and help her take care of Derek.

I hoped I could get to college next year. Maybe my dad's life insurance would be enough to cover some of the tuition cost.

Once more, I was overcome with self-disgust that I could take such a detached attitude. What was wrong with me? Didn't I even care that my dad was dead and my mom might not make it?

Maybe I was in shock. I hoped I was in shock.

I slept a little while. Unlike Derek, I wasn't quite small enough to curl up in a chair, so I napped in a back corner on the floor, hoping I wasn't in anybody's way. I didn't want a nurse or a doctor to trip over me if he or she was in a rush on the way to save someone's life.

At six in the morning, I woke up. I wondered if my mom was still in surgery. If they were finished, wouldn't someone have woken me up to tell me? I walked to the front desk, but the nurse who worked there had disappeared. I waited but didn't ring the bell. After a few minutes, I sat down again. I felt useless, and I hated waiting.

After a minute, I felt sick to my stomach. I ran into the bathroom and threw up. I hoped I wasn't sick, but at least I was in a hospital. Someone would take care of me if I were sick.

After I was finished vomiting, I drank from the drinking fountain to wash the acidic taste out of my mouth. Then, I felt hungry, so I used my only one-dollar bill to buy a candy bar from the snack machine. When I was finished eating, I felt guilty because I thought I probably should have used the dollar to buy something for Derek. I decided I would use my twenty-dollar bill to buy him something in the hospital cafeteria when he woke up.

At eight o'clock in the morning, a doctor finally found me. "Brittany Bintz?" he guessed, approaching me while I flipped through a magazine.

I looked up. "That's me," I proclaimed.

The doctor looked down, like he was embarrassed or something. I wondered if he was going to ask me out on a date. He looked like he was maybe forty years old. Gross.

"I'm Doctor Anderson," the doctor said. "I operated on your mother."

"Oh," I said. Of course he'd operated on my mother- that's how he'd known who I was. Had I been crazy, thinking he was going to ask me on a date? What was wrong with me?

"We've had her in surgery for fourteen hours now, but we can't stabilize her," the doctor said. "She's slipped into a coma, and it doesn't look like she's going to wake up."

"Oh?" I asked. I was amazed at how calm I sounded, then I was amazed at how calm I felt.

"Your mother is registered as an organ donor," Doctor Anderson continued. "If she were to . . . pass on, we could help a lot of people. We could, however, put her on life support, but I doubt she'll ever wake up. As her closest living relative, it's your choice about what we should do."

At first, I struggled to concentrate on what the doctor was saying. I wasn't her closest living relative- but Dad was dead now. I wasn't a legal adult yet, though, I couldn't make the decision. Then, I remembered. That was my eighteenth birthday, and instead of celebrating with presents, I had to make my first truly adult decision.

I didn't want to make the decision. Grandma should have made it. She was actually my dad's mom, but she was better suited to make the decision than I was. She'd been an adult longer.

Then, I remembered how much Grandma's health had been suffering lately. How would she deal once she found out what had happened to Dad? She could have a heart attack and die. I decided I wouldn't tell anyone that Dad was dead. I had to protect Grandma.

Meanwhile, I had to decide what to do about Mom, though. I wasn't the closest relative, though. Derek was her child, too, and he was as close as I was. He couldn't make the decision, though. He was only eight years old.

Feeling slightly lost, I looked up at the doctor. He looked like he almost understood my dilemma, and he said, "Take your time."

"She's in a coma?" I asked. "And she probably won't wake up?"

"Probably not," Doctor Anderson replied. "She's on life support right now, but if you would rather let her go, we'll take her off."

"There's a chance she could wake up though, right?" I asked. "I mean, as long as she's still breathing, there's always a chance?"

The doctor caught his breath, then said, "Yes, I suppose there is a chance, but a very small one. I can't give you false hope- in all likelihood, your mother will never wake up."

His answer made my decision for me. If there was a chance that Mom might wake up, even a miniscule one, I had to let her live. Yet, when I opened my mouth, different words came out. "Let's let her go peacefully," I said.

Doctor Anderson nodded, and he looked a little bit grim. I wondered what had come over me, and after a minute, I said, "I want to be with her when she dies."

The doctor shook his head. "I can't let you back there. It's authorized personnel only."

For the first time since I first learned of the accident, I felt tears well up behind my eyes.
"She's my mommy," I whimpered.

Once more, the doctor denied my request. "I'm sorry," he sighed. "Besides, how fair do you think that would be to him?" I looked where he was pointing, and saw Derek, still sleeping.

I was about to snap that Derek didn't need to come with me, then I realized the doctor's point. Eight-year-old Derek didn't need to see his mother die, but he also didn't need to wake up in a strange hospital waiting room to find that his sister wasn't around.

After a long moment, I said, "Fine. But I want to know when it's all over."

"Of course," Doctor Anderson responded before turning and walking away.

While I waited, I sat in a chair beside Derek. A few minutes later after the doctor left, Derek woke up and whimpered, "I'm hungry, Brittany," before I think he was even fully awake or aware of where he was.

"All right," I responded, keeping my words soft because the waiting room seemed like a place where a person should whisper. I'll take you out to dinner in a while, but first, I need to take care of some things here."

Derek nodded, and rested his head on my arm. After a few seconds, he asked, "Where're Mom and Dad?"

How was I supposed to answer that? I didn't want to explain everything to him, so I took the coward's way out, saying, "I'm not sure, but as soon as we get home, I'm going to find out."

Almost fifteen minutes passed between the time Doctor Anderson left to take Mom off life support and the time he came back. I stood up and met him in the middle of the room, advising Derek to stay put.

When I reached the doctor, he told me, "Your mother went quietly without complications." I guess that was supposed to comfort me and give me some sense of closure or something.

I nodded, then asked, "Is there paper work or anything I need to fill out?"

"Yes, but you don't need to worry about that right now," Doctor Anderson replied. I didn't know how to respond to the statement- paper work might have helped me occupy my mind, but at the same time, I was grateful to put it off.

"So, what now?" I asked.

"Now, you can go home and get some rest," Doctor Anderson answered. "You look like you could use it."

It felt funny to me that this stranger would give me that sort of advice, and I thought of snapping that he wasn't my father, but that reminded me that I didn't have a father anymore because mine was dead. I nodded.

I needed a ride home since I hadn't driven to the hospital the night before. I glanced at the clock on the wall, and realized most of my friends were already at school. I needed to call someone who wasn't in high school any more.

I'd never really been a social butterfly like some of my friends. Sure, I went out with them sometimes, but I didn't really party, and I didn't know any graduates who still lived in the area. Most of my friends had gone to distant colleges after graduation, and they surely couldn't take me home from the hospital.

Finally, I thought of Mr. Rockwell, my neighbor. He had to be seventy or eighty years old, and had been retired for as long as I could remember. I flipped through the phone book attached to the pay phone, and found the number of Jesse Rockwell, inserted a quarter in the phone, and dialed.

When Mr. Rockwell answered, I hurriedly said, "Mr. Rockwell? This is Brittany Bintz."

"Brittany?" Mr. Rockwell repeated in surprise. "What are you calling me at this hour for? Shouldn't you be at school?"

"There was a car accident," I replied. "Derek and I are at the hospital. We need a ride home."

"Where are your parents?" Mr. Rockwell demanded.

"They're dead," I answered, and once more, I was amazed by how calm I sounded.

There was a long pause, then Mr. Rockwell said, "I'll be there to pick you up right away. Will you be at the front doors?"

"Yeah," I answered, even though I wasn't sure exactly where the front doors of the hospital were.

After I hung up the phone, I located Derek once more in the waiting room. He was playing with a little girl who had a cast on one arm and a collection of plastic trucks. "Derek," I said to interrupt their game. "We have to go now."

Derek immediately abandoned his friend and his new game to follow me to the front doors. To his credit, he didn't ask any more difficult questions, and when Mr. Rockwell arrived, he climbed into the back seat silently.

The car seemed oppressively quiet when we drove back home. I listened to the radio. A love song played, and afterward, the DJ exclaimed, "Good morning everyone! You're listening to Bryan's House on Hot 92.4! I've got some announcements now, and just a reminder, if you want me to announce anything for you, e-mail it to me at least twenty-four hours ahead of time at Bryan's Announcements at ninety-two dot com! Today, Julie and Mike Nelson are celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary- congratulations! Kathryn Baker is celebrating her thirty-second birthday, Ben Fletcher turned five this morning, and Brittany Bintz is celebrating the big eighteen! Congratulations all of you!"

I sniffled back a sob. My parents had remembered to notify the radio station so they could announce my birthday. Now, they weren't around to hear it. What sort of present was this supposed to be?

I hated that this had to happen on my birthday. I hated that it had to happen at all, but the irony of it all happening on my birthday was too much for me. That sort of thing just didn't happen to real people, and the date made my whole situation seem less real. I felt like a character in a movie or a book or something, and not a real person.

Mr. Rockwell glanced at me, then asked, "Do you want to come over to my house? I could get you some glasses of lemonade, and keep company with you. I don't think you should really be left alone right now."

I shook my head, then asked, "Could you just keep an eye on Derek for a few hours? There are some things I need to take care of at home."

"Hey!" Derek protested from the back seat. "I want to go home, too! And, I want some breakfast. You said we could go out to eat."

I ignored his cry, but Mr. Rockwell appeased him by saying, "I'll make you some pancakes when we get home, all right?" After Derek vocalized his delight, Mr. Rockwell turned the conversation to me once more. "What will you be doing?" he asked.

"I'll be calling my Uncle Nathan and Aunt Tanya," I replied. "They need to know what's going on."