"Come on," She says, an easy, mischievous smile spreading over her face in that way that makes her eyes glow brightly. I smile, too. How could I not?
"Alright, fine. But I'm going to beat you to the bottom." I tell her, pulling my ski poles out of the snow and zipping my jacket up the last little bit. It's gotten colder since we came back out from lunch.
"We'll see, Cavanaugh. We'll see." She returns, arching one eyebrow. She knows she'll get a response from using my last name. The look in her eyes draws me in and I tip her chin up spontaneously, pressing my lips to hers. I wish I wasn't wearing gloves, so I could feel her skin. Her cheeks are flushed, and she smiles.
"What was that?" She asks me, surprised but pleased. I grin. "What, I can't kiss you without telling you first now?"
She laughs, beautiful music bubbling up from her throat. "No. You just surprised me. I like it. But come on, let's go. I want to do this trail."
"All right, as long as you're sure. I'll see you at the bottom."
She pushes off with her poles and shuffles her skis a little to go faster. I follow her tracks exactly as we amble along the traverse to get to the double diamonds and glades on the far side of the mountain. She's picked a double diamond called Last Time, one of the hardest trails in the Northeast. She's been talking herself into it for a while. I've never done it either, but she says she's feeling bold and strong today. I believe her.
"Hey, what's the trail it merges with again?" She calls out to me as she pulls up her gator.
I stop following behind her and ski up so we're in line, a meter or so apart. "Uh, Chute #3, I think. There's two options, a blue and Chute, which is a diamond. If you're worn out, go on the blue. Both trails take us back to the same place, the lift, and then—"
"And then we follow the trail and end up back at the base. I know. Okay, thank you. We're good."
She speeds ahead as we dip over a small hill. There aren't many people out on this side of the mountain. Our parents are with our siblings, off on the other side, and my brother Thomas' doing his own thing, as usual. It's towards the end of the day, anyways. This should be our last run because the lifts will close. I let myself fall behind her again, watch how her body moves, shifts weight, bends as she skis along. In not more than a minute we reach the head of the trail. Two guys are standing there, getting ready to go down. She comes to a stop beside them, and I align my skis with hers and plant my poles.
"You kids doing Last Time?" One of the men asks. He's pulling up his ski mask over his nose.
She looks at me. "Yeah, we are," I answer, taking the lead. "You guys done it before?"
"Yeah, it's our fifth time. Don't take it casually. Don't get out of control. You think it's easy when you start out, but you need to be careful. There are lots of drop-offs and trees and random bumps and some scary-looking cliffs and places you can fall into the woods." Says the first guy.
"I mean, as long as you're capable skiers, go for it. Sorry if he psyched you out. He's just saying watch out. There are lots of little things that'll come out of nowhere. Otherwise, it's a great trail. Really challenging. Lots of adrenaline." Says the second.
"Well, thanks for warning us." I tell them. "We'll be careful."
"Glad to hear it. Bobby Crawford. This is my buddy Jeff Holland." The first guy says, sticking out a gloved hand. I slap my hand into it and give him a good handshake, then I shake Jeff's hand. "Nice to meet you, Bobby. Jeff. I'm Holden Cavanaugh." I say. She shakes their hands, too, with a wide smile. "I'm Max," She says happily. Her eyes are watering a little in the cold. She looks so beautiful.
"Well, good day to both you kids. I guess we'll see you at the bottom."
"You can count on that," I reply. Bobby gives me a nod and grabs his poles. "Bye!" Max calls out, waving.
"Adios," Jeff shouts back, flipping around on his skis. Bobby gives us a little salute, and then they both push off down the trail, disappearing around a sharp bend a few seconds later. I can tell they're both great skiers. Probably from the West.
"Are you ready?" I ask, watching Max. Her eyes are locked on the spot where Bobby and Jeff just went out of sight. Her smile is gone.
"Um…yeah. Yes, sorry, I'm ready. I just…" She answers me slowly, distractedly.
"You what?" I ask her.
"Oh, nothing. I'm just wondering if I'm good enough. But I'll be fine. I'll take it slow. It'll be okay." She says.
"Don't worry about it. You'll be fine. See you at the bottom." I wink at her, pushing off, simultaneously slapping her butt with my ski pole. She yelps and stretches to get me back, but I'm just out of reach. I hear her push off after me and let her catch up. I feel her pole tap against my butt just as we round the turn. The trail is icy; our skis scrape noisily against it.
"What was that for?" She says loudly so I can hear.
"For you being cute." I tell her simply. I really mean it's because I love her, but for some reason I decide not to say that.
"Well…" She starts.
"Well?" I prompt.
"Well, I can't think of a response. I'm not sure whether to say thank you, or…"
"You're welcome." I finish for her. "Now I don't know about you, but I'm still taking this as a race."
"Oh, you're so on, Mr. Cavanaugh," She teases, pulling ahead. "This run is mine."
I grin beneath my gator. "Ah, Miss Ryder, how naïve you are. Taste my powder!" I tell her, zipping in front. And the race begins.
The trail is narrow and the snow-covered trees seem to block out the sun. The powder gives way to ice in slippery patches that throw me off occasionally. It quickly gets intensely steep and I have to tighten my body and really focus to stay in control. I hear Max's skis behind me but as I concentrate, I tune the sound out and my mind stays solely on the trail. There are twists and turns everywhere and it's so narrow it's hard to turn in some places. At one point, the trail is just a cliff on one side.
I call back to Max once to ask how she's doing. She's fine. The wind carries away her voice just as it reaches my ears.
My skis bump and slide beneath me in a way that I really don't like. It's the ice and granular stuff on the trail. I don't like the feeling of being on the verge of out of control.
My muscles are starting to ache. This is definitely the hardest trail I've ever been on. I swerve to avoid a tree and have to swerve immediately after to avoid falling in the gully that is now the entire right side of the trail. Trees line it; it's woods on both sides, but on the right it's a big ravine with boulders and pines that look treacherous.
Minutes pass, and my thighs are burning. "Max!" I shout loudly, so she'll hear me. "I don't think it's much longer until the break in the trail!"
I don't hear her answer. It's probably because she can't hear me. The wind's picked up and it whistles in my ears. Cold whips across my cheeks. I don't want to turn around, it's too dangerous, and I can't stop because she'll get ahead of me. I call to her again. "Max!"
She still doesn't answer. I slow up a bit, a little annoyed because I don't want to lose our race, and I listen for the sound of her skis behind me. My mind starts to slowly get into gear, thoughts forming in the deep recesses of it. I call her name again, but all I hear is the echo of it in the woods all around me. "Max, Max, Max…"
I stop myself and turn around. I look up the trail. It's steep and icy. And she's not on it.
That's when my mind really takes off. Thoughts whizz through it. Did she fall into the gully? Is she hurt? Is she scared?
I calm myself and decide to wait a minute or two. She probably just decided to slow up and she'll meet me in a second. Or maybe she's playing a trick on me so she can get ahead. She's sly like that. It's one of the reasons why I love her.
But my heart is beating fast, revealing the worry I'm trying hard to suppress. I see her face in my mind. I assure myself that it's fine; I'm psyching myself out because the trail makes me nervous. All we've got to do is get to the bottom. It'll be okay.
I wait a minute, but then it's too much. She hasn't come. Looking up at the sharp incline of the trail, I decide to ditch my skis and climb up in just my boots. It's not easy going. I slide and fall on the ice, scrambling back up from where I came. I'm sweating like crazy, retracing my path, five minutes later. "Max!" I call into the silence. No answer.
She'll be fine. I'll find her in a second. Maybe she sat down for a minute.
Suddenly, I come across something. I almost didn't take note of it, but at the last second my eyes drift back to the spot and something clicks in my mind. It's a small area of powder just below a big patch of ice. But it's not normal. It looks like someone's skis moved the powder around. As in, someone who might've fallen.
I jog over to the spot. My heart is really starting to race now. "No," I whisper under my breath. The spot of disrupted coverage is just on the edge of the steep, wild gully. It drops off sharply, into trees and rocks. Gone.
My eyes drift up, following the path where I imagine she's fallen. Horrific images of what could've happened flash across my vision. None of them would've prepared me for what I see.
My gaze falls quickly over a disruption in the snow at the base of a tree, shreds of material on the ground and stuck to bark. I see a ski, then a pole, blood on the snow, another ski, and finally—finally—my eyes land on Max.
She's half-buried in a snow drift, wrapped around the tree at an utterly unnatural angle. Blood stains the white snow all around her, and I see it flowing freely out of her nose and bubbling out of her mouth, so deep red it's almost black. Her face is a mess of cuts, and pine needles stick to the blood. Her skis are gone, snapped off as she fell, and her other pole lies a few feet away from her. Her goggles are lost, clothing torn…eyes closed.
"No!" I scream as everything starts to slow down. "No!"
I throw down my skis and poles and rip off my goggles. "Max, Max, no," I yell into the emptiness, leaping down off the trail and barreling towards her. I dodge trees and scramble over rocks, racing through uncharted woods, bloodying my knuckles when I lose my gloves. My nose starts to bleed when I trip over a snow-covered rock, but I don't even notice it until I feel the warm liquid in my mouth, beneath my gator. I keep my eyes glued to where her body lies, the blood spreading around her and further staining the snow.
I can't think. It can't be real. This kind of stuff happens to other people. You hear it on the news. You never expect it to happen to you.
I feel like I'm running underwater or through sand but finally I reach her and slump to the ground. I take her face in my hands but know enough not to move it because something could be wrong with her spine or neck. "Max, no," I whisper, tears—not from the cold—now spilling down my cheeks. They trickle beneath my gator, mixing with the blood, and soak my neck and undergarments. One falls directly on one of the cuts on her face. Her eyes won't open. She won't move. "Max!" I shout, tapping her cheek. It's ice cold. "Wake up! I'm here! Come on!"
She doesn't wake up. She looks so…peaceful. Her mouth is in a line, a big gash cut into it, but otherwise it looks exactly like she's sleeping. Memories of the countless times I've woken up to watch her sleep flash through my head, how the hair fell over her perfect shoulders and how her breath sounded, so even and clear. How she curled her body around mine. She looks just like that.
After a second I can't handle it. My mind catches up to me, though. I leap up, still staring at her. "No," I'm saying under my breath. I'm muttering things as I think them. Keeping my eyes on her as much as I can, I scramble up from where I came. I can't get there fast enough. I snap my skis on, take one final look at her, and push off with a giant, angry grunt.
I speed down the mountain, my hands numb because I lost my gloves. It's all a blur. I can't see through my tears. The taste of blood in my mouth motivates me. I fall dozens of times and I know how dangerous and irrational I'm being, but I just can't go fast enough. "Jeff!" I scream. "Bobby! Someone! Help!" But no one answers. No one's there.
What feels like an eternity later, I reach the lift area, falling again as I try to go faster than my skis allow. People start to stare at me as I barrel towards the lift. I know I must look wild, blood and tears streaming down my face. "Help!" I'm shouting. "Someone help me! My—she's, I…she fell, she's not opening her eyes—there's blood, so much blood—someone, help me, please…!" I scream. People turn and stare some more. I push through them in the lift line, knocking over a few small children in the process. Fathers swear at me and mothers look shocked. Tears are streaming down my face. "Someone, please. You've got to help me. My friend, my—my girlfriend, she…"
Finally, the lift guy comes up to me. He's not much older than I am. He needs to shave, and there are dark circles under his eyes. "Sir, you need to tell me what's wrong or get out of the way," He says. "It's not safe to be disruptive here—"
"Please!" I scream. "You don't understand! I need help! My girlfriend, Max, she—she fell, we were…we were skiing Last Time, it's all my fault…"
The mention of Last Time seems to get the man's attention. He signals to another guy, who stops the lift. "Sir, please tell me calmly what happened. We'll try to help."
"I can't, I—we were just skiing, and I was ahead of her, and then she didn't answer…I found her there, she was in a gully…she fell. I didn't hear, I wasn't paying attention, I was ahead, I…I should've known. We were having a race…I found her there in the snow…she fell, she crashed into trees and rocks—she fell so far—it was steep and dangerous and icy—wrapped around a tree…there's so much blood, and she won't wake up. You've got to help me. Please—"
The guy holds up a hand, signaling to the other guy again urgently. He comes running over. The people in the lift line look worried and agitated. I look around wildly. I feel trapped. We're wasting time. The lift guy whips out his walkie-talkie. "Hello, this is Pat," He says. "Yes, I've got a young man down here who says his girlfriend fell into a steep gully while they were skiing Last Time…yes…send paramedics immediately…we're up here, yeah…send someone for him…yes…yeah, okay. Hurry."
He turns to me after putting the walkie-talkie back on his belt. "Are you okay, sir? You're bleeding."
"You shouldn't be asking about me, I'm fine. You need to help her. My girlfriend. She's only seventeen…"
"We understand, sir. Medics are on their way down, and they're going to call an ambulance. But we need to send you back up there so you can show them where she is. Do you want someone to accompany you on the lift?"
"No, I'm fine. I can go." I say distractedly. The image of Max's mutilated body is flashing before my eyes. I can't feel anything anymore. I'm numb.
I'm moving to the yellow line to get on the lift when I hear my name. "Holden!" Calls a voice behind me. I see Jeff and Bobby skiing towards me. "Stop," I say to the lift attendants. "I want them to come on with me."
Bobby and Jeff reach me and see my tears, look confused as to why I'm crying and why all these people are letting them cut the lift line. "What's up, dude? What's going on?" Bobby asks.
"Wait a second. Where's Max?" Jeff juts in before I can answer. I've only talked to them once, but it feels like we've been friends for a long time. "I…" I stutter, but then the lift switches back on and we all focus on getting seated. The chair hits me behind the knees and I fall hard on my butt. I close my eyes, not even caring about the pain shooting up my spine. "She fell," I say softly.
Bobby and Jeff are watching me closely, I can feel it. "Where?" Bobby asks. "On the trail?"
"No," I breathe out a minute later. I'm glad they're not pressuring me to answer. I can't even organize what I'm feeling in my mind, let alone words. "Off the trail. She fell into a gully, over rocks, and into trees. No. She did not fall on the trail."
Bobby and Jeff lean back against the cold metal of the lift chair that is starting to feel suffocating. I hear Jeff whistle. "That's rough, man," He says. "You found her?"
That's rough, man.Inwardly, I chuckle bitterly. "Yeah, I found her," I form the words slowly. I suddenly have to focus on my tongue movements to get the sentence to come out. The entire world has slowed down. "Wrapped around her tree, her arm at a funny angle, sitting in a pool of blood."
"Was she awake?" Bobby asks, genuine concern in his voice. My stomach flies up into my throat, and when I speak, my voice cracks like a thirteen-year-old boy's. "Nope," I say shortly, not trusting my voice anymore. Jeff and Bobby breathe out loudly. "I'm sorry, dude," Jeff says. "The paramedics will take care of her. I'm sure she'll be okay."
I don't reply. My tears have stopped. They're frozen on my face from the icy wind. My eyes are dry, glazed over, and I can feel the blood frozen on my cracked lips, too. Jeff and Bobby don't make any other efforts at conversation, so I lean back and close my eyes again. Jeff nudges me three minutes later and I shuffle off the lift.
No one comes off behind us. They must've closed it down. There're men in red and white and black outfits all over, speaking urgently into walkie-talkies. There're at least five snowmobiles, each holding a sled of supplies behind it. One snowmobile drives off, two guys on skis following it. A tall, husky guy in one of the Ski Patrol jackets comes up to us, a grave expression on his face. He looks right at me. "Are you Mr. Cavanaugh?" He asks.
I don't see him. I'm looking past him at all the commotion that's raging around me. Jeff nudges me, and I meet the guy's eyes. "What?" I ask.
"Are you Mr. Holden Cavanaugh?" He asks again. I swallow and nod. "And who are you?" He asks Jeff and Bobby. They introduce themselves. "Here, come with me," The guy says, giving us no choice but to follow him. We get out of our skis and pick them up. I'm completely numb, but not from the cold.
Once inside the Ski Patrol lodge, a wall of heat slaps me in the face. "I'm John Coombs, I'm the head of the Ski Patrol for the mountain," The guy says, moving through the only room. He goes over to some file cabinets and pulls a folder out of the top drawer. "If you want to get cleaned up, there's a bathroom over there," He gestures to me. I nod and duck inside.
The bathroom is small and square, with a grey slate floor and white walls. There's an old skiing poster, a framed image, and a mirror. That's it, other than a white porcelain toilet and sink. I lean against the sink, which creaks a little. Eyes I don't recognize stare blankly back at me.
Bruises are emerging on my cheeks and forehead. My lip is cut, and the trail of blood leads up to my nose. I unzip my jacket, pull my helmet over my head, and yank the bloodied gator off. My black sweater is stained.
Sighing, I throw cold water on my face and scrub tiredly. I'm feeling absolutely nothing. My brain shut off the second I saw Max lying there on her own personal blood red blanket.
I emerge from the bathroom a few minutes later, my face clean and cold from the icy water, holding my stained undergarments. A new guy in the room took them from me. "Mike Caufield," He introduces himself in passing. I nod and run a hand through my hair.
John is talking to Jeff and Bobby. "We just met him and the girl, Max," Bobby was saying. "She was young, probably seventeen or eighteen. He's older by a few years, I'm guessing. College age, I think."
"Yeah," Jeff agrees. "Maybe between eighteen and twenty?"
"Sounds about right," Bobby nods. "They were friends, at least. Definitely not strangers. Maybe dating. The way Holden looked at her suggested there were at least some feelings there."
"They're romantically linked," John says evenly. "He referred to her as his girlfriend. She's seventeen."
Just then, Jeff sees me. "Here he is," He says, sounding a bit relieved as he stands up. "He can answer your questions."
I walk over automatically and stand beside Bobby, staring into John's eyes. They're vacant, just a pair of normal blue eyes. "Great," He says, looking down at the file leaning on his knee. "Mr. Cavanaugh, we just have to write up a report. We do one for all accidents that happen here. Your full name?"
"Holden Michael Cavanaugh," I say slowly. "Did they find her yet?"
"Okay. Date of birth and age?"
"I said 'Did they find her yet'." I repeat frustratedly.
John sighs. "Yes," He says. "They're bringing her down the mountain. That's all I know. So, when were you born and how old are you?"
"May 18th, 1993," I answer numbly, turning away. I start to walk towards the door, but then I break into a run. "I'm nineteen." I call as I burst out the door and into the strong wind outside.
I pause for a second, scanning the scene. The lift's off and no longer running. Some paramedics and ski patrol on skis, along with one on a snowmobile, remain. My eyes zero in on my skis, and I run clumsily to them in my boots. No one notices me as I click into them, grab my poles, and push off. Then Jeff, Bobby, and John burst out of the lodge, calling my name. "Come back!" John yells. "They're taking care of her! You need to stay here!"
I ignore them and tense all my muscles as I start to ski down the same trail I'd been on less than an hour before. The guys standing around take notice of me. "Hey," One calls. They point to me, and as I round the bend, I hear them take off after me. I push harder. I can't ski fast enough.
I whizz down the traverse, the sounds of the others close behind me, and come to the entrance to Last Time. I laugh bitterly at the name. This will be the last time, I swear to myself. Never again.
I don't even think as I turn and head onto the trail, ducking beneath the tape they'd used to block it off. I have no doubts, no second thoughts. I gain speed, the ice carrying me, until I come to the accident sight. The last snowmobile is just heading off down the mountain, and I can hear the others further ahead. The little snow there was has been disrupted by the tracks of the snowmobiles. I don't stop. I keep going, following after the snowmobile that's just ahead of me. But that doesn't mean my eyes don't see the fresh trails of blood staining the blindingly white snow.
I'd lost the paramedics and ski patrol that had been on my trail for a little while at least. I clench my jaw, tucking my body down, picking up as much speed as I can possibly get. I fall once, a big dramatic roll, losing my skis and everything. I got up immediately though, not feeling anything, and continued until I came out at the bottom of the mountain and heard the wails of a siren.
At the base, I kick out of my skis, remove my boots, and sprint through the crowds, ignoring the snow that soaks through my two pairs of ski socks. People have gathered and are whispering. I hear "accident" "young girl" "terrible" "tragedy" and "boyfriend". Tears form in my eyes again, but I don't notice them until I feel the warmth spilling down my cheeks. I shove people out of my way, causing a commotion, but I don't care. I finally come out and see the scene in front of me. There's an ambulance and people in EMT clothing bustling about, mingling with the mountain's snow patrol people. And I see the stretcher.
They're just loading it into the back of the ambulance when I break through the final line of spectators. The EMTs are shouting out numbers and phrases I don't understand, and the sirens and lights are blaring. I sprint forward. "Max," I call. "Someone tell me if she's okay."
I attempt to leap into the back of the ambulance, but a massive guy blocks me. "What do you think you're doing?" He growls.
"That's my girlfriend," I point, the salty bitterness of the tears warming my mouth. I try to dodge past him, but the doors close firmly. "Family only," He says. "And you're not family."
"No!" I scream so loudly I can't even hear myself. Suddenly, two people flank me, pulling me away. "No!" I shout again as the ambulance pulls away, rushing off to the hospital. It grows further and further away until I can't see it anymore and more people I don't know descend on me. They ask me questions, but I can't answer. The next thing I know, my mother flies up to me, calling my name. She pushes through the guys holding me back and grabs my face. "Oh, Holden!" She cries, sobbing. "Baby, what happened?"
Surprisingly, the men release me, and I fall into her arms, my eyes now dry. "Mom," I say bluntly, crashing against her. She's half a foot shorter than me and much less broad, but at that moment, she's holding me upright. "Oh, Holden," She says softly into my hair, stroking it. I realize I'd lost my helmet somewhere, but I couldn't remember where.
"There was a crash," I choke out. "Max…"
"I know, I know," She soothes. "Shh, shh. It's okay. They're going to take care of her."
"She was broken…" My voice cracks again and fresh tears spill over. "Her arm, it was twisted—and the blood everywhere…"
"Oh, baby," My mom cries. "They're experts. They'll fix her. Everything's going to be alright."
I let her hold me for a minute, but then my mind catches up with me. I fall back, startled. She looks at me, surprised. "What is it?"
My eyes scan all over, darting, unable to focus. "I have to go," I breathe, backing away. I break into a run, blindly heading for the parking lot only from muscle memory. "Holden!" My mom calls after me. "Where are you going?"
I break through the line of people and sprint for the parking lot. I make it to my car somehow and leap into the driver's seat. My keys are in my coat pocket. I shove them into the ignition and try to drive. Why wasn't I moving forward?
I realize then that I'm not wearing shoes, and my feet have gone numb from running across frozen gravel, ice, and snow. I press harder on the gas pedal and finally the car shoots out of the parking space. I drive haphazardly away, seeing the people following me getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.
From there, I follow the sounds of the sirens until I catch up with the ambulance. I'm speeding, I know that much, but I just don't care. I can't think. I don't even know how long I've been driving when I pull into the emergency room entrance behind the ambulance, parking in an unofficial space. I leap out of the car. They've already brought the stretcher with Max on it inside, so I follow them, calling "wait!"
I enter into Fletcher Allen university hospital alone, wearing no shoes, gloves, or a hat. I turn corners, each hallway indistinguishable from the next, until I get lost in the labyrinth of beige walls and tiled floors. I don't know where I am. But all I can think is that I don't know where she is.
I eventually come out into a waiting room full of tense-looking people. A young mother bounces a wailing baby in her arms, trying and failing to soothe it. An elderly couple sits together, the husband breathing hard and the wife's face traced with lines of worry. A teenager sits with his mother, hurling into a bedpan. Nurses bustle around, holding clipboards and looking stressed. "Help," I say softly. Then, louder. "Help, someone. Please help me."
A nurse runs right into me. "Please sit down, sir," She says, frowning.
"You don't understand," I call after her. "My girlfriend was in an accident. She's—"
But the nurse isn't listening. She bangs through a set of swinging doors and disappears. Then, a kindly voice calls out to me. "Excuse me, sir?" A woman's voice says from behind me. "Can I help you?"
I turn and make eye contact with a pair of warm brown eyes. My heart speeds up, and I hurry over to the middle-aged woman smiling at me from behind the large desk. "Yes, please," I say breathlessly. "I'm lost. My girlfriend and I were skiing, and she had an accident…I followed the ambulance here, but I lost her…I need to see her. I really need to see her."
The woman, whose name tag reads "Beth Chapel", frowns empathetically. "I'm sorry, sir," She sighs. "I'm afraid I can't help you. If she came in the ambulance entrance she's being helped right now. I can assure you they're taking great care of her. If you could actually fill out some papers, that would be great. Just a little information, anything you know. Nothing official, because you're not a direct relative. Is there a relative here?"
"I don't know," I say nervously, looking around, searching for anything and nothing at all. I grab the clipboard out of her hands. "Couldn't you take me to where she is? Is she in the operating room? I could watch from the gallery—"
"That's not allowed," Beth Chapel replies. "I'm so sorry. You can wait here. Answer as many of those questions as you can, as accurately as you can. I'll tell them you're here, find out how she's doing, and let you know when I know anything. I'm sure they'll come out to update you."
I nod, swallowing. "Thank you," I say, backing away. I fall into a chair in the corner and sit there, staring at the wall, for ten minutes, unable to think. Then I look down at the question sheet in front of me. I read the first one. "Patient's full name: _"
I look at the pen attached to the clipboard, then back at the question. Everything feels so surreal, so distant. This isn't my life, I think. Then, slowly, I pick up the pen and start to write. "Maxwell Elizabeth Ryder," I scribble on the line. Then, below it, I filled out her birthday, age, and hair and eye color. September 13th, 1995. Seventeen. Dirty blonde. Grey.
Halfway down the page, tears spill over my eyes, and I have to put the pen down because I can no longer see. I lie back, not caring if the other strangers in the room see me cry. I don't care about anything anymore. Nothing except Max.
It takes me another ten minutes to finish the sheet. I have to leave blank the ones I don't know, like some aspects of her medical history and other stuff we haven't yet gotten to talk about. When she wakes up, I'll ask, I swear determinedly to myself.
I get up and hand the clipboard to Beth Chapel. She smiles sadly. "Done?"
I nod, wiping my nose. She hands me a box of tissues, and I accept them appreciatively and use two before returning to my seat. A minute later, my mother bursts into the waiting room, flanked by my family and Max's. "Has anyone seen—" My mother starts to ask Beth Chapel, but then her eyes land on me. She rushes over and takes me in her arms again. I close my eyes and accept the embrace. "Holden," She breathes. "What were you doing, driving off like that? You could've gotten killed!"
I don't answer. My dad hugs me, and my brother and sister stand aside. Max's parents, along with her brother Sloane, watch us, keeping a few feet away. Sloane waves. The whole group stares at me, waiting for me to say something. I sniffle, swallowing the tears in my throat and wiping at the ones spilling down my cheeks. "I don't know," I shrug helplessly after a second, breaking down. "I don't know."
I put my face in my hands and cry silently into them. My mom holds me, and my dad rubs my back. I looked up at Max's parents after a minute. "I'm so sorry," I choke out.
Her mother, Gail, nods. I look away. I can't face them.
We all wait together. My parents sit beside me, my little sister Annie in my dad's lap, and Max's family sits across the room. My younger brother Thomas sits on the floor in front of my dad because there are no chairs left. Nurses come and go, bringing patients back into the unseen recesses of the hospital. Eventually a chair frees up and Thomas takes it. The tears stop and the heartache commences.
I still can't think, but I can feel. My heart begins to feel like a tight bundle of chains suspended in my chest, physically pulling me to the floor. Every other part of me feels completely empty. The silence is only disrupted by the coughs, sniffles, and wails of the people around me, and it presses against my head, making me want to scream.
Max's parents fill out a massive amount of papers. No one speaks. And we wait.
We wait until everyone in the waiting room is gone, except for the wife of the elderly guy who was breathing hard and a new guy who shows up two hours into our wait. Beth Chapel is still at the desk, typing furiously on a computer, periodically looking to the clock or down at the stack of papers on her desk. I can hear the clock ticking, and the keyboard noise is like gunshots. The tears stopped hours ago. Now it's just the emptiness.
My dad took Annie home around eight o'clock. All we know is that Max is in surgery, and she's got internal bleeding, a broken leg, and a broken arm, among other injuries.
The clock hits nine. My parents and Max's have barely spoken the whole time other than my parents offering condolences and supportive words and her parents thanking them. Her parents finished the paperwork and now just sit there, looking like ghosts. Just before ten thirty, a young guy in scrubs comes out, his surgical mask hanging around his neck. I can't help but notice the few drops of blood on his scrub top. He rubs his hands together. "Who belongs to Max Ryder?"
Max's parents and brother raise their hands, and my family and I look up. "We do," Her father, Robert, says. "We're all here for her, but we're her parents."
The guy nods. "Great. Well, she's out of surgery and in the ICU. She's on a respirator, and for right now, it's breathing for her. We stopped the bleeding and repaired the damage. She's critical, and we want to warn you that since she was without oxygen for an uncertain amount of time, there could be brain damage. We have no idea if there is any at all yet, but it's a possibility. Otherwise, she's doing alright. She's pretty banged up. It was a serious accident. We're keeping a close eye on her because her condition is barely stable."
"Can we visit her?" Her mother asks immediately.
"I'm afraid you can't," The guy winces. "Like I said, she's in very critical condition. We don't know how she's going to be a few hours from now. She went through very severe trauma. Bringing people in could risk fatal infection. We don't want to put her at that risk."
Gail nods vacantly. "Okay," She says in a quiet voice.
"When can we see her?" Her father asks.
"I'm sorry," The guy raises his hands. "I'm just a resident. I don't know. We'll let you know when we know anything new, I can assure you. In the meantime, maybe some or all of you should go home and get some rest. It's late. We're taking great care of her, I promise."
"Thank you," Robert says.
The guy turns to go, but I say something without thinking. "Excuse me," I blurt. He turns and looks at me. "What?"
I look down, embarrassed. I have no idea what I want to say, but I want to say something.
"Did you say something?" The resident prompts me after a second.
I look up again. "Yeah," I say carefully. "I, um…do you think she'll wake up any time soon?"
The guy shakes his head. "No," He confirms. "The anesthesia will take a few hours to wear off, and the pain medication will extend that. Plus, the body accommodates for the trauma by resting. My guess is that it'll be hours, maybe a day or so. She has extremely severe injuries. She's fighting for her life."
I nod. "Okay."
The guy leaves, and we're left alone again. My mom taps my shoulder. "Holden," She whispers. I turn to her. She waits for me to say something. When I don't, she continues. "Maybe you should go home and get some rest. You can see her tomorrow."
The guy's words echo in my head, mocking me. She's fighting for her life, I hear over and over. I shake my head, trying to make it stop. "No," I say, more sharply that I meant it. My mom recoils. "I meant, no," I say more softly. "Sorry. I'm going to stay. I'm not leaving."
She tries to convince me to leave, but then realizes she's not getting anywhere and stops. "I'm going to take Thomas home," She says finally. Thomas hears and stands up, his eyes vacant. My mom walks over to Max's parents. They hug. "I'm so sorry," She apologizes for about the eightieth time. "We're praying for Max. She's strong. She'll be okay."
Gail nods, and Robert attempts a smile that turns into a hideous grimace. His face goes blank again. Gail and my mother hug one more time, and then she walks away, Thomas following her. I'm left alone with Max's parents and her brother Sloane, sitting beside his father. We make eye contact for a second, but I look away.
The clock hits eleven, then eleven fifteen. I can barely take it anymore. I get up and start to pace, my legs numb. I have a massive headache, and images of the crash are flashing before my eyes. The lost skis and poles, the fragments of clothing, and the red-stained snow. It was like a snow cone, the ones you get on Field Day in elementary school,I think before I can stop myself. I blink, trying to make the pictures go away, but nothing will get them out of my mind.
I go over the entire day from the beginning. I woke up and had breakfast with Max before anyone else was up. She'd crawled into my bed the night before and slept against me, but she'd left early in the morning so our parents wouldn't find us together. We ate Frosted Flakes that morning. I remember.
Then Annie came downstairs, and Max got up and got her a bowl for cereal. My parents showed up next and started cooking hot breakfast. Thomas stumbled downstairs, then Gail and Robert, and finally Sloane. We left the house and headed to the mountain just after ten o'clock.
I skied the first few runs with Max. We started with an easy blue, then a harder blue, and finally hit the blacks. We talked about the future on the lift. I remembered a funny guy we'd sat beside on one of the first runs. His name was Jack, if I remembered right. Maybe it was Jake. I wasn't sure now. He was good-natured, cracking jokes easily. Max laughed and laughed, throwing her helmet-clad head back and letting the laughter bubble up easily out of her throat. I liked to hear her laugh more than I liked the jokes.
We stopped for lunch at the summit restaurant, and she wouldn't let me pay for her. I remembered what I ate—chicken fingers, salty French fries, Dr. Pepper, an apple, and a Rice Krispy treat. I bought a Snickers to eat later, too. But I couldn't remember what she'd bought. Clam chowder, maybe? That sounded right. I wrack my brain for the memory, but it won't surface. Frustrated, I sit back down and a few more tears fall from my eyes.
Suddenly I'm exhausted. My whole body collapses into the chair and I seem to melt into it, too tired to even hold my head up. I rub my eyes and see stars. All of this is too much. One minute I was skiing with my girlfriend, not a questioning thought in my mind, and the next I'm sitting in a hospital, hearing a doctor tell me she's teetering dangerously on the line between life and death. It doesn't feel like my life. Max and I have known each other since we were little. I've been in love with her for years. We just got together five months ago. This isn't supposed to happen.
I sit there with my head in my hands, staring as my tears hit the ugly tiled floor. It smells overwhelmingly of hand sanitizer and sick people. The smell tickles my nose, and I sneeze, but it won't go away. I desperately replay the previous night in my mind, feeling Max crawl delicately beneath my sheets. I slid my arms around her narrow waist, pulled her up against me, and listened contentedly to her little quiet giggle. I buried my face in her neck.
That's when a thought crossed my mind. When was the last time I'd told her I loved her?
Just then, as I began frantically flipping through my mind to remember, the same resident guy appears in front of us. This time, there's a graying guy in scrubs and a surgical cap with him. Their expressions are grave. The resident won't look up. The older one clears his throat and our heads all snap up. Sloane had been sleeping, and he jumps a little.
The guy goes over and shakes hands with Max's parents and Sloane. Gail points to me, and I shake his hand, too, my eyebrow creased. I wonder if he operated on Max.
"Hello everyone, I'm Dr. Curtis," He says. I can't read anything in his tone. Usually I'm great at reading people. My ears prick, working on high alert to assess everything he says. "You're Maxwell Ryder's family?"
Her parents and brother nod. "I'm not," I speak up. "I'm her boyfriend."
The guy nods. "Why don't you come over here?" He tilts his head to where Max's family sits. I get up slowly, stretching, and take a seat next to Sloane. He looks at me sadly but supportively. I nod.
Dr. Curtis pulls up a chair, and the resident, who introduces himself as Dr. Connelly, follows suit. That's when I know it's bad. I get that taste in my mouth and I suddenly want to hurl. I can see it all now—it's in their faces, their mouths, their eyes, the way Dr. Curtis wrings his hands and how Dr. Connelly looks uncomfortable, bouncing his leg and drumming his fingers. I know it before they even say anything.
Dr. Curtis opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again, thinking. Max's parents and Sloane watch him intently. I'm looking at the ceiling. "Alright," Dr. Curtis says finally. "Your daughter Maxwell—Max is what she went by, yes?"
"Yes," Gail answers worriedly. "What's wrong?"
Dr. Curtis swallows. "Your daughter is very strong," He begins. I shift in my seat. It's the buttering up before the bad news, I know it. What happened? I think. Did she crash? Does she have brain damage?
"She endured extensive injuries. She broke her left femur, which is the biggest bone in the leg, the thigh one. She had lots of small fractures in her feet and hands, and there were cracks and bruises all over the bones of her legs and arms. She tore some ligaments in her knees. She broke two ribs and hit her head hard enough to dent her skull. She wasn't breathing for a certain amount of time, meaning cells in her body started to die. And there was excessive bleeding in her abdomen. I'm not sure if this is something you already know and discussed, but it wasn't on the papers you filled out, so I'll just let you know in case. She—Max was pregnant."
My heart stops. Max's mother gasps. They all look at me. I can't breathe. "What did you say?" Her father asks, shooting daggers at me.
"She was five weeks pregnant," Dr. Curtis repeats awkwardly. "The crash obviously led to a violent miscarriage. She lost a lot of blood."
"Are you kidding me?" Robert explodes, standing. "Are you kidding me?"
I shrink down in my seat. "I had no idea, sir," I say, my voice shaking. "We were always so careful, we…she never told me—"
"Are you kidding me? Cavanaugh, she's seventeen years old!" He bellows. His face is red; the veins on his forehead and in his neck throb and pulse. "You better thank God we're in a hospital, kid, because I'd slap the daylight out of you otherwise," He growls. Sloane's looking at me in disgust, and Gail looks betrayed. It's scary to see Robert looking at me like that. Our families have been friends since I was eight and Max was six. He's taken us to baseball games, driven me home from school…he's always been an extra father. He'd been so happy when Max and I got together. "I'm proud of you, son," He'd said, just like I was his own kid. "Max is very happy. I want her to stay that way. You know if you hurt her, I'll be out to get you. Treat her well."
"Please sit down, sir," Dr. Connelly says, taking Robert's arm. He shoots me another death glare and allows the young guy to sit him down. "I know it's a lot to take in, but I don't think it's the best time to be angry at the young man over here—"
"Holden," I say.
Dr. Curtis nods. "It would be best to just breathe and calm down," He sighs. "We have some bad news, and it's no one's fault, especially not Holden's. Your daughter Max, as you know, was struggling after surgery. We had her on a breathing tube, and her body had taken a real beating."
"Why are you using the past tense?" Gail's voice wobbles, her eyes wild.
Dr. Curtis holds up a hand, talking over her. "Her heart stopped. It was most likely because her small body couldn't take all of the strain. When the body is so far injured, as hers was, it shuts down sometimes, even after every measure is taken to keep it alive. The doctors caring for your daughter did everything they could, but they couldn't restore a heart rhythm…Max died."
"No," Gail breathes after a moment, fumbling for words. Her brow is creased, as if she's thinking hard. "I'm sorry, that—that can't be right. Max is seventeen, she…she's alive and well. She's a senior in high school. She wants to be a criminal psychologist, she…no, that's not right."
"I'm sorry," Dr. Curtis says, his eyes empty. "Your daughter died at 12:06 this morning. We did everything we could."
"She can't be dead," Sloane says, slapping his hands on his knees. He spoke in the tone he uses when he's frustrated and trying to explain things logically to someone who doesn't understand. "She's my little sister. She's perfectly healthy. It was just a skiing accident. She's supposed to be fine."
"I know," Dr. Curtis says. "I know it's a shock. I can refer you to coping groups if you'd like. We have some great ones affiliated with this hospital. They're here to help you through."
"No!" Gail wails, a bone-shattering, heartbreaking screech that echoes inside my head. "No, no, no!" She cries repeatedly. "Not my baby girl! No! Oh my God!"
She buries her face in Robert's chest, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. Sloane puts his head in his hands, tears springing to his eyes. Dr. Curtis looks at Dr. Connelly. After a second, they get up. I stand up sharply after them, and they look at me. I ignore them and walk out of the emergency room waiting area, my feet like lead. But I just keep going.
I wind through the identical hallways until I come to the emergency room doors and walk outside. It's freezing outside. I'm wearing shoes now, at least—my parents had brought them for me from the ski lodge.
I somehow make it to my car, put the keys in the ignition, and start to drive. I don't know where I'm going. I drive past the road to our condo and turn randomly every few minutes. I make it onto a highway for a while, then onto some side streets. I pass by motels, restaurants, churches, and entrances to resorts, and I drive through sleepy towns I've never seen before. I don't know how long I've been driving, but I pull over sharply on the side of one road, stopping so hard it makes my neck snap back. I bring the car to a violent stop.
Tears must have been streaming down my face for some time, because my cheeks and shirt are soaked, but I hadn't noticed. I pull the keys out of the ignition and sit back in my seat, leaning my head exhaustedly on the headrest. My nose runs, but I don't move to wipe it. My vision blurs.
I cry until I run out of tears, and then I punch the dashboard. Pain shoots up my arm, and I let out a moan, cradling it against my chest. I slam my head against the steering wheel, unable to get the pictures of Max out of my vision. I feel completely and utterly empty, like there's absolutely nothing inside me.
I must've fallen asleep there on the side of the road, because I awake to a tapping sound on my windshield. I squint, my eyes crusted over, blinking hard. An officer in a hat leans down to look in my window. He motions for me to open it. I fumble to turn on the car and open the window. "Hello there," The officer says. "Is everything alright?"
I look around. The clock reads 7:14. "Fine," I nod.
"Do you remember swerving off the road?" He asks.
"No," I say. "I'm fine."
"Okay. Just need to make sure you're alright. It's my job. You sure you can drive?"
"Good. Have a nice day. And try not to hang out on the side of the road. It's confusing to drivers and us police officers. You got anywhere to go home to?"
"Yes," I reply, not planning on saying where. "I'll go there. You have a good day, too."
He nods and walks away back to his car, so I close the window. My brain defogs, and the weight of the world crashes back on my shoulders as everything comes rushing back to me like a tsunami.
Max is dead.
I don't want to let myself think about it. Angrily, I shove the keys into the ignitions and speed off down the road, my tires screeching. I have no idea where I am. I pass a sign that says "You Are Now Leaving Leicester, Vermont. Have a Nice Day!" And I chuckle bitterly to myself. Eventually I find the highway and I decide in the moment to head home to Connecticut.
I drive all the way there, taking only one stop to pee. I'm not even hungry. I can't feel anything at all.
When I do stop to go to the bathroom, I walk through the rest stop, in awe of how happy everyone is. There's a family of five sitting and eating at one table, talking and laughing. Their kids are probably around eight, five, and two, all of them blonde and rosy-cheeked. There's a middle-aged couple that are smiling together and holding hands. In the bathroom, I see a father-son duo washing their hands. The son flicks his wet and soapy hands at his father, who laughs and does the same back to him. I avert my eyes, thinking it's amazing. My girlfriend just died, and no one has any idea.
I make it to my house at 11:43. I pull up into the driveway and park the car. The ground is covered in a small layer of snow. Our neighbors are gone, as usual. They go away to Florida this time of year.
I let myself into the house. It's empty. Just like me, I think. My two dogs, Tucker and Sophie, aren't even home to greet me, all hyper and overexcited.
I walk through the house. Everything feels weird, like I'm walking through a stranger's house. I see a coffee mug and a small plate with crumbs on it still lying in the sink, waiting to be washed. My dog's bone is on the living room carpet over the stain from when Thomas spilled his hot chocolate a billion years ago. A sock is in the hallway on the way to the laundry room. My dad probably dropped it and didn't notice before leaving for Vermont.
I end up in my old bedroom. It's mostly bare, because I'm in college now. I sit down on the bed, sinking into the familiar mattress, and everything just rushes out of me. My eyes close and I fall onto my back, my head spinning. I can't get my eyes open anymore. My chests wracks with sobs, but the tears won't come.
I punch the pillows until that's not enough, and then I punch the wall, creating a deep dent. I cry out. My hand was already bruised from hitting the dashboard the night before. I stick my other fist in my mouth to keep from screaming in pain.
I run around, picking things up and throwing them. I shatter my mirror and knock everything off my dresser until I come to the picture of me and Max on my dresser.
It's from last summer. We're on the beach, wearing bathing suits, our hair wet. Max is the focus of the picture. She's grinning like mad, dark blonde hair plastered to the sides of her face. Her freckles stand out like they always do in the summer. She's tanner, and her grey eyes are dark but bright. I'm behind her, smiling too, my arms around her neck. But she steals the picture. Your eyes go to her every time. She's that beautiful.
I pick it up and look at it through eyes blurred with tears that finally did come again. I can almost hear her voice. "I'll be fine. I'll take it slow. It'll be okay."
See you at the bottom, I said.
I put the picture on my dresser in the middle of the broken glass from my mirror. It's chaos all over the room, and then there's the picture there, a light in all the dark. I stare at it for a long time. Then I leave the room.
I walk outside onto the deck, not caring about the cold. My socked feet hit the snow and the iciness seeps in. The wind blows right through my sweater and jeans. I squint into the harsh sunlight.
Everything is the same. I don't understand it. How can everything be the same when my entire world was just flipped upside-down?
I stand in the cold for ten minutes, trying desperately to feel something, anything at all. My knuckles are bleeding, and my head hurts because I'm dehydrated. My stomach rumbles, but I ignore it. My face is tender from the beating I got yesterday, stumbling down the gully to get Max.
I walk inside after some time and drink a massive glass of water. I don't feel like eating. I don't feeling like doing anything. Just then, my phone rings. I stare at the caller ID. It's my mother. I answer, resigning, a second before it goes to voicemail. "Yeah," I say dejectedly.
"Holden? Is that you?" Comes my mother's familiar voice. She's been crying, I can tell, but she's trying not to show it.
"Yeah," I reply evenly.
"Oh, honey, where are you?" She asks desperately. "It's noon! Are you still at the hospital?"
"I'm home," I tell her.
"Oh, Holden, why?" She asks.
"I don't know." I answer.
There's a long pause. Then, "I'm so sorry. I know you loved her. We all did."
"Did?" I reply, impassive, blank. "I still do."
She's silent again. "Do you want us to come home?" She asks.
"No," I respond firmly. "Thank you."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I want to be alone."
There's a third long pause, and then we start talking at the same time. "I need to go—" I say, at the same time as she says, "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," I answer her immediately. "I don't want to talk about it at all. Talking about it does absolutely nothing. Tell her parents I say that I'm sorry. Bye, Mom."
"Holden, I—" She starts, but I hang up the phone and throw it down on the counter, running a hand over my mouth. I stare at the pictures on the refrigerator. Max is in three of them. I take them down and bring them into my room, sticking them under the picture frame I put on my dresser.
I turn on the television to one of those shopping channels. I keep my eyes glued to the screen for a minute, disgusted. The show is unbelievably monotonous. Why do people even broadcast those shows anyway? They're painful to watch. But I leave it on to numb me. It works surprisingly well. Two hours later, the show's hosts are still going strong, talking about some stupid, horridly ugly snakeskin bag. My eyes are still open, but no thoughts at all cross my mind. I just stare up at the white ceiling, memorizing the spots on it. I get up and eat an apple, then return to the couch.
For the rest of the day, I do absolutely nothing. My Dad calls at seven. "Hey, Holden," He says tiredly. I grunt a response. "Hear you're home," He replies.
"Yep," I pop the "p".
"Are you sure you don't want to talk, son? I heard Max was pregnant."
"Nope," I answer in the same tone.
"You can't just push it away," My dad says. He sounds exhausted. Old. I've never heard his voice sound like this before. "You have to face it sometime. You can talk to a psychologist if you want. We'll find one for you."
"She's dead," I say bluntly. "I know that. I've faced it, Dad. I'm still facing it. I'm going to face it for the rest of my life. So stop making me think about it. I'm not crazy. Just leave me alone. That's how I'm coping. Goodbye."
I hang up the phone and after a second, I throw it against the wall. It breaks, and I look away, not even caring. It's dark outside now. I close the curtains and walk through the house, still numb. Around nine, the house phone rings. I pick it up only because I'm standing right next to the handset. "Hello?"
I recognize Robert Ryder's voice right away. My heart rises up into my throat. "Yeah, it's me," I croak out.
There's a big sigh. "I'm sorry," He says finally. "For yelling at you. I crossed a line, and I wish I could take it back. You didn't deserve that."
I shake my head even though he can't see. "It's fine," I say. "I had sex with your daughter and got her pregnant. You're supposed to be angry."
He sucks in a breath. "You're just supposed to accept the apology, Cavanaugh," He says coolly. "Not make me want to yell all over again. Now, I'm going to pretend you didn't say that and move on. I am calling to tell you we're having Max's…her—her funeral" He chokes on the word. "We're having the funeral two days from now, back home in Connecticut. It'll be at the funeral home in Centerbrook. We're having the viewing at nine, and there'll be a small service at the funeral home afterwards. And then we—we'll head to the Fountain Hill cemetery on High Street in Deep River—"
"Great," I interrupt him. "Thanks for telling me."
"I need to go," I reply. "Bye, Mr. Ryder."
I hang up the house phone and pace back into the living room, where it takes me three hours to fall asleep on the couch.
The next day feels like an eternity. I spend another day doing nothing, thinking nothing, and feeling nothing. I don't bother sweeping up the broken glass or picking up the things I broke and threw. I order in Chinese and eat it in front of the television, watching some stupid soap opera. I lie awake on the couch again that night, eyes wide open, not tired in the least. When I finally do fall asleep, it's four in the morning, and I don't have much time to sleep anyway.
When I awake, I look at the clock. It's 8:35. I leap up, remembering it's the day of the funeral. I find an old suit of my father's that basically fits except for some spots. I wear a white shirt beneath the suit jacket and tie a black tie around my neck. The knot is sloppy, but I don't bother fixing it. I tuck my shirt into black slacks and slip my feet into shiny black shoes that I only wore once, for my cousin Tabitha's wedding two years back. They're a little tight, but it's all I have.
I don't bother taking a jacket. I step out into the cold, my hair and teeth not even brushed, and slide into my car. I drive the two minute car ride to the funeral home and see people dressed in black filing in, tears in their eyes. The only person I recognize is Max's oldest brother, Charlie. He's got his wife Anna on his arm, and his kids, Lacy and Steven, follow their parents inside obediently.
I park and lean back against my seat for a second, closing my eyes before getting out. I merge in with the rest of the nameless people in the crowd making their way in to pay their respects to a girl I bet they didn't know half as well as me. Did they know how she looked while she slept? Did they know she had a birthmark on her back between her right shoulder blade and her spine? Did they know that she thought fart jokes never got old and that she loved winter and that she wanted more than anything to be criminal psychologist? No.
Inside it's warm, and a man directs everyone to the room where everyone's gathering. Robert and Gail Ryder are at the center of it all, nodding and forcing smiles and thanking everyone for coming to pay their respects to their precious daughter Maxwell. I see all of Max's siblings inside: Charlie and his family, Lyle and his fiancée Tess, and Sloane, who stands with two other guys and a girl in a tight black dress. His face is raw and his eyes bloodshot from crying. One of the guys pats his arm and leaves with the girl. The other guy follows a minute later, and Sloane turns, his eyes floating over the room. I watch a fresh tear trickle down his cheek. Sloane's nineteen like me. He's at Cornell. We'd always been pretty good buddies. But it felt like he was worlds away now.
My parents come up to me before I can get away. "Holden!" My mom exclaims, crashing into me. I don't move to hug her back. She looks at me concernedly, holding my face in her hands. "Oh, you're all bruised, look at you! Baby, come here." She hugs me again. My father, who stands behind her, and I lock eyes. He nods a greeting. I pull away from my mother, running a hand through my hair. Her eyes are watery through her eye makeup. "How are you doing?" She asks softly, rubbing my arm. I yank away from her. "Fine, thanks," I say, my eyes darting around.
She looks hurt. "I know it's hard, Holden," She says. "We all loved her just as much as you."
I shake my head. "No," I reply. "You didn't."
She gasps a little. "Holden Michael Cavanaugh," She says, eyes wide. "Of course we did. We've know her parents since she was six. That whole family is very near and dear to our hearts. We watched her grow up. You're not the only one who loved her."
"I'm sure you did," I nod, clenching my jaw. "I don't doubt that for a second. I just said you didn't love her as much as I do. I can tell because you said you loved her, past tense. I still love her. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go say hello to her parents. It was nice seeing you."
I walk away quickly, not looking back, but I'm intercepted by my older sister Charlotte before I can gain much ground. "Holden," She gushes, pulling me into a tight hug. I'm surprised. I haven't seen her in a while. "Oh, Holden, I can't believe any this."
I step back. She's here with her fiancé, Kyle Dawson. I've met him a few times. I force a tight smile, and we shake hands. Charlotte wipes a tear from her cheek. She looks distraught. "A skiing accident?" She asks meekly.
I nod. "Yep."
"And you were there?"
She chokes a little. "Oh, little brother, I'm so sorry." She cries, pulling me into another hug. I grunt a little. "The last time I saw her was over the summer, because of law school out in California," She breathes. "We were having a barbeque at our house before leaving for school. You two spent the entire day together, barely talking to anyone else. She looked so happy. That girl was always so happy. I can barely believe she's gone. She was so young."
I blow the air out of my cheeks. "Yep," I repeat for the third time. Charlotte studies me. "Are you coping okay?" She asks, real concern in her voice. I raise my eyebrows, nodding. "Sure," I say. "I'm fine."
She nods, her eyebrows furrowed. "You know you can talk to me," She says finally, more to herself than to me. "Right?"
"Yep," I repeat again. She smiles a little, and I give a salute and walk away. I come up to Robert and Gail. Gail sees me and pulls me into an embrace. She hugs me for a long time, and I finally pull away after nearly a minute, feeling slightly uncomfortable. She watches me with tortured eyes. "I'm so glad you came, Holden," She says. "Both Robert and I are. We consider you family. I hope you'll forgive us for being angry."
I nod. "Yeah, Mr. Ryder called," I say, meeting Max's dad's eyes. They had the same eyes, I notice with a start. It sends shivers up my spine, and I lose my train of though. "Yeah, yeah, he—anyways. I'm sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Ryder. For everything."
"We're sorry, too, Holden," Gail gushes, squeezing my hand.
"I really loved your daughter," I say softly. "So, yeah. I'll see you guys around."
I walk away again, my head spinning. This was all too much.
I go into the bathroom and stand alone in front of the mirror, staring at my reflection. My hair's mussed up, and the whites of my eyes are grey and glassy and bloodshot. The suit doesn't fit quite right, and the bruises on my cheekbones and chin are yellow and ugly, not to mention the cut on my brow. My knuckles have scabs and bruises all over them. I sigh and splash water on my face. Someone emerges from the bathroom stall. It's Sloane.
We lock eyes in the mirror but neither of us says anything. As he's leaving, he turns. "I liked you a lot, you know, Holden," He says calmly. He takes a deep breath, hands on his hips. "But you got my little sister pregnant. My little sixteen-year-old innocent sister. And now she's dead. Not because you got her pregnant, but she's still dead. If she wasn't dead, she'd finish high school, go to an Ivy League school, study criminal psychology, and become the best fucking criminal psychologist this goddamned world has ever known. Someday she'd get married and have kids. Maybe she'd have married you. Who knows? But people would know her name. People would know who Maxwell Elizabeth Ryder is. She was that kind of girl. She's in heaven now, not down here where she's supposed to be. It's not your fault, but I need to blame it on someone, because I don't know what else to do. So I'm blaming it on you. Sorry. Have a nice life, Holden."
And with that, he leaves.
I turn back to the mirror, unfazed, mostly because the processing system in my brain seems to have been removed. My blank eyes stare back, piercing through me. I can't look anymore. I wash my hands again and leave the bathroom without drying them.
Sloane's speech made me angry in a place way deep down inside, and my hands twitch with that anger. When I emerge from the restroom, I see that a line has formed. It's viewing time. I get in line behind an elderly woman and a young guy who stands with her and I wait. I've been doing a lot of waiting lately. Waiting to feel. Waiting to hurt. Waiting for anything.
It takes over half an hour, but then I'm next up for viewing. The elderly woman and the guy walk back together, the woman's eyes glassy. "Go ahead," The guy waiting at the door says. "Take your time."
I stare at the open door and through the room to where the casket lays open, resting on a marble pedestal. But I can't move. The guy watches me. "Please proceed, sir," He says after a second. "There are still a few people behind you."
I stumble forward, blocking out the whispers from people all around me, and the doors close behind me. I freeze. The room smells like death.
After a moment, I force one foot in front of the other and make it to the casket. I look down at the floor, not raising my eyes. When I finally do, I catch one glance and squeeze them shut again.
Max lies in the casket, arms crossed over her chest, skin pale. She easily could've been sleeping. Her dirty blonde hair is the same, resting loosely over her shoulders and behind her head, effortlessly perfect. Her golden eyelashes just brush over her faintly freckled cheeks. Her little nose is perfectly sculpted, and her wide lips are in a straight line.
But then, opening my eyes again, I start to notice the differences. First of all, she's white as ash. There's no longer that rosy color in her cheeks. Now her cheeks are pale and hollow, even a bit blue. The skin seems to rest over a skeleton, not a human body. Her eye sockets are sunken in, and her mouth is pinkish grey instead of cherry red. The mortician or embalmer or whatever that guy is called had tried to cover up her scars. There were cuts and gashes all over her face that you could see if you looked closely. There're no bruises, because her body had been drained of the blood that kept her alive, but I know they'd be there if she was alive. She'd have surgical scars under her clothes—a white, lacy dress with short sleeves and a high neckline that goes down to her knees. She doesn't have on any shoes.
She looks beautiful.
The thought crosses my mind, and I immediately am disgusted with myself. Who calls a dead girl beautiful? Pretty much no one.
I take one last look at her and turn away, pushing the doors open. Once I get out of the main room, I break into a run and don't stop until I reach my car. I dive into the driver's seat and close my eyes. The image of her all laid out like that flashes behind my eyelids, and I scream out loud until tears spring from my eyes.
Twenty minutes later I realize I'm missing the service, and I run blindly from the car. I walk through the doors of the small gathering space in the funeral home, and everyone turns to look at me. My tearstained face burns and I take a seat quickly in the last row. Charlie, who'd been giving a speech, clears his throat and continues.
"Max and I were twelve years apart," He says, tears streaming down his face. "When she was born, I was in sixth grade. She cried a lot, that's all I remember. When she was older, Lyle and Sloane and I would pick on her, but she always took it. She struggled to keep up with us in everything, especially sports. She was so determined. The day she beat Sloane down a ski trail, when she was eight and he was eleven, she beamed so wide…I'm sure we all remember that. She was always competitive, but still good-natured and a good sport. Having three older brothers made her tough. I went to college when she was six, and I got married when she was ten. She was an aunt at twelve, when my daughter Lacy was born." He stops and steps away for a second, wiping his eyes and collecting himself. "Lacy asked me this morning what happened to Auntie Max, and I didn't know what to say. I told her that her Max was up in the sky, and she smiled. 'Is she on a plane, Daddy?' She asked me." He laughed a little. "I had to explain to her that no, Aunt Max was in heaven, and no, we couldn't visit her there. I don't think she gets it. And to be frank, I don't either. Max is my little sister, and she always will be. I'm not supposed to outlive her. It's not supposed to be like this. I just can't believe she's gone, I…" He trails off, crying. Eventually, he just steps down. People clap a little as he returns to his seat, unable to say anything else.
I can't stop bouncing my leg. I bounce my leg all the way through short speeches from Lyle, Sloane, some of Max's friends, and a few cousins. All end in tears. I can hear Gail sniffling in the front row from all the way in the back. I look away, blinking furiously.
At the end, some guy gets up and leads a little closing hymn. When the room finishes, he smiles. "I'm sure the Ryder family is proud to have all of you here today for their beloved daughter," He says in a nasally voice. "Maxwell Ryder will not be forgotten. She was a loved daughter, an adored sister, an admired aunt, and a great best friend, from what we've heard today. May she rest in peace."
He has no idea, I think disgustedly.
"We're going to proceed with the funeral if no one has anything else to say," He continues. "The procession will leave from here and go to the cemetery in Deep River. There will be—"
I stand up suddenly and start to walk down the aisle. I don't know what I'm doing. The guy stops. "I have something to say," I say to him. The room is silent.
"Oh," He says, startled. "Well, alright then, go ahead." He steps away from the podium, looking perturbed. I clench and unclench my fists, kneading my nails into my palms, and take his place at the podium. I avert my eyes from the sea of expectant people staring at me. I tap my fingers on the marble of the podium. "Um," I start, coughing and clearing my throat. "Hi. I'm Holden Cavanaugh. I'm nineteen. I'm Max's boyfriend." I automatically use the present tense, but then realize my mistake. "I was her boyfriend," I repeat. The eyes staring at me are making my palms sweat.
"Um, I didn't write anything for this, and I'm not going to pretend I did," I continue nervously. "In fact, I spent the last two days after the accident doing absolutely nothing. I don't remember the last thing I ate. I broke my mirror. I found a picture of Max and me. That's about it."
There's some muttering, and I pause and look up. The muttering stops. "I was skiing with Max on the day of her accident," I say. "We were racing down this trail called Last Time. Like Charlie said, she…she's really competitive. She loves to win. I let her start first, and I skied after her, but I caught up and pulled ahead. Two minutes later I realized I didn't hear her skis behind me anymore, so I slowed down. You know what I was thinking? I was annoyed, because I didn't want her to beat me at our race. I figured she was pulling a trick on me or something. I didn't see her, so I came to a full stop, calling her name. Fifteen minutes later I found her body in a gully, wrapped around a tree, a pool of blood spreading around her." I cough and swallow hard, my throat parched all of a sudden. "Then, a whole bunch of hours after that, they told me she was pregnant. And dead."
I take a long pause, trying to force back the tears threatening my voice. People are whispering, so I talk over them, my voice cracking a little. "You don't think these things are going to happen to you until they do," I say. "One second you're skiing with your girlfriend, and then a stupid surgeon is telling you he's sorry, they did everything they could, but she's dead. That innocent seventeen year old girl is dead. She'll never finish high school, never go to college, never get married and have children, never live out her dreams, because she's dead."
I hear Gail wail, and my eyes focus on her. I clench my jaw tight, closing my eyes. "I fell in love with Max when she was fourteen and I was sixteen," I said quietly. "I hated myself for it then, because she was so young. I'd known her since we were little—six and eight. She was my little sister, and suddenly I had these irrepressible feelings for her that were driving me crazy. I held onto them for two years and then I finally told her, about five months ago. Turns out I was the luckiest guy in the world, and she liked me, too, always had. We started dating. I went off to college, but we stayed together." I gulp for air, the words flying off my tongue before I can think them over. I know I'll regret it later, but I can't stop now. "I've never felt anything for anyone like I feel for Max," I say. "I love her with every piece of my heart. I love the way she laughed, and the way her eyes twinkled when she smiled, and how she looked when she slept. I love that competitive, fierce spark, and the way she didn't care about eating in front of guys like most girls do, and how she was happier playing video games than painting her nails. If I'm going to be honest here and say everything I should've said when she was alive, I'll tell you that I wanted to marry Max someday. I still do. It hasn't sunken in that she's gone." Tears start streaming down my cheeks and I sniff, my nose running. I look around, trying to gain enough control to get out a few more words. "You know, I don't remember telling her 'I love you' the day she died," I say. Then, after a pause, "You don't think of those things until that person's gone. If I could do anything over, it'd be telling her how much I love her every day until it was drilled into her head permanently. I pray that she can hear me now. We've all lost someone extraordinary," I mutter, my voice wobbling horribly. "There isn't anyone else in the world like Max, I swear to God." I let out a sob, completely embarrassed about being this way in front of the people here, but unable to help it. "I miss you, Max," I cry softly. "I need you here. I'm nothing without you. I love you."
With that, I stumble off the podium and out of the room. No one claps.
Back in my car I break down, the tears spilling over. I'm embarrassed. I'm broken. I'm devastated, depressed, angry, in denial, and stuck. I hit the dashboard half-heartedly and lean back in my seat, closing my eyes as the tears stream down. A while later I hear the funeral procession start up. I turn on my car and drive the opposite way.
Back at home, I throw my keys on the counter and lean on the marble countertop, a few last tears trickling down my cheeks. I take off my suit jacket and hang it on one of the chairs. I kick off the stupid black shoes and claw at my neck, trying to get the tie off. I throw it on the counter with the keys and walk into my room, picking up the picture of Max and me. I stare into her smiling face for a long time before replacing it on its spot on the dresser.
I fall asleep on the couch and wake up to the smell of my mother's cooking. I emerge and find my whole family sitting at the dinner table. "Hello, Holden," My father says. "Nice to see you."
I nod and slide into my old seat. I pile mashed potatoes, broccoli, and salmon onto my plate and fill my glass with water. I eat like a pig and then take off. "Clear your plate," My dad calls, but I ignore him.
The next day is the same. We pretend to be normal and don't talk about it, making painful small talk instead. The day after my sister gets on a plane back to California to return to law school, and Thomas heads back to Vermont with his friend Luke. On the third day, my parents take Annie out to see a movie.
I find myself in my room again, staring at the stupid picture. Finally I stand up and go out into the garage. It's frigid out, but it doesn't bother me. I rifle around in my dad's stuff until I find a big, thick coil of rope.
Back inside, I walk numbly back to my room, dragging one of the kitchen chairs with me. I stub my toe in the doorway into my room and curse into the emptiness.
It takes me a good ten minutes, standing on the wobbly chair, to tie the rope to my ceiling fan. While I work, I think about Max. Old memories from when we were little flash through my mind. Someone told me they threw roses on her coffin at the funeral in the cemetery. Max's favorite flower wasn't roses. She liked Forget-Me-Nots.
When I finish, I step off the chair and admire my work. My brain is fuzzy. I stumble into the kitchen and find a bottle of vodka—Svedka, the good, hard Russian stuff. I open it and drink directly from it, the liquid burning down my throat. I go back into my room and drink more, sitting on my mattress and holding the picture of Max and me from summer. When I'm thoroughly drunk, I find a pad and a pen. "When you love someone, you have to let them go," I scribble almost illegibly. "But when you're in love with someone, you can't. Goodbye. XOX, Holden."
I laugh and slap the note down on my dresser, held down by the corner of the picture frame. I take another gulp of vodka and place the bottle on the floor, half-empty. I get up on the chair, completely numb. My fingers fumble drunkenly with the noose until I get it over my head and around my neck. I laugh again, looking around the room, my eyes glazed over. I taste tears in my mouth, which makes me laugh harder, for some reason. The tears only run faster.
"I love you, Max," I breathe, my smile fading as my eyes land on the photo of us. For a split second, I think about what the future could hold—finishing up college, becoming a doctor…and that's it. No Max. So I brush the thoughts away.
"Alright, Ryder," I say out loud, using her last name, which always made her smile and tell me to stop it. "I'll be there in a second. No more waiting."
And with that, I swallow my tears and kick the chair away.