A/N: I wrote this for a class (which has now ended), so I figured I might as well post it here. Thanks for reading!
I wake up to the sounds of a soft, rhythmic buzzing. Instinctively, I reach over to where my phone sits on the bedside table. My eyelids feel elastic. Every attempt to open them leads to their swift closing once again. It's too early for me to be awake, and my body knows it. However, I manage to catch enough of my phone screen between blinks to see that it is currently three in the morning. I also see that what woke me was not an alarm, but the persistent vibrations that mean someone is calling me. The name on the screen reads: "Judy."
My heart sinks. I know why she is calling. In all honesty, I've been expecting this call for weeks now. The only reason that anyone calls this late at night is in the case of an emergency, a death. Judy wouldn't call otherwise.
Judy is Maria's aunt. Only a couple of months ago, Maria was in a car with her parents, who were fighting that night. They were always fighting. Every time I went over to her house, I heard their muffled arguments behind closed doors, as they tried to conceal the outward signs of their failing marriage from me, a guest in their home. But that night, their fighting cost them everything.
It was late, probably sometime around midnight. Maria's parents had taken her on a trip to the countryside in what sounded like a last-ditch effort to salvage what was left of their crumbling family. They were on their way home when the accident happened. I know because Maria was texting me at the time. She told me all about their trip, how the peaceful sounds of the country birds chirping outside her window every morning was brutally overshadowed by the sounds of yelling. She told me how her parents fought for the entire trip. Sure, there were nice points, like when she took a walk in the forest. She sent me pictures of the furry little rodents she found there. Chipmunks, maybe? I don't know. We don't have those in the city. Just dirty little city squirrels.
But I digress. As Maria sat in the backseat of her parents' old station wagon that night—the night of the crash—she texted me that she couldn't stop crying. She said she was tired of this, of being surrounded by such constant hate. It wasn't that her parents didn't love her; it was just that they didn't stop hating each other long enough to pay any attention to her.
No one's really sure what exactly happened next. It's not like there were many survivors to tell the tale. Somehow, that old station wagon ended up in the opposing lane of traffic. Somehow, it collided head-on with another car. The man driving the other vehicle was killed on impact, as was Maria's father, who sat behind the wheel. Both Maria and her mother were badly injured. Broken bones, punctured organs, the whole shebang. That section of highway was fairly empty at that time of night, so it was a while before another car passed by. And of course, the first car never stops. If there's anything I learned from my high school's intro to psychology class, it's that the first car never stops. Everyone always assumes that the situation has already been dealt with. By the time someone actually did stop to call 9-1-1, Maria's mother was already dead. The coroner reckons that an extra ten minutes might have saved her life. It was blood loss that got her in the end.
However, they must have figured that Maria was worth at least trying to save, because EMS rushed her to the hospital for surgery. The surgeons must have done a pretty good job too, because she didn't die. Not right away, at least. But she wasn't exactly "alive," either. The damage to her organs was bad enough that the doctors had to put her into a coma. "For her own good," they said. I guess they were probably right. At least, I don't really know enough about medicine to disagree.
Anyway, I just heard most of this thanks to Judy. Without any parents left, Judy was the closest family Maria had. I never met her before the accident, but now I feel like I've known her for years. I call her at least once or twice a day. Three times, if I'm feeling anxious. Judy spends a lot of time in the hospital with Maria. I guess she was very close to her sister, Maria's mother. Maybe caring for Maria was the only way to feel close to her, or maybe Judy just felt a strong sense of familial obligation to the girl. Either way, she has spent the better part of the time since the accident reading books to Maria and telling her stories about what's happening in her life, or in the world in general.
Sometimes I visit. Not often, though. I haven't been in at least a week or two; I guess I've kind of lost track of time. It's not that I don't want to visit. I do. It's just that every time I see Maria with those tubes and needles sticking out of her arm, her body stiff and unmoving, I can't help but imagine that she's dead. I mean, I know she's not. The doctors have assured me that one of the machines she's hooked up to would tell them if she died. But that doesn't stop those images from popping into my head.
I imagine the funeral. I imagine staring into Maria's open casket, her pale white skin framed by chocolate brown hair. I imagine that her heart no longer beats, that no breath escapes her lips. I imagine talking to her softly, telling her goodbye as her other friends and relatives wait in the background for their turn. I imagine cracking a joke like I always used to do. Only this time, her mouth won't curl into a smile. Her eyes won't crinkle at the sides, the way they do when she laughs. I imagine that she just lays there, motionless, until the casket is closed and she's taken to the cemetery, where she will be lowered into the ground, never to be seen again.
Now, though, the buzzing of my phone jolts me back to the present. I see Judy's name pop up on my phone once again. She must have given up the first time and decided to try calling again. Still, I just wait for the buzzing to stop. I find that I cannot answer. All I can do is stare at my phone in a kind of trance. Once the phone's vibration ceases, I see that I have five total missed calls from Judy. Shit. She must have been trying to call me before I woke up.
I know that whatever Judy is trying to tell me is important. She wouldn't be calling me at this time if it weren't. The only time Judy ever called me was to tell me that Maria was in the hospital in the first place. I guess she found Maria's phone after the crash. She saw that Maria was texting me at the time, and she must have known how much Maria cared about me. At least, she thought I'd want to know if Maria was okay. I'll always be grateful to Judy for that.
I'm not really sure what to do at this point, though. I feel like picking up the phone will be the final nail in Maria's coffin. Maybe if I do not know Maria is dead, I can pretend that she is still alive. That I will still go over to her house every day after school. That she will still help me with my geometry homework while I help her with history. That we will be best friends until we both grow old together and die at the same time, as it should be.
Luckily, for the sake of my sanity, I think Judy must have given up on calling me, because my phone is silent now. However, it gives off a final buzz as I receive a text from Judy.
"Please call," she says. "Or come."
I consider not answering. Maybe if I don't answer her texts or calls, she'll think I'm still asleep. But I know that's kind of a selfish way to look at it. After all, Judy's probably devastated right now, looking for someone with whom she can share her pain. It's probably killing her not to hear from me.
"On my way," I answer. Short and simple. Although, this also means that I actually have to go now.
I get out of bed and throw on the first clothes I can find. I'm not really trying to impress anyone with my looks right now anyway. Besides, there's no way I could focus on the trivialities of fashion at a time like this. My body is just doing its own thing, working mechanically to get me out the door as quickly as possible. I have to try to limit the amount of noise I'm making, though, because I know my parents are asleep in their room. I walk on tiptoes, avoiding anything that might cause a racket. My parents are usually pretty heavy sleepers anyway, but I don't want to take any chances. Finally, I grab my keys and head out.
The streets are fairly clear at this time of night. Not a lot of people seem to be out and about in these early morning hours. Even so, I know that the hospital will still be about a 15-minute drive. Ten if I ignore the speed limit. I think "my best friend is probably dead" is a good enough reason to break a little law. It's not like the police are heavily patrolling this side of town right now anyway. Maria and I both live in the nicer neighborhoods, and usually the police tend to stick to the broken-window areas, day or night.
As I reach the main highway that runs through the center of town like an artery, my foot feels heavier on the accelerator, as it just keeps pressing down. I'm not really aware of how fast I'm going. Everything's more or less a blur at this point. My grip tightens on the steering wheel, making my knuckles look white as bone.
I try to focus on driving, but all I can think about is Maria. Damn, I just can't believe she's gone. Probably gone, I try to tell myself, but even I know this is just a thinly-veiled attempt to conceal what I know is true: Maria is almost certainly dead.
As streetlights flash past me one by one, my mind wanders. I think back to all of my most poignant memories of Maria. I think about the time when I tried to teach her how to fish. We went to my grandfather's lake and used his old antique rods to try to catch something. We were out there for hours before Grandpa told us that there weren't any fish in that lake. I was pretty embarrassed at the time, but Maria and I laughed about that day for years afterward.
I think about how we first met, back when we were in just sixth grade. I remember I was crying at the time because some kid had stolen my glasses. I thought my blurry vision was deceiving me when I saw Maria's slender, graceful form holding something out to me. As I reached toward her, I realized that she had brought me my glasses. Somehow, she had managed to steal them back for me. When I put them on, I thought that I was looking at the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen in my life. I still think that, even with all of her surgery scars and IV tubes.
I think about the first time I saw her cry. She showed up at my door one night, at a quarter to ten. Her pale face was streaked with dripping mascara. "It's supposed to be waterproof," she said, and we chuckled. Her parents had been fighting again. She told me she was going to leave. She said that a lot, but as far as I know, she never really tried. How could she? It's not like she had enough money for her own place. Maybe she could have stayed with Judy, but that almost certainly would have caused division between Judy and Maria's mother. Still, I told her that I would fully support her decision to leave, like any good friend would. I told her that she was welcome to live in my basement, where I could sneak her leftover food and drinks. We had a good laugh at that. It did sound like a pretty absurd idea. But that was the night I first knew that Maria wasn't just another person passing through my life like a leaf on the wind. She was a permanent fixture, here to stay. I promised her that I would always be there when she needs me. She was—still is—my best friend.
I see the exit for the hospital now. I ease my foot onto the brake to slow my car down as I travel down the exit ramp. My body must know the way to the hospital on its own, because I cannot recall a single conscious decision between leaving the highway and sitting in the parking lot. All I know is that I'm here.
The world outside the hospital looks dead, desolate. Everywhere I look, lights are off and people are safe indoors, under soft, warm sheets. However, the hospital stands as the sole exception, a bustle of activity in an otherwise dark world. Many lights are on, and through some windows I can see the silhouettes of people shifting around from one place to another.
I take a deep breath. I know I'm stalling for time, but I can't help it. I don't want her to be gone. "Come on," I say to myself, out loud. "You have to do this. Do it for her."
That seems to be all it takes to get me going. With this, I throw open my car door and step out in one swift move, fueled by my newfound determination. I slam the door behind me and rush into the building. I pass the elevators. There's no time, I think. Bursting into the stairwell, I barrel up to the third floor. I know the way to her room like the back of my hand.
I take a left, then a right, and look for the fifth door on the left. It occurs to me that I don't actually know the room number; I only know how to get to it. But I guess that's not important now, since I'm here regardless.
I feel like one of those trained carriage horses with blinders around its eyes, keeping it focused only on what is in front of it. The background noise of the hospital does not even register in my mind.
I see Judy standing outside the door. Her short, graying-blonde hair is unkempt, with strands sticking up in several directions. Her clothes are wrinkled, and her eyes have deep bags under them, as if she has not slept at all in at least the last couple of days. Right now, her cheeks are wet with tears, with more flowing still. Her right hand is clasped over her mouth as she cries silently, not even aware of my presence for a few seconds.
Finally, when she notices me, her eyebrows raise. "Harris!" she exclaims, obviously surprised that I actually showed up.
But now isn't the time for pleasantries. I brush past her as I try to enter the room. Vaguely, I can hear her calls about not to go in, that the doctors need to be in there right now, etc. I don't care. If my best friend needs me, I will be here for her, like I promised.
As Judy was trying to say, there are a lot of people crowding the room. I have to brush past a few nurses just to get to the point where I can see the foot of Maria's bed. Finally, though, amid objections from the medical staff around me, I can finally see her.
I fully expect to see a corpse, but instead, Maria is smiling up at me. "Hey, stranger," she says.
It feels like the whole world stops in that moment. She's the only one I can see. I want to tell her how much I missed her, how scared I was for her, but all I can manage is, "Hey," as my voice cracks and my eyes begin to fill with tears.
While the collection of nurses and doctors force me out of the room, I smile for what must be the first time in days. Judy's arms wrap around me as I enter the hallway, and through my shock and surprise, all I can hear is: "It worked, Harris. The coma worked. She's awake."