The Almost Truth

January 12, 2008
By Lindsey Durham, Overland Park, KS

The telephone rings and he knows that it’s her.
Cradling the receiver between his jaw and shoulder, stretching out his arms from his sides, he greets her, rubbing his closed eyes with tired hands. She always calls him when he’s busy. She knows he will always pick up, even though he has told her time and again that he’s done.
He’s tired of deceiving, fed up with her neediness and the lies he tells himself every time he agrees to help her. He’s put up with her long enough. Loving her is so draining, but he can’t help it. He’s in for life. What he wants to do is yell at her for what she is doing, rile her into kicking her addictions. Instead, he listens and nods (as if she can see him), and assures her that yes, he’ll come get her, and yes, he won’t tell their parents where she is or what she’s been up to. He feels the words welling up in the back of his throat, threatening to spill forward over his teeth and into the receiver. He tells her that she had better be waiting for him when he arrives or he’ll drive off without her.
“I can’t believe this,” he breathes, his jaw set. “This is the last time I’m coming to get you, Anna,” His fingers grip the edge of the desk, mirroring the tension in his voice. “Mom and Dad are going to flip if they hear about this. You know, kid, you’re ruining yourself, but I don’t think you really even care. You don’t give a d*** about anyone but yourself- I don’t even know what to do with you!” What he doesn’t say is that he understands because he’s been there, too. He’s tasted and he’s seen what it’s like, and he wants nothing to do with that life now that he knows the hell that accompanies it. He repeats that she had better be waiting for him because this the last d*** time he’ll do this for her, and god only knows what sort of trouble she’ll face if he can’t find her.
He snatches up his keys. The clink and jingle of the metal startles him; he sees her blood-slicked face before his eyes. He blinks hard, shaking the broken image of his little sister from his mind. He kicks the doorframe as he leaves, fighting the burn in the back of his throat because he cannot let himself cry.

Anna traces circles with her fingertips on the knees of her jeans. She knows he is coming because he always does, no matter how angry he gets. She feels the itch in the back of her throat and her eyes stray to the smoldering cigarette she had tossed in the street. She exhales, inhales the chilly air into her ravaged lungs, ever watchful for Ethan to arrive. She hears the music from the house behind her and knows that she could be in the thick of it if she wanted to be; in the light, living it up with her pseudofriends. She listens to their sweet lies and embraces their false concern. They care about her, all right, as long as she gets them what they need. Otherwise she is the dumb s*** wh*** and the cat, only never to her face. It’s all pretend, this fine life, this friendship façade…
He’ll come for her. He’ll rescue her because he promised her he would, always, no matter what inconvenience it was to him. She shivers, running her hands up and down her arms, as she thinks about what he said on the phone. He was right, she shouldn’t be here. He’s angry with her, but he doesn’t know everything. Anna trusts her brother; he’d never lie to her. (No, says a voice in her head, that’s your job). Biting her thumbnail, Anna turns her attention toward the top of the street, waiting for the headlights that are her salvation.

Ethan knows he ought to be calm.
“She’s only human,” he reminds himself, closing his eyes and tilting his face to the ceiling, running a hand over his mouth. “People make mistakes. People lie. I lie. It’s okay, don’t get mad. Just chill, Eth, chill.” He shakes his head, pushing his hair out of his eyes. He inhales sharply, running his palms over the steering wheel. Unbidden, the memory of the airbag exploding in his face shocks him out of his becalmed state. His breathing quickens as he remembers the limp weight of her body cradled in his arms on that day. The metallic tang of blood fills his mouth and he slackens his jaw, realizing he has been biting through his bottom lip. “How could you do this, Anna?” he howls, pulling at his dark hair. “You swore you had quit, but you lied, you lied!”
Ethan is a loving son, such a good big brother, but was too drunk and too stupid the night of the crash. They’re going to find him eventually. Anna doesn’t know that it was him who picked her up off of the pavement, doesn’t know that he was wasted the night he slammed into her, that he is the only reason she is alive. He wants to tell her before they expose him. It hadn’t been the first time. He’d driven home at least a dozen times and nothing had happened except a headache in the morning. His headache became heartache, and ibuprofen hadn’t done a thing to help ease it. She needs to know he never meant to hurt anyone, but he feels sick every time he thinks about telling her.

Anna hears the drunken laughter from inside and almost wishes she were a part of it again. If she were to go inside, they’d welcome her back. She’d smoke, down liquor and dance without any inhibitions. She would be loved by everyone while she was dumb and drunk. She wants the fine life, the popular friends, and the glamour of sitting in Dylan’s basement, drunk-dialing forgotten friends. She made a promise to Ethan that she would quit, but he doesn’t know what happened the day everything changed. He was at college, she was at home. The grey that had seeped into her life after that day had taken over everything. She thought that if she could just get in to some fantastic lifestyle, the bright lights and short skirts would sweep the grey out of her mind.
It hadn’t worked. She still remembers moments of the crash, especially when she breathes in too deep and her still-healing ribs squeal with pain. In therapy, she plays with putty to strengthen her weak hand and walks in large circles with elderly women and their broken hips. She pours out her anger and hurt and confusion on a green couch in the psychiatrist’s office. The doctors label her as “post-traumatic stress”. She knows better and calls it “h***”.
The grey creeps into her mind even now as the clutches her bag tightly, trying to keep a grip on the ground as vertigo overtakes her. She breathes through her nose, willing the ground to stop spinning, and prays that this spell will pass. The doctors promised it would lessen over time, but one short year hasn’t been nearly enough. She rocks back and forth, her arms tight around her shins and all she can see is the lights the lights those blinding headlights [oh GOD!] and her stomach heaves and she feels something inside her crack wide open and she pours out into the grass.
She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, body shaking as she reaches for her bag. She reaches inside, skimming over the mint tin oh-so-cleverly concealing her stash of weed. Her searching fingers find her cell phone. She pulls it out and flips it open, the blue glow illuminating her wan face. As she shivers, she realizes; he’s late.

He remembers picking her up off of the ground where he found her and crying into her hair, his nose stinging with the sharp scent of blood. With her arm twisted beneath her she looked like a doll, folded in on herself. Her eyes were dark and sightless and he could see his scared reflection when he tried to wake her up. He abandoned the car he had taken and carried her to the hospital. He walked for thirty minutes and noticed nothing except the shallow in-out of her breathing. [Hold on, Anna, hold on!] He carried her into the emergency room lobby and cried out for someone to help him. A flurry of doctors and paramedics descended upon them as he cried into her matted hair, tears falling thick into the smeared strands. A large man in a white coat pulled at his arm, telling him to sir let her go leave her to us we’ll take care of her you need to let her go let her go let her go. He could not let them take her. The doctors called for security and she was delicately wrenched from his arms and rolled away on a white bed which steadily stained dark as she disappeared down the hall. A pretty nurse with cold eyes told him to stay where he was; they need to know what happened. She had turned and stalked toward the telephone, and his stomach clenched and he felt a wave of dizziness sweep over him as he realized she meant to call the police. Aware of the heady scent of liquor on his breath, he shivered and turned, slipping quietly through the automatic doors.

Anna remembers that day.
She remembers laughing in the car, cell phone pressed to her ear, windows rolled down as the stars soaked her face. She remembers that her hand played with the wind as the music wove through her fingers. She remembers forgoing the seatbelt. Then, she recalls the hot-cold jolt of adrenalin, her hands tight and icy at ten-and-two, knuckles white. “Oh,” she had gasped, swerving suddenly because another car was speeding toward her and there was no way to stop. The headlights flooded her eyes and they were blinding. She took her hands from the wheel and moved her arms to shield her face because maybe if she couldn’t see it coming it would stop. “No, oh-no, no-no-no, OH STOP, PLEASE STOP!” She felt the car give as the front end buckled. She felt the steering column slam into her chest, heard her life shatter along with the windshield. It hurt, it hurt, oh it hurt so bad! Then, it was gone, and she felt only the wind in her hair and the warm wet on her face.
She woke up days later, with her parents at her bedside. She kept her swollen eyes shut, the effort of opening them not worth the pain. They told her in hushed voices that the police would like to question her about what had happened, and a detective was investigating the hit-and run. Someone had pulled her out of the dirt and weeds. Someone had driven the other car.
The doctors don’t know who he was. They say he’d left right after carrying her in. They were far too preoccupied with saving the girl to remember a face. Still, they smile and pat her hand, speaking to her parents even though she’s lying right there. “Oh, but she’s doing so much better, and she needn’t worry about anything but her recovery; now how’s that I.V. feeling, dear?”

Ethan watches the street names as he flies through the neighborhood. He turns sharply down the street and sees her waiting on the curb. He stops in front of her and rolls down the window. “Sorry,” he says, not meeting her eyes. She opens the door wordlessly and slams it shut.
“Didn’t think you were coming,” she mumbles, staring out the window. He sees her hands shake as she wipes tears from her eyes. He almost comes clean, right then and there. Instead, he puts the car in gear and whirls around the cul-de-sac and up the street. The drive home is palpably silent. She sniffles but says nothing, running a still-shaking finger down the length of a scar on her jaw. The words are right behind his teeth, and he opens his mouth to let them spill out, finally, to confess.
“Hey,” he says. “Hey.” Anna turns toward Ethan, her expression an odd mix of fear and relief. He smiles tentatively, and puts his hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently.
“Don’t worry about it, Anna. I’m not going to tell them.” He reaches across her as they wait at a stoplight, opening the glove compartment. He pulls out a pack of Kleenex and a foil-wrapped piece of spearmint gum. He hands both to her, and she wipes her smeared mascara with the tissue. He rolls the windows down, feeling the cold air numbing his face, strengthening his resolve. The sharp smell of cigarette smoke quickly fades from the air. Anna glances at him through her wind-tousled hair, gratitude written plainly on her face.
“Thanks, Ethan,” she says, bringing her fingers together and unwrapping the gum. She makes a face. “Spearmint? Seriously?”
Ethan, drums his fingers against the steering wheel.
“I’ve got to talk to you-” he blurts out.
“So, talk.” Anna’s smile slips slowly off her face as Ethan falters for a minute, but then presses on.
“Mom and Dad need to hear it, too. I should have told you months and months ago. It has to do with your accident…God, I shouldn’t have ever left you…” Ethan trails off as he turns the car down their street. He notices blue-and-red flashing lights, sees their parents standing in bathrobes on the front porch, talking to solemnly uniformed men. His mother clutches his father’s arm, sobbing. His father pulls out of her grip and shakes his head, speaking mutely to the police. Ethan slows down the car and parks on the curb but doesn’t get out.
Anna shrinks in her seat, her fingernails leaving crescent shaped marks in the skin of her face, misunderstanding their appearance. Ethan turns to her, his face pale but passive as he unlocks the door and brings his hands together, palm-to-palm, pressing against his mouth. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.
“You’re okay,” he explains simply. “They’re not here for you.”

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