Something Good Out of Something Bad

May 27, 2010
Shattering glass, crunching metal, the squeal of tires on the pavement, and then...nothing. This is what I heard in the haze of the car crash – a chaotic symphony invading my temporal lobe all at once, and then silence. I couldn't see, hear, or feel anything. Everything went black.

And then I woke up in a hospital bed to find that everything had changed. The little glimmers of sunlight shining through the blinds seemed significantly dimmer, and the familiar song on the radio no longer inspired me to get up and dance like no one was watching. Inside, I felt an emptiness that I could not explain pulling at my heartstrings. My memory had gone fuzzy, but my brain had already been at work, forming a million questions about the who, where, what, and why's. Then the news I was least expecting, but in the back of my mind I was already dreading, came.

My best friend had died and there was nothing I could do. My chest felt unbearably tight and my head began to spin. I couldn't think or breathe. I could only identify that emptiness inside and try to fit the pieces together before I fell apart.
* * * * * *

My hair flew about as the warm summer breeze, the afternoon sun, and the salty smell of the ocean washed over my face. I gazed out the car window at the familiar Orange County scenery and realized that, in my eyes, the beauty of Arkansas couldn't compare. Moving to the Natural State had been the hardest thing I'd ever done up to that point. My family and I had only been away from our beloved Cali for little over a year, but we had missed home so much that the forty-eight-hour road trip from Harrison, Arkansas, had been planned months in advance. I knew we were getting closer to Long Beach because the intoxicating scent of the Pacific waters was becoming stronger and stronger. The excitement was bubbling up inside of me and I began to shift in my seat nervously.

I overheard my parents talking about heading to Grandma's house to see my dad's side of the family – aunts, uncles, and cousins included. And sure, I was certainly looking forward to seeing all my relatives again. But there had only been one person on my mind from the beginning of the long drive – my childhood friend Jake. A year away from him had felt like ages, and I was ridiculously thrilled to be seeing him again. There was so much catching up to do between us, and I could hardly wait to see his brand new '07 Toyota Tacoma I'd heard him brag about all year.

The edge of my seat and I were becoming close buddies as we passed the familiar “Welcome to Long Beach” sign, and I was practically bouncing off the walls as we drove into the neighborhood I'd spent my whole childhood in. My eyes scanned the rows of cookie-cutter houses, desperately searching until they found a taller, more muscular, and altogether more handsome Jake. He was looking all nonchalant, leaned up against the side of his truck. This guy almost bore no resemblance to the lanky, blond bag of bones I had known before the move to Arkansas.

I was truly captivated as I looked him over, but this new, improved version of him couldn't fool me. Some parts of him hadn't changed at all. Jake eyed me with the same brilliant green eyes that always seemed to be smiling when his lips weren't feeling like it. He still stood at about 5' 8” and had ginormous hands that were hidden in his usual arms-crossed position. I knew that if I looked past the exterior I would see the same silly boy I'd spent so much of my life with, the same kid who had defended me from the neighborhood bullies. Jake had always been such a likeable person, and the gentle air about him combined with his wonderful sense of humor made it very difficult to dislike him. He had a natural ability to attract people, and once they got to know him, there wasn't a person in the world who could be disappointed.

From the moment I saw him, I was grinning from ear to ear. Just when I thought that smile couldn't get any dorkier, I saw him sprinting toward our car and that smile somehow grew.

“Stop the car, dad!” I screamed as my exhilaration overwhelmed me. The car came to an abrupt stop, and I flung the door open and raced toward him. When we met, he lifted me off my feet and into a huge bear hug, and we both burst into laughter. The world spun above and beneath me, but I felt that my life's stability had been returned to me. It was so great to have him back, even if it would only be for a little while.

“God, I've missed you!” he exclaimed as he set me down on my heels again. He seemed reluctant to release me, but neither of us could wipe our grins away.

“I've missed you, too. But geez, Jake. Look at you! You're all Mr. Ultrasexypants now. When did this happen? And how do the ladies resist you?” I loved to tease him, and it had been a long time since I'd been able to properly do so. “Just look 'atcha, all built and handsome.” I cooed, pretending to be a love-drunk fan girl. He chuckled softly, flexing his arms like one of those ridiculous bodybuilders.

“I don't know, Em. It kinda just happened.” He had always called me “Em”. It caught on in elementary school, but I got annoyed when anyone else tried to call me by my nickname. “But at least you didn't have to change a thing. You were already beautiful. Although, I do like the little things that are different.” Only a month before, I had gotten my braces off and switched to black, square-framed glasses. I'd grown an inch or two and I was still in the awkward process of filling out.

“Thanks, Jake.” That was all I managed to say before his parents, the Christophers, were on me. They were ushering me into the house as my mom called to me from the car.

“We'll be back to get you later! Have fun!” I didn't doubt that I would cherish the following hours with Jake more than anything.

Although I was in love with the scene of the ocean that filled my senses when I stood on the lawn, it was comfortable inside the Christophers' air-conditioned home. I spent a few hours chatting with Jake's mom and dad about my adventures in Arkansas and the people I had met there. They agreed that it was odd how a stranger would not hesitate to tell you his whole life story in a gas station there, but they were relieved to hear that not everyone was a banjo-wielding hillbilly, running around shirtless, shoeless, and toothless. The conversation finally ended when Jake whined that he wanted to take me for a spin in his Tacoma and head down to the beach.

It felt so relaxing and natural to be alone with him again. We had the freedom to indulge in our multiple inside jokes and hilarious stories that we just couldn't talk about around parents. I realized how much I had missed having my feet covered in the heated California sand as we strolled along the shore, laughing obnoxiously about things that wouldn't have made sense to anyone but us. As it got darker, though, the conversation quieted a little and we spoke of more important, personal topics. When I listened intently to his voice, I noticed that I had forgotten how it felt to have someone to talk to about everything that was close to my heart. Forgotten, or perhaps taken for granted.

“You know, I've been thinking about so much stuff lately, Em. My popularity at school has really spiked since last year. Apparently, I'm some kinda stud now. Too many girls have given me their number, and mom keeps telling me that I should try actually calling one of them sometime. But every time I think about dating, I just feel like it's a bad idea. I would always want you here to approve of the girl.” He was doing his best to hide the blush that covered his cheeks as he took our heart-to-heart in a different direction. I couldn't resist the laugh making its way up my throat.

“Nah. You don't need me to tell you that you're allowed to date a girl, silly. That's entirely up to you. It's not like I'd be jealous or anything.” I teased him again, lightly punching his arm. “I mean, you're older than me, Jake. I prepared myself a long, long time ago for the day you'd call me to brag about your new girlfriend.” I assured him, but when I really considered it, I couldn't imagine how I'd feel. Maybe I'd be envious of the fact that she would be able to spend time with him, and I'd be stuck four states away?

“Are you sure? I mean, we've known each other since we were in diapers, Em. You're closest friend I'll ever have, and I don't want to be with someone who isn't at least a little like you.” He stopped walking and his eyes searched out mine. “I mean, you know me better than anyone. And well...”

It was like he was trying to tell me he loved me, but he just didn't know how to say it. We had always said that we loved each other, but it was never intended to be the romantic “I love you.” At least, on my part, it wasn't. But right then and there, it was like I was seeing Jake in a different light, and I got the feeling that he was seeing the same light in me.

“You know, I'm not really sure what you're trying to say, Jake. But you're right. I do know you better than anyone else, and with that comes the assurance that you can tell me anything.”

He hesitated for a moment, then shook his head “no.” I was terribly curious by then, but he changed the subject by pointing out that it was eleven o'clock and and that we needed to get back to his house before our parents got p***ed. I had a week to get the words I wanted to hear, I thought, so I didn't worry much about it and accepted his challenge of a race to his truck, which was parked way up the beach.

Jake had always been a runner – in body and in spirit. He challenged me to races almost every day when we were kids, and even though I knew he'd win every time, I still raced him. Perhaps it was because I had the same competitive drive that he did, or maybe I just wanted him to have someone to run with. From the beginning, he'd always made me promise to pay him five bucks if I lost, but I had never actually paid him and he had never remembered to bother me about it. This time was no different because he beat me by a long shot, and I didn't have any money to pay up with, but I raced him up the beach for old times' sake. Nothing could quite compare to the feeling of the adrenaline pumping throughout me as I chased him over the wet sand.

Then we were in his red Toyota, heading down the boulevard toward home. Soon, we reached the intersection that would lead us into downtown, and we sat at the light, still joking around and planning all the things we wanted to do the next day. Unfortunately, neither of us knew then that Jake wouldn't have another day.

And that's when it happened. We were in the process of waiting for the traffic light to turn green when another vehicle came speeding up the hill to our left. At first we said “oh, that idiot will slow down when he gets to the light.” But as we watched the car fast approaching and saw that it wasn't slowing down, I grew worried. Jake hesitated, then stomped on the gas to move forward, but the acceleration wasn't quick enough to avoid the car as it smashed into us at nearly eighty miles an hour. Jake took one last look at me and I screamed his name, the volume of my voice at a level I had never imagined myself capable of. Both vehicles did a complete three-sixty, and my head collided with the glass window of the passenger door. Then there was darkness and utter silence.

* * * * * *

The next time my eyes opened, I was in a hospital room, attached to all kinds of IV's and beeping machines. At first, I didn't notice anything but the walls, and how they seemed so dull. It was like I couldn't see the color in anything anymore, because shades of gray had covered every surface in my world. Then I noticed people crowding around, two of them being my parents and the others Jake's parents. I saw his mother, Karen, crying hysterically and I wanted to ask them what was going on, but I couldn't really put the sentence together in my head. My mom beat me to it with the answer to my unasked question.

“Honey, we're so glad you're okay. It's been two days since you and Jake were in an accident with a drunk driver. You've got a broken arm and some stitches on your forehead, but the doctor says that you'll be fine in no time. But Jake...” She had been doing so well explaining until it came to Jake and her voice trailed off. I followed her gaze as it fell on Jake's crying mother. Then finally, she mustered the strength to tell me the news that would destroy me. “I'm so sorry, babydoll. But Jake didn't make it. He's gone.”

My heart stopped, and the day froze around me. Gone? I thought. What did that mean? Gone to another hospital? Gone on vacation? Gone to another country? Gone home...? My mind couldn't even comprehend this simple word, gone. Or perhaps it didn't want to comprehend. Because that would mean realizing that the most important person in my world was missing. The thread that kept me together had been unraveled. It would mean realizing that my best friend was dead. My mind took its time with that one.

At first, I was in total denial. I kept telling myself that I was just on one of those candid camera shows, that this was all some kind of sick joke. It was a mistake, a misunderstanding. I couldn't think of any reason why Jake would deserve to die. There was just no way that he could be gone, and I simply refused to believe it. I screamed at someone when they mentioned his name and I got so angry and confused that my mother went back to the doctor for prescription sedatives. I was entirely out of my element and completely hysterical. I went on like that for months, on and off in stages of purposely ignoring the facts and then being angry.

My heart and mind finally caught up with me at the funeral. On the car ride to the service, I had an epiphany. I realized that I had been wrong all along to ignore the facts and to act like the accident had never happened. And when we arrived at the cemetery and I saw everyone dressed in black, standing around an open casket, the reality of the situation slapped me in the face. The earth shifted beneath me and I was completely out of breath. My heart was telling me that I couldn't handle seeing Jake this way, but I made myself join everyone in the circle. Every face in the crowd around me was a mere blur, but I could feel that all eyes were on me. Everyone was waiting for me to step up to the casket and look inside, like the coffin was some magical chest, and I would find the world's greatest treasure within it. The irony of the situation was that Jake had been a precious treasure to me, but as I forced myself forward, I felt more frightened than I had ever been in my life.

My knuckles turned a ghostly white as my hands gripped the side of the open casket, and I closed my eyes so tightly that it hurt. I hoped that this was all just one terrible nightmare that I would soon wake up from, and I would see a world where my best friend was still alive and well. But as I opened them again and peered down at the pale corpse before me, I was met with the harsh reality that I could not wake up from life, and Jake could not wake up from death.

Tremors shook my whole body and I let out a heavy sob, the sob that would be the first of thousands to come. From a outside view, it might have appeared as though I'd lost my mind, but really, I was making the first step towards sanity in months. I fell upon my knees and held my head in my hands as I continued to sob uncontrollably. My face was streaked with tears and my voice started to grow hoarse from the crying. I must sat there on the wet ground, screaming and crying like a child, for close to ten minutes before my mother came up and led me out to the car. Without a word, she brushed the hair from my face, kissed my forehead, and pulled me into a warm embrace. She stood there for at least an hour, holding me while I soaked her blouse with tears.

The fits of crying went on like that for the next month or so. We flew back home to Arkansas, and things only seemed to get worse for me. I couldn't eat or sleep. I was completely drained of life. I knew that if I were to fall asleep, I would dream. And if I managed to doze off, the dreams were always about Jake. Always. And then I would wake up shouting and sobbing again. I couldn't bear to listen to music because in every song, I heard something that reminded me of him. The same went for TV, books, and the internet. I was a total emotional disaster, and everything I knew was wrong.

But soon, late July rolled around and I saw that I wasn't accomplishing anything by drowning myself in tears. I had to accept the fact that life was still moving, and it was going on with or without me. I saw what a pathetic mess I had become, and how I needed to get out of bed and back into my normal way of living. I began to see life as a continuous race, a new challenge everyday. And even though Jake had lost the race, I knew that he wouldn't have wanted me to just give up. There would always be someone else out there who needed a race partner, who needed to be loved. And I had so much to give.

My life pretty much returned to the norm from then on. I went back to spending time with the people I loved, to singing and guitar and writing. Things have been okay since the accident. Everything has worked itself out with time. Of course, I still cry in the comfort of my room or when I talk about Jake sometimes. But nowadays, I just want to focus on doing what keeps me lively. I keep in contact with old friends and I have learned to value friendship above most everything else. I give my all when I commit to something or someone, and I don't think I would have changed in that way had it not been for the accident. I believe the saying “something good can always come out of something bad” really applies here. I miss Jake terribly and I will never forget the wonderful friendship we had for so many years, but life goes on and so must I.

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