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I stared at the white hospital linoleum, my heart pounding in my ears. How could this be happening? As an image of Amber as I had seen her just two hours before careened around in my mind, my world tilted on it's axis. I felt the bile, hot and burning, rise up in my throat, and I gripped the arms of the padded waiting room chair, trying to steady my nerves.
“It's going to be okay,” I said aloud. My voice shook and trembled. It has to be. I thought back through my past, the past that linked so closely with Amber's. After all, we had met when we were just six years old. I smiled tremblingly as I remembered that first week of first grade. I could see us plainly in my mind's eye out on the playground that first recess. I was wearing my favorite outfit, a pink shirt with yellow daises on it and little jeans with bead work on them that was also pink and yellow. My mother had braided my fine, light hair, and I felt extra pretty because of it.
It wasn't until I got out on to the playground that I realized something. I had no one to play with. I wandered from one game to another, but no one seemed very willing to include me. Discouraged, I sat down on a swing and swung my legs aimlessly back and forth, very near tears. Then suddenly another little girl my age appeared and hopped up on the swing next to mine. I instantly admired her. Her hair was brown, thick, and wavy, the exact opposite of mine, and she wore a bright orange and purple sweater I would never have even thought of wearing, but somehow it fit her just right.
“Betcha I can go higher than you.” Her voice was playful, and her eyes sparkled.
“Betcha can't,” I said quickly, forgetting that I had been admiring her a minute before, “I go real high.” She started pumping her legs and I did the same. We flew together that first day, higher and higher, till our breath caught and the world spun around us. The chains connected to our swings began to jerk and pull us, and at last we stopped, feeling as if we had flown around the world and laughing breathlessly. She smiled at me, the funny half smile that I now associate with her, and said,
“My name's Amber.”
“Mine's Jess,” I said, and smiled back. It was the beginning of a strong friendship. I settled myself back in my chair as I remembered how we had gone through elementary school being almost inseparable. When junior high rolled around, I worried things would change, but they never did. Amber became popular, but she still stubbornly refused to leave me behind in anything, so I became popular too.
We ate at the cool table until one day Amber started being nice to one of the nerd boys that were spurned. The other populars couldn't stand that of course, so they ditched us, but we didn't care. We liked this new boy, Josh, better. Once again I wondered if this boy would break us apart, but it never did. We accepted him as we had accepted each other. We knew we all fit together. There was no doubt about that. I smiled, feeling a pang as I thought of a conversation we had all had one summer day when we were in seventh grade.
Josh had been sprawled across my bed as Amber and I put our make up on. He was watching us, a smile on his face. Suddenly he sat up and said loudly, “One day I'm going to marry one of you.” We had both turned, a little surprised.
“Why?” I had asked, grinning at him.
“Well,” he began, as if it were silly of me not to know, “I like you both so much, it would be stupid if one of you didn't marry me. Isn't that how it always works in those sappy chick flicks you two watch?” We had just laughed, and turned back to the mirror, both of us smiling to ourselves a little. We laughed, and yet from that day on it was an established fact. He was going to marry one of us. We just had to wait and see who it ended up being. I shivered and closed my eyes. Our friendship had been so easy then, so simple.
“Miss Reynolds?” My head snapped up as the nurse called my name. “You can go in to see her now.”
“Is she-,” my voice caught, and I struggled to hold back the tears stinging my eyes, “is she going to be alright?” The nurses eyes filled with pity.
“She will be, eventually. But.... the doctors don't think...”
“The doctors don't think what?” I heard the wild note of panic in my voice and tried to calm down, but it was impossible.
“They don't think she'll be able to walk. She's paralyzed from the waist down.” A hand, strong as iron and cold as ice, gripped my heart, threatening to tear it from my chest. The pain ran through my entire body, and the tears could not be held back. I broke down, sobs pouring from me as I tried to draw breath. Amber, beautiful, bright, active, smart Amber, paralyzed? This is all my fault. The nurse hurried out of the room and returned with a glass of water and a box of tissues. I took them with trembling hands, trying to stop the flood flowing down my face. This can't be happening. Not really. This is some horrible nightmare, and in a minute I'll wake up.
My mind whirled, refusing to accept the reality of the situation. I forced myself to wipe my tears away and breathe. I needed to see her. The nurse looked at me, obvious concern in her eyes.
“It's alright. I'm okay now.” The biggest lie I've ever told. “Can I go in and see her now?” The nurse nodded, still looking worried, but led me down the hall to Amber's hospital room. I stepped inside, too afraid to look at the person who would never forgive me for the pain I had caused. Not that I blamed her. She's going to hate me. Detest me. And I deserve it. I ruined her life. I ruined her future. I glanced at the hospital bed, and felt the tears well in my eyes as I saw her, pale, with eyes closed, lying there.
Suddenly, her eye lids fluttered. Then she was looking at me, looking at me just the same way as she had when we met on the playground in first grade, with that funny crooked smile on her face. “Hey, Jess.” The words were quiet, but they stabbed at my heart mercilessly.
“Hey,” my voice broke, and I walked a little closer. The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. “Amber, this is all my fault. I hate myself. I can never forgive myself for causing this.” I bit my lip as tears slipped down my cheeks. She shook her head. Her voice was weak when she spoke.
“It wasn't your fault.”
“Yes it was! You told me not to hang around with Greg. You told me! And I never listened. And at the party...,” I trailed off. The pain was too much. I couldn't voice what had happened.
“At the party we had that fight.” I bent my head.
“I started it,” I whispered, “and then when you told me you were dating Josh, something just exploded in me.” The words took me back to the night that seemed years ago, and yet was just two evenings before. Greg had convinced me to attend yet another of his friends wild parties. I “loved” him so I went. I had never done anything really stupid at those parties, though I'd seen other people do things I knew they'd regret later.
But this night had been different. This time I convinced Amber to come with me. I felt it was necessary somehow. Amber had never liked Greg, even before I started dating him during my sophomore year. She tried and tried to get me to see that he was no good, that he was just using me, but I stubbornly clung to what I thought I knew to be true. Greg loved me. Of course he did. Amber was just jealous. Slowly, as I continued to refuse to listen to her, it began to tear us apart. I spent less and less time with Amber and Josh and more and more time with Greg and his sister Mandy. I thought maybe if Amber came to the party with me it would even things out. Maybe I could mix my two worlds.
And then we got there and Greg was kissing another girl. I stood there, crying and furious, waiting for the apology from him that never came.
He just looked at me, shrugged, and said, “I guess it's over then.” My heart shattered. Amber saw it all. She tried to make me come home. She tried to talk some sense into me. She tried to be the good friend. And what did I do? I turned on her, angry.
I screamed at her, “You think you're the perfect one! You always have! You think you're soooo much better than me. Just say I told you so and get it over with, I know you're dying to tell me off.” I ranted on about her being a goody-two shoes, about how she always rubbed everything in my face, how she never did anything even half way daring. I barely knew what I was saying. Amber just stood there, eyes blazing, cheeks red.
When I was finished, she said quietly, her voice brimming over with pure anger, “Jess, I may not be “daring”.But I'm not stupid either! And maybe I am the good one who always does the assignment. But at least I have a decent boyfriend,” she continued on, her face emotionless, “Josh and I started dating two months ago.” It felt like someone had just socked me in the gut. I choked on my own anger, seeing the world flash red before my eyes. How dare she and Josh start dating and never tell me? I'm their best friend! How could they do this to me! How could Josh have picked her over me?? Angry at myself for letting her hurt me, angry at her for knowing how to hurt me, angry at Greg for cheating on me, and angry at every one in the world, I felt my hand fly through the air.
The next second Amber was on the ground, holding her bleeding mouth with one hand. I shuddered as I remembered that moment. I had never felt worse in my entire life. She had just stared up at me, tears shining in her eyes. Then the next second she was running for the door.
“Amber! Wait!” I had yelled, beginning to realize what I had just done. I ran onto the porch just in time to see her jump in her car. She had gunned the engine, and as the car began to speed up the street, she looked back at me, and I saw the tears running down her cheeks. She was looking at me, not the road, so she didn't see the ice.
In a split second I saw the car skid out of control, in a split second it flipped, in a split second in hit a tree. I heard her scream, a scream like one I had never heard before, then suddenly the world had gone black. I had woken up in a hospital waiting room with my parents bending over me. Amber's hospital waiting room.
I looked at her lying there, still pale, her face weak and tired.
“Amber, I don't know- I don't know how I can ever say I'm sorry enough. If it hadn't been for me you wouldn't have gone to the party, then I the fight, and I hit you... and,” I couldn't continue. I had hit my best friend. My best friend. Not Greg, the person if anyone I should be hitting, but my best friend. “And then you crashed.” I realized I had said the words aloud and tasted the salt of my own tears on my tongue. I remembered the screech of twisting metal, the terrified scream of pain from inside the car just before I had blacked out. I bit down hard on my tongue to stop the memories and felt the taste of blood mix with the salt of my tears.
“And now I'm paralyzed.” I looked up at her. She knew? “Yeah, I know,” she said, answering the question I had just asked myself in my brain. She said it calmly enough, but I saw the cloud of emotions swirling behind her eyes. Pain, fear, worry, but no anger.
“Amber-” I stopped. I wasn't sure I could say what needed to be said. “Amber, I know you must hate me. I hate me. I wrecked your whole life, your whole future. I know, 'I'm sorry' will never be enough, but please believe me when I say this, even though I know you have no reason to.” I took a deep breath and tried to steady my voice, but it didn't work. I leaned closer towards her. “I wish, with all my heart, that this had happened to me instead of you. Amber, you don't deserve this. You don't just act better than me, you are! I don't understand, I will never understand why this happened to you and not me, all I know is that this is my fault, and I will never forgive myself for this.” Tears shimmered in Amber's eyes.
“Jess,” she whispered, “I'm so scared.” She blinked her eyes and looked away. I stood, thinking of all the joy I had robbed her of. Not just now, not just for a year, but for a lifetime. How could I live with myself? “Jess?” I lifted my head to look at her, pushing my bedraggled hair out of my red eyes. Her face was blotched with tears, but her voice was steady when she spoke. “I want you to know, know without a doubt, that this is not your fault. You didn't make me crash, it was my own dumb driving that put me here, not you. Jess,” her eyes were full of pain as she spoke, “you are my best friend over and above any guy. Josh should never have come between us, neither should Greg. You are closer to me than anyone I know, and I think of you as my sister.” The world blurred as I blinked tears away.
“Amber, don't say that! How can you say that! It is my fault. I made you come to the party, I hit you, I made you upset. You were looking at me when you crashed. How can you not say this was my fault!” My voice broke, and I buried my head in my hands, my sobs filling the room. I tried desperately to shut out the pain that was ravaging my heart but it couldn't be done. I was to blame. For all of this.
“I forgive you.” The words were tiny in the sudden stillness of the room when I stopped crying. I lifted my face from my hands, staring at her. “I forgive you, for everything. For everything that happened at the party, for all the times you haven't listened to me, and if you feel like you made me crash, I forgive you for that too.”
“How can you? I ruined your life.”Amber shook her head, swiping at some of the tears on her cheeks.
“We were both to blame. And, Jess, you were the person I could always turn to after I fell to pick me up and dust me off. I'm going to need you so bad soon, and I need you now. How am I going to get through this without my best friend there to make life easier?” I didn't answer. My mind refused to accept the possibility that she was serious. “Please,” Amber managed a weak smile, “let me forgive you so you can forgive yourself.” I nodded, wordless.
“Thank you,” The words, full of gratitude, broke the silence. “I don't know if I'll be able to forgive myself, but I'll try,” I whispered.
Amber nodded, “Try.” I felt tears brim in my eyes for what seemed the thousandth time that night. Amber laughed.
“Betcha I can cry harder than you can.” I chuckled softly, feeling what felt like the beginnings of a smile pull at the corners of my mouth.
“Betcha can't. I cry real hard.” She smiled, and I felt a weight roll off my shoulders. My best friend had taught me the true meaning of forgiveness and friendship.