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On the television in a hospital room on the third floor, a newscaster reported the death of a boy. A teenage girl slept in the only bed, her left wrist encased in a silver splint. One driver, believed to be drunk, had died on impact along with the passenger of the other car. A lifeless smell drooped in the room, one that smelled like rubber and a bottled cherry scent that failed to mask industrial cleaning supplies. “The other driver suffered minor injuries and has been hospitalized.” The girl in the bed stirred as she heard this, gazing up at the TV, and then letting her eyelids close, she slid her head under the pillow, pressing it to her ear with her cased wrist.

Michaela wiggled her toes in the young spring grass. There was a patch of especially soft and bright green blades right beside the hammock. She leaned back and gazed at the tiny budding leaves that stretched above her, lining the branches of her favorite tree like living Christmas lights. The sky was just cloudy enough to allow proper sky gazing with minimal squinting, but the air still radiated with ever precious warmth. Gently she pushed against the earth and swung, the ropes of the hammock enveloping her and leaving twisting trails across her skin. They weren’t really white anymore, but more a tie-dye of grays, the mark of omnipresence in the backyard through all the seasons, hail, rain, snow, and sunshine, collecting souvenirs from every branch and leaf that made the net its temporary home.
The music the neighbors played floated through the air on lazy sunbeams, stopping suddenly and leaving the air strangely empty. A lonely feeling settled over Michaela and she sat up, examining her toes tucked away in the nest of grass. A single ant wandered across the picked mosquito bites that scattered her ankle and foot, taking a dizzying path toward her blank toenails. She hadn’t painted them since sandal season began, the result of a toenail that hadn’t quite grown back after a tragic running-on-concrete accident a few weeks before.
She heard soft footsteps and glanced over to see a set of chipped red toenails coming slowly closer. The feet were in black pumps that kept sinking into the soft dirt, slowing the newcomer’s approach. “Hey, Mickey. How are you?”
Michaela wanted to answer that she was perfect. The warm air bounced off her skin and the smells of new growth wafted around her. She knew this wasn’t the correct answer, but she couldn’t find the right one, so she said nothing at all.
“Micks, why don’t you come inside? You look a little pale, you should drink something.”
“Lys,” Michaela whispered, “Look at the grass. It’s so green.”
Allyson glided gently down next to her friend. “Oh sweetie, I know, it’s beautiful.”

They had been sitting at a red picnic table outside under a huge maple scantily clad with new growth. Hudson had sucked at his ice cream haphazardly as Michaela licked hers in a neat spiral. He had called her a “neat freak” and knocked his cone against her, leaving a goopy smear of blue ice cream against her neat vanilla. Michaela remembered looking down at the grass, watching their feet walk parallel through the tiny blades of grass as they walked to the car. She felt the hammock swing beneath her, and she pictured his feet fading away. Her toes were the only ones left, as if he had never been there. She wished he had never been there.
Allyson grabbed Michaela’s hand and she was dragged back to a world where he had existed. She couldn’t go inside. Out here the world was waking up from a long sleep under cold, white blankets. Everything was right, in motion, unfolding exactly as it was supposed to. Inside, she knew it was dark, and quiet people looked uncomfortable and milled around, letting tears spill onto their dark clothes. Inside, his picture would be everywhere, instead of a few scattered along the wall. As Allyson grabbed her hand, Michaela stood to face the darkness and she was reminded of the cast on her wrist as it jarred and the dull ache in her hip as she stood.

Michaela walked to her locker in the far hallway, catching tiny glimpses of other people’s lives as they briefly came within her radar. She avoided eyes and pulled herself in as tightly as she could, dodging flailing arms and flying backpacks.
Anonymity didn’t exist for Michaela any more. A phantom of whispers followed her like her own shadow. Phrases like “car accident,” “so sad,” and “can’t believe she’s at school,” were a constant presence, as much as the bells between classes or the pattering of footsteps. They reached her ears even as she tried to ignore them, focusing instead on repeating a song in her head. She couldn’t remember the words though, and then she couldn’t even remember the song. Hudson took its place in her mind even as she tried to push him back, forcing him into the safe she had hoped she’d lost the key to.
Michaela had come to school to escape the constant slideshow of visitors’ pitying gazes, only to find them here repeated on a thousand faces. Every time she saw the face, a slight cock of the head, pouted lips, an apologetic squint of the eyes, she saw his face in its place. Instead she chose to watch the floor tiles scroll backward as she walked. Michaela spent fifth period in the bathroom. Allyson found her just as lunch was starting. “Tina said you missed English.”


“Yeah.”


Allyson slid down next to Michaela, their backs against the rough blocks of the back bathroom wall, the miniature mountains of concrete pock marking their backs. Allyson laid her head on Michaela’s shoulder, the gesture saying more than she could put in words. Michaela almost let herself slip. Her eyes began to water before she stood, Allyson’s head sliding off its perch and knocking against the wall. “How are you holding up?”


Michaela looked back at her best friend and knew she should explain what was happening, but she couldn’t. The wall was weakening and it was all she could do to strengthen the cracks as she went. Allyson would only smash the whole thing to pieces, thinking it was better to let in the unknown. Maybe it was better.
For Allyson at least.

A minute bug crawled up Michaela’s elbow, as she sat in the kitchen, the windows open to let a warm summer breeze stir the motionless air. She jerked and flicked it off. The minuscule body flew through the air and landed in the center of a black tile on the kitchen floor. She bent down and watched it struggle. It reminded her of a small child attempting to crawl, or a dog trying to walk on ice. Her hand hovered over the insect, napkin ready to clean up the whole ordeal. Hudson never let her kill a bug; he always insisted they were just as alive any human. She could remember dozens of cups and coasters creating makeshift hotels as they traveled back to their natural habitat. She pictured the countless times he’d caught her with her foot poised above a wandering spider. He always looked so horrified that she could never continue the motion. Michaela pressed the napkin down and squeezed. His face was gone.

Her mom was crying again. She could hear the soft drumming of her sobs through the thick sheets of drywall, punctuated by the low rumbles of her father’s attempt at comfort. He always turned to humor, a business trick, but it only ever made Michaela’s mother fall apart faster. Michaela opened the window, only then noticing the whisper of raindrops as they spattered the trees and rooftops. She came and went through her window more often than her door these days. It made it easier to forget that anything else had ever existed other than the sanctuary of her room, the one place that had always been hers and only hers. Her sweatshirt grew heavy with rain as she descended the trellis now devoid of anything but drooping ivy. Leaves coated the ground like stagnant waves on a thick sea. Her footsteps formed ripples as she was drawn to the blurry balls of light that lined the street, the earthly siblings of the stars hidden behind moist curtains of gray. Her hand rested on the trunk of a tree, its bare arms pushing skyward, reaching for its lost loves. Michaela’s heart tugged and she wanted to reach up with it, to touch the impossible. Instead she reached for the bundle of cold metal in her pocket.
She drove aimlessly, her only goal to get away. The wipers growled and the lights shown on one frame at a time, each overlapping enough to play a film as she passed houses, storefronts, and then trees. As she rounded each corner she felt lighter. She banked the curves to the right, to the left, leaning with the vehicle until she was the car, her eyes bright lights, her breath fogging in the crisp air and water. Lights passed her every once in a while, over varied and unpredictable intervals, each jolting her back into her body, aware again of her limbs. As she made a gentle curve to the right, two lights brighter than any before them illuminated the back seat in her rearview mirror, where a pale figure sat. His back was straight, as tall as his tiny frame allowed. The car skidded to an almost spinning stop as darkness enveloped it once more and Michaela stared at the seat behind her. There was nothing. He was months gone.

She remembered the drawing he had brought home when he was four. It was a picture of a dog – the dog he always wanted – standing on top of a barn. The barn was a little lopsided and painted green. The dog only had three legs and its tail was twice as long as its body. Their mom had just gotten a new digital camera for Christmas and the resulting photo of Michaela and Hudson holding his drawing proudly was still hanging on the wall over his bed. She could picture it perfectly, letting herself remember only for a moment. She had crouched down next to him, one arm across his shoulder: eleven years apart but for that moment they couldn’t be closer. So many times over those six years she had wished he’d just go away. Just as she was old enough to stay home by herself or have an actual life on the weekends, she was trapped at home with a fussy child. They had argued in the car.
She could see his sly little smile in the picture, but then…she couldn’t. She couldn’t remember the angle of his lips or how his hair fell in his eyes. How long was his hair then? Had he cut it short yet, or was it still long enough to tangle in his eyelashes? The hairs on her arms stood up to protect her as an army stormed through her veins. Her book fell as she ran up the stairs, finally allowing herself to look up at the walls to see his pictures, older and older as the stairs reached higher. She opened his door, something she hadn’t done for months. Inside, it was pristine. This was the closest thing they had to Hudson left, these 80 square feet, but it was wrong. This was some fake version of his life, like taking a scruffy dog and trimming his hair and nails until he was a perfect specimen worthy of a show. He never had a dog.
She sat on his bed and looked up at the picture. It hung straight, which had never happened since he made the red frame himself out of popsicle sticks and hung it with Michaela’s help. His hair was long, the loose curls just low enough that he had to tilt his head back to see. His lopsided grin looked as goofy as usual. The left side was higher, as if he were always feeling a little mischievous. He never had braces. He never sat in the front seat. He never rode without training wheels. She curled up on his comforter, which smelled, uncharacteristically, like detergent. He will never wake up here again.





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This article has 3 comments. Post your own now!

that silly woman said...
Jan. 31, 2011 at 7:07 pm
Ah.  Deliciously poignant.  Your voice is now inside my head as much as I am inside Michaela's head.  This is fine writing.  Can't wait to see what comes from you in the future. 
 
Audrey L. said...
Jan. 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm
Libbi, wonderful story!! The emotion was so real, it broke my heart!  Keep writing, you rock!
 
AdLib replied...
Jan. 31, 2011 at 6:25 pm
Thanks, Audrey!
 
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