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Letting Go of Riley
People say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. But those people also say you don’t know what you’ve been missing until it comes into your life.
I agree with both of those statements.
I can’t believe it…she’s gone. Really gone. It all happened so quickly " I never saw it coming.
And now I know what it's like to truly miss someone.
I just witnessed the single most horrible moment of my life, and I’ve witnessed some pretty terrible things in the sixteen short years that I’ve been alive. My parents got divorced when I was five, on account of my mother committing adultery with some Joe Shmo thirteen years younger than her. Since then, Dad and I have lived in a pretty sketchy part of town, and that’s putting it lightly.
That’s where I met Riley. It was the first day of kindergarten at some rinky-dink, rundown daycare. Riley was there in a dress that was worn way too many times without a washing, but I was no better. My jeans were grungy and my white Hanes t-shirt was stained with dirt and tomato sauce. My fingernails were filthy and I had the worst case of greasy bedhead anyone had seen in a while.
Riley and I became fast friends. Her mother (her dad ran out on them " noticing any similarities?) was an alcoholic and when I asked her about the bruises on her body, all she said was “mommy told me not to tell”.
Time passed, and our teacher, Ms. Gabey, started to wonder about the bruises that Riley covered up as “tripping,” but I knew better. Then one day she confronted me.
“Kory?” she asked with that soothing voice of hers.
“Yeah?” I answered, looking up from the blocks I’d been playing with.
“Do you know why Riley is always getting hurt?” I froze and felt the color drain from my face.
“She trips when she…sleep walks, yeah that’s it.” I was pretty proud of myself at the time for making that up on the spot.
“Kory,” she said gently, “we both know that’s not true, and I just want to help her. So could you please be a good boy and tell me what Riley told you?”
“But I don’t want to tattle on her or she’ll never forgive me!”
“Kory, it’s not tattling if it will help her. I promise you won’t get into trouble.”
I had to believe her. I mean, she was my teacher. “All she told me was that her mom won’t let her tell.”
Apparently, that was all she needed to know. “Thank you, Kory.”
It turns out that Riley’s mom was beating her while in her drunken rages. One week Riley didn’t come to school. Apparently, Ms. Gabey called Social Services for Riley who was alone " he mom had abandoned her. After months of fighting, Ms. Gabey was able to adopt Riley.
Anyone could tell that once Ms. Gabey took Riley in, she changed, and for the better. Her clothes were always clean, her hair always washed, and her nails never had dirt under them. Well, at least before the end of the day. By then she and I played so much that all of the showers in the world before school couldn’t have stopped her from getting messy.
“Sir?” a cool hand rests on my shoulder, bringing me back to the present. “You need to get home and rest. There’s nothing more you can do for your girlfriend.” The male nurse looks down at me with professional concern. I guess I fudged a bit when I said Riley is gone forever. That she’s…dead. She’s still alive, sort of. She’s in what the doctors call a “catatonic state”. She’s alive but she suffered massive brain damage, so she’s pretty much a potato. I remember our teacher, Riley’s adoptive mom calling us couch potatoes when we’d just want to sit in front of the TV all day. We both just laughed at such a silly name to call someone.
Now the phrase doesn’t seem so funny anymore.
With a heavy heart, I sigh and get up from the recliner which is seated next to Riley’s bed. I don’t even bother correcting him when he called Riley my girlfriend, something I corrected many times with the other doctors and nurses. But frankly, I just don’t have it in me to care anymore. I don’t feel anything other than the immense, gaping hole where my internal organs should be.
I take Riley’s hand and give it a gentle squeeze, push her hair out of her eyes, and tell her goodnight before I leave the room and gently shut the door.
I see all of the nurses giving me sympathetic looks. They all know about Riley. I just look away. I don’t want their pity; I just want Riley back.
I need my best friend back.
I walk out of the hospital and get into my car. I put the key in the ignition and drive home with tears streaming down my face - the tears I can’t hold back any longer. Ten agonizingly long minutes later, I walk through the door into mine and Dad’s apartment. Normally, this apartment comforts me, but not today. Right now, nothing can console the anguish and guilt I feel. Dad is in the living room watching the news.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says, using the name he picked up when I was five. “…How is she?”
I shake my head, and Dad doesn’t push me. He was at the hospital earlier, so he knows I’m in worse shape now, if that’s possible.
I go into my room and slam the door. The pain I felt turns to anger. In a rage, I scream and punch the wall. It made a hole.
Instantly, I felt guilty.
Dad knocks softly and, when I don’t protest, pokes his head in. I know he sees the hole.
“Dad…” I say, wanting to apologize, but he won’t let me.
He holds up his hand. “Kory, it’s okay. Well, not what’s happened today, but the hole. It’s just a wall, and besides, now if you ever feel the need to punch the wall again, you’ll have somewhere that won’t cause any more damage.” He smiled weakly at his own joke.
For the first time that day since everything crashed and burned, in ways I still can barely comprehend, I crack a smile. It’s a fainter smile than Dad’s, but still, a smile just the same.
“That’s my brave boy,” Dad says gently, resting his hand on my shoulder.
But I’m not brave, not at all.
Dad seems to be able to tell what I’m thinking because he denies my thoughts. “You’re extremely brave, Kory, despite what you think. You stayed by Riley’s side when she needed you most, while many others would’ve left her, figuring her to be a lost cause.
Leave Riley? I think. That would be impossible.
I guess I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve today because Dad pats my shoulder and gives me a look that seems to say “exactly.” But he doesn’t say that. All he says was that I should get some sleep then walks out of my room and shuts the door, but not without giving me one last look.
Thoughts keep creeping into my mind when I try to fall asleep that night. I try to clear my head as I watch the hours glow by on my alarm clock, but like an army, they’re relentless and will stop at nothing to deprive me of sleep. But finally, when the numbers glow five, the thoughts jumble together incoherently and they grant me with, though restless, sleep nonetheless.
By the time I was in first grade, Dad got better at keeping me clean and somewhat neat. My jeans were still worn but there weren’t the excessive dirt and grass stains. I still wore white Hanes t-shirts, but now they were actually white and not tie-dyed with dirt and tomato sauce stains. I was bathed regularly…well, at least as regularly as a six-year-old boy would allow, so my hair was no longer plastered to my head with grease, but instead a halo of soft child’s hair. So, like Riley, I’d changed, too.
“What do you wanna be when you grow up, Kor?” Riley asked me, looking up from the masterpiece she was creating in the sandbox one day.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll be an acrobat!” I always loved the idea of doing all of those flips. “What about you, Ri?”
She looked at me with those eyes of hers, far too sober for a child so young. “I want to be a better mom to my child than my mom was to me.”
I gave her a sad smile but she just shook her head. “I’m not sad about it " I don’t miss her.”
I knew she was lying, but I wasn’t going to be the one to call her out on it.
We sat in a comfortable silence for a while. I gave up on trying to create something in the sand and was content in watching Riley’s creations come to life. She was making a sand cake, but not one of those cruddy-looking ones. No, hers was a real cake, a good-looking cake.
She looked over and me and caught me watching her. “What are you looking at?” she asked.
“You " how you’re making that cake. It’s really good.”
She laughed. “Yeah, right. Kory, are you okay? It’s not good at all.”
“Yeah it is! It’s awesome, Riley!”
“Sure it is.”
I saw her face turn bright red and she looked down back at her creation, her hair covering her face. I saw her shoulder shaking slightly.
“Ri, are you crying?”
“N-no,” she’d said, her voice shaky. I knew she was lying.
I walked over on my knees to her and hugged her. “Don’t cry, Riley. Please, don’t cry.”
“But it’s not fair! Why did it have to be me, Kor? Why me?”
“I don’t know, Ri, but I do know this: no matter what you mom did, no matter what happens, I will always be there for you. Never ever forget that.”
My alarm blares, jolting me upright from my sleep. I look over at my clock and it says that it was six o’clock. One hour of sleep. I groan and flop down onto my stomach, pulling a pillow over my head. But it’s too late " I’m already awake enough for my thoughts to fill with one thing only: Riley.
I don’t know how I’m going to make it through school.
I wish I could just skip, call it a sick day, but I know I can’t. I have to get into college (preferably not a community college), and I know that the only way I’m going to be able to is to get nothing less than superb grades. I have all A’s, none of them below a 95. I know I can’t get into college through paying, I’m determined to get into college through scholarship. And because of that, I haven’t missed a day of school.
There’s a soft knock at my door. “Kory?” Dad asks. “Are you up?”
I know I have to get up for Dad, if no one else. Well, for Dad and for Riley. “Yeah, I am, Dad,” I answer.
“You going to school?”
“Yeah, I think I should. You can come in, if you want.”
Dad opens up the door and steps in, closing it gently behind him. He walks up to my bed and sits down gingerly " well, as gingerly as a man of his size could. He’s acting as if I’m a wild animal he’s trying not to scare. “Yeah, that’s probably for the best. It’ll get your mind off of…well, off of all of this.” Dad’s trying not to sound awkward, but this is unmarked territory between us " our feelings.
I just nod and sit up. Dad gives me an awkward side hug sort of thing before leaving my room.
Once I’m alone, I sigh, drag myself over to my dresser and pick out the first shirt and jeans I touch. I find a pair of socks on the floor and pull them on and slide into my shoes. I go into the bathroom and brush my teeth and make an attempt at finger-taming my hair, but then give up on that lost cause and just shove my head under the sink and shake out my hair.
I grab my bag and walk over to the bus stop.
“Hey, Kory!” I hear a voice call out. I look over my shoulder and see my friend Sam, his tall frame towering over me. I’m not short of anything, he’s just really tall. For the longest time I haven’t been able to see one of his eyes because his sandy blonde hair flops into it. I think it was the middle of freshman year when his hair finally grew out from some nerdy cut he had in eighth grade.
“Hey, Sam,” I say, trying to sound like myself. I didn’t realize before how hard it is to act like nothing was wrong and how everything seems remind me of Riley. If she were here, we’d be goofing off while waiting for the bus and Sam would arrive and pick up Riley " who probably would have jumped on my back by then " and swung her around.
“What’s good with you?”
I just shrug.
“You okay, Kor?” He looks sincerely concerned. Sam might not be the brightest crayon in the box, and he could be pretty dense, too, but when he’s your friend, he’s your friend and he’ll never leave your side. And I guess when he knows you well enough, he can tell when you’re not feeling all peachy keen.
I just shrug again, but with a little head shake this time. I know that if I try to say something, I won’t be able to hold back my tears. And I can’t let myself cry in front of anyone, not even Sam, whom I’ve known since the second grade.
“Kory, you know you can tell me anything,” Sam says comfortingly. “It’s just me.” That line, “it’s just me,” is one we’ve both used time and time again in the past to get one of us to say something. And it’s worked every time.
“Riley, it’s Riley,” I manage to choke out.
“Oh…man, oh man. Did you tell her you like her and she, you know, rejected you or something?”
“What?” I ask outraged, as Sam’s question diverts me momentarily from my immense grief. “No it’s not like that, you know that.”
“Oh, okay. What is it then?”
“She’s…she’s in the hospital…” There, I said it.
“Oh gosh, Kor, I’m so sorry.” He doesn’t try to hug me, for which I’m grateful.
I just shrug again.
“What happened, dude?”
I shake my head. I can’t talk about it. Not now, when the pain is so fresh.
Sam nods; he understands.
Thankfully, the bus chooses to make its appearance and therefore stopping all conversation, awkward or otherwise. But more so awkward. We both make our way onto the bus. Sam and I are pretty popular, so as we walk to our usual seats, we get our fair share of fist bumps, high fives, and a myriad of other handshakes. I slide to the window side of the seat and Sam sits on the aisle side. I put in my headphones and blast my music to endure a twenty minute ride to school. I probably shouldn’t sit near the window; it would be torture to see the hospital on the way there.
And sure enough, there it was " the hospital. Sam must’ve seen me wince because I felt him touch my shoulder in a way that said it’s going to be okay, man. You’ll see. And despite it all, it comforted me.
I wish I have the ability to see through things. Not to have x-ray vision, that would just be annoying and potentially awkward, but to be able to see through things like walls or doors. So I would been able to see Riley through the thick walls of the hospital, to see if she was okay. The doctor said her condition could change at a moment’s notice, which is why they took my cell phone number. Just in case they had to get ahold of me in an emergency. Or if a miracle happens.
I sent a silent prayer to any deity that might’ve been listening to me for that not to happen, something bad that is.
I have never been so happy to see the gray exterior of my high school before. I mean, it doesn’t even look like a school, but more like a prison. It was angular and made of cinderblocks that looked like they could keep even the strongest, craftiest prisoner captive.
The ancient bus creeps to a stop. I heft my bag over my shoulder and trudge down the aisle to the front of the bus.
“Hey, Kory,” a freshman says. Tylie, I believe her name is.
Tylie…that name is so close to Riley….
I give her a slight nod of acknowledgement, not wanting to talk to anyone. I just make my way down the steps of the bus. I numbly pass other students as they chatter to the school door. I walk into the prison that others seemed to be able to call school. And I know I have to try to make it through the day. For Riley, if no one else.
Fifth grade was a hassle, to say the least. Dad met someone who, in my opinion, was a witch to put it lightly. She’d acted all sappy sweet to me in front of Dad, calling me stuff like “sugar,” or “honey,” or “sweetie,” But when my dad was out of earshot, the doe-eyes she made at me would narrow and she tossed her hair over her shoulder and said things like how much she hated kids and couldn’t wait to get me out of this house. I tried to tell Dad about this and I had to give him credit, he did believe me, but the poor guy was so confused when all he saw was her being nothing but so disgustingly sweet to me. I think sometimes he thought I just hated to be coddled.
Okay…well, maybe that was part of it. Even if it was completely fake, it was coddling nonetheless. But in comparison, that was nothing. I put up with her for Dad. I didn’t want him to be hurt again. Because that time, it would be my fault. So that year, well, it was a lot less than that thankfully, I spent a lot of time at Riley’s, even more than usual.
“Why do you hate Miranda so much, Kory?” Riley asked me one day as we were doing something at her house.
“I dunno,” I replied. “I guess it’s just because she’s so fake.”
“What do you mean ‘fake’?” she asked, cocking her head to the side like a curious puppy.
“She’s always so sweet to me in front of Dad, but when he leaves the room or whatever, she gets so mean and says stuff like how she’s going to get Dad to send me to boarding school or military school or something.”
“Has she…hit you?” Riley asked that with a caution only used by those who are afraid of remembering something from their past.
“No " it’s nothing like that! She’s just so eager to get me out and take my place.”
“Maybe we should catch her being really mean to you and show your dad!”
“How would we do that? It’s not like we have spy stuff or anything.”
“No " but Mom has a camera!” I smiled at the fact that she called Ms. Gabey “Mom.”
So we dropped everything and started making plans to catch Miranda in the act of being mean to me to show Dad. I didn’t want him to be hurt, but I also knew that he wouldn’t want me to be hurt.
Ms. Gabey walked in about a half an hour later and saw us making plans. “Hey, Sweetie, hey Kory,” She said to us, “what are you two kids up to?”
“We’re making plans to catch Kory’s Dad’s girlfriend be mean to him.”
“Mhm, the mean lady.” Riley’s smile was almost demonic.
Ms. Gabey didn’t like her either and though she didn’t approve in sabotaging Dad’s relationship, she gave us her camcorder. “I didn’t see anything,” she said with a smile. She opened the door and was halfway out of Riley’s room when she turned around. “Try the hole in Kory’s couch in the living room.” Ms. Gabey knew about the seek hole in my couch " I mean, she’s caught us there enough! But she kept our secret and didn’t tell a soul.
“Great idea, Mom!” Riley exclaimed. She was bouncing up and down, so excited for this.
It turned out that we didn’t need to try to take matters into our own hands, so our master plan was never put into action. Dad got sick of Miranda always criticizing him and treating him as if he wasn’t good enough. So after five long, long months, Dad ended it with Miranda.
And the best part?
He was smiling later that day.
“Kory, what do you think Tennyson meant by that quote?” Mr. Dunham, my English teacher, asks me, breaking through my reverie.
“May you please repeat the quote, Mr. Dunham?” I ask. Mr. Dunham is pretty cool and lets a lot of things slide. He doesn’t like people slacking off in his class, but I normally try my hardest in his class, so it’s no wonder he looks concerned.
He obliges. “‘Be near me when my light is low/When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick/And tingle; and the heart is sick/And all the wheels of being slow.’ What do you think he means by that?”
I freeze. That quote…it reminds me so much of her…
“I th-think,” I choke up. I clear my throat and start again. “I think that Tennyson is asking someone who is very close to him to be by his side no matter what. That, whether sick or healthy or even in such pain that he can’t even cry out, that person will be there for him. And when he is dying, saying his last words, breathing his final breath, he would be with the person who matters most to him in the world.”
I hear faint sighs coming from some of the girls in the class, and I see Mr. Dunham’s face morph into an expression of wonder at how one of his students could articulate such a profound thought. “And do you think it was a significant other he was addressing this to?”
“It could be,” I answer, trying to hold back tears. “But it could also be a family member he was close to, or even a friend of his " his best friend.”
Thankfully, Mr. Dunham doesn’t make me answer anything else. “Very good, Kory,” he says with a small smile on his face. “Very good.”
“May I have a bathroom pass?” I ask, needing privacy.
“Of course.” He hands one to me as I walk up to his desk. I walk to the bathroom and lock myself in one of the stalls, letting the tears stream silently down my face. I walk back to class and sit down, trying to pay attention and take notes.
Later that class my phone rings. Everyone looks at me as I get it out. I look at Mr. Dunham and he nods, giving me permission to answer it.
“Hello?” I say as I walk out of the classroom into the courtyard just by the building.
“Hello is this Kory?” a pleasant sounding woman addressed me.
“Yes…may I please ask who is calling?”
“This is Adrienne calling about Riley.”
“What about her?”
“You might want to come down to the hospital when you can.”
“It’s difficult to explain. If you come down we’ll explain.”
“But is she okay?”
“Her condition is deteriorating, but it’s more complicated than that. Please, just come down as soon as you can and we’ll explain.”
“Okay, I will as soon as possible.”
“Do we need to fax a note to your school to give you permission to leave?”
“Alright, we will send it over momentarily.” I’m still shocked at how kind the nurses are to me.
“Okay, thank you.”
“Of course. See you soon, Kory.”
“Yeah, okay. Bye.”
“Buh-bye.” Click. I end the call and shut my phone.
I walk back into the classroom with all of the students’ eyes on me. Mr. Dunham looks at me with concern.
“May I see you outside for a moment, Kory?” he asks.
“Yeah, of course, Mr. Dunham.” He gives the class one look and they all know not to step out of line. Unless they want to face his anger, that is.
We walk out of the classroom and he shuts the door. “Is there something wrong, Kory?”
I’m in the process of shaking my head when I change my mind. “Yes,” I nod, “there’s something wrong.”
Mr. Dunham looks slightly taken aback from my blunt answer. “What is wrong, Kory?”
“It’s Riley,” I say, barely able to keep from breaking down. “…Something happened and now she’s in the hospital. They said they would call me if anything was wrong, and they just did. They said her condition is deteriorating. They couldn’t tell me details just that I should get to the hospital as soon as I could. They’re going to fax the school giving me permission to go.”
Mr. Dunham pats my shoulder. “Next class is lunch " would you like me to give you a ride to the hospital?”
“It’s okay,” I say, “I’m going to call my dad to take me home so I can drive over. Thank you though.”
He nods. “Okay. But Kory?”
“I know she won’t be able to hear, but give her my best. She’s in the faculty’s prayers.”
“Thank you,” I say, shocked.
“We really care about all of you " and Riley has left something special at this school.”
“I know " she just touches everyone she meets.” I smile slightly despite it all.
“Go ahead, Kory. I’ll excuse you from school. And take care.”
I nod. “Thanks, you too, Mr. Dunham.”
After checking in with the front desk to be sure that they received the fax, I call Dad and he picks me up and drops me off at home. I get my car and
drive over to the hospital as quickly as I can without breaking the speed limit because that would keep me from seeing Riley.
I get to the hospital and see Riley with more tubes in her than before. Oh, Riley, I think, what’s happening? I all but run over and sit in the recliner again and take her hand. The doctor walks in.
“Are you Kory?” A man in about his mid-thirties asks me.
“Yes,” I say, standing up to shake his hand.
“I’m doctor Jay Mills, Riley’s doctor.” He shakes my hand, his grip firm but kind.
“Nice to meet you, sir,” I say.
“Riley’s mother won’t be able to be here yet " she couldn’t find someone to cover for her class.”
He nods, knowing that I really only care about one thing, well, really only one person: Riley. “Normally, I like to wait until the whole family is here, but for your case, I don’t mind saying it twice. But I do have some questions to ask.” I can tell that he really does care and isn’t just pretending to like most doctors do.
“Yes?” I ask.
“There’s been some confusion here as to your relation with Riley. Is she your girlfriend? I’m not trying to pry; we just need this for record purposes.”
“She is if that means I’ll be able to stay.”
Dr. Mills laughs softly. “Don’t worry, Kory, no one is going to make you leave. I think the nurses would be afraid to try.”
I smile a little. Not much, but a little. “She’s my best friend, as close to a sister as I’ll ever have. Everyone seems to think she’s my girlfriend, though.”
Dr. Mills jots that down. “Best friend,” he says to himself.
“And how long have you known Riley?” He isn’t asking for notes anymore; he’s asking because he wants to get to know his patients.
“Since we in kindergarten.”
“I see, and your kindergarten teacher ended up adopting her?”
“That’s right.” I can’t wait any more. “What’s going on with her? Why was I called here? Adrienne said that her condition was…deteriorating.”
“Yes, you see over there?” He points over to one of the monitors. “They’re taking brain activity and it’s dropped " a lot, actually. She’s gone from seventy percent brain activity to fifty percent in twenty minutes. And we don’t know why.”
“What do you mean?” I ask in shock.
“When Riley was first admitted here, seventy percent of her brain was functioning properly. She was in a coma, but both of her brain was still working. But about an hour ago, her brain activity started to go down rapidly. I watched it drop from seventy to fifty percent in twenty minutes. Like I said, I’m not sure how or why this happened, but I do know that even if Riley does wake up, I’m not sure if she’ll ever recover.” Dr. Mills looks upset by this news, but he tells me the truth, which makes me respect him even more.
“So…when she had seventy percent, there was a chance she’d recover?”
“Not completely, but yes, somewhat. She wouldn’t have been the same Riley you knew before " she might’ve not been able to walk or something like that.”
“I’m not too positive she’ll ever wake up. And if she does, I’m afraid she’ll be totally brain-dead.”
I’m not too surprised to hear that. “Okay,” I say, my mind disconnecting from my body, trying to cope.
“I’ll let you be. Riley’s mother is due to arrive soon and I need to deliver the news to her.” I swear I think I see tears in his eyes as he says this.
“Thank you, sir,” I say, looking up at him.
He gives me a small, encouraging smile and leaves me with Riley.
Riley, please, I plead silently. Don’t leave me. I need you.
Eighth Grade, Middle School, in the Years of Awkwardness " that’s where I was with Riley and Sam. I met Sam in second grade, but we didn’t start being really good friends until about the middle of fifth grade, which was after Miranda.
This was the time that we started caring about how we looked and who was “dating” who. Dances were more important than they were when we were younger, as in sixth and seventh grade, and there was our eighth grade trip to the beach and “graduation” to worry about. It was like we were mini seniors, which I guess is what they wanted us to think we were. Looking back, it all seems sort of pointless, but I guess when we were in that moment, it felt so real, like we really were seniors, seniors of middle school.
There was the three of us, Riley, Sam, and me. We were the unstoppable trio, each other’s best friends, partners in crime, and shoulders to cry on. It wasn’t a bad year, as far as eighth grade years go. I knew I could be friendless, hated, or the worst, a fake. But I wasn’t, and neither were Sam or Riley.
Every day before school we’d take the bus, but after school Riley, Sam, and I would walk home. Our middle school was close enough that we could do that. It was only about a thirty minute walk, unless we stopped for ice cream or something. Our school might’ve been close to our homes, but the atmospheres around each of them were polar opposites. On one end of the spectrum, you have our school, which was in a pretty nice neighborhood. But on the other end, there were our homes, which wasn’t so great. Dad and I still lived in the same sketchy apartment (even though I was quite used to it, it was still just as sketchy), and Sam and Riley’s living situations were quite similar. Even though Ms. Gabey worked at our old school to make sure little kids had a good role model (she came from a nice family but lived here to prevent troubled teens), she still had a house that wasn’t so great. Maybe not as bad as mine or Sam’s but still, pretty bad.
But I digress.
I remember this one time we stopped for ice cream and some kids from our class were there, too. We didn’t not get along with them, but I knew better than to get in their way. So the three of us had a sort of unspoken agreement with the three of them " we don’t mess with them, they won’t mess with us. And vice versa because it’s not like we were defenseless. I mean there were only the two of us guys, but we had plenty of connections who would back us up at a moment’s notice.
But I remember that one time they were there " we weren’t afraid, just shocked that they were there. I knew that they lived in an even worse part of town than any of us did. I wasn’t ever one to judge, but it just struck me as strange that they were there. I didn’t say anything though. I knew Sam and Riley saw them, and if they weren’t going to say anything, Iwasn’t going to. So we grabbed a table not too far from them, in order not to seem like we were “avoiding” them, but we didn’t sit too close because, well, we’re smarter than that.
“Hiya, kids,” our favorite waitress, Charlotte, called out to us.
“Hey, Charlotte,” we replied in unison.
“Why don’t y’all come over here and sit by the counter? I’ll go get your ice cream. Same orders?”
“As always,” Riley laughed, grabbing my hand with one of hers and Sam’s with the other, dragging us to the counter. I felt the stares of the three at the table. Riley, Sam, and I acted perfectly normal, trying to ignore the three, but I could tell my friends were tense under all of the calm smiles and easy laughs. I was, too.
So it was no surprised that we all let out a sigh of relief when they paid, got up, and left the ice cream shop.
“Those kids bother you?” Charlotte asked, giving us our ice creams.
“Not really,” Riley said, already inhaling her ice cream. She was pretty much skin and bones, but she ate just as much as Sam and I did. I had no idea how she did that.
“Have they ever?”
“Only once or twice,” Sam said in between mouthfuls of ice cream. “But we have people to back us up, so it’s really not a big deal.”
“Yeah,” I said, taking a break from eating before I got a brain freeze. “They’ve tried to start a fight or two with us, but after about thirty seconds, we had people at our backs, so they pretty much left us alone after that.”
“We just don’t want to take any chances, so we’re cautious,” Riley said, finishing my thought.
Charlotte looked at the two of us. “I swear, either you two were supposed to be twins, or you’re going to get married.”
Riley and I looked at each other and laughed. “Definitely twins,” we said in unison.
Weeks pass, and there’s no change. Nothing gets worse after that drop of brain activity, but nothing gets better either. Every day after school, I go to the hospital and do homework. After a week, Sam came with me and together, we’d sit there until visiting hours were over.
Five weeks after Riley arrived, Doctor Mills sits me down with Ms. Gabey. Sam had to leave early that day to take care of his kid sister while his parents went out.
“Sit down, Kory, Alice,” Doctor Mills says to us. Ms. Gabey and I sit down in the chairs in front of the desk in his office.
“I’m here to talk to you about Riley. She’s not getting any better. But at the same time, she’s not getting any worse either.” He doesn’t remind us of the time her brain activity dropped " I suppose that was left unsaid for a reason. “I know the two of you don’t want to think of this, but it’s something that needs to be addressed. Riley isn’t getting any better, and I’m not very hopeful that she will ever wake up. I know I’ve spoken to both of you about this before, but it’s been five weeks. I know there are people, and religions, that don’t believe in pulling the plug and will do anything to keep their children or friends alive. I don’t know if you two are those kinds of people. If you are, then I won’t stop you. But if you aren’t I would seriously consider thinking about other options. Riley is physically sound at the moment, but her brain is in nothing but agony. You are probably wondering how I know this. Any patient who has awoken remembers being trapped and in pain. I doubt either of you want Riley to be in pain.”
Ms. Gabey is crying and I’m trying my hardest not to. I can’t believe that it’s come to this " Riley has always been so strong, I was so sure that she’d be one of those miracle cases that would wake up and make amazing recoveries. I can’t imagine life without Riley. I just nod my head though. “Thank you, Doctor,” I say to him. “We’ll talk about it.” I help Ms. Gabey out of her seat and walk her out of the room.
“Are you okay?” I ask her, not really knowing what else to say. I know she’s not, but I felt as if I should ask.
She just nods her head a little, the tears still falling. “Kory, you need to make this decision,” she says to me.
I’m beyond shocked. Ms. Gabey is always the one who makes decisions, not me, not the kids. I’m sure it’s just shock and the feeling of helplessness that’s making her say things like that. I pretend not to hear her as I walk her to her car.
“Kory,” she says, no longer crying. “I mean it " you need to be the one who decides.”
I know I can’t ignore what she says now. “What do you mean, Ms. Gabey?” I ask, incredulous.
“It’s you who needs to decide.”
“No, no, I got that part. But why, and decided what?” I know what the answer to the second part of my question would be.
“You need to decide whether or not to pull the plug.” And with that, she gets into her car and drives off, leaving me confounded.
That night I lie in bed and replay what Ms. Gabey said to me in my mind. “It’s you who needs to decide…whether or not to pull the plug…” But why? I think.
Riley, where are you?
We were in our junior year of senior high, Riley, Sam, and I. It was supposed to be one of the best years of our lives. Who could’ve guessed it would end like this?
The three of us went out that night " opening night of some play Sam was in, and two big wins for Riley and me on the track team. We all watched Sam perform that night " it was like he was born for it. He did one play a year " he did football in the fall and basketball in the winter with me, and in the spring he would do a play. We were out to eat at some restaurant to celebrate.
After dinner we all planned to meet at my house " we all took different cars that morning, so we’d drive them to my house where they would both sleep over.
We left at the same time. I was in front and then there was Sam then Riley behind me.
That’s when things started to go bad.
I heard the crash, but I didn’t think it could be one of us. It was about eight o’clock on a Friday night. Normally stuff didn’t start to happen until eleven and by then I was at home, smart enough to know to stay there for the night.
So when I heard tired burn rubber and crash, I was a little surprised it was happening already. But what I really wasn’t expecting was what happened after.
The cop cars were already showing up with the fire truck and the ambulance. I pulled over and saw Sam’s car, too. I expected that.
But I couldn’t find Riley’s car…or Riley.
“Sam,” I called out. He looked over at me, his expression relieved. He ran up to me. “Where’s Riley?
“I don’t know,” he said, looking worried. I walked over to the cars that were in the crash. I couldn’t see one because it was blocked by the fire truck, but the other one wasn’t Riley’s.
Please, I prayed to any deity who might’ve been listening. Let Riley be okay. Let her not have anything to do with this so we can all go home.
We walked up to the fire truck. “Excuse me, sir?” I asked one of the men who was standing there. He turned around. He looked about thirty and had a kind face.
“Yes, son?” he answered.
“We just wanted to make sure our friend…her name is Riley…that she…”
“Wasn’t involved in this accident,” Sam finished for me.
“And how old is your friend?” the officer asked us.
“She’s sixteen with brown hair and green eyes,” I said.
He thought for a moment and walked over for almost a validation before coming back to us. “And how old did you say she was again?”
“Boys, I think you might want to come with me.”
“No!” I gasped. It couldn’t be…Riley couldn’t have been hit.
But she was " some crazy driver t-boned her on the driver’s side, her side. Riley’s small car never had a chance with the SUV that hit her. The other driver barely had a scratch. She was already on the stretcher when Sam and I got to her. We asked if we could ride with her, but they told us to give them our names so we could be admitted into her room when we got there, but until then we should go home and tell our folks what was going on.
So we did. I went to my house and told Dad, who joined me at the hospital after an hour, and Sam went to his house, where he parents let him go.
I stayed until the next evening at Riley’s side. I wouldn’t let them kick me out when normal visiting hours were over. Sam left that night and so did Dad, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave Riley’s side. I couldn’t bring myself to abandon my best friend.
Ms. Gabey looks at me with teary-eyes but steadily. “This is a choice you need to make, Kory,” she tells me, her voice breaking.
“Why me?” I demand, “You’re her mom " shouldn’t you be doing this?”
“Oh, Kory,” she says, pulling me into her arms. “I don’t think you understand " Riley told me not too long ago that she wanted you to make the final decision, were it to come to this. She knew my answer would be anything to keep my little girl with me. But you, she had faith in you to make the right decision, and I think we both know what it is.”
She knows what the right choice is, I think. She just can’t bring herself to say it.But Riley had faith in me " maybe she still does, if she can still think at all " that I would make the right choice, the responsible decision.
And I know I have to do it. For Riley, because that’s what she wants me to do.
“Okay,” I say with a curt nod.
“Thank you, Kory,” Ms. Gabey says, letting me go, and grateful that she wouldn’t have to say it.
The doctor smiles sadly at us. “This is an extremely difficult decision you’re making, both of you. Riley is most probably in immense agony right now. She will be grateful that she won’t be in pain anymore.”
I choose not to say that she obviously won’t be in agony, she’ll be dead. But despite it all, his words comfort me somewhat. I see that they do the same to Ms. Gabey. Neither of us want Riley in pain of any sort. So even if that means she won’t be with us, at least she won’t be in pain anymore. Besides, it’s not as if she’s really with us right now and she probably won’t ever be again.
I grasp one of Riley’s hands with both of mine, and Ms. Gabey takes the other. Dad rests his hand on my shoulder and Sam, the other. Dad takes Ms. Gabey’s other hand.
I can’t watch them pull the plug; I look at Riley’s steady breath and closed eyes, which would be a jade green, were everything to be normal. I can tell when the pull the plug. Nothing changes immediately everything’s just more…natural. I swear I think I see a faint smile playing up at the corners of her lips. With tears streaming down my face in the complete open, I tighten my hold on her hand. As she takes her final breath, I faintly hear the monitor flat line, signaling that it’s all over. Except for one thing.
As she exhales her final breath, I feel her press on my hand, reminding me she’ll always be with me.
Ms. Gabey tearfully kisses her daughter’s head. She looks at me I know she felt it, too. Without letting go of Riley’s hand, I lean down and kiss her forehead, and gently touch her still-slightly freckled face.
“Goodbye, my Riley,” I whisper, the tears still falling freely. “Goodbye "” and I know I hear Riley’s voice whisper the rest of my sentence in my ear.
“My best friend.”