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He picks me up on the 23rd floor. The sickly green lights lining the quiet hallway are dimmed, but I can still see my reflection in the dark mirror of the window. When the arrow lights up, my chest shivers. Yet, I take my time to get to the elevator, each barefooted step deliberately careful on the cool linoleum. He smirks when he sees me coming, my hands clasped nonchalantly behind my back.
The pleasant “ping” of the closing doors behind me is comforting, not that I would ever admit it to him. He’s pressed up against the left wall, close enough to reach the glowing buttons with his fingers. I huddle in the right corner with the bare of my back touching metal, then slide slowly down to the floor.
I nod, and he lights up the L.
“We’re not going to the top tonight?” I try to ignore a twinge in my stomach, swallow it down.
“Nope. Lobby seems more appealing.” He stifles a yawn but tries to keep his eyes open. Never wants to miss anything.
“I’m so tired already.” He laughs darkly. “As always. What if I fall asleep?’ His hand covers his eyes, rendering his face expressionless.
“I won’t mind.” I lie. Three o’clock in the morning is an odd time. Halfway dead and almost ready to wake. Like the two of us.
He lets his eyelids close, and they’re blue in the shallow light. I follow the rings under his eyes down to the sharp curve of his jaw, too prominent to look healthy.
“What floor are you guessing?” I stretch out my legs gingerly then pull them back against my chest.
“Mmmm…I say we’re gonna stop on Judith’s floor.” He yawns again, his eyes crinkling in a way that makes him look too old for his age.
“The ICU ward? Really?” I suddenly feel too far from his ancient, green eyes and the lurch of the elevator staggers me across to his side. He smiles when I sit down next to him, Indian style.
“Heard there was a pretty bad accident a few hours ago.” The way he says it, like talking about the weather, makes me cringe. But he doesn’t notice, just rests his head on my shoulder with a sigh. The thick gray crochet of his beanie smells like him, with a hint of medicinal sour. I swear, the scent of this place is contagious.
The comforting jerk of the elevator’s descent seems to lull him into a halfway slumber. Always his opposite, the sway of the elevator makes me more anxious with each floor that it passes. Never knowing when it’s going to have to stop reminds me too much of my own life. I begin the countdown, whispering each floor number under my breath and onto his still face. When I let the air I’ve been holding in fall onto his cheek, his eyelid twitches. For a second, he looks strange and alien in the muted light with his lashless, sunken eyes. The sudden urge to breathe him back to life seizes me, right under my throat.
When I kiss him, he doesn’t move, his lips dead to the touch. But when I turn away to hide the shame that he can’t see, a hand touches the back of my head and pauses for permission, which I grant silently. He drags the scarf tied around my head off, lets it trail down my back like silk. I stiffen when my head is left naked and my back curls when his hand hesitantly lingers near the nape of my neck. Heat follows his hand, crawling up the sharp curve and disseminating across the bare expanse of my head. I shiver violently. They think we wear those turban-like scarves or ugly knitted hats because we’re ashamed. They don’t know that eighty percent of body heat escapes through the head.
I wind around slowly, not quite meeting his eyes. For some reason, he smiles when I ease the crochet off of his head. Or was it a grimace? I can’t tell the difference anymore. Still, I avoid his eyes because I don’t want to see myself. That’s the thing about impending death—everyone looks the same, whether you’re dead yet, or not. But it’s inevitable, that’s what I’m thinking, when he gently pulls my chin up.
Time stalls, but only for the impatient crowd waiting to enter our elevator. They enter, in a panic, with a dead boy who breathes like he’s snoring. We melt into a corner of the metal box and Judith, the boy’s accompanying nurse, pretends not to notice. I stand closest to the boy, where he lies on a comfortable stretcher. He’s broken, I can tell, but nevertheless, I want him to break just as he broke our moment. That’s the difference: he can be mended, but our moment can’t. For a second, I envy that broken boy; He’s only temporary, but we’re forever permanent.