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The Crash

By , West Fargo, ND
Waking up was disorienting. It was like coming out of a nightmare, only reversed- in the dream, everything was warm and safe and tinted with morphine. There were no sharp edges, and no telephone poles. I didn’t drive in the dream, I just drifted... drifted through a world of memories, my mind’s last defense against reality before I flew through a cloud of mist the color of Emma’s eyes and into the hospital room.
The room was bright, and cold. I realized my shoulders were cold, and was going to pull the paper blanket up over them when I realized that only one of my arms was moving. Inching my head around to see- why was it so hard to breathe?- I saw my entire left arm encased in blue. Strange. What was I doing here?
Remembering was like the sky turned to lead and fell on me. It was like hitting that stupid pole again.
A nurse walked into the room. I watched her mutely as she busied herself checking all the monitors and screens- were they mine? I squinted at all the lights and colors, blinking and beeping. But the crash was the most important thing. The most important thing was-
“Emma?” I rasped, my throat dry and raw. The words seemed to churn up the dust in my throat, and I coughed and wheezed on the sterile air. The nurse pressed a few buttons and flicked a switch. “The doctor will be with you in a moment.”
She left without another word. I stared after her, the room suddenly seeming even colder. She had never met my eyes. I suddenly felt watched on all sides, like the accusing eyes she had averted were everywhere. What would people say? What would Emma say?
Emma wouldn’t say anything, of course. She was too sweet. She would understand, and in a few years, we would look back on it and laugh. What a useless boyfriend, she would say. One thing to ditch me at the club, can you believe he wouldn’t even drive me few home?
A businesslike knock on the door, then a doctor strode in. He was younger than I expected- maybe in his early thirties. But the first thing I noticed were his eyes- unlike the nurse’s, they were kind. He sat on the corner of the bed and scribbled something on a clipboard.
“Well, well,” he said. “How’s our lucky girl?”
“What?” I croaked. He frowned at my raspy voice, and pushed a button on one of the many remotes.
“Nurse, bring us some water, please,” he said. Then, his face clearing, he turned to me and said, “You were very lucky. Not many people can walk away from an accident like that the way you did. You have three broken ribs and several breaks in your arm, but all your organs are completely intact and you should be ready for outpatient care very soon.”
“Broken... soon?” It was all dawning on me very slowly. I caught a few words out of what he said. I was suddenly very tired.
“We’ll take good care of you, young lady,” he promised. “I’ve seen worse crashes than this, and as I said before, you were extremely lucky.”
“Thank you,” I whispered hoarsely, and the gratitude was genuine. “Thank you for being so nice to me.”
“I am a doctor,” he told me. “My job is to do no harm.”
His words were kind, but the question was still bothering me. I wanted to see her. They could put me in a wheelchair or something, I would walk if I had to, but I wanted to see Emma.
“Emma,” I rasped as he rose to leave. “Where is she?”
Something changed in his eyes, and he opened his mouth to answer- but the door creaked open as the disapproving nurse entered with my glass of water. The doctor made me take sips and watched critically as I tried to talk in the middle of swallowing and choked on my words. But the look in his eyes in that split second when I asked about her- it was bothering me. I finished the glass and gave it back to the doc, who rose and started to leave.
“Emma,” I demanded, my voice clearer. “Where is she?”
He turned at the door, his young face suddenly aged in the fluorescent lights and ever-present worry. “I am very sorry to tell you this,” he said quietly, breaking away from my impatient gaze, “but she was not as lucky as you were.”
That was... too bad, but alright. She didn’t need to be talking- I could see her while she was asleep. “Where is she? I want to see her.”
“I’m afraid she’s passed,” the doctor said.
Time stopped.
“I’ll be back to check on you in a few hours.”
The door shut.
There was some sort of screen over the light above my bed- a picture, deep blue with constellations and swirling planets. It was like a child’s mobile, comforting and dreamlike. I found a giant E in the stars.
I don’t remember falling asleep, I just remember tears- running all over my pillowcase and my eyes hurt, and it seemed like I had just shut my eyes when Emma came bounding in. She was whole and well and we were laughing, laughing about the stupid joke that doctor had made and talking about how we were going to the mall when we got out of the hospital. We were going to get me some clothes to match the big blue cast, and then she took it off my arm and I could breathe again and we ran out the front door to the car... the car.
I woke with a start, and my pillow was still damp and she was still dead.
***
When Emma and I were in elementary school, we would have sleepovers and campouts every Friday. In junior high, we went to the mall, and in high school we would go to movies or the downtown curio stores, so glad that I could finally drive. The party had been the event of junior year, and we scored invites from her boyfriend- at the time.
I don’t remember much of the party. It was at an out-of-the-way club in the back streets of town, and was packed with juniors, seniors, and even a few underclassman. We weren’t much for dancing, so Emma and I were mostly chilling at the bar, laughing at all the dancers and random makeouts.
Except, that is, when we saw Emma’s boyfriend making out with a senior. I remember her walking over and telling him if that was how it was going to be, they were done. He told her okay, but good luck finding a ride home.
I had only had two drinks. How was I supposed to say no to Emma, my best friend, the girl who had snuck out in the middle of the night just to come talk to me when I was having a hard time?
So we got in the car. It was a dark night, and heading back to our suburban neighborhood meant traveling down roads with no lights except for our own, and it was only March- the ice was still there-
Hitting that telephone pole was like a gunshot. Like a wall of sound and sensation crashing against you, and before I could even really comprehend what had just happened, I blacked out.
***
“Your parents are here to see you.”
Once, I almost got hit by a car. My mom hugged me and almost cried, telling me how glad she was I was safe. After that, she took away my dessert for a week. “Don’t you ever do that again!”
I guess this was the same, but on a much higher level. So much higher, in fact, that she skipped that part where she was glad I was okay.
“What. Were. You. Thinking!?” my mother steamed, pacing around the room and talking with her hands. “I knew you were too young for that license! I knew something like this would happen! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!?”
I watched her without speaking, waiting for it to dawn on her that I hadn’t actually planned to kill my best friend. My little brother Seth ducked out from behind my dad and came to kneel beside me while Mom raged on.
“There’ll be a lot of consequences for this, you know!” she shrieked. The condescending nurse stuck her head in, perhaps to quiet her, but seemed to think better of it and left, shutting the door soundly. I was trapped. “Court fines! DUI! Why in the WORLD would you go to that party!? Deceiving your father and I like that! Ellie and John called and they thought Emma was sleeping at our house, would you care to explain where they got THAT notion!? Do you have any idea what this means, for all of us!? Did it ever cross your mind that it wasn’t just about YOU!?”
Tears were running down my face now. Seth grabbed my hand.
“All I have to say is, I hope you’re happy. Well- not happy-” She seemed slightly embarrassed, now that she was calming down. “I mean, you do realize this was a bad decision, right?” I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. My dad came to sit on my other side, leaving Mom to stand awkwardly at the foot of the bed. He touched my cast gently. I looked at him, eyes still streaming. He patted my head. I finally cracked.
“Daddy,” I wailed, sobbing openly now. It was the closest thing I’d had to comfort since the crash, with Dad handing me Kleenex I couldn’t do anything with since Seth had my good hand and did not seem inclined to let go. I kept my face turned towards my Dad, not wanting to see Mom still standing motionless at the end of the bed. Dad kept wiping the tears off my face. My pillow was soaked anyway.
“None of us wanted this to happen, sweetheart,” he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
When I was finally through, my eyes ached and my hands felt dry. My face felt tight with the dried salt from my tears, and Mom still hadn’t moved.
“You feel better soon,” my dad said, finally standing up stiffly. “We’re praying for you.”
“Yes, feel better,” said Mom flatly. Then, as if she couldn’t leave it at that, she pointed her nose in the air and added casually, “And, just so you know, any fines we have to pay for this are coming straight from your college account.”
“Dear...” Dad sighed.
“Yes, I know. Come on, the car is running.”
They left, but Seth still hadn’t dropped my hand. As we listened to their footsteps echo down they hall, I looked at him. It seemed like he’d gotten older since I saw him the night of the party.
“You’re still my sister,” he said. “And I’m really glad I’m not Bobby.”
Bobby was Emma’s brother. He was the same age as Seth.
I waited until he had left to completely lose it.
***
Facing Ellie and John, Emma’s parents, was so utterly painful my mind did its best to completely erase the encounter after it happened.
I don’t remember what I said to them. I don’t remember if I told them about the telephone pole. I don’t remember if I told them about the boyfriend. I think I told Ellie how we were singing along with “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”, our favorite song since freshman year. I remember Bobby on his Nintendo, the little beeps and trills interrupting the icy silence. I tried to hug him, but he wouldn’t even look at me. He wouldn’t even move.
About halfway through my spiel, John’s face twisted with grief and anger, and I knew he couldn’t take any more. My mind flashed back to so many other nights- sitting around the fire pit at Emma’s, John telling us why the smoke kept the bugs away. Waking up the next morning in a backyard tent, wet with dew. John tried to make bacon over the fire pit and ended up burning it, so Ellie made us French toast indoors instead.
John put an arm around Bobby’s shoulder and led him out. As Ellie, Emma’s idol and my surrogate mother, turned to leave, I caught her wrist. My voice was breaking. I couldn’t handle this. I couldn’t lose the whole family after I’d just lost Emma.
“I’m so sorry, Ellie,” I choked, trying to keep a handle on myself. “God, I am so, so sorry.”
She met my eyes, and in them, I saw the person who had bandaged so many of Emma’s and my cuts, driven us to the movies every Friday, and always made French toast when things didn’t work out. “I know,” was the farthest she could get, as close as she could come to forgiveness or apology. “I know you are.”
***
The ICU’s lucky girl got to go back to school that Monday. ‘Lucky’ would never mean the same thing again.
The walls had eyes. Everywhere I went, one hand self-consciously hovering over that stupid blue cast, I could feel people watching as much as I could see them. I would catch snatches of whispers-“That’s the junior who got caught drunk driving.” “God, that’s awful.” “I heard her alcohol level was a point 25.” “I bet she does all kinds of drugs.”
My alcohol level was barely a point 06. I never got into any kind of trouble until the crash. It was as much the ice as the drinks. Or at least, that’s what I kept telling myself. I couldn’t control the weather. But I said yes to that refill at the club.
Emma’s funeral was Thursday. I didn’t even make it till then.
***
The beat’s pounding through the car. It’s our song, and we’re shrieking and laughing and what are the odds? She’s jamming in the passenger seat, flailing her arms in what only passes for a dance to us.
“We... are never ever ever...”
I’m bopping my head with the drums, tapping on the steering wheel. Emma’s whipping her hair, and we’re laughing. Her laugh is the greatest thing in the world.
“I used to think that we were forever-ever...”
Something’s wrong. Why aren’t my brakes working? The wheel is drifting under my drumming fingers. I stop singing. The road is moving, no, we’re moving- definitely to the right, and I’m frantically trying to correct it, and Emma’s still singing-
“Never, ever, ever...”
***
I woke up in a cold sweat, but the music wouldn’t stop. Where was it coming from? I’d finally lost it, I was hearing things- no. It was my earbuds, the only reason I got any sleep, and it was that song- it was Emma, and I couldn’t handle it.
I ripped the earbuds out of my ears. I threw them to them floor and curled into a ball, trying to cry quietly so I wouldn’t wake anyone up and gasping for breath through my ribs that weren’t quite healed. It was three in the morning, and I decided something.
Mom and Dad had been talking about court dates and fines, and I was pretty sure someone was still deciding how long I was going to jail. I was sick of them worrying about me. Even Mom was being nice. They had both tucked me in last night, and I had told them I loved them.
It was the perfect time for a goodbye.
I knew I was too wimpy to cut myself- besides, I only had one arm to work with. No, I had better ideas. Dad had always been a teetotaler, but Mom had a couple beers in the fridge. I still had about five different medications I was taking for pain, sleep, and healing.
I used to have a hard time opening bottles. It was a little too easy this time. It seemed perfect, though- alcohol got me into this mess, and I got my family, and Emma, and her family involved. All my debts were being repaid. I was rather pleased with my solution- the first clear thinking I had done since the crash.
I couldn’t write anything for Mom and Dad. But as I wrote a long letter to Seth, I wondered where Emma was. Would I see her? Or did they have a separate place for people like me... for murderers?
It was a Wednesday morning, and it was three thirty. Later, all the religious people would be headed for church to worship a God who was merciful, or so I’d heard- a God who did things for a reason, even if it meant icing over a dark road in March or taking away good people like Emma so soon.
I was sealing up that letter for Seth, and I was sure hoping they were right. Dad always believed, and he had never been wrong before.
Taking a drink of that alcohol after swallowing all those pills was like a vision. There were sparks behind my eyes, and my heart was racing and I sucked in a deep breath that burned through me like judgment’s fire. I set the bottle on the nightstand and began to cough, and I reached for the picture of me and Emma I always kept close. Strangely, I did not regret choosing to die... but there was one more thing I wanted to do. As my hands started to shake and my eyes teared up I decided I wanted to leave something for Mom and Dad after all, but was it too late?
There was a sharpie sitting on the floor by my bed. I grabbed it and scribbled the first thing that came into my head, right onto the wall over the head of my bed- I LOVE YOU. Just the smell of that marker sent my head racing and boy, once you got used to it, it sure felt great.
All kinds of colors were exploding behind my eyes and through my veins, out my ears in strange whistles and ringings. I let them carry me away into the stars.



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