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The nurse at the front desk looks at me skeptically when I tell her I’m your boyfriend. “Really, I am,” I lie. “We’ve been dating for months.” I hold out my hand for the laminated visitor’s access card. Her wrinkled hands clench it tightly, just out of reach. Her piercing eyes scan my face.
“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I, boy?” she asks.
Of course she has. Just my luck to get the nurse who was on duty when I brought you in. So she probably thinks it’s my fault that you’re lying in the hospital bed now, still in a coma, so pumped up full of drugs that they didn’t know which new ones to give you. Of course, it’s your real boyfriend’s fault - I know I warned you about that guy, but did you listen to me?
“I’m the most popular girl in the school, Ty. No one would want to hurt me. It’s just a party. Chill out. You’re just jealous of Rick, aren’t you?” you asked me. A few years ago, I would have been. Now I’m jealous of your perpetual blindness.
“I’m sure you haven’t,” I say to the nurse. “Well, maybe when I was born. But that was sixteen years ago, and there’s no way you’re old enough to have been working here then.”
She glares at me. “I’ve been working here since Bill Clinton got himself elected, sonny. Don’t even try to flatter me.”
I sigh. I have hours of homework ahead, and my mother would be furious if she knew I was visiting you, my friend the druggie. She thinks I’m wasting my time, really, and deep down, I know she’s probably right. But I can’t let you go. Never. Even though you tried to let me go, let all of us go. I mean, what else did you think you were doing, starving yourself for weeks on end (a dumb idea by itself - you were already far too skinny as it was), then binging on alcohol and whatever other stimulants you got at that party? I don’t know what would have happened if your brother hadn’t called me.
I was mostly asleep when the phone buzzed on my dresser, almost falling off. Grumbling, I checked the number. Yours. Not a surprise - you’d probably drunk-dialed me again. “Do you know where Janet is?” a worried voice that was most definitely not yours asked as soon as I pressed the ok button on my cell.
“Who are you?” I asked skeptically.
“Will - I’m Janet’s brother. She’s supposed to be babysitting me but she said she needed to run an errand with some friends and it shouldn’t take more than two hours, and it’s past midnight and she left at six.”
Again, very like you. I thought nothing of it, until I realized that your brother was calling from your phone. “Why are you calling me? Why not call her friends?”
“You’re her speed-dial,” he said. “Number five or so. I called everyone else before you, but no one picked up. I’m really scared.”
I threw myself out of bed and got dressed. “Hang on. I might know where she is. I’ll pick you up at your house in like five minutes."
When I got there, a scared little boy (about ten years old, in my estimate), stood there clad in long blue pajamas. “Do you remember what
friends she said?” I asked him.
He told me, and together we drove over in that direction. The party house was obvious when we got closer - it smelled like pot everywhere.
“Stay in the car,” I warned Will. “You don’t want to see this.”
He obliged. I went near the house and saw you, crumpled in the entry hall, not moving. I checked your pulse, and it was there, faint as a butterfly’s wing but still going. No one else was there. Clearly they’d deserted you. I carried you back to my car (you were lighter than I’d expected), placed you next to your terrified brother, and slammed my foot on the gas pedal. I had to make sure you were ok.
“This isn’t the way to my house,” Will said after a while. I nodded.
“I know.” Minutes later, we arrived at the hospital. The nurse looked at me like I was Satan incarnate, coming into her demesnes smelling of pot and bringing an unconscious girl and a ten-year old with me.
“She needs medical attention, and quickly,” I told the nurse, whose name I still cannot remember. She glared at me beadily.
“And who are you?”
“A friend,” I answered. I’m not sure if you would consider that the truth or not. “She was going to a party tonight. Her brother called me because she promised to be back and wasn’t. I found her like this - is she ok?”
The nurse eyed your limp self skeptically, then nodded. “This is her brother?”
“Yeah,” Will said. “Is she going to be okay?”
The nurse gave him a grudging encouraging smile. “We’ll see what we can do, ok? Do you have your parents’ numbers?” He handed her his phone.
“As for you,” she said to me, “you’re free to go.” This was last Friday night, Saturday morning, and I’ve heard nothing since.
I’m certain the nurse remembers me. But I no longer care if she thinks I’m the biggest jerk in the world or not. I need to see you. I need to know if, in the past three days, there’s been a change.
“Look, Ms… Handall? I’m not trying to flatter you. I’m just trying to see my friend. I was the one who brought her in, yes. I found her at a party like that. I warned her not to go, earlier that day, but… if only I’d pleaded harder…” I’m not here because I feel guilty. I know that you’re the same headstrong girl who invited me, the new kid, to sit at your lunch table. I know you wouldn’t listen to me, even if the whole world agreed with me, if that went contrary to your wishes. That’s one of the things I like most about you - your independence. I’ve just always worried it’ll get you killed.
The nurse smiles just a little, less of a smile rather than the loosening of a grimace. She relinquishes the visitor tag.
“I think I’ll come with you,” she says. “It’s time for me to check on the patient anyway.”
“She’s not just a patient,” I say reflexively, startled by a sudden anger. “She has a name. Her name is Janet.”
You were really proud of that when we met. It was the first thing you told me when I showed up, a socially-awkward newbie in PE. “I’m Janet,” you said. “What’s your name?”
“T-t-tyler,” I stammered. You were the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen, and people like you didn’t talk to people like me.
“Go by Ty,” you advised. “It’s far cooler. You know what, Ty? It’s your lucky day. I’ve decided I’ll be your friend.”
Minutes later, we started picking teams for basketball. You were captain, along with some other girl. Person after person got picked, as I remained against the wall, waiting and trying to pretend it didn’t hurt.
Finally, I heard your voice. “Ty. I want Ty for my team.”
The ten people still waiting against the wall with me were just as surprised as I was.
“Why?” someone called. “Don’t you know people with crutches can’t play?”
“Neither can you, so shut up,” you snapped back. “Come on, Ty.”
It was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me.
Later, after class, during lunch, you invited me to your table, ignoring all of your friends who smirked condescendingly at my cane. “So, how’d you get it, Ty?”
I looked down at my feet, the one leg that was inches shorter than the other. “No one knows. I was born this way.”
You smiled. “Well, I think it’s cool. You know, you don’t really need the crutch. I watched you walk. You don’t even use it. Why do you keep it?”
I shrugged. “It makes things easier,
I guess. I can rely on it, even if I don’t need it. And it’s kind of an excuse, for why I am the way I am.”
You leaned in closer. “Can I tell you a secret, Ty? Everyone has crutches. You just can’t see them. Do you really think any of us stand on our own? Of course not. We hobble around through our own insecurities, using others to hold ourselves up. Only those of us who are truly strong realize that our crutches are also shackles. With them, we accept our lameness. I only wish… one day, I want to be able to throw mine aside. I want to struggle through without them, supported by myself. But I’m just not strong enough.”
The next day, I limped through the halls, frequently grabbing onto lockers or doorknobs to keep my balance. As I walked through the halls, you came by with your friends. My lack of assistance was obvious.
“Did you forget your crutches?” one of your buddies asked.
“No,” I answered proudly. “I left them at home.” She looked confused, but the pride on your face was evident. You helped me around school that day, letting me lean on you when my weak leg couldn’t take the strain.
I regretted that day afterwards, of course. My leg wasn’t used to supporting that much weight on its own. The next day, my crutches came with me to school. But gradually, I reduced their usage. Ten minutes without them here, twenty minutes there… I haven’t used them in years, and my limp is barely pronounced. I have you to thank for that.
“Here she is,” Ms. Handall says sharply, pushing open a white door. And she’s right. There you are, tangled in a web of wires and machines and IV’s, blond hair draped delicately across your face. You look asleep, but peaceful - not dead looking like you were when I found you. The nurse checks your pulse and all of the complicated computers and gadgets I’ll never understand.
“She’s still in a coma,” she announces. I could have figured that out for myself. “And the records say she hasn’t woken up. And I’m sorry, boy, but there’s a chance she never will.”
I feel the tears welling up in my eyes. “But… there’s things I needed to tell her.”
Ms. Handall smiles sadly. “I suggest you say them now.”
She shows no signs of moving. I take a couple of deep breaths, then bend down to whisper into your ear.
“Janet… I love you. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this. Probably not. There’s no way you could have ever loved me back. You’re beautiful, and popular, and good at everything, but to be honest, that’s not why I love you. I love you because to you, even the weak are worth acknowledging. You didn’t think of me as a cripple - you thought of me as a person. You made me realize that the reason people saw me as such is because I thought of myself like that. You showed me that I could be like any other person - that I didn’t need to accept the stigma. And I love you for that. I love you for treating me as a person, not as a walking wounded. I love you because you do what you want and accept the consequences. I love you because you’re not afraid to show weakness. I love you because even though you try so hard to fit in around others, you show - “ I’m choking now, big ugly tears and snot dripping down my face. “You show your real self to me.”
The nurse lets out a gasp. ”I’m sorry,” I stammer. “I - I’ll clean up the mess right away.” But she’s not looking at me. She’s staring at the heartbeat monitor. And I gasp too. The little jagged lines are increasing, getting sharper and wider, resembling lightning strikes.
“Is that… is that good?” I ask.
She smiles, and hugs me. I’m too startled to respond. “Yes, son, it’s good. She’s coming out of it. She’s waking up!”
She releases me, and my leg, unaccustomed to the sudden lack of support, crumples beneath me. I pull myself up and brush your hair out of your face. Your eyes open - you smile at me for the first time since Friday afternoon.
“Are you okay?” I ask breathlessly. “Do you hurt?”
“Do you want morphine?” asks the nurse.
“No,” you say proudly, even though your face contorts with pain. “I’ve decided to get rid of my crutches.”
And as the agony begins, I hold your hand - just like you held mine the day I threw that old cane away.