In Her Wake
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I scan the room again, testing that notion out. Time stalled when my eyes cracked open in the hospital. Though I feel Sasha’s absence like a missing limb, I’m still drifting in a fog. None of this truly feels real yet. Maybe it would be sinking in by now, had I gone to Derek’s funeral. I wasn’t cleared for release, though. We sent flowers. It hardly seems adequate.
Madison runs her fingertips up and down my good arm in a soothing manner. “Do you think you can handle the drive?” That’s my girlfriend. She just lost her only brother and besides one all-out hysterical sobbing episode at the hospital, she has been focused on me the rest of the time.
“No, but it’s better than cramming into a plane.” And being stared at because of my green-and-yellow mottled face. The six-hour drive from Lansing to Rochester is guaranteed to be unpleasant, but at least I can stretch out in the backseat. Maybe with the long, drawn-out approach, I can mentally prepare myself for what’s to come.
Tomorrow, I will have to see my best friend in a coffin. The day after, I’ll have to watch him lowered into the ground.
Heavy steps approach from the doorway. “How many more boxes?”
“Just a few,” Madison promises, poking her head past me and into the hall just as my dad appears. “I’ll bring the suitcases. They’re on wheels.”
With a nod of thanks to her, he turns to me. “Are you ready? I imagine we’ll need to make a few stops along the way.”
“Yeah. Just . . . give me a minute.” When Madison hesitates to leave, I add softly, “Alone.”
She ducks her head and nods. I can’t tell if she’s hurt. To be honest, I don’t really care right now, as I maneuver around the suitcases and a box of textbooks that block my way into my room. Someone—Madison, I assume—cleaned up, stripping my bed and bagging the dirty laundry I didn’t get to. The loose change scattered over my dresser has also been collected into a small glass jar, the trash tossed.
My fingers lock over the smooth cover of my Typography textbook as I step around my packed things. I should have taken that final first thing Monday morning. My mom has already met with my professors and the dean at Michigan State. The paperwork is in place to defer my exams until August, before I’m supposed to start my senior year of classes and college ball. If I can play.
But that would mean playing on a team without Sasha.
I’ve never played on a team without Sasha. Our entire childhood was all about tossing balls and slapping pucks to each other. We came as a pair. When we both tried out as walk-ons freshman year, I accepted the idea of not playing if my best friend didn’t also make the team.
Never once have I accepted a life without him.
My mattress creaks under my weight as I sit. This is where I was meant to end up that night. Sitting here, on this bed, surrounded by these scuffed navy-blue walls, the muffled hum of voices and music filtering from the bar below, with this damn sharp-cornered textbook jabbing into my legs, while I cursed myself for not studying sooner.
Not being pulled out of my car on the side of the road, my friends’ heads having collided with pavement.
The textbook slams into the wall opposite me with a loud thud and a crack, its spine snapping. Quick footsteps rush down the hall and Madison appears in the doorway, her gorgeous face full of panic. When she sees me, her shoulders drop. “Oh, I thought you fell or . . .” She surveys the new and sizeable gouge in the drywall and then the textbook lying below, its pages fanned awkwardly. Her hands at her throat draw my attention to her long, thin neck. I’ve always found Madison’s neck especially alluring, unable to keep my mouth off of it for very long. Now, I simply stare at it, thinking how fragile the human body is.
Wondering exactly what broke Derek’s neck when he was thrown. Was it the car frame? The ground?
Madison closes a hand over the handle of my suitcase and wheels it out of the room without another word.
I last another ten seconds before I’m swallowing the saliva pooling in my mouth. Wandering into the kitchen, I pop open the fridge, in search of water. Someone’s emptied it of pizza boxes. All that’s left are a few condiments and a case of Miller Genuine Draft.
I take the three steps to the kitchen sink and lean over, expecting to puke. Hoping like hell that I don’t because with all my injuries, I’ll likely pass out from the pain.
“You’ll be all right,” my mom croons softly, appearing out of nowhere. A cool hand touches the back of my neck, the chill soothing.
“How do you know that?” Because right now I’m wishing I hadn’t had my seat belt on either that night.
She offers me a pinched smile that doesn’t touch her eyes. “Are you ready to go home?”
“No, but I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
Her shoulders hunch as though she has a ten-ton weight sitting on them as she pulls the trash out of the can.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“I know you are,” she whispers, pushing down on the newspaper that pokes out.
“Wait.” I rush over and pull the stack out before she has a chance to tie the bag.
Three papers had been tossed. All with front pages covering the same story, none feeling real. But there’s my dad’s Suburban, the front left corner caved in, the windows all shattered. A second, smaller photo on the inset shows a hunk of twisted metal, the four linked rings—the Audi symbol—hanging off what must be the front grill.
How even one person survived in that is a miracle.
I falter over the headline, “Six Dead in College Drunk-Driving Accident.” “How can they print this?” I yell, holding up the paper in front of me. “They haven’t proven anything yet!”
My mom’s hand closes over the stack, gently tugging the papers. “You shouldn’t read those right now.”
I tighten my grasp and pull, freeing them from her fingers. Using the counter to spread out the pages, I sift through the articles until I come to a half-page picture of a teenage girl. She’s wearing a rugby jersey and she’s beaming. “Sixteen-year-old Kacey Cleary from Grand Rapids, Michigan,” the byline under the picture reads.
“It says she’s still in critical care but they expect her to survive,” my mom offers as I scan the article quickly, struggling with each new breath. According to this, they were heading home from a rugby game at a rival school near Detroit. They should have been home earlier, but they stopped for celebratory pizza.
The dead include her parents, her boyfriend, and another teenage girl. Probably her best friend. So, pretty much everyone who’s important to a sixteen-year-old.
What will this do to her?
I feel the blood drain from my face. “Does she have other family?”
“An eleven-year-old sister, who’s being cared for by an aunt and uncle right now.”
Eleven years old. Just a kid. “Should we visit her in the hospital?”
“Your father has tried, but she’s not . . . accepting anyone right now.” The way my mom’s voice falters tells me there’s more to that, but I don’t push. She holds the trash bag open, waiting for me to deposit the papers. With awkward one-armed movements, I roll the papers up against the counter and tuck the bundle under my armpit instead.
If only they hadn’t stopped for pizza.
If only I had remained at home to study.
If only I had stayed sober like I was supposed to.
If only I hadn’t handed Sasha the keys.
I leave the apartment, drowning in a sea of “if only’s.”
My dad makes the familiar turn down Logan.
And my hands are trembling. That’s never happened before.
I can drive this street with my eyes closed. Forty feet in is Mr. Peterson’s rickety old fence that Sasha and I took out while riding our skateboards. Another fifty feet and I’m staring at Ms. Meddock’s big bay window, the one I shattered with a slap shot. Four doors down from that is the family home of Naomi Gomes, our babysitter and the first girl that both Sasha and I ever crushed on. The next house to that used to belong to Derek’s grandparents, until they sold and moved to Arizona.
And, at the end of this cul-de-sac, two backsplits sit side-by-side. Both of them homes I would stroll into without a second’s thought.
Now, my gut constricts at the sight of them. The one on the left sits empty and quiet, a tomb of lifelong memories. The other hosts a steady stream of cars and somber-faced people coming to pay their respects for a tragic loss.
And it finally sinks in.
This is really happening.
“Shouldn’t you be wearing your sling?” Madison settles two cans of Coke on the coffee table amidst the stack of textbooks and dishes from lunch . . . and breakfast . . . and yesterday’s barely touched meals.
“I needed a break.” I also need a break from being a one-armed gimp, but I’m not getting that anytime soon. I can’t even kill time and dark thoughts with a damn video game. At least my face doesn’t look like it was used as a punching bag anymore and my ribs are on the mend. I’m not struggling to breathe, either. Not physically, anyway.
Stepping over a lazy Murphy—the golden Lab mix that Sasha helped me pick out at the pound eight years ago—Madison falls into the space beside me on the couch. I feel her eyes on me, searching, but I keep my attention glued to the TV screen as I cautiously settle my good arm over her shoulder. I don’t know if she’s finding any comfort in it. I sure as hell am not.
She deserves a strong chest to lean against and soak up her tears, a sounding board for her frustrations. A boyfriend who will ease her pain after losing her only brother. Not a guy who can’t meet those all-too-familiar whiskey-colored eyes for more than three seconds before ducking away.
An awkward silence hangs over us. We’re moving into a strange stage of detached grief, where everyone has begun to accept reality. It’s impossible not to. Sasha’s absence in our lives is like a gaping fissure in the middle of a bridge. How the hell do you cross to get to the other side when you’ve run out of concrete? I guess you can slap on some wood to patch it up, to help you move on. But the bridge will never be quite right—never as strong—again.
With the acceptance of that reality, a slew of worthless “what ifs” and plenty of angry “whys” have followed from my parents, from Sasha’s parents, from Madison. Even from friends.
“Why were you out partying before exams in the first place?”
“Why weren’t they wearing their seat belts!”
“Why would you do something so stupid!”
I hear the unspoken accusation in it. I was there. I was as much a part of this as Sasha and Derek. And, though I understand where they’re coming from, the words hammer me over the head until I retreat to the sanctuary of this rec room.
“Fitz and Henry texted me,” Madison says. “They’re having a party this weekend. Wanted to know if we’d come. A lot of the gang will be around.”
“I’ll catch up with them some other time.” I barely said two words to them at the funeral and I haven’t answered any of the emails or texts since then.
“Do you want help studying?” She leans forward to flip open a textbook. My mom left my books there about two weeks ago. I haven’t cracked a single cover, the very idea of school exhausting.
“Nah, I’m good. Don’t you have your own finals to make up for, anyway?”
Madison shrugs as her hand falls to rest momentarily on the half-buried newspaper. On the sixteen-year-old survivor’s face that stares out at me. I don’t feel right using her name yet.
Clearing her throat, she asks quietly, “Should we go see her?” Madison and her parents feel as much pity for the girl as I do. After all, it was her brother, their son, behind the wheel.
“I don’t know. She’s not accepting visitors right now.” Translation: When my parents flew out there to see her and the nurse informed her of her guests, the girl screamed at the top of her lungs until they had to pump a sedative into her veins. Apparently she demanded that the hospital call the police and, when the cops finally arrived, she spewed all kinds of threats of bodily harm and murder, should any of us step foot inside her room. With her body set in a cast, she can’t even move right now.
She’s been put under psychiatric assessment.
Madison sighs and then nods, scooping up her long jet-black hair to fasten it with an elastic.
“You look really nice.” I mean it, even though the hollow sound of my voice makes it sound insincere. Most days she changes out of her work clothes and into yoga pants and a tank top before coming. Today, though, she kept her dress on.
“Thanks.” A glimmer dances in her eyes. The first one I’ve seen since spring break.
“How’s the internship going?” I don’t think I’ve even asked her that question yet. Madison just finished her freshman year in Washington, D.C., at one of the top journalism programs in the country. She delayed her start date by two weeks because of the accident but decided that she needed to work, to keep her mind occupied. I was supposed to be interning at my mom’s creative agency over the summer. Clearly, I’m not doing that.