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It’s strange. Waking up doesn’t feel right.
Even now, as I stare up at the pale ceiling of my bedroom, the feeling of exhaustion is still set deep inside my bones. I’ve been awake for about an hour, unable to sleep after the horrific nightmare that woke me. I can’t remember most of it. Only flashes remain, but the details are simple: I am in a bed, tubes protruding from my body, and a sound emulating around me. It fades in and out, and no sooner do I open my eyes to the early light of morning reaching through my window.
The watch on the desk beside me beeps several times, alarming me that it is time to get ready for school. I sit up, allowing the sudden rush to subside from my head before stepping onto the carpeted floor. My feet, though bare, feel sort of numb. I can’t feel the familiar prickling of the old rug between my toes. Must be the exhaustion…
I stand in front of the bathroom mirror, examining the dark circles under my eyes. The hot water from the faucet fogs up the room. Funny, I’m so tired I don’t even remember walking to the bathroom. The mirror, now hazy, loses my reflection and I run my hand along the condensation. The mark of my hand smears across the glass, but I don’t feel the water trickle down my wrist. My wrist. Pink and fleshy dots cover my skin, like a rash. But it was more than that. They felt raised, almost like scars. Scars from what?
Downstairs I hear movement. The clinking of coffee mugs and shuffling of chairs means my family is getting ready for breakfast. I think of my mom pouring two sugars and three seconds-worth of cream into her coffee, my dad taking his black like his clip-on tie, and my college-bound sister pretending to like hers just the same…
But today is different. I regard this as I stand under the threshold of the kitchen. When did I decide to go downstairs? Now my mother paces beside her laptop that sits idly atop the cloth placemats. She's holding her cell phone just slightly from her face, her eyes red and swollen like she pulled another all-nighter again.
“So when can you have him ready?” She asks, her voice hoarse. Sounds like she’s planning another one of the gala events for her company.
“Well, I don’t know what that means. There’s no point in having it open if he’s not going to be… presentable. How long will we have to wait?” The way she says that word, presentable, as if choking back what she really meant to say.
She turns towards me, tapping her acrylic nails to the tabletop. Her gaze passes right by me as if I’m not there. “Morning, Mom,” I say, but she doesn’t even blink.
I hear something in the next room over. My sister sits in the living room with her knees to her chest, big sloppy tears running down her cheeks. Her mascara has turned the rim of her eyes into thick black circles. In her hand, she clutches a picture, but I can’t see who it’s of. Probably another one of her stupid two-month boyfriends that ended the “relationship.”
“Come on, Tess,” I whine. “It’s not like the guy was much good at sticking around anyways.” She doesn’t look up. Her head remains forward and her eyes don’t shift from the picture. A moment passes, and she surges with a bout of sobbing and tears and she dives her face into the nearest pillow to mute the inhuman noises that come from her mouth.
“Geez, Tess, take it upstairs. You’re scaring the cat.” Just as I say that Oliver comes trotting around the corner. His eyes lock with mine and the black fur along his spine spikes up. A low growl escapes the parting of his lips and his yellowing teeth flash a warning. He’s never really liked me, ever since we adopted him as a kitten. He’s always liked Dad and Tess more.
“Hey Ollie,” I bend down to pet him, but he swipes at my hand with his claws, hissing as his paw just misses the skin. He jumps up onto Tess’s lap and growls once more at me. “Damn cat.”
I walk towards Dad’s study, expecting to see him typing out his last lecture before heading to the college. Instead, he sits with a scotch glass in hand, facing the window. He takes a sip, more like a gulp, of what remains in the glass, and then pours himself another.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit early for the boos, Dad? I thought you have a lecture in an hour?”
But he doesn’t respond, just takes another swig of the scotch. The dark circles under his eyes tell me that he must have had a long night, too, the dean on his back for some presentation they want to be done. Next to him, his clock reads 7:05. Shit, I’m gonna be late for school…
The normal buzz and chaos of the first-period rush are a little off, too. People seem to be taking their time to get to class, heads down and voices in a hushed tone. One guy, a senior I think, almost walks right into me, but I swerve out of the way. “Hey, jackass! Watch where you’re going!” I shout at him, but he doesn’t even flinch.
Linda Turner sniffles behind me, surrounded by her chick-clique followers. I turn to see all three of them collectively passing a travel pack of tissues around, dabbing the “tears” from their eyes. None of them are good at acting, let alone pretending to be sad.
“It happened over the weekend. My mom worked the night shift and she said a bunch of doctors were called to his room.”
“He was so great,” Linda cried, “Wasn’t he just the best?”
“Lin, you didn’t even know him.” The blond follower took a tissue, fixing her eyeliner.
“Shut up, Reece. He was in our class! Show some respect.”
“Who are you guys talking about?” I ask, but none of them answer me. The trio instead reacts to the first-period bell sounding over the loudspeaker, taking off down the hall, the clicking of their fake wedges fading the further they go. As they leave, I can’t shake the thought they left in my mind.
Some poor bastard died last weekend.
And he wasn’t just some poor bastard. We knew him.
You never really consider where you’ll go in life after you graduate, or where your peers will go. Some will go to college, others will take to their mother’s couch. Some will become lawyers or doctors or engineers, and others will teach the ninth grade or work at their dad’s auto shop or sink further into their mother’s couch. Never once do you consider that someone might not be at your ten-year reunion because something terrible happened. Never once do you consider the impact that they will leave on their friends, the strangers, or even you.
The second bell rings, and I’m late, but I don’t care. I take my time walking down to the band room in the basement. Normally the sections would be warming up and tuning by now, so loud that you could hear the screeching of clarinets from the top of the stairs…
Today the sound is replaced by gossip. People huddle together sharing whispers or lean back in their chairs to hear what the person behind them has to say. I’m never this early to rehearsal. Why am I today? The teacher waves his arms above his head and the entire room goes silent. Eerily silent.
“Most of you have probably heard the news,” he announces from the podium, “and I would understand if some of you needed to take a break for the hour.” He looks towards the back of the room where my seat remains empty. I don’t feel like interrupting his speech, so I stay standing in the doorway. “The administrators have asked me to relay that councilors are available, as is the school’s social worker if anyone would like someone to speak to. I know we will all feel the effect of his absence.”
I try searching the room for another empty seat, maybe a clue to who it was, but so many people skip class on a regular basis that it’s impossible to tell. The only seat that stands out is my own.
I decide to skip, using the pity excuse as my own. It’s not like Mr. Smith saw me anyways. The trumpet section will get on just fine. I make my way up the two flights of stairs, careful to avoid any teachers that pass me. I even throw in a few good sniffs to make it seem like I’m crying. Hey, if you’re gonna play, play well. But no one gives me any trouble, not even my Algebra teacher Mr. Perry. We make eye contact and I manage a weak “hey”, but he doesn’t respond. Perhaps the kid was one of his students, too.
The main lobby is empty, aside from two secretaries posting flyers up on the announcement bulletin. I approach them as they finish tacking up a black and white school photo.
“I pray for his family,” the woman said.
“His mother must be devastated. I know I would,” said the other.
“His sister graduated from here, what was it, two years ago?”
The woman shook her head, “We know too many of these kids, you know Bett? You work here as long as us and you see too many go before they’ve even lived.”
I stand beside them, getting a better look at the photo, and for a moment I think it’s a joke. I think that’s not funny, but then it sets in. This isn’t real. It can’t be.
My eyes stare back at me in monochrome ink, posed in the classic high school yearbook photo that I took last year. Underneath reads William Zachary Barnes; Junior; “We will miss you, Willy”.
I stumble back, almost tripping into one of the secretaries. I apologize, “I’m so sorry,” but she doesn’t hear me. I try to catch my balance on the edge of a table, but my hand doesn’t grasp the wood. It goes right through it.
I fall back onto the floor and the two women walk right over me. One of their shoes grazes my arm. I expect to feel the pinch of her heel against my skin, but I feel nothing. Suddenly an immense pressure begins to build up behind my eyes. My head throbs with such intensity that I feel I might puke, like when you’re driving in a car too long.
But, at the same time, it’s a different pain. And with the pain comes flash images that I recognize from the dream last night. This time I remember more. Before the sound, before the tubes, before laying in the bed…
…there was an accident. I remember now.
Track had practice late Friday night. By the time we packed up the gear, it was reaching ten o’clock. Coach offered to give me a ride to my car, but I passed up the gesture. I was parked on the side of the street, just across the field. My car was the only one left, but the night traffic was still pretty heavy. I was carrying my duffle to the back seat when a pair of high-beams reflected off the window. I was momentarily blinded, and all I could hear was the skidding of tires approaching me.
Next thing I know I’m at the hospital. I don’t remember getting there. I don’t remember an ambulance or even my family arriving. I remember standing in the back corner of the room, watching doctors hook up IVs, insert a tracheotomy tube, charging the paddles and shouting CLEAR as an electric shock tried to restart my heart. I remember hearing my mother’s scream from the doorway before a nurse pushed her and my family out of the room.
I remember feeling the electricity, the countless pricks from trying to put the IV in my wrist, my throat, and my sides. I remember feeling terrified and relieved all at once, terrified I might die but relieved that my family was here with me.
I had that unnerving feeling that only TV shows could fake, but no one really knows.
That feeling of clarity when you just know you’re not gonna make it through this.
I sunk to the floor, drawing my knees to my chest as the doctors pounded my body with their fists, trying so desperately to start my heart. The EKG was flatlined, that monotoned screech filling the room over the shouted orders at nurses and my mother’s faint screams from the hall.
I rose to my feet, taking careful steps towards my, wow, I’m gonna say it, towards my body. I stood between two nurses who held some of the IV bags. My face was almost unrecognizable. Had it not been my own, I would have believed it was some other poor bastard. But it wasn’t, and that’s when I knew for sure.
Waking up this morning didn’t feel right because I didn’t really wake up.
My family ignored me because they couldn’t hear me or see me. My mother wasn’t stressed about work, my sister didn’t break up with her boyfriend, and my father didn’t pull another all-nighter. They were all mourning.
Everyone at school. The jackass senior. Linda Turner and her minions. The band. The office ladies. Even Mr. Perry. They were all mourning.
Some poor bastard died last weekend.
And he wasn’t just some poor bastard. He was me.