narrated by Bob Eccles
Wind whips my face as we weave through the countryside on another beautiful spring afternoon. Dad’s driving as crazy as usual, passing every vehicle that’s not quite up to his speed standards with a well-worn hand gesture or four-letter word. Mom’s jaw clenches with each Move it, Grandpa he mutters. I just chuckle and enjoy watching the almond blossoms cascading down from the trees on either side of the road. My hand itches to reach out and catch one, but I know Mom would probably yell at me if I extended any part of my body past the barrier of my half-open car window. I’d be subjected to at least a few crippling minutes of nagging about my arm getting hacked off by a car in the opposite lane or something silly like that.
“Honey, don’t you think you’re driving a little too fast for these winding roads?” Mom asks.
“Nonsense. Back when I was growing up, I used to cruise through here going at least seventy,” Dad says. He lets one hand off the steering wheel to fiddle with the dial on the radio for a few moments, teetering between Eric Clapton and Toby Keith.
Mom sighs and leans back in her seat, massaging the base of her neck. Today it looks as if she’s choosing to leave it at that rather than chastising Dad over how the times have changed or that he has a family in the car to worry about.
Dad seems to have settled on a smooth jazz station akin to what you’d hear in an elevator at a Ramada Inn. He bobs his head slightly and whistles softly through his teeth. I close my eyes and bask in the warmth of the sunlight and the avoided argument.
Mom coughs to break the silence before saying, “So, Jeremy called today.”
Suddenly my throat feels like it’s been filled with cotton. I swallow, cracking one tentative eye open to gauge Dad’s reaction. I watch his knuckles pale as they clench the steering wheel.
“Meredith,” he says slowly, “I thought I’d made it clear that I didn’t want you talking to that boy.”
“That boy is our son, Bill! I will talk to him just as often as I please, thank you very much! Silly me for thinking that you would want to know how your only son was doing!”
Dad’s eyes are fixed forward as he rockets around another curve. “He is no son of mine.”
I fight to keep all of my attention on the passing scenery as the two of them descend into yet another screaming match over Jeremy. The vast fields and foliage that had previously been so engaging are now unable to distract me from the cacophony that has erupted within the confines of the car. My eyes start to prickle and burn as I hum along to the radio in an effort to tune them out.
I want to see Jeremy, I really do, but it’s been hard to keep in contact with him ever since Dad threw him out six months ago. The image of my father, red-faced and screaming as Jeremy stormed down the front steps and drove off with his then-boyfriend, is forever burned into my mind. He stood on the porch, spitting obscenities about how he’d never let a fag under his roof as long as he lived.
As much as I try to avoid it, I can’t divert my attention from the scene unfolding in front of me. Dad’s head is swiveling violently as his focus is split between the road and the dispute. Mom’s turned in her seat, making exuberant hand gestures while her mouth moves a mile a minute. I can see the faint beginnings of tear tracks creeping down from beneath her sunglasses.
I hate Jeremy. I hate Jeremy for being the spark that lit this fuse that we have all been trying to ignore for the past few years. I hate him and I love him so much. I love him and I can’t help the tears that finally spill over my eyelids because I miss him and he’s left me to deal with the shattered remains of our family all by myself.
I trap my bottom lip between my teeth and bite down hard. I can feel a sob rattling in the back of my throat. I force my gaze outside the window to the now blurred landscape that had bestowed such a wonderful sense of peace upon me before. I beg the passing trees for sanctuary, silently pleading for them to somehow set me free.
A flash of yellow catches my eye and I see a small bird perching on one of the trees up ahead. I watch as it hops off its branch and soars away towards the sun. I can’t help but look after it, trying to spot just where on the horizon it disappeared.
Dad swears loudly as the tires skid across the pavement. My stomach lurches and suddenly everything is upside down. I hear Mom scream and the screech of metal and then there is nothing.
I feel as if I am a dense fog. My mind feels hazy as I try to collect any shred of thought. Like catching water with open hands, each little sensation trickles away just as I grasp onto it.
A gentle beeping resonates through the void. It pierces through my befuddled consciousness like a lighthouse at sea. It beeps again, slicing through the silence and slowly dragging me up from the depths of nothingness.
The beeping continues from somewhere off to my left, only now it’s constant and becoming rather obnoxious. The backs of my eyelids are illuminated by what appears to be artificial lighting, but I am not able to open them to check. In the distance I hear the thrum of daytime traffic, occasionally dotted with the honk of a horn or the screeching of brakes.
Suddenly my mind is flooded with a farrago of memories: the vein in Dad’s neck throbbing, Mom’s voice growing more and more shrill, a speck of yellow disappearing into the sky, a turn taken too sharply, and then nothing.
Before I can further process what is going on, my train of thought is interrupted by the creak of an opening door. I listen intently to the squeak of rubber soles against polished linoleum as its volume increases steadily.
Just two words and suddenly my heart feels heavy and swollen. Jeremy is here! He’s here with me and I want nothing more than to reach out and touch him, let him know I’m okay, tell him how much I love him and I miss him and I want to come live with him and his new boyfriend in Los Angeles, but again I can’t even open my eyes to look at him.
I hear well-worn bedsprings creak and moan as a weight settles near my legs. A warm hand touches my knee.
“I’m so sorry, Liz. I’m so, so sorry,” Jeremy says with a slight quiver.
I want to ask him what he’s sorry for. Is he sorry for leaving me? Is he sorry for ever admitting to Dad that he was gay? Is it something else? I want to ask him, but I can’t. I struggle for my voice, but it seems to be trapped in my throat. I try to open my eyes again, but my eyelids feel like they’re glued shut. I try with all my might to lift my arms and embrace him, but they just won’t listen. Despite all of my efforts, I remain motionless.
Strong arms wrap around my shoulders as Jeremy buries his face in the crook of my neck, crying openly. My collar grows damp with warm tears as Jeremy’s unshaven cheek rakes against my skin like sandpaper. I want to cry too. I want to cry and scream until my voice is hoarse and every last tear has been squeezed from my eyes. I want to cling to Jeremy and tell him it’s okay, but I can’t.
“Well, it’s been over four weeks now and Elizabeth hasn’t shown any signs of recovery, Mr. and Mrs. Dawson,” Dr. So-and-So says to my parents while he clicks his pen.
“What, do you think we’re just going to call it quits after one month? Lizzie is our baby and we’re going to be here for as long as it takes until she’s well again!” Mom says.
“I’m not saying anything of the sort, Mrs. Dawson. I just want to let you both know that after four weeks without response from Elizabeth, we’re going to have to move her to a more permanent room here.”
“Oh, my Lizzie,” Mom moans before she breaks down into a puddle of sorrow. I can hear Dad’s feeble attempts to calm her while the doctor prattles on about the conditions involving my relocation.
Has it already been four weeks? How time flies when you’ve become trapped inside of your own body. The one good thing that seems to have come out of this is that Jeremy is back in my life. He’s been visiting me nearly every day. He fills me in on all that he’s done since he’s been gone. There is never a day that goes by that he doesn’t express just how much he loves me and how much he misses me when he’s away.
I suppose a change of scenery could be nice, not that I would really be able to appreciate a new room. Maybe it won’t be so close to the freeway. Maybe I’ll get some new nurses who don’t complain as much about cleaning my bed sheets so often. Maybe I’ll have a nice view outside my window for Jeremy to look at when he comes to visit, and maybe one day I’ll get to look at it too.
The weeks are turning into months here. Each day blurs into the next so easily that I’m worried that I’ll never get well again. Jeremy tells me that he’s trying his best to come in as often as he did in the beginning, but the time between his visits seems to grow longer and longer. Maybe I’m going crazy. I suppose it’s possible. I only feel at peace when Jeremy is here with me. He’s the only thing that can keep my thoughts from drifting away to the dark places.
The doctor tells my parents the same things over and over again. No improvement. No estimated time of recovery. Just wait and see. I don’t want to live out the remainder of my days hooked up to machines in a hospital room, but my window of escape seems to be shrinking rapidly with each passing day.
I’m so tired.
Mom’s crying on my chest again. I can feel each hot droplet that falls from her swollen eyes to its death on the nasty hospital gown that I’ve been wearing for the past nine months. Maybe sometime last spring I would’ve felt a fraction of remorse for making the poor woman weep like this, but right now I just want her to get off me.
“My Lizzie, my poor Lizzie,” she says over and over again. I hate it when she calls me Lizzie.
The nine-month anniversary of “The Incident,” as the family has so glibly dubbed it, is fast approaching. Honestly I don’t really see a nine-month anniversary as anything worth celebrating. I’m sure Mom regrets now not celebrating every waking moment that I was alive, or at least alive by my standards. The family hasn’t mentioned the impending reminder, of course, but I can feel it on their minds. It’s in the way Dad sighs a bit more than usual, or when Mom begins to break down over seemingly insignificant things.
Jeremy’s the only one who seems to see past the delusion that Mom and Dad are still under. Their hopes, their optimism, their positive attitudes have given me nothing but sorrow. They still seem to think, after all this time, that one day I’ll miraculously wake up and we’ll all live happily ever after like the fairytale family that we never were.
Things have been royally fucked up since the beginning. Dad must be screwing at least ten different women for his weekly “bowling nights with the guys.” Every time he stops by there’s a new fruity aroma hiding under his cologne. Mom never says anything. She tries her best to cover up the sadness that’s rooted itself deeper into her voice over the past nine months. She wouldn’t want anyone asking more questions. But Jeremy knows, and that’s why has no desire to come into Dad’s good graces again.
Jeremy knows the perpetual hell I’ve existed in for the past nine months – maybe even longer. I can’t remember if life was much better while I still had control over my body. I can’t say I’d be particularly overjoyed if I did ever manage to “wake up” from this. Honestly I feel like I may be more awake now than I was before the accident. It’s amazing just how conscious I am now that I’m more or less terminally unconscious. Physically I am dead to the world, but mentally I am still clinging on to the last shreds of my former self. Still, it’s unbelievably exhausting being subjected to live day-to-day in an empty shell. I might as well be dead.
Mom excuses herself from the room, sniffling and reciting her well-worn line of, “just gonna go freshen up a bit.” In reality she’s just going out behind the hospital to suck down a cigarette real quick. I know; I always smell it on her when she comes back in. It’s impossible to miss as it permeates my senses just as potently as if she were blowing smoke rings into my face. Jeremy probably knows. Jeremy always knows, but I doubt he’s said anything. Speaking for Dad, I doubt he’d bat an eyelid even if Mom were to do a line of coke on my bedside table.
Ten minutes after her departure, I hear the door click open again. The stench of cancerous exhaust mixed with honeysuckle perfume announces my mother’s presence. It’s funny; I used to always associate the cheery smell of Mom’s perfume with things like fresh laundry, loving kisses, and eye-crinkling smiles. Now it’s forever married to the stench of tobacco. She creeps over to her spot near the window and sits down quietly. It’s pointless. I wouldn’t “wake” even if the ground split open and I plummeted to the center of the earth, but she keeps it up as some sort of motherly ritual.
“Lizzie, I have to go now, but your brother should be here tomorrow to visit and see how you’re doing,” she says. She sighs again, breaking the brief silence before leaning down to press her lips to my forehead.
The door closes one last time and I am alone. If one could die from boredom, I would have ages ago. I don’t know what everyone thinks I’m doing all day every day. Sleeping? Hardly. I can think and reason and make jokes the same as I used to, the only problem is that I can’t tell anyone. I’ve lost all traces of voluntary movement.
Mom and Dad don’t know that I’m a prisoner here in my own body, just waiting to die. Jeremy knows. Jeremy always knows. He knows that this body, this grotesque sack of organs, is shackling me to this life. My soul, my very being, has been tugging at the restraints and aching to fly free for months upon months, but it’s weighted down by the burden of mortality. Jeremy’s told me how much he wishes my parents could just let go, let go of the pathetic wish that I’ll come back and things will somehow be right. He thinks they’re being selfish by holding me here in this suffocating hospital room that smells like bleach and latex. He says he’s going to talk to them soon about pulling the plug, something he’s been saying for quite some time.
How I wish it were that simple, but I know that once he brings it up with them they’re never going to let him be alone with me again. They’ll drive themselves mad with imagined scenarios in which he sneaks in and yanks my life support from the wall, injects potassium chloride into my I.V., straps a bomb to his chest and obliterates everyone within a two-block radius. No, it will never work. They don’t realize it’s what I want. They don’t know I’d rather end it now than live another second hooked to this machine and hooked to this life. I can’t stand another morning of the hustle and bustle of city life just outside the window of my virtual prison cell. I can’t stand being here while the other patients moan and groan as the doctors and nurses run back and forth, up and down the hallways all day long.
So, I will lie here until Mom and Dad miraculously realize that I will never be their smiling baby girl again or I will continue to exist in this unbearable place until the sky rips open and swallows the world whole. Either way, I will remain trapped until death ultimately swoops down and sets me free.
My face feels warm. I open my eyes to see that I’m standing in the middle of an endless meadow filled with wildflowers of every color imaginable. The eternal fields sway back and forth in a gentle breeze. Laughing, I start to run towards a distant and inviting horizon. The grass tickles my bare feet as I dance and twirl across the rippling sea of green.
The wind catches in the folds of my hospital gown and my feet are lifted from the ground. Suddenly I’m soaring up into the sky, swooping through the clouds while the ground beneath me disappears. I reach out and trail my fingers through one of them, leaving shallow tracks in its side.
A little yellow bird flutters down and lands on my outstretched hand. I reach towards it with my other arm to stroke the back of my finger against its downy head. It chirps happily before spreading its wings and taking flight. I smile and open my arms wider as I soar after it and disappear into the sun.
BIO: Lauren Bates is an 4th year undergraduate at California State University Long Beach who is currently studying psychology. Writing fiction is her creative outlet of choice. This is her first published piece.