Here’s a short story I wrote recently. Read and enjoy! Oh, and music helps. So here’s a pretty song.
The first memory I have is sunshine.
It filtered down through the hazy air of a summer afternoon. It sparkled on the waves in the bay, glinted off the sand. Seagulls screeched, turning in lazy circles in the hazy summer air. Everything was quiet and peaceful. Unlike me. I had a water gun, and I was using it. I don’t remember Jay being there—not too well, at least—but I remember running, and I remember laughing, and the grass being slick and wet under my feet.
Next, I remember the beach. This is one of my most precious memories, even though I don’t know if I truly remember this day, or if my mind has simply fabricated the memories out of old Polaroid photographs and stories people have told me. But we were on a boat. We were standing at the prow; I was scared, so I held on to Jay in a way I would later jokingly refer to as “Jack and Rose” style. I was Jack, holding on for dear life; he was Rose, arms outstretched, facing the wind and the waves head-on, braver than I could ever be.
I have other recollections, too. Birthday parties. Movie nights. Field trips. I used to keep them with me and shuffle through them every so often, like a handful of old photographs. It all came together, one beautiful big scrapbook of dreams and memories that I called my life. Our life.
But now, they’re nothing more than dusty old photographs. I am like a widow who has hidden away all reminders of her late husband. I have locked up all our memories in a drawer, along with any and all vestiges of our friendship—letters, drawings, cardboard-tube swords; seashells, Jay’s guitar, and an old book of insects that we used to pore over for hours on end. I never want to look at any of them again.
All I want is to forget.
You would think that I was the one whose heart surgery had failed. You would think I was the one who was going to die. Because all I have done since he called me is sit in my room, knees drawn up to my chin, cradling myself and wishing the world would go away. I don’t think I’ve left my room once. Maybe I felt as if going outside, experiencing the world, living life—that that would all be unfair. Cheating him, somehow. Taking something that he couldn’t have and rubbing it in his face.
Dying isn’t something that is supposed to happen to friends, I think. It happens to strangers. It happens to people in wars. It happens for a reason. Heart failure is not a good enough reason for me.
Dying is not supposed to happen to Jamie.
It’s bright today. The sun is shining through my bedroom window, and I can tell it’s what people would generally call a beautiful day. But this day has given me nothing to call beautiful. Today, beauty is only a reminder of how much Jay is about to lose.
Part of me wants to go and see him.
But most of me wants to hide forever.
It’s another day—one less day that Jay won’t have—before my dad gets back from his business trip to Minneapolis. When he enters the house, he doesn’t unpack, doesn’t grab a bite, anything. He comes into my bedroom and holds me.
I feel like I’m a little kid again. Because I not only find myself craving his strong arms and gruff, soothing voice, but it makes me cry harder.
We drive to the hospital that day. We tell the nurse at the front desk Jay’s name, and she points us in the right direction. When we arrive at the Coronary Care Unit, dad makes polite chitchat with Jay’s parents, who he’s known ever since grade school. Then my mom comes, a woman who couldn’t be bothered to keep her marriage but drove halfway across the country to see my friend die. She’s different from when I last saw her. She has a new hair color. She brought her boyfriend, too.
Dad and my mom go in to talk to Jay first. Well, I’m with them, but I might as well not be. I’m not doing any of the talking. I’m not even looking at Jay. But then my parents leave the room. I want to leave with them, but I know that I can’t. I can’t hurt Jay. Not now.
When I finally meet his gaze, I feel dazed. I can’t speak. My body is like a block of ice and my mouth is even number.
His grey eyes light up even more when he sees me walking towards him, and I can only hope that I don’t look as cold and emotionless as I feel. We fistbump, and Jay chuckles weakly. “We’re dorks,” he says.
I nod. I try to laugh along with him, but it’s not funny. Nothing is.
For the rest of my short visit, Jay and I are separated by a sheet of glass. We can touch. We can hear each other perfectly. When he reaches out to hug me, he can. But I feel nothing, and I know I must feel stony and lifeless to his touch. Even when I tell him, in a forced calm, how much I hope he’ll get better, and how awesome of a friend he is, there is nothing. No warmth. No anger. Not even pain. There is a wall between us, and I don’t try to shatter it. Breaking it would hurt, so I go ahead and leave it there.
Jay is the first to cry. It scares me, and I want him to stop, so, like an idiot, I ask him why he’s crying. It’s not because he’s scared, he says. It’s because he doesn’t want me to leave.
But I’m scared. And I want to leave. Until now, I was piecing together lies in my fragile reality, trying to make myself believe that maybe this is all just a dream. Maybe he is going to be alright after all. Maybe this isn’t really happening. But Jay never cries. And being forced to accept the fact that he’s sobbing shatters all the pathetic defenses I had put up to protect myself from the truth.
Part of me wants nothing more than to break this glass wall and stay with him forever, but instead I turn and leave the hospital room without saying goodbye. I only allow myself to break down when I’m in the elevator, far away from my mom and dad and Jay’s mom and dad, and most important, far away from where Jay can hear me.
I have a spare key to my dad’s car, so I get inside and pull out of the parking garage. He can get a ride with my mom and her boyfriend. Or he can go with Jay’s parents. I don’t care how he gets home. I just need to go.
The moment I get back, I change into shorts and a t-shirt and hit the road. I don’t know how long I run for; I think it must be a while, but there’s no way of telling. My legs are numb, true, and my breath is coming hard and fast, but that was all true before I even changed into my workout clothes.
I want to be in a world where he never existed. I want all this to be a dream.
How can I face a world like this?
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m on the ground now, leaning against the back of a palm tree, my face in my hands.
“I can’t do it,” I choke. “I can’t do it…”
I’m still lying there when my parents drive by. They carry me into the car, and we drive home.
“Remember the time we were at the beach?” Jamie asks. He’s lying on a gurney-type bed on the inside of an ambulance. I was volunteered to join him by our parents. I didn’t really have a choice. I’ve been realizing more and more life doesn’t often give you a choice.
I swallow. I know exactly what he’s talking about. Jack and Rose, I think. “We live on the beach,” I say. “There were a lot of times.”
I can’t tell if he’s shaking his head, or if we hit a bump in the road.
“No, I mean the day on the boat,” he says. “Remember? When we were standing at the prow…”
“I don’t remember that,” I interrupt.
There’s a long silence. He knows I’m lying, but he doesn’t say so. Instead, he does the one thing in the world that I wouldn’t expect somebody in his situation to: he smiles.
“I just thought of something,” he says. “I get to plan out every single day of my life. I mean, like, even every hour. Now that’s a bragging right.”
But you won’t be around to brag about it, I want to say. “Good point,” is what I say instead. And, to keep the conversation going, add, “So, what are you planning on doing? Any last wishes?”
“Hmm… yeah. I think I’ll be at the beach.”
“I think you’ll be getting a haircut,” I reply, impulsively reaching forward and flicking away an overgrown lock of hair from his eyes.
“Aww, I like it like this.” He gives me his best puppy dog eyes, and I grin at him.
“All right,” I say, like I thought long and hard about it. “Just this once.”
When we get home, Jay goes off to talk to his grandparents and spends most of his time messing around on his guitar. I spend all my time not talking to Jay. Doing anything but talking to Jay.
But he finds me instead.
I’m standing by the waves. The water splashes against my legs as it crashes on the sand, and above me, seagulls are screaming. I feel like joining them. But the wind is soothing and peaceful, and the sand is cool between my toes. And I hear Jay walking towards me, and I decide to keep calm. For him.
His fingers brush against my arm, and his chin finds my shoulder. We stand there, for a long time, unable to find words. There’s not really anything to say.
“I’m sorry,” I finally mutter, staring at the ground.
What do you think? I want to say, but am instead silent while I struggle to find the right words. “For leaving you.”
“You mean back at the hospital?”
My voice is flat. “I mean forever.”
“Oh.” There’s a silence, and then I can feel him shrug. “Well, it’s okay. I can’t exactly blame you.” His hand is still on my arm, but he turns, and now he’s facing me. He’s still grinning like a two year-old, but there is something raw behind his eyes as he says, “Promise you’ll miss me.”
I nod, but have to duck my head to hide the emotion pricking at my eyes. “I always thought that there would be you,” I whisper. I didn’t know I felt that way until I hear the words coming from my mouth, but I know it’s true. It’s truer than anything I’ve ever felt before.
“Me too,” he replies, and the smile falls from his face. He makes a half-hearted attempt to recover it, but can’t seem to force it back on. “You asked me yesterday what my final wish was.”
“Well, I thought of it.”
He doesn’t miss a beat as he replies: “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
My heart begins to crack. Like a hammer hitting a concrete wall. I can feel the fissure, snaking across my heart. “Jay, don’t.” My throat is almost too tight to force out the words. “You know that you…”
“No.” He shakes his head. He repeats the words, with more strength this time. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
I’m still confused. It takes me a moment to grasp his meaning. But when I do, I break. Everything in me completely and utterly breaks. I have been shattering, slowly, silently, over the past week, and now every piece of me is undone.
But it’s okay.
It’s all right.
He’s telling me it is. His arms are around me and he’s telling me going to be okay.
He is the strong one, I think. He always was.
“I’m sorry,” I gasp, burying my face in his shirt. “I’m sorry…”
He holds me tighter for a moment, and then pulls back a little, looking me over.
I swipe under my eyes with the bottom of my shirt. “I know.”
“It’s okay,” he whispers, and pulls me close again. “It’s okay…”
“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” I choke.
“I know. I know…”
We stay like that—him holding me, him comforting me—until the sun sets, and his parents call us back inside.
But I wished we could have had that moment for eternity.
The next few days slip by, in their quiet way. They are too short, but they are perfect. They are the rest of Jay’s life, and we are spending them together, and they are perfect. I never realized how breathtaking a sunset could be, or how fascinating sea shells are. Like little kids, we catch jars of fireflies and splash eachother in the waves and set off fireworks on the beach. Jay and I make lemonade and s’mores, and they have never tasted so sweet. And I never thought before of lying on a rooftop and watching the sun rise, but now that we’ve done it, I can’t believe I’ve never thought of it before.
The only thing that ruins this time is the knowledge that these days will have to end. I’m like a little kid, trying to get the most out of summer vacation, trying his hardest to forget the first day of school looming in front of him, like a storm cloud on a sunny day.
I try my hardest to forget. But one day, something happens that jolts me back to reality. I bring out the water guns. We’re running, and laughing, and both soaking wet, and I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. Everything in me is telling me to put the guns away, to stop running and laughing, because deep inside, I know that I’m trying to relive that memory. That day. That memory was supposed to be locked away, and all of me is saying that this is wrong.
And I was right to say that.
Because when I turn around, breathless and laughing, to look at Jay, he’s gone.
At first, I’m just mildly confused. And then my heart stops.
I don’t allow myself to panic—not yet. I retrace my steps, and call out his name. I do find him. It takes me an agonizing two minutes, but I find him. He’s face down on the grass, clutching his heart, gasping for breath. When I turn him over, his lips are blue, and he’s shaking all over.
I freak out and call 911. We bring him back inside, and he’s put to bed while we wait for the ambulance to arrive. I stay with him—I sit by his bed and try to pray, but words don’t come to my mind. All I want is a week longer. A day longer. But I can’t ask for it, because nothing comes. Not even tears. I’m just numb all over. And eventually, my dad picks me up and carries me to bed. I’m too tired to resist, and when he tucks me in and kisses my forehead, I doze off immediately.
Sometime when I was asleep, the ambulance did come. Because when I walk back into the room, Jay’s hooked up to dozens of tubes and machines that I’ve never even seen before and don’t want to know what they do. An IV feeds liquid into his body with each steady drip. My heart lurches, and I stumble backwards, crying out. The sound wakes him up. He opens his mouth, but starts coughing and can’t say anything. Blood speckles the front of his pale blue pajamas, and when I see it, I think I’m going to throw up. It’s all I can do to hold myself steady. Flecks of crimson dot his chin, accentuating the ghostly pallor of the face that used to be almost brown with sun.
I can’t take it. I turn and run from the room.
I tried, I think. I tried so hard to believe you were going to be okay.
But it was just a lie, after all.
I hide in my bedroom. Rocking back and forth on my haunches, I start to cry, pressing my shirt into my face, trying to muffle the sobs racking my body. I ball up the fabric, cramming it against my mouth, digging my fingernails into it, screaming until my throat is raw and my heart is empty and I can’t scream any longer.
Time passes. Nurses come and go out of the bedroom, but I know there’s no point. Maybe they can extend his life one more day. One more hour. It doesn’t really matter in the end. Sickening resignation curls inside of my gut, and I want to be sick. But there would be no point. I have nothing to do but sit next to him and wait. For what? I’m not sure. But I know I’m not leaving him.
The next day, the nurses say he’s allowed to get up—probably because they know there’s absolutely nothing they can do, and he might as well enjoy his last hours— but he doesn’t. I try to cajole him into going down to the beach, but he shakes his head. I manage to coax a few spoonfuls of pudding into him, and the nurses say that’s a sign of improvement, but I don’t believe them. What improvement? I want to scream. He’s dying! But instead I put on a fake smile that matches theirs perfectly. That day, I stay in his bedroom all day and talk. Read to him. Tell him stories. I’m talking even when he’s asleep, and most of the time, I think he is. When he’s awake, he asks me to tell him about back then. That is the one thing I won’t tell him. Memories only hurt both of us. And then he falls back asleep.
I go back to my bedroom and sit on the edge of my bed. I sit with my arms crossed, elbows on my knees, staring at the cracks in the wood flooring as if they constituted some giant puzzle that I could figure out if I just looked long enough. I sit there for a long, long time. Not doing anything. Just hurting.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so hopeless.
When I got the call, I was just empty. Empty and numb and scared. But now, I can’t help but feel that we were so close. And even though I would have never admitted it, I think I’ve spent these last couple of days hoping…hoping that there could be something more… more time…more dreams… more memories. I don’t know. Something. But now I know that I am too late.
Biting my lip, I gingerly raise Jay’s guitar off my bedroom wall and begin to strum. I go through all our old favorite songs. I hope he can hear me. I like to think that I’m singing both of us to sleep.
I’m woken up a few hours later by the sound of him knocking on my bedroom door. When I open up, he doesn’t say anything, but when I see him, I know that it’s time.
I pull on my hoodie and step out into the night air, and we began to walk. It’s not exactly walking—I’m almost carrying him—but we get by. I don’t know if we have a destination. I don’t think that we do. But when we turn into the backyard, and I see the curl of sand right in front of us, it feels right, like we had been planning this all along.
He’s too weak to walk any further, even with me supporting his every step, so we stop. I put my arm around him, and we stand at the edge of the waves. My free hand finds his, and without looking at me, he grips mine so hard I think it’s going to break. And then harder, as a spasm of pain clenches over him.
“I—” he gasps, and takes a staggering step forward.
I reach forward and catch him. I hold him from behind and support him. I hold him like I am never going to let go.
I feel his limbs loosening, but I just hold on tighter, keeping him tall and upright and standing tall against the wind and the rolling waves. And I am struck with an image. Jack and Rose. Him and me. Standing at the prow of the boat. We have come full circle.
We are at the end.
“Please,” he says, and the word is slurred. “Don’t go.”
I shift him around in my arms until we’re face to face, and I slowly guide him down to the dark, wet sand. His eyes flick over my face, and I think he’s trying to memorize the way I look; perhaps he’s just trying to recognize me. “Keep your eyes on me,” I tell him, and am surprised at the calm in my own voice.
In the light of the fading moon, I can see him clearly. His face is slack, and I can tell he’s fighting for every breath. I want to tell him to hold on, but I don’t. Instead, I say, “It’s okay. Let go.”
I put my palm against the side of his face, and can feel some of his tension sag. His eyelids are flickering now. He slumps backward, but my arm is around his shoulders, and I don’t let him fall. His left hand gropes for me and holds on to my shirt, like it’s some kind of lifeline; his right hand fumbles for mine, but the movement takes more energy than he has, so I take his instead. I repeat the words, and hope he can’t hear the tremble in my voice.
“Let go,” I murmur, as soothingly as I can.
A brief look flits across his eyes. What is it? Relief? Gratitude? I can’t tell. Maybe both. It doesn’t really matter. And then the look is gone, replaced with something I can only call peace. His other hand slowly unclenches from my shirt as his beautiful eyes glaze; he looks, past me, up at something I can’t see.
I feel like I am the only thing out of place here. How can those stars shine so peacefully, those moonlit waves lap so calmly? How can he lay there, looking so tranquil, when everything in my existence is screaming louder than a million police sirens?
And then I know: he’s trying to hold on to me. He’s trying to be Jack, holding Rose, keeping me tall and strong as we face this wind and these waves. So I squeeze his hand and I hold his gaze, as steady as I can, and try to be brave for both of us. It’s getting harder to see, and every moment tears into me like shards of broken glass, but I’m not looking away. I’m not leaving him.
Time passes, slow and steady, like the beat of a heart. I’m not sure how much, and it doesn’t matter; this moment is too sacred. Time is irrelevant. All I know is that morning light is peeking out from behind the grey clouds, and to my red, worn-out eyes, everything is blurry and shimmering. I can see his face more clearly now, and I know that he is sleeping and that it won’t be long now.
My throat is tight. My face is wet. My breath is shallow, limited to shivering sobs. I don’t know how I can even speak, and I know that he can’t hear, but some part of me wants to believe that he can, and so it it’s now that I tell him.
I tell him about sunshine. About running through slick, wet grass, water gun in hand.
I tell him about the day at the beach, and how I don’t remember if it was all real or if it was just a memory I got from old photographs.
I tell him about birthday parties and movie nights and field trips.
I tell him that I don’t want to forget.
I tell him I don’t want the memories of now, of our lives, to be pieced together from old Polaroid photographs. I don’t want this to become something distant and faraway, that I try not to think of as much as possible. I want this to be real. I want this to be ours. I want this forever.
I tell him that I want him to be here. With me. For as long as I live.
And that nothing is going to change.
My voice has given out by now, so I just hold him as close as I can and wipe away my tears from ours faces.
He is in my arms. There is a soft smile on his lips. I can almost believe that he is only sleeping. And the dream feels just real enough, just enough to believe that we are watching the sun rise over the bay together.