Short Story, 4700 words; Published in Windhover Literary Magazine
There are people everywhere, milling about like they’ve got these crazy strict, set-in-stone agendas. Pulling their two-ton suitcases; carrying bulging briefcases and purses and backpacks. Little kids are struggling to keep up with Mom, while Irritable Business Man doesn’t have time to look where he’s going. The man sitting beneath the Departures screen is grubbing on a piece of pizza some Good Samaritan tossed him a couple minutes ago. He’s sitting there eating, staring at these people living their oh-so-important lives. He’s homeless and it hits me that I am, too. Or, at least, I’m about to be.
A lady bumps my knee as she tries to squeeze past my seat in the waiting area. She drops her Macy’s bag as she tries to keep her balance. And she tells me sorry, even though she’s more concerned with her bag than she is about my well-being. I don’t tell her it’s ok because I don’t have to; that’s just the way things work in the city. She bumped me and it’s her fault and she’s not really sorry, so why should I pretend to accept her apology?
She rushes off to the escalators that lead down to the train station platform, tightening her coat against her body. Everyone is tightening their coat. Or zipping it higher. Or readjusting a scarf. It’s so damn cold I can barely function. Or maybe I don’t want to function and I’m just using the temperature as my excuse. Maybe both, or neither. Maybe I just don’t know.
But what I do know is this: the last thing I need right now is Chad sitting next to me doing his Chad-thing. I don’t even know how to describe it, but it drives me insane. His whole mature, deep, nonjudgmental, philosophical…thing. I mean, he’s only eighteen years old. He should be off ruining his liver somewhere, not sitting in some train station not talking me out of what I know he wants to talk me out of.
“Hey,” he nudges me, leaning into my ear. “Someone’s got an admirer.”
I turn to him but he isn’t looking at me. I follow his eyes and find what he’s talking about. This little pint-size in a Spiderman jacket can’t take his eyes off of me. When he catches me looking, he ducks behind the safety of Daddy’s leg and continues his gazing from there.
I look at Chad who’s still looking at him; this amused smirk on his face. I roll my eyes and lean back in my seat, hugging myself. “He’s like, five.”
Chad looks at me with those eyes. Those stupid, gorgeous eyes. “So is your boyfriend,” he says.
I glare at him, tonguing my back teeth, bouncing my knee impatiently. “No he isn’t,” I snap, because I can’t think of anything else.
“He acts like it,” Chad says simply. And when I don’t smile, he does instead. “Wow, someone sure does lose her sense of humor right before she decides to change her life forever.”
“Why are you even still here?” I demand. He’d said he was going to ride in the cab with me and drop me off. The dropping off timeframe officially passed over an hour ago.
“I’m waiting with you.”
“I don’t need you to wait with me.”
“I know you don’t.” He leans back in his chair and rests his hands on his stomach, and no, he isn’t going anywhere. For the past three years he’s never left my side, as if he owes me something. Like just because my counselor brother successfully coached him through his parents’ heartbreaking divorce, he owes me the world. Especially now. Especially now that my world is falling apart, it’s like he thinks he owes me his.
“Does JR know your train is running late?”
“I haven’t talked to him today.”
“So how is he gonna know what time to meet you at the station?”
“He’ll be there, ok? And I’m not an idiot. I can catch a cab and get to him on my own. He doesn’t have to be sitting at my gate with a stroller and a bottle. I’m fine.”
Chad nods, tapping his feet to an internal beat. His eyes are wandering; he’s people watching. I’m avoiding eye contact and I can’t believe I have to subject myself to two extra hours of this Chad-thing. God. I freaking hate the Chad-thing.
“How’s his band doing?” he asks.
I kind of shrug. The truth is that I don’t really know. JR and I haven’t spoken for more than five minutes at a time in the past two weeks. He basically just calls to make sure that Drew is still alive, and when he finds out that he is, he feeds me some line about the million other things he has to do. I guess as my boyfriend he feels some type of obligation to know if my brother has died of AIDS yet or not.
“I still think it’s kind of funny that they moved out of the city to pursue a music career in Virginia. It seems kind of backwards.”
“The cost of living here is ridiculous,” I insist, repeating the same reasoning I feed myself every time I realize how pathetic it is for a 20-year-old to be in Virginia with all his friends, mooching off of his older sister’s garage and spare bedroom. “They couldn’t afford it here if they were going to be dedicating all their energy to their music. As soon as they put a demo together they’ll be back.”
“Manhattan will be cheaper by then.”
And he did, but only for a second. He always shuts up for just long enough to make me think that maybe this time he really is going to shut up. He never does, though.
“Are you excited about living with him?”
“You mean am I excited that my brother’s dying?” I snap.
“You have other options than JR, Dylan—“
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I knew you were hanging around for a reason,” I mumble, kind of to him but mostly to myself. “I knew you insisted on waiting here with me for a reason. I knew this was going to be your reason.”
“I’m hanging around to say goodbye—“
“That’s bullshit!” I snap. And all of a sudden, all those stupid scared emotions that don’t do anybody any good to talk about start pouring out of my mouth. “You hate my decision and you don’t know how to say that because you’re too obsessed with your reverse psychology crap to just up and say what you think. You think I’m making a God awful decision. You think I should suck it up and live with Crawford, even if he is an alcoholic. Even if we do have the worst relationship on the face of the planet, he’s my stepfather and I should suck it up and deal with it. That my dad is gone and my mom is dead and my brother is dying and that I need to take what I can get. That I don’t need to run three hundred miles down the east coast to a 20-year-old who acts like he’s in middle school. That I just need to settle for now. Well I’m not freaking settling for Crawford when I can be with someone who actually cares about me and I don’t give a damn how uncomfortable this conversation makes you because I’m not about to have you sit here for the next two hours beating around the bush. Grow a set and tell me whatever it is you want to say so badly. Man the fuck up, Chad—“
“You’re right,” he says, and his body is completely relaxed. His voice is completely relaxed. He looks just like the same old Chad whenever he’s in the midst of doing his Chad-thing. Except for his eyes. His eyes hate me right now. “I think going to JR is a mistake and I do think that you need to figure something else out. And I don’t think it’s a mistake because you two break up every other week. I don’t think it’s a mistake because you’re only sixteen years old. I don’t think it’s a mistake because you’ve got too much to offer or because you haven’t even finished your junior year of high school or because Crawford is a viable option. I don’t think it’s a mistake because all you’re gonna do with JR is get high and have sex and watch him flirt with other girls and tell yourself he’s just being nice. I think it’s a mistake because Drew is here. Because he’s here and you owe him everything. He gave you a place to live, he took care of you, he was a brother to you and a father to you and a mother to you and a friend. He’s been there when you needed him and even when you told him that you didn’t. He’s been there before JR or Crawford even existed, and he’s here. Not in some beach town in Virginia, but here. And for the first time in his life, he needs you. You’re what he has. And instead of owning up to that, you’re gonna take the first train out of here and not look back. That’s why I think this is a mistake; it has nothing to do with you. And if you can’t see that you deserve better than JR, then you should at least be able to see that Drew deserves better than a bailout sister.”
Part of me is stunned because Chad has never, ever spoken to me this way. Part of me is happy because this outburst means that Chad is not as cool and collected as he always tries to act. But most of me knows he’s right. And that’s the part of me that wants to cry but won’t.
“I’m not gonna tell you what to do, Dylan.”
I swallow hard and insist, “I wouldn’t listen, anyways.”
I wonder if he knows I’m lying.
“I can’t believe Christmas is only three days away,” he says to himself, and he’s back to doing his Chad-thing.
“Yeah,” I mumble.
“I think you’re gonna have a long wait tonight,” he says.
“Yeah,” I mumble.
“I think I’m gonna head over to the hospital and see how Drew’s doing.”
I nod and look away as he stands.
“Have a safe trip,” he tells me, standing before me with his hands in his pockets.
“I will,” I say.
“Call us when you get there; let us know you got in ok.”
“Let JR know I say hey.”
He stands there for a second, giving me the opportunity to say anything else. But I’m too exhausted from my last monologue to find my voice now. So I just watch him as he starts to walk away. And I do this thing I taught myself when I was little, where I pinch the bridge of my nose really hard to stop the tears that want to come.
There are so many people here that it’ll only take a second before I lose Chad among the masses. And realizing this is kind of a lot for me to deal with at the moment because I have so little people left to spare that losing another one sounds like a pretty bad idea.
My train is still running two hours late. Chad is still walking away. His reasoning still makes perfect sense, and my brother is still here and not in Virginia.
“Chad,” I call, my voice cracking because my body still wants to cry. My eyes don’t, though.
He turns, looking weird in the sea of people because he’s the only one not focused on being somewhere else. He’s the only one not pushing and rushing and bumping. He’s the only one who’s noticing me. He’s the only one.
I swallow and demand for him to, “Tell me what to do.”
Flatly he says, “Come with me.”
And so I do. I sling my duffel bag over my shoulder, wrap my scarf snugly around my neck, and walk towards him as he waits for me. When I reach the homeless man sitting under the Departures screen, I toss him my spare change. He thanks me for my generosity.
“’Tis the season,” I mumble.
Once we’re outside we walk a few blocks uptown because only tourists and the really patient natives bother waiting in the line outside of Penn Station for a cab. And it’s too cold to be standing around, anyways. It’s still so damn cold.
Chad and I don’t say much to each other. He asks me if I need him to carry my bag. I tell him that no, I don’t need him. He reaches for my bag anyways and when I try to argue he says, “I know you don’t need me to help you, but I want to.”
We hail a cab on 47th street; Chad tells the cabby that we’re headed to Mt. Sinai. I lean back in the seat and hug myself and stare out my window, trying to focus on the lights and the buildings and the people, but I can’t because I’ve seen all of this so many times before that it’s like trying to be scared the fiftieth time you’ve seen a scary movie. And now that I can’t focus on the world going on around me, I start getting consumed in my own.
I start thinking about my father, how he left my mother for another woman before I got the chance to really know him but Drew swears he wasn’t all bad, and I believe him. I think about my mom, and how she couldn’t beat that stupid cancer, and how much I miss her, even though I know better. Even though I know that missing her will only make me weak and won’t bring her back, sometimes I just can’t help it. I think about Crawford and how much he sucks. How he thinks his money can fix anything. How he talks to me like I’m remedial. How bad things got the night he drunkenly called me a stupid slut and I spit in his face and he put me out. I think about how I can never, ever go back to that. That in a million years I could never tolerate living alone with Crawford again.
I think about the family that I don’t have; the grandparents who were gone before I was born and the siblings neither of my parents ever had. I think about Drew, about how he’s managed to somehow be an entire family to me, just by being himself. I think about the prospect of him really needing me right now and it scares the hell out of me. I could never be to him half of what he was to me. Drew, the one who always knew exactly what to say and how to say it…needing me, the one who can’t even find the words to effectively describe the Chad-thing. Which he’s doing again, by the way. He has his hand on my knee to get my attention, and he’s telling me to look. We’re passing the giant toy store and their Christmas exhibit takes up an entire block. It really is pretty impressive, but I doubt that’s why he’s insisted on getting my attention. I think he thinks he’s saving me from myself by distracting me from my thoughts. And if that is what he’s thinking, I kind of think he’s right.
The little Hawaiian girl on the cabby’s dashboard has been hula-ing around for about twenty minutes when she finally stops. We’re here, and it feels like only a second ago we were back on 34th street. Chad hands the driver forty dollars and says he can keep the change; the cabby grumbles his thanks. I’m trying to get my bearings as Chad asks the driver to pop the trunk. And then he waits for me patiently on my side of the cab, duffel bag slung over his shoulders, as I do my best to get myself out of the car. It’s dark and I’m still freezing and this doesn’t feel like Christmas at all. This feels like shit.
I’ve been here to visit Drew plenty of times, but this time feels different. This time feels realer than any of the other times and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. I have a feeling it has to do with me knowing that the train to Virginia is leaving in just over an hour and I won’t be on it; that I lost my escape and that means that I’m actually about to truly deal with this. And I don’t deal with things. I avoid things and when I can’t avoid them anymore, I run.
The sliding doors open for us; the light reflecting off of the hospital’s white walls is practically blinding this late in the evening. Chad signs us in as visitors at the front desk, and the doctors and nurses who pass me all smile. I wonder what the hell they’re so happy about. I wonder if they know I’m jealous of their happiness.
Chad and I take the elevator to Drew’s room on the fourth floor. Most of the time when we visit we run into a bunch of people who go to our school; people who love Drew and think he could very well be the best counselor on the face of the planet. People like Chad. Like me.
But tonight is different; tonight is too close to Christmas for anyone to be anywhere but at home. Everyone wants to be with family. Everyone should be. Drew should’ve been. Deep down I knew I should’ve been here all along.
Chad pushes open the door and walks into Drew’s room. I stand in the doorway because this part is always so hard for me, especially tonight. Tonight I feel like I completely disrespected him and that he deserves so much better than me. That he should reject me and disown me and hate me. I almost want him to hate me; almost as much as I hope he can forgive me.
From his bed his eyes meet mine. His tired, graying eyes with the now-permanent dark circles beneath them. The skin on his cheeks is waxy looking, stretched. His lips purple, like he’s been drowning. He’s drowning. I’m running.
We’re both so out of breath.
He stares at me almost like he doesn’t recognize me. I start pinching the bridge of my nose, and he knows what that means.
“Don’t cry,” he insists, his voice rasping and exhausted. It’s that of a 70-year-old man. My brother will be 27 if he makes it to February.
I don’t stop pinching my nose. I have to keep pinching my nose. Chad is standing off in a corner of the room, watching me with his arms folded. He feels bad for me; I can tell that he does even though he’s trying not to show it. He’s trying to let me handle this moment, even if we both know that chances are that I can’t.
“Shouldn’t you be on your train?” Drew asks. He isn’t even mad at me. He’s talking to me like he would any other day.
“It’s delayed,” I say, finally letting go of my nose. I’d been squeezing so hard that now I see stars. But at least my eyes aren’t watering anymore. “And I’m not going tonight.”
Drew looks at Chad like he knows I’m incapable of making a decision like this on my own. Like he blames him for bringing me back into this situation when I was so damn close to escaping it.
“Why?” Drew asks me.
“Because…” I shake my head and sniff. “Because, Drew.”
“Dylan…” he’s studying me and I know he doesn’t understand. It’s like he doesn’t recognize me.
“You’ve done everything for me. You don’t deserve to be alone. I don’t want you to be alone. Not now…not ever. I know the only reason why you didn’t try harder to convince me not to go to JR is because you knew I’d do it anyways…because you knew I’d freak out and have to get out of here somehow, anyways, with or without your blessing. I know that, Drew. I know that you know that I’m just that selfish, and…” I try to fight that burning throat that comes just before a total emotional breakdown. “I’m not leaving.”
I’m still standing in the doorway. He’s not looking at me anymore. All the wires stemming from him make him look like some kind of experiment; like some generic science exhibit. I can’t stand it. It’s taking everything in me to not rip off all the tape and pull out all the needles that make him look like just another patient. He’s not just any other patient. He’s my brother. He’s nothing like anyone else in this entire hospital. He’s better than all of them.
“I’m the one that’s selfish,” he says.
I barely hear him. “What?”
He forces himself to look at me, and his face is filled with shame. Never in my life has he looked at me this way; Drew has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. He’s the nicest, most down-to-earth guy in the entire world.
“I’m selfish,” he tells me. “I don’t want you to be with JR. I don’t want you to leave school and everything else to go and be with him. But more than that…Dylan, I don’t want you to see me like this. And even though I knew you were making the worst decision of your life to go down there, I didn’t want your last memory of me to be like this.”
I stare at him in disbelief. “What?”
“I don’t want you to watch me die.”
“Drew…” I’m so worked up I don’t even realize I’m walking into the room. I barely even notice that I’m standing over his bed. “You really think this is how I’m gonna remember you? With these…these goddamn tubes up your nose? This is gonna be the first memory I block out of my head. I’m gonna remember your pathetic obsession with Saturday morning cartoons. I’m gonna remember how you have to wear your jersey and hat anytime the Giants play. I’m gonna remember the two cartons of orange juice you buy, one for me and one for you so that you can chug yours out of the carton since you swear that’s the only way it tastes good. I’m gonna remember your inability to make your bed. I’m gonna remember your kick-ass chocolate chip pancakes. I’m gonna remember the way you flip your shit at me anytime I’m not living up to my potential. I’m gonna remember making ice cream out of snow. I’m gonna remember contests to see who can get brain freeze the fastest. I’m gonna remember how much you hate it when I skip, or drink, or smoke. I’m gonna remember how much you hate what I do but you still love me. And fuck this stupid virus or your damn AZT breaks…I don’t care about any of that. I swear to forget all of that. This isn’t going to be my last memory of you, Drew. The same way I hope to God that your last memory of me won’t be with my back to you.”
Drew wants to cry but I know he never will. Not in front of me, because my whole life he’s been trying to protect me. And now with him so sick, he can’t really do that anymore. The most he can really do is be brave for me, and I can see that he fully intends to do so.
I hug his frail, brittle frame so tight, tighter than I ever have before. And I thank him a million times because in our entire life together, I have yet to say it once. Even if I was always thinking it, I never said it. Now I’m running out of time. And all I want to know now is how much time we have left. A day, a week, two weeks. It’s the endless possibilities that are so freaking scary. Wondering is what drives people crazy.
“JR is the worst decision you can make,” Drew whispers in my ear, squeezing me just as tightly as I’m squeezing him, if not tighter. I’m surprised by his strength because he looks so weak, but it feels so good. “In your heart, you know it. Surround yourself with good people, Dylan. Find people that remind you of me.”
I nod and say ok. Then I wipe my nose on the back of my hand and Drew wipes a would-be tear from his face before finally acknowledging Chad on the far side of the room. He commends him on bringing me back: Props on not letting her ruin her life.
Soon Drew is sleeping; he is always sleeping lately. Every time I’m here he tries to stay awake and talk to me, but he is so tired that I know it’s hell on him. So whenever I see his eyes getting heavy, I start to tell him a story. Any story, really. About my life or my day or a TV show I saw; just something long that will drag on for a while. Long enough for him to not be able to fight it anymore and just doze off. I tell myself that if he goes in his sleep it won’t hurt so badly for either of us.
I am sitting on one side of his bed and Chad is sitting across from me on the other side. I know he really cares about Drew; I know losing him is going to hurt him a lot the same way it’s going to hurt me. Chad can and does talk to Drew about anything.
“Thanks for bringing me here,” I say. The room has been silent for a while now.
“Don’t worry about it.”
I hesitate and look at Drew. He seems so much more comfortable when he’s asleep. Then I look back to Chad. “Can I tell you something?”
Watching me, he nods.
He looks like he’s trying to find the words to say. When they don’t come, he holds his hand across the bed. I grab on; he’s so warm.
And as I sit there, the two of us holding one another’s hands over Drew’s bedspread, I know that this is what my brother wants. My brother wants people like Chad in my life. Not JR, not even Crawford. But Chad. Maybe the Chad-thing is so hard for me to describe because what it really is, is Drew. Maybe it’s just hard for me to accept that anyone in this world can be like Drew.
I should tell Chad a million things in this moment. I should tell him I’m sorry for being such a self-absorbed idiot during the majority of our so-called friendship. I should tell him thank you for being patient with me. I should tell him that he’s who I want by my side right now, but I can’t. I can’t get myself to say any of that without losing complete control of everything, so instead I hope that what I say next can embody all of that.
“I need you,” I say.
He can’t believe his ears. Neither can I, really. Because this isn’t the Dylan that either of us knows. But if this is what Drew wants me to do, I’m going to do it. He’s never steered me wrong; I trust him with everything.
Chad doesn’t say anything, but I know he hears what I’m saying. He kisses my hand and holds on so tight that I know he hears me completely.