This story is by R.K. Parker and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A voice reels Joe away from the cliff and back to reality. It doesn’t matter how many times his mind takes him back there, he will never change what happened.
With a gentle shake of his shoulder someone whispers, “Joe, take this pillow.”
Joe wakes up and recognizes the nurse that’s taken care of his best friend, Chris, for the last two nights. His eyes adjust to the dimly lit room; focusing first on the ventilator then the catheter bag collecting urine and finally follows the chest tube down to a water seal device.
“Thank you.” Joe yawns. Reaching for the pillow he feels a sharp pain bolt through his kinked neck. “How’s he doing?”
“About the same, he’s a tough kid. Dr. Warren will be in later to give you a better update and plan.” She turns to leave then adds, “I think they are very fortunate to have a friend like you,” motioning to the couch with her head. “See you tonight.”
“See you tonight.” Joe repeats back.
On the couch Chris’s mother Susan is asleep. Joe saunters to the bed where Chris, only sixteen years old, lies motionless fighting for his life. Its been three days since the incident and Joe still can’t stop thinking about it.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “It’s my fault. I was angry. I should’ve never…”
“Joe?” Susan’s voice pierces the stillness of the room. “Come here sweetheart.”
Joe panics, she didn’t hear me did she?
“Come sit, please.” She repeats herself, with a more concerned tone.
Joe sits down, unaware of the tears on his face until Susan wipes them off his cheek while wrapping an arm around him saying:
“Thank you for being here, I know how much you mean to Chris. I’m glad someone else is here with me that loves him as much as I do.”
Joe wasn’t aware that real guilt felt like a school of piranhas feasting inside of his chest. Feeling uneasy he replies, “You’ve had a long night Susan. I’ll get you some coffee.”
Without waiting for a response Joe was off the couch and out the door. In the hall he looks back at Chris and whispers, “I should’ve never…” then hesitates and leaves.
On his way to the coffee stand his mind is racing:
She doesn’t know the truth. She doesn’t know the reason why Chris is hooked up to machines. She doesn’t know because I haven’t told her. Then says, “I can’t tell her, ever!” Loud enough to catch the attention of a man waiting in a wheelchair.
Walking back with her macchiato Joe’s thoughts continue, …I can’t tell her—not now. It wouldn’t do her any good, and… he stops short of thinking what repercussions would come if he ever said anything.
The truth is supposed to set you free but in Joe’s mind it could take everything good in his life away. Nothing could be scarier than the truth.
Susan was more than just Chris’s mom. After his dad died Joe’s mom worked two jobs and Susan was the constant figure in his life, leaving him indebted and grateful for her. He knew his mom loved him but he loved Susan like a mother as well.
The truth would break Susan’s heart. I’ve put her through enough already, I’m not going to dump the truth on top of what she’s feeling.
While sipping her coffee Susan says, “I’m going home, to take a shower. Do you want me to bring you something to eat?”
“Yes please.” Joe stays with Chris because, well, they always do everything together.
The attending intensivist is Dr. Jamie Warren, which seems like an odd title because there’s nothing intense about her. She’s warm, caring and exudes brilliance without needing to show anyone she’s smart.
“Good morning Joe,” Dr. Warren says pleasantly, “did you stay the night again last night?”
“Hi Dr. Warren, um ya, I fell asleep in the chair again.” Joe chuckles.
“Well I have to say I’ve never seen a more dedicated friend. You two must really care about each other.” Dr. Warren continues with rounds, while his thoughts bounce back and forth.
If Chris survives I’d have to tell them the truth and I could lose both of them forever. If he dies I wouldn’t have to tell anybody what or why it happened. But then how would I live with myself?
After the medical team leaves he pulls his chair closer to the bed and talks to Chris.
“Why did you do it?” Joe feels his anger come roaring up to the surface and almost yells, “The one thing I really wanted and you took it! WHY?!”
It wasn’t Chris’s fault that he came from a better family with more money. It wasn’t his fault he was more outgoing and popular. It wasn’t his fault that he got the game winning hit after Joe struck out. It certainly wasn’t his fault he fell in love with the same girl Joe never mentioned he loved as well.
“I’ve always looked up to you Chris but I never realized I was jealous of you.” Finally Joe arrived at the truth he never wanted to admit and then was quiet for a long time.
Susan arrives with lunch and Joe takes his outside to eat. Sitting on a bench next to an artificial pond he hears a familiar voice.
“It’s good to see you getting some fresh air, mind if I sit down?” Dr. Warren says smiling. Joe motions affirmatively. “Joe, I really respect the attentiveness you show towards Chris and Susan, I think it’s beautiful. However, I worry about you. Sometimes people feel responsible for things that happen and then take on too much. I want you to know that if you ever need someone to listen that I’m a safe person to talk to.”
Joe stares bewildered at Dr. Warren.
“Do you understand?” She implores eyes full of concern, then finally stands up to leave. “Well if…”
“Wait!” Joe blurts out. “Dr. Warren—what’s worse, living with the guilt of something or the consequences from telling the truth?”
She looks at Joe compassionately. “You know, I’ve been doing this job a long time. One thing I’ve learned is that you can never predict what’s going to happen. So regardless what choice you make, don’t think you already know the outcome.”
Joe nods his head pensively.
She puts a hand on his shoulder and gets back up. “I’m always here if you need anything. I’ll see you in the unit.”
Back in the room Susan encourages him to turn the baseball game on saying, “…just hearing a game could be therapy for him.”
When she leaves to the cafeteria for dinner Joe’s mind wanders back to Friday afternoon. He was waiting for a ride when he spots Chris across the courtyard—with her. They are holding hands and his stomach sinks when they kiss each other good bye.
Filled with anger Joe turns and starts running. Chris calls out but he ignores him. He wants to be as far away from Chris as possible and goes where he always does when he needs to be alone. In the foothills behind his house there is a rocky outcrop that is secluded and peaceful. He wants to think and have some time to calm down. However, it doesn’t take long for Chris to find him. “Hey man, what’s the matter?”
“Why do you always do this?!” Joe yells. “I get that you are better than me at everything, but why shove it in my face all the time?”
“What are you talking about Joe? When have I ever…”
Why her?!” Joe interrupts, embarrassed that he’s crying.
Concerned, Chris steps towards him and says, “Joe, I swear I didn’t know.”
“Just go!” Joe screams and pushes Chris backwards then watches him lose his footing and tumble over the edge. Joe turns the memory off when suddenly, Chris grabs his hand and squeezes. His memory turns back on, this time showing things Chris wants him to see.
He sees Chris offer him half of a sandwich in first grade when he had noting to eat. He sees Susan baking meatloaf on their first sleep over. He sees Chris give him his first baseball glove. He sees everything Chris has ever done for him without expecting anything in return. Chris shows him ten years of friendship then lets go of Joe’s hand.
Joe looks up and starts sobbing, “I’m sorry I was jealous. You are my best friend and look at what I’ve done to you!” Then buries his face in the mattress, inconsolable.
Susan is taken aback as she enters the room, “Joe what’s wrong? Did something happen?” Joe lifts his head and whispers, “no.” Susan crosses the room and sits next to him. “Please tell me what’s going on. What’s the matter?”
He takes a minute to compose himself.
“Susan, I have something to tell you.”