This story is by Gayle Woodson and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ted is driving, so I can keep my eyes closed and pretend that I am asleep. That we are still home in bed. That we did not get a terrible call in the middle of the night.
But he says something incredibly stupid and cruel.
“Chuck is always the lucky one.”
I want to scream at him, but I hold my tongue. I have to cut him some slack. We both need pity right now. Besides, the same thing had occurred to me. I just did not want to hear it out loud.
The parking lot is full, so Ted pulls up under the porte cochere and says he’ll find a place to park.
I stepped into this same pool of light thirteen years ago and a nurse met me with a wheelchair to roll me inside.
Tonight I walk under my own power as the glass doors part and I step into the glare of a nearly empty waiting room. A woman holds a whimpering child in her lap. A man has somehow fallen asleep, stretched out across three molded plastic seats. I make my way to the reception desk and the lady behind the glass smiles. “Can I help you?”
I explain that someone called us—us meaning me and my husband—because our sons had been in an accident, that one of them is in surgery. Her smile fades. She waves me toward a seat and says, “Someone will be with you shortly.”
I pick up a magazine and thumb through it. My eyes scan the pages, but none of the content makes its way into my brain.
Ted is right. Things have always seemed to go Chuck’s way. He didn’t study any harder, but always made better grades than his twin brother. Chet had a better pitching arm, but it was Chuck who hit more home runs. When Chuck lost his homework the teacher was out sick, so he did not have to turn it in. I’m trying to think of other examples, but a woman in scrubs touches my shoulder and tells me that the doctor will see me now. She ushers me through another set of doors and into a smaller waiting room where I sit on a green faux leather sofa by a coffee table covered with more dog-eared magazines.
The doctor motions for me to stay seated and sits in the chair across the room. His voice sounds very far away as he explains that my son is still in the operating room. Something about a fracture.
“Which son?” I ask.
He looks at the floor. “We don’t know. Neither of them was carrying any identification. The coach gave us your contact information.”
“But the numbers on their uniforms.”
“They weren’t in their uniforms. Just in school T-shirts. All the same.”
Coach Bland had called us. He had been in the back row of the bus and was unscathed, at least physically.
My husband appears in the room and the doctor has to repeat everything. Ted and I stare at each other. We know what we have to do now. He speaks for both of us. “Can we see our other son?”
The boys were identical twins, both with curly red hair and green eyes. Most people could not tell them apart, but I could. It took a few years for me to be able to understand exactly why. They were mirror images. One eyebrow was slightly higher than the other. They both had lopsided smiles, but Chet’s face crinkled on the right side and Chuck’s on the left.
The doctor leads us past the curtained cubicles bustling with patients and nurses and assorted family members, and into a room at the end of the hall. My knees buckle beneath me before he pulls the sheet back. Ted catches me, helps me stand up, but he is struggling to breathe.
Our little boy is on the stretcher. He was born thirteen years ago but will always be my baby. A jagged laceration splits his face obliquely. The upper end of the gash disappears under a layer of gauze that serves no medical purpose. I think it was mercifully placed to cover a large head wound.
I touch his Nike sneaker which is exactly the same as the shoes his brother was wearing when they boarded the school bus. It seems like a lifetime ago, but it was only yesterday afternoon that they waved goodbye, grinning ear to ear, in their red team T-shirts.
Chuck had called us on his cell phone. “We won! 12 to 4. I got a home run.” Chet had gotten two base hits and was on third base when his brother got the home run.
We should have gone to the game, but Ted had an important sales meeting. If we had been at yesterday’s game, the boys would have come home with us in our car, instead of on the bus. They would both be alive and well. Instead, one of them is dead.
A nurse escorts us back to the small room with the green couch and the magazines. Our other son is out of surgery, in the recovery room. She says, “I’ll come get you when he wakes up.” She looks at her watch. “Probably 40 minutes or so. You can get some coffee in the cafeteria.”
The hallway is eerily quiet. We follow the signs to the cafeteria, which has a nice Keurig machine. We fill our cups and sit down, staring at the dark brown liquid. Neither of us takes a sip, neither says a word. I wonder if Ted is thinking about his meeting. I can’t remember why I didn’t go to the game by myself.
The coffee is cold by the time we hear the PA system summon us. “Will the Barton family please return to the surgical waiting room.”
The surgeon sits down with us. “We have stabilized the fractures.” He says something about a guarded prognosis, about steroids. I refuse to let the words make sense because I don’t want to understand.
The doors to the recovery room spring open and I spy his red hair halfway down the row of beds. He looks so pale. His arms are folded across his chest and there are green plastic oxygen prongs in his nose.
Ted touches his head. “Hi son. Your mom and I are here.”
I think it’s Chuck but I’m not sure. If would just smile, I would know for sure. His eyes open and his lower lip trembles. I reach for his hand and squeeze, but he does not react. His fingers are cold. He looks at me. “I can’t move, Mom.”
I won’t let myself cry. “Can you feel my hand?” He moves his head side to side, slightly.
“How is Chuck? Is he Okay?”
Ted and I look at each other. We can’t bring ourselves to say a word.
Chet knows the answer. His brother is gone. He closes his eyes, a single tear drips across his cheek. He clears his throat before he speaks.
“Chuck was always the lucky one.”