“Not if you were the last person on earth!”
She made flouncing an art form. An effortless flip of her perfectly coiffed fall of auburn hair, a quick turn on her delicate, well-pedicured heels, and she was a distant memory.
A faint aroma of singed ear hairs settled in a fog around him, his cheeks burning bright red from her rebuff.
What was he thinking, asking the most lusted after girl in the junior class to prom. His act of desperation wasn’t even borne out of a bet or dare. As the words left his lips, he regretted his idiocy. There was no hope that it would end well.
Just as he thought he had escaped further humiliation, having timed his invitation during a lull in the usual hallway riot of students, his cell phone hummed in his pocket.
Curious who would be texting him during school hours, he checked the message to find he was the subject of an email blast detailing his ill-fated attempt to beg a date from Her. There would be no hiding now. As soon as classrooms emptied out, the entire student body was abuzz with barely contained excitement. Fresh blood was in the water and a feeding frenzy was imminent.
The following week was spent lingering in alcoves and bathrooms between classes until the last possible minute. He kept his head down, answering only direct questions from faculty and staff. Lunch was eaten clandestinely in library carrels, away from the constant barrage of insults and jokes.
If he could make it through the dance weekend, by the following Monday there would be a new punch line. Someone who had managed to arrive at the prom drunk or stoned, an explosive break up or wardrobe malfunction would supplant his faux pas and his life could resume along its former mundane path.
Friday night, as his family gathered around their 55-inch Vizio, dinner plates perched atop pale, faux wood-tone TV trays, the local anchor was narrating a video clip from earlier that afternoon. A local high school debutant had been critically injured in a two-car accident on Highway 29. The 2012 Candy Apple Red Mustang driven by the deb had cross the centerline, side-swiping a 1998 Volvo wagon driven by 65-year-old Chester Preston of Franksburg.
Preston, who had been wearing a seat belt, was taken by ambulance to Sacred Heart with cuts and abrasions, and a broken arm. The deb was airlifted to St. Michael’s in critical condition with severe facial lacerations.
According to witnesses, young deb had been texting when the accident occurred. Charges were pending.
He nearly choked on his chicken-fried steak at the mention of the young debutant’s name. The one and only who so contemptuously turned down his request to attend the spring formal. Looked like she would be missing the dance too. He couldn’t help but wonder whether she felt slighted that she couldn’t be identified as a prom queen.
In the morning he called the hospital, trying to get an update on her condition, only to be told that information was restricted by her family. He asked if she was allowed visitors, but before the nurse could answer she was called away to a Code Blue.
Driving to the hospital, he rehearsed what he thought would be a convincing monologue, some far-fetched story about being her boyfriend, hoping it would get him passed the nurses’ station. He stopped at the first floor gift shop and bought a small bouquet of yellow roses. The Pink Lady working the visitor’s information desk was able to direct him to the fifth floor where he was told she was in room 505.
Visiting hours weren’t for another 20 minutes, but he was welcome to have a seat in the waiting room. The nurse took the flowers, promising to find a vase to put in her room.
The blond woman already in the room had to be her mother. There was no mistaking the family resemblance, despite the stark difference in hair color. Walking over to her, he reached out his hand, introducing himself as a classmate, and asking about her condition. Reaching up from her seat to grasp his hand, she turned her red-rimmed eyes to him, a wavering smile on her face, thanking him for coming by.
With her mother as his escort, he was lead into the girl’s room. A faint scent of A&D ointment, mixed with antiseptic, assaulted his senses. Machines helping her breathe hummed softly, and another beeped with each beat of her heart.
Her long hair, shaved off to bare skin, was replaced by bloody white bandages. Both eyes, bruised purple and green, were swollen shut. Angry black stitches ran down one cheek and along her chin. If he didn’t know who she was, he would have never recognized her.
Taking the empty chair beside her bed, he sat down. Looking intently at her, he tried to see something amid the carnage that was familiar. He asked her mother if she would know he was there. She assured him that doctors felt she would, and encouraged visitors to talk with her. Reaching out, he touched the back of her hand. Her eyelids fluttered, but didn’t open.
Over the following weeks, he visited every day. Sometimes reading to her from one of the novels on their English book list, or when she seemed particularly agitated, he would merely sit nearby, stroking her arm. Her mother told him once that he was the only one of her classmates who visited.
He was there when she finally woke up.
The next day, she was alert and aware of her surroundings. Her mother met him at the nurse’s desk, asking him to join her in the waiting room. She warned him that she may not remember him, a consequence of her head injury. A development he thought may not be so bad. Unfortunately, the moment he entered the room, it was apparent she knew exactly who he was.
Her mother, thinking the two would want to be alone for their reunion, left them to make a quick run to the hospital cafeteria.
“Why are you here,” she asked, her speech slightly slurred and voice raspy from little use.
“I’ve been here every day since your accident,” he stayed close to the door, suddenly shy to be near her. A flashback to the last words she said to him ringing in his ears.
“My mother told me. You let her believe you were my friend.” She seemed to be struggling with her emotions, but he couldn’t tell if she was angry or sad.
“I saw no reason to tell her anything different.” He took a step forward.
“But, why did you come? Were you here to gloat, to see me brought to this,” hardly able to lift her arms, she gestured best she could at her disfigured face.
“No, it wasn’t that.” Another step forward. “I wanted to help. I wanted to show you I could be a friend.”
“I remember someone reading to me, was that you?” She pointed to the chair beside her bed.
“Yes,” he took the offered seat. “Some days I would just sit with you.”
“Mom said you were the only visitor I had besides family,” a single tear spilled down her cheek.
“I was glad to come,” he reached out for her hand.
“What now,” she squeezed his fingers. “Will you keep coming by?”
“I will if you want me to,” he scooted the chair closer to her bed, smiling at her request. “We could get to know each other better, because to know me is to love me.”
She laughed softly, relaxing into her pillows, but didn’t let go of his hand.
When her mother returned later, she saw him sitting by her daughter’s bed, holding her hand while she peacefully slept. She stepped quietly out of the room, closing the door and saying a prayer of thanks for the boy who helped bring her daughter back from the brink of death.