We don’t know anything yet.
I’ve been hearing this lie for the last six hours. Doctors, nurses, everyone who passes by me says the same damn thing. I think the worst part is that I know they all know something. Even I know at least one of them is dead. But I don’t know who, or if it’s only one of them, so until I have some information I refuse to cry.
Rather than celebrating my eighteenth birthday, this is where I’ve been for the last six and a half hours; unable to feel, unable to fully process what’s happening. A voice in my head that sounds strangely like mine keeps repeating, This isn’t happening, fuck, this isn’t happening, and I keep listening to it.
So I don’t cry. I don’t react. Instead, I either count the tiles on the floor, or if I see someone walking by, ask questions:
“Are they in surgery?”
“Ma’am, we don’t know anything yet.”
“Is my sister okay?”
“We’re not sure.”
Before I can ask anything else, they all walk away from me, saying, “I’m sorry, we don’t know anything yet.”
With no answers, I can believe that this isn’t happening. Truthfully, I want to scream, throw a chair against the wall. I want to tell anyone who will listen that even I know the prognosis is grim. Instead, because I’m convincing myself that they’re all fine and that this isn’t my fault, I sit in a chair with my knees bouncing up and down because I can’t contain the shaking within me, and keep my eyes out for hospital staff. When I find one, I ambush and continue to ask questions that won’t be answered.
At some point, my eyes are dry, like I’ve left my contacts in for too long. I try blinking just to keep moisture in them, but nothing is working. I hear footsteps around me, but I can’t move. The chair has wrapped its arms around me, and though the plastic is digging into my back, I’m comfortable. My legs stop vibrating up and down.
No, I tell myself. You can’t sleep. Wait for answers.
I try blinking for longer and longer amounts of time, but my eyes still feel dry, and every time they close, they burn like my eyeball is a lit cigarette. I struggle to open my eyelids, count the tiles on the floor. I pick my eyebrows up, stretch them as far as they can go. I get to fifty-seven before my body leans back. I’m just going to close my eyes for a second. Only a second.
I can’t sleep right now.
It’s dark when I hear my name. I’m not sure how much time passes when I hear it, but I hear it all the same. I jerk out of blackness I didn’t know I’d fallen into.
It’s my dad waking me for school. I wave him away.
“Five more minutes,” I say.
The voice clears its throat. When he asks, “Ms. Baxter?” I start to figure out that it’s not my father.
As I come closer to waking, there is rod is being jammed along my shoulders and back. The comfort I’d had moments ago is erased when I realize I’m not in my bed. Where am I? Through groggy eyes, I take in my surroundings; the hard chair that is not, in fact, a rod, the tiles that I faintly remember counting moments ago. Was it moments ago? Suddenly, I can’t remember the last time I’ve looked at the clock. Where am I?
The sound of metal hitting metal and shattered glass slams into me. I’m fully awake now. How could I have fallen asleep? What kind of daughter am I? What kind of sister does that make me?
“Sarah?” he asks again.
I don’t know what time it is. There are no windows where I’m sitting so I can’t see how dark it is outside. There are just rows of empty chairs, while tiled floors, and neon lights. My bones feel lagged, tired, like I’ve run six miles. With no watch, and no windows, the residual weight in my eyes says that I should have been in bed hours ago. I should be getting ready for school. I should be anywhere but in this room.
I take deep breaths as more flashes come back to me; birthday, car accident, sister, mother, father, sister’s boyfriend, nursing staff not answering…The chanting in my head returns, This can’t be happening. No, please, no.
I will myself to go back to sleep, to go back where it’s safe, and dark. Where this isn’t real, where I wasn’t feeling anything.
Instead, none of it goes away. There is a man with glasses and a white uniform politely waiting for me. I assume he’s the doctor but by now, I’m not sure what I’m sure of anymore. Go back to sleep! I plead with myself. Please, go back to sleep! This isn’t real, this isn’t real. The voice sounds like she’s on the verge of crying.
As my stomach starts turning, my heart picks up. I no longer feel lagged, like I’ve been running. No, instead, I’m ready to go running. Out of this hospital, out of the city. Away. I can’t control the adrenaline being pumped into me. My hands are now shaking, as well as my entire being. Would this be what it feels like to put your finger in an electrical outlet? I ask myself.
No, this is what it’d feel like to have your entire family in a car wreck.
I nod to the man who’d called my name, acknowledging that I’d heard him. I look to my side and grab my jacket that’s covered in dried blood and pull it on. He looks at it and some expression flashes across his face that I can’t quite read. Disgust, maybe? I try not to care. If this jacket is the last thing my mother gave me, then I’m not throwing it out. I pretend like I don’t see his reaction, like he’s not about to tell me my entire world has collapsed. I take another deep breath. I suck in so much air that my stomach feels like it can inflate and float away. When I’m drowning in air, I push it out through my lips the way my mom told me to do when I’m stressed out. Deep breath in, take a step, push out.
When I’m closer, I see how bloodshot the doctor’s eyes are. His hair is a soft brown color, and from the looks of things, he hasn’t run a comb through it in ages. It is matted down, as though he’d been wearing one of those surgical caps, and then it hits me. Was this the man who was working on Mom? On Dad? Allie?
Upon closer inspection, it looks as though he’s been crying, but maybe he’s just as exhausted as I am. I find myself walking slow, buying myself more time.
“How is she?” I ask referring to my sister, and immediately feel bad for not asking How are they? My whole world was in that car.
My father had kissed me on the forehead as we left the restaurant. “Happy birthday, Baby,” he’d said before getting in behind the wheel. I’d cringed at the name. I’m eighteen now. An adult. I can vote in the next election, Dad.
My mother had wrapped me into her arms, “I’ll see you at home. Drive safe, don’t forget to turn on your headlights.”
I nodded, rolling my eyes. I’d had my license for almost two years now; I think I’ve gotten the hang of it. “I love you, Mom,” I’d said instead.
Out of the corner of my eye, my sister and her boyfriend kissed. When Mike pulled away, Allie smiled a naive smile, the one that exclaimed to the world that she whole hearted trusted this boy. It reached her mouth, her eyes, her body. She had no fear in loving him. Together, the two of them climbed into the back seat, my sister biting her lip as Mike opened the door for her.
“Happy birthday,” she called out before sliding into the middle of the car where his arm wrapped around her.
They, I scold myself. I should have said They. All of them.
The doctor takes a jagged breath before speaking and I brace myself, or try to. I wish I’d stayed closer to the chairs. I want to put my hands on the back, to give myself something stable to hold onto. I’d kill a baby for a teddy bear right now.
“Your sister may have sustained head trauma from the impact. She is currently in a medically induced coma, we’re hoping to allow her to heal, but she’s alive. It’s a waiting game with her, there’s a lot we can’t tell from tests alone. Her recovery will be up to her.”
Head trauma. The words repeat over and over, and can’t help but to blurt out, “Is she retarded?” When I hear what I’ve said, I’m appalled. I ask myself again what kind of sister am I? And then I imagine my sister, the one who’d been there when I broken my arm. When the doctors told my parents they’d have to re-break it to re-set it, Allie asked if she could watch. When I was in physical therapy, she asked them to make me cry.
It’s what we do; face things head on to make the impact of the situation a little less hard. When the physical therapists did make me cry, she held my good hand and sat with me until the ice numbed me. Later that night, we laughed about it.
I want to laugh about this.
I’m not sure how to read the doctor’s expression. Maybe he’s thrown off, I’m not sure, but I don’t really care. I’m trying to understand who my sister will be when she wakes in a way that makes it easier for me to deal with. The more blunt you are, the easier it is to hear, right?
I expect to hear, “We’re taking preventative measures,” or, “She’s fine, just sleeping,” or some variation thereof.
Instead he answers slowly, “We’re not sure how substantial the damage is.”
My heart seizes in my chest, and though I don’t want to, I’m starting to feel again. My heart picks up speed again, my hands feel cold and clammy. My stomach feels like that time I’d had four shots too many and wants to relieve itself on the floor. My sister may be retarded. Allie, the girl who got straight A’s and cried when she got a B+.
The only reason I’m sure I’m breathing is because I’m still currently standing. The voice that had been reassuring me that this isn’t real is suddenly silent. I plead for it to come back.
Somehow, it’s ironic. All night I’ve been asking questions. Now, when I’m getting answers, I’m not sure I’m ready to hear them.
I nod and wait. Wait for tears, to stop feeling how hard my heart is pounding, for more information, something. It doesn’t come. I focus on my breathing and prompt it, “Her boyfriend?”
“We’re waiting to speak with his parents first.”
I try to read his face, but am unable to. Though my throat is tight, I swallow and try to accept the answer, but it’s still hard. The doctor doesn’t understand that in the last two years Mike had become like my brother. He doesn’t understand and he doesn’t seem to care that I love that fucking kid. He doesn’t know that Mike is my brother, that I am family, too.
When was the last time I saw Mike’s parents? They’d arrived at the hospital within ten minutes of being called. We’d sat together, paced together, but none of us could cry… still in a state of shock, we’d held hands for a long time, his mother silently praying for her son. His father, resting his arm around his wife. Me, the lonely member of my family, praying for everyone I love.
I try to remember where they went.
I only remember holding their hands.
My throat tightens more. There is only one question left to ask, and there is a shift in the room where the world stills and I’m completely alone. I listen for a clock tick, the sound of feet on the floor but hear nothing. My chest refuses to expand like I’m trapped inside a corset, and I try to take shallow controlled breaths. My body tries to brace for impact while I try to remain focused on breathing. It’s like standing outside in winter for too long; that moment when your hands feel like they’re on fire because it’s so cold, but you can’t really feel it anymore.
My heart hurts, like it can’t beat. It’s like someone has reached in and is trying to make a fist while holding it, but I’m not sure why. My eyes well with tears, and then a voice that sounds like mine breathes out, “My parents?”
The doctor’s face crumples, just a fraction, “We did everything…” and my head starts shaking before I’m aware of it. A hollow sound emerges from my stomach. I think I’m screaming the word No, but I can’t be sure that I’m not just screaming. My stomach turns and tries to retch all over the floor. I wrap my arms around myself just in case because even though nothing is physically coming out, my insides are still being ripped out of me. The fist around my heart tightens. Suddenly, I’m being crushed in a vice, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.
Though I can see the floor, somehow my legs refuse to stand on it. There is nothing keeping me erect. My legs go limp. The floor slips away from me. My knees thud against the linoleum but I can’t feel anything except the crushing in my chest.
Slow whispers come out of my mouth in between gasps, “No,” wheeze, “no,” wheeze, “no.”
“I’m sorry, Sarah. We did everything we could,” he offers. His hand is on my shoulder. I want to scream at him that he should have done more, that his everything isn’t enough.
“No!” I scream removing his hand. “No!” I can’t stop, I can’t stand. No, no, no, no. God, this cant be happening, don’t let this be happening.
My stomach tries to retch again, and I succumb to struggling on all fours. The only thing I’m aware of is the constant pain in my chest, in my lungs, and the need to make it stop. My body is in a heap, and I’m rocking back and forth screaming, but I’m not aware of any of it, I don’t feel any of it. I can only feel this pain.
I don’t know how long I’m like this. I don’t know how long I scream for before someone offers me an injection, and I nod my head, still screaming. Soon everything goes limp.
“Sarah?” a new voice asks.
I try to look up but I can’t. The floor around me changes and somehow I’m in an office of some sort. My insides don’t feel like they’re crushing me now, everything is just going really, really slow. I appreciate that I’m drugged, probably sedated, but it doesn’t hurt, I can’t feel my own emotions.
“Do you know if your parents had life insurance, a will?” the voice asks in a hazy way.
Suddenly it’s like I’m made of glass and that one question was a wrecking ball. I explode and start sobbing again. No amount of medication can lesson this.
Somehow, this is all real.