"He's waking up."
Voices mumbled and buzzed, cloudy and indistinct at first, then sharpening and gaining clarity until he could make out individual words. But recognizing the words didn't mean that he could understand what was being said. He knew what each word meant, but he wasn't quite capable of understanding them in bunches yet. Comprehension of full sentences eluded him, and he frowned as he tried to force the jumble of syllables and consonants into something his brain could handle.
"Son?" A pair of soft hands grasped his gently. He hadn't quite opened his eyes yet, but he recognized everything about his mother. He knew the slight quiver in her voice, the way she pressed her thumb into his palm and rubbed it back and forth, and the mild, floral scent of the perfume she wore.
He opened his mouth and tried to respond to her and was rewarded with pain--sharp, brutal pain lancing along his neck, centered at his jaw.
He wanted to talk but all he could do was whimper.
"Shh." His mother shushed him with a finger pressed to his lips, and now that he looked into her eyes, he knew it was bad. He was in a world of white walls, and quiet machine blips and antiseptic odours that drowned out the smell of pain and death. He blinked a few times, thinking, why was he here? what happened? what was the last thing that happened? think think remember. remember.
But the last thing he remembered was getting into the driver's seat of his car, and his friend hopping in as well, and then everything was blank. He probed around in the void, trying to recall anything at all, but there was nothing to get--all he could come up with was mental black.
And then he panicked. His friend, his friend.
He forced the name out through his mangled jaw, ignoring the pain. There were other people around - his father, a doctor, a nurse - and they all tried to calm him down, telling him to calm down and to rest.
He repeated the name over and over again, his eyes desperate and wild as he begged for information; finally they relented, and told him about his friend. They told him how bad it was, how bad it could be.
He closed his eyes and slipped back into the black.
Not laughing, not smiling, not joking, not shouting, not talking, not playing stupid pranks, not eating, not drinking, not skating not playing, not breathing.
"We thought... the surgery... it seemed successful... we thought... we thought..." He could barely hear his mother's voice. He didn't have to; he'd thought the same thing. Oh, he knew how serious the injury was, and he knew the risk involved in the surgery, but he'd thought the worst was over. He thought his friend would recover, and he'd come to, and he could apologize to him, and then one day his friend would play hockey again. They would both play again and everything would be all right all right all right.
But he wouldn't, they wouldn't; there was no friend anymore.
He wanted to see them; he couldn't face them.
But he had done this thing that was so huge he couldn't wrap his mind around it. He couldn't even remember it. He just knew it was there and he'd done it and it didn't make a difference what the details were. He couldn't remember the sequence of events and he didn't have to because it was all this mistake that pervaded his being and tainted every thought in his head and twisted every word that he spoke.
He had to get rid of it somehow. His mother said talking to them wouldn't help, that it wasn't a good idea, that it was too soon and that they didn't want to talk to him. They couldn't talk to him. They really couldn't do much of anything.
But everything she said couldn't stop him from dialing the phone and clutching it to his ear, every ring making his heart beat faster, his chest tighten more, and his nerve weaken.
"Hello Mrs.-" he started, already fighting to keep the tears from his voice.
"You," she said, the word an accusation as sharp as a knife. "You... how dare you call me? How dare you?"
And the rage and hollowness in her voice told him that his mother was right, that he shouldn't have called; he wanted to hang up, click the "end" button, flip the phone back into its protective shape and put it away somewhere safe, but he couldn't move his fingers.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, trying to fit everything he felt into two hopelessly small words.
"You... you're sorry? Sorry?" she screamed. "You took him away! He had everything; he was everything!"
And then her voice was cut off, and angry, muffled voices drifted out of the phone. Another person had the phone now, and he was just as angry, and just as sad. He spoke his words with grief and force. "You killed our son."
The phone slipped from the survivor's hand and clattered onto the white, sterile floor.
He could get around on crutches.
He didn't really have a knee to speak of yet, but he could still get from place to place. It was a wonder that he was still there to go from place to place.
His family had tried to shelter him, of course, but they couldn't very well keep him from newspapers and television and the internet. They would have to have had locked him up in a cell to keep him from finding out.
Perhaps that wouldn't have been so bad.
It felt good in a strange way to read those articles about him. There was no way that they could condemn him anymore than he condemned himself, anyway.
They talked about how insane and stupid and reckless it was to do what he'd done. They had interviews with various nobodies who were familiar with that part of the city swearing that there's no way they would have ever driven that fast on that road. All of them added opinions that amounted to how avoidable a tragedy it was.
The articles focused mostly on his friend. They talked about how much the world had lost. They talked about the injustice of it all--his friend was just an innocent passenger and now he was gone.
The survivor still couldn't remember what had happened that night.
And of course there were the cries for vengeance and retribution disguised as calls for justice and a fair trial. Commit a crime and pay the price. He could read between the lines, though. You took his life and all of his potential with it. You must pay for that.
There was one article that defended him. it called for compassion and understanding and said that the suffering that he must be putting himself through was worse than any punishment that could be handed to him by the courts. One life was already gone, and there was no need for another to be ruined as well.
He only needed to glance at the first few angry responses to the article that demanded that he must be punished and that he should be punished, to know that there was no point in reading the rest of them.
His jaw hurt and his knee hurt and his heart hurt and he wished that his friend was the survivor, and not him. He wished that he were the one lying there cold and blue, waiting to be lowered into the earth.
But then he saw the scene playing out in his head and he saw his family and his friends and crying and he didn't wish for that at all. He loved his friend but he loved life more, and anything he had to suffer, all the accusations and allegations, and the nightmares and the guilt, and the words of his friend's parents echoing in his head, were better than death.
He wasn't sure of there was some Purpose to it all, but he was glad to be the survivor.
They wouldn't let him attend the funeral.
He wasn't surprised. He'd heard that the mere mention of his name sent them into a rage. The last thing that he wanted to do was upset them even more. They'd already suffered more than they should ever have to.
He didn't take the risk of watching the ceremony from a safe distance, and waited until it was over. He sat quietly in the back seat of the car while his parents tried desperately to stitch his life back into something that resembled normal with bland conversation about the weather and what his relatives were up to.
He hobbled to the grave in the crisp fall air.
He had brought flowers. It had irked him that he didn't know what kind of flowers his friend had liked. He had just stood there in the florist shop feeling stupid and useless, and then burst out laughing as he imagined what his friend's reaction would have been like if he'd ever asked him was his favourite flowers were.
The florist looked at him as if he was insane, and he was, he really was. But that didn't matter because he was the survivor. He sobered up and asked the florist what was customary for the occasion, and he bought a bouquet of that.
He held the bouquet tightly in his hand as his crutches sank slightly into the cemetery ground. Slow and steady, he knew that he would get there, to the freshly covered grave where his friend lay.
A headstone and earth and flowers, lots and lots of flowers. His bouquet would get lost in the pile and he liked the fact that it would. He rubbed his eyes and read the words on the headstone:
January 21st, 1981 - October 5th, 2003
He was taken from us too soon. Dearly missed by...
Dan didn't read the rest of it. He placed his bouquet on the grave and turned around, and went back to where his parents were waiting for him.
The flowers stayed fresh for a long time.