All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
Author's note: All Time Low is my favorite band, and this song has so much emotion to it. At one point it took on a life of its own, no longing following the song, but I was able to develop the characters in unexpected ways.
"Alex!" I shouted again. "Alexander William Gaskarth, open up the fricking door! You know it's Emily!" I had already been waiting for almost five minutes. After calling his cell repeatedly for nearly three days and still not getting any answer, I was downright furious. I shook my head in frustration as Alex finally opened the door.
He looked horrible. The pungent smell of days-old beer reeked from his clothing, emanating from him and rolling over me in an acrid wave. His eyelids sagged as he stared vacantly at me from the doorway.
"Alex, what's wrong with you? What happened?"
"Sara..." he choked out.”She died Sunday night. She... killed herself." He leaned against the doorway for support as I gasped aloud. Sara is - was - Alex's girlfriend of the past three and a half years. I ushered him back inside and got him to sit down on the couch. The familiar apartment was a mess; empty beer bottles littered every vacant surface, an open box of barely-nibbled pizza was on the counter. I leaned against the counter with my face in my hand, barely grasping what Alex had said. Taking a deep breath and shaking my head, I turned towards Alex.
"First things first," I said firmly. "We need to sober you up. No more beer for you. Go take a shower. Shave and put on some clean clothes. I'll make some coffee." He followed my instructions immediately but at a sloth-like pace. With another deep breath, I started rummaging through his cabinets, looking for his beer stashes. Grabbing as many six packs as I could, I carried them outside and put them in my trunk so that he couldn't get to them.
In the nearly ten years that Alex and I had been best friends, I had never seen him anywhere close to this depressed. I kept seeing Sara's face in my mind; I had always known that something had been different about her. She had never seemed... quite right in the head. I had spoken this feeling aloud to Alex on several occasions, but he continuously dismissed my queries with a joke; a sure sign that he realized it too, but didn't want to deal with it.
As I started making Alex's coffee, I thought about how he had looked. I could tell that he had cared about Sara more than I had realized before. It took a lot to unnerve him this badly.
A rush of heat washed over my face as I realized that there was a tiny part of me that wasn't all that sad that Sara was gone. I was shocked at myself. I have wished for Alex and me to be ... more than friends, to say the least, for years now, but to actually be somewhat glad that the "competition" was out of the way? It was repulsive. Unable to face myself, I started cleaning Alex's chaotic kitchen to busy my thoughts.
After a little while, Alex came back to the kitchen. Well, more accurately, he moped back into the kitchen. I set our coffee mugs on the counter and walked over to him. I wrapped my arms around him and squeezed him to my body gently.
"I'm so sorry, Alex," I whispered.
We stood like that for a long time, just holding each other in his kitchen. After a moment, I led him over to the couch with my arm around his waist. We sipped our coffees in silence with our feet up on the coffee table in front of us. This was a usual position for the two of us; I had spent countless hours with him on this couch, watching movies, eating, or just talking about everything and anything. I turned to look at his face, only a few inches away from mine. He stared out at nothing, numb with apathy.
"What happened, Alex?" I asked quietly, rubbing his back. He grimaced, and shook his head ever so slightly.
"On Sunday morning, I was over at her house for breakfast. She ... she had been acting kind of funny the whole time, asking me strange questions," he said, his voice hoarse.
"She asked me things like ... 'what's the point?' Of money, or friends, or people, or thoughts, or love? She sounded tortured, messed up. She was so upset, saying she felt like she was running in circles, not going anywhere. She seemed ... shaken. And kind of, apathetic, I guess, at the same time," he told me. His breathing was shaking more and more. I looked at him, waiting for him to continue. "After a while, she just went into the bedroom and locked the door. I didn't know what to do, so I just... left." I allowed him a few moments of silence; I could see how hard this was for him. Eventually I asked him what else happened.
"Late that night, like almost midnight, I got a call from the police. My phone number had been by her cell phone on her table. I guess ... I guess she wanted me to know first. The neighbors heard the gunshot and called the police ... I don't know where she got the gun ... if only I had paid more attention ..." He had tears crawling slowly down his flushed cheeks. "I wish ... that I hadn't left her alone all day. I could’ve stopped it, I know I could've..." I shushed him and he laid his head on my shoulder, stony-face and crying. His entire body heaved with the pain. I whispered into his ear.
"It's okay, Alex. Everything will be okay. There's nothing you could've done. Shhhh, everything will be alright." I hated hearing him like this. He was torn up to the core; I had never seen him this bad. I know there was no point in trying to quiet him, it was better to let him release the pain.
While he leaned on me, I thought back to the last time I had seen Sara. I had met her and Alex for lunch just two weeks ago. Well, I was supposed to meet Alex, but he had brought her along as well. I’d never had a direct or specific problem with Sara, but Alex wasn’t the same when she was there as when it was just us. Or anyone else for that matter.
Sara had flipped out. I didn’t even detect the catalyst to her anger before she started getting upset. One moment everything was fine, then she began raising her voice at Alex, pushing him away. I remembered watching in alarm as she violently swung her arm, hitting her hardly-touched plate to the ground with a roaring clatter and storming out. Alex had taken off after her, calling her name and chasing her down. Mortified, I had called the waiter over, apologizing and asking for the check.
As I left, I saw that the parking space next to my car was deserted. They had left. My phone rang seconds later. Alex apologized briefly before hanging up. I never asked because I couldn’t be sure, but it had almost sounded like I could hear crying in the background.
She had always seemed kind of moody to me; the smallest things could completely agonize her sometimes. Alex seemed to be somewhat used to it after a while, but he always appeared to be walking on eggshells with her. She had had the brightest blue eyes you had ever seen in your life, but they had a look of perpetual ... terror. As if no matter how happy she acted, there was a part of her that didn't want to be there, didn't want to be anywhere, except maybe hiding from the rest of the world.
I had never understood why Alex had liked her so much. But, she made him happy. So I was happy.
For the most part.
Except for the times he would show up at my front door, saying that he and Sara had gotten into a fight. He would vent to me. And, secretly, I would be glad that everything wasn't peaches-and-cream cheerful between the two of them.
He calmed down eventually. After about twenty minutes, there was no more energy within him to fuel his pain-ridden sobs. I brushed his still-wet hair off his face with my fingers. We had always been close like this, and lots of people assumed we were a couple when they first saw us. But - unfortunately - no.
"Alex, there's nothing you could have done. Don't beat yourself up."
"Em, I could've stopped it though! If I had paid more attention to the things she said, or spent more time with her, or been more affectionate, or, or, or..." He cut himself off, trying not to cry again.
"Alex, stop it. You did everything anyone else would have done. In fact, you did more than most people. She didn't want anything you could have given her. Just let it go."
"I can't let it go; I don't want to let it go! I loved her, Em! I know I could've done something. You warned me, you did, I should've listened, I knew something was wrong, but ... I don't know, I just know that if I had tried harder I could have saved her!" he fought back. He was angry now, no longer leaning on me for support, but facing me and glaring, spewing his anger at himself into my face. "If only I had listened to what she was saying, or what you were saying, or asked a doctor or something -" I interrupted his rant.
"There's nothing you could have done. She was never happy with what you gave her! Never! You gave her everything that any other girl on earth could have dreamed of, and she was never happy!" I felt myself getting angrier by the minute, but I couldn't stop it. He was being so thick-headed. He jumped off the couch, equally infuriated.
"You just don't get it!"
"What don't I get?! You’re beating yourself up over something there is no way in hell you could have prevented! So quit it!"
He paced, head in hands, the frustration spilling over. "I could've given her what she wanted! I was going to! I just - I didn't give it soon enough!" Tears were pooling around his eyes once again.
"Alex, what are you talking about?!" I didn't understand what he was saying, what more could he have given her? He was devoted, loyal, affectionate, honest; what more could he have done?
His face seemed to break with pain.
"I was going to ask her to marry me, Emily!" he shouted, dropping his hands to his sides, defeated.
I stared. My chest felt hollow, as if someone had just reached inside and scooped everything out, leaving me with only emptiness. I didn't know what to say. I was hurt. All this time, I had always just secretly hoped that somehow, some day, he would realize that I was the one he wanted to be with.
That it would all work out in the end. But apparently not.
"Oh, Alex..." I managed to choke out. I felt that my face wore an expression of overwhelming sadness, but I knew there was no way I could mask it. I hoped he took my expression as one of pity. He returned to me on the couch, and we held each other.
After what felt like years, I opened my eyes, realizing we had both cried ourselves to sleep. I wiped my face with my free hand, the other arm wrapped tightly around my best friend.
I thought about what he had said. He was going to marry her. He loved her that much. That is how much he had wanted to make her happy.
Even worse, that is what would have made him happy.
I took a deep breath, not wanting to disturb his sleep with my tears.
I thought about the rest of the band; did Zack, Jack, and Rian know? They must. The boys had been in the studio working on a new album for the last two weeks. Alex must have talked to them and told them he was staying home for a few days. I wondered why none of them were sitting here comforting him; then again, they probably didn't know the extent of how hurt he was. I was his best friend, in many cases closer to him than Jack was, and I had had no idea that he had loved her this much.
I thought about that more, that he had loved her. He really had truly loved her, enough to want to spend the rest of his life with her. I wondered when he planned on popping the question, when he planned to tell me about it...
Alex stirred, interrupting my pained thoughts.
As he woke, I wiggled my way out from under his body to make some food. I was starving, and I figured Alex hadn't had a solid, nutritious meal in days. I scavenged what I could from the poorly-stocked fridge. He was more of a take-out kind of guy than a cook-at-home one. I saw Alex stretch his arms in the air out of the corner of my eye.
"Come on, lazy. You need some food," I teased. He slowly ambled his way over to the table. His mood hadn't improved much, but at least he was moving around voluntarily. I fixed us both bowls of cereal, one of the few edible food items I had been able to find.
"How are you feeling, Sleeping Beauty?" He responded with a shrug, knowing well enough that I would not hesitate to kick him if he answered me with his mouth full of food. He swallowed.
"Fine, I guess." After a moment, he must have realized how hungry he was; he scarfed down the cereal and quickly got up and made himself another.
I glanced at the clock; it was about three in the afternoon. Good thing I hadn't had anywhere I needed to go today. I wasn't exactly about to leave Alex to fend for himself in this vegetative state.
"Oh my God!" I realized. "Where's Baz?!" I hadn't seen the dog yet, and I had been here for six hours. Alex perked up and looked around, his face concentrated, trying to remember where he had last seen his dog.
"Oh!" he remembered suddenly, and jogged over to open the back door. "Baz! Come 'ere, boy!" Sebastian quickly came trotting over, a lopsided, goofy grin on his face as usual. He sprinted inside as soon as he noticed I was here. Running over, he leapt on my lap and started smothering me in his doggy-kisses. I laughed, petting the dog. I heard Alex chuckle, and smiled even more. Laughter is good; I hoped he would start feeling better soon. Thinking I should try to get Alex out of the house, I had an idea.
"Bazzy, you haven't had a walk, have you? Have you, boy?" I asked, nuzzling my face into the dog's, just as he liked. I turned to Alex. "Come on, you need to get outta here. Let's take the big guy out on a walk."
He smiled slightly, agreeing to come along. I beamed; a few hours of sleep seemed to have done him good.
In a few minutes, we were out the door. Sebastian was ecstatic, bounding around everywhere. I kept a close eye on Alex, always checking to see if his mood was picking up at all.
He seemed fine as we started, but after only a couple minutes he starting sulking again. We walked in silence, which was uncommon for us. I just watched Baz bounce around like a fool to distract myself from the quiet. I didn't know what to say. What do you talk about with the guy whose girlfriend just committed suicide?
I felt my own mood souring as I remembered what he had said earlier, about wanting to marry Sara. The hollow feeling came back to my chest. I gritted my teeth, taking a deep breath. How was I supposed to get Alex to cheer up if I was depressed too?
We turned around after about fifteen minutes. I noticed, as we were almost back to his place, that when we passed a certain house he specifically looked up, around, down ... anywhere but the house. I stared, trying to figure out what it was that bothered him so much. We had walked passed it at the beginning of the walk. There was nothing unusual about it; just a plain little pale-brown house, miniature garden beside the driveway. The owner was working in the garden, planting lilies.
When we walked back into Alex's, I unclipped Baz's leash, letting him free. He ran off for a drink from his bowl, slopping the water everywhere. I straightened up from my crouch and turned to Alex.
"What was up with you when we passed that house?" I asked.
"Huh? Oh, uh, nothing." I raised my eyebrows, staring him in the face as he leaned against the back of the couch; that little thirty minute stroll was nearly too much for him after lying on a couch for three days.
"Liar." He sighed, and ran his hand through his hair. He had hair that teenage girls around the country obsessed about. I had always found it a bit ridiculous the way some of the fangirls zeroed in on certain aspects of him like that, but, I had to admit, it was some pretty great hair.
"It's just... lilies were her favorite flower," he mumbled, quickly turning away and flopping down onto the couch, turning on the TV. I sighed. So much for progress. I walked over and sat next to him once again. He flipped through the channels.
He stopped momentarily on channels that looked interesting, but continued flipping through after a moment. As MTV passed, he stayed for a moment to see whose music video they were playing, and then moved on shortly after. Whose Line Is It Anyway? was on ABC Family, and he settled on that.
Normally this show would crack him up, but today it managed to squeeze out a few mere chuckles. Oh well. Chuckles still counted as laughter to me, and laughter was a sign of him getting better.
We sat like this for a few hours, talking sometimes, but not nearly as much as usual. Mindlessly watching whatever lame sitcom or melodramatic reality show popped up on the screen.
I looked up at the clock, and shook my head, chuckling to myself. When I came over this morning, I did not imagine that I would be spending four hours in front of a TV. It was 7:30.
Tonight was going nowhere. And fast.
We talked some more over Chinese take-out.
"When do you think you'll get back into the studio?" I asked, trying to get him to keep talking. He shrugged.
"I don't know, probably in a few days. I just can't now; I feel... I don't know. Empty," he replied, the discomfort plain on his face. I watched him poke at his food, lacking much of an appetite. He sipped absently at his beer. He’d broken more out before I had a chance to stop him, but I didn’t want to pick a fight. It just wasn’t worth it. He was coming up on his third one in two hours, though. I was worried about him, to say the least.
"My god, you're just so out of it," I said with a bitter, sharp laugh as he yawned. He gave me a look, jokingly of course, and I rolled my eyes at him. He countered with another fakely-angry look, and before I knew it we were in a full-on crazy-faces fight.
We both started cracking up uncontrollably. I fell out of my chair, and he laughed so hard that he ended up following suit. We lay on the dirty kitchen floor, laughing hysterically until tears streamed from the corners of our eyes and our sides hurt with cramps. We sighed simultaneously, which gave me the giggles once again, but he stayed quiet this time.
I looked at his face as he stared at the ceiling; the tears were still trickling, but they were no longer from laughter. I wiggled closer, giving him a strange one-armed hug, my other arm pinned beneath our bodies.
As I stood up off the floor, I muttered, nearly to myself: "You need, like, break-up sex or something." I was only half-joking; he was so devastated he couldn't even bear to laugh without ending up crying.
I cleared the table, closing up the Chinese boxes and storing them in the fridge. I turned around and saw that Alex had stood up too, and was leaning against the counter. He had a funny look on his face, but I kept cleaning. I was starting to get slightly annoyed at today's introvertedness. I mean, I have a heart, and I know this must be horrible for him, but it was so unlike him to be... closed off like this. Everything he’d done today had been out of character. I hardly knew what to expect out of him, and every other day of the year I could read him like a newspaper headline.
He was silent for the longest time, just watching me.
“What are you thinking?” I asked, nonchalant and curious. I kept to my task as I awaited his reply.
"Did you mean that?" he whispered. I looked up from wiping down the table.
"Like... would you...?" He trailed off but kept looking straight at my face.
I felt my face burn with heat, and looked back to my task. Did he really mean...? Was he asking me to...? Right now...? With him...?
"Alex..." I muttered, trying to formulate some sort of answer. I was to bewildered to even know what to say.
"No, never mind. It's stupid. Forget it," he said, embarrassed. I looked up again.
"No, Alex.” It was a knee-jerk reaction. Just the mere possibility of him wanting this... I couldn’t let this moment slip away, just in case. Just in case something, anything, could come of it. “It's not stupid. It's just..." I searched for the right words. "Are you sure... it's what you want? Don't you think... it'll be... weird, for us?"
"I... I don't know. I just feel..." He ran his hand through his hair, his nervous habit. "I don't know how I feel. But... would you?"
I didn't know what to do. I had wanted this for so long, but... was this how I wanted it? It was so out of the blue; I would have expected a train to come crashing through the wall before this circumstance to arise between us, especially today. I was so unsure, my thoughts were fuzzy and seemed to have no more substance than cottonballs. But an electric current of recklessness coursed through me. Before I realized what I was saying, I heard my voice whisper one word.
He looked relieved, obviously having realized how awkward it would have become had I said no. He even broke into a smile; not his usual, exuberant grin, but a smile nonetheless.
My chest felt like there was some sort of enormous pressure upon it. I dropped the sponge I had been using for the table, forgetting my previous task. I felt an adrenaline rush as I realized what was going to happen.
We walked into the bedroom and closed the door.
I woke before Alex. I lay there in his bed, just looking at him for a while. His mouth slightly opened, his hair flopping messily and sticking up in random places. Although it may sound cliché, he just looked so... peaceful. Just as he should be. No Sara, no problems, no nothing. I couldn't bear to wake him up.
I slipped my faded jeans back on, and stole one of Alex's shirts as I drifted into the kitchen, closing the bedroom door carefully so as not to disturb him.
I sat in the kitchen, making another pot of coffee. I wasn't doing much; sitting and thinking. What was going to happen between us after last night? Would he pretend it never happened? Are we... dating now? It was so foreign. Not unwelcome, but... unprecedented in every way. All I knew for sure was that everything would be different in the wake of what happened. It wasn’t the sort of thing that could be stuffed in a closet, forgotten. I was so zoned into my own circling thoughts that, at first, I didn't hear the guitar.
I peeked my head into the bedroom, confused. I had assumed Alex was still asleep. But I saw him, sitting on the edge of the bed, guitar in hand, stringing chords together effortlessly. His face was concentrated, and he was in a near frenzy, playing intensely. It was as if he needed to get out whatever he was feeling with the music before it left him, a fleeting emotion that he was striving to retain.
I walked over and sat down cross-legged upon the unmade bed beside him. I didn't say anything, I only watched. He tried different combinations of chords, different strum patterns, trying to find something to match how he felt. I watched and listened. I had seen him write songs like this before; if he has a strong enough emotion, he'll drop everything to get it out and completed with the guitar so that he won't forget it later. It was amazing, really, that he had that kind of indigenous talent that allowed him to merely sit down and... play. Just, go, just like that.
Pretty soon he was playing the same pattern of chords over and over, trying to ingrain it within his memory. I have never had a particularly strong musical ear, but I could hear subtle differences in the progressions, indicating different verses. I knew he was coming up with lyrics in his head. He slowed to a stop, but was still staring into space, lost in his train of thought.
"Whatcha writin'?" I asked him quietly. He blinked a few times and seemed to come out of his thoughts. As he turned to me, I noticed that the expression of concentration he had held earlier had become one of pain. I winced inwardly, hating to see him like this.
"Tell me what you think," he said, and started playing. He sang the first verse.
He woke up from dreaming and put on his shoes.
Making his way past two in the morning,
he hasn't been sober for days.
Leaning now, into the breeze,
remembering Sunday he falls to his knees.
They had breakfast together, but two eggs don't last like the feeling of what he needs...
Now this place seems familiar to him.
She pulled on his hand with a devilish grin.
She led him upstairs, she led him upstairs, left him dyin' to get in...
He stopped there. I couldn't help but stare. You would think I would be used to how incredible he could be by now, but it was times like these that caught me by surprise every time.
"It's... beautiful, Alex."
"Help me with the words," he asked. I furrowed my brow; I had never been very good at coming up with these things on the spot.
I had... a fantasy I suppose, an image in my head, that came to mind when I thought of Alex hearing the news about Sara. I wasn't sure where it came from, it just a little scenario that popped into my mind.
I imagined him going around to the neighbors in her apartment building; it was nearly midnight. He was asking what had happened to Sara, if anyone had seen her, where she was. I imagined him knocking frantically on the doors, desperate. I hated the image, but I figured that, as far as songwriting went, I should roll with it.
"Forgive me, I'm tryin' to find," I sang. "My... something." I giggled. "I'm callin' at night. I don't mean to be a bother, but have you seen this girl?" He stared at me, half-smiling, mulling it over in his head. I could tell that he liked it, and I couldn't help but beam.
He repeated it, and filled in my blank; "my calling, I'm callin' at night." He loved adding double meanings and clever word choice like that to his lyrics. "She's been runnin' through my dreams," he added, on a roll. "And it's drivin' me crazy--" I interrupted, inspired.
"It seems, I'm gonna ask her to marry me." I smiled, proud of myself, but it was somewhat forced. I still was unnerved by the fact that he had wanted to marry her. However, I was glad to be helping him like this; it made me feel... special. Important. Needed. He repeated it again, the pained expression slowly being replaced with excitement. He always got pumped writing a new song.
I grinned, a little more naturally this time.
"Well, Em, I think we may have a hit on our hands."
The boys were back in the studio, and I was spending the day with them. They were mostly working on the vocals for the day, so it was primarily Alex back in the booth. I was hanging with Jack, Zack, and Rian in the meantime. We had already been there for hours, and we were all waiting on Alex before heading out to lunch.
"Ugh, this is so long," I complained, getting somewhat impatient. Jack burst into the room.
"THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID!" he shouted, grinning spastically, and sprinted back out before any of us could slap him. I laughed. Zack was texting his girlfriend-of-the-moment, Rian was addicted to a new iPhone app, and Jack was running around wreaking havoc. I figured I would go watch Alex in the sound booth.
I walked in and slipped into an empty chair next to Matt Squire, grabbing a pair of headphones. As I slipped the chunky headset over my head, Alex gave me a little wave and a smile from inside the booth. I grinned back at him and settled down as he began recording a new take.
He was singing the song we wrote together, the one he wrote about Sara. He had decided to call it "Remembering Sunday." I watched him.
He always sang so... passionately. You could tell just by watching him that he felt every word he spoke, every note and every breath of the song. He closed his eyes and moved his body with the rhythm. I loved how he used his hands when he sang, as if they were the notes on the staff, moving them up and down in synchronization with the notes in the runs.
I chuckled to myself as I realized I could be just as bad as the silly fangirls. I could verge on obsessed just as well as they could. It's funny how you can know someone forever, and they can still entrance you as well as they entrance a stranger. You would think I would've gotten over it by now, how talented and emotional he was.
After Alex wrapped up, the whole gang headed out to the nearest Starbucks for a little coffee and lunch. Alex and I were the first to order, and sat down across from each other at a table to wait for everyone else.
"God, it feels great to be recording again," he said, still obviously on a music-high.
"I'm just glad you're back to normal," I added. Nothing had been said about our night together; neither one of us wanted to bring it up, I suppose. No need to make things more awkward than they had to be. I was a bit disappointed that we hadn't exactly shifted to "relationship" mode yet; I had hoped we would get around there soon, after that night...
"It's funny..." he said. “Remember that night, the day you came over, after... it happened?" He had a hard time saying the words "she died."
I swallowed. Funny that he brought it up right after I had been thinking about it. Did he think about it as much as I did?
"Yeah," I replied briefly.
"Well, I know this is gonna sound crazy, but just let me finish, 'kay?" I nodded in agreement. I could already feel my imagination running away with me, and I had to mentally slap myself to keep from visualizing him getting down on one knee right now.
I shook myself back into reality.
"Well, I have this really vivid memory. It must have been a dream, but... it just felt so real." He was getting excited, whatever he was talking about was very emotional for him. I was confused as to what he was getting at; did he not remember...? Granted, at the time he had still had a fair amount of beer in his system, he was even a little drunk, I suppose. But... did he really not remember? He continued. "I remember... well... it's gonna sound nuts," he hesitated.
"Spit it out!" I teased. He sighed excitedly, unable to hold back whatever it was.
"I dreamt, I guess, that... I slept with Sara," he blurted.
I felt my insides turn to stone and drop straight to the floor. It wasn't that he didn't remember. It was just that he didn't remember it was ME.
He thought I was her.
Tears filled my eyes, but I held them back. He held out his hand in a "hold on, don't speak" gesture. I couldn't even if I had wanted to.
"Okay, okay, I know I sound like a madman. Don't say anything yet. I know it doesn't make any sense. But, you have to believe me, it was so real. And... it was amazing. It just felt perfect, you know?" He pressed on in such a frenzy he obviously didn't notice my emotional state. I could do nothing but stare at him, hoping his words would change meaning as he went on. But no, they didn't change, and there was more.
"And - I know you'll get this, this is right up your whole 'hopeless romantic' alley - when she said my name in the middle of it, it... it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard." He looked at me, this time waiting for a reply. His excitement was tangible in the air around him. There was no doubt he truly believed he had slept with Sara. I was still in shock. "Okay, I know that was probably a bit detailed, sorry, but... I can't even describe it. It was so... perfect!"
"I... I have to go, Alex." My hands shook. My voice shook. Everything shook. It felt like my world was crashing down around my ears. I knew I had to get out of there, and fast, or what little composure I still had would be lost.
"Wait, Em, what's wrong?" he asked, confused. I ignored his question and bolted for the door, forgetting about my coffee and food.
I quickly climbed into my car and shut the door. As I drove away, tears clouded my vision, but I saw Alex standing in the doorway of Starbucks, still wondering what he did wrong.
I barely made it to my driveway without crashing; I could hardly see through all the tears in my eyes. I yanked the key out of the ignition violently and leaned back in my seat. I was unable to move, and mentally collapsing. One thing ran through my mind, a horrible, burning truth.
He had loved it as much as I did.
But he didn't think it had been me.
He thought I was her.
He thought I was her.
He thought I was her.
I cried harder than I had in years. I felt betrayed, deceived... and ashamed.
How could I think that he could love me like I loved him? Or even like he had loved Sara? What made me think I was worthy of someone as wonderful as him?
But no, he wasn't wonderful. He was a jerk. He tricked me into believing, for a moment, that maybe he felt the same way about me as I felt about him. It was horrible of him.
But he didn't mean to do it...
But how could he not realize what he was doing? He was selfish, having me sleep with him just so that he could feel better.
But he had no idea that I felt the way I did... so was it still cruel?
My thoughts were running in circles. I hated him, I hated myself. I didn't know who was right and who was wrong. I didn't know what to do.
With a deep breath, my face screwed up with concentration, I tried to stop crying. I focused on little things, unbuckling my seatbelt, locking the car behind me, sliding my key into my front door. I was distracting myself long enough to get inside and settled.
I felt absolutely horrible. I decided to take a shower; more mundane tasks, and hopefully I would be able to think clearly afterwards.
I turned the knob until the water burned my skin. I had hoped that physical pain would distract me, but it wasn't working very well. I swapped theories, and turned the knob to the opposite direction. Numbness would be welcome.
I got out and wrapped myself in a towel. I stood there, shivering, for what must have been ten minutes.
I thought back on one of my favorite lines he's ever written: "I hope the air will serve to remind you that my heart is as cold as the clouds of your breath, and my words are as timed as the beating in my chest."
His heart was colder than I had ever realized, I thought, harsh, bitter, and filled to the brim with spite.
I couldn't sleep that night. As I lay alone in my bed I couldn't stop thinking about Alex. I shivered relentlessly, despite the three blankets I was wrapped in tightly. The silence and the darkness around me seemed to become physically tangible; I felt them pressing on me from all sides, whispering his name. Even worse, whispering her name.
He thought I was her.
He thought I was her.
He thought I was her.
I squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could and pulled on my own hair. I couldn't believe I had gotten myself into this situation. It was all my own stupid fault.
No, it wasn't. If he just loved me like I loved him... But I can't make him love me. That defeats the purpose.
But why wasn't I good enough?
Good enough for Alex Gaskarth? Never.
I was at war with myself. My brain seemed to have split into two opposing parties, each analyzing the problem differently.
I was to blame.
He was to blame.
I was to blame.
He was to blame.
Over and over and over.
"SHUT UP!" I wanted to scream at myself. I needed an 'off' switch for my own mind. I was losing it. I finally couldn't stand it. I flung myself out of bed, in a flurry with frustration. Wrenching open the mirrored cabinet in my bathroom, I frenzily searched the pill bottles for the title I needed. My hands were shaking with anger as I twisted the cap off the bottle. I slowly dropped five little Benadryl caplets into my sweating palm. A tad over the recommended dose, I admit, but not enough to do any real damage.
I just wanted my mind to be emptied as fast as possible. Out like a light. Now.
I tilted my head backward and swallowed my little magic pills. Turning to get back into bed, I caught a glimpse of my reflection. Even through the dim light I could see that I looked like a wreck. Puffy eyes, red nose, tear tracks deeply ingrained in my cheeks. I gritted my teeth and went back to bed, the image of my distraught face lingering in my mind like a burn.
Alex Gaskarth, this is what you've done to me.
"Hey Emily, can you open up the second box of size smalls?" Vinny asked me.
"Sure thing," I replied. It had been three days since the fiasco with Alex at Starbucks. The band was playing a small show locally here in LA. I wouldn't even be here for fear of interacting with Alex, but I had promised Vinny weeks ago that I'd help out with merch today. So far, I'd managed to avoid Alex by "accidently" arriving late. Immature, I know. But necessary.
I could hear them playing from here; they were on the middle of "Break Out! Break Out!" Even though I could obviously hear his voice streaming from the oversized speakers, I was leaping a foot in the air at any nearby noises. I was jumpy and nervous about seeing Alex. I'd been ignoring his insistent phone calls since that day.
"Here you go," I said as I dropped the newly-opened cardboard box in front of Vinny, wincing at the loud noise it made as it smacked the ground.
"Thanks." He paused. "You okay, Emily? Alex said he's been trying to talk to you for days, and ... you seem pretty out of it. What's up?"
I pursed my lips and gave a little shake of my head. I didn't want to talk about it.
"It's nothing," I muttered. He took the hint. "Just a headache." That was true; it just wasn't what was bothering me.
We didn't talk much for the rest of All Time Low's set. I somewhat regretted snubbing Vinny like that. I didn’t want to take it out on him. At the same time, I didn't exactly want to discuss it. I didn't feel much like dealing with anybody right now.
As the boys played, occasionally a lone fan or a pair of girls would come up and buy something. However, when we heard Alex's final "thanks everybody for having us, we're All Time Low, have a good night!" the fans nearly instantaneously flocked to the merch booth. The onslaught was very nearly frightening. Vinny and I hustled to get the impatient teenagers their beloved t-shirts and CDs.
After a few minutes of frenzied purchases, I happened to glance up and scan the crowd before me. I nearly gasped as I saw Alex hurriedly making his way to the front, eyes locked on my face. He lit up when he realized I saw him.
"Oh, God," I whispered, quickly turning to the next customer. The girl gave me a blank stare, obviously waiting on me already. I was frazzled.
"My small shirt?" she asked. "The purple one?"
"Oh, right. Sorry," I mumbled in apology.
I was getting slightly panicked at the thought of Alex coming over here. What would I say, especially in front of all these people? This wasn't the time, or place for the conversation we needed to have.
Apparently there was an angel smiling down on me from someplace, and my angel came in the form of a fangirl.
A piercing squeal broke through the hustle and bustle of the crowd; a girl had noticed that the All Time Low frontman himself was among them in the merch line. It only took a matter of seconds for him to be completely engulfed by adoring fans. For a fleeting second, I saw a pained look come across his face, and I knew instinctually that I was the only one who noticed. As much as he loved his fans, he had been dying to talk to his best friend. I smiled inwardly at the thought that, for a moment at least, he wanted me more than the fans.
As happy as the realization made me, my cheeks burned slightly with the thought; I felt like an attention whore, desperate for even an ounce of Alex's notice. I got back to helping the few people still standing at the booth. They, unlike me, actually seem able to realize that chasing someone you can't get through to is pointless.
I could learn a thing or two from them.
Nearly three hours later, security had finally cleared out the crowd. The entire crew was hanging out in the parking lot of the venue, sharing the night's strangest fan-encounter stories. Most of them were getting ready to go out to a local bar pretty soon; they were just waiting up for the band to come too. Jack and Zack were already here and everyone was waiting on Rian and Alex.
I was talking to Matt Flyzik's new intern, and I was starting to get panicked again. Alex would show up soon, and I needed to get out of there, but Brandon - the intern - was the type of person who, once you get him started, will keep talking until he drops dead. I was barely participating in the conversation, merely a polite nod or "really?" every now and then, but Brandon kept going, full steam ahead.
As I nervously looked around, Brandon's speech going in one ear and out the other, I suddenly heard my name called out from behind me. I didn't have to turn to recognize the voice that I knew as well as my own, but I whipped around in surprise, forgetting about the chatty intern beside me. The intense movement wasn't good for my already pounding headache, and I reflexively put a fingertip to my temple in pain.
Rian and Alex were walking together, but when he saw me, Alex gave the drummer a little pat on the arm, signifying they'd continue their conversation later. Rian saw that Alex had spotted me, and nodded in understanding. I wondered how much Alex had told the rest of the band about... the incident. Or how much they had seen for themselves.
Jogging ahead, Alex grinned at me.
"Em, I've missed you!" He wrapped his arms around me in a hug. Normally I would be comforted, but my headache wasn't exactly reinforcing my patience level. He whispered, "What happened the other day?"
"We need to talk," I muttered, not meeting his gaze.
"Come with us then! We can talk over a beer or something."
"No, Alex," I sighed. "I don't want to talk over a beer. This is important."
"So... what, do you want to talk here?" he asked, confused.
"I... I don't know." I massaged my temple, trying to get rid of this damn headache. I couldn't concentrate.
"...Are you okay?" he asked, concern plain on his face.
"God, Alex, no, I'm not okay!" I said, a little too loudly. I felt myself mentally snap. I couldn't stop it now from overflowing. "You just can't do this kind of thing to me!"
"What are you talking about?"
"That's the sickest part! You don' even know what you did!" I was completely shouting now, but I didn't even care. My head pounded and pent up frustration flowed through my veins like a drug. At this point the entire band and crew were watching us. I didn't care about them either.
"Em, calm down, what is it? Just tell me what's wrong, Emily!" he frantically tried to appease me, wanting to avoid a scene. He was alarmed; this paroxysmal explosion was dangerously out of character for me.
"My God, Alex! You really have no idea, do you?!" There were tears burning down my face, for the millionth time in two weeks. "It was me, Alex! It wasn't a dream, it wasn't Sara, it was ME!" I screamed. His face registered complete and utter shock, and he stared at me blankly. I gripped my head in my hands; the pain got worse when I yelled, but I couldn't stop myself.
"Em..." he whispered.”I'm so, so sorry..." My vision was dancing. I felt off-balance. I couldn't... think straight. What's going on? I thought. I stumbled into Alex's arms, unstable. "Em? Are you okay?" I couldn't see his face clearly, but the fear was plain in his voice.
The... stupid... headache... couldn't think... everything was... bright... what... was happening?
I couldn't speak. My ears were full of cotton. "Alex," I mouthed.
Then I collapsed. And everything went black.
The last thing I heard was Alex shouting my name over and over, and Matt Flyzik calling an ambulance.
When I woke, I was immediately blinded by shocking bright lights. I yelled out in alarm, but the only noise I could make was so hoarse that it burned my throat. I looked around and saw my best friend sitting next to me in a plastic chair, face haggard.
I was in a hospital bed.
Alex forced a chuckle. "You sound like a dying seal." I coughed and swallowed what little saliva my dry mouth could salvage.
"My, you're a comical genius," I wheezed. He grinned, but it didn't reach his eyes; they were still full of concern. I added, "That's right, make fun of the invalid."
He didn't find that one as funny. The concern expanded from his eyes, swallowing the smile.
"Em, what happened last night?" he asked fervently. I looked at him for a moment before replying.
"I'm honestly not sure. I had this killer headache like you would not believe... but I've been prone to crazy migraines like that for a year or two now, you know that. But other than that I was fine." He gave me a worried look and replied with silence.
A doctor walked into the room.
"Ah, Ms. Devonne, good to see that you've come to." he accompanied the greeting with a bittersweet smile; this man was obviously as used to the bad news as he was to the good. He had a very genuine air to him. Even immediately upon meeting him, he felt like someone to be trusted. A good quality in a doctor. "So, how are you feeling?"
Swallowing again, I replied.
"Thirsty," I said with a small grin. Alex chuckled again. "And..." I thought about it. "Numb." It was true, I didn't feel... anything. The headache was gone, everything was gone. The noticed the tug of an IV on my right forearm. "Oh," I added, looking at it. I didn't look long; needles gross me out.
"Well, we can remedy the first part. The second part is good for you, for now." The doctor turned to a nurse and told her to get me a glass of water. When he finished, Alex stood up and started talking to him quietly, the two of them moving a little farther away from me. I couldn’t catch much in their hushed tones, but they repeatedly kept looking back at me.
I thanked the nurse who came back with my water, and turned back to watch, straining to hear what was being said.
The doctor - I still didn't know his name, I realized - looked analytical, like Alex was giving him clues and he had to figure out the answer to the riddle. I figure that's what medicine is like; symptoms as clues, cures as the difficult solution.
Alex's face looked drawn and worried. I felt the same guiltily-burning joy that would appear whenever Alex got into a fight with Sara, or last night when he wanted to be with me rather than his fans. I looked away from the pair of them abruptly. As illogical as it was, I felt that if I looked Alex in the eye while thinking things like that, that he would somehow... know.
When I felt brave enough to look back up, Alex and the doctor were coming back to my bedside.
"Your friend Alex here was telling me you had a pretty bad headache last night? And that you've had a history of migraines?" I nodded, and he sighed. "Well, I hate to do it, but we're going to have to get you an MRI."
I stared at Alex, giving him a look that said I have a headache and they give me an MRI?! He shrugged and nodded, looking at me like just go with it. The doctor continued.
"Now, the machine's pretty noisy, so if you want to listen to an iPod or something, that's fine."
"Well, I would but I don't have it wi-"
"Wait," Alex interrupted me, digging through his pockets. "Use mine." I took the jumble of wires as he handed it to me, untangling them.
The doctor came over and delicately removed my IV from my arm, taping a piece of cotton over the pinprick.
While he did this, I asked him his name. He laughed before answering.
"I'm sorry, I never introduced myself, did I? I'm Stephen Carthy."
"Okay then, Dr. Carthy. Take me to the big fancy brain scanner." I turned sitting on the edge of the bed. I hopped down, nearly falling over. Alex caught me as I stumbled, and I smiled apologetically. Rolling his eyes at my clumsiness, he wrapped his arm around my wait for me to lean on him as we walked; Dr. Carthy leading the way, and a nurse bringing up the rear of our little parade.
A few slow minutes later found me lying inside the gigantic machine. The doctor was right, it was noisy. But I had Alex's voice to comfort me, even if it was just streaming from a little pair of ear buds. I'd always found it kind of funny that he had his own music on his iPod, but I knew from experience that he skipped it every time it came up on shuffle. Right now, though, it was just what I wanted.
I was getting worried. What had Alex told them that made them think I needed a full brain scan after one little fainting spell? Oh, well. They'd realize I was fine soon enough. I settled down and listened to the music.
Running from lions never felt like such a mistake...
Running from lions never felt like such a mistake...
Running from lions never felt like such a mistake...
After the MRI, I was back in my hospital bed talking to Alex. He was telling me some crazy fan stories to pass the time until Dr. Carthy came back with the scans.
Neither one of us wanted to talk about what I told him the night before. We didn’t bring it - or Sara - up, but he seemed to be treating me a little more... delicately. Like anything he wanted to say might hurt me, so... he just didn't say it.
It feels like recently we've been spending more time avoiding talking about things than we spend talking.
I pushed the thought out of my head. All I wanted right now was to sit and laugh with my best friend.
As Alex was telling me about a fangirl who bedazzled her and Alex's initials onto the bra she tossed onstage, Dr. Carthy walked in. My eyes were full of tears because I was laughing so hard, but... it looked as if he stopped in his tracks when he saw our laughter. As if... he was worried that whatever he would tell us would be... bad. I shook my head in my laughter fit. I was nearly crying, how could I tell? This whole thing was stupid; I was fine.
Alex and I took a few deep breaths to calm ourselves as the doctor approached. His were so exaggeratedly deep and comical that it almost set me off again. I smiled wide, but looked away from him so I could actually pay attention to the doctor.
"Well, you two, I'm sorry to be such a buzz kill, but I'm going to have to tell Mr. Gaskarth to wait outside. Patient confidentiality, of course." I waved off the doctor's remark.
"Anything you tell me can be said to Alex, too," I said.
"Alright, Ms. Devonne, but this is very important, personal information. But it's your choice." I merely looked at him, waiting for him to go on. What kind of "personal information" could he be talking about? Dr. Carthy sighed before continuing, his expression grim.
"Well, Ms. Devonne-"
"Emily," I interrupted. He nodded, his expression still somber.
"Alright, Emily then. Anyways, I'm afraid I must be the bearer of some very bad news," he continued. Alex watched him intently, all traces of laughter wiped clean off his face. I wasn't able to process the information yet.
"What kind of bad news?" I pressed.
"We found something in the MRI images." No reaction. He continued, "It appears you have a malignant brain tumor, Emily."
I felt my shoulders slump; I hadn’t even realized they were tensed. A hand gripped mine and squeezed. Looking over at its owner, I saw that Alex's face was drained of color. I had to remind myself to breathe.
"Wh-what?" I finally gasped.
"You have a tumor on your brain. It is very deadly, and I'm afraid..." he sighed again. "I'm afraid we caught it far too late. Treatment can be attempted, but, unfortunately, I doubt you'll ever reach remission. However, with the right kinds of treatment, you can wear it down and increase how long you can fight it off..."
I couldn’t think. Nothing he was saying was actually being comprehended. I actually felt my vision flash for a moment. Tightening my grip on Alex's hand, I asked the most important question.
"How long do I have to live?" he thought about it for a moment, as Alex and I waited with bated breath.
"Probably a year. Two if you're lucky. I'm very deeply sorry, Emily." My vision blurred with tears for the second time in only ten minutes. But these weren't from laughter.
Before I could do anything, Alex leapt up from his chair and wrapped his arms tightly around my shoulders. Someone took a pair of pliers to my throat; I was choked up with contained sobs. I pressed my face to Alex's chest, too shell-shocked to do anything but let the tears fall.
I vaguely heard Dr. Carthy say he would leave us alone for a few minutes. It sounded like he was miles away.
"A year... two if you're lucky..."
"A year... two if you're lucky..."
His voice echoed endlessly in my head.
I felt Alex's chest heaving as he cried with me. I managed to string enough neurons together to pick my own arms up from my sides and hug him back. He climbed onto the cold, unfeeling hospital bed with me.
We lay together crying.
Just like that day at his house.
But now, the roles have changed. The victim becomes the comfort. The shoulder to lean on becomes the one who needs help.
"A year... two if you're lucky..."
I was going in for my first chemotherapy by the end of the week. As much as I fought him on it, Alex insisted that he wanted to be there for me.
I'd heard some pretty gnarly stories about treatments like this, and I really had no interest in Alex seeing me like that. But, at the same time, I was glad that he was willing to sit through that for me. I had a feeling I would want the support.
As the nurse hooked me up to all of the requisite tubes and needles, I was tense and nervous. I had no idea what this would feel like. By the time she finished setting me up, I already needed to take deep breaths.
Alex sat next to me on the bed, arm around my shoulders. Just talking. As if we weren't in a hospital. As if I wasn't dying. As if it was just another day spent chilling out with his best friend. I played along; I knew this was hard for him. Losing Sara, finding out he was going to lose me.
There's still a chance, I reminded myself. A slim one, but a chance nonetheless. I'd take what I could get.
As my face registered the discomfort and nausea, Alex's talking slowed. He was watching me.
"You okay?" he asked gently, giving my shoulders a squeeze.
"I guess. I just feel... nasty." I felt my slight grimace deepen. "And pretty barftastic." He gave me a sad smile, obviously wishing there was something he could do. I tried to put on my 'big girl' face for him.
He resumed talking, doing his best to distract me. His words barely entered my mind before they were forgotten. I kept glancing at the bag of fluids hanging nearby, wishing the damn thing would drain faster. The skin was taut around the catheter in the back of my hand; but at least the sharp discomfort gave me something to focus on besides my rolling stomach and the delicately strolling passage of time.
Oh, God... I felt it coming, and looked around desperately. Where was the plastic bowl the nurse had given me? Alex realized what I was looking for, and quickly grabbed it from beside him, thrusting it into my lap just in time.
The bile burned my throat. I gripped the hard plastic edges with clammy hands. Alex, unsure of what to do, held my hair back for me as I vomited.
I felt shaky. Alex was whispering in my ear. "It's gonna be alright, Em," he comforted. "It'll all be fine." I grimaced again as the bile rose for a second time.
I looked around the room. They all knew something was wrong, deeply wrong. It was why they were all here. The band, the crew, my parents had even flown out from Maryland.
The only other person who knew right now was Alex. He stood next to me, a hand on my arm.
I only wanted to say it once. Which was why I had gathered everyone I loved most into this room. With a deep breath, I told them, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much.
They all stared at me, dumbstruck. Then, the tears began to fall. First from my parents, then some members of the crew, and pretty soon we were all crying and hugging each other. No one knew what to say. Even Jack was quiet for once in his life.
Alex stood off to the side as my parents embraced me, giving me what they hoped were words of comfort. He looked... broken, as if with each passing moment another piece of his life fell from the sky, another friend bit the dust.
I closed my eyes so I wouldn't have to see him like that.
The memory from a few days before came flooding back as I sat on the edge of the hospital bed. I wasn't sure why. But I hung my head over the bowl, beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead and upper lip.
"Go away, Alex," I rasped. "You don't need to sit through this."
"Shut up, Emily," he snapped, annoyed that I would underestimate him. "I'm here, there's no getting rid of me. I'm here for you."
I inhaled, about to reply, but all that came out was more vomit.
I felt horrible. Disgusting. Sick. I sat there heaving my guts up, and realized how lucky I was to have a friend like Alex. He was here for me when I was at my most terrible, despite the discomfort, despite the sadness, despite how just plain gross it was.
I loved him.
We went on like this for a little while longer. He rubbed my back, trying to make me feel better in any way he knew how.
As it seemed my stomach was finally slowing to a stop, he ran his hand through my hair as he held it back.
I felt him freeze beside me. I still felt too horrible to even open my eyes.
"What?" I asked. He didn't reply for a moment.
"It... it's nothing. Don't worry," he lied. He could never lie to me, he was terrible at it. I knew him too well. Wincing, I opened my eyes and turned to face him.
"What?" I repeated. He looked like he had seen a ghost. I followed his gaze as he stared at his own hand. When I saw what he was holding, I nearly bit my tongue off to keep from crying out. I had forgotten about this result of the treatments.
In the left hand of my best friend sat an enormous tuft of hair.
I vomited again, unsure if it was the chemicals in my bloodstream that set me off again or the unbelievably thick strand of my hair in Alex's hand.
I still felt sick. I was focusing on holding back the tears; the image of my hair, intertwined in Alex’s fingers, was like a photograph taped to the backs of my eyelids. I took long, slow breaths. This was going to be hard, I knew. Very hard. But I had to do it. If not for myself, then for everyone else.
"Em? You feel any better?" Alex asked me tentatively. I blinked.
"What? Oh. Yeah, I'm okay now, I guess."
"You were pretty zoned out right there," he added, coming up behind me and hugging me. We stood in the kitchen of my apartment and I was leaning on the back of a chair. He rested his chin on the top of my head, fooling around and blowing on my hair.
Oh God, my hair. The photograph had disappeared for a moment, but returned now, too-bright and taunting. I squeezed my eyes shut.
"What were you thinking about?" he asked, trying to get me to open up. He hated silence as much as I did.
I felt his arms around my waist, too warm, and his head on mine, too heavy. I was so aware of him...
"Oh, um... nothing." The way I ended implied that there was something I had to say, and he could tell. It hung in the air around us, in the nonexistent space between us.
I peeled his arms, however comforting, off of me and turned around to look at his face. "Alex, I can't do this anymore."
"Do what?" he asked, puzzled. “The treatments?”
"No, this, Alex. Always hugging, and touching, and being a close as we are... I need to know if it'll ever amount to something."
"Oh..." he replied, flustered. He left it at that, so I went on.
"You know I love you. But I think by now I'm closer to being in love with you. And I need to know if you feel that way about me." I was trying to be patient, I really was. But it would always astound me how this was something that was omnipresent in my thoughts, but it only seemed to cross his mind now.
"Em... I... I don't know, Em," he stumbled through his words. "This... this is pretty hard for me to deal with... between the cancer and... Sara... I just... there’s not a lot I feel certain of right now..." His eyes pleaded with me not to declare an ultimatum. Don't make me choose right now, they cried silently.
I sighed, exasperated, and shook my head slightly, looking around the room. I wasn't in the mood right now.
"Look, whatever, you don't have to tell me right now. But," I paused. "I care about you. A lot."
"I care about you, too," he justified. "It's just... I don't know." He sighed, and ran his hair off his face with his fingers. "I just don't know, Em." He looked weary. I looked at him for a moment.
"Alex, I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed. But... I don’t want to be alone just yet. Will you spend the night?”
She looked into my eyes, awaiting an answer. I was a deer in gaze of those headlights, unsure of what to do. We had just been talking about the fact that she's in love with me, and then she asks me to spend the night?
I didn't love her. Not like that. At least, I didn't think so. But how was I supposed to know?
It was a catch-22. If I said no, it would break her heart. But if I said yes, I would only bring about the pain of having a taste of something we would probably never have. That kind of relationship wasn’t for us, we had never been like that. Strictly platonic. But obviously not, in her mind.
Damned if I do ya, damned if I don't, Em... I thought.
That desperate pause contained a lifetime. Two lifetimes. I spent the whole time regretting bringing it up, wishing I could pull the words back into their cage.
Until he said yes.
I couldn’t help but smile slightly, despite my foul mood. I needed his company. However, Alex looked... almost scared or something. Too caught by surprise to do anything. He looked pained. By what, I couldn't be sure. But I looked away from his face as we went to my room. I didn't want to worry myself with whatever it was he was thinking. There was enough going on in my own mind.
Ignorance is bliss. Or so they say.
We lay down on my bed and I nestled my head into his chest. I just wanted to forget everything right now. Forget cancer, forget death, forget my own name.
Besides, maybe... just maybe, there was a chance he loved me too.
I was asleep within moments.
And when I awoke, I was alone.
I couldn't do it.
I couldn't lay there next to my best friend. Both of us knowing that she's dying.
I couldn't watch her heart break over me.
After she fell asleep, I wiggled myself out from underneath her and fled the apartment. I had to get the energy out.
I knew there was nothing I could do to save her, but I was so restless with the need to do something... anything. I walked, quickly and forcefully, as if I knew where I was going. If I sat still for another moment I was going to scream.
I kept walking. And walking. And walking. After about two miles, I reached a small park and collapsed wearily onto a stone bench that bore the city emblem. I held my head in my hands, elbows on my knees. What do you do when it turns out your best friend is in love with you? How do you discern love from love?
What do you do when that same friend won't be around two years from now?
Huffily, I rubbed a tear from my eye with the cuff of my hoodie sleeve. I knew it probably wouldn't be long until I snapped like a wishbone at Thanksgiving. Within the last month, I felt like I had been to hell and back. Now all of this on top? I closed my eyes and pulled my hood over my head, despite the beanie I was also wearing.
Why was she doing this to me? Why would she choose now to try and add romance into the mix? It was sickeningly selfish. How could I figure out my feelings for her if I still wasn't over... her?
I smirked at myself. Was I really that melodramatic that I couldn't even think her name? The look on my face didn't last long when I realized that, yes, it was true, thinking her name hurt that badly.
I made myself do it, over and over. Pain like this is like a muscle, right? Keep pushing the limits until you get stronger.
Or is it like a bone, where the easiest way to heal is to have a clean break?
I shook my head violently. Snap out of it, Alex, I thought. Enough with the medical analogies. That's not the problem at hand here.
Why is she making me choose whether or not to "take our relationship to the next level" and all that dumb crap? Why was she being so selfish? Just because she had cancer didn't mean that suddenly the whole world revolv...
I felt my lungs collapse. I couldn't even finish the thought. I was horrified at myself. Did I really just think that?
My expression sunk into a grimace of distaste towards my own thoughts. I'm the most egotistical, self-pitying excuse for a human. I'm a living shame, a walking travesty. My best friend is dying of cancer and I had the nerve to call her selfish.
I felt nearly sick to my stomach.
I had a flashback from earlier that afternoon. Her brown hair in my hand. The look of horror and fear on her face, mixed thoroughly with nausea and beaten to a pulp.
Closing my eyes and furrowing my brow, I forcibly shoved the image from my mind, replacing it with only blackness. I focused my thoughts.
What was important now was Em's happiness. I would do everything in my power to keep her happy until the end. I'd seen the depression in Sara, and been too afraid to do anything about it. But, I swore to myself, I would never see it in Emily. I couldn't let the beast take my Em.
But the catch? I was what she wanted. And I didn't know if I was what I wanted to give her. Was "us" what I wanted?
I thought about Emily. The way she complained about "taming" her hair. The way her eyes crinkled when she laughed. Her ever-present smile. Her obnoxious facial expressions. Her cute nose. The way she would tease me constantly, but always know where to stop. The way she loved my friends, and somehow managed to survive all the perverted jokes.
The way she would always be there, waiting for me, no matter what my problem was. And wouldn't be afraid to tell me it was my fault.
But, most of all, I thought about her listening to music. She just... got it. She felt it, in ways words couldn't even begin to describe. The girl had guitar riffs and drum beats in her soul.
I was like that too, but... in a way, it was different for me. I could manipulate the music to match me, and she had never really had the ability to do that. She relied on other people to make the wall of sound that she would rush into, headfirst. But she did it with more passion than anyone else I've ever seen.
I smiled for the first time in hours. Yes, it would be easy to fall in love with her. It would come naturally. I just didn't know if I was ready.
But I could always fake it until I was ready.
I felt like I had a lightbulb-moment, cartoon-style. If I wasn't ready now, then I could just pretend. It was a bittersweet mission. But it would work...
It only took a half a second for an image to unfold in my mind. I pictured us lying next to each other, under the stars. The 'me' in my... scenario was mentally and emotionally torn, lying about his feelings to make the young woman beside him happy. But the Emily in my head smiled blissfully as he told her he loved her.
I remembered a line from a song I wrote about a lifetime and a half ago. "The Girl's a Straight-Up Hustler." Kisses under starry nights, as talked about in song. We play along, so bittersweet by our design... I was amazed at how...relevant it was.
Yes. I would do it.
My idea was painful, but... it would all work out eventually... right? Did the ends justify the means?
I sat on my couch, legs folded and hugged to my chest. My hands cupped a mug of now-lukewarm tea. I stared out the window, not really seeing the sunrise.
I assumed Alex had been gone all night. I had slept straight through the remainder of the afternoon, and only woke up about an hour ago, around 5:30 AM. Alex's spot beside me on the bed had already been stone-cold by then.
Why did he leave?
Idiot, a voice in my head sneered. You think he wants to be with someone that will be dead in a year?
Shut up, I snapped at the voice. He still loves me, even if he's not in love with me.
I breathed in sharply when I heard my front door open, but resisted the urge to turn around. Only one person would just let himself in, regardless of the ridiculously early hour.
I closed my eyes and listened, partially wanting him to come and talk to me and partially wishing he would just go away. He closed the door behind him gently, but didn't move. I heard him breathing heavily; it was a nippy early-winter morning in LA. I could already feel my heart rate increasing, and I furrowed my brow slightly. Why wasn't he moving? After another painfully-long moment, I heard his footsteps as he approached the couch I sat upon. I opened my eyes when he stopped. He was a good ten feet away, facing me. I stood up slowly. We merely stood there, looking at each other. I had no idea what my expression was; I didn't even know how I felt right now. Resigned, perhaps.
"Well, Alex? What?" I spoke first, breaking the silence but not the tension. He looked at me, nearly visibly wrestling with his thoughts. He didn't reply, but looked... resolved. The pressure increased with each passing second. Suddenly, he reacted.
In just three strides, he was beside me, and in just another half-second he pulled our faces together, his lips embracing mine forcefully.
After a shocked moment of paralysis, I wrapped my arms around his neck and kissed him back. For once in my life, my mind was silent. My senses took over, and I didn't have a single thought in sight.
When we pulled apart, I couldn't help but beam. He smiled too, but his eyes seemed to be... searching. And steeled off. As if he knew something... and he was double-checking that I didn't know. But he added an additional peck on the lips, and my train of thought was instantly lost.
"I'm sorry I left," he said. "I just... had to think some things through. Will you take me if I promise to stay this time?" I knew the meaning in his question, but forced myself to take a reality check, remembering the last time... when he hadn’t even thought it was me.
"Take you... as a friend? Or... more?" I asked, hoping it came across as coy and flirty. Hoping I had really seen the intent behind the query. Hoping I wasn’t just a desperate, delusional head-case who warped reality to make herself happy. Hoping...
He half-grinned at my pathetic attempt at being flirtatious, and kissed me again. Shorter this time, but more... relaxed. Whatever he had been concerned about a moment ago apparently wasn't an issue. I bet he was worried about how I would react or something, I thought.
Silly. Why would he worry about that? I couldn’t be bothered to waste my time wondering about it. I had better things to focus on.
Alex loved me.
Alex seemed... tense the first few days we were "officially going out." He was very cautious with how he acted around me, and seemed to be watching my reactions carefully. Although I didn't understand why, I didn't particularly care. I figured he was just... adjusting. He had been with Sara for three years, I'm sure it's confusing being with someone else so suddenly.
But, in a way, it was almost as if we had really been dating for years. Only... minus the "date" parts. It wasn't too different now, just a little more... physical. But, hey, I'm good with that.
After three more weeks of treatment, almost all of my hair was gone. I had resorted to wearing hats and scarves for a while. The liked the scarves, they felt very expressive. Because they came in every color and pattern under the sun, I could always find a good scarf to match my day. It sounds cheesy, but it was just one of life's simple pleasures; for me, at least.
But today, I was going wig shopping. Alex was coming, and he was dragging Rian and Jack along with him. I think he was hoping that their combined testosterone levels could overrule the fact that the afternoon would be spent surrounded by hairpieces.
I was kind of nervous about the whole thing. I didn't know anything about wigs. I was sure they must see people like me all the time coming through the store, but... I couldn't help feeling self-conscious about being nearly bald. But Alex held my hand as we entered, and stood with me as I talked to the saleswoman. He gave me a reassuring smile as she handed me a few to try on.
"Emily!" Jack shouted excitedly. He had decided to go "exploring" and Rian had followed him to make sure he didn't get into too much trouble. Jack's loping, bean-pole figure came rushing towards me from a maze of tables. He was holding something behind his back, and I rolled my eyes at Alex, and then asked the saleswoman to excuse us for a few minutes.
"I found the perfect one!" he panted. Rian, standing beside him, wiggled his eyebrows and grinned.
"Really? Well, let's see it." With a humongous grin on his face, he thrust the "perfect" wig into my arms with an obnoxious "ta-dahhhhhh!" I laughed. It was a chin-length bob in a disgustingly-bright shade of hot pink.
"Oh yeah. That right there is my dream wig. How did you know, Jack? You know me so well!" I said, slathering on the sarcasm. Alex laughed and made me try it on. I did, forcing it on milliseconds after whipping off my scarf, still self-conscious and minimizing the time spend with my head exposed. Alex ruffled "my" hair, making the neon strands stick up in all directions.
"You look like the girlfriend of someone in a punk band or something. Oh, wait!" He smacked his palm to his forehead. "We're in a pop-punk band!" I laughed, shoving his arm playfully. Rian shook his head.
"Dude, we are not punk. We're a polka band, remember?" he teased. Grinning, I looked around.
"Wait... where did Jack go?" We all looked around, but the confusion was instantly broken into laughter when Jack came flying out of nowhere, wearing a waist-length brown wig. He came from behind Rian and rammed a curly blonde wig onto his buzzed head crookedly.
"You fricking-!" Rian grunted, pretending to punch Jack in the gut. Jack fell to the floor, feigning death, but ended up rolling around in a fit of laughter.
"Ooh, sexy Rian! Or, should I say, Rianna," I teased the disgruntled drummer with a giggle.
Alex laughed, shaking his head.
"Dude, you would make one ugly chick." Rian gave him a shocked look.
"Like, OMG, I think I look hot!" He did his best valley-girl impersonation, hands on hips and foot-tapping included. When Alex only rolled his eyes in response, he went back to his normal voice. "Well, fine, Mr. Beautiful, let's see what kind of girl you would make." He nabbed a red, shoulder-length one from a nearby shelf and attacked Alex, ripping off the ever-present beanie and jamming the wig onto his head. They laughed, and Alex turned to me. He raised his eyebrows, silently and sarcastically asking my approval.
"Well, let's just say the carrot-top look isn't for you." I turned to Rian and Jack, still wearing their ridiculous hair. "For future reference: next time he wants to dye his hair, we are not letting him become a ginger," I mock-whispered.
Alex pouted, pretending to be hurt. I gave him a quick peck on the lips to make up for the teasing.
His reaction was delayed. He perked up, but it seemed like he had to... remind himself to. Granted, normally he would initiate a kiss, but why would he be caught off-guard for me to do it instead? In fact, why would he need to be on-guard at all?
Before I could ask what was wrong, he distracted me.
"Which ones are you getting?" he asked.
The conversation went on from there, losing the frivolity and whimsy it had a moment before. I picked out two wigs, similar to my natural color. The same saleswoman from before checked me out. We had to drag Jack out of the store, away from his newly-beloved long hair.
By the time I remembered Alex's strange reaction, we were in the car with Rian driving us back to Alex's place. The three of them were laughing and joking around obnoxiously - the usual of course. I didn't want to interrupt their antics with a confrontation, no matter how small. Alex had been going through a lot recently, anyone could see that, and I was glad he had time to just relax with his friends for once.
Besides, I was probably just overreacting.
I woke up in the middle of the night with blood streaming down my face.
With one hand I plugged my nose, trying to contain the rapid bleeding. I sat upright and clambered out of bed, terrified and reaching for the phone. Oh my God, I thought over and over. My vision flashed and my head pounded, and I fell to my knees. I had gotten up too quickly, and I was already losing a ton of blood. I had no idea how long I could hold my flailing grasp on consciousness.
Still on the floor, I reached my left hand up onto the bedside table, grasping around for the phone. When I found it, I quickly dialed '91,' but my thumb remained hovering over the last '1.' What would happen if I passed out before I could give them my address? How would anyone find me? I was so scared; I didn't know what to do. I stared blankly at the blood spots on my pillow, sheets, and now my floor. My mind was frantic and couldn't focus.
I hurriedly clicked 'End,' then dialed Alex's number. I prayed he would wake up when he heard it. Please, please, oh God, please pick up the phone.
"Hello?" he answered groggily after a heart-wrenching thirty seconds of ringing.
"Alex!" I gasped. My tongue felt thick and heavy, as if someone had wrapped it in saran-wrap. "Alex, help! I'm bleeding like crazy, I need you! Call 911, come here, do something!" I closed my eyes to stop my dark bedroom from spinning around me.
"What?!" he asked. He was fully awake and alert now.
"Hurry, Alex," I slurred, more quietly this time. My energy was draining rapidly.
"I'm coming, Em, I'm coming!" he insisted. I heard him rushing around getting dressed, cursing to himself. "Em, it's gonna be okay." I couldn't tell which of us he was really trying to reassure.
"Alex..." I repeated. I couldn't get enough air. I heaved and heaved like a fish out of water, but it wasn't enough.
Alex hung up to call an ambulance, reassuring me repeatedly. I listened to the dial tone, unable to concentrate on anything but its loud droning in my ear.
My head felt fuzzy and my feet and legs had fallen asleep.
I passed out a second later.
I drifted in and out of consciousness. I would randomly notice noises or lights, but I couldn't get my body to respond. It was all blurred...
Alex shouting my name, and cursing when he found me on the floor...
Sirens, and red flashing lights shining through my window...
Being carried away from my room...
Alex's voice. "My God, I don't know what happened! She has fricking cancer, I told you; just get her to the damn hospital!" I didn’t like hearing him shout like that. I would have squirmed had I any sort of body control at the moment...
Bright lights. Lots of voices this time. Someone calling out for Dr. Carthy...
My body kept trying to revive itself, but it was too much for me... After a while, I just stopped trying. It stayed black and silent.
The hospital lights didn't even shock me when I woke up. I was used to their painful fluorescent glow by now.
I sat up slowly and I noticed someone else in the room. Alex lay fast asleep, slouched uncomfortably in a plastic chair. I could see he was stressed. His forehead was crumpled in anxiety, even in sleep. I thought of him in the wig shop a month earlier, joking loudly with our friends. When I compared that image with what lay before me, I felt a stab to the gut of guilt. He was anxious and weary, and it was because of me. The cancer made me like a little time-bomb, blowing up any second. I'll take you down, too, Alex, I thought, pained at the realization. I'll end up taking you down with me. As horrible as this made me feel, I couldn't stop a nagging thought in the back of my head. But... didn't I deserve a shot at happiness, however brief, at least as compensation for dying young? I felt the selfish - but persistent - thought coloring my senses, a falsely-bright cherry red, something bitter masquerading as something sweet.
I sat there on that lumpy hospital bed, alone with my thoughts. I would be dead before my 21st birthday, that was almost certain. Right now, it was about two months until my nineteenth, in February. If you think about it, I was pretty much still just a kid... Before I could sink too deep into my self-pitying reverie, I saw Alex stir out of the corner of my eye. I let myself get distracted and watched him for a little while. He was twitching a bit in his sleep, and snoring lightly. He was under too much stress for someone our age.
We both were.
I had to clap my hand over my mouth to keep from gasping and waking him up. His age...
Today was Alex's birthday.
I thought hard, making sure I was right. Yes, yesterday was the 13th, I was sure of it.
Today was Alex's 19th birthday. December 14th, 2006.
And he was spending it in a hospital. Because of me.
I groaned and resisted the urge to crawl under the thin hospital sheets and hide. Ugh, great, I thought. Here I am, ruining his birthday. I hung my head and wrung my hands, the guilt causing me to blush.
At least it's not like I had completely forgotten though. I had still remembered to get him a gift. I had found him a vintage New Found Glory shirt, one of the first ones ever made. It had taken me an eternity to track down. I was sure he would love it.
What he wouldn't love, however, was waking up in a hospital room. I sighed. Not much I could do about it, unfortunately.
Alex stirred again, waking up this time. He stretched his arms out with a soft groan and twisted his neck from side to side, popping it.
"Happy birthday," I said meekly, wincing with guilt. He blinked a few times, surprised; he had forgotten, too.
"Thanks," he smiled softly as he spoke. "I'm nineteen now, huh?" I nodded, but couldn't share the happy moment. I didn't meet his gaze.
"What?" he asked, noticing my particular lack of excitement.
"What do you mean 'what,' Alex? You're waking up in a hospital. On your birthday. Because of me," I said, emphasizing each sentence with a shameful shrug. He rolled his eyes and came over and hugged me.
"It's fine, Em. I'm with you, right? That's what matters."
"I guess... but I'm sorry, Alex," I apologized. He chuckled.
"It's fine, Em!" he insisted. "We're having dinner with the band and crew, remember? Besides, I'll only be mad if you didn't get me a present." He stuck his tongue out and crossed his arms as he teased me. I dropped my jaw and slapped my hand to my forehead, pretending to have forgotten.
"Crap!" I exclaimed in mock embarrassment. "A present!" He stared, unsure of whether or not I was serious. After making him suffer for a moment, I grinned and poked him playfully. "Just teasing!" He laughed, looking relieved. I knew he would've felt horrible if he thought he made me feel bad about buying him something. I changed the subject.
"Were you here all night?" I asked. He looked at me like I was crazy.
"You think I could let them haul away your bleeding corpse and then go home and sleep peacefully?! Am I that much of a heartless ass?"
"Well, Ass-karth..." I joked. I laughed that he put it that way, but felt bad that he had missed out on a good night's sleep. We seemed to be guilt-tripping each other back and forth this morning.
"Well, good to see you two lovebirds are awake," Nurse Ally said as she came into the room. Spending as much time as I do here for treatments, I was actually sort of becoming friends with some of the staff.
"It's actually one of the lovebird's birthdays today,” I said, jerking my head in Alex's direction. She beamed, her white teeth bright against her cocoa skin.
"Well is that so?" she exclaimed, her powerful voice bleeding Southern charm. "Mmm, child, well how old are you, sweet thang?"
"Nineteen," Alex replied with a smile.
"Nineteen?! Come 'ere and you give me a hug!" I laughed as she swallowed him up in a big mama-bear hug. When she let him go, she looked at us, hands on hips and her head shaking sadly. I knew what she was thinking; it was a common look people gave me when they found out that I had cancer. She was thinking about how young we were to be in a situation like this. Trust me, Ally, I know. I think about it everyday of my life. She quickly bounced back to her cheerful, motherly self. I snapped out of my sulking thoughts as well.
She explained - in an accent dripping in honey - that, while my intense nosebleed wasn't ideal, it was by no means an unheard of symptom. It just meant that other parts of my body were suffering from the chemotherapy, as well as the cancerous cells.
"Now, darlin', you are under strict resting orders from Dr. Carthy. We had to give you a blood transfusion last night, and we don't want to have to do that to you 'gain, now do we? You need to stay home and rest for at least a week, ya' hear? Don't you go getting your pretty little head too worked up," she warned.
"I won't, Ally." But she saw through my grin and gave me a chastising look.
"I don’t think I believe you, Miss Emily, but remember that it's for your own good!"
She shook her head, already knowing that I had no intention of being on lockdown for a week.
"I know, Ally, I know, don't worry about me." Alex snorted at my response.
"'Don't worry about me,'" he mocked. "Em, I found you at two in the morning passed out and bleeding. Tell me, at what point should we start to worry?"
"Shut up, birthday boy," I said, pushing him gently. He raised his palms in a "don't blame me" gesture and shrugged.
"Just sayin', Em." He laughed.
"Who's bringing the beer to your birthday party tonight?" I asked as Alex drove me home. The paramedics hadn't let him ride in the ambulance "because he's not family," so Alex had his car with him.
"Now, Miss Emily, you know you're supposed to be restin' for a week, darlin', so no fun for you, child, 'til next Monday, ya' hear me now?" he responded in a cheesy Southern drawl, imitating Nurse Ally. I laughed; I loved when he did his random voices.
"Aw, please please please?" I clasped my hands together, pretending to plead.
"Praise Jesus, are you crazy, girl?" He shook his head, clucking his tongue in disappointment. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say you got it into your pretty li'l head to rebel!" He spoke with elaborate hand gestures, just like Ally, and let go of the wheel for a moment. I screamed as we swerved, and he laughed and cursed loudly as we nearly drove right onto the sidewalk. He overcorrected the lack of control and came frighteningly close to hitting the fancy car to our left. Alex and I were laughing hysterically, but the snooty businessman in the car started yelling furiously, flipping us off through his too-darkly tinted window. I only laughed harder. Alex yelled out his open window.
"We can't hear you through your million dollar soundproof car, idiot!" We cracked up as the man sped off, fists clenched on the steering wheel. Alex tucked his head back into the car, shaking his head to ruffle his windblown hair back into place. I stared a moment too long at the grin lingering on his face.
"What, gaping at my incredible sexiness, now are we?" he teased. I slapped his arm with a roll of my eyes and he chuckled, smirking.
"You wish. Who else will be at the party?" I asked, back to my original question. He was serious for a moment.
"You sure you wanna come, Em? You don't want to just listen to what Carthy says?" He glanced between me and the road as he drove, bushy eyebrows raised a bit. I snorted.
"Right. I'll just sit at home for a week. Sure," I replied sarcastically. "You rock stars ain't the only ones who wanna live it up, you know." He smiled at my remark. Staring out the windshield, he was silent for a few moments, pondering something. Looking closer, I saw the tint in his eye that meant he was writing a song, not seeing the world around him. I left him to his thoughts, watching the palm trees along the side of the road.
I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the side mirror. I blushed and winced faintly. I didn't have a hat or scarf with me; it's not like I had been in any condition to worry about it last night. This morning, I corrected myself. I clenched my jaw a bit and averted my gaze. Even though I couldn't help it, my own self-consciousness annoyed me. My irritated train of thought was interrupted by a faint sound in the background.
I blinked a few times and furrowed my brow, concentrating on the noise. What did I hear that sounded so familiar...?
"Oh my god!" I screamed and jerked the volume knob of Alex's stereo up violently.
"What?!" he asked, jumping in his seat, alarmed by my sudden outburst.
"It's my favorite song!” I squealed, bouncing in my seat. I barely heard him heaving a sigh of relief; I was too busy singing along with Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World. Hey, don't write yourself off yet, it's only in your head you feel left out and looked down on...
"Oh god. I thought you were going to say I was about to hit a jaywalker or something." He was shaken a tad and pretending to be more annoyed than he really was. "But no, "The Middle" is on the radio. I'll stop everything and alert the media!"
"Shut up, Alex," I muttered in between lines. "It just takes some time, little girl, you're in the middle of the ride!" I shouted the lyrics, obnoxiously and unashamed. I grinned as Alex forgot his "annoyance" and started singing along with me.
Soon we pulled into my driveway, and he reached to pull the keys out of the ignition.
"Wait," I commanded. My eyes were closed and I was focusing only on the song. Feet tapping, hands jittering, the whole bit. I let each beat pound me in the chest, nearly forgetting that Alex was there at all.
I opened my eyes when the song ended, sighing and smiling.
"Alright, you can shut it off no," I said cheerily. Alex only stared at me, a cute half-smile hovering on his mouth. I fought the itching desire to kiss him. He was looking at me kind of funny, but... in a good way.
"What?" I asked. He pursed his lips, restraining a grin. He kissed my forehead before looking away and getting out of the car.
"Nothing." Whatever, I thought.
"You know what?" I said, still in a bouncy mood. "A good drum beat can completely make a song."
"Em, that that song has the most basic drumming in the world!" I waved my hand condescendingly. We stood next to his car, his hand on the small of my back.
"Too bad. It's still true and that's still my favorite song."
"Drums, huh?" he asked with a thoughtful look. "Not... vocals?"
"Psh, who needs stupid vocalists? They're all just vain rocker dudes in tight pants who think they're all that." I couldn't help grinning. Dead-pan delivery wasn't exactly a skill of mine.
"Admit it,” he said cockily. "You like the tight pants." He had both hands on my waist now and my hands were on his chest.
"Well," I conceded. "They are pretty hot." I laughed as he took my hand and put it on his ass.
"You know it," he said with a wink.
He was giving me the same look he had given me a minute ago in the car, the same sort-of smile. Something seemed different...
He was... relaxed, I realized. Normally he was kind of tense when he went all romantic. But not now. Now it was effortless. He leaned in and kissed me gently.
I knew. I knew from his touch, his hands on my hips, his lips on mine. I knew that, at least for this moment, Alex really, truly loved me.
It had been nine months since the incident right before my birthday. It was a long time. The record was finished and (very recently) released. Em's 19th birthday came and went. We hadn't had any major scares since December. The chemo made Em sick all the time, though. I hated it.
But, no matter how sick she felt, her face would always light up when I was around.
I wasn't sure how I felt about that.
Or about her, for that matter.
Even though it's been almost a year since the whole ordeal began, my brilliant little "plan" wasn't going as well as I'd hoped. There was definitely something between us... sometimes. But, usually, it was just me and Em, best friends for life. Nothing more.
I remembered the most recent visit to Dr. Carthy, just a few days ago. He said she was doing better than he had expected she would be doing at this point. The thought kept the stress at bay for me.
I've heard stories about people who overcame crazy things just by being positive, being happy. Mothers lifting cars off their kids; amnesiacs suddenly waking up and remembering... brain tumors being defeated. "Mind over matter" and all that. They say that the body can cure itself in desperate situations; all you need is to be happy.
That, right there, was why I kept up the guise for Em. I needed to be her happiness, needed to just to keep her around a little longer.
I didn't care how much it hurt me to lie to her like this. I would do whatever it took if it meant she would live. "I'd play with a nuclear device..." the familiar Blink tune ran through my head.
There were times that I wouldn't remember the cancer. It was never forgotten, exactly, but occasionally I got the luxury of not having it smothering everything else I thought about, like a fog I can’t get away from.
Em caught pneumonia. It was a bad sign. It was normal for a chemo-weakened immune system to surrender to colds and other minor issues like that. But pneumonia?
It was a lot for her to handle.
I knocked on her bedroom door, having let myself into the apartment.
"Come on in, Alex," I heard. The door muffled her voice, disguising how sick she sounded.
"Hey babe, how you feelin'?" I asked quietly as I entered. She lay on her bed, covers strewn around and a fan going strongly near her. She was pale, and as I got closer I saw a fine misting of sweat settled - lazy and menacing at once - on her forehead and upper lip. For every day she was like this, it was as if someone took a hole-punch to my lungs. I kissed her cheek as she replied.
"Hot," she groaned, her voice rasping like sandpaper.
I crawled onto her bed and sat down behind her, leaning against the wall and settling her head in my lap. I felt the dampness of her sheets; she had spent the last few nights in a cold sweat.
"I'm sorry, Em," I whispered, but she had already fallen asleep.
She slept fitfully in my arms. I listened to her labored breathing and stroked her too-warm forehead for hours, wishing it didn't have to be this way.
"Absolutely not," I answered bluntly.
"Why not, Alex?!" she demanded.
"You're barely getting over pneumonia, what makes you think a tour bus is where you should spend the next two months?" What was she thinking?! The guys and I were headed out for tour in a few days to promote the album and she wanted to come with? I didn't think so.
Em stared me down defiantly, too angry to notice that the strap of her faded purple tank top had fallen over her shoulder in the midst of her enraged hand gestures.
"I'll be fine, I need to get out of here is all. You think sitting in my apartment counting the minutes 'til you guys get back will do me any good?"
"It'll be better than running around, not sleeping, and being at concerts day in and day out!" I admit, I hated the idea of being away from her for so long. What if something happened? I couldn’t imagine if something went wrong and I was on the other side of the country, helpless.
At the same time...
My mind flashed with guilt, but I hid it skillfully. At the same time, part of me wanted to be able to forget, really forget, about all of this. Focus on the fans and the music and not on hospital trips and illness.
"Alex, think about this: how many more chances do you think I'll be getting a chance to do this? You think I'll be in any state to go with you next time? We don't know how much longer I have left, remember? Just let me do this. It's my last chance." Her forceful gaze clearly said "check, and mate." I hated when she said things about "how long she had left." It just felt so... harsh. A wall of reality built right into my little river of denial. But, she won the argument with that, and she knew it.
"Try telling that to Carthy," I retorted, even though it wasn't really a proper argument. She pouted and crossed her arms.
"Screw Carthy," she muttered under his breath. "It's my fricking life. Or what's left of it." I pursed my lips to keep from smiling. The girl's a fighter. Resting my hands on her waist, I allowed myself a grin.
"Girl, you are trouble in a tank top, aren't you?" She looked up at me and flashed that bubblegum smile.
"And you're drama in a pair of skinny jeans." I laughed at her teasing, a little harder than was probably necessary. I forgot how quick-witted she could be
"Alright. You can come," I conceded with an obnoxious phony sigh. Thank God the guys aren't here, I thought, or I'd never hear the end of how whipped I am.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you, Alex!" she squealed, kissing my neck in gratitude.
I closed my eyes, figuring I would regret this.
Whatever it takes, huh, Alex?
I was bouncing up and down, bursting like a firecracker with excitement. The bus was parked outside of Jack's house; we would be leaving any minute, waiting only on him. Rian and Zack were busy stowing their luggage under their bunks. I sat on the edge of the couch in the back lounge, knee bobbing, Alex sprawled beside me lazily.
"What's taking that idiot so long," he mumbled, still half asleep. He wasn't one for early mornings, and this 7 a.m. road trip had everyone looking like the walking dead.
All of a sudden, Jack came sprinting onto the bus, roaring his head off like a maniac. He dove headfirst onto the couch, as if he were dodging imaginary bullets. Alex kicked him as he landed, laughing. Rian and Zack came running in, rapidly firing imaginary finger guns - complete with sound effects - and adding to the senseless commotion.
"Gun it, Flyzik!" Jack screamed. Matt followed the order with a salute and the bus lurched forward; we were setting off. Jack leapt behind the couch for cover, hitting the floor with a surprisingly loud thud.
"God, Jack, you're so fat!" I shouted, laughing and curled safely on the couch amidst the madness. He popped up from behind the couch and started running in slow motion, dodging bullets the whole way. Rian mimed a flying assassin shot, soaring sideways through the air and falling to the ground, arms outstretched in his final shot.
"Noooooooooo!" Jack yelled in a low, dramatic voice as he collapsed. Zack tackled the fallen target, tossing his string bean form easily over his shoulder and standing up. He exchanged a high five and solemn-faced "badass" nod with Rian. They made their way back down the hallway of the bus with their hostage, Rian's arms raised in silent victory. Zack casually tossed the defeated opponent onto a bunk, and the conquering assassins trooped victoriously to the front of the bus.
I turned to Alex, paralyzed with laughter and gripping my side.
"This is what it's like on tour?" He nodded, and then grinned mischievously.
"And we haven't even broken out the alcohol yet!"
"I hope you're all dressed, 'cause I'm coming in!" I spoke loudly through the closed dressing room door, knocking briefly and entering. Luckily, everyone appeared to be fully clothed - for once. With these boys, someone was perpetually not wearing something; all I could do was hope for the best and pray they had at least underwear.
I stopped in my tracks as I walked through the doorway, surprised. Alex and Jack had their arms linked and were doing some sort of deranged do-si-do, shouting a tuneless melody as they skipped in circles. They slowed to a halt when they noticed me and stared, waiting to see what I would do. I kept my face expressionless, gazing blankly for a moment, before I burst into their song, picking up where they left off and joining the dance. Our arms formed an awkward, three-person knot that we spun around obnoxiously, Rian clapping out a rhythm from his seat on the couch.
Alex slipped, falling into Jack and me, and we tumbled to the ground in a giggling mess. Jack bounced up from our dog pile on the floor, bounding over to Zack, who was too preoccupied with his push-ups to join the festivities.
"Group hug!" Jack screamed, and threw his body onto Zack, pushing him to the floor with a thud.
"Get the hell off of me, man," Zack grunted with a grin, shaking his head in amusement. He flung the flailing Jack from his back, resuming his pre-show workout. Jack clambered up, unperturbed by being tossed on the floor. With a comically thoughtful and dignified expression, he sat on Zack's back, legs crossed and chin in hand pensively. I watched in near awe, laughing, as Zack continued his workout as if he didn't even notice, arms flexing and keeping a regular rhythm.
I saw Alex and Rian exchange a look and a nod; before I could ask what was going on, the two of them had marched over to Jack and picked him up by the armpits. He flailed and resisted, shouting and laughing, but couldn't defeat them both as they carried him away. Before the kidnappers could make it out the door, Matt Flyzik came in, ordering Rian and Alex to release poor Jack and be ready to get on stage in ten minutes. The somewhat frazzled manager hurried off a second later, mumbling something about some sort of technical difficulty with the walkie-talkies.
Rian resumed his position on the couch, pounding out a random beat onto the coffee table.
"I'm gonna go make myself look perrrrdy!" Jack yelled, grabbing at least three cans of hairspray on his way to the bathroom. I rolled my eyes, walking over to Alex and greeting him with a hug.
"You nervous, baby?" I asked casually. He shrugged.
"Nah," he replied. I could tell he was bluffing a little bit. "I mean, we've been doing this tour for a month and a half now." I nodded, smiling to myself. He continued. "Are you merch-ing tonight?"
"Nope, Vinny's got some other poor unfortunate soul to help him out tonight. I'm gonna watch you guys side stage instead. I'm considering stage diving, too, so watch out for the scarfed maniac that'll be leaping off into the crowd." He smiled at my teasing, both of us knowing full well that stage diving is something I wouldn't do in a million years.
"Alright, consider me warned." He kissed my cheek and eyed the door, where Rian and Zack were waiting. Suddenly, the bathroom door flung open and there Jack stood, engulfed in a cloud of hairspray.
"How do I look, guysssss?" he asked in the girliest voice he could manage. I coughed, choking on hairspray.
"Jack, you're fat and ugly, get out of here!" Alex yelled. Jack only responded by laughing and flipping Alex off as he made his way across the room.
"Another brilliant comeback from the mind of the great Jack Barakat," I rolled my eyes as I made fun of him, causing Alex to laugh.
"I'll see you onstage, 'kay Em?" Alex gave my hand a squeeze before leaving with the rest of the band.
"Caught in a cold sweat, stuck splitting hairs, drinkin' too much I'm on my way to strikin' out!" The audience roared with delight, recognizing the opening lines. I grinned under their hundreds of gazes. My fingers didn't even need a reminder; after six and a half weeks of performing almost every night, every chord change and sequence was subconscious. I felt sweat drip down the back of my neck, vanishing into the wet collar of my Glamour Kills t-shirt. The lights seemed especially bright tonight.
I looked to my right as I sang and saw Jack, tossing picks to the screaming girls and grabbing bras as they flew onstage. Smirking, my gaze slid past him to the side stage area. Matt was talking to Danny, grinning and relaxed for once. Colussy stood there as well, distracted ad texting. Nearby, but distinctly separated, was Em.
Her eyes were closed and her arms were in the air as she danced. She was absorbed in the music, lost in the stereo sound. There was something almost... sexy about it. Oblivious to the rest of the world, she had managed to escape for a minute.
Faded skinny jeans. Black high-top chucks. Proudly sporting her All Time Low shirt. I drank it in, seeing her like this. I bitterly realized that that seems to be a phrase cropping up more and more often in my thoughts, 'seeing her like this.' The scarf on her head was an obnoxiously bold highlighter pink, her own little "bite me" to the world. She didn't exactly have a care as to what people thought of her anymore. Her hands waved in the air as she danced alone. She was so thin... she'd lost so much weight in the last few months that it left me scared. She ate like a bird these days. I smiled, remembering all the times I used to tease her about her massive appetite. In high school, there had been times she'd even - famously - out-eaten Zack.
Those days were long gone.
My lungs gave out as I faced the crowd. I let the audience take over for a few lines.
"Believe you me, I'll give them everything. I'd tell them anything, to show them everything. 'Cause you ain't the only ones who wanna live it up, you ain't the only ones," they chanted at the tops of their lungs.
As dumb as it sound, people don’t get it. I didn't get it before all of this with Em. I wish we could grasp how fragile life really is before it becomes too late. You only get one, you know?
How long was it now? Over a year, that's for sure. Time was running out. My breathing hitched as I realized that this time next year, I couldn't have my best friend standing nearby on stage. Zack gave me a curious look, but the crowd didn't notice me choking up a bit. With a nearly imperceptible shake of my head, I quelled Zack's worries. I'd be fine. For now.
I think that keeping this up could be dangerous.
Every day it got harder to pretend that everything would be okay, to pretend that Em and I were a "normal" couple. Or even a legitimate couple. Despite my expectations, it didn't become easier to act in love with Em. I just became a better liar. And eventually it would all narrow down to one question
When we finally got to the end, would she die believing I was in love with her? Could I beat to tell her the truth? Could she bear it?
Would I be what finally sends her under?
"Emily!" Jack shouted over the pound of the dance music and loped over, already tipsy. Rian rolled his eyes, noticing it, too.
"Hey, Jack-o. How much have you had to drink already?" His ruddy complexion gave away the answer. I giggled at his expression.
"Barely anything!" He shook his head emphatically, eyes wide. "This stuff... What's this called? ... This stuff's GREAT! You gotta try some of this you guys," he slurred, volume varying with each word. I laughed again. Rian turned to the bartender nearby.
"Two of whatever he's having," he grinned. Jack cheered. Within seconds he was distracted by a blonde girl dancing a ways off and left us, shouting something to the girl about being in a band. Still smiling, I turned to Rian beside me.
"You know I'm not drinking, Ri, remember? I don't want to find out what liquor does in conjugation with all the crazy meds I'm taking," I said with a slight eye roll. I'd been playing it safe throughout the tour. Being on the road, I had to take twice as many medications, so I was playing the part of the good girl in order to keep possible disaster at bay.
"Oh, right," he mumbled, embarrassed to have forgotten. Before I could ease his guilt, the drinks arrived. He saw me eyeing them longingly and laughed. I bit my lip, taking in the scene around me. The entire band and crew had gone to a club after the show; not the first time, but we hadn't in weeks and it was a unanimous decision. The crowd of dancers was dense, pulsating in time to the music, living it up for the night.
"You know what? Screw it. I haven't been good and drunk in a year!" I proclaimed, and grinned like I didn't give a damn about the consequences. Because, tonight, I decided I didn't. I knew I was getting caught up in the moment, and not necessarily in the right way either. But I honestly just didn't give a crap right now.
"There we go, that's the Emily we know and love!" Rian clapped me on the shoulder and flashed yet another smile.
We downed our shots in one gulp, simultaneously releasing an "ahhh" as the sharp liquid burnt its way down our throats.
I knew my chances at having some real, mindless fun were narrowing rapidly. I just needed this one night to make it last.
"Alex!" I called out as he made his way to me, forcing his way through the strangers surrounding us.
"Em, everyone's getting ready to leave." He looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to follow him off of the dance floor. I pouted.
"Aw, come on, a few more songs?" He eyes me as I kept dancing.
"Are you drunk?" he asked, slightly incredulous. I grinned, unable to contain my bubbling laughter. I was drunk and, for once, I didn't care.
"Are you supposed to be drinking? I mean... is that, like, okay?" he stumbled through his words. I waved my hand and shook my head. Was it okay? I couldn't remember.
"I'll be FINE, don't worry! Aren't you supposed to be the party-hard rock star?" He barked out a laugh, and my brain just now registered the slur in his words. He was drunk, too. I giggled.
"Well, everyone else is ready to go..." he said, looking over his shoulder.
"Oh, come one, you aren't really gonna leave me here dancing alone, will you, Alex? Just a few more songs," I pleaded.
"Alright, alright, we don't have to go yet," he conceded, rolling his eyes.
"Dance with me, Alex," I commanded playfully, unable to stop grinning. He smiled and danced his way over to me, closing the distance between us and wrapping his arms around my wait as I rested my hands on his shoulders. After the show, he had changed into the t-shirt I had given him for his birthday; it was soft and well-worn to the touch. I blushed slightly, but he couldn't see in the dim lighting; I wished I had put on something cuter. I was still in my t-shirt and jeans from the concert, and now, dancing with Alex, I regretted not taking the time to change.
Our hips swayed together tithe rhythmic beating of the song. I couldn't even pay attention to what I was dancing to, my swirling thoughts were utterly distracted by the feeling of Alex pressed against me. I recognized the gleam in his eye. I closed my eyes and leaned into his kiss.
His lips moved with mine smoothly. I could taste the alcohol on his mouth. Or was it my own that held the sharp taste? I couldn't tell. Our bodies were welded together on the dance floor; we were alone in a crowded room. What started as a gentle kiss was heating up, uncontrollable and unstable. I felt the warmth of his hands on me but couldn't trace their paths; it was all blurred.
I had to pull away and we gasped for breath. Was it the alcohol that made his eyes shine with fervent desperation? That left my veins coursing with an overpowering recklessness? Had this been waiting to happen regardless? Or was this purely chemical, a biological reaction?
No, this had to be more than just built-up suspense.
I tilted my head back and stared at the lights above our heads, ignoring the sharp pains their bright colors brought to my overly-dilated eyes. Alex plunged his face into my neck, kissing me again. As he reached down and pulled up my knee, hitching it onto his hip, I giggled stupidly.
"Not here, Alex!" I wasn't sure if I was slurring out of intoxication or pleasure.
"At the hotel, then?" he asked, pleading, intent, and frenzied. My brain felt too slow to function at the same pace as the rest of the world. It took me a minute to remember that Matt had booked us a hotel for the night instead of the buses.
"Yeah," I answered, still flustered from his kiss. Then, realizing what I was saying, I quickly untangled myself from him and tugged on his hand, leading him away. "Let's go." I didn't want to waste a second of my mental high tonight.
The next twenty minutes passed in a blur. Before I knew it, we were in the hotel lobby and Matt was handing me my room key, explaining where to go. My room - I had my own for the night because I was the only girl - was on a different floor from the others. I made poor Flyzik repeat which floor to get off on at least four times; I was in so much of a daze I could barely make sense of his words.
Alex, Jack, Zack, Vinny, Evan and I all piled into one elevator. Jack and Vinny had their arms on each others shoulders, shouting and occasionally bursting into song.
"Jack's an ass when he's drunk," I giggled. I hadn't been able to wipe my idiotic grin off my face since that first shot with Rian. I giggled harder when I realized what I said and turned to Alex, whose hand I still hadn't let go of. "Jack's an ass. Get it? Like a jackass! JACK'S a JACKass!" I was laughing hysterically. He stared at me for a moment before laughing as well. "It's funny, huh?" I added.
"No," he said chuckling. "But you are. Remind me to get you drunk more often." I slapped him softly with my free hand.
"Shut up," I teased, and couldn't resist pecking him on the cheek. Why did his smile just have to be so cute?
When we stopped at the fifth floor, Zack - the only one who could actually hold his liquor - poked and prodded Vinny and Jack out, leading them down the hall, Evan, looking a little green, in tow. It seemed everyone was having a drunk-out-of-your-mind kind of night.
No one seemed surprised that Alex didn't get off with the rest of them, despite being assigned to share a room with Jack, Rian, and Vinny. Well, to be honest, the only one not in a completely oblivious state was Zack. His only reaction was to give Alex a brief knowing grin before wrangling our drunken friends to their rooms.
The elevate doors closed slowly in front of their retreating figures. The tension between Alex and I blew up as the doors made contact, shielding us from view. We flew to each other like magnets, unable to stand being so close and being apart. His hands pressed me to him tightly as we kissed. I wouldn't have noticed the elevator stopping on our floor - the motions beneath my feet couldn't even reach my mind through the feeling that I was falling weightlessly - if it weren't for the man waiting to enter, coughing and ahem-ing to be acknowledged. We yanked apart instantly. I kept my head down, blushing deeply, as we slid past him into the hallway. As soon as we exited, we burst into hysterics, laughing madly as we ran to my room. We stumbled up to the door. I slid the key card in and out clumsily, anticipation making me shake.
We slipped inside and I closed the door sharply behind us. The way Alex was smiling at me... I couldn't even begin to describe it. He reached and pulled me towards him and I melted under his touch. Again, the kisses started gently, gathering speed and ferocity quickly. I bit softly and pulled on his lower lip, acting instinctually, feeding my base whims. He sighed, short but deep, and I felt the firm grip of his hands traveling slowly up beneath my shirt.
I pulled my head away for a second, but Alex didn't stop; his lips traced patterns along my neck and jaw. Even though I knew it was pitch black, the room seemed almost bright to me. I'm drunk, I remembered, detached and uninterested in the fact. My heart was racing. I was feeling reckless and daring tonight. Impulsiveness was surging through my veins, making me itch with desire.
Before my sense could get through the drunken fog and make me second guess myself, I faced Alex again, returning his kisses and slid my hands down his body until they gripped the edge of his skinny jeans; I began fumbling with the button and zipper. He froze.
"Em?" he said huskily. It was a question. I didn't falter. I wanted this. I needed this.
"Don't say a word," I told him, my voice rough with overwhelming emotion. He held back, still unsure, and I met his gaze steadily. He brought his lips back to mine and began removing his pants, never detaching himself from me. He wants this just as much as I do, I thought gleefully. More like he's just as drunk as you are, a self-doubting voice of reason said in the back of my mind. Before I could silence it, it spoke up again. Besides, you've already slept together, what makes this time any different? And he's even more drunk this time than last, why would he remem- I cut off the thought, trying not to follow it to its logical conclusion.
This time was different, I knew it was. This wasn't mourning, it was happiness.
So why did I feel the need to prove it so badly?
"Alex, will you write me a song someday?" I asked. Where did that come from? I admit, it was a silly, romantic whim I'd been holding on to for a while, but right now it had just come rushing out.
"Of course," he murmured. I could almost feel the smile in his breath. He slid my shirt off easily, picking me up, and I wrapped my legs around his waist. He carried me over to the bed, making me giggle at how romantic he was being. I hiccupped and Alex laughed, plopping me down lightly on the mattress.
The breath caught in my chest as I stared at him standing in front of me. He took his shirt off and shook his head, ruffling his hair, before lowering himself onto the bed. He pressed lightly on top of me but supported his own weight. I wished I could disappear inside his kiss, meld into one person with him to make this last forever. My hands buried themselves in his hair; I felt the texture of it in my fingertips, dried sweat and leftover hairspray. His lips scalded like a hot flame as they explored, the chemistry between us like kerosene igniting everything. It was getting harder to breathe...
No. This wasn't right. The warmth and pressure became... uncomfortable. I was burning up in this heat. And it was suffocating me. I wasn't swept up in emotion, I actually couldn't breathe. My throat got tighter as the panic rose from the pit of my stomach. I couldn't handle this.
I shoved Alex off of me abruptly and stood up, pacing. I had to cool down or something. I was gasping now, unable to get any air to my searching lungs. Alex sat up and brushed the hair off of his dewy forehead.
"What's wrong?" he asked, confused but still holding onto a trace of his sloppy, drunken grin. I wheezed but couldn't answer. The fire on my skin was burning. I was choking.
I fell to the floor of the hotel room and starting shaking violently. I couldn't do anything, couldn't control anything that was going on. I was so confused...
My eyes rolled back into my head as I lost consciousness.
I swear to God, if I wake up in a hospital bed one more time... I thought bitterly as I groggily opened my eyes. The first thing I heard was the beeping and wheezing of the heavy machines around me. What? I'd never been hooked up to so many things at once. I felt trapped under all the wires and tubes tugging on me. I noticed that I heard Alex's voice to my far left. Turning my head, my unconsciously-tensed shoulders relaxed when I saw his familiar figure in the corner. He was facing the wall as he talked on his phone, sounding urgent. "But why did it happen? ... Already? No, that's gotta be wrong... But... no, but you said two years! You said we had two years. You can't go back on that now!..." I heard panic rising in his voice. "Don't say that. Just don't say that to me right now... You're the damn doctor, what the hell do you mean there's nothing you can do!" He snapped the phone shut angrily with a loud, frustrated noise. He leaned his head against the wall, thudding it forcefully. His breathing was strained, like he was struggling to keep it steady. "Alex?" I whispered. He whipped around and rushed over to my side. "Oh my God, Em," he sighed, relieved. I hounded him with questions, but my voice was soft. I just felt so... tired. "What happened to me? What hospital are we in? Is there a doctor around? How long has it been?" He chuckled, still processing his relief and chastised me with a soft smile. "One at a time, Em." I hesitated. "Was that Carthy you were talking to?" His face feel a little bit and he looked away, nodding. I closed my eyes, my brow tensed. "What did he say, Alex?" The question came out dead, emotionless. As if I had no ort of personal investment in the answer. "You had a grand mal seizure. Carthy says... it's the beginning." I nodded slightly and murmured, almost to myself, "Of the end." He nodded again, jaw gritted. His cell phone broke the silence with a loud ring. "Flyzik, stop calling me," he muttered, annoyed, before answering. "What?... Yes, she's awake now... No, I still don't know... That depends on me, not her... I said I don't know, we haven't talked yet... okay... Put her on? As long as you don't say anything d**k-like." He rolled his eyes and handed it to me. "Hey, Matt." I head him sigh on the other end. "You feelin' better, Emily?" "Yeah, well, I'm conscious at least," I joked. "Well, I need that boy back soon. I swear, if it were anyone but you, Emily..." he half-teased. I forced out a weak laugh, realization dawning. He added, "Okay. Feel better. Tell Alex to call me." "No prob. Thanks Flyzik, bye." I closed the phone and handed it back to Alex, my eyebrows raised. "Well, Alex?" "What?" he asked innocently. "How many shows did you miss? How long have you been sitting in this hospital, making the rest of the band wait?" "Just one. Scheduled for tonight," he admitting, then crossed his arms. "Believe it or not, it's only been... hours. A lot of hours, but still." "Alex..." I sighed. He cut me off, aggravated and already knowing where I was going. "Em, don't give me that. What do you want from me? Did you want me to leave you in some random hospital alone after I watched you have some sort of attack? You want me to leave you, not knowing what happened, what was wrong - if you would even wake up, for God's sake - just to do a show?" I stumbled through my response; he was right, as much as I hated to admit it. But I hated the principle of the thing... "But Alex, the fans... what about the fans?" "Irrelevant and unimportant right now," he dismissed. He raised his eyebrows, daring me to keep arguing. It brought out how weary his face was. "Okay, just hear me out right now," I pressed. He recrossed his arms and rolled his eyes. "Those fans are your world. And for a ton of them, you're their world. I can't stand the fact that because something is wrong with me, they have to pay for it." He stared indignantly, about to interrupt with something along the lines of "but you've already paid enough." I just didn't want to hear it right now. I was past the point of self pity. "Shut up and listen. Whatever happens to me, you have to be there for those fans. Every fricking one. You'll regret it if you don't. I've already caused so many issues. Don't let me get in the way of anything the band is doing ever again. I won't have it. Those kids at the shows are the ones who matter now." I was erupting, in a way, but it was a calm, steady eruption. I felt my throat getting tighter with each sentence. "I know how much you love them. And I know they love you more than you can imagine. And I know how much I love you. You'll never be happy without those fans in your life, and I'll never be happy unless you're happy. So be there for those fans with every second you've got. I can't live with myself if I'm keeping you from them. They need you, and I need you to give them what they deserve." I was getting more and more choked up. He stared at me, expression unreadable. I continued. "I love you, Alex. I love you so much that sometimes it feels like I could explode. And it's incredible that we can feel this way for each other. If you love me, then listen to me. Because I love you; because of how much I love you, Alex." His gaze turned from me and began to bore a hole into the foot of my bed. I realized this was the first time either of us had said 'I love you' since... since before Sara. My heartbeats skipped an irregular pattern of beeps, causing my face to redden in embarrassment. I blinked away tears as I awaited his reply. Silence. "Alex?" I asked hesitantly. After the longest moment of my life, he turned and looked at me, eyes red. "I'm sorry, Em, I can’t do it anymore." What was he talking about? I could barely breath. He spoke again, and the tremor in his voice seemed to shake the whole room. "I've... done something stupid. It felt like a good idea at first. But... I just can't keep it up anymore. It's killing me." He forced himself to keep his eyes on mine. I prodded him to continue with my silence. What could he be talking about? What could he have done? "Em, I've been... acting. No, you know what, I've been... lying. I don't... feel the same way for you that you do for me. I just... I thought, because you were sick, it would be better for you to be... happy..." he stuttered. I blinked rapidly. My eyes stung. I couldn't process what he was saying. "What?" was all I could squeeze out. He winced and sighed. "I'm sorry. It was dumb. I just wanted-" I cut him off, fury and disbelief boiling me. As his words sunk in, I exploded. "For me to be happy?! Oh, okay, so lie to me for a year! Yes, that'll make me completely overjoyed in life! Just pretend that you actually reciprocate any sort of feeling for me, that's exactly what I need!" He cowered as I screamed, taking his punishment. "Listen to yourself, you're such an idiot. You never thought 'hm, what happens when she finds out it was all fake,' did you? Why the hell would you do something like this? You played me, Alex, you played me like a fricking game. I don't give a damn what your intentions were, because the result is that everything I've clung to and believed in for the last year has been a silly, stupid delusion!" I steamed as tears rolled down my cheeks, blinding me; I was amazed they didn't evaporate from the burning heat rolling off of me in waves. My eyes squeezed shut. "Leave, Alex," I whispered. I didn't watch his reaction. I just kept my eyes closed, avoiding everything. "Get out of here. Now." My outbreak had sent off a cacophony of whirring and beeping from the equipment in the room. It filled the silence between us. I couldn't open my eyes until I was sure I heard his footsteps leaving the room. As he left, several people pushed past him into the room, frenzied. The doctor and some nurses, alarmed by the readings the machines gave. They asked me questions and tried to get me to calm down. I ignored them all and choked out tortured sob after tortured sob. They left eventually. I didn't make any difference to me. I lay in the bed, shaking, wires and tubes the only things keeping me alive. I was disgusted with Alex. I was disgusted with myself for believing him. I should've known that night after Sara died was just a one-night invitation. In fact, he was probably still in love with her now. He was such an idiot. I was such an idiot. But it's over now. Our time ran out.
A couple of days later, I flew back out to LA. It felt good to be home; but being home doesn't guarantee that you won't feel alone.
The nights and days flew by. Weeks passed. The tour ended, and the boys were back home, too. I ignored all of Alex's calls, all the texts and voicemails. I had nothing else to say to him.
But he was all I could think about. It was more than a preoccupation, it was almost an obsession. Of course, I put on the happy face for people around me, but as soon as I was home, by myself... Torrents of criticisms and questions roared through my mind, pulling me in different directions, never letting my attention waver. I couldn't stand it, but I couldn't stop.
There was nothing I wanted to do, nowhere I wanted to go, no one I wanted to be with. I was depressed.
But I did a damn good job of wearing that mask.
I had to go in to the hospital every few days. Just about everything about me had to be monitored carefully to watch my decline. I knew what was happening to my body, and I knew the end wasn't going to be pretty. But at this point I was... resigned to it. Not suicidal, just... accepting.
I had stopped all chemo and radiation therapy. It was too late for all of that now. I had discussed it with Dr. Carthy; I was to remain on painkillers, which would increase as the pain got worse and the... end approached.
"This'll probably sound really insensitive or something, but do you ever just freak out whenever it hits you? That you're legitimately dying?' Zack asked, as gently as he could, as he poured ketchup all over his In-N-Out fries. And I mean all over; I nearly gagged. Zack's bizarre ketchup love was enough to gross a person out on a normal day, and my stomach was already topsy-turvy anyways from my medicine. I picked at my own food, appetite-less.
"I don't know how you eat that without barfing," I muttered. He grinned and squirted on another handful of ketchup packets. I sighed, returning to his question. "Yeah. It's kind of one of those things that just smacks you in the face and makes you stop everything. Like walking right into a brick wall. It kind of just hits you all at once and you can't help but go into a panic. And you end up asking yourself a ton of questions. 'Do my friends and family know how much I love them?' Or 'is there anything I regret now that I know I don't have as much time as I thought?'... you know?" I rambled. He nodded solemnly, munching on his fries. I loved having these conversations with Zack; he would say what other people were afraid to, and he wouldn't try to fill the space with empty apologies and sympathy. He was perfectly fine with the quiet.
Besides, I was determined not to let the fact that I wasn't speaking to Alex ruin my other friendships, especially considering my condition.
"He misses you like crazy, Emily," he said. I blinked and looked up from my half empty milkshake. I swear sometimes it's like Zack has a sixth sense. A mind-reading one. He added, "He's really worried. You should talk to him."
"And say what, Zack?" I asked, frustrated, but more with myself than anyone else. "Should I tell him 'oh, gee, what you did is fine, no big deal?' Because I can't do that. It's not fine, and I've told him that. That's all I've got for now."
"But... what if you died? Like, tomorrow? Or next week, without saying goodbye to him? I mean, anyone could die at any time. I could drop dead, right now," he said. I rolled my eyes.
"Shut up, we both know you're healthy as a horse, you aren't going anywhere any time soon." He chuckled before continuing.
"But you know what I mean. He could get in a car accident. Tonight, or any time. Or you could. You wouldn't want to resolve things just in case?" I stared at him. I could tell he was just genuinely curious. Then again, I thought bitterly, I'm obviously not the best judge of truthfulness.
"It's not that I don’t want to resolve it, it's just... I can’t see how it can be resolved. Or at least not yet." He shrugged and went back to pouring ketchup on everything on his plate. I laughed, but his words still clung to the back of my mind like a spider web.
I tossed and turned again and again. Staring blankly into the dark, I couldn't resist taking another look at the clock; it read 2:48. It had only been four minutes. I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled the thick blanket closer to my body. But it didn't stop the thoughts I was drowning in.
Zack's words nagged me; my own worries and frustrations and regrets kept me from even a second of mental calm. I couldn't handle it.
I crawled out of bed and paced around my bedroom. I turned on the light and began compulsively tidying up. I out away anything I could reach, reorganizing everything in a manic frenzy. Ripping open my closet door, I began pulling everything out in heaps, just so that I could put it away again.
My hands clawed at everything nearby. I was determined to make everything neat and orderly; everything my life no longer was. My blood pounded in my ears as I raced about the room.
If I had had any sense of self-awareness, I would have frightened myself.
I stopped suddenly. With my closet half empty, my floor littered in a good portion of my belongings, I stood, frozen, and heaved deep, ragged breaths. I felt like I was losing my mind.
There was a thud as something in the closet fell. I dragged myself over to see what it was, still fighting the lump in my throat. It was my old half-size acoustic. Surprise halted my tears in their tracks. I'd had no idea I still had it. When I was younger, I had begged my parents for lessons, I remembered. But after a couple of months I was too lazy to practice and ended up quitting.
My fingers itched with longing as I stared at the dusty instrument. Maybe...
Cautiously, I picked up the guitar and brought it over to my bed, sitting down. Maybe I could use this terrible desperation... use it the way Alex does... create something from my emotions...
I fumbled with the old electric tuner, slowly and meticulously adjusting each string. It was tedious work, and I was being a perfectionist about it, but it was exactly what I needed: something to distract my spinning brain. As I finished tuning it, I took a deep breath as I tried to remember the chords I used to know.
My left hand clasped the neck unsteadily, fingers unsure. I gave it a tentative strum. It doesn't sound half bad, I noted with slight wonder. I shifted hesitantly to what I hoped was another chord. It worked. I found my self beaming. This isn't too hard... I played around with different combinations, orders, strumming louder and louder each time. But... it wasn't doing anything. The musical sounds were created, but nothing was cohesive. It didn't belong together. There was no emotion captured, just angry noise.
As my frustration grew, my fingers stumbled across the guitar, striking foul notes. The strings bit into my fingertips, they struck the pick wrong, they muted in the wrong places, they wouldn't stop singing in others. Like a two year old with a temper tantrum, desperate frustration cascading through me, I pressed harder. I pushed and pulled, trying to force feeling into the violent strikes of the guitar. The lump rose back up in my throat, bitter and sour. Why? Why wouldn't it work? Why couldn't I bend it to me? If I had so much emotion, why couldn't it come out in this sad attempt at music?
I stared at my pale, claw-like hands as they gripped the guitar until the knuckles turned transparent. My skin had a horrible hue to it, my wrists and arms appeared almost emaciated. I looked sickly and disgusting. I knew my eyes - probably rimmed in red now - looked bruised and weary. My hair was slowly coming back in tiny, wispy tufts, but I still had no eyebrows and minimal eyelashes. Veins were visible through my unhealthy skin on my neck, the backs of my hands, my chest, my scalp.
I threw the guitar to the floor, hands shaking.
Why was I so weak? Why did I have to sit here, rotting alive, and not even be able to create the one thing I needed most right now? How come Alex could sit down and make music effortlessly, and even when I had everything in the world to sing about the music wouldn't come when I called?
Why was I losing all control as everyone around me thrived?
I screeched out a horrible noise. As scream, a moan, a shout, I didn't know what it was, but it felt good. I slid back under the covers, shaking with sobs, and cried myself to sleep.
I woke up shivering. Why was I so cold all of the time these days? A fresh blast of cool air hit me as I pulled the covers off and stumbled to my closet, looking for a sweatshirt. I tripped several times over the piles spilling out, forgotten and chaotic. I dragged my feet across the floor, barely picking them up, and made my way to the kitchen. I wasn’t even hungry, but Dr. Carthy told me to make sure I ate enough to keep up my energy. My face slipped into a dull grimace as I gazed, tired, at my meager breakfast selections. I sighed, figuring now was as good a time as any to go to the grocery store. Twenty minutes later I was drifting into the store, a part of me still somewhat asleep. I pushed the rackety old cart up and down the aisles, my Ugg boots squeaking on the linoleum and the folds of my thick sweatshirt and sweatpants rustling softly, comforting me. I focused strongly on the mundane task in front of me, willing myself to stay awake. As I checked out absentmindedly, I suddenly became acutely aware of how uncomfortable the young girl ringing me up was. I could feel her stare on my body like a touch, and a slight but unmistakable tension filled the air. It was common by now; I sensed people’s desire to ask about it warring with their propriety, or more accurately, their need to avoid a potentially awkward situation. I was instantly self-conscious, despite the fact that I told myself not to be, that it isn’t anyone else’s business anyways. But as I reached out to pay her, the omnipresent bruises along my wrists and forearms – dotting my unhealthy skin throughout my body – seemed to be glaring back at everybody under the lights of the store. I felt myself blush, my cheeks darkening into what used to be a blazing red once upon a time, but now could only retain a dull, deep pink. I fidgeted nervously with the floral scarf upon my head. I finished up, muttering only the polite, necessary words. As she handed my change to me, her eyes probed and her arm reached over the counter, but at the same time she was nearly visibly retraining herself. I got out quickly. Why do people get to me like that? I wondered as I climbed into my car. The backs of my eyes prickled. I’m just tired, I thought. I shook my head forcefully, but the headache was almost instantaneous. I needed food and I needed sleep. My face was stony as I pulled onto my street, staring only straight ahead, distracted. There was a part of me that took no note of the grocery girl’s stare, but there was another part, deeper within, that knew I would never be able to get used to people looking at me like that. Like I could drop dead right in front of them. My train of thought slowed to a halt and I noticed something was off in my peripheral vision as I neared my parking space directly outside of my apartment. There was a car parked directly next to where mine would go, a space that was normally empty, or, at least, had been since I’d left for the tour with All Time Low. I felt the pit of my stomach clench and sink as I got closer, recognizing the car. Alex. I pulled into the parking space and seriously contemplated turning around and driving away for a few hours just to avoid him. But my car wasn’t in place for ten whole seconds when he came slowly jogging down the sidewalk to me, obviously having been watching and waiting for me. The look of relief washing over his face calmed me for some reason. I could never be “okay” with what he’d done to me, but I was in no mood to pick a fight right now. I stepped slowly out of my car, trying my best to avoid eye contact with him. Alex sidestepped my door and flung his arms around my neck, sighing my name. I let him hug me briefly. Only a moment, I thought before pushing him away, already intoxicated by the feel of his embrace and the smell of his skin. “I missed you, Em,” he said, bending his neck closer to my height and looking directly into my eyes. I could not doubt the sincerity in his words. “What do you want?” I bit back, slightly sharper than I had intended. My tone seemed to hurt him; did I only imagine the vague flinch? I’m sorry, I thought instinctually, but knew I wasn’t sorry at all. I felt the spitefulness of a child welling up inside me. “Please just listen to me,” he pleaded, bushy eyebrows furrowed. “I know that what I did was horrible, and dumb, and probably unforgivable. I know it, and I’m sorry. And I know that you probably don’t want anything to do with me, either. But... Em... I can’t stand being without you like this, fighting.” I raised my eyebrows, keeping a cold exterior, but shaking slightly on the inside. He trudged onward. “I’ve been thinking, and... there’s something I need to show you. Can we go inside?” I muttered a “sure” before grabbing my groceries from my car and walking to my front door. He shoved his hands in his pockets and followed, his gaze never leaving me for an instant. I recognized his acoustic guitar, neatly in its case, leaning next to my door. I didn’t ask, but, admittedly, my heart fluttered with the memories of the last songs I’d seen him perform acoustically. He picked it up swiftly as we walked through the front door, as if he was afraid that if he fell behind by even a step then I wouldn’t let him in. Who knows, maybe he was right. I began putting away my groceries, stalling any actual conversation. The tension was like a fire. “Em...?” My actions stuttered for a moment at the sound of his voice, but I made sure not to look up. “Yes, Alex?” I did my best to sound detached, uninterested, nonchalant. Everything I wasn’t. “Can you... talk to me? Look at me for a minute? I need to talk to you,” he squirmed. With what I hoped was an exasperated sigh, I set down the jar of peanut butter I had been about to put away. I walked over to Alex, stopping and standing right in front of him, merely gazing at him expectantly. I couldn’t figure out what was behind his expression; what was he thinking? “I’ve been thinking a lot since we last talked, and... I want you to know how I feel. So, I hope you don’t think this is dumb, but I thought about what you asked me... that night. And I figured that was the best way to do this.” What was he talking about? I pulled the sides of my sweatshirt closer to my cold body as he reached for his guitar. Realization dawned. I asked him to write me a song, I remembered vaguely. I winced internally, knowing that it would be twice as difficult not to give in to his pleads if they were in song. “Alex,” I began, about to protest, but stopped me. “Please, Em, just let me do this,” he urged. I bit my lip as he began to play. He sang. Hey there, it’s good to see you again. It never felt like callin’ this “just friends.” I’m happy, if you’re happy with yourself. Take off your shirt, your shoes, those skinny jeans I bought for you. It’s happenin’ and there’s nothin’ left to lose. I’m gonna break down these walls I’ve built around myself I wanna fall so in love with you and no one else Could ever mean half as much to me as you do now. Let the walls break down. My throat had a horribly sour tightness and my eyes stung. This couldn’t really be happening. It was like a movie, this couldn’t be real. “Alex...” I begged softly. I wasn’t even sure what I was asking from him. To stop? To leave? To tell me that every word rang true, and I wasn’t crazy? He shook his head adamantly, pressing on with the second verse. I used to wear you like a ball and chain. I’d run and hide at the call of my name. It was obvious: you were too much for me. Oblivious, I was young and horny. In retrospect, I wouldn’t do it again, Stop talkin’ s**t to every one of your friends. I’m not the same boy you knew back then. ‘Cause I can break down these walls I’ve built around myself. I wanna fall so in love with you and no one else Could ever mean half as much to me as you do now. Together we’ll move on, just don’t turn around. Let the walls break... The final chords rang out in my empty apartment. My lip quivered dangerously and I felt warmth leaking from the corners of my eyelids, the tears dropping slowly and heavily down my cheeks. “Why?” I whispered. “Why are you doing this to me?” My arms were crossed over my chest, originally out of cold, but now it felt like they were the only things keeping me intact. Why would he write this beautiful song and try to trick me into trusting him again? I didn’t want to have to make the choice of forgiveness. He gently set his guitar on the floor and stepped forward, folding me into his chest and resting his cheek on my head. “I was stupid before. I don’t know how to be without you. I love you.” I trembled as the sobs escaped me gently. “But what makes this any different than last time?” My voice, even in a whisper, was hoarse and thick. He squeezed me a little bit tighter. “I know, I’m sorry. But I just need you to believe me. Please?” He was whispering, too. I pulled myself away slightly so I could look him in the eye. His gaze, also watery, beseeched me, asking for forgiveness; the one thing I wasn’t sure I was ready to give. My breathing was cutting like a knife, another slash with every passing second. What was I supposed to do? What was the right answer? I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t deny those brown eyes. I couldn’t refuse the man I loved more than anyone. Especially not in the face of my own demise. If he was lying, he deserved damn Oscar. I nodded and the tears flowed harder, freely down my face and onto his as he kissed me with a sigh of relief. The salty wetness was everywhere, both of us unable to contain it. I uncoiled my arms from their protective shield in front of me, pulling Alex even nearer. There was a small, insignificant voice of doubt in the back of my mind. But I told it to shut the hell up and let me do what felt right. Let the walls break down...
“Don’t say that,” he muttered, softly but forcefully. His arms squeezed me a little tighter, but seemed afraid. He was afraid of my fragility.
“You can’t just avoid it forev—”
“Let me avoid it for now,” he cut me off, his voice ringing with finality. I blinked strongly. It felt like I was crying at the drop of a hat recently. Total exhaustion will do that to you. It felt like a simple day at home could completely wear me out now. I hesitated a moment before speaking.
“Alex... I’m not going to go into a hospital when it happens. I want it to be at home. I already told Carthy, he said that would be okay as long as we called him a couple times a day. I don’t want to die in a hospital, Alex.” The last part was barely audible. Although I said his name, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was actually just repeating it to myself. It was a horrible decision to have to make. But... it felt like the brave thing to do. The right way to go. I thought of the hospital, with its tubes, and machines, and screens, and papers, and metal. I knew that was not where I wanted to be when it was all over. I knew I wanted my friends by my side, and doing that in that white-washed room with ugly curtains and stiff chairs would only make it harder. At least if I was at home, it didn’t have to feel like goodbye.
Dr. Carthy told me it would be painful. He promised he would send a nurse to call on my apartment with morphine once it got too bad. I would stay on the morphine until the end. I wanted to try to be brave. I wanted to be brave for Alex, for my friends, my family. But I knew it would be foolish to try and go medicine-free. That would make it just as terrible for everyone else to watch as it would be for me to experience. I would rather be a vegetable than a madman crying with the pain.
Alex took a while to answer. He’d always had trouble accepting the time span of the disease. He always felt like there should be more time left, he felt that it happened too quickly. In perspective, he was right. People weren’t meant to die before their lives began. But perspective like that doesn’t really have much to do with it when you get diagnosed. For me, if I died the very next day or the next year, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. No matter what it hurt. No matter what it was a struggle. No matter what it can’t return to what it could have been, what it was supposed to be. No matter what, I end up dead.
I knew that I couldn’t say these things to Alex. He would be shocked at my morbid outlook, my bleak logicality. But it didn’t feel morbid to me; it just felt... accepting. But I knew he would never accept it. I didn’t push it, but I was worried about him. The days passing marked less time that I had left, and he tried to ignore this thought as much as possible. The rational thing to do would be to make plans for when it happened. Funeral arrangements, et cetera. I couldn’t do it, though. Regardless of what level of acceptance I could ever achieve, I could not make myself sit down and plan my own funeral. It’s selfish to leave it to them, I reminded myself. It was the emotionless thing to believe. I knew I couldn’t handle it mentally, so I could do nothing but leave it in everyone else’s hands, to deal with after the fact.
“I’ll be there with you,” Alex replied in a thick voice, breaking my train of thought. I’d all but forgotten that I was had been waiting for a response from him. “Every second. I swear.” I smiled grimly and took a deep breath, nestling myself closer to him on this couch.
“That’s all I could ask,” I murmured. He hugged me tighter as well, again with the same fear and hesitation.
I hated being something everyone had to be cautious not to break.
His breathing was tense as his chest moved beside me. It eventually slowed. I hoped he had fallen asleep. With my free arm, the other pinned beneath our bodies, I shut the flickering television off. I closed my eyes.
We’d spent the last few days in his living room. I had been curled in a ball on his couch, my thin legs, once lean and now like a bird’s, were tucked underneath me and my swarm of blankets. Alex had sat a couple of feet away, guitar in hand, papers, sheet music, and guitar tab strewn in sloppy piles, along with a militia of pens and pencils. We talked; he wrote. I listened.
“Tell those kids...” I began, unsure. “Tell them to live their lives. Among the thousands listening, I bet someone is like me, sick. And I bet, even though it sounds cynical, that something horrible will happen to one of those kids, and all they’ll have left is a box of regrets.” Alex watched me intently as I spoke. I didn’t make eye contact with him. I knew what I was saying sounded cliché, but I rambled on. “Tell them to be happy because they don’t know what tomorrow will be like. And that even if they aren’t happy now, they can get there someday. People will always have it worse off, and just because your day sucked doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your whole life. Basically, live in the moment.” I added the last sentence with a faint, bitter smile.
“To live for the moment,” he corrected. “To live for the moment when you feel perfect, just to get through the parts that suck.” My smile widened, and I nodded softly.
“The moment you’re free, that you’re flying.”
“The moment you’re weightless,” he said, eyebrows raised in satisfaction. I watched him play around with chords, strumming patterns, and picking motifs for the rest of the day.
It was happening slowly. There was no sudden attack in which I instantaneously became a nonmoving, lifeless vegetable. But there were signs. I had massive nosebleeds nearly every day, leaving me dizzy and seeing red. My appetite diminished even further, and no matter how much water I drank I was always dehydrated. Dr. Carthy said that various body systems were beginning to drop off, one by one. I chose not to think about that too much.
Alex made a point of seeing me every day. I looked forward to his visits as if I hadn’t seen him in weeks. But the first moment that he arrived always terrified me. Each day he appeared to mentally take stock of my condition. How’s Emily today? Does she look any thinner? Does she look any paler? I didn’t want that to be the only thing he thought about when he saw me; if that habit formed now, then all he would remember would be how disgusting I was.
And that’s how I felt. Disgusting.
I felt myself nearing another breakdown as I thought about it. Just like the night with the guitar, I just threw my anger at everything near me. I flung clothes across the room. I made stacks and stacks out of my books, my magazines, everything, only to kick them over in frustration.
I picked up an oval mirror from dresser. It was about the size of a small plate, and the edges were encrusted in tacky, rasta-colored beads. I had gotten it at Venice Beach with Alex several years ago. We had been mulling around, making fun of the lame, tacky souvenirs and the lamer, tackier tourists. We had stopped at a small stand where everything was red, yellow, and green and the owner was quite blatantly stoned. We made fun of him in giggling whispers, joking about how he would use each of the products with his pot.
“So he can admire his shocking beauty while he smokes his pot,” Alex had teased. In a hushed tone, I added sarcastically, “Oh, yes. That flowing hair, that flawless skin, those bright, sparkling eyes. What’s not to admire?” We had to press our hands to our mouths to keep from drawing attention to our taunting. I remembered the greying old man looking at us, debating for a moment whether or not he could make a buck off of us meddling teenagers, before going back to his previous apathetic gaze. I ended up buying the mirror because I felt bad for him.
My hands gripped the edges tightly like talons and I stared at my reflection so hard that I gave myself a headache.
I vaguely remembered a time when I was in elementary school that my friends and I had found a baby bird on the ground, fallen, its neck probably broken. It hadn’t even grown its feathers yet. The boys laughed and poked it with a stick; the other girls had gasped and covered their faces, some tearing up. I could do nothing but stare at the bird’s grey skin and twisted, twitching frame, telling myself that I was only imagining that it appeared slightly flatter than one would have thought.
As I stared at my own likeness in a pothead’s mirror, I realized I was that bird. Grey, and dying, and helpless, and hopeless.
I catapulted the reflection with all the strength in my bony arms. It made a mighty crash against the opposite wall for such a small object.
“Em?!” I heard Alex’s voice, alarmed, coming from the front room. He must have just arrived. Great timing, I thought, still shaking slightly from my angered outburst. I didn’t move. He rushed into my room, somewhat frantic, eyes locking on me and zeroing in. He grabbed my shoulders with his warm hands, asking what was wrong, what happened, while giving me a quick up-down to make sure I wasn’t visibly hurt. All I could do was stare. His hands moved to my neck and jaw as he flung his questions at me, trying to figure out what was wrong. As I looked into his searching eyes, my face seemed to crack and my cries came forth. He watched the tears run for a moment, surprised, before folding himself around me. He leaned his head on mine slightly and pressed my frail frame to his solid body. That’s what I needed, something solid. Something with weight, and density, and sureness. Something that wouldn’t drift away and leave me alone.
He pressed his lips to my forehead lightly and rubbed his thumbs in soothing circles on my back. My chest heaved, but still no actual words escaped my mouth. What was there to say?
I calmed down after a few minutes. He gazed at me, mentally asking what he was too afraid to say out loud, he didn’t want to set me off again. In a raw voice, I spoke.
“I got scared, Alex. I just cracked and flipped out. I didn’t want you to see this,” I mumbled.
“But... your room... the mirror?” he whispered. He had spotted the shattered fragments.
“I don’t know,” I whispered in return, a slight moan in my voice. “I just... I’m like the bird, the dead bird, and I’m not me anymore, and all I can ever think about is the fact that I’m... deteriorating, and it’s all everyone else thinks about, and it’s not only my life being messed with, but all of yours’ and... and... I don’t want people to remember me like this, and... I don’t know. I’m scared.” My voice shook and cracked on my last sentence, a spike through the calm that I tried to fake with my whisper.
Alex’s expression was that of a man broken and defeated. He didn’t know what to say, I’d never broken down like that about the cancer. I’d never admitted just how scared I was. But acting brave just hurt so much.
His hands, still on my face, pulled us gently together into a kiss. His lips moved slowly with mine, trying to convey what he didn’t have words for. I pulled myself away tenderly after a few moments.
“I love you,” I murmured.
“I love you, too.”
The first day that I couldn’t get out of bed was a Tuesday. I simply couldn’t do it. I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. All I was was tired.
And hot. Or cold. Sometimes I wasn’t sure which. I went from sweltering to shivering in minutes, and sometimes I was so hot that I began to feel cold. There was a thick pile of woolen blankets that spent the day migrating between the end of my bed and my shaking shoulders. A horrible taste lingered on my tongue.
Rian came over that day. The four boys had been alternating visits ever since they had begun writing and recording again, about a week earlier. I felt bad, taking away from their “work” time, but I couldn’t deny myself the pleasure of their company.
He knocked tentatively on my bedroom door before entering.
“Emily, you okay?” he asked, brow furrowed. I tried my best to crack a grin.
“As okay as I could be,” I said. He gave what was supposed to be a smile, but it couldn’t hide the pity and vague discomfort lurking heavily underneath. I told him I wasn’t getting out of bed that day.
“Should I call Alex?” he asked. He already began reaching for his phone.
“No, no,” I cut him off. The cracking sound of my voice was harsh, even to my own ears. I tried to clear my throat, but it felt like sandpaper on an open wound. “I don’t want him to worry. It’s fine.” He gave me a wary look, unsure of whether or not to call Alex anyways, before shaking his head and deciding against it. He perked up a bit, remembering something. He fumbled around in his pockets, searching until he pulled out a thin CD case.
“Want to hear what we’ve been working on?” he asked, more excited now. I nodded, sitting up, my face molding into a genuine smile.
“We’ve just been recording some ideas. Alex doesn’t even have lyrics yet to most of it,” he explained as he popped the disc into my small stereo, scanning the face of the machine before finding the ‘play’ button.
The sound opened with a soft, simple bass rhythm. It grew louder gradually, becoming more complex and layered with guitars. The harmony was pierced by a shooting guitar wail; I knew it signified the start of the vocals of the first verse. I laughed gently to myself as I thought of Alex, Jack, and Zack recording this, imagining Jack’s lack of attention and Zack probably hitting him over the head.
“We haven’t tracked any drums yet, but this is kind of what I’ve been thinking,” Rian added. He began beating his hands on my desk as he sat in the chair beside it, keeping the time with the tapping of his foot. A hidden, serene pride exuded from him. Rian was never one to brag, and always had a professional manner about him when the band’s work was concerned. But, if you knew him well enough to recognize it, there was a quiet confidence in his eye, the kind of confidence that only came with doing what you love most in the world. I watched him as he intensity he was playing with increased. I was sure he’d nearly forgotten I was there. Those boys deserve every ounce of fame they’ve gotten, and twice over, I mused absentmindedly as I listened. My thoughts wandered. Odds are, this sample wouldn’t even make it to the final record. A realization crept up slowly. Would the song that Alex wrote for me be on the new album? A warm glowing pride blossomed in my chest, spreading with the idea. But... would I even be here to know? A violent shiver ran through me and the backs of my eyes prickled. Rian looked over, emerging from his musical reverie, after hearing me squirm, his eyes asking if everything was alright. I nodded and waved simply, telling him not to worry about it.
I did my best to silence my mind for the duration of Rian’s visit.
A few hours after Rian left, the crisp daylight in my room began to fade to a burnt orange. The shadows stretched. I hesitantly clambered out of my bed, dragging myself to my dresser beneath the window. My frail arms shook slightly as they rested upon the dresser, supporting the weight my wobbling knees couldn’t handle. I watched the sky around the setting sun, seeing yellow turn to orange, to pink, to violet in the hazy air.
My mind was like a live wire. I was bursting at the seams of my own consciousness. I knew there was so much in me, so much in the life I could have had. I knew I shouldn’t be in a position where I have to appreciate surviving long enough to see another sunset. People my age were supposed to take everything for granted. I didn’t get that chance. My body was just a wimpy little 60-watt light bulb with enough energy to power New York City coursing through it, ready to blow at the slightest disturbance. My skin tangled with my desire, my longing, but I couldn’t place what for. To be healthy? To get better? Or to never have been sick in the first place? Impossibilities blocked me in, forming walls like a cage.
I just wanted to be alive. I wanted to be burned alive just to feel. I wanted to stand in the pouring rain just so that the falling droplets of ice would prick awareness into my flesh. I wanted to be ripped into a million little pieces just to know that there was actually something there to begin with. I wanted to bleed just to validate my own heartbeat, to suffocate to notice my breath. I felt so much, and so little at the same time. My thoughts seemed to carry a crystal sheen of clarity, even though I felt like my sanity had disappeared. Restless in a corpse that refused to move, I stared at the sky, wishing to evaporate and become a part of it, a part of something large and encompassing. The air was heavy and coffin-like, pressing on me from all sides. My breathing rasped and wheezed loud enough to be its own being in the room beside me, as my chest collapsed under the pressure. Sobs stuck to the back of my throat, obstructing my airways even more. I shuddered as I crawled back into bed, my own raw, animalistic sounds to keep me company.
I was in a much better mood the next day. Jack was coming over for the whole day and was forcing me into having a Home Alone marathon with him. I had rolled my eyes at first, but was looking forward to it. Nothing was funnier than Jack’s face if Kevin McCallister was within a square mile of him.
I poured hot water into two mugs before stirring in the cocoa mix. I know I wouldn’t be drinking mine; the mere thought made my stomach clench and churn. But simple things like that carried with them a sense of normalcy, so I pretended things weren’t any different.
I was feeling worse every day.
The microwave went off with a loud ring and I pulled the bag of popcorn out as a stray pop! escaped. I bent over and dug around for a bowl in my cabinet. Pouring the popcorn, I sighed and slid the notch of the belt I was wearing another notch tighter. Even so, it barely hugged my hips. These were the last pair of jeans that I could still wear without being swamped. Pretty soon, all that I owned that would be able to shrink down to my size would be sweatpants. Fantastic, I thought bitterly. So I can feel and look like crap. I took a deep breath and forced myself to brighten when I heard the doorbell ring.
To my surprise, waiting on my doorstep, the chilly air flushing his face was Alex.
“Oh,” I exclaimed. “Where’s Jack?”
“‘Hi’ to you, too,” he teased, kissing my cheek and walking inside.
“What’s up, Alex?” I wasn’t like I wasn’t pleased to see him, it was just unexpected.
“Nothing,” he lied. I rolled my eyes, knowing he’d tell me soon or later. “Grab the popcorn,” I commanded, gingerly picking up the hot drinks and walking over to the couch. He collapsed beside me, a handful of popcorn already shoved in his mouth.
“Oh my god, you chew so loudly!” I mocked him, a melodramatic wince on my face. “I’m going to be deaf soon if you don’t eat like a human being.” Alex leaned his face into my ear and ate even more obnoxiously, grinning and getting half-chewed popcorn all over himself.
“Ew,” I squealed, angling myself away from him. I couldn’t help but smile, too. I added as he laughed at my squeamishness, “I missed you.”
“Missed you, too, Em. How are you?” I shrugged, curling up against the back of the couch, facing him.
“Okay, I guess.” A bitter, resigned half-smile held my lips. He picked up my hand and we began talking, just like we used to. He would play with my fingers in his, or fiddle with his beanie or the frayed hem of my jeans. I let my head rest heavily upon the couch, watching Alex the whole time.
“Rian told me you couldn’t get out of bed yesterday,” he said quietly. I gazed at our hands instead of the worried brown orbs on his face. That’s why he was here.
“Yeah,” I mumbled. He squeezed my hands, making me look up at him.
“Why didn’t you call me? I want to be here for you, Em,” he pressed.
“I don’t want you to be worried...” His eyes tightened. I felt the pressure of his gaze like a touch upon my face.
“But there’s more,” he stated. It wasn’t a question. He knew me so well. I swallowed.
“I...” I looked at him, the inside of my throat crawling with tears yet to fall. “I don’t want to have to start saying goodbye.” My nostrils flared and my face warmed with the effort of keeping my composure. His calloused hands squeezed my fingers again, tighter this time. As if he were trying to hold me here, keep anything from happening to me. He blinked rapidly a couple of times.
“No goodbyes yet, Em.” He meant it encouragingly, but the effort was plain on his face. He rambled on about some other subject, and we got caught up again, the pained moment set aside for later.
Gradually, the steam stopped rising off of the hot chocolates, Alex’s mug empty and mine untouched, and the popcorn bowl held only kernels and salt. Somehow, we ended up on the topic of his past girlfriends.
“Remember Holly from junior year?” I asked.
“You mean... Holly?” He tilted his head in circles as if he was tipsy. I giggled, remembering.
“Yeah, whore-Holly.” His jaw dropped, offended, but he couldn’t help grinning. I argued. “Come on, she was and you know it. Mini-skirts, heels, and an exposed stomach, 24/7.”
“That doesn’t make her a whore!” he continued to pretend to be offended. “Just a good time,” he added with a wink. I batted my hand at him in disapproval.
“Well, that girl Maria was a whore,” I pointedly teased. He pointed his finger at me, shaking his head.
“I told you nothing went on between us,” he half-heartedly pleaded, sheepish in his lie.
“Yeah, sure it didn’t,” I ribbed. “There was that one girl, Jasey, I liked her.” He rolled his eyes in aggravated remembrance.
“That relationship was a nightmare, she always made me feel like crap for spending so much time with the band.”
“You guys were a rollercoaster, that’s for sure. But at least you got a good song out of it.” I regretted that last statement the second it flew past my lips, but I couldn’t grab it and restrain it back in its cage. Our thoughts immediately flew to Sara, the most recent song he’s written about a girlfriend. Besides me, I reminded myself. But I knew he would think of “Remembering Sunday” before he thought of “Walls.” I risked a tentative look at his face, unsure of what I would see. Yes, he had definitely thought of the same thing I did. My words sat between us, dense and heavy.
“Sorry,” I muttered softly after a year of silence. Alex waited a long time before speaking.
“You know... if things hadn’t happened the way that they did... think how different it would be right now? Between us?” He seemed... bruised. The final dregs of an injury long ago, the last part to heal.
“You’d be a married man right now, Alex,” I whispered. The concept was incomprehensible to me. What if everything between us for the last two and a half years just hadn’t occurred? The idea was just too foreign to even begin to understand. He looked directly at me for the first time in minutes.
“You’d have found someone, too, at some point. Probably not gotten married or anything, but I bet you would have had another serious boyfriend by this point. There have been different guys over the years for you, too, I wasn’t the only one who dated.” His thick brows were furrowed as he contemplated this strange, alternate reality we imagined. “That’s how it would have been, had I... paid attention. Been able to save Sara. Done something about it...” My heart skipped a beat. I did not want him to go back to the self-loathing and guilt he’d had right after she died.
“Alex...” I didn’t know what to say. It was too much to try and imagine sitting here with someone else right now, another man holding my hand and telling me he’ll be there for me.
“But...” he stuttered. “It wouldn’t have worked. Either we wouldn’t have stayed together, or... she would have found a way to do it, no matter how close I watched her. No matter how much help I tried to give... I don’t think... I know now that it wouldn’t have worked.” I watched him dig through these thoughts that I’m sure pained him with every word. “You were the only one that was always there, Em. Out of all these girls, you were the only one I could keep around.”
“You didn’t have to keep me, you’d have a hard time getting rid of me,” I joked softly.
“There have been so many times since she died that I’ve almost gotten rid of you. I don’t know how I’d live with myself if that happened. And now... now you’re being taken away. It’s not fair...” I saw the shine on the rims of his eyes, and felt mine reciprocating his tears. “I’m sorry. For all my stupid shit. I owe you for so much, and I’ll never be able to repay everything you’ve done for me. I wish there was some way it didn’t have to be like this.” I concentrated on steadying my wobbling lower lip.
“I love you, Alex.” I choked. How did I end up with someone this amazing?
“I love you, Em,” he whispered. He pulled me on top of him and held me as tightly as he dared. My hands shook with the feeling in my chest. He pressed his lips to every inch of me, and I put everything I had into his kisses, trying so hard to show what words couldn’t handle.
I knew what this was. It wasn’t the final one, that would come later, it would be saved for the very end. But this was the one that really counted. This one mattered the most because I was still me. I would only get more feeble from here on out, and we needed to have this before I lost myself to morphine, blankets, tears, and pain. To death.
This was our goodbye.
That was only three weeks ago, I remembered, as that day with Alex projected itself upon my eyelids for the millionth time. The memory had come back to me in a dream that shimmered at the edges, reminding me that it, like nearly everything about me now, had no physical significance anymore.
The last five days had been spent in a drug-induced haze; I could barely differentiate between reality and my dazed concoction of memories and dreams. My morphine-based cocktail, served by a nurse three times a day, sloshed my thoughts around until everything was soft and mixed up around the edges.
But even the slightly nauseous confusion was better than the terrible pain that I felt without the medication.
There weren’t even words to describe how it felt. Dying. Physically, it’s something that must be experienced, the way that absolutely nothing felt right with your body. Mentally, it’s impossible not to sound like a cheesy song written by a washed up popstar.
My parents had been visiting every day since I began the massive morphine doses. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters; that’s probably why Alex and I were so close. Two only-children with time on their hands growing up in the suburbs of Maryland. Now, I was reduced to sweat, bedpans, and sheets by now and knew I was down to enough days to count on one hand, if even that long. Yesterday would be the last day that they would come.
It had been horrible at first, trying to talk to them during the brief periods I was awake. The drugs filled my tongue with cotton, and my body felt like it weighed several tons and sunk into my bed, unable to move. I managed to bargain with the nurse to be taken off of it for an hour while I had visitors. I dealt with the pain for a little bit so that their final memories would not be of me lying motionless and nearly brain-dead.
The nurse was nice. She had told me her name several times now, but it floated away in my mind, just beyond my grasp. Nicole? Natalie? Something like that. Intentionally trying to remember things was like trying to grab mist. I could see it was there, but my fingers gripped only empty air every time. But memories and old thoughts flooded my mind during my long sleeping spells. It was amusing really, realizing my life was flashing before my eyes as I died.
My four best friends were visiting me today. Alex had been coming every day, but Jack, Zack, and Rian would be joining him today. I knew this was the last time I would be seeing the other three.
As I drifted slowly awake, they sat before me. Alex sat upon the edge of my bed, the others on the floor beside me. The nurse had made them wear blue paper masks over their mouths and noses. I hated it, but knew it was for my own good. Seeing their faces, I swallowed hard, realizing how difficult this was going to be. I was still on enough morphine that voluntary motions, even as simple as that, took concentration.
“Hi, guys,” I whispered, my tongue stiff and heavy. I gave them what I could muster of a smile.
The looks on their faces broke my heart. No one should ever have to see eyes that smiled that sadly.
“Hey, babe,” Alex said. I could taste the bitter sweetness in his voice. I watched his soft brown eyes, inflamed and red around the edges, and he took my hand with a gentle squeeze.
What was there to say? I looked around at all of them, sitting with me on my deathbed. I had been having endless flashbacks for days, the faces in front of me floating around my mind in various settings. Alex and Jack randomly bursting in dance. Lightsaber fights with Rian’s drumsticks. Throwing food in each other’s faces during high school lunches. Zack skateboarding. Bear hugs from Rian. Jack chasing everyone and smothering them in pelvic thrusts the second he could get anyone to stand still. The first time I heard them play. The look on Alex’s face as he meets fans who tell him they wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for All Time Low’s music. The four of them pouring sweat after a show, faces glowing with absolute contentment.
“I love you guys,” I whispered, fighting the violent shaking of my upper lip. Judging by their faces, their thoughts had taken a similar turn to mine. Memories, but theirs were all of me. “You’re the best friends I’ve ever had.”
We started sharing our memories. Every thought would jog another, a reminder of another instance of insanity, joy, and youth. We even laughed at some.
As I watched a lone tear trickle down Jack’s cheek, closest to me on the floor, my own began to flow. It didn’t take long for everyone’s cheeks to be carved with tear tracks.
The pain was beginning to creep up on me. I ignored it. My friends were more important, than that, I could push through it a little longer.
“What are we gonna do without you, Emily?” Zack asked, his bitter grimace searching for an answer.
“You’ll be okay after a bit,” I comforted quietly. “Put it all into your music, you’ll feel better.” After a pause, I continued. “You guys are so incredible. I’ve never been so proud of anyone in my life. Thinking of how far you’ve come from Rian’s basement a few years ago, and imagining how far you can be going another few years from now, is amazing. I love you guys. I don’t know what’s supposed to happen... I mean, I don’t know if I believe in heaven or any of that... but wherever I go, I’ll be watching you. Count on that. I’ll never leave you guys. You’re my world, and just because I won’t be here to tell you will never, ever change that.” My feeble voice cracked and stuttered.
“Are you scared?” Jack’s timid voice shook as his face asked why any of this was happening.
“I don’t think so... I know I should be, I know people are supposed to be, but... I can’t think of what I could be afraid of right now. I don’t think I’ve done anything to get me eternally damned or anything. I mean, I’m not perfect by a long shot, but I can’t convince myself that whatever God is out there someplace gives a nineteen-year-old cancer and then sends her to hell, you know?” Alex hadn’t spoken much, but gave my hand a squeeze now.
“If anyone I know has any sort of shot at heaven, then you’ll be standing at the pearly gates. If you aren’t, what hope do the rest of us have?” he half-joked.
I smiled a watery smile. Biting my lip, I tried to thank him with my eyes; the pain was getting worse now and I was afraid that, vulnerable as I was in my tears, opening my mouth would lead to an exclamation of pain instead of words. He kissed my forehead, understanding.
With a deep breath, I forced my physical pain back down my throat. It burned like bile as I restrained it, but it was too important to me that they not see the pain I was in. I knew Alex noticed, though; he had been seeing it for days. I hated it, but I would hate his absence even more.
“I think... I think we’ve been here long enough. Emily needs to rest.” I may have imagined it, but it looked for the briefest of moments as if Alex had given Rian a look to signal this dismissal.
“Wait,” I protested weakly. “I need to say goodbye.” They merely watched me, waiting.
I swallowed the pain once more. A little bit longer, I thought.
“I love you, Jack.” He was too choked up to respond, merely sitting next to me on the floor and nodding. “Never grow up. You sure as hell haven’t yet, and I don’t ever want that to change. Keep being ridiculous old you, okay?” He stood up and Alex leaned out of the way for him to hug me, never letting go of my hand.
All I wanted more than anything right now was one of Jack’s trademark bone-crushing hugs. But I feared that this time, my bones could really break. He whispered, “I love you, too, Emily” before leaving the room.
I said good-bye to Rian and Zack in the same fashion, until the only one left was Alex.
I winced strongly. Just a little longer, Emily.
“Em...” Alex’s voice was a soft, shaking gasp.
I lost all control. My weak body shook violently as I cried with everything I had left. I cried for Alex. I cried for myself. I cried for the pain. Even the sobs made everything hurt worse, but there was no way I could contain them now. Who knew it was possible to feel this much?
Alex’s eyes were a knife to my chest. I physically couldn’t handle everything I saw in them.
“Take that foolish thing off,” I commanded, and he ripped his mask off of his face before leaning down and kissing me softly. I broke the kiss after a few moments and we just looked at each other. There were no words.
I knew my head was ugly and bald. I knew my skin was grey and clammy. I knew my bones protruded in sickening ways through my underweight body. I knew my teeth were yellowed and my eyes were dull and red. I knew all of this, but with Alex, right now, it didn’t matter. I was probably the ugliest thing he had ever seen, yet here he was, on the edge of my bed holding my hands.
“How am I going to do it without you?” The pain on his face burned as I watched.
“Do what, Alex?”
“Live,” he responded simply.
“I love you,” I whispered.
“I love you, too, Em, and I always will,” he assured. That’s what I’m afraid of.
“I love you, Alex, and... and I want you to be happy. So... after a little while... don’t be afraid to... meet someone new.” I paused. “I know it sounds crazy, after what happened with Sara and now me... but there is someone out there that it will work with. You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met. Just... promise me. Promise you won’t sit in solitude missing us, me and Sara. Promise you’ll try again.” He nodded slowly.
“Just promise me you’ll be waiting there for me. When it’s my turn,” his voice shook the room, right down to my core.
I took in every detail of his face. Every line, every mark, every pore. Nothing could make me leave him behind.
“I promise. And I’ll be watching you in the mean time. I’ll always be there, Alex. Every time you go onstage, imagine me in that audience.”
“Singing your heart out, as always,” he added with a broken sob. The warm tears fell sloppily down my face again.
We cried together for what felt like decades.
I untwined one of my hands from his and reached up. I touched his soft, messy hair. I felt the veins and muscles running in his neck. I brushed every feature of the face that I would recognize before my own. I felt the itching five o’ clock shadow on his jaw and cheeks. I traced my fingers down his nose and along his lips.
There are no words for this. There were never any words. What I have always felt for Alex has always been beyond comprehension or calculation. There is no explaining it, and it doesn’t need explaining. Through everything that has occurred between us, we have grown and changed and eventually became what we are now. Despite any fights, despite any misunderstandings, despite other people getting between us. It’s been a long ten years, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“If there was a way that none of this would happen, for me to still be alive and healthy, but it meant never meeting you, Alex... I would choose to die,” I admitted. It wasn’t a lie, it wasn’t the exaggeration of a lovestruck young woman. I had said anything so truthful in my life.
“Why, Em?” he implored, struggling to understand. “Why would you give up your life for me? Why do you think I’m some perfect, godly person that makes it worth it for you to throw your own life – you; reliable, loving, honest, kind, amazing Em – away just so you could know me?”
“Because I love you, Alex. I always have. And it makes me value your life over mine. I don’t know how it works. But it’s how I feel and what I think.”
He sighed before leaning forward and whispering in my ear.
“You’re the most beautiful person to ever exist.”
He crawled into the bed with me, wrapping his arms around me and holding us together. There was nothing left for us to say.
After a little while, the nurse came back to give me more morphine. She gave us a disapproving look, but didn’t say anything about our close position. I sighed sharply in relief as I felt it trickle through my veins. My grip on consciousness slipped away almost instantaneously.
I knew Alex would not leave me.
I knew he would still be there when I woke up, and every time that I woke up afterward.
I knew I would never see anyone other than him, the nurse, and possibly Dr. Carthy again.
But it was okay.
I knew he loved me.
Emily died in Alex’s arms that night. He refused to let go of her, even after the heart in her chest halted its beats and he stopped feeling the warmth of her breath. He cried and struggled so much that the doctors considered sedating him.
He didn’t leave his house. He slept, or wrote music. He didn’t eat. He threw away all of his alcohol. He knew she would have hated him getting drunk just because he was mourning her.
He was determined to write her a song. “Walls” didn’t count. It hadn’t been real. It had been a plea, a bargain.
That didn’t mean he didn’t love her romantically. It didn’t mean he did love her like that either. But did it even matter anymore?
In the end, it didn’t matter how he felt. Only how she thought he felt.
He would never be sure how he had felt about Emily. Only how she had felt about him. That was what mattered.
Weeks passed. He and Zack played their acoustic guitars at her funeral. Her family had asked him to get up and say something, but he declined, knowing he couldn’t do it. As he sat on a stool, guitar vibrating with earth shaking song in his hands, he watched everyone at that funeral. They were all dressed in stiff, black clothing, hair done-up and shoes so new and shining that they squeaked. He was disgusted. Em never would have wanted this, he thought. She would have wanted to be remembered happily, not in this black parade of death. When it came time, he joined her family at the grave. They went around the family, gently dropping handfuls of dirt as the casket was lowered down. When it was Alex’s turn, he reached into his dark coat and pulled out a single red rose. He put it into his palm with the dirt and released his offering slowly, watching the bright flower and every last granule of dirt rest upon the closed coffin. He left then, unable to stand the looks on the faces of everyone present.
A few weeks later, he showed the rest of the band the most recent song he had written. They knew it was for Emily, but they didn’t say anything.
Months passed. The album was released. Tours were announced.
October 15th, 2009. The first date of the Glamour Kills Tour. Alex stood behind the curtain and began the first few notes of the intro they had written especially for this tour. The curtain dropped and the kids went wild as the song began.
Lost is stereo, lost in stereo
She works for the weekend
Mix tape of her favorite bands
Tearin’ up the radio, lost in the stereo sound
She’s trouble in tank top, pretty little time bomb, blowin’ up, take you down
Livin’ in the radio, lost in the stereo sound
She’s dancin’ alone, I’m ready to go but she’s so lost in stereo
She’s outta control, so beautiful
And I’ve been waiting for so long, but she’ll never know
I’m losing hope ‘cause she’s so lost in stereo
Shake down on a Saturday, sit back gotta catch my breath
‘Cause every time I see her, know she’s gonna take it back somehow
Tattoos and a switchblade attitude
Snakebite heart with a bubblegum smile
Sex in stereo, don’t turn the radio down
She’s dancin’ alone, I’m ready to go but she’s so lost in stereo
She’s outta control, so beautiful
I’ve been waiting for so long, but she’ll never know
I’m losing hope ‘cause she’s so
And I’m just like cellophane
‘Cause she sees right through me
I know she’s glitter and gold
And that’s just the price I pay when I don’t even know her name
She’s slippin’ away
She works for the weekend
Mix tape of her favorite bands
Tearin’ up the radio, lost in the stereo sound
I’m ready to go, but she’s so lost in stereo
She’s outta control so beautiful
I’ve been waiting for so long but she’ll never know
I’m losing hope ‘cause she’s so lost in stereo
She’s dancing alone, I’m ready to go but she’s so lost in stereo
She’s outta control, so beautiful
I’ve been waiting for so long but she’ll never know
I’m losing hope cause she’s so...
“Lost in stereooooo,” he sang.
This one’s for you, Em, Alex thought. This is your song. I hope you like it.
He imagined her in that audience, and every audience for the rest of the tour. Screaming every word at the tops of her lungs.
And everything felt alright again. The world was no longer in a million shattered pieces. He could make sense of it, could tell which way was up and which was down.
He hoped he made her proud.
He woke up from dreaming and returned to the fans before him. See you, Em. He’d see her running through his dreams later, but right now, the kids before him were waiting.
And Em was keeping an eye on them, from so many thousands of feet off the ground. She was at home in the clouds, and Alex knew she was smiling and waiting for him.