I've been standing on this gravel driveway during a ridiculous downpour. My clothes are soaked, and I can feel my hair matted to my head. But I don't care, I can't even care to notice. I've wanted to be in this place for the last two hundred and seventy two days. Everything that has happened has been leading up to this moment. The calls, the wishing, the hoping, and the praying. I expected to her move or change or number, but she hasn't. And I think that tenuous connection between us—if you could even call it that—is my only reason for standing here now. This is our ending, or if I have it my way, our beginning.
"Can you believe that as soon as I leave this spot, I am a college graduate? We are so old," Emma whined. However, the way she was holding her diploma to her chest showed that she loved it more than she hated it.
"Hell, Em, We are young and just getting started," Caleb said with that familiar crooked smile on his face. We all noticed it, all associated it with that day he kissed Emma under the slide on the last day of kindergarten. Emma and Caleb were an epic kind of love. The kind of love that you read about it books. The kind of lovers that just had first names like Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Caleb and Emma. The golden boy marries the girl next store will be the headline of their wedding announcement. They were the only five year olds on the planet to fall in love and stay in love. I looked up as Caleb caressed her face wiping the tears from her eyes. When Caleb isn't around, that is usually my job. Emma and I have been best friends from the womb. I was actually the person who introduced her to Caleb on the playground. Even I was jealous of their love. But Emma and I are inseparable; she is the Robin to my Batman, or the peanut butter to my jelly. I can't see us ever not being friends.
In a twist of fate, since I introduced Caleb and Emma, Emma introduced me to Grace in middle school. We quickly became best friends and started having double dates with Emma and Caleb. People in school called us the fantastic four because we were always together. It was our plan to grow old together so our kids could be best friends too. I was lucky. In this moment I had everything: an amazing best friend in Emma, incredible girlfriend, and a college degree. Life shouldn't be this good. The waiter came by with the check and took away the remnants of our greasy food meal and bottles of beer around the table. I think we could have sat and drank the last of our college years away, but it was time to go. "Time to hit the road, kids?" I asked grabbing Emma's hand under the table. Emma patted my hand and put her head on my shoulder. "I don't want to go," Emma said. "I've had a glimpse of the real world, and it sucks."
"How do you know?" I asked, but the same fear was brewing in my stomach. As cliché as it sounds, tomorrow was the start of the rest of our lives. I would drive back home to Philadelphia, Grace would be spending the summer interning in New York and coming to my house every other weekend, and Emma and Caleb were moving together to Seattle for graduate school. For the first time since we were kids, our lives were moving in completely separate directions.
"I am going to miss you so much," Emma whispered snaking her hands around my neck. "And Grace, who am I going to complain to when Caleb start's giving me a hard time and I need girl time!" It was expected that Caleb would marry my best friend one day. Even though I loved her, everyone knew that, expected it. But Caleb wouldn't propose until he was out of the broke college grad stage and could give her the world. But when it happened- and it would- I'd be prepared with the Best Man Speech of the Century. Caleb had asked me so many times I couldn't even count.
And just like that, college was over. Twenty minutes later, we piled into my car, and headed onto the highway. I held Grace's hand while maneuvering the gear shift and sung along with the music she put on. The highway was deserted, and I had to adjust my eyes to the darkness and the looming yellow marks in the road which diverged into one. As a light from a streetlamp lit up the car, I quick looked into the rearview mirror to see Emma dozing on Caleb's shoulder in the backseat. I heard the familiar beep of a text message, and felt around the console for my phone. As the sounds went on, I wanted to be careful not to wake up the slumbering passengers in my car. The phone rang again and I wanted to just shut the damn thing off. I reached across the console, my right hand fumbling in the darkness.
I don't remember the impact.
The shattered remains of my phone were still in my hand when I woke up. My knuckles were white and I was gripping the phone so hard that the keys were sticky with blood. I tried to focus my eyes but the searing pain in my side took all of my focus. After a few seconds of laying there, I heard the faint cry of Emma's voice. Her voice was thick with tears and undeniably hers. And the name falling from her lips was a desperate refrain. She called out all of our names as her voice cracked. I tried to turn around and the white-hot burn of my movements seared through my body. There was blood everywhere. As my mind caught up with itself, I realized I hadn't heard Grace or Caleb. As my eyes frantically searched around the car, I finally saw Caleb. His body was crushed against the door, his eyes closed and completely still. He looked peaceful and I wondered with unspeakable envy if death had come for him and spared him the horror I was looking at. My mind began to piece everything together and I looked at the passenger seat. While the seat was crushed against the dashboard, it was clear that Grace wasn't even in the car. My muscles ached as I reached for Emma grasping her shoulders. Her little hands pushed me away. I couldn't separate her as she molded herself to his lifeless body. I climbed through the shattered window and listened as the wind tore through the deserted highway. I pried open the door with such force to pull it off the hinges to grab Caleb. As pieces of glass and wreckage fell onto the road, I lifted his 200 pound body onto the ground away from the carnage. Emma laid her head against the leather of the backseat and screamed. With choked sobs, I stumbled to the side of the road to look for Grace before I blacked out.
I woke up ten days later with the sounds of an IV drip in my right ear. I noticed flowers and cards from my family on the table across the room. I looked to my right hoping that one of my friends would be in the bed behind the curtain. Friends don't die, they don't leave you behind. Crap like that happened in the movies. It might have been a few hours that I convinced myself of this before my mom walked into the room. As soon as she met my eyes, I leaned over the bed and threw up all over the linoleum floors. "Do not look at me like that." I said in a voice I didn't recognize, my throat burning with thirst. "I am so sorry," she said, backing up into my father's chest. I recognized his apologetic face.
"Don't say it, please, They are here. Just shut up" I whispered, staring up at the fluorescents. "They are gone, Adam. Their funerals were days ago." I shook my head while trying to rip the IV from my arm. "Did they all have one funeral?" I cried. He cleared his throat and looked into my eyes, "No," he said. "Emma survived." My body stopped moving and my head swiveled around. The pain shooting through my body should have made me cry out in pain, but all I could think about were those two words. Emma survived. "She's fine?" I asked. My dad nodded gravely, "Minor stuff, She's home resting now."
"What do you mean she's home resting?" I asked shocked. I laid my head against the pillow and closed my eyes. I couldn't blame her. She left. She left me in a hospital to die. She didn't know if I would ever wake up, but she didn't stay around to see if I was alright. She blamed for me taking him away from her. She left me for dead and after what had happened, I couldn't blame her. Maybe if this was my last breath, the pain wouldn't feel so bad.
For twelve days, I woke up feeling the same way. I thought of every way to end this pitiful life of mine. Each time I thought about it, that brown haired beauty entered my mind, and somehow I has a reason. I needed to start focusing on the here and now, but I couldn't move. She was the key to me surviving this. So I started small. I grabbed the new phone my mom brought me, and scoffed at the fancy display. I dialed the number I've been calling at least daily since I was old enough to use a telephone. And I heard, after three rings, his deep, gruff voice on the other end. "Hello?" he said. I cleared my throat. "Uh, hello. Um.. Mr. Barr? It's Adam-" I heard another throat clearing on the other end of the phone. "This isn't a good time." He said." I nodded, even though he couldn't see my face. "I'm sorry, son. I think it'd be best if you didn't come around." He said quietly. The sound of the click in my ear was deafening. However, the flicker of hope returned as I put the phone down, that one day relatively soon, I may be able to hear her voice.
I went back home in a rut and an ache in my heart. I kept thinking about what happened and couldn't move past it. However, I still called her house each day at noon, sometimes her dad, Jack, picked up and sometimes it went straight to voicemail where I never left a message. Jack never hung up on me, but our conversations usually never lasted more than a minute: usually a hello, a denial and then a goodbye. Even though I never heard Emma's voice, I knew she was there. This town wasn't above small town gossip.
As the summer wore on, physical therapy kicked my ass. It hurt like hell, but this was my punishment. My parents were sick of my self-deprecation but I thought about Grace and Caleb each and every day. They never said anything—this wasn't some kind of visitation from the dead bullshit. But they were there, always, in my dreams. Grace's parents lived in Chicago, and I talked to them only a couple times a month. They saw me as some kind of lingering connection to their daughter, but I didn't mind. Just talking brought the memories back to me. Caleb's parents lived across the street. His mom used to stop by, but I knew that I reminded her of Caleb. We had been like brothers, always getting into trouble, growing up, learning lessons the hard way. I could tell by the flash of guilt in her eyes when she looked at me, and thought of Caleb.
It was almost June when I saw Emma's dad for the first time. I was on my way out of another therapy session. He didn't see me, but to me, it was significant in some tangible way. Seeing Jack didn't bring me any closer to Em, but it felt that way and it was enough. In the next days, I actively looked for Jack, but to no avail. I had almost given up. However, on the first day of August, in the middle of a thunderstorm, the power plant in my town shut down. At 11:45, I picked up my phone to dial Emma's number as I did everyday. When I didn't have service, and heard no dial tone, I panicked. Of course it probably didn't even matter - Emma never picked up the phone anyway. With no dial tone, I threw my phone against the wall. "Shit." I cried and trudged down the street, clothes a sopping mess and ran into the nearest corner store. "Can I use the phone?" I asked the old woman at the counter, probably appearing clinically insane. I breathed a sign of relief when the phone started ringing. Jack usually picked up on the third ring. The phone rang once, twice, three times, and my heart sank a little bit at the prospect of another wasted message. But on the eighth ring, there was a little click, and then the sound of empty air. Someone picked up the phone, just long enough to breathe once, and then hung up without a word. Emma had answered. It didn't matter that she didn't say anything, or that she hung up so quickly. Since I called every single day at the exact same time, she knew it was me. I controlled the urge to do a little dance around the store, and replaced the phone on the wall with a shit-eating grin on my face. Maybe tomorrow, she would wait two seconds, instead of one. And maybe one day soon, instead of a nervous, shaky breath, I would hear her voice.
But the next day, instead of the breathy silence I had waited twenty-four hours to hear again, Jack answered. I tried not to sound disappointed. The next day I called again. While waiting, I thought, maybe that first day was just a fluke; maybe she had picked up thinking it was some kind of emergency. That was definitely a possibility, given the rainstorm from hell. But before I could rationalize whatever had happened that day, that little click on the eighth ring resounded in my ear like a chorus of angels. I expected two breaths this time, or maybe just a longer first one. But I was wrong. She spoke. She was crying. But she was there. "Let me go," she whispered. And hung up. I didn't expect her to answer the next day, or the next, or any day after that for at least a few weeks. But just as I expected her to ignore me again, at least for a while, I knew she expected me to keep calling. And so I did, each and every day at noon, as the summer waned into shorter days and cooler nights.
I had heard about people with near-death experiences, whose lives—it seemed—always changed for the better. Mine hadn't changed for the better in every way, because real life just didn't work like that. I still spent most mornings in agony, until my muscles had loosened up and the painkillers kicked in. I rarely partook in social events. I needed to move on, but a part of me was holding on to the familiar. And a larger part of me was holding on to her. So, the night before my twenty third birthday, I decided things needed to change, and that included a bottle of Cap't Morgan to drown my sorrows. I woke up the next day to a cold, dull day and a distant hangover. I don't know how I managed to sleep in a cloud of so much agony, but when I woke up, I felt surprisingly well-rested. The rain was still falling—even more heavily now, if that were possible—and I was glad it was Sunday. I didn't do physical therapy on Sunday. I didn't do crap on Sundays. I sat on the couch and watched TV and ate my feelings. The pain was a constant reminder of the fact that I had walked away from that accident with my life, and two people had not. I looked out the window, expecting to see the usual Sunday activity—the little train of churchgoers, parked outside along our street. But I didn't see a damn thing. No cars, no churchgoers, no kids in their Sunday best. I walked around to the back door. The little overhang kept me protected from the rain, but there was an angry storm brewing. So I stepped back inside, still distantly aware of the feeling that something was off, until the sound of the massive grandfather clock shattered the stillness of the early morning. There were chimes missing. One chime? One chime means one o'clock. No. I sprinted toward the front door. I threw it open, ran out onto the front lawn. I didn't even think about calling her; hell, I didn't want to, not anymore. If she didn't see me today, then she would never see me. Our connection would be broken, and I would learn to live with that. This was her choice, not mine. Today our lives would intersect once again, or they would diverge forever.
My car sat idle in the driveway and for the first time in nine months, I wasn't holding back. I don't know how long it took me to get there, but I recognized her blue tin mailbox at the far end of the street. As I stepped onto her driveway the gravel shifted underneath my feet, and it took everything I had to keep from calling out her name. So I just stood there for a while, and took a few deep, calming breaths, while the cold rain soaked my skin. I didn't feel pain as I walked, one step in front of the other, toward her familiar front stoop. An old maple—Caleb's favorite climbing tree—sheltered the porch, and I admired it with a wistful, reverent smile. I took a deep breath, and thought once more of the last nine months. Of all the calls, the waiting, the uncertainty. And most of all, the hope I had that she would answer. Ring it, Adam. Just do it. But I didn't have to. Because before I could ring that damn bell, before I could even breathe, the door flew open and there she was. Emma. She didn't say anything as she flew off the porch, and crushed her little body into mine. She hugged me with everything she had, her arms wrapped around my neck, her legs dangling in the air as I lifted her up. I felt her melt into me, her body as soft and slender as I remembered, her hair carrying the faint scent of strawberries, the way it always did."I'm so sorry," I said, over and over and over again. "I'm so, so sorry.""I know," she said, her voice faltering in the violent howls of the wind. And it was as if all of my suffering, all of my brokenness, slipped away at the sound of her voice. "Thank you," she whispered. "For what?" "For not listening to me," she said. "For never letting go."