The sound of incoherent chatter bounced off the walls. Hailey hunched over as Alex spoke. It was lunchtime, and in the cafeteria, hundreds of students sat at long tables in neatly arranged rows.
Hailey glanced around. The table of cheerleaders lied in the distance: loud, annoying dimwits. Across from them sat the table of nerds. Other tables included the drama kids, the smart kids, the hipsters, the wild kids, and dozens of other random cliques. Sure, all those kids liked Hailey well enough. She was a nice girl after all, but she would stop short of calling any of them actual friends.
Hailey bit into her sandwich and let the soft spongy bread massage her lips. As she tore away the inside, the sweet taste of bologna and cheese filled her mouth. There was no better lunch. Hailey smiled. Thanks Mom.
Hailey and Alex sat isolated at the end of a sparsely occupied table. Freshmen scattered throughout their table, still unsure of what table faction they would unofficially join.
Alex’s voice rushed past her wandering thoughts. “Are you listening to me?” Hailey chomped on her food like a cow in the pasture and shot her eyes back to Alex. He said, “You’re not are you?”
“I’m sorry,” Hailey admitted. With a mouth full of sandwich, she slurred, “The bologna…”
Alex leaned forward. “So what did you hear?”
Hailey smiled through her constant chewing and reached her hand to his. Hailey’s shoulders rose and hugged her ears. Shrug. All she could do was make the cutest, puffy-eyed face possible. How else to say I haven’t heard a word?
Alex shook his head. “Okay I’ll try again.” Alex’s eyes met hers as he continued. “If your parents don’t want us hanging out outside of school, then I think we should respect that. I’ll help you with your grades. You need to study. And when they come up, we’ll see if we can change their minds.”
Hailey’s eyes squinted and the hand that once firmly held her bologna sandwich drooped; a clear signal to Alex that Hailey disagreed. Hailey uttered, “Why are you always so easy to accept what they say?” A tidal wave of disappointment washed over her more powerfully than she let on. This didn’t feel like betrayal, it felt a little like surrender.
“It’s just… we have this year and next year and then we’ll be in college. So let’s get through this for now the best we can. We’ll still spend every day together at school. Hailey… all I care about is you.”
That last part felt forced. This time, Alex rested his hand on Hailey’s. Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that he was right. It was just hard. And what made it especially hard was that Alex was Hailey’s only true friend… the only one she could call and tell her most important thoughts to. There just wasn’t anyone else who cared. Hailey kept her eyes away from Alex because, at this moment, she didn’t want him to sense her fear of loneliness.
Her eyes wandered away and, by unfortunate chance, connected with Grace’s, over at the table with the Fab Four. Grace, Sara, Jordan, and Lisa: the four prettiest girls in school; the clique that rose above all others. For a second, it seemed like the blonde-haired blue-eyed Grace smiled at her. Hailey and Grace were close friends once. Where that friendship disappeared to, Hailey wasn’t sure. That loss had time to settle into Hailey’s mind, but that didn’t mean it stopped hurting. Hailey offered a hesitant smile back at Grace. But at that moment, Grace looked away and kept on with whatever gossip that engaged her. At least she knows I’m still alive. Girls like the Fab Four would never accept her. Hailey dropped her head and looked at her nervously rubbing fingers.
“Are you okay, Hailey?”
“AAAAAHHH!!” A scream overpowered the chatter. Hailey jumped in surprise and the cafeteria fell dead silent. All heads turned toward the source of the sound, in the middle of the rows of tables. Hailey and Alex stood up to get a better view.
Trevor, one of Alex’s teammates on the football team, knelt face down on all fours on the floor. But not his hands and knees. He contorted on his hands and feet, in a sort-of pushup position. Trevor scurried in place like a spider. His movements looked unnatural and it seemed like he might break his arms or legs the way he twisted them. How was it even possible? Maybe he was having a seizure of some kind?
Trevor mumbled under his breath. It was impossible to make out what he said. Laughter broke out in spurts. Trevor’s reputation as a class clown pointed to this being of his elaborate jokes… right?
As Trevor crawled in place on the floor, a circle of intrigued students formed around him, with Hailey and Alex standing in front. Everyone watched in awed silence. Without warning, a gagging sound erupted and vomit waterfalled out of Trevor’s mouth. A mix of dark orange and red splashed to the white tile below.
The circle of students surrounding him stepped back and audible gasps filled the air. Some of them looked away. But Hailey planted her feet and stared. Trevor emitted what sounded like a growl and then crashed his face into the tile, right into the puddle below. His long nose ripped and broke sideways. Hailey could hear the crack sound ring out when it broke. As blood dripped from his deformed nostrils, he robotically lifted himself to his knees.
Alex broke the silence. “Trevor?” He took a small step forward with his outstretched hand. But before he could get any closer, Hailey’s hand gripped his and yanked him back. “Don’t,” she whispered.
Trevor’s bloodshot eyes lifted and met with Hailey’s. She must have whispered too loudly. Trevor stared at her with an animalistic, almost evil, look. As a stream of blood dripped out of his mouth and nose, he mumbled, “Hailey… help me.”
Hailey’s eyes dashed to the faces of the others in the circle. They stared at her with a mixture of horror and relief that Trevor hadn’t called out to them. Hailey once again met eyes with her old friend Grace. Grace’s astounded look seemed to silently ask, What are you doing to do? Hailey’s eyes widened and she shook her head. I don’t know.
Irritation overtook Alex. Where were the teachers to help? He barked, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” Enough waiting. Alex unhooked his hand from Hailey’s and darted forward. The impenetrable circle broke with Alex’s intrusion. His hand landed on Trevor’s back. “Come on buddy, you’ll be okay.” He rubbed gentle circles on his back to calm him. Alex lifted his head and shouted. “Where are the teachers?! Will someone call an ambulance please!”
Hailey’s anxiety ramped up to runaway train mode. Get away from him, get away from him. As Alex peered beyond the circle for help, Trevor growled and showed his teeth, the kind of face a dog would make right before it bit.
But Trevor wouldn’t bite. Instead, he snapped to the side and jerked on Alex’s wrist. With both hands, Trevor gripped Alex’s hand and pushed backwards on his fingers. Alex desperately yanked on his hand to try to pull it away.
“Let me go, Trevor!”
Trevor’s voice raised into a yell. He pushed further on Alex’s fingers until Alex joined him in a scream. Hailey stood by, knowing she should help, but her feet refused to move. Fear pumped through her veins and paralyzed every muscle. As she tried to move any part of her body, her heart raced and her head throbbed with angst. Move! Help him! Her deep breaths seemed to bring no oxygen to her lungs. She felt helpless to do anything but watch. “Alex,” she whispered.
Trevor threw his entire weight into bending Alex’s fingers backwards and finally, they couldn’t handle the pressure anymore. Three of them snapped backwards and flopped against the back of his hand.
The sound of pained, horrified screams flooded the cafeteria.
That night, Alex’s face lit up as he spotted Hailey and her mom walk into his hospital room. “Hey!” he could barely contain. Before they arrived, all he had been doing was lying in his bed and staring into space with the awful plain beige walls surrounding him. The mixed scents of medicine and smelly sick people made him feel sluggish. And though he was given painkillers, the sharp throbbing pain was hard to ignore.
Now that Hailey was here, the room that was dull with monotony now seemed to explode in rich pastels. Hailey’s outstretched hand gripped a green ribbon that held a floating Happy Birthday balloon. Right as Alex opened his mouth to inquire, Hailey said, “They were out of the Get Well Soons… so uh… we’ll just pretend. Happy Birthday!” Hailey extended her hand and waited for Alex to take it. Then her face scrunched as she remembered. “Oh yeah. Your hand.” Hailey stepped to the far side of the bed and tied the ribbon to the restraint that popped up and helped Alex feel like a prisoner.
Alex laughed. A Happy Birthday balloon was more cheerful than a Get Well Soon one anyway. Alex analyzed Mom. Surprisingly, her mature, tight face wore a gentle smile. She was dressed sharply so she must have come from work. Did she leave work early to bring Hailey to me? The possibility warmed his insides. “Thanks for coming.”
“No problem,” Mom responded. Her voice lacked the usual stern undertone that came with it. “I hope you start feeling better.” She paused. “What exactly happened?”
Before Alex could respond, Hailey interrupted with obvious annoyance. “I told you, Mom. Trevor went crazy and broke his fingers.”
Alex confirmed. “That’s about all I know. The ligaments in my finger are torn. They straightened them up…” Alex held up his hand. An obscene amount of cast wrapped his hand and made it look like a giant white bulb. “…but they’re keeping me until tomorrow morning for the surgery.” Alex gazed at Hailey. Usually, when her mom or dad was around, he tried to avoid prolonged eye contact. But the soft look of Hailey’s green eyes seemed to make the agony in his fingers go away.
Alex asked, “Have you heard any updates on Trevor? Does anybody have any details?”
Hailey shook her head. “No one’s heard anything.”
Hailey and Mom continued to stare at Alex like an exhibit in a museum until finally, Mom said, “Well, I’ll leave you two alone for a few minutes. Come out when you’re ready, Hailey.” Mom smiled at Alex as she left. When she opened the door, the sound of scurrying nurses and beeping computers filled the room. Mom turned and gave an approving look to Hailey and shut the door behind her. The sounds stopped and sealed them inside. Hailey and Alex were alone.
“Wow,” Alex remarked, piercing the church-like silence.
Hailey stared at the closed door and said, “I have no explanation.”
“Maybe she feels sorry for me.”
“Or maybe my latest talk with Dad softened her up.”
Hailey’s neck turned from the door and she gazed at Alex. Her eyes bounced nervously on him, back and forth. It was like she wasn’t sure if it was okay to look at him. Alex asked, “You okay, Hailey?” She nodded but her lips quivered. The sight of Alex in the hospital, the aftermath of her failure to help him, rattled her heart.
Alex said, “I found this great new way we can see each other outside of school.” He lifted his healthy hand and wiggled his fingers. “This hand is completely fine. I figure we use a few of the fingers on this one then go on to my toes next.”
A slight laugh escaped from Hailey. Alex sat up straight, beaming to know that his joke worked and at least temporarily made her feel better. Dimples formed on Hailey’s smiling cheeks. But just as quickly, her smile drooped downwards and those dimples disappeared. A battle of emotions waged on her face. Alex asked, “What is it?”
She took a deep breath and asked, “Can I get in the bed with you?” Her eyes nervously rested on him.
Alex responded, “I’d let you but… I think I might be getting sick.”
“Sick? With what?”
Alex turned his healthy hand to reveal his nails. “Look.” The usual pale pink color was gone. Instead, pure black nails stared back. Hailey pulled back in surprise. “How did that happen?” she asked with a worried tremble.
“I don’t know. But the thing is… I feel horrible. My stomach is tied in knots. I have a headache. And I keep… having these weird thoughts. It could be the painkillers they’re giving me. But I just have a bad feeling about this. I don’t want you to catch something I might have.”
Hailey stared at him. She knew people at school made fun of him for going out with her. She’d heard whispers of some of the things people had said. Where would I be without him? “Then I’ll be sick with you.”
He grinned as he uttered, “Just be careful about my finger.” Alex shifted over to make room in his clunky hospital bed.
Hailey gingerly squeezed next to him. The bed squeaked and dipped as it adjusted to the extra weight. Surprisingly, the bed was puffier and more comfortable than she imagined. She draped herself along his body and wrapped her arm around his midsection. With his healthy hand, he caressed her scalp. Their soft breathing was the only sound they could hear. As time mercilessly passed by, they held on.
Alex said, “It was nice of your Mom to come. They’re a pain sometimes but… you’re lucky to have them.”
“I know.” Hailey took several deep, guilty breaths before she confessed what she dreaded to tell him. “It’s my fault.”
Alex put his chin to his chest and looked at her. Her eyes shot upward as she gazed back like a sad puppy. He asked, “What do you mean?”
“When Trevor had your hand. I could’ve helped. I wanted to help. But I stood there and did nothing.” She squeezed his shirt and buried her face into his chest. “Like an idiot. I was just so scared. I couldn’t move. And now you’re here. It’s all my fault.” She paused. Alex didn’t know how to respond. Instead, Hailey added, “I’m sorry.”
“Hailey.” His eyes scanned the air for the right words. “It’s not your fault. I shouldn’t have gotten close to him. You tried to stop me. I should have listened to you. If you tried to help me, Trevor might’ve hurt you instead.” Hailey’s eyes locked with his, wondering if he spoke the truth or just wanted to make her feel better. He continued, “Besides, I’ll have the surgery in the morning and I’ll be out of here. It’ll be okay.”
As Hailey peered into his eyes, she analyzed the fine texture of his brown irises. Fine green lines ran from his pupil to the outside of his iris. Up close, it looked so detailed. So… deep. Hailey laughed.
Alex asked, “What’s so funny?”
“Can you see me?”
He shook his head in confusion. “You’re really weird sometimes.”
“You have pretty eyes.”
“You’re welcome… Brown.”
Hailey held the palm of her hand in front of his face. It floated in the air, all five fingers fully extended. Alex looked at it and gently fit his fingers into the spaces between them. Their hands clamped and locked together. Hailey stared at the blackness of his nails resting on the back of her hand. She closed her eyes and embraced his feel.
She whispered, “I wish I could be sick with you.”
But Alex would never want something like that. He unclamped their hands and pulled her face closer to his. He wouldn’t tell her because she wouldn’t accept it, especially now… but she was stronger than she gave herself credit for. She just needed to believe in herself. He wrapped his arm around her and squeezed.
Hailey closed her eyes and reveled in the feeling of their bodies rested against one another. As she took a deep breath, she could feel his heartbeat restfully beating with hers.
Alex whispered, “I love you, Hailey.”
Hailey pulled her head back and gave Alex a soft kiss on his lips. She rested her head on his chest. “I love you, Alex.”
Knowing goodbye was coming to torment them yet again, they held on for as long as they could, savoring every second they had together. Hailey scanned the details of his face, admiring him. She had no way to know this would be the last time she would see it.