FOR THIS LIFE ONLY–Excerpt
ACCORDING TO MY DAD, Christmastime is family time. But after eleven straight days at home, I can tell you, it starts to feel a little more like prison time. I love my family, but there’s only so much togetherness any sane person can stand.
And now, postdinner on a Saturday night, staring down the barrel of day twelve, I was ready to crawl out of my skin to see someone I wasn’t related to.
“You have to let me take the Jeep tonight,” I said, pushing open Eli’s door without bothering to knock.
“What?” Perched on the edge of the bed, Eli slammed his nightstand drawer shut, a fleeting look of guilt on his face. Our face, technically, since we were identical. Blond hair, blue eyes, and ears that stuck out a little too far—that was us.
“What are you doing?” I asked, frowning at him.
“Nothing.” Eli stood and pushed past me, heading toward the bathroom. “And forget it. I have stuff to do tonight.”
“Right.” I snorted, following him. “Like Leah?”
He paused to look over his shoulder at me, his mouth a tight line.
“Oh, come on, I was kidding!” I protested.
Okay, so maybe antagonizing Eli about his perfectly perfect girlfriend wasn’t the best way to go about getting a favor, tempting as it was. The two of them were made for each other: the pastor’s good son and the church council president’s daughter who wanted to be a missionary. But they were also both rule-followers to the extreme and annoyingly exacting on themselves and everyone else.
Hey, whatever worked for them. I wasn’t the one not-sleeping with her.
“Why don’t you—” Eli began, as he flipped on the bathroom light.
“I can’t ask Zach. Everybody’s already over there.” I leaned in the doorway, while Eli rummaged in the medicine cabinet. “I can drop you off at Leah’s on the way,” I offered.
The dusty pine smell of the drying-out Christmas tree downstairs mixed with the cinnamon candles my mom insisted on burning for “holiday ambience” was starting to get to me. Made me feel like the walls were closing in. I needed to be somewhere where I could breathe and be myself, even if it was only for a few hours.
“I said no.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Seriously?”
He pulled drawers open and slammed them shut, looking for something.
“Fine,” I said. “Then ask Leah to come get you. She has a car, right?”
He shook his head. “It’s not fair to ask her to do that—”
“At the last minute, I know. But it’s also not fair that we have to share a car when she could be using hers to get you,” I pressed. “Division of resources or whatever.”
“Not everything is about you, Jace,” Eli said. Then he scowled. “Sarah!” he bellowed. “You left the toothpaste cap off.” He pulled the capless and nearly flat toothpaste tube from Sarah’s drawer. “Again!”
I stared at him. “What’s wrong with you?” This was not my normally-even-tempered-to-the-extreme brother.
“It makes a mess, and it’s gross. I hate that,” he muttered.
“Jesus says not to hate.” Sarah arrived in the doorway in time to make the pronouncement in her best Sunday school–student voice. Her reddish-blond hair was sticking up in all directions, with a Disney Princess hair-thingy clinging for dear life on the side. She’d probably been pretending to be a pony again, which usually involved placing a blanket over her head as a mane.
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure Jesus would have been a proponent of putting the cap back on.” Eli loaded toothpaste on his brush with a grimace.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure clumpy toothpaste wouldn’t have been an issue. Son of God, water into wine and all,” I pointed out quickly, in the name of keeping the peace and getting back to the main point. Me, taking the Jeep.
“See?” Sarah stuck her tongue out at Eli, and he rolled his eyes at her.
“E, please,” I said. “I’m begging you. Mom is talking about another round of family Scrabble, and Sarah cheats more than I do. I can’t take it.”
“I do not cheat!” Sarah folded her arms across her chest, her lower lip jutting out. “I’m six. I don’t know as many words as you do.”
“You know better than to spell cat with a ‘q,’” I said. She’d gotten away with it because my parents thought it was adorable.
She gave me a sly grin. “Maybe.”
“See? Cheater.” I ruffled her hair further, and she squealed in mock protest.
Eli paused in brushing his teeth. “Won’t Kylie be there?” he asked me quietly, around a mouthful of foam.
In spite of myself, I stiffened. “Probably.”
He spat in the sink and rinsed his brush. “If you just talked to her—”
I grabbed the hand towel off the ring on the wall and chucked it at the side of his head.
“You missed a spot,” I said, gesturing to the glob of toothpaste at the corner of his mouth. He’d go out like that if I didn’t stop him. And it was bad enough that he was wearing his church camp T-shirt out in public. I could see the big block letters of last year’s theme and Bible verse on the back through his button-down.
SEE YOU ON THE OTHER SIDE
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only
Son, that whoever believes in him should not
perish but have eternal life.
“Kylie doesn’t come over anymore,” Sarah said. “Why not? I liked her.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be getting your pajamas on?” Eli asked Sarah as he wiped his mouth. He took his role as the oldest—three minutes ahead of me—a little too seriously sometimes. Though in this case, I appreciated the diversion.
“You’re not Mom or Dad,” Sarah said. “You can’t tell me what to do.” Then she turned her attention back to me. “Did Kylie die?” she asked with a curiosity that bordered on weird and/or inappropriate. “Did God kill her?”
I groaned. A couple of weeks ago, my mom had taken Sarah to the funeral and graveside service of a longtime church member, Mrs. Gallagher. Normally we didn’t get dragged to funerals, even the ones my dad presided over, but because my mom had to be there and Eli and I were in school, Sarah had to go. It was her first one.
Apparently, my dad had used the standard language about God calling a church member home, and that somehow got twisted in Sarah’s brain. Since then, she kept popping up with these really bizarre questions about death and dying.
“Sarah, death is nothing to fear,” Eli said. “If you listen to the scriptures, you’ll see that Jesus talks about going ahead of us—”
I made an impatient noise. “When you die, you go toward the bright light, and Jesus and the rest of us will be there, waiting for you. Then everyone is in heaven and it’s all good. End of story.”
Eli sighed. “That’s not really doctrinally—”
I rolled my eyes. “Kylie is fine,” I said to Sarah. “She decided she liked the guys better at St. Luke’s is all.”
Sarah frowned. “Why?”
“I don’t know, Sares.” And right now, I didn’t care. At least, not as much. I’d rather take the risk of running into my ex-girlfriend at a party than stay in one more night.
“That’s not nice,” Sarah said after a moment of contemplation.
“Gotta agree with you there,” I said, and she tackled my leg in a sideways hug.
With another heavy sigh, Eli regarded both of us, his expression relenting. “Okay,” he said, hanging the hand towel in the ring on the wall.
I straightened up. “I can have the—”
“I’ll drop you off,” he said. “But you have to tell Mom and Dad and find your own way home.”
“Got it, not a problem,” I said, relieved. Though I might have been overestimating the ease with which I’d accomplish both of those things. But one obstacle at a time.
“Jace, you should stay home,” Sarah whined, clinging to my leg. “It’s Christmas.”
“Nope,” I said. “Not anymore.” Thank God.
My parents had a ritual for the Saturday evenings that weren’t filled with wedding receptions, fund-raiser potlucks, or emergency calls. One glass of wine apiece, a big bowl of popcorn to share, and an old movie that would end by ten so my dad could be up and at the church by six a.m.
“Everything’s ready for tomorrow?” my dad asked from the couch, lowering the remote to focus his attention on Eli as soon as we rounded the corner into the family room.
Technically, we were both working at the church as interns this year, but everyone knew Eli was more into it than I was. Scratch that; he was into it and I wanted out of it. He would be the one to join my dad at the church as soon as he was done with college and seminary. Good for him, not for me.
“Yes. Did a mic check and replaced the batteries in your pack. Delores said Carey Daniels called in sick for acolyting, so I called down the sub list until I got someone. And the staple cartridge was replaced this afternoon, so the bulletins for all three services are done.”
Dad nodded. “Good.”
“Jacob?” my mom asked from her corner of the couch, taking in my jacket with a frown.
“Eli’s going to drop me off at Zach’s,” I said.
“I thought we were going to do a final round of Scrabble.” She gestured to the game set up on the coffee table. “We’ve already got the first Indiana Jones queued up. Sarah will be in bed before the face-melting part.” The last was said in a pseudo-whisper.
“I heard that,” Sarah shouted from upstairs. “I want to see!”
Yep, that was my sister.
“Maybe tomorrow after church?” I offered to my mom, resisting the urge to shift my weight from foot to foot.
My dad sighed and sat up, moving to the edge of the couch.
I braced myself for the coming lecture.
“Jacob, if you’re going out, don’t give me a reason to hear bad reports. No drinking, no carousing, no breaking town curfew. Appearances are important. Because no matter how well you think you know everyone there . . .”
“Someone is always watching,” Eli and I recited obediently, though my teeth were clenched.
“Exactly. And we have an obligation to be good examples.”
Theoretically my dad was speaking to both of us, but his gaze was focused on me. Because I was the one trying to have a life outside the
church, to be someone other than just the pastor’s less-good son.
It was something outsiders never understood. We didn’t get to be individuals. We were Pastor Micah’s family, a portfolio of my dad’s work, shining examples of his leadership, his discipline, his faith at work in his own home. Our successes were his. Our mistakes—from a wrinkled
shirt to a failing grade—were potential watch signs of trouble within the ministry.
God, as my dad’s vague omnipresent “boss,” might be forgiving, but the members of Riverwoods Bible Church weren’t always so open-minded.
I was the “troubled one,” by virtue of breaking curfew a few times, getting busted at one party my freshman year, achieving lower grades than my twin, and generally being less involved in Riverwoods than Eli. (If there was a Bible study, he was a part of it.) In other words, normal crap, stuff that would probably earn a week or two of grounding or maybe only a raised eyebrow and a scolding in a regular family.
But we weren’t regular, unfortunately.
For the grades, my parents got me a tutor, and for the lack of involvement, they stuck me in the joint internship with Eli. But for the curfew violations and the party, my dad had enlisted me in community service at the Riverwoods food pantry for months. Part of that whole “being a good example” thing. I’d just finished paying for my last infraction. And with baseball practice starting up again in a couple of months, I did not want
In a year and a half, I’d be done, out of here. On a baseball scholarship, I hoped, to somewhere else, where I wouldn’t have to worry about anybody but me.
“Jace will be fine,” Eli said with a confident nod at my dad, and I felt a rush of gratitude toward my brother, for extending his good credit over me. Whatever had been bugging him earlier seemed to be gone now. “Don’t worry.”
As always, Eli’s casual word was more convincing than my most earnest promises. Not that I bothered to make them very often anymore.
“Home by ten-thirty,” my dad said, pointing the remote at me. “Not a second later. You need to be at early service at least fifteen minutes before the prelude.”
“Of course,” I said quickly. Although at that point, I would have agreed to anything to get out.
TWO HOURS LATER, THE front half of me was sweating by the bonfire, while my back half was freezing, the raggedy barn on Zach’s family’s back forty not doing nearly enough to block the wind. And my beer was mostly foam.
It was the most relaxed I’d felt in days.
I tipped my cup and poured the excess head to the dirt-packed ground before the fire.
“Too much for you, PK?” Caleb asked with a snort.
I flipped my middle finger at him, which never failed to elicit an “oooh” of pretend shock from our shortstop. He loved to make a big deal out of me being a “preacher’s kid.”
“So listen. I heard Randle is out,” Derek said from his position on a log deemed too large for firewood. His girlfriend, Lacey, shivered next to him, despite the multiple blankets over her shoulders. It was warmer than it had been for days, right at freezing, but that wasn’t saying much.
I stared at him. “Are you serious?”
“Yep, grades. He’s failing calculus. My cousin goes to school with him.”
“Parkland will never make it without him,” Caleb said, a huge shit-eating grin spreading across his face. “State is ours.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Derek said, but I could hear the carefully contained excitement in our captain’s voice. “Depends on if we can keep it together this year.” He narrowed his eyes at us.
A trip to state might mean more scouts, better scholarships. As a left-handed pitcher, I had some interest already, but last year had screwed us up. Two of our seniors had been benched for the final four games of the season, which killed our record.
“Man, that wasn’t us.” Matt, our first baseman, chucked his cup into the fire, where it immediately sent up spirals of black, toxic-smelling smoke.
“Doug and Aaron were just messing around. It’s not our fault that Thera chick can’t take a joke,” Caleb insisted.
“She probably made it up for the attention,” I said. “Or to be a pain in the ass.” Thera Catoulus’s mom was Psychic Mary, the one and only fortune-teller in town. They lived in one of those crappy little houses, with a neon hand in the window and walk-in pricing listed by the front door.
The house happened to be right across from Riverwoods’s original church building, where we held traditional early morning services on Sunday and the smaller services during the year.
Overgrown lawn, shitty piles of old tires dumped by the porch, and that blinking neon sign in the window advertising “occult services”—all just fifty feet away from Riverwoods’s pristine stone steps.
It drove my dad crazy, which meant we had to hear about it. All the time. Plus, there was a superconservative contingent within Riverwoods—some of them, like Leah’s dad, were even on the council—and they kicked up a congregation-wide tantrum every once in a while about satanism and the devil literally being on our doorstep.
My dad had tried to buy Psychic Mary out when Riverwoods built the new building, the auditorium, but she had refused.
So the auditorium was actually a block and a half from the original sanctuary, which made parking a bitch. And every time a parishioner complained, my dad would come home in a superpissy mood. That was fun.
“I don’t know,” Lacey said quietly.
Everyone stared at her.
“You believe her?” Caleb asked with a sneer.
“No . . . I don’t know,” Lacey said, curling deeper into her blankets. “I just don’t think that your coach would have benched them for nothing. I mean—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Derek said. “We need to focus on this season. That means keeping our noses clean and staying away from trouble. Any kind of trouble.” He tipped his cup in my direction.
“Yeah,” I muttered. My dad’s strictness and punishments were legendary. And he wouldn’t care if I missed practices or if the team was hurt by my absence. That counted as “something you should have thought of before.”
My dad didn’t have time to go to most of my games. It wasn’t only me, though. He missed Eli’s debate team events too sometimes, and Sarah’s piano recitals. The church always came first.
Whatever. It’s not like it mattered. Okay, maybe a little. But only because maybe if he saw what it meant to me, if he saw that I belonged on the field, then maybe he wouldn’t have been so quick to try to take it away.
When I was on the mound, I felt whole in a way I didn’t in any other place. It was in the smell of the grass and the dirt, the warmth of the sun on my back in those late afternoon practices, how it felt when the ball left my hand just right and I could tell it was going straight to the
catcher. Like there was a magnet between the ball and his mitt. Destiny.
My dad was proud of me, of all of us, but it was like in this general, generic way. He didn’t know my stats or that I struggled with my circle changeup and was contemplating switching to the Vulcan. With too many competing Riverwoods priorities, he didn’t have space in his brain for that
kind of information.
Movement on the other side of the fire caught my attention. Kylie approached the outer edge of the light, her puffy white coat bright in the surrounding dimness. Her dark hair was mostly stuffed under a blue-and-gray beanie, the one I’d given her for her birthday last year. We were
friends first. Her brother, Scott, was our center fielder, so she’d been hanging around team events for years.
That only made it worse when she dumped my ass last month at a party after telling me “it wasn’t working.” But lately, for some reason, she kept wanting to talk to me, to explain. To try to make things better. How exactly was talking going to make it better? Especially when she was with that dude from St. Luke’s? She’d brought him tonight. I could see him talking to Scott behind her.
Kylie gave a tentative wave in my direction, her red cup clutched in her other hand.
I turned away and took three big swallows to finish my beer. “I should probably be getting home,” I said to Derek, chucking my cup into the fire.
“Pussy,” Caleb coughed into his fist.
I ignored him. “Anyone seen Zach?”
Lacey pointed to a dim corner of the barn, where I could barely make out two figures, arguing quietly with wild hand gestures and wobbly balance. A glass bottle of some kind of liquor was on the ground nearby, the side of it flickering with the reflection of firelight. “Um, he and Audrey are . . .”
Damn it. My best friend was always DD because he didn’t drink. Except when he and his on-again/off-again girlfriend were fighting.
“I can take you home,” Kylie offered, her voice carrying a little too loud across the fire. “I haven’t touched my beer yet, and Dylan has his car—”
“I’ve got it,” I muttered. I’d get Zach’s keys and borrow his car. I’d only had a couple, and not even full cups because Caleb didn’t know how to fucking pour.
Turning on my heel, I moved away from the fire and headed into the barn.
“Zach,” I shouted, giving plenty of advance warning in case there was some deeply personal shit going on. I’d been present for their fights before, and Audrey didn’t filter much when she was pissed. I’d heard plenty about their sex life. And I didn’t need to know that much about either one of them. “Keys, bro.”
Audrey gave an exaggerated huff at the interruption.
“One sec,” Zach said to her before turning to me, half-stumbling with movement. “You’ve been drinking.”
I rolled my eyes. “Less than you,” I pointed out. “I’m fine.”
He squinted at me blearily. “Are you sure? You could stay here. Everyone else is.”
Everyone including Kylie and her boyfriend? Hell, no.
I didn’t feel the same way about her anymore. It would be hard to after getting my heart stomped on with such force and precision, but that didn’t mean I wanted to hang out with her or, worse yet, try to dodge her various “we need to talk” attempts through the whole night. Why couldn’t she do the normal thing and pretend we never knew each other?
“I have to get home. Now,” I said to Zach. “Church tomorrow, remember?” It would be difficult enough to explain why I had Zach’s car; I didn’t want to be late too.
He nodded after a second, a delayed reaction, and then pulled his keys from his pocket and tossed them to me. “Your mouthwash is in the glove box from last time.”
I caught his sloppy toss one-handed, snatching the keys out of the air and turning to . . . charge smack into Kylie, who’d evidently followed
On impact, her red plastic cup, caught between us, gave a loud crack and I felt the cold slop of liquid against
A quick look down revealed beer in a large, spreading stain on my red T-shirt and sprayed across the left side of my coat.
“Oh, my God, Jace, I’m so sorry.” She wiped her hand on her jacket and tried to reach for me.
I moved out of her reach, holding my dripping shirt away from me before trying to wring it out. Beer dribbled out from between my fingers and onto the ground, but not enough. I could feel it soaking the long-sleeved shirt I had underneath as well. Even if I took off my coat and managed to get dry, the smell would still be too strong.
A voice in the back of my head began to chant shit, shit, shit with an ever-increasing degree of panic.
“I wanted to make sure you—” Kylie began.
“It’s fine,” I said sharply. “I’m fine. Just stop.”
Hurt flickered across her face before she turned and stalked away, but I ignored her in favor of bigger problems.
I was screwed.
It was risky enough to drive after a couple of beers when I was four years from legal, but getting behind the wheel smelling like the Wrigley bleachers after a particularly disheartening Cubs loss was a monumentally bad idea. And even if I made it home without getting pulled over, there was no way I was getting past my parents.
Not without help. That only left me with one option.
The rumble of the deteriorating muffler on our Jeep Cherokee was distinctive enough that I heard Eli coming a mile away and was reaching for the door handle before he came to a complete stop.
“What took you so long?” I asked, my teeth chattering. “Did Mom and Dad give you crap about coming to get me?” The outer shell of my coat was stiff in patches where the beer had soaked in and then frozen. I had no idea what temperature beer froze at, but away from the shelter of the barn and the bonfire, I’d found it.
“I think the standard response is actually ‘thank you,’” Eli said.
I slid in and yanked the door shut after me, cutting off the distant sounds of the party behind me.
“Right. Sorry, thanks.” Not bothering with my seat belt, I stripped out of my jacket, shivering despite the heat blasting out of the vents in the ancient Jeep.
Eli nodded, a tight movement that told me he was a little exasperated with me. It was exhausting being the good and responsible one all the time. Or so I assumed.
“Did you bring me a shirt?” I asked.
He pointed toward the backseat.
“Thanks.” I twisted in my seat and grabbed for the neatly folded clothing. “Seriously?” I asked, holding up his debate team sweatshirt. BIG TALK, BIG WALK was emblazoned across the front in embarrassingly huge letters. It was almost as bad as his church camp T-shirt.
“It’s all I had with me.”
I pulled my beer-soaked shirts over my head and dropped them to the plastic floor mat next to my jacket. I’d have to find a way to slip them all into the laundry later. “Dude, my room is right—”
“I wasn’t at home,” he said.
That surprised me. I paused with his sweatshirt halfway over my head. I was usually the one cutting it close to curfew. Eli was always home in plenty of time. “Where were you?” No way he was still at Leah’s this late. Her curfew was even earlier than ours.
He didn’t answer right away, concentrating on the shiny black ribbon of road and driving exactly three miles an hour below the speed limit, and I finished pulling on the sweatshirt.
“How do you know the right thing to do?” he asked finally, his fingers fidgeting on the wheel. “When both options mean hurting people, I mean.”
I stared at him. His shoulders were slumped forward, making him almost hunched over the wheel. “Are you cheating on Leah?” I asked.
“No! Just forget it.” Eli accelerated slightly, as if by speeding he could leave the conversation behind.
I’d never seen him like this before. “No, no, wait.” I held up my hand. “What’s going on? Is this what was bugging
Eli sighed. “Sorry. I can’t . . .” He hesitated. “Do you think there’s a difference between doing the right thing that definitely hurts one person and doing the right thing that might hurt a lot of people?”
I felt the first dart of worry. “Eli, what are you—”
“I mean, in theory,” he added.
I groaned. “It’s Saturday, Eli. Come on. Take a night off.”
Eli and my dad loved going round and round on heavy philosophical or religious issues. What is reality? How do we know what’s real? How you do you define the greater good? I found it all mind-numbingly boring. Things weren’t that complicated. Try not to be a crappy person. Go to church. Use your talents instead of burying them or whatever. If you do a good enough job, when you die, you go to heaven.
“I know what day it is,” Eli said sharply.
“All right, so sorry, Touchy,” I said, holding my hands up in surrender, which was usually enough to trigger a grouchy mumble or a reluctant smile.
But he didn’t say anything.
With an impatient sigh, I turned in my seat to face him. “Look, E, no matter what’s rolling around in that giant brain of yours, you have to know that you’re on the right side of things. You always are. You’re the good one, remember?”
I tried not to sound bitter. I mean, that was the deal with being half of a whole. Most of the time, what you were was in comparison to someone else. If one of us was good, the other was bad, simply by being less good. Add to that the lore surrounding the children of ministers—you were either an innocent, naive angel or you were hell spawn, sent to test your parents’ patience and dedication—and our roles were pretty much set. And yeah, okay, I’d made it my mission to make sure that my reputation wasn’t exactly unearned.
Eli made a frustrated noise and braked to slow down as we crossed the tiny bridge over the creek that ran through Zach’s parents’ land. “But that’s just it. I don’t know if I am. Have you ever . . .” He shook his head. “I guess sometimes I wonder if the—”
Before he could finish his thought, the car gave a weird but distinct shimmy that made my stomach sink. Having put the car in the ditch once last year, I recognized the sensation instantly: the wheels had lost contact with the road.
Panic rose over me in a cold rush.
The moment slowed down to a crawl as we started to slide sideways. The antilock brakes kicked in with a horrible grinding noise, and Eli struggled with the wheel.
“Wait,” he said, panicked. “Wait!” I wasn’t sure who he was talking to.
“Turn into it!” I reached, for him, for the wheel. Both, maybe.
But it was too late for either.
The back end of the car hit the guardrail with an enormously loud crash of metal on metal, and then the guardrail gave. I felt the lurch of regular gravity retracting, abandoning us to our fate.
The sound of my heartbeat filled my ears, muting the chattering of the radio and the shriek of tearing metal as the Jeep rolled, turning our world upside down.
A bright blue umbrella, neatly folded and in its carrying sleeve, flew up from the floor somewhere with a rain of dirt and old receipts. The smell of burning plastic and oil was chokingly thick.
My body lifted up and out of the seat, in that sickening defiance of physics that felt familiar from roller coasters, and then I was thrown forward and sideways, with no restraint.
When my elbow connected with the dashboard, I heard a distinct crack. That’s bad. That’s bad!
And then I caught one last glimpse of Eli, his eyes wide and his face—our face—pale in the dashboard lights, as he spun away from me.
THE BEEPING—DISTINCT, RHYTHMIC, AND from somewhere on my left—came first.
“Okay, Jacob, take it easy,” someone said, the voice low and soothing. “You’re coming out from under the meds, and it’s going to be a little disorienting. But you’re in the hospital, and you’re safe.”
I didn’t recognize the voice, which scared me, and the beeping sound accelerated.
“The noise you’re hearing is the heart monitor. Can you open your eyes?” he, the voice, asked, and I realized belatedly that it was dark around me.
With an effort that felt like swimming up through layers of mud, I tried to blink.
A sliver of bright light broke through on one side, and I winced, tears running down the right side of my face. But the left side felt puffy and numb.
I blinked again, managing to keep my eyes . . . my eye open for a few seconds longer. Enough to see my mom, her face chalky white and pinched with worry, holding my hand. Sarah was perched on the plastic-looking recliner with her, watching warily, with Patsie, her worn stuffed dog, in her lap.
“Hi, baby,” Mom said, tears filling her eyes and rolling down her cheeks. She squeezed my right hand carefully, avoiding the IV needle stuck in the back of it.
My dad was at the foot of the bed, his reading glasses pushed up and lost or forgotten in his rumpled dark hair. He touched my foot, but hesitantly, as if it might break. “Welcome back, Jacob.” His voice was thick, almost foreign sounding, and he looked away almost immediately.
“What . . .” But making that small sound felt like swallowing razor blades with the sharp edges up, and my eyes watered more fiercely at the pain.
My mom clucked at me in distress. “You shouldn’t try to talk.” She held a small plastic cup with a straw to my mouth, and I took a cautious sip, the water offering a passing moment of cold relief in my throat. “They just took the breathing tube out this morning. And you’re still on oxygen.”
Breathing tube. “What . . . happened?” I could feel the scrape of plastic in my nose and see the flaps of tape on my cheek, probably where the oxygen line was attached.
“Do you remember the accident?” my mom asked, squeezing my hand tighter.
At first, I couldn’t remember anything but the darkness, a pitch-black nothingness from which I’d emerged.
But then pieces came back slowly, then fell into place.
“Eli. The Jeep. He came to get me.” It was like remembering a dream from years ago. “The bridge.”
I struggled to sit up, only to find that the entire left side of my body wouldn’t move.
“Easy,” the unknown voice said to my left, out of my range of sight. “We’ve spent a lot of time putting you back together.”
With effort and a growing weight of dread in my stomach, I turned my head carefully.
A man in scrubs and a white coat was on the left side of my bed, scrawling notes in a chart. But that wasn’t the worst part.
My left arm was four times its normal size with bandages, and now that I was looking at it, I could feel the throbbing and sizzle of nerves that felt frayed. And my left leg, beneath the blankets, appeared to be equally swollen and lumpy with bandages.
He set the clipboard down on my bed and flipped a penlight on to shine in my eye, peeling back an eyelid that wouldn’t respond to my commands. “Your left eye is swollen shut, but as soon as the inflammation goes down, your sight should be fine. Dr. Sheffield, the neurologist, will be down a little later.”
“My arm,” I managed.
The doctor turned off the penlight and retrieved his clipboard. “Open fracture of the olecranon process. We’ve set it surgically.” He shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. “With rehab and time, you’ll have eighty to ninety percent of normal motion back.”
That’s not enough, a panicked voice shouted in my head.
But I had to ask. “Baseball?”
“Sure, someday,” he said, already lost in whatever notes he was writing down.
My dad cleared his throat. “Jacob is left-handed. He is . . . he was a pitcher.”
The doctor hesitated, which told me everything I didn’t want to know. “I think you should concentrate on healing for now.”
Nausea swirled over me like fog, and I dropped my head back on the pillows. No more pitching? No more baseball? Not ever?
The doctor frowned down at me, as if I’d insulted him. “You weren’t wearing a seat belt. You’re incredibly lucky
to be alive, young man.” Then, as if he feared that wasn’t enough to impress me, he pointed his pen at me. “You died en route to the hospital. More than once. Took a few tries to keep your heart going. You’re lucky someone found you when they did.”
I died? The bed seemed to tilt under me like I was falling, though I knew I was lying down.
“It’s a miracle,” my mom said, trying to smile through her tears. “God was watching over you.”
I tried to remember. Dying seemed like it should be one of those things that stuck with you. But between now and the accident—seeing Eli spin away from me—all I had was that inky, suffocating blackness. More than a blank space in my memory, it felt like a complete absence of everything.
What was that? Where was I when that was happening? Was I just gone?
That wasn’t supposed to be the way it worked. Eli had given me crap about telling Sarah about the bright light and heaven, but wasn’t that the way it was supposed to go? Or something close? Not just . . . nothing.
I could feel cold welling up in me, like my heart was suddenly pumping the icy water from the creek we’d crashed into.
But before I had time to fully process what any of that meant, the doctor’s final words jostled for my attention.
You’re lucky someone found you when they did. Someone had to find me? But that didn’t make any sense. Eli was right there and wearing his seat belt, like a good, responsible citizen. He should have been able to call 911 and do CPR.
Suddenly, his absence from my room seemed enormous and ominous.
“Where’s Eli?” I asked, trying to ignore the flicker of warning in the back of my brain and the tension coiling in my gut.
The atmosphere in the room immediately shifted. My mom sucked in a sharp breath and dropped her gaze to the floor, and my father turned away, scrubbing his hands over his face.
“I’ll be back this afternoon,” the doctor said quietly to everyone and no one as he left the room.
“Is Eli okay?” I persisted, but neither of my parents would look at me. Even with my dad’s back to me, though, I could see his shoulders shaking.
The tilting feeling returned, only this time it was more like the entire planet had dropped, trying to shake me off into space.
Sarah stared at me, pressing her mouth into the top of Patsie’s head. I’d never seen her this quiet. Ever. Her eyes were wide above the matted fur, like she was holding back a flood of words.
Or trying not to cry.
My mom straightened in her chair, wiping under her eyes with her free hand. “They told us it was quick,” she said, giving me a tremulous smile. “He wouldn’t have known what was happening. Just a bump on the head, and then it would be like drifting off to sleep.”
“What?” I heard every word, but it was like they bounced off the surface of my brain, refusing to sink in for processing.
What she was saying was impossible. And yet, I could feel a growing emptiness in my middle, as if someone had
rammed one of those telephone poles through my gut, cartoon-style.
Her fingers tightened on mine to the point of pain. “Honey, Elijah didn’t make it.”
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