As She FadesAbbi Glines
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For every girl who has been broken and found her strength to fight
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow—
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
—Edgar Allan Poe, “A Dream Within a Dream”
SINCE I WAS a little girl, I’ve loved fairy tales. And I’ve believed in true love. It was easy for me, though, because I fell in love at six years old. Not many people find love so young. Crawford and I believed we were special. That fate shined on us and gave us each other early so we’d have a lifetime together. He was my very own Prince Charming. Not one day of my childhood was he not there with me. Making me smile and enjoying the life we were both born into. But what we didn’t expect were the sharp turns in life you don’t see coming. The ones that knock you off course. The things that come along and change it all forever. We hadn’t been prepared for that.
* * *
OUR STORY ISN’T an easy one. The charmed life we had grown up with was pulled away from us so quickly, we didn’t have time to prepare for it. But no one ever does. That’s the dark side of life.
THE SMELL OF summer evenings always made me feel happy. Since I was a girl, it was the reminder that school was over and adventure awaited. Swimming in the lake, playing basketball with my older brothers, and of course our annual family vacation. However, this year it meant freedom. A new life, a new beginning. For me and Crawford.
I glanced over at him driving and the warmth in my chest grew at the sight of him. We had been together since we were kids. First as friends, and then it grew into more as we got older. Today we had walked across the large stage set in the center of our high school football field and received our diplomas. We were graduates. Finally.
“Still seems hard to believe it’s over. High school,” I added for clarification. Although I was sure he would understand what I meant.
He cut his eyes toward me and the corner of his lips curved up just enough for his eyes to sparkle the way they did when he was amused or pleased. “It’s not over. It’s just beginning, V. Our life will be exactly like we planned it.”
I wanted to believe that. We were going to the same college. Crawford had a scholarship for football. A full ride. It wasn’t my first choice for school but I wanted to be where he was. We had never been apart.
“Everyone seemed almost scared tonight. Like they were drinking and partying to forget the fact we’re adults now. This is it.”
Crawford shrugged. “I bet most of them are terrified. They don’t all have plans like we do. They have to decide what’s next.”
He was right, of course. He always was. One of the things I loved about Crawford was his confidence. He didn’t worry and back away from a problem. He faced it head-on and took control. I felt safe with him, like he would always have the answer I needed.
His hand reached over and covered mine. “Our life is going to be amazing. College is going to be just what we need. To get out of this town but not too far away. We can spread our wings and still come home to visit easily enough. You’re going to love it.”
And I believed him. My mind was playing through all the fun things we would see and do. Excitement for what was to come bubbled up in me and I was so ready for August to arrive.
Our favorite song came on the radio and Crawford turned it up and began to sing along with his off-key voice. He was a terrible singer, but he knew it made me laugh so he did it often. Joy swelled up in me for the life I had, so strong it was hard to contain it. I began to laugh as he hit another bad note. This was my life and I loved it.
It was then that Crawford slammed on the brakes and the world began spinning. The smell of burning rubber and the violent screeching of wheels took away all my other thoughts. Dreams vanished in that instant. Completely.
* * *
ONE MONTH. TODAY was the one-month anniversary of the car accident that turned our graduation night into a nightmare. I sat in the waiting room—now more familiar to me than my own bedroom—and stared at the white walls. The smell of stale coffee didn’t overpower the sterile surroundings. Those things didn’t matter, though. Nothing other than Crawford opening his eyes mattered.
It would be my turn to read to Crawford soon. I lived for this time of day. To see him and pray he would hear my voice and open his eyes. That we would be together again. That all our dreams were still there, waiting just outside the door of this lonely, cold place.
The doctor had told his parents the morning after the accident that he believed comatose patients can hear. If he heard us talking to him, he’d fight to come back. To wake up.
I shivered remembering those words. Comatose. I hated that. Crawford was so full of life and energy. Seeing him like this was so hard.
The doctor believed he needed to hear several voices he knew and loved. So Crawford’s mother put us on a schedule in the beginning, but then let me come in as early as I wanted to read. But as the days progressed, her schedule had started to change as her health went downhill. Seeing her only child like this day in and day out was weighing on her.
“Still here?” a masculine voice asked. I didn’t recognize the speaker. Normally it was one of my older brothers coming to check on me. Knox, my youngest older brother, was closest in age to Crawford and me, and he came to read, too. Not every day like me, but when he could. I was hoping he would come today. He hadn’t been in a couple of days and I knew Crawford would like to hear him.
I lifted my head to meet a pair of dark green eyes outlined by thick black lashes—pretty eyes for a guy. I’d seen those eyes before. Just as I’d seen the guy they belonged to. But we had never spoken.
“You’re always here,” he said. “There hasn’t been a day in the past two weeks that I’ve not seen you.”
His voice was smooth, but there was a thicker drawl to his accent than most of the guys had in Franklin. He almost sounded Alabama-ish. Was he studying me or was he waiting on me to speak? Probably the latter. I was being rude not responding.
“Nowhere else to be,” I said honestly. Because without Crawford I was lost.
He lifted the corner of his full lips and it looked a lot like a smirk. Why would he be smirking at something like this?
“I can think of a lot of places I’d rather be. But Uncle D is where my loyalty lies. So here I am.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant to be deep and heartfelt, but it didn’t sound that way. I wondered if he was even upset about his uncle being here. Not that it was my business. The guy had an air about him that rubbed me the wrong way. He liked himself. A lot. He knew he was
beautiful and he liked the attention it got him. I’d seen his kind plenty. I wasn’t a fan.
“Your selflessness humbles me,” I replied with a heavy dash of sarcasm. The way his eyes sparked with amusement made me dislike him more than I’d already decided I did.
As he crossed his arms over his wide chest, I couldn’t help but notice the way his biceps flexed and the tattoo peeking out of his sleeve. His long dark hair was a little messy and tucked behind his ears. I imagined it would complete his pirate look if he had it pulled back in a ponytail.
“Don’t mistake me for pretending to be selfless. That was never my intention at all. I’m here to see my uncle. Nothing deeper than that. But then, I don’t sit like a martyr in this waiting room day after day and stare at that wall. Selflessness is your thing. Not mine.”
Why was he still talking to me? Where was Knox? He should have showed up with a late lunch from my mom by now. And it was his turn to go sit with Crawford before my scheduled time in three hours. Knox needed to get here and this guy needed to move on along.
“Jesus, you’re high-strung,” he muttered, and I jerked my gaze back to his. Again with that amused smile.
“Aren’t you here to see your uncle?” I asked, hoping to get rid of him.
He laughed this time. The real kind. It was pleasant. Maybe more than pleasant. Until I remembered he was laughing in that attractive way because of me. Then it annoyed me.
“I am. Just thought I’d try and give you something to do other than stare at the wall. It makes me sad when I see you here all alone. My mistake. You’re obviously alone because you like it that way.”
I would not rise to the bait. He wanted me to bite back, but I wasn’t going to do it. He wasn’t worth my anger or the energy it would take to get angry.
“Slate, what are you doing out here? Your uncle was just asking about you.” The young female nurse was seriously batting her eyelashes and sticking out her chest as she spoke to … Slate—apparently that was his name.
He turned his gaze to meet hers and I was almost positive he winked. Her cheeks began to glow and her eyes went all sultry. Jesus. I had seen enough of this. If I wanted to watch a soap opera, I’d turn on the television in the corner.
“Tell the old man I’m coming,” he said.
She giggled like that was hilarious and gave me a brief glance before turning to walk away. The swing in her hips was exaggerated—any girl who actually walked like that would need to get her hips adjusted at the chiropractor weekly.
“You enjoy yourself, Miss…” He trailed off, as if waiting on me to give him my name. He would be waiting forever.
“Your fan club needs you,” I replied with a disgusted tone, and went back to staring at the wall. Just like I did every day. Thinking. About life and my future, our future. Mine and Crawford’s.
“Yeah, it does.” He chuckled. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him shake his head before turning and walking away. It wasn’t a walk, really. More of a saunter. If guys actually sauntered. Maybe a swagger?
Oh, who cared? He was gone.
I reached into my canvas tote bag and pulled out my phone. There were five texts and two calls from my mother, a text from each of my four brothers, two from my oldest brother’s wife, and the last three from my dad. They did this every day. Checking on me, asking me to come to dinner, a movie, shopping, to play basketball … anything to try to get me out of this hospital.
None of them understood. Crawford was in a coma.
That was all that mattered. I couldn’t just continue to live as if he weren’t lying in that bed, unmoving. I had to be here when he woke up. Because he would. He had to. We had a future we’d been planning since childhood.
I opened my text messages and did what any good girl would do: I began replying to them. My mother’s offer to take me shopping for a new bathing suit—as if I were going to the beach anytime soon. Then her attempt to guilt me into a family dinner. My nieces missed me. I did feel slightly guilty about Maddy and Malyn, my oldest brother’s twin girls. They were only two, and Aunt Vale not being around probably confused them.
Before the accident, I babysat them every Tuesday and Thursday night while Catherine, my sister-in-law, worked late shifts at the nursing home. My mom kept them now. I wouldn’t leave the hospital each day until I had to. When Crawford’s mother came back at seven every evening, I told him good night, kissed his cheek, then cried the whole way home. When I woke up at seven every morning, I got dressed, packed my bag with books and snacks, and headed to the hospital. It was my routine. It was all I had left.
My brothers were getting together tonight after family dinner to play basketball at the house. Jonah was in the military and currently on assignment. So I was the even number four. They didn’t really need me. My dad would be there to fill in. But each of them acted like they couldn’t play without me.
I was the baby of the five and the only girl. That being said, I was also overprotected and worried about too much. They all thought it was their job to make sure I was okay. Because I loved them each for it, and because Jonah texted me even while he was off serving our country, I replied to all of them that I’d be at the basketball game if they’d wait until seven thirty. It wasn’t what I wanted to do when I got home. But it was what they needed me to do.
So I’d do it.
KNOX ARRIVED, FINALLY. He held a blue polka-dot lunchbox that I knew would be filled with a hot meal. This was how my mother kept her sanity with my staying up here all day—she kept me fed.
“Here you go, Princess.” Knox handed over the lunchbox and sank down into the chair next to me. “How’s it going?”
He usually stayed and talked to me while I ate. It was something I looked forward to. Knox was only two years older than me and we were the closest out of the five of us.
He had my dark hair and blue eyes. Everyone said we could have been twins.
“Same. Just waiting,” I replied. “How’s the home front?”
He sighed and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “Dad’s fighting with the plumber over the price of the new tub Momma wants, Momma is making your favorite cake in hopes she can lure you home for dinner, and Maddy refuses to use the big-girl potty because Aunt Vale isn’t there to sing the potty song to her.”
He wasn’t trying to make me feel guilty. That wasn’t Knox’s style. He was just being honest.
“Can’t Mom sing the song to her? She’s the one who taught it to me.” I pulled out a container of broccoli casserole. It was still nice and warm.
He shrugged. “She tried. Maddy said it wasn’t like yours.”
I had to find time to see my nieces. “I wish Mom would bring them here to see me.”
Knox turned his head to look at me. “Why? You’re not in a hospital bed. You can walk out anytime you want and do other things. Crawford would want you to.”
Again, he wasn’t being cruel. But Knox’s honesty was sometimes brutal.
“When he opens his eyes I want to be here,” I said for the hundredth time. It was something they all knew, but I kept having to repeat it.
“He could wake up in the middle of the night. You’re not here then.”
I knew that. I hated it. But I wasn’t allowed to sleep in the waiting room. When visiting hours were over I had to leave. Hospital rules. I’d tried it already. They’d kicked me out.
“Just let me do this my way,” I said, then took a bite of my lunch. I was hungry. My breakfast of dry cereal and goldfish crackers was long gone and I needed something other than stale coffee.
“Knox McKinley,” a now-familiar male voice said, and I almost choked on my casserole, which made me want to cuss. Did that asshole have to know my brother?
“Slate,” Knox replied with a smile in his voice that was real. He liked this guy. Go figure. “What are you doing here?”
“I was about to ask you the same. I see you made more headway with that one than I did. She would rather st
are at the wall than speak to me.”
I felt Knox turn to look at me, but I ignored them both and took a bite of my food. This was not how I’d hoped to enjoy my meal.
“Yeah, well, I bring her food and share the same parents, so she has to speak to me,” Knox replied.
“She’s your sister. That helps my ego somewhat.”
I pulled out the yeast roll I knew my momma had made fresh and took a large bite. One too big to be expected to speak. I heard Knox muffle a laugh. Maybe he’d get the hint and send Mr. Annoying on his way.
“I thought you lived in Huntsville with your uncle? What brings you this far out?”
Knox was changing the subject. I owed him one for that.
“Uncle D has stage four cancer. It’s in his liver. This is the closest hospital equipped to handle that.”
Oh. The uncle he lived with was dying. Now I felt a little bad. Okay, maybe a lot bad.
“I’m sorry—I hadn’t heard anything about it before summer break.” Knox was sincere. He had a big heart.
“He didn’t tell me about it until I got home. Then he had his first surgery two weeks ago. Once he’s recovered he’ll start chemo. All they’re promising is that it’ll prolong his life. Not save it.”
“Damn,” Knox whispered, and shook his head. “Well, if there’s anything I can do, let me know. I bring my sister lunch daily. I can do the same for you if you need it.” Knox again meant every word. He’d have our momma making this guy meals starting tomorrow.
“Nah, I don’t camp out up here. Uncle D would be pissed if I tried. I stop by once or twice a day. I’ve got a friend in town and I’m crashing at her place.”
That was more like it. Crashing at a girl’s place. No wonder he didn’t stay with his uncle. He had a female to get to.
“Okay, well, if you need something you got my number.”
“Brothers,” Knox said, then did that hand thing I recognized as Kappa Sigma. They were fraternity brothers.