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As She Fades, Page 2

Abbi Glines

  “See you around. Keep that friendly sister of yours under control.” Slate’s voice was teasing, and I swallowed my roll before glancing up at him. He winked and I turned my attention back to my food.

  “I’ll do my best.”

  Once he was gone Knox looked at me. “Smart girl.”

  I frowned and turned my gaze to his. I was expecting to get scolded for dissing his frat brother. “What?”

  Knox nodded at Slate’s retreating form. “Blowing him off. He’s my brother and he’s a great guy, but he’s a slut. I’d wager he’s slept with every hot nurse on this floor already. The guy gets around. He’s a legend in Kappa Sigma.”

  That, I did not have to be told. “I already had him figured out.”

  Knox patted my knee. “I should have known.”

  Yeah, he should’ve.


  CRAWFORD’S MOTHER, JULIET, had been like a second mother to me most of my life. She was younger than my mom and Crawford was her only child. She had married his father right out of high school and completely believed in young love being strong enough to last the test of time.

  However, over the past month she had changed. The vibrant, smiling woman was no more. She had wrinkles now I hadn’t noticed before. Her once-gorgeous blond hair was thin and brittle. Her shoulders slumped forward all the time where once she had stood tall with excellent posture and poise.

  Crawford was her world, too. She was falling apart without him and I understood. I accepted her sharp words and strict rules about visitation. I didn’t let my feelings get hurt when she complained about my always sitting in the waiting room. She was hurting and she needed to lash out. I was here to take it. Crawford would do the same for me.

  I recognized the click of her heels just as the hands on the clock I’d been watching for over an hour moved into the four o’clock position. She was leaving to go home to eat, bathe, and rest before coming back to stay the night. She refused to let her husband or me stay. She had to be here. In case.

  In case he opened his eyes. Or … he didn’t.

  I waited until she appeared in the doorway to wave me over. It was our routine and I followed it. She needed that control. I picked up my bag and stood. It was my turn with Crawford, finally.

  “He’s had a bit more brain activity today. Knox coming in and reading to him the short time he did was good for him, I think. If anything changes call me immediately,” Juliet said. Normally that would be good news, but it was what she had been saying every day for the past month.

  “I will,” I assured her.

  She nodded and glanced back at his door one more time before squeezing my shoulder and walking away.

  This was the only part of my day I looked forward to yet dreaded just the same. Seeing Crawford hooked up to those machines with his eyes closed never got easier. The pain was always there. Just as strong as it was the night he ran the new stop sign on County Road 14 and a truck T-boned us on Crawford’s side going fifty miles an hour. I hadn’t even lost consciousness. I remembered every moment of it. Screaming his name as his lifeless body lay there. Unable to free him or even open my door. Blood from the gash in my head dripped into my eyes, blurring my vision, but I had witnessed it all. Every terrifying second.

  The only mark I had left from that night was the scar from the stitches just under my hairline. My bruises had long since healed. The concussion was also gone. It wasn’t fair that he was the one lying there. I’d been laughing as he sang off-key to a song and he’d glanced over to smile at me. That had been the last thing I saw before we flipped several times and metal screeched and the stench of burning rubber filled the air.

  Stepping into the room, I let my gaze go directly to Crawford. He was thinner than I’d ever seen him, but the bruises and gashes on his face had healed. He didn’t seem so beaten and broken anymore. Just peacefully sleeping and in need of a double cheeseburger.

  He loved double cheeseburgers with extra pickles and mustard. I couldn’t even bring myself to look at one now. Not without him.

  “I’m here. I’ve got a new book. One that is light on the romance and heavy on the action. Your mom seemed positive about your progress today. I like seeing her happy.”

  That was a lie. She was far from happy, but if he could hear me I didn’t want him worrying about his mom. He always did.

  “Knox brought me broccoli casserole and fried chicken. Momma’s specialty. I think she’s trying to make me fat. He said he read to you from the college sports website you love so much. I’m sure he had a lot of opinions he threw in.”

  I talked about everything that happened during the day, hoping he could hear me. I liked to think he’d open his eyes to ask me questions if he was curious enough. Several nights a week I’d dream he opened his eyes as I read to him or held his hand. Then when I finally woke up, I’d cry because dreaming didn’t make it real. My heart was empty with him not smiling back at me. I was lost, and I would stay that way until he opened his eyes.

  For a moment, I thought about telling him about Slate. That had been the only unusual thing that happened today. Except that another patient, Mr. Wagoner, got to go home. I was going to miss him cruising the halls in his wheelchair. But I knew his kids and grandkids were ready to have him back.

  “When I leave tonight I’ve got a game of basketball with the McKinley boys waiting on me. I need you there to help me take them down. You know how cocky they are.”

  It had once been me, Crawford, and Knox against Jonah, Michea, and Dylan. The youth against the older ones. It wasn’t until Dylan married and moved off that we started having some success. Crawford growing five inches in one summer helped, too. He had gotten as tall as Jonah then, six foot three.

  “I have an extra slice of chocolate cream pie from lunch. I think Mom is trying to bribe you to open your eyes with her treats. I know she didn’t send it for me.”

  I had lost weight, too. About seven pounds, and on my five-foot-five frame it looked like a lot. Mom was definitely trying to put weight on me.

  My phone dinged and I glanced down at it.

  Don’t forget the game tonight. The text was from Dylan. He wanted me home for several reasons. Maddy’s potty training was just one of them.

  I won’t, I texted back, then looked back at Crawford.

  “I’m ready to have you back. I miss you.”

  He didn’t respond. Not even a flicker.

  Tears stung my eyes, and I wiped them away before setting my bag down and settling in the chair beside him. I’d read soon, but for now I just wanted to hold his hand and watch him breathe. Reassure myself that Crawford was in there and he’d come back to me. Soon.


  “THAT COFFEE IS shit. Here, take this. It’s yours.”

  I had been reading when a cup of coffee that smelled like heaven—definitely not stale hospital coffee—was placed under my nose.

  I knew that voice. He was back. The slut. But he had coffee. Good coffee. And I’d been awake since four this morning staring at the ceiling fan in my room. I wanted good coffee.

  I took the cup before looking up at him. “Thanks,” I all but choked out. That was hard to say to him. But I had been taught good manners. He was being nice because I was Knox’s sister. I could accept that.

  “You get here early. I’m never here this early. Couldn’t sleep last night, so I figured I’d get my day started.”

  Did him buying me good coffee mean I had to converse with him? Probably so. Besides, his uncle was sick. Where was my compassion?

  “How’s your uncle?” I asked, since that was the only part of his life I was concerned about. I didn’t like to see people lose a loved one.

  He shrugged. “Stubborn, mouth of a sailor, mean as fuck, and pretty damn lovable all the same.”

  That wasn’t the answer I had been expecting. But I wondered if anyone ever got a real answer out of this guy.

  “So,” he continued, “we’ve had coffee, we share a brother, and we both spe
nd time at this place daily. I think this makes us friends.”

  “We do not share a brother” was my very quick response.

  He chuckled and took a sip of his coffee. “Kappa Sigma would disagree. Brothers for life.”

  I wanted to roll my eyes but the coffee was delicious, so I didn’t.

  “Why are you here all the time, Vale?” he asked, surprising me with my name. I had not given him that information.

  “How do you know my name?” I snapped.

  “We share a brother. Now, what keeps you here staring at this wall?” he asked as he pointed to the wall in front of me that held nothing but a single clock.

  “If we share a brother, you should already know that.”

  “Touché,” he replied, then took another sip. “Okay. For argument’s sake, we don’t share an actual brother. I know Knox’s taste in beer, cards, and women. I don’t know much else. Like I didn’t know until yesterday he had a sister. So, can I please know what my new friend does up here all day long?”

  I was being difficult. Why? This guy was just being nice. So he was a flirt and a man-whore. Did this matter to me? Was I just that judgmental? God, I hoped not.

  “My boyfriend is in a coma.” Saying it out loud hurt. Like slice-through-your-chest-and-make-it-hard-to-breathe kind of hurt.

  “Ouch,” he said, as if he felt the pain that was currently shooting through me. “How did it happen?”

  I needed to talk about this. It was good for me to tell someone. To try to accept it. “A car accident the night of graduation. I was in the car, too.”

  “Fuck,” he muttered, and dropped his hand to rest his wrist on his thigh while holding his cup with the same hand. “What’s it been—a month now?”

  I nodded. It had been a month and a day.

  “Why can’t you sit in his room? Being out here alone every day seems … lonely.”

  He sure was full of a lot of questions.

  “I go in for three hours while his parents take a break. It’s my time to read to him.”

  He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and looking at me so that I had to either meet his gaze or stare straight ahead rudely.

  “So you just sit here all day doing what?”

  I appreciated the good coffee. I really did. It was the best coffee I’d had in a while, but this guy was nosy and I wasn’t in the mood to defend myself. If I wanted to sit here all day I could. Not him, not my parents, not my brothers, no one had to understand it. I was doing what I had to do to get by each day. My life was in Crawford’s room and I wasn’t leaving him.

  “Yes,” I replied.

  He nodded and took another sip of his coffee, then turned his attention to the wall in front of us. “You must really love him.”

  “I have since I was six years old and he brought me my favorite brownie to school and snuck it into my lunchbox.” That was more than I’d said about him and our past to anyone since the accident. But it had come out easily.

  Slate didn’t make fun of me. Instead he smiled. A small smile that made his lips curl up only a little. “That’s a nice memory.”

  Yes, it was. I had millions of those memories.

  “Never been in love myself. Don’t believe in it. But it’s nice to hear someone talk about it who does.” He took another long sip of his coffee, then stood.

  “I hope your boy opens his eyes soon,” he said. “I’ve got to go see the old man and let him beat me in a game of poker. Makes him feel like he’s done something.”

  I didn’t imagine Slate let many people win in this world. He seemed to expect to win it all. Knowing he was letting his uncle beat him made him seem a little more human. That, and the coffee. The coffee was nice.

  “Thanks. I needed this,” I said, raising the cup a bit.

  He winked. “Don’t we all.” Then he turned and walked down the hall.

  I may have watched until he turned left and out of sight. Not that I liked him, but he had a nice walk.

  “Someone said Slate Allen was in here.” A nurse interrupted my thoughts, which needed interrupting.

  So his last name was Allen.

  “He just went that way. To his uncle’s room,” I said, pointing down the hallway.

  She grinned brightly. “Thank you!” Then she hurried after him.

  That was a different one from the one yesterday. Slate Allen really did get around. The nurses here had to be a couple years older than him, but they didn’t seem to care. No wonder he was so full of himself.

  Slate was attractive. I’d give him that. He had the startling good looks that could stop traffic. But I didn’t care about that. My heart wasn’t moved by a handsome face and a chiseled body. It belonged to a guy in a hospital room and it always would. One day I’d tell Crawford about all the things that happened while he was asleep and we’d smile. Not because he had been in a coma, but because he woke up.

  He was a fighter and he had a lot to fight for.

  My phone vibrated in my bag and I knew the text messages had started up again. Last night I’d played basketball and eaten homemade strawberry cake with cream cheese icing while talking to Maddy about using the potty. Everyone had gotten a piece of me. They needed to give me a break today and just let me be.

  I would be fine. When Crawford woke up.


  “AUNTIE VALE!” MADDY’S and Malyn’s little voices rang down the halls of the hospital, drawing more than just my attention. Identical brown eyes like their mother’s and long brown hair in pigtails swinging back and forth, they came running toward me with their arms open wide.

  More than anything, I missed these two by being here all day long. I put my book down and stood up just in time to catch both of them. Little arms wrapped around me. Tears stung my eyes and I held them tightly.

  “My favorite girls are here,” I said, kissing them both on the forehead, then on their tiny noses.

  “I figure if I can’t get Maddy to potty at home I’d bring her to you,” Dylan said, looking like the exasperated father of twin toddlers should look.

  I felt real joy as I laughed with him. It was a fleeting feeling, but my big brother had brought it to me.

  Pulling back enough so I could see their faces, I looked at Maddy. “You have to use the potty like a big girl even when I’m not there. Do you want Malyn to get to start big-girl school without you?” “Big-girl school” was preschool and they didn’t start until the fall, but it was something both girls were excited about. I was supposed to go to college in the fall. Me and Crawford. Now that wasn’t a sure thing anymore.

  Maddy shrugged. “I want to stay with you.”

  What could I do with that? Worried, I glanced up at Dylan.

  “She loves you and misses you,” he said. “We all do.”

  Guilt. But I had to be here with Crawford when he opened his eyes. He’d want me here. I needed them all to understand that.

  “I love and miss her, too. All of you. But you need to understand why I have to be here. What if it was Catherine?”

  Dylan looked somber. “I get it. Doesn’t mean I don’t miss you and worry about you.”

  “I can do the spwits,” Malyn said, pulling on my arm to get my attention back to her.

  “You can?” I asked, sounding surprised even though I’d seen this trick about a thousand times already. Malyn loved to show it off. So I watched and then clapped like it was the best thing in the world.

  “I can do this!” Maddy said, standing on her tiptoes and spinning in circles.

  “Wow, that’s amazing!” I told her, reaching out to steady her before she got dizzy and fell.

  “Why don’t we go show Aunt Vale how you use the big-girl potty,” Dylan suggested. It must be time for a toilet break. “Malyn is in big-girl panties, but Maddy has Pull-Ups on,” he informed me. Then he held out a diaper bag and sank down in the seat next to me. Daddy looked like he needed a break.

  “Come on, you two.” I led them down the hallway toward the restrooms.
  We had just turned the corner when Maddy said, “Look, Aunt Vale. That boy’s kissing that nurse.”

  I glanced over to see the nurse from this morning in a corner with Slate. His hand was on her bottom and she was pressed up against him like she needed him to breathe. A public display of “affection” in a hospital where people are ill and dying—seriously? Slate Allen was disgusting.

  “Did she fix his boo-boo?” Malyn asked curiously.

  I was sure he’d fixed a few boo-boos for her.

  I turned their attention to the restroom door and got them focused on potty time. I even sang the song. Success with both of them. Maddy had kept her Pull-Ups dry, and after washing hands we headed back out to find an empty corner, thank God. No more make-out fest for the twins’ curiosity.

  My luck, however, quickly came to a halt when we turned the corner and saw Dylan talking with none other than the Nurse Romeo.

  “Daddy, we went potty!” Maddy announced as she ran back toward the waiting room.

  Malyn realized the guy with her dad was the same one she’d seen kissing the nurse. She slowed her step and slipped her little hand around my leg. She was the shyer of the two.

  “You kissed that nurse! Did she fix your boo-boo?” Maddy got right to business.

  The confusion on Dylan’s face as he looked from Maddy to me almost made me laugh. Almost.

  “Here’s the bag. They’re all good,” I told him.

  I felt Slate’s gaze on me, and I just couldn’t make myself be rude to him. So what if he’d been kissing a nurse. Why did I care? I didn’t.

  “Thanks,” Dylan said, still looking confused.

  “He kissed a nurse,” Maddy announced again, pointing at Slate.

  Slate glanced at Maddy, then at me like he wasn’t sure if he’d done something wrong.

  “So you know Slate, too?” I asked Dylan.

  He shook his head. “Not until just now. He was looking for you. I introduced myself and he said he was a Kappa Sigma with Knox.”

  “And he kissed a nurse,” Malyn added finally because no one was acknowledging Maddy’s announcement.