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If I Stay, Page 3

Gayle Forman

Page 3


  This continued until ninth grade, when Dad, who’d known Professor Christie from when he’d worked at the music store, asked if she might be willing to offer me private lessons. She agreed to listen to me play, not expecting much, but as a favor to Dad, she later told me. She and Dad listened downstairs while I was up in my room practicing a Vivaldi sonata. When I came down for dinner, she offered to take over my training.

  My first recital, though, was years before I met her. It was at a hall in town, a place that usually showcased local bands, so the acoustics were terrible for unamplified classical. I was playing a cello solo from Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. ”

  Standing backstage, listening to other kids play scratchy violin and clunky piano compositions, I’d almost chickened out. I’d run to the stage door and huddled on the stoop outside, hyperventilating into my hands. My student teacher had flown into a minor panic and had sent out a search party.

  Dad found me. He was just starting his hipster-to-square transformation, so he was wearing a vintage suit, with a studded leather belt and black ankle boots.

  “You okay, Mia Oh-My-Uh?” he asked, sitting down next to me on the steps.

  I shook my head, too ashamed to talk.

  “What’s up?”

  “I can’t do it,” I cried.

  Dad cocked one of his bushy eyebrows and stared at me with his gray-blue eyes. I felt like some mysterious foreign species he was observing and trying to figure out. He’d been playing in bands forever. Obviously, he never got something as lame as stage fright.

  “Well, that would be a shame,” Dad said. “I’ve got a dandy of a recital present for you. Better than flowers. ”

  “Give it to someone else. I can’t go out there. I’m not like you or Mom or even Teddy. ” Teddy was just six months old at that point, but it was already clear that he had more personality, more verve, than I ever would. And of course, he was blond and blue-eyed. Even if he weren’t, he’d been born in a birthing center, not a hospital, so there was no chance of an accidental baby swapping.

  “It’s true,” Dad mused. “When Teddy gave his first harp concert, he was cool as cucumber. Such a prodigy. ”

  I laughed through my tears. Dad put a gentle arm around my shoulder. “You know that I used to get the most ferocious jitters before a show. ”

  I looked at Dad, who always seemed absolutely sure of everything in the world. “You’re just saying that. ”

  He shook his head. “No, I’m not. It was god-awful. And I was the drummer, way in the back. No one even paid any attention to me. ”

  “So what did you do?” I asked.

  “He got wasted,” Mom interjected, poking her head out the stage door. She was wearing a black vinyl miniskirt, a red tank top, and Teddy, droolingly happy from his Baby Björn. “A pair of forty-ouncers before the show. I don’t recommend that for you. ”

  “Your mother is probably right,” Dad said. “Social services frowns on drunk ten-year-olds. Besides, when I dropped my drumsticks and puked onstage, it was punk. If you drop your bow and smell like a brewery, it will look gauche. You classical-music people are so snobby that way. ”

  Now I was laughing. I was still scared, but it was somehow comforting to think that maybe stage fright was a trait I’d inherited from Dad; I wasn’t just some foundling, after all.

  “What if I mess it up? What if I’m terrible?”

  “I’ve got news for you, Mia. There’s going to be all kinds of terrible in there, so you won’t really stand out,” Mom said. Teddy gave a squeal of agreement.

  “But seriously, how do you get over the jitters?”

  Dad was still smiling but I could tell he had turned serious because he slowed down his speech. “You don’t. You just work through it. You just hang in there. ”

  So I went on. I didn’t blaze through the piece. I didn’t achieve glory or get a standing ovation, but I didn’t muck it up entirely, either. And after the recital, I got my present. It was sitting in the passenger seat of the car, looking as human as that cello I’d been drawn to two years earlier. It wasn’t a rental. It was mine.

  10:12 A. M.

  When my ambulance gets to the nearest hospital—not the one in my hometown but a small local place that looks more like an old-age home than a medical center—the medics rush me inside. “I think we’ve got a collapsed lung. Get a chest tube in her and move her out!” the nice red-haired medic screams as she passes me off to a team of nurses and doctors.

  “Where’s the rest?” asks a bearded guy in scrubs.

  “Other driver suffering mild concussions, being treated at the scene. Parents DOA. Boy, approximately seven years old, just behind us. ”

  I let out a huge exhale, as though I’ve been holding my breath for the last twenty minutes. After seeing myself in that ditch, I had not been able to look for Teddy. If he were like Mom and Dad, like me, I . . . I didn’t want to even think about it. But he isn’t. He is alive.

  They take me into a small room with bright lights. A doctor dabs some orange stuff onto the side of my chest and then rams a small plastic tube in me. Another doctor shines a flashlight into my eye. “Nonresponsive,” he tells the nurse. “The chopper’s here. Get her to Trauma. Now!”

  They rush me out of the ER and into the elevator. I have to jog to keep up. Right before the doors close, I notice that Willow is here. Which is odd. We were meant to be visiting her and Henry and the baby at home. Did she get called in because of the snow? Because of us? She rushes around the hospital hall, her face a mask of concentration. I don’t think she even knows it is us yet. Maybe she even tried to call, left a message on Mom’s cell phone, apologizing that there’d been an emergency and she wouldn’t be home for our visit.

  The elevator opens right onto the roof. A helicopter, its blades swooshing the air, sits in the middle of a big red circle.

  I’ve never been in a helicopter before. My best friend, Kim, has. She went on an aerial flight over Mount St. Helens once with her uncle, a big-shot photographer for National Geographic.

  “There he was, talking about the post-volcanic flora and I puked right on him,” Kim told me in homeroom the next day. She still looked a little green from the experience.

  Kim is on yearbook and has hopes of becoming a photographer. Her uncle had taken her on this trip as a favor, to nurture her budding talent. “I even got some on his cameras,” Kim lamented. “I’ll never be a photographer now. ”

  “There are all kinds of different photographers,” I told her. “You don’t necessarily need to go flying around in helicopters. ”

  Kim laughed. “That’s good. Because I’m never going on a helicopter again—and don’t you, either!”

  I want to tell Kim that sometimes you don’t have a choice in the matter.

  The hatch in the helicopter is opened, and my stretcher with all its tubes and lines is loaded in. I climb in behind it. A medic bounds in next to me, still pumping the little plastic bulb that is apparently breathing for me. Once we lift off, I understand why Kim got so queasy. A helicopter is not like an airplane, a smooth fast bullet. A helicopter is more like a hockey puck, bounced through the sky. Up and down, side to side. I have no idea how these people can work on me, can read the small computer printouts, can drive this thing while they communicate about me through headsets, how they can do any of it with the chopper chopping around.

  The helicopter hits an air pocket and by all rights it should make me queasy. But I don’t feel anything, at least the me who’s a bystander here does not. And the me on the stretcher doesn’t seem to feel anything, either. Again I have to wonder if I’m dead but then I tell myself no. They would not have loaded me on this helicopter, would not be flying me across the lush forests if I were dead.

  Also, if I were dead, I like to think Mom and Dad would’ve come for me by now.

  I can see the time on the control panel. It’s 10:37. I won
der what’s happening back down on the ground. Has Willow figured out who the emergency is? Has anyone phoned my grandparents? They live one town over from us, and I was looking forward to dinner with them. Gramps fishes and he smokes his own salmon and oysters, and we would’ve probably eaten that with Gran’s homemade thick brown beer bread. Then Gran would’ve taken Teddy over to the giant recycling bins in town and let him swim around for magazines. Lately, he’s had a thing for Reader’s Digest. He likes to cut out the cartoons and make collages.

  I wonder about Kim. There’s no school today. I probably won’t be in school tomorrow. She’ll probably think I’m absent because I stayed out late listening to Adam and Shooting Star in Portland.

  Portland. I am fairly certain that I’m being taken there. The helicopter pilot keeps talking to Trauma One. Outside the window, I can see the peak of Mount Hood looming. That means Portland is close.

  Is Adam already there? He played in Seattle last night but he’s always so full of adrenaline after a gig, and driving helps him to come down. The band is normally happy to let him chauffeur while they nap. If he’s already in Portland, he’s probably still asleep. When he wakes up, will he have coffee on Hawthorne? Maybe take a book over to the Japanese Garden? That’s what we did the last time I went to Portland with him, only it was warmer then. Later this afternoon, I know that the band will do a sound check. And then Adam will go outside to await my arrival. At first, he’ll think that I’m late. How is he going to know that I’m actually early? That I got to Portland this morning while the snow was still melting?

  “Have you ever heard of this Yo-Yo Ma dude?” Adam asked me. It was the spring of my sophomore year, which was his junior year. By then, Adam had been watching me practice in the music wing for several months. Our school was public, but one of those progressive ones that always got written up in national magazines because of its emphasis on the arts. We did get a lot of free periods to paint in the studio or practice music. I spent mine in the soundproof booths of the music wing. Adam was there a lot, too, playing guitar. Not the electric guitar he played in his band. Just acoustic melodies.

  I rolled my eyes. “Everyone’s heard of Yo-Yo Ma. ”

  Adam grinned. I noticed for the first time that his smile was lopsided, his mouth sloping up on one side. He hooked his ringed thumb out toward the quad. “I don’t think you’ll find five people out there who’ve heard of Yo-Yo Ma. And by the way, what kind of name is that? Is it ghetto or something? Yo Mama?”

  “It’s Chinese. ”

  Adam shook his head and laughed. “I know plenty of Chinese people. They have names like Wei Chin. Or Lee something. Not Yo-Yo Ma. ”

  “You cannot be blaspheming the master,” I said. But then I laughed in spite of myself. It had taken me a few months to believe that Adam wasn’t taking the piss out of me, and after that we’d started having these little conversations in the corridor.

  Still, his attention baffled me. It wasn’t that Adam was such a popular guy. He wasn’t a jock or a most-likely-to-succeed sort. But he was cool. Cool in that he played in a band with people who went to the college in town. Cool in that he had his own rockery style, procured from thrift stores and garage sales, not from Urban Outfitters knock-offs. Cool in that he seemed totally happy to sit in the lunchroom absorbed in a book, not just pretending to read because he didn’t have anywhere to sit or anyone to sit with. That wasn’t the case at all. He had a small group of friends and a large group of admirers.

  And it wasn’t like I was a dork, either. I had friends and a best friend to sit with at lunch. I had other good friends at the music conservatory camp I went to in the summer. People liked me well enough, but they also didn’t really know me. I was quiet in class. I didn’t raise my hand a lot or sass the teachers. And I was busy, much of my time spent practicing or playing in a string quartet or taking theory classes at the community college. Kids were nice enough to me, but they tended to treat me as if I were a grown-up. Another teacher. And you don’t flirt with your teachers.