I don’t know how long it’s been. I’m sitting in the hospital’s ER waiting room, surrounded by people. I have no fucking clue how or when I got here, or when the rest of these rubber neckers walked in.
“Wake up, assholes! You shouldn’t be here under these harsh fluorescent lights, breathing in the stink of death and rubbing alcohol! Go party and live your lives! You never know when you’ll breathe your last!”
They don’t listen. Probably because I don’t say the words running over and over through my mind.
Rob appears…cleaner. He’s no longer covered in blood and vomit. He seems worse than ever.
I want to snap him out of it the most. Shake him until his fucking teeth rattle in his mouth. “I warned you, but you didn’t listen! Girlfriends are nothing but trouble! I told you to move on when she broke your heart last year and now look! Look what happened! You’ll never be the same…”
I don’t move. I don’t speak. I stare at him.
His eyes are completely glazed over as he sits, his elbows propped on his knees. His hands look as mangled as that dude’s face. He hasn’t spoken a word to anyone in hours.
Hours? Minutes? Days? Everything seems kind of fuzzy.
The last time I heard his voice was when he told me to find the bastard responsible for all of this.
Is a murderer supposed to seem as broken as Rob does? Aren’t they violent, angry, snarling sorts of people? Rob doesn’t look like he’s capable of ending someone’s life.
“Was it worth it?” his dad screams as he paces the worn tile beside Rob. “What if you broke your hand? Did you stop to think about that? You might have blown your only shot, Rob! Your only shot!”
Rob’s mom shoots a death glare at the fuming man. “Shut up, Gary. Football isn’t everything.”
“The hell it isn’t!” He throws up his bulging arms, the veins seeming to pulse with the anger flowing through him. “When are you going to get it, Patty? Football is his life!”
“No. It’s yours,” she seethes.
I’d love nothing more than to punch that lunatic right in his fucking mouth. But then he probably wouldn’t give my dad NFL tickets anymore. As much as Rob is my brother from another mother, my dad deserves every good thing he can possibly have. Football Sundays are the only thing Dad does for himself. I can’t take that away from him. Not after all he’s been through.
“Goddammit, Robert Gary Falls! I’m your father! Look at me when I’m talking to you!”
Coach hops up from where he’s been sitting quietly for God knows how long. He intercepts Gary before he can reach Rob. “Let’s go take a walk. Make a game plan for next week. I wanted to talk to you about letting Rob run his own plays more, and I’m gonna need your help at home for that.”
Gary nods, a glint lighting up his angry eyes. The man lives and breathes football, and we all know it. Coach clamps a firm hand around the asshole’s arm and steers him away, his distraction route run like a well-practiced play.
Rob doesn’t seem to notice any of it. Not his dad, not his mom, nothing. He doesn’t even blink.
I don’t know if his hands have been x-rayed yet. Maybe that’s why Coach is here with the rest of us. Waiting to see if our starting quarterback just killed his chances at an NCAA scholarship by murdering the guy who murdered his girlfriend.
Man, that’s just fucked up.
“Rob, come on.” Mike slides his arm around Rob’s hunched shoulders and gives him a little shake. “You gotta talk to someone, man. If you really love her, you need to talk to me. You already gave the police your statement. I’m your friend. Your best friend. You can tell me. Just tell me what you told them.”
Mike’s words grate against my skin which already feels too raw. How could he think that Rob doesn’t actually love Eva? I heard Rob say it with my own damn ears. No guy would take all the hits Rob has this past year without some kind of sick motivation like love. Mike doesn’t get how Rob works. I’m his best friend. I know he just wants everyone to leave him the hell alone and give him time to process.
Or maybe that’s just me.
If Rob hears Mike, he doesn’t show it.
Rob and I are the same. We don’t fill the air with useless words when there’s nothing to say.
Mike pulls his arm away and scrubs his face with his hands.
“Rob?” His mom puts a hand on his knee. “Honey?”
Why does everyone want him to talk?
“Leave him the fuck alone,” I scream in my head.
The memory floats back to me. It’s hazy. The crime scene. All the people. The police interrogating Rob. Rob sitting at the back of the ambulance, staring into space.
I think the EMTs said something about him being in shock, but I’m not sure.
They might have said that about me.
The loud voice jerks my attention to the doors which lead to the treatment area of the ER.
A nurse with a big rack looks around the room.
I guess Rob hasn’t had his x-rays yet.
He must hear everything going on around him after all. He gets up and lumbers toward the lady. Even his heavy footsteps don’t make a sound. It’s creepy as fuck.
He’s like a ghost. White as a sheet, no expression, no voice, not a single sound emanates from him.
His mom trails behind him until the nurse puts a hand up to stop her.
“You can’t go into x-ray with him, ma’am. Please have a seat. We’ll send him back out when he’s done.”
Patty leans against the doorway and cries after Rob and the nurse walk through the automatic doors.
A lady I recognize steps up to Patty, enveloping her in a hug as they both shake with sobs which pierce my ears like shattering glass.
“I don’t know how to help him, Cindy. He won’t even speak.”
That’s why she looks familiar. Cindy is Mike’s mom. I remember now.
“Ssh, I know. He’ll be okay. Just give him some time,” she soothes.
When did Cindy get here?
Do I know anyone else in this room? Mike’s still sitting across from me in his own chair. He looks angry. Or scared. Maybe tired. Fuck, I don’t know.
I peer around at all the blurry faces until another one I know comes into focus.
What the hell is Jeremy doing here?
He has a girl in each of his arms, both of them pulling that whole ugly cry bullshit.
I can’t fucking stand it when girls do that. It’s such a pathetic attempt to get attention.
Oh, wait. I know those girls, too. Alyssa and Jess are Eva’s best friends. I guess they have as much reason to be here as any of us.
I know way more about Eva than I ever realized.
Like how she looks when she’s covered in blood.
How small she is compared to Rob. She looks like a kid in his arms.
Past tense or present?
I don’t fucking know.
Jeremy catches me staring at them. He gives me a look which borders on sympathy. I have no idea why. Fuck, I feel bad for him having to put up with that shit.
Stupid fucking tears. Tears never change anything.
Crying is fucking selfish is what it is.
The swoosh of the ER doors pulls my gaze that direction again. Some woman I don’t know, but who looks an awful lot like Eva, walks out of the treatment area in a daze. She must be Eva’s mother. Patty and Cindy glance up at her. Pretty soon the three of them are entwined, their shoulders shaking. More useless crying.
I didn’t even know the three moms knew each other.
Why isn’t she telling us anything?
The wait is killing me. I just want to know what happened to Eva.
Mom stands up and walks over to them, freeing me from her useless fawning. As if today isn’t bad enough, I have to put up with her comforting me.
Mike joins the group of women, but I stay where I am. It’s clear from their body language whatever Eva’s mom is telling them isn’t good news.
They’re talking too low for me to make out any of it.
I don’t know if I can be around when they tell Rob. I wonder if his eyes will ever look alive again. Will he ever smile that stupid fucking grin like he does? Will he play ball again? What if he follows in his grandfather’s footsteps, chasing the woman he loves right into the grave?
I still can’t wrap my head around that. Rob loves Eva. I know my best friend, and he wasn’t just saying it. He’s in love with her even after everything she put him through. Maybe because of it. He’s never made any bones about telling me he hates the way girls throw themselves at him. He thinks it’s a fucking travesty I never have to work for sex. It’s like his jock brain can’t grasp the fact anything good can come without effort. The dumbass. Fucking scary ass shit, right there—loving someone who can hurt you so much. I will never put myself in that situation. Ever.
Speaking of the devil, it’s like my thoughts summon him back into the fray. Rob ghosts back into the waiting room, his hands taped at the knuckles.
The group of women turn to him, relaying whatever news they haven’t shared with the rest of us.
He’s not dead yet, but he might be dying in front of me. His face collapses in on itself. It’s the most emotion he’s shown all afternoon. He crumples to the ground in a heap. His whole body shakes with sobs, but he never makes a sound.
Nope. Not alive. Still a ghost.
He didn’t even act like this when he found out his grandpa committed suicide.
Then he was angry. Sometimes he felt guilty. He thought he could have prevented it somehow. Now he just seems defeated. Accepting.
This isn’t the Rob I know.
The Rob I know takes the tackles like a boss and keeps pushing forward. The guy doesn’t know how to not learn from his mistakes and do better the next time around.
The temperature in the waiting room seems to drop a few degrees, the air sucked away as everyone turns to watch our star quarterback fall apart.
Eva’s mom drops to the ground next to him and pulls his head to her chest, rocking him back and forth like a goddamn baby. I can’t figure out why she seems so grateful to Rob.
This whole fucking day can just go fuck itself. Nothing makes sense to me anymore.
After what seems like forever, Eva’s mom gets up and walks back through the doors. They make the same noise they always do, but this time the sound takes my breath away.
I guess she has to go claim Eva's body and start making preparations for burial. What is it like to say goodbye to someone for the last time?
Rob just stays on the ground, looking limp and dazed while silent tears stream down his face. Will he ever make a sound again?
Mike finally hauls Rob to his feet, and they trudge back to their chairs.
I have never felt like such an outsider in our little group. It’s not the same experience for me. I’m here for them, not for Eva. They both love this girl, even if it’s a different kind of love.
Loved? Does love stop when someone dies?
Mike hooks his arm around Rob’s neck. “Just breathe. Breathe, Rob. It’ll be okay.”
It’s not going to be okay. And Rob knows it. He’s right back to his ghost state, staring straight ahead like he can’t see anything at all. He isn’t looking at me. He’s looking through me.
A slender arm snakes around my waist, pulling me away from Rob’s creepy gaze.
I know Rachel.
Rachel wore pigtails in her hair the first day of kindergarten and stuck to Rob like glue until she became friends with everyone. Rachel’s off limits. She’s sexy as fuck, but sweet as pie.
She gives me a kind, sympathetic look. “You doin’ okay, Alex?”
I don’t even know where she came from. How many fucking people from school are here?
She wipes my cheeks with her soft, gentle hand.
Am I fucking crying? I don’t cry. Tears are bullshit.
She lays her head on my shoulder and squeezes me with her arm that’s still around me.
That’s just the distraction I need. Girls are trouble, but they feel so good. Rachel’s curvy body reminds me why we play their games and tolerate their crocodile tears. Nothing feels as perfect as a woman.
I sling an arm around her and squeeze back.
Mom returns from her conference with the other mothers. If she thinks the scene with me and Rach is unusual, she doesn’t say anything about it. Figures. “Eva’s alive, but in bad shape. She was beaten and sustained serious head trauma, so she’s getting a CAT scan while they try to determine the severity of her injuries. She hasn’t regained consciousness yet, and the doctors are worried about brain swelling or bleeding.”
She pauses to let that information sink in. “Rob didn’t break anything. He’ll be able to play out the rest of the season.” Her voice catches. She must be thinking what I am. Rob will play out the rest of the season only if Eva makes it.
I glance over at Rob, still sitting there like a dead man walking. What’s going through his mind? I’d give anything to know, but at the same time… I don’t want to know.
A commotion of noise and movement heralds the arrival of a group of people who must be Eva’s family, judging by the panicked expressions on their faces.
They’re such a strange contrast to Rob’s motionless silence.
They can’t know what happened yet; none of them have seen her, but they’re frantically looking around as if they expect to find her sitting in the waiting room. An elderly man who might be Eva’s grandfather speaks with the receptionist at the admitting window. A few other adults round out the group. Aunts, uncles, cousins, maybe?
I recognize her younger sister, Christina. She spots Rob though he’s made no indication he’s seen any of them come in. She flies toward him and throws herself in his lap, crying like a baby.
Great. More tears. More useless panic. More worthless emotions.
I just want to go home. But I can’t leave Rob. Not yet.
He never moves. Never puts his arms around Christina in comfort, never takes his eyes off whatever nightmare is replaying in his head, never says a word.
“Get off him!” I shout to her in my mind. “He doesn’t care about your tears! Your sister already took the best parts of him! Can’t you see he’s already gone, too?”
I don’t have to do anything though. Some lady who’s probably Eva’s aunt pries Christina from Rob’s lap. He doesn’t notice that, either.
He doesn’t meet the stares of her family who watch him with pity in their eyes.
The old guy is different though. He crouches in front of Rob, his joints creaking with the effort. His back is to me, so I can’t see the expression on his face, but his words sound sincere enough.
“It is good to see you again, young Robert, in spite of the circumstances.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
For the first time, Rob opens his mouth. No sound escapes.
Patty waits next to him on the edge of her seat. She throws me an excited glance, like she thinks Rob even trying to say something is progress.
I think it was a reflex.
But hey, what do I know?
Coach and Gary finally return. Gary takes one look at Rob’s taped hands and goes off. “Are you kidding me, Rob? You threw away your shot for a girl?”
The old guy rises to his feet, standing in front of Rob like a shield. He doesn’t seem to take offense to the way Gary speaks of Eva. His stance seems more protective than aggressive. The man’s got balls. Gary could rip this feeble dude limb from limb without even trying if he really wanted to get to Rob.
“His hand isn’t broken,” Patty explains with forced cheer. “He only busted his knuckles. He’ll be fine.”
She utters the last words like a prayer.
Coach doesn’t respond. He looks at Rob like he understands this is far from over. Instead, he runs more interference. “Let’s go make those calls we talked about, Gary. We don’t want scouts showing up this week. Next week, Rob will be back to a hundred percent, then we’ll show off what he can do.”
Gary pulls out his cell and doesn’t cast a glance back at his son before exiting the room.
Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Except Rob.
He just sits there, blank.
“Michael, has he said anything to you?”
Mike shakes his head, then stands and hugs Eva’s grandfather.
Oh. That’s right. Mike’s been friends with Eva for as long as I’ve been friends with Rob. Mike probably knows the whole family. I seem to recall him telling us stories about the old guy slipping him money and candy whenever he’d visit Eva’s house when he was little. Even now, if Mike helps him with anything, he’ll hand Mike a twenty and tell him to take his girl out. Mike always laughs because twenty bucks isn’t nearly enough to cover a date, but it’s obvious he loves the guy like an adopted grandfather. Just like Eva is his adopted sister. They call the old guy a weird name.
Papou. They call him Papou. Rob told me it means grandpa in Greek. Rob told me that. Not Mike.
Rob loved Eva enough even back then to find out everything he could about her. He never asked Mike for info. He always wanted to find out for himself.
Papou and Mike sit again, both near Rob. They speak quietly until a guy wearing a black alb enters in a hurry, nods to Eva’s grandfather, and heads through the double doors.
For the first time Rob’s eyes find mine, his face frozen in terror. He’s looking at me; begging me with his gaze for something. I don’t know what.
Being Catholic boys, we both immediately recognize the white collar. The priest is either here to administer Last Rites or the Prayers for the Dead. We both turn to look at Jeremy. By his expression, I can tell he’s on the same page.
Oh my God, she isn’t going to make it, or she’s already dead.
Untangling myself from Rachel’s arms, I head for Rob just as he stands, his whole body shaking.
Eva’s grandfather grabs Rob’s hand and whispers something to him. Whatever the old guy says must give Rob some sense of peace because he runs a battered hand over his face, his shoulders slumping with either relief or acceptance.
Fuck that acceptance shit. I want my brother back. Whatever it takes.
He stood by me when my life turned to shit. No matter what happens today, I’ll stand by Rob, too.
Finally finding the strength that’s escaped me since this fucking tragedy began, I wrap my arms around Rob’s shoulders and hold on with everything I have. My raspy voice churns out a Hail Mary on autopilot.
Before I’ve even finished the first line, Jeremy throws in. Mike piles on from behind Rob. By the time we’ve finished the Prayer, Rob is the center of the huddle just like on the field.
Our team, our friends, all pulling around him with the only thing we have to offer in the middle of his grief.
I don’t know how long we all stay like that, grouped around Rob. My cheeks feel wet again. Peering around at all the lowered faces, I realize I’m not the only one crying.
I know all these people. I have no idea how or when they got here. But I know why.
For Rob. We’re all here for Rob.
Our captain. Our quarterback. Our center.
He’s the best of us. He doesn’t deserve the worst life has to offer.
Rob’s face is dry, his eyes closed, and his breathing even. He might be stuck in some sort of sick limbo, but I don’t even know how the guy’s still standing after this day from hell. What a sick fucking joke that she’s taken away from him on the day she finally agrees to be his. I have to wonder if praying matters at all. Or if there’s even a God up there to hear us.
The throng of people disperses, and soon it’s just the four of us guys standing in the middle of the room.
A quick peek around the waiting room reveals some key people missing: Eva’s grandparents and sister and the guy I guessed was her uncle. They must’ve gone back to say their goodbyes while we were huddled.
We slowly make our way back to our seats, waiting on final word for what to do next.
What in the hell are we supposed to do next?
I’ve never been in this situation before. I don’t know the rules of the game. Is it a personal foul if I want to go home now, get wasted alone in the privacy of my own room, then sleep today off?
Before I can act on the impulse, a nurse enters the waiting room and whispers something into Patty’s ear. Rob’s mom is a nurse here at the hospital, too. Maybe she has some inside lines of communication. Without a word or glance to any of us, Rob and Patty follow her down a hallway. I guess Eva’s family decided to let him say goodbye.
Against my will, images race through my mind at lightning speed. Rob hovering over Eva’s lifeless, bloody body. Rob’s dead eyes glazed over while everyone in the room stares at him, watching to see what he’ll do. Rob kissing her goodbye. Rob going home and putting his dad’s handgun to his temple. Attending two funerals in less than a week.
I’m gonna be sick.
The guy I thought might be Eva’s uncle returns to the waiting room, halting my morbid thoughts and forcing me to swallow the bile in my throat.
He wears a tired, but grateful smile. “On behalf of my whole family, and especially Eva, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your support and prayers today. By the Grace of God, she’s resting comfortably in a room and is expected to make a full recovery. Please continue to keep her in your prayers because it will be a long and difficult road ahead.”
Several people immediately jump to their feet to question him about her condition. Most of our teammates and Eva’s friends exchange weary hugs before trudging out to the parking lot to go home and get some sleep.
I have no idea what to do or what to think. My head swims, I feel like I’m going to barf my brains out, and every muscle in my body screams at me to lay the fuck down and pass out.
Rachel appears by my side again. “Alex, do you want me to drive you home?”
Somehow, I manage to pull myself up, staggering on my feet. Mike appears in front of me. We hug. It’s not even a bro hug, but the real kind that, until today, I haven’t given to another guy since I was a kid. No words pass between us. What the hell could either of us possibly say?
No empty words. Rob made that promise to me a long time ago.
Damn if I’m not gonna honor that today.
My house is dark and quiet when Rach pulls into the driveway. Without a word, I lead her inside and up to my room. Her eyes seem to understand what I’m silently asking. She nods her head once in agreement.
Then I do the only thing I can do after the worst day of my life so far. I bury myself in her to forget.