C/W: Graphic description of injury
His hands are shaking, my fingers are clutched around his, smothering a dirty yellow rag against the wound while our classmates’ faces cringe in disgust from the blood, splattered like paint against the hardwood. He complains about how the cloth smells of varnish, how it’s going to give him an infection, how he’s going to lose his finger.
“You’re going to be fine. Just breathe in and out.”
I wrap my fingers even more tightly over his, squeeze them in an attempt to stop the bleeding. Mr. Barnes glides through the crowd of students around the table saw and turns off the power.
Today wasn’t supposed to be an exciting day; I had not anticipated that for either of us. I also didn’t expect Mr. Barnes to have us pair up from the get-go; that we would be stranded in our islets, waiting to be claimed like the last of the litter.
I stood up, offered my partner a fist bump, a gesture he returned by crossing his arms. We didn’t exchange names. The only words he said were, “Well, let’s get this over with”. We strapped on our goggles, and I let him take the lead. He mustered up some courage and guided a plank with his fingers towards the spinning blade.
I saw it. The moment the serrated edge grew hauntingly close, sliced like a guillotine into my partner's flesh, right after someone bumped against him, nudging his body forward.
He didn’t scream right away, not until the blood mixed in with the sawdust, until the blade ran through the first joint. He threw his body back, his spine onto my chest. I grabbed him by the shoulders, snatched the first rag I could find, which happened to be beside a pungent-smelling tin.
“Mr. Barnes, it won’t stop bleeding. He’s going to pass out like this.”
The students remain idle and awestruck, mouths dangling like bells. Their eyes peer to me, to his blood, to his covered limb.
“Get your friend to the nurse! I’m calling an ambulance! Go, get him out of here,” Mr. Barnes hollers.
I can feel it, his body sagging into mine as we dart through the corridors. I assume he doesn’t like the sight of blood or that he’s probably lost a lot of it. My hands are still suffocating his finger, his mouth stitched shut from pain, fear, or absence.
Our shoes squeal against the freshly mopped floor, we leave behind a trail of dirty prints and red droplets. We’re a couple doors from the nurse’s office when his body crashes against the wall, and I’m obliged to call for help.
Curious faces peer from the glass of the classroom doors; some teachers step out into the corridor, their arms stretch out across the threshold to keep their students back. The nurse runs our way with a wheelchair, helps him up onto the seat while telling me to keep my hands around the wound.
“What’s your name, boy?” the nurse asks.
“Connor, my name’s Connor.”
“No, not you, your friend. What’s his name?”
“It’s um… um…”
“It’s Sean,” he cuts in, nearly moaning.
“Well, Sean, your friend Connor here is going to have to help me out, if that’s okay with you?”
I look at Sean, his lake-blue eyes evading my gaze, peering straight to the floor. A few minutes ago, I didn’t even know his name, and now, we’re here, way past our first introductions.
“Yeah, sure,” I say. “No problem. What can I do?”
“Let’s change that rag for something a bit more suitable. Sean, you’re probably not going to want to look. Connor, unfortunately, you’ll need to see.”
I nod apprehensively, preparing myself for the gore worthy of a cinematic retelling. My hands loosen their hold, peel away the cloth while the nurse brings in a clean white rag layered in surgical gauze pads. Her mouth opens wide when she sees the damage.
The fissure bleeds out the moment it touches the air. Sean's blood stains the sterile cloth, strings of fabric latch on to torn flesh. The skin around the rift looks as thin as sausage casing, ready to curl back and reveal his split bone. For a second, I imagine Sean’s whole finger falling straight into the nurse’s cotton nest like rotten fruit. She crumbles the cloth into the wound while I stifle his finger once again.
“Keep pressure on it,” she demands while grabbing the old rag I disposed of onto the floor and throwing it into the wastebasket. “The ambulance should be coming soon.”
He’s looking pale. Sean bites his lower lip until it’s white.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m fine,” he grunts. “The adrenaline will kick in soon.”
“What are you doing?” Sean tries to fight my grip, to retreat his hand away from mine.
“I said, I’m fine. I don’t need your help.”
I think about giving in, about leaving his finger in his own care, of having the nurse simply write me a note to justify me being tardy to my next class.
“Just be quiet,” I return. “An extra hand would do you some good right about now, don’t you think?”
And so we wait, occupy the chairs in the nurse’s office while the school calls Sean’s parents. I continue helping out the nurse, changing the gauze as often as I can.
“Sean,” she calls. “The ambulance is here.”
We both stand in synchrony while she brings in the wheelchair.
“I’m good,” he claims. “Let’s just go before my finger falls off.”
I accompany him to the parking lot, my hands over his. I can feel his blood seeping through the bandages, sticking to my fingers and palms like glue. He pulls his hand away, steps onto the back of the vehicle, turns to me.
“I’ll be fine,” he fires while crashing into the gurney. “Just go.”
“Thought what? I’m good. Just get going before you miss more classes.”
The ambulance’s doors close. Sean rides off to the hospital in a chorus of red and blue sirens with a crowd of spectators breathing against their classroom windows.
It’s been three days, and now, Sean’s back in class. He sits far from me, abandoned in the corner doing written work while the rest of the students entertain themselves with the whirs and buzzes of power tools. The electric sander sounds like a grinder, cuts the silence and his gaze to the paper under his nose. He turns my way, says nothing. I take a glance at his hand, bandaged and packed like a precious artifact.
“I take it you got some gnarly stitches,” I comment while removing my goggles.
Sean lets go of his pencil, leans back into the chair, obviously annoyed.
“Does it hurt? You know…”
“Look, I don’t know where you’re going with this, but just leave me alone. You helped me out, big deal. Just let it go. There’s no reason for you to talk to me.”
I stumble back, his words pushing against my stride. There’s a weight in my stomach; I gulp down whatever I want to say and simply walk away.
The rest of the students laugh, hammer, and drill their planks and two-by-fours. I’m without a partner, so all I can really do is assist the other pairs with useless tasks, such as holding a few wooden beams to be nailed, taking measurements, or sweeping up the sawdust on the floor.
The bell rings, the students untie their aprons and unstrap their eye gear. They leave in a sprint. I’m about to go out the door when I see Sean fumbling with his backpack. I want to walk over, to offer a hand, to ask if he needs any help, even if it means I’ll be turned away. I also want to see him squirm a bit.
Mr. Barnes notices Sean’s struggle, turns his attention my way with a glare, sees that I’m just standing, watching. I dash over, hold his backpack while he runs his arms through the straps.
“Sure thing,” I say with a grin.
We walk out the door. I let Sean go through first afraid my waist or hip will collide with his injured finger.
“My next class is this way,” he comments, pointing down the hall.
“Okay. Well, see ya.”
“Nine, by the way.”
“Huh? Nine what?”
“Nine stitches. That’s how many I got.”
He takes a step back, turns his body, and awkwardly ends our chat.
“I’ll see ya, next class.”
“Yeah. Next class, see you,” Sean returns with his head looking forward and not a single wave.
I’m late for class. I rush in with nothing but the sorry excuse that I got hauled up trying to open my locker. All the desks are occupied, except for the one beside Sean. He glances over to the seat as I sit, retracting his gaze as soon as I turn my head his way. I think about greeting him, giving him a closed smile, but instead, I focus on his hand, imagining his limp, sickly finger.
Mr. Barnes explains that we’ll all be responsible for a project by the end of the month, that anything we end up producing should be done with care and will receive a grade. He doesn’t demand anything complicated, doesn’t ask us to strive for elaborate wooden pieces.
“Let’s not forget to be careful people,” he emphasizes before clapping his hands together and having us get to work.
All the students head to the back of the class, position themselves over tools, over the tables, the electric sander, the drill, the table saw.
“So? What do you think we should do?”
Sean says nothing. He looks at his injury as if answering my question with his gaze.
“I know you can’t do much, but I still have two working hands. Maybe we could..”
He twists his body my way, “Just do whatever you want,” he says. “Not like I can really help out. "
“That’s not true. You can still write, hold things, measure, just stay away from the equipment.”
Sean turns back to face the front of the room, places his hands over his desk, and stays quiet.
“Why?” he asks.
“Huh? Why what?”
“Why did you help me? Why did you stay with me that entire time?”
“I don’t know? Guilt, maybe?”
“Guilt?” he repeats.
“Yeah, you did end up using the table saw because I wasn’t up for it. Plus, you pulled the short straw, getting me as a partner.”
“Woodshop’s not your thing, I guess?”
“Was it that obvious?”
“I get it. It’s not mine either,” he answers while raising his hand slightly.
“We can still do this you know? Work together. I’m not any good, but we can still come up with something.”
Sean stands up, “Fine, but how about we stay away from the power tools?”
I smile. “Great idea.”
It’s been three weeks since Sean’s accident. He’s arched over the table in woodshop, etching measurements into a slab of cedar. Mr. Barnes won’t let him do much, nothing aside from writing and jotting down measurements. I press against the wood so that it doesn’t slip or slant while he’s writing.
His hand is still pretty well-wrapped, but not enough that he can’t wiggle his fingers or sling his backpack across his shoulders by himself.
Sean stretches out the tape measure, pulling on the edge with his teeth so that the tip holds onto the other side of the board. I let him. I understand that he doesn’t always want help.
He smiles after the tape measure fully retreats and cracks. “I think we’re just about done here.”
“Yeah, well, what do you think? Enough for us to pass?”
Sean holds out his bandaged hand as if making a biblical swear. “It doesn’t matter; this bad boy guarantees us an easy-A.”
“At least something good will come out of that thing.”
“Oh, that reminds me, I’m going to be leaving early today.”
“Yep, going to see how the finger’s functioning.”
“I hope it’s alright, wouldn’t it be terrible if you couldn’t flip anyone off?” I mock.
“Well, it’s fine, because I got another one. See?” Sean gestures with his spare middle finger. “Anyway, I won’t be able to see you after class. But how about you come on over for dinner?”
The bell rings, the students start trickling out.
“Don’t forget to clean up people,” Mr. Barnes advises. “I don’t want to sweep a single thing from this floor.”
I look at Sean, who stands waiting for an answer. “So?”
“So? Um, do you want me to bring anything?”
“Yeah, bring your appetite. My mom’s psyched to meet the kid who saved my finger.”
I follow him to his desk and don’t help him out with his backpack.
“So, how does seven sound? Too late?”
“Seven sounds fine. I’ll tell my folks.”
“Sounds great,” Sean says, turning his back to me while walking down the corridor to his next class. He waves back at me with his bare hand.
I catch myself imagining what would have happened that day if he hadn’t gotten hurt. If some distracted classmate had warned of his passing. If he hadn’t gotten a lightning bolt-shaped scar running down his middle finger. I guess in some way, we made a pact, his blood over my skin, over the wooden grains.
“Have a nice doctor’s appointment,” I blurt out, immediately gritting my teeth after letting the words escape.
“Thanks!” he turns my way, chuckling. “I’ll see ya tonight. Seven. Don’t be late.”
“I’ll be there.”
I turn down the hall, catching sight of the classroom. I’m still pretty scared of working with the table saw or any other power tools, for that matter. I don’t think I’ll be taking woodshop next semester, but who knows, if Sean does, maybe so will I.