Gervassi’s head filled with static as the doctor was speaking. Five minutes earlier, he had sat down in the waiting room of the Trauma Center and hoped for the best, not daring to look at anyone else. He was too afraid their gaze would betray all the things he didn’t want to believe. The accident had been terrible, he knew that much, but what was worse was the feeling that he had caused it. After all, he was the one who told Eleanor to leave. He should have known better than to let her go alone, especially when she was in such a bad state. After all, if Afra was in Eleanor’s situation, Gervassi would have wanted someone to tell her to wait, to not go because there was always the morning. Now the doctor was talking, but Gervassi couldn’t hear a thing. He could hear Afra sitting beside him, holding his hands in hers and saying, “Vassi, Vassi, Vassi, listen.” He could hear the quiet, determined sobs of Triscin, Eleanor’s boyfriend, muffled between the sleeves of his shirt. Gervassi could hear Ander whispering prayers into his palms. He could hear Muz’s long acrylic nails digging into the plastic of the hospital seats. Most of all, though, he could hear the static ringing in his ears, begging him not to hear what the doctor, this Grim Reaper with a stethoscope and diploma, was saying.
“Can we go see her after the surgery?” Bella, one of the other girls who had accompanied them on their Colorado vacation, asked the doctor.
“I don’t know if that would be a good idea. Like I said, it’s a bad condition and we’re doing all we can to stabilize the patient, but- “
Triscin choked. “Not a patient. Her name is Eleanor.” He couldn’t stand to hear the doctor talk about her in such cold, dead terms. She was a person. A mean, sometimes vindictive, selfish, and demeaning person, but one that Triscin loved very much nonetheless. He stood up, excused himself to the restroom, and no one followed him. They wouldn’t know what to say. Gervassi found himself leaning into Afra’s arms; they had somehow found themselves wrapped around his body like soft pink ribbons on the end of a schoolgirl’s braid. Loose, but still keeping things together. Delicate, but all the more strong because of it.
The doctor turned around with a quick nod and serene smile to the waiting room. He disappeared behind the swinging hospital doors as though they weren’t the only thing blocking the people sitting on the waiting side from the answers they were waiting for. Sure, he had walked out, told them about the damage and what they were doing to help, but that was nothing. That didn’t guarantee that Eleanor would recognize them when she woke up. Words that the doctor read off his sticky plastic clipboard didn’t stop Triscin from running to the bathroom and locking himself in a stall, his weeping quiet and thunderously loud at the same time. Muz’s nails still broke the seats; sliced them wide open. Ander still remained calm for the rest of them. There was no comfort in knowing answers for questions you never wanted to ask in the first place.
“I think, um, I’ll go check on Triscin.” Ander stood up from his seat and started down the hall. “I’ll leave my phone here. Her parents are on the plane now, so they shouldn’t be calling, but still. Just answer if they do.” Muz picked up his phone and put it in her seat beside her. By the look of things, she was the best candidate to answer if Eleanor’s parents did call. She stopped torturing the armrest of her chair with her nails, mostly because they did cost more than her monthly family phone plan, and wanted very much to break the silence that had crashed her group’s party. She might have come for Afra, but now that she was here, these were as much her friends as anyone else’s.
“Bella.” She said, ignoring Afra and Gervassi and focusing instead on the non-catatonic people in the room. “Did you get what we asked? From Walmart?”
“Oh, I think Allie did.” Allie, who was sitting next to Bella, pulled the bag of smore material out from her gigantic purse, and smiled, glad for once that she contributed to the narrative.
“I did!” Then she frowned. “Though I don’t know what we can do for smores in the waiting room of a hospital.” Good reading of the teleprompter, Allie, Muz thought.
“We can ask politely if they have a microwave, elect an ambassador to go make us smores, and have a replacement bonfire here while we wait.” In her opinion, it was a great plan.
Gervassi disagreed. “You’re trying to make dessert while we’re worried sick? What’s wrong with you? This isn’t a party. I don’t know about where you come from, Muz, but in most places people don’t eat snacks while concerned for the life of a friend.”
Before either Afra could jump in or Muz could continue her sweet campaign, the phone rang, and Muz jumped to answer it, the room falling quiet once again. Well, of course it wasn’t entirely quiet. There were still other people in the waiting room who whispered to each other and those who glared at each other above shining phone screens, casting accuse for accidents nobody could have foreseen, illnesses everyone knew about but never mentioned. Gervassi, thankful that no one was looking at him like that yet, pressed his cold face deeper into Afra’s warm body. Now, instead of static, his ears were more filled with cotton. Afra bit her bottom lip. Muz was talking to Eleanor’s parents.
“Hi.” She gripped the cell phone. “We don’t know. I’m sorry. I thought the doctor called you.” A pause. “He did call you? Oh, okay. Yeah.” She nodded. “Okay, see you then. We’ll keep her company until you guys get here.” The phone clicked off, and Muz set Ander’s phone down. “They’ll be here around noon.”
Gervassi wondered if his father would fly to take care of him in the hospital if it was him who had crashed in that car instead of Eleanor. He didn’t let himself finish the thought, though, because he knew the answer. His father had stopped loving him the moment his mother died and no matter how much Gervassi tried, there would be no reunion, no reconciliation, no remembering the times when they were all happy together. “Why do I want to call my dad, then, Afra?”
He sat up straight in his seat. “I said, why now of all times and places do I want to talk to my father? You know, the guy that hates me and sent me to live with a bunch of creepy women instead of believing me when I said I needed help, not some kind of conversion?” He sighed. “I want to hear his voice, even just the voicemail.”
Afra reached up and brushed her thumb across his chapped lips. “So why don’t you call?” She was startled by the request, and yet, it made sense. Eleanor’s parents were dropping everything to fly to Colorado to be here when she woke up- and she would wake up if Afra had any will left in her body- and Gervassi was scared he would never have that relationship with his parents again. Once upon a time, he could have sworn up and down and inside out that sure, his parents would both be there, always, whenever he needed them. Before the toaster accident, that was true. After the toaster accident, it was a fight to get his dad to even look at him anymore. “I’ll be sitting right here. We have time, too.”
“Okay.” He found his dad’s number in his contacts of his phone and before pressing call, smiled at Afra. “Look at us,” his eyes were shining and his hands were shaking, “Breaking family tradition together. What a milestone.”
“It’s our first hospital visit too, if we’re getting technical. Now call before you back out. Just be quick. Like ripping off Band-Aids quick.”
“This is more like undoing the stitches on Frankenstein’s head, but here goes nothing.” For a brief moment, Gervassi contemplated the notion that deciding to break months and months of no communication whatsoever with his estranged (obviously) father on a whim was a bad idea. Then Afra’s confident eyes met his own and he clicked the call button. His heart squeezed between hope that his dad would pick up and guilt that he was choosing this time, a time when Eleanor was tipping the balance beam between life and death, to make such a personal call. He had enough things to worry about, why was he adding one more?
The phone rang. Muz had had caught onto the situation and was listening while at the same time pretending to be very intently focused on a stray People magazine. “Oh, that scoundrel,” she said of the latest scandal, and expected her performance was so excellent no one could accuse her of eavesdropping.
The phone rang two more times, and by then Ander was back from the bathroom. Triscin had not followed him back, but did say he would be okay alone before heading out to the hospital trails for a moment of thinking and deep breathing. “I don’t think he’ll answer.”
A tall woman wearing hot pink yoga pants and a Star Wars pajama shirt shook her head and said, “There’s still a few rings left, hold onto your hope.” She winked. “At least your dad isn’t Darth Vader, right?”
Despite himself, Gervassi had to admit that was true. “I guess, sure.” How long had this woman been listening to his conversation? Was everyone in his business now? The phone rang three more times, and then there was a heart stopping pause. This was the moment when the call would go to voicemail or when it would pick up. Gervassi didn’t know which one he wanted. Everyone in the waiting room listened, their heartbeats marching to the same curious drum.
Gervassi dropped Afra’s hand. He held the phone with all ten fingers wrapped around the edges, scared this was a dream and his dad still was denying the fact that he had a son. He didn’t say anything; waited for his dad to say something else. “Are you there?”
“Do you need money? I’m not giving you money.”
“No, dad, I don’t need money.” Afra strained to listen to the voice on the other side of the line. “I was calling because I wanted to hear from you.”
“Guess you could have thought of that before you ran out of town, then.”
“I didn’t run out of town. You sent me away and I couldn’t stay in that place.” Gervassi’s voice dipped. “I couldn’t stay there and I couldn’t go home.”
“You made your decision. I don’t know what you want from me.”
Tears slipped off Gervassi’s cheeks and onto his shirt, but he couldn’t hang up. For whatever reason, he was on the phone with his personal Judas, the man who he had loved and who had betrayed him nonetheless, and he couldn’t leave now. “I made my decision? I was sick and you didn’t believe me. You had the chance to save my life when you could have never prevented Mom’s accident. Why did you make that decision?”
“You don’t know half of what I’ve been through.”
“Only because you never tell me. Do you know we haven’t talked in over six months? For six months, I’ve been worried that you were dead, or that you didn’t love me, or that you would rather forget about me than to face the fact that you can’t save everyone. All day long,” Gervassi was aware that the waiting room was fixed upon his conversation, and this somehow only spurned him on. He wanted backup and witnesses and an audience for what he was about to say. He had laid in bed so many nights practicing what he would say and now here was his chance. “All day long you fight to keep people safe and when you realized you had failed to keep the one person you loved more than your life itself from something as stupid as a toaster malfunction, you couldn’t take that. You blamed me. You told me it was my fault, and that I deserved to get so sick.” His voice cracked. Afra watched him anxiously, not sure whether she should jump in or stay the heck out. “And yet for some reason, I still called you. I still wanted you to know I missed you.” The waiting room was in tears for a whole new set of reasons now. The doctor who had walked in to tell the Colorado group that Eleanor was safely out of surgery and in recovery was crying too.
“Gervassi. I’m sorry to ask it so bluntly, but are you drunk?”
“No.” Gervassi’s heart was ragged and full of sand and it hurt like five thousand arrows had been shot through it. “No.”
“Okay, then. Are you in jail?”
“I already said I don’t need money. I just wanted to say hi, I guess.”
“You wanted to say hi? Are you five years old, wandering into my office to interrupt my meeting and say hi? I’m busy with my life, which has continued without you thank you very much, and you are not part of it. So hang up before I do.”
“I love you.”
“I know what it’s like now, to have someone you love so much you can’t compute life without them. Her name is Afra and we’re sitting in a hospital waiting room because there was a car crash and we don’t know if our friend is okay and she’s one of the reasons I called you. I hope you’ll be at our wedding, one day.”
His dad didn’t say anything, but stayed on the line. Then his voice crackled back as a heavy sigh. “Don’t get married. It’ll only bring you heartache. And children, if you’re extra unlucky. Wives and children. That means your heart can break more than once.”
“Sometimes things have to be broken for you to see what was inside all along.”
The waiting room rolled their eyes. That was some kind of line if they’d ever heard one. Afra laughed and mouthed, “Okay, John Green,” to Gervassi. He raised his eyebrows at her and mouthed back, “Okay, Mrs. Green.” She blushed and dropped her gaze, letting him finish the conversation.
“Gervassi, I have to go, but I’ll call you back soon.”
“You’ll call me back?” A cheer erupted from the room. Triscin, who had returned from his walk, was confused, but cheered along with them. A reason to be happy in such a sad place was a welcome sight as far as he was concerned.
“Yes, I will. Bye.”
They hung up and Gervassi opened his mouth to say something else, but the doctor had already beat him to it.
“Eleanor,” he said this for Triscin, “is in B42 on the third floor. You may go see her, but not as a giant group. I’m guessing the weeping willow over here would like to go first?”
Triscin nodded. He believed that, after his walk around the hospital, that this could be an open window, and not a slammed door like he had assumed. After hearing Eleanor berate him on the beach, he was close to giving up on the relationship, but this accident was a restart button, at least for him. He wasn’t going to put up with her abusive mannerisms anymore. He was going to tell her that she meant the world to him, but if she was going to continue to disrespect and hurt those around her, it wasn’t a healthy relationship for either of them. “I’ll let you guys know when you can come up, alright?”
“We’ll be there when you’re done, don’t rush.” Ander patted Triscin on the back and beamed rays of positive energy into his soul best he could. “Tell her that her parents should be here in a few hours. They’re stuck at the airport.”
“Should we go get them?”
Ander said, “No, they’ll rent a car, Vassi. Maybe we should get food though. It’ll be lunchtime soon.”
Muz looped an arm around Ander’s shoulders and grinned. “That’s exactly my train of thought.” She stood up and took Ander with her. “All aboard and in favor say ‘I.’”
S'mores forgotten under Allie's seat, they set off in search of the hospital’s cafeteria.