“Your parents are in the cafeteria,” a woman says and then points me in the right direction.
I find Mr. and Mrs. Quinn staring at coffee cups.
They look up at me with tired eyes.
“Don’t you have a game tonight?” Mr. Quinn says.
“Can I see Erin?”
“Just try not to wake her if she’s still sleeping,” Mrs. Quinn says. “She needs her rest.”
Mrs. Quinn gives me the room number and when I find Erin her eyes are closed.
Very quietly I stand next to her bed and watch her breathe.
The swelling in her face has gone down considerably.
The IV drip in her arm means she’s heavily drugged.
Her bad leg is locked in a slightly bent position and—through the sheet fabric—I can see things poking through, which I imagine to be part of the metal skeleton that will hold her leg together as it mends. I don’t want to see the damage just yet, so I don’t peek.
I think about running with Erin, sprinting, climbing out onto my roof—her using her knee in all sorts of ways. Almost anything can be ruined. Everything is fragile. Temporary.
Because I can’t help it, I lean down and kiss her forehead once, and I think I see her smile for a second in her sleep, but it’s dark so I can’t be sure.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” a nurse whispers from the doorway. “She needs her sleep.”
I kiss Erin’s forehead once more. There’s a notepad and pen on the table next to the bed, so I scribble a quick message:
I was here.
I follow the nurse, who says, “She’s your classmate?”
She nods once before she says, “You’re a lucky man.”
I want to go sit with the Quinns, but for some reason I go to the waiting room instead, and watch all the people who have kids staying overnight at the hospital or who are waiting for loved ones to wake up from surgeries or whatever. They all look just as concerned as I probably do. I see a mom and a dad holding hands, comforting each other. An elderly woman talks to a priest for a while. And a little kid sleeps with a teddy bear in one arm and his thumb in his mouth. So many people with problems and hurting, sick family members.
Just before they make us all leave, I look in on Erin once more. She’s sleeping comfortably, so I take a cab home.
THE NEXT MORNING OVER EGGS and bacon, I ask Dad if I should skip school to check on Erin. Before he can answer, Pop says, “Yes.”
“Have you missed a day of high school yet?” Dad asks.
“Nope. Perfect attendance. So what’s one day?”
Dad looks at me and says, “You sure you don’t want to talk to Coach?”
“I think the team will be just fine without me.”
“Okay,” Dad says. “I don’t like you quitting anything, but under the circumstances… I just wanted to make sure you’re okay with the consequences, that you won’t regret the decision later. I mean, you love basketball, Finley.”
“Erin’s more important. Right?”
Pop pulls two bucks from his shirt pocket, holds the money out to me, and says, “Buy Erin some flowers, will ya? Tell her I’m looking forward to the next game of War.”
“Thanks, I will,” I say, even though flowers will cost more money. It’s a nice gesture and I appreciate it. He’s probably been holding on to those two bucks for years. My dad pays for everything around here, and Pop hasn’t worked a day since he lost his legs.
On his way to school, Russ shows up at my front door, once again looking very terrestrial. It’s like Boy21 really has left the planet.
“I’m going to the hospital today,” I say. “Not going to school.”
“I’m really sorry about how everything’s turned out, Finley. Truly.” He’s cracking his knuckles one at a time.
“I have to help Erin now. Okay? Stick with Wes in school. He’ll get you through.”
“It’s about more than getting through,” Russ says. “Can we talk later tonight?”
“I don’t know.” I have no idea what will happen at the hospital. “I have to go. See you later, man.”
Russ nods once and then heads for school. He looks lonely, walking all by himself, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.
Dad drives me to the hospital and we buy flowers at the gift shop near the cafeteria. I pick out a single yellow rose in a plastic vase because I know Erin likes yellow and the arrangement is the cheapest they have. I use Pop’s two bucks and Dad covers the rest.
We walk to the part of the hospital where Erin’s recovering and tell the woman behind the desk that we’re here to see my girlfriend. I don’t have to lie about being Rod because there are visiting hours in this part of the hospital.
She looks at a chart briefly, runs down a list with the tip of her pen, and says, “Erin Quinn’s not seeing visitors today.”
“I’m her boyfriend,” I say.
“Sorry,” the woman says.
“Can you take this to her and let her know I’m here?” I ask. “She’ll want to see me. She’ll tell you so. I swear.”
“The patient has requested that no one except her parents be permitted access to her. Those are her wishes.”
“She’s not a patient,” I say, fully realizing how ridiculous it sounds, because Erin is a patient. “She’s my girlfriend.”
“Maybe so. But she doesn’t want to see you today. Come back tomorrow. Maybe she’ll have changed her mind by then.”
“Can we send her a note through you?” Dad asks.
“We can do that.” The woman sighs as if we’re asking her to do a hundred push-ups, or something equally insane.
“Do you have any paper?” I ask.
The woman stares at me for a second over her neon-green reading glasses, and then she slaps a pad of paper on the counter.
I hesitate but then say, “You wouldn’t happen to have a pen, would you?”
She shakes her head with enough force to set her neck fat in motion, but she hands me a pen. I wonder why she’s so angry, but then someone behind me says, “This is asinine! Why can’t I go in to see my daughter? I’m tired of waiting here!”
The woman behind the desk probably has to listen to people yell all day.
Pop sends you this flower. He’s looking forward to the next game of War. I skipped school and am in the waiting room. Tell them to let me in and we’ll talk.
I fold the note in half and stick it between the stem and the white cotton-looking plant they stuck in with the rose.
When the woman finishes speaking with the yelling man, she gestures to me and says, “Take a seat. When things slow down a little, I’ll have one of the nurses deliver the flowers to your girlfriend. If she wants to see you, we’ll let you know.”
“How long will—”
“Don’t know,” she says without looking up from her lists and charts.
“Come on, Finley,” Dad says, and we sit down in the waiting room, where a half-dozen people are watching Good Morning America. Some singer I don’t know is performing outside in the streets of New York City. When she sings, you can see her breath. She doesn’t look much older than me, and here she is on TV. How does that happen?
Dad falls asleep while we wait, and I wonder if Erin really doesn’t want to see me. I start to worry. I feel confused. I can’t imagine why I was denied access to her.
Finally, Mrs. Quinn appears, looking very tired and unshowered—probably because she spent the night at the hospital—and says, “I’m sorry, Finley, but Erin doesn’t want to see you today.”
“She’s tired from the surgery, and she’s not looking very well either. You know how girls are about being seen without makeup.”
Mrs. Quinn is lying, trying to soften the news. Erin never wears makeup. She doesn’t even own makeup.
“It was nice of you to bring the rose. It really brightened the room.” She hands me a note, and then leaves.
It’s Erin’s handwriting.
You shouldn’t have left your game last night. You should be in school right now. Forget about me. Apologize to Coach and enjoy the rest of your basketball season. Don’t come back to the hospital. I can’t see you.
I keep reading Erin’s note over and over again, but it doesn’t make any sense. Just the other night, she practically begged me to be her boyfriend again, and now she says she can’t see me?
I start to feel sick to my stomach.
I don’t know what to do, so I just sit there waiting, hoping Mrs. Quinn will return with a smile on her face and say, “Just kidding!” But Mrs. Quinn doesn’t return.
Good Morning America ends. Some talk show begins and Dad snores through it all, right next to me.
He wakes up around lunchtime and says, “How’s Erin?”
I show him the note.
“She’s probably angry about what happened. She’s not in shock anymore. She’s feeling the full effect. But she’ll come around.”
“Do you mind if we stay here?” I say. “I’d like to stay, just in case she changes her mind.”
“I can sleep anywhere,” Dad says, and then shuts his eyes.
After school ends, Mrs. Battle and the girls’ team come with balloons and cards, but they aren’t allowed in either, which really makes me worry about Erin.
When I tell her Erin wouldn’t see me, Mrs. Battle says, “Well, then, we might as well get back to the gym for a late practice.”
Erin’s teammates look sort of pissed off, which makes me angry, because it’s not like Erin invited them to a party, right?
They leave all the get-well gear at the desk and file back out to the bus.
Dad and I eat dinner at the cafeteria.
“You know,” Dad says, chewing a bite of hamburger, “Erin’s family might be trying to protect you, Finley.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whoever hit her, well, maybe they’re watching,” Dad says, and then he glances around the cafeteria carefully.
“I don’t care about any of that. I’m done with that stuff, Dad.”
“You can’t just be done with it,” he says. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Erin and I didn’t ask to be a part of that world.”
“Neither did I,” Dad says, which makes me feel bad, because Dad’s life has been pretty bleak, and through no fault of his own. “All’s I’m saying is to give it time, and don’t do anything stupid. You and Erin can leave Bellmont someday. You can go far away. Like I should have done with your mother.”
This is the first time Dad has mentioned Mom in years. “I thought we weren’t supposed to talk about Mom.”
“We’re not.” Dad finishes his hamburger, and the conversation ends, because I don’t know what else to say.
There’s a different nurse at the desk now, so I try one more time to see Erin. I’m denied access again, so I let Dad drive me home.