I am still waiting for Max to wake up. Only the slow beeps of his heart monitor keep me from forgetting how long I’ve been sitting here, reminding me that no, he isn’t dead, and yes, he is sick. Still, it’s better than silence. That’s what scares me most.
Since I sat down, I have not taken my eyes off him, and I have not let go of his hand either. I squeeze it gently in an attempt to reassure myself. With the other hand, I brush his dark brown fringe out of his eyes, which is now almost overgrown, revealing a stark pale face that has grown more gaunt by the day since they put him on a drip. It would be frightening to anyone else – it was to me at first – but he has always looked beautiful when he is asleep, and that will never change.
It’s not normal for a sixteen year old to go straight from school to the hospital every day, but to me, there would be a big gaping hole in my day if I went home and studied like everyone else. I only leave when they throw me out. Even when he’s too weak to talk or he’s vomiting into a bowl, or like now when he’s too tired to do anything but sleep, I stay through everything. Anything to know he’s alive, even as he loses more weight or metamorphoses from yellow to blue to green when they give him drugs, take him off drugs, wire him up to magical medical machines that do his human functions for him, or stick more wires into his arms. I will wait forever.
That’s certainly how it feels now. Max is still breathing. The heart monitor continually beeps. Everything’s alright, I tell myself. Hold on hold on hold on hold on…
Then the monitor screams. Almost jumping out of my seat, I turn and notice the green line running flat along the display. I blink. It doesn’t change.
“Max?” Nothing. I watch for a twitch of his eyelashes, for him to lurch back into life, but he is still. “Max! Max!” I scream his name again and again, and it doesn’t rouse him. Nothing works. As much as I can lie to myself, I know what has happened. This is not a false alarm.
For a split second, my brain is in overdrive but is shutting down at the same time. I am shaking all over, caustic tears flowing down my cheeks and down my neck and onto my clothes. I look at Max’s newly lifeless body and almost throw up.
Then I run.
I don’t just run from the ward; I sprint as if death is chasing after, looking for another victim. Noise explodes around me and blurs in my ears: sounds of a wailing baby, someone’s cry of agony, a doctor shouting orders. Running becomes all I know. In my carelessness I probably shove a couple of people aside and send others ducking out the way, but I’m so pre-occupied in myself I hardly notice.
“What do you think you’re doing?” My surroundings crash into me, and I become aware of the nurse standing in my path with her hands on her hips.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” I splutter, when I have the air to talk amongst the sobbing and gasping for breath. “I just couldn’t stay in there.”
“It’s… its Max Foster,” I say. “H-h-he won’t respond.”
A small group of nurses run into Max’s ward, but I don’t follow them. Instead, I sink to my knees outside with my back against the cold wall, listening to the blood rushing in my ears mixed with my uncontrollable sobbing. I don’t feel whole anymore. I feel like the loser of a war, even if it wasn’t for me to fight. I am broken.
Max is gone. Properly gone. What the hell am I going to do now?
I wish I had an off-switch for all my thoughts; otherwise they’re going to crush me. I almost wonder if being dead is better than this – at least I can be with Max again, forever as well. Still shaking, trying not to think, I curl us into a ball with my head balanced on my knees, and that’s how I stay. People walk into the ward and walk out again, some glancing down at me, though I don’t have the strength to death stare them and make them go away.
“Rosalie?” calls one of the nurses, sticking her out of the door. “Do you want to come in?”
Reluctantly, I drag myself up off the floor and follow her in, but not before I make sure to leave my stomach outside. When we arrive, the nurses wear their best faces of sympathy.
“I’m so sorry,” one of them begins. “This must be awfully hard for you, watching Max go through his period of ill health. Sadly, we have come to the conclusion that he has indeed passed away.”
This isn’t news to me at all, but hearing those words kills me in the slowest and most painful way ever invented. He has passed away. Suddenly I don’t feel like a person anymore, only half of one. Max must have taken a part of me with him.
“Would you like to say your goodbyes?” the other nurse asks. “We’ll step out for a moment. Take as much time as you need.”
I nod weakly, and they step aside, revealing Max’s corpse. A huge heave of tears washes over me. Though he is no longer wired up to any machines, I decide cutting myself open with a samurai sword would be less painful than seeing him this way. His face is ashen and all the colour has drained from his lips, yet what wounds me further is that he still looks just as peaceful as he did when I last saw him alive.
I put my arms around him and lay my head on his chest. There is no heartbeat beneath me to listen to. Worse, he feels so, so cold; and it’s the most unpleasant coldness I’ve ever experienced – the ice of death. For what feels like forever, I sit sobbing into his hospital gown with my fingers laced through his, grief bleeding out of me and spilling everywhere.
And I know he won’t hear me, but I whisper in his ear: “I love you.”
I do not tell him goodbye, because if I did, I could be lying.
Today is the day of the funeral. Ten days have passed since Max’s death. Each one proves me wrong when I start to think the way I feel couldn’t possibly get worse. God knows how I’ll make it out the other side – that is, if there is one.
Black isn’t my colour. It has a strange way of washing me out so I look like a corpse bride. Not even makeup can detract from that. Whilst I look in the mirror, I realize how lax my facial muscles have gone from not smiling at all. My reflection looks back at me like she has spotted whoever sentenced Max to death and wants to kill them.
Another reflection stands next to my own: my mum, wearing a dress like mine, but without the lacy sleeves and a slightly ridiculous looking hat.
“You look beautiful, darling,” she says, but I hear Max’s voice instead of hers. Stupid ears.
“Of course you do.” I’d tell her the opposite, but the fire I use to fight with turned to ash a long time ago. “Now,” she continues, turning to face me, “I understand that today is going to be hard for you, but I just want to say, this past week you have been unbelievably courageous.”
“Does your idea of ‘courageous’ involve staying in bed all day and crying all the time? Really, Mum?”
“You’ve coped better than I imagined. You managed to go to school on Tuesday and…”
She doesn’t know how many lessons I’ve skived. She is wrong about everything.
I am not strong. There’s no way I can come out of this and benefit from it. The boy I love is gone, and nobody can ever replace him. There’ll be no bloody ‘life experience’ to take away from it; only trauma, terrible memories and a deep, deep scar on my heart in the shape of his name. The only thing that comes close to being strong is that I haven’t collapsed on the outside like I have in, and that I haven’t drunken to access, taken drugs or considered suicide.
“Are you coming downstairs?” Mum calls. “We’ll be late otherwise.”
“Sure,” I sigh, forcing myself to move, even though I feel like I am going to collapse at any second.
But as I close the door behind me, I swear I almost hear Max’s voice inside my head, saying:
“Be strong for me.”