Connor

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9 - Wednesday

I dreamed about her again. We were standing on the edge of a cliff this time. She wore her white dress, blonde hair tousled by a light breeze, her feet were bare. I stood at the edge of the cliff, looked out on a valley of stones, a river snaking along maybe three hundred yards below. Behind me was open grass, a few clusters of green trees, a large, mounded hill. Rolling hills like a procession of camel humps, made the color of blueberries by the distance.

She approached from behind. Her hands were cradled over her stomach, almost like she ate too much. Or maybe she was a singer in some fancy show. I didn’t watch her approach, but I felt her coming as I stared off at the horizon. I was dressed in strange pants and a loose, baggy shirt with a deep v-neck, tall leather boots with cuffs. I looked like a swashbuckler. Together, we looked like actors in a Shakespeare play.

She didn’t say anything, just sidled up beside me, slipped into my arms and laid her head on my shoulder. We watched the sky together, and I kissed her, and she mouthed the words I love you. Then she started to cry.

I woke from the dream in a cold sweat, like it upset me. Which confused me. The dream was so beautiful.

By the time I showered, the uncomfortable feeling faded, and I was left with the vision of the hills and the sky and Alicia in a white dress. And I felt lonely. I wanted to talk to her again, now that I’d proven I could. I wanted to see her. I wanted her to be my speeddial number eight.

I thought about her all through school. I watched her in fourth hour. One time, she even waved at me. I thought about her all through the class, the whole time Mr. Anson talked. I’d made up my mind that at the end of class, I’d find myself next to her and ask her, real casual-like, how her movie was. The independent film she’d rented.

But when the bell rang, and everyone filed for the doors, Mr. Anson called me over. I was almost next to her. But then I had to talk to the teacher. I looked over when he said my name, made eye contact. It was too late to pretend I hadn’t heard him.

I moved through the crowd, came to stand before his desk. I watched as Alicia and Jessica shuffled out into the hall together, giggling about something as girls do. The kind of laughter that makes all the guys around them uncomfortable.

“How are you?” Mr. Anson said.

I looked at him. “Good,” I said. I was a bit confused.

“I understand you were friends with Ken Darter,” he said.

I nodded.

“He’s a good kid. I’m sorry for what happened.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“He took this class last year. Some of the things he wrote in his journal… You know, that’s what the journal assignment is designed for. Writing can be very therapeutic. If you need to journal your feelings, to help you work through your emotions and what’s going on inside, it’s okay. That’s what it’s for.”

I nodded. “Okay.”

He watched me for a minute, watched my expression. Maybe he waited for me to cry. I wasn’t going to. “I just wanted you to know, Connor, that if you wanted to write your feelings, it wouldn’t be inappropriate.”

I thanked him.

As I walked out the door, I felt really guilty. I’d been so caught up with thinking about Alicia, I’d forgotten about Ken. I’d decided then that I’d go back up to the hospital after school, maybe I could catch him awake.

Lunch was next. I tried to find Rowen or Jake, tell them about Ken, about the hospital, see if they wanted to go. I couldn’t find them. Halfway through lunch, I remembered Jake saying he had to work on a paper in the library. I couldn’t ask Audrey. She didn’t have the same lunch hour. She went to lunch earlier.

I sat alone in the corner, thought about Ken.

Across the lunchroom, Alicia sat at a table with Jessica and two other cheerleaders: Megan and Stephanie. They talked. They laughed. I didn’t wonder if any of them would have pill addictions when they grew up. They looked happy. I didn’t let myself be happy. I was happy for the past two days, and I forgot about Ken. I convinced myself I couldn’t be a good friend and still chase after Alicia. Right now, Ken needed me, needed a friend. That was more important than a girl.

And if Ken was sad, I couldn’t afford to be happy. It just didn’t feel right.

I drifted through the next few hours and skated out to my car without hesitation, made it over to the hospital. I stopped off in the gift shop, thought I’d bring him something this time, as it was better than nothing, but I didn’t want to get him another card. I thought of a puzzle book. Ken could do word searches and the crossword while he was stuck in his bed. But I couldn’t buy it. I only had a dollar. I hadn’t worked since summer, and I hadn’t seen my parents in days, so I hadn’t asked them for any money. All I could afford was a candy bar, so I got him some chocolate. I slid it into my backpack and took the elevator to his floor.

It was dark, or maybe it just seemed that way, and I moved quietly for his room. I tried to ignore the nurses in the hallway, but the reaction they gave, they might’ve been ignoring me, too.

I went in to his room. The light was off, the curtains were drawn. The TV was off. I thought he was sleeping. The only light came in through the hallway. The only noise, too. There was no beeping coming from the machines, no hissing of air, no whirring of fans. When I looked, the machines were gone. The bed was stripped. It was empty. Ken wasn’t even there.

I sat there for a minute, confused, before I remembered the nurse said he would be moved out of ICU. That’s what had happened. He’d been moved. He was doing better. He wasn’t critical.

I found the nurses’ station, leaned against the counter. A nurse was typing something on the computer. Another was filing at a back counter.

“Excuse me,” I said quietly. I didn’t raise my voice too loud, not in a hospital.

They both looked at me, and I recognized the computer nurse from the other day. She smiled at me and said, “Yes?” If she recognized me, she didn’t show it.

“My friend was in that room…back there.” I pointed toward it, so she knew which one. “It’s empty. You said he was getting moved. Can you tell me where they took him?”

She thought for a second, turned to the filing nurse. “Darcy, you remember where they took that boy?”

Nurse Darcy shook her head, moved to a stack of files and picked up the top three. She scanned through them briefly, opened one, and said, “Down to three.”

The computer nurse looked back at me and said, “He’s on three. Just take the elevator down.”

I nodded, thanked them. Took the elevator down to three. Three had better light, didn’t feel as dark, didn’t feel as like a tomb. It still smelled cold and sterile, though. It still had that weird, almost antiseptic smell of hospital food.

The nurses on three told me that Ken was transferred down from ICU on Sunday, but he had been discharged that morning. Sent home.

“Did someone pick him up?” I asked. But they didn’t know.

I thanked them for their time and when I turned around, I caught sight of someone that might’ve been a ghost, for all it was worth. Just a familiar face, one I used to know well, but altered over time and distance.

It belonged to a kid, probably about my age, though taller, with short brown hair. He was dressed in a polo shirt, and where his arms were exposed, I could see a delicate tapestry of tattoos. Those were new. Also new was the fuzz on his chin that might pass for a beard and the plastic loops stretched into his ears so big you could throw a football through them.

It had only been four years, but so much had changed. He’d changed.

The summer after eighth grade, everything changed.

He hadn’t seen me. I took a few steps down the hall after him, said, “Scott?”

I said it loud enough for him to hear me, but he didn’t turn. There was a hesitation in his step, but then he kept moving. “Scott Silver,” I said, louder. “Is that you?”

He stopped, turned. There was hesitation. Clearly, he wasn’t expecting to run in to anyone that knew him in the hospital. When he saw me, his eyes went wide, and his lips turned up into a smile.

“No way,” he said. “Connor?”

He had been heading for the elevator, and I walked with him. We went down to the cafeteria, got a muffin and a coke. His treat. We talked for a while, catching up.

He said he was in town for his grandma who still lived in the area. She was in the hospital there. He was staying at her place. His grandpa had died a few years back, and she had a dog, no other family. He was in town to watch her place, walk the dog, keep it from peeing on all the carpets.

“I’m sorry,” I told him. “About your grandma.”

“It’s a gallstone. It’s not that serious. She just needs me to housesit for like a week while she’s in here. She’s had gallstones for years. They’ve just decided to remove the gallbladder now.”

“A week?”

He nodded.

“I…” I wasn’t really sure how to say it, so I just did. “Were you gonna call?”

From the look he gave, you’d think I’d just slapped him in the face. “Are you kidding me? Of course, I was gonna call. Connor, you’re like my only real friend.” It wouldn’t have surprised me if the statement were true, though I doubted it. He was a good guy, probably had lots of friends. But his time here, living in the brick house next door to mine, from fourth through eighth grade, that was the longest he’d been in one place.

“I just got in this morning,” he continued. “I brought my grandma in. Surgery went okay. She’s just recovering now.” He took a bite of his muffin and looked at me funny. “You really think I could come to town and not try to see you?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know what to think. I told him so. “I never would have thought you’d be the kind of guy to get tattoos and hula hoops in your ears, either,” I said. “No offense.”

He laughed. “None taken, don’t worry. You don’t really do all this to yourself without a thick skin.” He took another bite of muffin.

“Can I ask…why you did it?”

He shrugged. “Well, about three years ago, my parents split. I went through a lot. I guess I was just looking for a way to express myself.”

I nodded. “Looks kinda badass,” I said.

We laughed together. Then I realized something and said, “Your parents split, huh?”

He nodded.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not all bad. It motivated me, ya know. I ended up graduating a year early. Took summer school. I’m not even in school right now.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“So what do you do?”

“Not much right now,” he said. “I work at one of those ten-minute oil change places. I’m gonna take a couple college classes in January, get a start on that. Probably do something with art, I guess.”

“You’re still drawing?”

He nodded, pulled up his sleeve to reveal the shoulder of his right arm. “I designed all of these.” I looked over his tattoos, saw the dragons and foxes. The one that really caught my eye, though, was the gargoyle pooping a flaming skull.

“I like that one.”

He looked down, smiled. “My mom hates it.”

“She didn’t let you get them?”

He laughed. “Are you kidding? She about died. No, a buddy of mine, his dad owns the tattoo shop in Jasper, where we are now. I designed a bunch of crap for him, and he hooked me up with the ink. Even trade.”

“He’s good,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “So…I’m sorry, I didn’t even ask. Why are you in the hospital?”

I told him about Ken. I told him about the Brotherhood of the Risen Moon, all the stuff that happened since he left. We sat there for hours. He listened, couldn’t believe most of it.

Turned out, after his parents split, he stayed with his mom. She didn’t move nearly as much, and he liked the stability. He said, in a way, he thought his dad liked being on his own, didn’t feel as guilty about all the moving. He could get an apartment on a short lease, go from there. His mom moved to Jasper, Indiana. Scott had an aunt there. He said it wasn’t a very big place, not like Chicago, anyway, and the ’burbs where we grew up, but it had some movement. They built furniture in Jasper, if nothing else. And they had at least one decent tattoo parlor.

“So nobody hangs out anymore? What about that friends forever thing?”

I shrugged. “We still are, I guess. At least, I think we are.”

“We were kids then,” Scott said. “What the hell did we know?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I tried to find you online. Didn’t see you.”

He was talking about those social networking websites. They came a dime a dozen anymore. I couldn’t keep up with what one was trending each week. “I’m not on there,” I said.

“You still writing?” he asked.

I smiled. “I am.”

“Remember when we were going to do a comic book together?”

“The Adventures of Terry Toe-Jam,” I said. It was a character we came up with in fourth grade. He looked like a ball of popcorn, carried a chainsaw. His pals were made of lint and snot. He fought boogers and plaque. It was violent. Scott went through three red colored pencils that year. “I forgot about that,” I said. “You should get a tattoo of Terry Toe-Jam.”

He laughed. “It would be unique, that’s for sure.”

“Well, maybe one day we still can.”

“Maybe,” he said, but his voice sounded suddenly distant. Maybe he’d just realized something. I thought of how he said we were so young when we’d took our oath. Maybe he felt like that with the comic book, too. Maybe we were too young and too stupid. Maybe the dreams of children are stupid when you grew up.

“I didn’t realize the time,” he said.

I looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly eight. We’d been talking for almost four hours. “Where’d it go?” I said.

He just laughed. “This was really good, Conman…They still call you that?”

I nodded. “It was really good. Good to see you.”

“We’ll have to do it again before I go. Maybe this weekend? It’d be good to see everyone else, too.”

“There’s a party Saturday night. They’ll all be there. Come with me.”

He hesitated. “What the hell? Got nothing else to do. Could be fun.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s not my crowd, either. You’ll be in good company.”

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