Connor

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5 - Saturday

I called up to the hospital. They said visiting hours were from four to seven. I tried to find out how he was doing, but she said she was just an operator and didn’t oversee any patients. She really couldn’t tell me. She was sorry. Sorry for any inconvenience, sorry no one was there for him, sorry she couldn’t help, sorry my friend tried to kill himself, sorry he had a bum life, sorry he was in the whole mess to begin with. All that in two words: I’m sorry. Possibly the two most powerful words when put together and honestly from the heart. Only thing more powerful is I love you.

When I went to the hospital, I couldn’t see Ken. It’s not that he was invisible. I’m sure he was there, but the nurse told me that he wasn’t seeing visitors. She was sorry. They’re all sorry, I guess, the whole staff. I didn’t bring anything with me this time, so I didn’t have anything for her to give to him. I felt bad. I wanted to see him. I wanted to say hi. I wanted him to know I was there for him. I wrote my phone number and name on a scrap of paper.

“Give this to him, please,” I told her. She took it, looked down at it. “I just want him to know I’m here. I hope he calls. Just to talk.”

She nodded, said she would. She fidgeted with a clipboard, turned away.

But I had to ask. I had to know. “Has anyone else been to visit?”

She said, “A woman came yesterday. Stayed about 45 minutes.”

“His mom?”

“I don’t know.”

I nodded. “Can you tell me how he’s doing?”

“He’s sleeping now. He woke up sometime yesterday. He’s doing better.”

“Is it okay if I wait around awhile, see if he wakes up?”

“He really shouldn’t be disturbed. He needs his rest.” She read the lines on my face, putting a practiced smile on. “Good news, though,” she said, forcing her tone to be lighter. “He should be out of intensive care tomorrow. He’s stabilizing. It all depends on his night.”

I thanked her and started to walk away. She asked who I was. Family? Maybe in another life. We used to be like brothers. I must have sounded sad when I told her. “I’m just a friend.”

Her hand found my shoulder. “I’ll give him your number.” I nodded. “We could all use a friend like you,” she said. Her smile seemed less forced when she said it.

I wasn’t convinced. If I’d really been a good friend, maybe he wouldn’t be in the hospital in the first place.

When I got home, it was around six. My parents weren’t home. I didn’t know if they went out to dinner or something. I put on some music, took a shower, and did some laundry. I felt really lonely, but didn’t have a number eight on my speed dial. I called Audrey, but didn’t get an answer. I left her a message. That was just after seven. I did some homework. Debated whether to give Jake a call or just put on a movie. I didn’t feel like doing much except sleeping. I thought to write, but wasn’t in the mood. Instead, I pulled out my telescope and stared at the stars. I wondered about Audrey the whole time and felt lonely for no reason. I wondered if she’d call back. I just watched the stars and thought of her, remembering the time we were dating. She and I used to sit at the park at the middle school, on the old bleachers, and watched the stars. I looked out of the window and saw her car in the driveway, just across the street. It didn’t matter, though. She could’ve been studying. I was tempted to call again, just to see if she was in, to see if, maybe on some off chance, she wanted to go to the park.

For some reason, I felt like Holden Caulfield. You ever do that? Feel like a character in a book? I really didn’t. Not normally. But…I don’t know. I just felt faraway. I felt like I was living a story. I was just a character and not real. I was Holden-friggin-Caulfield alone in the big city wondering where the ducks go in the winter when the pond freezes over.

I put my telescope away and just sat and wrote – my thoughts, not a story. I couldn’t write a story when I felt like someone else. I don’t know if I can explain it. You can write scenes when you feel like someone else. You can’t write stories, though.

But I did love writing stories. I wrote one about an old billionaire that would collect little people. Not leprechauns. Midgets. He kept them behind glass in a big room, like an exhibit, and had a big wheel and a system of tunnels like a fast food playground. He kept them like a hamster farm and fed them through an opening. Then he died. Nobody came to the house anymore, so the midgets turned to cannibalism.

Around ten-thirty, Audrey called me back.

“Have you seen the sky tonight?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, and her voice adopted a whimsical tone. “It’s beautiful. They’re all out tonight.”

I smiled. “You’ve been looking, huh?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I thought of you.”

“You’ve been doing that a lot lately,” I said with a smile. Maybe she could hear the smile in my voice. “The sky’s always prettier at the park. On the bleachers, like we used to, ya know.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“We should do that, go to the park.”

She laughed softly. “Definitely. Some time. It’s too late tonight.”

“Too bad you didn’t call earlier,” I said.

“I just got in.”

“Oh?”

There was hesitation in her words. “Brad took me to a movie.”

“That’s cool. Sounds like it’s getting pretty serious between you two.”

“No, Connor. It’s just a movie.” She laughed a little. “It isn’t wine and candlelight and long walks on the beach.”

“You’re not even old enough to drink.”

She didn’t say anything at first. “Oh, Connor. He’s a really nice guy.” There was something in the tone of her voice, an implied but. “I like him, ya know. He looks at me the way you used to. He makes me feel beautiful. But…”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Did I make her feel beautiful, or did he make her feel beautiful while also looking at her the way I did? How did I look at her, anyway? I didn’t really get into it with her.

“What?” I said.

“I don’t know. It’s nothing. I just…never really saw myself with a football player.”

“Audrey, you’re a cheerleader. You’re on the homecoming court. It’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re a popular girl. Popular girls date popular guys. That means football players.”

“Maybe.” She was silent for a moment. “He just seems weird some times, says things that aren’t exactly flattering. He’s rude, not a gentleman. Just…little things, like holding the door open.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

“Yeah, I know. I guess just go with what works, though.”

“Hmm.” She yawned.

“You sound tired.”

“I am. I think I’m gonna take a shower and go to bed.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said, trying to keep from yawning myself.

Then she said, “You never came in to see me at work.”

“I’ve been…distracted.”

“Ken?”

“Yeah.”

“How’s he doing?”

“He’s still alive. I guess that’s the main thing. The nurse said he’s getting better.”

“You went to see him?”

“Twice now. I couldn’t see him today, but I went.”

“You’re a good friend, Connor Woodson.”

“Not good enough,” I said. I felt guilty as hell for some reason. “You should go see him. I’ll go with you, if you want.”

“Maybe,” was all that she said.

“Audrey…”

“Yeah?”

“What happened to us?”

“Us? You and me…?”

“I mean Us. All of us. We were gonna be friends forever. Maybe we still are, but it doesn’t feel like it much.”

“I know what you mean,” she said. Her voice sounded sad.

“I talked to Rowen the other day.”

“Yeah? How’s he doing? I see him from time to time.”

“He’s okay.”

“You know,” she said. “You’re about the only thing that holds us all together anymore.”

“You say that like it’s a good thing.”

“You’re the common denominator. It is a good thing.”

“Then why do I feel so lousy, Audrey?”

“What do you mean?”

“Since Ken…ya know. I just feel sad a lot. I keep thinking of the past. It’s…I don’t know. And then there’s this thing with my parents. They’re keeping secrets from me. There’s tension between them. I think they might be getting a divorce or something. It’s all that makes sense.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Divorce sucks. I know.” Her parents separated just after we stopped dating. It was after eighth grade, when everything changed.

“I swear, Audrey, if one more thing goes south on me, I’m likely to just runaway. I don’t think I can take anything else.”

“Connor,” she said. “I know it’s hard, but you’ll be fine.”

“How can you say that?”

“Because you have a good heart. Because there aren’t many people like you anymore.”

“Whatever,” I said.

“It’s true. I never told you, but my mom always liked you. She used to tell me that there weren’t many like you. That you must’ve come from somewhere special.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but I came from right here. Nothing special about that. At least, not right now.”

She yawned again. “Are you going to be okay?”

“I’ll manage,” I said.

“I need to go to bed. I’m likely to fall asleep on the phone with you.”

I smiled a little. “We used to do that.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“I’m sorry, Audrey,” I said.

“Sorry? For what?”

Before I realized it, the words tumbled out. “For breaking up with you. I was scared. Maybe I was falling in love or…”

“Connor,” she said. “Don’t. I’m with Brad now.”

“I know,” I said. “I’m not saying let’s get back together or anything, I just…I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m all messed up inside with what’s going on.”

“I know,” she said. She sounded sincere.

“I’m just glad we’re friends. I’m sorry I’m so messed up right now.”

“It’s okay. Really.”

“You need to go to bed.”

“I do.” She paused. “You sure you’re going to be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

“Goodnight, Connor.”

“Night, Audrey.”

I hung up the phone and laid back on the bed for a minute, thinking about Audrey.

Why did I say that stuff to her…about dating. What we had was great. We talked about everything. Do I wish it had maybe worked out between us? Sure…of course. But somehow, I had always guessed it would never have lasted very long. I justified it by thinking she was never pretty enough. Of course, I never told her that, and it was complete crap anyway. It was sick, ya know. That’s why Jake obsessed over her. Maybe it’s why I always tended to feel such regret when she talked to me about her boyfriends, guys like Brad. Maybe a part of me still wanted to be with her. But then, who would she talk to about me?

Eventually, I sat up and set the phone down on the desk, knocking over my journal, which scattered loose pages and a worn paperback onto the floor. I dropped the journal on my bed, gathered the papers into a loose stack, and thumbed the cover of the book for a moment. Vonnegut’s Slaughter-House Five. I read a few pages and felt like writing. I wanted to write a story, but couldn’t. I wrote a scene, something like this:

Connor Woodson hung up the phone with Audrey Samson and began to write in his journal. He kept thinking about her, about something that was there in what she said, not in words, but in something there between her laughter. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it was nice. Comforting. It always was. He really did feel like that from time to time with her. Like warm rain and ripe berries. So it goes.

Maybe she felt dirty. She did feel dirty from time to time, too. He remembered how she used to attend Calvary Baptist Church with her parents. It was the church Jake went to as well, the one with the short bald preacher with the thick eyebrows that smelled like peppermint. So it goes. She had said that she felt dirty. That’s why she stopped attending Calvary Baptist. At first, she just skipped services from time to time, once in a while, and then she quit going altogether. She said she was tired of feeling dirty all the time.

As Connor Woodson clicked off his bedside lamp and lay there for awhile on top of his sheets, staring up at the blackness of his ceiling and thinking, he slipped out of time. He was back four years ago. He was a freshman in high school again, there at Grant High.

He was no longer staring up at his ceiling. He was looking up at the stars, lying there on the top bleacher. He was in the old playground at night. It was summer and warm like a calliope in spring. And Audrey was there with him. It was the second time they had been there together like that. They were dating then, too. So it goes.

She was two bleacher seats down from him, and she was talking. Her voice was like a morning dew. She was telling him why she didn’t need to go to church anymore. She felt dirty and all that. She said it was like she was always lying in the mud. That when she attended a church service, it was like getting up and looking at the water. It was then that she really felt dirtiest.

“Before church,” she was saying. “You know, before I started going, I could lie in the mud all day and never mind it. I could be dirty and not care because nobody told me what dirty was.”

She tossed her hair and smiled. She looked like an actress Connor Woodson had seen in a silent movie once. One of those old pictures where the woman goes in to talk to the detective about her missing husband and jewelry. By the end of the film, they fall in love. She forgets about her husband for the detective, so it goes. She really did look just like that.

“I found it’s better to stay in the mud,” she was still saying. “Because you really don’t notice how dirty you are until you get out.” She had said dirty and Connor Woodson was thinking of that old poem, There once was a man from Nantucket… He hadn’t ever heard the whole thing, but Jake always got in trouble for saying it. It was too dirty to tell all of it. So it goes.

“What do you think Connor?” she asked him.

“What about all the Bible stories?” he answered. He was looking at the stars and wondering what rhymed with Nantucket. “Won’t you miss the Bible stories?”

“I suppose,” she said.

“I always liked the one about the Garden of Eden,” Connor Woodson said. “The one about the naked people that eat fruit with the snake. Do you suppose the snake could really talk?”

“Well, it’s supposed to be the devil,” she said. “Besides, it’s just a story.”

“Do you think other animals could talk, too?” Connor Woodson asked.

“You mean like birds and mice?”

“Yeah. Like birds and mice. And antelope.”

“I don’t really know.” She leaned back and smiled at him and said something without words between her laughter. “Maybe they talked about the weather?”

“Or played games, huh? I couldn’t play games with a bird. What kinds of things do they say now anyway, Audrey? They say things like ‘poo-tee-weet.’”

“Maybe they really did say things though, back then. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where animals really did talk?”

“Yeah,” Connor Woodson said. “If there is a place like that, Audrey, we’ll find it.”

“I hope so.” But she seemed far away. Maybe she had found it already in her head. Maybe she was there talking to the antelope and honey bees, swimming with a friendly otter or playing checkers with a billy goat. Or maybe she just felt dirty. Audrey once was a girl from Nantucket…

Or maybe she was somewhere else. Connor Woodson wouldn’t find out. He was back in the present. The window by his bed was open. A breeze that felt like cashmere was coming in through it. Somewhere, Audrey was off singing folk tunes with rhinos and talking weather with the birds. There was a bird outside of Connor Woodson’s window. It didn’t talk about the weather at all. It said, “Poo-tee-weet.” So it goes.

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