Authors: Crystal Walton
It took all my willpower not to shout, “See, even your mom knows you should be on tour!” I drew my legs into the chair with me and tucked my ankles under them, straining to keep the words from spilling out.
A peanut soared across the room and nailed me in the cheek. Riley’s mischievous grin glowed from the launching pad. Apparently, he’d interpreted my expression. No words necessary.
My cell vibrated right as I dodged another incoming missile.
“Hello?” I covered my free ear with my hand to block out the music and conversations carrying on in the Preston’s family room. “Mom, wait. Slow down. I can’t understand you.”
I ducked into the hallway, away from the noise. “Okay, sorry. What were you saying?”
A tear-streaked breath shook her pause.
“Emma, honey.” Another shaky inhale. “Austin’s been in an accident.”
I clenched the top of my hair. “Riley, you gotta drive faster.” With San Francisco being at least nine hours from his parents’ place, we had to make up time somehow.
“I don’t think getting a speeding ticket is going to help.” He steadied my antsy knee. “I’m going to get you there. Try to relax.”
I dug my nails into the center console.
Why hadn’t Austin listened to me when I told him to be careful? We knew plenty of people who’d been injured in skiing accidents. Broken tailbones, arms, legs. One of our friends from high school even ended up paralyzed from the waist down. I boxed out the image of Austin in a wheelchair. “I can’t believe that’s all my mom told me.”
“I’m sure she told you everything she knew.”
Did he always have to be so patient and levelheaded?
I coiled the seatbelt around my finger. “I know. But if anything were to happen to him . . .” I couldn’t even go there. I squeezed my eyes shut.
God, please let him be okay.
“Em, look at me.” Riley pried my hand from the seatbelt and wove his fingers through mine. “Everything’s going to be okay. Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”
Sleep? Wow, levelheaded and insane. How did that work?
A grin snuck up his cheeks as if he’d heard my thoughts.
“By the time we get to see him, you’re going to wish you would’ve slept while you had the chance.”
He was right. Of course. I buried my pillow under my arms, along with the comment I wanted to make, and focused on the pine trees passing along the highway. Sunbeams streaked through the branches and sprawled over my face.
“Here.” He shimmied off his sunglasses and passed them to me. “The sun won’t be down for another hour. These’ll help you sleep.” He lowered his visor, kissed my hand, and set it in his lap.
Patient, levelheaded, and sacrificial.
He squinted down the endless highway ahead of us, and I stared at every reminder of why I was marrying him until that single comfort lulled me to sleep.
His thumb smoothed over the back of my hand. The clock blinked into focus. 2:00 a.m. Between fits of in-and-out sleep, I’d changed a dozen positions, but he hadn’t let go.
“We’re almost there,” he said.
I checked my cell. No missed calls. Just a text from a number I didn’t recognize:
At UCSF’s Medical Center.
The light pollution coming from downtown San Francisco led us the rest of the way. As soon as the wheels breached the parking spot, I unbuckled my seatbelt, felt for the automatic unlock lever, and dashed outside.
The hospital’s entrance opened down the middle and released an antiseptic-scented breeze from inside. I latched on to Riley’s arm as we approached the receptionist.
“I’m here to see my brother.”
A pepper-haired woman lifted a glance from her desk. Beside her, a red light lit up on a phone with at least twenty lines. She started to reach for it.
I stretched over the counter to stop her. “It’s urgent.”
The woman could’ve fit two of me in between her broad shoulders. Her glare alone nearly squeezed me in half. I prudently removed my arm from the ledge. She returned her attention to her computer screen. “Your brother’s name?”
“Austin. Austin Matthews.”
She drilled her nails over the keyboard. Each stroke jacked up my blood pressure until it hammered in my ears. The lights on her phone lit up again. She balanced the receiver between her ear and shoulder and continued typing. “UCSF’s Medical Center, how may I direct your call?”
Riley rested a calming hand against my back as I craned my neck to the ceiling.
Someone staggered toward us from the waiting area.
“Anna? What are you doing here?” My brother’s old college friend was the last person I’d expected to see.
She stretched with a yawn. “Your mom called me a few hours ago. Asked if I’d wait out here for you.”
I couldn’t help staring at her. Austin and Anna used to be close in college. But ever since he started dating Hailey, Anna’d basically become a nostalgic memory.
“I don’t know why,” she said.
A woman toting a little boy on her hip flitted past us, pulling my gaze after them. “Why, what?”
“Why your mom called me instead of someone else. That’s what you were thinking, right?”
“How did you . . . ?”
She smiled. “You’re a lot like your brother. Your eyes speak your thoughts louder than most words.”
I stared at the tiles before my hot cheeks added any more thoughts to the conversation. “Sorry. It’s just that I know you and Austin have sort of lost touch.”
“I’m guessing my number was the first one your mom could find.”
If Mom was in that much of a rush, how bad did that make things?
The receptionist coughed away from the phone, drawing my attention again. “Yes, ma’am. Hold please.” She transferred the call, hung up, and made a few more clicks with her mouse. “Austin Matthews. He’s in room 234.”
That was all I needed. I launched off the counter and flew up the stairs. On the other side of some double doors, I almost knocked over a pair of nurses coming in the opposite direction. Riley and Anna apologized on my behalf on their way through.
The white sterile walls turned the long hallway into a perfect acoustic sound system for all the beeping monitors. Squares of speckled tiles blurred past my feet until I saw Mom standing in front of a window to one of the rooms.
“Mom, I got here as fast as I could.”
She held me tight. “I’m sorry I couldn’t call. The reception in here stinks.”
“Is he . . .?”
“He’s going to be fine, honey.” I followed her nod to the window. The last of the adrenaline holding me together tanked at the mere sight of my brother with monitors and tubes connected to his strong, infallible body.
She motioned to the room, and Riley tipped his head in a nudge.
I pushed the heavy door open wide enough to slip through without letting too much of the outside noise in. Austin’s heartbeats pulsed on the echogram. I treaded lightly and withered into the chair beside his bed. Between the strain from being at the Preston’s, the fatigue of being overtired, and the angst of worrying if Austin was okay, I just about lost it.
“Still overly dramatic.” A half-dazed grin paraded across his face.
I leaned against the side of the mattress.
His focus flitted from his left leg propped up in a cast back to me. “How would you feel about being rolled down the aisle?”
I shook my head at him. “How about you just concentrate on healing, okay?”
His laugh turned into a wheeze as if it hurt to move. “You worry like Mom.”
“And you don’t worry enough.” I sat back, arms crossed. “What were you thinking, Austin?”
“Hey, it’s not like I instructed that sheet of ice to position itself in the middle of my ski jump.”
“Well, you should do things that are less dangerous.”
Austin laughed again, this time bracing the movement with his arm. “Now, where would the fun be in that?”
What was I going to do with him? I stared at the tiles. “If something had happened to you . . .” I couldn’t lose him after losing Dad. He wasn’t only family. He was one of my best friends.
“I’m fine.” Wincing, he scooted his upper body a little higher on the pillows behind his back. “Come here.”
I curled up against his side the way we used to do as kids and tried not to put too much weight on him. He rested his head against the top of mine. “Merry Christmas, Emma.”
I shot a glance at the clock, the time finally registering. Somewhere in the chaos, the night had stretched into the wee hours of Christmas morning.
“Merry Christmas,” I whispered back.
Austin’s breathing deepened into an unconscious rhythm. I scooched off the bed as gingerly as possible and peered out the window toward the other person in my life who meant the world to me.
Before the door had fully closed behind me, Riley had me enveloped in his arms.
I set my chin on his chest and looked up into his fiercely compassionate eyes. “I’m sorry. I’ve been so—”
“No apologies necessary.”
But the exhaustion on his face pummeled a wave of guilt through me. He hadn’t even had a chance to rest yet.
Anna’s sneakers squeaked over the floor as she reached for the door handle. “May I?”
“Of course.” I stepped aside.
Inside, she moved the chair a little closer to the bed and sat on the very edge of the cushion with her elbows pressed against the mattress. She cast a glance over Austin, surveying the condition of his tethered body, and gently slipped her hand under his.
No wonder Mom had thought to call her. That reminded me. “Mom?” I spun to face her. “Where’s Hailey? Wasn’t she on the trip with Austin?”
“According to Mike, she’s still there on the mountain.”
I blinked. Twice. How could his girlfriend not have come with him to the hospital?
Mom shrugged. “Guess they still had a couple more days left on the timeshare.”
Was that supposed to be a suitable answer? Not that it mattered. No explanation would’ve reversed the permanent damage to my estimation of Hailey’s commitment to my brother.
Mom didn’t bother pressing the issue. She set her cold hands over Riley’s and my forearm. “Why don’t you two go home? Get some sleep.” She looked back through the window. “I think Austin’s well taken care of for the evening.”
Riley about tripped over his feet as he turned. I caught his elbow. “I’ll drive.”
Back home, Riley trailed me down the hall. The empty house amplified each creak in the oak floorboards. I flicked on the light switch. Unlike Riley’s old room-turned-storage-locker, mine looked pretty barren with most of my things away at school.
That sassy smile of his crawled up his cheek. “No baby pictures?”
“You must’ve missed the hallway walls.”
I beat him to the door and stretched my arms across the jamb.
“Can’t keep me locked in here forever.”
“I can try.” I backed him away from the door.
He followed my gaze to the twin bed lining the far wall and shook his head. “Not happening.”
I crisscrossed my arms. “Don’t try to tell me you’re not exhausted. You need to sleep.”
“Yeah, on the couch,” he insisted.
“Fine, but stay with me for a little while. Please?”
His eyes spoke his usual response before any words. “Just until you fall asleep.”
His expression softened the moment he lay beside me.
I snuggled into his warmth, nestled my head under the overgrown stubble on his cheek, and soaked in his faded Nautica scent. “Thanks,” I whispered. “For getting me home safely, for being here with me.”
He settled a hand over mine on his chest. “Guess we both needed each other this break.”
I smiled against his thermal shirt.
As his breathing slowed, the cares of the last week gradually drained until the only thing left was the sweet reminder of how lucky I was to have him in my life.
With extra caution, I rolled toward the outside edge of the mattress and eased off as soundlessly as possible. He’d be upset with me in the morning for coercing him into sleeping in my bed instead of on the couch, but there really wasn’t another option. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he deserved a good night’s sleep.
I paused in front of the kitchen and waited for any signs of stirring from the bedroom. Nothing. All that practice maneuvering down the creaky hallway without waking Mom must’ve paid off. I crossed the linoleum into Dad’s study and curled up in his desk chair.
The room looked no different from when I was home a year ago. I probably didn’t either. Truth was, unanswered questions would always be a part of me. I had no idea how Riley’s contract would play out or what it’d mean for us. No clue how to save the center. I could barely think about making it to graduation, let alone what lay past it. But at least I finally understood I wasn’t in this alone.
Dad smiled at me from the Polaroid on this desk.
Keep playing for me, Dad. For a little longer.
I didn’t need a bed or even a couch when blanketed in the closest thing to his embrace. I stretched out on the carpet under the skylight, watched the stars the way we used to do together, and listened to the memory of the song he’d always played for me. That song would be enough to guide my life no matter where it led next. Wouldn’t it?