Through the course of revisions, sometimes I have to cut scenes, rewrite them, or move them around. If it’s not very significant, I’ll just delete it, but sometimes deleting scenes or entire chapters are painful, so I like to copy/paste them into another document to keep forever on my hard drive. Now that Before You Wake is published, I thought I’d show you 8400 words of cut scenes from the original drafts, including a couple chapters from Wesley’s point of view. These haven’t been proofread or edited!
SPOILER ALERT – Don’t read these deleted scenes if you haven’t finished the book yet!
I knew this could happen. I told myself not to cry if it ever did. And yet here I am, dabbing tears from the corners of my eyes with the sleeve of my pink scrubs. I take a deep breath, tell myself to be cool, and force the lingering tears away. You knew this was in the job description. Not everyone who enters the hospital gets to leave it alive.
Mrs. Gardner wasn’t exactly the sweetest person. Some of the nurses referred to her as the “old hag” when they thought no one was listening. She was 83 and always in a bad mood. I’d spent all week visiting her hospital room, reading from my copy of Pride & Prejudice, as I attempted to fulfill my duties as an Angel volunteer for the Trinity Acute Care Center. By Wednesday, the old bitty had told me to call her Shirley. Her permanent scowl even faded a little when I started reading. And then last night, in much the same way that Lizzy Bennett warmed up to Mr. Darcy, Shirley had started to feel like a friend.
Today she’s gone.
I feel a slight sense of déjà vu after Rosalie breaks the news to me. A knot forms in my stomach, not unlike the knot that lodged itself there when my grandma died three months ago. I was close to my grandma, and Shirley was just a mean old lady, I tell myself, but still. The pain of the loss tugs at me.
Rosalie throws an arm around my shoulder, squeezing me into a hug. Her cropped graying hair is always perfectly in place, and she smells like nothing at all. I don’t know how she does it. She told me on my first day that perfumes aren’t allowed because we never want to smell strongly of anything when we’re with the patients. If we have to smell like something, she’d said, it should be cleanliness.
“The first one is the hardest.” Rosalie leads me through the hallway on the fourth floor which is decorated with Valentine’s drawings left over from last month. It’s donated from the kids at a nearby elementary school. The artwork attempts to cheer me up with its misshapen hearts decorated with googly eyes and pipe cleaner smiles.
Rosalie presses the down button on the elevator. My volunteer shift at the hospital has only just begun, but since it’s volunteer work, Rosalie is always coming and going, making the weekly schedule more of a suggestion than an obligation. The elevator door opens and Rosalie motions for me to enter first. “Let’s get you some pie. There’s nothing a little pie can’t fix. You’ll see.”
I know she’s wrong, but I don’t argue. This isn’t a new pain that can be easily washed over and erased with sugar and coffee. Losing Shirley only opens the wound left over from Grandma’s passing. And losing Grandma had been an avalanche of pain that had taken the crack in my heart and split it open wide. Everything in my life had fallen apart just one week before she got sick.
Every time I think that pain has packed its bags and decided to move out of my chest, something new happens. First it was Janelle at my old school, then Grandma a week later, and now Shirley.
Grandma always told me I wouldn’t escape high school without a broken heart. She’d sat me down before freshman year started and told me all about how being a teenager is one of the hardest stages of life. Like most teenagers, I had assumed she meant the romantic kind of heartbreak. That she thought I’d fall hard and fast for some cute guy who didn’t like me back and then I’d be crushed, balled up in my room crying all day, eating ice cream and watching sad movies.
Just like so many other things in my life, I’d stupidly assumed I knew the kind of pain Grandma warned would be in store for me. What I failed to realize was that she never specified the different ways your heart could break. It’s not just cute guys with unrequited feelings that can rip you apart.
Friends can break your heart, too.
And sometimes that kind of break hurts worse.
It’s a quiet day. These are the best days to volunteer at a hospital. It’s when me and the other volunteers, clad in our matching pastel pink scrubs, are most welcomed by the doctors and nurses on staff. I enter in through the emergency room entrance, silently grateful when I only see two people waiting in the plastic chairs. They appear to have all their limbs, and aren’t gushing blood or puking everywhere, so that’s yet another sign that it’s a good day. I exhale some anxieties that are always clutching my insides and make a quick trip to the cafeteria.
Last week was my fifth week as a volunteer at Trinity Acute Care Center, after I’d wholeheartedly jumped feet first into a venture I knew next to nothing about. After watching my grandma get sick and slowly fade away over a month in intensive care, I was so grateful to the woman who spent time with her while Mom was at work and I was at school. Rosalie is the head of the TACC Angels, a volunteer department she founded thirty years ago. I’d been so charmed by how her charismatic personality made my grandma smile and brightened the lives of all the patients in the hospital. What Rosalie was doing every day was a form of magic. I knew I had to be a part of it.
I’m glad I’m here, but honestly, it’s a challenge to bring myself back each day. Last week we had three cardiac arrests, one seizure, and an elderly patient got fed up with being bedridden, ripped out their IV and tried to go home. Only they forgot to remove the catheter, and well, things got real awkward real fast.
On days like that, when everything goes to hell, the people in charge don’t like dealing with visitors or volunteers. I’ve hidden in Mrs. Gardner’s hospital room three days in a row this week in an effort to stay out of the madness.
At 83, Mrs. Gardner is the meanest patient I’ve met in my short tenure at Trinity Acute Care Center, but I sat in her room day after day anyway, determined to keep her company by reading her a book. She might be an old bitty according to Rosalie, but she’s one of the only conscious patients we have right now, so dealing with her sass sure beats talking to a sleeping patient.
Jane Austen worked her magic though, because by Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Gardner had told me to call her Shirley. Yesterday, she’d sat up in bed, flashed me a smile that was missing a few teeth, and asked if I’d mind bringing her a sweet tea.
Today, I’m getting her a sweet tea before I get to her room. With Pride & Prejudice tucked under my arm, I buy a coffee for me and a tea for Shirley and then make my way to the elevators. Last night I watched the BBC and tried to improve on my British accent so that my reading could be more theatrical. Today, Mr. Darcy and Lizzy Bennett will meet for the first time. I want to make sure I get the voices right.
I’ve been so caught up daydreaming of Jane Austen’s characters that I hadn’t realized I just stepped on the elevator. Or that my hands are full and I can’t push the button for the fourth floor.
“Four,” I say.
Or that the guy who asked the question is totally hot and he also goes to my new school. I recognize him from my English class, and he’s wearing one of those Starrville High T-shirts that everyone seems to have except for me. That makes sense. Fridays are spirit days, and nearly everyone wore that shirt today. Maybe I should find out how to get my own spirit shirt. Maybe then people would talk to me.
Without saying anything else, he punches the four button for me and then stands back, staring at the closed steel doors. If I were outgoing, I’d strike up a conversation. I’d say, So how about that football team? Or something equally safe but fun to talk about.
If I weren’t the isolated new kid who showed up to Starrville High in January to finish out my senior year, maybe I’d already know this guy. Maybe we would have grown up together and become friends, and maybe this awkward ride in the slowest elevator on earth would be filled with friendly banter right about now.
The elevator doors slide open, giving a merciful break in the air that lets all the awkwardness out. I open my mouth and consider saying thanks, or have a good day, but I don’t say anything. The words just bunch up on the tip of my tongue and refuse to come out. I try to tell myself that I am not like this. I am not shy, introverted…weird.
At least I never thought I was before I moved here.
Back in Dallas, I had friends. People to talk to. Birthday party invites. Exactly one and a half boyfriends. (Not at the same time.) I was never exactly popular, or the pretty girl that guys lined up to meet, but at least I wasn’t the weird girl. And it’s not even my fault that I’ve been branded as such.
Going back to school when I wasn’t fully over my grandma’s passing was a bad idea. I’d made it to my first class of the day, took a seat, and then burst into tears. I think it was because everything seemed to remind me of her, and I was still sad about her death, but part of me knows it was also caused by the anxiety of starting a new school in the middle of my senior year. I tried to keep my tears silent and unnoticeable, but people noticed. It happened again the next day after a teacher walked past my desk smelling like Clinique Happy, the same scent Grandma always wore. In a town as small as Starrville, word spread fast, I guess, because now no one talks to me. I’m the weird crying new girl.
I wasn’t always so unapproachable. Or maybe I was and I didn’t realize it. It’s been three months since Mom and I made the financially smart move from our third floor walkup in the city to Grandma’s brick home in the country, and my old best friends have become random texting buddies at best. Now the closest I have to a long lasting friendship from my childhood are occasional likes on Instagram. Without the TACC Angels, I don’t know what I’d be doing with myself here in Starrville.
There are maybe a dozen TACC Angels at one time, and most of them come and go as their community service hours are fulfilled. Rosalie and I are the only two who stick with the fourth floor instead of roaming over the entire facility. This is where my grandma was in her final days, and it’s where I feel most at home.
The main hallway on the fourth floor is decorated with drawings of flowers donated from the kids at a nearby elementary school. The artwork tries to cheer me up with its misshapen flower petals and bright yellow suns with smiles on their molten hot faces. I take a sip of my coffee and swallow it down with a few deep, relaxing breaths. Sometimes all the feelings of inadequacy build up and weigh me down, and I need to breathe and remind myself that I’m volunteering here to provide a service for those less fortunate. Not to see a hot guy from school and then have a pity party for myself.
I put on a smile and then turn into room 411. Only it’s empty. Even the faint smell of Shirley’s powdery perfume has been wiped clean, replaced with the sterile hospital smell.
I sigh and turn back around. Every time they move a patient to another floor, I have to go track them down. Shirley was in great spirits yesterday, so maybe they let her go home. Most patients are admitted for a while because of illness or injury, but Shirley never wanted to talk about why she was here, so I never asked. I head toward the nurses’ station, hoping they can give me Shirley’s new room number quickly, because holding two hot drinks in each hand and carrying a book under my arm is getting uncomfortable.
Rosalie sees me from across the nurses’ station. There’s a weird expression on her face, one I’ve never seen before on Rosalie, of all people. She’s the kindest most upbeat person I know, and she’s three times my age. Her graying blonde hair is cut in a sleek bob, which she always adorns with a headband that matches her pink lipstick. Right now those lips aren’t smiling, which I hadn’t thought possible until this very moment. I need to get to Shirley, but Rosalie’s expression takes all precedence right now.
“Are you okay?”
Rosalie brushes some wayward strands of hair behind her ears and smiles at me, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. “I’m fine, Millie. But I think I should be the one to tell you.”
A rock falls into my stomach so quickly, I think I drop my book. But it’s still clenched between my arm and my ribcage. My hot drinks aren’t steaming so much anymore, and they wobble in my hands. “Tell me what?” I ask.
Rosalie’s soft smile dips into a frown. “We lost Mrs. Gardner last night.”
The tone in her voice sounds so much like my own mother’s had, back in January when she’d sat me down and told me Grandma didn’t make it. Hot tears prickle at the corners of my eyes and I blink quickly. I can’t let myself cry over Shirley. I only knew her a few days, and honestly, she was a bitch for half of them.
I nod, my lips pressed together. “But she was in such a great mood yesterday.”
Rosalie reaches out and gives my arm a gentle squeeze. “Many people experience a burst of energy before they pass. Millie, you can take comfort in knowing that your company made Mrs. Gardner very happy in her final moments. She loved having you read to her.”
I nod again, my head like a cheap plastic figurine on a spring. Emotions swirl around in my chest; anger, disbelief, and sadness. And then this weird guilt hits me like I shouldn’t be allowed to be sad when a woman I barely knew died. I’m still mourning my own grandmother. I shouldn’t let myself fall apart over this. But this sharp ache claws its way up my spine, sending me memories of the last few days. The chapters I’d read to Shirley and the comments she made. The laughter we shared. Those five minutes where we kept repeating the same sentence in our crappy British accents because we were so bad at pronouncing the word aunt in a way that didn’t sound like the tiny insect.
I look down at the drinks in my hand. Since Shirley can’t have her sweet tea, I don’t want my coffee, either. I toss them both into a nearby trashcan. I slide my bookmark out of place and put it in the front of my battered copy of Pride & Prejudice. My next patient will want to hear the story from the beginning.
“Thank you for telling me,” I say. My voice is like cracking glass, a dead giveaway that I’m trying like hell to keep it together.
Rosalie throws an arm around my shoulder, squeezing me into a hug. She smells completely like nothing, and I don’t know how she does it. She told me on day one that perfumes aren’t allowed because we never want to smell strongly of anything when we’re with the patients. If we have to smell like something, she’d said, it should be cleanliness.
“The first one is the hardest,” Rosalie says, leading me back down the hallway, where she presses the down button on the elevator. “Let’s get you some pie. There’s nothing a little pie can’t fix. You’ll see.”
I think about it all day. While I am stuck in bed, my head aching, my ribs throbbing with every breath I take, I wonder if I should dive back into the crazed rabbit hole that is a relationship with Amber. She only seemed to care about me when I was winning football games. After the season ended when we lost in the championship game, she became a different person. She didn’t want to hang out unless we were in a group with the other players and their girlfriends. Everything I did seemed to annoy her. It wasn’t good enough. My romantic dates weren’t romantic enough. My college football friends weren’t famous enough. The end of our relationship was the night I confided in her that I didn’t want to play college ball. I didn’t want to go pro. I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I’d hidden that secret deep inside me for so long that saying it out loud broke my life into two pieces. Before the confession, and after. I’ll never forget the look on Amber’s face, the shock and disgust like she was seeing me in a new light and hated every bit of it. I’d thought the breakup that followed was mutual, but then a few days later she was texting me again, snuggling up next to me in school, saying we should work things out. I had to create a fake girlfriend to make her leave me alone.
That’s the second mistake I made this year.
I keep grabbing my phone and then putting it back. I watch the clock, keeping track of time until the final bell rings at school. She’s out of class now. I could call her. She would answer, I know she would.
But do I want to see her again?
That voice had kept me sane when I was in the coma. I longed for it even though I didn’t realize I was in a hospital. I didn’t know about my injuries and I didn’t really know myself. I just knew that voice, sometimes with the British accent, the soft laughter. Other times it would talk to me for hours, and I’d feel content.
My head hurts the more I try to remember exactly what she’d told me when I’d been in the coma. It’s like I can only remember the essence of it, not the actual words. Maybe if I could remember them I’d know Amber’s true feelings toward me. Does she see me as more than a football god to parade around on her arm?
I’ll never know if I just sit here speculating. I pick up the phone and call her.
“Hello?” she says, her voice suspicious.
“Hey. Are you busy?”
“Not really … why are you calling?”
As much as I don’t want to say the words, I have to know. Maybe she’s changed. Maybe my brush with death turned her back into the sweet person she was when we first met. “Do you want to come over?”
There’s a long pause on the other end. “Yeah, I guess. I’ll be there soon.”
I call out to my gram, who is watching a very loud television in the living room. She rushes into my room. “What can I get you?”
“I just wanted to let you know my friend is coming over soon. Can you let her in?”
Gram smirks. “Aww, the hospital girl! I’ve been wanting to see her.”
I shake my head. “No, it’s not her.”
Gram’s face falls. “Oh. You should invite her over soon. I never got to thank her for taking such good care of you.”
My throat tastes like acid, but I force a smile. Gram is too sweet and trusting and I’d hate to break her heart by telling her that girl at the hospital was a liar. “Okay.”
The moment the doorbell rings, I feel a sense of dread piling up beneath my ribs. I was over Amber. So over her. She’s not the kind of girlfriend I want, and she’s already going to college in Florida next year so it’s not like we’d ever see each other. But this isn’t a romantic reunion, I remind myself. I just need to know if she’s the reason I had such comforting dreams.
Amber appears in my doorway looking perfectly put together as always. She’s wearing a short black skirt and a white shirt that doesn’t have a single wrinkle on it. Her dark brown hair is sleek and shiny down the front of her shoulders. I still remember the smell of her flat iron that she’d bring over and rake through her hair for an hour before we were allowed to go out in public. Amber is pretty, but she’d look better if she wasn’t always giving me that look like I’m somehow disappointing her. Sloane calls it Resting Bitch Face.
I smile to myself, knowing how pissed Sloane would be if she could see what I’m doing now. “Come on in,” I say.
“Your room hasn’t changed a bit,” she says, looking around. “I don’t know how guys do that. I have to remodel at least every six months or I go crazy.”
“How are you?” I ask.
She sits at the foot of my bed and touches my leg cast. “I’m okay. What about you?”
I shrug. “I’ve been better.”
She laughs. “Can I sign your cast? I’ll be the first.”
I look down at the rock hard chunk of white plaster on my leg. “Yeah, I guess.”
She tosses a flirty smile my way and then bounces up and goes through my desk drawer until she finds a Sharpie. She perches on the edge of my bed and leans over, blocking her hand from my view as she draws on the cast. Something tells me she’s going to add more than just her signature.
“So, I wanted to talk to you about something,” I say, leaning my head back to stare at the ceiling instead of her ass, which pointed right at me in what is absolutely not an accident.
“You could have texted, you know.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t reply. I just looked through my phone for the first time yesterday. I thought it’d be better to talk in person.”
She sits up and caps the marker, then turns to face me. “I accept your apology, Wesley.”
I look down at my leg and find a heart the size of my hand drawn on the cast. In the middle of it she’s written: Amber loves you!
“Wait, what apology?”
She grabs my hand. “It’s fine. I forgive you. We can move on and start over.”
If half of my body wasn’t screaming in pain, I’d move away from her. “What do you forgive me for?”
She rolls her eyes. “I know everything, Wesley. The fake girlfriend. The soccer party that you went to just so you wouldn’t see me at the football one. We both did things we didn’t mean, and it’s fine. I get it. We were being stupid. But Coach said you’re supposed to get all better and will be able to train this summer for college ball. I mean, it sucks that you’re going to miss out on being scouted right away, but like you always said, getting a college education is a big deal.”
She sweeps her hair over her shoulder and grins down at me. “I’m really glad you’re okay. How many colleges have accepted you so far?”
“You talked to my coach?”
Her lips form a thin line. “I had to. None of your stupid friends would bother telling me anything and I had a right to know.”
“My friends aren’t stupid,” I say. This was a mistake. I kind of wish I was back in a coma so I wouldn’t have to deal with her. “You should be worried about me, not my ability to play football.”
“I am, Wesley.” She groans. “Why are you always finding something to be mad about?”
“I’m not mad,” I say lightly, forcing a smile. We argued enough when we were dating and I’ll do anything to avoid it now. “Look, I had something I wanted to say. In your texts you told me that you were there for me when I was in the hospital.”
“Of course I was,” she says, squeezing my hand.
“Did you read a book to me?”
Her brows pull together. “No?”
“Did we watch a movie together?”
“You didn’t have a TV in the hospital.”
Two days of anticipation burst like glass in my heart. It wasn’t her. I don’t know why I feel a little disappointed, but the feelings fade away quickly. Amber inches closer and runs her finger down my stomach. “You’re still really cute even though you’re all broken up.”
I take her hand and move it to the bed. “Did you talk to me in a British accent when you visited?”
She looks at me like I’m an idiot. “No? What are you even talking about?”
“I guess I imagined the whole thing.”
Now I feel foolish talking about it, especially if it was all just my imagination. A long coma dream that I can’t seem to forget.
“It’s nothing,” I say. “I had this dream about a story set back in the 1800’s. There was this rich guy who was arrogant but he fell in love with this girl who hated him because he was arrogant…”
The more I talk about it, the more details I remember. “Her name was Lizzy.”
Amber’s eyes widen, and her Resting Bitch Face gets more judgmental than usual. “Wesley, you are insane. Why would you dream up a romance story instead of one where you’re playing for the Dallas Cowboys?”
I sigh. “I don’t know. Let’s drop it.”
Amber changes the subject to discuss the parties I’ve missed at school, and to let me know that she talked her uncle who owns a pizza place in town into donating three hundred dollars to the fundraiser Sloane set up. As she talks, I try to stop thinking about that romance story, but the more details I remember, the more it comes back to me. The girl had several sisters, and they were obsessed with getting married off. I know I didn’t imagine this story. I’m not that creative.
“So when does this thing come off?” Amber asks, thunking her knuckles against my leg cast.
“I don’t know,” I say because I’m only hallway paying attention. I can’t get that voice out of my head.
She grabs my hand and slides her fingers between mine. “You better hurry up and heal so you can take me on a date.”
“Amber…” I pull away. “We’re not dating.”
Her eyes flash with annoyance. “Then what the hell is this?”
“I just asked if we could talk.”
Her lips form a flat line. “Why are you wasting my time?”
“I thought you were the person who read the story to me. You said you were there for me—I guess I thought maybe you changed.”
“What the hell do I have to change?” she says, her voice reaching that shrill level I remember so well from when we dated. “You’re the one who doesn’t want to be with me. You need to change.”
I sigh. The pain in my head is getting worse the longer this conversation lasts. “Why did you visit me every day?”
“I didn’t come every day,” she says scornfully. “Sloane made it very clear that she didn’t want me there if she was there and she was always there.”
“How often did you come see me?”
She lifts her shoulder. “Once.”
I try to think of a polite way to ask her to leave, but after a few moments of awkward silence she stands and does the hard work for me.
“Clearly you haven’t changed. If you decide to come to your senses, give me a call.”
She marches right out of my room, and a few moments later I hear the front door slam closed.
Gram appears in my doorway. “What was wrong with that girl?” she says, looking over her shoulder as if she fears Amber will come marching back in here.
“She wanted to date me, but I don’t want to date her.” It’s as simple as I can make it without getting into details to my dear grandmother.
Gram scoffs. “Millie is much prettier than that girl, don’t you think?”
I look down at my broken wrist, as if the cast is very important right now. “Yeah, she is.”
“Can I get you anything?” Gram asks.
“This might sound crazy but … is there a story about a rich arrogant man and the woman he falls in love with? Victorian, British accents… The girl’s name is Lizzy.”
Gram chuckles. “Only the most amazing love story ever told, Wesley.”
“So it’s real?”
“Pride and Prejudice.” She takes the remote off my nightstand and hands it to me. “There’s a movie version on Netflix if you don’t want to read the book. I watch it sometimes. Is it for a school assignment?”
“Pride and Prejudice,” I say softly. Chills prickle over my shoulders and down my spine. I’ve definitely heard that name before. “No, I was just curious. Thanks, Gram.”
I’m glad she doesn’t ask any more questions, and after she leaves I find the movie on Netflix. It feels like déjà vu as I watch the scenes unfold on the screen. I know what’s going to happen before it does. I can’t explain it, I just already know it.
At one point, Darcy says, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
I rewind and listen to him say it again. I remember hearing this words. I remember what came after it, and that part’s not in the movie.
That’s the best line in the whole book, she’d said.
I can hear her in my mind, clear as day. Like a gate has been unlocked, memories come flying back at me. Softly spoken confessions, secrets shared only to me. She worried about me. She confided in me. Where my other friends only talked in jokes and told happy stories, this girl wasn’t afraid to tell me what she felt. The girl who read me this book talked to me every single day.
“Hi there,” she’d say, and my heart would fill with happiness at knowing she’d returned. She said the same thing every time she showed up. Hi there.
It’s me, Millie.
I’m half asleep when Sloane knocks on my bedroom door, calling out a loud, “Knock, knock! You awake?”
I open my eyes. “I am now.”
She snorts and lets herself into my room. As always, she brings gifts that people have given her throughout the day. Since I got hurt, she’s become my unofficial Get Well Soon liaison. Yesterday, she presented me with a card from my teachers in school and a check for a thousand dollars that they all pitched in to donate to the fundraiser for my medical bills. Today, she hands me a tray of chocolate chip cookies wrapped up in plastic and tied with ribbons of silver and blue.
“It’s three in the afternoon,” she says, sitting on the side of my bed. “What would Coach say about you napping all day long?”
I stare at the tray of cookies. They’re so freshly baked, the tray is still a little warm on the bottom. They look like the kind of cookies that will be gooey and delicious. There’s a pale yellow card taped to the ribbons with my name written on it.
“I quit the team.”
Sloane’s jaw drops. “So funny.”
“I’m serious,” I say with a shrug. “There’s only a month of school left. The season is over, so who cares?”
“I guess that makes sense.” Her brows pull together. “But why couldn’t you have just stayed on since it’s almost over? You need the summer training to stay in shape for college.”
“Yeah, there’s something I haven’t told you,” I say, pulling the card off the tape. “I quit that, too.”
“College?” Her hand slaps down on the bed. “Are you serious?”
“College football,” I clarify. “I didn’t accept any scholarships. I’m not playing college football. I applied online for Lone Star, just a few hours ago, in fact.”
“That’s a boring state university,” Sloane says, her dark brows knitting together. “Pretty much everyone gets into that college.”
I cross my fingers and hold them up in a sarcastic gesture. “Here’s hoping.”
“Wow,” she says, exhaling. She looks me over like she’s seeing me for the first time. “You really don’t want to play football anymore?”
I shake my head. “After freshman year, I can’t remember a time I actually wanted to play. Not really.”
“Is this you talking, or the brain injury?”
I roll my eyes. She nudges me a little, making me scoot over to give her more room on the bed, then she sits next to me and lays against my wall of pillows. “Do your parents know?”
“When are you going to tell them?”
I shrug and rip a hole in the plastic to steal a cookie. I was right—they are gooey and delicious.
“They’re going to be pissed,” Sloane says.
I shrug again. “Let them be pissed. Want a cookie?”
She takes one but doesn’t bite into it. “These are from The Bears. One of the kid’s mom baked them. What’s going to happen to them?”
“I’ll still coach my team. And since I’ll be staying local for college, I can coach The Bears for the next several years.” I open the card, which has a cartoon dog on the cover with a thermometer in its mouth. We hope you get well soon! it says.
Inside the card, all my kids have signed their names. “Check it out,” I say, pointing to the words one of the first graders wrote in the middle.
“We’re glad you didn’t die,” Sloane reads. She laughs and elbows me in the side. “Aren’t we all.”
We eat cookies and watch TV, but there’s a growing tension between us that gets thicker by the minute. Sloane and I have never been ones to shy away from what we’re thinking. She’s my sister, regardless of not being my blood relation. I can only deal with the uncomfortableness for so long before I have to say something.
She picks at her cuticles. “Am I that obvious?”
I bump my cast into her foot, which has been twitching for the past ten minutes. “You’re very obvious. What’s going on?”
“You quit football.” She twirls her Claddagh ring around her index finger. My mom gave that ring to her for Christmas the year we traveled to Ireland on vacation. It was one of our last family vacations. Sloane has never taken the ring off, and every time I see it, I think about the simpler times of our childhood. “Does quitting have anything to do with what we talked about last night?”
Last night, after staying up too late binge-watching Netflix, I had confided in Sloane about what Lucas told Millie. After thinking it over for days, I’d thought about calling Lucas to tell him he’s an idiot, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him. He has to know I’m home by now, but he hasn’t even texted me, so I’m not about to call him first.
Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I needed to tell someone. Someone else needed to know what had been said about me. But after the words left my mouth, Sloane had laughed it off. I guess that’s what I wanted to hear—confirmation that my estranged brother’s assumptions were just as wrong as I’d wanted them to be. Sloane and I didn’t go into detail about the theory that I might have purposely tried to kill myself. We just turned it into a rant about my brother and how he knows nothing about me anymore.
“I quit the team because I wanted to. Because I’ve dreamed of doing it for years,” I admit. “I didn’t try to kill myself.”
She stares at me a long moment. “Are you trying to convince me, or you?”
“I said I didn’t do it.”
“Actually …” Sloane sits up and turns to face me. Her knee digs painfully into my healing ribs. “You never said that. You just complained about Lucas.”
With a sharp breath, I try not to roll my eyes. “Sloane. I didn’t try to kill myself.”
“Are you sure?”
“Wait, what?” She takes my hand. “What are you saying?”
My throat feels like it’s going to close up and I take a deep breath. “I was in a bad place for a while. These last few months…”
“Wesley…” The pain in her voice cuts me like a knife.
I squeeze her hand back. “I just don’t know, Sloane. I want to say that I’d never do that—I won’t do it now. I don’t want to die. But … my memories of that night are so foggy. I don’t remember what made me want to leave the party. I don’t know why I was walking alone on a back road in the middle of nowhere. I guess I just keep wondering if maybe I did step in front of that car on purpose.”
“Why didn’t you just call me?” she says. “I would have come.”
“I left my phone at home. I was trying to avoid Amber.”
“I hate that bitch,” Sloane mutters.
“It’s not her fault. It’s mine. I didn’t want to date her, but I did. I didn’t want to play football, but I did.” My hands squeeze into fists and I wince from the pain in my broken wrist. “My whole life—it’s all been me doing stuff I don’t want to do, just to make everyone else happy.”
“Why haven’t you told me any of this?”
I lift my shoulders. “I didn’t want you to worry about me.”
“Worrying about you is my job, asshole.” She punches me in the arm. “Don’t keep this shit from me. I’m here for you. What can we do? What will make you feel better? Should we talk to someone? I can look up therapists.”
I shake my head. “Maybe one day, but not now. I’m fine now.”
“You don’t seem fine.” Sloane stands up and rubs her hands together. “It’s time to cheer you up. Tell me something that’ll make you happy and I’ll get it.”
I bite my lip. “Do you still miss her?”
Her eyes widen. “You’re changing the subject.”
“Do you still miss her?”
With a huff, she sits back down. “Yeah. I do. But she’s gone, and you’re more important to me than anyone else. We don’t have to talk about her.”
“But that’s the thing,” I say. The inside of my lip tastes like copper. It’s never been so hard telling Sloane anything before, but now the words are like concrete and I can barely get them out. “The only time I remember being happy lately is when she read to me.”
Sloane’s lips press together like she’s holding back a smile. “Really?”
I nod. “There was just something about her. I felt her there every day when I was in a coma. And now that I’m awake … I guess I miss her. Is that crazy?”
“I miss her, too,” Sloane says. “She was the first girl I could be friends with. It didn’t feel like a constant competition with her. She was—well, this sounds crazy given the situation—but she was genuine. She felt real. Not like some fake bitch.”
“Sometimes I sit here and pretend that she’s here reading to me,” I admit. Dammit, my cheeks are burning, I can feel it, my embarrassment heating up my face. I don’t remember the last time I blushed. I’m supposed to be too tough for weaknesses like this.
Sloane sighs. “She tried to tell me she wasn’t your girlfriend. Pretty much the first day I met her, she was trying to tell me. But I didn’t listen because I figured she was just worried about you two not being official, or whatever…” She drags her hands down her face. “I was so stupid, Wesley. I should have stopped for two seconds and let her speak. Then we would have been on even terms. It wouldn’t have been such a slap in the face when I found out the truth.”
“Is it crazy that I want to see her?” I ask.
“Crazy was surviving being hit by a car.” Sloane reaches for another cookie. “Wanting to see Millie again is just common sense.”
This girl looks like a deer caught in the headlights. Like how I must have looked, right before a car plowed into me. Even with all these people around, rushing off to wherever they’re going, I noticed her the second she turned the corner. Her auburn hair is pulled back, but she’s wearing the same pink scrubs she wore when I saw her for that brief moment. Her soft features seemed lost in thought, her lips tipped slightly upward.
Then she sees us, and her expression turns into the same one I saw when I woke up. Being in a coma is one hell of an experience, but I’ll never forget the look on her face. The panicked energy in her eyes as she got up and bolted out of the room.
Steam rises off the cup of coffee in her hand. Her skin turns as white as the Styrofoam. Sloane bends down, her hair falling over my shoulder. “Are you okay?” she whispers.
I nod. The girl in front of us looks as though she’d rather be anywhere but here.
Yeah, well so would I.
Sloane squeezes my shoulder as if to say, whenever you’re ready.
I clear my throat. It’s been scratchy and sore since the day I woke up, thanks to three weeks of having a breathing tube shoved down my esophagus. The girl in front of me shrinks into herself when I look into her eyes. “I remember everything about my life before I got hurt,” I say. “But I don’t remember you.”
After seeing the torn college acceptance letters, Mrs. Reyes tells me she’s been too hard on her son. She says Lucas was right, but she doesn’t explain any more than that. The whole drive back to the hospital, she just keeps talking about how they’ve put too much pressure on him to earn money as a professional football player. She’s acting like money is the only problem here.
At a red light, she turns to me. “I’m going to change,” she says. “Don, too. Once Wesley wakes up, I’ll tell him that money doesn’t matter anymore. The only thing that matters is that he’s okay. We’ll figure out the rest.”
I don’t know what to say, so I just smile politely as I grip the bag of Wesley’s clothes.
I’m glad Lucas talked to his parents about Wesley. I hated being the bearer of such a heavy weight. I don’t even think a real girlfriend would know what to do if she was suddenly worried that her boyfriend might have jumped in front of a car on purpose.
As I stand in the hospital next to Wesley and his mom, I think of all the things I should say. But just like every other time I’ve tried to tell these people the truth, my throat closes up and the words refuse to leave my mouth.
Mrs. Reyes’ phone rings and she steps into the hallway to answer it. I sit next to Wesley and watch him, while I wrestle with the thoughts that plague me day and night. I reach out and take his hand. “Hey,” I whisper. “Just a heads up—your mom saw those ripped up college applications in your room. I think it’ll be okay though. She said she’s going to change.”
I look out the window and see her pacing from one side of the hallway to the other, the phone pressed to her ear. Her brows are pulled together and she keeps rolling her eyes. Whatever she and her husband are talking about, it’s not very pleasant.
I turn back to Wesley. If I were his real girlfriend, I’d hold his hand right now. I’d lean my head against his arm and listen to the steady rhythm of his breathing. I’d tell him exactly how I’m feeling and how much I miss him and that I wish he’d wake up. Instead, I say all of those things in the fantasy world I’ve invented in my mind.
“It’s not about the money,” Mrs. Reyes says, loud enough for me to hear through the glass. “It’s about our son.”
“Maybe it is about the money,” I say, talking to myself as an idea grabs ahold of me. Money can’t fix everything, but it can fix some things. If Wesley’s parents weren’t so stressed about their financial situation, maybe they’d be here more. Maybe his dad could actually show up at the hospital and they could spend time with him. Maybe it’s not enough to have his friends talk to him; he needs his parents. They need to be here, talking to him and encouraging him to wake up.
Money would help.
I make up a lie about having a research paper to do, and I leave the hospital earlier than usual. I break the promise I’d made after the beach house, and call Sloane. I’m supposed to be slowly phasing myself out of her life, but this is important.
She answers on the first ring. “Hey girl hey.”
She seems happy to hear from me after a few days of my crappy excuses saying I had too much homework to hang out. I tell her about the Reyes’ financial situation.
“They’re always worried about money,” she says.
“Yeah, but now it’s worse. So I have an idea.”
Together we came up with a plan. We’ll recruit the football team throw a fundraiser to help pay for Wesley’s medical bills. We’ll do a car wash, a bake sale, whatever it takes. Sloane is confident that the team will happily rally together to raise money for their fallen running back. I help her come up with the wording to use on a fundraiser website, and she uploads the cutest photo of Wesley covered in sweat, his football helmet under his arm. The way he smiles at the camera melts every bone in my body. If that doesn’t raise money, I don’t know what will.
After school the next day, the online fundraising site is up to four thousand dollars. Sloane and the entire football team, half the baseball team and even some soccer guys are meeting at Derek’s house to set the rest of the plan into action. Apparently word spread fast, and several cheerleaders and regular students all offered to help with the fundraising.
I’m dying to be there, and Sloane keeps texting me updates. As much as I hate to do it, I make the first smart choice I’ve made since the day I identified the John Doe in our hospital as Wesley.
I stay away.
Sloane falls asleep the second we drive out of the hospital’s parking lot. Tucker is behind the wheel of the Jeep and Derek won’t shut up about his options for college ball and how he’s still not sure if he should go to his dad’s alma mater or strike out on his own. I know I shouldn’t be here, especially after promising Lucas that I’d tell Sloane my secret, but all my stuff is at the beach house. My mind runs on overdrive.
Should I tell her as soon as we get back? Should I sit them all down in the living room and confess at once, or do it individually? But then how would I get home?
“Tucker?” I say, leaning forward to peer into the front seat. “I need to go home.”
“Now? Why?” He pulls to a stop at a red light.
“I have … girl troubles,” I say, glancing back a Sloane who is still asleep, her mouth slightly open as her head rests against the window. “You know, cramps and Aunt Flo and all that.”
“We can just stop at the store if you need … tampons and stuff,” Derek offers. I am profoundly proud that the two of them didn’t immediately pretend to puke at the very mention of periods. I’m going to miss them.
I shake my head. “It’s something else. Just let me off here. I can walk.”
The light turns green and Derek pulls to the side of the road, then turns back and gives me a careful look over. “You okay, Mill?”
“It’s just girl stuff,” I say quickly. “Embarrassing girl stuff and I don’t want to get into it. Just let me off here and I’ll drive myself back to the beach house later tonight,” I lie.
“No way, it’s after dark. Where do you live? I’ll take you home.”
The guilt of all these lies wraps around me like a lead blanket, and I am a black hole, slowly being compressed under all its weight. I look up and point toward a nearby neighborhood that I’ve never seen in my life. “I live there. Just pull up to the entrance and I’ll walk.”
“You’re not walking,” Derek says.
I choose a house with no cars in the driveway and all the lights off. “There,” I say. I can feel their eyes boring holes into my back as I get out, but I cling to my purse and pray that they’ll just drive away. Even more, I pray that Sloane will stay asleep because there’s no way she’d agree to this. A few seconds later, I hear the sound of the Jeep’s tires pulling back onto the road and I let out the breath I’ve been holding. I can’t believe my pathetic excuse actually worked.