Mom closed her eyes briefly. “I don’t know how to tell you this.”
“Just say it,” I pleaded as my heart thudded so fast I thought it would rip through my chest. Was it Megan? No. Abbi? I couldn’t breathe. Sebastian? Oh God, Sebastian had given me a ride to the party in his Jeep. Oh God.
I tipped my head back, struggling to get enough air in my lungs.
Mom carefully lowered my arm. “You weren’t in the car by yourself.”
Oh God. Oh God.
Pressure clamped down as my gaze moved frantically from Mom to Lori. My sister looked to the small window, squeezing her eyes shut. “You were in the car with Megan and...and her cousin Chris. Phillip and Cody were with you, too.” Lori blinked as she faced me, and then I saw them—the tears streaming down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Lena. They...they didn’t make it.”
“No,” I whispered, staring at Lori. “No. That’s...that’s not right.”
Dropping her head, she placed her hands over her face. Her shoulders shook, and a tremor coursed through my body. My heart was racing as I struggled to get in enough air. “No,” I said again.
“I’m sorry,” she replied.
I flipped my gaze to Mom. “She’s wrong. Right? Mom, she...she has to be wrong.”
“No, baby.” Mom still held my hand—held it tight. “They...they passed away.”
Shaking my head slowly, I pulled my hand free. I lifted my left arm. A sharp stabbing sensation radiated all the way up to my shoulder. “I don’t...understand.”
Mom took several deep breaths and seemed to collect herself. The sheen of tears glistened in her eyes as she leaned over, resting her hands beside my hip. “Do you not remember anything about the car accident?”
I tried in that moment, really tried, but all I could grasp were pieces of conversations. Something about chicken nuggets, and I...I could, if I tried really hard, remember standing in the driveway of Keith’s, looking at Cody and thinking something and saying—
Maybe I should drive?
That had been me. I had asked that question. I knew I had. The feeling of unease surfaced, of hesitation and concern. I saw myself stopping at the back passenger door of an SUV—of Chris’s SUV. Maybe I should drive?
I shut my eyes tight as a knot of emotion expanded in my chest. I didn’t understand. I’d been sitting with Abbi. Sebastian had driven me to the party. How had I ended up in the car with them? How had Megan—
I couldn’t think of that. I just couldn’t do it. “What happened?” I rasped out. “Tell me...everything.”
Several moments passed. “The police...a deputy knocked on the door at eleven o’clock. I was still up. I was in the kitchen, and when I looked outside and saw him, I knew something had happened. The police don’t show up—” Mom cut herself off, and I opened my eyes. Her lips trembled. “He told me that you had been in a very bad car accident and had been medevaced out to INOVA. That I needed to get to the hospital immediately.”
“She called me when she left. I drove up here, overnight.” Lori scrubbed a hand over her forehead. “They didn’t tell us anything at first. We heard that there were two patients brought in here. Both were in surgery.”
I shifted my legs under the thin blanket. “Two? Is—”
“It was Cody,” Lori said, shaking her head as she looked up at the ceiling. “He passed away last night.”
Last night? Sunday? “How?”
“We don’t know exactly. I haven’t spoken to his parents since they were called to his room,” Mom answered, her gaze searching mine. “All I know is that he had severe head trauma. I don’t think...” She exhaled roughly. “I don’t think they ever expected him to wake up.”
No. He couldn’t be gone. I remembered talking to him at Keith’s. He’d been joking about stealing Sebastian’s keys and going for a ride. There was no way he was...he was dead. Cody was...was the quarterback. He’d be playing in Friday night’s game alongside Chris and Phillip. Rumor had it Cody would play for Penn State. He was just talking to me, wasn’t he? Joking and messing around.
But if Chris and Phillip were with us, too, that meant...that meant they didn’t...
My mouth moved, but I couldn’t find words. I couldn’t find the courage in me to ask what I needed to. I couldn’t face what I wanted to know. A knot formed in the back of my throat as I kept moving my lips, but there was no sound.
Mom touched my right arm, the pressure light, and she blew out a shaky breath. “Megan and the others died... They think they died on impact. None of them were wearing their seat belts.”
“How?” I asked, and I didn’t even know why I was asking. I had enough answers to understand what she was saying. Cody was gone. Phillip and his stupid, stupid shirts were gone. So was Chris.
And Megan... We were going to go to college together. Maybe even to play college volleyball. She was one of my closest friends, my loudest and most spontaneous friend. She couldn’t be gone. That was not how these things turned out.
But she was.
They were all gone.
Wetness gathered under my eyes. “How?” I repeated.
Mom didn’t answer. Lori did, and she did so without looking at me. “The news said they were ejected. The SUV sideswiped a tree and then flipped over a couple of times.”
The news? This was on the news?
I had no idea what to think except this couldn’t be real. Pressing my head back against the pillow, I ignored the flaring pain that shot down my spine. I wanted to get out of the bed. I wanted to get out of this room, away from Lori and Mom.
I wanted to be back home where everything was normal and right. Where the world was still revolving and everything was fine. And alive.
Mom said something, but I didn’t hear her as I closed my blurry eyes. Lori responded, but her words made no sense to me. I counted to ten, telling myself that when I opened my eyes, I would be in my bed at home and this—all of this—would be a nightmare. Because it couldn’t be real. This couldn’t have happened.
Megan was still alive. Everyone was still alive.
“Lena?” Mom’s voice intruded.
No one had died. Megan was fine. So was everyone else. I was going to wake up and everything was going to be normal and okay.
Mom spoke again, and no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t waking up.
This wasn’t a nightmare I could wake up from.
“I don’t want...to talk anymore,” I said, voice trembling. “I don’t...want to.”
I was greeted with silence.
So I lay there, keeping my eyes tightly squeezed shut as I told myself over and over that this wasn’t real. None of this was real.
This couldn’t have happened to us, because they didn’t deserve this.
A second passed, maybe two, and I...I shattered like I was nothing more than spun glass. There was a sound that reminded me of a wounded, dying animal, and it took me a moment to realize that it was me making it. It was me who was crying so hard I couldn’t catch my breath, couldn’t breathe around the pain engulfing every sense. The tears stung raw areas on my face and clogged my throat, and I couldn’t stop.
“Baby. Sweetie,” Mom said, her hands on me. “You need to calm down. You need to take deep, even breaths.”
But I couldn’t, because they were dead, and it was like a violent summer storm erupting inside me, unpredictable and severe. The tears kept coming and they didn’t stop until there were strange voices in the room followed by a stinging warmth in my veins, and then there were no more tears.
There was nothing.
* * *
Much later, Mom touched my arm again, and when I opened my eyes, I was still in the ICU room. The antiseptic smell still clogged my nostrils. Machines still beeped. I was here, and there was no escaping what that meant.
Mom was staring at me, her eyes no longer filled with tears. I didn’t think she or my sister had moved one spot while I lay in that bed. The sedative, whatever it was that they’d added to my IV, was sluggishly leaving my body.
“I need to ask you something,” Mom said after a couple of moments.