Hollie, someone died today.
I just…I don’t know what happened.
Come on over. We’ll go for a walk.
Half an hour later, we are at Whitewater, so named for the boiling rapids that spring up between the rocks every spring, when the snows melt and the creek runs with excess rainwater. A huge, flat glacial boulder acts as a natural dam. Initials and hearts with arrows from generations past are carved deep into the rock. To the right, tumbled boulders create a pressure valve for the water, which pours into a deep sinkhole and becomes a swimming pool before pouring over another tumble of boulders and foaming over the rocks in a torrent. A rope swing used to hang from one of the thick branches of an overhanging tree for those generations of souls brave enough to risk life and limb for a few flying seconds before dropping into the deep pool. It’s rotted now, though, and only a fool or a drunk would attempt the drop.
Will and I almost drowned there once. We had gone hiking, and ignored the warnings from my mom to not go into the creek, especially around Whitewater, where the spring rains had created dangerous rapids and hidden traps among the rocks. Of course, we ignored her. We were kids. Kids never pay attention to warnings.
I jumped in first, and Will followed, after a second or two of hesitation. I knew what he was thinking. He was doing damage control in his head and figuring out a way to explain our wet clothes and muddy shoes. I never thought about the consequences. I always knew, vaguely in the back of my mind, that I’d think of something later. It didn’t matter. What mattered was the water pouring over the boulders, and being in it.
So I jumped in, and started wading across. Will started across a few seconds after me, but more slowly, taking care to gauge which was the best rock to step to next. I was doing alright until my foot slipped on a submerged rock, dangerous slick with moss. My ankle twisted. I was small for fifteen years old, and only my good sense of balance kept me from going head over heels into the water most times. But with my balance gone, my foot shot out from underneath me, and the rest followed.
I don’t remember much of what happened. It all became a blur. I do remember being pulled under the water and yanked along. I cracked my head a pretty good one off a jagged edge of shale, then got sucked underneath an overhanging edge of boulder. I held my breath as long as possible and tried to fight my way to the surface, but I was so turned around and battered I wasn’t sure which way was up. I couldn’t even get a good enough grip on the rocks to push myself to the surface with my feet.
But then suddenly, my head was above water, and I was breathing air. I gasped and looked up to see Will hanging halfway off the boulder I had just swept past. His hand was clamped on my arm in a pincher grip, and he was half-dragging, half-pushing me up onto a rock beside him. I crawled up onto the warm sandstone and flipped over onto my back, sodden clothes squelching water that ran down the sides of the stone and back into the creek. After I caught my breath, I rolled over on my side and looked at him. His face was white under his early summer tan, except for a smear of mud along one cheek. He stared at me. I stared back. I grinned. He kept staring.
“Thanks.” I paused and looked at his muddy, torn clothes. “Your mom’s gonna kill you.”
His voice came out in a croak. “I saw you go under the rocks. I thought you were drowning.”
“Nah, I just went for a little swim, that’s all. I’m ok.”
His eyes flicked up to my temple. “You’re bleeding.”
“I am?” I reached up to my head and my fingers came away bloody. I remembered bashing my head on the submerged rock. I showed him my fingertips. He turned even paler. I laughed.
“What, you wanna be a doctor and you’re afraid of a little blood?”
“It’s not that, Hollie, it’s…you…”
“I’m fine. Right as rain. Promise.”
I stood up and looked down the creek. Will climbed to his feet behind me and gingerly stepped over to my rock. I turned around and smiled at him over my shoulder, then made an impatient gesture with my hand. We hiked on. In a few minutes, we had forgotten all about it. It was just something that happened, like anything else. Kids do that. They don’t realize how serious a situation is, and it fades from their minds like fog. I’d give just about anything to have that ability back.
We scrubbed the dirt off our clothes as best we could, and walked the long way home to give our clothes time to dry off. Our mothers never knew what had happened, and to this day, I don’t believe either one of us has ever told them. I ate dinner and played with my younger sisters that night, and everything was fine.
But later, after I went to bed, I had nightmares of being suffocated, of being crushed under an oppressive blackness. I woke up gasping for air. Then I started crying.
After that, things changed. Our friendship was stronger than ever. But now we had become aware of something. An innocent chapter of our lives had closed and another had opened. We couldn’t have said what it was, but I’m ten years older and I know now. It was the knowledge of our own mortality. Death had brushed so close, we felt His robes whisper against our cheeks. He hadn’t taken me, but He had taken our innocence, and our faith in our own immortality. Or perhaps He hadn’t taken anything at all, but added something new to our lives—an awareness that we too, could die, and could at anytime. It’s as if a child is protected from death up until the point she learns of it. Then she is aware of it everywhere, possibly with her name on it.
And here we are, almost ten years later. I perch on top of a boulder, watching the water below me rush past. Will sits on the glacial boulder, fingertips tracing “Johnny + Karen” as he lets his feet dangle in the water. Some things never change, including our favorite spots. We skip stones into the pool with hands steady from years of practice in the precise art of flinging bits of shale across every body of water in our neighborhood. The trick is to select the right kind of rock. Not too big, or else it will be too heavy and the rock will never skip. But not too small, or else it will be too light and will never have the weight to rebound from the surface of the water. About the size of your palm is best. They have to be thin and smooth to skim the water, though the shape doesn’t really matter, if you have the stone-skipping technique down. Hold the edge between thumb and forefinger, with your thumb on top and forefinger curled underneath. Snap your wrist forward in a smooth motion, and flick your fingertips at the last second. The trick is to throw it across, not down. That’s where a lot of people mess up. They’ll flick it down, instead of smoothly across, and then it hits the water on an edge and breaks that surface tension. Then it’s all over. The rock sinks.
As usual, Will has a small pile of perfect skipping stones next to him. He won’t throw as many as I will, but it’s almost a sure thing that every one he throws will get at least four or five good skips before sinking. My pile of stones is bigger, but only one out of every four or so will skip properly. I just don’t have the patience to find the perfect kind of stones the way Will does. I never had Will’s patience. Only when it comes to people. My mom once called me “the collector of broken things”. I wasn’t sure why then, but I now know. People plagued with demons just somehow seem to flock to me. Still do. I don’t mind. Other people make sense in a way I never do to myself. I can talk to someone for an hour and understand so much more about them than they ever know. But I am a blank to myself, most days. I guess that’s normal though. The way we can dispense advice to others so easily, and yet be doomed to repeat our own mistakes over and over. If you think about it, why do we bother giving advice at all?
Will is the first to speak. “She just died. Just died. I was assisting Dr. Cartwright on a routine surgery, and she just…died. There was a blocked artery, and we knocked it loose. It killed her. We killed her.” He speaks in a dull voice, staring at the water without really seeing it.
Will is in his medical residency at a hospital in the city. The kid once blew his own eyebrows off in Chem class, and now he’s going to be a doctor. It would be laughable—hell, it is laughable. But that doesn’t stop the fact he’s barreling down the luge track of medicine, hell-bound to be a doctor. And a damn good one, too. We rarely get to see each other, because of his schedule. This was the first patient of his that had died. I mean, others had died. But those were always some other doctor’s patients, or they died of old age, or a terminal illness. Will’s hand had never had a hand in dispensing death. I know he has to get used to it if he wants to be a doctor. But then again, were I in his position, I knew I’d be taking it hard, too.
I don’t say anything. I just let him talk. Besides, what could I have said? It had already been said to him by the senior doctors. It wasn’t his fault, they couldn’t have known, things like this happen, they did everything right in surgery, the surgery had to happen or she would have died for sure, it’s the cycle of life and death, there was nothing he could have done, it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t his fault.
But it is. In his own mind, it is. It will be for a while. Maybe forever.
It’s always kind of been like this. We take turns saving each other. We save each other from all the fuckery in our heads. He saves me from doing stupid things, as my modus operandi is to usually jump headlong into something without thinking. The half-assed approach isn’t always the best way to handle life, or so he has shown me many times. Or more accurately, I’ve shown myself, and he’s been there to pick up the pieces when I screw up.
In return, I keep him from being too neurotic and straight-laced. I slow him down when his anxiety train is charging headlong down the tracks, before he derails. Which is often—though thankfully not like it used to be. Once, when we were playing street hockey one summer day, Will became convinced he was having a stroke. He panicked, because he felt dizzy and sweaty, and saw bright flashes of light in front of his eyes. He had himself three-fourths of the way talked into going to the hospital when I pointed out we had been playing hockey in ninety-eight degree weather and he was more than likely overheated. Although, I did once shame him into playing freeze tag with a broken collarbone for a full hour before he went home. I told him to stop being a baby, and that he had probably just jammed it. Apparently, I was wrong. He never did fully trust my medical diagnoses after that. But then, I suppose that’s why he’s going to be the doctor, and I’m going to be the writer.
Will falls silent again, and I watch a monarch butterfly meander its way through the flowers growing along the embankment. I watch it flit from flower to flower, never really settling on one but always on the search for one that’s bigger, brighter, sweeter. I look over and see that Will’s gaze is focused on a red-tailed hawk sitting high up in the branches of a dead tree down the creek, and I’m not sure which is more still. Probably Will.
“Hollie, remember when we were kids and I used to take my toy trucks and Transformers apart, and put them back together again, just because I could?”
“Yeah. I remember.”
“It’s so different…so different when it’s reality.” He pauses, then continues, “If you make a mistake when putting your Tonka truck back together, no big deal. It still works, for the most part. Still runs. But this…this just…”
“Will…I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not going to tell you what you’ve already heard. It happens. That’s life. Sometimes…things just happen. Whether you want them to or not. You have to decide if the good outweighs the bad. If not…then maybe being a surgeon isn’t for you.”
“But, Hollie, I should have known…should have seen…”
“You can’t save everyone, Will. Some people just can’t be saved. And some just don’t want to be.”
He snorts. “Oh that’s ironic, coming from you, the self-made savior of the world.”
I smile into the distance, without really seeing anything. “I know. But even I am learning when it’s wiser to give up, than keep forcing something that just will not be.”
Will tosses a stone to me and I catch it neatly, then spin it into the water. It skips five times, a perfect combination of my technique and Will’s piece of shale, then sinks. Will makes a comment on how I haven’t lost my rock-skipping skill, and declares me the best stone thrower in western PA. After a few minutes, his face grows serious again.
“Hollie, do you believe in God?”
I’m quiet, measuring my words and thinking of how best to put my thoughts into speech. This is a difficult subject for me. Not so much because I am caught in any struggle for the eternal salvation of my soul, or am chained by years of religious dogma and brainwashing, but because I simply don’t know. I don’t know, and my ideas about it keep going in circles. Finally, I give him the answer I feel to be most correct, the one that has taken me twenty-five years of my life to come to terms with.
“I don’t believe in…God, per se. Not in the Christian sense of the word, anyway. But…I do believe there is something out there. Or maybe it’s just that I would really like to believe there is. I’d like to believe there is an afterlife, and my heart tells me there is…but I really just don’t know. My logic fights with my hope, and I’m not sure which to believe. I guess, in the end…I’m not sure. I really want there to be something, but if there is something out there…then my idea of it is a hell of a lot different than the traditional ideas.”
“I have to believe there is something out there. I have to.”
“Because…I see so much every day. The after-effects of violent rapes. Kids shooting each other without a second thought. Parents beating children too helpless to fight back. I have to attribute that to evil in the world. Because if I don’t…then there’s no reason those things happen. No reason at all. And I can’t handle knowing that terrible things happen for no reason, that nothing matters. That I have no control over anything. And if I believe in evil, I have to believe in God, because I have to believe there is a balancing force, an equalizer for the horrors I see every day. I’d…I know I’d lose my mind, otherwise.”
I measured my words slowly. “Well…I think you have to learn that sometimes, things just happen. Even if there is something up there holding the universe in the palm of its hand. You can’t control everything—and you shouldn’t. You’re a human being. Only the gods can control fate. You have to learn there are no answers for some things, because that’s the only way you can really ever live. Any other way, and it’s just a shadow of a life. You can’t control everything.”
“I know, but—“
“But nothing. I think in the end, that’s all you can really do. Make up your own mind for your own reasons and live by that. Whatever makes the most sense to you, or gives you the most hope.”
“I suppose so. I just need something. I don’t have your blind faith that I can survive on my own and thrive, simply because I have willed it to be so.”
“Will, I’m not so sure I have that blind faith anymore, either.”
“You have to, Hollie. You were always the one who jumped without knowing whether or not there was a cushion at the end of the fall…you just always knew there’d be.”
“Yeah, well…life has a way of being unkind to people who hold those beliefs. So you change, or get dragged under. And if you can’t change…well then, you’re screwed.” I shrug.