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Jared groaned as he started awake. Then he groaned again as the light pouring in through the window hurt his eyes, opened at half-mass. He lifted himself to his elbow, reaching across Karen’s still-sleeping form to grab his chirping cell phone from the bedside table on her side.
Flopping to his back once it was in hand, he flipped it open. “Hello?” he muttered, eyes automatically closing again, only to pop open a second later. He shot up in bed, wide awake now. “What?”
Karen rolled over to face her boyfriend, his tone piquing her curiosity. She placed a hand on his bare thigh in silent support.
“Give me five minutes.” Without even saying goodbye, Jared slapped his phone shut and jumped out of bed, quickly looking for his clothing, carelessly strewn around the room the night before.
“Everything okay?” Karen asked, also climbing out of bed.
“Braxton’s awake,” Jared said, distracted as he tugged on his jeans.
“You’re kidding!” Karen also began to dress. “How long?”
“She woke around two this morning. Been up ever since.” Jared glanced at his wristwatch. “Six hours, now.” He almost felt giddy as he ran his fingers through his hair, trying to make some semblance of order to the blonde strands.
Within fifteen minutes they were pulling into the hospital parking lot. Karen held Jared’s hand as they rushed into the building. She supported him and was glad Braxton had awakened, but there was a part of her that was nervous about what would happen now. In the months since they’d been together, she had grown to care for him very much, and feared she had actually begun to fall in love with him. Though she knew he cared about her, she had also heard the many stories from the girls at the house, or from Jared himself, about the crazy things the best friends had done together. The love in Jared’s voice was obvious, and admittedly, painful.
As Jared and Karen rushed through the familiar halls of the facility, they met up with a slower moving Margot, accompanied by Lydia. The four hurried along, all staying with Braxton’s mother, who was nearly beside herself. Her prayers had been answered, and her little girl awoke before Fletcher came to take her away.
Braxton was sitting up in bed when the clan turned the corner into her room. She was doing her best to finish her breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage. The toast was already gone, as it was easy on her stomach. She glanced up, her eyes immediately lighting up when she saw Jared, then her mother.
Jared wanted to rush to the blonde, but knew that wasn’t his place. He stepped aside and made room for Margot, who quickly took her daughter in her arms, her sobs loud as she held Braxton close.
Braxton closed her eyes, reveling in the embrace, even through her surprise of seeing her mother there. The nurses had told her very little, except that she had been in a car accident and had been in a coma for just about the entire summer. She remembered none of this, and felt disoriented and confused.
“I’ve been so worried, honey,” Margot said, wiping her face as she finally, reluctantly released the girl. “I prayed God would bring you back to us every day. We all did,” she said, indicating the small group behind her. She leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on the still-silent Braxton’s forehead, and made room for Jared.
“Hey,” he said, not sure what to expect. Would Braxton be angry at him? Hate him? Would she blame him for not standing by her, allowing her to be upset alone? He knew he’d never forgive himself for it.
“Jared,” Braxton said, her voice weak and slightly throaty from the lack of use. She accepted his hug with gusto. He was the one person who could make her feel better no matter what, and his embrace was like a balm to her very confused soul.
“We were so worried,” he whispered into her hair, holding her head tight against his chest. “I’m so sorry, Brax.”
Braxton was confused, and gently pulled away. “Sorry for what?” she asked, tired green eyes looking into equally tired blue ones.
Jared could see the confusion on Braxton’s face, and though it seemed he had a reprieve, he knew it would have to be brief. He needed to explain and apologize, but now wasn’t the time. He smiled, brushing a few strands of stringy blonde hair out of her face. “Nothing. We’ll talk later.”
Satisfied for the moment, Braxton nodded. Her gaze wondered to the others- a woman she didn’t recognize with dark, curly hair, and Lydia. She smiled at her roommate, reaching for her. The quiet girl quickly stepped up, taking her hug then pulling away. “It’s been quiet without you, Brax,” Lydia said, grinning at the playful, but weak smack she received.
“You look tired, honey,” Margot said, once again taking Braxton’s bedside. She held her daughter’s hand in her own, relishing the warmth she felt in the pale skin.
Braxton nodded. “I am. They tell me I’ve been sleeping for months. You’d think I’d be awake enough now to go run a marathon.” She stifled a yawn. “I do get to go take a shower later today, though, they said.” Her face scrunched up. “I feel disgusting.” She met Jared’s amused eyes, and was surprised to see him standing next to the strange brunette, an arm around her waist. The attractive woman leaned into him. That’s new.
Jared saw Braxton’s glance, and quickly made introductions. “Braxton, this is Karen. She was actually one of the nurses who took care of you while you were in ICU.”
Karen stepped forward, truly glad to see her former patient awake and cognizant. “Braxton, it’s so wonderful to finally meet you. Lord knows I’ve heard enough stories from these three,” she indicated Jared, Margot and Lydia. She bent down and gave the blonde a quick hug. “I’m so glad to see you’re okay. It was hairy there for awhile.”
“Thank you,” Braxton said quietly, still uncertain about how she felt about what she’d seen. Were Karen and Jared just friends? Grown close after so much time spent in the hospital? She shook the thought out of her head; far too much to think about after finding she’d been asleep for three months.
Braxton stood in the center of her bedroom, taking in the bed, her dresser, backpack sitting on the floor against the wall. A stack of mail had been placed on top of the small entertainment center that was tucked up next to the closet.
She didn’t want to read her mail. She didn’t want to dig through her backpack. She didn’t want to see what had been salvaged from her destroyed car, though she did notice her high school graduation tassel, which had been hanging from her rearview mirror.
A soft knock sounded on the doorframe to the open door. Braxton turned to see Jared standing with his shoulder leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his shoulder. “Hey,” he said, unsure what to do. Always welcome in Braxton’s room, somehow things were different now, not only because his best friend somehow seemed different, but also because of Karen.
“Can I come in?” At Braxton’s nod, Jared pushed off the frame and stepped into the room. He looked around. The room looked the exact same as it had the entire time they’d lived in the house, but somehow it seemed cold and impersonal. It lacked Braxton’s life force, instead replaced by Margot’s, who wasn’t fully alive in her own right.
“I feel so strange,” Braxton said quietly, hugging herself, glancing over at the mirror above the dresser. She took in her pallid complexion and thin frame. Her hair looked dull, the strands short and standing up crazily all over her head. The new hairstyle had been a shock. Over the three months she was asleep it had grown into something shaggy and unkempt, unlike her usual long, simple style.
“In what way?” Jared asked, walking over to his friend and looking down at her. He wanted badly to take her into his arms and make sure she was truly okay.
Braxton shook her head. “I don’t know. I just don’t feel like me.” She took the final step forward, bringing her into Jared’s personal space. She rested her forehead against his chest. Jared wrapped his arms around her, feeling protective of her vulnerability.
Braxton glanced over toward the bed, noticing her mother’s suitcase discretely hidden by the nightstand. “Did she arrive today?” she asked.
“No. She’s been here since the night of the accident.”
Braxton snorted, pulling away from her best friend and walking over to the window, once again hugging herself. “That’s a shock. Can’t believe she managed to pull herself away from the church and God and all that. She could pull herself away from him.”
Jared wasn’t a stranger to the dead tone in Braxton’s voice when she spoke of her parents. Her mother in particular. “It’s not like that this time, Brax. Your mom stood up to him a few days ago.” He saw the look of confusion on Braxton’s face, and could tell she was about to speak. Jared rushed on. “Fletcher came here, Brax, demanding your mom go back home with him, be ‘his wife’ or some shit. She refused to go.”
“For how long?”
“Until you woke up. That was all she could bargain for,” Jared said quietly, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand.
Braxton snorted. “Well, I’m awake. She can go, now.”
“Don’t be that way, Brax. She really loves you. Not everyone can be as strong as you are.”
“Strong?” There was no humor in her laughter. “I’m not strong.” Braxton felt a sudden anger infuse her, making her skin prickle. “I’m so fucking strong that I allowed myself to become so fucking upset over that piece of shit. I was goddamn strong that I look like a fucking ghost right now who hasn’t eaten in three fucking months!” her voice rose with each word until she was nearly shouting.
Jared could only stare, stunned. The doctors had told them that Braxton may seem different when she woke, may not be quite herself, or irritable. Even so, he was still taken aback. “Brax, hold on.” He walked over to her, turning her to face him with a hand on her shoulder. “Calm down.”
“I am calm!” Braxton cried, her anger flaring even more as her tears came. “I feel like I’m suffering from the worst PMS ever,” she sobbed. She allowed herself to be drawn back into Jared’s embrace. “I’m sorry,” she whined, the words muffled in the fabric of his shirt.
Jared hid his smile as he rested his chin on top of the golden head. “You’ve been through an extremely traumatic experience. Don’t worry about it. You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. You’re gonna get through this, and all your friends are here for you, too. Okay?” Braxton nodded into the hug. “You know, there was a train of people who came to see you. Even Dr. Parr.”
“Dr. Parr hates me.”
“He hates everyone, Brax, unless you’re an economics geek like him.”
“What about…” Braxton couldn’t bring herself to say it.
Jared sighed, knowing damn well who his friend was asking about. He cleared his throat to forestall his answer. “No. Andrew didn’t come.”
“Figures.” Braxton pulled away after a quick, but firm squeeze. She sighed, pulling out clothing from her dresser drawers. “I’m craving a hot shower like nothing else.”
“Didn’t you take one at the hospital before you left?”
“Yeah, but they have that crappy, cheap soap. Left my skin dry.” Braxton looked at herself again in the mirror. “God, my hair looks like shit.” She ran a hand back and forth through the short strands, Jared chuckling from behind her when the hair stood up more than it did before. “It’s so shaggy. I should just get it cut short and start over.”
“You should’ve seen it when they first cut it,” Jared said with a grin. “You looked like a freakin’ porcupine.”
“Great, thanks, Jar. Now get the hell out so I can get naked.”
The house was alive with joyous voices, food served and eaten, along with drinks of the non-alcoholic variety, per Braxton’s request. She held a plastic cup of lemonade in her hand as she wandered through the throngs of people, all of whom were well-wishers, come to celebrate her miraculous immersion back into the world of the living.
She surrounded by all the people in her life that cared about her: friends, her mother, and acquaintances from school, including a few of her professors. So why did she feel so alone?
“Hey, girl!” Alicia exclaimed, grabbing her roommate and friend in a ferocious hug. She’d been with her boyfriend for the past couple days, and it was the first time she’d seen Braxton, though she’d spoken with her on the phone three times already. Braxton groaned as her ribs were nearly broken from the enthusiastic woman. “How are you?” the Latina woman asked, pulling back just enough to look into tired green eyes.
“I’m good. Glad to be home.”
“I’m glad you’re home, too, sweetie.” Another hug brought a grunt from the blonde. A quick kiss on the cheek, and Alicia disappeared into the throngs of people.
“Looks like all your friends are glad to have you back, honey,” Margot said, taking Alicia’s place next to Braxton. She wrapped an arm around the younger woman’s waist and held her close. Margot felt almost giddy, despite her phone call from Fletcher earlier. She would be packing her bag for the final time after the party broke up.
“I’m glad to be home, too, Mom.” Braxton smiled down at the older woman, who looked better than she had ever seen her look. She thought about what Jared had said earlier, about what her mother had done in order to stay with her. “Look, Mom, um,” she paused, gathering her thoughts. Her relationship with her mother hadn’t always been easy. In fact, it had been downright hostile at times, mainly because of Fletcher Crowley. Though she wanted nothing more than to yell at her mother, scorn her for her weakness, at the moment all she could manage was a smile. “Thanks for being here.”
Margot took her daughter in a warm, motherly embrace. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else, sweetheart.” She kissed her on the cheek. “I love you.”
“Love you, too, Mamma,” Braxton murmured, eyes closing as she reveled in the affection. She felt like she was ten years old again, so desperate for a mother’s love and acceptance.
Suddenly there was a murmur that spread through the crowd until silence reigned. Bodies parted as a figure passed through, stopping in front of mother and daughter. Braxton gasped at the sight of her father, a strange piercing pain slicing through her chest that left her nearly breathless, and certainly confused. His dark, cold eyes found wide green ones, then swiftly moved to Margot.
“It’s time to go home,” he said, his tone leaving no room for argument.
“Now, you wait a minute, Mr. Crowley,” Jared said, appearing out of the crowd. “She can go home when she’s good and ready. Braxton just woke up yester-“
“It’s okay, Jared,” Margot said, sending a gentle smile his way. “I’ll go.” She turned to her daughter, hugging her one more time, whispering into the embrace, “It’s easier this way.”
Braxton nodded, understanding, yet still feeling a bit raw by the sudden appearance of the man she’d feared and partially hated her entire life.
Margot moved to hug and thank all of Braxton’s roommates, one by one, before disappearing up the stairs, only to return a moment later with her single suitcase. Without a word, she followed her equally silent husband back through the crowd, and out into the late summer night.
“Jesus. That dude an undertaker?” someone asked, breaking the deafening silence.
“No,” Braxton said, watching through a window as her parent’s sedan drove off into the night. “That was my father.”
Tension hung heavily in the air, an unseen weight pressing upon everyone in the house. The party slowly began to break, everyone offering Braxton hugs and kisses and wishes to get well soon. They all hoped to see her back on campus the following month. Soon it was just the five roommates, and a house full of trash bags filled with papers plates, cups and napkins.
“That went well,” Carrie said, flopping down next to Lydia on the couch, sitting across from where Jared and Braxton sat, the blonde’s head on her best friend’s shoulder. Alicia took the armchair.
“Good times,” Lydia agreed, picking some lint off the toe of her left sock.
“I found my replacement,” Alicia said, meeting all eyes, lingering on Braxton’s. Seeing the blonde’s confusion, Jared explained.
“Al is moving in with the boyfriend, finally, but she didn’t want to do it until we knew what was going to happen with you. You know, leaving us two short on rent, rather than just one.”
“Oh, jeez, guys! I’m so sorry!” Braxton exclaimed, her hands covering her mouth. A chorus rose, all pushing away Braxton’s unnecessary apology.
“We figured it out, girl,” Carrie said, moving so she was lying across the cushions, her head resting in Lydia’s lap. Lydia absently ran her fingers through the strands of her hair.
“I call Al’s room!” Jared yelled, Carrie and Lydia groaning. He glanced at Braxton. “Unless Brax wants it.”
Alicia laughed. “You’re such a sap, Jared. Jeez.”
Jared grinned, patting the shoulder which his arm rested around. “Yeah, well…” Alicia’s room was the largest in the house, and had it’s own bathroom. “Besides, if I take it, I don’t have to find wrapped up maxi pads in the trash anymore.” The group laughed, Braxton smacking him on the chest. “What, it’s true. And gross.”
“Well, get used to it, buddy. You’ll see it again when Karen comes to visit and is on the rag,” Carrie grinned evilly.
“Yeah, what’s going on with that, anyway?” Braxton asked, lifting her head from Jared’s shoulder. “She was one of my nurses, right? Are you two… dating?” She wasn’t sure why she stumbled over the word. At his nod, she felt a stab of jealousy. “Oh.”
“They’re a cute couple,” Lydia said wistfully, her head falling to rest on the back of the couch.
“We’ve been seeing each other for a couple months,” Jared quietly explained. He almost felt guilty at the reveal.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Carrie, Lydia and Alicia glanced at each other, passing knowing looks, then quietly slipped away. “I’ll never understand why those two never hooked up,” Carrie whispered as she followed her friends to the kitchen.
Braxton turned so she was facing him, her legs curled up under her. “Is it serious?”
Jared wasn’t sure what to say; should he tell her the truth? Lie about it? Play it off for less than it was? No. He decided both Karen and Braxton deserved the truth. “Yeah, I kinda think it is.”
Braxton had seen Jared with other women before. Plenty. But for some reason, seeing him with Karen that day in the hospital room, the way they interacted with each other, had left her with butterflies in her stomach. It was ridiculous, she knew because Braxton knew that if anything were ever going to happen between her and Jared, it already would have. He’d wanted it for years, that much she knew. She also knew that no matter how she’d tried to imagine herself with him, beyond the incredibly close friendship they had, she came up empty.
“Is that okay?” Jared asked, growing nervous, and his guilt building the longer Braxton’s silence remained. She looked at him, blinking a few times as though just realizing he were there, and then seemed to shake herself out of wherever she’d just gone.
Braxton plastered a smile onto her face and nodded. “Yes, of course it’s okay, Jar. I don’t own you, and I want nothing but for you to be happy. You should bring Karen by one of these days so I can meet her. Well, meet her better than I did in the hospital.”
Jared nodded, uncertain. “Okay.”
“Well, I for one am exhausted.” Braxton sighed, pushing herself to her feet. “God, I swear I have no energy. This really sucks.”
Jared stood, immediately offering assistance to keep the blonde steady. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” She hugged Jared tight then kissed him on the cheek. “Good night.” She headed for the stairs, then turned, grinning. “Oh, and you can take Alicia’s room. I really don’t want to have to listen to you grunt during sex like I did with Sheryl.” She wrinkled her nose to emphasize her point. Jared laughed, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Thanks for everything, Jared. You’re the best friend I could ever have.”
“Right back at’cha, Brax. Night.”
Braxton woke up gasping, her heart pounding, terror in her heart and a name forgotten on her tongue. She sat up in bed, looking around her darkened bedroom, hand on her chest. Her tank top was plastered to her by sweat, the sheets tangled around her body.
Reality slowly seeped in, and she realized she was safe and awake, her nightmare forgotten. Again. Every night since she’d woken from her coma had been a test of resilience as her slumbering steps were dogged by demons that haunted her every dream, her every sleeping breath. Every time she would wake, she always had the same name on her tongue, but just out of reach, unable to recall it, though she felt its importance to her somehow.
“God, this sucks,” she groaned, tossing her legs off the bed, bare feet hitting the floor. She scooted them around until her toes touched the soft material of her slippers, and slipped them inside. She slipped out of her soggy tank top, tugging a fresh one over her head, as well as a pair of mesh soccer shorts and headed downstairs into the darkened house.
She rolled her eyes as she heard the soft moans coming from Carrie’s bedroom, Lydia’s bedroom door opened. She didn’t understand her two roommates relationship, which seemed more like friends with occasional benefits, but whatever floated their collective boats.
Braxton opened the fridge door, squinting at the sudden light that illuminated the kitchen from it. Picking out a bottle of fruit-flavored water, she slammed the door shut and twisted the cap, taking a long, much-needed drink. The night beyond the window over the sink was quiet and still, the moon a bright sliver above the neighbor’s house across the street. One thing that amazed Braxton since she’d awakened was how bright and vivid everything was. She seemed to be seeing the world with all new senses: everything was brighter, smelled better, was louder and clearer. Everything felt better to the touch, more pronounced and defined. She felt reborn.
“Hey,” Carrie said softly, padding into the kitchen. She wore a long t-shirt, and not much else underneath. Braxton looked away, feeling somewhat shy and embarrassed after what she had heard, knowing what Carrie had just done.
“Hi. What are you doing up?”
“Needed a drink,” Carrie said, sheepishly holding up the two bottles of beer she pulled from the fridge. Braxton gave her a conspiratorial wink, then sipped from her water.
“So, who’s the new roomy? I’ll be so sad to see Alicia go.”
“Me, too. Not sure who she is. Some chick Al knows. Don’t think she’s a student, though.”
“Hmm,” Braxton hummed absently.
“Well, night, girl.” Carrie smiled, then was off, a door clicking closed in the distance.
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