By: P.L. Jones
Love is courageous.
“Don’t thank me.” He smiled.
Accepting his smile with a grin of my own, I quickly looked away.
Alec and his smiles...
He’d been throwing theatrical grins at me from the moment he’d walked through the heavy door to my temporary room, said, "Hi" to the nurse, and awkwardly placed his hands in his pockets.
Actually, he'd been flinging smiles my way for years...tossing them with the same flair his girlfriend had tossed her hair eight billion times per second as the two of them had entered my hospital room last night.
I’d felt pretty dumb just lying there wearing only a thin hospital gown while she, smelling of rich-girl perfume and clad in clothing designed by someone whose name I probably couldn't even pronounce, had stood beside Alec, both of them tall and beautiful, staring down at me with pity.
Even then, when I’d been out of my head and scared by the fact that I just might die, one of my foremost concerns was that I’d lived an entire twenty-three years without ever telling my best friend that I wanted nothing more than for the two of us to be a real "us".
As many times as I'd thought about opening my mouth and getting those words out...I'd always stopped short.
I just couldn't do it, I couldn't say it.
I wondered if anyone else in the world was as cowardly as I’d proven myself to be...
Amidst the chaotic whirl of dizzying thoughts that spun around my aching head, I’d actually given serious consideration to asking my sister to make sure that something very specific would be engraved on my tombstone.
I wanted my grave labeled with a note which, simple but permanent, would finally erase my years of cowardice.
I silently decided that the words on my tombstone would read: "Hannah spent her twenty-three years quietly in love with her best friend, Alec Bradey."
All of that, as silly as it sounds, was what I’d been thinking about when my sister had gently stroked my cheek and tearfully whispered,
“Hang in there Hannah.”
“Are you tired?” Alec’s voice brought me back to reality and I opened my eyes, which I hadn’t even realized were closed.
“No.” I shook my head and the room twirled around me.
Closing my eyes again, I waited until the merry-go-round slowed to a stop and I was back to lying on a hospital bed in a room that smelled of cleaning products.
My sister didn’t trust hospitals and she’d insisted on “disinfecting” my room herself.
I’d been much too out of my head to enjoy a front row seat at the comedy routine that was sister’s cleaning frenzy. Thankfully, Alec had been kind enough to describe my sister's craziness. He'd said that my sister's germaphobic quirkiness had given him and his stupid "actress" girlfriend (my words, not his) a few much needed laughs as she'd shown up, marching into my hospital room with the determination of an American Idol Contestant and the garments of Darth Vader turned-germaphobe (he said she wore a mask and some sort of black anti-dirt cape. Yes, that's right. A cape...). Armed with several buckets of lemony fresh pine cleaner, air freshener, and all sorts of disinfectant sprays, she'd really cleaned up the place.
“If you need to rest, you can. I’ll be here when you wake up. I’m not going anywhere.” Alec slid into the old fashioned green chair that was next to my bed.
“You’re not going to your audition today?” I asked, watching him try and get comfortable.
Somewhere outside of my window, I heard a bird chirping.
“Nah...no.” Pausing abruptly, he glanced at the window, “A mockingbird...? That's funny.”
I wondered if I was still out of it or if he’d actually just said he'd skipped an audition. Alec never skipped an audition.
'Well,' I thought to myself, 'I guess that explains him trying to distract himself from his depression over missing the audition by staring out of windows and mumbling random stuff about mockingbirds.'
For a moment neither of us said anything and my mind drifted back to Dr. Rothman’s somber expression as he’d entered my room at 8 AM, asked where my sister was, and when I’d mentioned that she hadn’t made it in yet, looked even more somber as he’d gone on to tell me,
“Hannah, you were fortunate this time. You’re stabilized for now but we’re going to monitor you for the next couple of weeks…”
I knew what that meant.
It meant Dr. Rothman didn’t have the highest hopes for me.
It also meant there was no real reason for me to keep my secret anymore.
'What do I have to lose?' I thought with a mental shrug.
“Alec-" I started.
“Oh!” Jumping out of his seat and quickly reaching into his pocket, he retrieved a colorful sheet of paper, “I almost forgot…”
As his voice trailed off I found that my breath had sort of gotten stuck in my chest and was having difficulty making it's way out of my mouth and...this time I knew it had nothing to do with a low blood count.
It was because my moment of fearless bravery had passed.
Closing my eyes, I grit my teeth and cursed myself for being a coward.
He went on, completely oblivious to the tears that stung the insides of my eyes.
“…my little sister drew this for you…um, you know she really looks up to you. So I told her I’d be sure and give you…her picture. She’ll probably be by a little later, after she gets out of school. My mom will be with her. You know, they both really want to see you, and... Hey, Hannah?”
I didn’t hear much of what he said, only the tail end of his monologue, the part where he'd said my name.
“Yeah?” I opened my eyes.
He was looking right at me; staring straight into my eyes as he’d done so many times before.
We’d found each other when we were only five years old. My Aunt lived right next door to his family, so when she was at work and my big sister was gone, Alec became my family.
We’d been friends ever since.
Through elementary and junior high, through the rebel-phase that I went through in high school and through his obsession with wanting to be an actor during our first year of college.
Those same eyes had met mine so many times before and every single time it happened, I’d silently remarked on how lovely they were.
But I’d never had the courage to tell him.
“I know this might be …no. ” He paused and restarted his sentence, “Han, what can I do?”
He reached for my hand, and I looked down with surprise.
‘He’s your friend, of course he’d reach for your hand.’ I thought to myself, ‘Don’t be silly, you’re sick and he’s a nice person. Of course he’d reach for your hand.’
The punishing thought slipped away as his eyes started to water.
“Hannah, I’m rambling about mockingbirds and” As if on cue, the mockingbird chirped, “…I’m trying to say anything to have something to say but…this isn’t about me. I don’t want to try and make myself feel better, you need to feel better-"
At that point his voice broke and I squeezed his hand.
“It’s OK.” I spoke quietly because I knew that I was lying.
It wasn’t okay.
It wasn’t alright with me that I was sick, no one had asked me…I didn’t recall consenting to a life of laying in bed, watching my sister flail around and losing her mind as she struggled to take care of her three little kids and a younger sister who’d suddenly become ill.
It wasn’t okay that I’d been too much of a coward to save Alec from the clutches of yet another brainless blonde.
In spite of my self-accusatory thoughts, the lie seemed to calm him.
I watched him take a deep breath.
“You’re so brave Han.” He smiled and a lone tear fell from his eyes onto the back of my hand, “You really are.”
“That… is not a word to describe me.” I shook my head and smiled.
“It is.” He softly disagreed.
Gently letting go of my hand, he put the colorful piece of paper on the edge of my bed right next to the rails that would prevent me from falling to the floor. I looked at the shiny railing and offhandedly wondered if my sister had cleaned it with Lysol while I’d slept last night.
Alec cleared his throat and nodded, with some awkwardness, towards the door,
“I’ll be right back, I’m going to get some coffee. You need anything?”
“A new heart.” I joked and then as I watched his face fall, immediately regretted the joke.
“I’d give you mine if I could.” His lips were set in a straight line and his face seemed ashen as he walked away.
“You already have.” I whispered to his back and watched him walk away.
I reached for the colorful paper that was apparently from his little sister and the grainy feel of construction paper slipped between my fingers as I picked it up.
The first sincere smile I’d had in the past forty-eight hours made it’s way to my lips …and then I heard myself laugh.
Alec’s little sister had drawn a picture of the three of us, all holding hands and I seemed to be wearing a wedding gown.
I could see that the bride was me and not Alec’s latest girlfriend because his little sister had perfectly mastered my mass of curly black hair.
Above our smiling faces (and my ridiculously large hair) was a bright yellow sun, which also had a smiley face and seemed to be saying, “Hello.”
Responding to the sun’s greeting was a little blue bird that also said hello and had something scribbled near it's obtusely large left wing.
I couldn’t quite make out what the scribbled words said.
Holding the picture so close to my eyes that it was practically touching my nose, I was finally able to decipher an arrow and two scribbled words, “A Mockingbird.”
Setting the paper down, I stared blankly into the white wall ahead of me.
The mockingbird outside of my window was still making a racket and, somewhere in the distance, a car horn honked.
“Have you seen Dr. Brighten?” A stranger in the hallway called loudly as they passed my door, their heavy footsteps falling against the hospital floor.
Every sound was magnified and above it all, I still heard the noisy mockingbird.
Alec’s voice startled me,
“I don’t know what my sister was thinking.”
He came through the doorway looking much better than he had when he'd left. His eyes were dry and he was carrying two cups.
Walking back to his seat, he placed one of the cups on the windowsill, near the sound of the mockingbird and the other cup on the little tray where the nurses put my food.
“I thought you might want some tea.”
“Thanks.” Grinning at him, I took the hot cup of tea and enjoyed the feeling of its warmth against my palm. Hospitals were always so cold.
“Sure.” He took the picture and smiled, “Yeah… my little sister’s crazy.”
Taking a sip of the tea, I watched him carefully.
He set the picture down but he didn’t stop looking at it, instead he kept talking,
“I told her she ought to draw you something that would make you happy. But I guess making you laugh…probably hysterically, isn’t too terrible either. Right?
Finally tearing his eyes away from the construction paper, he glanced at me and the slightest hint of surprise registered in his expression.
I had no idea what I looked like, because I couldn’t see what he saw in my face.
But I know exactly what I felt and from the surprised expression on his face, I suspected that he had some idea of what I was feeling.
For a moment, we were silent.
The mouthy mockingbird was quiet too.
Fleetingly, I wondered if it knew that it had done it's job and that's why it flew away.
I resolutely set my tea on the tray and vowed to be brave.
One day soon, I’d fly away.
But before I left, there was something very important that needed to be said.
Meeting Alec’s eyes for probably the billionth time in my life, I began my bravest moment with five words,
“It did make me happy…”