As I stood outside on the hospital lawn by the parking lot, looking up into the window where Richie used to lean over in his bed and look out into his limited vision of the world, I felt a guilt ridden chill fall on my shoulders like a shower of ice. A moment of fear. A moment of doubt. Exactly how long had it been since I've been here? Time was such an ineffectual part of my life now, ever since I've been born into darkness. You lose track of it so easily. Minutes taken for granted as immortality stands closely behind you, promising you two fresh moments for each one wasted. I had completely lost my sense of what time even was anymore. My memories....falling and fading away into a fuzzy haze. It was like having the ability to see...but with no depth perception to guide your sense of 'distance'. Without that, the questions began to haunt me. What if I was too late? What if I had missed my only chance to see him again? It plagued my emotions, keeping me in a state of fearful hesitation at first. But the more the thoughts of him being gone crossed my mind, the more I wanted believe that he was still alive. Still hanging in there. Still holding on. I was determined to believe that I hadn't lost my chance to make things right.
For months before crossing over...I had been scared to leave his side. And yet, for months...I had been scared to REMAIN at his side, caring for him as much as I did. Knowing that I was going to lose him eventually. It's a heartbreaking experience...watching someone wither away before your very eyes. Knowing that all you can do is make those last days of his as happy and memorable as you possibly can. But why? What good does it do to provide pleasant memories to someone who, ultimately, can't take it with them? I often asked myself if I could do it. If I'd be able to gather the courage to hold Richie's hand in the very end...when he needed me most. If I could possibly stand by him through his pain and truly be an angel for him...the way he had been such an angel for me. I don't deal with death well. I don't deal with it all. How could I possibly be a guiding light for him when it came to something so terrifying for me that I never took the time to understand it? How? Standing out there in the night air, I felt tears streaming down my face, doubting that I'd ever be able to be there like he needed me to be. I wasn't a saint or a savior. I was a little boy. Trying desperately to make sense out of the world he had been thrown into. All I knew was that I desperately wanted to be by Richie's side while he went through the most painful ordeal of his life. The final ordeal in his life. I owed him that much respect. That and so much more. Richie helped to define me by being a friend. My sense of who I was, my sense of humor, most of my favorite sunlit memories...all came from him.
I remember, distinctly, one time when we were 12, and I had gotten a skateboard for my birthday. Richie was one of those boys that loved skateboarding! The magazines, the videos, the older kids at the park, the movies, whatever. But had never been on one before in his life! He so desperately wanted to try mine out! I think he got more excitement out of my board than I did that year! Hehehe! God....I can still see it. Him hopping on and pushing himself to a decent speed. It looked so easy in all of the magazines. How hard could it be to get on a board with wheels and propel yourself forward, right? Well...evidently it's harder than Richie gave it credit for.
"Justin! Dude..check this out! I'm gonna try a trick! Ok?" He shouted to me, and I watched, wondering if he had learned anything from the many videos he had purchased from the comic book store. He started off, began rolling, tried some weird, complicated movement...and WHAM! The board slipped from under him and he ended up flat on his back! There wasn't even a way for him to break his fall, it was so damn fast! This boy was definitely down for the count. Coughing as the fall had knocked the wind out of him, he tried to make it look like it didn't hurt as much as I KNEW it did. I had a brief moment of worry that wanted to make sure he was ok. But once that had worn off...the opportunity to laugh hysterically at his 'trick' was just TOO fucking big to pass up!
I ran over to where he was laying on the ground, my skateboard damn near twenty feet further down the sidewalk, and looked down at him with a smile. I tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey! Hey, Richie......!" I said.
"What?" He coughed weakly.
"Say man...you're GOOD! Can you do it again?" I started to laugh outloud, and he sat up to grab my leg and pull me down to the ground with him! Playfully swinging at me with his fist!
"FUCK YOU!!!" He shouted, and probably would have been upset if we both weren't laughing so hard! "You SUCK, Justin! I'm telling your mom you tried to KILL me! Hahaha!"
The memory ached slightly in the back of my mind, as Richie's once genuine laugh echoed through my soul and dimmed as a cool wind brought me back to the present. We had shared so many good times together before he had gotten sick. Hell...we shared good times AFTER he had gotten sick. Back then, the only question was how were we going to keep the 'party' going until we were both old and grey. How we were going to keep those laughs rolling until we didn't have the breath in us to continue any longer. But now? Now the only question in my heart has transformed into whether or not I was willing to walk into that hospital room and learn the truth. Whether or not I was willing to dip back into my human life just ONE more time, just to make sure he was ok. And to possibly find out that my very best friend in the whole world...the only boy who ever truly embraced me and made life beautiful for me when I needed it soooo much....
Standing on that darkened lawn, I heard the wind rustle through the trees, and the leaves softly applauded the strength that I had to summon up to even come THIS far. I didn't have to wait long for the answer to hit me. Still hearing the haunting echoes of his laughter in my head, still imagining how bright his smile used to be before he began to deteriorate into his illness...I knew I wasn't going to leave him this time. I won't just turn my back on him as though he was just some part of an 'older' life that I wasn't living anymore. At one time, Richie was everything to me, dammit! And no matter what I find in that room...he will always hold a piece of my heart. It was given to him willingly, for the time and the life altering 'gift' he had given me in return. I won't deny his existence just to hold on to this...this...SECRET. There was nothing left to think about. I'm going in. I'm going in now.
I looked around the outside walls of the building. I had never entered through any other way than the front door. But there were still nurses and security on duty. Not to mention that the front desk was right in font of everything. I did have Dylan's extra to protect me from sight, but wondered how effective it would be up close and personal with the hospital staff. Especially considering that many of them already knew my face. If not from my many visits to see Richie, then definitely from news reports and the search my mother must have put out on me. Chances are the police would have come searching for me here at one time or another. I had to be extra careful. Any attention that I brought down on myself might be brought down on everyone else in the lot as well. We were all 'missing children' in that place, afterall.
I saw the parking lot entrance, and decided to try going through there. It was late, visiting hours were over, and the chance for any late night 'traffic' was pretty slim. There was only a single guard, an older gentleman sitting in the booth at the parking lot entrance. And he seemed to be half asleep. That wouldn't be a problem once I 'blanked' out. I remember Comicality telling me that it was my movements that made me visible while I was sneaking around before, and I made sure to keep that in mind this time. Taking care to watch my footsteps, being sure that I didn't scoot the bottoms of my sneakers, or kick any little bits of debris that might be lying around on the ground. Just like Dylan said...I wasn't really 'invisible', just slightly outside of people's attention. If they knew to make an effort to look for me, they could probably find me easy enough. Besides, I'm not sure how well I've got this extra worked out yet, and I didn't want to run into any conflicts. I didn't want to fight or hurt anybody...I just wanted to make sure Richie was ok. Nothing more. Then I'm gone.
I made my way in under the arm at the parking lot entrance, and began looking for an elevator to take me into the main building. The more I got used to Dylan's extra, the better I got at it. So good, in fact, that when I first approached the silver metal doors of the parking lot elevator....I barely cast a reflection.
I waited for the elevator to open up, and stepped inside. I leaned up against the wall...letting out a sigh of relief as I let my focus go to rest that ability until I needed it again. My eyes directed themselves to the ceiling, and my thoughts traveled back to that day Richie and I spent at Buckingham Fountain. That warm day...when the mist of that ice cold water gave us just enough of a chill to make us laugh. I remember him giving the camera to his mom, "Take our picture, Mom!"
"You guys ready?" She said, and Richie pulled me close to him. The breeze rustled through his hair, and his mom did her best to position herself to get us both in there. "Say cheese."
"Just take it already!" He giggled, and we both grinned widely...as the mist washed over us. I remember feeling the tickle of the spray against my skin just as she snapped that photo. The photo that I took wih me into eternity. "I'll get you a copy, Justin. Promise. You're my best friend." Just as I remembered the feeling that those words gave me, it was as if my memory of that day was torn in half. Much like the photo itself when the raiders came to our lot to rob us of our possessions. The colors ran, and bled into a dismal black and white blur of what the original recollection was. I was pulled back into the real world as the elevator reached its floor. I felt it slowing down, and needed to get my mind focused all over again. I felt a tear well up in each eye, and quickly wiped them away as I concentrated on blanking out again.
The doors of the elevator opened, and I looked around to make sure no one else was in the hallway. I had gotten lucky. I moved slowly through the doors and began to make my way down the hall. Remembering how nice and comfortable the waiting rooms always looked in the front. Soft couches and plants, televisions and magazines, painted pictures and fancy light fixtures. All pleasantries until you were led into a world of sterile white walls and the bland colorless halls of sickness. It made me wonder if Richie had ever gotten to see that 'false paradise' of an entrance anymore. Or if he simply stayed in bed, trapped in one world while being forced to forget the other that he had recently left behind him. After what I've been through, I can definitely relate.
I noticed cameras lining the halls. I had forgotten about them. I wasn't sure if I was invisible to cameras. I didn't know if they could see me now, or if they would be able to see me later while reviewing any tapes. I hadn't thought of that before. But it was too late to turn back now. I simply put more energy into being undetectable to human eyes and hoped that it would work.
I made it past the front desk, where a rather large nurse was eating gummy bears and humming some familiar tune to herself. It made me nervous at first, but once I had gotten three steps from behind the wall without her noticing me...I figured it was safe. So I walked passed with no trouble at all. So far so good, Justin. Just a little bit further....and we'll make it to the second elevator.
I measured each step. Praying that there were taking me closer to a truth that would ease my suffering mind. Not the truth that kept me having nightmares at night. Not the truth that would destroy me right here and now if it presented itself the way I almost expected it to. But a realization that maybe God hadn't abandonedme totally. That maybe, if he DID exist out there somewhere....he might cut me a break, and allow me a moment's peace in my life.
I can remember that dark morning, knocking on Richie's door at his house. I had been gone for most of the summer to stay with my grandparents and was anxious to get back together with my favorite partner in crime. When his mom opened the door...I didn't even notice the unnerving sight of intense pain in her eyes. "Hey, Mrs. Logan. Where's the 'freak'? Hehehe! We've got a lot of mischief to make, and a whole summer to catch up on!" I grinned. But looking closer...I saw no joy in her expression. In fact, I saw no emotion at all until a few tears began to stream down her cheeks. "Mrs. Logan?"
I stayed up against the hospital wall as I got closer to the elevator. A late night security guard walked right passed me and didn't see a thing thanks to my invisibiity. Still, I wanted to be sharp. No room for accidents this time. I'm already going to be in MAJOR trouble with Bryson when I get back to the lot. Possibly even Taryn too. And the worst part is....the only reason I have to give them for sneaking out like I did...I can't even tell them about. NO interfering with the human life you left behind. They were all pretty specific about that particular rule. Bryson always told me..."The most DANGEROUS thing any vampire can do is attempt to weave himself back into his old life." Who knows, maybe he's right. I guess I'll just have to deal with those consequences later. No matter what they may be.
I got to the end of the hallway, and looked both ways to make sure no one was coming. Then I moved across the hall to hit the button for the next elevator. I was in a bit of a hurry, hoping that it would come quickly so that I could get on without drawing any attention to the series of 'phantom' elevator doors opening all over the hospital. Again...I got lucky. And I stepped inside unnoticed. I hit the button for the 7th floor, and waited to be carried up. This is it. This is my last chance to make things ok again.
"Justin.....?" I remember Richie's voice being so weak the first time I saw him in that bed. I had been visiting as often as possible for a few months...but it was becoming harder and harder to look him in the eye. I just....couldn't. The cancer was eating him alive inside, and the cure wasn't any more pleasant than the disease itself. I watched my best friend waste away in front of my eyes. I watched his color fade, I watched his hair disappear, I watched the life in his eyes dull to a faint spark that I believe he worked up just to make me believe he was ok. Just to be 'strong' for me while I was with him. I almost felt bad for making him work up the energy. "Justin....they...they 'told' you right? About me?" He asked, and I cried softly as I laid my head down on his stomach. He was propped up in his bed to be made 'comfortable'...but it didn't make the news any easier to take.
"Yeah....yeah, they told me." I sobbed. He wasn't going to make it. He was going to hold out for as long as he possibly could. But the bottom line was...there wasn't much more that anyone could do for him except to pray to God for a miracle. Since that day...I haven't prayed to God for much of anything. He never answers. Never. And when He does...he makes you PAY for it with some other random tragedy that makes you feel even worse than you did before his so-called 'divine assistance' was sent down to save you. There were many nights that I needed God's favors, many nights when I cried out to the stars to PLEASE send me some help! Many nights when all I wanted was for my father to not beat me up and to leave my mother alone. Many nights when I wished he could answer me just ONCE and tell me that he wasn't making my life a living hell on PURPOSE. But out of all those late night prayers through teary eyes and heartfelt apologies...he's never once granted me a single miracle. It did me no more good to pray to Him to save Richie than it did to ask Santa Claus for a brand new bicycle. Since that day, my very concept of God joined the ranks of fictional characters such as the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. I figured He was either a fake, a fraud...or He just didn't care about me. Either way, I was alone. And I didn't have the time or the energy to dwell in fantasies anymore.
"Justin...I know how....hard it is for you to come here every few days..."
"It's NOT hard at all, Richie. I care about you..."
"Shhhh...it's ok. I know. If I were you, I wouldn't want to be here either." I sat up, and tried sooo hard to be strong for him. But I couldn't do it. My eyes spilled over with tears and they wouldn't stop no matter how badly I wanted them to. "We had fun times, right? I liked hanging with you. Those idiots at your school don't know what they're missing." Then he added, "You know...I didn't wanna be 'corny' about it....but...I always wanted to tell you how very much you mean to me, Justin."
"No!" I said defiantly. "Don't you DO that, Richie! You are NOT saying 'goodbye' to me, do you hear me?" He smiled weakly in my direction, but I could see tears beginning to form in his eyes as well. "Please don't leave me, Richie.......please?" I said, putting my head down on his soft stomach again. I felt his hand gently fall on the back of my head, and pet my hair tenderly as he sniffled and tried to keep his strength up. "You're all I've got in this world, Richie. I don't have anybody else. You CAN'T die! You CAN'T! Please don't leave me here alone..."
"Hey...don't turn into a 'girl' on me here....ok?" He wept. "Listen..." He said as I clutched tightly onto the sheets covering his body. "Justin......no matter what happens to me, I'm never going to leave you. Ok? I'm not going anywhere." He slowly lifted my head up to look at me. My face was flushed, and wet with tears. I saw the emotion in his face, the sadness in his eyes, but he attempted to smile anyway. He had already accepted what I could not. "When I...." He was about to use the word 'die'...but I couldn't handle that. I COULDN'T!!! And he knew that. "...When I'm gone from here....I'm going to be right there beside you. Everytime you think about me. Everytime you smile. Everytime you go someplace that we used to go. I'll be there, Justin. I'll be there. And I'll be proud for having the chance to spend some really good times with my very best friend in the world."
"Richie...please...just...don't speak, ok?" I pleaded. It hurt so much that it felt as though my heart were being burnt to ashes inside of my chest. I could hardly breathe. I hardly wanted to.
"Please, just listen..."
"PLEASE!" He said a bit louder. He was determined to finish saying what he had to say to me. "Please?" I nodded, and he began to cry more openly as he tried to express himself. "You are one of the best things that has ever happened to me in this life, Justin. You make me laugh like nobody else can. You...you care about me without ever asking for anything in return. And even when I was mad at you, you were there for me when I needed you most. I don't think I could have been any luckier than I was the day I found you." I closed my eyes, afraid to listen, and yet afraid to miss a single word. At that point, my soul had almost evaporated into nothing. "You're just...you really mean a lot to me, Justin, and you always will. That's why..........." He sniffled again, and wiped his eyes as the tears got worse. "...That's why...I wish I could stay with you. For just a little bit longer." He sobbed more, and more, and soon the damn burst. I rushed forward to hug him tightly against me. "I don't wanna die, Justin.....oh God.....I don't wanna die........" I held onto him as though my arms could somehow keep him here for all eternity. As though I could take the sickness into myself instead and spare him the agony of living with it for one more day. But that wasn't in fate's design, was it? It had other plans. "Please, Justin....don't leave me. PLEASE don't leave me here alone!"
"I'm not going to leave you, Richie! Not ever!" He wept even harder against my chest, soaking my shirt with his tears as I gently rocked him back and forth in my careful embrace. "I'm right here, dude. I'm not gonna leave your side. I'm going to be right here next to you...until the angels come to take you away from me. Ok?"
"You promise?" He whimpered.
"I promise." The sound of my own voice echoed in my mind, the memory of that day so vivid in my mind, that I almost didn't notice the hospital elevator stopping on the FOURTH floor instead of the seventh! I heard the chime of the door, and there were voices outside! At least two or three of them!
I quickly wiped my eyes free of my spontaneous tears, and attempted to fight off a sudden panic as the doors opened and some of the staff prepared to enter the elevator. Now these elevators were big, but they weren't THAT big! If someone were to touch me or bump into me, they'd be able to see me! They'd notice my location in the elevator and the whole operation would be a bust! SHIT! As they came towards the lift, my instincts kicked in, backing me up against the wall as tight as I could go. Then, without even thinking about it really, I felt myself spring upwards to the ceiling and blank out to a deeply camouflaged presence. My body just 'hung' there over their heads, my feet clinging to the side of one wall, and my fingers keeping me steady on the opposite wall. I had NO idea how that happened or how I was pulling this off so easily this time...but I hoped it would hold! I couldn't slip! They'd catch me if I slipped!
A doctor, a male orderly, and two late night nurses came into the elevator, one of them carrying a young boy in their arms. He was maybe 3 or 4 years old, and was obviously an 'overnight' patient at the hospital from the way he was dressed. I remained near the ceiling of the lift, so focused on remaining undetectable that I wasn't even casting a clear shadow on the floor beneath me. I was holding my breath, trying not to move, not to sweat, not to even THINK. The adults had no idea that I was there, but I nearly gasped outloud when I felt one of my stray tears slowly begin to 'hang' from my cheek. I couldn't use my hand to wipe it away, afraid that the movement would alert the other passengers. Afraid that taking my hand from the wall would cause me to fall. So I prayed silently for it to hold steady until they were gone. But prayers have no real effect on gravity...and I watched as a single tear dripped off of my cheek and landed on the shoulder of one of the orderlies! My eyes were wide, and I felt myself trembling at the thought of being seen. But he apparently didn't even notice. Either that, or he thought it was just a normal drop of moisture from the vent or something. I was relieved, but too scared to sigh. I couldn't believe that an entire elevator full of people were RIGHT below me! I thank the stars that I'm getting better at this.
Just then, I noticed the young boy look around the elevator, and from the nurse's arms, almost looked directly AT me. In fact, I was pretty sure that if he didn't see me, then he at least knew that I was there. I guess younger children can tell. They believe. Their minds haven't learned the prejudices and limitations of what is 'real' and 'unreal' quite yet. It made me nervous for a moment, but the boy didn't say a word. His thoughts became open to me for a few brief moments, but I couldn't really read them. It wasn't like reading the thoughts of a teenager or an adult. These were vague, and random, and switched from one subject to the next every half second without rhyme or reason. Absorbing the whole world at once with curiosity and splendor for the first time, without the burdening need to make any particular 'sense' of it all. It was overwhelming. Being reintroduced to the mind of a child can be a very strange experience indeed.
Thankfully, the crew got off of the elevator on the sixth floor, and I watched as the little boy smiled in my direction while they carried him out. He knew. I could tell. Thank goodness he was the ONLY one. I waited for the doors to close, and the elevator to start moving again, before jumping back down from the ceiling and landing on my feet. I let out a long relieved sigh, and tried to get myself calmed down again before reaching the seventh floor.
When the elevator doors opened again, I carefully checked the hallway for any security or late night nurses, and I crept out to find my best friend. To just...connect with him one last time. The hallways hadn't changed a bit since I had been gone. I remembered every detail of that place from my many visits there to see him. I remembered the look of it, the decoration, the 'feel' of it. The halls were always so cold here. So cold. And empty. A single footstep could be heard throughout the entire East wing. But there was a different layer to the old place that I wasn't aware of my last visit here. The kind of extra detail that only a vampire could sense. The halls were thick with the smell of blood. Old, stale, tasteless, blood. It was like a graveyard to me. I could detect all kinds of imperfections, diseases, and sickening taints in the many occuppants on that floor. I could sense their fever, their worries, their weakness. Feeling it, smelling it, being there for the first time as a vampire was a terrifying experience. But I was compelled to move forward. I couldn't stop. I couldn't turn back. Not now. I had come too far....and Richie's room was just at the other end of the hall.
"C'mon Richie! Show me! Ya chicken!" Hehehe, I thought back to that day when Richie and I were swimming and had to shower off afterwards. We were both 12, and I was already coming to the conclusion that I was gay and always would be. It wasn't an attraction so much, as I was just curious as to what another boy's 'equipment' would look like. I was more turned on by the situation than by Richie himself. Not that he wasn't cute, because he was. But we were practically brothers by that point, and our relationship didn't 'need' that extra bonus to work.
"I'm NOT gonna 'show you' anything! Quit being a weirdo!" He grinned.
"See? You're scared."
"I'm NOT scared!"
"It must be pretty little if you don't want anybody to see it." I said, hoping to get him to show me.
"Don't you worry about how big it is, just shower already and shut up."
"I'll bet mine's longer than yours."
Richie blushed a little bit. "So?" He said, smiling but not looking at me. "You're bigger than I am."
"I'm not THAT much bigger. I'm only like two inches taller than you are."
"That's still bigger."
I smiled at him slyly. "C'mon...I know you wanna show me."
"Think again." I never DID get to see it that day. The bastard kept me panting for a peek for another six months until I happened to catch sight of it one night when he slept over. It was the first I had ever seen up close other than my own. If circumstances had been different, I might have fallen in love with Richie right there on the spot. But since we had been friends first...I guess I found a whole different level of satisfaction from having him near me. We never touched or played around or experimented with anything. We understood each other on a deeper level than that. Our love was much more complete. I can only hope that same smile is waiting for me on the other side of that door.
I felt an ice cold shiver slide down my backside as I took the last few steps towards Richie's hospital room. Every step feeling as though the floor would suddenly turn brittle, and collapse beneath my feet. I was here. For REAL this time, not in some twisted nightmare....but actually here. I had to close my eyes tightly, and take a deep breath before letting out a long sigh...bracing myself for what I might find in that room. I was sorry that I had left him, sorry that I had ABANDONED him, sorry that I wasn't there to comfort him when I had the chance...and I could only hope that my sudden disappearance from the world hadn't cost us our last precious moments together on this Earth.
I paused....and then reached out a shakey hand to open the door. For some odd reason, the door opened on its own prior to me touching the handle. It pushed itself open a couple of inches before my hand made contact, and I thought it rather strange. I looked at my hand, wondering if I had triggered some strange part of an extra that I hadn't even realized that I had absorbed yet. But shook it off as I regained my courage to peek inside. I entered the room. I was scared to take my eyes off of the floor. Scared that I was too late, but I had to look. I HAD to. This is what I was here for. It's all been building up to this very moment. So finally, I lifted my head towards the bed where I once sat and watched Richie fade away for oh so many long months. I stared directly at that hospital bed, my eyes adjusted to the dark.......
......And found it....empty.
I felt my knees get weak, almost buckling. My heartbeat sped up instantly, and the cold grip of fear wrapped its frigid hand around me as I reached out a hand to lean against the door frame for support. A frenzied panic settled in the hollow core of my chest, and tears shot to my eyes instantly as my breathing turned to short huffs and whimpers. Richie....my Richie....he's....he's gone. He's really gone. The thought of it almost made me sick, the nausea rising up from my stomach and up into my throat. I could hear echoes of his laughter in my head, I could picture his smile, I could mentally relive every cherished moment that we spent together. In my mind, everything flashed by me at the speed of light. But on the outside...I was paralyzed. My gaze locked onto the white linen sheets where the best friend I ever had used to lie in pain, and my tears overflowed through my contacts, flooding the room with the dull glow of my saddened eyes. All he asked was for me to be his angel. All he needed was for me to be there for him until the end. And I had failed him. I FAILED him. He died alone here...and it was all my fault!
My eyes began to water up even worse and my face wrinkled up with pain, tears dripping from them freely as I stepped closer into the darkness of the room. Slowly, I shuffled my way over to the mattress, my eyes so flooded, that I could hardly see. A stabbing pain seemed to shoot through the very center of me, and the whole world seemed to stop spinning, freezing this moment in time for me to be eternally trapped in a hellish nightmare of guilt and self disgust for what I had done. I remembered the last night I had seen him, giving him that one final hug to silently say goodbye. Ready to jump, ready to give my life up to the first opportunity willing to take it. It wasn't fair for me to do that to him then, and it wasn't fair for me to do it now. I just....I wish I had been there.
"I'm sorry, Richie.......I'm sooooo sorry..." I sobbed quietly, and gently ran my hands over the sheets as though I could still feel his fragile body laying there. My tears weren't enough, and my sniffles and sobs began to run rampant inside me. It hurt soooo much, my entire soul felt like it was collapsing in on itself, and I fell forward, my face pressed against the mattress as I opened my mouth in a silent scream for my lost companion. I couldn't shout....I had to hold it in....but it was soooo strong. My head ached with the pressure of trying to hold back my cries, and my fists pounded and clawed at the mattress beneath me. Out of all the hurtful experiences I've encountered in this world of darkness...this outranked them all. I was almost ready to choke on the pain in my heart...when my fingertips suddenly began to tingle against the sheets. As though they had been alerted to some invisible sensation that I hadn't noticed before. I attempted to let he pain go for a moment while I let the feeling do whatever it was that it was trying to do. It was as if I could 'read' some hidden message scribed in the imprint of the sheets themselves, but I was having difficulty translating it. I laid my whole palm on the bed, and as I relaxed, my senses began to gain more clarity. The picture became sharper, the feeling more exact. And as I breathed in deeply, it was as if I could smell Richie's undeniable scent all over me. As though he had just hugged me tightly, like he did when he was healthy and alive. I never forgot that smell. His hair, his skin, his shirt. It was like smelling warm bread right out of the oven. God...it lifted my spirits to smell that enchanting aroma again.
But...I also became aware of something else. The scent was...'divided' somehow. It was also coming from someplace else in this building. On this floor, even. The sensation was weaker from the other direction, but it was definitely there. No doubt about it. I lifted my hand from the sheets, and followed my senses towards the door, slowly walking back out into the hallway. I took a right and began to walk forward...but the scent got weaker again. No....not this way. I turned left instead, and felt it get stronger as I approached. I made my way down a different wing of the hospital and got closer and closer to the 'signal'...and was drawn to another door. I cautiously reached out a hand, looking around for any late night security that might be doing a random search of this particular floor, and I opened the door. As I walked further inside, I saw the faint silhouette of a body lying in a different hospital bed behind a curtain. I moved closer, and while feeling that sensation at its strongest level, pulled the curtain back to see who was laying there.
It was Richie! Still ALIVE!!! Very VERY sick, possibly worse than I had ever seen him, but alive! My heart nearly leapt up into my throat, and I had to fight the urge to suddenly jump on top of the bed and hug him as tightly as my arms would allow! They must have switched his room...he must...he must be declining faster than I thought. I stood closer to the bed, hovering over him as he slept, his breathing so weak that it was barely audible, even for my sensitive hearing. I wiped a few joyful tears from my eyes and took a moment to just stare at him with love and despair simultaneously battling it out in my mind. His hair was all gone, his pale white head almost transparent from the looks of it, and his heart was so weak. He was almost comatose at this point, and the end wouldn't be long after that. With all the powers I possess....I still couldn't spare Richie from the pain and suffering he had to go through every single day in this place. It was such a helpless feeling. Such an utterly helpless feeling.
I let my hand gently reach out and land tenderly on his chest, feeling it rise and fall softly. He was so delicate, so incredily fragile. It felt like touching a pile of burned ashes in a gentle breeze...as though the slightest pressure would cause him to crumble in an unstoppable chain reaction. So much pain. I looked upon his face, and despite the pale and nearly translucent flesh, there seemed to be a certain level of peace in his expression. I had never seen anything like it before. The contrast was surreal. And yet, it hurt to see him so alone here. The glow from my eyes illuminated his bland white sheets, and I had to make sure to keep wiping the tears away. I was moved emotionally, and gasping softly while trying not to let my sobs get out hand. My hand went to his cheek, and felt the smoothness of his skin while whispering my thoughts to his sleeping body. "I'm here, Richie. I'm right here, bud. Please...forgive me for going away. Please?" My hand remained on his chest...and I began to feel another slight tingle beneath my palm. It wasn't anything strong at first, or even noticeable, for that matter...but it began to increase ever so slowly. I felt this strange feeling in the back of my throat, and I started to become a little dizzy. I blinked a few times, wondering what was happening to me, but the feeling got worse, and I suddenly felt like I was gonna throw up or something. I swallowed a few times, and this weird buzz began to circle my head, spinning faster and faster with my increing fever. I got weak, and it became hard to stand. It was then that I noticed my hand was still connected to Richie's chest. I was....absorbing the harsh effects of his medication through use of Bryson's extra. Rain had only used it on me briefly back at the lot, and I had already somehow adopted its imprint. I didn't know how to stop it, or control it at ALL. But with some slight mental struggle, I was ale to pull my hand from Richie's chest and take a step backwards. Only then did the effects of his medication wear off a bit. I guess I stopped it before anything became too permanent, although I DID still feel a bit disoriented. However...I noticed something different around me. The sound of breathing. Richie's breathing had changed, become a bit more audible, and his heart beat was a bit stronger than before. Not by much, but just a little bit. His sedatives had been neutralized somehow, dulled in their potency, and....to my shock...I saw Richie's eyes slowly flutter open.
It took him a second or two to focus, but once he saw me standing there in the shadows, his eyes popped wide open, and a weak grin spread across his weary face. The grin got wider, until it slowly became a full blown smile, and the joy in my heart overwhelmed me to the point of tears.
"Ju...Jus...." He tried to talk, but his voice was so soft, almost nonexistant. And it looked like it hurt for him to try at all.
"Shhhhh! Don't speak." I whispered.
"But....Justin..." He struggled to sit up, but his arms were too weak to lift him.
"SHHHH! Don't. Relax." I walked over to help prop him up against the headboard by putting some pillows beneath him. It was the first time I had touched him in ages. The first time my eyes had been blessed with the very sight of him since that night I gave my life for something more. When he was situated in the bed and was able to sit up straight, I stood back, and just looked at him with the most heartfelt smile that I had been able to muster up in a long time. I didn't know what to say or how to begin. But for right now, I was just happy to see my angel again. He attempted to speak again...he was determined. I tried to calm him down, but there was no way I was going to stop him. He was desperate to talk to me after being gone for so long. "You don't have to speak, Richie. Just...just think. Ok?" He wrinkled up his brow in confusion. "Just think it...I'll get the message." He still didn't understand. "Trust me. Ok?"
I locked onto his mind patterns easily, trying to hover pretty much on the surface without digging too deeply into his private thoughts. Reading too much causes all of his memories to come rushing at me at once, and it creates a lot of excess mental 'noise' that's hard to understand. "Can...can you hear me?" He thought to himself. It was his voice! Oh wow...I could hear his thoughts in his own voice! I haven't heard that voice in its entirety since he first checked into this place.
I smiled gleefully, and nodded. "Yes...I can hear you just fine." His eyes opened even wider, and I giggled at his surprise. God, I missed him. "Don't worry, I'll try to read only what you wanna tell me.
"How are you doing this?"
"It's....a really long story."
He squinted a bit. "What's wrong with your eyes?" He said, his finger pointing up at the glowing orbs in front of him. My tears had bled right through my contacts again, and I was probably lit up like a candle.
"Sorry." I said, and reached in my pocket to put my sunglasses on. "I didn't mean to look so freaky."
He was silent for a minute, his mind still not really processing what the hell was happening here. But he jumped to, what he thought, was a logical conclusion. Especially considering his illness and my disappearance from the face of the Earth. I felt a slight panic surge through him, and his lip quivered as he asked me his fearful question, "Am I...am I dead???"
"No. No, you're not dead, Richie. You're fine."
"Hehehe, not really. But that's an even longer story." I said. I couldn't BELIEVE I was actually talking to him again! My mind was RACING at that moment!
"I don't understand..."
"I know. It's ok. I just...I had to see you." I paused for a second to just....gaze at him again. His dreamlike image was complete heaven to these tired eyes of mine. "It's so Goddamn good to see you!" I repeated, my voice cracking a bit through my smile as the tears began to puddle up under my sunglasses.
It wasn't until then, that Richie temporarily put all of his questions and fears aside, and wearily reached up both of his waifish arms, just as he always had...waiting for my embrace. I sniffled a bit, and quickly moved closer to the bed to hug him as tightly as I could, my tears flowing openly over my cheeks and down into his shirt. "I've missed you." He said outloud, his voice still hazy and sore.
"I missed you too." I cried. I never wanted to let him go. Not ever again. For a split moment, I thought that I could go back. That my 'vacation' from humanity had taught me all that I needed to learn about life and love and the importance of my existence in general. That I could leave this world of darnkess and agony behind, that I could forget about being hunted, and fighting for my survival, and killing in order to feed. For that ONE moment, through that long touching embrace...I actually thought that I could return to my life, and pick up right where I left off. But that wasn't the case, was it? That wasn't possible. The choice I made, no matter how much joy or how much pain it had brought me over the last few months....was final. Taryn was right...there was no going back. I was one of 'them' now. Until the end of eternity...or until I chose to sit outside and wait for the sun to end my suffering. As much as I wish I could go back, I was stuck right where I was. And Richie's embrace couldn't last forever.
I released him from my arms, and sat down on the window sill next to his bed. "How are you feeling?"
"Like shit." He smiled. "Whatever medicine they're giving me, somebody should tell them that it sucks." After all the times I had visited him, I just couldn't get over how good it was to be able to hear the voice in his head instead of his physical methods of speech. The voice in his head was so alive, so vibrant, so clear. Just like it was when we were running around in the streets together. "Check it out. The rest of my hair fell out a few weeks ago. They let me save it in an envelope. It's funny, I can barely remember what it feels like to have any. Lost my pubes just as I was beginning to be proud of them. I've still got that great big penis though, despite it all. The nurses love it. I get sponge baths, you know?"
"Hehehe! Big penis...whatever. You never let ME see it."
"Don't be a homo. Just trust me when I say it's huge. It's like having a live ferret in my boxers. Hehehe!" His laugh wasn't just in his head. It manifested itself physically and it made him cough a bit. He clutched his chest as I heard fluid rattle around in the back of his throat. God...it even hurt him to laugh.
"Take it easy. K?" I said, and he leaned back against the pillows, taking a moment to collect himself. His eyes looked upon me with such confusion, such concern.
"Where did you go? People have been going CRAZY looking for you, Justin! Your mom is catatonic!"
"I....I had to 'go away' for a little while, Richie. Things...weren't so good for me." How do I explain? How do I find the words to tell him that I'm not...human anymore?
"What do you mean? Did you get into some kind of trouble?"
"No....I just....I couldn't take it anymore, Richie. I had all I could stand...and I just didn't wanna be hurt anymore. So I left." "You ran away?"
"Um...yeah. I ran away."
"Why? Justin, your mom loves you."
"I know. I know she does. I just...." I trailed off, lost for words. Not knowing how to even approach any of the million and one questions that Richie had to ask me. "It's....complicated."
"Complicated?" His face wrinkled up. "Justin...what aren't you telling me? Dude...what's going on here? Do you know that the POLICE were here looking for you? They asked me like 100 times if I had seen you. They never give up."
"Listen to me, Richie, ok? No matter what they ask you, or how many times they come by, you tell them that you have NO idea where I am. Ok? You DIDN'T see me! This didn't even happen. It's really important that I stay out of sight."
"This is too weird, dude. I don't get any of this at all."
"Sighhh...just....please don't tell. Ok?" A look of concern crossed his face, but he was trying to be patient. Trying hard not to come down too hard on me with the inquiry, but needing answers so badly that he was frustrated with my inability to give them.
He, thankfully, dropped the subject. "Are you ok?" He asked, and I nodded affirmatively. "Well....where are you? I mean...where are you staying?"
"With....some 'friends' of mine. They're taking good care of me."
"That's...that's good." He said, holding back the urge to bombard me with questions again. "I was worried something bad had happened to you. I watched the news and read the paper everyday to see if you turned up somewhere." He sniffled a bit, the emotion in his eyes shining through, even through the haze of his illness. "I was sooo scared that one day I was going to open that paper and find you hurt....or....or worse."
"I'm right here, man. I'm ok." I whispered. "I never forgot about you, Richie. Not for a single minute."
"Well...why didn't you visit?"
"I couldn't. I'm not even supposed to be here now."
"Says who?" Again, another question I couldn't really answer, and he squirmed with aggrivation. "Are you planning to tell me ANYTHING about where you've been the past few months???"
"I can't. Not now, ok?"
"Richie, let's....let's just....spend some quality time together right now. Alright? Just...two old friends, happy to be seeing one another after a long break."
"Ahhh, so you want me to just forget about everything and pretend nothing is wrong with this picture?" He smirked.
"Yeah....something like that." I smiled at him warmly, my hand gently petting his shoulder. So happy to be able to reach out and touch him again.
"SO...did you see that Bulls game last week?" He said, sarcastically playing along.
"Hehehe, don't be a jerk, 'freak'." I laughed.
"'Freak'....wow...I haven't heard anybody call me that in ages. I'm glad you remembered."
"I told you...I never forgot about you."
He paused for a second, and looked down at his hands. I could feel him struggling, keeping his strength up, still tired and needing his rest. Happy to see me, frustrated to see me, confused as to how I'm able to read his thoughts and even HAVE this conversation. The questions were swirling around so quickly that it was making me dizzy again. Still, he worked to cover those thoughts, and suppress them with a thick fog in his mind. I took a hold of his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. He looked at me with teary eyes, but did his best to hold the waterworks at bay. "You said you would always be here for me, Justin...and here you are. Thank you."
The pain welled up in my throat, but if he could be strong, then so could I. For both our sakes. "Until the angels come to take you away from me. Yeah...I am." At that moment, I heard footsteps approaching the room from outside, and froze up. It sounded like security, the man's hard bottomed shoes 'clip-clopping' down the hallway. I was nervous at first, but relieved when I heard them walking past the door and further away from us again. Richie knew from my reaction just how serious I was about not being discovered. And he knew exactly what that meant.
"You can't stay here with me for long....can you?" He said knowingly, a sadness creeping into his emotions.
"I can...stay here with you for a while longer if you want..."
"That's not what I mean." He said. "Somehow...I don't see 'sneaking into hospitals' late at night and hiding from security as becoming a routine thing for you."
"Richie...I don't know how often I'll be able to come around. But...I made you a promise, and I'm going to keep it. I want to be with you. I want to go through this with you."
"Yes, I can..."
"NO YOU CAN'T!" He began to cough and wheeze again, his thoughts triggering another physical reaction in him. I had to practically reach out and catch him to keep him from doubling over. "Justin...I was scared before...I'm still scared....but I'M the one that's sick. NOT you."
I looked him in the eye. "What....what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that you can't....'do' this for me. You can't take this away. And your life can't stop and roll over just because you feel like you have to take care of me."
"My life isn't stopping. I'm here because...because I care about you, and I don't want to see you hurt, and because..."
"Stop. Ok? Just...stop." Richie reached up to run his fingers through my hair, and he held my cheek softly in his hand. "I'm ok. Do you hear me? I'm ok. You mean everything to me, and I am SO happy that you came back here to see me. You have no idea. But...." A tear fell from his eye, "...But don't let this place trap you in here the way it's trapped me. Ok? This cancer....this isn't your fight. It's mine. And just...knowing that you're alright, and that you're out there thinking about me, is more than enough inspiration for me to keep swinging."
The overwhelming horror of the pain sweeping through me when he said that was almost too much to bear, and I took his hand from my cheek. I grabbed it with both hands and lowered my forehead to rest on his knuckles as the urge to cry took over my every other instinct. I shut my eyes and just held on for dear life. "It's NOT enough. It's NOT! You never left me when I needed you, and I'm not gonna leave you now. I won't do it."
"Justin, you don't have a choice."
"Fuck you! I DO have a choice, and I'm NOT going to let you say goodbye to me! Do you hear me?"
"And I'm not going to let you spend the rest of your life thinking that any of this was your fault. I'm not going to sit here and watch you give up your life for me. It won't work, Justin. It won't."
I cried more, and lifted my head from his hand. "What if...what if I could 'fix' things? What if I could make it all better for you?"
"Justin, now you're just talking crazy."
"No I'm NOT! I KNOW what I'm saying!" I demanded. "What if I could make all of this go away? Would you come with me? Would you...would you stay with me?" I didn't know what I was doing, or what I was offering, or how I was going to somehow explain the sacrifice he would be making in the long run. All I knew was that I needed him to be ok. I wanted him with me. And I was willing to tear down all of Heaven to do it if I had to.
I suddenly heard security's footsteps again, coming back down the hall. Even louder this time. And I held my breath, listening to hear how close he'd come to the door. Seeing if I should 'blank out' or duck down under the bed, whatever it took to keep from being seen if he opened that door. But again, he just walked passed. I let out a small sigh of relief, and when I turned back to my friend, I could already see the accepting look in Richie's eyes. "You should go, Justin. It's not safe for you to be here." He thought to himself softly.
"Go. Please?" He asked. I didn't move. "PLEASE?" I let go of his hand, and stood up on my feet. "Don't let them catch you, ok? I don't want you to get caught."
"I'm coming back for you Richie. SOON! I promise." And I leaned forward to give him another long tight hug. I felt him trembling as he cried into my shoulder, and cried right along with him. "You're not alone....alright? You were NEVER alone in here!"
"I know." He said. And I had to let him go. As I walked around to the foot of his bed, he said, "Take care of those freaky eyes for me." He smiled, referring to the glow that must have been radiating out of control at this point, even through my sunglasses.
"Take care of that big penis for me." I said in return, and got a chuckle and cough from him.
Then...instead of letting his thoughts do the talking...Richie fought to use his real voice. "Goodbye, Justin. And thanks....for not forgetting....about me. You've brought SO much into my life....I'll miss you something awful."
"This ISN'T goodbye, Richie. I'll be back. You have my word." And with that said, I laid Richie back down on the mattress and tucked him gently back into his sheets. Then, with a few parting tears, I gave him a kiss on the forehead, and backed out of the room...letting my eyes linger on him for as long as I possibly could. I'd be back. The devil himself couldn't keep me away.
I snuck my way back out into the hall, and moved towards the elevator without being seen. And from there, it was a short trip to the ground floor, and another blanketed pass in front of the front desk. It was much easier to get out than it was to get in. Which is a good thing, because my mind was cluttered with memories and broken thoughts of a life I probably shouldn't have left behind me. My past and my possible future were colliding like never before. So much behind me, so much ahead of me, it was easy to feel crushed in the middle. My thoughts were spinning out of control. I walked through the parking lot area, and was sneaking my way out onto the street again when I heard a calm voice come from behind me. "You know...it took an awfully long time for me to notice Dylan's extra when I saw it being used. But with a little concentration and some practice, it can be done."
I spun around, and was shocked to see Bryson standing there, leaning up against a tree. I honestly think that it was the first time that I had EVER seen Bryson outside of the lot. His sudden presence was almost alarming, and I felt like I had been caught with my hand in the cookie jar. "I was just...I wanted to..."
"Save it, Justin. I know exactly what you were doing, and I know exactly why you are here. So don't attempt to make a fool out of me, kid." He said. Yes, it was true, I was doing something I wasn't supposed to be doing. And yes, he caught me in the act. But so what? I mean, honestly, is he asking me to let my best friend DIE without me just because of some stupid secret? I felt myself getting offended and angry at the mere thought of it.
"Whatever..." I said, and turned my back on him to keep walking.
"Justin, we need to talk." Bryson put a hand on my shoulder, and I pushed it away. Not with too much anger, but if I was ever going to stand up to my 'father figure', this would be the place to draw the line.
"What for? There's nothing you can tell me that's going to make me regret or feel bad about coming here tonight. Do you understand that? Do you have any IDEA what hell I had to live through before YOU guys came along? Richie was there for me through it all, even when he was sick, and not a single one of you can say the same thing."
"Hey, I was human once too, you know? There's a part of me that can honestly look past everything else and truly appreciate you running out on us to be there for a friend in need. But Justin, you put yourself in danger tonight just by being here."
"I'm NOT in danger! I can take care of myself."
"No, you can't. You've been trying, quite valiantly, I might add. But at the end of the day, you NEED us to help you through this. If you had been trying to figure all of this out on your own, you would have been DEAD by now!"
"THEN LET ME DIE!" I shouted at him. Bryson paused, and our eyes locked onto one another's for a brief moment or two. "I'm not LIKE you guys! I can't just....forget everything that I am. Everything that ever meant something to me. In that building, there's a boy struggling to stay alive every single day, and all he needed to make it through was the strength and support of his best friend. I know about your bullshit rules and your regulations and your chores...but I needed to be here tonight. So I ran. And I'd do it again." He remained silent, his arms folded across his chest, his expression unreadable. "I had a 'LIFE' once, Bryson. I didn't really see it for what it was at the time, but I had one. And I feel like I gave up everything. And for what? Huh? I mean....think about it, Bryson. What do we really HAVE out there? We're HOMELESS! ALL of us! We live in a fucking junkyard, surrounded by crashed up cars and old tires. I have six sets of clothes and one pair of shoes to my name. I've got NO money at all. Exactly what is it that we have that's so special?" He simply stared me in the eyes, and didn't say a word. "Right...I didn't think you'd have an answer for that one." I said, and began to walk away from him again.
"Two months before my crossover...both of my parents were killed in a car accident." I stopped walking, and looked over my shoulder at Bryson, who now had his eyes directed down at the ground. "They were on their way to a company function, all dressed up in their best evening wear...a drunk driver fell asleep at the wheel...ran a red light...end of story. All three passengers died." He said. Only a hint of sadness in his voice. It was apparent that he had come to terms with the horror of this event after so many years. "I was the one that got the call. I didn't have any other family that could take me. I was going to be admitted into a somewhat local boys home, and left there until I was 18 years old. Needless to say, I didn't spend more than a few nights there before I was turned."
I slowly walked back to where Bryson was standing, not wanting to look too interested, even though he had captured my attention anyway. "So...who turned you?"
"My sire was a young girl named Amanda. She actually found me while I was escaping from the home with a little black backpack slung over my shoulder. If she hadn't been there, I might have broken my own neck climbing out of that third story window." He almost smirked at the memory. "I remember thinking that she was soooo unnaturally gorgeous." Bryson stood up and took a step or two closer to me. "When I made the decision to do this, like most of us there at the lot, I was lost. I was in a lot of pain, and life had lost its glow for me. I didn't feel as though I had anything left to live for." It made me feel a little better, just knowing that a tiny piece of him understood how I was feeling. I felt him put his hands on both of my shoulders, and looked me directly in the eye. "Yeah...sometimes...when everybody is away from the lot, and things are quiet...I sit back, and I wish I could go back and see my friends too. I wish I could visit my parent's grave and let them know I'm ok, maybe explain to them why I'm not alive anymore and why they haven't seen me in heaven yet. Sometimes, I wish I could understand why everything I've ever loved had to crumble right in front of my eyes."
"Then you DO understand!" I said, but he wasn't finished.
"Yes, I understand. But Justin...what you have yet to learn is that you are only going to make things worse for yourself by going back. Not just because we're trying to keep our identity a secret, but because it is a cycle of pain that you DON'T want to get involved in. It's BAD for them, it's bad for YOU."
"But why?" I asked.
"What do you think is going to happen in 50 or 60 years when you're still the same energetic teenage boy, and all the people you love begin growing old and slowly dying around you? When everyone you've ever known becomes bedridden and sick much like Richie is now? How do you plan to remain so close to humanity knowing that you have to hunt their kind every month just to stay alive? Justin...the two species simply don't match. You'll be putting yourself through an immense amount of pain and suffering trying to walk the thin line between both worlds. Trust me, I know. I've tried...we ALL have at one time or another. But in the end, all you're gonna do is make it harder to accept who and what you are." He told me, and then his voice lowered a bit in an attempt to bring me some peace of mind. "I know you want to be normal and just go back to not knowing about ANY of this stuff, but the more you hide from it, the faster the truth will begin to chase you. You are a vampire, Justin. That's not going to change, no matter how much you deny it, no matter how much you try to escape it, no matter how badly you want to be human again. The sooner you come to terms with that...the sooner you can put this desperate quest of yours to rest." His hands squeezed my shoulders gently before he lowered his arms. "This life, right here, right now...is waiting for you to step into it. Don't resist your own future chasing an illusion." And that said...a part of me felt as though it had finally been defeated. It had finally given in, buried under the pressure of not believing the awful truth. And at that moment I knew...that the darkness had won.