The Art of Losing(4)

It was Mom’s sobs that finally cracked my shell of anger. I choked on the words I wanted to scream. Tilly reached out for me and smoothed my hair, brushing my overgrown bangs out of my eyes with one hand while rubbing Mom’s back with the other.

“Let it out, chicken,” she said.

I was gulping air like it was water and I’d just run through the desert as Aunt Tilly pulled me into the hug. Mom wrapped her arm around me. Inside the huddle, the therapist replaced the grieving aunt.

“Try to breathe,” Aunt Tilly said. Her temple pressed against mine, and her hand was a reassuring pressure on the middle of my back. “In through your nose, okay?”

I took a shuddering breath in and Mom followed. Aunt Tilly counted to four.

“Good, now out through your mouth.”

We followed orders, breathing in and out for eight seconds several more times. My tears wouldn’t stop, but my heartbeat slowed a little, and I didn’t feel like I was running anymore. Aunt Tilly finally released us from her grip, and we sat down in a soggy, red-faced row, passing a box of tissues.

Dad had slipped out the door, but by the time he came back from wherever he had gone, we’d dried our tears. I wondered briefly if he had been waiting outside the door to avoid us—or me.

“Is the other driver okay?” I asked him.

Dad nodded. “He’s fine. He was wearing his seat belt and his airbags deployed. He’s lucky.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, relieved that at least one person’s life hadn’t been destroyed by this. But as Dad pulled me into a hug, I felt sick. I knew I didn’t deserve to be comforted by my father, who may have lost his baby daughter tonight and instead had his long arms wrapped around me.

I should have brought Audrey home with me. She’s my sister. No matter what she did, I should have watched out for her.

When I opened my eyes, Aunt Tilly was looking at me.

“Harley, why don’t we go get some coffee downstairs?” she said.

I nodded, even though I knew what was coming. She wanted to know what had happened.

Aunt Tilly followed me to the elevator, but once inside, she hit the button for the ground floor instead.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“I need a cigarette,” she said, meeting my gaze with a guilty look.

I shrugged, thinking, Me, too. Aunt Tilly had supposedly quit smoking a year ago, but I wasn’t disappointed in her failure to follow through this time. I had an only-when-drinking policy about smoking, and I hardly ever drank, but little-sister-in-peril seemed like a perfectly reasonable time to break my own smoking rule.

I followed her out of the elevator, through the chaos of the Emergency Room entrance, and across the parking lot to the farthest possible corner from the hospital so no one would glare at us. The stagnant humid air made me feel like I was breathing through a wet washcloth, but that didn’t stop me from pointing at her pack until she reluctantly handed me a cigarette.

“So what really happened tonight?” she asked. “Why was Mike driving your sister home?” She let me light it before staring me down. Aunt Tilly was never one to hold back, but she wasn’t afraid of a little silence, either.

After the first satisfying lungful of smoke, I opened my mouth to answer, but no words came. I couldn’t tell her the truth about why I’d left Audrey behind at the party. I didn’t want her feeling even one ounce of pity for me when her focus should be on Audrey.

I shrugged again instead, willing my traitorous tear ducts to stay dry. “I don’t know,” I said. “I thought her friend Neema was going to drive her.”

She narrowed her eyes. I felt my pulse speed up. She knew I was lying. But she didn’t ask me any more questions.

Instead, she changed the subject to Spencer, my cousin.

“He’s supposed to go to camp this summer,” Aunt Tilly said, “but I’m not sure how he’ll handle it. You know how he can be with kids his age. Or anyone really.”

I nodded. Spencer lacked some social skills, but he was better with statistics than most graduate-level math students. He’d picked the winner of the World Series every year for as long as I could remember.

“If he hates it, I’ll just figure something else out,” she said. “Next year, he’ll be old enough for that math camp at George Mason.”

“Aunt Tilly, do you think my parents hate me?” I interrupted. I couldn’t think about Spencer’s math camp when I was spiraling through a tornado of guilt. Maybe she’d known that I’d cave out of boredom and start talking to her.

“Oh, chicken.” She reached out to tuck my shoulder under her arm. “They don’t blame you for this.”

“Maybe not yet,” I said darkly. But they would.

Once we were back in the chilly air of the hospital, I steered Aunt Tilly toward the cafeteria. I really did want coffee, but I knew Dad needed a cup, too. He was used to late nights, but there’s a big difference between doing surgery at 2 a.m. and waiting for your child to come out of it.

When we walked back into the waiting room, Mom gave Aunt Tilly a withering look. She sighed a soft “Mathilda” and shook her head. No doubt she could smell the smoke on us. But for once, I didn’t care. I hadn’t even bothered with gum.

“Has anyone come in to tell you what’s going on?” I asked Dad as I handed him the cup of coffee. The chair sighed as I sat, as if unhappy about my return.

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