The Art of Losing(8)

“Go get some sleep before your parents get home,” I said. But I grabbed her hand as she stood. “It was a good party. Before the drama.”

Cassidy leaned down and hugged me. “You’re sweet for lying to me. Thanks for coming even though you hated it.”

“I only hated it a little . . . until I hated it a lot.”

Cassidy paused at the door. “That’s how I know you love me. Because you stayed anyway. Until you couldn’t.”

Audrey and I were finally alone. I felt awkward and uncomfortable in the silence. I kept waiting for her to open her eyes and yell at me for watching her sleep.

Mom had turned into a semi-hysterical fountain of tidbits and facts, poring over articles about head trauma and car accidents, until Tilly finally convinced her to join her outside for a very long smoke. Meanwhile, Dad fidgeted, paced around, left the room, and returned so often that I had turned it into a game in my head. Every time he left, I would get the chance to win money (from myself) to spend at the vending machine. How many minutes it took him to come back equaled how many cents I got. I’d earned more than two dollars already, so I had big plans involving a Snickers bar and a bag of chips.

Party animal = me.

I leaned forward and smoothed Audrey’s bangs flat on her forehead.

Two weeks after I cut my hair, she’d gone to the mall with her friends and had come back with a hairstyle that matched mine. I was so angry I wanted to cut her ponytail off in her sleep.

We’d always been the Langston Girls, a duo in everyone’s minds and nearly interchangeable. Aside from the two additional inches and fifty extra pounds on my frame, we looked so much alike that I would answer to “Audrey,” just in case they really meant “Harley.” Sometimes I’d even pretend to be her when it was less awkward than correcting the mistake of our neighbors and family friends. I knew enough about her life to answer their generally surface-level questions. Or at least I thought I did.

I realized suddenly that I was staring at a bruise on her neck, a small reddish mark. It looked more like a hickey.

Mike was a fan of giving hickeys. I’d always pushed him away when he tried, but maybe Audrey hadn’t known what he was doing. Or maybe she’d liked it.

I sat down next to her and took her small hand in mine.

“Hey, Audy,” I said quietly. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I hope you can.”

Only the rhythmic whoosh-thump of her ventilator answered. “So, listen, about this thing with you and Mike . . . I think we should just try to forget about it. For now. Don’t you?”

She didn’t respond, of course, but her familiar voice in my head said, Yeah, sure, Harley. That seems likely.

“I’m super pissed, and I want to scream and yell and beat the crap out of both of you. But, I mean, you’re here and I don’t plan to ever see him again . . . I think maybe we can deal with it when you wake up, okay?”

The Audrey in my mind turned skeptical. Cool, she said. I’m definitely going to enjoy that conversation.

“Don’t let that be a reason not to wake up,” I said, backpedaling. “You are going to wake up, right?”

Behind her eyelids, I saw her eyes move. Or maybe I imagined it. Maybe the stress and sleeplessness had finally caught up to me. But for the briefest instant, my heart lifted . . . and then just as quickly, the elation vanished. The doctors had warned us that we could see involuntary twitches.

“Just get better,” I whispered as I put her hand back down on the bed and tucked the blankets up around her chest. “When you wake up, I swear I won’t be mad. Just wake up.”

She didn’t respond, not even in my imagination. Maybe she thought I was lying. I couldn’t really be sure myself.

Later that morning, I awoke from a restless nap to the sound of a hushed conversation in the hallway.

Mom had gone home to shower and change; Aunt Tilly had gone to pick up Spencer; and Dad was in the cafeteria, getting lunch and making phone calls to his side of the family. Mom and Aunt Tilly were pretty much the only two left on their side.

I cracked an eyelid. The door was open a couple of inches, and a pair of dark brown eyes widened and disappeared behind the cover of straight black hair. Neema, I realized. Audrey’s best friend. I shuffled on numb legs to the door and pulled it open, but Neema wasn’t alone. Her dad lurked behind her in the hallway, his face grim.

“Hi,” she said, her eyes not meeting mine.

Neema had been at the party, but I couldn’t tell if the awkwardness was due to Audrey’s hookup with Mike or because her best friend was lying comatose a few feet away. Maybe both.

“Do you want to come in?” I asked.

Neema nodded, so I stepped backward into the room and held the door open as she entered. She had spent plenty of time at our house, sleeping over and hanging out after school, but we weren’t friends. I didn’t like the way she bossed Audrey around, and I felt like Audrey gave in to her too much. But I knew that was probably just big-sister protectiveness.

She and Neema had fun together, and even though Neema wasn’t as full of energy as Audrey was, she seemed to be the only one Audrey would sit still with. To watch movies or paint their nails or play video games or do homework. Neema and Audrey just kept up a steady stream of conversation even when they watched TV. I envied their easy comfort with each other.

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