I am running fast to make it on time for my first class. Four weeks ago I had a concussion and even if I am still feeling woozy, I decided to show up for school today. The bell rings. The sound resonates in the whole of Woodrose High. The mayhem in the hallways brings a comforting welcome that I am back indeed. Cliques and couples gathered in the locker areas disperse quickly heading out to their respective rooms. I couldn’t help but smile. This is the familiar chaos I missed when I was out. However, despite the “Whats” that I missed, I’d rather see the “Whos”. Especially Haley. My Haley.
She must be late. We always see each other before first period. It’s rather peculiar for her to be tardy on a Monday. My Haley. I couldn’t wait to see her later in Ms. Adams’ literature class. My favorite subject! I turn left to get to 2A, and open the door of the Bio lab. I sat on the 4th seat on the 3rd row. My best friend Kyle and I were always seated together, but where is he? Lydia the curly haired girl seated in front turns, her green eyes stares blankly at me. I smile and give her a nod. She turns back and whispers something to her lab partner who runs his hands up and down her back. Well, that is strange.
Our Biology teacher Mr. Williams, a short man with greying hair steps in and drops his vintage leather bag on the table. He adjusts his thick glasses and tells us to carry on with the final project discussions with our partner. But Kyle is still not here.Where the hell are you, buddy? I couldn’t be a one-man army battling this boring subject! I’m getting sleepy. The whole school knows about my accident during the basketball game. Mr. Williams would understand if I rest my head on my first day back. The bell rings. I’m thankful that our teacher lets me sleep. None of my classmates bother me at all. How kind of them.
Second period is World History. I opt to skip the class and see Coach Cahill instead. He would be delighted to see his 6’4” shooting guard to be finally back. I pass the Woodrose Varsity Hall of Fame and stop in front of the glass racks. I read my name in black embossed letters –Zachary Tyler O’Toole, 2013 Most Valuable Player. On top of it was my photo taken a year ago. My fluffy, curly blonde hair is parted aside, making me look like a goofball with the deep-set hazel eyes beaming on my clean-shaven face. The royal blue bleachers are striking against the white washed walls of the empty gym. I stand in the middle of the court and play the deafening cheers and whistles in my head. That noise is my kind of jam on games. It helps me to get double digits on my shooting stats. The court is one place where I come alive. Playing basketball is what I love and what I’m meant to do. I walk towards the exit and notice a huge white spot on the highly polished wooden floor. Is it bleach or a powder spill? The maintenance guy is clearly not doing a good job mopping it.
Coach Cahill’s office is locked. The lights are off. Where could he be at this time? It is very unlikely for him to be out on a Monday too. This is the only day where the team pumps up the training and run 3-4 hour drills. Some of the guys attend the same Bio class. Like Kyle, I haven’t spotted any of them. Are we suspended? Why was I not informed? I try to remember what happened on our last game. I could recall that we were down by 2 in the last few minutes. But did we lose? Maybe the school board decided to shut the program down because we didn’t maintain our winning streak. Nah. It doesn’t make sense. It has to be something else.
I have to think harder. That was a Friday night, the crucial game against Cedar Hills. The win will take the team one step closer to the State championships. Our team, the Blue Hawks was conditioned for victory and we had the home court advantage. I spotted my mom and pops standing on the top right bleachers and they were religiously clapping in the sea of blue. I heard Haley who was holding a glittered signboard yelling, “Go Number 8!!!” My Haley. My eyes feasted on her flushed skin, tall and athletic frame and especially her infectious grin. The sight of her sends surge of electricity in my body. Every. Damn. Time. I got this! I already produced 24 points but we were still down by 4. In the last 2 minutes of the 4th quarter, Jersey number 12 fouled me. The 2 successful free throws brought the score to 46-48. Coach Cahill called for a time out. We gathered around, our bodies reek of sweat which none of us mind. After we were done strategizing the next play, Kyle shouted, “Let’s bring it home tonight!” We ran to our places with only one and a half gut wrenching minutes left on the clock. The ball was with Cedar Hills and Bryce, their captain shot me a look like he was out to get me. The whistle blew. The next thing I knew, I was knocked down pretty hard. My head hit the floor pretty bad. Haley ran and cupped my head with both hands. Her voice was distant. Then everything was all black. And that was all I could remember.
I must find Haley. My Haley. She would have all the answers. What happened after my accident? What happened to the team? Why is everyone acting so weird in school? I need answers. Now. Literature class is up. I storm out of the gym. Some of my classmates are entering the room across the computer lab. There’s Haley! My Haley. Her light brown pixie hair reveals her freckled cheeks and long, flawless neck. She wears a distressed expression, her eyes shows nothing but desolation. “Haley!”, I call out to her. She ignores my voice and makes her way through the girls chatting at the door. Something is not right. I am starting to worry about what is going on with the people I know at school. Kyle. Coach. Haley. My Haley.
She is seated in front. “Hales!” She turns and meets my gaze. The bags in her eyes shows she’s sleep deprived or that she cried all night. Ms. Adams enters the room.” Settle down, people!” We move to find our seats. I take the empty one at the back. I am hurting, the pain is indescribable and my heart feels like it’s on fire. I’m trying to understand why Haley is not even talking to me. Was there a break up that I could not recall as well?
Ms. Adams stands in the middle facing the class, her hands are inside the pockets of her black linen trousers. She addressed the class; “I know that all of you put a lot of hard work on your poems. Reading your piece aloud is one way to start the healing after what happened”. Healing for what?, I thought. “Who wants to volunteer to read theirs first?”, she asked. I finished writing the final revision of my poem before the Cedar Hills game. I showed it to Haley. I wrote it for her. My Haley. I had every line memorized. She raises her hand the same time I raise mine. Ms. Adams nods at Haley and gestures for her to stand in front. “Haley, whenever you are ready”.
Haley holds a piece of paper, looks down and starts reading,
“Hey love, let’s roam the world. It’s endless.
The beauty. The perils. The joy. It’s all over for us to see.
Hey love, hold my hand. Let’s see, hear, touch all of them.
The beauty. The perils. The joy. It’s all over for us to feel.
Hey love, let’s open our hearts. Let’s dive in to make a difference.
The beauty. The perils. The joy. It’s waiting for our embrace.
Hey love, open your heart, hold my hand and let’s roam the world.
It’s beautiful. It’s perilous. It’s bliss.”
She folds the piece of paper twice. It’s the same paper where I wrote my poem. The one I wrote for her. But why is she reading it? The whole class is in tears. Ms. Adams hugs and tells her, “We all miss him”. Wait, did someone die? She continues, “Zach was a smart, gentle guy. It’s a terrible loss”. Is this a cruel joke? I could not be dead! Nausea is setting in again. Am I caught in a twilight zone? Rapid fire of memories starts to flash in my head of what really went down. I didn’t have a concussion. I died.
Blue Hawks won the game against Cedar Hills. I did fall when I was double teamed by Bryce and their center, but Kyle’s 3 pointer had the game ending at 49-48. A couple of days after, I sat on the blue bleachers together with the rest of the team gulping my Gatorade during our afternoon practice. Kyle was talking about the mean prank they pulled after the game. They saw Bryce and his team mate Sean kissing inside the car. They thought no one was at the parking lot but a few guys from the team were hiding across the post facing Sean’s car. They shot a video of them and posted it on Cedar Hills’ social page. The Internet was on fire in a few minutes. Bryce apparently kept this as a secret from his family as he will be disowned, leaving him with no inheritance and no future. Kyle knew the gravity of what they did to him. He suggested that after practice, he and the rest would drive to Sean’s, the place where Bryce stays. They owe him a serious apology. They’d try to make amends with him for the injury they inflicted.
Coach Cahill asked us to huddle up. He took out his board and showed us the offensive play, which he claimed made his team snag the State title in the 80s. Horror happened fast. The sound of gunshots reverberated through the ceilings and walls. There was complete pandemonium. Some of the guys panicked and ducked for cover. I saw two Blue Hawks’ forwards — Henry and Drew fell on the floor. They were shot. The shooter was standing near the exit. He was walking towards us. Kyle and I were standing close to each other as he fired another shot at Coach Cahill. He fell down instantly and his blood was all over the floor. He aimed the gun at me and pulled the trigger. Kyle turned to face me and covered my body with his. His arms held on to me but in a few seconds, his body fell. Lifeless. I was face to face with the black-clad shooter. It was Bryce. His face showed no trace of emotions. He just looked lost. I felt an overwhelming pain in my left chest. I placed my hand on it. It felt wet. I looked down; my shirt was drenched with my own blood. The bullet that killed my best friend also penetrated my body. Before I lost consciousness, I saw Bryce placing the gun on his head and he fired the last shot which claimed his life.
I was rushed to the ICU. Few hours later, the doctors told my folks that it was better if they say their goodbyes to their boy. There was a slim chance that I would even survive the night. My spirit stood beside my intubated body, my mother whispered “I Love You” in my right ear repeatedly while my father held both my hands. With closed eyes, I shed a tear and bid them goodbye. My body succumbed to internal bleeding before midnight. My mother’s wail was too much even for my lingering state to take. I shut down. But I haven’t seen Haley yet. My Haley.
I have zero memory of my funeral or the memorial for the fallen Blue Hawks. My soul that still hangs around in the present only needs a goodbye from one person. My Haley. She is still holding on until now. The bell rings. Everyone leaves the room. She sits on my favorite chair at the back. She places her head on the armrest and wraps her arms around it. Through the tears, she speaks softly, “Hey, Love. I’m letting go. And I will never forget you.”
By Emily Valbuena
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