“Don’t. I deserved it.”
“No, you didn’t. I understand she’s upset, but this isn’t your fault.”
“Oh, really?” I finally glared at him out of the corner of my eye. “Then whose is it? Because from where I’m sitting, it’s no one’s fault but mine.”
“Accidents happen. You can’t take this on.”
“Whatever,” I snapped, staring straight ahead again.
Do. Not. Cry.
The double doors opened and a nurse appeared. Brody and I collectively held our breath as she looked around the room. “Michelle Asher?”
Michelle quickly lifted her head off of Kacie’s shoulder and stood when she saw the nurse. “Yes?” she responded in a shaky voice. Kacie stood beside her and held her hand. The nurse smiled at them and walked over; Brody stood up and followed. I stayed behind. The four of them talked intimately for a good ten minutes before Michelle hugged Kacie and followed the nurse back through the doors. Kacie turned to Brody with tears in her eyes and wrapped her arms around his waist, squeezing tight. She closed her eyes as he hugged her back and rested his chin on the top of her head.
Fuck. What’s happening?
Kacie’s eyes opened and looked right at me. The second we made eye contact, I looked down at the ugly gray tile and shifted uncomfortably in my chair. A few seconds later, I felt her sit down next to me, but I refused to look up.
“Hey,” she said softly.
“Are you okay?”
I didn’t answer. Dumb question.
“Sorry, that was a dumb question.” She laughed nervously.
“Oh, Viper.” She hooked her tiny arm around my back and laid her head on my shoulder, not saying another word. I waited for her to ask something else or give me some bland speech about how it wasn’t my fault, but she didn’t, and I was grateful. Brody disappeared around the corner toward the bathroom sign and I finally decided to ask.
“Is he dead?”
She shot up straight. “What? No. Why would you think that?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “The nurse came out, Michelle left, you and Brody hugged…”
“Oh, no. Sorry. I just wanted to hug him.” She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “No, he’s in the ICU. They did a craniectomy and now they’re watching him closely.”
“A craniectomy?” I finally looked over at her. “What the fuck is that?”
“His brain is swollen, so they removed a piece of his skull to allow for the swelling.”
As if someone had punched it out of a sleepy haze, my heart started beating fast. “They removed part of his fucking skull?” my voice thundered. “Seriously?”
“Shhh.” She frowned and held a finger up to her mouth, glancing around the waiting room. “Sit down,” she ordered in a loud whisper.
I sat while she continued, “Yes, it’s a pretty common procedure for someone whose brain is swelling.”
Like a giant tsunami washing over a tiny island, my mind was instantly flooded with questions. “What do they do with the piece they took out?”
“I’m not positive in Mike’s case, the nurse didn’t say, but typically if they can save it, they tuck it into the patient’s abdomen so it’s preserved by his own body.”
“So he’s gonna be okay?” I asked slowly.
Kacie’s eyes looked up to the ceiling and for a quick second, I thought maybe she was praying. “Not sure. He’s definitely not out of the woods. It’s going to be a long recovery.”
I looked back down at the floor and closed my eyes.
“Don’t,” I stopped her.
“You don’t,” she scolded. I glared at her to scare her off, but she lifted her chin higher and kept going. “I’m not going to tell you how to feel right now because I have no idea how you feel. I’ve never hurt one of my friends like this. What I’m going to tell you is that regardless of what happens, it was an accident. You didn’t set out to hurt him; it was an accident. Beating yourself up over it will only hurt both of you, and right now, we need all the positivity we can get. So feel sorry for yourself later. Fall apart and be pissed later, at home, but we need you to be strong for Big Mike now, and for the rest of us.”
Do not cry.
“You’re right.” I nodded.
“Damn right I’m right.” She looped her arm through mine and rested her head on my shoulder again, staring straight ahead with me. “I love you, Viper.”
Fuck… Do. Not. Cry.
Thankfully, Brody rounded the corner again at the perfect time. “Hey.” He walked over to us, looking exhausted with dark circles under his eyes. “We can go back to the private ICU waiting area, but we can’t actually see him yet. You guys wanna?”
“Absolutely.” Kacie hopped up and walked past Brody.
He laughed as he watched her walk by, full of independence and attitude. Shaking his head, he turned back to me. “You coming?”
I wanted to say no. I wanted to sit there and pout. I wanted to sit there and feel sorry for myself. I wanted to disappear.
But Kacie was right, so I stood up and nodded. “Lead the way.”
Brody’s hand clapped my shoulder hard and he offered a tight smile as he turned around.
“By the way,” I added, “that woman you have there… hold on tight to her. She’s pretty amazing.”
BRODY AND I walked side by side toward the ICU waiting room. I’d never been in an Intensive Care Unit before. It was different. Instead of a hallway with rooms on each side, it was more like a pod—one central hub in the middle with all the patient rooms circled around it. Before we reached that central station, there was a waiting room on the right side. It was smaller than the waiting room in the ER, but it was also more private. When Brody and I walked in, it was empty except for Kacie and Michelle.
We rounded the corner and my eyes met Michelle’s on accident. I didn’t look away; neither did she. She didn’t seem to be angry anymore, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what she was.
“Hey.” She sighed and puffed her cheeks out. “Can I talk to you?”
I shoved my hands into my pockets and nodded. “Sure.”
“Ummm,” Kacie stammered as she stood up, “Brody, I’m gonna go grab some coffee and water. Wanna come with and help me carry?”
“Sure,”—he looked back and forth between me and Michelle—“assuming I’m not needed here for security?”
Michelle sniffed and shook her head, looking down as she played with her wedding band. “No, we don’t need security.”
“All right, we’ll be right back.” Kacie pushed Brody’s chest gently and they left the room. I sat down in a chair across from Michelle and waited. I had no idea what she wanted to say. A million different things ran through my head, and I was prepared to take whatever she needed to give out.
Finally, after a long awkward silence, she looked up at me with puffy, red-rimmed eyes and sighed heavily. “Viper, I’m so sorry.”