Mason, it’s so beautiful out here, I texted a message along with the picture I had taken. Wish you were here.
I hit the send button, and then tucked my phone away in my pocket. I stood at the edge of the cliff, following the sweeping land slide with my eyes down to the roaring river at the bottom. It was spring, and the water level was higher than usual, dark and muddy, full of winter debris.
And it was here in this serene place tucked away in the woods, high up on the cliff looking over the whole world (it seemed), that I was at peace.
It was here that I could think, and think in my voice only. With no other influences or voices to distract me or deter me. It was just me, pure and simple.
And I guess that’s why I wanted Mason here. I knew he would appreciate this moment, this philosophical peace, just as much as me. I could picture him next to me, leaned back on his elbows, looking up at the sky with those bright blue eyes so full of hidden intelligence. He would have a hint of a smile on his lips as he peered at life in its raw form. He loves moments like that, just like me, where things just click and you realize something new about life. A new philosophy.
We would sit in silence for a while, him and I. Then we would start talking, and we wouldn’t be able to stop. If we had the time to talk about everything we wanted to with each other, we would talk until the day we died. I’m certain of it.
My phone chirped, and I opened up Mason’s response.
Looks awesome. I wish I was there. You always text me awesome things right when I need it, Ava.
I frowned at the last part, and quickly sent a reply:
Why, what’s wrong?
Just…shit at home. Mom.
‘Mom’. That one word explained it all to me. The two of them are always butting heads.
Call me tonight and tell me about it?
I smiled at the reply that came a few moments later.
Was already planning on it :]
I stuffed my phone in my pocket, looking down at my feet, hanging over the cliff edge, swinging back and forth to an unknown beat.
Casting a final glance over the tree tops of the expansive forest, I began the long descent down to the river, a descent I had made many times. I shimmied my way quickly down the sloped cliff-face, my feet and hands knowing where all the holds were from endless repetition of this process.
I was nearly a fourth of the way down when I paused to catch a breath and to consider my next move. My right foot was free, my left foot and hands all had holds. I was looking where to place my right foot when the rock beneath my left shifted.
I froze, looking down at the rock. Little clods of dirt rolled down the slope, freed from their prisons by the shift.
I was abruptly aware of how high up I was.
Suddenly, the rock came loose.
I braced my arms to catch my weight, but it was too late. My fingers slid from their grips, and I was falling back into space.
I was too surprised to scream.
I collided with the side of the cliff, pain jarring my body as my back jammed into a protruding stone.
I started to roll down the slope, the unforgiving terrain biting into my body. I scrabbled to grab something, anything stable, but I was moving too fast. My hands came up empty.
My head cracked against something with tremendous force, and I screamed as I saw red and the pain ricocheted everywhere across my body, like smashing glass.
Red became black.
I opened my eyes.
My vision faded in and out of focus, and I couldn’t feel my body…
I had to concentrate to stay awake.
I rolled my head to the side, seeing my left hand submersed in the stream. The rest of my body was on land.
As though on cue, sensation flowed back into my hand, and I could feel the water rushing through my fingers.
Red dots appeared in my vision, and I knew it was only a matter of time until I passed out again.
I reached for my phone, my fingers tingling; my grip almost too weak to hold the phone.
Mason’s name flashed n the screen… had had sent me a text. I opened it, and without reading it, I went straight to replying.
I love you mason
Pain shot up my spine, and I gasped. I saw red again, and was faintly aware of myself screaming.
My vision slowly cleared again. My mind was numb and I could barely hold a thought.
Was I dying?
I added to the end of the message:
Then hit send.
The last thing I saw was the sky, beautifully blue and dotted with pleasant, fluffy white clouds. My vision blurred and they all blended together messily. I was plunged into the deep, inviting black void.
I reached up, gingerly touching my head, wincing at the pang of pain that lanced through my skull.
Since when do I ever get headaches?
When you’re hung over, a voice in my head snickered. I laughed a little at my own witty mind, and my sister gave me a funny look from the computer desk. I made a face at her and she rolled her eyes, returning to the screen.
I flicked my phone open, frowning at the lack of text from Ava.
You there? I asked.
I sighed, bored of the movie I was watching. I had music and people and plans dancing through my head, and I couldn’t concentrate. I flicked the T.V. off and headed down to the basement.
Seating myself on the couch, I grabbed my guitar, sighing at the familiar feel of the weight in my lap and the neck in my hand.
I picked at the strings, releasing the first sweet notes into the air around me. I started to play, experimenting with the sounds, trying to find a new tune. The constant traffic in my head became a muffled din in the background.
I was surprised at the sad, mellow tune that reached my ears as my fingers slid deftly up and down the strings; finding a new beat. It conjured an image of my late grandmother in my head, and I sighed heavily, but kept playing. Sad as it was, the music was sweet and beautiful, and I didn’t want to lose it just yet.
My pocket buzzed, and I pulled out my cell, smiling at the name on the screen; Ava. My grin widened as I remembered how happy she had been when I’d told her she was one of the few people I like to talk to while I play guitar. Guitar playing is my ‘me time’, and normally I hate texting people while I play.
But Ava is me, just in girl form. Talking to her is always fun.
I read the message, frowned, and read it again.
I love you mason goodbye
My stomach twisted a little. That was weird. The message was out of place. And there was no punctuation. Ava always has perfect grammar when she texts.
Umm… love you too? Lol that’s random. Are you ok?
I started to pace as I waited for an answer; my guitar forgotten.
Something about that text just wasn’t sitting right with me.
The minutes ticked by, and as the time continued to pass my pace grew increasingly quicker.
I glanced at the message I had just sent, checking the time. I’d sent it at 12:03. It was 12:09 now; six minutes had passed.
I called her.
I started to breathe faster with every unanswered ring, and my mind reeled, spinning and numb.
“Hey, who is this?” Ava’s voice asked. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Mason! Isn’t your caller I.D.-”
“Oh, hey, what’s up?” She cut me off.
“What the hell was up with that text you sent me, Ava? I was worried and-”
“Nah, just kidding. This is my voicemail! Gotchya! Leave a message, I’ll get back to you.”
My stomach fell, and I stood there, staring at my feet, deliberating. The word ‘suicide’ crawled into my head, and I immediately pushed it away. Ava wasn’t like that. I flicked through my messages from her, searching for a clue.
The picture of the cliff looking down onto the fast flowing river appeared on the screen, and I sucked in a sharp breath, my heart stopping.
Then I was running.
I had the pedal to the metal, and my little car was flying down the back roads, pushing its engine to the limit.
“Don’t crap out on me now,” I begged my car, urging it to go faster. My speedometer crawled passed one hundred, and I caught air as I careened over a hill top.
Damn you for living so far away! I cursed quietly to Ava in my mind. I was almost there though, reaching her house in a record ten minutes. I was just around the corner from her house when blue and red lights flashed in my rearview mirror.
“Fuck!” I yelled, and drove faster, my tires squalling as I turned onto her road at eighty miles an hour. All of my piles of shit went flying, and one of my two hundred dollar speakers fell over, banging loudly onto its side. But I didn’t care.
I roared down the road, the cop hot on my trail. Her house loomed up ahead, and I jerked my car over to the side of the road, throwing it in park. I leapt out of the car as the officer pulled over; gravel flying up from his tires and biting my legs.
I raced across Ava’s lawn and passed the side of her house, making a beeline for the woods.
“Stop!” The officer screamed. I kept going as though he wasn’t there.
I crashed through the tree line, finding the trail that Ava once showed me last summer.
“This goes to my favorite place in the world,” she’d told me. I remembered her voice, the happy light in her eyes as she said it, as though it were yesterday. We hadn’t had time that day for her to show me, but she’d been meaning to take me out here for a long time.
“It’s like a big playground, Mason, you’ll love it.”
No, Ava, it’s a death trap.
My eyes stung with tears as my legs pumped harder and harder, a stinging in my lungs as I gasped raggedly for oxygen.
The trail began to slope upwards, following the contours of the land. I could hear the cop crashing through the undergrowth behind me.
“Stop!” He screamed. “You’re only making it worse for yourself!”
I had the strong urge to punch him.
The trail crawled along the extreme edge of the cliff, and as I ran by little chunks of rock and dirt came loose, clattering down the face of the stone escarpment. I winced and felt sick as I noticed how sharp some of the rocks were on the way down…
I continued to run, getting higher and higher, until I was above the trees on the other side of the river.
An image of Ava’s hand reaching desperately up out of the roaring murky water as she drowned flashed in my mind, followed by her cold, lifeless body washed up on a shore…
I wretched and nearly puked, but kept running.
The trail came to an abrupt halt at the peak of the cliff, and I skidded to a stop.
I scanned the rocks, my eyes following the river banks… they were so far down…
My gaze came to a stop on a crumpled, twisted shape, and I felt my blood pounding in my ears.
“Ava!” I screamed. Tears flooded down my face, and I was shaking. My world was coming undone. I hit my knees.
A hand crashed down on my shoulder, gripping me and yanking me to my feet.
“Fuck off!” I screamed, throwing the hand away.
“Don’t worry about me!” I spat, glaring at the panting, red-faced cop. Sweat trickled down his brow. I jerked a finger down to Ava’s limp form. “Call an ambulance you dumb shit!”
He followed my finger, his eyes widening. He yanked a walkie-talkie form his pocket.
“Mercy flight request for South Hampton on Gem River…”
Shaking, I lowered myself over the edge and started to climb down, my heart pounding.
“No, don’t go down!” The cop yelled. “You’ll hurt yourself!”
I ignored him, sliding down the cliff carefully. The stones scratched my hands, and I saw blood streaks left behind… but I couldn’t feel the pain. My heart was slamming with adrenaline, and my limbs felt numb. My mind was racing, and I sobbed loudly, bitter tears falling from my burning eyes.
I love you mason goodbye
No… no… please, not goodbye…
I finally reached the bottom, my feet slipping into the water as I crawled over to her.
“Oh, God, God, no…” I choked loudly, taking her gentle face in my hands. I gasped, pulling my hand away from her hair, soaked in her blood.
She was so bloody and bashed… her right arm was bent at a sickening angle, her legs tangled together and scraped to a gory mess. A huge gash ran over her face, from her forehead, over her eyes, across her nose, and to the crease of her lip. Blood trickled from the gash into her slightly parted lips…
Shaking, I lowered my ear to her chest.
There was nothing…
“Please, oh please…” I begged to no one.
Slamming my fists into the rock, I threw my head back, an awful animal scream clawing up out of my throat.
“Give her back to me!” I shrieked up to the sky. “Give her back you sick fuck!”
My throat burned, and I tasted blood. My ears rang from my own loudness.
I lowered my ear to her chest again.
A huge, hot tear fell from my eyes, landing on her pale skin, splattering across the surface into many tiny droplets.
Then… a flutter.
Yes, there was a heartbeat!
I held my breath, listening.
And again, moments later, there came another.
Slipping my fingers into her blood soaked hair; I pressed my face to her neck, crying softly.
“Ava, Ava, I love you too. Please, please stay with me. Don’t go.”
I heard a noise in the distance, a steady thrumming that beat on my ear drums with a soft pressure.
“Ava, you’re my best friend. I’m here for you… you’re safe.”
My lips trembled as I withdrew my hands, dripping in her blood. Wiping them on my pants, I brought one hand to her cheek.
There was a soft pink blush there as blood flowed feebly in the veins just beneath the surface. Slowly and weakly, but surely.
My hair whipped back as the helicopter appeared, its propellers thrusting sharp gusts of air down from the sky. The trees rustled, their leaves flying back and the branches rocking back and forth.
I raised my tear-streaked face upward, watching the ladder tumble down.
I took one of her limp, bloody hands in mine and squeezed it tight.
“Hang on, Ava. Don’t let go.”
The pain was immense.
Every breath was a labor; every slow, shaky inhale shot pain, hot and sharp, up and down my sides.
There was a dull throb in the back of my skull, reverberating mercilessly around my whole head and blasting bursts of stinging pain down my jaw, and a deeper, lava-hot pain down my neck.
I could feel my heartbeat, slow and hesitant with every pump. With each gush of blood sent through my veins, a round of pain followed, as though even the gentle flow of my blood was too much to handle.
Slowly, I opened my eyes, squinting against the painful fluorescent glare of the lights hanging above my bed.
I lowered my eyes to see the body stretched out on the sheets before me. My whole torso was wrapped, pressing tightly against my ribs. I wondered how many were broken. One leg was in a cast, elevated and dangling from a sling hanging from a ceiling fixture. The ankle on my other leg was wrapped, and gauze dotted its entire length. My right arm was in a sling, cradled against my chest.
My quads tingled faintly, as though my leg had fallen asleep, and I couldn’t feel my toes.
I swallowed hard, taking in a deep breath, ignoring the pain, and letting it out quickly through my nose.
Tears stung my eyes
Summer had barely begun, and it seemed as though I would be doing nothing now for the remainder of it.
At least you’re not dead, a voice said in my mind.
I closed my eyes as the fuzzy memory of my fall came back, the red, raw pain as my body was shattered and broken.
How did I get here? I wondered. My last waking memory had been sending Mason that text…
Slowly, I rolled my head to the left, and my eyes fell on the chair scooted up close to my bed.
I smiled at my best friend, who was fast asleep, his head resting on the edge of my bed. His guitar rested in his lap, and his left hand still clutched the neck.
His face was so peaceful, his long hair falling around his cheeks and over his fluttering eyelids.
Slowly and carefully, I edged my left hand over to him, gritting against the lightning striking in my side.
I brushed his hair away, my finger grazing across his cheek.
His eyes came open, and he blinked once. Twice.
The crystal blue irises followed my arm up to my shoulder, and then skipped to my face. Our eyes connected, and I watched as his filled with tears.
He took my hand, gripping it tightly in his, and sat up. He started sobbing uncontrollably, his face scrunching up and his cheeks reddening.
“Mason…” I rasped, my voice weak and scratchy. I swallowed and cleared my throat. “Mason, it’s okay.” He just shook his head, leaving his chair to sit on the edge of my bed.
“I almost didn’t make it in time,” he choked, closing his eyes. I wanted to touch his face, to wipe away his tears. But my right arm was in a sling and he was gripping my left hand like he was never going to let go.
“I barely made it…” he whispered, a tear dropping from his face and landing on my hand.
“You found me?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, opening his eyes again.
“How did you know?” I recalled the message I’d sent him. I hadn’t asked for help. I had thought I was dying and it was too late for help.
“Your message was abrupt and didn’t seem right. You didn’t use punctuation; it made it seemed rushed, especially sense you always use good grammar in your texts. You didn’t answer my text or my call… then I remembered the picture of the cliff you sent me… and it clicked and all of it made sense…”
He took a deep shaky breath, closing his eyes again.
“Why didn’t you just tell me you fell? I wasted so much time waiting for a response… you could have died,” his voice broke on the last word.
“I thought I was dying. I figured it was pointless.”
To my surprise, he smiled then.
“You stupid girl.”
I smiled back, trying not to laugh because I knew it would hurt.
Suddenly, his smile disappeared, and letting go of my hand, he reached out and gently pressed a fingertip to my forehead, and then traced a diagonal line over my face to my jaw… and as his finger moved an angry, stinging sensation on my skin followed it.
Tentatively, I reached up and touched my face. I swallowed hard, following the line of stitches with my own fingers. Tears stung my eyes as I imagined the ugly scar that was going to be there for the rest of my life.
“How bad is it?” I whispered softly.
“It looks kind of cool, if you ask me…” he grinned lopsidedly at me, his blue eyes glowing. I couldn’t help but smile back.
“What about the rest of me?” I asked, looking over my bandaged, tattered body again.
He hesitated, and I looked over to his face again.
“Well…” he was chewing his lip nervously, and his eyes were locked on the corner of the room. I followed his gaze, and found the wheelchair he was staring at. I frowned.
“Mason, what is it?”
He dropped his eyes to the floor, sighing heavily.
“I didn’t want to be the one to tell you…”
My heart started to pound, and I braced myself for something terrible. Something irreversible and world-shattering.
“The doctors said… they said if the feeling doesn’t come back in your legs over the next week… well…” he took a deep breath, and looked me in the eye. His eyes were so sad, so tortured.
“Then it’s never going to come back.”
My mind numbly processed this information, slower than molasses, and I closed my eyes.
I pictured myself on the volleyball court, diving for the ball, the entire audience yelling my name. I saw myself hiking with my Mom, climbing up rocky cliffs to reach the top of a waterfall. I saw me laughing, giving a friend a piggy-back ride down my high school hallways. I saw my dogs barking, running in excited circles around me while I played with them.
A strangled noise came from my throat, and I started to cry uncontrollably. Huge, hot tears burst from my eyes and tumbled down my cheeks.
“Ava,” he whispered. I felt his body pressing down on the mattress next to me, and then there was an arm over my chest, and his chin pressed against my head. Gripping his shirt with my free hand, I wept into his shoulder.
“Ava, I’m just so happy you’re alive,” he insisted, his voice strained. “And I know you. I know you better than you do sometimes. No matter what gets in your way, you’ll still chase your dreams. You’ll find a way.”
“I don’t know, Mason…” I sobbed. “I just don’t know.”
He let me cry until I couldn’t cry anymore, and I was so exhausted and in so much pain. He called for a nurse, and she gave me some painkillers.
I drifted away, my eyes heavy with sleep.
“I love you, Ava…” his voice came to me distantly, through a hazy fog. “Stay strong.”
Then I was gone, lost in sleep’s sweet embrace.
Her parents had just left for lunch. I paced impatiently, wishing I had something to do.
I had been here for five days, and I was going out of my mind with cabin fever. But every time I considered leaving, I immediately pushed away the idea.
In two days she would officially be diagnosed as permanently paralyzed from the waist down, and I couldn’t leave her like that during such a crucial time. Her parents kept telling me I could go, that they would make sure she was safe. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave.
I absently rearranged the flowers in the vase on the windowsill, a knot in my throat as I thought about Ava’s legs.
I’d heard the doctors talking. I hadn’t been able to bring myself to tell her what I overheard.
“Every day that goes by, her chances get exponentially smaller.”
“I think we should tell her family that it’s pretty much a lost cause at this point. The more they get her hopes up, the worse it’s going to be for her in the end.”
“I’ll talk to her parents tonight.”
I’d heard that conversation this morning, when they thought I’d been asleep. It had broken my heart.
She was the star volleyball player at her school.
I tried to picture my life without volleyball, and I had to shake my head and push the image away. If it was unthinkable for me, it had to be catastrophic for her. Volleyball was so important to her… ten times more so than it was for me. When she was out there on that court… it was like poetry. The way she moves, the way she knows everything that’s happening all at once. It’s where she belongs.
I turned away from the window, looking over the sleeping figure on the bed.
Her head was bandaged, and her long beautiful hair was gone; shaved so they could operate on the huge wound on the back of her head. The doctors had been surprised that her skull hadn’t cracked.
But her face was still so beautiful, relaxed and at peace in her drug-filled sleep. There was a hint of a smile on her pink lips, and I wondered what she was dreaming about.
I stepped forward, and swallowing hard, I reached out and touched her leg, the one without the cast. Scratches and bruises spotted her skin. Only the really bad gashes were still gauzed; the others were exposed now and scabbed over. I carefully traced my finger down one of her scratches, my heart crumbling into a million helpless bits.
Ava, my best friend, crippled and taken away from the things she loved. She didn’t deserve it. Of all the people on the earth, she was the least deserving of this atrocity. I wished I could take all of her pain away and absorb it myself. I wished it was me smashed and broken at the bottom of that cliff. I wished it was the mummified and drugged in this hospital bed. She already had scholarships, she was the valedictorian of her class, and she gave so much love to everyone. And me? I just went out and partied every weekend, getting drunk off of my ass. I took summer school every summer for at least one class.
Mason, you’re my hero. She’d said so many times. You have so much going for you. She would always quickly tell me whenever I got down on myself. You’re the best guitar player in the whole world.
I turned to see her watching me, awake.
Tears sprang to her eyes, slowly streaming down her cheeks as she stared at my hand on her lifeless leg.
I withdrew my hand form her leg as though it had shocked me, filled with guilt.
“Ava, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you… I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, Mason, it’s not that.” As the words left her mouth, a huge smile bloomed on her face, her tears falling over her wide-stretched lips.
Reaching out, she took my hand, placing it back on her leg. Her smile got even bigger, and she laughed; a sweet and delighted sound.
“Mason… I can feel your hand!”
I couldn’t describe the joy I felt then as I laughed with her and hugged her as tight as I could without hurting her.
My best friend wasn’t paralyzed.
Everything was going to be okay.
Everything was right again.
She hadn’t left me forever. She was here.
And she was okay.
She was more than okay; Ava was smiling. Laughing. In love with life once more, just like she always had been.
And in that moment, I too was in love with life.