Strange dreams plague me. Memories are tangled up in older memories. Everything is so convoluted that I don’t know what’s real. Time no longer exists. I can’t feel my head, although I know it was throbbing a few moments ago. To make things stranger, my parents are talking to me. They tell me it’s all right. They look exactly the same way they did the last time I saw them. My mom has her gold cross around her neck. The light catches it, and it grows brighter.

The scene shifts. There’s no floor or walls. Only darkness. I blink over and over again, trying to focus on something. My skin prickles as if someone is looking at me. When my eyes adjust, I can see the outline of a familiar form. He comes into focus. Sean’s blue gaze meets mine from across the room. My heart thumps hard. I want to walk to him, but my feet won’t move. Sean says nothing. He stands there like a ghost, flickering in and out of focus. The haunted expression I’ve seen so many times is still etched onto his face. It’s like there are things that he wants to say, but he doesn’t move. He doesn’t try to come to me.

I don’t know how long it lasts. It feels painful. Neither of us can move. There are so many things to say, but neither of us speaks. The silence is deafening. Then he walks toward me.

Sean’s voice is a whisper of music. It’s too soft to be heard, but I hear it. His hand strokes my cheek and soothing words fall from his lips. I love you, Avery. I’m so sorry I never told you.

Sean’s touch lingers, and then he slowly steps away. The inky blackness engulfs him and I’m alone. Time passes slowly, and nothing happens for a long time.

Then, my body grows colder. Sweat drips down my spine and soaks my hair. A bead trickles down my cheek and I wipe it away. I try to suck in air, but find I can’t breathe. I panic. The floor is gone and I’m falling, suddenly sucked into a black hole. I’m breathless. My stomach flies up into my throat and I flail, trying to grab hold of something. My mouth is open. I scream, and hear an echo that sounds too far away.

Suddenly, I feel my arms and legs. Sheets are tangling me. Panic has me in an icy sweat. I push up before my eyes are open, gasping.

“Whoa,” a male voice says. His hand is on my shoulder, steadying me. My head throbs and the room spins. The hand pushes me back down. I freak out and yelp.

“Damn, Avery. You’re all sorts of messed up. Stay still. It’s just Marty and me. What the hell did they give you?” Mel is talking. I can’t focus on her face.

I stretch my fingers and feel the IV in my hand. The tape itches. My eyes feel like they’re stitched together. I manage to pry them open and look around. The room is spinning. I groan and cover my face with my hands, trying to make it stop. When I lay still, things settle. I feel like I’m drugged out of my mind. I wonder if Marty and Mel are real or if I’m still dreaming. I look straight ahead. Mel is at the foot of my bed. I sweep my eyes across the room. Marty is next to me in a chair. I’m not in the same room I fell asleep in.

My brain wakes up and shakes off. Panic is prodding it to function faster and piece things together. Frantic thoughts fly through my mind like an out of control kaleidoscope.

They admitted me? I can’t be here. I can’t afford this. Anxiety rises up from deep inside me and vines into every crevice of my being. If I can’t pay these bills, I’ll have to declare bankruptcy. If I declare bankruptcy, then I can’t get a job when I graduate, which means my entire life is a wash. Everything I did to stay in college will be wiped out.

I completely freak out. My heart is pounding as though someone is trying to kill me. My voice sounds like a screech, “I can’t be here. I can’t—” I start coughing and can’t stop. My mouth and throat are so dry. My lips are bloody and cracked in the corners. I’d kill someone for Blistex right now.

“Shhh, Avery. Everything will be fine,” Marty says, and hands me a cup of water. I take it, grateful, and sip. I keep clearing my throat, trying to swallow. After a moment, he asks, “Better?”

I nod and hand him back the cup. My hands shake. There’s another question that I’ve been dreading to ask, but I need to know. The dream has me spooked. Sean shouldn’t be standing by my parents, not unless he’s dead. I want to curl into a ball and cry.

I manage, “Where is Sean?” Mel looks at Marty, but neither of them says anything. “Tell me. If he’s d-dead, tell me. I can’t take not knowing. Where is he?”

Marty looks down at me. His fingers stroke my forehead gently. “We’re not sure. They moved you up here last night. Mel and I got here right after they moved you. I heard they were working on a guy that was in a motorcycle accident when we came in through the ER. I’m guessing that was Sean, but no one will tell us anything.

“Mel grabbed your chart when nobody was looking and wrote down that she was your next of kin, otherwise they wouldn’t have even let us in to see you.”

Mel snorts. “Yeah, they didn’t believe we were sisters. I told them if they wanted to hear the fucked up shit we’ve been through, I got time. They let me in after that and I brought Marty up. I think I scared that little blonde nurse you had last night.”

Marty laughs. “Yeah, she thinks we’re in a gang or something.”

“A gay gang. That’ll do wonders for my reputation.” Mel sits down on a chair and looks so sullen, so sorry. She blinks away all her sass and for a moment, she’s nothing but worried. “Seriously, Avery, are you all right? Do you hurt? You want more pain meds?”

I shake my head slowly. “No, I don’t think so. Whatever they gave to me, made me feel weird. So, what’s wrong with me? Why was I admitted? I have no insurance. I can’t possibly pay for this.” My heart starts pounding again.

Marty sits back in his chair. He presses his fingers together. “I think you’re here under observation. They said you hit your head pretty hard. They ran a bunch of tests last night and are still waiting on some of the results. Don’t worry. They’ll throw your ass out as soon as possible.”

Mel sighs and says, “Black was here. Gabe or Blade or whatever the hell his name is, is in the waiting room to see if you wake up.”

“Black came? Who told her?” Damn, my head hurts. I rub my fingers against my temples, squinting, trying to focus.

“I did,” Mel says. “You were wearing your bracelet. The bead broke and she called you. Her thug showed up two seconds later to skin your date, but I told him what happened. Black wants her investment back.”

“Shit.” I close my eyes. I think about it for a moment, and then ask. “Is Sean’s jacket in here?” Mel nods and hands it to me. I pull out the envelope and separate the note, the necklace, and some of the money. I put those things back in Sean’s jacket and hand it back to Mel. “Call Gabe in here for me.”

“Avery—” Marty interrupts. He cuts Mel a look that says she shouldn’t listen to me, but Mel does. Before he can protest, Mel is in the hallway. “You don’t have to do this now.” His eyes are so big and brown. I never realized how much he cares about me. Marty looks really worried.

I take his hand and rub the back. “It’ll be okay. Wait and see.”

Gabe walks in. “Miss Stanz, how are you?”

“I’ve been better. Listen, I know why you’re here. Take this. Give it to Black. Tell her we’re even. I took out enough to cover the fee from the other night.” I hand him the envelope filled with cash. “Tell her my indentured servitude is over.”

He looks down at it and back up at me. “I’ll let her know. What about work? Should I tell her you’re coming back? Or are you making other employment arrangements?”

I want to quit. Since I stepped my foot into Black’s office, things have gone from bad to worse. But I can’t pull out. Not now. God knows how much this is going to cost. I’ll have to pay the debt, and finish school and work. Oh, holy hell. My head hurts. I’m staring at Gabe as I’m thinking. The answer is obvious. I have to keep working for her. Shit.

“Avery…” Marty says softly.

Mel watches me, her caramel eyes flicking between me and Gabe.

“I’ll come back as soon as possible. I want to be on the books next weekend. I’m full in, none of this halfway stuff anymore.”

Gabe nods, “You’re made of stone, kid. Hold it together and get out as fast as you can.” Gabe glances at Mel and adds, “I never said that, so you didn’t hear it.”

Mel flinches and looks at me, and then back at Gabe. “I’m not saying shit to no one. What you looking at me like that for? The more people looking out for my girl, the better. Damn right, I said that. Tell whoever the fuck you want.” Mel’s arms are folded over her chest. Standing next to Gabe, she looks so small and breakable.

Gabe smirks at Mel and leaves without another word. We all watch the door close. I rub the heel of my hand over my eyes and sit up. The room tilts to the side, but I can’t stay here. I have to get up and leave. Before I can manage to swing my legs off the side of the bed, Marty scoots closer and takes my hand.

“Avery, how could you say that?” Marty sounds like he’s scolding me.

“Don’t you dare yell at her. What the hell is wrong with you? She’s been through enough. Zip it, Dough Boy or I’ll toss your ass out of here.” Mel is standing with her hands on her hips. I can tell that she wants to yell at Marty, but her voice is calm.

She looks over at me. “You hungry? I’ll go get you something, some soup maybe? I know how much you like soup.”

I like soup as much as she likes pancakes. I smile. It makes my lips crack. I wince and ask, “Sounds good. And can you find me some lip balm?”

Mel nods. “Sure thing, honey. Glad you’re alive.”

“Me too.”

Mel slips out the door, and Marty and I are alone.


Marty doesn’t say anything, at first. He seems nervous and way out of sorts. I tell him, “I don’t think anything is broken. I can move all my toes.”