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A Promise Twice Given


“You okay?” she asked, pulling a chair out from the table and sitting.

“I suppose,” he replied after taking a deep breath, his eyes remained focused downward at table in front of him.

“You don’t look okay,” she said, concern coloring her tone as her brows furrowed. She reached across the table and gently put her hand over his.

“I manage,” he said, pulling his hand away.

“Why are you upset with me? It’s not my fault.”

“I know it’s not your fault. You keep coming here, though. Why?” He finally looked up at her. His eyes were red-rimmed and dark underneath. His face was covered with stubble and his hair stood out unkempt in several places. Without waiting for her answer, he put his head down, face resting on the backs of his hands.

“Because you need me,” she said softly.

“No, not like this,” he said without looking up. He sniffed loudly and exhaled.

“I can’t be here like before.” There was care evident in her voice.

“Then why are you here at all?” he said sharply, raising his head. “What good does it do? How do I live like this? What the hell am I supposed to do?” His voice had risen nearly to a shout by the time he finished.

“I don’t know.” She was unfazed by his outburst. “You can’t just sit here avoiding people, missing work, wasting away. You have to figure this out.”

“I don’t have to figure anything out. I don’t care anymore. There’s this big… black… goddamn… hole in me.” He struggled for words, pausing in frustration. “You don’t have to worry about things like that anymore, but it’s eating me alive! I don’t want to talk to anyone, don’t want to see anyone. I can’t look at their stupid smiling faces and not want to punch them and just keep on punching until someone else knows how bad this hurts.

“No ‘I’m worry for your loss,’ no ‘It’ll get better,’ no ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ none of it. I can’t. I’ll lose it. I can’t even drive without thinking how easy it would be to just… ram a telephone pole… or drive off a bridge.” He was close to sobbing now, pain straining his voice. “How do I do it, Gemma? How do I live? You got… fucking… ripped from me… and I’m just ragged shit left behind. When I think about you I feel like I’m suffocating… I remember you’re gone and everything hurts… and all I want to do is turn it all off.

“Oh, baby,” she said, standing next to him, now, hand on his shoulder, “it will get better.”

“Oh, fuck that!” he said, angrily shoving his chair back and standing. He rubbed his eyes as he walked one direction then back again. “I’m the one who has to live through this, not you. You’re gone now, except for… for whatever this is.” He gestured in her direction with shaky hands.

“It’s not my fault,” she said, coming closer to him.

“I know.” He spoke as if the fire suddenly gone out of him. His shoulders slumped.

“It’s not your fault,” she said quietly, standing in front of him.

“I know.”

“You have to get better.” Her hands were on his flushed cheeks, tilting his face up to meet hers. “Promise me.”

“I can’t.”

“Promise me,” she said more insistently.

“I’ll try,” he said, looking into her eyes now.

“Not good enough. Promise me.”

“Alright, alright,” he said, after a pause, exhaling heavily. “I promise.”

“I love you,” she said with a smile, “I love you like I never loved anyone else. It breaks my heart to see you like this. I want you to get better. I need you to get better.”

“I love you too,” he said, unable to say anything else past his tightening throat. She leaned in and kissed him. Her lips felt different but familiar. Distant…

Beep… beep… beep…

Get better,” she said again, her voice sounding oddly far off, though she stood right in front of him. “I love you…”

Beep… beep… beep…

“I — ” he was having trouble speaking now, like he was choking. He struggled to breathe.

Beep… beep… beep…

Darkness.

Beep… beep… beep…beep… beep… beep…

Confusion.

Beep… beep… beep…beep… beep… beep…

Wake up.

His eyes opened and he gasped for air. He was on his back, a painfully bright light above him.

“He’s awake,” a muted voice said. Everything sounded as if it was underwater.

“Get the doctor… hurry.”

A hand squeezed his. He turned his head towards it, eyes struggling to focus.

Oh, Godyou’re awake.”

“Dee?” He could barely manage a dry whisper. Dee was Gemma’s sister and one of his closest friends.

“Why? Why didn’t you talk to me? Why didn’t you tell me what you were thinking?” She was half crying, half speaking. “I just lost Gems and now I almost lost you, what the hell were you thinking?!

“I don’t know,” he said, voice still barely making a sound. He was trying to push through the fog in his head, “I’m sorry…” His confusion was giving way to a feeling of shame. He felt the tickling sensation of wetness from the corners of his eyes running past the tops of his ears as he lay there. “I’m so sorry, Dee.”

“You just disappeared. You can’t do that to me. I’ve been trying to call you for days. I needed you. I came to your house, you wouldn’t answer. I was losing my mind. Why didn’t you talk to me?”

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” he said, his voice cracking, shame giving way to the honesty of emotional exhaustion. “I just want to stop… everything… stop thinking about her… but… I can’t. I don’t know how to live with it.”

“I know, honey… I feel so lost. I’ve been trying to get by… we have to get by, somehow. We’ll figure it out together.” She had his hand in hers again, squeezing. “You can’t ever do anything like this again. You can’t do that to me, okay?”

“Okay.” He wasn’t sure he meant it. It was too overwhelming. It would pull him under.

“Promise me.” With the echo of those familiar words in his head, he suddenly experienced, for the first moment since Gemma had died, a tiny wisp of calm. It was so unexpected that he lay stunned and silent for a moment.

Promise me,” she said more insistently.

“I promise.” Maybe, he thought, maybe he could mean it. “I promise,” he said again, to reassure her. He could breathe now.

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