“Listen, Di, I know you’re busy but I’m in a real pinch here,” Amy said through the phone.
“What’s up?” Diana asked while holding her index finger in the air to indicate she would return to the clients in front of her shortly.
“I need you to pick up Therese. I’m in Northbrook and won’t get back in time.”
Diana and Amy started down a familiar path of excuses and pleading that both knew would end with Diana flying off to get Therese despite her protests. Thirty minutes later, the Blumes were shaking Diana’s hand and thanking her for all her hard work. Diana was effusive as she struggled with her coat. She threw her purse on her car’s passenger seat where it tipped, spilling the contents onto the floor. She groaned and pulled out of her parking space more quickly than she should have.
Amy was a blast but she had to get her shit together when it came to scheduling.
Diana pulled into Davis Middle School’s parking lot at the tail end of the caravan of parents who planned their lives around their children’s schedules. A few children loitered around on the lawn, young love manifesting in all of its awkward glory. She pulled into the first open spot she found, probably reserved for someone who held a title, and dashed from the car to the front office. Flying down the steps practically launched her onto the counter. When she looked up, Mrs. Simonson shook her head with pursed, taut lips. Diana knew the tsking was for Amy, not her, but she couldn’t help feeling small.
Diana smiled meekly, “Hi, Mrs. Simonson. I’m here for Therese. Her mom is… she was detained on business and I only just got out of a meeting.”
Mrs. Simonson didn’t care what the excuses were this week. She jerked her head to the left and continued to stuff the envelopes in front of her. Diana waited for the buzzer before pushing the locked door open.
The area in front of the principal is where the children whose parents were late sat, while they were supposed to be doing homework. A group of small heads lifted in hope when Diana arrived. Therese’s eyes held disappointment, so Diana looked at the other kids as Therese packed up her things. It was the usual suspects, including a boy Diana had seen a few times named Dean. Whenever Diana saw him, he was standing near a group but never in it. He was a nice-looking boy, always nicely dressed, but there was a dark outline to him; a border between him and the rest of the world. Therese said he had friends but that they were all just into their own thing. When Diana pressed, Therese only shrugged and said they didn’t like “normal stuff.”
Dean looked up as Diana stared at him. She smiled and did a small wave. He gave her a half-smile and looked to Therese, then back to his book on his lap. Therese had finally finished placing each item in its place in her backpack; to compensate for Amy’s chaos, Therese was disciplined to a fault. Diana smiled broadly and held her arms out. Therese glared at her and shrugged on her pack. She appreciated Diana coming to her rescue but not her charade that this was some special treat that had been planned for her.
Someone in the main office backed a chair up. It made a high-pitched screech, short and shrill. Diana stopped short; her face paled. Watching her, Therese’s expression changed from dour to confusion.
Diana took a deep breath and shook her head. She pointed Therese to the door and they went through it without a goodbye to Mrs. Simonson or anyone else. On their way out, Diana glanced once more at Dean. He looked up right as the door shut.
At Amy’s condo, Therese finished her kid responsibilities and began her adult ones. Amy flew in with multiple apologies and dramatic shows of affection for her daughter. Therese excused herself to read as Amy dropped into the chair opposite. She ate the dinner left out for her and launched into her day before truly looking at Diana.
With a mouth half full of food, she asked “What’s up?”
Diana looked at Amy intently. “I’ve been thinking about Vince a lot today.”
Amy swallowed. “Is he okay?”
“I assume. He was fine when we spoke last weekend.”
“Then why do you look…not okay?” Amy asked between sips of wine.
“Did you come to the hospital when he was still in the ICU?” Diana asked.
“Once. The waiting room was so small; I kept getting kicked out, so I waited until he was in his own room.”
Diana nodded. “That’s right. There was that other kid, the motorcycle accident that had so much family.” She leaned her head back against the wall. “They only let two in at a time. Mom and Dad would go first but they would always go off to have some detailed discussion with his doctors after they saw him, so I was in with him alone. I never knew what to do when I was in there. Sometimes I just talked about the stuff that had happened at school that day, or some movie I was looking forward to seeing. I felt weird staring at my comatose brother, so I watched all of the machines attached to him. Each had their own sounds. The heart monitor one sounds just like the ones on all the doc shows.”
Diana forced a smile.
“Even though they were all important – vital – there was this one that scared me the most. It was the machine that monitored his brain pressure. Every time his brain expanded, this machine would sound an alarm and nurses would come in and adjust various things and fly around that tiny space until the alarm stopped. If the alarm lasted too long, I was booted out and the doctor was called in from his confab with my folks. The three of us would stand in the waiting room, not breathing, until the alarm stopped. Once it stopped, and stayed off, we would walk out. There was no need to talk to anyone, we knew the circumstances. All we needed was that silence.”
“What were the circumstances?” Amy asked, pushing her half-finished plate from her.
“Vince’s brain was growing beyond his skull’s capacity. If the swelling didn’t stop – if the alarm didn’t stop – his brain would be crushed against his skull and it would kill him.”
“Why was his brain expanding?” Amy asked. Diana stared at her and she hurriedly added, “No, I know, but – why doesn’t it still expand?”
“Once the brain accepted the bullet as a part of it, it simply grew around it and staved off any inflammation – like it was part of him. It wasn’t a foreign object anymore.”
“So his brain acted like an oyster.” Amy said by way of comparison.
Diana sighed, “Only no pearl.”
Amy chewed on her lip waiting for Diana to continue.
“All those machines – any one signaling the death call – and it was that damn brain pressure one that terrified me.” Diana looked up, her eyes rimmed in red. “Isn’t that funny?”
“What did it sound like?” Amy asked.
Diana sniffed. “Have you ever heard a metal-footed chair scrap on a linoleum floor? Just like that.”
Amy nodded. She put a hand over Diana’s and waited for Diana to let her know what she should do next. It was exactly what she had done twenty-five years ago, as Diana’s brother Vince lay in the hospital bed he had shot himself into, aiming for his own grave.
Diana stood slowly. “I have an early morning.” She turned to Therese’s bedroom and called out “Bye, Therese!”
“Bye, Diana. Thanks.” Her voice came from under the door.
“You okay?” Amy asked Diana quietly. Even when wrapped in memories, Diana was rarely maudlin.
“I’m fine.” Diana responded. “I am. Pick your kid up tomorrow – I have an afternoon meeting.” She said pointing at Amy for emphasis.
Amy gave her a kiss on the cheek at the door. Diana looked past Amy’s shoulder to Therese’s closed door. “Hey. Can you ask Therese to say hi to that Dean kid when she passes him? She doesn’t have to ask him to the dance or anything, just a smile and a hello every once in awhile.”