By Greta Dornbirer
On my thirteenth birthday I met my true love. I invited my entire class, maybe one hundred kids in all, to my birthday party. I thought it would be fun if everyone brought their favorite book to discuss. That was my mistake. The popular kids never read books—either they were too stupid or they didn’t consider it “cool.” The bullies, who my mom made me invite, were definitely too stupid to read, and they thought that everyone else had to be just as dumb. So they stole kids’ books at school, including mine.
The normal kids tried to stay out of the bullies’ way. Many of them didn’t like to read because they were scared of what the bullies would do to them. One time the bullies forced a kid who had been reading Robinson Crusoe to flush his book down the toilet. Of course that clogged the toilet, and the poor kid got doused with disgusting water.
I was one of the odd kids—or the nerds, as the bullies dubbed us. My best friend Neal was a nerd too, except he was a science nerd, not a book nerd like me.
Neal showed up at my party with his favorite book on how to blow things up. I hoped he wasn’t planning on demonstrating what he’d learned from the book. Next came Chealsie, a known theater nerd. She brought a book on how to act well. Then I waited…and waited…and waited for the other kids to arrive. But they never did.
A lump rose in my throat. No, I wasn’t going to cry. Crying was for girls. I refused to be hurt by their meanness. Chealsie, Neal, and I would enjoy ourselves, and we’d show them.
I ran to my backyard to join Chealsie and Neal. Neal looked at me questioningly, and I shook my head. He didn’t seem disappointed.
“Well…” I fumbled to start a conversation. “Um, what books did you guys bring?”
We talked about the books, read them together (thankfully Neal didn’t suggest blowing anything up), and ate cake and ice cream. My mom’s homemade ice cream. The other kids had no clue what they were missing.
When the party was over, I said goodbye to Chealsie and Neal and turned to go inside. Maybe it wasn’t so bad being weird after all.
Chealsie was still standing on the path that led to the fence enclosing our yard. I swallowed. “Um, yeah?”
“Thanks for inviting me.” She smiled.
“You’re…welcome,” I managed. I couldn’t help noticing how Chealsie’s hair was parted—split into two equal sections. Her hair was wavy. Not too straight, not too curly. Perfect.
She didn’t move, as if she expected me to say more.
“Um, thanks for coming!” That sounded stupid. I hoped my face wasn’t as red as it felt.
Chealsie’s smile faded. “Yeah.” She headed toward the gate.
“Wait!” I yelled. “You’re really nice.”
Chealsie stared at me for a few heartbeats, as if trying to decide whether I was serious or not. Then she beamed at me with a smile as bright as the sun. It lit up her whole face. “Goodbye, Nick.”
I knew right then and there that I wanted to see Chealsie again. Soon.
* * *
17 years later
I lay in bed and gazed at the How to Ace Drama book sitting on my bedside table. I instinctively traced the scars covering my arms—long, white lines that were like a net of pain holding me back from happiness. I picked up the book and smelled it. The sweet scent of old books.
“I want you to have this, Nick,” Chealsie said, pointing at the book.“Don’t blame God, Nick. Don’t blame God.”
I laid my head against her chest, listening to her uneven and fragile breathing. And then it stopped completely. I couldn’t speak; I wasn’t even able to cry. I just sat in shock, not believing—not wanting to believe—that Chealsie was gone.
I looked away from the book. What if Chealsie was watching me from heaven? What would she think of me now? I wasn’t sure whether I even believed in heaven, but if anyone deserved to go there, Chealsie did. I opened the book to the note she’d written to me before she died. I didn’t need to flip through the contents to rediscover its location. It was on page 247—the page that was worn and ripped on the edges. But I didn’t care. Chealsie’s note was the most valuable thing I owned.
I read the words again, even though I’d memorized them years before.
Don’t cry for me. I’m going to be with God soon. I don’t want you to waste your life mourning for me. And please, Nick, don’t blame the driver and don’t blame God. Love others, and most importantly, love God, for He will never leave you. I love you so much!
I’d tried to block out the memories of that day, but the note always brought them back. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to remember or not. It was the last time I’d seen Chealsie unbroken, but it was also when I lost her.
We were talking and laughing in the car. Chealsie was driving. All I remembered was a huge CRASH and the hissing sound of the air bags inflating. Before the air bag cloth covered my eyes, I saw a phone lying on the other car’s dashboard. Its screen was still lit. Then I passed out.
The lump in my throat swelled until I thought it would burst. My face flamed, and salty waterlines started to trickle down my cheeks. I clenched my jaw. I would not cry. It had been five years…I was supposed to be over this by now.
“Nick,” Chealsie whispered in a hoarse voice. “I love you. You couldn’t have saved me. It’s not your fault.”
“It is my fault. If I had insisted on driving…”
“Nick, listen to me,” Chealsie pleaded.“Don’t blame the driver and don’t blame yourself.” She took a shaky breath. “God knows best. It’s my time.” She gave me a weak smile and laid back on her pillow. “Don’t blame God, Nick. Don’t blame God.” She became still—still as a gray winter morning.
I looked out the window to keep from crying. Outside, the sun was shining, lighting up everything its rays touched. The familiar scenery seemed new and fresh under the sun’s smiling face. The road and houses were glowing, whereas the inside of my home was dark and dreary. It was as if the window acted as a portal between two different worlds—one happy and bright, the other dark and gloomy. I wanted to be a part of the other world, the world outside my window. Fresh air is magic. Somehow it always helps to clear the mind of gloomy thoughts, my dad used to say.
I quickly put on some clothes and went outside.
Walking down the sidewalk and inhaling the fresh air, I felt almost happy. Maybe my dad was right about fresh air. Maybe it really was magic.
Suddenly all my happy thoughts were disrupted by the sight of an eight-year-old boy crossing the street alone.
I spotted a car—bright red—speeding toward the kid strolling across the road. I waved my arms around, trying to get the driver’s attention. But she was too busy looking down at something, and I could guess what it was.
“HEY! HEY!” I yelled. The kid snapped his head up, and he saw the car. He froze in place, petrified. The car was maybe 200 feet away, getting closer by the second.
I ran for the kid. Time seemed to slow down, and the world around me went silent, as if all activity had stopped completely.
One thousand one, one thousand two…
I couldn’t seem to make my legs move fast enough. I felt like I was Neil Armstrong, hopping along on the moon.
One thousand three, one thousand four…
I was inches from the kid. If I could just reach him.
One thousand five, one thousand six…
My hand touched something soft. The kid’s T-shirt. I shoved him as hard as I could.
One thousand seven, one thousand eight…
My foot caught on something, and I tripped. My legs sprawled in the road, in the path of the oncoming car.
One thousand nine, one thousand ten…
I tried to scramble out of the car’s way, but it was too late. I screamed as the wheels rolled over my leg. For a few dizzying seconds, I felt the pain—the horrible, searing pain of the broken bones in my leg. Then everything went black.
* * *
I opened my eyes. A crowd of people surrounded me. The sun…it was so bright. I closed my eyes again and licked my dry lips. I attempted to sit up, but pain shot through my leg like fire.
Someone was crying—a woman. Chealsie, I thought. I searched for her face among the bystanders. She wasn’t there. And I wasn’t dead. I tried not to feel disappointed.
The woman was sobbing and repeating, “I’m so sorry” over and over again. I wanted to tell her it was okay, that everything was fine, but I couldn’t speak. I felt like all the air had been squeezed out of my body, like a cement truck had flattened me.
“He’s lucky to have survived,” someone above me said.
A kid was bawling and yelling for his mother—probably the little boy who had been standing in the way of the car. I was glad he was alive.
Sirens blared in the distance, getting louder by the second, until the noise was so overpowering that I couldn’t hear anything else.
I felt hands lifting me onto a stretcher. With every move, every jolt, pain racked my body. I bit my tongue to keep from hollering out in pain. The stretcher underneath me shifted and pushed me into a dark box. An ambulance. Was I injured that badly? I’d experienced worse pain and worse grief than this. Chealsie would have been so worried if she hadn’t…if she… I shut my eyes to hide the tears that threatened to spill again.
* * *
When I fully regained consciousness, I was in a hospital bed with my leg in a cast. On the table beside me was a get-well-soon card and a bouquet of flowers. Daisies—Chealsie’s favorite. How did those get there?
I opened the card and read the note inside.
Dear Mr. Nicolas Bongarson,
Nicolas? I cringed. Only one person in my life had ever called me Nicolas—my mom. And even then, only when I was in trouble. I liked this person less and less by the second.
Thank you for saving my son’s life. I can’t thank you enough. Please accept this small token of my gratitude (check enclosed). I sincerely hope you are well soon!
With enormous gratitude,
I glanced at the check. One thousand dollars. Somehow that didn’t excite me. It bothered me that this lady seemed to be trying to pay for her son’s life. Besides, she’d called me Nicolas.
I tore up the check and let the shreds float to the floor. I didn’t want anyone’s gratitude; I just wanted to be left alone.
Creeeeaaaaak! The door of my room opened. I hadn’t realized how dark my surroundings were until the bright stream of light poured in. I covered my face with my arms. When my eyes finally adjusted, I scrutinized the doorway. A small figure was silhouetted against the light from the hallway. I couldn’t see the person’s face, but I figured who it was. The kid. Thayer.
He stared at me for several minutes, and although I knew better, I returned the stare. I was starting to wonder if he planned to break the silence anytime soon, when he asked, “Why do you have that white thing on your leg?”
“Uh, my leg’s broken. The ‘white thing’ will make it all better.”
He was quiet for a while, as if still puzzling over how the white thing would fix my leg. He must’ve been thinking about something else though, because what he said next was so surprising that I probably would’ve jumped out of the bed if my leg hadn’t been broken.
“I almost died, didn’t I? My mommy says I didn’t, but I think she just said that because she doesn’t want me to be scared.”
I tried not to let my mouth drop open. How old was this kid? He was talking about death as if it were a baseball game or something. I swallowed. “Um…yeah, I guess you did.”
I expected him to start crying, but instead he gazed at me thoughtfully and calmly—almost too calmly.
“You saved my life?”
Thayer studied my cast. “What’s your name?”
I contemplated how I should answer. Mr. Bongarson? No, too formal. Mr. Nick? That didn’t feel right either. Certainly not Mr. Nicolas. “You can call me Nick, I guess.”
Thayer mouthed the name, as if trying it on for size. He grinned. “I like you, Nick.”
I tried to smile, but I couldn’t.
“I like you, Nick,” Chealsie said. We were alone in the school hallway, lined with lockers. I liked her too, but I couldn’t make myself voice it aloud. Then she leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek.
“I like you too, Chealsie,” I whispered after she had scampered off down the hall.
“I-I like…” The words stuck in my throat. “You’re great, Thayer!” I exclaimed a little too quickly.
Thayer’s smile disappeared, and he frowned. “Mommy never explains what dying is. What is dying?”
Where were all these philosophical questions coming from? The kid was only eight. Or, at least, he looked about eight.
What was dying? I remembered something my mom had told me about death, to comfort me when my cat died. Your cat’s in heaven with God, honey.
“When you go up to heaven to be with God,” I replied.
Thayer leaned on my bed. I waited for another philosophical question I couldn’t answer. “Do you know anyone who’s died?”
The knee of my unbroken leg trembled. I was sick of being asked about Chealsie’s death. Sick of listening to the stock response, “she’s in heaven; you don’t have to be sad.” Sick of pretending to be grateful. They couldn’t fathom my pain, my grief.
But I sensed something was different about this kid. He seemed to understand somehow, though I wasn’t sure how an eight-year-old could understand. I couldn’t lie to him, so I said, “Yeah. My wife, Chealsie. She died in a car crash about five years ago.”
His eyes were watery blue, as if reflecting all the tears I’d shed over the years. “Does she know my daddy up in heaven?”
I caught my breath. This poor kid—already. I wanted to slap myself for being so selfish. “Yeah, I’m sure she does.”
He seemed satisfied, so he skipped out of the room.
For several minutes, I stared at the spot where the kid had stood, the only person thus far who had understood my loss. And he was only eight. I could almost hear Chealsie’s laughter as I realized that maybe there were some kind people left in the world.
* * *
I was bedridden for five days, but I didn’t mind because Thayer visited me every day. We’d chat about life and death, heaven, and other things I never thought I would be discussing with an eight-year-old. Thayer’s mom always waited outside. I was glad, because I preferred to be alone with Thayer.
Thayer shared about his dad, who had died a year ago from cancer, and I told him about Chealsie, how beautiful and happy she had been. The burden of her death wasn’t as hard to bear now that I knew I wasn’t the only one suffering from the loss of someone dear.
On my last day in the hospital, Thayer came to see me again. He asked me to tell him a story, so I recounted the first time I’d met Chealsie—at my thirteenth birthday party.
“We had a great time. My mom’s ice cream tasted even better that day than it ever had before. And believe me, Thayer, you haven’t eaten ice cream until you’ve had my mom’s.”
Thayer cocked his head to the side. “What’s ice cream?”
I chuckled. “Good one, Thayer.”
“No.” He furrowed his brow. “I’ve never had ice cream.” He pronounced ice cream like he’d never spoken the words before.
Who were this kid’s parents? Were they vegan or something?
“Man, Thayer. Ice cream…it’s just one of those things you have to taste to know what it’s like.” I tried to think of a way to describe it to someone who’d never had it. Suddenly, I had an idea.
“Well, you’re about to taste what it’s like. I’m taking you to get some. It won’t be as delicious as my mom’s—no ice cream has come close to being as good as my mom’s—but you’ll like it. That I can guarantee.”
Thayer leaped up and down and clapped his hands. “Yay! Can we go right now?”
“Sure we can. But you’d better ask your mom first.”
Thayer ran out of the room for a moment. I heard him asking his mom for permission.
“Sure, honey. Of course you can,” the woman replied. Maybe Thayer’s mom wasn’t so bad after all.
Thayer bounded back into my hospital room, crowing triumphantly, “I can go, I can GO!”
“Okay, okay, Thayer. Whoa, calm down.” I winked at him. “First this old man has to get out of this bed.”
I asked Thayer to hand me my crutches. My leg felt like molten lava had replaced the blood inside it, but I managed to stand up with the help of Thayer and the crutches.
I winced and grinned at Thayer. “Let’s go get some ice cream.”
I recalled the words Chealsie had written in the note she’d given me before she died. I don’t want you to waste your life mourning for me. She hadn’t wanted me to shut everyone out. She’d wanted me to be happy and to live life to its fullest.
I looked down at Thayer, and I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and happiness. And somehow I knew that up in heaven, Chealsie was smiling.
Greta Dornbirer is a fifteen-year-old homeschooler. She lives in Ohio with her four younger siblings and her parents. Greta loves writing and is currently writing a novel with her sister, but she has not published anything yet. She has written fantasy and fiction so far, but she would love to try writing adventure and mystery.
Besides writing, Greta enjoys reading, acting, singing, going outside, and painting. When she grows up, she wants to become a published author. Greta blogs at http://writingandblog.wordpress.com.