by Erika Price
He got the news in the usual way: via Twitter. At 5:00 am when he’d already given up the prospect of sleeping (the thrum of his across-the-hall neighbor’s Skrillex ebbing into the rattle of the broken refrigerator), his phone silently lit up, providing an oasis of attention.
@scoliosis: Sounds like @brafshu is at Middleheartst in a coma #sad
He sat up, pulled the iPad out from under the spare pillow, and cast its light on his face. He pulled up Facebook. The first post, at 4:26 am from a former high-school peer, Misty Siler.
Soooo sad to hear about @BraffleyShumaker. Our prayers are in your heart!
At first he pulled the iPad away and stared into the kitchen. He remembered the tin of white chocolate cocoa his mother had mailed in a recent care package. He asked himself, just how could a prayer be in a heart? Is that what Misty really meant? Of course, grief could rot a person’s brain. Misty was second in the class, GPA-wise.
He tilted the screen back at his eyes and kicked the covers so one foot was bare. Perfect. He brought his forefinger of his right hand to Braffley’s highlighted name.
The page was awash in recent, well-meaning, and frustratingly vague posts, all prayers and wishes and memories for Braffley. The man asked himself, is Braffley dead or what? Then he found a post from Braffley’s cousin, Veronica.
Hey ya’ll Braffs folks have been too swamped to respond. He is in a stable condition and we are all with him, he’s been moved to the coma ward on the east side please park accordingly.
But still that wasn’t enough information. The man scrolled on, past old teeball playmates and ex-girlfriends and pastors, old neighbors and labmates and fraternity brothers and mystified, concerned internship partners. None of these dipshits know what happened to Braff, the man thought to himself. They weren’t there for what happened. They’re just hangers-on!
It was after five minutes had passed and a sparrow landed on the man’s windowsill that he finally scrolled past all the well-wishers’ non-updates to an old post by the now-unconscious Braffley himself. It was a sepia-filtered, low resolution image of the young man in a bright Hawaiian shirt, holding the camera aloft and at a cockeyed angle with one hand, a row of thick teeth glinting. In the other hand was a perfectly globular drink container, overflowing with a substance both frothy and green. There was a caption.
Ninety days sober! Here’s to big mojito mocktales and never missing a party just cuz there’s booze around! 😉 ~
The man held the back of the iPad with both hands and gently stroked the cool aluminum. This man, this overgrown boy whom he hadn’t seen since sixth grade, he had over ten thousand likes on the most insipid of feel-goodery posts. Were his eyes always blue, or was there something coming off the tiki torches that looked funny in the filter?
The man placed his tablet on the dresser and pulled his watch from the bottom of the key bowl. There was gum sticking to the face; he hadn’t worn the thing in weeks. Keeping time, wearing time had become useless since he’d taken the plunge, thrown out his desk and shelving units and rolled his Pilates ball out of the office and into the spare bedroom of his home.
For the past month, the days had been marked and kept by belly rumbles, faintly muted Skrillex beat drops, and the honking of the Thai delivery guy’s moped horn. No more. The man rolled until his bare, cool feet brushed the ground. He felt the crumbs dig into the webbing of his toes and regarded the burnt-orange sky and the clank of the dumpster in the alley. He went and brewed water for coffee, not cocoa, and thought of the steel-slicing jaw of Braffley.
He pulled into the hospital parking lot at 4:37 pm, swearing at himself and clicking Phil Collins off the local radio station. The man stuffed a few Verde Green Fritos into his mouth, opened the door, crunched his left boot on the snow, paused, reached back into the car to retrieve a mint from the cup holder, and flung himself out.
It was dark. It seemed impossibly late. The man hadn’t planned for early-afternoon commuter traffic, not in this disintegrating burb. He approached the old cement building, which was smeared on its sides with black and grey sooty filthiness of unknown origins. It was too late in the day for visitors. He was sure it was too late.
The man walked past the Emergency Room, through a wide set of doors. A woman screamed at him and gave chase. She approached, in toothpaste-colored scrubs, with a face both stern and impassive. This is the emergency room, she said.
I know, said the man. There was a beat. He said, I am looking for the coma ward.
The woman rapped on her chin with a pen, one of those five-color dealies with the multiple clickers. Okay, she said. You’re going the long way, though.
The man didn’t want to seem like he was uncertain, so he went along. It was important, he was pretty sure, to ape belongingness since he was about to maybe-probably violate the law. He reached the end of the hall and found a small sign made of dark plastic with a fake wood grain.
Rehab ^ (pointing nowhere)
Burn Ward <
He took a right and found himself in a narrow passage smelling like a biology lab. Remembering the sign, he took a deep breath and held it low in his chest. Then the man was working his way slowly around a dance (or yoga) studio with open windows. He had to take an almost perfect u-turn around the room, full of old women in terrycloth workout outfits, to reach the hall leading to Coma.
As he walked, the man opened his phone. Still no substantive updates on Braffley. A girl the man remembered from Orchestra had posted on Braffley’s wall and tweeted at him. Amanda Sugar.
I remember camping with you and all the other tadpoles on Lake Wannempokka. You were so scared to be away from your mom and dad, you nearly cried. But when the fireworks came up over the cabins and showered you with stars, you stood up and started to cheer. I hope you are okay little tadpole!
The man clicked on Amanda. A poetry teacher now, with a degree from Swarthmore. Seemed legit.
The man reached the ward and found a small gaggle of blonde people gathered around the receptionist’s desk. He waited for them to clear.
I’m looking for—uh. Braffley Shumaker? He stammered.
She didn’t look up from her crossword puzzle for a long time. The man straightened himself, patted his tie. He thought, shit, I should have gotten some flowers from downstairs. That would look much better.
Braffley? The receptionist asked, too loudly. She ran a purple fingernail along a sheet of paper.
I, yes. The man stepped closer and tried to push her into whispering by doing so himself. He’s an old camp mate of mine. Just got in a horrible accident.
What kind of a name is Braffley? She asked. Is that Irish? Is it fake?
She looked up at him. Her glasses were thick; the rims were covered with a bright fish pattern that reminded the man of a children’s book.
I guess it is kind of silly, he allowed.
Five oh-nine C, the woman said. She pointed with a casual flip of her arm, then eased back into her chair. Just over there.
Oh? The man said. He took a step and looked at her desperately. Oh?
Just over there. Five oh-nine C.
The man began to stride. He pushed his posture up, once again. He struggled to remember which position Braffley played on the high school football team. Or was it soccer?
Hey, the woman called, and the man was sure the jig was up.
There’s a guy with emphysema in there, same room, she said. I hope you’re not wearing any strong cologne or anything like that.
Oh I’m not. And I won’t smoke either, ha, ha! The man realized this was the wrong thing to say.
Room 509-C was in a small archipelago of doors, some of which had to lead to closets or circuit boards, otherwise they made no architectural sense. The door was cracked and the man couldn’t hear anyone talking or moving around, so after a good forty-second pause, he let himself in. The window was drawn but facing a cement wall, belonging to another of the hospital’s many disorganized wards.
The old guy with emphysema was on the first bed, but that didn’t prevent the man from joltingly mistaking him for a hyper-aged and very world-weary Braffley Shumaker. His chest rose and fell like a little bird’s. He had many cards, including some hand drawn ones, but no balloons.
On the other end of the room, behind a half-pulled curtain, was, presumably Braffley. The sleeping man looked very little like his beaming, newly-sober Facebook self. His face was flat. Its flesh almost slipped into the fabric.
A monitor and a bag of clear fluid was attached to the left side of his body; where, exactly was unclear, as he was mostly covered with papery hospital bedding. On the table beside his perfectly square head there were many pots of flowers and cacti, plus big cards made of shiny stock, plus stuffed animals and balloons.
The man fingered the ear of a stuffed elephant. It was oddly squishy, like it was filled with microbeads, and, unfunnily enough, pink. It didn’t seem right, giving a recovered and almost-dead drunk a pink elephant doll with a squished-in head.
Uh hi Braffley, he said. I mean . . .
He looked behind himself, at the door.
They always say you’re supposed to talk to coma patients, don’t they? There’s no such thing as bad stimulation, is there? Even if it’s a big ‘what the fuck is this guy talking about’ kind of stimulation? I mean . . . I just mean mental stimulation.
Braffley had tubes in his nose. His hair was matted and looked darker than the man remembered. No one stays blonde forever, except Nordic men and women with extensive stylist budgets. Every other towheaded child or teen fades into a dingy, dishwatery adult. The man had orange hair.
So I’m surprised no one’s here, he said. All these people are writing to you on Facebook. I thought I was gonna get busted for sure.
The old man wheezed, moved a bit, and settled. His machine beeped, but it didn’t appear to be an alarming beep, just a regulatory one.
Security in here isn’t so good. Are they treating you okay? Are you getting enough sponge baths or whatever? I hope . . . do they have a spotter, or is it just one person that gives them?
The man leaned in. Despite the condition of his hair, Braffley smelled pretty good, and not at all like hospital.
The man stood, hovering over the comatose former classmate’s body, for quite a long time. The lights in the hallway dimmed, which signaled the evening shift and the end of visitation hours. If the man tilted his head just so, he could hear a booger whooshing in Braffley’s nose.
When a nurse came in, she let out a sing-song giggle and said, okay! Visiting hours are over! You come on back tomorrow bright and early if you like!
And she threw back the curtain. She was petite with big lips. The man had grabbed the stuffed elephant and was holding it a few inches from his body.
Can I leave this here? He asked.
Of course! The nurse walked behind him and straightened Braffley’s sheets, which were already immaculate. This created a nice barrier between the man and the patient. She took the elephant and plopped it back into its original place. Smiling, she moved forward with tiny squeaks of her Crocs and effortlessly edged the man out.
On the way out of the coma ward, the man made eye contact with a stricken-faced middle-old woman with frosted blonde hair and an ungodly perfect, square jaw. Her eyes were ruddy and streaked from crying, but they were undeniably blue. The man considered going up to her and telling the tadpole story, but decided against it.
Three weeks and four days later, the man was typing up a report while chewing watermelon gum and listening to golf on the television when his phone bleeped several times in quick succession. He flipped his phone over and found that seventeen different people had just retweeted the same message, which had originated from @brafshu.
Hey guys! Offficially released today. Thanks to every1 who visited prayed sent cards and etc. So blessed. The long road begins here.
Then another message popped up.
Special thanks to Misty for those scrumptious butterscotch blast cookies. Reading all your posts now . . . my heart! #happytobealive.
The man checked the replies and retweets but still couldn’t figure out what had happened.
Maybe I’ll never know, he said to his beta fish. Maybe that’s just it. I sure wish he’d post something, though.
He set his phone down and turned the television off. He switched Pandora to a jaunty little Django Rhinehardt station and put the water on for cocoa, a wide smile on his face. Then he returned to work.
Erika Price is a writer and social psychologist in Chicago. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and has been featured in The-Toast, Liar’s League NYC, Full of Crow, and others. She writes regularly at erikadprice.tumblr.com