Dave thought you only saw your life passing before your eyes in the moments preceding what the mind thought was imminent death--seconds before a car crash, or looking down the barrel of a gun. Certainly his own experience of flatlining had started that way before he had heard the sound of playground chants drawing him back to a moment in his childhood. He always believed, though, that it was an individual's imminent death that triggered their flashback, not the death of someone else.
Nelson was brain dead, and as the minutes passed with no sign of life returning to blip the flatline, Dave saw all the moments of his friendship with Nelson flash before him with a sickening realization that he had taken something so precious for granted. In fear and anger, knowing Nelson was slipping further away with each passing second, he smashed his fist down hard on Nelson's chest over and over even as the others screamed out at him and tried to drag him away.
Steckler had called time of death and mumbled about calling the police. Burying his hands in his hair, Dave staggered away. Only twelve minutes had passed from the time Nelson made his phone call to Rachel, and Dave felt an anger and grief so profound that he screamed out to a God he didn't even believe in, how they were so fucking sorry for stepping in his domain, of playing with life and death.
"I could hear it in his voice. He felt he deserved to die."
Horrified, Dave turned back because Nelson had been just a little kid when he killed Billy Mahoney, the same age as him when he bullied little Winnie Hicks every day in the playground just to see her cry. There was little difference between them, and Nelson had paid dearly for his mistake--taken away from his parents at the age of nine and placed in a boys' detention home.
"It was a mistake!" Fury swept through Dave. "He doesn't deserve to die!"
No one expected him to focus all that fury on Nelson, and Dave felt ribs cracking under the blow to Nelson's heart but didn't care. About to shock Nelson again he stopped cold when Rachel yelled and held up a hand. The flatline blipped.
"Come on, Nelson. Pick up the beat. Pick up the beat. Pick up the beat."
The blip strengthened as if Nelson could hear him, settling back into a near-normal rhythm and Dave closed his eyes momentarily against the sting of tears. He stared down at Nelson, watching the pale eyelashes flicker and open slowly--relief crashing through him. Nelson's lips moved but Dave couldn't hear so he leaned in and listened as Nelson whispered to him.
"He said, it wasn't such a good day to die."
Dave drew up a crate and refused to leave Nelson's side as the others gathered up all the equipment to take away with them this time. Only Steckler had not taken a turn in flatlining but Dave knew Steckler had no intention of adding to this experiment. He looked up as Joe hovered on the other side of Nelson.
"I've not had any visions since...and I destroyed all the tapes."
Dave nodded, knowing Joe had paid for his betrayal of all those women he had video-taped while having sex with them. His fiancée had found the tapes and had broken off their engagement, and perhaps Joe had started paying his penance when he confessed his sins to his friends at least.
Joe added softly, "And I'll never treat anyone like that again."
Dave nodded, already seeing the difference in Joe and knowing he was a better person because of what had happened. Joe sniffed once and nodded back before rolling the monitoring equipment away. He and Steckler had agreed to take it all back to the storage area in med school from where they had liberated it only a week earlier. Only the gurney remained now but Nelson had not wanted to move Nelson straight away. He was still debating on whether he should take him to the hospital, not caring if that got all of them in trouble, but Nelson seemed stable now. Just tired and sore, though Dave needed to keep a check on those bruised and cracked ribs.
Steckler dropped a hand on Dave's shoulder. "We'll be back soon to help you get him to his place."
Dave nodded his thanks but kept his eyes on Nelson as Steckler followed Joe. He looked up at the sound of light footsteps, having almost forgotten that Rachel was still there.
"After you left, I saw my father again and he..." her face crumpled. "He wasn't there to hurt me. He just wanted to say sorry...to ME! He just wanted my forgiveness for both of us...and I forgave him." She brushed away the tears and gave a trembling smile, reassuring Dave that she really was all right now. "I never realized how much of a burden I was carrying until I let go."
Dave had felt the same release when Winnie forgave him, now aware that he had always carried that sin buried in the back of his mind even though he had consciously forgotten her in the intervening years. He had a new burden now as he thought of lying with Rachel in his arms and discovered that it wasn't what he wanted. After all he had seen and felt over this past week, it seemed stupid to say nothing.
She held up a hand. "Nelson called me to say he was sorry. He said everything matters. Everything." She huffed out a laugh. "All our sins will find us out." She leaned in and cupped Dave's face between both of her hands, kissing him sweetly upon the lips. "You don't love me, David. You love him...and he loves you. Be happy."
Words caught in his throat as she turned and walked away without looking back. His eyes followed her, remaining fixed in the distance even once she was gone. As silence fell, broken only by Nelson's soft breaths as he slept, exhausted from his traumatic ordeal, Dave replayed the scenes of his flashback from when he thought he had lost Nelson.
He saw Nelson's mischievous smile, remembering evenings filled with laughter as they sat on the bench overlooking the ocean, drinking beers and talking of the future. He recalled Nelson's anger towards Rachel, naturally assuming it came from her lack of interest in Nelson, but now Dave could see it had been a different kind of jealousy--jealousy of her, not over her. Other small memories clicked into place of how Nelson had trusted him so completely, how Nelson had come to him when he was scared and hurting after the attacks by Billy, attacks that were self-inflicted wounds caused by the self-destructive memories eating into Nelson's mind. Dave remembered how Nelson had looked to him to keep him safe--and how Dave had almost failed him, too caught up in giving penance for his own sins, and in Rachel.
He had never realized the depth of his friendship for Nelson--the depth of his love--until he had faced losing Nelson forever.
Until this moment he had never truly noticed how beautiful Nelson looked. Reaching out, Dave caressed the sleeping face before taking a gamble on Rachel's words. He leaned in and gave the pale lips a fleeting kiss, barely long enough to feel them soften beneath him. The long eyelashes fluttered as Nelson awoke.
"Hey. Didn't mean to wake you but we can't stay here."
Nelson looked so innocently confused for a moment as his eyes swept the interior of the large room.
"Think you can sit up with some help?"
"Taking the equipment back." Dave raised the head portion of the gurney.
Dave was tempted to tell him that he had forgiven himself but it wasn't what Nelson needed to hear right now. A clatter in the outside chamber brought his head up instead and Dave sighed when Joe and Steckler appeared. Dave clasped Nelson's shoulder.
"Let's get you home."
Everything matters. Every thought, every word, every action--all of it stored deep in the subconscious long after it has faded from conscious thought. Dormant memories both good and bad. Dave wondered if he should have taken one of the psych classes, if it would have given him a greater insight into what they had experienced even though--as Nelson had rightly said--all brain activity had ceased before those ancient hurts against Winnie reared up inside his mind.
If it all mattered then Rachel was right in telling him to take a chance on love...with Nelson.
Strangely the four month suspension worked in his favor as he didn't have to find an excuse for his absence from classes, and it gave him a legitimate reason for being the one to watch over Nelson while he made his recovery. The others had left a couple of hours earlier leaving Dave alone in Nelson's large and strangely empty apartment. Some would call the bedroom spacious but even Nelson's large bed seemed lost in the vastness of an impersonal and empty room. Dave had not really noticed that before, that Nelson seemed to have few possessions but in light of his confessions, of spending half his childhood in a boys detention home, perhaps that was understandable. He doubted Christmas for Nelson was a brightly decorated tree overflowing with gifts, all with his name on. Nelson had not mentioned his parents at all.
Dave had always meant to ask who paid for this place because it was a step up from the bed sits and tiny apartments rented by him and the others. It seemed unlikely that the State paid for it though so maybe Nelson still had parents--rich parents.
Nelson shifted on the bed and groaned as the movement pulled on his cracked ribs. By the time the pain had drawn him back from sleep, Dave was seated next to him and holding out a glass of water, which Nelson sipped at gratefully.
Dave sighed. "When I was nine years old my dad lost his job so we had to move... and I had to start a new school. Being the new kid sucks so when they started in on this girl in the playground, calling her names and making her cry, I joined in and became the worst of the bullies."
"Winnie Hicks," Nelson stated softly.
"Yeah. Winnie Hicks."
"Billy. Billy was the poor kid at school, and that was all the excuse we needed to make his life miserable. We chased him...across the field and into the trees. He climbed up high so we picked up rocks...and threw them. He was begging me to stop and I just laughed and threw a bigger rock. I wanted him to fall but I never...I never wanted him to die."
Nelson closed his eyes and Dave could imagine the memories being played out behind his lids.
"The courts gave my parents a choice. Juvie Hall or pay for Stonewall Boys Home. Guess they figured at least I'd get a decent education at Stonewall. They'd visit once a month...at first, then a few months would go by without them showing. By the time I turned fifteen...I realized I hadn't seen them since my previous birthday." He laughed softly but without any joy. "I never stopped hearing Billy's voice...until now. It's why I wanted to know...what was out there. Beyond death. Wanted to know where I'd sent him."
Rachel had given Dave a similar reason for why she wanted to see the other side. It was the most honest reason and it made Dave realize how easy it had been to believe it had all been a quest for fame on Nelson's part. He wondered how many more secrets Nelson was hiding and how many more layers of defense Dave would have to cut through to reach the man beneath.
"Dave. Everything matters so I need...I have to tell you why..."
Nelson swallowed hard, struggling to find the words and Dave felt his compassion rise even higher. Impulsively, he leaned down and kissed Nelson, a seed of doubts growing when Nelson froze beneath him. Just when Dave thought he had made a huge mistake, he felt a tremor go through Nelson, and just as suddenly, Nelson was kissing him back, pouring everything into it. When he finally pulled back, Nelson tried to follow, gasping at the pull on cracked ribs. Dave eased him back.
"Not going anywhere, Nelson, because you were right. Everything matters, and I needed you to know that some things matter more to me than others." Dave leaned in and kissed him again. "You."