I don’t know why I was so surprised when I got The Call.
Just like every other time, it’d come in the dead of night, unexpectedly – and yet, not.
I was the only one of her friends who still spoke to her. Of course I’d be listed as her ‘next of kin,’ even though her father was – so far as I knew, at least – alive and well and living in Oregon.
I was in Vegas now. Apparently, so was she.
The voice on the other end of the line was thin and reedy and all business, asking if I was Mr. McCrae and did I know a Sunny Winslow? She was at North Vista, in the ER, and she was asking for me.
I didn’t want to go. I never wanted to go, but I did.
She needed me. Still.
I hurried out of bed, wrapping myself in yesterday’s clothes before hitting the streets, my poor, defeated car squealing in protest as I pulled out of the parking lot of my apartment complex. I wasn’t totally sure where North Vista was, so I drove around for what seemed like hours, trying to find it, cursing myself for not getting directions from the none-too-friendly-but-still-useful nurse who’d called me in the first place.
Finally, I found it, just as it started to rain – of course it’d rain in the middle of the night, in the desert, when nobody was able to enjoy it. For a moment, all I could do was sit in the car, staring at the glowing red lights of the hospital’s emergency entrance sign, so many memories flooding my mind:
– the first time I’d met her.
– rescuing her at the beach.
– long trips, back and forth, visiting her mother as she slowly wasted away.
– the first time she’d called me after she’d moved, scared and manic and out of her mind with grief and anger and fear, stranded on the side of some road in Oregon because the jerk she’d hitched a ride with dumped her there when she wouldn’t have sex with him.
I’d rescued her then, just like before.
She’d needed me, and I’d needed that.
I stepped out of the car, pulling my jacket over my head because like an idiot, I’d left the umbrella at home. It didn’t matter: I was soaked by the time I got inside, and my shoes squeaked all the way down the hall, the interminable length it took to walk from the nurses’ station to the acute unit. Another memory tickled me, the first time I’d accompanied her to the hospital to visit her mother, her holding my arm in a death grip, muttering about how much she hated hospitals with their white walls, buzzing fluorescent lights, and sickly sweet antiseptic scent of sterilization.
I wonder if she knew then just how much time she’d be spending in hospitals, if she’d have those same feelings – or if these things would become some sort of strange comfort, some anchor in the wild and raging sea of illness she now fought against.
“You can only have a few minutes,” the nurse at my side warned me. “She’s been sedated.”
I nodded, not speaking, concentrating all my focus on pushing aside the curtain that separated her from all the rest. It was all I could do to just hang onto that thin strip of fabric, to calm my racing heart and the anxiety that gnawed up from my gut. She’d been okay, the last time I’d seen her – better than okay, laughing and happy and relaxed and focused…it was hard to see her like this again.
She was in the far bed, next to the window. I moved forward slowly, cautiously, not wanting to startle her. She was lying on her back, but her head was angled to the right, watching the rain as it beat steadily against the window pane. I’d almost made it to her side when the rubber sole of my sneaker slipped against the tile.
She smiled as she turned, spotting me. “I knew you’d come,” she said. Well, croaked, really – whatever they had her on was strong stuff. She could barely keep her eyes open.
“Your knight in shining armor,” I replied lamely, sliding close to the bed. I’m a coward and a sucker even now, ten years removed from the drama that brought us together in the first place.
She reached for my hand and squeezed it, but her grip was weak. “You always rescue me from my fuckups,” she continued, her mouth curving up into a lazy, silly smile. “You’re a good friend, Ducky.”
I cringed at the old nickname, but tried not to let it show. She was the only person in the world still allowed to call me that.
She glanced away, tugging my hand closer, wrapping both hers around it now. “Do you remember the last time we were together?” she suddenly asked, her eyes dreamy and far away. “Driving out to the California beach?”
I nodded, then realized she couldn’t see me. “Yeah,” I choked out, easing myself down on the edge of her hospital bed. The staff really hated it when we visitors did that, but what choice did I have? I’d slip and fall and break my neck, and then we’d both be stuck here in the North Vista emergency room. “It was fun.”
“Wasn’t it?” she sighed, stroking my arm absently.
I swallowed hard. It had been a weird time, actually – she’d called me up, out of the blue, and demanded we road trip it to the coast. I’d been in Vegas for a couple of months already, just enrolled in the UNLV theater program, but I went anyway. I’d never been able to resist her commands, and I think she always knew that...besides which, she sounded fine – better than fine, like she was the Old Sunny, full of life and rebellion and sunshine. It’d been months since her last hospitalization, so why not?
We drove to Cali and got drunk on the beach, laughing uproariously at the ocean and the gulls and the memories stirred, of afternoons rollerblading on the boardwalk and flirting in the bookstores. It was a pleasant sort of buzz, and she had been so relaxed and introspective and it was like the old days, when we could just sit and talk and be with each other, honest and open and frank.
I’d missed that Sunny. I needed that Sunny, to remind me that life was still worth living, even with all the bullshit it slung our way.
As if she could read my thoughts (see my memories?), she spoke again. “And then when we got back to the room!” she laughed. “Whose idea had it been, to build that fort out of the sheets?!”
“Yours,” I supplied. She was the spontaneous and creative one, not me. I’ve always been ol’ reliable, staid and stoic Ducky McCrae, with a shoulder to cry on and a joke at the ready.
Her hands closed around mine. “And then…”
My eyes drifted to my lap. “Yeah,” I said quietly. Then we did things we shouldn’t have, but which felt right anyway. She also always had that effect on me, making it seem perfectly reasonable to do things I’d later regret.
She shifted in the bed, pushing herself up, pulling me closer, even as I tried to shake the memories away. “You want to know a secret?” she whispered conspiratorially.
I leaned closer, looking into her sparkling, wild eyes. “What?”
She grinned. “I’m not really sick,” she replied in a gleeful whisper.
My stomach flip-flopped. How many times had I heard that before? “Then why are you here?” I asked, trying desperately to keep my tone light.
She sighed, a deep, wistful sigh, her expression breaking into one of deep weariness. “I needed a break,” she admitted. “Life’s been crazy these last few weeks.”
These last few weeks? Uh-oh. How long had she been here? Being manic in Las Vegas was no picnic.
Well, obviously, I reminded myself, if she’s in the fucking hospital for it.
“Have you been taking your meds?” I ventured carefully, unsure of how she’d respond. Sometimes she’d throw her head back and laugh, wondering why in the world she’d ever need medication in the first place; sometimes she’d cry and slap me and admonish me for ever doubting her ability to take care of herself.
This time, though, her eyes filled with tears and she glanced away swiftly, wrapping her hands around my arm. “I love you, Ducky McCrae,” she declared in a shaky voice, shocking the shit out of me. “I love you because you don’t judge me.”
I swallowed hard. Who the hell was I to be worth loving for that? I judged fucking everybody, including myself.
And just like that, she could make me feel instantly guilty for not wanting to come here, or see her like this. For dreading every phone call I’d ever received in the middle of the night, asking me to come rescue her. For always feeling reluctant to be the one to sign her out of the psych ward, even when she was calm and lucid and happy and stable.
She sniffled, turning on her side away from me and curling into a ball as best she could, around all the tubes and needles and machines she was attached to. “I hate it when I get like this,” she murmured. “I always think I have it under control, but the second I start to enjoy it – the high, the rush, the freedom, the risk – it slips away from me. And I end up like this.”
I wrapped my arms around her, resting my head on her shoulder. “I know,” I heard myself say, my voice somehow soothing although I felt anything but calm inside. “It’s going to be okay.”
“It’s never been this bad before,” she whispered. “I’ve never wanted to die. Not since my mother…”
I tightened my grip around her, and it was becoming easier to remember how and why and when we’d slept together. “You did the right thing,” I assured her, loathing myself for even going there, trying to focus on the here and now instead. “You got help before it was too late.”
“I don’t know how you put up with me,” she admitted, furrowing into the embrace.
“Easy,” I replied, tilting my head against hers. “You’re my friend.”
It’s the truth, after all. Not for just anybody would I be lying half-on, half-off a tiny hospital bed, in the emergency room, soaking wet, at 3 am, hugging like it’s the end of the world because for her, it was.
It always was.
The was the seventh time we’d done this. Six times prior, I thought it would eventually get better – her moods would even out; the ideation would lessen, or even go away.
Now I knew better.
She’d never start taking meds, she’d never stop hurting herself, she’d never stop needing me to drive into the desert in the middle of the night, into the chaos of an unknown future.
This is who she was. This is what she’d become, succumbing to a force even more powerful than herself…
…just like Alex.
Would I ever see the real Sunshine Daydream Winslow again?
Why else do I rush to her side every time she summons me?