Sitting in that chair, looking out the window, he was so thin, beyond willowy. Nurse Venter told me that they had trouble getting him to eat three square meals a day, and when they tried to change it to five smaller meals, that hadn’t worked either. A year ago, it had gotten so bad they had to do a feeding tube, and I could still taste that fear, because I thought I’d lose him then.
His blond hair had been washed this morning, but it wasn’t styled and was much shorter than how he used to wear it. Charlie had favored that artfully messy look and he had rocked it. Today, he was wearing a white shirt and gray sweat pants, not even the cool kind. No, these had those elastic bands at the ankle, and God, he would’ve thrown a fit if he knew he’d be wearing them now—rightfully so, because Charlie . . . well, he had style and taste and so much.
Walking toward the second papasan chair with a matching blue cushion I’d bought three years ago, I cleared my throat. “Hey, Charlie.”
He didn’t look.
There was no disappointment. I mean, it was there, that “this isn’t fair” feeling, but there wasn’t a new wave of the breath-stealing dismay, because this was how it always was.
Sitting down, I placed the tote beside my legs. Up close, he looked older than twenty-two—years older. Face gaunt, skin washed out, and deep, unforgiving shadows under once lively green eyes.
I drew in another deep breath. “It’s ridiculously hot out there today, so don’t make fun of my cut-off shorts.” Back in the day, he would’ve made me change out of them before even daring to step out into public. “The weather people are saying the temps are going to be record breaking by the weekend.”
Charlie blinked slowly.
“Supposed to be really bad storms, too.” I clasped my hands together, praying that he’d look at me. Some visits he wouldn’t. He hadn’t for three visits, and that terrified me, because the last time he’d gone that long without acknowledging me, he’d had a horrific seizure. Those two things probably had nothing in common, but still, it caused knots of unease to form in my stomach. Especially since Nurse Venter had explained that seizures were fairly common in patients who’d suffered that kind of blunt-force trauma to the brain. “You remember how much I like storms, right?”
“Well, unless it spawns tornados,” I amended. “But we’re in Philly, basically, so I doubt there’ll be many of them roaming around.”
Another slow blink I caught from his profile.
“Oh! Tomorrow night at Mona’s, we’re closing the bar to the public,” I rambled on, unsure if I’d already told him about the plans, not that it mattered. “It’s a private party thing.” I paused long enough to take a breath.
Charlie still stared out the window.
“You’d like Mona’s, I think. It’s kind of trashy, but in a weird, good way. But I’ve already told you that before. I don’t know, but I wish . . .” I added, pursing my lips. as his shoulders rose in a deep and heavy sigh. “I wish a lot of things,” I finished in a whisper.
He’d started rocking in what appeared to be an unconscious movement. It was a gentle rhythm, one that reminded me of being in the ocean, slowly pushed back and forth.
For a moment, I struggled with the impulse to scream out all the frustration rapidly building inside me. Charlie used to talk a mile a minute. Teachers in our elementary school had nicknamed him Mighty Mouth, and he laughed—oh goodness, he had the best laugh, so infectious and real.
But he hadn’t laughed in years.
Squeezing my eyes shut against the rush of hot tears, I wanted to throw myself on the floor and flail. None of this was fair. Charlie should be up walking around. He should’ve graduated college by now and met a hot guy who would love him, and go on double dates with me and whatever man I dragged along. He should have done what he’d sworn he’d do and published his first novel by now. We would be like we were before. Best friends—inseparable. He’d visit me at the bar, and when it was needed, he’d tell me to get my shit together.
Charlie should be alive, because this—whatever this was—was not living.
Instead, one fucking night, a strand of a few stupid words and a goddamn rock had destroyed everything.
I opened my eyes, hoping he’d be looking at me, but he wasn’t, and all I could do was pull it together. Reaching down, I slipped a folded sheet of watercolor out of my tote. “I made this for you.” My voice was hoarse, but I kept going. “Remember when we were fifteen, and my parents took us to Gettysburg? You loved Devil’s Den, so that’s what this is.”
Unfolding the painting, I held it up for him even though he didn’t look. It had taken me a few hours over the course of the week to paint the sandy rocks overlooking the grassy meadows, to get the right color of the boulders and the pebbles in between them. The shading had been the hardest part since it was in watercolor, but I like to think it came out pretty damn cool.
I stood and walked the painting to the wall across from his bed. Fishing a tack out of the desk, I hung it next to the other paintings. There was one for every week I visited him. Three hundred and twelve paintings.
My gaze traveled over the walls. My favorites were the portraits I’d done of him—paintings of Charlie and me together when we were younger. I was running out of room. Would have to start with the ceiling soon. All of the paintings were of the . . . past. Nothing of the present or the future. Just a wall of memories.