Chapter 12 – Recovery
As the credits began to roll across the screen, I heard the first tell-tale sign of sleep coming from Todd's side of the bed. Carefully, I pushed up on one elbow to look at his peaceful face. After a week of near sleepless nights, he'd finally succumbed to exhaustion. I reached over for the remote and turned off the television, then tugged the blanket out from under his feet to cover him.
Lightly brushing a strand of hair from Todd's face, I couldn't help but smile as all the sorrow he'd been carrying for the last week had vanished, at least for the moment. I turned out the light and then climbed back into the bed next to him. Snuggling under the blanket, I sent a silent wish out into the universe for a peaceful night's sleep tonight.
When I woke up, the space beside me was empty and the early rays of the morning sun had begun streaming into the room. I glanced around and found him sitting, stooped over, at the edge of the bed. "Todd..."
"Hey Ginny," he said, his voice hoarse from crying and disuse. "You didn't have to stay."
"Sure I did," I said, pushing the blankets aside and scooting to his side. "How did you sleep?"
"Fine," he said. It was a lie. Aside from the heavy bags under his eyes, I'd been awoken at least twice in the night from his restlessness.
I didn't call him out on it though. I put my arm around his shoulders and pulled him closer as the weak facade began to crumble. All the tears had been shed days ago but he was still in agony, as evidenced by his tortured expressions.
"I'm not ready for this..." he whispered, his body shaking from tearless sobs.
Across the room, a crisp black suit hung on the door. Hanging beside it was my own black dress. Both would be worn today as we joined a handful of our classmates to say goodbye to Mei-Ling. Mei-Ling's parents had insisted and bring her body back to China for burial just days after she'd died – basically as soon as the hospital released it. In spite of them, my dad had helped arrange a local memorial service for those of us who couldn't fly to China at the drop of a dime.
"No one ever is," I muttered, stroking his hair absently.
There was a soft knock at the door, followed by Mrs. Anderson poking her head into the room. She looked over her son and hesitated, perhaps afraid of trigger another round. I caught her glancing at her watch and simply nodded.
I understood. It was time.
"Todd, this isn't something you could ever be ready for. No amount of preparation or forethought will make the next few hours any easier," I said, moving to kneel in front of him and look him in the eye.
"Because if you don't, it will eat you up inside forever," I said. "So, you're going to stand up. You're going to put on that suit and we will go through this together." I chewed on my lip, hoping my words propelled him into action. For several moments I thought I'd lost and began considering other tactics to get him moving. "Of course, if you want to go in your pajamas – I won't stop you, I'll even go in mine if you want," I added with a small smile.
Todd nodded, took several steeling breaths and then rose to his feet. "No pajamas necessary – but thanks for the offer."
I gave him a firm hug and then took my own dress from the hook, draping it over my arm. "I'll meet you downstairs in twenty minutes?"
"Yeah...." I was nearly out the door when he stopped me, "thank you Ginny – for being here."
"That's what friends are for," I said, then followed Mrs. Anderson from the room. She'd been reluctant to let me stay the first night, muttering something about two teenagers sleeping together but my dad had stepped in and convinced her that I might be of some help to my best friend – thankfully.
After slipping into my dress and applying some light make up, I descended the stairs and found my dad and Todd's mom speaking quietly in the kitchen. "Hey Dad," I said.
Perhaps he could read me as well as I read Todd, or perhaps he just figured I needed a boost; I can't be sure but he came over and wrapped his arms around me. "Hey kiddo, doing okay?"
"I guess," I said, burying my newly make-upped face in his shoulder. For a moment, I allowed my strength and resolve to waiver in his arms. As soon as I heard the creak on the stairs, however, I straightened up and turned toward Todd. With a silent nod to my dad, I took my friend's hand and didn't let go of it the entire drive to the church.
The church lawn was littered with our classmates as we stepped out of the car. Slowly, all eyes turned toward Todd and each small cluster grew silent. Todd gripped my hand harder and kept his head down, not making eye contact with anyone we passed.
Veronica, Erik, Tim and Nai'a, who had been chosen to avoid the awkward lawn scenario, were waiting just inside the building. With few words exchanged, we made our way toward the pews near the front of the church.
Others, following Todd's lead, began filtering in from the lawn until many of the rows were speckled with people.
On my other side, I felt Erik's hand fill mine and turned to smile at him. "How's he doing?" Erik asked quietly. Beside me, Todd paid no attention to anyone and seemed to not hear Erik.
I shrugged, "hanging on by his finger tips."
The pastor stepped up to pulpit at that moment, drawing everyone's attention. "Death is never easy for those left behind. It is particularly difficult when one so young, someone with so much life yet to live, is taken from us. I'd like to start by asking the people who knew Mei-Ling best, her friends, to come up and say a few words." He turned his eyes toward our little group, the best of Mei-Ling's friends, and all the eyes in the church turned toward Todd. I heard the wood of the pews creaking as people twisted in their seats to get a look at him.
Todd, who everyone was expecting, kept his eyes trained on the portrait of Mei-Ling at the front of the church. His grip on my hand was binding and I realized, in that moment, he wouldn't be able to get up there like everyone wanted. Returning his vice-grip, with a more girly level of strength, I stood.
Standing behind the podium, I spent a moment looking over the crowd. What did one say in these speeches? What had I been planning to say when I'd stood up? There had been a flicker of thought, but as soon as I'd reached the front of the church and felt all the eyes boring into my back, the flicker had blown out like a candle in the wind.
"The first time I met Mei-Ling, well I admit that particular day of my life had all its own drama going on but I remember her being so exotic to me. She was smart without being arrogant and funny without being flippant. She had so much energy to her that it spilled out every time she smiled or laughed...and yet it wasn't annoying at all. Sometimes that feature can be annoying but not with her.
She picked Todd out of a crowd that day, like it was kismet. And you know, I think it was. Those two were meant to find each other because they fit each other like puzzle pieces. Aside from giving my best friend love, Mei-Ling gave each of us a bit of herself when she taught us martial arts. We all joined that club for different reasons...loyalty, bravery, fear, talent. I can't say I came away with a black belt or even exceptional talent but she gave me some of the most incredible memories of my life.
Mei-Ling may be gone from this Earth, but she will always be a part of my high school experience. She will always be in my heart. And she will always be remembered." with a final glance at her portrait and a faint smile, I returned to my seat sandwiched between Todd and Erik.
After breaking the ice, a steady stream of students, parents and even facility stepped up to say a few words. Todd's eyes remained fixed on the picture. When the service ended, he stood when prompted and said a few meager words to anyone who approached but was soon overwhelmed and grew silent.
Back at his house, the tears returned.
"You have to go Ginny, I'm sorry but you can't spend all day watching videos while waiting for Todd to be ready..." Dad had finally dragged me away from the Anderson house, insisting that I go back to school when winter break ended.
Normally I wouldn't be opposed to this but Todd was still wavering between a sobbing mess and catatonic and I needed to be there for him. "Dad, you don't understand....I'm worried about him."
"He'll be fine Ginny, you're not the only one who cares about him."
"I know that but...Dad you know what happened the last time, and Mei-Ling had only gone back to China then..." I looked out the window toward Todd's house, hurting for my friend. "When Mom died...Todd spent every night and every day by my side. He missed school for four days because I didn't want to leave my room."
"This is different Ginny."
"If you are going to say because that was my mother and Mei-Ling was 'just' his girlfriend...don't bother! I needed someone then, and he was my someone. And I'm his someone."
"I wasn't going to say that actually, you were eight then. You're eighteen now and things are just different Ginny. Besides you've missed too many days this year already, you're going to school. If you want to go over to Todd's after school and stay until bedtime that's fine, but right now, today, you're going to school." He had the stern, somewhat unfamiliar, parent voice so I knew I was beat. With a sigh, I grabbed my backpack and headed for my car.
As it was the first day back from a vacation, school was actually pretty boring. Most people seemed to have left their brains at home and that included the teachers. More than once during the day I was approached by random strangers to inquire after Todd so by fifth period, I had all the standard responses memorized. "He's at home for the day, I'll let him know you were thinking of him," I said to the leggy blonde who approached. She looked only vaguely familiar but her two companions I remembered vividly as part of the gossip girl gang Veronica had once hung out with.
"Hey Bartlett," her tone was anything but kind and the two girls flanking her sneered in appreciation. "Thought you should know, now that your BFF is gone and your boy Todd is out of commission, you'll finally be going down for that stunt you pulled at homecoming."
"What are you talking about?" I turned away from them to pull my math book from my locker, which was apparently the wrong thing to do. Before I could turn back, she shoved me into the lockers and spun me to face her. "What the hell is your problem? Do I even KNOW you?"
One of the back up minions stifled a snicker while their leader merely looked more incensed that I didn't seem to know her on sight. "I don't know how you did it and I don't care, but that crown and that dance should have been mine Bartlett!"
"Look blondie, I didn't DO anything so back the hell off." Thankfully before I had to prove my stuff in a real, honest to god, cat fight, Veronica showed up and the three gossip girls disappeared. "Nice timing," I said, tugging at my shirt to try and fix it. "not that I don't approve of your perfectly timed arrival but...why are you here?"
Veronica had moved ninety-nine percent of her belongings to Napa over the holiday break, leaving only the matter of moving herself. "Cleaning out my locker and getting my transcripts..." she held up a manila envelope in her hand but her yes were focused down the hall, in the direction the trio had gone. "Look, Gin, stay away from Chrissy and her ghouls..."
"Chrissy! Right, I remember her now...sort of anyway. Dance team right?"
Veronica looked at me as if I had an alien growing out of my head. "As smart as you are, you really do miss the obvious sometimes don't you? Yeah she's on the dance team. She's also probably the most popular girl in school, has the illustrious ambition to snag Todd before the end of the year and sees you as her primary competition...on both fronts."
"Well shes deluded then, on both fronts. I am neither popular nor do I belong to Todd. Although I find it unlikely he'll date anyone in the near future, she can have the crown if she wants it that bad."
"Just steer clear of her okay? She's mean and more or less heartless so she would have no compunction about destroying your life if she can. I better go, my aunt is waiting for me out front..." Veronica hesitated, glancing at the door but not moving in that direction.
"I wish we'd been able to give you a proper send off...big party or something." One such party had been in the works before Mei-Ling's accident but afterwards, it just didn't seem right. "Try not to get in any trouble at that new school of yours."
"You should know me better than that Gin, I don't have to try...trouble just finds me," she said with a wink. "I'll see you later...take care of Todd for me."
Though the second bell had already rung, I watched as she jogged down the steps of the school and hopped into her aunt's car. I was five minutes late for my last class of the day but it was worth the tardy and the disapproving looks I got from everyone in the newspaper room.
Todd missed the entire first week back and I overheard Mrs. Anderson talking about getting him 'help' as I climbed the stairs Friday afternoon. My backpack was laden with a week's worth of notes and homework assignments for him.
To my surprise, he was sitting up and appeared clean and even dressed. "Well this is an improvement. I brought your school work..." I held up the back pack as he hopped off the bed.
He snatched the bag from me and tossed it onto the bed. "Come on, we're going out."
"Care to tell me where?" I stammered, as he took my hand and pulled me right back down the stairs. Mrs. Anderson seemed equally surprised by her son's turn around. I barely had time to shrug before we were out the door. "You're going to have to tell me where we are going if you expect me to drive Todd."
"Church," he said, settling into the passenger seat.
"Church? We are going to church on a Friday night? Why?"
"Can you just drive Ginny? The church where...." he trailed off, pain crossing his face. He didn't have to say it for me to know which church he meant.
Fifteen minutes later, we stepped into the building but all the trappings of a memorial service were gone. The portrait of Mei-Ling had disappeared, now safely tucked into my closet until Todd wanted it.
Instead of sitting in the pews, Todd led me to a back hall and down a set of stairs. A basement full of halls and meeting rooms sprawled out underneath the building and all but one of the doorways were dark. From the last, I could here conversation trickling into the hallway.
When we entered, a hush fell over the gathered as they turned toward Todd. Then, one by one, they came forward and embraced him. Some held on tightly, others gave him the smallest of hugs but every one of them gave him their strength. As this happened, I looked over the room. One table was littered with pamphlets for alcohol and addiction, giving me my first real clue as to why we were here.
After a few more minutes of chit chatting, the group began finding their seats and Todd pulled me over to sit beside him, clutching my hand as he had for the last two weeks. I listened, with awe and amazement as people stood up and spoke about their struggles. Some told longer stories of how things had started for them, some told stories of what was going on now. Some barely said anything save their names, and nobody pushed them for more.
Then Todd stood up and the eyes trailed after him just like they had the day of the memorial service. "My name is Todd, and I'm an alcoholic."
A chorus of "hi Todd," responded to this familiar opening line.
"Two years ago, my girlfriend left to go home to China. Among other things, this began my downward spiral of drinking and generally being reckless in order to forget the pain I was feeling. It works for awhile...until we wrap our car around a tree and nearly burn to death." Everyone shared a small chuckle, even Todd. "Two weeks ago, my girlfriend died. And I..." Todd's voice cracked, making me want to jump from my seat and run up to him.
"I won't lie and say I haven't thought about drinking. I did, constantly. It would have been easier to dull the pain then to face it after all. But my friend, my best friend Ginny," he motioned toward me and more than one person glanced my way, "she's always been there for me. She wouldn't leave me for anything during this. She never pushed me to talk about it or feel anything, she just was there, like she always has been. And if she hadn't been there...if she hadn't saved me....I probably wouldn't be here right now. I would have wrapped someone else's car around some other tree. She saved me and I brought her with me to tell her that...and tell her thank you."