She thought about coffee and death.
How long had she been lying there? And where did Benji go? He’d been there just a moment ago, kneeling beside her. She saw somebody, but they wore a different face. And there was that thought again, just a breath of muffled words. “A good cup of coffee.”
The concrete melted. Loudly. Wait, what? It morphed into grey slime and bled out of the walls. Rose looked up and watched the sky, sharp and blue, swirl into a vortex. The asphalt below her gave away and she sank. Why was she in the ocean? She thrashed an arm, smashing the warped figure beside her in the face. I can’t swim! She kicked and rolled, struggling to launch herself out of the silt and up into safety.
She turned to where the sun should’ve been. The sky poured salt in her eyes and caught fire. She surrendered and sank. Hair flew out over her face and the planet screamed. It made her cold. Somebody grabbed her hand. And she heard the voice of God—loud as a volcano, dulcet as silk. The words took an hour to tunnel through her brain.
“Rose, come on. Wake up.”
“Am I dead?” She closed her fingers around God’s hand. “I’m dying.” Her heartbeat took her captive. “It’s going to happen.” She convulsed and cried for breath. “It’s happening right now, isn’t it?”
She screamed. And again. And again. And again and—
/ / /
“Is she okay?”
Somebody hushed them. That voice, the softest of all, came from right above her: fairness framed in golden thread, with glowing ice in her eyes. Glasses threatened to slide down her nose. She held Rose, supporting her head and neck. An angel in navy blue, with a blazing yellow badge: paramedic.
The angel spoke. “She’s waking up.” She turned her head and spoke in another direction. A door opened and closed, booming in both directions.
Rose chased a stable heart rate. She scraped her tongue against the roof of her mouth and the dryness made her retch. Time rushed backwards and in circles. She forced herself to speak. “Something I need to do.” Twitch. “With my voice?” She looked around. A cube closed in around her, shaking and growling, with lights shining down from above. “I need to scream.” Her extremities twisted around. Her ribs dug into her lungs. “Did it happen?” Louder. “It’s about to happen. I have to do it, I’m gonna die!” She cried and shook in place, trying to hurl herself off the white block beneath her.
The angel’s voice again. “Don’t let her fall.”
Arms surrounded her. “I’m falling?” She breathed in hard. “I just need to let go, don’t I?”
“Rose.” Peace and blue fire burned around the angel’s eyes. “You’re alive. You’re going to be okay.”
A light opened up in Rose’s chest. “I’m alive?” She smiled at the angel, then shouted the same words. “I’m alive. I’m alive! I’m alive, I’m alive!”
“You are very much alive.” She looked up and said something to somebody else. Back to her. “And you’re going to be okay. I just need you to fight, okay?” Somebody else in dark blue tightened something around Rose’s arm. “We’re just going to monitor your vitals, is that okay?”
Her gaze jumped around the room. A machine beeped. “What do I need to do?”
“I need you to keep talking. Just keep talking. Can you wiggle your toes for me?”
“What?” She exerted some control over her limbs and did as the angel asked. “Is that good?”
“Rose, that’s great! Okay, can you bend your right knee for me? Just like that, that’s great! Now, can you put it down and bend your left knee?”
“This is keeping me alive, right?” Rose asked, doing her best to follow the angel’s directions. Other senses seeped in: she breathed in the haze of hospital stink and felt time starting to pass again.
“It means you’re doing absolutely great, Rose. You’re going to be okay! I’m going to ask you a few questions, is that okay?” Rose did her best to nod. “Okay, great. Can you tell me what your full name is?”
“Rose! Rose Weber.”
“That’s great! Do you know where you are right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, do you know what day it is?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, can you tell me which direction is up?”
Rose froze before thrusting a hand into the air and pointing to the ceiling.
“That’s great, Rose! And which direction is down?”
She laughed before pointing at her own chest. “The opposite way!”
The angel laughed with her. “That’s right! Okay, Rose, you are doing amazing. What are you feeling right now? Any pain or discomfort?”
Rose felt her heart calming down. “Uhm—” She took a few breaths. “Uh—I feel like everything is dizzy, and there’s something that hurts in my back.”
“Okay. Rose, you’re doing so good! Can you control your arms and legs?”
“Yeah, I think I can.”
“That’s great! What about your neck, can you move your head?”
“That’s awesome, Rose! Okay, I’m going to ask you to sit up, all right? Can you do that for me?”
She looked up into those blue eyes. “I think so, yeah.” With the paramedic’s hand in hers, she hoisted herself up to sit up on the bed. “I’m—in an ambulance?”
“That’s right. But don’t worry, you’re going to be just fine.”
“And I’m still alive.”
“Yup! You’re going to make a full recovery, Rose.” She sat beside her patient. “My name is Layla. I’m a paramedic, all right? I’m here to make sure you’re okay.”
Rose nodded. “Is everybody else okay?” She looked around the ambulance. “What happened?”
/ / /
She left campus at four and got into a fight at four-thirty. She wished she did, anyway—that guy at the bus stop ached for a fist in the nose. “Benji Lang is a womanizing pussy,” he said. The kid’s friend laughed and nodded.
Four-thirty-five. Rose made a fist and hoped to see blood on it. She mumbled into her scarf. “Jackass.” She eyed the two. Eighteen at the oldest.
She ran a quivering hand through her hair. It’s not cold enough to shiver, she thought. When the bus pulled up, she got on through the middle doors. Exhaust and crowded sweat mired up around her as bundles of students disembarked. Headphones in hand, she made for a window and hid a scowl as the two goons from the bus stop piled into the seat behind her.
“I mean, they haven’t done anything impressive in years,” the fat one said. Rose clenched her teeth at his voice.
A second voice, the skinny one’s: “They used to be so cool, too.”
Big Guy gave a throaty scoff. “Yeah, back before Benji Lame was in charge.” He snickered at his own joke. “Like, the only cool one left is that punk Arab chick.”
“Maya?” The skinny one sniffled. “She’s super hot.”
As if that’s all that matters, Rose thought. She ran the memory of the kid’s face again and added the image of her fist to it. She twisted and leaned on the back of her seat. “What,” she began, narrowing her eyes, “you saying the Lionhearts aren’t cool anymore?”
Big Guy blinked. “Yeah, they suck.”
“Give me a good reason why.”
He started his thought with a Neanderthal noise. “The singer’s a wimp, and all the new losers they picked up in the last two years are terrible.”
Rose paused for a breath. “Yeah, whatever, I can’t really vouch for Shy and Spicer, but—Benji and Maya are solid.”
Skinny Guy shrugged. “You seem pretty defensive about them.” He scrunched up his face. “Actually, you look sort of familiar. Do we have a class together or something?”
The far window pulled her attention and she swished her hair over her face. “Nah. I walk around campus a lot. Probably seen me around.”
“Why do you care so much, anyway? They’re just celebrities.” Big Guy laughed and elbowed his friend. “Girls always care so much about celebrities.”
Rose turned back with a sharpened brow. “I care because I’ve met them, and—” She slowed to breathe. “They don’t deserve all the shit you’re giving them.”
Big Guy shook his head. “You’re just a crazy fan. It’s not like you know them.”
“Whatever.” She rolled her eyes and shuffled back into the corner. The boys laughed and returned to their banter. Rose frowned, pulled her phone out, and stuffed headphones in.
She stared at the black screen. Her hands twitched as she stuffed her phone back into her pocket. Fiery jitters crawled out of her heart, getting heavier and heavier as they slithered up to her eyes, threatening tears. Stupid, stupid. She grabbed a lock of her hair. No, I’m fine. The other hand came up to cover her eyes. She wiped a few tears away and slid her palm to muffle her breath. No, shut up, you’re fine. Did somebody hear her? She felt stares all over her. In the stark silence of headphone-world, they laughed at her. She tore her eyes open, just enough to see. Hidden behind her lids, she scanned the bus. Most people watched the city pass by or observed their own laps. She shook her head and covered her face with her hands.
Every heartbeat echoed like a footstep. Her skin chilled and her muscles tensed. That cold—she could hear it, the snap of freezing air. The gargled radio. Hubcaps wheeling and clanging like thunder sheets. Her breath raked in that frost on the air and cooled her lungs. The cold settled into her back, the small of her back, where it traced the lines of a scar that hadn’t seen daylight in two years.
She wrenched a hand away from her hair and looked around. The moving shapes beyond the windows slowed down, and a few people got up. She gathered her shaking arms, grabbed her bag, and did her best not to jump out when the doors opened. On the sidewalk, she tumbled over to the bench beside the bus sign. She gasped at the air and covered her mouth. She tasted the sweat on her hands.
Rose followed the technique Layla showed her—drawing a square in the air with her eyes, breathing in along one side, holding along the next, breathing out on the next, repeat, repeat—until her heart calmed down. A few fingers through her hair told her all she needed to know about the mess she would have to deal with at home. “Fuck everything,” she said, wiping her face.
/ / /
Rose took the long way home, through the park. As evening blushed over the horizon, she slowed and plopped down in a patch of thick grass and flowers. Little leafy tickles ran up her legs, through her jeans. Her cheek twitched until she wiped away an itchy tear.
She sifted through the grass. Her fingers caught on the stems of a family of wood sorrels. Her thumb and index clenched on one and popped it out of the ground. This isn’t a healthy way to think, Rose told herself. Layla said not to.
Rose pinched one of the petals. “My fault.“ She plucked it, then moved to the next. “Not my fault.”