Bit 3 Chapter 2: Hope and Mercy

3:28am. That was the time.

I'd fallen asleep at around 2am, halfway through an episode of my newest crash show (some new fantasy drama called Supernatural. It was pretty good, and the monsters helped take my mind off things), curled up in a nest of blankets and pillows, a mug of since-cooled tea on my nightstand, and a half-empty bowl of popcorn. I'd actually felt pretty okay as I'd drifted off, and my sleep had been blissfully dreamless. It had been refreshing, and I'd only barely managed to send a text to Sam; heading off to sleep, love you, night, before letting my eyes slip shut and falling into a land of calming, velvety black, absent of nightmares and grief.

Until, of course, my phone's vibrating had jerked me awake. I sat up abruptly, irritated at my interrupted rest, and scrabbled around to find the culprit. After a few moments of confusion; the last cobwebs of sleep still clinging to my mind, I found my phone (which had fallen off the nightstand at some point), and turned it face-upwards, hissing at the infernally bright light. Someone was calling me, but there was no name, only a number. Confused, but intrigued, I answered it. "Hello?"

"Is this Ms Charlotte Burke?" Came a voice. It was calm, all-business. I frowned,

"Yes." I replied hesitantly, "Who wants to know? Who is this?"

"Ms Burke, my name is Laurel Jackson, I work down at Hope and Mercy." That was the local emergency room, "You're listed as the emergency contact for a Samatha Peterson?"

"Yes." I repeated, but with more concern, "Why? Is Sam there? Is she okay?" I had, by this point, completely untangled myself from the 'nest' I'd built, and I was standing in the middle of the room, one hand holding my phone to my ear, the other nervously tracing the line of my collarbone. The radiator was on full, but I felt cold. I ignored it, though.

"Ms Burke," Laurel continued, "I'm very sorry to say that Samantha was admitted to us twenty minutes ago. We had no chance to call you because her condition was critical---"

My heart leapt, "So she's stable, now?" I asked. "I mean, that's why you're calling, right? You stabilised her?" I had my shoulder quirked up uncomfortably as I zipped around the room, pulling on jeans over my leggings, a hoodie over my ragged t-shirt and sneakers onto my feet. I was mentally planning out routes to Hope and Mercy, glancing around for my keys. "She's gonna be okay? Give me ten minutes, I live nearby, I can be there in ten---"

"Ms Burke," Laurel said again, "Samantha is dead."

And then the world broke.

I didn't hear what Laurel Jackson said afterwards. I didn't hear the words like unknown causes and revealed in autopsy and sorry for your loss. I didn't hear any of that. All I could think about was that I'd convinced Sam to go to Jason's party. How I promised I would be okay. How I hadn't bothered to call her, just texted to say good night. How, if I hadn't made her go, I could've driven her to Hope and Mercy, and she wouldn't have been lying on the bathroom floor or Jason's house, mistaken for a passed-out drunk. How she would've been treated properly and by trained nurses when she started seizing uncontrollably, and not been pinned down by frat boys, trying to help but making it worse.

How I had killed my best friend.

***

The report came back three days later. Why they'd thought I wanted one was beyond me. Why they'd thought I would want to see that Y-incision across her chest, stapled up like a nameless victim in an episode of CSI was a mystery, because I took one glance at that photo and I had to run to the bathroom to throw up. That in itself was kind of an achievement, I'd barely eaten since hearing the news. Barely drunken. Barely slept. Barely moved. I eventually found it within me to look at the file without wanting to puke -- curse my curiosity.

It started with a short biography of Sam, and I marveled bitterly at how her whole life was reduced to a four-line paragraph. I stared at her name; her full name. I'd seen it so rarely, it looked strange. Out of place. Samantha Katherine Burke. It stated her age, after that. Birthdate. Birthplace. Ethnicity, height, and all the other things you needed to know about her. Then it went on to how she'd died.

She'd had a heart attack, and passed out. People had mistaken her for a girl who'd partied too hard, and had just left her lying on the floor of the bathroom -- though someone had put her in the recovery position. Whoever that had been, they'd saved her life for another two hours, because when she'd started seizing and foaming at the mouth, she would have choked if she'd been on her back. Someone else had seen her then. Someone who'd never seen so much as an episode of House. They'd tried to stop her seizure by pinning her to the ground, but that had only caused her head to move instead -- they'd known enough not to hold her head so as to not damage her neck, but she'd had a blow to the side of her skull as a result. At first they'd thought it was homicide because of that. The blow had caused a bleed to her brain, and she'd died less than an hour later.

But they still didn't know what caused the heart attack. There'd been no history of heart disease in her family, and she'd been as healthy as anyone. Whilst I'd loved to sit and binge TV and eat popcorn and candy bars, Sam, as a vegetarian and sports-freak, had been lean and fit, jogging every morning, never eating red-meat, partying as much as the next girl, but never to the point where she vomited or passed out. They couldn't explain it. At best they could suggest extreme stress; maybe someone had made her jump or something, but even I knew that was a feeble excuse.

And I couldn't help but feel that it was my fault. Like fate was taunting me again. Lose another friend. Another family member. In a freak accident that can't be fully explained. I seemed to have a lot of those.

***

When I finally managed to force myself to read to the end of the file, it was a full week after Sam had... after Sam, and it was 5:17pm. I started to consider maybe buying some food. We -- I -- was running low and couldn't be bothered to go shopping, but that was the least of my concerns right now. Sam's parents had come over from DC and were staying in a nearby hotel. Her body was being taken home and prepared for the funeral next weekend. They hadn't come to sort through her stuff yet, wanting to give me my space. To their credit, they'd understood when I'd screamed abuse at them -- well, her father had. Her mother had only screamed back, which had resulted in the both of us sobbing our eyes out on opposite sides of the door. After a while, it had turned to the three of us sobbing in a trio in the living room.

But when there was a knock at the door this time, the voice that followed belonged to neither her mother nor her father. In fact, it wasn't a relative of hers at all.

"Uh... Charlie?" Came a quizzical voice.

Confusion cut through my grief, startling me to okay-ness for a moment, and I sat up straight, "Jason?" I replied, equally quizzically.

"...Yeah." His voice was hesitant, furtive. "Do... Can I come in?"

"Door's unlocked." My voice was dull and lusterless to my own ears, but that didn't discourage him from opening the door and stepping inside. Once upon a time, I might have cared about how I looked, how I wasn't wearing any makeup and I was in sweats and a sweatshirt, how my hair was in a messy bun and I probably looked like a junkie, jonesing for their next fix. But I didn't. Such things were trivial now. Pathetic.

Jason looked mildly better, but still worse for wear, and that surprised me. He'd always struck me (as many near-stranger did) as someone simply there. A constant, always looking the same, not necessarily in terms of clothing, but in demanour. The easy-smiling, likable party-throwing engineer. Was he an engineer? I couldn't remember? Had I ever known in the first place?

"You... alright?" Jason asked, and the question sounded so lame that I didn't deign to answer it. I wasn't feeling kind enough to indulge the ridiculousness of such questions yet. He seemed to understand though, and didn't take offence. Instead, he asked another question, "Mind if I sit down?"

I gestured wordlessly to a seat beside me on the couch, and he sat there, not far enough to be separate, exactly, but not close as to suggest a non-existent familiarity. It struck me that this was the first time he'd been to our -- my -- apartment. Not that I was confused as to how he'd found the address. The plethora of flower bouquets and messages outside the door were clue enough. I hadn't brought any of them in. They disgusted me. They were a way of admitted defeat; of irrefutably saying yes, she is dead. This is the proof. I was still trying to hold on to my delusion that, in just a moment, she would walk through that door, smiling and sunny, and sit herself down next to me, beginning a long spiel about the party and how it was okay, but it would've been better if you'd been there.

"Sorry for... coming round like this." Jason said, and his voice seemed to echo and fall flat in the silence of the room. There wasn't even that ambient technological hum to fill the void, I'd unplugged the TV a few days ago. Couldn't remember which day. Couldn't remember why. Didn't care to. Didn't want to. They were all days where Sam was gone. What did the specifics matter?

"S'okay." I said numbly. This gave him inclination to continue, which I didn't mind, because the silence had become crushing and oppressive.

"I thought about coming earlier, but I didn't want to crowd you." He said, "I figured you probably had loads of people all... here." He finished, somewhat lamely. Another small pause, and I was dully and cynically surprised to see that he wasn't twiddling his thumbs -- but he was fidgeting. Playing with the cuffs of his jacket, rubbing his hands as though he had finger cramps. "And I just wanted to... to say I'm sorry. It was..." He sniffed, and the cynicism died as I realised he was holding back tears, and that his eyes were actually shining a little. "It was my party." He muttered, "My party. I should've... I should've gone upstairs and... and checked rooms or something... Found her. Called for help, I should've----" He broke off harshly and gave another sniff. This inadvertently prompted me to sniff as well.

"S-s'okay." I said again, and my voice was shaky with impending tears. "I-it wasn't y-your fault. I d-d-don't b-blame yo-ou..." My breath hitched and that was the final straw. The tears came in a new flood, and suddenly I was sobbing on the couch, the breaths wracking my body--- god, it just... it hurt so much...

"M-my fault." I then managed to gasp out, "All m-my f-fault. I told her to-to g-go to the p-party, I-I----"

"No." Jason said, and his voice was guttural as he fought to make his words coherent over his sobbing. "Not your fault." He cleared his throat, and he managed to continue in a relatively steady voice, even as tears kept running down his cheeks. In the back of my mind, where emotions were irrelevant, I found my respect for him augment as his ability to keep together right now. "It's not your fault. You didn't give her the heart attack. You didn't make her pass out. You were her friend, her best friend. No one blames you."

He put his arm around me as he was talking. Normally, it would have been a tentative motion; something done with a fake yawn in a movie theatre or something. But not this time. Equally, I didn't tense up when he did, which I would have done normally, regardless or whether or not I liked the contact. Instead, I gratefully sank into his embrace, resting my head on his shoulder, relieved that I wasn't alone in my sorrow, and he was crying, too. He rested his cheek on top of my head, and I felt hot, damp tears drip sporadically onto my hairline. Soon, he had his arms as desperately tight around me as mine were around him, and we were tangled together in a fierce hug, as though afraid to pull away -- and maybe we were. I turned my head to the side, my head now more on his chest or collarbone, and as I sobbed into his collar, I left a large damp patch on his grey t-shirt.

For the longest time, we stayed there, sat on the couch, arms around each other as we cried. It could have been minutes or hours, I didn't know. It felt like an eternity, and the tears just wouldn't stop. It was the most I'd done in days, I was out of my fugue state; my apathy and detachment, and now everything was coming out like the floodgates had finally broken, as though seeing Jason, with tears in his own eyes had broken that final straw.

"I... I..." His breaths were heaving and shaking, his words unsteady and raw with pain. I didn't know what he was trying to say, I doubted he knew either. We simply stood there, the only sounds being our shuddering sobs, our heartbroken cries of pain. When we were finally cried out -- for now, at least -- I didn't let him leave. I didn't want to be alone, and I didn't want Jason to be alone, either. We sat on my bed and we watched the boxset I had picked out, huddled together, attempting to stave off our own agony with companionship and fantastical television distractions. We watched until the sky turned black and then we talked. Neither of us were hungry, or thirsty, and neither of us wanted to move when we grew tired, for fear of stirring the ghosts that still lingered in the apartment.

When we fell asleep, we were like two children from an old fairytale, huddled together in fear, and I thought bitterly to myself as I drifted off the words my first grief counseller had told me, the phrase that had made me hate the woman more than I'd ever hated anyone else. The rancid chirpiness with which she'd said those abhorrent words. But, irritatingly, they had held some truth behind their unrefined and tactless delivery.

Let the healing begin.

Bit 2 Bit 4

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