Book: Outside The Ropes

Previous: 29: Breathe
Next: 31: Sinking

SOMEONE CAME OUT IN SCRUBS. DOCTOR? NURSE? I don’t know. But they had little stars and moons with smiley faces on them. Not appropriate for the news they were delivering.

She had her hair back in two French braids. I don’t know why I was noticing that, except they were crooked and messy. So when she said Nan had to go into surgery again, all I could think was this messy haired whatever she was better not be in there too. Simply for the reason that if you couldn’t do your own hair, how could you repair someone’s lungs.

“The stress of breathing caused internal bleeding. We have to go back in and find the source. We will keep you updated.” She gave a nod and quickly turned to leave.

I gripped Gage’s hand tighter. I had stayed seated when she walked in, but James and Grams were standing. Nan’s mom stayed seated too. She reached out now for James but he walked around her and sat in a corner, looking out the window, hands flexing, face still. But the look in his eyes told me he was plotting, anger simmering just behind them.

He popped up, hands going to his pockets and walked over to me. “You got a smoke I can get?” At my head shake, he continued. “Shit, that’s right you don’t smoke. What about you?” He nodded to Gage.

His mom stood up reaching into her purse. “I got one, Hun. Just about to go out myself.” She extended a cigarette to James.

He paused, raising his eyes to the ceiling, and then whipped around and snatched it from her. He walked out without waiting for her but she trailed behind, unfazed.

“It’s probably going to be awhile. Let’s go get something to eat.” Gage shook my hand slightly.

I stared at him. I wasn’t hungry, couldn’t eat if I tried. I wasn’t even sure I could walk right now.

“Or at least a tea or something for you to drink. I saw a cart on the first floor. Come on.”

Before I responded he was standing, pulling me into standing too. I was disconnected, weightless, bodiless, and soulless. I only wished I could be thoughtless. I let him lead me out the doors to the elevator. The car was semi full, but he pulled me to stand in front of him, large, warm hands resting on my shoulders.

He led me to a couch facing the window and went to the nearby coffee cart to order. Moments later he returned with two red cups and a bag.

“They didn’t have much for food, but we can go to the cafeteria if you want.” He handed me my cup and sat next to me.

I pulled out of my trance slightly, taking the cup, feeling the almost burning heat beneath the sleeve on it. I took a sip to scald away the dry, cotton feeling in my mouth and then went back to looking out the window.

It was full on night, but no stars could be seen and the buildings blocked the moon from view. And I suddenly wanted to cry, a panic rising in me. How was I supposed to make a wish with no stars?

Gage set down his drink. Bringing his hand to my face, he used his thumb to gently wipe away a stray tear.

I pulled away before he could cause more to spill over. His touch only made me that much weaker. Taking a breath, I calmed myself. It was stupid to cry over the stars, I hadn’t wished on one in years. And those wishes never came true.

“Nan and I use to wish on stars.” The words were out before I even thought about them.

He was leaning forward, forearms braced on his knees, watching me with a turned head. But he didn’t say anything. He didn’t laugh though, and that prompted me to go on.

“Silly things, you know? We were young.” I wanted to talk about her. Not what she had done recently, not the trouble we were all in. But the girl that she was, is, the real Nan. The one that took me in and befriended me. “We’d wish to have money. Go live at the beach. To be there for each other. Forever. It was never about boys or family. Never put much weight in those.”

His lip pulled at the corner with a slight smile. “How old were you two?” 

“I met her my freshmen year of high school. She was a junior. Neither of us went to classes much, but the difference was she still passed. She’s smart. God she’s smart.” I closed my eyes as the reality of the present came back to me. How did my smart friend end up here? I shook it away. “But she was tough too. And for some reason she would stick up for me even when she didn’t know me. My first week I somehow made enemies with the wrong crowd, a popular crowd, a large one.”

I had to look away from him as his smile dropped. But I didn’t want to stop talking. I wanted to invoke the strong, smart girl back. “I couldn’t seem to breathe without pissing one of them off. Everywhere I turned someone was saying something, taking something, or challenging me in some other way. So I finally had enough and fought back, just happened to be lousy timing. It was in the hallway and the girl I fought had lots of her friends around. But Nan jumped in to help me.” I looked back to him and my smile felt foreign. “It wasn’t till we were waiting for the principal that we even exchanged names.”

“How’d the fight end?”

“It got broken up before any real damage, but Nan and I, we were still standing. And those girls didn’t bother me, not to my face anyway, until after Nan graduated.” Once Nan graduated, shit went down fast, but that wasn’t the story I was telling right now. “Everyone left Nan alone; I think because of her brothers friends. I guess they were her friends too. He was already locked up when I met her or maybe I would have stayed away too.” That wasn’t true. I was attracted to the street in her. She was a survivor, and I wanted to be one, so I stuck around.

“My first job was at the grocery store with her. She used to steal the candy and go to school and sell it. Said they didn’t pay her enough, so she supplemented.” My laugh bubbled up with tears and I turned away again.

“It’s alright to cry.” Gage slid an arm around me, pressing me to his chest.

I couldn’t hold in the tears that had already begun to fall, but I wanted to. Before I knew it my body was shaking with sobs that I couldn’t stop, so I tried to cover them in Gage’s shirt. I felt too tiny and too weak in his arms. Nan needed me to be stronger than this. With that thought I pulled myself up, wiping away my tears with my hand. I reached for a napkin that sat with our untouched food and blotted my face. Gage loosened his hold enough that I could move around, but didn’t remove his arm from me.

I looked up at the clock on the wall. It was 11:30. “You should go home. Get some sleep. You have a big day tomorrow.”

“Are you coming with me?” his fingers were soft in my hair, tickling and soothing.

I didn’t know if he was referring to New York or home. “I want to see how surgery goes first. Then maybe.”

He nodded and kissed my forehead sweetly. “I’m staying too.”


It was about two hours later that a different doctor came out to the waiting room to update us. This one looked like he had much more authority than the girl before and I suddenly wanted her back.

I stayed seated, letting Nan’s real family do the talking. Not that I could have said anything anyways. The moment he walked in and his eyes dropped to the floor, my heart did too.

Then he shook his head and said, “I’m sorry, but she didn’t make it through surgery…” and I stopped listening.

Previous: 29: Breathe
Next: 31: Sinking