Image of Short Fiction Contest - 2020
Image of Short Story

I had kept myself up at night worrying about college from the age of five. At the time, I hadn’t even known anyone who went to college or anyone who was planning to. I first heard about college while watching a movie with my family, and the idea consumed me. The idea of being able to go anywhere in the world I wanted, be anyone I wanted, away from the gossiping familiar faces of my small town, the rules of my parents, doing something I was passionate about. It all seemed so foreign to me. With the (very limited) knowledge of this new college concept, I started to plan where I would go, what I would do, who I would be, where I would work, who I would love, and who would love me. Every year as I grew closer and closer to that goal that once seemed so far, the vision of this new life I would live felt clearer to me. During my sophomore and junior years of high school, I toured thirty-two colleges. I wanted to make sure I found the school that I felt would fulfill my lifelong dreams.

As most people tend to realize, obsessing over and fantasizing about something for countless hours and days and years almost always leads to disappointment. At first, the disappointment would overwhelm me in waves, leaving me to hopelessly cry myself to sleep in my freshman dorm, wondering when it was that I would feel the satisfaction I had been yearning for for so long. It took me two weeks to realize that ninety-nine percent of the other college newcomers had felt the exact same. Never in my life had I experienced such euphoria once I realized I was not the outlier I had made myself to be. I felt the world under me stop as I rose to new heights, unafraid to socialize with strange classmates, take day trips, explore the city I spent so long dreaming about.

Senior year comes much quicker than how far it seemed. The year everyone you have ever known tells you is the best year of your life, so make it count. The process of applying for jobs, relaxing about classwork, going out every weekend, enjoying every second you can with all of your friends before time runs out and they are halfway across the world. This is the moment I had been waiting for since I’d first heard about college those sixteen years ago. One hundred and seventeen jobs applied to. People would gasp at the number, but I would tell them I just wanted to keep my options open. It wasn’t a lie, and I had already heard back from a few companies; I wasn’t worried. Besides, I had this all planned from day one. I had secured a house with a few roommates on the other side of the city, and I had a loving partner who was just as excited to move into the city as I was to have him there. Life could not have been going any better, everything was happening exactly as it was supposed to.

It was January, and we were all together at the bar celebrating the start of the last semester of our undergraduate careers. Matthew’s phone buzzed across that sticky dive bar table and he silenced it, waiting to hear the punchline of Sydney’s joke. His phone buzzed once more, and he shoved it in his pocket never to be seen again. Sydney got to the punchline and we erupted in laughter. Devon’s phone rang next. A number he had never seen before, but as all college seniors know, it might be that job you applied to however long ago, so you better answer it before it is too late. He excused himself to the restrooms and the jokes continued to flow. Bellowing laughs filled the room, and it was obvious the surrounding tables were not enjoying our company as much as we were. This is the best time of my life, I remember thinking to myself.

Devon stepped out of the bathroom, soaking wet.

“Did you fall in, Dev?!” Everyone burst into laughter. Devon looked up with piercing red eyes, as if he had just traded souls with Bloody Mary in the mirror. He stood in front of our table gripping his phone while we all sat there with muddled smiles.

“Luke is dead.”

The next few hours blurred together into the next few days. At the bar, underneath the screams and wails were those of us quickly sobering up and piling everyone in our cars. We took three cars into the suburbs, packed with four people each. Any other person on the highway would have suspected we were some teenagers racing one another; no one could have known we were racing to our dying friend. The ride was silent, aside from the frequent but stifled sniffles and sobs. Others stared forward in shock, processing how everything could crash to a halt so quickly. Turns were taken in the driver’s seat. The funny practical joke we would play at stoplights, now necessary to ensure no one crashed the car while weeping.

We arrived at the hospital an hour after Luke’s sister called Devon. It felt like a lifetime. The image of the receptionist’s face as twelve flushed kids rushed her desk is one forever etched into my memory. We didn’t even have to tell her who we were there to find. She knew.

“ICU, room 118.”

The elevators would take too long, so we took the stairs – no one knew how long he had. For a group of liberal arts majors and artists and musicians, one would think we were Olympic athletes. I had never run like that in my life, and I considered it more than substantial for a yearly workout. In hindsight we should have taken a moment before we burst through the door to the intensive care unit. A bunch of young people, damp and screaming and disoriented. People in the ICU did not need to see that. But we needed to see him. A group of maybe thirty people, all short, stout, and olive-skinned huddled around couches at the far end of the hall. Luke’s family. Unmistakable.

The next few days were information overload. Walking into that room to see our beautiful, young friend hooked up to tubes and machines is something no person should ever have to face. The doctors told us his spinal cord snapped from his brain. They told us we could hold his hands, stroke his face, tell him everything is going to be okay, but he would never know. We took turns with his family screaming at physicians, asking how they could be so hopeless if all of his organs were working as they said they were. Simply put, they informed us he was brain dead. Few people in the world are legally declared brain dead each year. It is uncommon and frightening and traumatizing to learn about. It was like Luke to go out that way, part of such a small statistic of people. He would want to be remembered as unique.

That last semester of my undergraduate career was nothing to be celebrated, nothing close to the years I had anticipated. We all missed classes for his funeral services, let our grades dip, periodically skipping class and assignments and meals the rest of the year. Professors were understanding, allowing us to excuse ourselves every time they heard a sniffle from the back of the room. When they called my name at graduation, I missed it, too busy sobbing into my gown. I had looked into the bleachers for his reassuring smile and he was not there. We all attended each other’s graduation parties, trying to celebrate one another and our accomplishments, but each fell silent when it was our turn to make a speech. Some of us turned down jobs and moved home, never wanting their parents to feel like they were losing their child too.

In all of my years fantasizing about college, I could have never pictured such an end. An ending filled with no happiness or celebration, only sorrow and pain. Never could I have imagined losing a friend, a cousin, a brother, a son. That day in January I lost my partner, who was just as excited to move into the city as I was to have him there. I was out enjoying myself while he was alone at home, counting the days until he could fall asleep under the protection of the skyline. I deleted all of my one hundred and seventeen job applications. If he couldn’t get to see the world and live the life he wanted, I would for him. I could hear my five-year-old heart filling with disappointment.