Today I continue our latest story…
The university wasn’t far, we’d rented this place because of that. I put my iPod on while I walked and tried not to think on the police. Instead, I thought of brakes and how you would tamper with them. I’d heard of cutting brake lines from the television, but other than that, I had no idea how you would even go about something like that. I knew nothing about cars; I could barely even fill the tank. I still couldn’t think of anyone who would want to hurt Max or me. So that left accident, the brakes had failed, wear and tear maybe something like that.
But I had driven the car that morning and there had been nothing wrong with it. It had driven fine. Nothing felt odd. Brakes must take time to wear out? Surely, I would have felt something? But if I drive the car every day, then maybe the brakes could have worn out slowly, and I didn’t notice. Maybe the wear had been so gradual that I hadn’t noticed? But I’d had the car MOT’ed three months ago, and it had flown through with no problems.
I walked onto the campus and headed towards the main block. As I walked, I noticed that most if not all the girls I passed had pink flowers on their clothes, or in their bags. Little badges, cheap handmade paper things that were brightly coloured.
As I walked to the main block, I saw a small table just outside. There was a big photo of a girl behind the two girls manning the table, a brunette and a redhead. They covered the table in the pink paper flowers. A sign hanging from the table declared the flowers were for “Maria’s Trust.” I looked again at the large photo behind the table; the girl looked familiar, although I couldn’t say why.
“Probably class,” I muttered to myself, walking over to the table. The red head smiled at me.
“Only £1 and it goes to a very good cause,” she said.
“I’ll take one,” I said. “What’s the cause?”
“It’s a charity we set up after Maria passed away,” she said handing me a pink flower and a pin.
“Cancer?” I asked. The girl frowned at me and shook her head.
“No,” she said. “She killed herself.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, um, mental health is important,” I felt my cheeks heat. The brunette was looking at me now, both girls were still frowning.
“How can you not know?” the brunette snapped at me. I took a step back. “You live under a rock?”
“Patriarchy,” the redhead said, as if that somehow explained my lack of knowledge.
“Maria died after being raped on this campus,” the brunette said sharply and just like that I knew where I had seen Maria’s face before.
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” I said. “I remember it was all over the campus paper, it was on the local news. Sorry, um I’ll take another flower, for my friend; make that two I’ll get one for mum.” The red head snorted at me but took my money and gave me two more flowers. I walked away quickly before I said anything else stupid.
I went up to the third floor where the Library entrance was and noticed the posters just outside the door. Both had Maria’s face on them, smiling back at us. The slogans under her picture told me the anniversary of her death was in the next few weeks, just after exams and that Maria’s Trust wanted to stop “Rape Culture on Campus.” The longer I looked at the poster, the more sure I was that I had seen Maria before, and not just from the media coverage. It was bugging me and a welcome distraction from Max and what the police were doing, so I went into the library and headed over to the computers instead of my usual spot.
I logged on easily; it was still early so a few of the machines were free. The computer took a few minutes to set itself up, and I went onto Google. I searched for Maria and the university and came back with a lot of results. I re-read two articles in the local news. Maria had been an English Major, so I didn’t know her from class then. I checked to see if she minored in Chemistry, but no luck. I must have just known her from the papers and local news. The articles all stated that they had suspected a group of University students, five although only two were prosecuted and they were only done for assault, not rape because of a lack of evidence. The papers all said she had been out drinking with the boys who hurt her, some papers said they might have drugged her, others said she was only drinking. Maria had later accused the boys of getting violent when she tried to leave; they had assaulted her on campus and taken her back to the dorm, although apparently the police found no evidence of this. There was a plea in the papers for any witnesses to come forward, anyone in or around the university library area on 15th April 2014, at approximately 10pm.
My curiosity satisfied, I shut the computer down and went to my usual spot by the window. I opened my books and notepad and took out my headphones. I skipped through a dozen tracks before settling on one and getting down to the business of revision.
I noticed I was being watched after I finished the third chapter of my textbook. I don’t know exactly what alerted me to it but I turned round and saw her watching me. She looked away and pulled a newspaper up to cover her face, but I recognised her despite her attempt to hide. It was the woman from the hospital, the friend of the family who I had never seen before yesterday. I turned away but could feel eyes on the back of my neck. I turned again to look at her and caught her staring at me. What was she doing here?
“Maybe a teacher,” I muttered to myself, turning back to my book and turning my music up. A sudden vibration from my pocket made me jump, I’d forgotten to turn it off when I came in, but at least it was on silent. I saw the caller was mum and answered it; I pulled my book up so I could duck behind it. “Mum?” I mumbled.
“Thomas, are you all right? You sound quiet,” mum said.
“I’m in the library, we’re not meant to have phones on,” I said.
“Well, this is an emergency,” mum snapped. “You’ve got to come home now; we’ve had a call from the hospital.” I felt the cold move up from my feet through my body. I let my book fall back to the table.
“I’ll be home in a few minutes,” I said.
“No need, I’ll pick you up outside the campus,” mum said. “I’m already heading to the car.”
“Mum,” I said, my voice catching in the back of my throat.
“He’s taken a turn for the worse,” she said.
“Okay,” my voice was a whisper.
“Meet me outside campus,” she said and hung up. I blinked a few times and took several deep breaths. I had to keep it together, I had to, I had to, I had to.
I pushed my books back into my bag and rolled up my headphones, chucking them into my bag I left the library. I jogged down the stairs, passed the table selling paper flowers and out onto the main block. It took me less than five minutes to get to the campus entrance. Mum was already there. I jumped in the car, and we pulled out onto the road.
“What’s happened?” I said as soon as we were on the road.
“Gregory called me,” mum said. “The doctors said he needed to get everyone available to the hospital as soon as possible.”
“But what…” I started. Mum turned to face me for a moment before looking back to the road.
“I don’t know,” she snapped. She wiped her eyes quickly and let out a slow breath. “I know no more than you do, honey.”
We rode the rest of the way to the hospital in silence, although there were a few moments when I nearly asked if mum was trying to get us in an accident. She swerved into the hospital car park, almost hitting a man heading towards the bus stop.
“Mum,” I mumbled. “It’s all right, we’re here.”
“All right, you go on up, I’ll park the car,” she said her hands were shaking. I got out of the car and winced against the wind that had picked up since getting in. I pulled my coat tighter around me and headed into the hospital.
When I arrived at Max’s bed, I knew it was terrible. His mum was there, along with his dad, Gregory, and his little sister. They were all silent and still. I sniffed to alert them to my presence, and they all looked at me at once. They were still for a moment before Gregory extended his arm to me, gesturing for me to come closer. I glanced at Max’s mum, Charlotte, but looked away instantly. She was glaring at me, and it didn’t take a genius to know why.
“Charlotte, stop it,” Gregory said, his voice rough. “It’s not Thomas’ fault.”
“It was his car,” Charlotte whispered. Gregory turned and glared at her for a long moment; she dropped her eyes and looked at Max. I wanted to feel angry at her for blaming me, but I couldn’t. At least it didn’t sound like the police had spoken to them about their suspicions yet.
Mum arrived a few minutes after I did and was met with the same silent stillness I had been, although she didn’t receive any anger from Charlotte, who was now staring intently at Max. Mum stood next to me and joined our silent vigil. I tried to drown out the sounds of the machines and instead listened to Max breathing; it sounded difficult, laboured.
“Is this everyone?” the doctor’s sudden words surprised me and I turned around. I clenched my hands when I spotted the woman from the library standing a little way behind the doctor. She had followed us here? My anger was suddenly at the forefront of my being and I turned fully, ready to confront her. Gregory tightened his grip on my shoulder and in that instant my anger disappeared as quickly as it had risen.
I turned back; the doctor was standing next to the tower of machines around Max; he was speaking, and apparently he had never stopped.
“… I’m sorry,” he finished.
“What?” I frowned at mum and she reached out and took my hand.
“It’s for the best sweetheart,” she said crying.
“What is?” I said. No one said anything and then I realised. They were turning the machines off. “Wait, a minute!” I snapped. “You can’t do that! It’s only been a week!”
“Thomas,” Gregory said.
“No, you’ve got to give him longer than a bloody week,” I shouted. “Christ sake, I was in hospital for two weeks when I had that stomach thing.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and felt bile rise in its place. “You can’t do this, just because he’s not getting better fast enough for you.”
“Gregory,” Max’s mum said she was sobbing quietly.
“Thomas,” Gregory leant down to be more of height with me. “Max is gone,” he put both hands on my shoulders. “They confirmed it this morning, there’s no brain activity, Max is already gone. It’s just his heart that hasn’t given up yet and that’s only because of the machines.” He looked at the doctor and nodded. A switch was flipped, and the machine fell silent.
I spent a long moment waiting for Max to breathe on his own. It never happened.
I don’t remember leaving the hospital; I don’t remember the drive home; I don’t remember mum putting me in bed.
I woke up, and the sun was streaming in the windows like nothing had ever happened. I got up, still dressed in my jeans and t-shirt from yesterday, I went downstairs.
“Oh,” mum said when I entered the kitchen. “I wasn’t expecting you up today.”
“Why not?” I said.
“Thomas, honey,” Mum came over and hugged me. I don’t remember her putting me back to bed, but I woke up in bed and it was dark outside. I didn’t get out of bed; this time, just lay awake staring at the ceiling.
I got up the next day; I wasn’t sure what time it was, but it didn’t matter. Mum put toast in front of me, but I couldn’t eat it. I wasn’t sad anymore; I felt nothing; I was numb. I could move, speak and listen, but it felt like a part of me had been unplugged with Max. I couldn’t feel anything. I knew that was wrong. People whose best friends die are supposed to be sad. I should have been crying, but I couldn’t.
“I think I will go for a walk,” I said.
“Want me to come with you?” mum said.
“No,” I said. “I’ll be fine, I just need some air.”
“It’s getting late, honey,” mum said. “Why not go tomorrow, you can have a shower first and we can go out together, we could get some lunch?” I frowned. I’d only just got up this morning. How could it be late already? I looked to the window and saw that it was in fact evening.
“No,” I said. “I won’t be long. I’ll take my phone.” I stood up and grabbed my coat off a chair. I pulled it on and grabbed my phone off the table. I headed out the door before mum could say anything else.
I had no real idea of where I was going, but I walked, anyway. I headed towards campus and visited the sports field. Max had been on the hockey team, Emily and I had always come up here to watch him play, sometimes we’d come up on nights where they were just practising, to surprise him. I stood at the edge of the field and stared out at it. It was empty and quiet. I wondered if the team would do anything to commemorate Max’s passing. Maybe wear black armbands for some games. Absently, I reached up and played with the pink paper flower still attached to my jacket. Maybe we could do something like Maria’s Trust, although supporting what charity I didn’t know. No one had been driving dangerously, the brakes had failed; it had been an accident despite what the police said.
No one would hurt Max.
I turned away from the field and headed back down into the town. Instead of heading home, though, I took a left and two rights until I found myself at a small park. We had found this place by accident, Emily had heard of some kind of secret garden behind the town centre, she’d dragged us out to look for it. We’d wandered for hours with no luck until we realised we were lost. It was when we were trying to find our way back that we found the park.
It was small but well kept and I went inside. Emily had been delighted that we had eventually found it, but before she had come inside her phone had rang. Some boyfriend disaster had happened to one of her friends who was now inconsolable, and she had had to make a break for it. She had called a taxi, (as we still had no idea where home was from here) and had disappeared off to deal with the drama. Max and I had stayed, though.
I walked through the small park till I found the bench we had sat at that first time. We had spent the rest of the afternoon on this bench. We’d gone on about the usual conversation topics. What did Max think about the university Hockey Team’s chances? Was my lab as awesome as I had hoped it would be? But the conversation became more serious after a while, what did we want to do after university, how excited we were for classes to start and how Max would end up married to Emily have billions of children and some kind of amazing sports job while I would cure a major disease and be world famous. It was the last time we had really talked about what our hopes and dreams were; we knew we were probably being silly, but what’s the point of dreaming if you don’t dream big.
It startled me out of my thoughts when someone sat next to me. It was getting dark now, so it surprised me anyone was still out here. I glanced at my unwanted companion and stiffened when I saw it was her. The friend of the family who I didn’t recognise, who had followed me to the library and who had been there when Max died. She looked at me for a long moment before handing me a takeaway cup of coffee.
“Here,” she said, pushing the cup at me. I took it and stared at her. “It’s mocha,” she said.
“Why are you following me?” I said firmly, wondering briefly how she had known that the only coffee I liked. She said nothing for a long time. She sipped her coffee and looked out across the park.
“Loss affects us all differently,” she said eventually and looked at me. “Drink your mocha, it’ll go cold.”
“Who are you?” I said. “You’re not a friend of Max’s family.”
“My name is Ruth, Ruth Garrett,” she said. “You don’t know me, although you should. I know you, Thomas, and what you’re going through.” I sipped at my coffee; it was good. “When you lose someone who’s such a big part of your life, you feel alone like you’ve lost a part of yourself, the most important part. You become an empty shell and no matter how much other people come around you to comfort you, they can’t change the fact that you’re not whole anymore.”
I took a long sip of my drink. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. How am I supposed to go revise, sit my exams, come back here next year, finish my degree, get a job, have a life? How can I do any of that when Max and Emily aren’t here?” I sniffed, the numbness fading away to finally let me feel grief. “How can I live my life when the two biggest parts of it are rotting underground?”
“Exactly,” Mrs Garrett said.
“I’ll never get to see what their kids would have looked like; never get to see Max finally get his own damn car. Did you know he wanted a sports model, something flashy, but we all knew he’d end up with an estate? That always made me laugh. The idea of him trying to be so cool when driving a big old people carrier with kids stickers in the windows.” I glanced at the woman next to me. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, I still don’t know who you are.”
“Grief makes us do strange things,” she breathed. “Sometimes it’s something as small as opening up to a stranger, and sometimes it’s something bigger. Things that we never thought we were capable of.” I watched her, something about her was making me nervous. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was but there was a ball of panic growing in my stomach, cold and spiky it got larger the longer I sat next to her.
“Um… I think I should probably head home soon,” I said.
“That’s not an option for you anymore,” Mrs Garrett mumbled, so quietly I almost missed it.
“Excuse me?” I said, the ball of panic grew larger.
“It’s because of you, you know,” Mrs Garrett continued as if I had said nothing. “It is your fault I’ll never get to see who her husband could have been; never get to hear about the children she would have taught. She was going to go to Cambodia to teach the children English,” Mrs Garrett said. I frowned and finished my coffee.
“Who?” I said.
“Maria,” Mrs Garrett said. “She was my daughter. You should recognise her name at least; you’re wearing one of her flowers.” I swallowed, feeling a little lightheaded. This was Maria’s mother?
“Crap,” I said without thinking. “I’m so sorry, I uh; I heard what happened to her. I’m sorry.”
“You should apologise, but it won’t be enough, not now, not after all this time,” Mrs Garrett reached over and took my empty cup and held it with her own. She turned to face me. “It’s all your fault that Maria isn’t here anymore, I wanted you to know that.”
“Wait, how is it my fault? I didn’t even know her!” I snapped. My stomach rolled, I felt like the world was swaying gently. What was wrong with this woman? What did she mean my fault?
“Yes, you did!” Mrs Garrett snarled at me. Her eyes were wide, the whites visible all around. “You were there that night, I know you were!”
“What?” I managed, my mouth felt strange, like it was going numb. “When?”
“The night those bastards hurt my baby girl!” Mrs Garrett said leaning close to me. “You saw them. You were there. Those boys took advantage of her, they hurt her, and no one did anything to help, you did nothing to help.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’ve never met Maria before, I wasn’t there, I saw nothing,” I tried to stand up, I had to go home, but my body felt heavy and uncooperative. I couldn’t move my legs.
“It took weeks to convince Maria to go to the police and when she did they didn’t believe her,” Mrs Garrett was crying now, tears causing black to run from her eyes as mascara streaked her checks. “The police demanded witnesses. They wouldn’t prosecute without them.”
“Something’s wrong with me,” I tried to say, but my words were slurring together, coming out like a drunk on Friday night. I lifted my arm enough to get my hand into my pocket. But my fingers lacked the dexterity and strength needed to grab my phone and pull it out of my pocket.
“At first, we didn’t think there was anyone. But we were wrong. There was one, just one. One person who was there who could have saved my baby girl but did nothing.” She reached out suddenly and slapped me across my cheek. I didn’t feel the blow, but my head snapped back. I couldn’t lift it back up.
Mrs Garrett tipped my head back, so I could see her “we got the records from the library, the computer log. We didn’t know who you were, we only had your name. It took us too long to find you, Maria, she couldn’t… she …” She hiccupped, cutting herself off and covering her mouth with her hands. I tried to speak, but all that came out was a wheeze.
“Oh? can’t you speak?” Mrs Garrett said pulling her hands away from her face to reveal gritted teeth. “Maybe you appreciate your voice now? Maybe now you realise you should have used it when it counted.” Mrs Garrett snarled at me. “Now you’ll never speak again, you’ll never do anything again.”
She stood up trembling and set my coffee cup next to me on the bench. My chest felt so tight now, getting a breath in was difficult. I could feel my head swimming, I couldn’t get enough air.
“They will find the hemlock in your blood; they will find the coffee cup. They will think you did this to yourself, that you killed your friend and couldn’t cope with the stress,” there was darkness on the edges of my vision now, everything was going blurry. She turned to walk away but hesitated and turned back to me.
“You were supposed to die in the car, but they did, all because you didn’t act again. This is your fault. I want you to know that before you die.”
My world went dark.