Max Kendall smiled wickedly as he sat in front of the coffee table, attention focused completely on the game in front of him. He usually lost these types of action games, but this time, he was determined to finally defeat his best friend, Dylan.
“I think I’ve got you, Dyl,” he said, not moving his eyes from the screen for a second. He jerked the controller in his hands. He could practically hear Dylan smirking from the armchair to the left as Max’s character fell and he lost his last life.
Max groaned and buried his head in his hands. “How do you always win?”
Dylan laughed from beside him, trying not to smile too widely. “Sorry, Max, but you seriously lack hand-eye coordination.” With a pat on Max’s back that was probably meant to be comforting, Dylan got up and stretched.
Max set down his controller, sighing. He knew his friend was right; he had an awful tendency to drop things, trip, and knock things over. He thought he’d gotten better lately, but he supposed the clumsiness would fade eventually. At least he hoped it did. If he was twelve now and already a walking nightmare, he shuddered to think about what would happen when he was twenty.
Dylan Shepherds on the other hand was a natural when it came to physical activity. He was always running or jumping or trying to climb trees. It was surprising that the other boy could even sit still for longer than a few minutes.
Max didn’t begrudge him for it though. They’d been friends since kindergarten. In all that time, Max learned that there were some things other people simply did better than others.
“I haven’t broken anything in your house for over a month now!” Max defended himself, standing up too. He stretched backwards, his back aching from being bent over for so long.
Dylan rolled his eyes and messed with the black hair atop his head. “My mom still hasn’t forgiven you for that vase. It was pretty priceless.”
Max felt his heart beat just as quickly as the day he broke the vase. He hadn’t meant to swing his arms so wide, but he’d forgotten it was so close. The second he heard it shatter, he thought Dylan’s mom would kick him out immediately, but the woman had reassured him that it was fine. Had she been lying?
“Don’t tell him that,” a quiet voice interrupted.
Max almost jumped. He thought he’d gotten used to it by now, but he supposed not. He turned to Dylan’s little brother, Lucas, as the younger boy continued, “Mom bought that for two dollars. The only person she hasn’t forgiven is dad when he suggested leaving it in the open.”
Max turned to face Lucas fully. He’d been Dylan’s friend since Lucas was a baby, as there was a four-year age gap between the boys. Even after knowing him for that long though, Max sometimes felt like he didn’t know Lucas at all. The younger boy wasn’t like other kids his age and didn’t have very many friends. He was a chubbier boy, unlike his fitter brother, with hair that was a darker shade of brown than Max’s, he remained by himself a lot, and he did a lot of reading. He was quiet and had a propensity for sneaking up on people accidentally.
Something about the kid made him very likeable though, especially as Max sighed in relief. “Really, Lucas? Are you sure?”
The boy nodded. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Lucas,” Dylan said in a warning voice with a little pout. “You’re supposed to play along.”
Lucas frowned and Dylan sighed, stepping over to his brother with a smile. “It’s okay. Really, it’s good you intervened. Max can be kind of slow sometimes.”
“Hey!” Max said with indignation as his cheeks heated up from embarrassment. He listened as the brothers laughed. The two of them were so different. Sure, there was the obvious fact that their body types and hair colors didn’t match, but Lucas was quiet and sincere, while Dylan was confident and loud. Yet they got along well, with Dylan always acting as Lucas’s protector.
Max almost wished he had a sibling of his own, but Dylan and Lucas were basically his brothers already. His parents said he caused enough destruction with his clumsiness anyway.
“Did you lose again, Max?” Lucas asked kindly.
Max sighed. He could hear Dylan snickering. “Don’t say it like it was destiny or something!” he complained, his eyes darting to the book Lucas was holding. He narrowed his eyebrows. “Er, Lucas? Did you cut yourself or something?”
The boy blinked and held up his hands as if just realizing that they were covered in band-aids. He blushed in embarrassment from the attention that was suddenly on him. “K-kind of…”
Dylan was wearing a serious expression. He towered over his younger brother with his arms crossed. “Did those kids bully you again?”
Lucas didn’t answer, but even Max thought that it was obvious. He frowned as the younger boy quietly said, “They just pushed me. I’m okay. Don’t worry, I fixed everything.” He held up his hands as if they were something to be proud of, giving his brother a reassuring yet shaky smile.
Obviously, Dylan wasn’t convinced. Max wasn’t sure what to do with the suddenly awkward atmosphere, so he said, “Want us to beat them up?” He probably said it too casually, but Dylan was nodding along enthusiastically.
Lucas quickly shook his head. “N-no! You’ll get in trouble. It’s okay.”
With a polite smile, Lucas excused himself from the room, probably to avoid further questioning. Dylan looked distressed, no longer smiling like he was before.
Max cleared his throat. “Lucas gets bullied a lot, huh?” He knew that the younger boy often came home with nicks and scratches, but Max hadn’t really seen it with his own eyes. He only knew what Dylan told him.
Dylan sighed and nodded, tapping his foot anxiously. “They bully him because of his weight. I mean, sure, he’s a bigger kid, but he looks fine. I don’t know why they can’t just leave him alone.” Dylan was pouting, obviously angry. “I wish I could just give them a few good punches, but Lucas won’t tell me anything about them. The school won’t help him, so I wish I could.”
His voice tapered out sadly as he led Max to the kitchen. The Shepherd family had a nice house, although Max privately thought it was a little small for four people. The kitchen was connected to the dining area, which was next to the living space. Stairs led to the upper floor where two bedrooms and the master bedroom sat on opposite ends of the hallway. The kitchen was spacious though, with appliances that looked as good as they possibly could with two boys plus Max in the house. Dylan went to the fridge to pull out a snack, still frowning.
Max stood next to him. “Lucas seems okay… but maybe we could bring him a snack or something to cheer him up?”
Dylan embraced the idea pretty quickly. It was nice to see him smiling again, although it was even nicer to see the smile cross Lucas’s face when they brought him a little something and gave him some company.
Max frowned, wondering what he should do. He thought he’d finally figure out how to stop being so awkward by the time he hit sixteen, but really, he wasn’t any better. Honestly, he figured he was just lucky that he was personable, had a nice face, and that people generally found him easy to talk to. When he got nervous though, it was like word diarrhea where he said every incorrect thing that came to mind.
“Damnit!” Max exclaimed, accidentally flailing his arms. He winced as he smacked the picture behind him and heard it crash to the ground with a soft thump. His clumsiness really hadn’t improved much either. It was good he didn’t need to be coordinated to read books and do well in school.
Max stilled as he heard the door nearby open. He almost wished that remaining still would make him invisible, but Lucas’s voice floated out behind him. “Did you just knock that off the wall?”
Without moving, Max said, “I didn’t hear glass shattering this time… maybe I’m getting better?”
There was a short chuckle and some footsteps muffled by the carpet. After a pause, Lucas said, “That’s pretty unlikely after so long, but well, at least this picture survived.” There was a laugh hidden in his voice, but Max turned around with a frown.
Lucas was twelve now, and had gotten taller. It evened out his proportions a little bit, but Max knew that people still made fun of him, calling him fat. Lucas had been dealing with people like that for years now, but no matter how bad it got, he insisted that he was perfectly fine. He wouldn’t even let Dylan, who had gained muscle as part of the football team, intimidate the kids who bullied him.
This time was no different. Lucas had come home with a black eye and something spilt all over him, trying to run through the dining area where Dylan and Max were studying to grab an icepack. It was clear that he was trying his best to be invisible, but while Lucas had quiet steps, he wasn’t really the invisible type.
After all of Dylan’s interrogating while Max quietly watched, Lucas retreated to his room. Max would have knocked the picture down on purpose if he knew it would be that easy to get the other boy to come out.
“You don’t deserve to be treated that way, you know,” Max said softly.
Lucas sighed, but instead of answering right away, invited Max into his room to speak where others couldn’t hear. Max shut the door with a gentle click and looked around. He’d been in this room before, but not too often.
Lucas kept things neat. His bed was usually made and he had books set around on shelves. He didn’t have much in terms of personality in his room besides the gifts and knick-knacks from his brother and parents. He sat down on his bed with a heavy sigh. “I’m used to it by now, Max.”
“That doesn’t make it right!” Max yelled unintentionally, slapping a hand over his mouth.
Lucas was looking at him with his eyebrows raised, surprised at his outburst. Max sighed. “Sorry, Lucas. I just… it bothers me that you accept it so easily.”
The younger boy gave him a searching look as Max sat beside him on the bed. “I don’t.”
“What?” Max said in confusion, looking up.
“I don’t just accept it,” Lucas elaborated. He didn’t meet Max’s eyes when he spoke. “It hurts to know that people make fun of me just because I weigh a little more. It hurts to hear what they say, and to take all the crap they do to me.” He crossed his arms, as if he was feeling uncomfortable. “But I don’t have Dylan’s or your personality. I’m not the type of person to start fights, even if you’re the ones who’ll do all the fighting.”
Max frowned as Lucas looked down at himself sadly. He felt a rush of righteous anger flood his veins. “But you shouldn’t have to deal with all that! So what if you’re bigger? You look fine, and you’re such a great person. My mom uses the word ‘sweetheart’ when she talks about you, and there aren’t a lot of people as kind as you.” He didn’t realize that he was inching closer to Lucas the longer he talked, until they were face to face. Lucas had his eyebrows raised, but didn’t push him away like most people would.
Max cleared his throat and leaned back. “Sorry… but it’s true! And I wish other people would see it.” He grew silent, frowning at himself.
Lucas patted his knee in a comforting manner. “It’s enough that you and Dylan see it.” His voice was sincere, infused with genuine gratitude. When Max looked over at him, Lucas was smiling. He patted his stomach. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll get fitter in the future.”
“If not, just build up some muscle to be intimidating enough that no one messes with you,” Max suggested with a wry smile.
Lucas laughed. “And be like Dylan? He’s not a muscle-brained idiot, but there’s no way I can be as athletic as he is. Nice to see you’ve given up on being coordinated too.”
“Hey! You and Dylan make fun of me way too much,” Max protested. “I guess I’m not wanted around here.” He said it dramatically, putting a hand to his chest. Lucas rolled his eyes good naturedly. He still looked a little down though, so Max nudged him with his elbow. “You can tell me more if you want. I mean, I usually say all the wrong things, but sometimes it helps to get it off your chest.” He gave Lucas an encouraging smile, shifting on the younger boy’s bed.
Lucas held his gaze for a few moments, as if deciding what to say and what to keep to himself. Normally, he wouldn’t say anything about what the people who bullied him did. Over the years, they’d barely gotten any details, so Max didn’t expect all that much.
He was surprised with Lucas sighed and looked down at his lap. “Today, some kids came up to me at lunch. I don’t eat much at school. I always get nasty looks when I have anything that’s not a salad, but I usually try to ignore them. A few kids sat with me today and started making fun of me. As soon as I was out of sight of the cafeteria monitors, they smashed my food and poured milk all over me. One of them punched me to keep quiet.”
Max knew kids were idiots, but he didn’t know it was that bad. He sighed, pushing down the anger that flooded up in him again. “Well those kids are assholes. Everything is okay in moderation. Except for like, things like cocaine and stuff. That’s just bad in general.” He was pleased that he got Lucas to smile. Looking at the younger boy’s face gave him an idea. “Wait for just a second!” he shouted suddenly as he raced from the room.
Max caught Lucas’s look of surprise before he was out the door and in the kitchen. He knew exactly where to go, as he’d spent the past decade racing around here with Dylan. Shooting a quick hello to a worried Mrs. Shepherd, who was working in the living room, Max passed Dylan on his way to the fridge.
Dylan had grown up well. While Max was still thin and lanky, Dylan got all the muscles. He had girls all over him all the time, but it was nice that Lucas was right: Dylan was still the same good kid, and certainly not a muscle-brained idiot. He did well in school and in football, and even if he wasn’t as clever as Max, he was much less clumsy and far better with his words. He was also very protective of his brother and committed to his family. All in all: a stereotypical popular kid without the stereotypical douchebag attitude.
Dylan’s head shot up when Max came racing into the room as if there was fire on his heels. “Is he okay?” he asked worriedly.
Max frowned, but continued on his mission. He opened the fridge and responded, “Mostly? Lucas is pretty tough, but kids are fucking assholes.”
“Language!” he heard Mrs. Shepherd call from the other room.
Max winced and yelled back, “Sorry Mrs. S!” He’d gotten into a poor habit of cursing far more than what was acceptable and couldn’t seem to stop it. He was trying to at least curse more quietly to avoid the reprimands, and to stop letting those words slip in front of teachers.
Dylan was snickering, so Max gave him an unimpressed look. He continued searching in the fridge and shook his head, turning to look on the counters. “Ah!” he exclaimed, opening the container of cupcakes and grabbing one.
Turning back around to face Dylan, Max saw the other boy frowning. “Will he be okay?”
Max sighed and stepped forward. “Yeah, Lucas always is. But hold on, I’ll be right back.”
“Should I come too?” Dylan asked, worry etched into the lines of his face.
Max only shook his head. “Nah, I got this one.” He still felt out of place comforting Lucas sometimes, mostly because Dylan and Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd did all of that stuff, but Max couldn’t explain why it simultaneously felt so natural. He didn’t have any siblings of his own, and yet he felt a certain bond with the younger boy.
Maybe it was because Max knew what it was like to feel alone. He may have been friends with Dylan, but his parents worked a lot, leaving him home alone most of the time. Whenever he wasn’t at Dylan’s, Max often found himself surrounded by silence. He’d never tell his parents how much he loved the noise of the Shepherd household though. They were good people, just busy.
Even if Max couldn’t solve his own family situation, he hoped the small comforts he could provide to Lucas combatted some of the other boy’s loneliness. He hoped this idea wasn’t a bad one either.
Racing back into Lucas’s bedroom, Max shut the door with a tired huff. Lucas gave him a critical look. “It’s no wonder your parents watered down all your sugary drinks when you were little. You have way too much energy.”
Max pouted. His parents also hoped less sugar would stop his clumsiness. Needless to say, their plan didn’t work.
He smiled and held out the cupcake. When Lucas raised an eyebrow, Max sat down next to him again. In a soft voice, he said, “I know those kids are jerks, but they don’t know anything. Being healthy isn’t only physical, but mental too. You don’t need to deprive yourself of things if you enjoy them in moderation. So here.”
Max peeled the wrapper off the cupcake and tore the cupcake in half, trying not to get frosting all over his hands. He held out a half to Lucas. “Enjoy. You don’t need to stop yourself from being you, or from having the things you like.”
Lucas stared at him for a minute, as if he was trying to understand something. Finally, a soft smile broke out on his face. He took the other half of the cupcake in his hands. “Thank you, Max,” he said sincerely.
Max smiled widely, proud of himself. He felt his heart soaring as he bit into his half cupcake with a happy hum. He had finished it before he noticed Lucas laughing at him, louder with each second.
“Hey, what’s so funny?” Max complained.
Lucas pointed at his face. “You have frosting on your nose.”
Max knew his face heated up in embarrassment, but he found himself smiling too.
Max hummed to himself as he got back to his dorm, setting his backpack down with a little thud. He stretched contentedly, taking a moment to run his hands through his brown hair and arch his back.
He was in his third year of college, preparing to apply for a few Master’s programs to become a high school teacher. The thought made him smile. It was all he wanted for a while, ever since he figured out that he loved being around others and wanted to put his love of teaching to good use. He heard high schoolers could be demons, but he was looking forward to the challenge.
Yawning from a long day of classes, Max took a seat at his desk, opening his computer and grabbing a pizza he’d ordered earlier in the day. He scooted up on his chair and leaned back, relaxing for a minute.
Going to school in California had been great. The weather was nice, school went well, and Max had been able to make many friends in his program. It helped that he had a good personality, although he still got teased for knocking things over and making a mess. Apparently, he was doomed to be clumsy for the rest of his life.
Max sighed and stretched out his hand, wincing as he managed to knock his books to the floor. There was no permanent damage, but he frowned. After so long spent as Dylan’s friend in the Shepherd household, it was odd that no one pointed out when he dropped something or knocked something over.
Even though he loved his program, it had been lonely. At twenty-one, Max really only had Dylan as his best friend still. They talked as much as they could, but that wasn’t always possible.
Despite all the offers from colleges that he’d received, Dylan joined the military right out of high school. Serving his country was his passion. Max winced upon remembering the concerned yelling and pleading from Mr. and Mrs. Shepherd. They’d been worried about Dylan for years now, but they couldn’t change his mind. Dylan was a fighter at heart. He even stayed in the military after doing one tour and was currently in his third year of service.
It was great that Dylan had found his calling, but Max missed his friend. After so long spent going over to his house and talking whenever they felt like it, it was jarring to not speak to his friend for months sometimes. It was difficult to always wonder and worry about his safety.
Max couldn’t imagine how hard it was for Lucas though. The younger boy was seventeen now, and while he was still a lonely kid with a larger build, he didn’t get bullied as viciously. He lacked muscles, but people didn’t find it too fun to mess with someone who didn’t take the bait. Lucas had been devastated when Dylan had gone into the service, although he’d never stopped supporting his brother. He just gave him that sad smile and told Dylan to do his best.
Max sighed as he remembered that. Lucas had been lonely too these past few years. They’d texted here and there, but he felt a sudden stab of guilt for not keeping as close of contact as he should have with the younger boy.
Just as he thought of texting Lucas to see how he was doing, his phone rang. “Mom,” he murmured to himself, accepting the call with a cheerful, “Hey mom, what’s up?”
Max knew that something was wrong right away. His mother didn’t respond with words. All he could hear was her sobbing silently on the other line. “Mom?” he asked, his voice hitching with worry. His heart began beating quickly in his chest as he listened to her try to calm herself. “Mom, are you okay?”
There was another sniffle as she said, “I’m okay sweetie. Your father’s okay too. It’s not us…”
“Dylan? Oh my god, what happened? Is he…?” Max stood up, anxiety making it impossible to sit down. He felt like his world had bottomed out. He’d been waiting for this call ever since Dylan had signed up for the army. He had always hoped that it wouldn’t come.
“It’s not Dylan,” his mother interrupted quickly.
For a second, Max felt confused. He took a deep breath and tried to get his heartbeat under control. “Then… what? Who… what’s going on mom?” He felt like a little kid again as he asked, his voice shaking and his throat closing.
She paused for only a second. “Lucas was in an accident. It’s… it’s really bad. I don’t know how bad, but we’re heading to the hospital to be with the Shepherds. We’re in the car right now.”
Max didn’t know what he should be feeling. His first thought was that he was a horrible person. He hadn’t even considered that Lucas was the one that could be injured, mostly because he seemed to be the safest out of everyone Max knew. That thought was quickly overcome by panic. Lucas had become something like a friend to him over the years and in that moment, all Max could think about was the kid lying in the hospital somewhere with machines hooked up to him.
“I’m coming home,” was all Max said, ignoring his mother’s protests about leaving school. He hung up on her before he could think of the implications and quickly got a plane ticket with his savings. California to Virginia was pretty expensive, but he didn’t care. With shaking hands, he set everything up and raced to pack a bag. It was only hours later in the airport that he remembered to email his teachers to explain his situation.
Heart beating quickly, Max raced down the corridor. He’d been told that this was where Lucas was in the message his mother left him. She also said that Lucas was doing fine and out of surgery, but didn’t actually say what had been wrong with him in the first place. Max didn’t have the heart to call her back and ask.
He knew he looked like a beat down weirdo rushing through the hospital, but he ignored some of the searching looks he got. As soon as his eyes latched on to the proper room number, Max stopped.
Lucas’s parents were there talking quietly. They stopped when he approached. Mrs. Shepherd, Gina, gave him a small smile. “You came, Max,” she said simply. Her beautiful face was tear-stained, her eyes puffy. It was obvious she’d been crying for a while now, and based on the business clothes she was wearing, had been working when she got the news.
Max nodded, swallowing. “Of course, I came. Is Lucas…?” He couldn’t finish his sentence. He didn’t know what he wanted to ask.
Mr. Shepherd, Jacob, gave him an encouraging nod and took mercy on him. “Lucas is okay. He hasn’t woken yet, but he’ll make a full recovery.” The words sounded positive, and Max almost slumped to the floor in relief, but he could tell they weren’t telling him everything. Mr. Shepherd was too devastated and Mrs. Shepherd still wouldn’t stop crying.
Mr. Shepherd gave him a sad look. “He’ll recover fully, but… his leg… they had to amputate his left leg from above the knee. It’s not… not the worst thing, but…”
This time, Max really did sink to his knees. It was like he couldn’t hold himself up anymore. He had to swallow to keep himself from throwing up. Mr. Shepherd was right when he said that there were worse things that could happen, but that didn’t mean that living with only one leg would be any easier for Lucas. It broke Max’s heart to even think about.
It was only later that he learned what had happened. Lucas had been on the bus picking up a few things for dinner when it had flipped in a serious accident. Many people had been killed and tons more were injured. Lucas had been trapped underneath some rubble, waiting for help for who knows how long. By the time they got him to the hospital, his leg had been too damaged to save. They’d had to amputate it.
Max almost threw up again when his own father explained. He couldn’t get the image out of his head of Lucas sitting in his own blood, crying out for help in utter agony. For the first time in a while, he cried in that hospital, trying his best not to be loud enough to bother anyone.
The tears came even stronger when he finally got to see Lucas on that stark white hospital bed. It had been years since he’d been in the same room as the younger boy with school and work keeping them both occupied. He couldn’t help but to regret it as he approached the bed with silent steps.
Lucas was still shorter than him by a few inches and maintained his body type, but he’d grown well. He was older now, with a handsome face and the same light brown hair that Max remembered. He was no longer the same little boy who’d cried about being bullied as he now sat in the hospital missing half his leg.
Max stayed for as long as he was allowed, crying silently when he saw the outline of Lucas’s leg underneath the covers. It was gone. Max hadn’t really believed all of this until he saw that missing leg, but now he couldn’t get it out of his head. He took a deep breath, swallowing heavily.
He was there when Dylan came back, apparently having gotten the message somehow and gotten approval for leave. Max had never seen the other boy look so panicked. Dylan’s handsome features were pinched in worry, and he looked like he might collapse at any minute in the military uniform he was still wearing. They embraced without saying a word, and it took Max a second to realize that his usually strong and cheerful friend was crying in earnest. He only hugged Dylan tighter.
It was a few days of sleeping on his parents’ couch, without really sleeping, before Max got to speak with Lucas. The younger boy had woken up briefly, but was in and out too quickly to stay awake. When Max finally got to see him sitting up, he wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing. Lucas’s eyes were so sad, so empty. Lucas didn’t even look like himself with eyes like that. Perhaps he wasn’t. Perhaps the boy Max knew had been killed the second he’d gotten in that accident.
But then Lucas noticed he was standing in the doorway and gave him the tiniest of smiles. “Hey, Max,” he said in a scratchy voice, hoarse from disuse.
Max didn’t need to be an expert at emotions to know the other boy was faking it, but he played along with a smile of his own and sat down next to the bed. “Hey, Lucas.” For the first time in his life, Max didn’t know what to say. Words halted in his throat, and no matter how much he tried to think of something to brighten the mood, he couldn’t come up with anything good. He was never all that good at dealing with sadness and grief.
“We don’t see each other in a few years and all of a sudden you go quiet on me? Has college mellowed you out?” Lucas said with forced enthusiasm.
Max raised his arm without thinking about it, intending to make a gesture, but he stilled when he felt his elbow hit something. Stiffening, he sighed in relief only when he didn’t hear a crash of glass on the ground. “Oh, thank god,” he muttered. “There’s no way the nurses will let me stay if they thought I was breaking things in here.”
He reached down to pick up the little plushie that had fallen off the tray table. When he had put it back in its place, Max looked up to see a somewhat genuine smile on Lucas’s face. There was fondness in his expression. “You haven’t changed.”
Max shivered at the deep sense of affection he got from those three words. He chuckled, feeling some of the tension leave the room. “Is that a good thing, then?”
“Yeah, it is,” Lucas said quietly. He turned to look down at himself, and immediately frowned again. His eyes became glassy, as if he wasn’t really seeing what was in front of him. “I… I’m not the same now.” He was looking down at where his leg ended, above the knee now. With trembling hands, Lucas reached out painfully as if to feel his own leg.
Max’s hand on his wrist stopped him. Lucas didn’t look at him, but Max knew the younger boy was listening. “Don’t do that to yourself, Lucas. It… it doesn’t matter if you aren’t the same outside. You’re still Lucas.” His voice was soft and gentle, his grip light. He tightened his hand in the hope that he could get his point across. His throat suddenly felt clogged up with too many emotions.
Lucas didn’t look at him. They sat in the silence for a few more moments until Max lowered Lucas’s hand back to his side. The younger boy didn’t fight with him, all the fight having left his body. “Lucas… I… I’m sorry for not being here. I’m sorry for leaving you all alone.”
This time, Lucas did look at him, a curious expression on his face. Finally, he shook his head. “You don’t need to be sorry for pursuing something you love. I never thought badly of you for that.”
They sat in silence for who knows how long, Max listening to the nurses outside while Lucas stared out the window. He thought the younger boy might want to be left alone and got up to leave, but Lucas suddenly grabbed his shirt.
Max stopped in his tracks when he saw Lucas with his head down, shoulders shaking. “Please… please stay, Max.”
Max felt his heart swell as he leaned down to give his friend a tight hug, sitting with him on his bed as Lucas sobbed in earnest for what he had lost. They didn’t talk about what happened, but Max held onto Lucas for as long as he needed, ignoring the wet tears that were leaking into his shirt. He rubbed up and down the younger boy’s back, trying to get up the courage to say something, anything, that would be comforting.
But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t do anything but sit with Lucas until the other boy was too tired to stay awake for any longer and laid back down on the bed. Max stayed with him until he fell asleep, holding onto his hand.
He only left when Lucas’s parents stepped back into the room hours later, telling him that Dylan was in the hallway. Max nodded, feeling oddly empty and devoid of emotion. His footsteps sounded hollow as they hit the white flooring. He didn’t even watch where he was going until he saw Dylan’s feet in his vision.
This hadn’t been easy on anyone, but it broke Max’s heart to see how torn Dylan was. Ever since they were kids, Dylan had been the strong one. Dylan had been the one who was always smiling, always laughing, always cheering everyone else up. Now his shoulders were slumped and it looked like the life had been sucked out of him. Max sat down in the chair next to him silently, feeling too tired to say anything right away.
Eventually, he cleared his throat. “I sat with Lucas for a while.”
There was a pause. “I heard him crying.”
“Yeah,” Max said. He sat up fully and looked to his friend. “Dylan, I… I don’t know what to say, but… I think… or maybe I’d like to think that Lucas will be okay.”
Dylan finally sat up. His eyes were bloodshot and red, making it clear that he hadn’t slept in a few days. He sighed. “I hope he will. He’s so strong, but this… I’ve seen guys in my unit break down from stuff like this.”
“Lucas isn’t in the military,” Max said automatically, almost defensively. “You have to trust in him to get better. Mentally and physically.”
Dylan stared at him for a second. His shoulders fell after a moment, but he smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. Lucas has lots of people to help him through this. We’ll help him too. Kind of not the greatest time to ask this, but how have things been going at school, Max?”
It felt normal to have a casual conversation like this, so normal that the words came a little easier. Max was telling his friend about his classes when they were interrupted by a small voice saying, “Excuse me?”
Max turned to see a young girl with rich dark skin. She looked like she might be around Lucas’s age, but that was where their similarities ended. The girl was thin, with her deep black hair tied back in a ponytail. She was limping and covered in bandages, with bruises on her face and arms, but she was otherwise uninjured. Her eyes were strong and determined, but sad at the same time.
“Are you looking for someone?” Dylan asked politely.
The girl nodded. “Um, I’m looking for a boy named Lucas. The nurses said his room was around here.” She looked around like she might figure it out before turning back to them.
Dylan and Max shared a look before Dylan asked, “Lucas? Why do you want to see him?” Max didn’t recognize this girl, and he figured Lucas would have told him about a new friend.
She met Dylan’s eyes without looking intimidated by him at all. “In the bus crash, Lucas was trapped underneath the rubble. He couldn’t move and he was really scared. I stayed with him until they got him out. I held his hand and tried to keep him awake and talking. I heard he was here, and I just wanted to see how he was doing.”
Max was suddenly staring at this girl with a whole new type of respect. She shifted, perhaps uncomfortable with the silence that accompanied her statement, and winced. That snapped Max out of it. “Should you really be out of bed though if you were in the crash?”
She shook her head slowly, as if the movement was difficult. “I wasn’t hurt that badly. Lucas was sitting by me, and he took much more of the damage.” She frowned. “But… I don’t remember much until I woke up and heard him crying out.”
Dylan stood up and offered her a small smile. “Lucas is my little brother, and this is our friend Max. Just… thank you for staying with him. I… that means a lot to me.” His voice cracked and he looked down, but the girl simply gave him an understanding smile.
“My brothers were really worried for me too. They’re younger though, but I understand. I don’t know if Lucas will remember me since he was in so much pain, but would it be okay if I checked in?”
Dylan nodded and directed her to where Lucas’s room was. They both stepped in after her to find Lucas awake. His eyes widened in recognition as the girl slowly limped in.
“Y-you… um, Jenna, right?” Lucas asked. For a moment, he sounded more like himself.
Jenna stepped towards him, an indulgent smile on her face. “You remember?”
Lucas nodded, now wearing a serious expression. “Of course I do. You sat with me the entire time. I can’t thank you enough.” His voice was sincere and quiet.
Jenna reached forward and touched his hand. “There’s no need for that. But I wanted to see how you were doing. I’ve been told I have a great talent for talk if you want to chat about something else too. To get your mind off things.”
As Max watched them talk, and watched Jenna introduce herself to the others, he smiled. Dylan was smiling too. “Looks like Lucas finally found a good friend.”
“Yeah,” Max said fondly. Lucas wouldn’t be alone, not anymore. Even without Jenna though, Max wasn’t about to duck out now. He’d stay for as long as Lucas needed.
Except Lucas didn’t want him to stay. Well, that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t that Lucas didn’t want him there, but that he didn’t want Max to be away from school for any longer. The second Lucas realized that Max was missing his classes and falling behind in school and Dylan was taking a leave of absence from his unit, he told them that he wanted them to go back.
“But Lucas, it’s not hard for us to stay here,” Dylan said in a pleading voice from the edge of the hospital bed.
It had been a week now, and while Lucas still wasn’t physically strong enough yet, he had gotten a little bit of a spark back in his eyes. He was crossing his arms and looking at his brother with a soft smile. “Dylan, I know that you love what you do, and nothing more can really be done for me anyway. Mom and dad will help me, I’ll do my schoolwork from the hospital, and eventually hopefully get a prosthetic or something.”
Max winced as Lucas’s voice cracked on the word “prosthetic.” The younger boy was trying his hardest to seem as though he was fine now, but Max knew it would be a long while before Lucas was anywhere close to fine with his reality.
Dylan had noticed it too if the frown on his face was any indication. “But I want to be here for you,” he said in a small voice. Suddenly Max felt like he was intruding on a very private moment between brothers, but a quick glance from Lucas held him in place.
“I know,” Lucas said in a low voice. He looked down, clenching his fists, before he returned his gaze to his brother. “But I also don’t want you to regret anything. I… I miss you so much, and I want you to be safe more than anything, but…” He shook his head. “I won’t be doing anything but sitting and resting for a while. This goes for you too, Max.”
Max started at suddenly being pulled into this conversation. “H-huh?”
Lucas gave him an unimpressed look. “You’re missing school to be here, right? Go back. You can’t be a teacher if you don’t finish.”
“But…” Max started, but Lucas interrupted.
“I’m not alone anymore,” he said quietly. “Jenna comes by too, and mom and dad are always here. Even your parents drop by a lot, Max. I’ll find a way to be okay.”
Max frowned, but he was almost happy to hear Lucas say that he would be okay, rather than trying to deny that he wasn’t. He felt tears well up in his eyes and quickly wiped them away. “I…”
“You’ll go back, right?” Lucas insisted.
Max swallowed. There were too many emotions in him. He was sad to even think of leaving Lucas. Guilt bubbled up into his heart for wanting to finish his degree, yet he was relieved that he had such a good friend and happy to hear Lucas with more energy in him. He nodded. “Yeah. I’ll go back. But we’ll be back, you know. Dylan and I.”
Dylan didn’t seem all that convinced, but he nodded along too. “I can’t leave right away with all the paperwork that has to clear, but whenever I do, I’ll be back soon. I promise.”
For the first time since the accident, Max saw Lucas smile for real. It was that memory that got him through the rest of school even when all he could think about was his friend that he left back at home.