If I Stay (If I Stay #1)(2)


by Gayle Forman

Dad brokers the deal. “Seeing as we’re missing school today, we ought to listen to the news for a while so we don’t become ignoramuses—”

“I believe that’s ignoramusi,” Mom says.

Dad rolls his eyes and clasps his hand over Mom’s and clears his throat in that schoolteachery way of his. “As I was saying, NPR first, and then when the news is over, the classical station. Teddy, we will not torture you with that. You can use the Discman,” Dad says, starting to disconnect the portable player he’s rigged to the car radio. “But you are not allowed to play Alice Cooper in my car. I forbid it.” Dad reaches into the glove box to examine what’s inside. “How about Jonathan Richman?”

“I want SpongeBob. It’s in the machine,” Teddy shouts, bouncing up and down and pointing to the Discman. The chocolate-chip pancakes dowsed in syrup have clearly only enhanced his hyper excitement.

“Son, you break my heart,” Dad jokes. Both Teddy and I were raised on the goofy tunes of Jonathan Richman, who is Mom and Dad’s musical patron saint.

Once the musical selections have been made, we are off. The road has some patches of snow, but mostly it’s just wet. But this is Oregon. The roads are always wet. Mom used to joke that it was when the road was dry that people ran into trouble. “They get cocky, throw caution to the wind, drive like ass**les. The cops have a field day doling out speeding tickets.”

I lean my head against the car window, watching the scenery zip by, a tableau of dark green fir trees dotted with snow, wispy strands of white fog, and heavy gray storm clouds up above. It’s so warm in the car that the windows keep fogging up, and I draw little squiggles in the condensation.

When the news is over, we turn to the classical station. I hear the first few bars of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3, which was the very piece I was supposed to be working on this afternoon. It feels like some kind of cosmic coincidence. I concentrate on the notes, imagining myself playing, feeling grateful for this chance to practice, happy to be in a warm car with my sonata and my family. I close my eyes.

You wouldn’t expect the radio to work afterward. But it does.

The car is eviscerated. The impact of a four-ton pickup truck going sixty miles an hour plowing straight into the passenger side had the force of an atom bomb. It tore off the doors, sent the front-side passenger seat through the driver’s-side window. It flipped the chassis, bouncing it across the road and ripped the engine apart as if it were no stronger than a spiderweb. It tossed wheels and hubcaps deep into the forest. It ignited bits of the gas tank, so that now tiny flames lap at the wet road.

And there was so much noise. A symphony of grinding, a chorus of popping, an aria of exploding, and finally, the sad clapping of hard metal cutting into soft trees. Then it went quiet, except for this: Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3, still playing. The car radio somehow still is attached to a battery and so Beethoven is broadcasting into the once-again tranquil February morning.

At first I figure everything is fine. For one, I can still hear the Beethoven. Then there’s the fact that I am standing here in a ditch on the side of the road. When I look down, the jean skirt, cardigan sweater, and the black boots I put on this morning all look the same as they did when we left the house.

I climb up the embankment to get a better look at the car. It isn’t even a car anymore. It’s a metal skeleton, without seats, without passengers. Which means the rest of my family must have been thrown from the car like me. I brush off my hands onto my skirt and walk into the road to find them.

I see Dad first. Even from several feet away, I can make out the protrusion of the pipe in his jacket pocket. “Dad,” I call, but as I walk toward him, the pavement grows slick and there are gray chunks of what looks like cauliflower. I know what I’m seeing right away but it somehow does not immediately connect back to my father. What springs into my mind are those news reports about tornadoes or fires, how they’ll ravage one house but leave the one next door intact. Pieces of my father’s brain are on the asphalt. But his pipe is in his left breast pocket.

I find Mom next. There’s almost no blood on her, but her lips are already blue and the whites of her eyes are completely red, like a ghoul from a low-budget monster movie. She seems totally unreal. And it is the sight of her looking like some preposterous zombie that sends a hummingbird of panic ricocheting through me.

I need to find Teddy! Where is he? I spin around, suddenly frantic, like the time I lost him for ten minutes at the grocery store. I’d been convinced he’d been kidnapped. Of course, it had turned out that he’d wandered over to inspect the candy aisle. When I found him, I hadn’t been sure whether to hug him or yell at him.

I run back toward the ditch where I came from and I see a hand sticking out. “Teddy! I’m right here!” I call. “Reach up. I’ll pull you out.” But when I get closer, I see the metal glint of a silver bracelet with tiny cello and guitar charms. Adam gave it to me for my seventeenth birthday. It’s my bracelet. I was wearing it this morning. I look down at my wrist. I’m still wearing it now.

I edge closer and now I know that it’s not Teddy lying there. It’s me. The blood from my chest has seeped through my shirt, skirt, and sweater, and is now pooling like paint drops on the virgin snow. One of my legs is askew, the skin and muscle peeled away so that I can see white streaks of bone. My eyes are closed, and my dark brown hair is wet and rusty with blood.

I spin away. This isn’t right. This cannot be happening. We are a family, going on a drive. This isn’t real. I must have fallen asleep in the car. No! Stop. Please stop. Please wake up! I scream into the chilly air. It’s cold. My breath should smoke. It doesn’t. I stare down at my wrist, the one that looks fine, untouched by blood and gore, and I pinch as hard as I can.

I don’t feel a thing.

I have had nightmares before—falling nightmares, playing-a-cello-recital-without-knowing-the-music nightmares, breakup-with-Adam nightmares—but I have always been able to command myself to open my eyes, to lift my head from the pillow, to halt the horror movie playing behind my closed lids. I try again. Wake up! I scream. Wake up! Wakeupwakeupwakeup! But I can’t. I don’t.

Then I hear something. It’s the music. I can still hear the music. So I concentrate on that. I finger the notes of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3 with my hands, as I often do when I listen to pieces I am working on. Adam calls it “air cello.” He’s always asking me if one day we can play a duet, him on air guitar, me on air cello. “When we’re done, we can thrash our air instruments,” he jokes. “You know you want to.”

I play, just focusing on that, until the last bit of life in the car dies, and the music goes with it.

It isn’t long after that the sirens come.

9:23 A.M.

Am I dead?

I actually have to ask myself this.

Am I dead?

At first it seemed obvious that I am. That the standing-here-watching part was temporary, an intermission before the bright light and the life-flashing-before-me business that would transport me to wherever I’m going next.

Except the paramedics are here now, along with the police and the fire department. Someone has put a sheet over my father. And a fireman is zipping Mom up into a plastic bag. I hear him discuss her with another firefighter, who looks like he can’t be more than eighteen. The older one explains to the rookie that Mom was probably hit first and killed instantly, explaining the lack of blood. “Immediate cardiac arrest,” he says. “When your heart can’t pump blood, you don’t really bleed. You seep.”

I can’t think about that, about Mom seeping. So instead I think how fitting it is that she was hit first, that she was the one to buffer us from the blow. It wasn’t her choice, obviously, but it was her way.

But am I dead? The me who is lying on the edge of the road, my leg hanging down into the gulley, is surrounded by a team of men and women who are performing frantic ablutions over me and plugging my veins with I do not know what. I’m half naked, the paramedics having ripped open the top of my shirt. One of my br**sts is exposed. Embarrassed, I look away.

The police have lit flares along the perimeter of the scene and are instructing cars in both directions to turn back, the road is closed. The police politely offer alternate routes, back roads that will take people where they need to be.

They must have places to go, the people in these cars, but a lot of them don’t turn back. They climb out of their cars, hugging themselves against the cold. They appraise the scene. And then they look away, some of them crying, one woman throwing up into the ferns on the side of the road. And even though they don’t know who we are or what has happened, they pray for us. I can feel them praying.

Which also makes me think I’m dead. That and the fact my body seems to be completely numb, though to look at me, at the leg that the 60 mph asphalt exfoliant has pared down to the bone, I should be in agony. And I’m not crying, either, even though I know that something unthinkable has just happened to my family. We are like Humpty Dumpty and all these king’s horses and all these king’s men cannot put us back together again.

I am pondering these things when the medic with the freckles and red hair who has been working on me answers my question. “Her Glasgow Coma is an eight. Let’s bag her now!” she screams.

She and the lantern-jawed medic snake a tube down my throat, attach a bag with a bulb to it, and start pumping. “What’s the ETA for Life Flight?”

“Ten minutes,” answers the medic. “It takes twenty to get back to town.”

“We’re going to get her there in fifteen if you have to speed like a f**king demon.”

I can tell what the guy is thinking. That it won’t do me any good if they get into a crash, and I have to agree. But he doesn’t say anything. Just clenches his jaw. They load me into the ambulance; the redhead climbs into the back with me. She pumps my bag with one hand, adjusts my IV and my monitors with the other. Then she smooths a lock of hair from my forehead.

“You hang in there,” she tells me.

I played my first recital when I was ten. I’d been playing cello for two years at that point. At first, just at school, as part of the music program. It was a fluke that they even had a cello; they’re very expensive and fragile. But some old literature professor from the university had died and bequeathed his Hamburg to our school. It mostly sat in the corner. Most kids wanted to learn to play guitar or saxophone.

When I announced to Mom and Dad that I was going to become a cellist, they both burst out laughing. They apologized about it later, claiming that the image of pint-size me with such a hulking instrument between my spindly legs had made them crack up. Once they’d realized I was serious, they immediately swallowed their giggles and put on supportive faces.

But their reaction still stung—in ways that I never told them about, and in ways that I’m not sure they would’ve understood even if I had. Dad sometimes joked that the hospital where I was born must have accidentally swapped babies because I look nothing like the rest of my family. They are all blond and fair and I’m like their negative image, brown hair and dark eyes. But as I got older, Dad’s hospital joke took on more meaning than I think he intended. Sometimes I did feel like I came from a different tribe. I was not like my outgoing, ironic dad or my tough-chick mom. And as if to seal the deal, instead of learning to play electric guitar, I’d gone and chosen the cello.

But in my family, playing music was still more important than the type of music you played, so when after a few months it became clear that my love for the cello was no passing crush, my parents rented me one so I could practice at home. Rusty scales and triads led to first attempts at “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” that eventually gave way to basic études until I was playing Bach suites. My middle school didn’t have much of a music program, so Mom found me a private teacher, a college student who came over once a week. Over the years there was a revolving batch of students who taught me, and then, as my skills surpassed theirs, my student teachers played with me.