“Knock, knock. You decent?” Malik peeked his head in the door to Alex’s hospital room.
“In thought or action?” Alex asked playfully.
“Better be both if I’m gonna introduce you to my only daughter,” Malik said, trailing a wispy blond angel by the hand.
If anyone knew what an angel looked like, it would be Alex. His breath caught. He straightened his hospital gown, hoping all the important parts were covered, like his pounding heart.
“Alex, I’d like to introduce my daughter, Ellen,” Malik said.
“Daddy, we already know each other,” Ellen said. “He’s in my biology class.”
“I am? I mean, we do? Of course, we do. We’ve known each other for years.” Alex stammered, trying to pull anything from his memory that resembled this beautiful girl standing before him.
Ellen lifted her hand up to her face and straightened her delicate glasses then brushed a stray hair from her face and lowered her arm so that both hands clasped a leather-bound notebook. “It’s okay that you don’t remember me, Alex. We don’t exactly run in the same circles.”
“We don’t? Of course, we don’t. Because I think I’d remember you if I’d met you.” Alex knew he was making a fool of himself.
“Let’s just say, I’ve never gone out of my way to get to know you either.” Ellen shifted from one foot to the other. “You’re not my type, like, at all.”
“Well good,” Malik said. “I won’t have to worry about chaperoning you two.”
“Dad, I’m turning eighteen in three weeks. I don’t exactly need a chaperone.”
“Okay then, I’m going to get some paperwork done at the nurses’ station down the hall. I’ll let you get to know one another, and I’ll be back for our physical therapy appointment in about forty-five minutes.” Malik glanced at his watch ceremoniously and ducked out of Alex’s room.
“Mind if I sit down?” Ellen asked, pulling up a chair before Alex had a chance to answer. “So, my dad tells me you had a near-death experience and he’d like me to help you tell your story.” Ellen opened her notebook and pulled a pen from her wispy blond bun.
“Can I ask you a question first?” Alex stopped her. “Why am I not your type?”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “I don’t go out with guys who drink or sleep around.”
“Maybe that’s the wrong way to describe your… extracurricular activities.” Ellen tapped the pen against her pursed lips. “I’m not sure you ever actually made it to a bed. More like behind the bleachers, in the guys’ locker room, on that little balcony backstage in the auditorium.”
“Okay, I get it. Stop.” Alex pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Don’t worry, Alex. You don’t have the worst reputation in the school.” Ellen stopped talking and Alex finally opened one eye to glance at her, sensing what was coming. “That would be Gus.”
“Grrreat…” Alex squeezed his eyes shut again.
“Of course, his older brothers were way worse,” Ellen said.
“Okay, can we talk about something else now?” Alex opened his eyes and gripped the sides of his head, messing up his already too-long hair. His stylist usually kept his thick locks at just the right length to make him look like a cocky rock star. Now they just looked shaggy and unkept.
“You asked.” Ellen held up her hand to examine her stubby fingernails.
“I’m sorry I did,” Alex grumbled.
“Back to my original question, then.” Ellen positioned her pen above the blank sheet of her notebook. “Tell me about your near-death experience.”
“What do you wanna know exactly?” Alex folded his arms across his chest, no longer in the mood to talk about something so sacred when he’d just had his past life thrown in his face. The remembrance of all his wrongdoings came flooding into his mind and all the peace he’d experienced since coming out of his coma dissipated.
“Did you see a bright light?” Ellen’s sarcasm was grating on Alex’s nerves.
“How did you know you were dead?”
“I wasn’t dead,” Alex said.
“I’m sorry ‘near dead’. Is that what you’d call it?”
“No. I was walking and talking just like I do now.”
“Well, technically, you’re not walking right now because you’re sorta paralyzed. Isn’t that right?”
“Are you mocking me?” Alex asked. This chick had no idea what it was like to have very little feeling in his legs or to be completely helpless and relying on others for everything, including trips to the bathroom.
“I’m sorry.” Ellen made a show of wiping the smirk from her face and sitting up straight and prim. “Shall we continue?”
“What I experienced was very spiritual, and unless you can cut the crap and act like a grown up, I really don’t think you’re the right reporter for this job.”
“Job?” Ellen raised her eyebrows. “You’re paying me? I thought I was just doing this as a favor to my dad. Oh, and the fame and fortune of selling your story.”
“Ellen, please leave.” Alex turned away and faced the opposite wall hoping his traitorous eyes wouldn’t betray him and make him look like even more of a fool.
Ellen’s chair scratched across the tile floor and Alex thought she was leaving without even saying goodbye or apologizing. Instead she stepped into his line of sight and her countenance had shifted. “Can we start over?”
“I don’t have anything to say to you.” Alex refused to look her in the eye.
“Hi, I’m Ellen.” She stuck her hand out as if to shake. “My dad wanted me to meet you because he said you’re a really cool guy. I actually already know you because you’re in my biology class. You may not remember me because I’m the geeky one in the back of the room who’s always reading and writing. But I remember you because you’re super popular and hot and completely out of my league, so I never thought I’d ever actually have a conversation with you.”
Alex glanced down at her outstretched hand and then lifted his gaze to her turquoise eyes, so clear they were almost crystalline. His own feelings of vulnerability were reflected in them. “You’re not as shy as you think you are if you were able to say all that in one breath.”
“Are you gonna leave me hanging here, bud, because this is embarrassing enough as it is.”
“Sorry.” Alex gulped and then lifted his hand to hers. “It’s nice to finally talk to you, Ellen. I’m glad we didn’t meet a few months ago because I might have said something really inappropriate at this moment and you would have slapped me in the face and I’d never have a chance to get to know the real you.”
She didn’t pull her hand from his but glanced to the side, shielding guilty eyes behind studious glasses and hooded lids. “That, or I would have followed you wherever you led and then hated myself afterward when you didn’t call me the next day.”
“I’m sorry,” Alex practically whispered. “I’m sorry for… everything.”
“I’m pretty sure the girls were using you just as much as you were using them.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” Alex said.
Ellen shrugged then turned her gaze back to him, piercing him with those icy blue eyes. “That was so last year.”
“Not quite. We have ten days until New Year’s Eve. Then it will be last year.” He tried to smile playfully; glad they’d gotten back on track.
“If I ask nicely, will you tell me about your accident?” Ellen’s voice was soft and sweet, all sarcasm gone.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” Alex’s voice was husky. “Even the really spiritual stuff if you think you can handle it.”
“I’ll try,” Ellen said.
“Would you like to pull up a chair and stay a few minutes?”
“Sure.” She didn’t bother walking back around the other side of the bed, just pulled up the chair closest to where she now stood. She opened her notebook and lifted her gaze to meet his. Her near whisper was reverent and caring. “Let me help you tell your story…”