The first thought in his mind was, I forgive you.
There was no doubt that Alex was with God, however unlikely that seemed. An hour ago, God didn’t exist. And now, God had always existed. Alex had merely forgotten. As quickly as he had this perfect recollection, all his past sins were placed before him for every peaceful being to observe. For God to observe.
Alex fell to his knees and wept, recognizing every detail of the past few hours, the alcohol, the girls, the haughtiness, the swearing, the girls, the defiance, the girls, and more girls and more girls. Alex tried to cover his face with his hands but couldn’t move them. He was being forced to see everything as quickly as scenes flashing one after another after another.
The horror of what he had done. The innocence stolen, the crushing guilt, the feeling of complete unworthiness.
Again, God’s voice was there, I forgive you.
How? Alex screamed the thought. How can you forgive me? Can’t you see what I’ve done?
I’ve watched your every move since the moment you left my presence and entered this realm.
Why didn’t you stop me?
You have the choice to follow me, or to follow my adversary.
I want to follow you!
Come, follow me.
I will! Alex cried to God. I will follow you forevermore. I promise.
Oh, my son, I welcome that. But you will be tempted repeatedly throughout your life and you will choose over and over to follow me or to turn your back.
I will never turn my back on you again. Never.
Many trials await you upon your return.
Return where? I’m home.
You must go back, my son.
No, you cannot send me back.
In this you do not have a choice.
What do you mean I have no choice?
I have work for you to do.
Work to do? No, I want to stay.
It’s not your time.
Not my time? This doesn’t make any sense.
You will understand when you’re ready.
“Alex, wake up.”
Please, I want to stay. Don’t make me go back.
“Alex, can you hear me?”
No, I cannot hear you. Leave me alone. I’m staying. It’s peaceful here.
“Please, Alex, you’ve got to come back to me. You’re my best friend. So many people are worried about you. Your mom and dad have been here. Thankfully they didn’t force me to leave. They’re all mad at me though. My Audi was totaled. Heck, I might go to jail if you don’t wake up. I might go to jail even if you do.”
“Whatever. I don’t care. I just want you to wake up. I can endure any punishment as long as you wake up. That’s all I care about. Do you know how many cards and flowers are in this room? Maybe you can smell them.”
I don’t know. Can I smell them?
“News of our accident has blown up social media. Oh, and I had a concussion. I’m better now. Sorta. I mean, I can’t sleep, and I can’t eat, and I’m shaking, like a lot. Can you hear me, man?”
“They have you hooked up to so many tubes and monitors. They’ve pumped like a million bags of fluid through your IV. You almost died a couple times.”
I did? That’s weird because I’ve been walking and talking and exploring and meeting new people and it’s really beautiful here. I can’t wait to tell you about it.
“You really scared me, man.”
Are you crying?
“You can’t leave me like this.”
I’m right here, what are you talking about?
“Hey, man, I learned how to pray, I think. I don’t know if anyone can hear me.”
“Maybe you see angels and ghosts, I don’t know. I figured if God does exist, it wouldn’t hurt to talk to him.”
“Can you even hear me?”
Hey, are you still there? Are you crying again?
Alex squeezed his fingers just a little to see if he could still feel whatever had been resting in his hand for hours.
“Alex? Can you hear me?”
“Alex, squeeze my hand again, man.”
No, it hurts.
“Please, wake up, man, squeeze my hand again.”
Gus? Is that you?
“Wake up, Alex. Squeeze my hand again.”
Okay, okay, already. You don’t have to get all huffy.
“NURSE!!!” Gus yelled. “He squeezed my hand!”
That’s so loud! Alex cringed away from the sound.
“I’m sorry, oh my gosh, where’s that damn nurse’s button, there it is!”
Alex was jostled around for a few seconds, then Gus’s voice was talking to him again.
“Alex, wake up, man. It’s Gus.”
Duh, I’d know your voice anywhere, man. I can hear you. You can stop talking so loudly. I’m right here.
“Alex, squeeze my hand again. Please.”
“How can I help you?”
A woman? Who’s the woman? Why’s she here?
“He squeezed my hand!”
And we’re back to yelling.
“Twice! And then I saw his forehead move.”
Weird. Why would I move my forehead? That seems like a strange thing to do.
“Alex, wake up. Squeeze my hand again.”
Why do you keep saying that?
“The doctor’s here.”
Gus? Where’d your hand go? Gus? You still there?
“Alex, it’s Doctor Herman. Can you hear me?”
Who the heck are you? Our family’s doctor is Doctor Cathcart. He has a place somewhere down in Kingston, but he usually just comes to our home. Am I home? No, this doesn’t smell like home. Hey! I can smell again. Yuck… what the heck is that smell? Ugh!
“His pupils are reactive,” Doctor Herman said.
What the heck! What on earth makes you think I want you to shine an incredibly bright light into my eye? And then the other eye? Get the heck out of my face!
“Mrs. Stephenson, he squeezed my hand!”
Hey, there’s Gus again. Good. He’s further away. Come back and hold my hand again, Gus. Wait, Mrs. Stephenson? Is he talking to my mom? Where’s my mom? Mom!
“He’s showing multiple reactions. He can probably hear us. Where’s that kid? Get him back over here.”
Kid? What kid? Who can hear you?
“Gus, honey, come talk to Alex,” the woman said.
Gus! Yeah, bring Gus back. Oh, good, there’s your hand. Thank you. Don’t leave me again, okay?
“Talk to him, honey. He can probably hear you.”
“Alex, buddy. Can you hear me?”
“He squeezed my hand again!”
You keep yellin’ in my ear, and I’m gonna stop squeezing. I’m joking. You can yell all you want, just don’t leave me again.
“Alex, can you open your eyes, man?”
Why would I want to open my eyes? For someone to shine bright lights in them again? Ah, man, did my eyes just move? I am not opening them. I refuse.
“His eyes are moving!” Gus said. “Alex, can you hear me? Open your eyes and look at me.”
Too bright. What the heck did you do to your face? It’s all scratched up. Man, you’re crying again. Stop.
“You’re alive! Oh my God, you’re alive!”
Please don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, you idiot. Don’t you know He hears every word you say? And He really doesn’t like that. Also, when was I ever not alive? I’ve been walking all over this place. There were a lot more people before. But whatever.
“Alex, can you say something? Can you talk to me?”
“Did Phoebe agree to go out with you again?” Alex asked, his voice scratchy.
“You idiot! I wouldn’t know! I haven’t left your side!” Gus pressed his face into Alex’s white blanket and sobbed, gripping the blanket as if he’d never let go. His words were muffled through the thick blanket. “Alex, God, Alex, I thought you were gonna die. Don’t you leave me like that again. I’m so sorry. I’ll never drink alcohol again as long as I live. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Alex lifted his heavy hand and rested it on Gus’s head. Gus leaned toward his hand, and Alex patted his head. He cleared his throat and tried talking again. “Quit being such a baby.”
“Alex, do you know where you are?” Doctor Herman asked. So that’s what you look like.
“Do you know why you’re in the hospital?”
“’Cause this idiot prince got shot down by a hot chick, drank himself into a stupor, and killed a perfectly good Audi, and I happened to be sitting next to him at the time.”
Gus started crying again.
“Shut up, man, you blubber like a baby.”
“Do you know what day of the week it is?” Doctor Herman asked.
“Darn it, I missed my geography test. Probably woulda failed it anyway.”
“I’m sure they’ll let you make it up.” Doctor Herman chuckled.
“I’ll still fail it. My teacher won’t believe that there’s this country in northern Saudi Arabia near the Jordanian border where these four cocky princes think their ancestors cry to them from the dust.”
Gus gripped Alex’s hand again and pressed his forehead against Alex’s and then they were both crying. “Don’t you leave me again.”
“Only if you promise not to wrap any more cars around telephone poles.”
“I promise,” Gus said, pulling his head back. “Hey, how did you know about the telephone pole?”
“I saw it,” Alex said. “Your car was trashed, man.”
“You were unconscious when they pulled you from the car.”
“Nah, I was standing right there, man. Two idiot princes puking, you bein’ hauled outta yer mangled wreck of an Audi by yer shoulders, and mister crown prince himself throwin’ around his title like it was gonna git him outta gettin’ a ticket or somethin’. I never realized how haughty he sounds when he does that.”
The room had gone quiet, and Alex looked around at everyone staring at him. That annoying Doctor Herman with his flashlight ready to blind him again, the older woman who called Gus “honey” and another woman. Oh, and Gus. His best friend. Alex smiled at his best friend.
“Do you know where my mom is?” Alex asked. Everyone continued to stare at him with gaping jaws.
“She’s on her way, honey.” The older woman stepped forward.
I’m not honey. Gus’s honey. “I want my mom.”
“She’ll be here soon,” Gus said.
Alex reached out to grip Gus’s hand again, squeezing as hard as his limited strength would allow. “I’m really tired, Gus. Will you stay with me until my mom gets here?”
“Yeah, man, I’ll stay right here.” Gus held onto Alex’s hand with both of his and gripped as if he’d never let go.
“Wake me up… when she gets… here.” Alex closed his eyes and slept for what felt like the first time in days.