Everything was white, clean and sterile, and it didn't smell like anything else than those three things either. It was almost like no human had ever been here, or was ever meant to go here, though the big bed in the middle of the room said otherwise.
The beeping machines surrounding the bed didn’t stop Zach from panicking any further.
‘I... I had no idea it was this bad,’ he uttered. ‘I-I can't do this.’
He had been there when Clay stormed past, in a state of panicked rage, claiming that he was dying. But nothing about those words had prepared Zach for this.
Behind him, he felt a hand placed on his shoulder, comforting and bringing him back into nightmarish reality, and when he whipped his head around he saw Charlie standing behind him, his lips tugged into a small, sad smile.
The word was too simple to be misinterpreted, and Zach nodded, for once swallowing any words of protest. He knew Charlie was right, but that didn’t make this any easier. A soft breath escaped his lips as he looked back towards the bed, catching Justin looking at them and following their exchange from the corner of his eye, unable to turn towards them fully.
Hearing his breath spilling past his lips in small, uncontrolled gasps, made Zach a little light in the head, a little unsteady on his legs. As he’d told Charlie, it brought back memories of his dad, dark memories of being in the hospital a lot like this, weighing him down, and now he was back here again, where he’d hoped he never had to be again.
He braved himself though, steeling himself as he knew Charlie was right and he’d done this so Zach would have no regrets, and started making his way towards the bed with small, unsure steps.
With a heavy heart, a breath spilling past his lips, Zach lowered himself in the chair by the bedside, resisting the urge to just get up and run away again, as he found he had no idea how to do this.
When he looked up, he found Charlie was gone, leaving him with a sense of panic and gratitude alike.
‘H-Hi…’ Justin’s tired, raspy voice caught him off guard and Zach looked up, barely able to as he almost didn’t recognize his friend anymore through his pale, tired face. ‘I didn’t… Think, you’d… Come.’
At the words, a sudden painful twinge of guilt washed over Zach, as the realization of how Justin had lay here waiting for him and of course he was going to come here hit him. He realized Justin had trouble talking, his breath spilling out in short, quick gasps and his face scrunched up in a deep frown as he was in pain, though here he was, doing it anyway. That was just the Justin he knew.
‘What can I say?’ he breathed out, a soft, unsure laugh spilling past his lips along with the words. ‘I am… A really fucking good friend.’
Justin stayed silent, looking at him from the hospital bed with wide eyes, sucking in shaky breaths, not confirming it but not denying it either.
It was the most Zach had felt he wasn’t a complete fuck-up after all, in the last six months.
Despite that, though, there was something Zach hadn’t been able to get out of his head, something nagging in the back of his mind ever since Clay had run past for the entirety of their exchange, no matter how Zach dreaded to bring it up.
‘So, uh, I saw Clay when I was outside. He said…’ Zach couldn’t finish his sentence, didn’t have the right words for it. For the horrible, terrifying possibility he wouldn’t have even considered if Clay hadn’t said it out loud.
Though, judging by the look on Justin’s face, he didn’t have to.
‘Tell me I misunderstood.’ Zach felt a primal feeling of desperation clawing at him, threatening to take him under, as tears welled up in Justin’s eyes at the words. Tears welling up in Zach’s own eyes alike as they did.
‘I… Can’t,’ the words leaving Justin’s mouth in a whisper.
Zach sat glued to his seat as the words reached his ears. Frozen, still. Taking them in, before an iron fist gripped tightly around his heart, until it hurt, and Zach felt the panic dragging him under, churning in his stomach until he felt nauseous.
‘So… Then… I’m…’
He couldn’t finish his sentence, every attempt at them cut off as he focused on taking in deep breaths, on trying to get his brain to comprehend what was happening, as Justin looked at him pleading with his eyes bloodshot and wet. It didn’t work. It felt as though this wasn’t happening to him, but rather somebody else, and he was looking in on it from a distance, as if through a window. Somebody else. But never him.
Zach closed his eyes, squeezing them shut for a moment so much he saw colors, before opening them again and looking up.
Justin was lying on his side, his face scrunched up in pain and exhaustion, but his eyes were wide, a silent question written over his face. Zach shook his head, wildly, biting his lip. ‘No.’
‘Zach,’ Justin tried again, his voice barely a whisper, his eyes pleading.
Zach swallowed back a biting remark, angry, furious, raging, with him for getting himself in this situation in the first place and for looking like that now, understanding why Clay had looked the way that he did now when he saw him outside, but telling himself not to waste this time by being angry. He knew he would only regret it if he did.
With a sigh he leaned forward, with his elbows on his knees and his head resting in his hands.
‘P-Promise me… Something.’
‘What?’ Zach looked up, his red hot anger fading as he looked at Justin. Instead, it was replaced by a still unspoken promise to do anything Justin asked of him, as the prospect of a bleak, gray future without him settled over him.
‘I-I heard, that… Coach, Kerba… Asked you as coach next year. Do… It. It would make… You, happy.’
A laugh and a sob alike escaped Zach’s mouth and he nodded, as he had no idea how Justin knew it, but that was just him, and Justin had always known how to read him. He was right, as Zach knew in the back of his mind. The coaching job would make him happy.
‘And…’ Justin continued, pausing to catch his breath for a moment. ‘Get some… Help. I don’t, want… You to end up… Where I am, right now. You still… Have the, bright future.’
‘This isn’t a joke!’ Zach shot back, leaning back in his chair, as the anger from earlier returned to him, if only briefly. He knew he reacted fierce. But then he also knew Justin was right.
Charlie had taken away his bottle of whisky just on the way up here. That didn’t mean it was easy to bring it up, or even acknowledge that he had a problem. But he saw what it could do when he didn’t, and contrary to what he’d been saying, he didn’t want to give up his future. He didn’t want to end up in a hospital.
Justin gasped, drawing Zach’s attention back to him with a start. ‘M-Matt… And Lainie… Helped me. You can, too…’
Zach bit his lip, nodding, unable to stop a chuckle from spilling past his lips as a small grin formed on his face. ‘Okay,’ he said, hurrying to give Justin a helping hand as he turned back on his back with a pained grunt. Frowning, he looked down at him, a silence forming between them. Zach longed for some familiarity between them, like old times, as he was unsure of what to say in this situation, though looking down at him, he swore he saw Justin thinking the same. And for now, that would have to be enough.
Justin sighed, sucking in a rattling breath that had Zach wince to his core. ‘Will you… Will you do… Something, for me? When you see… See Clay… Will you tell him, that… I… Want him here?’
For a moment, Zach stayed silent, tugging at the blankets laying over him to make Justin was as comfortable as he possibly could be. Only then did he look up, giving a single nod to make the expectant look fade from Justin’s eyes. ‘Will do, captain,’ he said, causing a laugh to spill past Justin’s lips. It was an awful sound, breathless, gasping for air and terrifying, and yet, Zach couldn’t help but laugh with him, as what else were they gonna do?
‘So…’ Justin said, once he had caught his breath, gasping after the words looking up at Zach. ‘What… Do we do… Now?’
Clicking his tongue, Zach tapped his fingers on the railings of the bed before answering, as the words brought an awful sense of finality with them, that he felt nauseous thinking about having to face just yet. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ he responded despite that, bravely, steeling himself. ‘I’m gonna find Clay for you, you’re not going to worry about me, and I’m gonna be fine.’
‘Will you?’ It were the first words Justin had spoken since he had come in here uninterrupted by a gasp.
Zach bit his lip. ‘Yeah,’ he said, nodding, suddenly feeling like he would honestly as the words left his mouth.
Justin stayed silent, searching his face but not finding anything there, and he gave a tired nod, closing his eyes for a moment. The bed covers that Zach had rearranged for him in his distress, certainly left him feeling warmer.
With that, Zach gave him a last, wet smile, a friendly squeeze in his shoulder, and then he was gone, out the door, going to find Clay like he said. Zach swallowed, biting his lip until he tasted blood, panic and sorrow clouding his vision as he stepped into the hallway, intending to keep both of the promises he had made to Justin in there as he was welcomed back by Charlie’s reassuring arms, the boy wisely keeping his mouth shut as he sensed the storm raging inside Zach.
And one future, the possibility of a future with Justin still in it, Zach left behind at the doorstep.