Hannah stepped off the bus and approached her school. She gave her blonde ponytail one final tug to tighten it and put her hands in the front pocket of her hoodie. She chose an outfit that allowed her to blend in without being over-dressed or underdressed. Hannah is a sophomore whose excitement for high school was lost in the past year. She entered the school and was met by laughter ringing through the halls. It seems that people can't get enough school spirit as banners hang from the ceiling every ten feet or so, announcing the events for the week. Everywhere she looked, she saw the bright yellow and blue that made up her school colors. Every time she entered the school, she was shocked because it looked so happy. The real world had crept up on her too soon, her life at home was much bleaker as her father lies dying, and a few bright banners wouldn't help her forget that.
Students lined the walls, standing in groups and chatting about the weekend. It was only 7:30am and class wouldn't start until 7:45am, so it was prime time to hang out with friends. Hannah continued through the halls, squeezing through the spaces where the groups had started to creep into the walkways. She walked towards the group of people she always stood with; she wouldn’t call them her friends, but they were as close to friends as she had there. They were her teammates, so they were stuck with each other, at least for the duration of the swim season.
Her group, her people, had slowly expanded into the walkway. She approached and stood slightly outside of the circle, the people to her right and left adjusting ever so slightly so that she could squeeze into the circle. No one said hi, or even seemed to acknowledge her arrival. Everyone was focused on Madison, who was in the middle of informing everyone of the extravagant things that she did over the weekend. Hannah didn't really mind; if everyone was listening to Madison, then no one would ask her what she did over the weekend. If no one asked, then she didn't have to come up with a lie. She turned her head at the sound of the bell. Hannah turned to walk away from her teammates towards her first class. Behind her, she heard her teammates gathering their things and throwing around "have a good day" and other various means to end the conversation. Hannah smiled to herself thinking about how Madison never got to finish her story. How will they ever live without knowing everything that she did in the last 48 hours?
Hannah moved through the day, with about as much conversation as she had that morning. She was always the first one to class, because there is no reason for her to be late with no one talking to her. She sighed as she left her last class and headed towards the pool for practice. She wonders why she goes through every day alone when people like Madison have people falling at their feet. Can't just a few people come talk to her?
The image of the hospital bed in her living room and the sound of beeping monitors fills her head. "No," she says quietly to herself. It is never going to be a real friendship if she lies to them and herself all the time. People don’t come to her house because they won’t understand. She knows it's better to keep her distance than to let them in just to let them down. As she enters the natatorium, she hears the boys yelling. It echoes through the building and breaks her concentration. She sighs, relieved that she has finally made it to her favorite part of the day. The part where she can let go of all her troubles and just be. The part where no one can talk anyway because they are too busy trying to breathe, so it isn't a strange thing that she is being quiet.
She walks into the locker room and changes quickly so that she can see the workout before the other girls in her lane see it and start complaining. She likes the hard workouts. They help her process her day and to avoid feeling her emotions. The other girls don't feel the same way, but when they whine and complain about the practices, she always nods along in agreement. No reason to come off as weird for liking to work hard when all they are looking for is nod of agreement. The set for that day was one that no one else in the pool liked, but she did. It is a failure set; a set requiring that you push yourself until you can't make the intervals anymore. After every 5 one hundreds, the interval gets faster. Hannah is a distance swimmer, so she has endurance unlike any of her teammates. When the set starts, after the warm-up and coach’s pep talk, she lasts longer than any of the other girls. She keeps pace with the boys. The feel of her muscles aching and the sound of her own breath coming in gasps every time she reaches the wall kept her going. When she finally falls off the pace and fails the time, the girls cheer. They are shocked that she had made it for so long. Hannah isn’t, because what they don’t know is that she kept on top of training all summer long, to get away from the house and relieve stress. Added to that is the frustration she feels every day at school from feeling so alone, so of course she was going to kill this set, she had nothing to lose and everything to gain. At the end of practice, everyone rushed to talk to her. No one asked her things she was afraid to answer, they all just wanted to know about her swimming, or where she got her suit and goggles. Easy, shallow things to talk about. But to Hannah, this encounter was so much more. She had never been swarmed by her teammates or classmates before. No one ever went out of their way to talk to her. But now, everyone wanted to talk to her. Everyone wanted to give her a high five or a fist bump. Hannah left the pool with the biggest smile on her face, she finally felt a glimmer of what it was to be like Madison. To have people hanging on to her every word.
When she arrived home, she was so happy from the practice and couldn't wait to tell her dad about it. She rushed through the front door into the living room. She says "Hi" to the nurse who is heading out for the day. Hannah’s mom would be home soon, and now that Hannah is home, she oversees her dad and makes sure that the machines keep beeping. She sits next to her dad, grabs his hand and starts “You are never going to guess what happened today…” and relays the story of her swim practice in detail. She knows that he would be proud of her. Proud that she is absolutely killing it in the pool. Athletics were their thing when she was growing up. He was always at each of her races and would give little bits of advice to help her do better, even when she didn’t want to hear it. But now, all the response to her story that she got was the beeps reminding her that his heart was still functioning.
Her dad was in a vegetative state, but Hannah knew in her heart that he could hear everything she would tell him and that he was still rooting for her, even though it was sometimes hard sometimes to look at him when he seemed so small. She saw the rise and fall of his chest, as he laid in whatever position the nurse situated him in for the day. She laid her head on his shoulder and decided in that moment she must give everything she has to swim. She knew that her winning would make her dad proud, but she also knew that winning was the only way that she could have the friends that she has always wanted. She wanted her teammates to be interested in her life like they were today. If being the best is what it takes, then that is exactly what she will be. Before she stands up, she looks at her dad’s closed eyes and whispers “I’ll do it for us.”
The next morning, she rushed out of the house with a muffin in her hand. The night before she had decided that she would start hitting the weight room every morning before school, instead of only going the 2 days a week that they do as a team. When she arrived at school, the back door that lead to the gyms and weight room is open. She walked into the weight room and puts on her tennis shoes. The weights coach was there setting up for the day, but Hannah knew that if she doesn’t bother him, he doesn’t really mind what students do. She gave him a quick “Good Morning!,” and he grunts in response. She sets up a rack starts with a lifting routine that the team normally does during preseason. She doesn't want to bulk up, but to tone the muscle that she already has, so she does lighter weight but many reps. When she finishes around 7:15, she cleans her rack and nods to the weight coach before heading to the wing of the building where the pool is to shower and change before she heads to class. When she enters the girl’s locker room, she hears music and finds Madison standing at the mirror doing her makeup. Hannah finds this strange but doesn’t dare say a word. Why isn’t she doing her makeup at home? She puts her head down and heads to the showers. By the time she is out and changing, the music is gone, so she can only assume that Madison is done.
As she walks up to her groups that morning, a few of the girls say good morning to her. Those two words are more of an acknowledgment than she has ever been given. Madison on the other hand is shooting daggers at her across the circle. Hannah focuses her eyes on her own feet. No way is she getting into it with Madison, not when she is finally getting noticed, even if only slightly. The rest of her day is very similar to every other. She is always first to class and doesn’t really talk to anyone during school. Hannah is content though because some progress is better than no progress. She heads to the pool, and things play out like the day before. She gets on deck first and sees the workout, leading the fastest lane of girls, which is next to the fastest lane of boys so she can see them and try to set her pace off theirs. At the end of practice, everyone makes sure she is included in the conversation. Whenever she hasn’t chimed in for a while one of the girls directly asks what she thinks. Inside, Hannah is brimming with happiness. This feeling of belonging is exactly what she has always looked for. Even Madison, who must have realized Hannah was not going to tell anyone she did her makeup in the locker room that morning, was asking her questions about her day. She again leaves for home on cloud nine.
The next few weeks progress in the same way. She wakes up early and lifts, sees Madison in the locker room, they both keep to themselves, and Hannah slowly becomes more involved in the morning conversation. When the first swim meet rolls around, she is listed to swim the 500 freestyle and the 200 Individual Medley. These are the events she swam for the team last year. But last year she was among the top three finishers, not really anything special. This year though, at that first meet she won the Individual Medley by more than one body length, and the 500 by a whole pool length. Everyone went nuts. There wasn't a moment for the rest of the meet or the bus ride home where Hannah wasn't engaged in conversation. After that, people started talking to her during the day at school. They would stop her in the hallways to find out how her day was going. She finally had partners in her classes and didn't have to awkwardly wait to see who the only other person without a partner was. She actually looked forward to school in the mornings. She looked forward to passing periods because she felt normal. As the meets continued in the same way as that first one, her new favorite part of the week was sitting next to her dad and telling him about how she blew everyone else out of the water. She knew that he would be so proud, which is why she continued to relay every minute of the meets to him, even when her mom gently reminds her that he cannot hear her. She knows that her mom means well, and she does not want her to get her hopes up for a response that is never going to come from her dad, but those comments really ruin the time with her dad for Hannah. Her relationship with her mom has been strained since the accident. Now her mom has to work all the time to keep them above water, and Hannah doesn’t blame her, but she feels like she is all on her own. Just another piece of motivation to add to the list of things that she can ignore while in the pool.
As mid-season rolls around, things are going amazingly, Hannah is the best 500 swimmer thus far in the conference and she is never alone at school anymore. She has been getting to practice a little earlier than the other girls so that she does not get distracted by talking before practice, she still enjoys seeing the practice before everyone else. As she rushes out of the locker room, she slips on a wet patch on the edge of the pool deck. She falls flat on her back, the back of her head hitting the ground. She hears the gasps of her teammates and coach as it echoes across the pool deck. She rolls over so that she can push herself up, but that is the last thing she remembers. Everyone else sees her roll over and go through a sudden series of convulsions. Her face smacks into the ground and blood pours down her face, spilling out of her nostrils. The other girls shriek, while their coach rushes over. Coach is unsure of what to do as she yells at the girls to call the ambulance. She decides to flip Hannah and place her head in her lap. As the convulsions slow to an end, Hannah remains unconscious. The ambulance is well on its way. The girls are crying in the corner, and the boys are silent, their usual pre-practice banter has died out. When the ambulance arrives, they pull up to the back entrance and wheel in a stretcher. They place her on a backboard with a neck brace and wheel her out. All the girls except for Madison are hysterical. Coach feels as though she needs to stay and comfort the other girls, so she sends Madison to ride in the ambulance with Hannah.
As they roll her up into the ambulance, she stirs awake. They have an oxygen mask on her face, so her breathing picks up and her eyes dart around. She can’t make out any of her surroundings. The paramedics pushed something into her IV to help calm her down. Her eyes flutter closed again, and she stills. Madison sits wide-eyed, but silent in the corner of the ambulance. The paramedics keep asking her if she has contacted Hannah’s parents, but Madison doesn’t know them. She doesn’t even know what her parents do for work. She texts the coach and tells her to call Hannah’s parents to keep the paramedics from continuously asking her about it. When they arrive at the hospital, Madison is forced to wait in the lobby, and Hannah is rushed in for a series of tests. After an hour, a woman that Madison has never seen rushes into the waiting room asking the front desk about Hannah. The nurses take her back into the deeper parts of the hospital. Madison knows someone is there for Hannah and knows they will never let her back to see Hannah, so she slips out the door. She begins walking home because she knows no one has noticed that she did not arrive on time coming from practice, so it is unlikely anyone would be willing to pick her up.
When Hannah’s mom makes it back to the hospital room, Hannah is awake and eating ice cream. The nurses filled her in on the situation as they walked her back. Hannah’s mom bursts into tears at the sight of her daughter, whose nose is twice as big as it was this morning when she left for school, and the rest of her face is splotchy with scrapes. Hannah comforts her mom and assures her it is all going to be okay. The nurses back that up, revealing that the tests they did show no internal bleeding or trauma from the incident. They are sure Hannah will be released in the morning. This calms her mother a bit. The only downfall is that Hannah has a broken nose and a concussion, which means she will not be swimming for a week or so until her brain heals. Hannah and her mom both smile at this news because they know that a few weeks off swimming is nothing compared to what it could've happened'.
Hannah checks her phone while her mom fills out paperwork and sees that she has never had so many notifications. Everyone wants to know if she is okay and what is happening. She replies to everyone that things will be okay and smiles because people care about her. She feels an overwhelming amount of love. The next morning, she is released and sent home. Her mom demands that she take the rest of the week off school, to take time to rest and relax. Hannah agrees and heads to her room. She spends the rest of that week watching Netflix and eating junk food. She avoids the living room because it scares her how close she could have come to being in a bed for the rest of her life like her dad. That weekend she gets permission to go to the swim meet and support her team. She sits on deck with everyone and stands beside them as they cheer on their team. She feels overwhelmed throughout the day with the noise and lights but keeps it to herself. With every blow of a whistle to start the race, her head pounds. She wants more than anything to be racing, but with the pain in her head, she has an equal urge to go home and crawl into bed. She doesn’t want anyone to see her struggling, she doesn’t enjoy the look of pity that enters people’s eyes when they don’t understand or don’t know how to help. Afterward, she heads home to tell her dad that the team won the meet. As she enters the garage door, which leads to the kitchen, she sees her mom cooking supper. She starts to ask her mom what she is making but then collapses to the floor with a seizure. Her mom screams and rushes over. This seizure was shorter than the last. When it ends her mom takes her into the living room and sits her in a chair. Her mom calls their doctor and asks what needs to be done. The doctor has them come in for an EEG. An EEG is like a recording of your brain waves, so that the doctors can look for epileptic activity. After the test, they send her back home. The tests take about a week for results to come in. Hannah and her mom head home, both feeling a bit uneasy. They were supposed to be done with this. Hannah stays home at the beginning of the next week of school. Her mom goes to work because they must pay the bills, but the nurse is in for her dad, so Hannah knows that she is safe. She just hung out all day, taking naps and working a little on the schoolwork that she was missing.
When the test results came in, they were all clear. The doctors saw nothing that they were worried about. Hannah and her mom though were growing concerned. Hannah was unable to return to school because she started having a cycle of seizures every three days. They no longer had to go to the hospital every time, because the doctors were unsure of what to do next. They told Hannah’s mom that if she remained conscious after the seizure, they could just mark that she had one and take it easy for the rest of the day. Meanwhile, she had gone in for one test or another about once a week. The first one was another EEG, but this time for 48 hours (about 2 days), to see if the epileptic activity was happening more at night or if there was something they had missed on the first one. It came back with nothing yet again. The next test was an MRI. That one was strange because she was put in a tube with a cage-like structure over her head for around an hour, and it was freezing. She laid on her back inside a giant metal tube and could only hear the whirring of the machine as it scanned her brain. She could feel the sides of the MRI machine press against her shoulders, much like the fear of what was wrong with her head was always pressing at the forefront of her mind. That one also came back negative. As the tests kept coming back with nothing, Hannah continued to stay home. She could not very well go to school and seize there. She hadn’t been to school in four weeks, and her friends stopped checking up on her weeks ago. The doctors called her mom that morning and said they wanted to try something that may or may not work. They think that these seizures are Hannah’s body’s response to stress. They wanted to put her on medication to help her brain balance and process stress. At this point, Hannah and her mom were up for anything, so they agreed. She started the medicine two days later. It was one you take twice a day 12 hours apart. They are little white pills that were easy to take, the hard part is remembering to take them twice a day.
A week has gone by on the new meds, and Hannah and her mom were ecstatic because she had made the whole week without a single seizure. She begs her mom to be able to go back to school on Monday. Her mom agrees to let her go back for a half day, to test the waters and see how it goes. Monday, she went to school only until lunch, but she was ecstatic. The walls of her house have been slowly closing in on her in the last few weeks. When she arrives, she walks through the front doors of the school. It is a typical Monday morning with all the students in groups in the halls. She expects people to acknowledge her presence and welcome her back, but when she walks in, no one even turns their head. She thinks that is strange but walks up to her friend group. When she gets to the circle, the girls give her a hug and welcome her back, but then go right back to the circle. No one moves to make room for her. It feels as though life has moved on without her. When the bell rings, she goes to class in a similar fashion to how she had at the beginning of the year, alone. Her classes pass in a blur, she has no idea what is happening. The teachers mention subjects that she has never heard of before in her entire life. She tries not to stress too much and just sits and listens. When it is time for her mom to come pick her up, she is more than ready. When she gets home, she sits with her dad and tells him how lucky he is to not have to go back to work and be so far behind as she is. The entire week goes the same way. But people acknowledge her less and less as the days go by. Her mom decided that she should try a full day the following Monday. The full days are worse than the half days. Hannah has never felt more alone. Not only is she drowning in schoolwork, but she had a taste of what having friends is like and now she has no one. One night that week Hannah was sitting at the kitchen table crying over her schoolwork. Her mom was trying to console her, but her mom didn’t realize that she was crying not only because she did not understand school, but because of everything she had and then lost. After that, she decides she wants to go in early to get some help from her teachers before school starts, but she isn’t allowed to drive for 6 months after her most recent seizure, another thing to add to reasons why people don’t want to be her friend, she can’t drive. Her mom agrees to leave early for work to drop her off. When she arrives at school she goes to her Spanish class, she agreed to meet with her teacher at 7:00 to get some tutoring. When she arrives, her teacher is not there. She decides to go to the swim locker room to thank Madison for riding with her in the ambulance, even though she doesn’t remember it. When she enters the locker room, she doesn’t hear music, but instead the sound of crying. She walks in and sees Madison on the bench with a black eye.
Hannah rushes over and says, “What’s Wrong??”
Madison refuses to tell her, saying “I can’t tell you; you don’t understand.”
“Madison, it’s okay, I do understand,” Hannah responds, trying her hardest not to reveal any of the truth that is pressing so hard to break free behind that statement.
Madison pushes her away and Hannah, not knowing what to do, leaves. She goes back to the Spanish room where her teacher is waiting. She apologizes for being late, pulling out the many worksheets she has yet to finish. Before they even begin, her teacher asks her why she hasn’t been at school for the last month. Hannah tells her about the accident at the pool and that she has only been seizure free for a little over two weeks. Her teacher is shocked and tells Hannah that everyone thought she was faking it and just skipping school. This bothers Hannah because if she just wanted to skip school, why would she make something up, especially something so serious? She works alongside her teacher for half an hour. When her time is up, she thanks her and walks to where her group stands in the hallway. When she arrives, Madison is not there. That strikes Hannah as strange because Madison never misses the morning circle. Hannah leaves and makes a beeline for the locker room. There she finds Madison exactly where she left her. This time Hannah starts talking before Madison can tell her to leave. She takes a deep breath and says “I know that everyone thinks I was faking being sick, but I wasn’t. I go home every day and see my dad in a vegetative state, I haven’t heard his voice in 2 years, so why would I make up a medical issue as my reason to skip school? No one here knows that about me because I kept to myself until this year, so yes, I do understand what it is like to be hiding a big secret that nobody can know.”
Madison is shocked. She stutters out “Why not tell people?”
Hannah answers “I don’t want people to be my friend just because they feel bad for me. I certainly don’t want people to look at me differently because they know the truth and can’t imagine what they would do in my shoes. But it turns out that people were being fake friends with me this entire year because now that I’m back the people I thought were my friends want nothing to do with me. I can’t win them back because I can’t swim for the next 6 months. Not that I would want them back anyway.”
Madison nods in understanding. “People only want to be my friend because the stories I tell are the most extravagant. If they knew it was all fake, we would be the same.”
“Why do you make it all up?” Hannah asks.
“I am not as strong as you. I can’t walk through the halls alone every day. I won’t. So, I just say what people want to hear and most of the time it works. But I have no idea how I am going to explain myself out of this one.” She says pointing to her eye.
“You don’t have to explain anything to anyone. Hold your head up high and just keep walking. Don’t let the world get to you. You don’t even owe an explanation to me.”
“I can’t go back out there. Not like this. My eye will be all anyone is talking about.” Madison replies.
“I had a seizure on the pool deck, and no one is talking about that anymore, trust me they will get over this. But really, I have missed so much school, if I miss another period, I am going to fail out of this whole school year.” Hannah replies trying to get Madison to move.
“Okay we can go to class, but will you switch seats to sit with me? I don’t trust people to leave me alone, but with you there I know I can do it.”
The two girls push up against the wall and leave the locker room with their arms linked. They face the school with their heads held high, both feeling more confident they have a friend they never had before. They both think to themselves being honest isn’t the worst thing in the world. Especially if it can bring me something as great as a true friend.