“Don’t call 911.”
I think that I’m the one who says this, but I can’t be sure. The field lights are shining down too brightly, blacking out details on the shapeless forms that hover just above me. “Was that Derek? Is he, like, awake?” Jaime, from far away. “Jesus fucking Christ, dude, look at his head!” Troy, a little closer. Their voices are disembodied, gurgling into my ears, passing through infinite layers of misty-black, liquid fog; through ripples of pain spilling down from the back of my skull. Skull. Goal post. Roy. Allison. “That was the fucking scariest hit I’ve ever seen, Ali.” Jaime again. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh man. I’m totally calling an ambulance,” says Roy, also nearby, still shaken up.
“Don’t call 911, dammit!”
I know I say it that time, and a dozen pairs of eyes look down on me, pouring out their panic, disgust, fear, sympathy. Ali says something but I can’t hear. Her face is obscured by the light and I can’t read her lips. “Should we move him?” Darren asks. “I told you, no,” says Rob. “Student Health is closed, and we’ve got to call an ambulance. They’ll take care of him.” Murmured agreement. “No,” I say, and try to sit up, but only prop myself up by the elbows briefly before everything swims and I almost hit the ground again, but someone catches me and keeps the blackout away. “No hospital,” I whisper. “Not tonight. Just…home. Someone take me home.”
“Derek, man,” mumbles Roy, “you might, um, have a concussion. You kind of should, like, see a doctor,” but someone hisses and spits about “emergency rooms and goddamn ambulances and just fuck that” and I have a blinding, crippling headache and all I want to do is sleep and Roy shuts up. Somehow I’m sitting up straight now and he comes over and sits next to me, says nothing, starts untying his shoes. The crowd, my team, the other team, dissipates in twos and threes. My head weighs itself in tons. The overcast night sky drops a few miles lower and I wonder if it will crush me before someone has the sense to get me out of there. Across the field, Troy and Rob trudge back to the locker room, but Ali steps into sight again and says the game’s called off, two injuries, no more players, intramural rules, forfeit blah blah. I say okay, whatever, blink, only keep one eye open for a while because for some reason it feels less oppressive that way. Feels even less when I close both.
I sit there for a little while longer as the night ages gracelessly and more people leave, and I ramble at Roy about how the last time I was in a hospital, I was thirteen and had re-broken a freshly healed arm playing soccer. He still says nothing but I keep talking about how even though I was in absolute shock and so repressed the memory of it, my mom and my sister were there and so told me what happened. My sister said that my arm was literally bent into a curve. She said she was all the way in the waiting room but could still hear me screaming like a wild animal when the doctors re-set the break, just snapped it back into place with absolute brute force. I tell Roy that I have to take her word for it, and that it sort of freaks me out to this day that I was so horribly out of control and all he says back is “Pain does shitty things to people, dude,” then gets up to leave. Or maybe the girls chase him off, I don’t know. Either way, Roy is gone in the direction of the dorms by the time Ali and Jaime both hoist me up saying “we’ll take you home.”
Within ten minutes I’m shuffing across the field like a three-legged dog, blindly following the two chattering, mud-grass-stained angels into the abyss. They say we’ll stop at their apartment for an ice-pack and “a few other things” then go to my house, okay? I think I reply because they smile pleasantly and turn back around. The path begins where the soccer field endsm and winds behind the baseball diamond, then alongside an ivy-covered chain-link fence. The ruffling feather wings in front of me lose my attention for the split-second it takes to stare into the impenetrably dark tennis courts. Ali-Jaime pulls me back up to speed just in time to step into a small street bathed in red light. I say something like “wait til the light turns green” but we all cross anyway. El Colegio beckons up ahead, but we ignore that street and turn left instead, plunging into the dull yellow light of a perpendicular sidewalk. Isla Vista now looms darkly on our right, quiet except for the usual anticipatory humming of pent-up dementia, but we’ll be far away by the time it explodes. Fallen eucalyptus leaves endure our feet and a muffled Beastie Boys song floats out of an apartment window on El Greco.
Later I sink into limbo again while sitting on the staircase at the girls’ apartment, and I don’t care about the rivers of blood and sweat I imagine pouring down my body, don’t care that my bike might sit and rust there on the racks for three days in the salty sea air, don’t care what Ali and Jaime are bickering about as they descend back toward me. I think I hear Jaime say something like “I never know when to say X or E,” and Ali laughs as she hands me the makeshift icepack, which is viciously cold on the back of my head, but the pain is gradually beaten back to a low roar and I get up easier than I expected. The three blocks to my apartment cease to exist and suddenly giant numbers materialize out of the night- a huge green 8…1…7- the building next to mine, and then I’m lurching up my own staircase, losing my grip on the universe’s axis once again when I’m almost pulverized by a stray comet. Its name is Ben, and I’m just about to say hi when Colin’s voice erupts out ot the darkness, “Jesus fucking Christ bro watch out for Derek man what happened to your head want a drink?” Someone else accepts my cup but the backwash lingers anyway. Colin is still booming about “you should take care of that dude hey Ben get off the roof we have to leave on time tomorrow what the fuck?”
Ben continues to follow his own orbit while Ali and Jaime introduce themselves to Colin and duck inside with him. I look off the balcony but get dizzy and lean against the guard rail, slowly oxidizing in the ocean air. The icepack shifts gently around the back of my dripping, numb neck before returning to its place on the throbbing goose-egg at the base of my skull. A cool breeze cuts through the night’s humidity, carrying on it the sonic soup of the surrounding student ghetto’s nightly self-immolation. I barely notice it, but it’s the last relatively peaceful thing I hear tonight.