Nate and Rafael stumbled out of the house. They raised their beers in a mock toast to the host of the party, then guzzled down every last drop before smashing the bottles on the sidewalk.
With their arms wrapped around each other's shoulders, they sang a bawdy tune as they stumbled toward Dakota's car. Nate had borrowed it for the night with a well-intentioned promise that he'd act responsibly.
He tried to fit the key into the lock. His aim was off, and he swayed, giggling.
Rafael held him up—just barely, as he, too, was intoxicated. "Want me to drive?" he offered.
"Naw, man, I'm shupposhed to be the reshponshible one, right? I'll drive."
Nate and Rafael looked at each other and burst out giggling again.
"You can't even get the key in the lock," Rafael mocked.
"I'll get it. I'll get it," Nate said. He settled down long enough to focus on the key, and after three more attempts, he finally fit the key in the lock and unlocked it.
Rafael tried to shove his way into the driver's seat, but Nate beat him to it. He struggled to buckle his seat belt, and once Rafael climbed in beside him, he told his friend to do the same, and refused to start the car until he did.
Once out on the open road, Rafael switched on the radio. Their favorite band, Linkin Park, was playing, and they sang along to Crawling at the top of their lungs.
Nate gave it some more gas, and the car lurched ahead. The streetlights came and went at a breakneck pace as the young men continued to sing as loudly as they could.
Then a deer stepped out into the road.
Nate tried to slam on the breaks. At the same time, he swerved to miss the animal. The car veered off the road and flipped over twice before it came to rest in the open field below. Both boys were knocked unconscious.
- - - - -
Dakota McCabe was jarred awake from a deep sleep when the call came in. He fumbled for his cell phone, nearly dropped it, and muttered a curse before finally hitting the call button.
“Hello?” he asked, squinting at the clock. Two in the morning? What the --
“Mr. Dakota McCabe?”
Dakota sat straight up. The sheet floated down around his waist. “Yes? Who is this?”
“This is Doctor Charles Redding down at the Seton Med Center ER. I’m calling to let you know that we have a Nathan Burnside-McCabe here. He was just brought in.”
“What? What happened?”
“Looks like a car accident. Both boys are unconscious, so we haven’t been able to determine the exact circumstances, but it appears they’ve been in a one-vehicle accident. We need you to come down and fill out the paperwork.”
“I—I’ll be right there,” Dakota said, already on his feet and heading for the closet. “How bad is it?”
“We’re not sure about that yet. Doctor Ted Allen is doing emergency surgery to reduce swelling in Nathan's brain. We should know a bit more by the time you get here.”
“I’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” Dakota said and hung up.
He pulled out a pair of jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt from his closet. He started slipping out of his pajamas when he decided to call Rafael’s mother, Ana.
His phone rang before he had a chance to bring up his contact list. It was Ana.
“Hello, Ana. I was just about to call you —”
“Oh, Mr. McCabe, please, will you take me to the hospital? Julia has the car, and she won’t be home until Sunday. I need to see my Rafael. Please, will you —”
“I’ll be right there, Ana. I’m getting dressed now.”
“Oh, bless you, Mr. McCabe. I will be ready.”
They hung up, and Dakota finished getting dressed. His hands shook as he buttoned his shirt, and tears misted his eyes. The thought of the doctors performing surgery on Nate for any reason scared him. How bad was it? Were his injuries life threatening? Would the kid survive?
He put on his shoes and socks, grabbed his phone and wallet, then slipped into his jacket on the way out to the car. Once on the road, he wondered at the time. The boys were supposed to be home hours ago. He’d gone to bed slightly before eleven thinking Nate would come rolling in at any moment. He’d fallen asleep quickly, exhausted from another day spent managing Larson’s Gym.
He mentally kicked himself for not staying up a few more minutes to make sure they’d gotten home alright. He’d grown to trust Nate, but Nate was a 17-year-old kid eager to exert his independence. He was bound to mess up sooner or later.
Dakota grew angry — at himself, at Nate, at a system that allowed teens to get their driver’s licenses before they were truly ready for the responsibility. He wasn’t sure who he wanted to yell at — himself, Nate, or the politicians and lawmakers making these sorts of things inevitable. Or all three!
Five minutes later, he pulled up to the Bragado’s house. As promised, Ana was outside and waiting. She climbed in and buckled her seat belt while thanking him for coming so quickly. She was in tears, and she couldn’t stop voicing her concern for her son and the fear of what she might find upon arrival at the Seton Medical Center’s emergency room.
Dakota didn’t say much. He feared for Nate’s life while silently promising himself to wring the kid’s scrawny little neck if he survived.
He thought about what he might find upon arrival at Seton. Would Nate still be in surgery? Would he be awake and aware? Would he be in a coma?
And what of Rafael? Would he be in the same condition? Would he be worse off? Better? Would he even be alive?
The thought of losing Nate scared Dakota, and he swallowed the lump in his throat as he contemplated life without the teen. When he’d first taken responsibility for Nate, it had been a temporary circumstance. Nate had been angry at the world after the deaths of his parents, and it had only been through patience and empathy that Dakota had reached him. Now they had two years under the bridge, and Dakota had grown quite fond of the kid. To him, Nate was his son, and nothing would ever change that. Except death. He didn’t know if he could handle losing Nate. They say that no parent should outlive their kid. Well, Dakota thought that went for adoptive parents, too. If anyone had told him five years ago that he’d adopt a teen and have a life that revolved around the young person, he would have laughed. He hadn’t wanted kids, at least not until he married and settled down. Now, here he was, unmarried and with a kid of his own. He wouldn’t change a thing.
Except for this emergency.
He pulled into a parking space, then he and Ana hurried inside.
The ER was practically empty, which was nearly unheard of, or so it seemed to Dakota, judging from the handful of times he’d been here. When Doctor Charles Redding came to speak with them, Dakota’s heart pounded so hard he could barely hear the man’s words.
“Nate’s still unconscious, and there’s a lot of swelling in his brain. If the swelling doesn’t go down, we may have to perform another surgery. Right now, it’s too dangerous to try. He needs to recover from what he’s just been through.”
“And what of my Rafael?” Ana asked between sniffles. “Will he be all right?”
“Yes, Rafael is in better shape. He could wake up any time now.”
A nurse approached and touched Doctor Redding on the arm to gain his attention.
“Excuse me, Doctor, Rafael Bragado is awake now.”
“Thank you,” the doctor nodded.
“May I see him?” Ana asked.
“I’ll go in and check on him first. When I’m done, I’ll let you know if he’s strong enough to have visitors, all right?”
Ana nodded, wiping her nose.
“Please, have a seat. I’ll call you when I’m ready for you.”
Dakota found seats near the doorway to the reception area, and he and Ana sat down. Neither said a word, so lost were they in their own concerns. Dakota lost track of time as he thought back to all the times — good and bad — that he and Nate had shared. How could he live without the kid? Nate had to survive. He had to!
When Doctor Redding returned, he escorted Ana to Rafael’s room. A few minutes later, Dakota was also permitted to see Rafael.
He hesitated outside the doorway. He wasn’t sure how he felt about seeing the kid who’d been involved in the accident with Nate. Who’s fault was it? Did Rafael instigate it? Did he cause it?
He pushed his way into the room and plastered a smile on his face for Ana’s benefit, but deep down, he wanted to know what Rafael had done to get Nate hurt.
“Rafael? How are you feeling?” he asked gently, despite the anger seething just beneath the surface.
Rafael burst out sobbing. “I’m sorry, D! I convinced him to have a beer. I shouldn’t have. I know it was wrong, but everyone else was doing it, and I didn’t wanna be harassed about not drinking. We were just gonna have one, but they started a drinking game, and we couldn’t refuse, could we?”
“You could have,” Dakota said a little too harshly. Ana stared at him, her mouth agape in shock. “I’m sorry, Ana, but I’ve got to ask,” Dakota began. He returned his gaze to Rafael. “Did you force Nate to drink?”
“No, but I talked him into it. I’m sorry. I know it was wrong, and now I might lose my best friend over this stupid sh—crap.”
The kid sounded so sincere, and so pathetic, that Dakota’s anger deflated. He stepped closer and put a hand over Rafael’s. “It’s okay, kid. He’ll pull through. He’s a fighter.”
“Yeah, but can he beat this?”
“He’ll have to. You guys have too much left to do.”
Rafael sniffled and wiped his eyes with the back of his free hand. “I dunno. I’m afraid he’s gonna go off and join the military or something and leave me behind.”
“You can join with him, you know,” Dakota suggested.
“Why does everyone keep saying that? I’m not cut out for that. They’d kick me out before the first day’s over.”
“We can talk about that later. Why don’t you tell me what happened? What caused the accident?”
Rafael took a deep breath. Dakota brushed the dark, curly locks away from the kid’s forehead, waiting patiently.
“We were cruising down the road, singing along with the radio. I don’t know how fast we were going. I didn’t really care. We were having too much fun. And this animal — a deer? A cow? Something — stepped out into the road. Nate — I think he slammed on the brakes, but the car didn’t stop right away, and he swerved to miss it. After that, I’m kinda fuzzy. I remember the car turning over, the sound of crunching metal. I don’t remember anything else 'til I woke up here a few minutes ago.”
“How many beers did you and Nate have?”
“Three or four.”
Dakota let out a breath as he tried to fathom what the teens might have been thinking to be drinking like that.
“When you two get out of here, I think it’s safe to say that neither of you will be allowed to go to any more parties where the parents won't be there. Hell, I think your mom and I may go with you to any parties you go to, parents or no.”
“I don’t wanna go to any more parties. I don’t wanna touch another beer as long as I live.”
“That’s good, but you can decide that when you're an adult. While you're underage, you're damned right. Neither one of you will be drinking anything stronger than cola." Dakota gave the teen's hand a squeeze. “If Nate doesn’t make it through, it means it’s his time to go, and we’ll make it through without him, somehow. But if he does make it through, I hope you two will learn from this experience and realize how lucky you are to have survived. Too many people have died because of a moment of stupidity. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
“Neither do I.”
“And it’s not your fault. I know you sometimes talk Nate into things that aren’t in his best interest, but he does have a mind of his own. He lets you talk him into things because he’s afraid of letting you down. I hope you know he cares a lot about you. He’d never hold this against you, so how can I?”
“He doesn’t have to blame me. I blame myself.”
“Well, don’t. You’ve done something kids have been doing for generations now. You just happened to survive when a lot of others haven’t. Consider yourself as having gotten a second chance, and do your best to make it count.”
“I will. I promise, I will,” Rafael said, his dark eyes meeting Dakota’s. “And I’ll never try to talk Nate into anything again.”
Dakota laughed, despite the gravity of the situation. “Yes you will. It’s who you are, and neither Nate nor I would ever change that about you. You’re adventurous, a thrill seeker, and you just want Nate to join you on the journey. That’s a good thing. It keeps Nate from hibernating with his pencils and paper. So keep getting him out there, but be smart about it. That’s all I ask. Can you do that?”
“Yeah, I can do that.”
“Good, because I have a feeling he’s gonna pull through,” he said for the kid’s benefit more than his own. He didn’t really know what to believe. “And he’ll want to hang out again before you know it.”
“I sure hope you’re right, D.”
Dakota gave Rafael’s hand another little squeeze. “I’m right.”
- - - - -
For the next three days, Dakota spent a lot of time at the hospital. By day three, he’d begun to lose faith.
When he could take it no longer, he got up and walked down the hall and out into the night. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled as a steady heavy rain fell, soaking him to the skin. He shook a fist at the sky. “Why, God? Why? I’ve never asked You for anything! Why are You taking Nate away from me? I hate You! I fucking hate You, do You hear me?”
He fell to his knees and sobbed into his hands. More lightning flashed, and the resulting thunder startled him, but he remained where he was, hoping that God would strike him down in Nate’s place. Without his kid, he couldn’t go on, and he whispered this very thing to the air around him.
“Take me now. Kill me, and bring Nate back. He deserves to live more than I do. I’ve been a screw-up my whole life. No one will miss me, not really. Strike me down in Nate’s place. Let him live, instead.”
The rain suddenly let up, and the clouds parted a bit, letting the moon shine through. For a moment, Dakota felt as if he were in a spotlight, and it made him uncomfortable. Then a thought came to him that was not his own:
‘Will you do anything I ask of you if I let him live? Will you give your life to Me?’
Dakota gazed up at the moon. His soaked hair dripped into his eyes, and he blinked. He wasn't sure how, but he knew that, somehow, he was talking to God Himself. The God he'd always raged against. The God he'd always believed didn't care about him. The God he blamed for his mother's death.
Something inside him gave way. A burden lightened just a little. Darkness eased a bit. A part of him seemed to float. Was it hope?
He felt compelled to respond aloud. He didn't care if anyone was about and listening. He didn't even look to see if that were the case.
“If You’ll let Nate live, then yes, I’ll give my life to You. If You’ll bring him back to me, I’ll do anything You ask. Please — just bring him back to me.”
In the next moment, the clouds rolled away and disintegrated. With them went his turmoil. For the first time since his youth, he felt a perfect peace that he couldn’t understand. Nor did he care to try as he closed his eyes and savored it.
He finally pushed himself to his feet and went back inside. He was wet, and his pants were covered in mud, but that didn't matter to him. His son would live. This he knew with absolute certainty. Nate would live — not because Dakota had cursed God, but because God had shown compassion toward someone who didn’t deserve it. Dakota finally understood that it hadn’t been God who’d caused the problems in his life. Those would have happened regardless. But they’d been compounded by his own stubbornness to change, to let go of the past and make the best of the present. Well, starting right now, Dakota vowed to make the most of every minute. He wouldn’t let another day go by without letting those closest to him know how he felt about them.
He approached Nate’s door and slipped inside. Unable to wipe the smile from his face, he took a seat beside the teen’s bed.
“Nate, I know you’re gonna be all right. We’ll be okay. Can't explain how I know it. Call it a miracle. It’s already done. I’m just waiting for it to happen.”
Moments later, Ana wheeled Rafael into the room. The teen was in a wheelchair for the time being, and it was clear that he hated it. He only tolerated it for his mom’s sake.
“How is he?” Rafael asked.
“The same, but he’ll be all right,” Dakota said, giving the teen a smile.
Rafael gave him a strange look. “How are you? You okay, D?”
“Never better,” Dakota laughed lightly.
Dakota’s smile grew wider. “You see? I told you he’d be all right!” he exclaimed. He reached up and smoothed Nate’s hair away from his forehead. “How you feeling, kid? You hanging in there?”
“You were in a car accident. You’ve been in a coma for three days.”
“I’m here, Nate,” Rafael said. He pushed himself to his feet, against his mother’s protests, so Nate could see him.
Nate lifted a hand, and Rafael grasped it. Nate looked at the faces of the people around him, finally settling his gaze back on Dakota's. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing much,” Dakota replied. “Just waiting for my kid to wake up so I can tell him how much he means to me. Have I told you lately how much I love you, kid?”
“Only every day, D.”
“Well, I’ve got three days to make up for.”
“Three days—” Nate took a closer look at Dakota. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’ve never been better,” Dakota laughed. “I’ve got my son back, and I’m not gonna let another day go by without you knowing how I feel, starting right now.”
“I guess that’s my queue to leave,” Rafael said. He squeezed Nate’s hand then let go. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Nate. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“Okay, man. Take care,” Nate replied. “Bye, Mrs. Ana.”
Ana kissed Nate on the forehead and bid him a good night, then she wheeled Rafael out of the room.
“So, what’s this all about, D? You look downright chipper.”
“Because I am. I was so afraid I was going to lose you. Then tonight—well, tonight I had a revelation.”
“I’ll tell you about it later. Suffice it to say, for the first time, I knew you’d pull through. I just knew it. And I promised to let you know how I feel about you, so here goes—”
Nate listened carefully as Dakota spilled his heart out to him. Dakota described the feelings he experienced when Nate had good times and bad, how proud he was of the teen, how disappointed he was that Nate and Rafael had acted so irresponsibly. This last point he tempered with how very, very relieved he was that his son had pulled through.
“I know you and I are related by adoption, but to me, you’re my son. I chose you. I told you once that I would never try to take Ken’s place, and I haven’t. But you feel like you’re mine, like we’re related by blood, and not just a legal document.”
“I feel like that too, Dad,” Nate said.
Dakota stopped, his eyes wide and shining. “You called me dad!”
“Yeah, I guess I just needed a kick in the pants to start up, huh?”
“Boy, when you need a kick in the pants, you really need a kick in the pants!” Dakota laughed.
“Hey, I’ve got a hard head,” Nate shrugged, joining in the laughter. He grew serious and searched Dakota’s eyes. “I promise, Dad, I’ve learned my lesson. If I never drink again, it’ll be too soon.”
“As I told Rafael, that's something to decide when you're an adult.”
“I don’t want to drink. I thought it would be cool to have a beer or two. It’s not. It doesn’t even taste good!”
“It’s up to you whether or not you ever drink again, but for now, you need to wait until you’re of legal drinking age.”
“Not a problem,” Nate said.
“And you and Rafael are banned from parties where the parents won’t be present. In some cases, Ana and I may accompany you.” Dakota leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “We’ll try not to cramp your style.”
“You’re kidding, right? Rafael worships the ground you walk on. He thinks you’re the coolest things since Linkin Park hit the stage!”
“He does, does he? And what do you think?”
“You’re my Dad. You can cramp my style anytime. It sure beats the alternative.”
Nate began ticking the list off with his fingers. “Foster care, living on the streets, jail, being dead.”
“You’ll never have to live with the first three as long as I’m around. As for the fourth, no one knows when his time will come, but I have a feeling you’ll live a very long life.”
“So will you, Dad. You’re too cool to die young.”
“You think I’m young?”
“For an old guy, sure.”
Dakota laughed and ruffled Nate’s hair. “You’re too much, Nate, but I’m glad you’re mine.”
“I am too, Dad.”
With that, Dakota rose to hug his son. He held him for a good long time, so thankful was he that Nate would stick around and continue brightening his life.