Kyla has been my best friend since first grade. She’s an only child.
What’s that mean? My mother asked after she met her. Name like that. Kyla. And I said back, Kyla Kyla. I didn’t know. Didn’t matter to me. Some days Kyla and I would be playing on the retaining walls at school during recess, we’d pick other names for each other. Jessica, I’d say, I want to be Jessica. She’d say I don’t look like a Jessica but maybe I could be a Lauren. And that was fine. But Kyla didn’t seem right by any other name, until sixth grade when we learned the Greek gods, then she became Persephone and I was Artemis. Her arms were thin and dark brown, her hair a mess of field grasses that fell past her waist. Her mama’s hands always in her hair, always raking it and pulling it into a ponytail, shuffling it into a braid that held its shape even without a hair tie.
We were riding bikes when it happened, me behind her, on the sidewalk on Sycamore not six blocks from her house. Branch just fell out of the tree. Stupidly small branch, no bigger than my forearm, came down and just smacked her in the head so straightforward that I laughed. But Kyla tipped beneath it, didn’t squeal her brakes or crash or much of nothing, just tipped over, bike and all. So quietly I didn’t really think she was hurt. But when I went over to her she didn’t move, didn’t hear me, just lay there with her eyes closed and feet still on her pedals. And at first I thought maybe she was fooling, but then I tapped my finger on her collarbone and for some reason, right then, I knew something wasn’t right, so I ran and knocked on the nearest door but nobody answered. I yelled her name from the porch, Kyla Kyla, but she still didn’t move, still just lay there, and nobody answered the door so I ran down to the next neighbor, pounded again and kept calling her, Kyla Kyla. Then it came to me that maybe I should go check her pulse because worst case scenario I could maybe have to start CPR. Which I knew how to do because Kyla and I both took the Babysitting Basics class at the Red Cross. So I pounded one time more and ran over to her, pressed my fingers into the side hollow of her throat, and felt it there, steady and nearly unfazed, her pulse. And then I put my face next to hers and heard her breathing, all on her own, and I felt a little calmer so I shook her shoulders and said her name again, without shouting. Kyla. But still nothing. Then the second neighbor came to the door and called 911 and then I was riding in the back of an ambulance holding my best friend’s hand and staring at the piece of branch that was still lying on the sidewalk.
The nurses let me in to see her even though I was too young. My mom let me skip school for a week and do all my homework at the hospital, but after that I had to go back. Kyla’s parents sat with her, her dad asked what happened over and over again, and her mom kept saying Kyla was lucky to have me and thank God I was there. Then she turned to Kyla’s dad and said Can you imagine if she had been alone and covered her fluttering bottom lip with her hand. I just kept saying I was sorry. So sorry. Then her mom would say Go talk to her, Brynne, and I would. The doctors said that Kyla was a six, on a scale where fifteen is normal and three is the worst. But they said she could breathe on her own and that was a good thing. She would lay there, and then one of the nurses would squeeze her finger really hard, and Kyla’s eyes would pop open. But they wouldn’t stay that way. And she didn’t hear us, but she moved her arm when they pushed, hard, on her chest. And so that was good. Between the bars of her hospital bed, sheets moving as she breathed, on her own, thank God, thank God. Kyla, Kyla. Her mom would lean over her, smooth her long wheat field hair, say Come home to me, Kyla.
Momma’s here, come home. It’s time to go home.
After my mom made me go back to school, I’d bring Kyla her homework every day from Mr. Tanaka. Looking at her eyes, buggy looking through her closed lids, I told her what the assignment was and when it was due. Told her she could probably have an extension on the Early Man diorama but that she’d need a doctor’s note. Laughed. Called her Persephone. Brought her the things the other sixth grade girls brought to class for her, Jolly Ranchers and lockets and springy shoelaces that you don’t have to tie, just pull. Stood there and rocked on my heels and then sat next to her and braided her hair over the side of the bed. Kyla, Kyla I said, and then, Persephone. Kyla. Pulled out my hair tie to wrap around the end of her braid. And then her eyes opened.
Just for a little bit, and she didn’t really look at me, I don’t think she knew who I was or why she was there. But she looked, her eyes opened, red and buggy looking, I tried to say something but couldn’t think of what. Then her eyes closed again and I told her parents and they said it would not be funny if I was joking. Then they cried and told the doctor and the doctor smiled and asked if I had been hurting her, I said of course not and then said Well maybe because I was braiding her hair, I was trying to be gentle but maybe I pulled a little, and she said well you’d have to be pulling pretty hard and I said no I wasn’t. And then she said that if I were telling the truth then Kyla’s number had gone up to a seven, and if she got past an eight, she could come out of ICU, and if she got up to thirteen she could come home.
Two days later, Kyla’s number was an eight, and five days after that, she came home. My mom let me visit her after a few days, and when we got to her house her mom padded the porch chairs with pillows and brought us Sprite in tall glasses. Cheers, she said, then kissed us both, looked at Kyla long and hard, and went inside with my mom. I swallowed my soda so hard it hurt. Kyla lifted her heels on to the edge of her chair, leaned back and said, I heard you calling me Persephone. And I said Really. And she nodded and I said No you didn’t, your momma told you to say that, and Kyla shook her head and pulled on her new spring coil shoelaces. And I said maybe she was imagining it, lying without meaning to, so it didn’t count as a lie. She shrugged. So I said Tell me truly, did you hear me, you swear, and she said Yes, I’m pretty sure, then I said Well I guess we’ll never know.
Now we’re in junior high, and sometimes when we’re falling asleep on her floor in our sleeping bags she’ll say Goodnight Artemis. And then I’ll remember that she spent seventeen days in a coma. And that she’s okay now, no scars even. The ground is still unbroken.