"I love you, Kya Eyks," Rex Jones whispered in my ear in an earnest way I had never heard him use before. It made me worry even more because he had been talking and acting strange all day. "You know that right?"
I mockingly bared my fangs at him, more for my own comfort than his, but it was a tradition for us to bare our fangs at each other now too. "Of course I do, Rex, but why are you acting this way?"
Rex and I have known each other since kindergarten, and in sixth grade, he finally got up the courage to ask me out. Our parents don't realize we are officially dating and just believe we are really good friends, but my older brother caught us kissing one day (and more that I can't discuss with you as it is rather personal), so he knows and actually approves more than others would because we know each other so well. I knew there was something wrong with Rex, something that was worrying him and keeping him on his toes around me. It had me worried as well.
He sighed. "I can't hide anything from you, can I?" he asked with a small smile and I shook my head and kissed him as we lay in the loft. His house had an old barn, and we spent most of our time in the hayloft. It was the only place where we could really be alone, and we took advantage of it.
He pulled me closer to him and stretched on top of me so that his full weight fell on me. I laughed and pretended to push him off although I wasn't trying all that hard. "You're heavy," I told him, but he wasn't really, and he knew it. He just grinned and kissed me again. "So, really, what's going on?"
Rex is cute. I mean, really cute. He has short and scruffy blond hair with brown streaks blended into it, black eyes that seem to see into the future and hold the secrets of his soul well-hidden, a long straight nose with freckles dappled across the bridge and pale cream skin that's smooth to the touch. His hands are work hands because he works with my brother on an old jeep they bought from a man in the junkyard. When he's worried though, creases fold in his forehead and his sensual mouth becomes a thin line of doubt. It happened the first time we had sex together and it was occurring now.
"I'm dying, Kya," he said all of a sudden.
I sat up quickly and stared at him. "What?" I nearly screeched.
"I'm dying," he repeated and there was a sad smile on his face. "I have cancer."
I stared at him. "What kind?" I asked, afraid to know.
"Leukemia two," he replied.
I shivered. Doctors found a cure for skin and breast cancer in 2666, but when they did, other diseases strengthened and an outbreak strain of leukemia mutated and infected several people causing a new and deadlier leukemia, also known as leukemia two, which was incurable, killed its host in a matter of months and defied chemo treatment. Rex was right; he was dying.
"How long do you have?" I whispered.
"A month, maybe two. The doctors say that all we can do is wait, and I agree with them." He was watching me closely, and when the first tears started rolling down my cheek, he brushed them away.
"Kya, I have a couple of months to live. I don't want you crying yet. Do you hear me?"
I nodded, but I couldn't stop the tears that were already falling from my eyes. "I don't want you to die, Rex. I don't want you to go."
He pulled me against him and stroked my hair. "I know, but this is the way it falls. Until then, I want us to live like there's no tomorrow. All right?" he asked. He kissed away the last of my tears and then started kissing me slowly as I nodded.
I held him like there was no tomorrow, and loved him like there was no tomorrow, and every day we goofed off and played and studied and laughed and lived like there was no tomorrow.
Two weeks before he died, he crashed and he crashed hard. His skin grew so pale that he looked like a ghost walking around. He became too weak to do anything. I spent more time with him then with my family. By now they knew he was sick. My parents called over one day and found out from his father that he didn't have much longer to live. Although he wanted to keep working with Coal, he couldn't, and he and I were resolved to sit together and watch Coal work on the jeep alone. I jumped to his side at the smallest cough, and I skipped school sometimes just to be with him to keep him company as he waited to die.
"Rex?" I asked as he stumbled to the ground and started coughing up blood. I didn't know anything about leukemia, but leukemia two was nasty. It destroyed a person from the inside out, wrecking their immune system so that they got sick often. I hadn't realized just how sick Rex was until his grip wasn't as tough on my hands and his shoulders sank. Leukemia two was tougher on kids than adults because they were so active, and when it finally sank in that Rex was not himself, leukemia two attacked him with a force to be reckoned with.
He coughed some more and then threw up, but the only thing coming up was blood. It scared me, but he asked me not to leave him alone, so I sat beside him and held his hand as he coughed and threw up. Rex wanted to pretend he was normal until he couldn't anymore. I realized that day had come as soon as I saw all the blood.
We sat together for several hours, until Rex's parents grew worried and came looking for us. They called the ambulance and told me I could go home, but I wasn't going anywhere. I wasn't even letting go of Rex's hand.
The paramedics arrived when Coal and my parents did, and they tried to make me let go of Rex's hand, but we held on to each other as if there was no tomorrow, and that's when our folks realized just how deep our relationship was. The paramedics said I could ride in the ambulance if I let go of Rex's hand so they could do their job.
Rex wasn't sure though. "No," he said. "I want her with me."
"She will be with you, but we need to get you onto the gurney son."
Rex held my hand tighter. "You promise?" he asked.
"We promise son," the paramedic said, but I saw them both cross their fingers behind their back. I knew they wouldn't keep their promise. They only allowed family members to ride in the truck with the sick. Rex held them to their promise though and released my hand.
Tears poured down my cheek, as they got Rex onto the gurney and lifted him into the truck. "Kya?" he whispered in a hoarse voice. "Come on."
"Sorry son," the paramedic said. "She can't ride in the truck."
"Kya!" he screamed and the tears poured down my face even harder. I realized then that Rex was getting ready to leave the world behind. He wasn't going to wait for them to hook him up to machines in the hospital.
"Rex!" I screamed and dashed for the truck. One of the paramedics grabbed me around my waist and tried to hold me. "Rex!" I screamed again. "Hold on! You have to hold on! I'm coming!"
I punched the man holding me. Not hard, but he let go of me and grabbed his nose as if I had broken it. I ran full swing for the ambulance. My parents stared at me in surprise as I dodged the second paramedic and leaped into the truck. I grabbed Rex's hands and despite the blood that surrounded his mouth, I kissed him. His hands framed my face as he looked up at me.
"Goodbye, Kya," he whispered.
"Goodbye, Rex," I replied and kissed him again before the paramedic I had punched grabbed my arm and dragged me out of the truck.
"Rex!" I yelled as they started closing the doors to the truck. He lifted his head so he could look at me. "I love you! I will always love you. You know that right?" I asked.
He nodded. "I've always known, Kya. You never had to say it out loud." Then the doors shut and the truck rolled away with its sirens blaring.
I watched it until it was out of site, and then I broke down into tears and collapsed to my knees on the ground.
"I'll always love you, Rex."
Rex never made it to the hospital. He died in the truck halfway there, as I knew he would. His folks couldn't believe that they had lost their son. I couldn't believe I hadn't been with him when he died. It made me feel terrible, as if I had done a bad deed.
"Rex," I whispered into his ear as he lay in his casket. It was a beautiful casket made of dark mahogany and lined with white satin. His skin was as pale as it had been, and I could see the stain of blood around his mouth where he had coughed and thrown up for several hours before help came, but he was still cute, even in death.
I let my lips touch his briefly. It scared his folks and grossed out mine, but I didn't care. Rex was gone, and I would never love another as I loved him.
Tears slipped down my cheeks as I stood there holding his hand until my parents said it was time to go. I nodded and wished Rex luck in the next world, told him that I would join him someday, and left him behind forever.
I didn't go to his funeral. His parents invited me, but I couldn't look at him being lowered into the earth. He had always told me that he wanted to be cremated, but cremation was expensive, and after all the doctors' bills that his parents were going to need to pay soon, they couldn't afford to cremate him, so he was buried instead. I imagined them lowering him into that six-foot deep abyss and cried myself to sleep.
People kept visiting me with false sentiments about how sorry they were for my loss, and how they had never imagined that the leukemia two would grab such an innocent person still new to the world, but I quickly grew tired of their farce, and I threw a fit. I threw a chair at one person, a punch at another, and they left me alone.
I did not want to be alone, but I did not want to be reminded of Rex either. I curled up in a ball in the corner of my room and did not move for days at a time. I was a zombie at school, going through the day like a robot on autopilot, and my grades started slipping. My parents set up counseling sessions for me with Mrs. River, the school guidance councilor, worried that I would do something stupid.
Truthfully, I hadn't thought about it until they mentioned it.
"I joined the military," Coal said at the table one night at dinner.
"What?" Dad asked.
"I joined the Army."
"Why?" our mother asked.
I just stared at my plate. I had had a feeling that Coal would be leaving soon. He had started going through his things and getting rid of the stuff he didn't use anymore. Coal is a clutterbug and hadn't thrown out anything since sixth grade, and he had graduated from high school four years ago. It didn't hurt as much as I thought it would. I was still hurting from Rex's death, and so this didn't shock me all that much, but I noticed that Coal was watching my reaction the whole time he was talking. Mom and Dad didn't matter to him; it was me he was worried about because I had already lost Rex, and now I was going to be losing him.
"It pays well, and I can do the same work I am doing now but for more money. I will still be working on vehicles, unless they place me somewhere higher, but I felt that it would be good."
"It will be," I said, my first words on the matter. Our parents looked at me as I played with my potatoes. "If that's what you want to do, you should do it," I told him and then I excused myself, carried my plate to the kitchen sink, and went to my room.
Coal joined me about an hour later and sat on the bed beside me. "Are you really OK with this?" he asked.
I shrugged but didn't answer.
"If you aren't, I won't go," he said, but I turned over and looked at him.
"You need to do what you need to do, Coal," I said. "If you want to go into the Army, then go, but it sounds like you've already joined, so even if I wanted you to stay, you couldn't. You have a contract with them. Even I know that."
He nodded and gave me a grin. "You're right there, I do."
I nodded myself. "It will be OK that you're leaving, I promise."
"All right," he said. Then he hugged me. It had been a while since anyone had hugged me. I flinched every time someone did, so they had stopped, but now I just gave a small shiver and hugged him in return.
"I only have one request," I told him.
"And that is?"
"I will be," he promised.
Two weeks later, I received my first letter from him. It talked about how he was doing and explained that he was still doing the same work he had been at home – fixing old trucks to run like new again. He sent a picture as well. The war hadn't changed, and he would be heading away from basic straight to a base somewhere – he didn't say where because that was classified of course – and he would get his first chance to work on newer trucks and maybe even a tank. He seemed excited, but there was an under edge to his words. He wasn't being free in everything that he was saying, which wasn't like him. I didn't know if this was to do with the military or not, but it frightened me a little.
Maybe I should explain the war. Sometime during the 2060s an increase in temperatures along the Arctic Circle around Antarctica melted the ice and allowed green to grow under it. In later years of the 2080s, it was proving to be a solid mass of earth underneath all the ice with a layer of oil in-between now spilling up from the reaches and pouring over the little ice that was left. Scientists found that it had a volcano under it, active and erupting underneath it. The icy water cooled the magma quickly, and it formed into a single landmass under the entire continent.
Now, in the 2090s, we are at world war for control of all the oil that has been released from under the ice after so many years. World War III has come and torn our countries apart, but now we fight on soil that will forever be stained with the blood of war. Antarctica is no longer a frozen continent, and it has become the battleground of hundreds, thousands.
My brother does not say what base he is at, but I am pretty sure I know which continent he is on – Antarctica.
Coal had been gone for nearly three years without so much as a short visit. Then finally, we got a letter from him, saying he would be here for a couple of months on leave.
He came home on May 10, 2098. Mom and Dad were excited to see him, but not so excited as me because even though he had been allowed to send me letters, I had been unable to send him replies because of the secrecy of where he was based. Why he hadn't been home before was a mystery to the family because we had seen others join the war and come home so much sooner. His case was different. We felt it in our bones, but we could not explain it; nor could he, but for different reasons.
He spent most of his time at the auto shop. What time he didn't spend there he split talking to Mom and Dad alone and then talking to me alone. He wanted to know everything that was going on in my life, and I was eager to explain what I hadn't been able to before. He smiled and laughed, and it was like old times between us despite the fact that Rex wasn't in our lives anymore.
The day before he was to leave for base again, he pulled me aside.
"Kya, I want to give this to you," he said and handed me a small box. He kept his hands on it though.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Open it!" I pulled the top off and found a neon green dog collar inside. A nametag with the word "Kya" etched into it hung from it.
"Coal, it's awesome!" I exclaimed. Coal was always saying that I needed to be kept on a shorter leash. This was a perfect gift to express our inside joke.
He hugged me close and kissed me on top the head. "I love you, Kya," he whispered into my hair.
"I love you too, Coal."
"Kya Eyks, will you please come to Mrs. River's office," Mr. Collins called from guidance.
Confused and curious, I went without any questions. My parents were sitting together before Mrs. River's desk. What were they doing here?
Dad handed me a letter. I saw Coal's neat handwriting perfectly printed on the outside of the envelope with my name on it but not my address. There wasn't even a stamp on it yet.
"Where did this come from, and why are you giving it to me now?" I asked him.
He looked upset, and then I noticed that Mom had been crying heavily. There were tearstains on her face where tears had marched through a thin blanket of makeup.
"Coal asked me to give this to you – the last time he was here – if anything should happen to him. He said that you would understand."
Worry choked my being. "What's going on? What's happened?" I asked.
He and Mom looked at one another. Mrs. River was watching us piteously.
"Kya," Dad said, "Coal's dead."
I stared at him in shock. "What?"
"He was working on a truck when the lift malfunctioned and landed on him. Coal died."
I felt a numb pain start in the back of my skull as this information scrambled through my synapses trying to be processed. Coal was dead? He couldn't be dead. I looked at the letter in my hand and thought about how it had my name on it but no address and no stamp. It was true.
Coal was dead.
Dad touched my arm, but I pulled away and escaped from that room. I ran down the hallway and to the school entrance. I ran out the doors and to the football field. There was a gym class running the mile today, and they all stared at me as I ran up the bleachers to the announcer's box and sat on the bench to cry.
"No!" I screamed. "Not Coal! Not Coal! Why Coal? Why?"
Nothing answered me but silence. It rang in my ears like a heavy hammer banging a gong. I knew what I had to do.
Before I knew it, I was balanced at the top of the bleachers on the outside of the railing. The ground was fifty feet below me, and the track was still full of teenagers running the mile, but I noticed that the coach had seen me and was running toward me. I also heard my parents behind me, screaming at me not to jump. Mom was crying again, and Dad looked at a complete loss.
Tears welled in my eyes, but all I could think about was the fact that I would be joining Rex and Coal soon. Then we'd be together again, and we'd be the threesome we'd been before all this had happened.
"Why?" I asked. "Why did they have to die?"
I could hear someone talking to me, but I couldn't hear the words being said. I let go of the bars, and like a person in slow motion, my weight tipped forward away from the bleachers and the bars. I heard Mom scream, and I closed my eyes
Suddenly, someone grabbed my hand and stopped my descent.
"Damn, you're heavy," someone snarled at me.
I opened my eyes and looked at the young man with spiky red hair holding onto my hand with one hand, the bar with the other. "What?" I asked.
"You heard me," he said and let go of the bar to grab my other hand. "You're heavy!" He dragged me back toward him so that my body was smashed against his and the bars. He took a moment to breathe, as if he hadn't known he'd be able to stop my fall or not, and then he leaned down, grabbed me behind my knees and lifted me over the bars like I was a small child weighing no more than fifty pounds.
My legs felt like Jell-O as he set me down on the bleachers. Had I really just tried to kill myself?
"Are you all right?" he asked. I nodded, but as soon as he let me go, my legs turned into broken rods and I started to fall down. "Whoa there!" he said with an amused chuckle and he held me up again. My teeth were chattering with fright, but I swiveled my head to look at the railing. "Oh no you don't," the young man said and turned my chin so that I was looking at him again. "Look at me."
I couldn't turn away if I wanted to. His bright green eyes were wobbling before my shady vision, but I felt the strength in the arms holding me up steady. All of a sudden, the realization of what I had tried to do clicked in my mind, and I began sobbing. The young man didn't seem the least bit perturbed as I leaned against him fully with my arms curled around his neck crying like a small child.
I felt him twist his head around and say something to someone, but I didn't hear the words. I was too upset over the whole incident.
After a while, the tears died to nothing but sob-torn hiccups, which the young man laughed at. At some point he had gently pulled me down and we had sat on the bleachers together.
"Now," he said as the last of the tears subsided. "What's wrong, little vixen?"
Before I knew it, I was spilling out everything: Rex's death, Coal's military venture, the worry, his strangeness during his last visit, his death. The young man listened with an open ear and a compassionate soul.
"Well, don't try killing yourself again. It will get better, you'll see." He hugged me tightly and gave me a grin. "See you around, little vixen."
He kissed my forehead and brushed my hair back until his fingers reached the tips. "Green is your favorite color, huh?" he asked with a teasing tone, and then he stood and walked away before I could answer.
Mom and Dad surrounded me within seconds, and I looked around for the spiky red-haired young man who had pulled me over the railing, but he was nowhere to be seen. For a moment, I wondered if he had been a ghost, but then I saw the coach looking for him as well, so I knew that he had been real.
"Who was that?" I asked as soon as my teeth stopped chattering enough to do so.
The coach seemed relieved that I was ready to speak. "That was a senior who we call Fox around here because of his red hair, but his real name is Coal Burns."