50 Days to Die
A/N: So, uh, I meant for this to be like 5,000 words and suddenly it turned out to be just over 10,000. One of the longest stories I've ever written, almost, and I'm pretty proud of it. Reviews make me happy and honor my hard work :)
Your heart's a mess,
you won't admit to it;
makes no sense,
but I'm desperate to connect,
and you can't live like this.
I quite enjoy out of body experiences, at least until my head hits the ground.
Maybe it's because I've experienced them since I was six years old, maybe it's because I've learned to cherish the days that I have. I'm not sure.
All I know is that there is something beautiful about blinking your eyes open and seeing the world in the most vivid colors, not feeling the little ache in my chest where the cells are trying to regain what was lost and causing indescribable pain in the process, not having to squint through the glasses I was prescribed when I was seven to see every little detail. Seeing the back of my hair as it falls down my back and realizing that it's the longest it has grown out since the last surgery when they wanted to take it all away; watching the way my body moves and how terribly complex it all is. Noticing the bright colors that shift in my eyes and the nearly there movement of atoms on the sidewalk, in the air, on my hand, making up everything I know as a living human being.
Others insist that I should be terrified, but I simply tell them I have nowhere else to run. I cannot escape what happened and what will happen to me, so why not embrace the beauty of life and all it has to offer as my life winds down?
There is one other thing nearly as beautiful, achingly so.
Screams, as someone's life fades away and they realize that they appreciated life too late.
I'm at home, reaching for a book on the highest shelf in our library – ironic how that works – for my help with my Calc homework, when it happens.
Truthfully, I'd been feeling quite crummy since yesterday afternoon but had found it prudent not to tell my parents. I came to terms with my life a long time ago, but my dad just immersed himself in his work and my mother shopped for me and baked me the most extravagant dishes like bribing me could keep me here. I feel sorry for them, because it's not like I want to go, and they're going to be so devastated the day they creep into my room to wake me up for school, only to find that I'm no longer breathing. I hope it doesn't happen that way.
But, I digress.
I had spent half the night throwing up – head spinning and all the rest of the lovely side effects – and had purposely turned my alarm clock off before I tumbled into bed. My mom wouldn't wake me if she saw that I was still sleeping. She'd just assume that I need it and leave me be. When I got up this morning, I felt the ache in my core, in my bones and knew that it was coming back again. It always does. It always does.
However, I was not expecting to suddenly have my legs fly out from under me as I reached for the Basics of Calculus book. My feet slip, one panicked thought echoing throughout my head before my skull crashes into the side of the shelves and my body crumples on the floor like a rag doll. Red spots burst into my vision, bulging and waxy, and I whimper as for just a second the weakness takes over. Every time this happens, I ache and I wish that it wouldn't, then banish the thought.
My mom flies into the room with golden curls bouncing and brown eyes lit with terror. When she sees me she cries out and throws herself to the ground by my heaving chest. I try to smile for her, managing to croak, "I think it's time to go back."
Tears are welling up in my mother's eyes as she scoops me up into a sitting position. "I'll get the wheel-chair from the laundry room," she says, preparing to hustle back out.
My lips quiver but I hold my smile. God, it hurts. "I think I can walk," I tell her, struggling to get to my feet. It takes a minute – sixty terrible seconds in which I pretend like everything in me isn't screeching painfully – before I am able to put the weight on my feet, but I do it anyways, if for no other reason than to prove that I am not going to give up and cry about this. My parents always promoted optimism, so that's what I'll give them.
"Marissa, do you –" My mom begins. She's grabbed her jacket from the back of the comfy chair in the room where she left it yesterday. Her eyes are begging me to let her do something.
"You can help me," I tell her gently, gripping onto her arm with brutal force as I limp to the doorway.
"Should I pack some clothes?" she asks me.
I twist the door leading to the garage and shake my head. "I don't think I'll need them this time." My voice is light but there's a sad little tilt to my lips which shares what I'm really thinking. Mom, you know I'm not going to be well enough to come home this time. "Try not to speed, okay? I don't want you getting another ticket just because you're worried about getting me there. I'll be fine." My legs nearly give out on me but I don't show it.
She drives twenty miles over the speed limit the entire way there.
The nurses smile at me and wave when my mom and I enter the building. I tug down on the hem of my lavender blouse and grin back at them, relieved that I still remember their names. My mind has been unable to hold onto much of anything lately, so I have to refresh the thoughts more than normal to prevent my thoughts from ending up a blank slate.
"Rosalina, Geena," I greet them, mumbling thanks when one of the interns – probably here to observe what it takes to be in these situations every day – pushes a wheelchair over to me. Sinking down, I grimace at the quivers running through my legs.
"How have you been, Risa?" Rosaline asks, flattening her frizzy black hair for probably the hundredth time that day. She has an obsession with her hair, I remember. She'd wanted to be a hair-stylist but her parents had put her on track for nursing and now she's happy enough with this job to try anything else.
"Fantastic," I tell her, my green eyes I inherited from my dad sparkling. "I'm alive, aren't I?"
The nurses laugh and I join in, missing the feeling of someone understanding what I need. I used to have best friends, but when my symptoms started to get worse they all drifted away. I don't blame them. Not many people understand how to react when someone they know is dying. Every once in awhile, though, I do miss them.
"Is Doctor Carter in?" I ask the nurses.
"I think he's making his rounds," Geena tells me. "Hold on a second and we'll get you to your customary room."
I grin, ask, "The one with the view?"
Geena nods. This is why I love these people. Even though sometimes I suffer, even though it's a hospital with white-washed walls, we can form a family of sorts.
Ten minutes later I'm wheeled into the corner room in the fourth floor west wing of the hospital, the hugest and most well kept room in the whole wing, I think. Perhaps I'm biased, but when you can actually look out of a full length, clear glass window and see what is going on below, when you have a working TV and a dock for an iPod against the opposite wall of the bed, when there are paintings and a homey feel in the air, it can clearly qualify as one of the best rooms they have. And it's all mine.
Or so I think.
Geena opens the door and wheels me through and I see that another bed has been added. Not only that, but there is someone in the bed: a boy with messy brown hair, tall enough that his feet are straining at the bottom of the covers and hands that look pale but so incredibly soft.
"Budget cuts," Geena tells me when I give her a confused look.
"Ah," I say, figuring that it doesn't matter too much, so long as he's not annoying. "At least I still get the bed by the window."
My mother follows us in a second later and I wiggle as I get used to the lumpy mattresses all hospitals seem to carry. Ah, bureaucracy; ah general brand mattresses that make you feel like you're sinking into the earth. Are they trying to prepare us for our inevitable burials or something?
Blasphemy, I decide.
"How are you feeling?" My mom asks me, if a bit tremulously.
I take her hand, run my fingers over the barely there wrinkles, and smile. "I'm good," I tell her honestly. "Plus, I'm where I need to be."
She looks over at the boy in the other bed and frowns. "This is allowed how?" she wonders.
"Budget cuts," I answer, rolling my eyes. "Just because we're from the opposite sex doesn't mean we're going to get it on the moment we're alone. Chances are, he's dying too."
"You sound like you're giving in," my mother says, looking me and trying to find every crack of emotion she can. I'm so good at hiding it all from her, though, so the most she finds is peace.
"No, just being factual." I relax back against the pillows. "I am tired, though."
She gets the hint quickly and murmurs, "I'll go, then. Get some sleep, honey. I'll check in with you tomorrow."
As much as I love my mother, having to listen to her go on and on about how she'll rearrange her plans for tomorrow so she can pop by to see me is too much. So I – guiltily – block her out, my eyes fluttering shut without my permission and my breathing softening as I slip towards sleep. I feel like I haven't rested in ages, though it hasn't been that long. Apparently it's a common side effect.
I feel my mother's lips press softly against my brow, then she's gone.
"Finally, she's up," someone says to my right.
I groan and twist, trying to untangle the covers from my legs. "It's no wonder I can't sleep in with you turning on your –" I squint at the TV and wonder he got permission to bring this in here. "What is this anyways? Call of Duty?"
He nods, looking impressed, and I see that his eyes are the lightest shade of gray I've ever encountered. Long lashes frame his eyes and make them kind of beautiful.
"Do you play?" he asks.
I narrow my eyes and glare at him, mumbling, "Not when I'm trying to sleep. Can you turn it down?"
"Because," I sigh, clamping the pillow on either side of my head. The shooting noises continue and I feel my patience begin to boil down.
"No, seriously? What is it with girls and hating video games?" the boy asks.
"Did I not just tell you that I do, in fact, play video games?" I hiss, turning the other direction. God, why do I have to deal with the most annoying kid in the world when I'm in the hospital, practically on my death bed? What did I do?
"What did you say?" the boy asks.
The noise from the game has gone down exponentially and I turn to see that his eyes are soft. "Did you just say that you're dying?" he asks, looking kind of awed to be in my presence now.
"Aren't we all?" I remark with a sigh, realizing that I must have spoken my thoughts out loud. Pulling the pillow away from my face, I hope that whatever makeup I had on yesterday hasn't smudged under my eyes. By the look he's giving me, it probably has.
"Yeah, but most of us at least have a good chance of getting back out there and living our lives. Don't you?" he wonders.
I sit up a little bit and cradle the pillow to my chest, watching how my brown hair sticks to the edge of the pillow as though they've become old friends during the night.
"Stage four GBM," I tell him. "I've gone through all the chemo, radiation and biopsy procedures they're willing to try, but you know," I pause to shrug. "Guess I lost. No big deal."
"Dying is a huge deal," he tells me.
"Thanks, Captain Obvious," I reply, rolling my eyes and running a hand through my hair, combing out the tangles.
"Unfortunately, that's not my name," he says with a little sigh that's meant to make me feel bad.
"Well, what is it then?" I ask with a chuckle, crossing my legs under me.
"Nice to meet you Jordan," I say, smiling at him. "I'm Marissa."
"You look like a Marissa," Jordan tells me, smirking.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I joke. "Pale, sick and hospital-loving is the new pink."
"It's not like I woke up one day and decided that I wanted cancer," I add, if a little wistfully.
"A brain tumor, no less," he mumbles.
I cock an eyebrow, somewhat impressed. "You know about GBM?"
Those kind of gorgeous gray eyes grow serious as he says, "Yeah, um, my sister had it for awhile."
"Did she –" I can't make myself finish the sentence, because it hits a little too close to what I'm dealing with. Imagining a girl that looks kind of like him – gingery brown hair and gray eyes filled with tears, huddled in the hospital bed as they wheel her off to yet another surgery – makes me shiver.
"Yeah," he says with a little nod, lips thin. "They managed to catch it before it got too bad."
"That's good then," I say slowly, wondering why he's so upset that the doctors managed to keep his sister alive.
His lips tighten even more. "She's dead," he says flatly after an uncomfortable pause.
"Oh." I feel something ache in my chest, an understanding of just how much this kid in me has been through. "How?"
"Car accident," he says, drawing into himself. It looks like he really doesn't want to talk about it anymore and I drop the subject.
"Got another controller?" I ask him. "It's not fair if you're just going to play Call of Duty right in front of me. I want to pwn some noobs too."
He looks at me funny-like. "You're weird."
"It's a gift," I say, stretching my hand out and hating the way that it shakes. "Bet I can beat you."
Jordan hands me the controller and grins, "You're on."
"How can you eat so much?" Jordan asks me as he tears into the second half of his bland oatmeal that's supposed to taste like peaches but just tastes like stupid hospital food.
I look down at my empty plate and bowl, then smile. "My family always told me that I acted like a rabid wolf during meals."
"Were you afraid of starving or something?" he asks me, looking confused.
I can't help but giggle. Handing my plate to the nurse that comes into the room to check up on us all the time – the one nurse who's name I have not memorized yet – I tell him, "Hardly. You just never know what might happen, so why not scarf it all while you can?"
"True." Jordan takes another bite of oatmeal and some dribbles down his jaw. I watch its descent and some tiny, insignificant part of me wants to brush it away. Bad Marissa, I tell myself, glancing out the window. There aren't so many people out right now, just a few nurses headed home to catch up on much needed sleep.
"That, and I'm bored," I tell him a second later. "There's nothing to do here."
"We could hook up," he jokes, waggling his eyebrows in a supposedly sexy way. It just looks funny to me and that's why I'm mortified when my cheeks begin to flame.
Brushing his comment off with a roll of my green eyes, I counter with, "I hardly doubt you have the energy to do that, or the experience, for that matter."
Jordan's eyes grow wide with mock hurt. "I could rock your world if you'd let me," he responds, laughing evilly.
"I just entered a sex game," I say, knotting my fingers together as I stretch out on my bed, relaxing. "Not a good one, at that."
"Right," Jordan says, drawing out the word. "You must think you're hilarious."
"Dude, I have the worst sense of humor you will ever have the horror of experiencing," I tell him, laughing so hard that one of the nurses pokes her heads in to make sure I'm not combusting. "I'm the only who laughs at my jokes. It's kind of pitiful."
"Eh," he says, waving his hand dismissively. "Your sense of humor is just different. Nothing wrong with that."
I brighten at the compliment and say, "Why thank you, kind sir. My life is complete."
Jordan glowers at me, but it quickly fades to a smile. Thank God for roommates, I think to myself. Bonus if they're hot.
"So, what do you have?" I ask Jordan sometime mid way through my second week in the hospital. I'm so thankful I have someone to banter with and just talk to. Life here is boring the moment Jordan leaves the room.
God, I sound so dependent. I can't help but wonder if the feeling is mutual, if he'd loathe his days in here without me. I wonder if his days would be the same if he didn't feel obliged to sing quietly under his breath to wake me up – even if he insists he has a terrible voice, he doesn't - or if he didn't have to think up smart remarks so he could remotely banter with me. Doesn't that sound self-absorbed, I think, inwardly slapping my narcissistic streak.
I know life would be awful lonely if I didn't have those little things to look forward to, considering that my spirits waver each time I'm forced onto the scale. Each day they weight me; each day I get weaker, smaller, frailer. Soon I won't be here at all. I'll just be a memory, brought up in casual conversation as the girl who wasn't strong enough to make it.
"Hello in there," Jordan snaps – though not at all meanly – and I break from my thoughts with a guilty smile.
"Sorry," I mumble. "What were you saying?"
He props himself against the wall and answers, "Considering you're the one who brought up the conversation in the first place, you should be ashamed."
"Just answer the question," I tell him, eyelashes fluttering. The afternoon light floods through the window and I wish I wasn't so lazy. Maybe if I wasn't so tired I'd be willing to go over and shut the blinds. Instead I blink and turn my head to the side as spots whirl in my vision.
"I was a bad kid," Jordan says. He clamps two fingers together and says, "I got rebellious because I felt like my parents didn't give two shits about my life –"
"Language," I bark. "Sorry, I just don't like cursing and – yeah."
Jordan sighs, says, "Like I was trying to say, my parents didn't really care about me, just that I was doing well in life and stuff. If they saw one bad grade they'd be on me about it until I wanted to cry."
"How horrible," I whisper, ignoring the way he glares at me, silently telling me to shut up.
"I got involved in some bad stuff," Jordan admits, voice quieting. "Some friends of mine managed to sneak me a pack of Marlboros and I borrowed one of my dad's lighters. All I remember is that I couldn't – I couldn't stop." He grits his teeth as though the memory is physically painful. "By morning the pack was empty and I knew I was screwed, but for the first time in awhile I felt good. Man, I felt so good."
"Dopamine rush," I say. "I smoked one time, but I didn't really get into it. It was just a stupid dare." This time he doesn't get angry, just nods and confirms it.
"I couldn't stop," Jordan says again, his voice deepening until he sounds absolutely miserable. "My friends eventually cut me off, told me they wouldn't get me the packs anymore because I was already too far in. But, you know, it's not that hard to steal a few bills from your dad's wallet when he doesn't even know how much he keeps in there." Jordan laughs bitterly. "I got so stoned one day that I nearly tripped into the street. Don't know why I was at college to begin with. Adults, freedom and all that. But I was." He stops again and a pensive look draws lines on his face.
"I doomed myself to this," he finishes at last. "I deserve to have my lungs rot on me. All for a little bit of happiness."
I watch Jordan's face fall further, then respond, "You said yourself that many cancer patients have hope. You have hope for living, so don't tell yourself you're going to die just yet."
Jordan's eyes look red and are glistening when he finally looks at me. "I'm nearly fourth stage, Risa. I'm this close to losing." He positions his thumb and index finger so close that I can't stand to look at it.
"Well," I tell him, "I'm going to lose. I don't have a choice. You do, Jordan. So just – please don't throw that chance away. I would take it in a heartbeat."
His eyes soften then, momentarily dismissing the rage and guilt he's been carrying with him for so long. "I know," he murmurs then. "Sorry I lost it like that."
"What are friends for?" I ask with a little smile, my heart breaking a little as I see the sadness buried in those beautiful gray eyes of his.
For the first time in awhile, I really, truly fear dying. Because there's something to live for, and he's sitting across from me.
I see a little girl on the other end of the residential street, and it's too familiar.
I see the girl's mother inside the house talking on the phone and doing the dishes, talking to her husband presumably about promising him that she can in fact multitask. It's too familiar.
The little girl's face lights up as she spots a puppy stopped to leave its mark against a tree, the owner tapping her watch and looking at the black lab in resignation. It's too familiar.
No, don't, I begin, but my lips won't move. I go to stretch my hand out, but it is as if I'm frozen. Too familiar, I think in horror as the little girl takes a step into the street. Much, much too familiar and I can't do a damn thing.
The girl takes another toddling step, her face lighting up as the puppy raises his head and sniffs about. There is the sound of tires gliding across the ground and I know a car's coming. I've seen it all before.
No, I try screaming again. Go back! You're going to ruin your life! But my lips are frozen solid. Tears gather in my eyes as the little girl moves forward once more, just as the car screeches into view, a woman in her twenties too busy tapping numbers on her phone to pay attention to the road ahead.
There is a hiss of breaks, but not fast enough. The little girl turns and screams just as I do.
The car hits her; blood sprays against the windshield.
"Stop, please!" I scream, shooting up in bed and flailing around until I'm hopelessly tangled up. Panic seizes me and I keep kicking, trying to move. "No, you can't – stop!"
"Marissa!" Someone is shaking me, hard. I blink through the tears and scream as I realize that I can't move. It's beyond the covers strangling my legs; I'm paralyzed, unable to do anything. Helpless, waiting for someone to hurt me. No, I think. Let me move, please.
"Marissa, you're okay. You're not hurt. Stop struggling!" the person yells again and I meet gorgeous gray eyes. Tears spill down my cheeks, seeping into my hair, before I can stop them. Flinging my arms around Jordan, I break into sobs.
"Doctor Carter comes rushing in and demands, "What happened?" He takes one look at me crying my eyes out in Jordan's arms and shakes his head, understanding dawning immediately. "You been having the dream again, haven't you?"
"What dream?" Jordan asks, looking between us.
I pull him closer to me and look tearfully up at the doctor. "It's always the same, so clear and vivid, but I'm helpless to – to do anything. Is that normal? Is it –"
"As I've told you before, it's entirely normal for the mind to revisit traumatic memories. It's the brain's way of processing it," Doctor Carter says. I bite my lip, drawing blood.
"What dream?" Jordan asks again, sounding irritated now.
"The dream of my accident," I tell him, keeping my voice steady. "I was six years old and I saw a puppy across the street. My mom was inside talking to my dad about plans for my birthday and she didn't want me hearing what they were scheming about, I guess." I shrug, but I'm trembling so hard it looks weird. "I was stupid. I walked right into the street and a car hit me."
"Dear God," Jordan says, looking more shocked than I'd normally expect. "Is that why…?" He looks around us, then back at me, as if unable to finish the thought.
I nod and say through the shudders coursing through me, "The accident caused severe damage to my skull and one of my lungs was nearly punctured. Cells flooded the area and tried to repair the damage and as a result a tumor developed. It was benign for months, but then I started experiencing headaches, memory loss and paralysis." I wiggle my toes to make sure that I'm free again. Paralysis is by far one of the scariest things I've ever experienced and I hate talking about it.
"It had turned malignant?" Jordan asks, though he seems to know already.
"Yeah," I mumble, running a hand through my hair and then settling it back around his neck in practically a choke-hold. "They tried doing a biopsy, but the tumor had already started to metastasize. Some bunches traveled to my arms and legs, causing aches to radiate throughout the muscles when they affected the nerves. The biggest clump travelled to my brain and there was nothing they could do to remove it. The procedure could have been fatal. Two months later I was found to have a Glioblastoma Multiforme and was diagnosed with Grade Four Astrocytoma."
"And that means…" Jordan asks, looking at a loss for words.
"It's a tricky kind of cancer," I say, keeping it as simple as possible. "They're tried everything, but my chances of living are less than one percent. After the various scans I went through last week, Doctor Carter told me that the Glioblastoma Multiforme was affected the nerves around and in my brain and would start infusing orders to my brain to basically shut my body down. Eventually, instructions will be released to stop sending signals to my heart to beat and I'll just be done." It's the first time I've told anyone that. When my parents and I found out the first time, Doctor Carter explained the whole thing to them while I hovered in the corner and tried not to cry.
"But you can still live," Jordan says.
"My body is shutting down on me," I repeat.
"But you can still –" Jordan tries again.
"I'm dying," I snap, shaking my head.
Jordan's fingers press again my cheek and I inhale sharply, feeling something dance in the pit of my stomach. "What happened to fighting back, Risa?" he asks, looking desperate. "What happened to hoping for a future, to not giving up?"
"I can't!" I scream, cupping his face in my hands and trapping his eyes in mine. His fill up with tears and I wonder why he's so concerned with this. "I can't fight, Jordan. There's no choice for me anymore, don't you get it?"
Before he makes me cry again, I get up and totter unsteadily out of the room.
A few hours later I'm sitting on one of the grass patches by the edge of the hospital. It took a tremendous amount of energy to get down here in the first place; my knuckles were turning white as I gripped the sides of the elevator to get to the first floor and my legs nearly gave out as I got near the grass. Finally, they had and I'd face-planted into the leafy stalks, unable to find the energy to move from the suffocating position until a half-hour later.
Now I flash my watch in front of my face and study the blurry patterns of lines running across my face. It's strangely beautiful, I realize. One of a kind; just like me.
"Do you do this a lot?" Jordan asks from behind me.
I sit up a little and pain shoots down my spine. I wince and his expression grows worried, his hand pressing to alleviate the pressure on my back. Something burns in my gut and I swallow hard, not knowing how to react when faced with these feelings.
"Do what?" I ask, still not turning to look at him. I'm too busy trying to regulate my breathing. For one horrifying moment, nothing beats within me and I gasp, but then the pounding returns and I know that my heart is already failing me. My mouth opens in a silent cry and my fingertips dig into the ground as though I can seep some energy from the soil.
"Run away," Jordan says, his hand rubbing soothing circles on my back. I feel his hand slip under my shirt to rub my skin. His thumb brushes my bra strap as though he's thinking of unhooking it and I tremble from something else entirely. He smiles, the shadow of a smirk.
"I guess I'm just a commitment freak," I try to joke.
"Are you afraid that people will actually miss you if you die?" Jordan wonders. I finally meet those beautiful gray eyes and temporarily lose the power of speech.
"When I die," I manage to mumble.
"If you die." His fingers cup my cheek in the softest way and he seems like he's drawing closer. "Why, Marissa, I do believe you're blushing."
"I do believe you're a jerk," I retort, knowing that the heat is spreading from my cheek throughout my entire body, making me feel as though I'm glowing. Some part of me chastises the feelings, knowing that it will only hurt Jordan when I leave him alone on this earth. The other part of me is tired of being single, wants a little taste of allurement on my tongue.
He laughs, asks in a low growl, "Do you want me to kiss you, Marissa?"
"You'd better not be playing with me," I murmur as his lips near mine. "I don't think I could take that." Our eyes meet; mine uncertain, his dressed with something almost like adoration.
"I'd never do that to you," Jordan says and before I can figure out what he means, his lips press against mine, making me gasp and lurch against him. I'm sure I look utterly attractive and totally experienced (ah sarcasm) in the moment, but I try not to care. He tastes wonderful.
"What are we then?" I ask when our lips part.
Jordan tilts his head. "You would ask," he mutters, flattening his hair where I raked my hand through it a second before. "You mean something to me, that's for sure."
"But I'm dying," I whimper longingly, staring at his lips and wishing that I didn't want him to kiss me like that again so, so much.
"Then take your last days and learn to live," Jordan purrs, his eyes burning with an emotion I can't describe. I settle for pressing my mouth to his gently, carefully, because I'm not quite as experienced as I'd like people to believe.
"I do believe you're trying to seduce me," I mumble against his mouth.
He waggles his eyebrows and I giggle, resisting the urge to clutch at my chest when breathing becomes difficult again. It's just something I have to ignore, this I know.
"So, how are we doing?" Doctor Carter asks the next day.
I've had Daniel Carter as my doctor since I was seven, lying in bed with my new glasses and wondering why I felt so exhausted all the time, why sometimes my head felt like it was going to explode. He's pretty cool and keeps it real with me, which is good. I don't need doctors feeding me rotten excuses and terms I can't understand without a medical dictionary.
"Alright," I tell him, leaning back.
"Can you walk?" he asks, tapping his clipboard with his ball-point pen.
I bite my lip and shrug. "I guess," I say at last, swiveling my legs out until my toes are a few inches from the ground. Thanking God that Jordan had to go get his weight checked and his meal plan reviewed, I ease my body down and wince as pain shoots down my legs. "Is, um, discomfort normal?" I ask Doctor Carter, gesturing to my pale, stick legs. They used to be so full, athletic. "I wasn't sure if – well, you know, there would be a bunch of side effects."
He nods and murmurs, "Unfortunately, yes. The cancerous cells have metastasized to many different locations in your body, specifically attacking your nerves. Discomfort, even pain, is to be expected."
"Is there any medications I could take to alleviate the pain?" I ask, trying to keep my voice from shaking. I pretend like the constant news of my body's deterioration doesn't bother me, but it does more than I ever admit.
Doctor Carter strokes his chin as he thinks. "We could hook you up to an IV and feed some dexamethasone, but it would mainly target the pressure in your head. However, we could add –" he breaks off, mumbling to himself about a combination of medications that wouldn't be lethal to my circulatory system, or something along those eyes.
"I' m cool with that," I tell him, hobbling back to my bed and hoisting myself up. It's getting harder each time to do this. If I let myself get scared though, the pain will feel worse than ever and I'll be haunted by it. I cannot let that happen. "I just – I just need something to dull the pain."
Jordan happens to walk in just as I say that and his eyes dart between us.
"Thank you, Doctor Carter," I tell him, ignoring Jordan's presence until my doctor has left the room. Then I let out a breath I knew I'd been holding in too long. "If you're going to ask me about the pain, just stop, okay? I know that we're both stuck here, but you should know by now that it hurts me. It hurts me, but I'm still living. So let's just – just stop. Just stop." I curl into a little ball and face the wall, studying the crevices until everything fades to white.
"Someone's cranky. I actually wasn't going to ask," Jordan says, "but thanks for the info." He slides his arms around my waist and burrows his face into my neck. I feel his lips press against my collarbone and he whispers, "You're so brave, Marissa."
"I'm PMSing like a freak and I'm acting like a diva. How much more cowardly can I get?" I grumble, turning to him.
"That's not cowardice," Jordan responds, the prescriptivism written all over his voice. "That's just immaturity. But you're dying, apparently, so we'll give you a couple extra diva moments. Don't get used to it." I don't know whether to giggle at his teasing or shriek that he's bothering me, so I say nothing instead, loving the way his lips resume kissing my neck, marking me.
"How did you weighing go?" I ask him, honestly curious.
Jordan shrugs, but I see the smile he's trying to hide. "I gained two pounds," he responds gruffly, attempting to cover his pride. I pinch his cheek and kiss him.
"I told you it's possible," I murmur, kissing him again and knowing that I'm far too attracted to his perfect mouth. "I'm so proud of you."
"What about you?" Jordan asks me.
I smile, hide my disappointment in my body and say, "I lost five pounds, but it's just because I haven't been so hungry recently. No big deal. "
It is. He knows that. His arms pull me closer and he kisses the top of my head.
I'm late, too many days so.
Confusion hits me as I emerge from the bathroom, heading for the nurse's station and trying to hide the limp in my step. They'll just make me lie down if they think I'm too weak, I think to myself. I know I was just dealing with the pre-cramps and soreness in my breasts, so why haven't I started yet? What could possibly be wrong?
"Can I ask a question?" I wonder as I approach Geena.
She raises an eyebrow, "Of course honey. Go right on ahead; I'm all ears." Smiling, she waits for me to respond.
"I'm, uh," I stop, blushing to the roots of my hair. She's a girl; this shouldn't be so awkward. "I'm late, and I'm never late." I say, my hands gesturing down between my legs.
"Oh," Geena says, her smile never diminishing. "That's typical for patients who go through chemotherapy."
"But, I –" My fingers rub against my forehead. "Doctor Carver said that the effects of chemotherapy were only temporary. I just had a period last month."
This time, Geena frowns. "How much do you weigh?" she asks.
I shrug my shoulders, wincing as I feel the bones crack in place. "Thin," I mumble at last. "My weight fluctuates too much for me to ever really know."
She gestures me forward and slides out of her cubical. "Well, then," she mumbles, mostly to herself. "Let's weigh you. C'mon, sweetheart."
Just as we approach the machine, I feel my heart sink all the way to my feet. "I'm tired of being scared," I admit, my body sagging for just a second." Looking at the machine makes me think about all those medical shows I watched when I was in fifth and sixth grade, all the cancer patients who withered away. "I don't want to die," I whisper, my lips trembling.
"Oh, honey," Geena says, pulling me into a tight hug. I clutch at her like she is my lifeline. "We're going to do the best we can to save you, okay?" she mumbles into my ear.
I nod, then step up on the machine. I already know that I'm far too thin but for once I want to be wrong.
"That's the problem," I hear Geena say.
The world whirs around me, my eyelids droop for a second. My heart falters, then picks back up and I choke on tears that I won't let even begin. I feel so alone, I think, trying to force it back, trying to put on my happy smile. I am happy. I can do this.
"How much do I weight?" I manage to ask, not sure that I want to hear the answer.
"Eighty-five pounds," Geena says brightly, making it sound as if it's a good thing. "It's typical for a woman's body to stop menstruating once she drops below a certain weight. God planned it that way, honey, so no worries. Keep that chin up."
"Guess I could finally pick that modeling job," I joke. My voice crashes in my ears and I feel the ache of tears emerge again. Smiling one last time at Geena, I hurry back to my room, right past Jordan's welcoming arms and into the bathroom.
The door slams behind me.
Fingers digging into the ground, the plaster on the wall, tearing into the toilet paper, I feel myself fall apart. What the hell is wrong with me, I wonder as tears spill down my cheeks and the sobs overcome me, worse than before, leaving me choking, begging for air. God, help me.
"Marissa?" Jordan is banging on the door and I try to block it out but I can't keep pushing him away. "What's going on? Please don't shut me out like this."
I reach up a feeble, shuddering hand and unlock the door. He's by my side in a heartbeat and I scream into his shirt, my tears and mucus dampening the cotton material. It hurts, my thoughts cry. It hurts so badly. Why won't it stop hurting?
"Guess what, Jordan?" I whimper through my tears, laughing bitterly. "I can't even have children anymore, not like I have the time. I'm too thin to conceive."
He breathes nonsense in my ear, I cry, I hurt, my heart struggles to continue beating. The world bleeds away for a time.
"You're being a real couch potato," Jordan tells me on Monday of the next week.
I turn to look at him from my crumpled position in my bed. "I'm comfortable," I mumble, my voice muffled by the pillow. "That and I can't walk."
"You just need to get creative, is all," says Jordan. He's looking so much better today with the rosy color to his cheeks and the ten extra pounds he's put on. They had to shear off that head of beautiful hair to continue radiation, but he still looks handsome to me.
"What do you suggest?" I give him a look which means that I'm not going to think for myself, then let my eyes fall shut again.
"Get in your wheelchair," Jordan tells me.
"Too lazy," I mutter with a saucy grin, holding out my arms. "Help me."
"I repeat: couch potato," Jordan says, but he pulls me into his arms anyways and I know that he could never refuse me anything. Sometimes I catch him looking at me in such a soft way that it makes me anxious to know his thoughts. But mainly it makes me happy.
"Did my parents say when they were coming?" I ask him as he drops me slowly into my wheelchair. My butt practically feels numb in the seat, but I brush it off and remember the good old days when I could take a stroll around my family's library and not worry about fainting.
My parents have been visiting me usually twice a week if they can manage it. It's hard for them to see me like this, deteriorating further and further each time they visit. I know it's hard. But I want them here all the same, because I could be taken up by God at any moment and if I don't say goodbye then I'll regret it.
"Um, they said they'd try for tomorrow," Jordan replies, pushing me out into the hallway. Geena and Rosaline give us weird looks but dismiss it.
"What are we doing?" I ask the boy to whom my heart belongs, tilting my head up so he can give me a quick kiss. Joy floods through me, something I find myself addicted to.
"You'll see, beautiful," Jordan says, wheeling us into a hallway. My eyes narrow as I see the mattress resting against the chartreuse wall at the end of the hall and I wish I had the energy to figure out what he's planning. But before I have a chance to do or say anything, Jordan shoves me as hard as he can and I go flying forward, screaming my head off.
"Are you having fun?" Jordan yells after me.
Wind whipping my chestnut hair all around, green eyes glistening with bliss, my wheelchair gliding across the ground…all of it is perfect. I raise my hands in the air for a few seconds, ignoring the way they shake, and let out a loud whoop. Then I burst into giggles.
Nurses peer around the edges of doors and give me weird looks, but they know who I am. For the most part, they'll let me do whatever I want while I'm still on this Earth.
Seconds later I crash into the soft, fluffy mattress and turn to face Jordan's smile with pure, unaltered joy written all over my features.
"I used to be beautiful, you know," I tell him. "I was way out of your league."
"And now?" Jordan snickers, wheeling me back to the beginning of the hallway.
I give him a burning look, touch his left hand and murmur, "Now you're just the boy I don't know what I'd do without."
"My life is complete," he jokes.
"Clever, stealing my line," I award him. "Can I go again?" Gesturing towards the mattress, I flash him a hopeful look.
"Whatever you want," Jordan tells me, rearing me back and sending me shooting forward again.
I feel like I'm flying, like I'm free, and it's wonderful.
"Have you written a will?" Jordan asks me when we're sitting up waiting for lunch the next afternoon.
I'm antsy, having expected my parents to arrive an hour ago. I'm shouldn't be surprised that they're late, because they always are, but some part of me is disappointed. What if my body decides to give up before they find a parking spot, huh? What then?
"No," I tell him, point blank.
"I am not," I argue with, knowing very well that I am.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Jordan asks. I don't know how he understands me and my temperaments so well, but I try not to think about it. Time moves differently here, in jerks and stops.
"I'm just anxious," I tell him, smiling as he twines our fingers together. "I really want to see my parents."
"God, I love you," Jordan says out of the blue.
I flash him a startled look, "What?"
"You're not deaf, so far as I'm aware," he jokes, shifting forward until we're both lying on my bed. The sunlight filters over his face, lighting up those stunning gray irises and making it look as if he's glowing.
"Where did that come from?" I wonder.
He shrugs, "I've been deliberating how to tell you, but there's no time like the present, I suppose." He leaves out the real reason: I want to tell you now because I could lose you any day and I need you to know.
I touch his cheek, lean forward and kiss him softly. "I love you too," I whisper, the words uttered without so much as a pause. I've never said them to a boy besides my dad before and they've never felt so right. This is the moment I was waiting for all the years.
Our lips meet again and I melt against him, losing myself in his touch.
"Are we interrupting something?"
I squeak, pulling away from Jordan and grinning at my mother. "I'm so glad to see you guys!"
She looks between Jordan and I, says, "I thought you promised that you weren't going to hook up with him, sweetheart."
"Technically we're just making out," I correct her. "Hooking up would be –"
Jordan's hand squeezes against mine, letting me know that he's all for the idea, in the same moment as my mother screeches and waves her head in an embarrassed fashion.
"I just came here to help you do this," my mom says, lying out a piece of paper and a pen on the little desk by my bed, as well as a stack of papers with printed instructions for something.
"Ironic," Jordan says, flipping through the papers. "I didn't know they had websites on how to write your Last Will and Testament."
I glower at him, sadness etching itself into the crevices of my face that my mother will never see. Unintentionally, by doing this, my parents have basically said that she expects I will die. I mean, I know I've been telling them that I'm going to die all alone, but I'd hoped that they would continue to insist otherwise.
There's no escaping the truth, my thoughts whisper annoyingly.
I wake up in the middle of the night and I'm not breathing.
There is screaming, bright lights and pain.
When I wake up, I'm lying in the recovery wing of the hospital. Doctor Carver is hovering over me and I wish that Jordan was here to hold my hand.
"Did I die?" I ask.
"Almost," he says with a little tremor in his tone. "Almost."
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" I ask Jordan.
We're sitting out on top of a blanket around the corner from the hospital in a little garden that they own for the pleasure of their patients. Jordan and I were driven over here by one of the ground floor nurses and told that they would be just a phone call away if anything went wrong. I'd only recently been allowed to remove all the sensors from my chest and head that they were using to monitor my heart-rate, simply because I wanted to enjoy my last days feeling somewhat normal.
"I always wanted to be a paramedic, save people and all that," Jordan tells me with one of his real smiles that he knows I love seeing. "But now, I don't know. There's a lot of schooling involved."
"You can go back to school if you need it," I remind him, snuggling against him and trying to ignore the burning need in the pit of my stomach, the famished monster finally waking and demanding to be satisfied. "I can see you saving people. Very poetic and all."
Jordan looks down and I lose myself in the gray depths of his eyes. "You're so weird," he says, nuzzling his nose into my hair. Apparently he loves the spell of hospitals and decay, though he says I have a lovely wild-flower scent to my hair. I tell him that conditioner does wonders.
"You wouldn't love me if I wasn't weird. It makes me who I am," I murmur, kissing his cheek. "I always kind of wanted to be a journalist, travel the world and get the latest stories."
"That's cool," Jordan says.
I shrug, "I guess, if that's what you really think." My fingers trace his jaw line and I shiver as he continues to look at me in such a way that leaves me feeling hot and bothered. "Do you know what I regret most?"
"What's that?" he wonders, probably not paying much attention to anything but my lips.
"Not having more time to get to know and love you," I admit. "Not getting to take walks and just talk, not getting to sway somewhat gracefully down the aisle, not getting to figure out if we're compatible enough to walk down the aisle without bickering the whole time." He laughs at that and I join in. "Not getting to know you," I add in a whisper. "I love you, you know that?"
Jordan nods and presses his lips to mine. When he pulls away, he says, "My favorite color is blue, my favorite band is Gotye, my favorite person is you, my favorite season is winter because it brings a sense of peace and acceptance. My favorite holiday is Christmas because I get gifts from people that care about me." He stops for a minute to think. "I wish you could have met my sister. I think you would have liked her."
"Sure I would have," I respond, snuggling into his warmth as a cool breeze picks up. "Was your sister the one that hit me, Jordan? I've been thinking about that."
"No," he says after a second of hesitation. "She's only two years older than me and wouldn't have been driving when the accident happened."
"Okay," I mumble, relieved that I don't have to take that haunting knowledge to the grave. "Do you miss her a lot?"
"All the time," Jordan admits, taking my hand and kissing me again, longer this time. "But I'm going to miss you so much more."
As I look at him, I know.
"Can we –" I start.
Jordan's already rolling on top of me, kissing me until my lips are bruised.
I find beauty in the way we fit as one, in the strong line of his bare back, in the sensual way that he groans as he reaches a climax and buries for the final time inside of me. I find beauty in the way his scalp shines with the promise of new hair coming in and how his eyes study me like I'm the most beautiful person he's ever seen. I find beauty in the pain that courses through my body as my heart falters, then picks back up. I find beauty, for the first time, in the aches.
They make me who I am, after all.
Jordan somehow stumbles his way into my bed in the middle of the night, but I welcome his presence, especially after our new found intimacy. They tried to put the sensors all over me before I went to sleep, but I told the nurses that I didn't want any of it.
The moment I looked at Doctor Carter, he knew that I wanted to die without feeling like some kind of freak. I don't want any of them around when it happens, whenever that might be. I just want to be in my bed with Jordan by my side, no other cares in the world beside how in love with this boy I am.
Tracing a finger down Jordan's spine, I smile gently to myself and feel the way my heart lurches inside of me, stopping and starting. I feel nerve endings ache as the synapses communicate something they were never intended to share. I feel my bones crack into place and hear the hollow click-clack of my teeth as I shiver. Everything is so silent; all I can hear is my body slowly collapsing on me.
"I love you," I breathe to the sleeping boy beside me, turning to face the wall and struggling not to panic as my heart jerks to a stop, pauses, finally flutters back from the edge. Tears burn numbly in my eyes and I know that I will not go tonight.
Soon, I will go. Soon, I will not hurt anymore. Soon, I will be free.
Burying my head into the crook of Jordan's neck, I close my eyes and drift to sleep, remembering the innocent little girl who had no idea what she would go through following that fateful day. I remember her smile and her laughter. I remember running out to play.
"I'm sorry," I whisper to my memories, burying them somewhere where they cannot hurt me anymore. "I'm sorry," I whisper to Jordan's slumbering form, knowing that he loved and lost before and he'll find a way to be happy again. If I could stay here with him, I would, but I can't. But we will both be okay, even if we're not with each other.
I'm not scared to die anymore.
Twelve days later I watch from somewhere outside of my body as my heart pounds its last frenzied rhythm. I see the last breath exit my blue-tinged lips and watch as a small, peaceful smile drifts onto my face.
There is something so beautiful about the expression there on my face, I think, drifting backwards and feeling something calling me forward, upwards, away from all of this pain and suffering.
I appreciated life.
Thank you for teaching me how to live, Jordan, I think with a genuine smile.
I am happy.
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