"We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot."
It wasn't quick. In the beginning, it was slow. Like poison being injected into your bloodstream, one drop at a time, drawing out the pain, making the suffering and agony last, to the point when death seems like a blessing. In her case, it could have been. The epidemic that brought the downfall of modern society.
The first day, it was just like any other day. She was just another teenager, spread out on the beach next to her friend in their bikinis on a warm Californian day. Until her friend coughed. The first time, no one took anything of it. People cough all the time. But she didn't just cough once, nor twice, but three times without inhaling air at all. They weren't your usual run-of-the-mill coughs either, they were the kind that hurt, the kind that made you want to puke and shove something down your throat so that you couldn't cough anymore. Then she became concerned.
"Hey Denise, are you feeling okay?" Vanessa asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine, just a bit of a cold." Denise replied. The coughs that followed proved her reply false.
"Are you sure? It doesn't sound too good." Vanessa said, sitting up in the chair, her bright red hair falling in her face just slightly.
"I said don't worry," she let out a throaty cough, "I'm fine. Just need a bit of water." she got up and left for the drink bar. Vanessa followed her, Denise wasn't in good shape, and given her history, when illness befell her it was never a good thing.
"What'll you girls have today?" the man at the bar asked them.
"She'll take a water." Vanessa answered for her when she burst into another fit of coughing.
The bartender turned around and filled a cup full of water and handed it to them.
"No charge, it looks like you have your hands full." he said kindly.
"Thank you." she replied when Denise continued to cough.
"Vanessa...It's so hard to breathe..." she said hoarsely to Vanessa as she guided her weakened friend back to the beach towels.
"I know Denise, I know, just hold on for a bit longer, I've got some water for you." she replied, handing the drink to Denise.
She took it gratefully, her hand shaking as she took the cup and lifted it toward her lips. She drank some of it, her shaking hand spilling the rest out of the cup down her face and dripping onto the sand.
With Denise's arm now around her, she down into the chair, hoping that it would get better.
But of course, it would not get better, it's very rare for something to ever get better.
Vanessa's worrying increased as Denise fell into another fit of coughing, her condition worsening with each of her coughs.
"Denise, it's not getting better, do you want me to call your mom?" she asked, holding her while she continued to cough vehemently. Denise nodded weakly.
She reached into her bright blue bag and pulled out her cell, quickly selecting Denise's mother from her contacts list and dialing her number.
"Hello?" asked a woman on the phone.
"Hey, it's me, Vanessa. I'm at the beach with Denise and she can't stop coughing, she might need to see a doctor. I wouldn't call you if it wasn't important, can you come pick her up?" I asked.
"Sure. I'll come right away." answered her mother.
"Great, I'll see you in a few." she replied, and hung up. "Denise, can you keep it together for a while? Your mom's coming to pick you up soon to take you to the doctor's."
Denise tried to respond, but anything she tried to say was covered by her increasingly fierce coughs. When Vanessa looked at Denise, she nearly stumbled backwards. Her once curved, smooth features were now bright red with fever, and her beautiful green eyes were dull grey in color.
"I want my mom." she said weakly, her nose and throat congested with mucus.
"I know Denise, just hold on for a bit longer okay? She'll be here soon. Then you can go home and rest." Vanessa tried to calm her as she doubled over in another fit of forceful coughing.
"Vanessa, I'm scared. It hurts so bad." she said through her increasingly worsening coughs and sneezes.
"I know, I know, I am too. It's gonna be okay though, I'm right here." Vanessa said, her worry growing by the second. She tried not to let too much panic seep through her voice, but that was becoming increasingly difficult. She didn't ever think that Denise's previous conditions would come back to haunt her, but that was becoming harder and harder to ignore.
Denise opened her mouth to reply once more, but nothing came out but a hoarse, weak cough, much more deadly, in the general opinion, than the loud, throaty coughs just a few minutes before. Her face was paling quickly, her eyes tiring.
"Denise? What's wrong? Why have you stopped coughing? This isn't good..." the last part was spoken more to herself than to any person particularly.
"I don't know, but it hurts Vanessa, make it stop. I want my mom." she cried weakly.
Vanessa's eyes threatened to water at the sight of her friend so vulnerable. "It's okay Denise, your mom's coming, it's okay!" she tried to reassure the both of them. She hoped it wasn't back, not after all they had been through.
Vanessa spent the next few minutes trying to make sure Denise was comfortable. What else could she do? There was no medicine, she had yet to acquire her driving permit, and Denise's condition was worsening by the second. Most people with a cold didn't have congestion that looks as bad as it does on her, or the medical history to go with it.
Relief washed over her as she saw Denise's mom drive up with her van in the parking lot behind the beach.
"Come on Denise, let's get you to your mom's car okay? Soon you'll be home and you can get better." Vanessa helped her to her feet, her awkwardly long arms helping Denise's weak body to where her mom had parked. Shifting her support for Denise to one arm, she picked up both of their bags and towels with the other, then switched her weight over to balance the load she was carrying.
When her mom caught sight of them, she quickly got out of the car and rushed over to help get Denise into the car. Vanessa helped et her in the front seat next to her mom, and hopped in the back, shutting the car door with a slam, setting our towels and bags on the seat next to her seat.
As her mom pulled out of the parking lot, she peppered a worried Vanessa with questions.
"When did she start to feel bad?"
"It couldn't have been more than 20 minutes ago, she just started to cough. It wasn't so bad at first, but it just kept getting worse." she answered.
"Has she been sick at school?"
"Not that I've seen."
"I'm going to take Denise home for a bit, get some medicine in her, and let her rest. I'll drop you off at your house first if you like?" she asked kindly.
"Yeah, that'd be great, thank you." Vanessa replied with a smile.
"Denise will be okay for now, she's with her mother, with some medicine and rest she'll be back on her feet soon." Vanessa thought.
Meanwhile, Denise continued to cough in the front seat. Her mother's brow furrowed in worry.
"Don't worry, she's going to be fine. She just needs some medicine and rest." she said, trying to calm Denise's worried mother. However kind her words were, they did nothing to soothe her mother.
"Thank you, I just can't help it when I see Denise sick. She's my only daughter, it's a miracle she's alive today, after the trouble we've had with cancer in the past."
Vanessa remembered when she got cancer.
A few years back, she was going to school, one of her first days in middle school actually, and she became friends with Denise almost instantly. Denise was nice, funny, and played basketball like Vanessa did, so they spent lots of time together. Then, a few months after they had become friends, Denise told her with a heavy heart that she had cancer. It wasn't serious then, but seeing as she was 12, Vanessa was pretty scared for her friend.
It progressively got worse with time, they kept hoping it would get better, but it didn't. She went through intensive chemotherapy and radiation. That did help her a bit, but she lost all her hair and became very weak. In support for her best friend, Vanessa shaved her hair as well. Denise was almost always sick, and nearly always sleeping. Vanessa spent lots of time with her at the hospital after school had ended. She would bring homework that Denise had missed that day and they would work on it together when she was awake.
Eventually, she began to get better. After nearly six months of intensive care, the cancer stopped growing and began to shrink. In the next few months, Denise's hair began to grow back, she kept it short this time around. Eventually she began to wean off the medications, and in time, she left the hospital's constant watch and was sent home.
Now, she was a picture of health. Boys would fawn over her at school, Vanessa loved to tease her about it. She was pretty though, with short bleach blonde hair and bright green eyes. It was heartbreaking to see her in this state after all she has been through. She fought it off once, and Vanessa wasn't sure if she would be able to do it again, if that's what the case was.
Denise's mom pulled up in front of Vanessa's house, a small but quaint beach house, not a mile from the beach.
"Thanks, call me when Denise starts to feel better!" she called to Denise's mom.
"I will!" Denise's mom replied, and drove off toward her own house.
Vanessa looked up at the darkening sky as small droplets began to tickle her freckled nose. She stopped for a minute and let the rain soak her long red hair and run down her medium-sized frame. Only when the thunder and lightening began to pound the pavement around her did she hurry inside.
When she walked in the front door, she was greeted by her slightly overprotective, but loving mother.
"Hey Vanessa, how was your trip to the beach with Denise?" she asked.
"It was okay, she started to get a bit sick so her mom picked us up." Vanessa answered, tossing her bag over one of the kitchen chairs and made my way toward the refrigerator.
"Have you finished your essay yet? You know it's due Friday." she reminded me.
"No, I've got it started. I'll work on it after dinner." she looked over and saw her older brother, Luke, getting up from his nap on the couch.
"It's nice to see you've decided to join the land of the living!" she mocked as he groaned and stretched.
"Give me a break sis, being a senior is hard work that a little freshman like you couldn't understand. When you're my age, naps will be like gifts sent down from heaven." he said with a straight face, Vanessa just went to grab a soda out of the fridge.
"Oh lighten up, high school isn't so bad for me yet." I chided. Luke just scoffed at my remark. He was the archetype of an older brother, they both insulted and bickered with each other on a daily basis, but he looked out for her when they both went to school. Vanessa has only been there a week so far, and the teachers have been fair towards her for the most part and haven't given that much homework just yet. Then again, she wasn't taking all honors classes like her brother. She opted to put more of her efforts into basketball and soccer.
As she opened the can of soda, Luke joined her at the table and ruffled her hair. She just swatted his hand back and slapped his arm playfully. He laughed and took a seat on the table and pulled out his smartphone.
"Hey you two, behave. Luke, honey, don't tell me you're going out with your girlfriend tonight? It seems like I don't see you much any more," their mother said from across the kitchen.
"I actually want her to come here tonight, if that's alright with you." he said, running his hands nervously through his short red hair. Luke had been dating this girl for nearly a year now, and his family has only seen her a couple of times. Given the way things were headed with those two, Vanessa had her theories that Luke's girlfriend will be her future sister-in-law.
"Yes, that'd be lovely. I'd like to meet her." her mom's demeanor was changed almost as soon as he said it, glad that Luke had agreed to it. It's not that he's secretive or rebellious, it's simply a matter of he likes to keep to himself and he doesn't like to draw attention to his social life too much.
"Can I tell her about how Luke let Sparky eat the class hamster when he took it home over spring break when he was seven? That'll give her a good warning of his responsibility skills if they ever decide to have kids." she replied with a snicker and was met with a whack to the back of her head. Vanessa just laughed at the memory of their cat sitting on top of the hamster cage looking completely guilt-free, when in fact his stomach was bloated and the hamster in question was nowhere to be seen.
"Calm down you two. I don't know if you two will never grow up at this rate. No Vanessa, why don't we save that for a later dinner okay? If you can't keep your comments to yourself then you can eat in your room." she warned sternly.
"Yes mom." she replied, taking a large gulp of my soda.
They settled into the late afternoon with more pleasantries, mostly about my basketball season and Luke's violin performances. He had started playing violin at the age of nine when we ran across a street performer. Luke interviewed the man and asked him all sorts of questions about the violin, what he was playing, and others. The man was kind and answered each of his questions. After that, they found lessons for him to take for a reasonable price, along with a decent quality violin. He was now looking at scholarships to nearly five different universities all throughout the U.S. where he could major in music performance.
While growing up in his shadow, Vanessa picked up his violin once, but she could never figure out how to play it, or how such beautiful notes could ever be produced from it.
Instead, she found enjoyment in more physical activities like basketball and soccer. She liked to run as well, and while she has taken track and cross country into account, she is not quite built to be a runner.
He met his girlfriend Millie in orchestra when he was in high school. She was two years younger than him, only a sophomore that year, but she was a wicked violinist and his biggest rival. She even next to him at a few of his concerts his junior year as his stand partner. Things quickly escalated from that point on.
At first their mother was very reluctant toward him dating a girl that young, but when she saw just how strong his feelings were for her, she understood that there was no one else that he wanted to be with.
Vanessa hasn't found any interest in guys her age just yet. Yes, she has had a few school-girl crushes through the years, but none have really caught eye up to that point. Instead, she preferred to stand by the sidelines, watching as almost each of her friends texted their boyfriends every second of the day. Of course, none of them really do anything more than just text each other.
When Mom retold stories about her and Dad, she always recollected some of the dates they would go on, and how much fun they would has always wanted a relationship like that, but her friends don't quite see it the way she does.
Vanessa was excited to finally meet Luke's girlfriend tonight, seeing as she's never met her before now. The other times she had come over, Mom had either shooed her out of the house while they had a date or she was out with friends to give them some space.
After she put on a pair of pants and an old T-shirt, Vanessa got her biology textbook out and began to work on homework. When she looked briefly over where Luke was sitting, she saw him getting to work on homework as well. As Vanessa and her brother continued their laborious work, the scent of their mother's outstanding cooking filled the room with a plethora of intoxicating aromas that made both their mouth water in anticipation.
When she had finished off all of her homework, Vanessa looked up at the clock to see the little hand pointed at the five and the big hand at the seven, 5:35. She let out all the air in her lungs in a huff and downed the rest of her soda that she had been sipping, careful not to spill the contents over her work.
"What time did Millie say she was coming?" Mom asked as Vanessa went into the living room.
"About 6." Luke replied.
The next half hour was a bit of a blur, Vanessa slipped in and out of consciousness as she lay on the couch watching meaningless cartoons. When she heard the doorbell go off however, her consciousness snapped back into place and she bolted upright on the couch like a meerkat in the desert who had just heard a predator's growl.
She watched as her mother hurried to the door and answered it with her warm, friendly smile. From what she could see from her position on the couch, Vanessa saw the rain had ceased outside, which would explain why the girl standing in their doorway wasn't carrying an umbrella or a jacket.
"Hi, you must be Millie! Luke said you'd be joining us tonight for dinner."
"Nice to meet you Mrs. Taylor. Thanks again for having me." she replied with a bright smile. Vanessa took note of her humble nature and aesthetic physique. Upon meeting her now, she saw why Luke had taken an interest in her. He always had been fond of the actresses that reminded her of the young woman at their door.
Millie had wavy black hair that contrasted against her pallid skin, but her features were curved and her frame was accentuated with curves. She wasn't thin, but she wasn't obese either, she seemed confident in herself. Her face was also smooth and free from any acne or freckles, unlike Luke's face where there was hardly a spot where he wasn't covered in freckles.
Their mother stepped back into the kitchen to finish preparing their meal as Millie took tentative steps inside, shutting the door behind her. When Millie looked over and saw Luke, her features softened and her sharp blue eyes shone a little brighter.
When Luke looked up at her, his face lit up and he greeted her with a smile. He silently gestured to the chair beside him and she gladly obliged. Once she was seated, they began to talk quietly, the world around them quickly disappearing.
"Hey mom, is dinner ready yet?" Vanessa called.
"Not yet sweetie, I've still got about a half an hour left on the potatoes, why don't you go find out how Denise is doing, I'd hate for her to be sick again." she called back.
"Okay, call me when dinner's ready and I'll come back here." Vanessa replied, bouncing off the couch and snatching her cellphone off the counter. Without another word, she walked briskly out the door and down the sidewalk. She wasn't old enough to drive just yet and Denise's house wasn't more than a mile from hers, so it wasn't too much of a burden to walk.
As she walked to Denise's house, her thoughts drifted to just about everything, from useful strategies and maneuvers in basketball, to the possibility of her brother's wedding in the future, to wild conspiracies that she reads about in her free time. It had almost become a hobby of hers, looking up the wildest conspiracy theories. Granted she didn't believe a single one of them, but they were still fascinating and made her feel a part of something significant.
With these thoughts teasing at her mind, she soon arrived at Denise's house. She walked up their nicely paved driveway and through their well-kept garden that was in full bloom, lighting up the immediate area with an artist's palette of colors. She rang the doorbell and waited outside, admiring the beauty of their garden.
Denise's mom answered the door, a kind smile warming her face as she saw Vanessa waiting outside.
"You must be here to see Denise, you can come to her room. She's got an appointment to go the the Doctor's tomorrow morning, so I'm just trying to let her get some sleep. I don't know whether she'll be awake yet or not, but you can come on inside." she said, gesturing for her to come inside.
The interior of their house was nicely decorated, and it was set close to the beach. The sidings were white wood paneling and it was reminiscent of every surfer movie in existence. Denise's two older siblings had both been huge surfers when they were younger when Denise was just a toddler. She is the youngest of the family, raised mostly by her Mom since her Dad's almost always at work, or traveling for his work. Vanessa could sympathize with her a bit, being raised by one parent, except Vanessa's father was dead, not out working like Denise's.
She walked down a hallway lined with family memorabilia, photos of Denise and her siblings, graduation certificates from high school of her older sister and brother, one from college as well. Vanessa hid a small smile as she walked past a picture of Denise with a huge smile next to her and her mother on the day she found out that she was headed home, and her cancer was almost completely gone.
Worry grew like a weed in her chest when Vanessa saw her curled up in her bed, barely breathing, her lungs wheezing, and a general feeling of dread in the room. She understood Denise's mother's logic about giving her rest until morning, but if Vanessa were her mother, she would've taken her straight to the hospital. She wanted to take a step closer to Denise, to comfort her, but it looked like Denise was as close to sleep as she could get in her condition, and she really didn't want to risk her health if it was contagious. Her chances were more likely that it was cancer, but nothing was certain yet.
Vanessa has never been a very religious person, but when she saw the condition her friend was in, she prayed to whatever god was out there that Denise would live another day, that she could keep her strength up like she did when she had cancer. When deep down, Vanessa had her suspicions that Denise was running out of her strength, not this way. It was just too violent and overpowering.
SomehowDenise must've picked up on another person being in the room with her, as her body stirred a bit when she tried to roll over to face her visitors.
"Hey Vanessa." she said weakly, her hoarse voice just over a whisper. Her heart broke at Denise's barely coherent words.
"Hey Denise." Vanessa replied.
"You didn't have to come check on me."
"It was no problem, Luke had his girlfriend over and Mom's not done with dinner yet. She's not quite the evil witch we thought, she actually seems really nice. Guess I owe you five bucks huh?" Vanessa said, trying to keep their conversation away from her condition. Denise let out a weak laugh that turned into an exhausted cough that went on for awhile.
"What's she like? You don't owe me anything, bet's off." she spoke softly. The two girls had made a bet when Luke had first started seeing Millie, they both guessed that she was some evil witch sent to kill their brother, but she was quite the opposite.
Vanessa laughed a bit and smiled warmly at Denise, "No, she seems really nice. I wouldn't be surprised if you get a letter in the mail several years down the line announcing their wedding." Vanessa joked. This evoked a smile out of her.
They continued chatting like this for awhile, Vanessa wasn't speaking loudly or quickly like she normally does, but keeps her tone softer and gentler. Denise's tone only got more raspy and inaudible to the point where Vanessa did most of the talking and Denise simply listened.
Before long however, Vanessa took a look at the time and realized that her mother had probably finished cooking by then. She said her goodbyes, thanked her mother for letting her come talk to Denise, and she hurried home. While she walked home however, she found it difficult for her mind to drift to anything but Denise's sweet face, weakened by disease. She wouldn't let Denise give up just yet, not while Vanessa was still willing to fight for her.