"Miranda? Miranda Clark, stop spacing out. What is with you today?"
I grimaced and took a drink from my water bottle. It was nearly all I was consuming with U of M auditions only a week away. Citrus restricted my vocal cords and spicy foods caused too much acid build-up. Milk created a phlegmy throat. Chocolate just messed up everything. Only water seemed safe enough to ensure me a second soprano position in U of M's prestigious choir. I was not about to mess this up.
My best friend Nicole sighed and passed me her water bottle as she watched me drain mine. After being friends with me since kindergarten leaving play dates early so I could go to voice lessons and attending countless concerts she knew every precaution and superstition of mine. And although I knew she thought I was nuts for doing it all, she still stuck by me through thick and thin. She had even encouraged me to try out for cheerleading with her during our freshman year. It was the one vise I allowed myself outside of music. And four years later, I was still enjoying it.
"Why are you stressing?" she asked as we sat on the football field bleachers before that night's game, feeling the cool autumn wind against our legs, bare under our short Cougars uniforms. "You've sung the National Anthem at these games a thousand times. And it's perfect every time."
I shook my head in frustration. "My throat's been killing me lately. And with only a week until auditions, I don't know what I'm doing wrong! I've barely consumed anything but water in the past three days!"
"Uh, maybe that's your problem?" Nicole asked, nudging me. "Mimi, if you get much skinnier, a dog is going to confuse you for its bone." She grinned. "I'm just kidding. But why don't you go see a doctor?"
"Because I can't!" I cried. I instantly regretted it when my throat began to burn from my outburst. "If I go see a doctor," I continued quietly, "he'll tell me it's laryngitis or strep throat and that I need to rest my voice so that I don't cause further damage. But I can't rest it because I need to keep rehearsing!"
"Like you even need to rehearse," Nicole scoffed. "Your voice is perfect. Do you even realize how often you remind me what a failure my life is compared to yours? You practically have an in at any college you want to go to, by using a gift you love to perform. You practically have a guaranteed career. And what am I going to do? I'll end up at some tiny college on their rinky-dink cheer squad. Not even a team. A squad. I should never have given up gymnastics." Nicole sighed and looked out at the field.
I didn't say anything. I loved my best friend, but she had made some bad choices. As a younger teen, she had been an incredible gymnast. But after her older brother Sean scored a scholarship to U of M for gymnastics, Nicole had quit training. She didn't constantly want to be in her brother's shadow. So she became a cheerleader, the best at our high school. But cheerleaders weren't usually the first ones scouted by the big schools.
"You're right," I agreed, pasting a fake smile on my face. "I shouldn't mope around. I'm just cranky because of my throat. But don't worry, Nic. U of M will scout you, too. And then our adventures will never end." I grinned at my best friend. "We should head down to the field to warm up. Stephanie will have a fit if we aren't there for her pep talk."
"Oh yes, because they're always so peppy," Nicole said sarcastically as we stood.
I laughed. "Come on." I took Nic's arm and we skipped down the bleachers together.
I stepped off the field with a grin on my face as the crowd broke into cheers after I finished singing the National Anthem. It wasn't often that I felt good about my performance I was way too hard on myself. But it had felt good. I had hit all my notes strong and clear, and managed to hold the last note for an impressively long time. Even Nicole grinned and threw me a thumbs-up as I got into formation with the other cheerleaders, even though she wasn't ever a harsh critic.
"Let's hear it for your Richmond Cougars!" yelled the announcer. The stands went crazy as the football team charged onto the field, led by one gorgeous guy with a wide smile, dark hair, and deep dimples. I grinned just looking at him.
"You know, if he weren't my cousin," Nicole said in my ear with a devilish smile, "I just might be jealous of you."
I had met Josh earlier that year when I went with Nicole to visit her family in Kentucky over spring break. And as soon as I had seen him, I had fallen in love with his sweet smile and Southern drawl. I loved how tall his 6 foot frame appeared beside my 5'2 height. I loved how his big hands looked when he played a guitar, grasped a football, or held my hand. And I loved his eyes how dark and deep they were, how they crinkled when he laughed or joked. I just loved him. And miraculously, he felt the same way about me. And when Josh told his mom that he wanted to move to Michigan to live with his dad so that he could be closer to me, I felt like the happiest girl in the world.
I smiled as Josh caught my eye on the field. He grinned at me and put his hand over his chest our little signal to each other. I used to tease him that his heart beat faster when I was around. It had become our secret signal to each other. I put my hand on my own chest and nodded to him.
"Alright, enough you two," Nicole laughed, pulling me from my own little world. "Let's do our job so he can do his!" She ran to her spot in the formation.
"Ready, set!" yelled Stephanie over the sound of the fans in the crowd and we prepared for our first set of stunts while Nicole flipped tricks in front of us.
I was a side-stunter. I was never the center flier, but my small frame and natural flexibility constantly put me on the tops of the mounts. It was alright I wasn't scared of heights but the moment I began to jump onto my bases' hands, I knew something didn't feel right.
"Wait," I gasped. But they didn't hear. They counted and flung me upward, but I didn't feel anything. The world just went black with the sounds of the cheering crowd and the gasps of the cheerleaders and I plunged toward the ground.
I woke with a splitting headache and my throat even more sore than before. As everything came into sharper focus, I realized I was laying in a hospital bed, my dad looking down at me with both concern and relief.
"Dad?" I groaned, struggling to sit up. "What are you doing? Shouldn't you be at work?" My dad, a single father since I was seven years old, worked night shifts and General Motors and then pulled double duty coaching the middle school's sports teams. He did well for our family, but his busy work schedule meant he missed a lot of our extracurricular activities.
"I'm right where I need to be, honey," Dad told me calmly, putting his hand on my arm. He gave me a small smile.
"Oh, good. She's awake!" My older sister Lauren said brightly as she entered the room with a cup of coffee.
"Why are you here?" I asked in surprise. "Where's Aubrey?"
"With her dada at home," Lauren said, pecking a kiss on my forehead. "I think Jeff has everything under control. He's had about three years experience."
Lauren had been like a second mom to me since ours left. When she had married Jeff five years ago, I had been devastated. I felt like she was replacing our family with a new one. But over time, I grew to love Jeff like a brother. When Aubrey was born three years ago, I was thrilled to be named her godmother. But Lauren worked as a teacher, and between our busy schedules, it was rare that I got a chance to see her anymore.
"Nick was here earlier, but I took him home an hour ago," Lauren told me, tucking her blonde hair behind her ear. She looked so different than me and my brother Nick, with her blue eyes and light hair that contrasted with our brown hair and dark eyes. "It's a school night for him and you know he can't function without sleep. Same for Nicole and Josh."
"Josh was here?" My heart leapt.
"Of course, silly," Lauren smiled. "But Dad and I encouraged them to get some rest. They were all so worried about you, though."
"So...what happened?" I asked, unsure I wanted to know the answer. What if it was absolutely mortifying?
"You blacked out at the game," Lauren told me with a sympathetic grimace. "You fell, and even though your spotter tried to catch you, you hit your head."
"The paramedics brought you to the hospital unconscious," Dad continued. "They ran some tests just to be sure it was only a concussion."
I breathed a sigh of relief. "So I'm okay? I can go home tomorrow?"
Dad and Lauren exchanged a worried glance.
"Hon," Dad said, sitting forward in his seat. "When you were brought in, the doctors ran some scans. And they found some abnormalities."
"Abnormalities?" My heart sped up. "What do you mean?"
"I think the doctors will explain it better," Dad said with a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "There may be nothing to worry about, Rand. Don't get yourself worked up for nothing."
I nodded, but grasped his hand tighter.
As if on cue, a doctor walked in. "Hello, Miranda. It's nice to meet you. I'm Dr. Clemens." He gently shook my hand.
"Nice to meet you, too," I replied automatically, although in better circumstances I probably wouldn't be meeting him at all.
Dr. Clemens sat on the edge of my bed and looked at me calmly. "So, Miranda," he said quietly. "How have you been feeling today?"
"Fine," I replied casually. Dr. Clemens raised his eyebrows at me, as if he could read my mind. "Okay, my throat's been hurting a little bit."
Dad looked at me in surprise. "Why haven't you said anything, Miranda?"
"Because, Dad. My U of M auditions are in a week. I couldn't compromise them just because of sore throat. You know me," I told him seriously.
"Any other symptoms, Miranda?" Dr. Clemens asked. "have you been feeling tired lately? Fatigued?"
I nodded. "A little. But I just thought it was because of the season changes and everything. So do I have strep throat? Fatigue and sore throat, right? So I can just take some antibiotics and be done with it?"
"Not quite," Dr. Clemens said. "It's a bit more complicated than that."
I frowned. What could it be?
"We noticed an abnormality in your throat when we took your CT scan," he told me. "A mass."
"A mass?" I repeated. "A mass of what?"
"I don't know yet. I want to take a biopsy tomorrow to find out more."
"So I have to stay in here another day?" I asked, frustrated. "So you can go inside my throat?"
"Essentially," the doctor nodded. "Miranda, I need to know more before I can help you."
"Fine," I agreed. "I'll do it tomorrow. But then I want to go home."
"Tomorrow," he replied. But he didn't even mention when I'd be going home.
And deep down, I had a terrifying feeling that it wouldn't be for a long time.