A/N Thank you to all, especially to my beta-reader, Carolina Martinez. Any feedback is appreciated.
Ani stared up at the wooden cracks.
She folded her arms behind her head, the way she always did. She'd never really liked pillows.
Tara shifted on the bed above her. The corner of a pink quilt fell off the side of the bed. The girls were all long asleep. Jessie whistled slightly while she breathed, a quirk Ani found more funny than annoying. Jackie seemed to be sleeping soundly on her cot in the corner.
"Tara?" Ani whispered. "You awake?"
In a second, Tara's head peeked out from over her bed. Her brown eyes blinked sleepily. "Yup, I'm awake. What is it?" She rubbed her eyes and smiled down at Ani. She must have been glad Ani had called her. Tara seemed like the type of girl who was quite excited at the idea of having met a new friend. It sure seemed like she didn't have many.
Ani pushed herself up on one bony elbow. Those arms of hers were getting bonier by the day. She couldn't help it, really. It was as simple as her just not wanting to eat. Her stomach had given up on the idea of any food at all and was constantly filled with nausea. Even when it wasn't, the very idea of food seemed stupid somehow. What was it that Ryan called it? Cancerexia or something. Yeah, he'd tease her about that constantly. Man, she missed that. She missed that a ton.
"Do you think it seems like I'm angry with Jessie?" It had been a whole day since their private chat and Ani had snapped at Jessie at least a few times already. And when she wasn't snapping at her, she knew she was being distant. And poor Jessie was exactly the type of girl to read into it too much.
Tara sighed. But sighing upside down was hard to do and her face was turning red. "I don't know, Ani. I wouldn't say you seem angry or anything. No, not mad. Just….oh, damn. There's a word I'm looking for." She chewed her lip in thought.
"Distant?" Ani suggested.
"Yeah!" Tara snapped her fingers and ended up nearly falling off the bunk. After a squeal loud enough that it was a miracle no one woke up, she rightened herself. "That's the word. Distant." She shrugged. "But don't ask me. What do I know? You probably aren't trying to be. That's just what it comes off as, you know? I don't think Jessie even notices and if she does, just tell her you don't mean it. Jessie's a chatter so maybe it just worries her when she sees others not chatting back. Jessie doesn't go to school like we do so she probably doesn't see a lot of kids. Maybe she just doesn't know how to react. Again, just tell her you aren't trying to be distant. That's just my take on it."
"Mmmm. That makes sense," Ani said sleepily.
But Tara really didn't know. She couldn't possibly know that Ani actually was trying to be distant. After all, who does that to their friend? Maybe their only friend. Ani had already gone and screwed up the rest of her social life this past year.
Ani thought of her friends back in New York. Maybe if she thought hard enough, she could escape to that blissful state of mind when she got all caught up in the past. It was so much easier to pretend that was the reality. Oh yes, Ally would likely visit soon, bringing her homemade fudge and all the good school gossip before high school started. And she'd bring Olivia with her! Olivia would chat with all the other girls like this was just any old summer camp and then she'd giggle with Ani about her newest boyfriend or something terribly shallow. But Olivia's shallowness was a welcome one, like eating chocolate cake. Sure, it was empty calories. But it sure was good! Zoe would write a letter every single week, because she was always so busy. But the letters would be pages long and full of wonderful details about her amazingly normal summer experiences.
It all seemed so perfect. And that was how it had been, too. What had gone wrong?
Ani silently cursed to herself. The brain had an awful way of reflecting on all those past life experiences and every mistake she'd ever made just when she should be sleeping.
It had started out just another year. The eighth grade. The girls all went to a private school where eighth was the highest grade and that brought a whole new level of confidence. Olivia already was going with guys and Ally was getting better and better at field hockey. Zoe was steadily realizing how much of a genius she was and started joining all kinds of fancy programs. Ani wrote poems that she and Zoe loved to compare. It had been two whole years since her last chemo and the new drug she was on seemed to be working wonders.
Not for long.
Now she was doing the same thing to Jessie she had done with all her other friends. Slowly cutting herself off. It wasn't like she was even trying to do that. That was just the way it happened.
It was all because of that one checkup. Just a standard one, really. She and her mother had gone down to the City to Children's there, because that was where she'd always gotten treatment. The drive took over an hour, but Ani was calm because she'd recently gotten her own I-Phone, and so spent the ride listening to music on that. One might think Ani listened to those Indie groups or obscure bands nobody had ever heard of. But she was also full of surprises. She was a little shy to admit that her playlist included "Call Me Maybe," a bit of Ke$ha and Katy Perry, mixed with whatever else was playing on the radio. Not the most sophisticated stuff, but it cheered her up.
Then they'd arrived and it was all back to familiarity. The gaudy murals on the walls filled with pictures of jungles and oceans and all that were still the same, as where the bald-headed three year olds and their glazed-eyed parents, still learning to cope with the fact that this was their new reality.
But Ani and her mother? They were pros. They waltzed right into the room where the PET scans and MRIs would take place. Ani still laughed at all Dr. Campbell's awful jokes, like she always did.
It was just a checkup, wasn't it?
Ani sighed to herself. At least it was over now.
She woke up that morning with a dull headache and a little shortness of breath. But that was easily fixed by a few drips of morphine. She shifted on the bed. Yeah, that stuff was supposed to be addictive, but it wasn't like she lived off of it. Besides, it didn't matter much. There was hardly any time for her left to get addicted in the first place. Doctors were usually pretty hesitant to prescribe the stuff to their patients, especially pediatric ones, but Dr. Campbell was a good guy who'd known Ani long enough to see that it was fine.
Thank God for that.
A pillow smacked her in the face. Ani laughed and threw one back at Jessie. "Jeez, Jess! I can't even have a second of reflection to myself in the morning!" She yawned and climbed out of bed. The soreness of her muscles surprised her, as it always did. Well, it wash't like she actually did anything to exert them.
She put the pillow back on its bed and thought of Ryan. They used to have the most brutal pillow fights. Only last time when he hit her in the face, her nose started gushing blood.
They hadn't had a pillow fight in a long time.
Ani grabbed a dark green t-shirt and navy running shorts. Hah! Running! That was funny. But the shorts were comfy, so what the heck? It was like how sweatpants were made for exercising, but really were used for the exact opposite. Ani knew she'd spent many a day in her gray sweats, buried under three quilts on her couch, eating potato chips even though she was already doubling over with nausea.
She wandered sleepily over to the changing rooms.
"I saw Cat and Mason making out last night," Jessie announced matter-of-factly, once she and Tara were clothed in jean shorts, with her in a red shirt and Tara wearing a shirt for some camp. Some normal camp.
Tara scrunched up her freckled nose. "Making out?"
Ani gave her a light punch. "Aw, little Tara! Yes, in the world of normal teenagers, generally a male and a female who express interest in one another in a physical way will engage in the not-so-rare ritual known as PDA."
Tara rolled her eyes. "Shut up!" She laughed. "I was just thinking….wouldn't her, um, tubes get in the way?"
Ani couldn't help but laugh out loud. "Oh my gosh, you're right! We should totally ask them in rehearsal today how they did it!" She knew Cat was the type to giggle like mad at the question and think nothing of it. There were many kids here who had grown so used to their illness, it would be unimaginable to live without it. They made do.
The girls walked to the cafeteria together, still giggling. All had red faces as it didn't seem like something to giggle about, but that made it all the more hilarious.
"Oh yeah!" Jessie pumped her fist. "French toast sticks. That's what I'm talking about."
Tara wrinkled her nose. "Ugh, Jessie. I don't know how you can eat those. They used to feed me those things all the time in the hospital. Like, every day for breakfast. I didn't even like them then! What I wouldn't do for some of my dad's pancakes."
Ani put some fruit in a bowl. Hopefully that wouldn't warrant any nausea. Her stomach coiled at the thought of french toast sticks, too. Evidently hospital breakfasts were the same everywhere. Memories flash. Her first stay, when she was nine years old. That one friendly nurse who was there every time Ani went back to Children's. She would make jokes every morning about hospital food. Once she helped Ani's mother paint Ani's nails. Bright pink. That was the color they'd used.
"Hey Jessie, did you memorize your lines for Scene Three yet?" She asked her friend.
"Sure did. But what I'm really looking forward to is the Tiger Lily scene."
Tara blushed at that. Then, she grinned. "I'm looking forward to whatever scene it is when you and Wendy fall in love."
"Aw, gross Tara!" Rory cried out from behind them. Ani thought he'd always had a thing for surprise entrances. Sammy was behind him and he gave a smile to Tara. Rory made a face. "That's my girl, Ani."
Ani laughed. "We'll try not to go too crazy."
In front of them, a mostly bald girl slightly older than Ani walked over to her table. Ani thought she was the same girl with the YOLO shirt. This time, her shirt read "Cancer is scared of me."
Ani chuckled slightly to herself as she walked her tray over to the table with Jessie, Tara, Sammy, Rory and whoever else wanted to sit there that day. Once upon a time, Ani had a few shirts like that, too. Blake got her one for her eleventh birthday, didn't he? It said "I beat cancer. What's new with you?" The shirt had made Ani smile and she wore it proudly for a long time. Until it felt like wearing a big lie. She hoped extra hard for this girl and sent a silent prayer up that this girl would get to keep wearing shirts like that.
She picked at her fruit. Pineapple. Ani had always loved pineapple. Even though chemo wrecked her taste buds, for some reason she could always taste pineapple just fine.
"Earth to Ani," Jessie called.
Jessie smacked her palm into her forehead. "See what I mean? Ani, I love ya, but you're a total space case. I was saying that during free time today we should go to the lake."
"That sounds great." Ani smiled.
The lake did sound great. Jessie was right about it. It was so quiet under the water. Like the world above, with all its chaos, didn't even exist. Down there, it was just the swishing sound the water made and the little bubbles rising up. Calm and peaceful. Just the way Ani liked things to be.
That was why she'd liked her friends so much back in New York. They knew how to make her feel normal. By not trying at all!
Why had she shut them off?
Suddenly, Ani felt a jab on her shoulder. She looked up. Rory and Sammy were off to their cabin to change into swimsuits or something and Jessie was throwing her tray out and chatting with Cat and Mason. The jabber was Tara, with her big serious brown eyes looking even more serious than usual.
"Hey Ani, will you come to the bathroom with me?"
Ah. The infamous "No girl goes to the bathroom alone" rule. But didn't they just go?
Ani shrugged. "Uh, okay. Sure, why not?"
Tara walked stiffly out of the cafeteria and Ani followed, curiosity brimming. She'd always loved a good mystery. They'd just gone to the bathroom before coming here, so why was Tara going now? Maybe there was a secret Ani was about to be let on to. Her inner shallow girl was practically squealing. Ooh, maybe it was about Sammy. Maybe they'd kissed! But Jessie was easily the one Tara should have gone to for romantic advice. The closest thing Ani had ever had to romance was a kid in the third grade who stole her glue stick every day.
They walked into the sunlight and on the gravel path past the Medical Center. The Center was a large building meant to look like a log cabin-mansion thingy. It wasn't that bad. The nurses there were pretty nice. A counselor was walking in a girl in a wheelchair.
Ani shivered. Thank God she wasn't that far gone yet.
Tara pulled her into a smaller bathroom, not the one with the showers where most girls would be changing right now.
Ani resisted the urge to look around. This place was likely crawling with spiders.
Tara sat down on a little bench. Man. The girl was fearless. There was no way Ani was sitting down anywhere in this spider hole.
"So what's up?" Tara asked.
"Well, nothing much. I'm mostly just confused as to why I'm here. Couldn't we have done this in the nice sunny little pine grove?"
"Nope." Tara shook her head. "I want some honestly from you. Are you okay?"
Ani bit her lip. "Why do you ask?"
Tara sighed. "Because, Ani. You're completely spaced out. That's kind of how you've been the last few days but you know, I didn't think I knew you well enough to ask what's up. But now I think I do. So spill. What's wrong? Do you feel sick or something?"
"Oh, not any more than usual." Ani smiled apologetically. "Guess I was just thinking about my friends back home. I don't know. Just feeling guilty, kind of."
This was the hard part. Ani looked at Tara, who stared at her from behind her glasses. Tara did seem really trustworthy. Ani wouldn't be surprised if the girl had a whole bunch of friends back home. Probably her whole school knew about her and had fundraisers for her and wore t-shirts with her name on them and whatever. That was how it had been with Ani in elementary school. But by middle school, she'd had a separate meeting with the principal and made him promise she wasn't going to be any poster kid.
Ani swallowed. "I just feel really bad for being the way I was with them. I was kind of awful, actually."
Tara raised her eyebrows. "Oh, really? Pardon me, but I find that hard to believe."
"No, I'm serious. I was so close to them at the beginning of the year and everything was fine. I was feeling real good and my hair was all grown out and nobody seemed to know or care about all the shit going on with me. See, I did this thing at St. Jude's that worked really well, an experimental drug and all that."
Tara nodded like she understood perfectly. She probably did.
"Then I just had a seizure at home. And just like that everything flipped. I was at the hospital and my best friend Olivia came to see me. She brought along Uno, which was our favorite game and superficial magazines and even bought me a whole bag of buttered popcorn jellybeans, the kind I love best. She got all this stuff for me. And you know what I did? As soon as she came into the room, I turned my back on her. Pretended I was sleeping or something. I didn't even feel sick, I swear. But she went out kind of panicked and I never even apologized."
"Wow. I'm sorry. But you know what? I did the exact same thing with my best friend Agnes."
Ani sat down heavily on the bench without even thinking about insects anymore. Her head was pouring more. So maybe today wouldn't be a very active day. "So what's your story, Tara?" She asked, furring she'd be here for a while until the pounding subsided enough. "That is, only if you want to share it."
Tara nodded. "I should, though. I think that would be good. Well, everything started a year ago. August, really. I got this weird ache in my left leg, in the femur. It wasn't that bad at first, just like I pulled something. It kept on for almost two weeks when we went to see my pediatrician and he said I had a sports injury. I cracked up the whole car ride home. Sports injury?! Doctors are such idiots sometimes. I haven't been near a playing field in years."
Ani laughed at that. "I used to be somewhat athletic, actually. I mean, I was a soccer player. Midfield, that's what I played. Until after the fall season of seventh grade."
She felt a squeeze on her shoulder. Tara gave her a sweet smile. "Sorry if you had to miss out on that, Ani. You'll be playing again."
Who was Ani to tell her the truth? But why not? Miracles did happen.
"Well the pain got worse," Tara continued. "It wouldn't go away until I could hardly even walk to class. It was pretty embarrassing because we went back to the doctor to get an X-ray and nothing was wrong. Finally in early October my mom sent me to an orthopedic specialist who told me to get an MRI. We went to the place and I went into that really loud machine but it didn't seem like anything. They were just looking for some tissue or muscle damage. At most, I might have to get some minor surgery if I tore something. But that wasn't it. I was sleeping over at Agnes's house and when I got home the phone rang. My mom picked it up and she just stood there in shock. I heard her say 'A mass? How big?' That's when I got scared. Then she said 'Yes. Yes we'll go there right away.' Then she told me we had to go to Children's because they found something on my scan. I didn't ask her anymore questions after that."
"How scared were you?"
Tara shrugged. "Mostly I didn't feel anything at all. Not till we got there and it all set in. All those kids with I.V poles and wheelchairs and bald heads. I felt fine, besides some pain in my leg. I wasn't like them!" Her voice ended up an octave from where it started. "Then came the two weeks in the hospital for the biopsy. That's when we found out I had osteosarcoma. Seven months of chemo was what it took. And now I understand more. Those kids I saw, they're not little babies who need to be tiptoed around."
"Yeah, that's it!" Ani exclaimed. "We're not fragile dolls, are we?"
"No! We aren't! We've been through this much already, I'd say we're even tougher than most."
"There you have it." Ani smiled. "It isn't rocket science."
"Thanks, Ani. But you still haven't really answered my question. Are you really okay?"
"Of course. I'm just fine."
And for the first time in a very long while, Ani felt those words were absolutely true.
She was here. And she was okay.
"Come on, Tara. Let's get out of this gross place, huh?"
Tara smiled in relief. "Thank God. Sunshine, here we come." She sat up and brushed her shorts off.