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She was sitting in her car, trying to get out of the school parking lot in sometime less than ten minutes, when she got the call. The ringing cell phone read a number she’d known since she was small. A number that was not her own, but was just as good as. Immediately, a feeling of dread filled her stomach. Like someone dropped a bag of bricks in her gut. When she picked up, she heard no words, only tears. All she needed to hear were tears before she knew. Knew as surely as she’d ever known anything.
The peanut butter and strawberry preserves sandwich, which had tasted so delicious only moments before, seemed to turn to sawdust in her mouth. She inched herself in between two cars, leaving them no choice but to let her fully in. She flew down the road, going 10 then 20 over. She reasoned with herself; if you get there in the next 5 minutes, or even 10, he’ll be fine. He won’t leave you.
But, once her car was parked and she was standing in a hospital she had hoped she would never stand in again, it became apparent that driving over the speed limit would do nothing to help her friend. He was going to leave her. And there was nothing she could do about it. The woman who stood outside the door to a room in the oncology unit of the hospital told her that with her face alone. Utter grief written across the planes of a freckled face. It was this woman’s sobs that had echoed over the phone.
The door to the room lay open and in this room laid a boy who was rather quickly getting closer to death every moment. She stared at this boy, wishing to see the muscles and healthiness that used to compose him. But, all she could see were the wiry limbs of a sick person. Blue eyes fluttered open, missing the glint of mischief they used to hold, and a smile made its way across the boy’s face. Not the same smile, and not really the same boy. But, he was still hers. Completely and forever, however short his forever turned out to be. “You were supposed to be getting better,” she whispered.
“It’s called a relapse. It happens to the best of ‘em.” How could he not be sad? Or scared? She was scared and she was not the one dying. Most likely, she would go on to live for 100 more years. Alone, without him.
She wanted to punch someone or kick something. Tiny fists were balled at her sides. “You are supposed to be better than the best. You promised.”
A broken whisper escaped the cracked lips of her best friend, “I know.” He looked so tired. So unbelievably worn out. She thought of all the times he had gotten into fights on her behalf. How part of her would be flattered, but the other part worried about his safety. And it turned out in the end that his cells were what she needed to worry about, not some other boy’s fist.
Her feet found their way to a chair by the bed. She wanted to reach out and touch his hand, but her fingers would not budge. She wanted to say something, but her lips would not move. What about everything they had always wanted to do? Graduating, seeing the world, growing old. He would not get to do any of that. And she, she would get to do all of it. “It’s not fair.” And the tears began.
His eyelids drooped, as if it were physically draining to keep himself alert, awake, alive. He patted her hand. “Don’t cry. It’ll be fine.”
There was so much she wanted to say to him. How she knew that he had a crayoned picture of her, drawn what seemed like a lifetime ago, in his drawer. How she had cried herself to sleep the year he went to camp. How much she would miss him. The things about him she loved the best. Why she didn’t want him to go. Why he couldn’t go. But, looking down at this boy, she had to wonder if these things mattered. They wouldn’t save him. Nothing could save him.
“I’m glad you came.”
She smiled sadly and it made her want to throw up. “Of course I came, goof.”
Silence flooded the room. Hospital silence, which is not really silence. She learned this the first time he stayed here. When she mulled over the same thoughts, wondering what she should or shouldn’t say to her friend that would soon enough cease to be. But he’d gotten better. Because he was him and there was no battle he’d ever lost. Her eyes trailed across his body. Pale, spindly limbs, dry skin, coarse hair that never grew back right. The thought scared her as it passed through her head. Maybe there was one fight he simply couldn’t win.
Those blue eyes threatened to close again. She grabbed the dry hand closest to her. A hysterical edge lined her voice. “Hey. Hey! Don’t fall asleep! Please!” If he fell asleep now, that would be it. She would never see those blue eyes again. And that was something she could not bear. He could fight this for a little longer.
He laughed and it sounded like it was painful. “But I’m tired.”
“No you’re not,” she pleaded with him. Her dark hair flung out from her head as she shook it in protest.
His fingers reached up and tangled themselves in a lock of her hair. Her breath caught in her throat. He’d never touched her like this before. “You know, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”
Suddenly, other moments like this passed before her eyes. Hallway gossip in middle school, pages torn out of spiral notebooks, messages slipped through the slats of a locker door, embarrassed invites to dances. She knew what he was about to tell her. The same thing he had been trying to tell her for seven years now. “I don’t want to hear it. Don’t tell me.” She sobbed onto the bed as his hand ran down her head.
They’d wasted so many years not telling each other. Why had she been so stupid? Because she thought they’d have forever to be together. But they didn’t. And now, he sat before her dying of cancer at the totally, disgustingly unfair age of seventeen. If those three words left his mouth before he left her life, she didn’t know if she would ever let him go. “I know it,” she whispered. “Me too. Always.”
“I want to say it,” he said decisively. And for a split-second, her friend came back to her. Stubborn.
She closed her eyes and placed her delicate hands over her ears, like she was a child that did not want to hear about a punishment. Tears seeped through her long eyelashes. The hands did nothing to help. “I love you. And I always will. That’s a promise I can keep.”
Slowly, she uncovered her ears and her eyelids opened. “You’re dying. You are going to die,” she told him.
He nodded. “Yes.” He ran his fingers along her smooth, pale cheek.
“Well, always isn’t really that long then,” she stated simply.
“Always is forever.” His hand dropped to his side and his labored breathing slowed. “Talk to me about something,” he demanded.
And she did. She talked and talked and talked. About nothing really. For hours. She spoke about how they first met and the first time he agreed to play with her. All the fun they had had when they were small. When it really seemed like they’d have each other forever. His mother and father and brother came and went while she talked. They had phone calls to make and doctors to talk to, but she was there only for the boy who lay before her. She talked about all the times he’d been there for her, all the times when she wanted to tell him how she felt. And, when night began to fill the small room, she talked about when she found out he was sick. How she had thought it must somehow be her fault. How she had cried.
He listened. Her voice was beautiful, and even though he didn’t say much he remembered each of those moments with her. A few tears slid from his eyes when she cried. And when the smallest of smiles, that was all she would allow herself, graced her face, a grin was etched onto his. He couldn’t think of a better soundtrack for his slowly faltering heart.
She talked so long and so much, she almost didn’t notice when his labored breathing stopped. But, even though a hospital is never fully silent, the absence of the rhythmic breathing stuck out. The bag of bricks came back. She watched that line travel across the black screen. A line that would go on forever, but stood for the end. She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t call out for his mom or a doctor.
This boy, her best friend, he was gone. He had been there through all the biggest moments of her life. And he wasn’t there anymore. Her hands started to shake slowly, and then came the tears, and the huge, great, gasping sobs that she had held inside since she first found out he was going to die. And, suddenly, there were people all around her. Some were in hysterics; some were trying to shock the life back into her friend. But she knew he had left her. And there was nothing she could do about it.
When compared to the world, that boy was one person. A seemingly infinitesimal value. But, when compared to her life, when every single moment she had lived was studied, his value seemed to stretch forever. She sat in the chair even after they wheeled the bed away, and drowned in the love of the boy who had died in front of her.