I don't have anything against being strapped to a hospital bed, with the exception of my intense claustrophobia. With a final tug, Dr. Michaels cinched the strap around my head tight, pinning the last mobile part of my body in place. I licked my lips nervously and tried to wiggle my arms. They barely moved. I took a deep breath in an attempt to calm my nerves and stop freaking out. It didn't work.
"Sorry, Tess." He tested all of the restraints. "It's a bit archaic and... and I'm sorry we can't use an anesthetic, but it could reduce our chances." He wrung his hands and kept fiddling with uncharacteristic nervousness. He usually exuded confidence, an attitude that helped keep me going. Before I could say anything, he turned to the case he'd brought in. It opened with a mechanical whir and a hiss. I took a deep breath, held it, and counted to ten. It was only an injection. I could handle an injection. No big deal. Just a little needle.
Why had I agreed to this?
He stuck me with the syringe, and I winced, but it was barely a pinch. I laughed in relief. "That wasn't bad," I said. He’d made it sound like this would be painful. I'd learned to handle my share of pain, but that was nothing. Why had he strapped me down? I opened my mouth to ask, then it hit. "Whoa." My heart pounded with machine gun rapidity and drowned out all other sound as the buzzing energy spread through my body. Dr. Michaels went back to the large silver case, and when he turned toward me again, he held something entirely different in his hands.
My eyes bulged, and I jerked against my restraints involuntarily. “You’ve got to be kidding!” He wasn’t. If he'd wanted my heart to race, he hadn't needed the first shot. My heart rate spiked further, pounding uncontrollably. I sucked in one rapid breath after another. This was going to hurt worse than the time my brother tried to give me a tattoo with our mother’s sewing machine.
The gigantic needle in the doctor's hands looked more like a medieval spear, poised to impale me, than a medical instrument. My eyes were torn away from the metal spike when I noticed the metallic fluid rippling in the injection cylinder.
"I'm so sorry, but it has to be delivered quickly. Th—this is the only way,” he said.
This procedure was my last chance. I wouldn't back out now. I steeled myself for what was coming. He looked at me, asking for permission. I sealed my lips shut and nodded.
"Sorry.” He grimaced and slammed the point of the needle into my chest. It punched through the cartilage between my ribs, the tip catching briefly on part of the bone. I gasped as intense pain lanced through me.
I groaned through gritted teeth. It took a minute, but I got a handle on it. I’d felt worse. I opened my eyes in time to see Dr. Michaels press a button on the device. The fluid from the injection cylinder disappeared into me with a pneumatic hiss.
Agony ripped through my chest, tearing a scream from my throat that refused to stop until the last particle of air was shoved out of my lungs. My muscles constricted so tightly I couldn't breathe. The pain tore upward into my brain. Whatever he'd injected me with crawled in my veins like thousands of spiders that ripped and burned as they moved. My vision darkened under the onslaught of pain and lack of oxygen. I didn't even try to fight it; I embraced it, throwing myself into the blackness of unconsciousness.
1 - Diagnosis
Memories spun through my mind. Old memories. When I was two, kissing a three-year-old boy I called ‘Taywer’ and seeing my mom and her friend laugh hysterically when he started making spitting noises and wiping his mouth. I told him he was “so wude!” Dropping a jar of peaches on the floor at pre-school orientation. Standing on the open toilet, claiming to be ‘queen of the world,’ only to fall and get wedged into the seat, my butt sitting in water, unable to get out. Dozens of memories spun through my mind then faded, blurring until I couldn’t remember them a second later. They were… gone. Stolen. The memories had been so real, like I was reliving those moments. Then they were gone, and I couldn’t remember anything except the feeling they left behind.
Where was I? A steady piercing beep grated on my nerves and hammered away at the fog that clouded my mind, slowly forcing it to work again. Heart monitor. I hated that sound. Each incessant beep, made by the machines attached to me, made it impossible to forget why I was here. What was that terrible smell? The chemical odor burned my nostrils.
This was where people went to get better.
A hand rested against my cheek, probably my mom. Everything hurt. It was a new pain, different from the medicated discomfort of cancer, sharper. I needed stronger medication.
"Did it work?" It took me a moment to recognize Cole's voice.
"We don't know, but the doctor should be back with the results soon," my mom replied.
With a herculean effort, I opened my eyes. White walls. Blurry faces.
"She's waking up. Hey baby girl, how are you feeling?" my mom asked. That was a dumb question. I was too exhausted to roll my eyes or tease her. I couldn't even manage a wry smile or a wink. I was nineteen, and she still called me “baby girl.”
My eyes focused. My friends Chelsea and Cole stood behind my mom. My little brother Carter wasn’t here. He wanted to be with me during the procedure, but my mom and I tried to make sure he continued to live his life. It was his junior year, and he had a lot going on. I didn’t want to be the one to mess it up for him.
Cole was almost two years older than me. We’d been together on and off until he graduated and a military academy in New Mexico recruited him. He was an accomplished martial artist, but his computer expertise and hacking skills got him the full ride scholarship. When he moved, we drifted apart. With distance, our relationship gradually faded. After he left, I didn’t hear from him again until after my diagnosis when he had texted me out of the blue. He’d stopped by before I’d started treatment and texted me a few times since, but it felt awkward because he only ever asked about the procedures I had to undergo. Then again, everyone was awkward around me now. It was nice to see him, but his visits made me feel like a pity project.
He looked different, stronger, less like the boy I knew and more like a man. He was changing, growing, filling out, getting older. Things most people had time to do. I still couldn’t get used to his short military haircut.
My best friend Chelsea sat beside him. Her picture should have been next to the word kindness in the dictionary. When all my other friends disappeared, driven away by their discomfort as they watched me fade a little more every day, Chelsea never wavered. She was a beacon of hope I clung to during the darkest days. She was always there for me.
I focused on them, and they both gave me a small wave and plastered enthusiastic smiles on their faces. Their attempts to appear upbeat weren’t particularly believable. I appreciated it, but right now, I didn't want anyone in the room … not even my mom. She was wonderful, but a worrier.
"Am I done?" I asked thickly. A stray memory shot through my brain, and in it, a vaguely familiar voice spoke. This will make her forget, but it’s your choice. Another voice spoke a moment later. I didn’t have a choice. I’m so sorry, Tess. Who was it and why was he sorry? I tried to remember, but nothing came. When did that happen, or had I imagined it? The memory drifted away.
"All done, we’re waiting for the results. They should be back in—" my mom paused to look at the clock, "—fifteen minutes."
We all knew this was my last shot. I stayed calm for the first five minutes. The next ten passed with agonizing slowness, filled with throbbing waves of pain and forced conversation I didn't participate in. The slow tick of the clock hit my ears like a hammer, the hands jerking along as time slipped by. Dr. Michaels would be here soon.
I released my death grip on the rails of my bed and massaged my hands in an attempt to restore circulation. Closing my eyes, I focused on my breathing, trying to block out their voices. I loved them, I did, but their chatter was driving me crazy. I struggled to stay calm until the sound of squeaky tennis shoes echoed in the hallway outside my room. It was the familiar sound of my doctor’s sneakers.
He'd fixed me. I hoped. I had faith in him... and there was no middle ground left, either I was fixed, or I wasn't. The calm evaporated as quickly as it had come. My heart rapidly built to a heavy hammering in my chest that made my pain worse and blotted out any other sound except the incessant beeping of the heart monitor.
The beeping grew louder and louder, drilling into my mind with that piercing noise designed to get a doctor’s attention and drive their patients insane. Who would build such an incredibly irritating machine? Surely someone sadistic—who continued to make millions off the little torture devices.
The footsteps were almost at my door. I massaged my temples and took a deep breath, forcing a mask of calm onto my face. I tried to feel upbeat, but couldn’t shake the apprehension. My mom slipped her hand into mine and squeezed. I flashed her a weak smile of gratitude and then looked toward the door as Dr. Michaels entered the room.
I spoke the moment he entered. "Two cannibals were eating a clown. One looks at the other and says 'does this taste funny to you?'" The joke came out of my mouth by itself, like verbal vomit, something uncontrollable, spilling out in spite of personal preferences, inhibitions, or restraint.
When I got anxious, I couldn’t stop it. It was like Tourette's for closet comedians. I would have cringed, but I’d long since accepted this deficiency in my behavior. My jokes were usually from movies with Robin Williams. That particular joke was from Bicentennial Man. My dad loved Robin Williams and, unfortunately, it had rubbed off on me. None of my friends had heard of him, much less seen any of his movies. I’d asked to meet Robin Williams and my dad told me he was dead. It was the tragedy of my young life. I’d locked myself in my room and cried myself to sleep. You would have thought my best friend died.
"That's so gross,” Chelsea said with a mildly disgusted smile. Cole rolled his eyes and nodded in agreement. My mom was a different story. A brief flash of pain crossed her face. I winced. She knew where I got my sense of humor.
I glanced at Dr. Michaels. His mouth was half opened. He blinked twice slowly. Deep, full laughter quickly replaced his expression. Whether he forced it or otherwise, I smiled as a brief sense of relief flooded me.
I trusted Dr. Michaels. He’d fought to get me added to an endless list of drug trials and procedures. None of them had worked, but he’d tried. His empathy had filled part of the gap left when my dad abandoned me.
The pervasive kindness in his laughter reassured me and told me there was a chance everything would be okay.
We’d chosen Dr. Michaels as my Oncologist because of the unfailing hope he radiated. He took his work personally. He got involved, which was exactly what we wanted since my life was in the balance. He cared. Not about his work. Not about winning. Not about people. He cared about me as an individual. He was exactly my kind of person. He also liked Robin Williams’s movies, even if they were dated.
Dr. Michaels was my best chance to regain what I’d lost. Before, I had a shot at becoming a world-class violinist. I knew it was vain, but I used to be beautiful too. He could give me those things, and my life, back. That was the hope.
He’d made me a believer … until today. His sparkling eyes and ready smile were missing. The frown on his face was foreign. The emptiness in his eyes spoke louder than words ever could.
"I'm…" He trailed off when the hopeful smile fell from my face. That one word was all I needed to hear.
It didn't work. That was it. My fight was over. Silence filled the room, thicker than air, forcing its way down my throat. My ears roared, louder and louder and my throat tightened. I couldn’t breathe. My mom sobbed beside me, breaking the spell, and my body sucked in a small gasp of air, coming alive again.
The tumult of emotions tore at me as I stared at my doctor, and friend, desperately waiting for him to say something that would contradict what I already knew. My mom continued to squeeze my hand harder as she waited with me, clinging to a last, fraying, thread of hope.
"I'm sorry," he said sadly. I blinked, and hot tears rolled down my cheeks. A tide of self-pity threatened to drown me. "The treatment was unsuccessful. We knew it was a long shot."
My ears were deaf to his words after that. There was nothing else. We’d tried everything. It was remarkable all of the experimental treatments hadn't killed me outright. My mom pulled me into her arms, crushing me to her in a desperate embrace. I stared numbly into her shoulder.
Chelsea wrapped her arms around us. Their comfort and sympathy suffocated me and amplified the cold and lonely emptiness that stretched out in front of me.
Dr. Michaels finished speaking and turned to go.
He’d put hope in my heart, but in the end, that hope was a lie, a poison that had made me believe I could live. I wanted to be angry. I tried to be, but inside I was empty, hollowed out. His words had ripped my hope away. He thought he could save me and I’d believed him. I should never have trusted him.
The uncharacteristic guilt etched on his face stopped me. He’d actually thought he could save me; it was my fault for being dumb enough to believe him.
"Let me go,” I said to my mom and Chelsea. The comforting words stopped and they backed away. Death and I had a date, even if I wanted to stand him up. What was the point of anyone else suffering because of it?
I gingerly pushed myself off of the hospital bed as Dr. Michaels turned back around. His shoulders slumped. Sadness lined his face. I tried to think of something to make him feel better, some phrase that would assuage his wounded soul. Nothing came. We stood there and didn't say anything for a long moment.
I shrugged my shoulders. "People die," I said with a sad smile of acceptance.
Apparently, those weren't the right words. "I'm so sorry … so sorry," he said, his voice fading to a whisper. His body sagged under the weight, like it was his burden to bear.
I didn't want that. He’d done so much and tried so hard. It wasn’t his fault I’d believed in him. That was my choice. Besides, he’d probably broken a few laws for me. He was my friend. I wrapped my arms around him.
"Thank you for everything," I said, trying to sound grateful, but the words were hollow and lifeless.
His large frame shook with grief before he hugged me back. I held my face against his chest. No more tears came. They were held back by the icy fingers of fear clawing at my throat.
2 - Public Transit
I was normal… mostly. I had a mother, a brother, a violin, and terminal cancer. I was as happy as anyone with all of those things was likely to be… but how happy can you be with nothing to look forward to? I stared out the window of the metro bus and subconsciously ran my fingers through my newly regrown hair, grateful for that small technological mercy if nothing else. No cure for cancer, but hair … probably more money in it. I sighed and watched the landscape slip by on the way to campus. Going to college and playing the violin were my two attempts at maintaining some sense of normalcy in the mess that was my life.
Living in the pacific northwest outside of Seattle was beautiful, but the colors and lakes dulled as my illness progressed.
Brakes hissed, the bus jerked hard, and I was thrown sideways on the bench I was sitting on. There was a loud thud and we came to a jarring stop. That was weird because the self-driving bus should have provided a smooth ride. I leaned out into the aisle and tried to see what was going on, but could only see other people's heads.
An undercurrent of confusion rippled through the bus. I looked out the window and noticed we were at a bus stop. Go figure. I vaguely recognized the industrial area we were driving through. There were no cars, no places to park, and no people … except for the guy getting on the bus. I’d never seen him before. There was something odd about the way he moved and stood. Even the expression on his face was off in a way I couldn't put my finger on. He stopped just inside the doors and stared at the people in the front section. He looked … not surprised, but far too curious. The doors started to close behind him. He spun around. The bus moved forward silently. He looked up, arms snapping out to the sides like he was trying to balance. A smile tugged at the corner of my mouth. Hasn't he ever been on a bus before?
I looked around at the handful of other passengers. Social norms dictated that you didn't stare at people on the bus, you glanced at them, covertly. Just about everyone was keeping an eye on him. He looked like he was about my age and wore a white t-shirt and simple gray pants … and no shoes. It made him look vaguely like he’d escaped a psychiatric ward.
His face lit up with curiosity when he noticed the rest of us. His eyes caught on a woman in the front who held a little boy, probably four or five years old.
"Interesting, I haven't seen someone your size … that I can remember," he said, his words barely audible from where I sat. "Watch this." He reached under his shirt with one hand and started flapping the other arm up and down ridiculously. The fake fart noises began and hysterical laughter burst out of the little boy. His mother rolled her eyes and shook her head, but she smiled too. A few other people chuckled.
Oh, he was definitely strange. I liked him immediately.
His work done, he turned and his gaze landed on a woman who had to be in her eighties. His eyes lit up again. He moved over to her, crouched down, and placed both of his hands on her cheeks.
"Wow … look at your face. I didn’t know they got that wrinkly," he said. For a second I thought she would whack him with her cane. Before she could, he said, "It gives you so much... character. Beautiful."
The woman smiled and her eyes shone in the light. She placed both of her hands on his cheeks, leaned forward, and kissed him on the forehead. His head snapped back a little and he stared at her in surprise. He stayed that way for a couple seconds. With a jolt, he pulled his hands away from her face.
"That was close. Almost—zzzt!" He said with a smile and laugh, miming getting electrified with his hands. He got up and nonchalantly grabbed one of the two bars running the length of the bus ceiling and started swinging toward me like a gymnast. I was waiting for the triple flip half pike dismount—he settled for a single. I nearly dislocated my face. My mouth hung open in disbelief. He stuck the landing and lifted his hands into the air.
"And the crowd goes wild," he said in a barely audible murmur before he started making soft roaring noise, vaguely like a cheering crowd.
Oh, I liked this guy a lot. He was straight out certifiable, but he was also pretty. Skin so smooth I had to restrain myself from reaching out to touch it. Not to mention the physique that his t-shirt couldn't hide. He caught me staring and my face got hot in a hurry—despite my efforts to stop it. Certifiable and intoxicatingly attractive, which I found kind of perfect. My favorite people are all a little crazy, intentionally or otherwise. There was something else though. Something that came from outside myself, giving me more energy and a vitality I’d lacked for some time. But … how? It was like there was wire that connected us, linking us together. It was weird.
Wow. I had it bad and I’d just met him. I smiled and struggled not to roll my eyes or laugh at myself out loud.
He sat down across from me and met my eyes, expressionless. "You have cancer. How … unfortunate," he said with a frown.
My face fell when he spoke that painful truth. Did I look that bad? I thought my hair had grown out reasonably well. He kept talking before I could feel any worse.
"Looking at you makes my heart beat fast—you know bah-bum bah-bum bah-bum," he said rapidly, using his hands to mimic a rapid heartbeat.
I wasn’t sure if I should take that as a compliment or if he was actually trying to make me feel worse. I was definitely leaning towards worse. He wasn’t exactly smiling at me, but then again, the only time my heart sped up when looking at someone was either because I was scared or because they were attractive, and I seriously doubted he was scared.
He got up and sat beside me before I could decide. And I mean right beside me. I’d never had my personal space invaded so enjoyably.
“Here, I’ll show you,” he said, and before I could react, he placed my hand against his well-muscled chest. My cheeks burned a little. And by a little, I mean my face lit up like a flaming torch. His eyes held mine and heat flowed around my body. It was like a fire that surrounded me, pulling the oxygen out of the air. It wrapped me in an embrace that I didn’t want to leave—before I came to my senses and jerked my hand away.
“Yes, uh, that’s nice,” I said, clearing my throat. My face was still hot.
Remembering that we weren't on the bus alone, I glanced around. A few amused faces looked back. I stared at my hands and smiled ruefully. What did I expect? I was on a bus. Of course everyone was watching. I didn't mind. Being embarrassed was something that people who had something to live for did. They cared what other people thought. I’d forgotten what that was like.
I looked up. He wasn't smiling. He was focused on a notebook sitting in his lap. Where had that come from? The abrupt change was unexpected. I waited to see what he would do next, expecting something off the wall and bizarre … but he kept writing. He sat like that for five minutes. The bus stopped multiple times to let people on and off, but he was oblivious to his surroundings.
I'd been forgotten.
His words had sparked something inside of me. False hope, that's all it was. The warmth I’d enjoyed moments before turned cold and bitter. In the space of a few moments, he’d made me believe there was more to live for and that maybe he was someone who would like me... instead of pity me.
The momentary happiness disappeared with a sigh, but the nagging sense that we were connected continued to bleed energy and life into me
I shook my head in disgust. I’d done it again. I knew hope was dangerous. Why? Because it was a lie. I’d been so honest with myself until now. He was fascinating and weird and, not to mention, rude … and I wanted to know him. He was different from the boring life I’d gotten used to. I wanted to see him again, but I doubted I would and there was nothing I could do about it. It was probably a bad idea anyway.
We were getting closer to my bus stop. I tried to convince myself that he was a weird jerk. A very attractive, entirely strange, and charming jerk. It didn't work.
My disappointment grew as we approached my stop. He’d made me feel alive for a minute or two. For a moment, I considered staying on the bus, wanting to enjoy the way I couldn’t stop glancing at him, hoping to catch him looking back. Or the way my heart beat hard, and my focus sharpened. My senses and intuition told me he was into me, but none of his actions did. I’m not this clueless. Was I so desperate that I’d made it all up? I probably had… and that made me an idiot. I stood up.
"Thank you." I didn't know what else to say. He wouldn’t understand, but he'd temporarily helped ease the ever-present weight of my impending death. It was nice to forget. The brief memories of him were etched into my mind. It was a gift I’d needed.
He looked up at me curiously as I walked off the bus. I didn't want to get off, but I did. I wouldn’t see him again so I didn't look back at the bus as it pulled away. I was already trying to bury the memory.
Early the next morning, I waited at the bus stop, trying to force my body to be strong. It didn’t want to cooperate. The bus stop was only four blocks and a small hill from my house, but getting there had exhausted me. That was the worst part about dying; having my body quit on me without my permission. Nausea and pain were awful, but bearable with medication. Having parts of my body ignore me was an entirely different level of depressing. Walking to the bus this morning had left my legs weak and shaking, like I’d run a marathon. My thigh muscles twitched even though I was sitting down. It stopped after a minute, but that didn’t make it less irritating.
Once my body calmed, I noticed my surroundings. There was no one else at the stop. Pale light shone from the overcast sky and the pitter patter of raindrops reached my ears. I looked up and a drop landed on my nose.
Seattle was the worst place to have cancer. Before, I’d loved how beautiful it was. Everywhere you went you were surrounded by richly colored evergreens and plants that gave off an intoxicatingly earthy smell that spoke of life. Now, the colors and fragrances were nature’s way of taunting me. The overcast sky was nature’s boot, an unrelenting oppression, grinding me into the ground.
A memory flickered in my mind. The boy from yesterday. I smiled. He was one of the few bright moments I’d experienced lately. Just as quickly, my smile faded. He was gone. The chances of seeing him were…
My emotions … twisted. Like ink dropped into my soul, energy and vitality spread through me and pushed weakness, pain, and exhaustion away. I looked around, confused. My eyes caught on the headlights of the approaching bus. The energy that bled into me grew as it got closer.
How pathetic. Was the hope that he was on the bus enough for me to delude myself this much? Good grief. The power of the mind and all that, but wishful thinking wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
The bus pulled up with a hiss and the door opened. Locked in place, I stared stupidly. He was sitting on a bench that ran down the side of the bus, head tilted to the side, staring at me with a raised eyebrow. How—someone bumped me gently. I was blocking the door. The middle-aged woman behind me had a wry smile on her face. I stepped onto the bus, knowing I shouldn’t stare at him—my leg muscles spasmed and I missed the step entirely.
Seriously? What a total fail, I thought as I went sprawling. Energized or not, my body was falling apart. My bag flew out of my hand and I noticed his feet on my way down. He was wearing shoes today. Well, at least there was that. I cringed, bracing for the impact. Hands caught my shoulders, stopped my fall, and lifted me up. Intending to thank whoever had saved me from an incredibly embarrassing face plant, I looked up into vivid blue eyes and the words caught in my throat. He caught me. My stranger. His wry smile made me hope he was laughing with me and not at me. Warmth, that had nothing to do with the temperature, spread through me.
A woman behind me laughed softly and it broke my trance. It was a knowing sound. I’d been staring and there may have been a goofy smile on my face. I glanced around and caught a few stifled grins. It wasn’t my fault. It was his. Those blue eyes were downright magnetic. I turned back to thank him, but he was back in his seat, acting like nothing had happened. Oh… I’d done it again. I’d assumed far more was going on than there was. I sat down across the aisle from him before I thought it through. I should have gone to the back. How had I already gotten my hopes up again? It hadn’t even been a minute! I leaned my head back and shook it slightly. What was I doing? Why torture myself?
Maybe I would see him more often after all if he was going to be riding the bus, but was that a good thing? Maybe I should ask my mom to drive me so I could keep my dignity. I glanced at him and our eyes met briefly. I immediately looked away, but he leaned towards me and asked, “Are you injured?”
Caught off guard I said, “No, I’m fine.”
“Good. I wanted to make sure you weren’t hurt.”
“Oh no, I’m ok. Things just aren’t going the way I want them to, but thank you for catching me.” I gave him a weak smile. It was all I could force out.
“You’re welcome. Can I be of further assistance?”
“Uh… assistance with what?”
“You said things weren’t going the way you wanted them too. Can I help?”
A wry smile flashed across my face. Oh, he certainly could. The smile died almost as quickly as it had formed, ground up by self-doubt and instead I said, “I wish there was.”
My throat tightened. I wished my life had more to it. More time. More laughter… More love. I turned away from him and didn’t say another word.