My ears burn from the doctor’s words and my fingernails draw hot blood from my soft palms. Terminal cancer. He also mentions another word that I don’t recognize – it might be the kind of cancer I have – but it doesn’t matter. He brought momma into the next room for more privacy, but they’re not being very quiet.
“I only brought him here, because he says he’s sleepy all the time, and I noticed he hasn’t been eating as much as he usually does. You must have done something wrong! My baby does not have cancer.” Momma chokes on the last word, and I hear her cry. If I close my eyes, I can almost see her crying; she did it a lot before daddy left. During those times she would get bruises on her arms and face, and when I asked what happened, she would pat my back and say she fell down the stairs or ran into the wall again. Eventually you would think she would walk more carefully!
Momma reenters my room and puts my hand in hers. We don’t say anything though, don’t need to; we just sit and listen to the screaming baby that is in the waiting room. I curl my arms around her and I can feel her wet eyes close on my neck. I’ll admit I’m not exactly sure what the doctor meant, now that I think about it. Grandma had cancer, but she was at my birthday party a few months ago, and she seemed just fine.
“What’s going on, momma?” I ask, my eyes tracing her sharp cheekbones as she lay on my shoulder. She always looks so pretty. “I’m going to be alright, aren’t I?”
Momma lifts her head, and her lip quivers. “You’re going to be alright, baby. It’ll just take some time.”
I want to say that that’s good, because I don’t want to miss the pizza party in Mrs. Atkinson’s class next Friday. But instead I just nod my head and smile at her. Unfortunately, that only made her cry a lot harder – which is confusing because she always says she loves my smile.
A night in the hospital is not as bad as I thought it was going to be; they were giving me practically anything I wanted: ice cream, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Sponge Bob Square Pants on the television. I felt like I was breaking all kinds of rules eating after 8pm!
Finally, momma had to go back home – she wouldn’t tell me why, just that it was grown up stuff. But that was okay, because, after all, I am a big boy. I close my eyes, never breaking my smile, and think about how fun the trip in the helicopter is going to be tomorrow.
Okay, the helicopter isn’t as fun as I imagined. The only time I was awake was when they were loading me into it; I didn’t wake up again until I was in another hospital room.
“How are you feeling, sweetie?” Momma strokes my cheek. She doesn’t look as pretty today as she did yesterday. Her makeup is smeared for the most part, and her hair is pulled back. The only days momma has her hair pulled back is during her “don’t-give-a-damn” days, or so she says. It could have been that the helicopter ride scared her, since she’s afraid of heights and all. I’m sure she rode with me on the helicopter. I bet she did; I just hate that I can’t remember. Thinking about things is starting to confuse me to the point that it’s possible I was awake during the helicopter ride. Wouldn’t I remember that though?
It’s not until momma gets up from my bedside that I realize she was talking to me. “I’m… Great.” The last word comes out garbled and much slower than I anticipated. Something is not right with me, and when I try to explain the truth – that I feel a little trapped in my own head – a nurse tells me not to speak. You need to rest, she says. But I’ve rested long enough; that’s all I’ve been doing since yesterday!
My new room is colored light blue and there are two big windows opposite my bed. The frilly drapes over the windows remind me of grandma’s house. But other than the machines I’m hooked into, a few baby toys, several colorful pictures on the wall, the chair that momma’s sitting in, a side table, and a closed curtain hiding what I imagine is an empty bed, the room is pretty empty and boring. I wonder why they even have such huge rooms if they don’t plan on filling them with more things. I’m about to ask why the curtain is closed, since momma and I are the only ones in here, but she speaks first.
“Grandma and Aunt Stacy are going to be here in a couple days to see you.” Hearing momma’s strong voice feels me with energy. Aunt Stacy means that I’ll get to see Aidan! I hope he brings a ball or something we can play with!
The words that leave my lips mistake me. “Why?”
“Because they want to see you. Your dad will be here tomorrow, too. He said he’d be here today, but he has a ways to travel, you know?” That is true. When I visit daddy during a few weeks in the summer, he picks me up in the early morning and we don’t get to his house until dinnertime.
Finally the question escapes my mouth. “Something is wrong with me, isn’t there?” I concentrate on momma’s face, wishing that I’ll just wake up from this dream. I’m probably still asleep on the helicopter. Yes, that must be it! There is no way daddy would come to see me this early in the year.
Momma nods her head slowly and widens her chapped lips to a grin. “Yes.” She cups my face in her hands. “But those good doctors are going to do everything they can to get you better soon.”
Suddenly I get very sleepy and before I could tell momma that I love her and that if she wanted to go home she could, my mind fills with darkness.
I open my eyes to a sunny sky. Other kids my age are scrambling around a playground, and I’m being whisked around and around on the merry-go-round – it seems to be pushing itself. I giggle after seeing a boy with a red cap and a girl playing tag.
With each turn the children playing at the park change, and the garden dies and regrows with different flowers. A few times around it rains and grows dark, then the trees die and snow falls and the place is empty. Before I know it, the sun turns pink and the sky is dyed purple and red. Other children return and are swinging on the swing sets and playing hopscotch on the sidewalk. They’re all having fun, and here I am hogging the best toy in the park.
Finally, I stop spinning and I’m left staring at a grassy field; there was no playground in sight, but there was a boy running at me. Even though I couldn’t see his face, he seems really familiar. “Hey!” I shout and run towards him. But no matter how fast we run at each other, he only becomes more and more distant until at last I see only white
I awaken, staring at a blank ceiling, and breathe an aggravated sigh. Why couldn’t I live in that world? That one seemed much more fun and interesting than this one I’m in now. Plus, if that was a dream, then all of this must be… Real.
I scream and push away whatever is touching me and kick my blanket off the bed. My foot tangled itself in some cords, causing the monitors and other machines to go crashing on the floor. I don’t want to do this anymore! Rage fills my body, but I’m trapped in my mind. My arms flail at my sides, my muscles exhausted and my heart racing.
Several pairs of hands fall upon my arms and legs, restricting me to this flat board of a bed, and I fight harder. They can’t keep me here if I don’t want to be here! This place is for sick people and keeping me here would only hurt the ones that truly need help. I have to get back home so I can do my homework and play outside and do all the things I did before I became prisoner of this bleached dungeon! I continue to gnash and squirm, until I feel a sharp pinch in my arm and a cold, unfriendly fluid slowly creep into my veins. Whatever had happened allowed me to escape myself, and what I come to scares me.
Four nurses dressed in foam-colored gowns tower over me, faces pale and astonished. The table that was once at my bedside had been thrown near the wall, colliding with the plastic bead toys. A busted bottle of water came to a slow roll on the tile floor, leaving behind a wet trail, and momma was in the in the corner crying with her head pressed against a red, raised hand print on her forearm. I must have slapped her in my fit.
I feel my face grow hot with humiliation, but before I can start to cry, whatever medicine they had given me began to work. My eyes grow heavy once more, but I vigorously shake the sleep from my face. “No!” I scream. “Please don’t make me!” The rest of my words are lost while I fade in and out of slumber: Just let me go home.
“Hey.” A small hand pokes my side, rousing me from a medicated sleep. “Wake up.”
My eyes flutter away the Sand Man’s magic and I fixate on his face, captivated by his voice. My mouth forms words I haven’t been able to speak since I arrived at this new hospital. It’s weird feeling so normal. “Who are you?” It can’t be that they had let another boy stay in my room; there was an extra bed in here, but it was empty, or so I thought since the curtain hadn’t been moved. Besides, momma would have told me if I had a roommate, because that would mean I would have someone to talk to. The boy was dressed in a cream-colored gown similar to mine.
“It doesn’t matter who I am, or who you are. How about you come with me, and I’ll show you the rest of the hospital?” His tone sounds mischievous, like we would be up to no good if I went with him. But, as if he knew what I were thinking, he added, “What more could they do to you than give you another sleeping shot?”
I shrug and do my best to tear away the tubes linking my arm to the monitors and to the bag pumping a weird, clear liquid into my body; there are so many! I feel sorry for the nurses that have to attach and detach this stuff on every patient. I can mark “nurse” off from my list of things I want to be when I grow up.
He clutches my hand and I follow him out of the room and into the hallway, both of us trying to be as sneaky as possible – like that James Bond guy. Although I know eventually someone will spot me or alert the other nurses of my grand escape and take me back to my prison cell, the rush of energy this boy has given me is exciting. With him I can speak, I can walk, and I can think; three things that I haven’t been able to do clearly for a while. I’d give up pizza and ice-cream if it meant spending an hour or more with him.
“Look over there,” he says, pointing towards a trashcan in a room full of chairs. In the room are also a few fake trees, a television, and three snack machines. My eyes scan the candy bars and little bags of chips behind the thick glass. Like so many things right now, what I want is behind a solid sheet of glass.
“Dude, here.” He places a half-full bag of M&M’s, what he must have spotted in the trashcan, in my hand. “I don’t know about you, but when I was in here that’s what I mainly wanted: some freaking candy.”
“Thank you so much,” I say before dumping the rest of the bag’s contents into my mouth, but how did he know where to look? The sugary pebbles bounce between my teeth and my mouth waters like a faucet. If I were looking in a mirror, I bet I could see streams of blue and red flowing from my pink lips.
He nods and grabs my hand again. His warm skin feels like fire on my icy palms. “Now, come on. We’re not finished yet.”
“Where are we going next?” I ask, choking a little on the mouthful of chocolate and crunchy candy shells. Nowadays I’m not particularly a fan of surprises – I’ve had plenty within the past couple days.
We don’t walk long before stopping in the middle of the hall, facing a large window covering the entire wall. Outside, dawn was beginning to creep into the sky, displaying a wide array of warm colors on an otherwise gloomy sky. He brought me to see the sunrise.
“I have a feeling you’re not going to see many more of these,” he mutters quietly, squeezing my hand. “Given the chance, I’d wake up every day to watch the sun come up; it’s so beautiful, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” I answer robotically, “but what do you mean? Momma says I’m going home soon.” Could this boy be insane? I’m not like the other people that go to the hospital; I’m perfectly fine as long as they don’t give me that sleeping shot.
He shakes his head slowly and I notice his lip tremble. In between wiping at his eyes he whispers, “You don’t get it and you never will. You only notice true beauty when it’s already gone.” Then, speaking more clearly, he says, “I’ve got to go now. I hope you can find your way back to your room.” His words bite me, and as I watch him walk away, I feel alone and scared. I try to ask him to stay with me, but my words change into slurred groans when I speak. Besides, I couldn’t even see him anymore; he just disappeared. As I walk back to my room and crawl into bed to sleep, I only hope that I see momma and daddy and Aidan tomorrow. I’d like to ask them each for another bag of M&M’s for when I get home.
“Baby, can you hear me? I really hope you can.”
Daddy, is that you? Yes, I can! But can you please talk louder?
“I want you to know how much I love you – how much all of us do. Your momma, grandma, Aunt Stacy, Aidan, and I are all here with you. We’re going to stay here for as long as we can.”
Where are momma and Aidan and everybody else? I can’t see any of them.
“Miles,” grandma says, “I believe Gina needs you, more than anyone at this point. She’s locked herself in the bathroom and needs to be here with him. We don’t know how much time is left, and she’d never forgive herself if she missed him.”
What do you mean? What is going on? Can anybody hear me?
“Mom,” says Aunt Stacy, “I think Aidan wanted to say something, don’t you honey?”
Aidan! He came! But why can’t I see him? I recognize all these voices, but they’re coming in as echoed whispers. It’s like I’m in a valley, hearing people whisper at me from megaphones.
“Aw, now honey, you said you wanted to while we were in the car.”
“Can he even hear us?”
Of course I can, Aidan! Why do you think that?
“I don’t know, but what if he can? How would that make you feel if you could tell him something and choose not to? We talked about this earlier; this may be the last time you see him.”
My heart sinks and my gut bursts into flames. Where did that come from? I can’t be dying. It’s only been three days since I was at home! Three! Momma took me to the doctor because I had a little trouble sleeping – that is all! How can someone even die from something like that? I hate these doctors – it must be their fault. It is either that, or Aunt Stacy is lying to Aidan.
I feel more trapped than ever. When I try to break free, I am met with a fuzzy wall of darkness keeping me contained in this new, scarier dungeon. Please just let me come back! I’ll never escape my room and walk the halls with the boy ever again. I will stop staying up after bedtime reading my library book. Anything you want me to do, I will do! Why am I being punished?
Momma! Save me!
“I…” She chokes and cries. I can almost visualize her, burying her red face in her folded arms. “I…” Another cry. “Love…” A sniffle. “You…”
I love you, too! More than anything! I want nothing more than to cry with her right now.
Then I notice a bright figure in my covered vision. Everything about him is concealed behind a blinding light. He whispers something in another language as he creeps closer to me. His two shining arms rise and close in on my body.
“If I would have known you were sick, I would have brought you here long ago.”
Momma, don’t let him take me! You told me you’d always be here for me, but why can’t you help me now? I don’t want to leave you! Whatever I did to deserve this, I’m sorry!
I am now completely wrapped in his arms, and I feel his breath pouring clouds of hot steam into my head.
Please don’t take me away, mister. I will do anything just to see my momma again.
“I love you, baby.”
Momma’s last words disappear into the darkness as I am taken by the stranger.
Tell Mrs. Atkinson that I am sorry for missing the party.
My eyes shoot open to a baby blue room. Painted scenes of playgrounds and clouds line the wall, which eventually opens up to two large windows revealing a city on a sunny day. Oh, the scene is so beautiful. I’d love to once again see the marvelous blue sky without the tinted glass window. In addition to the paintings some toys, a small table and a chair line opposite sides of the room.
I can also feel something different about myself that I never noticed. It’s like I’ve been given enough knowledge to skip a grade in school; things before that I did not understand are now completely clear in my mind – oh, my mind. I can actually think my own thoughts now! Did I die though? Out of all the questions I feel I know the answers to, why can’t I answer such a simple one as that?
“This is it,” I hear a woman say behind the door. So, caving to my instinct, I crawl onto the outermost bed and pull the privacy curtain around. Why am I so scared that I feel I must conceal myself? I’ve been taught that good people go to heaven after they die, so should I be afraid of this, if it is heaven?
Another woman speaks. “When will the doctor be in here?”
“It should be any moment. If your child comes to, let me know. I will be right outside.”
The door closes, silencing the room, and I cup my hand over my mouth to keep the others from hearing me breathe. I sit like this on the bed for what seems like days – behind the curtain and in this new place, time is very different and it goes by fast. At this time, the child has just finished having a fit, and I can definitely empathize.
All of this is just so familiar, and memories begin to come back to me in small pieces, though some pieces don’t fit together. What I recall most, however, is how I longed to stand while I sat in the bed for so long. Oh and there was the candy craving.
Quietly, I stand up from the bed and peek from beneath the curtain. A little light is showing from the back of the draped window, so it must be in the early morning. Then my eyes focus on the boy in the bed. His body, although still, appears tense and stiff. His arm muscles flex and his palms tighten and retract in disproportionate intervals. He was having a nightmare.
“Hey,” I whisper, poking at his side. “Wake up.” He doesn’t wake up during my first attempt, but soon enough after a few tries he does.
He seems a little scared and confused, but what I was going to show him was going to make all his pain, all his suffering, at least not as bad.
“Who are you?” He asks, still half-asleep.
Who am I? How would I know? “It doesn’t matter who I am, or who you are. How about you come with me, and I’ll show you the rest of the hospital?” If I were in his situation, would I randomly get out of bed to be shown something by a boy I didn’t know? If it meant getting out of that terrible bed and away from everything else, of course I would. Plus, being in this hospital, in a room like this, can only mean that bad times are coming. So I had to show him the one thing that is seen every day but seldom appreciated.
“What more could they do to you than give you another sleeping shot?” I add, to which he begins to quickly detach monitors.