I hate it here. I hate living in this hotel in this beautiful country surrounded by these beautiful people. When I look out my rented bedroom window I can see the Alps and clear lakes fed by melting glaciers. It’s a postcard worthy scene. And all the unadulterated breath stealing beauty sours my disposition even more. I should like it but I don’t.
I want to be home, gazing into the fog covered skyscrapers of the city and off into the horizon of the stormy waters of Lake Michigan. I want concrete and smog and biting cold wind not the pastoral setting of northern Switzerland.
Everyone here seems happy, even the other sick kids. And there are kids worse off than I am. Terminal cases here for last ditch experimental therapy. Young kids whose intensive radiation and chemotherapy could stunt their growth and their brain development. What a sucky trade off.
I feel the base of my skull, the soft spot high up on the neck where the head and neck meet. There’s the round plastic of my shunt. A foreign object will live inside me for as long as I have a beating heart. It’s a permanent reminder that at one point, a big old grapefruit pressed against the base of my skull and screwed me up inside.
Breathing deep, I try to count my blessings. My test results are good and I’m only going to have to be here for three months. They don’t think the radiation and chemo will need to be as aggressive and since my brain and body has pretty much stopped developing, they don’t think it will be a big problem to catch back up with everyone else and transition back into high school in the fall.
So decent health.
My family is here. Mom’s here this week and the next and then Dad will be here. The Jacksons are going to come in May for my birthday. I’ll spend the hot summer months in a cool climate.
Good weather. My family. My boys are coming.
My boys. There it is. The source of my real discontent. I flip my phone over. Seela Carr, a junior who I hardly know, had texted me a picture that appeared on my phone first thing this morning which would have been last night Chicago time. Seela’s a popular girl. Glee Club and yearbook staff, she’s almost never without some recording device. Ostensibly she’s always capturing North Prep’s best moments but her always present camera has also recorded painful moments. Breakups. Fights. Cheaters.
The picture she sent me of Nate collapsed between the legs of Greta in Jason Milhawk’s basement causes me actual pain whenever I see it. Nate’s clearly drunk, probably from doing shots with Milhawk. He has a glassy eyed surprised look on his face in the picture.
Seela is only trying to stir up trouble but I’m not sure what Greta’s doing. Probably just talking to Nathan. I know, deep down, that he would never humiliate me in front of anyone else. Family is number one in his mind and no one has ever been allowed to tease me or Nick without retribution from Nathan. But still, the image of him in someone else’s arms hurts me, literally.
Every time I see it, my heart squeezes tight. Despite the fixed and glazed stare, Nathan is so beautiful. His dark hair frames his perfect face. In the photo, he’s bracing himself and the muscles in his arm are highlighted by the harsh glare of the flash. I remember what it is like to be under him when he’s in that position. There’s no doubt someone pushed him over but he was still next to Greta. I didn’t even realize that they knew each other, that they were friendly.
I toss the phone aside.
“Charlotte? Shall we do these maths again?”
It’s Fraulein “call me Reta” Kielholz. She has beautiful blonde hair, not the colored stuff you see at home but true blonde, like spun gold. She’s fairly tall and her skin is milky white. Reta is very curious about the US and would like to come and visit or so she tells me during each session.
“Sure.” I drag myself away from the window.
“Great.” She pushes a set of problems toward me. “Compare these sets and identify which are the irrational numbers. Why don’t you tell me again what irrational numbers are.”
“A number that cannot be written as a fraction,” I mumble.
“Good. Good.” Clapping her hands, she gestures for me to get started.
As I apply myself, she starts talking about Chicago again. “Maybe you will need a tutor when you go back home. I could come and visit, yes?”
“Sure,” I answer but with little enthusiasm. I’m afraid to place Reta and her nordic beauty anywhere near Nathan. I never felt this way until I came here but two weeks away from Nathan and Nick has made me nervous and homesick.
And everyone back home other than the Jackson boys seem intent on sending me picture proof of how much they don’t miss me. Irrational numbers? I feel pretty irrational right now.
My phone beeps and I want to answer it but Reta taps her watch. She wants me to finish so I apply myself but considering I don’t like math and don’t see the point of trying to figure out what square roots are irrational and which are not, I don’t get many right.
Thirty minutes later, she is pressing her lips together and looking concerned as she peruses my answers. “We will review this again, yes.”
Reta ends nearly every sentence with yes even when she isn’t asking a question.
“Yes,” I say.
She spends the whole morning trying to show me which square roots and cube roots are irrational and I spend the entire time pinching myself to prevent screaming about how I think this is all ridiculous. My mother interrupts us around ten and sends Reta away.
“Baby, you look tired.” Mom says smoothing my hair away. She sets a tray of tea, hot chocolate, and pastries next to my math papers. I will say that the pastries are freaking awesome and I’ll miss them when I go back home.
“I am. Why am I studying these things?” I whine a bit.
“It’s not so much the numbers themselves, but the processing of analyzing data that will become important.”
“No offense, mom, but I have no desire to work at Freedom Funds and analyze numbers all day.”
Mom smiles serenely over her tea cup. “No offense taken. I’ve always thought you were more like your father in that regard. You enjoy physical things too much.”
I duck my head to hide the blush that rises at the thought of exactly what kinds of physical things I enjoy. But she’s my mom and can read my thoughts.
“Missing the Jackson boys? Or just one particular Jackson?” she asks softly.
“Both,” I answer. It’s true. I miss them both. Impulsively I ask, “Did you and Dad have many separations?”
“No, this is the longest that we’ve ever been separated. We met in Biology, remember? and we saw each other every other day and once we started dating, we were quite inseparable.” She sets down her tea and considers me for a moment. “But Noah and Grace were separated for several years. Almost six. They wrote letters to each other. They both say that they treasure those years apart as much as the time they finally were able to be together regularly.”
“Yes. Noah was deployed with your Dad. They wrote letters and mailed them to each other.” Mom filches a croissant from the pastry plate. “I’m a bit envious. Grace has this lovely collection of hand written notes from Noah. It’s quite romantic.”
“That’s weird. I can’t imagine Uncle Noah writing letters.”
Mom shrugs. “It’s true.” Leaning over, she smooths a hand around my face. “If it’s meant to be, love survives anything even separations.”
“But you and dad weren’t separated,” I protest. “You just said so.”
“We had our own tests,” she said. “And we passed because that’s what love is. It’s about overcoming the obstacles in your path—both the ones you erect and the ones people throw your way. But in order to do that, you have to decide whether it is worth your time and effort.”
I heave a sigh. Before I left, everything was amazing and now I feel so insecure. “Are you telling me to grow up?” I ask a bit disgruntled.
“Nope,” she says with a slight smile. “I kind of want you to be my baby forever. You’re growing up even if your dad, myself, and you aren’t ready for it to happen.”
“But you are saying that if I want something I need to work hard to keep it.”
Mom grabs my hands and squeezes tight. “Not just work hard, baby, but fight. You’ve got to fight for what you want. You fought to beat this cancer. Everything else is so easy from there.”
“Is it?” There’s a hitch in my voice I can’t hide. “Because it seems like fighting for what you want can be really painful.”
“Anything worth having is.”
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