Today is a no good, very bad, wholly rotten day. In the annals (had to look that up) of bad days, this has to be on the top. Nick’s sitting by the window and won’t look at me. Nathan’s in the corner, glowering as if somehow this is all my fault. Mom is trying not to cry and Dad is pacing like a lunatic.
And my head hurts so bad. The doctor says that tonight’s surgery will help alleviate the pressure from the tumor that’s taken up residence in the back of my skull. No one knows what will happen next. Although my mom has said that I probably won’t be able to do gymnastics anymore but that maybe I could join the dance team. FML. Like I would ever.
Later, after everyone is gone but Nick we’ll look up medulloblastoma and find out what the real details are. None of the adults are going to give it to me straight. Even the doctors talk in quiet tones to my parents in the corner. I’m the patient, I wanted to yell at them, but I can’t yell because even speaking is too painful right now. But I’m glaring. My eyes are shouting at them. Unfortunately no one but Nathan is even looking at me right now.
Nathan who thinks I must’ve done something to create this tumor in my head and ruin his day because he can’t stop glowering at me. His face looks thunderous like he’d like to squeeze my head until the tumor pops out like a zit. I’d like that too. But at least he’s looking at me unlike everyone else.
Worst. Fucking. Day. Ever.
The metal of Charlotte’s bed rattles as she is wheeled out of her room toward the operating theater. Her blue eyes look afraid, like the time she was eight and Nick and I were trying to get her to jump off the diving board into the pool. I finally walked out onto the board with her, held her hand and we jumped off the side together. No amount of hand holding is going to take that fear from her or from any of us.
For a moment after Charlotte is taken away, the room is silent. No soft words exchanged between mom and Aunt AM. No gruff low tones from Uncle Bo or dad. No sounds from Nick’s Gameboy. It is eerie. Then Aunt AM begins sobbing and her cries are so awful that I have to leave the room. Then I have to leave the hallway but I can’t escape the sounds. They are embedded in my brain. I sink down into a chair in the waiting room on the trauma floor and clutch my head in my hands. If I could rewind time, I think I’d never get up this morning.
I hear my Dad and then Bo enter the waiting room.
“The surgery may take a couple of hours, it may take longer. Why don’t you take Grace and the boys home and get some rest. We’ll call you as soon as she’s out.” Uncle Bo says.
Dad looks at Uncle Bo and then grabs him. The two stand there clutching each other and that’s all it takes for Nick to break. Dad reaches out and the three of them huddle together. The only one I hear is Nick but Uncle Bo’s shoulders are heaving.
I walk in the opposite direction toward the windows. The air conditioning is leaving condensation on the window and the glass feels both cold and wet against my forehead. Outside the city is running like nothing out of the ordinary was happening, like two families aren’t breaking down inside this hospital. Like our whole future isn’t dependent on Charlotte making it out of surgery.
I’m not sure how long I stand there but I feel dazed when Dad places his hand on my shoulder.
“We’re going to go home for a bit.” Dad says, drawing me away from the window.
“Don’t want to,” I reply. I want to be here when Charlotte wakes up. She might need me.
“We need to take care of your mom.” Dad squeezes my shoulder. I nodded because Dad isn’t asking. His tone is mild but when it came to taking care of mom, he wasn’t ever moved.
Home isn’t much better. The other side of the penthouse floor was silent and dark. Mom starts crying in the car and hasn’t stopped. Dad carries her into the elevator and then down into their bedroom. Nick trails behind.
I stand in the entryway, unsure of what I should do.
Five minutes later, Dad came out looking like he’d aged about ten years in this one day. He dragged a hand through his hair. “Why don’t you go work out some of that energy,” he suggested.
That seemed like as good of an idea as any. After changing into a pair of gym shorts and a sleeveless t shirt, I walked down the stairs into the private work out facility but stopped short when I saw the long padded mat that Charlotte used to practice her gymnastic moves.
Not gonna happen.
Working out in common gym. I texted my dad.
As I was boarding the elevator, the phone pinged again. Love you son.
x2 I responded.
The elevator stopped on the eleventh floor and Madeline Short got on. Madeline is a freshman at one of the city colleges. I don’t know her well but she was definitely in my mental spank bank. She’s got a tight body and tends to flirt with me just so she can make me blush or something. Like I’ve never had a girl before.
Madeline stands so close to me you’d think that there were dozens of others in the elevator car instead of just the two of us but I don’t move away because her body is warm and for the first time in hours, I feel like I’m thawing out. And when her arm brushes mine, I start getting hot. The look in her eyes is an obvious invitation so when the elevator stops at the sixth floor, I don’t get off. And I don’t protest when she presses the close door button and I don’t say anything when she presses the button for her floor.
I follow her silently into her family apartment that is clearly empty. She leads us confidently down the hall toward a bedroom. I don’t say anything when she pulls down my gym shorts or pushes the t shirt off my head. I’m afraid if I do talk the sounds of Aunt AM’s cries or my mother’s sobs will come back and I don’t want that. I don’t want to think at all.
When Madeline leads me to her bed, when she takes off her clothes, when we lie down together I shut down my brain and just concentrate on the physical feeling of release.
A chime from my phone wakes me out of a dose. I jerk upright and grab my phone.
She made it. She’s asking for you.
I can’t get dressed fast enough. My motions must have awakened Madeline or maybe she was awake all along. I don’t really care. I’ve got to get to the hospital.
“Hey, where are you going? I told you my parents are gone.”
“Gotta run.” My mouth feels dry and my throat is sore like all the tears I’ve suppressed were like shards of glass that scraped my insides raw as they traveled from my eye sockets into my stomach.
Madeline leans toward me and hooks a finger through the waistband of my shorts. “What’s your rush? I’m ready for round three if you are.”
I can’t even stand to have her touch my clothes but my dad would kill me if he knew I was rude to a woman, particularly one I’d just been intimate with.
“I’m sorry,” I give her a tight smile, “family thing.”
She shrugs and ten minutes ago, the lift of her naked breast would’ve gotten me hard and I’d have fallen on her. Now I’ve only got Charlotte on my mind and the two of them together in my head is making me sick.
“I’ll call,” I say and then pulled on my t shirt and grab up my socks and shoes. I don’t look back even when she calls my name out in a bewildered fashion. I can’t tell her Charlotte’s situation. It’s a family thing.
By the time I get to the hospital, my clothes are back together and I’m winded. I run to the door and dad is standing there looking grim. I falter. “Did she,” I’m afraid to finish the sentence.
“She’s fine. A fighter.” Dad says with approval. I move toward the entrance and he stops me. I hear him inhale and then he pushes me back. I strain against him but my seventeen year old body isn’t strong enough to overtake him. Dad was a professional fighter back in the day and he’s still as strong as hell now. I’m proud to be his son but right now I’m confused as to why he’s keeping me from Charlotte.
“Sorry, hoss, I can’t let you go in there stinking like sex and perfume. You’d embarrass your mother, piss off your Uncle Bo and break Charlotte’s heart. AnnMarie’ll have your nuts on a platter.”
I flush and turn away, embarrassed of my behavior. Dad grabs my head and brings me close to him.
“This is going to be a tough. Loving people is hard.” He looks hard at me. “Are you strong enough to see it through?”
“I am.” I say and straighten. “Sorry, Dad. Won’t happen again.” And it won’t. I’d apologize to Madeline at my first opportunity but Charlotte was meant to be mine. I knew it when she was born. Nick was her brother but I was her protector. I’d let her down this time, but never again.
“Do you think I should just shave my head or wait until the hair falls off during radiation?” I close one eye and lift my long hair off my neck.
“Are you going to get a pirate patch?” Nick asks. He is lying on the hospital bed next to me playing on his DS. Mom and Dad had moved an extra wide hospital bed in here after the surgery because someone was always lying on the bed with me. Not that I minded it but I didn’t even know that they made beds bigger. The nurses grumbled because apparently it was harder to take my vitals when one side was squished by the body of some teenager.
But friends from school came over and invariably they ended up beside me. Or Nate who’s been here every night like a giant muscle bound teddy bear. He’d disappeared before and after my surgery and then came back late that night and sat with mom all night until my mom left to get something and Nate nudged me over. I like it more than I should because I’m sure that Nate is just being brotherly. But it’s a nice change from him always giving me a hard time. His default mood for the last year has been pissed off. Even Nick gives him wide berth. When I got sick, I was sure he was thinking I’d ruined something for him and that’s why he took a runner during my surgery. But now he’s back to being big brother Nate. Unfortunately I have some not so fraternal feelings toward him.
But a girl whose got a tube in her neck, a slightly enlarged noggin, and a bald head isn’t going to get someone like Nate to notice her in that way. I should probably just enter the nunnery now.
“No, why? You think that goes with a bald head?” I ask Nick trying to shove Nate out of my head. I have weird feelings toward Nate and I’m not really up for dissecting them right now.
“I’m wondering why you are closing one eye.”
I punch Nick in the shoulder. “I’m just trying to see it from a different perspective.”
Nick sets down the DS and pushes me upright. He pulls up the hair tight and away from my face. And then he closes one eye and then the other. “I think we should shave our heads today.”
“Hell yeah,” Nick looks at me like I’m bonkers. “You know I’m shaving my head in solidarity. A bunch of us are. Even Meghan.”
Maybe its the drugs but I start to cry. Even Meghan? My best friend from gymnastics?
“Ah shit, don’t cry.” Nick awkwardly pats me on the shoulder but I don’t stop leaking water everywhere. I’m afraid and I’m grateful to my friends and I love my family and everything that is going on is overwhelming me.
“Shit shit shit.” I hear Nick say and then I feel him moving off the bed. I want to call out to him that I’m fine but I can’t because I’m really not fine. What Nick doesn’t say and that we both know is that I have to shave my hair off because they’ve already taken a huge hunk of it off to operate on my head. And who the heck cares about my hair when they are sticking a plastic tube down the back of my neck to drain off excess fluid that is now collecting in my brain. And the fact that I have a hard time comprehending reading or writing words down. It’d be a struggle competing at a 2nd grade spelling bee right now.
I know I should be so happy that I made it out of surgery but all I can think of is how my seven years of gymnastics training is being flushed down the toilet; how everyone will stare at me when I go back to school; how my mom won’t stop looking at me like she’s afraid the next breath is my last. My mom is never worried. She’s this business powerhouse who can climb giant mountains. But she’s afraid which tells me I should be shitting my pants.
So I can’t stop crying even though I’m making Nick feel so bad he has to leave the room. The bed dips and a pair of strong arms gather me up. It’s Nate. I recognize his smell and it makes me cry even harder because I have such a stupid idiotic crush on him and I’m afraid no one will want to marry me because I don’t have any hair.
“You’ve done what legions of other girls at school wish they had the power to do.”
“What’s that?” I mumble into Nate’s t-shirt clad chest.
“Make Nick leave them alone.”
Nate’s bad joke prompts a watery giggle and I’m able to quell my hysterics. Pushing away, I wipe ineffectually at my wet face. Nate nudges my hands aside and sops up the tears with a couple of kleenexes. I notice that the clock says its just after one in the afternoon.
“Isn’t your dad making you guys go to school?” It’s Tuesday, at least I think it is. I’ve been here since Saturday.
“Nope. You’re little brain tumor is getting us out of school for the week. Mom’s orders.” Nate leans back against the pillows of the hospital bed. Even though the bed is slightly larger, his big frame takes up most of the space so that when I lean back I have to rest partially against his chest. I remind myself that Nate is like my brother. Just a brother. Like Nick.
If only I could just convince myself of that.
My mom is saying things but I’m not really understanding them. Like I know what all the words mean individually but I am having a hard time putting it all together. And it’s making me angry. “Stop. Just stop.” I say. Or maybe I shout it because Mom presses her lips together in a disapproving way, a sure sign she was suppressing something.
The doctor had come in earlier to tell me that they didn’t think that the tumor had resulted in any brain damage and that I was still as smart as always only that now I might see some changes in how I used the information in my head. And that I might be more emotional now because I had a reduced ability to control my feelings.
I guess that explained why I am crying all the mother loving time. I am sick of crying. I am sick of the hospital. I don’t want to go to surgery this afternoon to have my port put in. I don’t want to undergo several courses of radiation therapy to make sure all my tumor cells are killed off.
Today is Tuesday. I’ve been in the hospital for five days now. I guess the good thing is that after I get the port put in, I can wear actual pajamas and not the hospital gown and they’ll move me out of the main hospital into an adjacent facility with a big room that overlooks the city. Just like at home. Only it will still be in a hospital.
I’m missing school and gymnastics practice. Nick tried to cheer me up earlier by saying that I’d gotten too tall for gymanstics anyway. I had grown a little in the last year and some of the maneuvers weren’t as tight. Maybe I would’ve given it up soon but I wished that I could’ve made that decision, not have it taken away from me like my stupid hair. Or where I was going to go to school when after I was discharged.
“I can’t believe you’d make leave school and move to Switzerland.” I glare at my mother and then look pleadingly at my dad. He’s a softie, always trying to make mom and me happy. Living with the two of us has taken a lot out of him, he liked to say. I love my mom but we grate on each other’s nerves. Dad says it’s because we’re too much alike. I don’t think we’re anything alike. For instance, I would not make my daughter leave her only friends and take her to another country to get better.
The Jacksons have been kicked out of the room and its just us Randolphs. Probably because my mom knew that the Jacksons would not be for us moving away for the year. Nick is my best friend and Nate, well, I couldn’t leave him either. He is going away to college soon and I want to enjoy him being around while I can, even if he was a jerk to me most of the time. I’ll miss Aunt Grace and Uncle Noah too.
“I just think that the transition would be easier for you. We’ll hire a tutor to go with us so you won’t get behind and when we can, we’ll travel around Europe. It will be a big adventure for us.” Mom is using her ‘Let me explain to you why Freedom Funds is the best hedge fund in the world’ voice. Irritating much?
“You can stop talking to me like I’m some prospective client. I’m not leaving North Prep. Last year sucked because I was a freshman but I’m a sophomore now. I have status!”
“Don’t say suck,” Mom said but it was an automatic response, not one that had any real force behind it. She was too busying staring at Dad. They’ve developed this technique where they can communicate with each other just by looking. No words. I’ve seen Aunt Grace and Uncle Noah do it too. Sometimes the look those folks exchange makes me feel uncomfortable, like I’m seeing something private I shouldn’t be looking at. But it’s like the sun and I can’t look away. I want to have that kind of connection. I’ve decided that’s the sign you’ve found your one true love.
It’s never worked with Nate. I tried it once when he started seeing Yolanda from school. Yolanda was a senior last year. Older girls have always had a thing for Nate. I don’t get it. Why don’t they stick with the guys in their own grade and leave Nate alone? Yolanda was always touching him in school. I’d see her run her hands down the side of his arm or over his back or sometimes even around the waistband of his jeans. I thought it was disgusting how she pawed at him and I glared at him one day trying to tell him silently how gross it was but he just stared at Yolanda with a stupid grin on his face. So even if I thought Nate was my one true love, he didn’t return my feelings. He’s too busy sleeping with all the seniors. Like Yolanda.
When Yolanda left for college, I was thrilled but her place was taken by another senior girl. Plus there’s this girl who lives downstairs from us who’s in college and she’s always looking at him like he’s a side of beef and she hasn’t eaten in a year. I haven’t seen Nate give her the stupid grin so it seems safe to assume that they aren’t doing it. I asked Nick once if he thought his brother was hooking up with the girl downstairs and Nick gave me this weird look and told me that he wasn’t going to talk about stuff like that with me.
Dad clears his throat and I do a mental fist pump. That Dad is talking and not Mom meant I’ve won this round. “We’ll take it a day at a time. If North Prep gets too much for you, the Switzerland idea is still available.”
Mom leans over and gives me a kiss on my forehead. Her lips are trembling like she is trying not to cry and I just don’t understand what she is so upset about. How could North Prep be too much for me? All my friends went to North Prep. Nothing bad could happen to me there.