Nate is lounging against my locker after last period. His one foot is braced behind him against the metal while his other leg supports his weight. Claudia Amsden is sidled up next to him so close I wonder if I could fit a piece of paper between the two.
I grimace, slightly disgusted with myself for caring. Not only has my illness made me weak physically but I am now weak mentally. Before getting sick I wouldn’t have given Claudia second thought. She would just be one more girl who liked to kiss up to Nate in hopes that he might ask them out which hadn’t ever happened to my knowledge. Nate and Nick didn’t do girlfriends. I teased them once that they were saving themselves for marriage but dropped the subject after the two exchanged looks I couldn’t interpret. Nick muttered something like, “Don’t need to” but he clammed up after Nate punched him in the shoulder.
Nick was probably alluding to the fact that they just messed around with girls but didn’t want the hassle of a relationship but I pretended ignorance. All three of us got along better that way. God forbid I bring up any three letter words to them like BOY or SEX. They’d both turned pale. Well, Nick turned pale and Nate got red in the face and gave me a long lecture about how none of the guys at North Prep were worth my time of day and how I had to wait until someone special came along like our moms had waited for our dads.
I yelled at him that he was being sexist because our dads certainly didn’t wait and honestly how did we know our moms waited. I never had that talk with my mom and I can’t see Aunt Grace busting out with “Like a Virgin” with Nick and Nate.
We may have continued arguing but Nick, the peacekeeper, made a joke about how we were both so full of air we could float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. After that, none of us talked about girls or guys with each other again.
As I get closer I can see Nate’s expression and it is not a pleased one. Whatever Claudia is saying isn’t something that Nate wants to hear. Perversely this makes me happy and I want to give myself a mental head slap for being such a jealous twit over nothing.
Nate sees me and pushes away from the lockers and Claudia. I’m not moving fast enough apparently because he hurries down the hallway to grab my arm. Claudia gives me the same pitying look that she pinned on me in the bathroom. The one that says poor Charlotte, can’t even muddle down the hallway by herself.
I jerk my arm away from Nate which causes me to stumble. “Hey, I got you,” Nate says and pulls me to his side. I’m awash in both frustration and happiness. Frustration that he thinks I need help and that he may be right and happiness because I’m tucked against his side.
I wonder if radiation has totally screwed with my brain and I will no longer be able to think rational thought again. Resigned I allow Nate to lead me down the hall. “Thanks Claud,” he says as we pass her. He has one arm angled across my back with his hand curled at his waist. This is the embrace that girlfriends and boyfriends enjoy and for a tiny illicit moment I allow myself to think of what it might be like to be Nate’s girl.
My fantasy is interrupted when he stops at the girls and boys locker rooms. “I don’t need to go to the bathroom,” I hiss mortified.
“I know.” He looks both ways and then pulls the door of the boys’ locker room open. “Incoming,” he yells. “Cover up.”
There’s a rustling of activity and metal clanging against metal as I surmise that guys are dressing or, as Nate ordered, covering up. “What are you doing?” I gape at him.
He gives me a quick smile but it dies almost as quickly as it had appeared. “Claud told me you were puking up a storm today.”
“That little—“ I don’t finish my statement. Instead I am turning to the door to chase Claudia down and give her a piece of my mind but Nate’s hands take hold of my shoulder.
“Look, I know why you’re trying to hide this. You think if our parents know that you’ll be yanked out of school and put in some special treatment program, maybe in Switzerland.”
My mouth drops open. “Have you heard something?” I ask. Fear is making my heart rate pick up. I wasn’t aware that Nate knew of my mom’s desire to take me out of Chicago, out of the country.
“Only that it’s an option and we all want to make sure it’s an option that doesn’t become necessary.” Nate stops talking and leans toward the interior of the room. The clanging noises have stopped. “All good?” he calls.
“Yup.” It sounds like there is more than one guy in here. I’m so embarrassed.
“Nate, I can’t be in here.” I’m feeling queasy and it’s not due to my condition. Perhaps other girls would love to be in the boy’s locker room but for me it’s a kind of stinky and I don’t want to see a bunch of my classmates’ underwear or worse. I’d never be able to look them in the eye again.
“Yes, you can.” He drags me into the room. Along the way I see several guys who give Noah chin nods and questioning looks but no one stops him. Maybe girls in the boys’ locker room is ordinary occurrence.
We stop at the end of the locker room where there is an office door that says “Head Coach” and then another closed door that says “Training Room.” Nate opens the training room door. Inside are two metal long metal tables. Nate curses when he sees the bare tables. “Hold on,” he says and then leaves.
I stand there like a fool, wondering what I should do. I don’t really want to walk out and see things that should be unseen but I don’t want to wait around until someone who is supposed to use this room shows up.
I’m about to leave when Nate returns, shouldering his way in, his arms full of clothes and towels. He gives me a frown when he sees my hand on the doorknob and I guiltily pull it away. Curiously I watch Nate spread out the materials. There are a couple of pairs of workout pants, the kind that have snaps on the sides so that the players can quickly disrobe. Stripper pants, I liked to think of them although I’m sure if I said that to any of the guys they’d give me deeper frowns than the one that Nate shot me when he returned. Nate carefully positions the pants so that there isn’t much overlap. Over the pants go three large sweatshirts. When he’s done, he pats the table. “Hop up.”
“Hop up,” he repeats.
I stand there like a dummy because I don’t get what he wants me to do. Nate shakes his head and in two steps reaches my side and propels me forward. “Charlotte, you spent your lunch hour vomiting, right?”
I really hate Claudia. She must have been in there the whole time and then ratted me out to Nate. “So what if I was?” I sound snippy but I don’t even care one bit.
“So you’ve got to be worn out. You go home and pass out, our parents are going to suspect something. Work with me here,” Nate pleads. Understanding dawns. Nate wants me to take a nap while he practices football and he hopes the extra sleep will make me appear healthier at home.
“This is really nice of you Nate, but you don’t have to do this for me. I’m fine,” I lied giving him a big smile.
“Charlotte, stop. If I was sick wouldn’t you do anything you could to make me feel better, help me heal?”
I give a reluctant nod of my head.
“Then why is it pity or wrong for me to want to do the same for you?”
Shamed I look down at the bed of garments that Nate had spread out. My throat tightens at the gentle care he’s showing me. Not wanting Nate to see me cry, I climb onto the makeshift mat and immediately I am struck by how very tired I really am. My whole body seems to loosen up. Nate lays two towels on top of me like a blanket.
“We’ll get some better bedding in here for you,” he murmurs, stroking the side of my cheek with one long finger.
“How will you keep this a secret?” I close my eyes and revel in the sensation of his caress. I don’t know that he’s ever touched me so tenderly before.
“Only a few guy’s know and they don’t have any call to rat us out.” His voice is sounding further and further away.
“I love you Nate.” I whisper as I let go and let sleep take me away. I dream that I hear him say “I love you” back.
Charlotte, Nick and I go to the Halloween party. Charlotte insisted when Nick and I suggested we just have an x-box tournament and hand out halloween candy to the kids in the building.
She is Peter Pan which she says fits her short haircut. Somehow Nick got to be Hook and I got shoved into wings and scratchy tutu. I drew the line at tights and makeup though. A dozen different girls and a couple of guys have stroked their hands down my legs making me wish I’d chosen a longer skirt. It is like bare legs and a short skirt are an invitation for people to touch. I’d have to make sure Charlotte never wore a short skirt again.
“What’s this thing made of?” I ask Charlotte bringing her another cup of punch. Claudia Amsden’s condo was full of people although Charlotte and Nick were a couple of the youngest ones here.
“Tulle,” she says.
“It’s scratching my tool,” I joke but when I see Charlotte flush I want to curse myself at making such a stupid joke in front of her. “Sorry,” I mutter and sit down next to her.
“Sorry I blush so easy?” she says taking a sip of the punch. She tries to hide a grimace but I see it. My parents have said that her chemo and radiation can screw with the taste buds. By the look of Charlotte, I wonder if there is anything that she enjoys eating anymore. Before she got sick, she was slender but muscular. Now, her bones are becoming more and more prominent but I know if I say anything it will make her feel bad so I bite my tongue and pretend I don’t notice. I’m doing a lot of that lately. Pretending to not see that she doesn’t eat or that she’s throwing up a lot or that she looks exhausted all of the time.
We both survey the crowd. Most of the girls are wearing the barely-there version of some costume like a police uniform was transformed into a shirt that buttons only at the waist and hot pants with platform heels or a construction uniform that was transformed into jumpsuit that was unzipped to the belly button and ended just slightly below the girl’s ass. Surprisingly there are a number of guys dressed up like me, fake cross dresser. A couple of guy’s wearing wonder women costumes and one guy who is dressed up as fake Katniss Everdeen. We all look like fools but it’s halloween. I think we’re supposed to look silly. Or sexy.
Charlotte looks neither silly nor sexy. Instead, the slight flush that had appeared earlier has faded and her skin looks almost translucent with a slight green tint to her complexion. I wonder if it is from the costume. The glass in her hand shakes lightly and she cups her other hand to steady it. Even her mouth looks tired, as if she doesn’t have the energy to show any emotion. All the signs worry me but I know that if I suggest leaving, Charlotte will be even more distressed. Nick and I worked on her for the last three weeks to get her to come with us.
“Can I find you a quiet place?” I ask.
She glances around and then nods shortly revealing exactly how poorly she feels. If she had any resources left, she’d say she was having the best time of her life. I want to lift her in my arms and carry her out of her but I allow myself just to help her to her feet. She leans heavily against my arm and again, I tamp down the urge to sweep her up and carry her away. Across the room, I see Nick rise from his seat but I give him a short shake of my head. Grace isn’t going to want to see both of us Jacksons rushing to her side. He gives me a reluctant nod and sits back down.
Down the hall I find an empty guest room and give in to the urge I’ve been fighting. Sweeping Charlotte into my arms, I carry her to the bed. She doesn’t even protest, only sighs with relief. I lay her down on top of the comforter and her head lolls to the side. She isn’t even awake. Panic sets in. There’s no way she fell asleep in the time it took to enter the room and for me to place her on the bed. I tap her cheeks lightly, the cheeks that are waxen and cold.
“Charlotte.” My voice is loud and insistent but she doesn’t respond. I slap her a little harder but she still lies like she’s out cold. Fear is chasing down my spine as I lean over and place my head on her chest. Her heart is beating, but I don’t know if the pace is normal or too slow or too fast. It feels fast. I place my fingers over my own pulse at the base of my throat and count. God, what did I learn this past summer about CPR? Count the beats for fifteen seconds and then multiply by four but fuck, my heart is racing. I press my fingers hard against Charlotte’s neck and count. About thirty beats go by in the fifteen seconds. Charlotte’s heart feels like a bird.
I fumble in my pocket and call my dad but he doesn’t answer. Uncle Bo’s phone just rings and rings too. Then I remember that they are hosting a party at Dad and Aunt AM’s offices for clients. Scrubbing my hand over my mouth, I rifle through a bunch of options. Calling 911 seems extreme. Charlotte would be so pissed at me if I drag EMTs to break up Claudia’s party. But fuck, fuck, fuck. She’s non responsive.
Giving her another chance, I shake her lightly. Nothing. There’s a bathroom attached to the room. I race inside, gather water into my hands and leaving the faucet running, I run back and drop the water onto Charlotte’s face. Still nothing. My heart in my throat I type in the emergency number. But I wait. A second. Then two. Charlotte lies there, her heart racing looking like a waxen doll.
Hesitating only one second more, I press send. “I’m sorry Charlotte but I’d rather have you hate me than for you to be dead.” I kiss her cold cheek and then run out to get Nick.
“Charlotte’s sick. I’ve called 911.” Before I can get the rest of my words out, Nick runs into the bedroom. I hear him shout Charlotte’s name. I pull Varner, a friend of mine and a defensive lineman on our team, aside. “Charlotte’s sick. EMT is coming. Make sure they get up here ASAP.”
Varner claps me on the back and says, “On it, brother.” I don’t waste another minute and head back to Charlotte. Inside Nick has her in his arms. His eyes are wide and a little red. “Has she said anything?” But I can see it’s a useless question. Charlotte’s arms hang down by her side like there is no life in them.
“No,” he answers and hugs her closer. I want to be hugging Charlotte too but I need to keep an eye out for the EMTs. Each minute seems to drag by but later I realize that the EMT services arrive quickly. Claudia’s address is a wealthy one and there are no delays for rich people.
The EMTs won’t allow either Nick or I to ride to the hospital in the ambulance. We catch a cab and it is on the way to the hospital that I finally get dad on the phone.
“What’s wrong?” he barks into the phone.
“Charlotte,” I choke out. The emotions of the evening are catching up to me and my throat is thick with them. My dad doesn’t hesitate.
“Where should we meet you?”
“Hospital,” I say.
This time there is a moment of silence before I hear my dad curse. “Which one?”
“We’ll be there.” He’s gone before I can say another word.
“She going to be okay?” Nick asks, his voice sounds small and scared. I put my arm around him and that he allows it, that he actually puts his head on my shoulder like he used to when we were younger, makes me feel horrible. Guilty and sick inside.
“Yeah,” I say trying to overcome those feelings, trying to put on a good front. “Charlotte is a fighter. Stronger than both of us.”
Because Charlotte can’t die. She can’t die and leave us. I won’t allow it to happen. Charlotte belongs in this world, with me. With all of us but mostly me. Inside my head I’m screaming and praying and bargaining.Please, please, please, I say silently, I’ll do anything. Anything.
By the time that we arrive at the hospital, Charlotte is nowhere to be seen and no one is telling two teenagers anything. We wait in the lobby for our parents and hers to arrive. They burst through the doors. AM and Bo run past us to the desk. Dad stops in front of us.
“What happened?” He commands. Bo turns toward us. He looks big and menacing.
“We were at the party and she looked tired. I thought she needed to lie down so I took her to the guest room but by the time we got there she must’ve passed out.” I ran through the next events. “I tried to rouse her but she wouldn’t come to. I called you both but there was no answer.” I hear Aunt AM’s voice catch and then a cry. Mom rushes over and places an arm around Aunt AM’s shoulder. My gaze swings back to Dad. “I call 911.”
Uncle Bo steps forward and squeezes my shoulder with his big hand. I’m almost as tall as him, almost as tall as my dad, I realize almost absently. “You did good, son,” Uncle Bo says and gives Dad a chin nod.
Dad leads both Nick and I away but we don’t want to go. We drag our heels, anxiously trying to overhear something but Dad is implacable and we do what he says. Mom comes over and holds our hands. It’s a little comforting but not much.
It seems like it is hours before we get nay news which I figure must be good. Finally someone comes out and speaks to Aunt AM and Uncle Bo. Whatever the news is I can’t hear because Dad is standing in front of Nick and I, like blocking us from getting to them. When Aunt AM collapse into Uncle Bo, I try to break away from my Dad but his big arm stops me.
The doctor walks over to us and Charlotte’s parents are right behind them.
“How long has she been vomiting at school?” The doctor asks Nick and I. We share another glance, a guilty one, that my mom reads instantly.
“Nathan and Nicholas Jackson, what have you been hiding?” she says sternly.
Nick pipes up immediately. “She didn’t want to say anything because she knew you would take her out of school.”
“I was making sure she rested too,” I stupidly say.
“Where?” Uncle Bo asks.
“The training room.” I look down at my shoes and realize for the first time that I’m standing here in a fucking tutu and wings. I tear the wings off and pull down the tutu so that I’m now just wearing gym shorts and a tank. Unfortunately, taking off the ridiculous costume doesn’t make me feel one ounce better. I shouldn’t have covered for her but how was I supposed to know that she was too sick to be at school. Maybe I should’ve known. Maybe all this is my fault.
Uncle Bo and Aunt Am move away and head with the doctor toward Charlotte’s room. I try to follow but again Dad stops me. “This isn’t something you can keep to yourself. It’s not like drinking my Scotch on New Year’s Eve and pretending you don’t know anything about it. Pretending like Charlotte isn’t sick doesn’t make her better.” I nod because I know if I don’t I’ll never get to see Charlotte again.
I’ve messed up bad. Dad’s face looks like a thundercloud and Mom looks like I’ve danced all over her heart.
“You and those Jackson boys,” Mom mutters. I’ve never heard her refer to Nate and Nick as the “Jackson boys.” Those guys are like her sons.
“Mom, it’s my fault. I begged them to not tell you.”
Mom closes her eyes, I guess praying for patience. “Your doctor says your throat looks like you ate a Brillo pad, it’s so red and sore. You must be vomiting daily, at least once or twice a day. I know you’ve been losing weight, but I thought maybe if I just kept quiet, you’d eat.”
I pressed my lips together to keep from crying. I was trying to be strong but obviously I’d gone about it in a stupid way.
Mom continued, “So now, you’re going to have to be fed intravenously until your weight gets back up. You’re dehydrated and undernourished. We can’t allow you to go back to school, either.” She presses her face to my fingers. “Baby girl, we love you and if you can’t take care of yourself then we’re going to do it for you.”
“I’m sorry.” My tears are coming and her tears are wetting my hand. “I’m so sorry. I was stupid. Please don’t blame Nick or Nate. Please.”
“We won’t.” Dad finally breaks his silence and sits on the other side of the bed. “Those two would break their arms off before they’d hurt you intentionally. But Birdie this is one reason we thought you might be better off leaving Chicago to get better. Those boys, they love you too much but they’re too young to know how to help you. You three are bumbling around like blind mice inside a big maze. It’s okay when you’re all healthy but like it or not, Birdie, you’re a sick little girl. You can get better but not by hiding stuff from us.”
I nod but Dad presses on. “You outta think what you are doing to those boys. Think hard because your illness could be distracting for them. Make it hard for them to study or focus on their other stuff because they’re too worried about you.”
He’s right. I look down at my sheet covered body. Tonight Nick and Nate had to be talked into going to the Halloween party. If I hadn’t insisted they would’ve stayed home. I can see it now. Every party or event or invitation would be weighed against whether I am well enough to go and if I’m not, they’d both stay home. They’d laugh and tell me that they’d rather be with me, but the truth is my illness will be making them prisoners just like it is holding me hostage. I won’t do that to them. To either of them. I love them too much. I don’t want them to miss even one thing because I am sick. That seems too stupid beyond words.
I squeeze my mom’s hand. “I’ve always wanted to go to Switzerland.”