Today should have been a great day, if the weight of the world were not bearing down on my shoulders. Perhaps I could have at least given the day the opportunity to become great. However, at the fresh age of seventeen, I was already cynical. Today would be just another exercise in the game of trying to get by in life.
Hearing an unusual sound outside, I lay in my bed trying to place what could be making that racket this early in the morning. It took my foggy brain a minute to realize that it was just a bird greeting the morning with its delightful and perky song. Perky and delightful were not the best two words used to describe me, especially first thing in the morning.
I was used to the sounds of angry drivers honking their horns at other people they considered to be idiotic, or the sound of a fire truck speeding down the street to save the day. The simple sound of the bird singing was alien to me. I would have been more comfortable to hear angry car horns blaring in the street below our old apartment than the chipper sounding bird outside my window.
It was going to be yet another day of insufferable unpacking. It felt like we had moved a hundred times by now. We only stayed in any one particular place about three years before Mom was ready for the next big adventure. There had been that one small place out in the middle of nowhere in Vermont, but I didn’t actually feel as if it had prepared me adequately for where we were now. We were now secluded, miles away in the woods outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
This time I was determined that we were staying put, even if I had to nail my mom’s feet to the floor of our new house. It didn’t matter that I already missed the city, with its never-ending life and constant motion. The city showcased bright lights, moving bodies, hectic lifestyles, and restless life surrounded by concrete and metal.
Being optimistic about all the trees and unfamiliarity surrounding our new house was clearly going to take some getting used to, but a small voice whispered in the back of my mind that the country might be different and soothing. Calming in a way that my soul never knew I needed.
I had become almost mechanical about the whole moving process, starting with the dishes in the kitchen, moving on next to setting up the bathrooms, and finally making my bedroom the last stop. Hanging my Paramore, 30 Seconds to Mars, and Mayday Parade posters had almost become a ceremonial right to my room being officially done. My mom, Carlie, would start her unpacking in the living room, later drifting to the dining room, and lastly her bedroom, like me.
Realizing how long I had been lying in my bed while listening to alien birds outside my window, I finally convinced myself that it was better to get the day over with rather than keep procrastinating. Might as well get my butt out of bed and make some coffee. What I wouldn’t give to have that Starbucks on the corner just across the street from our old apartment. My mouth watered for a Mocha-chino.
I twisted up into a sitting position on the side of the bed and cringed. There was the pain again, shooting through my chest and down my spine. Taking a breath seemed like an impossible action, and I wilted physically a little more, like a flower slowly dying after being cut off its stem. Will the pain ever end?
“Kay? Sweetheart, are you okay?”
I was too focused on the pain that I didn’t hear my bedroom door squeak open. I utterly hated letting Mom see me this way.
I composed my face to feign a sense of happiness which I hadn’t felt in a very long time. “Yeah, Mom, I’m fine. Hey, did you make any coffee yet? I’m in need of a strong cup of Sumatra.”
I looked up to see her motherly gaze analyzing my quick cover up. Worry showed in her chocolate brown eyes, and I knew that I hadn’t played that one off too well. While looking at her, I was reminded at how we were complete opposites of each other.
Mom was tall with a honey-like tan. She reminded me of an Amazon warrior with her tall, toned, lithe build. She also had this sort of exotic look about her with beautiful straight brown hair that fell halfway down her back and vibrant amber eyes. I envied her abnormal beauty and confidence. Hell, she didn’t even look like my mom, more like an older sister. I used to hope that I would age as gracefully as she had, but I now knew those hopes were obsolete.
Bouncing up off the bed a little like my old carefree self that I had been less than a year before, I skipped over to the doorway and gave her a fierce hug.
“I’m fine, Mom. I swear. Don’t worry about me so much. I really do need some coffee though. You know I’m not human without my coffee in the morning.”
She produced a nervous sounding chuckle. “Not human is right. Go get your shower while I start the coffee.”
I grabbed a towel from the linen closet in the hallway and entered the bathroom.
Staring in the mirror at my wild, curly red hair, I reached for my brush and started to pull it through the tangled mess that topped my head. My hair was my one true spectacular feature. The hue of red had such a vibrant distinction that people often stopped to compliment the blazing color. Of course, then they would ask what salon I had gone to have it colored. Most people had a hard time believing it was natural.
Mom had once told me that my red hair was what made me so feisty, but that my blue eyes made me seem like a wizened gentle soul. Thinking of Mom made me start to wonder how she was going to make it when I was gone. Analyzing my body, I noted how my skin seemed paler than normal. I should try to get a little sun in the next couple of weeks, or else I might start to look like a zombie.
Hey, that would only be a halfway point to where the doctors said I was going anyway.
Okay, that was an awful joke.
My face seemed a little thinner, and I couldn’t help but notice that the skinnier and paler my face was, the more my orange freckles stood out across the bridge of my nose. What a mess I’d become. No wonder Mom hovered incessantly. It looked as if I could croak at any minute. I might be dying, but I didn’t need to be a constant visual reminder of it. Maybe Mom could take me into town and let me get a spray tan.
After starting the steaming hot water, I took my sleep shirt off and looked at my new body in the mirror. My birthmark, in the shape of a nautical star, had shrunken a little and moved a little higher on my hip because of the major weight loss. It looked like an angry red spot, flaming in contrast to my almost zombie-like pale skin.
I had changed so much in the last six months that I barely recognized myself some days. It was disconcerting going from being a rather pudgy girl of seventeen to having a much slimmer and somewhat toned body months before my eighteenth birthday. I now had a body like all those girls in school I once envied. You know, the popular ones that were so sure of themselves? Unlike me, always the quiet girl hiding in the corner with my nose stuck in a book. Not quite smart enough to fit in with the dork squad, but also too smart for the class clowns to like me.
Most days, I just felt invisible. The person that everyone glances over, as if you weren’t actually in the room with them. In essence, I was the definition of a wall flower. Unsure of what to say or do to make people notice me. Insecure of my appearance to attempt things like make-up and trendy clothes to stand out—not that I could wear make-up anyway. I had tried wearing the stuff once out of curiosity. My face broke out in a rash that likened my appearance to that of a large lobster.
So now I had this new outer shell, but on the inside I was the same inwardly awkward, screaming little freak just waiting to break out and shine. Two halves to a whole that felt completely out of sync.
I had a beautiful, slender body, just like I had always dreamed of. Sure, I hadn’t lost the weight in a healthy or athletic way. Being as sick as I was would take the weight right off whether you wanted to lose it or not. That bit of reality killed the fact that I should be happy to finally lose the weight since I’d always struggled with it before. It was hard to appreciate the new ‘Kay packaging’ when I remembered why I had gotten this skinny in the first place. Reality took the joy out of everything.
Deciding not to torture myself anymore, I pushed all of my cares away and stepped into the strong stream of relaxing hot water.
After drying off from my shower, I stood in front of my suitcases, rummaging for something comfortable to wear. I pulled on my Aerosmith concert shirt and my favorite pair of worn jeans and went downstairs.
I stood by the kitchen counter with my newly poured hot coffee in my hand, mentally trying to wake myself up, staring at the writing on the side of the hot pink coffee cup. It read ‘Princess.’ A black and gold tiara stretched over the P in ‘Princess’ perfectly. Three little jewels were painted on, complementing the piece like a real crown.
“Kay! Are you listening to me? I just asked you if you wanted to help me unpack today.”
“Mom, I always help you unpack. Why would you even ask me that?” I peered at her over my coffee cup, silently daring her to question my ability to help at menial tasks.
“Well, you haven’t been feeling well lately. I wasn’t sure if you felt up to helping or not. It’s no big deal, sweetie. I understand if you want to go rest or something.”
Mom’s concern was so strongly written on her face that I didn’t even have the strength to get mad at her this time.
“Mom, I feel fine, really. I will start in the kitchen, and you can start in the living room. Lord knows you have about a gazillion books to unpack. You might want to start there, and before you know it, we’ll be done.”
I gave her my best grin and watched those worry lines across her face melt into a careful smile. Just to prove my point, I set my favorite coffee cup down and picked up the first box of kitchen items and began to unload them. After ten minutes, I had the dinner dishes stored away and was moving on to the next box.
Mom took my stubbornness to help as proof that I really was okay. With a resigned sigh, she moved into the living room to start unpacking.
After watching her for a few minutes, I realized how lucky Mom was to find a house with so many built-in bookshelves. The long wall in the large living room was lined with them and she needed every bit of that space.
The day continued on productively as we scooted around each other, unpacking various boxes in silence. Lunch time quickly rolled around and we settled on the plush, black leather couch with our ham and cheese sandwiches in hand.
Studying Mom’s face out of the corner of my eye, I could tell she had something brewing in that head of hers. I was sure I didn’t want to know what it was about.
All too soon she found the courage to speak, and I knew that this probably wasn’t going to be anything we hadn’t talked about before, and I didn’t want to talk about again.
“Kay,” Mom said hesitantly.
“I want to talk to you about the school situation again. I know we haven’t seen eye to eye about it yet, but I want you to reconsider. I’d really like you to be home schooled. If we try to start you in school now, you’ll be over a month behind in work. And if you stay at home, you can rest more. We have to make sure we’re doing everything we can to keep you strong during your chemotherapy treatments, and more rest will help with that. I know that you want to be around other kids your age and have friends—I understand that. So go out after school hours into town and meet people. Please consider what I’m saying. I don’t want to fight about it anymore, and I hate to upset you.” Her lips were trembling. I could tell this conversation was killing her. She was literally trying her best not to let me see the worry and tears that were on the verge of falling from her eyes.
“Mom, can’t you try to understand my point about wanting to go to school? I haven’t met anyone since we moved here. Think of all the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I would be missing if I was home schooled. Homecoming, football games, Prom…”
“Kay, I get the dances, but you don’t even like football.”
“MOM! That’s not the point! Please. Why can’t you understand? You know what? I need to go for a walk.”
She started to follow me towards the front door, thinking to accompany me.
I groaned in frustration. “Can you please at least try to understand that I need to walk down the street without you hovering over me every step I take? My head is going to explode!”
She clutched her hands tightly together and her shoulders slumped heavily in defeat. “Okay, Kay. Go for a walk. But don’t stay gone too long and take your cell phone with you. Take your jacket, too, please. It might be chilly out there.”
I curbed the urge to run my hands through my hair in frustration. “I got it, MOM!”
Grabbing my lightweight, brown corduroy jacket, I ran out the door and down the street without paying attention to the direction I was going. It took me a few minutes to clear the line of sight from the house, but when I did, I let out a strangled breath.
I just needed space to breathe, to feel normal again.
The events from the past seven months played like a blurry, bad movie in my head, reminding me once again of what seemed like an impossible situation. It all started with pains in my chest and stomach. I nearly drove myself crazy trying to hide it all from Mom, trying to tell myself it was no big deal. Then the fatigue and severe nausea hit—my lack of appetite caused me to lose fifty pounds. Eventually, Mom got tired of all my vague answers when questioned about the rapid changes occurring to me. She knew something was wrong and dragged me to the doctor. They poked me with needles, stuffed me with an IV, and tortured me with a hideous hospital nightgown and endless tests just to crush us in the end with, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.”
There was no hope in surgeries or medical treatments. Apparently, with stage four Lymphoma cancer and my abnormal rapid deterioration, it was too late for that. I got nothing but whispered promises of pain medication to help make my inevitable end more comfortable.
What the doctors had not counted on was my mother’s indomitable spirit. The words ‘give up’ were not allowed in her vocabulary, but she also expected me to fight just as hard as she was willing to fight for me. And fight for me is exactly what she did.
Mom whispered her own promises.
A hope for a cure.
She had moved us to whatever place on this planet she felt would give me the best chances of surviving. Not like she hadn’t moved us around a lot anyways. It just so happened that her hope for a cure brought us back to where she claimed to have met my father.
I was tired.
Tired of moving.
Tired of my mother’s optimism.
I was beyond tired of the pain and nausea that were the semi-constant reminders of what was starting to feel like the sad ending to a cursed fate. At this rate, my dreams coming true would be for life to revert to my former pitiful existence of having absolutely no social life and being ignored at school. Being ignored at school, while being surround by other people, was infinitely better than being stuck in a house with no one around at all.
At least, in those days, I could dream of a future filled with my mom, drawing and talking myself into some kind of crazy adventure, like driving down to a beach in Mexico or going down a mountain on a snowboard without breaking my neck.
I just wanted to be normal again. No doctors, no tests, just normal.
A breeze picked up and seemingly blew through my body, sending goosebumps down my arms and legs. The slight chill in the air felt good. It cooled the places in my crazed brain that were overheating from stress. Taking a deep breath, I felt the crisp air go deeply into my lungs before breathing it out again. Finally feeling a little better, I stopped to look around the area my frantic run had brought me to.
Everywhere I looked were trees. Of course, that made sense since we had moved to the middle of nowhere now and the nearest neighbor lived at least three miles up the road from our house. But looking at my surroundings again I was sure that I had actually run in the opposite direction from the neighbors. Walking a little further wouldn’t hurt before I turned back, so why not?
Slowing down, I started to admire the dogwoods, oaks and maple trees that lined the never-ending dirt road. After a short time, it almost felt like they were here to entice me to travel further into their forest of mysterious shadows. It was almost magical how at home I felt in the woods. This feeling should have seemed a little weird to me since I had grown up in cities most of my life. Instead, it felt natural, like I belonged here.
Feeling a new sense of calm, I continued down the quaint, little road, staring at colorful trees filled with vibrant reds, oranges and yellows, when suddenly the fine hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Before I could even glance around to investigate, every muscle in my body froze.
Then I heard the growl.
Copyright © 2012 Jessie Lane & M.L. Pahl.
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