My toes dipped into the chilly bay, but I barely felt the cold. I’d been wandering the deserted shore for hours, trying to clear my mind, when I stumbled upon a tiny dock jutting out into the water, looking lost and forgotten among the straight and narrow new ones that seemed to be mocking it.
I wandered out onto the rickety wooden structure, careful to avoid the wide gaps from missing slats. I was compelled to get out further from shore, my body and mind both trying to escape the flying shrapnel of my life.
My parents had left me with my grandparents for spring break, hoping that some time by themselves would help mend the rift that had been wedging itself between them for years. I wasn’t sure how one week was going to make up for a lifetime of harsh words and ill-treatment on both their parts, but it was the last step before the inevitable would happen. I knew my recent predicament didn’t help their relationship status either. Honestly, they should have divorced years ago, but from what I could tell, they were putting up with each other until I left for college next year.
If I lived that long.
The haunting thought wafted through my mind like the smoke my grandmother exhaled in dainty puffs from her Virginia Slims as she’d stand on her deck, looking out over the water. A habit she’d had her entire life.
Life. It’s funny to think about it when there’s actually a possible end date. Well, not funny, funny really, but funny in the odd sense of the word. The kind you never really think of until the moment when you’re forced to actually do so.
It was well past two in the morning, but I couldn’t sleep and had slipped out of my grandparents’ old cottage on the bay to take a walk, knowing the majority of people who could afford to live this close to its banks were mostly the wealthy or elderly who’d bought years ago when things were still affordable. Either way, I highly doubted someone would cause me much trouble tonight.
The cool breeze off the water blew over my bare shoulders, making me shiver even though it was a relatively balmy evening, but my body did what it wanted these days, regardless of the temperature outside.
Staring out over the moonlit water, I thought back to a few weeks ago, before my life started to crumble around me like the walls of Jericho.
And most of it wasn’t really because of anything anyone had done to me.
Just the random luck-of-the-draw sort of thing life dumps in your lap when you’re least expecting it.
Only a few months ago I was applying to colleges and trying to figure out if the boy I had a crush on would ask me to the Winter Solstice dance. Then things started happening.
I hadn’t wanted to alarm anyone to my rapidly dropping weight, or the aches and pains I had every morning that lasted further and further into the day with each passing week.
No, I figured it was just the stress of life, of graduating, of trying to figure out which college to attend. The one I wanted or the one to please my image conscious parents?
One day my nose kept bleeding for more than a half hour and I’d had to go to the nurse; she’d become alarmed to see the bruises on my body where no one had laid a hand on me. She called my parents, recommending I see a doctor immediately.
Of course they were mildly concerned, saying they’d set something up for the doctor the next day, but their lives were busy and all-consuming and one day moved on into another. The weeks passed, and because I didn’t really think it was serious either, I let it go, not feeling the need to remind them.
Until it happened again. Only my nose wouldn’t stop bleeding this time. It gushed and gushed, so much that the nurse had called 911, and they took me away in an ambulance when even the EMT’s couldn’t get it to stop.
My parents, of course, were unavailable until much later when they were forced to come down to the hospital and given the bad news.
Prognosis not good.
The words tumbled around my mind again, and I wondered why I was even bothering. I didn’t know if I had the fight in me to keep living, when my life so far hadn’t been all that worth living.
My parents didn’t even give me a choice, shoving me in to see doctor after doctor to discuss my treatment options.
Bone marrow transplant.
My knowledge of the disease and its related treatments and outcomes were a fuzzy blur of information rattling around in my head.
Yet no one asked me my opinion. As if a seventeen-year-old had no choice about the way her life was supposed to go.
It often amused me to think how my parents only really started paying attention to my well-being once it wasn’t so well.
I was supposed to start treatment the following week, but I was still contemplating what to do.
Not that I had much choice since I was considered a minor.
Tonight as I stood at the edge of the dock, staring out into its murky depths, I just wanted to dive in and let it swallow me whole.
Take away the choice I’d never been given.
A board creaked from behind me, warning me of someone’s approach.
Spinning quickly, I saw a hooded figure sauntering towards me, as if it had all the time in the world.
To murder you, I thought, yet even with the hairs on my neck on high alert, I didn’t scream or jump into the chilly water to swim away.
When he was finally close enough, I saw a boy not much older than myself standing a yard away; his hoodie was covering his head, eyes barely visible in the moonlight.
“What are you doing?” His voice was deep and clear. Not a hint of aggression laced within, only a simple question to a crazy girl standing at the end of a dock in nothing but the filmy nightgown her grandmother gave her to sleep in.
“Thinking.” My simple reply seemed to satisfy his curiosity, and he walked closer, asking if he could join me. With a shrug, I told him he could do anything he wanted since it wasn’t my dock to begin with.
“I know, it’s actually my parents'.” His smile was warm and inviting, and for a moment, it made me forget where I was, until after a beat too long, I realized I was trespassing on his dock.
“Oh, um… I guess I should go. I couldn’t sleep and –“
“I’m Edward. You can stay. I couldn’t sleep either.” He sat down beside my feet and tugged on the ends of my nightgown, signaling me to sit beside him.
“So what’s keeping you up this beautiful evening?” he asked. I almost didn’t hear him above the soft lapping sounds the waves made against the shore.
“Stuff.” I hadn’t told anyone about my condition, even though I was pretty sure my parents had spread the word enough for the entire town we live in to know all about it by now.
“Stuff. Well…that’s quite a lot of things to think about,” he teased, making the corners of my mouth turn up in what could almost be considered a grin. It was the first time someone had made me smile in a couple of weeks’ time.
“What are you doing up?” The question came out more abruptly than I intended, but he didn’t seem to notice and answered me anyhow.
“I have bouts of insomnia. My brain won’t shut off, so I take a walk on the beach to try and clear it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Although, tonight is the first time I’ve ever met someone out here at the same time.”
We sat in companionable silence for a few minutes, just watching the moon drift from behind one cloud to another.
He turned his head towards me. “Are you the Swan’s granddaughter? My mom said there was going to be a girl here this week.” He smiled again, sending a blooming warmth through me that I’d never felt before, and I wondered if it was because he was flirting with me or if I was just imagining things.
“Yeah, Bella. Bella Swan. Nice to meet you, Edward.” I attempted my most coquettish smile, but I imagined it probably looked more like I was disfigured instead.
“Bella. Is that short for something?”
“Have you met my grandma Swan? Her name is Isabella, so yeah. I was named after her. It was too confusing for me when I was little, never knowing if someone was talking to me or her, so I go by Bella now.”
My mind whirred trying to come up with something to say to him, but the only topic my brain was willing to suggest to me was my upcoming battle with the big C, and I just wasn’t ready for this complete stranger to start looking at me like I had a disease.
Oh, wait, you have one.
I physically winced at the thought, causing Edward to ask me what was wrong.
Opening my mouth, I intended on telling him nothing. That I was fine. Super. Peachy. Never better.
Instead every weight of the world that had been piled on me over the course of the last two months came tumbling out of my mouth.
I told him about my parents and how they ignored me and probably never should have married in the first place.
How my grandparents were more like parents than my own.
That I had Leukemia and I was probably going to die within the next year, or less if I didn’t get the suggested treatment next week.
That my mom probably paid for a guy to ask me to this year’s Valentine dance, and when he walked me to my door, he basically backwashed in my mouth when he kissed me because it was so sloppy.
I explained how terrified I was that I’d never actually lose my virginity because I’d die before that’d happen.
And that I thought he was probably the cutest boy I’d ever seen, and I couldn’t understand why he was still sitting beside me.
Whoops, should have kept that one to myself.
“Wow, that is lot of stuff,” he replied after my rambling confession.
“You can go in if you want. I really didn’t mean to tell you all that shit.” I knew I was blushing, embarrassed by my verbal diarrhea, but took solace in that it was dark and he couldn’t see it.
Instead of getting up and running in the opposite direction like I anticipated, he scooted closer, wrapping his arm around me, and pulled me into his side.
“Bella, everyone has problems. You shouldn’t be ashamed of yours,” he whispered, hugging me in a way that made my stomach flutter and my cheeks burn even hotter.
I didn’t try to hide my tears or my fears after that. We sat and talked, huddled together on that old dock until the sun began to rise. We spoke about our hopes, dreams, fears, and failures and for the first time in almost a year I felt lighter, and that perhaps there was someone out in the world who ‘got’ me.
Pulling me up off the dock, Edward embraced me tightly, whispering, “Bella, you have a lot to live for. You just need to discover it.” Kissing my cheek, he sent me down the beach to my own house, telling me we’d meet again later after we’d both gotten some sleep.
Hours later, I told my grandma I was going for a walk; she just smiled knowingly, making me secretly wonder if she was either spying on me or some kind of crazy soothsayer.
Or you’re just being paranoid.
I wandered out to the beach, but with the overcast skies and the brisk breeze that had rolled in, it was deserted for the most part. The only person out and about was a tall, lanky man in a baseball cap playing with a golden retriever, chucking sticks into the water and having the dog bring them back.
I sat in the sand and watched from a distance, unable to help myself from smiling at their playful interaction.
Wrapping my arms around my bent knees, I laid my head across them and closed my eyes, allowing the breeze to swirl the errant strands of my ponytail around my face. Realizing that this might be one of the last times I’d get to feel my long hair in its natural unruly state, I didn’t try to brush it away, trying to hold on to the memory of what it felt like tickling my nose. I must have fallen asleep, because I suddenly heard my name being called from a distance. Groggily looking up, I saw Edward strolling down the beach towards me, his hoodie back in place over his head and flip-flops on his feet.
“Bella, what are you doing?” he asked, smiling down at me.
“Apparently I didn’t get enough sleep last night,” I teased, but I knew my nap probably was more due to the toll my disease was taking on my body than the sleep I hadn’t gotten the night before. I’d slept five hours when I got back in after our early morning chat and knew, for a teenager, that should have been more than sufficient to be alert and functioning.
He looked at me intently. “How are you?” Dropping to his knees, he lightly brushed the bruised skin beneath my tired eyes with the soft pad of his thumb. “I didn’t realize how fragile you were last night.”
“I’m fine,” I huffed in annoyance but knew he was right. I was delicate these days. The slightest touch would make me bruise; a tiny cut would bleed for hours.
“Come on, I have someplace I want to show you.” Tugging me to my feet, we walked hand in hand along the beach. It wasn’t awkward or weird. It felt like after telling him all of the secrets I’d been hiding for so long, that we’d been friends for longer than just a few hours. Holding my hand tighter, he helped me over a cement break wall and down the other side.
I was concentrating so hard on not falling over, I didn’t realize the splendor in front of me.
We were at the mouth of a river that fed into the bay, but it wasn’t just a simple river. It was a cascade of three small waterfalls with the banks of the river surrounded by majestic weeping willows. The effect was like a fairytale. All it needed was a castle on the hill behind it to make it complete.
“How have I never seen this before?” I asked, taking a seat beneath the willow near the closest waterfall.
“The willows sort of hide it from view. If you don’t know it’s here, you’d walk right by,” he explained, sitting down beside me. I allowed him to take my hand in his and rub soothing designs across the back with his thumb.
“I wish I had my camera; I’d love to shoot it.” I noticed the wistfulness in my voice but tried to smile at Edward, hoping he’d miss the pity party for one tone it had taken on. I hadn’t actually felt inspired enough to use my camera since I was diagnosed; all the joy I had in my hobby seemed to have withered away to nothingness.
Nudging me out of my thoughts, Edward optimistically suggested, “So we’ll bring it tomorrow. The day should be a little better anyhow; I bet you could get a really nice shot with the sun sparkling in the water.”
I squeezed his hand to let him know I appreciated his positive attitude and vowed to turn my mood around now that I was with such good company and in such a lovely locale.
We sat admiring the beauty for a few quiet minutes, just listening to the rushing water over the falls when Edward blurted, “Bella, I have to be honest with you.”
His sudden exclamation sent alarm bells ringing through my mind. I pulled my hand out from beneath his and looked at him quizzically, wondering what the hell was going on.
“Your grandma told me you were coming here, and about your diagnosis.”
I gaped openly at him, my eyes wide with surprise.
Why in the world would she tell anyone, especially the cute boy from down the shore? And why wouldn’t he have said something last night?
“Why?” I sputtered, finally turning away, an errant tear escaping. I was feeling betrayed by not only my grandmother, but the first friend I’d made in quite some time.
“Look at me,” he begged. “Please.”
Glancing back I saw he’d flipped down his hood to reveal a short layer of fuzzy bright red hair, so fine you could still see his scalp through it.
“I finished chemo almost three months ago. They say it will eventually go back to my normal color, but right now I’m channeling Carrot Top.” He was so calm and nonchalant about it all; I had to wonder why he hid it from me at all.
“Your parents are worried that you aren’t going to fight it. They wanted you to spend some time here to see that not all cancer diagnoses end in a death sentence.”
I didn’t really know what to say. I wanted to tell him to fuck off. That if I didn’t want to fight it, there was nothing he could do about, but the pleading look on his face melted my imaginary ice wall.
To see him standing before me, baring his scalp like a sacrifice, meant more to me than I understood at the time.
“Why didn’t you just tell me last night? Why now? Why lie?” Even though I wanted to forgive his little lapse of information, I still held on to my grief and anger like a mother clutching her newborn babe.
“Bella, if I told you last night when we first met, you would never have opened up to me. You thought I was a stranger who you’d probably never see again. I was just some harmless bystander who you could reveal your deepest darkest feelings and fears to without the repercussion of having to deal with me knowing the information. If I told you, you would have shut down, just like you’re doing now.”
Even though I knew he was right, I still was irrationally angry. Ah, another beautiful side effect of my disease, the weakness, the insomnia, the vacillating body temperature whenever the wind blew and the mood swings I’d come to know and loathe.
“I get it. Really I do.” He had moved to tug me into his lap, even though I resisted the entire way, making him do all the work in getting me there.
“Do you honestly think when the doctor told me I was going to lose a ball and all of the lymph nodes in the bottom half of my body I was excited? That I didn’t feel like punching the wall? Or when he told me I might not be able to have kids? That I was going to be sick and lose all my hair, thanks to the chemo cocktail they’d administer each week? Don’t think I don’t know the rage and frustration you’re feeling, cause I do.” Even though his words were laced with residual anger, they were spoken softly, succinctly, almost like he was trying not to spook an animal or something.
“I understand, not just what you’re going to have to go through, but all the other crap that comes with it.” Pulling back, he looked down at me, his eyes pleading and honest. “That’s why your grandma told me. She’d been bringing me soup and other treats whenever she had the chance, knowing my mom and dad both had to work to pay for my treatments. She drove me to my appointments if my parents weren’t able. When she found out about you, it broke her heart to realize that she was going to need to do the same for you.”
Wrapping me back up in his arms, his hand migrated into my hair, running his fingers through the tangles in my ponytail, until even that didn’t appease him and he tugged the rubber band out, letting the snarls loose into his wide fingered comb.
“I just want you to know that there’s more. That the fight’s worth it. I’ve seen the photos your grandma has in her house; you’re so extremely talented. Don’t let the anger suck you into a vortex you can’t get out of, because if you don’t have fight, you won’t win.”
I hadn’t even tried to stop the tears flowing from my eyes. I knew every word he spoke was his truth, but I just didn’t know if I could be that strong. That focused.
“Hey, that was supposed to be a pep talk. There go my plans on becoming a motivational speaker.” He tugged on my chin to get me to meet his eyes. They were green like the grass after a good rain, and even with the dark circles beneath them, they drew me into their warmth. His smile was shy, crooked and completely endearing. I was curled up in his lap like a cat, my face nuzzled into his chest, trying to process everything he’d told me, and I realized I hadn’t felt this safe, secure and loved, well… ever, really.
We sat on the bank of the river for hours, not really saying much, but I relished the warmth of his embrace, the tenderness of his touch. It was more physical contact than I’d gotten from my absent parents in years.
“Hey, it’s almost dinner time. We should get you fed. You need to keep your strength up. You’ve got a tough fight ahead of you.” I rolled my eyes at his blatant optimism and take on my situation but smiled at the same time, glad that I’d found someone who could understand everything I was feeling now and would in the future.
Pulling a scrap of paper out of the back pocket of his shorts, he handed it to me, telling me it was his cell number and to call if I couldn’t sleep again tonight. That even if he was sleeping, he’d come out to keep me company or to listen or to just be if that was what I needed.
I didn’t know where this boy had come from, but his thoughtfulness and sincerity broke down every wall I’d put up to keep anyone from getting to know me. I hugged him fiercely, thanking him for today. It had been one of the most relaxing and enjoyable ones I’d ever had.
“Thank you,” I whispered one last time before slowly walking back to my grandparents' cottage, wondering what the rest of the week would be like.
I sat under the willow tree that I’d come to think of as ours and reflected on how I got here.
After Spring Break, I found out I’d gotten a full ride to Stanford and with the medical bills my parents were still paying off, I had to take it. Moving me away from you when you needed me most. And that thought would probably haunt me forever.
We spent much of the summer together as you went through your treatments, doing your best to battle against an opponent who at the time looked like it was going to take you down for the count.
When I went off to college, I told you I’d come back for you. You just needed to call and I would hock everything I owned to catch that flight to help you fight, but you didn’t call for months.
I assumed you were getting better and that I’d have the chance to see you over Christmas.
But when I’d gotten the call to come back here for you on a blustery November morning, it wasn’t because you were doing well. It was so you could say goodbye.
My parents didn’t approve of me taking time off from school to do this, but it was the least I could do for you.
For our friendship.
So there I stood under the willow, only hours after you took your last breath in your grandmother’s guest room that had been turned into a hospice care for your last few days.
Your smile lit up your ashen face when I walked in after taking the first flight I could to see you.
Your body was frail and your skin so translucent, I could see the blue and red blood vessels snaking their way through your body.
I tried, with everything I had, to smile and pretend like everything was fine, but my façade quickly broke down and I spent much of the first hour crying into your chest while you softly trailed your fingers through my now thick, wavy hair, reassuring me in hushed tones.
I’d come to love you, in our own crazy co-dependent way. I relished your fragility, your need to be taken care of, and I thrived on providing you the support you required.
It was difficult leaving and starting a new life without you, but you were never far from my mind, and I hoped one day you, too, would be facing the first of many college experiences once you’d won your own battle.
But you didn’t.
I felt the tears start to flow once again, and I did nothing but let them slide down my face, splashing onto the ground in big fat drops.
My heart was shattered by your passing, a hole I knew no other person in my future would ever fill. Because to me you were more than my friend or a lover; you were a kindred spirit whom I could only wish to meet again in heaven, hopefully years and years from now.
I imagined your face the way it was when we first met, your hair a tangle of dark waves surrounding your healthy and full cheeks. A smile as broad and warm as the summer breeze. Your spirit larger than life and willing to fight against all the things people forced down your throat, even if it was well-intentioned.
“Good bye, Bella, I’ll miss you forever,” I whispered into the wind, as I finished what I’d come to do.
I put my knife back in my pocket and walked the long way home, knowing I’d never be back to our hidden oasis by the bay. Yet our names and what we meant to each other would never be forgotten as long as the majestic willow stood on the bank of the river.
~~ The End~~