When I was discharged from the hospital, my mom took me straight home. She wanted me to have at least one day at the house before my rehab began. She led me through the door. With my brother being at school and my dad being at work, the house was quiet. My mom asked if I wanted her to lead me around. I declined. I had already lost so much. I wasn't about to hand my independence over that easily.
Before the surgery, I had read up on ways I could use my other senses in the absence of my sight. I remembered one of them in particular, so I knelt down and removed my shoes, then my socks. I could feel the soft fibers of the carpet beneath my feet. I was able to picture the layout of the living room before me. Slowly, I made my way toward the kitchen, feeling for furniture as I passed. I misjudged the distance between the end table and myself, which resulted in a stubbed toe.
"Isaac, let me help you," my mom said.
"I've got this, mom," I said. "You can't spend the rest of your life leading me around the house."
I stepped to the right and continued on my path. Soon I could feel the coldness of tile beneath my feet. The sound of the refrigerator echoed in my left ear. With my hand extended, I followed the low humming until I reached the door. I pulled it open and allowed the cool air to escape around me.
Being blind certainly wasn't easy, but I was beginning to realize that I could rely on my other senses to guide me. I quietly made my way around the house feeling with my feet and hands - carpet, tile, walls, door frames - and listening - the dripping faucet in the bathroom, the ceiling fan in my parents' bedroom. And I had the fortunate bonus of memory. The images of what I once could see blended with the sounds and textures to create a home that I could navigate relatively easily.
When I made my way back to the living room, my mom said, "Isaac, there's something I'd like to show, or, um, tell you about." She had been trying her hardest to avoid words that alluded to the necessity of sight.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Let's go to your room."
In my carpeted room, I stood at what I judged to be half way between my bed and my dresser. I heard the push of a button and then the sound of an electronic purring to life.
"What's that?" I asked.
Suddenly there was a deep voice filling the room. "Deception. One player or two?"
"Pause," my mom said. "It's a voice-activated computer. Now you can still play your video games!"
I didn't know what to say. All I could think was, There's no way we can afford something like that. My parents had already gotten me a voice-activated phone so that I could keep in touch with my friends, and there was no way they could afford that, let alone anything more. But I didn't ask her how she intended to pay for my growing number of voice-activated electronics. I didn't want to add to the ever-growing list of ways I was a burden to my family. Instead, I slid my feet across the floor in the direction of where her voice had been. "Thank you, mom," I said as I hugged her. "Thank you for everything."
I had just finished eating dinner when my phone said, "Augustus Waters is calling."
"Answer," I said, followed by, "What's up, dude?"
Gus: "You up for a visitor?"
Me: "If it's a beautiful girl with the hots for a blind guy, then sure."
Gus: "What if it's a seventeen-year-old boy with one leg and absolutely no salaciousness for a blind guy?"
Me: "I suppose I'll have to hide my disappointment."
Gus: "I'm terribly sorry to disappoint, but said boy with one leg will be at you house in five minutes."
I showed Augustus how to work my voice activated game and foolishly assumed that since it was my house and my game, he would play by the rules. I should've known that he wasn't capable of such a thing. He sabotaged mission after mission at the first sign of what he perceived to be a heroic opportunity.
Finally, I gave up on actually completing a mission, and said, "So when are you and Support Group Hazel going to make your relationship official?"
"We're not," Gus said.
"What? Dude, why not?"
I could hear him shuffling through his pocket, then a stifled groan escaped his mouth.
"You all right?" I asked.
"I'm grand," he said. "I think I must've hit my hip on something." This was followed by the sound of fingers tapping on a phone screen. "Her exact words were, 'When I try to look at you like that, all I see is what I'm going to put you through.'"
"But you're the reason she gets to go to Amsterdam!"
"Come on, man," Gus said. "How big of a prick do you think I am? I didn't use my Wish for her just to get her to date me. I used my Wish for her because I care about her, and I'm not going to stop caring about her just because she doesn't want to be in a relationship."
"But you used your Wish on her."
"I didn't use it on her; I used it for her. And she is in no way obligated to repay me in any way."
This is when I realized that Augustus was wasting his time trying to become an imaginary hero in a video game. He already was a hero. A tangible, indisputable hero. I should have told him this. I wish I had.
When my phone called out, "Augustus Waters is calling," my first instinct was to look at a clock. But then I remembered that wasn't possible anymore. All I knew was that it was sometime between midnight (when I fell asleep) and 8a.m. (when my phone was set to wake me up so I could prepare for my first day of rehabilitation), and that it was far too early for phone calls. "Augustus Waters is-"
"Ignore," I said, and my room was quiet again.
But less than a minute later, Augustus Waters was calling again.
"Answer." Agitation tainted my tired voice. "What the-"
"Something's wrong with Hazel Grace." Gus sounded unstable. "She's in the ICU at Children's."
"Oh my God." I was suddenly more awake than I had been in months. "Is she going to be okay?!"
"I don't know… Mr. Lancaster said she's in a lot of pain. They're running tests." I had never heard Augustus sound so stripped down. The charm in his voice was gone, replaced by pure terror.
When my Rehabilitation Doctor said that we could take a break for lunch, I told my phone to, "Call Augustus Waters."
When he answered I said, "How's Hazel doing?"
Gus: "She's still unconscious, but Mrs. Lancaster says that she's not in pain anymore, so that's good."
Me: "Are you at the hospital?"
Gus: "Been here since 5:15 this morning. They won't let me see her, though. Family only. I didn't know what to do, but I had to do something, so I'm writing a letter to Van Houten. That's the least I can do for her."
Me: "She'll like that. How long are you staying at the hospital?"
Gus: "I'm not leaving until I have to."
She had been unconscious for over a day when Augustus called me and said, "I have to tell you something, Isaac."
I said, "Oh God, is Hazel-?"
"She's still in ICU. Her lungs are drowning in fluid, but she's alive. I'm leaving the hospital now. Be at your house soon."
When he arrived, I was sure he'd been lying, certain he was going to tell me that Hazel had lost her battle. That was the news I had prepared myself for. I thought of how Patrick would have to add Hazel Lancaster to the end of that depression-inducing list of casualties. And of how I would have to find a way to comfort Augustus in the wake of her passing.
"Let's go for a ride," he said.
Riding with Augustus was a death wish waiting to be granted, but I was sure that Hazel was gone, so I was willing to oblige his request. He led me from my house to his SUV and opened the passenger's side door for me. I climbed in and felt around for the seatbelt, locking it into place.
The Hectic Glow, Gus's favorite band, was playing when he turned the car on. He backed out of my driveway with enough speed to cause my chest to form to the belt. He drove too fast and braked too quickly. It was a miracle that no one slammed into the back of us.
Augustus remained quiet, so finally I said, "It's Hazel, isn't it?" I was not at all prepared for the news I was about to receive.
"Hazel Grace is currently suffering from a cancer-induced unconsciousness," Gus said. "Not exactly the best state to be in, but definitely not the worst…"
"If Hazel's still alive, what's wrong?" I asked.
"It seems I've had a recurrence," he said slowly, like he was afraid of the words that were leaving his mouth.
All I could think was, Trust your senses. I had spent the day in Person Newly Afflicted With Blindness Rehab, and I must have heard that a thousand times. Trust your senses. Your other senses will help you learn to cope. Your other senses will compensate for what you've lost. They were wrong. My senses could not even begin to help me cope with this information. They could, in absolutely no way, compensate for what I had just lost. The certainty of my best friend's life was a certainty no more.
"I had some pain in my hip, so I went for a PET scan." The speed at which he was driving was increasing, as if he thought he might be able to drive away from what he was saying. "The cancer's back, and it's, well, everywhere. My chest, my hip, my liver. There was more of me alive with a cancerous glow than not."
"Please tell me this is some sort of sick joke you've concocted," I said.
"It's definitely a sick joke," he said. "Unfortunately, it's being told at my expense."
I couldn't even think straight. The SUV felt like an oven, and I was angry at the entire universe. Augustus Waters had already fought his battle, and he had won. He was supposed to live a good and long life with great and terrible moments just like I was. He was not supposed to be drafted into the war again. I thought I was an expert at the broken-heartedness of losing things, but the thought of losing Augustus was a new kind of torment.
I didn't want to cry in front of him; he had seen me cry far too many times. But the tears welled up around my glass eyes and spilled over my lashes. My best friend had cancer… again; that afforded me a few tears.
"You're going to fight it, right?" My voice squeaked like a twelve-year-old boy going through puberty.
"I'll be starting chemo to alleviate the pain for now," Gus said. "The real poison will come when we get back from Amsterdam."
I wiped my hands across my cheeks and said, "Two cancer patients get on a plane to Amsterdam… All that's missing is the punch line."
Augustus let out a quiet laugh.
"Do you honestly think you'll get to go?" I asked. "Doesn't seem like either of you are exactly fit for international travel."
"We'll get to go. She'll wake up…" Gus sounded far less certain of this fact than I wanted him to be.
Neither one of us said anything for a while. The silence gathered around us, waiting to be dispersed. He continued to drive. We must have been on the interstate because there was no more stopping, only increasing speed. And I was prepared to let him drive me across the country if that's what he desired.
It was Augustus who spoke first. "Did I tell you I saw Hazel Grace today?" I shook my head. "I snuck in behind a nurse. They're draining the fluid from her chest, and there's a machine breathing for her. It's awful seeing her like that, pale and vacant. And Isaac… The probability of going to Amsterdam is slim. If they can't get that menacing cancer water out of her lungs… I don't know if she'll wake up… but I want her to. God, I want her to."