The ride back to their hometown was longer than they'd imagined it would be. The silence hung in the air like a hovering cloud, and no one spoke a word for what seemed like eternity. No one wanted to speak; there really was nothing to say at all. They liked the silence better. Sometimes silence was the best comfort.
Pulling into the hospital parking lot, Aunt Mimi quickly located Theresa's red van, which sat alone in an empty area. It looked like it had been abandoned, but she was here to take it back. Parking next to it, Aunt Mimi took one last glance at the van, and then nodded in Uncle Scott's direction. Dangling the keys in his large hand, he opened the door and stepped out of the vehicle, and seconds later found himself in the driver's side of Theresa's van.
"That's Mommy's van," said Shirley, pointing at the familiar red van parked next to them.
"Yeah," said Aunt Mimi. "We're taking it back to the hospital so she can drive around."
As Uncle Scott pulled away, Aunt Mimi turned to look over her shoulder. "When we get back home, make sure to pack as many things as you think you'll need over the coming months. You won't be coming home for a while. Alright?"
The three children in the back seat nodded in unison. "What about Cody?" Ryan asked.
"Oh, I almost forgot to mention." Aunt Mimi chuckled. "I was going to ask you to do it. I mean, you don't have to pack it all yourself, I'll help you. You can bring some board games to pass the time at the hospital, if you'd like. Just don't bring anything we don't need."
"Can I bring my Barbies?" Shirley asked.
Aunt Mimi smiled. "Of course, sweetie. But there won't be enough room for the dollhouse. The waiting rooms have one already."
Shirley nodded. "Okay."
She seemed to just accept it with no problems. Ryan had never seen her do that before. Any other time, she would whine and pout all day, but this time, she seemed to understand the situation more clearly. If the waiting room already had a dollhouse, there was no need to bring one, and she never argued about it once the whole way back to the house.
When the gray van pulled into the driveway fifteen minutes later, Ryan could see Quincy bolt across the front yard without hesitation, Tara on his tail. They appeared to be a little confused as to why there was a different vehicle in the driveway, but that didn't stop them from approaching it. Sighing, Ryan stepped out of the vehicle, realizing that the two of them had not yet been informed about Cody's diagnosis. It would be difficult for him to tell them everything. Although Tara wouldn't understand, he knew Quincy would, and he would never let up about it. Ryan had once told him about what had happened to Eric, and he'd thought it sad. How would he react when he found out about Cody?
"Ryan, what happened last night?" Quincy blurted. "Why was there an ambulance here?"
Ryan averted his gaze to the gravel driveway. "It's just... something happened," he said quickly. "Cody got sick again, and..." His voice began to slowly trail off as he thought about what to say next.
"And?" said Quincy.
"His sickness was worse," Ryan continued. "He was throwing up blood, and that was why the ambulance was here. But the doctors found out it wasn't mono."
Quincy gasped. It suddenly hit him. "You mean, he has -"
"Cancer," Ryan finished, still avoiding Quincy's gaze. "He has cancer. Just like Eric."
Ryan's words were like a slap to the face. Cody had cancer? But how? For the first time ever, Quincy was left speechless. "Oh..." he recited repeatedly. "God. Is he gonna be okay?"
Ryan shook his head, his sad eyes finally meeting with Quincy's. "It's cancer," he said. "No one with cancer will ever be one hundred percent. Even if it's all gone, there's still the chance of getting it back. And Cody's no different."
Quincy continuously shook his head in disbelief. For once, he actually understood something. "How long will it be until you come home?"
"A long time."
"God, sorry about everything. I had no idea he would get that sick."
Ryan prepared to reply, but he could hear Aunt Mimi calling his name from inside the house. He hadn't reallized that everyone had already went inside, and Tara had disappeared back into her own yard. "Well, I... guess I should be going," he said. "See you around sometime?"
Quincy nodded. "Whenever you get back, I guess."
Standing at the door, Ryan watched Quincy cross the yard, noticing how his shoulders hung limply with each step he took. Ryan knew he hadn't been prepared to hear the news, even though he wasn't the sharpest tool in the shed, and watching him walk away was almost sad. He didn't even like Quincy that much, but now more than ever, he wanted a friend to help him get through everything. He would have to make new friends around the Meadowbrook Children's Hospital and at the new school he would have to attend. Besides Quincy, none of his friends had found out yet, and he was too scared to tell them. They were all on vacation, and he didn't want to ruin their happiness with his sorrow. He would have to wait until they came back. They'd want to relax a little, but Ryan couldn't keep it a secret for too long. Eventually they'd come looking for him and wonder why he wasn't at home or hanging around the skatepark.
Aunt Mimi appeared at the doorway, watching Ryan stand there for a few seconds before saying, "You coming in or what?"
Ryan jumped slightly, startled. "Yeah," he said as he finally dragged his gaze away from the outdoors and into the house.
It had taken hours, but they arrived back at the hospital at around eight o'clock at night, bags fully packed. Theresa had suggested that the family stay at her parents' house just down the road, and soon enough, they found themselves knocking on their door. Theresa had called them ahead of time, and they'd been ecstatic to hear that they'd get to see their daughter and four grandchildren, but devastated to hear about Cody's diagnosis. About an hour afterwards, they'd gone to bed, while Theresa and her children headed downstairs to unpack their suitcases.
The doctors had allowed Cody to come along for just one night, but after that, he would be admitted to the hospital for the next several months while he received his treatment. The cancer would weaken his immune system, making it easier for him to catch germs and have trouble fighting it off. They had a meeting the next day with the oncologist, Dr. Yelena, and they hoped to hear good news about the treatment. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss possible treatment options, and Theresa could only hope for the best. It was set to begin quite soon, and she wanted the best for her son. He deserved to live. He was only eight years old.
There were several spare mattresses in the basement, ones that hadn't been used in years, and just looking at them made Ryan feel sick to his stomach. Yellow stains dotted each one, and he wondered how long it had been since they'd last been used. He certainly hoped that Cody's condition wouldn't worsen because of it. "Mom, were these ever cleaned?" he whispered, assuring himself that his grandparents couldn't hear him from upstairs.
"I'm not sure," said Theresa. "Maybe once or twice, I don't know. Cody's gonna sleep on the cleanest one we can find here, so he doesn't pick up the germs and intensify his situation."
"Oh," said Ryan, turning his gaze to the floor. That had become a habit of his, recently. "Why did he have to get cancer? Like, he's too young to even know what cancer is."
"I wish I didn't find out what cancer is," said Cody as he sat up on the mattress. "It sucks."
"It'll suck even more after treatment starts." After the words were spoken, Ryan instantly wished he could take them back. He didn't want to keep reminding him about what the treatments would do.
"I know. But why did it have to happen to me? Am I gonna die?" Cody choked on his last words as a tear slipped out of his eye and trickled down his red cheek. "Cancer kills you, doesn't it?"
"That depends on the situation," said Theresa, wrapping him in a warm embrace. "Yours will hopefully be different. It will be different from Eric's, I can tell you that. They found your cancer on time." She really didn't want to tell him that his cancer had spread through his blood pretty quickly, but it wasn't enough to kill him. At least not yet. That was what the treatment was for. She was right about the doctors finding the cancer on time, though. Soon, they would have it under control with the help of Dr. Yelena.
Cody still had multiple bruises lining his arms, though they weren't too noticeable anymore. That was one of the signs of having leukemia; easy bruising. Whatever he had done in the water on Shirley's birthday had given him one of the largest bruises he had ever seen on someone, and then he ended up getting sick to top it all off. He was suddenly thankful that Ryan had pointed out the bruise on that day; if it hadn't been noticed, they would have no idea what was going on. "I wanna go home," said Cody. "Why can't I get treatment at home?"
Theresa shook her head. "The hospitals back at home don't have that kind of care. This hospital is made for treating cancers of all kind, and any other childhood diseases. If you were to get regular treatment at home, you wouldn't survive. The cancer would go out of control and they wouldn't be able to stop the spread. But here, they can. Here, take this." Reaching for one of the suitcases, she pulled out a fairly large book titled "The Book of Cancer: The Complete Guide to the Treating of Cancer" and handed it to him. "Aunt Mimi got it for you on the way home."
Taking the book in his hand, Cody opened it up to the table of contents, specifically searching for the survival rate of leukemia. The last thing he needed was to suffer and die from an illness that claimed the lives of many. Although it didn't state the percentage of survival in young children, he hoped it was high. He wished it could be around ninety nine percent, just so he wouldn't have to be the one percent that died. He knew his assumption wasn't true, but he remembered that Dr. Hiru had said that lots and lots of children survived the hardships of cancer.
Cody definitely wasn't looking forward to the months to come. Another thing he knew about cancer was that you lose all of your hair because of the chemotherapy, and he didn't want to be bald. People out in public would stare at him if they saw him super skinny and hairless. Cancer also showed itself on the outside, which was why he could always tell when someone had cancer. He would soon be one of those people. He remembered seeing someone like that in Walmart once, and she was in a wheelchair because her legs would give out within a short amount of time. At first, he didn't even know she was a girl until he noticed her floral shirt. It had happened two years ago, when he was six years old, and he remembered saying to Theresa, "Mommy, why does that girl have no hair?" And her response, "Because she is really sick." Now he was the one who was really sick.
"Let me see that." Ryan reached across Cody's lap and snatched the book from his lap, turning the page over to look at a diagram. "I guess that's what the cancer stuff looks like?"
Theresa nodded. "Those are the blood stem cells," she said, pointing at an odd picture of a round object coloured red on the inside. "It says here that these cells can turn into lymphoid cells, which later become lymphoblasts. I guess what it's saying is that having too many lymphoblasts in the body is what causes the cancer."
"That's weird," said Cody. "How do they get rid of them?"
Theresa shook her head. "Dr. Yelena is going to discuss that with me tomorrow while you get your surgery. After that, the treatment starts, and you are on your way to recovery."
"There's a lot of stuff we have to learn about cancer," said Ryan, smiling as he flipped through the pages of the book. "It's gonna give me a headache."
"But it's all worth it in the end, isn't it?" Theresa put an arm around him. "It helps to know about the disease before treatment starts. Then you'll know why Cody is sick and how the treatments help so you can trust the doctors."
"Mommy, I have a headache." The voice came from Jodi as she rose into a sitting position on the mattress next to Shirley, who slept soundlessly. "It hurts."
Jodi was known to imitate her family. If someone complained about a tummy ache, she believed she had one, too, and would complain. Theresa figured it could be from the attention her siblings got when they were sick, and she was jealous. Now that Ryan had mentioned the possibilty of a headache, Jodi had seemingly joined right in. "Are you sure, Jodi?" Theresa asked her. "Is it because Ryan brought it up?"
Jodi shook her head. "No," she said quietly.
"I don't have any medicine with me right now," said Theresa. "But maybe if we have time tomorrow, we'll stop at the store and pick up some Tylenol. Okay?"
"Okay." Jodi nodded and still kept her voice quiet. It was to the point where it was almost a whisper, and Theresa actually had to lean forward to hear her. She and Shirley were alike in that way; sometimes they were loud to the point where it was intolerable, and other times they were super quiet and sort of kept to themselves. It was something she'd always done, and Shirley had seemingly picked it up from her.
Shirley didn't even move at all, as she'd already fallen asleep while the rest of the family looked over the cancer book. Her blonde hair fell over her face in loose waves, and her chest rose and fell evenly. She seemed the only one who had been tired in the first place, as Jodi had still not yet fallen asleep, and everyone else was still wide awake, fascinated by the facts of cancer. She would likely sleep through the entire night without stirring, which was kind of a good thing. Unlike Jodi, she actually stayed in bed and never wandered around. "I still can't believe she falls asleep so fast," said Ryan as he turned his gaze toward her. "But she doesn't sleep as heavily as Jodi does. She could sleep through a hurricane."
"She could probably sleep through a tornado, too," Cody added, smiling for probably the first time that entire day.
"If we all sat on her she probably still wouldn't wake up," said Ryan, causing everyone in the room to crack up, even Jodi.
"Aww," said Theresa. "Are the boys making fun of you, Jodi?"
Jodi nodded, grinning slightly. "Yeah."
Ryan finally closed the cancer book in his lap. "Well, I think I'm done filling my brain with all this knowledge," he said. "I'm gonna make fun of Jodi now."
He laughed, and the expression on Jodi's face made him laugh harder. She looked so offended. "I'm kidding," he said. "Don't be mad at me."
"You're mean," she said, and didn't smile with him.
"Don't worry, I won't make fun of your sleeping anymore. Let's talk about cancer instead."
Jodi nodded. "Okay."
"Well, Cody has cancer," said Ryan, his eyes meeting Cody's for only a second before settling back on Jodi. "He's sick. He's gonna be in the hospital for the whole summer. It sucks, doesn't it?"
Jodi nodded again. "That's a really long time," she said. "Can he still play with us?"
Ryan looked back at Theresa for an answer, and she shrugged. Looking back at Jodi, he said, "Well, probably not. He's gonna be too sick for that. He's gonna catch our nasty germs if we don't wash our hands a lot."
"Yeah," Theresa agreed. "Wash your hands a lot. When Shirley wakes up, whenever that is, we'll have to tell her that. If he gets exposed to germs, he'll get even more sick, and it'll be harder to fight them off because of his weak immune system. So remember that, okay?"
"I will," said Jodi.
"If you don't, I'll just have to hunt you down," Theresa joked. "Cody will, too. Am I right, Cody?"
"Yeah," said Cody. "I'm already sick. Don't make me even more sick, please. It's bad already." He resisted the urge to laugh at how serious her face looked, almost as if she was terrified that they really would hunt her down. Obviously, they wouldn't really, but she looked so scared.
"They're kidding," Ryan finally said. "But the...the handwashing monster will hide under your bed and creep up on you if you don't. He hates kids who don't keep their hands clean."
Jodi laughed. "Okay," she said for the millionth time that night. "I will. I don't like monsters."
"That's a good thing," said Ryan. "Nobody does. Especially when they come after you with their claws and threaten to kill you if you don't do what they say."
Theresa chuckled. "Ryan, don't scare her."
"I'll try not to."
"I think we should start heading to bed," said Theresa. "It's getting pretty late. Jodi might fall asleep on you if you keep talking, and nobody likes it when that happens." She was referring to Ryan's worst pet peeve, which was telling a super long story to someone only to hear that they never heard a word of it. She knew how much he despised it, and hoped he'd listen to her.
"Okay," said Ryan as he rose to his feet. "But remember Jodi -- he will be coming after you."
Jodi laughed as she dove under the covers. She'd already brushed her teeth and was ready for bed, but Ryan hadn't done so yet. He headed off into the little bathroom huddled near a corner and began to slowly run the toothbrush along his sore teeth. God, he would need to get used to this soon. Braces were like a worsened version of faceplanting on a gravel driveway. They always caused him pain when he didn't need it. He'd only had them a week, and already, he wanted them off. He didn't like them.
Besides, it was just a bunch of metal in his mouth. It would straighten his teeth, which he didn't even think were crooked in any way, and they hurt. They would hurt even more when he got them tightened because his teeth would atually move, and he wasn't looking forward to that at all. He knew that his father had had braces at around his age, but he wasn't around to tell him his experiences. He knew no one else who had had them. In a way, it was good; if anyone else was getting them, he could tell them what it felt like. The way it felt was terrible, and he hoped it wouldn't be long before he'd gotten them off.
The only thing he actually liked about them was that he got to choose the colours of the elastics wrapped safely around the brackets. He liked blue, so he'd chosen that colour. When he'd first looked at himself in the mirror with braces, he thought they were ugly, but the colours were nice. Theresa had told him that he'd looked cute with them on, but he went against her statement. They were a horrible piece of metal that he would rip off if he could. They were definitely not cute.
Around ten minutes later, he found himself lying on the only mattress available to him, blankets pulled over his head. Theresa reached over to turn out the lights, and soon enough, they were engolfed in darkness. Somehow, Ryan found the combination of darkness and silence comforting. It provided him with a place to think about the events over the day without having to worry about someone seeing him and capable of hearing his own thoughts without someone's voice to interrupt it. It was nice. For once, he almost felt better. He was unsure if sleep would take over, but even if it did, he would know what to think of Cody's cancer. He knew it was bad, and would soon begin to rapidly spread, but the port that was going to be inserted in the right side of his chest tomorrow would allow treatments to be easier and more comfortable for him. It was easier than getting needles, and he knew Cody would be happy to hear that there wouldn't be as much needles involved as he'd thought all along.
"Mommy," he heard a voice whisper frantically in the dark. "Mommy!"
"What?" Theresa mumbled sleepily.
"I need the nightlight."
"I need the nightlight." Ryan came to the realization that the voice belonged to Shirley, and she was finally awake.
He heard Theresa sigh. "Hold on." She brought herself to her knees from where she'd been attempting to sleep and allowed her fingers to dance gently across the floor in search of the light source. She felt a smooth surface slip into her palm and was aware that it was the object she was searching for, and took it in her hand. "I found it, Shirley," she announced quietly.
Shirley giggled. "Can you turn it on?"
"Hold on." Theresa reached for the floor and took her iPhone, turning it on and using the light from it to find an outlet. Once she discovered it, she plugged in the nightlight and turned off her phone, sliding it across the carpet floor back to where it belonged. "Now what do you say Shirley?"
Now that it was back to silence, the thoughts consumed Ryan once more, and he began to wonder how long it would be before Cody went into remission. He surely hoped he wouldn't relapse, because it was said that relapsing was much worse. He just wanted Cody to be okay, and he wished that life would stop throwing curveballs at him. He didn't need any more bumps in the rollercoaster anymore. Surely, life was going to be a bumpy ride from then on.
With the thoughts of cancer still fresh in his mind, Ryan finally lost consciousness and fell into a slumber he never thought he'd get.