The only thing that was really keeping Ryan going was the visions of the bed that awaited him in Grandma and Grandpa's basement. It was like heaven.
Even though it wasn't really a bed – it was just an old mattress on the floor. But still.
The walk wasn't long, but it felt like forever. Ryan could feel his eyes getting heavier and heavier with each step, and if he couldn't keep himself awake, he might just fall asleep right on the sidewalk, which would be bad. He wished the gentle night breeze was fierce and strong; it might wake him up a little bit, motivate him to keep going. There were only a few more houses to go, though, before he would have to cross the road to get inside the house. He could see it from where he was now.
"I'm cold,” Jodi whined, wrapping her arms around herself and shivering as they approached Grandma and Grandpa's house from across the street.
"Well, maybe you shouldn't have worn a dress," said Ryan. “Come on, let's cross.”
“But it was warm earlier. That's why I wore it.”
He ignored her and gazed across the road at Grandma and Grandpa's one-story house. Although the curtains were closed, he could see that the lights were still on, meaning that they hadn't went to bed yet. Grandma and Grandpa didn't go to bed until around ten o'clock or so, sometimes earlier, so Ryan was expecting a lot of hugs when he got inside, especially from Grandma. No matter what mood she was in, she was always up for hugs. Which was good, because Ryan was in desperate need of one.
So what, he was a big baby for wanting one. Big freaking deal.
Shirley stepped off the curb and out onto the road, but in one quick motion, Ryan yanked her arm back at the sight of headlights. “You're supposed to look both ways,” he breathed, relieved she hadn't turned into a pancake before his very eyes. “Remember what Mom said?”
Shirley nodded. “Sorry.” She craned her neck left and right to search for any more oncoming traffic. “There's no one coming.”
"Okay, then let's go." Ryan took hold of Jodi and Shirley's hands, stepping between his suddenly exhausted sisters and looking both ways a second time – just in case – before stepping off the sidewalk and onto the road.
Ryan knocked on the door before letting himself in, and was immediately greeted by Grandpa, who was standing nearby. The house smelled like cinnamon; the candle in the kitchen was lit and responsible for it. Jodi and Shirley were already racing down the stairs, but Ryan was still kicking off his shoes, watching Grandpa's eyes as they never left him. “What?” Ryan laughed.
“You know you don't have to knock before you come in,” said Grandpa. “Unless you've got a mask and a gun, just come right in.”
He chuckled at Grandpa's comment and shuffled down the stairs after his sisters after a quick “Goodnight” to both of his grandparents. The basement was pitch black once he turned out the lights to go to bed, which was the perfect condition for sleeping, but for some reason, he wasn't tired anymore. He tossed and turned on the mattress for what felt like years, even though he'd compared it to heaven only an hour ago. He just couldn't stop thinking about Cody, and the dream he'd had last night. Did it mean something?
He hoped it didn't, because he didn't plan on having a dead brother any time soon. And he definitely didn't plan to see Mom so emotionally unstable. Both of those were nightmares on their own. He hadn't even told anyone about the dream, but he didn't think it was too important, since it was just a dream. His mind made it all up. It wasn't worth mentioning it if Theresa was going to flip out and possibly cry. Maybe she would be mad if she found out; he didn't see why she would laugh and joke about it.
Ryan's chest ached at the possibility. He could see it in his head now: Cody struggling to breathe in his hospital bed, doctors rushing to his side to help revive him. The heart machine thing flatlining. The dull beeeeeeeeeeeeeep sounding throughout the room. Theresa fainting.
His eyes opened in a panic, his heart springing to action in his chest. The vision felt so real, even though he knew it wasn't. Without his mom or Cody in the basement with him, he was beginning to feel lonely, almost like they were never coming back. His eyes kept wandering over to the two empty mattresses, and the other two mattresses that held a sleeping Jodi and Shirley. He wished he was able to fall asleep that quickly, but then again, his mind was being stupid. At this point, sleep was impossible.
He could hear footsteps coming down the stairs, and he rolled over once more, pretending to sleep. He peeked through slitted eyes to see Grandma enter the laundry room with a basket of towels, the light shining into the dark space. Ryan groaned and rolled away from the light, and just as he did so, Grandma backed out of the room, catching his movement. "Can't sleep?" Grandma asked, forcing out her little-old-lady chuckle as she watched him.
Ryan gave up and sat up, rubbing his eyes and nodding.
She motioned for him to follow her. "Come upstairs, and we'll talk," she said, using her other hand to smooth down her pink nightgown.
Talking about it wasn't exactly his preferred solution, but it sounded like the only thing that would work. “But it's...” he said hesitantly, gesturing toward his own mattress.
"It's okay," said Grandma. "You don't have to come if you don't want to. We can talk even if it's past your bedtime, though."
Ryan shook his head and rose to his feet. Where were the sleep fairies or whatever when he needed them? “I'll come,” he said.
He followed Grandma up the steps, a heavy weight pushing down on his eyelids despite the fact that he wasn't feeling that tired anymore. The light from the kitchen was a little too bright, which made him squint when he entered the room, but regardless, he pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. Her smile was warm and welcoming, and she placed her hands on the round table, interlocking her fingers together as her dark eyes met his. "So, everything okay?" she asked.
She reminded him of a therapist. "I guess," he said quietly, nodding. “But not really.”
"Oh, I understand." She reached across and put her hand on top of his. "Especially after what happened to Eric when you two were younger. I know why this is hard for you. It's hard when you're so young.”
Ryan rubbed his eyes. He wanted to fall asleep in the chair. “I don't want it to happen again.”
She looked sympathetic. “I'm sure with all of the support he has from the doctors and from you guys -” she gestured toward him - “he'll be able to tough it out.”
Ryan could count on so many hands how many times he'd been fed the same lines, but he nodded anyway. Yeah, his family was gonna be there and everything, he understood that. “Hopefully,” he said. “'Cause Dr. Hiru makes it out to be really bad.”
Grandma's face changed. “Who's this Dr. Hiru?”
“He's some doctor, but he's stupid. He just made us more scared.”
Grandma shook her head. “I wouldn't listen to him if he's going to be negative. He doesn't sound like a good person if he's scaring you.”
"Is there a conversation going on in here that I'm not a part of?" Grandpa's voice filled the room, and they both turned around to see him standing in the doorway.
Ryan cracked a smile. “It's just stuff about cancer, so it's not that great.”
"Well of course it is." Grandpa pulled up a chair next to Ryan and sat down. "It's cancer, there's a lot we could discuss. Want some coffee?"
Ryan smiled. "No.”
"Well why not? Caffeine does the body good. It makes you hyper and excited about everything. 'Chemo is so much fun!'"
Ryan frowned. "But it's not actually."
"I know." Grandpa smiled and patted Ryan's head. "How about a shot of vodka instead?"
"Bernie!" Grandma shrieked, grinning and shaking her head. "He's ten years old, not forty. That stuff's for adults only." She faced Ryan. "And remember that."
"I will," said Ryan.
"We're here to talk about cancer, not alcohol, am I correct?" said Grandpa. "So what do you wanna talk about?"
Ryan shrugged. "I don't know."
"Well how about this: Cody's gonna get more chemo. Thoughts?"
"You're making me feel like I'm being interviewed," Ryan laughed.
“You are. Now answer my question.”
Ryan tried to stop laughing. “He's gonna get it for a few more days, but it's gonna make him really sick.”
"So he won't get to come here and see his amazing grandfather," said Grandpa, and he grinned.
“Yeah, that's it.”
“That sucks. Well then if he's not going to come see me, then I guess I'll have to go see him.”
“And that's a promise,” Grandma added. “We'll stop by sometime tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Ryan could barely keep his eyes open anymore. “I'm gonna head back downstairs now, 'cause I need to sleep.”
As he rose to his feet to return to the basement, his grandfather stopped him. "Okay. You sure about not wanting the vodka, though?"
Grandma rolled her eyes, and Ryan shook his head, smiling. "No, I'm good.”
"You're no fun," Grandpa joked. He patted his shoulder. "Goodnight bud."
"Goodnight." Ryan was still smiling as he headed down the steps. He was beginning to consider talking to them every night, because they seemed to cheer him up a little. He was no longer thinking of the possible ways Cody could die; instead, he was only looking forward to sleep, like he had an hour ago.
The days were beginning to fly by at a rapid pace, and the end of the week eventually arrived. It had been filled with the same daily rituals; Cody throwing up, Jodi complaining about headaches, Cody throwing up some more, Theresa asking the doctors a million questions. The worst part about it, though, was that Dr. Hiru kept coming back.
He was back today, too, and Ryan could feel his mood swing from neutral to enraged the moment the doctor came into sight. “Hello all,” he announced, closing the door behind him.
“Hello,” Theresa managed, like she didn't care to see him at all. Maybe she didn't.
Dr. Hiru stepped over toward Cody's bed. “I hope you're functioning well enough to say 'hi' back.” He chuckled at his own pathetic joke. “It doesn't look like you're doing too well.”
“See, I never said this would be easy, remember?” Dr. Hiru smiled. “Has the nausea kicked in?”
“The whole week,” Theresa answered solemnly.
“That's good to hear. Well, not good, but it's a sign that the chemotherapy is doing its job.”
Ryan fiddled with his fingers in the chair, in attempt to shut out the conversation. He wanted baseball to start soon; he needed to get out of this hospital. He spent most of the week sitting in a chair, and doing nothing else. He wanted to go out and find a skate park so he could ride his skateboard and feel the air whoosh by as he accelerated down the ramps, his friends riding next to him. It had been a while since he'd actually spoken to his friends; they still had no idea he was in Meadowview. But there was nothing they could do about it anyway. Ryan would just have to make some new friends over the summer, even though he would much rather take a flying leap off a bridge.
Cody was still a mess, so it didn't look like they would be leaving Meadowview for quite a while. Cody had mentioned that every time he sat up, the room spun like he was on some sort of amusement park ride, which was partnered with the truckloads of nausea. He'd thrown up so much that Ryan was surprised his entire stomach hadn't come up with everything else. Food was out of the question, so he was losing weight too. It was all making Ryan feel skeptical about whether or not Cody would actually make it; There was no denying that he was dying. The thought was slowly killing Ryan inside. He'd never expected a bruise to bring him this far.
Theresa was rubbing her hands across her face as Dr. Hiru spoke to her, shaking her head in denial. “This needs to end,” she was mumbling. “It's giving me a headache. This needs to end.”
"Mommy, I have a headache, too," said Jodi.
Theresa shook her head. “Jodi, I don't need to hear that right now. I don't need you to be copying me at a time like this.”
"But Mommy, it hurts,” Jodi whined, placing her hand atop her head and wincing.
"She's been complaining about it all morning," Ryan cut in. "Literally, all morning."
Theresa sighed. "Well, I managed to pick up some Tylenol,” she said, reaching into her purse for the bottle. Dr. Hiru lent her a spoon, which he apparently carried around everywhere (why, Ryan had no idea, because who actually carries a spoon just in case?) "Here, take this. It should help."
Jodi didn't hesitate; she downed the contents immediately, which was kind of shocking, considering she absolutely hated medicine of any sort. Her face twisted. "It hurts," she repeated.
Oh God, not again, not again. What had seemed like a simple thing for Cody had turned into this, so what if it meant the same thing for Jodi? “Mom, is that bad?” he asked worriedly, feeling his heart drop.
"I'm sure it's just a headache,” said Theresa.
“But you never know,” Dr. Hiru interjected. “It could be brain cancer for all you know.”
Theresa's face went pale, while anger boiled inside Ryan, and it was threatening to erupt like a volcano. “It's not,” Ryan said boldly, “because it wouldn't happen twice in one family.”
Dr. Hiru wagged a finger at him. “That's not true. Actually, statistics show that –”
“Stop!” Ryan was surprised, but also impressed, that he'd had the guts to say it out loud. Pat yourself on the back for that one, smarty pants. Theresa glared at him from her chair. “Please,” he added, so he wouldn't get in trouble for being impolite. Her eyes were still on him. “Like, the statistics thingy, or whatever. Somebody...told me about it,” he lied.
Dr. Hiru smirked. “Who?”
Ryan's drew his eyebrows together in anger. Just because I'm ten doesn't mean I'm only smart when it comes to rock collections. “My...grandpa.”
Dr. Hiru finally shrugged it off. “Well, I should be heading out now. Gotta check up on some more patients on the eighth floor. I'll be back sometime tomorrow, so until then, see ya.” He waved at the rest of the family before making his exit way too slowly, stalling as if he wanted Ryan to run back to him and argue some more. Well, he might have, if his mother wasn't still staring at him.
He made eye contact with her and broke into a wide grin. “What?” he said, throwing up his hands. “What did I do?”
“Ryan was mean to the doctor,” Jodi sneered.
Ryan sneered right back. “No I wasn't. He was being mean.”
“Well there was no need for that,” said Theresa. “He was trying to say something important, and as much as we both don't like him, we should still listen to what he has to say.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
His eyes found Cody on the hospital bed, who finally seemed like he was over the nausea and feeling better. The worst part about this was that the cancer wasn't making him sick; it was the drugs (aka chemotherapy) that were being used to treat it. It was kind of stupid, if you really thought about it – it was like taking Tylenol to cure a fever when it would only make the fever worse. It was basically injecting a bunch of poison into his body so it could kill the cancer cells and grow back healthy, cancer-free white cells. Ryan was starting to feel really bad for him for having to go through this. Dr. Hiru had said that things had to get worse before they could get better, but that was stupid too. It would be easier to just get better right away, without the struggle.
Cody sat up and set his feet down on the floor, clinging to the sheets so he wouldn't fall. “Can we go somewhere?” he asked.
"If you're feeling up to it," said Theresa with a smile. "Where do you want to go?"
"I wanna go for a walk.”
“He means inside,” Ryan added. “Obviously not outside.”
Cody laughed and swatted at him. “Obviously not outside!”
"I know," said Theresa, pinching Ryan's cheek. "It's good to get out, though. You're not going to get dressed today?"
Cody looked down at his red plaid pajama bottoms and shook his head. "No. Too tired."
Cody tugged on his IV pole and dragged it behind him while they slowly exited the room. Ryan followed close behind, observing the space around him: the giraffe painting on the wall, the sign directing them to a playroom, a doctor pushing some cart past them down the hallway. Cody took slow, careful steps up ahead, and it reminded him of the way old people walked in those retirement homes. And of course he chose to stop to catch his breath right outside the playroom doors, which was just an invitation for Jodi and Shirley to lose it.
“Mommy, I wanna go in there!” Jodi shrieked, pointing toward the open door.
When Theresa said no, Jodi and Shirley went ballistic.
“But Mommy, I wanna go!” Shirley was literally crying and stomping her foot to show her disapproval with Theresa's decision.
“It's not going anywhere,” Theresa sighed. “We'll come back another time. We need to finish the walk so Cody can get back to his room. I promise we'll come back another day.”
“One day isn't enough,” Ryan muttered under his breath.
Cody managed to get it together and continue walking past the playroom which, to Jodi and Shirley, was like leaving a dead dog on the side of the road. Even several doors past the playroom, they glanced back at the sign and whined, like it was causing them so much heartache to not occupy a room full of finger paint and construction paper. If Ryan had earplugs, he would have found them tremendously useful. If they thought life was hard because they couldn't go play with dolls in some random special space meant for non-stop five-year-oldness, then they should try walking in Cody's shoes. Imagine what dying would feel like.
“How come nobody else is out walking?” Cody asked. He reached protectively for the IV pole and pulled it along.
“Maybe it's because they're scared they'll see Dr. Hiru on the way,” said Ryan. It was meant as a joke, but it was probably painfully close to the truth.
“I'm not scared of Dr. Hiru,” Cody said confidently.
“Good, because anybody would be stupid to be scared of him. He's trying so hard to look high and mighty that he has no idea that people look at him like he's an idiot.”
Cody laughed. “He is an idiot.”
“That's the spirit.”
“Boys,” said Theresa, but Ryan caught the hint of a smile on her face.
“See, you know what I mean!” He pointed at her. “You're just too afraid to say it!”
She had this look on her face, like, Damn, looks like they've got me. “Well, technically you aren't wrong, I guess,” she admitted.
Step by step, Cody managed to arrive back in the room a good fifteen minutes later, staggering like he was a year old and learning how to walk. Theresa held on to his hand the entire time, until he crawled back into bed.
Ryan wasn't surprised that Cody was out in the blink of an eye, little snoring sounds escaping him as he slept. Ryan missed when Cody was just one tiny ball of energy, always conscious and enthusiastic and moving. Him sleeping all the time sucked big time. Yeah, sleeping was nice, but becoming a professional sleeper at Being Sick with Cancer was not.
While he waited for Cody to wake up, he listened to Shirley beg Mom to bring her to the playroom with Jodi once again, and unfortunately had to listen to her pout when her offer was rejected. He wished she could have just said yes; it would have shut Shirley up.
Jodi would have joined the fight with Shirley, but for some reason, she was just standing there, staring off into space, unmoving. Theresa was saying her name, but she wasn't responding, just staring, her mouth hanging slightly open. “Jodi?” Theresa asked again. “Are you hearing me?”
Ryan approached her and waved his hand back and forth in front of her face. “Anybody home?” he asked.
No response. And suddenly, she was teetering, leaning off to one side like she couldn't control where she was going.
Oh God, oh God, she was about to faint or something. Ignoring the knife in his chest, Ryan reached for her as she completely lost balance, her weight collapsing into his arms. “Mom!” he said worriedly as she rushed over.
Luckily, Nurse Beatrice was in the room, too, and she was at Jodi's side in seconds, followed by Theresa. Jodi blinked, hard, and then glanced around at everyone like she had no idea what had just happened. The nurse's hand was on Jodi's forehead. “She's pretty warm,” she observed. “She might be getting sick.”
"I'm dizzy," said Jodi.
Ryan fought the urge to say something adult-like, like no shit, but he just stood there and watched, catching his breath, allowing his heart to calm a little. “Jodi, are you okay?” Theresa was asking as she and Nurse Beatrice helped her to her feet.
Jodi nodded. “But I have a headache,” she announced.
Nurse Beatrice and Theresa exchanged worried glances. “What?” said Ryan.
“Do you think it could be...?” Theresa trailed off.
Nurse Beatrice shrugged. “I don't know. I'd suggest booking an appointment, though.”
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Short Story / Thrillers
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