Ryan followed his mother to the helicopter with a heavy heart, listening to the sounds of the night as they enveloped him. He hardly heard anything at all, just the irritating sounds of the crickets. It was as if they were a band playing sorrowful music to match the feelings in his heart, and they sure could do it well.
The helicopter roared to life, and Ryan watched the nearby trees sway violently from the force. It was just enough to keep him entertained. All he wanted was to steer his mind away from the thought of Cody's inevitable diagnosis, but every so often, it crept into his brain to haunt him. Every time the thought crossed his mind, his heart galloped with fear, and he knew that there was no turning back. There was no such thing as time travel, therefore he could not go back and fix everything to make it okay. What had once been a nightmare had now become a reality. There was no preventing it from happening, and now that the monster itself had shown up to ruin everything, there was no way he was leaving. He was here to stay.
Cancer. That thing kills people. Ryan had scarcely known anything related to cancer, but the one thing he did know was that people died from it. Ryan had imagined what it would feel like to die before, because obviously everyone dies sometime, but he could never imagine his life ending so soon. He could never visualize himself fighting for his life with all he had left in him, but Cody had been left with no other choice. There was so much to learn about cancer that Ryan had never known before. He knew already before treatment started that it would be one hell of a ride. Much worse than the roller coaster life he'd already been living.
There wasn't much room inside the helicopter, just a couple chairs of cushion and a little bed for a patient to lie on. It was cramped because just like the ambulance, only one person was allowed in, but obviously Quincy's mom couldn't drive Ryan and his sisters three hours away. With a family the size of the Wheldon's, there was definitely going to be next to no space inside.
They'd never flown before, and part of Ryan wanted to break the tiny window and crawl out once the door was shut. It was dark outside, and anything could happen, like head-on collisions with other helicopters and the possibility of vanishing without a trace. He groaned as he nervously lowered himself into one of the seats.
"Are you okay?" Theresa asked, setting Shirley down on her lap to make room.
Ryan glanced over at his mother, trying his absolute best not to display his worry. "Yeah, I guess," he said, shrugging. "It's just the helicopter."
"Oh, well I don't think there's anything to worry about. It's just doing its job."
She seemed strangely calm now, and if anything, it made Ryan feel worse. Her eyes were fixated on Cody as he rolled over and drifted off into slumber, seemingly careless. It was as if sleep was more important than finding out what was wrong with him, and why the hell they were in a helicopter. Ryan wondered what he would think once he found out about his unpreventable diagnosis. Maybe he didn't know much about cancer, or maybe he did. All he knew was that once Cody found out, he was gonna flip. The thought made Ryan's heart pound hard in his chest. He didn't want to witness another meltdown.
The helicopter lifted off, and Ryan gazed out the window, silent, not having the strength to cover his ears at the sound that tore through them. He watched the ground become further and further from his reach, causing an instant panic on the inside. He'd never been so high up before; his fear of heights wasn't making it any better. Already, he was feeling homesick, and he knew that it would be a while before they were able to go home. Three hours was a little too far to be driving every day to receive treatment.
Ryan watched as the hospital slowly came out of sight. All he could see now were the glowing lights of the city below. His gaze returned to Cody, who lay facing the wall, his chest rising and falling evenly as he slept soundlessly. The bruises on his arms were beginning to transform into an ugly green, but never made an effort to disappear. Some of them even blended together, forming one large bruise rather than three or four small ones. He wanted to laugh as he thought about the few “superbruises,” but he didn't, because it was serious, not some oops-I-fell or my-sister-hit-me kind of bruise. It suddenly all made sense – the bruises were because of the cancer. But how was that even possible? What kind of cancer was it if it gave him bruises?
He had no idea. But his family was about to find out.
Ryan shifted around uncomfortably in his seat, his brown eyes darting in every direction, searching for comfort of any kind. If he could, he'd run to his mother, but she was cradling Shirley in her arms and watching Cody sleep. He was alone. He wanted someone to talk to, anyone who would stop the shock of the news from hitting him so hard. Someone who wouldn't sugarcoat things and make the situation sound better than it really was. He wanted the truth, for why the doctors had lied, for why this had happened. A lot of kids didn't survive cancer, which was his reasoning for the negative thoughts that suddenly flowed through his brain. What if Cody just fell asleep one night and never woke up?
A pretty woman from the front of the helicopter derailed his train of thoughts as she came to the back to see them, a smile displaying itself on her face. Shirley's first reaction was to wave frantically at the stranger, causing the woman's smile to widen almost unnaturally. "Hello," the woman said politely, waving back at Shirley. "How's the ride?”
She seemed much more happy than the family did, but at least she was attempting to be polite. "It's a smooth ride," said Theresa, a smile on her face, too.
"Yeah, that's the one good thing about helicopters.” The woman laughed. "So, does anyone want to learn how to fly one?"
Jodi squealed to make up for her long-term silence, her hand shooting up into the air as she rose to her feet. Shirley turned around to meet Theresa's eyes, as if waiting for permission to go. "Do you wanna go?" Theresa asked her, pointing over to where Jodi stood joyfully next to the lady.
Shirley nodded and hopped off her mother's lap, joining Jodi next to the woman. "Ryan, you want to go?" Theresa asked him, her soft brown eyes finally meeting with his.
He didn't say anything, just shook his head, clearly not in the mood. He watched as the girls disappeared to the front, wishing he could be in a better place. If they'd gone for a helicopter ride just for fun, he would have said yes, but he was in a terrible mood. He wouldn't have even paid attention to any of the controls; he'd be too focused on his brother's condition. He'd be too afraid to touch anything anyway. He didn't think he wanted to be crashing a helicopter tonight. Plus, he wanted to be near Cody, to make sure he was still alive and breathing.
Aside from the squeals from his sisters at the front, the ride was completely silent. Deafeningly silent. Ryan needed to say something. "Mom," he said quietly, almost whispering, as to not wake Cody.
In the seat next to him, Theresa glanced over. "Hmm?"
"Is Cody gonna be okay?" he asked. He meant it one hundred percent. He longed to hear the words "he'll be okay," but he knew he wouldn't hear them.
Theresa sat up further in the seat. “Well,” she said. “There's a lot that goes into fighting cancer. Part of his recovery will involve us supporting him, so I think he'll be okay. He has us.”
Ryan ignored everything she said, focusing on one thing only. "Is he gonna die?”
Theresa hesitated, which meant she had no idea. There was a sharp pain in Ryan's chest as he waited for her to fill the silence with an answer.
“Depending on what kind he has, the survival rate is probably pretty high,” she said simply, shrugging. “When we get there, the doctors will tell us more about it. We don't know much right now.”
"But Mom..." said Ryan, and he didn't finish before a lump rose in his throat. Before he knew it, his face crumpled, and he leaned into his mother's shoulder as he began to cry.
He felt her arms go around his small frame. “He's gonna be okay, Ryan,” she said. “He's gonna have the proper care, and I promise you that the doctors are going to do everything they can.”
"But Eric," Ryan sobbed into her sweater. "He died. Remember him?"
He had no idea where that memory had come from, but it had been stashed in his brain for way too long. Eric had been a friend of Ryan's in their first year of kindergarten, living three doors down and having the bluest of eyes he had ever seen. That was the one thing Ryan remembered – his eyes. They hadn't been super mega-besties or anything like that, but they'd been good friends for a little bit of that first year of school. It had only lasted so long, though, before Eric was diagnosed with...leukemia, wasn't it? Yeah, leukemia. It had only taken a month for him to die.
Theresa sighed heavily. “Yes, I remember him,” she said. “But not everyone that has cancer dies, Ryan. You have to remember that.”
“I know, but –”
“Cody's gonna be fighting hard,” she interrupted. “It's not going to be easy, but I think with enough of it, he'll pull through.”
"But he's only eight."
"That shouldn't make a difference.” Her eyes were beginning to well up, which only caused more droplets to spill out of Ryan's eyes. He couldn't believe he was suddenly so emotionally unstable. He hated himself for it. He wanted to man up, pretend like none of this was bothering him, but he couldn't do it. He felt like a crybaby. Maybe that was what he was – a crybaby. One that was weak, one that could show his fears too easily on the outside, making him vulnerable.
“There are kids even younger than him that have survived,” his mother continued on, wiping her eyes quickly. “Just because he's eight doesn't mean he has less strength, right?”
Ryan pulled free from her arms, his sad brown eyes meeting with hers. "Then why did Eric die?" he asked, ignoring her again.
"Because he was diagnosed too late," said Theresa, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Eric's cancer had already spread far beyond reach. The doctor said she thinks they've caught whatever it is early enough, though.”
An earthquake had hit, and everything was crumbling to pieces inside. Ryan didn't think he wanted to hear any more, but in the limited space of the helicopter, there was nowhere he could go to hide from her words but up to the front, where oblivious happiness from his sisters would greet him. “Do you pinky promise?” he heard himself ask.
She seemed taken aback for a second. “Hmm?”
“Do you pinky promise that they're telling the truth this time?”
A sad smile crossed her face. She hesitated a moment before hooking her pinky finger around his. “I promise,” she whispered.
Ryan could hear the familiar sound of movements against the bedding, like the sound he was used to hearing when Cody woke up after him in the mornings. It continued, but he never bothered to look up to see what was causing the noise. It was almost comforting in a way; he could picture himself lying in his own bed and sleeping instead of dealing with his not-so-fantastic life problems. He knew that Cody should feel worse about it than anyone else in the family. But now Ryan was going to be scarred too, having to watch all the suffering happen before his very own eyes.
Cody, prepare to have your life ruined in about three seconds, Ryan thought, wishing he could send the message to Cody telepathically. If telepathy was even a real thing. He decided to look up at last, searching for the source of the sound, although he knew where it was coming from. Through his blurred eyes, he could just barely see Cody's figure squirming lightly on the bed. He was about to discover the worst news imaginable, and Ryan estimated that his reaction to it wouldn't be a calm one. He could see that Cody was trying to sit up, and the expression on his face was easy to read. He was confused. Confused because everybody looked so sad. Confused because they were in a helicopter. Confused because he could probably see they were all concerned.
Ryan suddenly felt sick. He didn't want to be around when Cody found out.
Instead, he wanted to be in the lake, playing the Shark Game. In the backyard with Quincy, doing backflips on the trampoline. On his skateboard, feeling the wind rush past as he glided along the road. He wanted to be anywhere but here, in this helicopter, in this hell. Maybe if he was lucky, he would fall asleep and miss the whole conversation between mother and cancer-ridden child. But that, unfortunately, was highly doubtful.
"Rise and shine," said Theresa, blinking back tears.
Cody shot her his famous what-the-heck-is-going-on glare as his eyes darted around the small space. And of all the things to say, he ended up blurting, "Mommy, why is Ryan crying?"
Ryan almost wanted to laugh instead. Of all the strange things surrounding him, he'd picked the one that mattered the least. Never mind the fact that he was in a helicopter, in the middle of the night, lying on an unfamiliar bed, with his mother and brother staring at him as if he were a complicated science project. He wanted to know what was wrong with his brother instead.
The rhythm of Ryan's heart was uneven as it began to rapidly thump against his chest in a painful pattern. Thump thump thump thump thump. It had arrived at a point where the beating was so hard it hurt his chest, and an attempt to calm himself down led it to be much worse. He waited for his mother to fill the silence with something, anything. He didn't know why, but he wanted her to tell Cody now and get it over with. Save Cody the suspenseful waiting.
Theresa sighed deeply. “Cody,” she began slowly. “I don't know how to go about saying this, but...it's not mono that you have.”
He looked puzzled; not even the least bit worried. “Then what is it?” he asked.
Theresa sighed yet again, sounding stressed. "What you have...what you have is something serious. We won't be going home for a while, but the doctors at the new hospital will do everything they can to make you all better. You have...you have what's called cancer.” Her voice cracked and trailed off temporarily. It sounded like she had a hard time pronouncing the word, or having a hard time saying the words out loud. “I don't know if you know what that is.”
Ryan's blood ran cold, and he finally gave in and covered his ears. Things were about to go downhill from here.
But even then, he could still hear them. It was muffled, though. He squeezed his eyes shut, knowing he probably looked like a freak. But that thought didn't stop him.
“Is that bad?” Cody asked.
“It's...it's different from mono, yes. And unfortunately it is a bit worse, but --”
“Am I gonna die?” said Cody.
Ryan took his hands from his ears and opened his eyes to see Cody's eyes fill to the brim with tears.
"I'm gonna die!" Cody shrieked in reaction to Theresa's silence, the shock of the news apparently hitting him much harder than he'd expected it to. He broke into sobs, finally deciding to join Ryan.
"No, you won't," Theresa said soothingly, reaching for his shoulder, moving away from Ryan. Ryan knew that was totally a lie – he didn't want to hear anymore lies ever again. "Not everyone loses their battle. You have to make sure to fight hard, okay?" She began to choke a little on her words, but she still would not allow the tears to fall. She was being brave, something Ryan could not be. She was trying to make things look better than they really were to prevent Cody from getting scared. And getting scared was not a good thing to do in a moment like this.
Cody was sitting upright now and, even worse, was trying to get out of the bed and...run? Theresa was holding him down as he wailed and collapsed into her arms, mumbling, “I don't wanna die” over and over and over again. She was rubbing his back and whispering something in his ear, something that Ryan could not hear, something he didn't think he wanted to hear. His heart ached in a way it never had before; it hurt so badly, like someone had reached inside his chest and smashed his heart to pieces, filling the remains with dread and misery. Cody's words were all jumbled together, until they finally flowed out in a way that was as clear as a cloudless Rockwood morning: “Then why do the people on TV always die?”
By now, Ryan's body was heaving, and his shoulders were shaking. He glanced to his right for comfort, for someone to lean on, but he was alone. His mom had gone to comfort Cody. He felt a very slight slight twinge of jealousy towards Cody for getting to have all the comfort, although it was in the most negative way possible. The feeling it brought him was the same feeling he'd felt the morning his father had passed away; he was sure Cody would die. But unlike his father's death, Cody's would be slow and painful rather than quick and easy. He would feel everything before he passed on. He would feel it for days, weeks, and even months. He would probably suffer only to end up losing the battle in the end.
Ryan really had to stop thinking like that before it made him pass out.
Okay, he thought to himself. You can calm down now. Stop being such a drama queen.
He sniffled loudly. He was going to stop right now. He was going to toughen up a little, and put his brave face on, like he was about to volunteer to be the first audacious person to crawl into a dark, petrifying cave; leaving fears behind and showing nothing but optimism.
Strong. He was strong.
He listened to his mother answer Cody's question, forcing the tears back down and drawing in a deep breath: “Those people on TV have usually been sick for a long time, and even then they don't always die, Cody.” He decided that looking at least half decent and bold was better than looking like a complete mess, so he straightened his face and listened to her words, as if they were the solution to all of life's problems. He even tried a small smile, but the corners of his mouth were locked in place, and refused to move anywhere. It was a start though – at least he wasn't a total wimp now. If any of his friends from school had seen him about five minutes earlier, they would have laughed in his face, but they would never have known the difference now. He was fine.
And even though the memories of the day Eric had died still flooded his brain and threatened to make him cry again, at least he looked better on the outside.
Ryan could remember it as if it had occurred only yesterday. He'd stepped off the school bus and into the arms of his mother, like he'd done every day so far in his short time in kindergarten. He'd been bundled up in all of his snow gear and was looking forward to playing outside on the "Big Hill" in his backyard, but as he headed for the snow hill, Theresa had gripped onto his backpack and ushered him inside the house without a word spoken. He could remember that her face had not been too happy; she'd looked kind of sad, like something had been bothering her. But at four years old, Ryan didn't get it, nor did he really care. He'd just wanted to go outside and have fun.
Theresa had set him down on the couch, and Ryan could still remember her exact words and how she'd broken the devastating news to him. She'd started out with, "Ryan, do you know where Eric is?"
He'd, of course, nodded. "Yeah, at the doctor's."
Theresa had shaken her head. "Honey, Eric left the hospital today, but he isn't coming home. He went up to a place called Heaven, where he will be happier and make lots of new friends. He won't be sick anymore, and he will get to see God. Way up there." She'd pointed up to the sky, and his gaze had followed her finger, fascinated.
"Do I get to see him?"
Justin, Ryan's dad, had entered the room at that moment from the kitchen, pausing in the doorway as if trying to determine whether or not it was safe to come back in the living room. Ryan had whirled around on the couch to meet his eyes. “Daddy, Eric went up there!” He'd pointed to the ceiling.
Justin had nodded, looking pretty solemn. Usually he'd come in and take a seat, pulling Ryan into his lap so he could tickle him or to swing him around a bit, but that day his mood had been really different. He'd walked away, back into the kitchen, and Theresa kept talking. "Heaven is separated from us. We won't go there for a long, long time."
Looking back on it all now, Ryan felt a strong wave of grief wash over him, attempting to pull him under and drown him. He didn't want to have to experience that talk for a third time. Having to bear the talk about his own father was bad enough.
"If it isn't so bad, then why is Ryan so sad?" he could hear Cody ask.
"He's just upset," Theresa responded. "It's a little hard for him to handle, that's all."
Adjusting his posture, Ryan sat up a little, wiping the tears from his cheeks, which apparently hadn't really stopped. He was sure he looked like a total wreck, his sleeves soaked from the tears and his hair wild from continuously sliding his shaky hands through it. He sighed and gazed around the tiny space of the helicopter. Now the possibility of the helicopter crashing didn't bother him as much as it did before – thank God – and he was really only focused on one thing; saving his brother.
Jodi and Shirley returned to the back, and the woman followed them, announcing that they would soon be arriving at the hospital. The girls bolted toward Theresa in a frenzy, and a smile finally returned to her face at their shared happiness. "I can fly a helicopter!" said Jodi, throwing herself into Theresa's arms.
"So I heard," said Theresa. "Did you have fun?"
"Yeah! But it's dark outside and I couldn't see."
"That's awesome." Theresa's grin was kind of contagious; Ryan found himself taking his mind off of the diagnosis for a second and stepping into the minds of his sisters. "How about you, Shirley? Did you like flying the helicopter?"
"Yeah," Shirley shrugged, not seeming as excited as her sister. "Can we get one?"
Ryan finally smiled, and Theresa laughed. "That would cost an arm and a leg. And you would have to go to a special school to fly it."
"But I'm going to school soon."
Theresa laughed again. "It's a school for grownups, not four-year-old little girls like Shirley.” She rubbed Shirley's head. “You'd have to wait a really, really long time for that.”
The topic of school made Ryan think ahead to September, and the horrible realization that Cody's treatment might not be done by then nagged at him. There was no way he was being the new kid. "Mom, what about September?" he asked.
She sighed, knowing exactly what he was referring to. "There's no way everything'll be over by then, Ryan. It's not like I can pay for a helicopter to fly you to school three hours away every day."
Ryan was frustrated. And hurt. And terrified. He was a lot of things. "But I won't know anybody," he complained. "And Cody won't even get to come with me. He won't even get to go outside in the summer."
"What?" Cody bolted upright. "But that's what summer's for!"
"I know, honey," said Theresa. "But you are very weak. You have to do what's best for you and your health. You'll get much worse."
Cody nodded sadly. "Okay. But how long until we get there?"
"I'm not sure about that. I think it'll be soon, though."
Ryan rubbed his eyes, which had probably become red from crying. "I just wanna go home," he whined. "I wish this wasn't happening."
Theresa shook her head. "Neither of us wish this was happening, Ryan.”
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