The ride back to Rockwood was longer than Ryan had 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. It was like no one wanted to speak; there really was nothing to say at all anyway. 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. 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 he was 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.
"Looks like we have a genius on our hands," said Aunt Mimi. "We're taking it back to the hospital so your mom can drive around."
As Uncle Scott pulled away, Aunt Mimi turned to look over her shoulder. "When we get back to your place, make sure to stuff those suitcases full," she said to the remaining three. “I'm talking, like, overflowing full. You guys won't be coming home for a few months, so anything you need, you pack it. Right?”
“Why can't we come home?” Shirley asked.
“Because Cody's sick,” said Aunt Mimi. “He needs to get better.”
“But who's gonna pack his stuff?” Ryan asked.
Aunt Mimi paused to sigh. “Somehow I never considered that,” she said. She drew in a breath. “Well, here's the deal: I'll pack your mom's stuff, and you, Ryan, can help pack Cody's stuff once you're done. And if I finish early, I'll pack the rest. Sound good?”
Ryan nodded. “You can bring some board games, too,” Aunt Mimi continued. “Just don't bring anything that 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, so you'll have to survive without it. There are some in the waiting rooms though."
“What about my Barbie car?” Jodi asked.
Aunt Mimi laughed. “I guess it's okay to bring that, too.”
When the grey van pulled into the driveway fifteen minutes later, Ryan could see Quincy bolt across the front yard without hesitation, Tara on his tail. He could feel the beginning stages of annoyance building up inside him, but at the same time, there was a tiny speck of nervousness present. It then occurred to him that Quincy was completely oblivious to what had happened last night, and Ryan was responsible for explaining it. Tara wasn't going to understand, but the second she found out she wasn't going to see Cody in a few months, she would be a mess. Quincy would just never stop asking questions about it, questions that even doctors couldn't answer just yet.
As soon as Ryan was out of the van, Quincy was standing there, invading his personal bubble. “Ryan! What happened last night? There was an ambulance here!”
Ryan averted his gaze to the gravel driveway. He really didn't want to talk about it, but he had no other choice now. “Nothing,” he said.
“Oh, come on,” said Quincy. “Something happened. My mom drove you to the hospital in the middle of the night!”
Crap. Ryan had completely forgotten about that. “Cody got sick again,” he said. “That's what happened.”
“But where is he now? He's not with you, and you're in a different van.”
Ryan sighed. Quincy was never going to shut up. He had to tell him eventually. “He was throwing up blood,” Ryan said quietly, nearly in a whisper. “And they said he doesn't have mono.”
Quincy looked puzzled. “Then what does he have? And is he still at the –”
“He's still at the hospital,” Ryan finished for him, avoiding the first question.
“But what does he have?”
"Cancer," Ryan blurted. “He has cancer. And he's at a Sick Kids hospital, not here.”
His words must have been a really good slap to the face, because Quincy's eyes widened and his mouth hung open. “Wh...what? Cancer?”
Ryan nodded, his sad eyes finally meeting with Quincy's. “Yeah, cancer,” he said. “We have to live three hours away now, until he gets better.”
“Three hours?” Quincy practically shouted. “But...what? When are you coming home?”
"Not for a long time.”
Quincy just kept shaking his head. “That's wicked,” he said. “I'm sorry.”
Ryan prepared to reply, but he could hear Aunt Mimi calling his name from inside the house. He hadn't realized that everyone had already went inside, and Tara had disappeared back into her own yard, as if not caring. "Well, I... guess I should go,” he said slowly. “See you around sometime?”
Quincy shrugged, dazed. "Whenever you get back, I guess."
Standing at the door, Ryan watched Quincy cross the yard, noticing how his shoulders hung limply as he walked away. He knew Quincy 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 was going to have to make new friends around the hospital, and start all over in a new school. None of his friends from his current school knew about the hospital visits yet. 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 skate park.
“You gonna stare into space or come inside?”
Ryan jumped, startled. He whirled around to see Aunt Mimi standing in the doorway, a black garbage bag in her hand. Jodi and Shirley were pouncing around the house behind her. “Yeah,” he said hesitantly, forcing himself to drag his gaze away from the calm outdoors and back into the chaotic house.
It had taken a lot longer than Ryan had expected; nearly three full hours of packing had gone by before they'd left the house and travelled back to Meadowview. He hadn't even known that they'd owned that many suitcases. Jodi had complained about being hungry, so they'd had to cut some time off the trip to stop at McDonald's. “You're not too old for a Happy Meal, are you?” Aunt Mimi had asked Ryan as she pulled into the lot.
He'd only shrugged and now, as they arrived back in room 1204, he handed Cody the toy he'd gotten, a monster truck about the size of his palm. Surprisingly, it was the highlight of Cody's day. He couldn't stop looking at it, flipping it over to observe every inch of it. However, as Theresa had mentioned, there was a doctor coming to their room to talk to them about Cody's previous test results, so those smiles were going to be quick to disappear.
And he hadn't realized how right she was until Dr. Hiru came in.
“The results of Cody's previous bone marrow biopsy show he has acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” he announced, bringing his eyes up from the clipboard to meet with Theresa's.
Theresa's face slowly sunk into her hands. "No," she said. "No, it can't be." She was shaking her head in frustration. "No, that's cancer. My kid does not have cancer."
"Your kid does have cancer, ma'am." Dr. Hiru adjusted his glasses and kept his gaze trained on her. "The good news is the survival rate of childhood leukemia is about ninety percent. But the bad news is that it will be a difficult journey for you.” He nodded in Cody's direction. “Treatment hurts sometimes."
So far, Ryan wanted to punch this doctor right in the nose. He wasn't sure why, but the urge was so strong he had to grip the sides of his chair to avoid getting up. Theresa must have sensed it, and she placed a hand on his shoulder slowly and carefully. Cody couldn't have leukemia – that was what Eric had. And Eric had died.
"First there's the chemo," Dr. Hiru continued. "Then there's lumbar punctures, spinal taps, blood transfusions... it's gonna be rough, kiddo." He gave a little chuckle, as if it were the greatest thing ever. "But you have a high chance of survival, as well as a high chance of relapsing when you're older."
"Please don't remind me of that," said Theresa, shaking her head again.
“So does that mean he's gonna get it again when he's older?” Ryan couldn't help but ask.
“No, he's not,” said Theresa. “He's gonna be fine.”
"You can't just assume, ma'am,” said Dr. Hiru. “Now I know that I don't exactly sound too, you know, comforting, but I can tell you this: cancer is not something to screw around with. It's serious. There's no need to sugarcoat things – your son is going to suffer. He is going to go through both good times and bad times. And you're gonna be at his side helping him, aren't you?"
"Well, yeah,” said Theresa, her voice rising up a notch. “What makes you think I wouldn't?”
Dr. Hiru shook his head once more. "Of course," he said. "So I'm assuming you will.”
This guy definitely had some nerve. Anger swirled in the pit of Ryan's stomach at the thought of it. “I am, too,” he said, just to put it out in the open.
“Well that's good,” said Dr. Hiru. He smiled. “Your brother is going to need it. This is a deadly illness we're working with here, so he's going to need a lot of support.”
Cody was practically in tears now. “Mommy, I don't wanna die.”
Because of Dr. Hiru, Theresa had had to spend close to an hour convincing Cody that he wasn't going to die, long after Dr. Hiru had left. He was still upset even when they left the hospital to head on over to their grandparents' house down the street. Upon arrival, Ryan wasn't surprised to receive the usual grandparent treatment: “You've grown so much!” and “What grade are you in now?” The one good thing about it, though, was that it seemed to distract Cody from the raging storm of emotions inside of him, because he was smiling and laughing at Grandpa's jokes and Grandma's hugs.
“It's a good thing to know you remember me,” said Grandpa as he wrapped Cody in a hug. “I was worried you were getting too old.”
Cody laughed. “But you're older than me. You're sixty-something.”
Grandpa laughed, too. “Ouch, you're gonna give grandpa a heart attack, buddy.”
One by one, grandma and grandpa hugged the rest of them, and when it was Ryan's turn, he could feel his mood begin to lift. “Oh, it's been so long since I've seen you,” said Grandma, wrapping him in a tight embrace. “How are you?”
He'd been asked that same question about a million times that day, but he just smiled and shrugged. “Good,” he said.
“That's good. And you've been getting taller.” Grandma patted him on the head and smiled. “You're catching up to me.”
“I'm still –”
“And you look so much like your dad,” she said sweetly.
Ryan's heart jumped, but he still managed to crack a small grin. He hadn't been told that in a while, probably since his dad had died. “Thanks,” he said.
The family had a short conversation at the kitchen table before proceeding downstairs to where they would all be spending the night. Ryan could swear Grandma and Grandpa hoarded mattresses – there were all kinds of them, everywhere. Soft ones, firm ones. Yellow ones, white ones. Foamy ones, springy ones. All stacked in the laundry room and even spread out on the rec room floor, paired together as if there had recently been a party. His eyes fell upon three boxes of air mattresses on a shelf in the laundry room, and it made him stifle a laugh. If ever about five of the neighbour's families needed a place to stay, all of the beds were right here.
Ryan could hear Grandma and Grandpa's feet shuffling on the floor upstairs above him as he flung himself down on one of the mattresses. They were going to bed now. He wanted to go to bed too, considering he'd gotten next to no sleep the past few nights, but it didn't look like it was going to be happening soon; no one else was physically ready to shut out the lights and go to bed. Cody was perched on the arm of the one leather couch in the basement, looking wide awake. “Mommy, why couldn't I get treated at home?” he asked, lightly rocking back and forth.
Theresa glanced up from her suitcase, which now lay wide open. "The hospitals back at home don't have that kind of care. This hospital is made for treating stuff that other hospitals can't treat. Here, take this.” Reaching for one of the plastic bags, 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. “Uncle Scott got it for you on the way home."
Cody got up to take the book from her hand, and Ryan joined him. It was heavy, and long. Setting it down on the carpeted floor, they opened the book to the table of contents, where Ryan searched for words that related to leukemia. Most of the words were big and too hard for him to pronounce, like chemoembolization and cholangiopancreatography. They didn't sound like they had anything to do with leukemia, but Ryan wondered if Cody would need to know what they were. He kept turning the pages in the table of contents until he found the subtitle he was looking for: Section 13 – Leukaemia.
“I found it!” he announced. He pointed at it. “Cody, turn to that page. It has everything there.”
Cody nearly ripped the pages out in his hurry. It seemed to take ages before he was able to find page 342 in the monster-sized book, and he soon arrived at a page with a bold, black title and the rest of the space filled with almost microscopic words. Ryan didn't think they would read it, but he was surprised to find himself skimming through the paragraphs, skipping the words that were too long. But he still needed to educate himself.
It was strange how everything in this section of the book applied to Cody. A bulleted list of the symptoms proved it. Each point went into deep detail in the following paragraph, explaining what was happening in Cody's body to cause those symptoms. He even learned about why Cody would lose his hair – the chemo would attack “rapidly growing and dividing cells,” like hair cells. He was pretty sure people didn't learn this kind of stuff until high school, but it made him feel intelligent, absorbing all of this information at only ten years old.
"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. There were red dots everywhere. "I guess that's what the cancer stuff looks like?"
Theresa was suddenly beside them, observing the pages, too. "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."
"How do they get rid of them?” Cody asked.
"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."
Cody was supposed to be getting his first surgery tomorrow – already – and it made Ryan cringe. Someone fragile like Cody would definitely have a harder time dealing with it. They were putting something in his chest called a port which, apparently, made it easier for the doctors to give him the chemotherapy. Cody was going to hate it. Ryan's prediction would prove true tomorrow.
"There's a lot of stuff we have to learn about cancer," he said, 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."
Ryan rolled his eyes. Jodi imitated everyone; if someone complained about a tummy ache, she believed she had one, too. It was all for attention, and everyone knew it. "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. 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. But this was one of the times when Ryan didn't mind that she wasn't practically yelling, because she was annoying when she was loud.
Shirley was lying still on the mattress, as she'd already fallen asleep while the rest of the family looked over the cancer book. Her pin-straight blonde hair fell loosely over her face, and her chest rose and fell evenly. She was the only one who'd actually gotten tired, and the rest of the family, including Jodi, was wide awake, fascinated by the facts of cancer. She would probably 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 don't get how you can fall asleep so fast,” said Ryan. “She's not like Jodi, though. Jodi 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, a slight grin on her face.
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 this time.
"Don't worry, I won't make fun of your sleeping anymore. Let's talk about cancer instead."
Jodi seemed to be a little less offended now. "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. “Can he still play with us, though?”
Ryan looked back at Theresa for an answer, but she only shrugged. “Well, probably not,” he decided. “He's gonna be too sick for that. He's gonna catch our germs if we don't wash our hands a lot, I think.”
"You're right,” said Theresa. "We're gonna have to wash our hands a lot, because if he catches anything, he'll be even more sick, and it'll be harder for him to fight it off this time. So remember that, okay?"
"I will," said Jodi.
“But why would I get sicker?” Cody asked.
“Your immune system is weak,” Theresa answered. “It can't fight off a sickness as well as it used to anymore. So don't forget to wash your hands.”
"Yeah, because the...the handwashing monster will hide under your bed and creep up on you if you don't,” said Ryan. “He hates kids who don't keep their hands clean."
Jodi laughed. "Okay," she said for the millionth time that night. "I will.”
"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, anyway," said Theresa. "It's getting pretty late. Jodi might fall asleep on you.”
Ryan groaned and rose to his feet, the three-year-old part of him wanting to stay up past bedtime, and the ten-year-old part of him reminding him that a warm bed awaited him. "But remember Jodi – he will be coming after you."
He raced off to brush his teeth in the small bathroom huddled in a corner. He hated the feel of the toothbrush running along his sore braces, but that was what he got for not having the perfect set of teeth. 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 wished he could pay a visit back to Dr. Rose to get them off. He hated them.
“They make you look cute,” Theresa had said last week when he'd gotten them. But they definitely were not cute. They were ugly and made of metal.
The only thing he liked about them was that he got to choose the colours. He liked blue, so he'd gone with that. The colours made them look a little bit less like he'd eaten a transformer, and he was okay with that. The last thing he wanted was to look like an idiot.
When he finally managed to get to bed, he yanked the blankets over his head to block out everything else around him. Theresa shut out the lights, and soon they were engulfed in darkness. Somehow, Ryan found the combination of darkness and silence comforting. He got to think about the day all on his own. It was nice. For once, he almost felt better. He was unsure if sleep would take over, but even if it did, he knew it would be for a long time. He had barely slept in two days.
Cody's sleep would probably be terrible, considering he had surgery to look forward to tomorrow. Yay. Ryan could even hear his brother tossing and turning now – with each move he made, his mattress creaked, alerting the entire family to his movements. While it was kind of annoying, Ryan understood why Cody would have been so squirmy. He could just imagine himself lying on a cold, steel table, a bunch of doctors with white masks looming over him, twelve-inch needles in hand. Red eyes, pointy witch-like noses, raised eyebrows. Cody would have to see it for himself tomorrow. It was no wonder he was scared.
And when he came out of it, there was going to be something sticking out of his chest. Ew.
"Mommy," he heard a voice whisper frantically in the dark. "Mommy!"
"What?" Theresa mumbled sleepily.
"I can't see.”
It was Shirley, finally awake, begging for a nightlight. Underneath the blankets, Ryan watched the room light up a little to satisfy her needs, and then it was quiet again. Now that it was back to silence, the thoughts consumed him once more. How long would it be until Cody went into remission? Would he relapse like Dr. Hiru mentioned earlier? Would he die? That was the question he tried to avoid thinking about – the dying one – but he couldn't stop it from crossing his mind. Cody was eight, too young to die. But maybe he would. Just like their dad. He didn't want life to throw anymore curveballs at them, but he knew they wouldn't be stopping any time soon. This was another rough bump in their roller coaster lives that they didn't need.
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.
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