Lying on the mattress surrounded completely by darkness, Ryan slept soundlessly. It felt good to be temporarily unconscious to forget about all that had happened. Until the phone rang.
The sudden, alarming sound of it was what jarred him awake. As his eyes wandered around the dark room, which he could apparently see through, he noticed Jodi and Shirley were still out cold, not hearing the phone at all. It just kept ringing and ringing and ringing. There were no footsteps upstairs, so Grandma and Grandpa weren't hearing it, either. The device sat on a shelf just in front of him, one that he never remembered being there, but he picked himself up from the floor and dragged his worn-out body over to it.
By now, it would have stopped ringing and went automatically to voicemail, but still it kept ringing. Ryan wondered why no one was waking up. Was he the only one who heard it? Was it just his imagination? Pressing the black phone to his ear, he managed a simple "Hello?"
The first thing he heard was the sound of hysterical crying on the other end, and almost instantly, he could tell who it was. "Mom?" he said carefully.
"Get here right now," she choked. "It's an emergency. Get your sisters and get here as fast as you can or I swear to God!"
She was yelling. She was actually yelling. On the rare occasion, she yelled. This was one of them.
Without even planning his next moves or questioning her demands, Ryan threw the phone to the floor – he wasn't even sure if he hung it up – and shook both Jodi and Shirley as hard as he could. Their necks bobbed back and forth from the force, and their eyes flew open in a panic. He didn't care if he'd startled them. Right now, all he needed to do was get to the hospital as quickly as possible. "Get up," he said. "We're leaving."
They were on their feet right away which, admittedly, sent a wave of relief through him. They never even questioned it, just went along with what he'd said. The three of them bolted to the top of the stairs, Ryan way ahead. Firmly gripping his sisters' hands, he threw the door open and took off into the still night. He kind of felt like Superman; he'd never run this fast before. It had only taken seconds before they stood at the doors of Meadowview Children's Hospital, where red lights flashed through the glass and an alarm was blaring. The metal door handle was blazing hot as Ryan gripped it, as if it had recently caught fire, but he ignored the burn as he dragged Jodi and Shirley inside the building.
The only thing he could focus on was the panic swirling in the pit of his stomach. He didn't know how both his mother and Cody had suddenly ended up at the hospital, but he ignored his own questions as he rushed to the elevator, Jodi and Shirley in tow. The elevator door opened to reveal a dark, menacing cave, where droplets of blood plopped from the ceiling above and shining eyes pierced the endless blackness. He was hesitant to go in, but Jodi and Shirley were already skipping excitedly inside, suddenly disappearing. “Ryan, come in!” Jodi called out. “They said it's gonna take us to Mommy!”
He didn't ask who “they” was, but decided it was better to listen than to ignore and risk something worse happening. He crawled through the sudden narrow space into the elevator/cave, and the door slid closed behind him, cutting off the rest of the light source and leaving them in total darkness. A loud sound erupted through the small space, and they were falling, Jodi and Shirley screaming as they hit the ceiling. Ryan's breath came in ragged bursts as he struggled to figure out what was going on. Maybe it was a trap.
The drop stopped abruptly, and the doors opened as Ryan and his sisters hit the ground. Room 1204 was in front of them, which was strange, considering room 1204 was supposed to be upstairs, not in the basement that apparently existed. He heard the faint sounds of screaming from inside the room. And there, before his eyes, a wild commotion was going on. A security guard had hold of Theresa, whose hands were tied behind her back as she kicked and screamed. "Let go!" she was fuming. “Let me see him!"
Ryan's heart was in his throat. "Mom, what happened?"
The security guard's face was hard, like he was preparing for a real struggle with Theresa. "Nothing, sweetie," she lied through gritted teeth, attempting one of her usual motherly smiles.
The guard twisted her arms painfully, and she yelped. "You tell them right now!" he shouted, his deep voice echoing down the still hallway.”Tell them before I break your wrists!”
Tears cascaded down her red cheeks, and her cries only got louder. "Fine," she said, sounding defeated. "The leukemia killed him. I'm sorry.”
Ryan awoke with a start, faster than he could process what had just occurred. He heaved as he caught his breath, his heart thumping wildly in his chest. His eyes darted to every corner of the room, searching for Cody. Just like in the dream, he wasn't there, and neither was his mom. Oh no, oh no, oh no. Where did he go? Ryan sat up straight and rubbed his eyes, to make sure he wasn't entirely insane. Light streaked through the closed curtains on the small windows, brightening the room and proving that not only were Theresa and Cody gone, Jodi and Shirley were too. The basement was deserted. "Mom!" Ryan called, still in a panic.
"I'm right here." Theresa came down the steps and peeked at him over the railing. "What's wrong?"
Ryan drew in a deep, shaky breath. “Nothing. Where's Cody?”
"Upstairs. We have breakfast upstairs if you're hungry.”
Ryan breathed a sigh of relief as he rose to his feet. It was just a dream. Only a stupid thing his mind had made up. At least Cody was okay. That was good. He was still very sick, but he was alive. That was good. Ryan followed his mother up the steps and greeted his grandparents as they stood by the top of the stairs. "Good morning, sunshine," Grandma said as she pulled him into a tight hug. "Did you have a good sleep?"
The nightmare was still fresh in his mind. Did he actually have a good sleep? “I guess, but I had a bad dream.”
"Oh, well that's never good. Breakfast is on the table if you want some.”
Breakfast wasn't much, just a bowl of Froot Loops and a small glass of milk. Cody was there, but he was still too sick to eat much. Ryan took a chair next to him, where a bowl already sat waiting for him. He slowly moved his spoon through the mushy cereal in slow circles, watching as the cereal bits parted as the spoon came into contact with them. It was kind of like a train, plowing through a guard rail or derailing into the grass, the stalks tumbling down all around it. His imagination, right now, was like his saviour. It was his only escape from reality for the time being.
"So, you've got a big day ahead of you," Theresa said to Cody as she brought her full spoon to her mouth.
Cody nodded uneasily. "But I don't wanna have surgery.”
"It'll be good for you, Cody. You won't have to get as much needles as you would without the port. That's good, right?"
"At least it will make you better," Ryan said, agreeing.
"The appointment's in an hour, so we're gonna have to leave soon. That's one thing you don't want to be late for."
“But I don't wanna have surgery,” Cody whined again.
Ryan could hear the sounds of The Backyardigans from the TV as he ate, listening as they sang about going inside to eat a snack. He glanced over the couch to where Jodi and Shirley lay, contentedly keeping their eyes locked on the screen in front of them, and then brought his eyes back to his mother. "When are we leaving?” he asked.
Theresa shrugged. “Probably in about ten minutes. We're just waiting for you to go get ready.”
Ryan sighed. It looked like he was going to have to be not-tired and force himself to get dressed earlier than he'd wanted to. He shoved the last little bit of cereal into his mouth, nearly spilling the rest of the milk as he rushed to the sink to drop off his bowl. He quietly stepped down the stairs and tackled his suitcase, pulling out a small pair of khaki shorts and a baby blue t-shirt. Theresa had mentioned sometime yesterday that if he'd thought yesterday was hot, today was supposed to be worse. He quickly threw them on and rushed through brushing his teeth, wishing his braces could go die, and decided he should probably comb his hair, too, considering he looked like he'd just risen from the dead. Just before he headed back upstairs, ready enough to please his mother, his eyes fell onto his cross necklace that laid on top of the fully packed suitcase. Reaching out, Ryan slipped the necklace into the palm of his hand, watching as it hung limply from his grasp. He ran his forefinger along the cross, feeling the lumps from the expensive beads that lined the outside of it. Maybe it could be some kind of good luck symbol. Whenever his eyes found the necklace, he was instantly reminded of his father. Now all he could see was his face.
It was probably the only thing he had left of his father. The pictures on the wall had burned up in the fire and had turned to ashes. They'd been lucky enough to have a small garage in the backyard, though, where the flames hadn't reached the photo albums. Ryan couldn't imagine what it would have been like to lose all of those pictures. He would never be able to show Jodi and Shirley who their father was and what he looked like. The necklace was a gift from him, making it all the more special. It was like a symbol, and it was an important part of Ryan's life. He couldn't bear to think about losing it.
As he cradled the cross in his hand, he could hear the sounds of his family waiting at the door above him, but he didn't want to go anywhere. He was getting sick of the hospital environment already. “Ryan, hurry, we're leaving now!” Theresa called, disturbing the silence Ryan wanted.
"Coming," he called back, and after gazing at it for a few more seconds, he slipped it around his neck, clicked it into place, and headed for the stairs. That good luck symbol might really come in handy.
The waiting room was packed with people. All around them, people engaged in noisy conversations, and other kids chased each other through the small space, screaming at the top of their lungs. A group of four bald-headed kids sprinted in all directions in an intense game of tag, and Ryan was instantly reminded of the Shark Game.
More than anything, he wished there was a lake nearby, so he and his siblings could play that game. They hadn't played it in a few days, and the thought of not being able to play it for a while nagged at him. Aunt Mimi had a pool, but the Shark Game was only allowed to be played in the lake. They had to follow their own rules. Ryan was disappointed at the fact that, even if a lake magically appeared before their eyes at this very second, Cody still wouldn't be allowed to play. He was already in surgery, and from then on, he was to remain hidden from the outside world. His cancer was making him vulnerable. Why did it have to ruin everything?
"Theresa Wheldon?" The woman's voice was barely audible above all the noise the children were making, but it was just loud enough that Theresa could hear it. Ryan watched his mother raise her hand to prove her existence before she rose up from the chair, gathering Jodi and Shirley close as she did so. Ryan decided he should follow her, too, and they headed down a very narrow hallway full of office doors. If Ryan stretched both of his arms out wide at his sides, he could have swiped the walls with his fingertips, it was so small. The commotion from the waiting room was slowly beginning to fade the further they got, which was kind of relieving. No more kids screaming in his ear about how unfair it was that they had to be “it” for tag. He would have preferred to hear it on the beach.
The doctor stopped at a door towards the end of the hallway, and held it open as she gestured for Ryan's whole family to head in first. She smiled at Ryan as he went by. He wasn't sure why, but there was something about that smile that assured him that everything was going to be fine, like she could save every living cancer-ridden person from death and make it all disappear in the blink of an eye. It was nice.
Once everyone had a seat, the woman adjusted her white coat and shook hands with Theresa. "I'm Dr. Yelena," she said. "I'm going to be Cody's medical oncologist."
"Nice to meet you," said Theresa, smiling as she nodded her head.
"This is only a little meeting we're having today, so I'd like to discuss a few things with you before we begin with treatment options. So, prior to the diagnosis, were you aware of the leukemia symptoms?”
"Not really, no," said Theresa.
"We did happen to notice that he had easy bruising, which is a symptom of leukemia," said Dr. Yelena. "How long did that go on for?"
"As far as we noticed, just a couple days."
"Okay." Dr. Yelena typed up Theresa's answers on her oversized computer. "Any vomiting or fevers?"
"Yes, he was vomiting blood at one point, and he had a very high fever that day."
Dr. Yelena continued to type. “Oh, yes, another symptom,” she said quietly, almost like she was talking to herself. “And one more thing I needed to ask was about the bone marrow biopsy he had not that long ago.” She was now turned around and facing Theresa. “I know your family doctor sent him for that, but did she explain why? Because this diagnosis seems like a pretty big surprise for you. I know it would be a surprise to anyone, but I don't think your family doctor mentioned anything about the possibility of leukemia.”
Ryan watched Theresa's mouth twitch slightly. She looked like she had no idea what to say. All Ryan knew was that Cody had been sent for the bone marrow biopsy because he was sick, and it might help determine the results. He knew nothing else about it.
Theresa cleared her throat. “Well, I took him to see her in the first place because he kept getting these on-and-off fevers and nosebleeds, so she sent him for a blood test, and she told us that since the results of the blood test came back showing an abnormality, he had to be sent for a bone marrow biopsy just to make sure it wasn't something severe.”
Dr. Yelena shook her head. “I guess that means she suspected leukemia, but never mentioned it. But I'm glad he got it done when he did, because I think we've caught it in time.”
Theresa smiled. “Well, that's good.”
Dr. Yelena whirled back to face her computer so she could finish typing. Ryan wished he could have a computer as big as that one. "Alrighty." She clapped her hands once and spun around in her chair so she was now facing Theresa once again. "So now that we've got a correct diagnosis, we're looking to get Cody the best treatment options available."
Theresa nodded vigorously. "Of course.”
"This type of cancer is curable, which is good to hear. The installation of the port will make it easier for us to administer the chemo and any other drugs he'll need in order to recover. I'm thinking we should start the chemotherapy within the next few days, just to kill off the cancer cells quicker. The sooner the better, right?” She chuckled. “I was thinking he could receive chemotherapy for a week, followed by a three-week break to give his body some time to rest and to give the chemotherapy time to work. That's called a cycle. Sound good so far? Do you have any questions?”
Theresa nodded again. "It does sound good,” she said. “I was just curious about some of the side effects, though. Like, what should I expect?”
"A common side effect is fatigue, as well as nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Chemotherapy drugs affect rapidly dividing and growing cells, so he will lose his hair and won't have much energy. But don't worry, his hair will all grow back." Dr. Yelena chuckled again. "If Dr. Hiru didn't tell you, Cody had a shortage of blood platelets, which was what caused the bruising. The goal here is to rid the body of all leukemia cells, and that is exactly what we'll be doing. The treatments can be difficult to deal with, but it's all worth it in the long run."
"So I've heard," said Theresa. “Everything sounds good so far.”
Ryan could briefly remember Dr. Hiru telling Cody that he was going to hate the treatments, and that he wasn't going to go through it without a struggle. He clenched one of his fists. He never wanted to see Dr. Hiru again.
"So just a little review, he'll have to stay in the hospital for quite some time before he can leave, so school may have to wait, depending on how bad his situation is. From the looks of it so far, though, it isn't too bad, but it can worsen quickly if isn't treated well. Another one of our goals is to prevent that from happening." She turned her gaze to Ryan and his sisters now. "You three are going to want to wash your hands a lot. If Cody is exposed to any germs, he can get very sick, so it's important to rid yourself of any bad germs."
The three nodded, and Ryan held back his smile as he remembered what he'd told Jodi the previous night. He could tell Shirley the same thing, and she'd believe him. He was sure Jodi had understood what he'd said, maybe leaving her slightly scarred, but now the oncologist had proved his statement to be true (except for the monster part). He would hate for Cody to catch more germs; the last thing he needed was for Cody to die.
“So, did Dr. Hiru explain to you exactly what leukemia is?” Dr. Yelena fixed her gaze back on Theresa, who just shook her head.
Dr. Yelena sighed. “He's pretty bad for not explaining things thoroughly, so I'll give you some of the details. It's mainly a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, which you probably already figured or have already been told. It's going to affect both his red and white blood cells. His stem cells have become lymphoblasts, which are cancer cells, and that is the reason you're here; his treatment is important. This cancer will get worse much quicker without it. This is mainly because the leukemia cells don't fight illness very well, and the number of cells will increase.”
She went on some more, but most of what she had said went in one ear and out the other for Ryan; her choice of words was so complicating. The meeting didn't last too long afterwards – thank God – but once they began to wrap things up, Cody was just coming out of surgery on the third floor. Ryan's heart seemed to hammer harder with each step that brought him closer to Cody's room. He didn't think he was going to be ready to see him yet, but it was something that was going to have to happen eventually.
When his eyes fell upon his brother, lying barely conscious in a hospital bed, the first thing he noticed was how pale he was. He almost looked like a totally different person; there were bags under his eyes, and Ryan could have sworn that his lips were almost blue. They were parted and cracked as he lay there with his eyes closed, facing the ceiling. While Jodi and Shirley were practically glued to Cody's bedside, Ryan decided to stay back and observe from afar, his heart exploding inside his chest. This was the new reality. Cody was going to look like this on a daily basis. Ryan was never going to get used to seeing him like this, no matter how many times he'd have to have procedures done. And to think this was only the beginning. Ryan didn't think he wanted to see the end.
Cody groaned as he tried to roll over slowly, and suddenly there were tears running down his face. “Mommy,” he kept on saying, and Theresa was there instantly, stroking his cheek and drying his face.
Standing off in his own space, Ryan still watched the scene before him, the backs of his eyes burning. He imagined that cancer was a person, just a shadow of a person, standing behind Cody's bed and staring at him, as if it brought him joy to see someone suffer so much. More than anything, Ryan wanted to run over there and hit the shadow over the head with his skateboard, but he knew that even if he tried, he would just go right through him. There was nothing he could do for Cody other than hope that he wouldn't die.
He clasped the cross necklace in his hands once again to calm himself down. It could mean something, it really could. He felt strongly for the possible powers of this cross; maybe, just maybe, it could get rid of that shadow he saw, and cure Cody. He twirled the necklace around with his thumbs, feeling the rough texture of the silver beads, and as he held it to his heart, he glanced up at the ceiling, hoping maybe his father would be there. “Wish us luck,” he whispered.
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