Life does carry on. I go to college, finish assignments such as English and science done with a flourish but math and social studies on average. I go to work, do my time, earn paychecks to cover rent. I call Mark on Sundays about how he’s doing in San Francisco and Kira on Wednesdays for Scranton details. But I never encounter Gabriella.
November rolls around, the leaves falling, the tree house decaying. When I’m not out doing things that progress life, I lie on the floor and soak in the nature, the wood, the dead grass from below. And that’s when time seems to stop. I don’t process what’s going on, I just breathe. I remember promising myself that I’d live to be over one hundred when I was nine. I remember climbing playgrounds, pretending we were really climbing a mountain. I remember wading in a creek nearby, feeling the mud squish between my toes. Seeing the fish travel downstream for migrating season. Splashing Gabriella with lukewarm water.
Childhood lasts only a second. Funny how we grow up so fast. 7305 days passed by and each had a story. No matter what you do, it has a severe impact in you. When you’re just a baby all you did was sleep, but God was planning your life story and creating dreams for you to follow. When you were a toddler you started exploring the world, coming across certain things that will cling to you. When you’re a child you go to school, maybe get an education, find some friends to have play dates with. When you’re a tween you gradually become more dramatic, more self-conscious. When you’re a teenager you at last get some freedom, but it could very easily be taken away with the slightest provocation of your parents. And when you’re my age, you have to stop and think,where did it go?
Time resumes and I’m late for class.
Thanksgiving is in a few days. I tidy up my place so my parents don’t think I’m a slob. I straighten the frames of my best pictures, wipe away dust from the shelves. My music is turned on so loud I almost miss the ringing of the phone.
“Charlie,” Gabriella says quietly. Is it really her? We haven’t talked since our fight.
“Yeah,” I say indifferently.
“Do you want to get coffee? I’m here for a few days, I’m on a break.”
My body aches. “No.” It’s true. I’ve been feeling really sore, and I don’t want to leave the apartment.
“I just want to talk. You know, about what happened.”
“Gabriella, I’m not feeling well. Really.” I start to cough, and it increases.
“You better not be faking.”
“I’m serious. The only time I’ve left the place was to get groceries, and that was a week ago. I feel terrible.”
“Oh.” She trusts me now. “Maybe you’ll be better tomorrow.”
“May-” The coughs are now like a storm trying to escape, I’m practically hacking up a lung.
The phone drops to the floor. I cover my mouth, rush to the sink for water. I turn on the faucet and something red catches my sight.
I’m drifting away, and all I can see is red.
Cold sheets, but there are six layers. IV drips connected to my skin. Someone standing next to me, sobbing. Squeezing my hand a little too tightly.
“Charlie,” Gabriella whispers.
It smells really clean in here. Very clean. I look out the glass door and see stretchers wheeling down, empty. Now I know where I am. A hospital. But why?
A man about the age of forty-seven comes in with several sheets of paper. “Charlie, I’m afraid we have bad news.” Gabriella’s grip tightens.
In one second, I can guess what it is. His expression is one I’ve seen on many soap operas, the ones I’ve watched when I was bored. The next second the word leaves my mind off his lips. “Leukemia.”
Gabriella starts crying. I have cancer. I will die.
“Luckily for you, since we just diagnosed it, you can be healthy again within a few months. If we start treatment now we may be able to cure it. In the meantime, do you have someone that can help you around the house, in case something else happens?”
“Me. He has me.” I look at her, shocked she’s going to move in to my apartment. She’s going to live with me.
Something beeps on the doctor’s belt. “I have to go. I’ll be back for more checkups in a few hours.” The glass doors close behind him.
I have to let this settle in. Cancer. My chances are great at surviving, but you never know. But cancer? How in the world could I get leukemia? Nobody in my family had any sort of disease; they all died of old age.
But I am going to die. Sooner than later.
“I’m so sorry, Charlie.” Her hand never left mine, not even when the doctor came in and gave me my death sentence. There’s nothing warm on her face. She’s sad, sadder than me. I’m too stunned to feel anything else.
The air is humming. “Please say something.”
I don’t want to talk about the fact that I’m sick. I don’t want to feel fire in my veins, the hurricane in my throat. I need to change the subject. “What is that?” I point to her collarbone. Silver peeks out from under her black hair.
She doesn’t look embarrassed. Instead, she seems to glow a bit. What a drastic change. “I had to go back to your apartment for your insurance papers, stuff like that. I found the necklace by your bed. And I thought to myself, ‘Why didn’t I get to you sooner?’” Her fingers fiddle with the birds.
“What? What do you mean?” My brain’s spinning. So much information in too little time.
“I love you.”
I freeze. Chills crawl on my skin, but it’s not from the room. I don’t feel pain. For the first time, I feel happy. Deliriously happy. I don’t remember that I’m sick. I don’t remember that there is still blood staining my kitchen tiles. I remember the days where Gabriella and I were so close, holding her while we slept, watching her smile, loving her from the very first day. I can hear music in my ears, I can hear those words replaying over and over again, the best sound I could ever hear.
“And I’m just so mad at myself for walking out on you, for not bothering to apologize until now. I really regret it. I shouldn’t have gotten mad that you loved me. That is, if you still do.” Her eyes are still wet, but beyond that, I can see it. The love. The misery she went through not talking to me.
Of course I do. “I love you too.”
She sighs happily. “This is a really beautiful necklace.” I relay the story about how I got it, through the custom jeweler and how long it took me to make a design.
“I knew what I wanted. We are two birds. We were independent for so long and now we’re dependent on each other. I’m glad we’re back.”
I smile, but it quickly vanishes. A sharp stab in my chest forces me to wince.
“Get some rest,” Gabriella orders.
“Don’t leave me,” I plead.
Her hand locks in. My eyes are struggling to stay open, but I hold on to one last word. “Never.”
My parents rush into my room and sees me standing in an ugly hospital gown. “Charlie!” Mom hugs me and I can feel her tears dripping, dousing my shoulders. My father also joins in. Gabriella’s sitting patiently in a chair, her gaze averted to the window.
“I can’t believe it,” Mom mumbles. “My son is sick.”
“Charles, we’ll be here until you’re better. We promise.” Upon hearing this, I protest.
“No. You can’t waste your life on me.”
“We have to. You’re our only child left.” Mom looks at me. “We can’t imagine if we lost you without being here…”
“Mom, the doctor says I should be better in a few months. Nothing’s going to happen to me.” Why I absolutely cling to this prediction, I don’t know. Maybe it buys me time with Gabriella.
My father takes my mother aside. I return to my bed, Gabriella fixes my blankets, and wait. She holds my hand. She’s the only comforting thing in here now.
“We’ll stay here for another week. We’re going to be informed on all of your reports, and if you hide them, we’ll still stick around.” My father still controls me. I gulp, trying to hold back my anger, my start to a big argument. But I’m sick, and the doctor says stress is not a good thing to play with.
“Fine. But you’ll stay with Aunt Kylie and Uncle Doug. There’s no space in my apartment for two more people.”
“Two more people?” Mom asks.
“I’ll be moving in. To take care of him,” Gabriella pipes up. Doubt crosses Mom’s face, but it dissolves into a grin.
“Of course you will. That’s what best friends do.”
They all hang around, my parents giving the doctor the third degree, Gabriella and I play silent games with our faces. Despite being sick, I still have some energy in me. At times I doze off, and no one bothers me.
I’m released on Thanksgiving day. The doctor equips me with pamphlets and stuff I need to use every day. Treatment will start next week. We have dinner with the relatives and invite the Sanders too. I don’t eat much, and neither does Gabriella. We try, but there is no appetite to fill.
No one discusses my cancer. It’s a time to be happy, be thankful I’m here. That seems to be on top of everyone’s list. But Gabriella’s is different, and unexpected.
“I’m thankful that we love each other.” She looks at me, her eyes crinkling in joy at the sight of me. Now everyone knows about us. That we’re together, at last. Our parents raise a glass of red wine and cheers for us. We raise our own, since they let us have just one round of it, even though we’re still under age. I don’t really like the tart bitterness of it, but I still feel the need to drink it. Gabriella nearly declined because it brought back the New Year’s Eve party, but she saw I was having it too.
“To love,” my father proposes. Everyone echoes. “To love.”
Gabriella whispers in my ear. “To love."