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“My sister has leukemia, Derrick.”
I looked up, not saying anything. My heart slowly stopped beating, but it was only for a second before it was pounding, hammering, against my chest. Deep down, I had known something was wrong. Something had to be, from the way Lexi was never allowed to play football with us and how her mother never left her for more than three minutes.
When Addison met my eyes, I could see her bright blue circles were teary. They always looked like water when they did that. Like I could lean in closer and see dolphins doing flips and fish racing under the surface.
It was two questions, both weighed down with pain and sorrow. How long has she had it? How long does she have left?
“She was diagnosed the summer I turned thirteen. So, she was eleven? Just about to turn twelve.”
I nodded. Addie had been born late August, and her parents wasted no time in getting her a sibling. Mid-July, the next year, little Lexi was crying up a storm in the nursery. Being their neighbor since I was born made me wonder why I didn’t know about Lexi.
“So, it’s been three years,” I said aloud, wondering if she could hear the accusation.
“When the doctors found it, they set her up right away. Remember that ‘vacation to Florida’ for a month? We were all over the place, getting her treatment and trying to help her. It worked, but last month . . . she relapsed, Derrick.”
Last month. I remembered how Addie’s big sweet sixteen had been canceled without any explanation, just thrown out the window. “Relapsed? Like, it came back?”
“Yeah. Really bad.”
We sat there for a few minutes, with her sun-blonde hair brushing my pale arms. “So, what happens now? Is she in the hospital?”
“Yep.” Her head pressed into my shoulder lightly. “Derrick, I don’t think she’ll make it this time.”
Wiping her cheeks with my thumb, I shook my head. “Addison, your sister is a fighter. She won’t give up.”
“She didn’t want you to know. She wanted you to think she had pneumonia or an allergic reaction. I just couldn’t lie to you, Derrick. I couldn’t do it.”
Nodding, I looked out at the ocean. In all of my fifteen years of living right by the beach, it never got old. The way the sun dipped down beneath the waves and made the water look like it was on fire.
“She’s in love with you, Der.”
“Lexi, I mean. She’s head over flip-flops in love with you.”
“You’re kidding, Adds. She’s my friend.”
“We’re friends.” She paused, drawing a heart in the sand with her toe. “Or, I think we are. I’m not sure how to label all of us, Derrick.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lexi loves you. I really like you, and I don’t know where you stand.”
“Addison, I know you’re going through stuff, but believe me. Lexi doesn’t like me like that, and I doubt you do.”
Part of me wanted her to flat-out deny. Say that you’re in love with me, I thought. Her confidence and strength – emotional and physical – made me love her. No one knew though. No one would ever know, because Addie was like my sister. She and Lexi were the Lane sisters. Addison and Alexandra.
“Maybe you’re right. It’s not like we can do anything. Lexi’s what we should focus on. She needs us, Derrick.”
“Yeah, I realized.”
As the sun finally disappeared into the ocean, I felt water splash onto my arm. I didn’t have to look to know that Addie’s ocean-eyes had overflowed. Instead, I just pulled her closer and made myself not cry.
“She told you.”
There was no point denying it now. Lexi was sitting in the hospital bed with tubes and wires hooked up to her. I tried not to gawk at her hair. It was just peach fuzz on top of her head.
Her skin was so, so pale. Had she ever been that pale before? I remembered when we were all going into eighth grade, and how Lexi laid out beside Addison in the sand for hours, until they were both tomatoes.
Now that I looked back on it, her hair had been abnormally short. Instead of the thick auburn strands that she had inherited from her mother’s side, it had been trimmed close to her cheeks. I hadn’t really thought about that until now.
“You should’ve told me, Lex. I . . . I could’ve been there for you. I should’ve been there for you.”
“I didn’t want you to look at me like I was some kind of charity case. I’m all right, Derrick.”
“This is all right? Being hooked up to machines and having your blood drawn every few hours?”
“It’s not every few hours. This is why I didn’t tell you! You overreact about everything!”
“Lexi, you’re like family. You should’ve told me.”
“Please don’t be mad at me, Derrick.”
“I’m not mad.”
“You look mad.”
“It’s . . . I didn’t know, and I should’ve. Even if you didn’t tell me, I should’ve put the pieces together and figured it out.”
“I was good at hiding it. No one knew.”
“It’s not a puppy you picked up on the side of the road! It’s leukemia, for Christ’s sake!”
“I know what it is! Don’t act like you’re some kind of medical professional when you don’t even know the start of it.”
Running my fingers through my dark wisps of hair, I shook my head. If I stayed, I was going to say something I couldn’t take back. Yanking open the door, I stormed down the hallway.
Only her voice could make me stop, and we both knew it. When I turned, Addison raced over. Her hair flew out in back of her, all two feet of it. She caught my arm in a death-grip; as if she was afraid I’d try and escape at any given second.
“Don’t be upset with her.”
“I’m not upset. I’m not mad. I’m not pissed.” I slid down the wall until I was sitting on the floor. “I’m sad, Addie. Really, really sad.”
“It’s not like Lexi doesn’t know what it is and what will happen. She’s ready for it, Derrick. As much as I hate to say it – as much as I hate to even think it – she’s ready to die.”
Addison sounded like my mother when I had stumbled into the house last night. I had collapsed into one of the dozen chairs littered around the counter, not saying a word.
“I knew she was going to tell you. That poor, poor girl.”
My mother had sat next to me while I switched between crying, sniffling and cursing. “Mom, it’s not fair.”
“I know, honey, but everyone comes into this world and everyone leaves it. Lexi lived her life well.”
“Why is everyone so sure she’s going to die? Why can’t someone be optimistic for once?”
“Derrick, I know you think that her cancer just started. You think that it’s not as bad as it really is.”
“No one told me. Everyone knew but me!”
“Lexi wanted to spare you. I only found out a few weeks ago.”
“How long does she have?”
“A few weeks at best, the doctors say.”
“Mom, she can’t die. She just can’t.”
“Derrick? Look at me.” I jumped, looking up at Addison.
“She needs us. We need to set aside our own problems and be there for her.”
Looking at her like that, so fragile, but so strong, made me impulsive. I put my fingers on her chin, drawing her closer. When her lips touched mine, I could feel them tremble.
And then I felt them kiss me back. It was a kiss of sorrow and pain and suffering, all rolled into one. When she pulled away, she was crying. “I c-can’t do this, D-Derrick. We can’t do t-this.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, feeling like a douche.
With a sweep of her hand over her eyes, she stood and walked back down the hallway. I wondered if her heart was beating as hard as mine was.
It was silent for a few seconds. Just the sound of the machines working and that sterile hospital smell attacking me. I walked over and sat down on the edge of her bed, not meeting her light blue eyes. I knew they‘d be faded. They would look like Addie’s, but . . . dead. Not like the oceans I loved.
“You know, I had a crush on you for awhile.” It broke my heart to hear how sing-songy her voice was.
“R-really?” My voice cracked like the immature boy I was.
When she didn’t say anything, I looked at her. Lexi nodded, smiling. “I was smitten.”
“I never would’ve guessed.”
“I used to wish that you’d be my first kiss. It’d be romantic, you know? We’d be on the beach, watching the sun rise. Or sitting in your hot tub with our knees touching.”
When I looked up, Addison was in the doorway, just watching us. Lexi hadn’t noticed her, but I made no move to mention her sister. Lex waited a moment before going on. “Derrick, I never did get my first kiss. There was that time in fifth grade of course with Patrick Hall, but it was nothing.”
“I remember Patrick,” I said softly, just to let her know I was there.
“I don’t want to die without a kiss, Derrick. That’s one of my biggest regrets.” She closed her eyes, letting out a long breath. “Would you? Would you kiss me?”
Tears were making their way to my eyelids when I looked over at the doorway. Addison had a sad smile on her face when she nodded. Her lips formed two words, soundlessly. Kiss her.
Leaning in, I touched Lexi’s lips softly with mine. It wasn’t a kiss of despair like mine with Addison. It was a final closing. A kiss to mark the end of so many unfinished things.
It lasted only a second, making me wonder who exactly pulled away. Lexi wrapped her thin fingers around my tan hand. Her fingers looked like spider webs across my palm.
I was sure they were just as breakable.
“Thank you, Derrick.”
What did you say to someone who was going to die? How did you make them feel all right? Make them feel okay?
“You have to promise me something, okay?”
Never love anyone else? Visit my grave every day? “Anything for you, Lex.”
“Take care of her.”
Before I could ask who, her eyes flitted upwards and focused behind me. Turning, I saw Addison stepping away, blushing. For a moment, I didn’t say anything. Finally, Lexi squeezed my hand and I met her eyes. “I will. Don’t worry about Addie.”
Leaning into her pillows, her hand slipped from mine. “I wouldn’t be upset if you loved her, you know.”
Her eyes focused on her hands as she shook her head. “You deserve to be happy. You both do.”
“So do you.”
It was quiet as I stood, walking to the door. “Derrick, wait.”
Her voice wasn’t like Addison’s. It wasn’t strong and powerful. It didn’t have the same force that thunder did.
Lexi sounded so young, so weak. Her voice was the call of a baby bird that had just been pushed from its nest. Pushed away when she was far too young.
“One more promise.”
There wasn’t a need for me to say anything. I just nodded.
“Don’t forget about me, okay?”
“I couldn’t if I tried.”
She smiled, fluttering three of her spider web fingers until I was in front of the elevator. When the doors opened, I stepped in and pressed the little button. As the doors shut, I leaned against the wall and let myself cry.
It no longer mattered, I realized. No matter how strong you made yourself, no matter how many walls you set up, they could all be broken. The enemy always had a chance of beating you down and making you surrender.
I staggered out of the elevator and somehow made it outside. The sun was covered by clouds, and I knew it would rain soon, but I didn’t call my mom to come pick me up. My house may have been six blocks away, but rain wouldn’t hurt me.
As I walked, I let myself remember all the times I had spent with the Lane sisters. There were so many memories; it was hard to pick just one to focus on.
“Hi, I’m Lexi.”
The sun was bright that day, so I had to shade my eyes when I looked up at the girl. Her hair was a poof, all frizzy like Grandma’s. Her cheeks were redder than mine from the sun.
“Do you live there?” Her little finger pointed up to my house.
“Yep. Where do you live?”
“Next door! See?” I looked at her house, right next to mine.
“Really? I’m five.”
“I’m five, too! My birthday was last week!”
“Lexi, Mom said you have to stay by the towel!” a voice called.
A girl who had the same blue eyes and freckles across her nose came over, stomping on the sand. “Who’s this? Why are you talking to strangers?”
“He’s not a stranger! He’s our . . . he lives next to us.”
“You do?” The older girl scrunched up her nose. “Huh.”
“I’m Derrick.” The sun was hurting my eyes,
“Call me Addison.”
“Girls, come back over here! The birds are going to eat your lunch!” a high voice called over.
They both walked back to their mother, but Lexi turned and gave me a little smile. It was the start of a friendship right there.
A rain drop hit my skin, leaving a splatter of water on my neck. It didn’t bother me, though. I had stopped caring.
Eight candles were lit on Lexi’s cake. It should’ve been seven, seeing as that was how old she’d be tomorrow, but she wanted one for ‘good luck’.
“Happy birthday to you, baby. Blow out the candles!” her dad said, holding up his camera.
I watched them go through the motions. Hugs, cheek-kisses, laughter. Addison and her mother were on the other side of Lexi, clapping. A few kids from school were running around, too.
My mom was in the kitchen, talking to another adult. Mr. Lane handed me a piece of cake before he ruffled my hair. “How ya doing, little man?”
“No ‘sir’. You make me feel old.”
I just nodded. My dad liked to be called ‘sir’ when I talked to him. It wasn’t often, though. Mommy said he was busy with work too often to visit me. When I asked why he didn’t live with us, she just gave me a hug and said that sometimes, it’s better for parents to live apart.
Rain pelted my skin like golf balls at the country club. Now that I was fifteen, I knew my dad wasn’t coming back anymore. He had left when I was five and it had been years since I even got a birthday card. Maybe it was better that way. It wasn’t like I wanted him in my life.
“What’s wrong with Lexi?” I asked Addison, sitting down next to her on the porch swing.
“She was supposed to go with that kid Brian to the dance, but he bailed.”
Addison was fourteen and liked to act like she was so much cooler than us. I was just a little thirteen year old kid who wasn’t worthy of attention. “Really?”
I heard something hit the wall inside, where Lexi’s room was. “Do you think I should talk to her?”
“Unless you’re planning on taking her to the dance, then no.”
“Then I’ll take her.”
Twenty minutes later, Mrs. Lane dropped us off at the school and I led Lexi inside. Her dress was a light purple, and it didn’t have straps. A few people looked at us with wide eyes, but I didn’t bother telling them we were just friends. I don’t think it would’ve changed anything anyway.
The music blared and we danced until I wondered why I let my mother talk me into the dorky shoes she had insisted on. Lexi just kept smiling, swinging her head back and forth. I missed her curls, the way they’d brush my cheeks when we were younger and tackled each other. Her hair was too short, too close to her.
The memories kept coming and coming as I stumbled up the front steps and into my house. My mother didn’t say a word as I passed her, jogging up the steps to my room.
I don’t know how long I laid on my bed, staring at the ceiling with its chipped white paint and various cracks from stupid stunts. Hours passed, days passed. Food entered my mouth and left it minutes later, when my body decided it was time to revolt. People came and people went. Nothing mattered to me anymore.
If I left my room, I would leave my house. And if I went outside, I would wind up at the hospital. I didn’t want to see Lexi again. She would look worse, and I liked the way we had ended things. If I went back, I could say the wrong thing or make her upset. That was too much of a risk.
It was four in the morning when the phone rang. I let it ring and ring until my mother answered it. Then, when I heard her knock on my door, I buried my face in my pillow, screaming and cursing until my throat was raw.
When I heard the knock on my door the next day, I didn’t move. Just sat on my bed, staring at a picture of Lexi, Addie and me from the summer before. We all looked so happy. What the hell happened?
“Der, it’s me. Open up.”
“It’s not locked,” I called out. My voice sounded dead.
Addison came in. Her hair was pulled into a tight bun, and she had make-up on her cheeks and eyes. I recognized her black sundress from the night we all went to the boardwalk and she wore it to impress Dylan Hughes. “Nice dress, Adds.”
“My family was in and out today. My mom wanted us to look nice.” She sat down next to me, shaking her head. “Can you believe it?”
“I wish I didn’t have to.”
“You wanna go to the beach? Just sit on the sand for awhile?”
“Your mom said you haven’t left your room since the day you visited the hospital.”
“Have you been eating?”
“I can’t keep anything down.”
She nodded, leaning against me. We sat in silence like that until she moved away. “Come on, Derrick. It’s nearly eight-thirty at night. You need to leave the house.”
“Fine. Let me change.”
When the door shut, I yanked open my dresser drawers. Finding khaki shorts and a plaid button-down, I made myself look presentable. Looking into the cracked mirror hanging over my dresser, I groaned. My eyes were bloodshot and my skin was almost as pale as Lexi’s had been.
“Are you coming?” Addison called.
Running my hands over my face, I left my room and followed her down the steps. My mother’s eyes lit up when she saw me. “Are you two going out?”
“Down to the beach, if that’s all right.”
“Good, good. That’s great, Addison.”
I followed the girl who had replaced my best friend down the path from the back of my house to the beach. It was nearly empty, except for a bonfire that was just starting about a mile down.
“I don’t know how you do it. I really don’t.” I fell into the sand, barely a foot from the beach grass. “How can you put on a mask and just deal with it?”
“You think I want to just deal with it? I’d love to stay in my room for a week and just cry, Derrick.”
“I didn’t cry, Addison. Don’t underestimate me.”
“Well, I did. I cried the night she relapsed. I cried the night my parents told me how little she had left. I cried the night she died.”
“This isn’t you. The make-up, the bun. It’s not you.”
She smudged at her eyes, making a trail of eye shadow and black streaks across her cheeks. The hair tie fell in the sand next to me as she shook out her hair. “Believe me, it wasn’t my idea. I was planning on holing up in my room and never coming out. My mom, though, was different. You know how she is.”
“When there’s a tragedy, get food and family.”
A sense of nervousness swept over me as I looped my arm around her shoulders. Addison didn’t move, though. She didn’t even blink. “You know what Lexi told me the other day? When I went back in to talk to her?”
“What?” she asked, staring at the ocean.
“She said she wants us to be happy. She said we should be. We deserve to be.”
“I want to be happy, Derrick.”
“But it just doesn’t feel right. I lost my sister. You lost your friend. My parents lost their daughter. Lexi lost her life.”
“There has to be a rainbow after the storm, though, Adds. Lexi was ready to go. You said it yourself.”
“I know she was. That’s what hurts.” She sniffled, wiping her nose on her arm. “Why couldn’t she try harder? Were we not worth staying around for? Did she not want to live?”
“She would’ve done all she could. You know that.”
Addison tilted her head to the sky where the first stars were starting to appear. “Do you think she’s up there?”
“I know she is.”
“Do you think she can see us?”
“Would she be mad if I kissed you, Derrick? Do you think she’d be upset?”
“I don’t think so.”
When I felt her turn, I leaned in closer, closing the gap. It wasn’t a kiss of pain. It wasn’t a kiss of ending. It was a kiss of recovering. Of starting again.
“She always knew we’d end up together, didn’t she?” Addison whispered.
“I think we all knew.”
Then I just pulled her down to the sand with me, and we watched the stars until they were all we could see.
Until we were sure that Lexi was the brightest one, the one right above us.