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In the Hallway

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'Katy.'
It was a normal day in a normal study hall at a very normal school. Engrossed in my science homework, I ignored the insistent whisper from the seat beside me.
'KATY.'
Annoyed, I glanced toward the source of the sound. 'What is it, Stephen?' I hissed.
'I need to talk to you.'
At the tone of his voice, I instantly forgot my homework. I froze. There was a note of fear in his voice; an urgency. Stephen, my lighthearted best friend, was afraid of something. 'What's wrong?' I demanded.
'Come with me.'
He led me out into the hallway to a corner away from the school crowds. It was quiet there, too quiet. I grabbed Stephen's arm, and he winced. 'What is it, Stephen? What's the matter?' Searching his face, I noticed his dilated eyes and pasty complexion. 'Tell me!'
'Katy, there's something you should...you should know about.' Stephen hesitated, as if groping for words.
I waited, my anxiety rising.
Slowly, carefully, he spoke. 'I...I haven't been feeling very well lately. I've been really tired all the time and my throat has been sore for the last few weeks. I have some bruises that just won't heal, and I've had a consistent low fever...for awhile now.'
'You didn't tell me that!' I interrupted, as if that should make it impossible. I wracked my brain trying to remember anything unusual I should have noticed. True, he had been unusually withdrawn lately, but I had been busy with homework and soccer and hadn't paid much attention. I mentally slapped myself for my carelessness.
'I figured I was just worn out from basketball and homework. I thought it was just a cold or the flu.' He paused again. A knot of dread balled up in my stomach.
'It isn't?'
'I had a doctor's appointment a few weeks ago. He...didn't like what he saw, so he sent me for some blood tests...that's why I wasn't at the game Saturday,' he added quickly, but I barely heard him.
'What did they test for?'
The acute silence was painful. Then, 'Cancer,' in a low voice.
I clenched my fists by my sides and shut my eyes. 'And?'
He stared at the ceiling as if he could not bear to look at me.
'Positive.'
The word sent my world spinning, hurling into space. No, no, no! Not Stephen! Not now! This isn't supposed to happen to normal people. Please God, no! I leaned against the wall, trying to catch my breath, trying to be brave.
'What kind?' My voice was surprisingly calm, but faint, as though coming from another person. I felt a desperate urge to run away as fast as I could.
'Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia,' he recited dully, as if from memory. 'In my bone marrow.'
I slid down the wall to the floor, afraid to speak, trying to process everything he had said. Leukemia. Oh, God no! Not cancer. Please let this be a nightmare...
Another minute passed. 'What...what are they going to do to you?' I asked, trying to control my voice. I wanted information; I wanted details.
'A lot.' He shoulders slouched. 'I'll have to have chemotherapy for the first few months to kill all the 'hiding' cancer cells, then radiation to keep them from coming back. I'll receive an immunosuppressant to knock out my immune system so that I can receive a cord blood transplant, if they can find a match. Hopefully, I'll go into remission and remain engrafted with the donor cells. Even if I do, they'll continue to give me chemo...as a caution...after that.' He was making a heroic attempt at nonchalance, but his eyes betrayed his terror. Pure terror.
'For how long?'
He took a deep breath, as though not wanting to say the words aloud. 'Two years at least.'
'Oh, Stephen!' I moaned.
'You know, it's not so much the cancer I'm afraid of, Katy. It's the chemo and radiation. They're...bad. Real bad. They make your hair fall out and your teeth turn yellow. They cause sores and such low immunity that sometimes you have to be isolated. They also make you very nauseas and weak.' He shuddered.
My stomach churned. 'What do they think...the doctors I mean...what do they think are...are your chances of beating the...it?' I could not bring myself to say the word cancer.
Stephen just sighed heavily and slid down next to me on the floor, not answering.
A low cry escaped my throat. No! It's a lie! Not Stephen, never! He can't be that sick! Tell me you'll get better, you'll be alright! Tell me! I bit my lip, digging my nails into my palms.
'Not good.'
The tears I had been holding back spilled over my eyelids. Shaking, I silently sobbed for several minutes. Exhausted, I sat quietly, curled with my arms around my knees. When I finally looked over at Stephen, his cheeks were glistening. I immediately reached over and put my hand on his shoulder, feeling guilty.
'I'm so sorry, Stephen.' I rubbed my tears away quickly with my fist. 'I'll try to be strong for you. You're the one who has to go through all this terrible...' I pursed my lips together so hard they hurt.
To my surprise, Stephen smiled. 'Hey, it's nice to know I'll be missed,' he said in the lighthearted tone I knew so well, punching my shoulder playfully. But his voice cracked.
'Don't say that!' I said fiercely. 'You're gonna beat this, you have to, Stephen! I'll come with you to the hospital, I'll visit you, I'll read to you, whatever you need, I'll do it! I'll help you with homework; I...I'll bring you your favorite cookies...!' When I saw his face, I paused.
'I knew you would say that,' he said slowly. 'But you've got to understand, I'm going to look a lot different, Katy. The treatment will make me look totally...completely changed. I won't look like me...for a long time. You won't recognize me.'
'Listen to me, Stephen,' I commanded, a lump forming in my throat. 'I don't care what happens to you or what you look like; you're always my best friend. Always. Don't forget it. Don't ever doubt it.' I stopped, my voice trembling.
'Thanks, Kate.' Stephen said simply.
Without speaking, we sat side by side against the wall in the corner of the hallway, watching the oblivious people pass by; sharing the burden of both the horrors we feared and the hopes we dared to hold. Two friends, whose carefree lives had suddenly been thrown into a roller coaster of unknowns; but who knew, no matter where this crazy ride took us, we had each other.





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