Two weeks at most.
The doctor’s words hang suspended in the air. No one dares to speak, for the fear of making the words actually come true. If we don’t say the words, my best friend, wouldn’t actually be dying, and the chance of survival would be much greater. It wouldn’t be like the other times, when a few treatments of chemotherapy put her into remission. It wouldn't be like the other times, when a few extra blood tests and supplements saved her life. No, it's not like last time. This time, she fainted in the movie theater, and was rushed to the hospital only to find the cancer is back. Not just in her blood, but throughout her entire body.
“Girls? Do you want me to call someone for you? Anyone at all?” I fight back the tears, praying not a drop rolls down my cheeks. By now, Dr. Bentley should know that we do this by ourselves. There isn’t anyone that he can call for us now, nor was there anyone he could call for us when he first met us. Zoey and I are alone in this. We were able to escape the torturous and cruel childhood that we endured, alone, quickly realizing that we don’t need adults to coddle us.
Zoey’s breath hitches as a reaction to what she just heard. She runs an exhausted hand through her short, still - growing hair. “Is there anything we can do? An operation? Chemo? Radiation?” She intertwines her fingers in mine, squeezing them, as if it will make the pain magically go away.
The look on his face says it all. “I am very sorry.” Dr. Bentley’s salt and pepper hair is spiked slightly in the front, his kind eyes filled with sympathy. “I will give you some time to figure out if you want to stay here, or go home with prescribed medications to make your last days as comfortable as possible.” I stand out of the plastic chair, wiping the fallen tear that has finally managed to escape, off of my cheek. Shaking his clammy, wrinkled hand, I thank him for his time, until Zoey and me are the only ones left in the room with the hum of the heater.
Without having to say a word, she moves over in the bed, making room for me to join her. I slide my arm under her back and squeeze her close to my side. “We are going to get through this. I don’t care what the doctors say, we are stronger than this; you are stronger than this.”
“So you don’t care what the blood tests, or the CTs, or the MRIs say?” her monotonous tone resonates through the room. She stares out the window and into the city, avoiding eye contact at all costs.
“I don’t. And you want to know why? Because you have been through so much, but you are still here. You escaped your mom, Zoey. You escaped foster care. You beat cancer not once, but twice. For all we know, you are immortal.”
Tears flood her eyes, but like a dam, her callused exterior prevents any from sliding down her skin. “I think this time is going to be different, Brookie. You heard what Dr. Bentley said, there isn’t anything that they can do. We can’t always beat the odds.”
She strokes her thumb against the top of my hand, which is weird, because I am normally the one that does that to her. I have always been her rock, the one whose shoulder was cried on, not the one who was doing the crying. I had to be. I had to make sure Zoey didn’t give up. We are all each other has.
“I know you don’t mean that,” releasing my hand, she slides off of the bed, and walks over to where her opened backpack lays abandoned, still fully packed. She takes out a pair of pajamas, a large snowflake decorating the front of the gray shirt. Zoey sheds the scratchy hospital gown like another layer of skin, and quickly changes, before any nurse or doctor comes in.
Joining me back on the bed after a moment of silence, she sighs deeply, a sign that she is thinking. “I don’t even know what I mean. Three days ago I thought I was fine, I thought that the cancer had finally left my body. Three days ago, I thought that our only problem was trying to get the rent in on time. My head feels like it is going to explode,” she lets a small, sarcastic laugh emerge from her partially opened mouth, “I can’t make sense of anything. I don’t know what I want to do… but what I do know, is that this,” she glances at the sterile room, and the pink basin sitting beside her, “Is no way to die.” Again, she looks longingly out the window, as if something out there can make everything better. “We always wanted to be normal, you know? When we first met at that stupid group therapy session, and then we ended up going into the same foster home, that’s all we talked about. We were both bullied at school and teased everywhere we went. After the emancipation, I kind of figured it would all go away.”
I’m not sure what I am supposed to say. How do you tell a person who is dying, to not give up, to not worry because everything will get better? “But then again, I don’t want to die without trying to live,” she shakes her head rapidly, erasing what she just said like an Etch a Sketch. “Like I said, I don’t know what I want.”
“I am going to go find Dr. Bentley, and I am going to force him to find a way to operate. This is just a small bump in the road.” I don’t leave her much room for negotiation. She doesn’t think she knows what she wants, but I do, I know what she wants.
I walk down the brightly painted walls, a ploy by the hospital to make patients think there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Boy, they couldn't be more wrong. Going up to the nurses’ station, I realize that I don’t even have to ask for Dr. Bentley because he is sitting right behind one of the computers, pounding so hard on the keys that they might snap in half. I clear my throat, and he peers over the top of the desktop. “Brooke!” he exclaims, surprised to see me standing here and not with my dying friend. “What can I do for you?”
Folding my arms, I put them on top of the pristine counter, next to the stacks of neatly organized papers and binders filled with medical jargon that I can’t even try to pronounce. “You need to find a way to get rid of Zoey’s cancer, or find someone who will,” as blunt as it may be, it is the best way to get your point across to an authoritative figure. It’s how Zoey and I talked to our social worker about emancipation, it’s how we talked to the lawyers and the judge when we were trying to make our case. It’s the only way to get things done.
“I have reviewed Zoey’s scans countless times, Brooke, and please believe me when I tell you that there isn't anything more that we can do. I wish there were. I am very, very sorry.” He faces the computer again, the screen reflecting on the surface of his glasses. So much for that approach.
Defeated, I turn on my heel and walk off in the direction of Zoey’s room. This time, the walls seem dimmer, the bright yellow sunshine painted in the center, somehow darker than the last time I walked the hall moments ago. I don’t even try to hide my sadness from the rest of the world, and I let the tears fall freely. Dr. Bentley didn’t even try; he doesn't seem to care that he just handed my best friend a death sentence.
“Zo?” I ask, only to be met with silence. I was expecting to see Zoey wrapped up in a blanket on her bed, but instead, all I find is an empty mattress with its covers strewn to the side.
I take a deep breath, trying not to panic. I hastily check the bathroom - nothing. I check down the hall - nothing. My heart rate speeds up, for all I know, she could be lying somewhere in this hospital, dead. I run back down to the nurses’ station, and ask if they saw her leave her room - nothing. My feet move faster than I ever knew they could as I scan other rooms, trying to find her. Then, as I round the corner towards the elevator bay, the door with a bright red ‘EXIT’ sign hanging on the wall, catches my eye. This diamond in the rough was discovered on the night of Zoey’s first chemo treatment and has remained a safe haven throughout the course of her other hospital stays.
I switch directions, my unzipped jacket following me like a cape, and push open the metal door, revealing a staircase that leads up to a snow covered rooftop. I don’t hesitate, bounding up the metal stairs until my whole body is exposed to Chicago’s January chill. There, on the opposite side of the building is my best friend, still dressed in her pajamas, standing upon the ledge of the roof, looking down on the windy city.
“Zoey!” I shout over the howling winds, pushing against the invisible wall that is forcing me backwards instead of forwards.
She turns to face me, her arms hanging away from her waist as an attempt to keep her balance. Zoey, unlike Dr. Bentley, isn’t surprised to see me. “I’m fine Brooke, go back inside!” When I finally reach her, I try grabbing her hand to pull her down off the side, but she fights back, ripping her hand from mine. I am shocked, even in the worst of our fights, she never reacted to me in that way.
“What’s going on with you? Talk to me, Zo.”
Her skinny frame sways in the wind, “I’ve been through hell, Brookie. Until I met you, my life sucked. And even after that, my life wasn't too good either. It wasn't until we finally got emancipated that I really started living. And I have learned, that I love to live freely,” she pauses, looking down into the street. “I can't just sit around in bed, waiting for this cancer to kill me. I don't want it to, and I won't let it.”
I raise an eyebrow at her, “I don’t want the cancer to kill you either, Zo. We will go to some other hospital who will find a cure for you.”
“That’s not what I mean,” she looks up from the street and turns her head toward me, “I spent my entire life living by the rules other people set for me. ‘No, you can’t go to that birthday party on Saturday because you have the adoption fair,’ or ‘I don’t care if you don’t like this family, you have to stay here because no one else wants you.’ For once, I want to do something that I want to do. The way I want to do it.”
I don’t let my mind venture to what I think she is trying to say. I won’t let myself believe that. “Zoey, you need to stop talking like this, and get down so we can get rid of the cancer and you can keep living the way you want to live.”
“You heard what Dr. Bentley said, there is nothing you can do about it. No matter how many doctors you try, they will all say the same thing. Just let me do this, this is what I want.”
The rage is boiling inside of me. I’m not necessarily angry at Zoey, but at how true the things she said are. We have been told what to do for most of our lives, without our opinions being taken into consideration. That does not mean that killing herself is going to solve all of these problems. I grab her hand firmly, hard enough so she can’t let go, and stare deep into her light green orbs. “I have known you for ten years. And in all of those years, I have known you to protect your three-year-old foster brother from your foster father’s drunken rage, and I have seen you pass school with flying colors, despite everything that is going on at home. I have seen you help me through my problems, regardless of what kind of situation it might put you in. And yes, I have even seen you beat cancer twice, but you did that because you are so strong! You are my rock, Zo. You are how I get out of bed every morning. I know you think that this is the only way to live like you want, but it isn’t! You don’t want to do this, I can see it in your eyes, how you don’t want to look down at the city where you may fall, but you also don’t want to look at the hospital where the cancer could possibly kill you. So please,” I let out a heart wrenching sob, completely unaware that I was crying through all of this. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
Zoey presses her lips together, and slowly releases my hand. I step forward, preparing myself to help her down, but at the last second, she says, “I love you, Brookie, don’t ever forget that,” and I watch as she plummets through the wind.