I first found out in English class, fifth hour, right after lunch.
After a quick, muffled discussion with our teacher, Chelsea Perkins stood at the front of the room, a grim but composed look on her face. No one noticed at first -we were still continuing our conversations from lunch- but gradually the noise died down and we all turned to face her. She stood there just long enough for it to be awkward, then cleared her throat and began. “You all may have noticed that I wasn’t here yesterday.” Of course we’d noticed. It was the only day of the whole year that our class had been reasonably quiet. “Well, that’s because I was at the doctor. And...I have cancer.”
Dead silence. I didn’t think it was possible for thirty people to be so quiet. Chelsea didn’t say anything for so long, I almost forgot she was there. But she wasn’t done yet.
“I have osteosarcoma, which means it’s in my bones. I probably won’t die, but I’ll have to do chemo for a while. I still could die, though, if that doesn’t work. The doctor was like, ‘You have a seventy-percent chance of being cured’, and I figured you must have about that much of a chance of randomly dying any day. Also they have a free ice cream machine at the hospital downtown. I got some after my appointment, and I told my mom, ‘We should have one of these at school’. So if anyone here is on student council, you should check that out.”
Before I get too much further, I just want to clarify that I am not a mean person. I’m simply being honest when I say that no one in our class, probably no one in our school, likes Chelsea Perkins. She’s one of those people that knows no boundaries, and not in a good way. She constantly touches people, whether they want to be touched or not, and she never, ever, stops talking. My first encounter with her was in biology last year, when we had assigned seating alphabetical by last name and I wasn’t lucky enough to have anyone between us. She would begin each class with an unwarranted hug or an awkward shoulder pat, then continue a one-sided conversation with the side of my head for the rest of the hour. I tried to be her friend at first, I really did, but she wouldn’t let me talk to her. She would talk over me or even flat out ignore me. So I gave up and listened to her rant about whatever happened to be on her mind for the rest of the year.
That being said, none of us wanted her to get cancer. She wasn’t a bad person; she just had a lack of social skills that made being around her impossibly painful. Upon her announcement, I couldn’t help a strange sense of guilt, as if I had somehow caused her cancer by failing to put up with her. This was compounded by an unprecedented feeling of fondness for her, like we had been old friends. For a split second, I considered trying again, going back to the beginning of last year and asking her open-ended questions about herself, but then I remembered how she’d answered those questions with stories of her online roleplaying group or her uncle’s hernia, and the cycle began again.
The classroom was now stuck in an awkward silence, and I imagined everyone else was cycling through the same conflicts I was. Then, finally, someone stood up, and I almost had to physically restrain myself from rolling my eyes. Student body president, Claire Hammond.
“Oh Chelsea, you poor, sweet thing.” Claire rushed to the front of the room with eyebrows scrunched together in fake sympathy. “You are so strong, and so, so brave.” She wrapped her arms around Chelsea’s shoulders and patted her back in the most awkward hug in human history. Even Chelsea seemed to be relieved when Claire pulled away. “You know what?” She looked away from Chelsea and out at the rest of the class. “We are going to make t-shirts. I can see it now: ‘We do it for Chelsea’ on the front, and something like ‘Never stop fighting” on the back with one of those ribbon things. And the proceeds will go to the Perkins family, of course, to help cover hospital bills and all that stuff.”
It only took Claire and the rest of student government two weeks to design, sell, and distribute the t-shirts. Claire took the initiative to lead the design team, and after much debate, they settled on lime green with ‘Save Chelsea Perkins!’ printed in bubble letters on the front.
After the phrase had been sufficiently plastered across the student body, signs began appearing in the hallways advertising ‘Save Chelsea Perkins Rally Friday Night!’. I was almost relieved to remember that I had a volleyball game Friday night at the time of the rally, and then I was struck with a familiar sense of shame at my relief. After all, Chelsea had cancer. In the end, relief and shame had no standing; our coach had negotiated with the other school to move the game to Thursday, which would mean an intense practice on Wednesday and the traditional post-game sleepover Thursday night.
We ended up narrowly winning the game, which put everyone in a good mood for the afterparty. The topic of Chelsea and the rally didn’t come up until around midnight, as we laid on the floor in a circle discussing life in that brutally honest late-night way.
“I feel so bad for her,” Allie Lamberson said. “I don’t know how she handles it. I would be a wreck.”
“She’s so happy all the time,” Kira Davis said. “I don’t understand it.”
I don’t know why I said what I did; the only way I can rationalize it is to blame it on fatigue. “Don’t you guys think it’s a little weird how everyone acts like her best friend now? I’m not trying to be rude or anything, but we were annoyed by her before, and now we have assemblies and t-shirts and all that for her.”
I knew I shouldn’t have said it immediately after it came out of my mouth. I could feel the other girls’ disapproval radiating off of them.
“Julia, she has cancer.” Lauren Reynolds looked at me with big brown eyes filled with horror, as if I had just strangled a puppy.
“Yeah, I know, but it’s just kinda weird how no one cared before, but now everyone is obsessed with her,” I said.
“I don’t know, I think it’s kind of cool how we all banded together,” Olivia Brown said. “It’s like we’re...a family now, I guess.”
“It’s good that we’re helping her and all, but shouldn’t we be treating her the same way as before?” I said, wanting to add that we should have treated her better before, but not being brave enough.
“She didn’t need us before,” Allie said, and that ended it.
We didn’t talk about Chelsea again until the rally, but I couldn’t get her off my mind all night. She shouldn’t have had to get cancer for people to be nice to her, but at the same time, her overbearing personality was the reason she’d had no friends, which I guess wasn’t her fault, but it wasn’t anyone else’s fault either. Were we bad people for not being able to put up with her?
The entire school showed up to the rally, even underclassmen who had never even heard Chelsea Perkins’s name until they were asked to buy a shirt. We all sat on the bleachers, our eyes swimming with green, and watched Claire take the floor.
“Thank you all so much for coming!” The student government stood behind her on the platform they’d set up as a stage, looking out at the crowd with satisfied smiles. “And thank you all so much for buying t-shirts to support Chelsea and the Perkins family. With the help of student government, we have raised a grand total of...five thousand, four hundred and fifty-three dollars! Isn’t that incredible?” The crowd went crazy, cheering and whistling while Claire stood on the stage, smiling without showing her teeth. “Thank you so much to everyone who bought a t-shirt or donated. I know it makes a big difference to the Perkins family.” She turned to face Chelsea and her family, who were sitting in folding chairs to the side of the stage. “If there’s anything we can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask. We want to support you all in your time of need.” She turned back to the crowd. “Now, let’s have a word from our one-and-only cancer warrior, Chelsea Perkins!”
Chelsea stepped up onto the stage and took the microphone, her eyes wide. “Wow,” she said. “I’ve never had to talk in front of this many people before.” The crowd laughed, then cheered. “Uh, I guess I just want to say thank you to everyone for supporting me, and stuff. It’s really weird, because I never thought anything like this would happen to me, but here I am.” She laughed, and her voice was deep and grating. “I always used to think about what would happen to me if I got cancer or some disease, and I always used to wonder what my wish would be if I got to do the Make A Wish thing. Well, the Make A Wish Foundation hasn’t e-mailed me back yet, but I think if I do I would want to go to Hawaii or the Bahamas or somewhere.” She looked at Claire, who made some cryptic gesture, then turned back to the crowd. “Oh yeah. I also wanted to say that it’s amazing how the community has banded together in the face of this tragedy, like...like a flock of sheep protecting its young.” The last part was slow and recitative, and I thought I saw Claire mouthing the words as Chelsea spoke them. “Anyway, it’s been about a month since-”
“Okay, let’s give it up for our very own Chelsea Perkins!” Claire swiped the microphone out of her hand and took center stage. The crowd went crazy again with screams and hollers until someone started singing the school’s fight song, quiet at first, the sound rising and swelling until everyone sang in one voice.
By the third repetition of the song, I thought it would be acceptable to excuse myself to the bathroom, so I slipped out while everyone was distracted. The hallways were eerily quiet, imposing upon me the feeling that I shouldn’t be there. It wasn’t until I was washing my hands at the bathroom sink that I noticed a girl dressed all in black sitting on the bathroom floor against the wall. I planned to leave the bathroom like I had come in and pretend, however obviously, not to have noticed her, but her eyes met mine in the mirror, and it was too late to back down.
“Hi, Megan,” I said, taking a paper towel out of the dispenser.
“Hello, Julia Rollins.” She looked up at me through her stringy hair, her voice menacingly smooth, like how a spider’s voice might sound if it could speak. “Are you enjoying the rally?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Any conversation with Megan Robertson had the potential to be unnerving; I always had the feeling she was leading me into a verbal trap. “It’s kinda hard to enjoy it when you know it’s because Chelsea is sick.”
“We do what we can to help,” Megan said, her eyes trained on me as I threw away the paper towel.
“Yep.” I stood there for an awkward second, then turned to leave.
“You should know I agree with you,” she said, and I thought, This is it, this is her attack.
“What do you mean?”
“You said that people treat her differently now that she has cancer. I don’t get it either.”
I nodded. The only thing I could think about was how she had known what I’d said at the sleepover. Was someone talking about me, portraying me as the insensitive monster who doesn’t care about the poor girl who has cancer? My social life flashed before my eyes, a vision of a lost version of myself whose only friend was the goth girl who hung out in the bathroom, life ruined by a few sleep-deprived words spoken in confidence.
Then I remembered Megan’s sister is on the volleyball team.
“Grace and I had this discussion after the game, and she explained to me your position.” Megan tapped her slick black fingernails against the tile, creating a sound like water dripping.
“I didn’t mean anything against Chelsea. I was just tired, and I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“Oh, but I think you were.” Her drawling voice bounced off the tile. I glance out the door to make sure no one was coming. “I have come to the conclusion that humans enjoy the fleeting brush of death’s wings. We like to get close to the edge, but only if there’s a guardrail. Understand?”
“I mean that people feed off the drama of death and tragedy. They like to be close to it, unless it’s happening to them. Then they feel guilty that someone else has been made to suffer for their vices and attempt to offset their guilt by idolizing the sufferer.”
I felt like I was at a weird poetry reading. “Sure.”
Megan relaxed into the wall. “It was good talking to you. Enjoy the rest of the rally.”
The desolate hallways seemed less creepy on the way back.
After the rally, things more or less went back to normal, or, at least, the craziness of the whole situation became normal. We made it through standardized testing, The volleyball season ended, and everyone wore the same lime green shirt every Friday.
I’ll admit that I didn’t think about Chelsea Perkins or bone cancer for a long time. In fact, I don’t think I thought of the possibility of Chelsea dying or her struggle for life until the last day of school, after class had ended. It was a sunny day, and we’d all been herded outside to wait on rides or the buses or find our ways home. I rode my bike to school, which meant I had to wait for the buses to clear out before it was safe to begin the journey home. Being the only student who lived close enough to bike, I enjoyed some quality time with myself in the half hour it took for the buses to get through, usually sitting on the grass in front of the bike rack and watching the people go by. But that day my time was interrupted by a body plopping down beside me and a familiar throaty voice.
“Hey, Chelsea.” Her presence sent my mind into a panic. After all, I didn’t know any better than anyone else what to say to a girl who might be dying.
“Do you wait out here everyday?”
“Yeah, I have to wait for the buses to clear before I can bike home.”
“That’s your bike? I always wondered who it was that biked here everyday. One time I tried to bike to this park near my neighborhood, and then I fell in the road and scraped my entire arm. I got a piece of gravel stuck in my elbow, and I thought we were gonna have to go to the emergency room to get it removed, but my mom got it out with tweezers.”
I never knew what to say to these things, and now it was even more difficult. “That sounds painful.”
“Oh, it was. My brother said he could hear me crying all the way inside the house.” She surveyed the cars lined up in front of us. “It’s such a nice day out. I never even noticed we had this little patch of grass out here. It feels like the perfect place for a picnic, if the cafeteria ladies would only let us eat outside. We should have a picnic here sometime.”
“We should,” I said, not knowing whether she was serious or not, but knowing that I couldn’t deny her either way.
“Do you sit out here every day?”
“Most days, but when it’s-”
“I usually would be home right now, but my mom’s car is broken so she’s gonna be late today. I don’t even really mind having to stay late, though. I kinda like watching all the people and enjoying the nice day. I really should go outside more, I guess. Doing active things just isn’t that fun anymore, you know?” She paused, probably for the first time in her life, and I could almost see some sort of emotion in her face for the first time since I’d known her. “Well, I guess you don’t know. It’s kind of a cancer thing.” A car pulled up to the curb and honked. “That’s my mom. I better go.” She stood up, calling back to me before opening the door to her mom’s car. “I’m serious about that picnic. I’ll even make sandwiches.”
I waved as she drove away. My chest felt strangely hollow as I unchained my bike, wrapping up the lock and sticking it in my backpack in one precise motion. I should have just been annoyed by our conversation, but for some reason I felt an unexplainable, vague sadness, something like pity, which I didn’t want to feel. I stood there for a second, watching the occasional car amble by, then mounted my bike. I pedaled hard, my muscles straining, and let the unexplainable tears roll of my cheeks as I traveled homeward.
Save Chelsea Perkins
I first found out in English class, fifth hour, right after lunch.