Bad language a bit. Not suitable for 13 or under. Rated PG-13 By SearchingforPaperTowns
I believe you have a choice in this life on how to narrate sad stories. On one hand, you can sugarcoat it so that no one knows your hurting. Nothing is too messed up that can't be fixed with an Imagine Dragons song. I like that version as much as the next girl does. It's just not the truth. Far into the winter of my seventeenth year alive, my mom made the decision that I was depressed, probably because I hardly ever got out of the house to do normal teenage things much less untangle myself from the sheets of my bed. It was usually trips to the bathroom, watching TV, reading A Royal Burden over and over and thinking constantly about death. Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression as a side effect from cancer. In actuality depression is not a side effect of cancer but a side effect of dying. Now don't get me wrong. Cancer is also a side effect of dying- I mean everything is really these days. But my mom was pretty convinced I needed medical attention, so she brought me to see my Regular Doctor Chiron, who agreed that I was veritably swimming in a paralyzing and totally clinical depression, and that therefore my mess would be adjusted to about x10 more than the other 10,000 a day. "Sorry Annabeth, but this is to help you." Doctor Chiron had said in his kind old scratchy voice. I had a theory Dr. Chiron used to smoke in the old days. I said nothing. I sat with my hands folded in my lap. Dr. Chiron also suggested (unwanted opinions) that I should attend a weekly Support Group for "special kids" like me. This Support Group featured a rotating cast of other depressed characters in different states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying of course. The Support Group, expectedly, was totally depressing as hell. They- I won't go as far to say "we"- met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a wooden cross. We all sat in a circle like the good times in Kindergarten. I half expected to start show and telling my imaginary pet turtle. Anyways we all were situated right smack in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been if it wasn't a rug. I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every single meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very sacred loving heart and crap.
It went down like this- I'll spare you Patrick's miraculous story into a summary. We listened to Patrick start again for the thousandth time his terribly miserable life story—how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to keep over and die but he didn’t croak and now here he is, a full-grown adult worshiping The Lord. I sipped lemonade made out of powder mix and nibbled a store bought cookie to distract myself.
Then we freaking introduced ourselves: Name. Age. Diagnosis. And how we’re doing today. I watched other people stand up, an Asian girl, a Swedish looking boy and a few others. Then of all people Patrick looked straight at me and said "Annabeth?" I thought that defeated the purpose of me saying my name but I did anyways.
"I’m Annabeth Chase. Sixteen. Thyroid originally but with an amazing and a long-settled satellite colony in my lungs which makes it difficult to breath. And I’m doing okay." I sat back down.
"We're here for you Annabeth." The kids chorused in unison just like we said for everyone else.
After we completed everyone in the circle, Patrick always asked if anyone wanted to share. Share what? Anything really. And always after that started the circle jerk of support: everyone talking about fighting and battling and winning and triumph. To be fair to Patrick, he let us talk about dying, too. But most of them- not us- were not dying. Almost all could live into adulthood, as Patrick had. They could all become lazy grown men who play video games on their couches all day if they wanted. (Well the women can't become men but you know my point.) Although this meant there was an awful lot of competitiveness against one another. everybody wants to beat not just the cancer, but also the other people in the bloody room. Like, I realize that this is irrational and probably selfish, but when they tell you that you have, I don't know, a 20% chance of living through the next five years, the math kicks in and you figure that’s one in five . . . so you glance around and think, as any healthy person would: I hafta outlast four of these bastards. The only redeeming part “redeeming part (if anything) of Support Group was this one pretty cool kid named Jason, a long-faced, skinny yet tall guy with straight blond hair swept over one eye. And his eyes were the "small" problem at hand. He had some fantastically improbable eye cancer. One eye had been cut out of his skull when he was just a child, and now he wore the kind of thick nerdy glasses that made his eyes (both the real one and the glass one) preternaturally huge, like his whole head was just a fake eye and real eye staring at you. From what I could pick up on the rare occasions when Jason shared with the group, a recurrence had placed his left over blue eye in mortal peril. Jason and I somehow communicated almost exclusively through sad sighs. Each time someone discussed anticancer diets or snorting ground-up shark fin or other things I didn't care about, he’d glance over at me and sigh ever so slightly. In reply, I would shake my head very slowly and let out my own exasperated sigh. So Support Group came and went, and after a few weeks, I has enough. I grew to be rather kicking-and-screaming about the whole affair in a toddler kind of way. I tried faking a cough spasm type thing but my dad would hear none of it just grinning and dragging me to the car and handing the keys to my mother. "Make some friends!" She called out the window as I trudged toward the church lugging my oxygen tank I had nicknamed Leo. The cylindrical light green tank only weighed a couple pounds, and I had this little blue backpack to wheel it around or carry it with. Like my extra body part. It delivered two liters of oxygen to me each minute through a cannula, a transparent long tube that split just beneath my throat, wrapped itself behind my ears, and then reunited once more in my nostrils. The contraption was necessary because my lungs sucked at being proper lungs.
And today in fact, was the Wednesday I made the acquaintance of Perseus Jackson.
I couldn't think of anything else except the documentaries and things I was missing on the History Channel when I ran into him. My nose collided with a collar bone and I stumbled right I to this bulk of flesh.
"Sorry," I looked up.
Gods. This guy was beautiful. He had sparkling sea green eyes and a crooked smile that sang DANGER! And this amazing windswept hair that looked like he had just come straight off the beach.
"My bad." The guy grinned and walked toward the stairs. I hesitated then made a beeline for the bathroom.
Oh my gods. I stared into the mirror. After lots of chemo treatments my hair had fallen out but now I sported a half way decent pixy. I usually didn't care what my hair looked like but... Ugh. I patted it, sighed then grabbed Leo and headed downstairs.
I didn’t want to take the elevator because taking the elevator is a Last Days near death sort of activity here at Support Group. I snagged a cookie and poured some lemonade into a tiny plastic Dixie cup and then turned around. The boy was staring was staring at me. The boy from earlier.
I was very certain I’d never laid eyes on him before. Long and tan and muscular, he totally dwarfed the molded plastic elementary school chair he was sitting in. Dark brown chocolate hair, wild and medium length like a skaters. He looked my age, maybe a year or so older, and he sat with his tailbone against the edge of the red chair, his posture aggressively- unnaturally- poor, right hand half way in the right pocket of dark worn jeans. I looked away, suddenly conscious of my own faults.
I was donning old torn jeans, which had once been tight but now sagged in odd places, and a yellow T-shirt advertising a band I had never heard of. Also my hair: I had this pageboy haircut, and I hadn’t even bothered to, like, brush it. Furthermore, I had ridiculously fat chipmunked cheeks, a side effect of cancer treatment. I looked like a normally proportioned person with a fat balloon for a head.
Gods of Olympus strike me now.
I couldn't help it—I stole a quick glance to him, and his eyes were still trained on me. It suddenly dawned on me why they call it eye contact. I walked directly into the circle and sat down next to Jason, two seats away from the strange boy. I cut another look. He was still watching me. Alright, let me just say it: He was hot. A nonhot boy stares at you and it's at the best a little awkward. At worst it could be a form of assault. But a hot boy . . . That's a different story. I pulled out my phone and clicked it so it would display the time: 4:59 PM. The circle filled in with us- I've decided we can be an us because of the cute boy- unlucky twelve-to-eighteen year-olds, and then Patrick started us out with the serenity prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." I thought that was a good thing to pray about. The guy was still staring at me his eyes practically bore into me. I felt rather tingly which was embarrassing. In the end, I decided that the right strategy would be to stare back. Boys do not have a monopoly on the Staring Business, after all. Two could play this game. So I looked him over as Patrick acknowledged for the thousandth time his ball-lessness etc., and soon it was a heated staring contest. After a long while the boy smiled, and finally his green eyes glanced away. When he looked back at me, I flicked my eyebrows up to say, I win. I didn't bother to hide my smugness. He shrugged like "Eh." Patrick continued on and on and then came the time for introductions. “Jason, perhaps you’d like to go first today. I know you’re facing a challenging time.” Patrick said. “Yeah,” Jason muttered. “I’m Jason Grace. I’m seventeen. And it’s looking like I have to get surgery in a couple weeks so after that I won't have any eye sight." After no one said anything Jason added, "I'll be blind. And I know some of us have it worse but...man this freaking sucks. My girlfriend Piper helps though. And so do good friends like Perseus." Jason nodded in the boy who has a name now- Perseus'- direction. “So, yeah,” Jason continued through the silence. (I couldn't figure out if people were giving respectful silence, awkward silence of if no one cared.) Jason was looking at his hands, which he’d folded o nto each other like the top of a tepee. “There’s nothing you guys can do about it." Patrick swallowed. "We're here for you Jason." The other infected kids echoed their own "We're here for you Jason's. Frank was next. He was fifteen. He had leukemia. He’d always had leukemia. He was okay. (Or so he claimed. He’d taken the elevator which made me think other wise.) Reyna was sixteen, and pretty enough to be the object of the hot boy’s eye with dark features and beautiful brown hair. She was a regular—in a long remission from appendiceal cancer, which I had no knowledge of previously existing. She said—as she had every other time I’d attended Support Group—that she felt strong and capable, which sort of felt like bragging to me as the oxygen-drizzling nubs tickled my nostrils uncomfortably. There were five others before they got to him. He smiled a little bit when his turn came. His voice was low, smoky, and dead sexy. “My name is Perseus Jackson," he said. “I’m seventeen. I had a little touch of osteosarcoma about a year and a half ago, but I’m just here today at Jason's request. To be a good friend.” “And how are you feeling?” asked Patrick all smiles and caring. “Oh, I’m grand.” Perseus Jackson smiled with a corner of his mouth like he had a secret. “I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up, my friend.” When it was my turn, I said, “My name is Annabeth. I’m sixteen. Thyroid with mets in my lungs. I'm okay again." The hour went on boringly: Fights were recounted, battles won in wars that were sure to have been lost; hope was clung to like beetles on dung; families were both celebrated and grieved with; it was agreed that friends just couldn't understand what it was like; tears were shed everywhere; comfort offered like another beverage poured into a glass.Neither Perseus Jackson nor I got to speak again until Patrick said, “Perseus, perhaps you’d like to share your fears with the group?" "My fears?" Perseus asked a little stunned before hesitating then proceeding to stand. He looked straight at me and said without a moments pause: "I fear oblivion. I fear it like the proverbial blind man who’s afraid of the oncoming dark.” “Too soon,” Jason laughed, cracking a smile for once. “Was that too insensitive?” Perseus inquired sounding aghast in a dramatic way. “I can be pretty blind to other people’s feelings.” Jason was snorting, but Patrick raised a solid finger and cried, “Perseus, please. Let’s return to you and your struggles. You stated you fear oblivion?" "Yup." Perseus grinned. That boy is all smiles.
Patrick seemed a little lost for words. “Would, you...um-er, would anyone like to speak against or for that?” I hadn’t been in real school for about three (long) years. My parents were pretty much my two best friends. My third best friend was an author who did not know I even existed. I was a fairly shy person—not a hand-raising person. And somehow, just this one time, I made the decision to speak up. I half raised my hand, a flop of fingers hanging limp from my wrist. Patrick immediately called: "Annabeth!" In his excitement. "That was unexpected," he added then shut his mouth because he hadn't meant to say that out loud. I bet he assumed I was, how do you put it, opening up. Becoming Part Of The Group, joining in with my peers. I looked straight at Perseus Jackson, who looked right back at me. You could almost see the ocean in his eyes they were such a magnificent green. “There will come a day,” I said, “when all of us are dead. All of us." I wanted everyone to know that they were not safe from the jaws of death. "There will come a time when there are no human beings left to spoil this earth. No one to even remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything worth noticing. There will be no one left to recall the greats like Aristotle or Leonardo di Vinci , let alone you Perseus Jackson. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this”—I gestured around trying to emphasize my point—“will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years in the distance...but hear me. When our sun finally does flicker it's last we may survive. But the human race cannot go on forever. There was a time before humans walked the universe and there will be a time after. So Jackson, if our inevitable fate as humans stresses you I encourage strongly that you try your best to ignore it. God knows that's what everyone else does." I had learned this from my before mentioned third best friend in the world: Bill Van Hooten author of my personal bible A Royal Burden. Bill Van Hooten was the only person I’d ever crossed paths with who seemed to (a) actually understand what it’s like to be almost dead, and (b) not have died. After I finished my speech, there was an amazingly long period of silence as I watched a smile spread all the way across Perseus' face, like it was spreading through his soul—not the cute little crooked smile of the boy trying so hard to be sexy while he stared at me, but his actual real smile, too big for his face. “Goddamn,” Percy said quietly, even though we could all hear him. “Aren’t you something else.” Neither of us said anything else for the rest of Support Group, maybe because we were at loss for words. At the end, we all were made to join hands, and Patrick led us in a prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, we are gathered here in Your heart, literally in Your heart, as cancer survivors. You and You alone know us as we know ourselves because you live inside of us.Guide us to life and the Light through our times of trial. You are our rock and staff and you comfort us little sheep. We pray for Jason's impaired eyes, for Frank and Reyna's blood, for Perseus' bones, for Annabeth's lungs, for Hazel's throat. We pray that You might heal us and that we might feel Your love, and Your peace, which passes all understanding. And we remember in our hearts those whom we knew and loved who have returned safely home with you." After we all solemnly said "amen" Patrick had us stand and say a stupid mantra "Living our best lives now." And then Support Group had ended. Perseus Jackson stretched like a lean cat then pushed himself off his chair and walked over to me. His gait was crooked like his smile. He was taller than me, I noted. Thankfully he kept himself a few paces away so I wouldn't be craning my neck to try and look him in the eye. “What’s your name?” he asked subtly.
“Annabeth.” I replied.
“No, your full name.”
“Um, Annabeth Elizabeth Chase.”
He was just about to say something else when Jason walked up looking confused. “Hold on a sec," Perseus said, raising a bony finger, and turned to Jason. “That was actually worse than you said it would be, man.” “I told you it was long and boring.” “Why do you trouble yourself with this little group again?” "I don’t really know. It helps sometimes?" Perseus shrugged then leaned closer to Jason and whispered, "So is she a regular?" He thought I couldn't hear which was mostly true but I'm very skilled at lip reading. You get good at a lot of things when your alone with yourself often. Jason was turned away from me so I could hear nor read his lips. But Perseus let out a hearty laugh, slapped his back and said: "I'll say!" Jason turned back to me, staring with his huge glassy blue eyes. "Tell Annabeth about clinic." Perseus urged Jason pushing his elbow slightly.
“Okay, so I had to go into the stupid clinic earlier this morning around nine, and I was was saying to my d bag surgeon that I’d rather be deaf than blind because it's obviously much better. And she said, ‘It doesn’t work that way Jason,’ and I was, like, ‘Yeah, I realize it doesn’t work that way; I’m just saying I’d rather be deaf than blind if I had the choice, which I know isn't a choice,’ and she says, ‘Well, the good news is that you won’t be deaf,’ and I was like, ‘Thank you for explaining that my eye cancer isn’t going to make me deaf biotch. I am sou my that an intelligent medical person like yourself could help explain that and then operate on me." "She sounds like a winner,” I rolled my eyes.“I’m gonna try and get me some eye cancer just so I can meet this girl." “Good luck with that Annabeth. All right, um, I should get going. Piper's waiting for me at the car. I gotta look at her as much as I can.” “Breaking Terror tomorrow?” Perseus asked. “Definitely.” Jason turned and jogged up the stairs going three at a time which I thought was impressive. Perseus Jackson turned to me with a twinkle in his eyes. “Literally,” he stated.
"Literally?” I questioned.
“We are literally in the heart of Jesus,” he said. “I thought when I came in that we were in a musty church basement, but in actuality we are literally in the heart of Jesus.”
“Someone should tell Jesus,” I said thoughtfully. “I mean, it’s gotta be dangerous, storing children with cancer in your heart.”
“I would tell Jesus myself..." Perseus kicked his lips. "But sadly I am locked inside his heart and he won't be able to hear my shouts." I couldn't help it, I laughed. He shook his head and stared at me. "What?" I asked. "Why are you looking at me like that?" "Because your beautiful," Perseus answered with a half smile. “I enjoy looking at beautiful people, and I decided a long time ago not to deny myself the simpler pleasures of beautiful things. A brief awkward silence followed his statement as I blushed madly. Perseus continued on: “I mean, particularly given that, as you so deliciously pointed out, all of this will end in oblivion and everything.” I kind of scoffed or sighed or exhaled in a way that was vaguely coughy and then said, “I’m not beau—”
"Yes you are."
His every syllable dripped with a flirtatious sort of venom. Honestly, he sort of turned me on. I didn’t even know that guys could turn me on—not, like, in real life. A younger girl walked past us with her head hung low. “How’s it going, Hazel?” he asked with a sweet caring voice. She smiled and mumbled, “Hi, Perseus." I vaguely remembered Hazel introducing herself in the circle. Honestly I wasn't much paying attention despite the fact that I never miss any details. Like how Hazel looked so sullen I figured she wasn't eager to go home. Parent issues perhaps?
I looked quizzically at Perseus. "Memorials hospital," he explained.
"Where do you go?"
"Children's." I shrugged but my voice sounded small even to my ears. Our conversation seemed like it was drawing to an end. We had run out of things to talk about. “Well,” I half whispered, nodding vaguely toward the steps that led us out of the Literal Heart of Jesus. I tugged my backpack that held Leo over my shoulders and started walking. He limped beside me.
“So, see you next time?"
"Want to see a movie?" Perseus asked randomly. Like totally out of the blue he asks a girl to see a movie- a girl he doesn't know.
I gave an unattractive snort. "I'm free later this week."
"No I mean now. Right now."
I stopped walking to face him. "I hardly know you Jackson. You could be an axe murderer."
"There's always that possibility isn't there?" Perseus laughed and one hand went slipped inside his brown worn jacket pocket.
It isn't everyday a hot boy asks you to watch a movie with him right that very second.
I stopped outside and scanned the parking lot for my mom. Instead my eyes fell on a girl and a boy going at it against the hard stone wall of the church. A tall curvy brunette girl had Jason pinned to the wall and was aggressively kissing him. Jason kept moaning through their passionate making out scene and the girl I assumed was Piper pushed herself even closer if that was possible. Perseus and I were standing close enough to hear the gross noises of their mouths squishing together, and I could hear Jason panting, "Always," and her saying, “Always,” right back to him. Suddenly appearing next to me again, Perseus half whispered, "They’re big believers in PDA." "What’s with the ‘always'?"
The slurping sounds intensified until I was cringing.
"Always is their thing. They’ll always love each other and whatever. I have guessed they have texted the word 'always' to each other over 5 million times this past year."
A handful of cars drove up to the church. A minivan took Hazel away and a pickup truck hauled Frank and a couple others until it was just Perseus and me watching Jason and Piper. They proceeded heatedly as if they were not leaning against God's holy place. His hand reached for her boob over her tank-top and pawed at it like an animal, his palm still while his fingers moved eagerly around. I wondered pervertedly if that felt good. It didn’t look like it would feel nice, but I decided to go ahead and forgive Jason with the excuse that he was about to go blind. The senses must feast while there is yet hunger and food to thrive on. "Imagine taking that one last drive to the hospital," I spoke quietly. "The last time you’ll ever drive a car."
Without even looking over at me, Perseus groaned, "You’re killing my vibe here, Annabeth Elizabeth. I’m trying to watch young love in its many- splendored awkward stages."
“I think he’s hurting her boob."
"Yeah, I for one can't tell if he's trying to arouse Piper or trying to perform a breast examination."
Then Perseus Jackson reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out, of all things, a small pack of cigarettes. He flipped the top open and inserted a cigarette between his lips.
"Are you kidding?" I asked. "You think that’s cool? Oh, my gods, you just ruined this whole thing."
"The whole thing?" he asked, turning to me. The cigarette dangled unlit from his smiling lips.
"The problem is hubris and yours is that oh, my gods, even though you HAD FREAKING CANCER YOURSELF you give all your damn money to a business in exchange for the chance to acquire EVEN MORE CANCER. Oh, my God. Let me just assure you that not being able to breathe sucks! Totally disappointing. Totally sucks."
“A hu-hu- hybrid?” he asked without emotion, the cigarette still hanging from his mouth. It tightened his jaw. He also had a hell of a jawline, unfortunately.
"Hubris." I corrected. "Your fatal flaw,” I answered feeling somewhat annoyed. I turned away from him and crossed my arms.
I stepped toward the curb, leaving Perseus Jackson standing a little ways behind me, and then I heard a familiar engine begin from down the street. It was Mom. She’d been waiting for me to, like, make friends or whatever. I felt this weird mixture of disappointment and anger swelling and bubbling in my insides. I don’t even know what the feeling was, exactly, except that there was a whole lot of it, and I wanted to smack Perseus Jackson and also replace my lungs with lungs that didn’t suck at being lungs. I was standing with my Chuck Taylors on the very edge of the curb, the oxygen tank feeling heavier and heavier on my back, and then right as my mom roared up to the entrance, I felt a large hand grab mine. I yanked my own hand back to freedom but turned back to him.
"They don’t kill you unless you light them,” he said as Mom sped to the curb nearly running over a bird. “And I’ve never lit one. It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth, but you don’t give it the power to do its killing.”
“It’s a metaphor,” I said, dubiously.
Mom was just idling not bothering to ask why I wasn't climbing in and screaming for us to get back to the house to watch the science documentaries.
“It’s a metaphor,” he repeated.
"Oh." Was all I could get out.
"Oh yeah," Perseus smiled. The goofy big smile. "I'm a huge believer in metaphors and heroism."
"Ready to catch up on the last few History channel airs?" Mom asked putting down her cell phone which she'd been pretending to busily text on for my sake.
"No. I'm going to a movie with Perseus Jackson. Please record the next few documentaries for me."
Perseus Jackson drove like a sociopath in a race car derby. Meaning he was horrible and he seemed to think the gas limits applied to him. Stopping or starting, everything started with a tremendous bump that tossed me against the seat or made me almost hit the dashboard. I practically flew against the seat belt of his Toyota SUV each time he punched the brakes, and my neck snapped backward every time he stomped on the gas pedal. I might have been a little nervous—what with sitting in the car of a strange boy I had just met on the way to his house, an very aware that my crap lungs complicate any efforts to fend off unwanted advances —but his driving was so astonishingly poor that I could think of nothing else.
We’d gone maybe a mile in silence (besides my screaming) before Perseus confessed, “I flunked my driving test three times...”
“You don’t say.”
He laughed, nodding. “Well, I can’t feel pressure in this car at all, and I can’t get the hang of driving left-footed. My doctors said most amputees can drive their cars without any problems, but . . . Ugh... yeah. Not me. Anyway, I went in for my fourth driving test, and it went about how this is going.”
A quarter mile in front of us, a light flickered to red. Perseus slammed on his brakes with such force, I was tossed into the triangular embrace of the seat belt.
"Sorry! I swear to God I am trying so hard to be gentle. So, where was I? After I finished my test I totally though I'd failed again but instead the instructor was like, "Alright well your driving is rather unpleasant, but it isn’t technically un-unsafe."
"Cancer Perks.” I said almost immediately.
"Totally Cancer Perks!" Perseus agreed slamming his hand on the wheel with enthusiasm.
Cancer Perks are the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, meeting centuries, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses, etc.
The light blinked "GO" green. I braced myself against the car seat, gripping the arm rests. Perseus slammed the gas.
"You know they have hand controls for those unfortunate people who can’t make use of their legs,” I pointed out with raised eyebrows.
"Yeah," he said. "Maybe some other day though."
Perseus sighed in a tired way that made me question if he was even sure there would be a 'someday'. I knew osteosarcoma was highly curable, but still. There are several ways to establish someone’s estimated survival expectations without actually asking the question. I used the oldie but a goodie. "So, Perseus, are you in school?"
In most cases your parents take you out of the educational problem if at one point soon they think you'll croak.
"Yup." Perseus answered thoughtfully. "I go to NC. North Central. I'm a year behind though because I couldn't keep up with my class during the harder times."
"So your a sophomore?" I guessed.
"That's right. What about you Annabeth Elizabeth?"
I thought about my odds of Iris. No one likes a corpse. But I told the truth anyways. "No, actually my mom and dad took me out three years ago."
"Three years?" Perseus whistled astonished.
I decided to tell him the basic outline of my miraculous cancer story: I was diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer when I was thirteen years old. (I didn’t say to Perseus that the diagnosis came only three months after I got my first bloody period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.) We were told, by the experts, my cancer was incurable. I had a surgery called "radical neck dissection", which is about as unpleasant as the name suggests. Then a dash of radiation. Then a punch of chemo for my lung tumors. The tumors shriveled up, then completely expanded. By then, I was fourteen, shocked and angry with the world. My lungs started to fill up with a whole bunch of water. I already looked like a stinking corpse my hands and feet welled up I to balloons; my skin became so dry it cracked; my lips were perpetually blue and chapped. They have this medical drug that makes you not feel as terrified about the fact that you can’t breathe, and I had a lot of it going right into me through a PICC line, and more than a dozen other drugs than that. Even then there's a tingling unpleasantness to drowning, particularly when it happens over the course of several months. I eventually ended up in the ICU with pneumonia, and as my mom knelt by the side of my white hospital bed and said, “Are you ready, sweetie?” and I told her I was ready, and my dad just kept telling me he loved me so so much in this croaking voice that was not breaking so much as already shattered, and I kept whispering faintly that I loved him, too, and everyone was holding hands, gripping one another tight, and I couldn’t catch my breath at all as much as I tried, and my lungs were acting terribly desperate, gasping, heaving, pulling me out of the bed trying to find a position that could get them some air, and I was totally embarrassed by their desperation, disgusted that they wouldn’t just let go for me. And I remember my mom saying to me it was okay, that I was okay, that I would be okay, and my father was trying so hard not to sob and be manly unlike other times he did, which was regularly, like a terrible heart breaking earthquake. My dad kept telling me we would all do this together and me thinking that was bullshit because my parents wouldn't be dying with me. But I had swallowed as hard as I could and said "Okay." And I remember wanting not to be awake when the end came, to be asleep and die in my sleep. Everyone else assumed I was done with my fight, but my Cancer Doctor Chiron managed to get squeeze some of the fluid out of my aching lungs, and soon thereafter the antibiotics they’d assigned to me for the pneumonia starting actually working. I woke up and soon got into one of those experimental trials that are famous in the Republic of Cancervania for Never Working. The drug was Phalanxifor, this molecule designed to attach itself to cancer cells and slow its growth. It didn’t work in about 70% of people. But it actually worked inside of me. The tumors shrank down again. And they stayed shrunk this time. Three cheers for Phalanxifor! In the past eighteen months, my mets have hardly even grown at all, leaving me with lungs that still suck at being lungs but could, possibly, struggle along with the assistance of drizzled oxygen and daily doses of Phalanxifor. Although honestly, my Cancer Miracle had only resulted in a bit of purchased time, but I wasn't really complaining. (I do not yet know the size of the bit we have bought.) But when telling Perseus Jackson my story, I painted the sunniest happiest picture possible embracing my Cancer Miracle with open arms.
"Don'tcha hafta go back to school then?" Perseus questioned. I noticed he had lost his bigger vocabulary and I smiled because now I could see how he really spoke. It was endearing.
"Actually I can't." I explained. "I already received my GED so now I take courses at MCC."
"MCC, GED..." Perseus muttered. "BRB while my mind processes those hard letters."
I giggled and surprised myself because I had actually giggled like normal teenage girls.
"So your a college girl." Perseus said nodding appreciatively. "That explains your aura of sophistication and grace."
He allowed himself a smirk and I shoved his upper arm playfully. "I'll show you grace," I teased as I stuck my tongue out. I could feel his muscle right beneath the soft skin, all tense, bulging and amazing. We made a wheels-screeching turn into a subdivision with eight-foot-high stucco walls. His house was the first one on the right painted a bright orange with a black Pegasus logo stamped on the left wall. "My parents are positive people." Perseus shrugged like a black painted Pegasus on the side of his home was normal.
We jerked to a shuddering stop in his driveway. Perseus got out and opened my car door for me which made me turn a little pink in the cheeks, emberassing to say. I followed him up the walkway and through the doorway. A wooden plaque in the entryway was engraved in cursive with the words Home Is Where the Heart Is, and the entire house turned out to be one big building with positive quotes. Good friends are hard to find and impossible to forget read one embroidered needlepoint in a couch pillow. 'As long as we're together. Said another plaque above the antique furnished couch in the living room.
Perseus noticed me reading them and grinned. "My parents call them Encouragements. They're pretty much everywhere."
"What about on your underwear?"
Perseus froze and all the blood completely drained from his face. "Uh..."
I laughed. His parents yelled, "PERCY!" From the kitchen. So they call him Percy not Perseus. They were making soup, not really watching it as they held each other tight entangled in one a others arms. Mrs. Sally Jackson, Percy's mom, offered me a blue cupcake.
I looked quizzically at them as I accepted the pastry.
"It's our thing. Blue food." Paul Blofis, Perseus' dad, said happily crunching a dyed blue carrot (if you ask me it was more of a sickly brown).
They didn't seem particularly surprised that their son had brought a girl over, just smiled and hugged me a lot. And disappointingly that made sense. Just because Perseus made me feel important and treasured did not mean I was special. Who knows, maybe he brings home a lot of teenage girls to watch movies with and feel up.
"This is Annabeth Elizabeth," Percy added just for the sake of introducing my name.
"Just Annabeth." I corrected.
"Okay Just Annabeth it is," Paul grinned as he got a spoon out of one of the kitchen drawers. He handed it to Sally who stirred the soup absently as she watched the two of us.
"How was Jason's support group thing?" Mrs. Jackson asked smiling.
"Oh it was amazing mom. Incredible. The best. Like awesome!" Percy cried dramatically.
Sally pursed her lips but laughed despite her trying to look stern. "How about you Annabeth? Do you enjoy going?"
I hesitated trying to think of a good answer. "Most of them are really nice," I said lamely.
“That’s exactly what we found with families at Memorial Hospital when we were in the thick of it with Percy’s treatment,” Mr. Blofis said happily. “Everybody was just so kind and caring. Very strong as well. In the darkest days the Lord will put the best people into your life."
"Quick get me a pillow and some thread because that needs to be an Encouragement." Perseus said sarcastically. Mr. Blofis looked a little irked but Percy just laughed and wrapped an arm around his dad's neck. "Relax dad. I'm kidding. I really do like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can't admit that because I'm a teenager."
His dad rolled his.
"Annabeth will you be joining us for dinner?" Asked Perseus' mom in a sweet voice.
"I guess?" I said. "I have to be home by ten. Also I don't, um, eat meat?"
"No problem we'll vegetarianize some." she said.
"What, are animals just too cute and adorable?" Percy asked raising his brows.
"I want to minimize the number of deaths I am responsible for," I replied.
Percy looked like he was going to shoot back a retort but stopped himself. This boy was all kinds of strange.
"Anyways... is it okay if Annabeth Elizabeth and I go downstairs and watch a movie?" Percy finally asked through the silence.
Sally Jackson blinked. "Oh... oh yes. Go, go have fun!"
Percy put his hand on the doorway and leaned on it so he could balance his good leg enough to throw his prosthetic one forwards. "C'mon Annabeth Elizabeth."
"Annabeth." I sighed as I followed him down fluffy blue carpeted stairs to a huge basement bedroom (also blue). A wooden shelf circled all the way around the room in one big arc. It was filled with stuffed solid basketball memorabilia: dozens of shiny golden trophies with painted gold plastic men striking different athletic poses. There were also a variety of signed balls and sneakers.
"I used to play basketball," Perseus explained in a matter-of-fact sort of voice.
"You must have been really good," I gestured to all the trophies.
"I wasn't amazing, but all the shoes and balls are just Cancer Perks." Percy's smile kind of melted as he said that. He walked toward the television where a large pile of video games and DvDs were stacked into a type of pyramid.
"The Great Pyramid of Games." He said and gave a little bow.
Perseus bent at the waist and grabbed up Finding Nemo. "This was my favorite movie when I was a kid." Percy scratched his dark hair. "Well... it still is." He ammended.
I was all for Disney and animation but it seemed a little funny that this guy who was really into metaphors and being sexy liked Finding Nemo. "Stop judging," Perseus grumbled as he popped the disc into the player. "I mostly like the water." He thought some more. "And the fishies."
"Fishies isn't a real word." I settled into one of the two gaming chairs in front of the TV. "It's just fish." Perseus, much to my surprise didn't turn the TV on. "So what's your story?" he asked, sitting down in the other chair at a safe distance. "I already told you it." I replied but went on. "I was diagnosed when-"
He threw his hands up like stop-stop-stop-it-now. "No, not your cancer story. Your story. Interests, passions, weird fetishes."
"Weird fetishes?" I nearly choked on my own saliva.
It sort of dawned on me that I wasn’t very interesting at all.
"I am pretty unextrodinary."
"I reject that out of hand."
"What's something you like? First thing that comes to mind." Perseus grinned that crooked grin.
"What do you read? Magazines, novels, mysteries, pamphlets...?"
"Everything from fantastically sweetened romance to pretentious fiction right up to the treasured poetry."
"So do you also write poetry?"
"No, I'm an awful writer."
"Aha!" Perseus shouted and got up to a do a little dance. "Annabeth Elizabeth you are the only teenager in all of North America who reads poetry but doesn't write it! This tells me a lot about you!" He finally sat down still smiling. "So you read a lot of good- no GREAT- books then right?"
"Um I suppose so?" I squeaked.
"What's your favorite one?"
"Umm," I said smartly. My favorite book was out of the ballpark for other books. A Royal Burden... It's just that I didn't like to share it with other people. Sometimes, you read a special book and it fills you with this odd evangelical zeal, and you become totally convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read that book. And then there are books like A Royal Burden which you can’t tell people about, books so worn and loved and rare and you advertising your affection for it feels like a sort of betrayal. It isn’t even that the book was that amazing or anything; it was just that the author, Bill Van Hooten, seemed to understand me- me specifically- in extraordinary and impossible ways. A Royal Burden was my book, in the way my body was my body and my thoughts were my thoughts. Even with all my confliction, I told Perseus. “My favorite book is probably A Royal Burden," I said.
"Does it feature apocalyptic zombies?" he asked.
"Uh...no," I said.
"Stormtroopers with guns?" I shook my head. "It’s not that type of book."
He smiled. "I have decided to read this terrible book with a long title that does not contain zombies or stormtroopers," he announced. "And in turn you are going to read this." Perseus spun in his chair around to a stack of books under his bedside table. He picked up a pen with flourish and scribbled an inscription onto the title page and handed it to me. "It's a brilliant and awesome novelization of my favorite video game ever."
I flipped the book over in my hands to see the summary. "There comes a time wen a hero must lay down his life to pay the price of freedom." I read aloud. "How come the hero is just a guy?"
"I don't know. Girls can be heroes too."
I turned it over again to read the title. The Price of Freedom. I laughed. Perseus put a hand on the cover then realized we were touching hands grinned like a fox.
But instead of saying something flirty all he said was one word: "Cold." He pressed a finger to my white wrist.
"Well not cold as much as underoxygenated."
"I love it when you talk medical to me."
Then pulling me in he clicked the TV on and I endured a two hour movie of "Nemo!", "Just keep swimming," and "I gotta find my son please help me!" Percy just laughed the entire time rocking back and forth in his chair happily.
I did the total middle-schooly thing where you put your hand halfway between the chairs to let the guy know it's okay to hold it. And much to his credit he did even though it was shaking and sweaty. Movie excitement jitters or nervous to be holding my hand? I liked option number two.
At the end of the movie, I yawned and checked my watch. 9:50 PM. Crap.
Percy stood and pulled me up with him. The weird thing is I let him do it. He didn't let go of my hand until we reached the top of the stairs. I was a little afraid to go up the stairs but I did notice Perseus went at a very slow pace just so my pride wasn't wounded. I wasn't sure if I should be mad or happy.
"Perseus?" I said. "I need to get home. I have classes tomorrow."
My host nodded and dug around in his jean pockets for his car keys. "Mom! Dad! I'm taking Annabeth Elizabeth home!"
"Just Annabeth," I said under my breath again.
I scanned the living room. I suppose I had been looking at the shiny Encouragement above the TV, a drawing of an shimmery angel with the caption Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy? (This is an old argument in the field of Thinking and Wisdom About Suffering, and its dumb stupidity and lack of elegant sophistication could be mined for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the delicious taste of chocolate.) "Yes," I said. "A lovely thought." I showed Perseus how to drive his own car by driving us to my house with Perseus jamming out in shotgun. He played me a couple songs he liked which was actually a Disney track featuring songs like Under the Sea and A Whole New World and they were cute songs, but because I had never watched Disney princesses before, they really just weren’t as awesome to me as they were to him. I couldn't help it. I kept glancing over at his leg, or the place where his leg used to be, trying to conjure up in my imagination what the fake leg could possibly look like. I didn’t want to care about it, but I did a little. He probably cared about my oxygen. Illness repulses, right? I’d observed that a long while ago, and I had a sneaking suspicion Perseus had, as well. As I pulled up outside of my house, Perseus turned the radio to off. The air thickened. He was probably (hopefully) thinking about kissing me, because I was definitely thinking about kissing him and wondering if his lips were soft. Wondering if I wanted to. Wondering if that would be weird since it's our first date. Wondering why I thought this were going to be more dates implied by thinking of it as our first date. Wondering if he was over thinking it like I was. Wondering why I was so unsure...I always have a plan. I always know what to do. But not right now.
I’d kissed boys, of course, but it had Beene a terribly long while. The Pre-Miracle days. I finally put the car in park and looked over at him, sitting there. He really was quite beautiful. I know boys aren’t supposed to be, but he seriously was. "Annabeth Elizabeth," he said, my name sounded more amazing, new and better in his voice. "It has been an awesome time and I'm so pysched I got to meet your acquaintance."
"Ditto, Mr. Jackson," I said. I felt shy just looking at him. The cursed redness was returning to my cheeks.
I could not match the intensity of his sea green eyes. “May I see you again?” he asked in an honest voice.
There was a cute endearing nervousness in his voice that made it crack.
I smiled. "Sure."
"Tomorrow?" he asked.
"Patience, is a virtue." I counseled. "You don’t want to seem overeager."
"Right, that’s why I said tomorrow," he said. I would want to see you again tonight...meaning right now but I am reluctantly willing to wait all the rest of this night to much of tomorrow."
I rolled my eyes at him.
"I’m dead serious," he said.
"You don’t even know me except for from these past few hours." I said. I grabbed his book off of the center console. "How about I call you when I finish this?"
"But you don’t have my phone number," he winked.
"I strongly suspect you wrote it in the book."
He broke out into that big goofy smile. "And you said we don’t know each other."
It was stupid but I stayed up all night reading The Price of Freedom just so I could call Perseus Jackson when I was finished. Oh spoiler alert: the price of freedom is death. It wasn't exactly my cup of tea- definitely not A Royal Burden- but at least it was vaguely interesting. There was a lot of heroics and victories and battle-ish stuff. Only 283 pages total. Because I was up so late I slept in the next day, Thursday.
Momma Chase's policy is to, like, never ever wake me up when sleeping because one of the job requirements of Professional Cancerous Person is sleeping whole a lot, so I was kind of confused when I was jolted awake with her hands on my shoulders.
"It's almost ten," She said.
"Sleep fights cancer," I replied groggily stretching and rubbing my eyes. "I was up late reading."
"Must be some book,” she answered as she knelt down next to my mattress and unhooked me from my huge, rectangular oxygen concentrator. Mom then inserted me up into a portable tank and then reminded me that I had class.
"Did that boy give it to you?" she asked out of nowhere.
“By it, do you mean herpes?”
"You are too much," Mom said.
"The book, Annabeth. I mean the book."
"Yeah, he did give me this book." I held up The Price of Freedom and waved it through the air like a flag.
"I can tell you like him,” she said, eyebrows all raised, as if this was a stunning observation.
I casually shrugged like 'maybe-maybe not'.
"Didn't I say that Support Group would be worth your while?" Mom claps excitedly. Honestly.
"Did you just wait outside in the car the entire time, like usual?"
"Well... Yeah but I did take some paperwork that needed filling out. But Annabeth it is time to see the world so up you get."
"Mum... Sleep. Cancer. Fighting."
"I know, dearest, but there are classes to show up for. Also, today is . . . " The giddiness in Mom’s voice is totally evident.
"Thursday?" I ask suspiciously.
"Did you honestly forget? Tell me you hit your head!" Mom groans.
"Amnesia." I shrug.
“It’s Thursday, March twenty-ninth!” she screams into my still-waking-up ears, a crazy smile plastered to her stretched face.
"Wow your awesome you know the date!" I yelled back.
“Annabeth! IT’S YOUR THIRTY-THIRD HALF BIRTHDAY!”
"Ohhh yeahhhh," I straightens up. My mum is really into knowing the dates of any historical event or cause to celebrate.
'IT’S ARBOR DAY! LET’S HUG TREES AND EAT GREEN CUPCAKES! TODAY IS THE DAY THE HUNGER GAMES WAS FIRST FILMED WE SHALL RECALL THE OCCASION WITH AN OUTDOOR PICNIC!, etc.
"Happy thirty-third Half Birthday to me," I sang sarcastically.
"What do you want to do on your very special day?"
"Find the cure to cancer and meet the author of A Royal Burden." But that isn't what I said, as much as I wanted to. "Set a world record for most salads ever eaten."
Mom reached up to the brown rotting shelf above my bed and snatched up Bluie, my blue stuffed bear I’ve had since I was, about, one—back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.
"What about... friends...?" My mom asks. Dearest and loving mum has dropped a F Bomb. Friends.
"Mom don't be outrageous." I grumble as she hugs Bluie to her chest, realizing what pain she has caused me.
"Mariah? Joey?" She questions, voice trembling. Now I feel completely terrible.
"No...not really friends."
"But you hung out one time."
"For a project."
There's a long silence. I'm still hung up on the fact that my mom thinks anybody I work on a project with is my friend...but maybe that's okay. It's unhealthy for her to know her daughter has no good friends.
"What about Perseus?"
"He probably invites a ton of girls over." But as I spoke those words I hoped to the gods above it wasn't true.
Mum drove me to school. I could drive myself but lately in these Darkening Days I wasn't allowed to to do anything myself.
My class was American Literature, a lecture about Charles Dickensin in a mostly empty auditorium that echoes, and it was actually really interesting. I took rapid notes, jotting things down furiously. Engaged like it was one of my documentaries.
After class my mother took me straight from MCC to the bookstore where I browsed until finally selecting both Twilight Mornings and Chaos of the Dead which are the first few books in the trilogy to the book Perseus have me. (It's supposed to be a trilogy but they added about 3 epilogue books I guess.) My stomach growled and gurgled so I walked over to the gigantic good smelling food court located not far from the bookstore (in the mall) and bought a lemonade and chicken sandwich from Chick-Fil-A. I watched these cute little kids playing in the colorful indoor playground as I read. There was this tunnel that these two kids kept crawling through over and over and they never seemed to get tired. I mean, how many times can one kid go down the same slide? But I suppose I was the same way at their age. The seemingly never ending fun.
A girl and her boyfriend laughed at the counter and kissed as they took their food back to the table. My heart ached. I looked away toward the escalator to see a couple of girls about my age with shining long hair and sunglasses perched atop their skulls. They giggled and clutched their shopping bags. Having fun.
But still, here I am alone and mature at the mall by myself. Right? Wrong. Mom was also currently situated in the food court, alone, sitting in a dark little corner where she thought I couldn’t see her selling drugs to small children. Okay maybe not those five words but she was packing away a Philly cheesesteak sandwich and reading through some papers. Medical stuff, for me probably. The paperwork was always endless. Scattered all over my moms desk. On their night stands. At the table. Everywhere really.
I love my mum, but her perpetual nearness sometimes makes me feel strange like my nerves are scattered. And I know she dropped me off here only to circle back around to watch me. She wants me to feel like a normal teenager. But truth is... I'm not.
I needed space. I got up as silently and slowly as possible and crept out to the nearest bench and say down. I know it wasn't fair to my mom to leave like that but... She won't be mad because as far as I'm concerned she was never here.
I opened Twilight Dawn and began to read. Fifteen pages in, Sergeant Brown was lost in the desert doomed to die. I didn't freak out because hello he's the main character and it's the beginning of the book. I did however take comfort when his best friend General Rush found him in a helicopter and took Brown back to safety. (Where he spent the next week recovering from dehydration and hallucinations.)
I was just about to flip the book closed after bookmarking my place when this little Asian boy with a gap in his teeth and on toddling legs asked in a tiny voice, "Whasthat in your nose?" And I said, “Um, it’s calleda cannula. It's gives me oxygen from my tank," I patted Leo at my side, "So I can breathe and stuff."
The little boys mother stopped as she balanced another baby on her hip and pushed another with sparkling green eyes- not unlike Percy's- in a stroller. "Frankie!" She cried disapprovingly.
Little Frankie ignored his mama. "Can it help me breathe, too?" Gods this guy was cute. His little baby fat and small voice.
“I dunno. Let’s try.” I took my cannula off and let Frankie insert the cannula into his nose and breathe. In and out. In and out. “Tickles,” he giggled.
"Haha yes, very tickly!"
“I think I breathe better now." Frankie declared.
"You think so?"
"I dink so." He said sincerely.
"Well," I said, “I really wish I could give you my cannula but I sort of need the help.” I already felt the loss catching up to me. I focused on my breathing as Frankie handed the tubes back to me. I gave them a fast swipe with my T-shirt, pulled the tubes back behind my ears, and put the nubbins back where they belonged.
"Say thank you Frankie." The woman paled as her other baby started to wail. "Calm down Reyna," she whispered desperately.
“Thank you." he said in a rather grown up fashion.
"No problem." I smiled warmly.
"Frankie," his mum said more persistently. Frankie waved to me goodbye and ran after his mom.
I went to bed earlier than usual that night. I stripped off my shirt and my shorts and exchanged them for a tank-top and boy boxers before crawling underneath my queen sized bed. I opened A Royal Burden to begin reading for the billionth time- this week. ARB is about this little boy named Nico (who narrates the story from his eyes) and his mom who died when he's a very young age. His dad was abusive and left the family leaving Nico alone to discover he has a rare blood cancer. But it's not a cancer book. Cancer books are crappy. They're all about how a beautiful persons life changes from cancer and that beautiful person learns a beautiful lesson. However in ARB, Nico makes the decision that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, and he won't stand for it. And so he starts a charity called The Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Other Diseases. He didn't name it after himself because again: narcissistic. Also, Nico is totally honest about all of it in a way no one else really is anymore. He has dark thoughts at time but everyone does which is the beauty of the book. Throughout the book, he refers to himself as side effect, something never meant to happen, which is just absolutely correct. Cancer kids are essentially side effects of the relentless mutation that made the diversity of life on earth possible. So as the story goes on, he gets even more ill, the treatments and monsters of diseases racing to kill him and his sister Bianca dies from a deadly plague called Automaton because of it's infamously way of sticking to anything rusty and metal. He also has this guinea pig he named Stygian Iron and his life...it's just such a truthful book. A man shows up at the house claiming to want to help Nico and he doesn't know if he should trust him. Before he makes that decision the book stops mid-sentence. I mean, I know that it stops because Nico gets to sick to write anymore or dies but... You never know what happened after that. Dead end. It reflects how life really ends, while your in the middle of a sentence but it's haunted me for years what happens to the other characters and etc.
I've written dozens of letters to Bill Van Hooten but there is never a response. It's been years since A Royal Burden was released to the public and Van Hooten hasn't written anything else. Not so much as a tweet or a blog post or any signs of life for that matter. I thought once, maybe he had died but there's no sign of that either.