In honor of one month since school ended and the fact that I can’t bring myself to write a lot, I’m gonna post the final submission of my short story. A couple months ago I posted the first draft, and one month ago I submitted the final version, which you’re about to read. I never got a grade back on it, so your feedback is the only feedback I’ll ever get on it. Also, ignore the formatting because something goes wonko between Word and WordPress. Enjoy!
The Greatest Gift
“You have pancreatic cancer.”
My heart stops. I look Dr. Simmons dead in the eye. Her glasses sit at the end of her nose and her old gray eyes meet mine. I can tell from the many wrinkles on her face that she’s been doing this for years, delivering death notes to patients and ruining worlds. Ruining my world. I know she doesn’t mean to, but I don’t care. She’s telling me that I am going to die, and I can’t accept that.
“Are you serious?”
“Unfortunately, yes. I know how difficult this can be for you, but know that you have options for treatment. We caught this early so there’s a higher chance of survival if we start treatments now. I can refer you to Dr. Brown’s office and he can give you more information.”
“I don’t want more information, I want to be cured. What am I supposed to do? I’m only 25 years old; I’m not ready to die yet. I haven’t even had a chance to live.”
“I know that, and I’m sorry. But that doesn’t change the facts. You are terminally ill and you need to receive treatment immediately if you have any hope of surviving. I’ll get you an appointment with Dr. Brown for tomorrow at three o’clock. Again, I’m very sorry.”
Slowly, I stand up and leave her office. I walk to my car with my hands shaking and my breathing nonexistent. With one sentence, I lost 50 years. I fumble to put the keys in the ignition, but eventually the car starts and I drive home.
I walk up the stairs to my apartment and unlock the door. The door creaks open and I step in, slamming the door behind me. My roommate Alex sits on the couch with a bowl of what looks like soggy Chex watching some paranoid crime show.
“Bro!” Alex shouts without taking his eyes away from the crime scene tape. “I’m watching something here, could you not slam the door?”
I ignore his request and throw my coat on the stool at the counter. I bend over the counter and hold my head in my hands, rubbing my temples with my fingers. Alex turns his head towards me looking for a response.
“Bro? Is everything okay, Bro?”
“I just got back from Dr. Simmons office,” I sigh.
“Oh, that’s right! What did she have to say?” Alex stands up and walks behind me, folding his arms in front of his chest.
I take a deep breath and release it slowly. My voice breaks as I say, “I have pancreatic cancer.”
I hear Alex gasp, then I feel his hand on my shoulder. He squeezes it, saying, “I’m so sorry, Hayden.”
“Yeah, well… Dr. Simmons says there are treatment options. I don’t know what I’m going to do though,” I say, refusing to turn and look at Alex, who continues to rub my shoulder softly.
“You should tell your mother. She deserves to know.”
I know he’s right, but I can’t move. I don’t want to move. The only thing I want to do right now is figure out what my next step is. What has my life amounted to? 25 years old, no college degree, no girlfriend, no money, no children, no otherwise notable accomplishments; how will people remember me? What’s my legacy going to be?
I manage to stand up and walk to the phone. I dial my mother’s number and each button I press feels like a stake I’m going to drive through my mother’s heart. Every tone is like a sob from her. When she picks up, I tell her everything. I imagine tears are streaming down her face the same way they’re falling down mine. I tell her that I love her and that I’ll fight for her before hanging up the phone.
“That was good of you,” Alex says. “She needed to know.”
Without saying a word, I walked down the hallway to my room and shut the door. Flopping on my bed in surrender, I stare at the ceiling, making little shapes out of the grooves. My mind races about all that’s about to happen to me and where I should go next. Part of me wants to just give up; maybe I should just end it all and get it over with. But the other part of me wants to fight it, even if it’s a losing fight. That part of me wants to make the rest of my life the best it can be. I’m torn. My eyes close and I drift to sleep.
The next thing I know, Alex is shaking me awake. “Come on, let’s go get some drinks.”
I know that alcohol probably isn’t the best thing for me and my ailing pancreas, but at this point all I want is to feel numb. I want my head to stop pounding with thoughts and for my heart to stop pumping sickly blood through my veins so intensely. “Alright. Let’s go.”
We get to the bar, which is playing some pop music crap. I think it’s Katy Perry. Alex leads me to the bar and orders me a beer. He talks to me, probably trying to take my mind off everything, but I don’t hear a word he’s saying. Everything sounds muffled, like everyone is chewing on wool. Every once in a while I nod and say something like, “Yeah I know.” Alex taps me on the arm and hands me a beer, which I eagerly accept. I drink it as fast as I can and signal the bartender to get me another.
“Hayden, maybe getting a girl’s number will make you feel better. Look at that one over there,” Alex says, pointing in the direction of the beautiful blonde woman.
I look at her, dressed in a suit with her hair pressed back into a bun, and automatically assume she is a lawyer. She’s sitting with her friends, enjoying some drinks. I could use a pick-me-up, and she seems like just the woman who’d be willing to do it. One night, no regrets, just meaningless sex.
“Oh, I’m going to be getting a lot more than her number tonight.” With reckless abandon, and a heart full of hopelessness, I start walking over.
“Hi, I’m Hayden.”
“Janessa,” I say.
“Can I buy you a drink?”
I squint my eyes at him and look down at his feet, then back again at his face. “You want to get in my pants, don’t you?”
His eyes widen and his mouth drops a little. He regains his composure and says, “That depends. Are you interested?”
Again, I scan the man. He is pretty cute, hair line a little receded though. He has a nice build, good eyes, and he is at the least forward. “Turn around,” I say. He spins around, looking slightly defeated.
“I’ll tell you what. You buy me a drink, and we’ll go back to your place. Sound good?”
Hayden smiles and walks back to the bar. A few minutes later he comes back with a drink and attempts to sit down. “No, we’re taking this to go.” I grab the drink, down it, and extend my arms toward the door. He leads me toward the door, waving goodbye to another man sitting at the bar. Now that I think about it, he’s kinda cute too.
He drives me to his place and takes me to his room. Some clothes are lying on the floor and a speaker sits on his desk that lights up every few seconds. The walls are empty, except for a single poster of Sons of Anarchy. The bed is messy, but at least looks habitable.
“Great pad,” I say, shedding my blazer and undoing my bun.
“You work fast,” Hayden says. He throws his key next to the speaker on his desk.
“Believe me, I’ve had a long and stressful day at work. Not so much in the mood for chit chat right now. Could use a little jump start.”
“I know the feeling,” he says. He’s taking the belt out of his jeans and his shirt is already on the floor. As his jeans fall, so do my trousers. We lock lips and start undressing each other the rest of the way. We fall on his bed and after several hours of off and on lovemaking, I finally fall asleep.
My eyes open and immediately I can feel last night’s beers bouncing in my skull. Hayden’s arm is around my waist, but I can’t tell if he’s still asleep. I try to sit up, but he pulls me back.
“You were great,” he whispers.
Maybe it’s just the booze, but I can’t help but feel as though those words were hollow. “Yeah, you as well.”
“Listen, I didn’t want to just have a one night stand with you last night. Well, I did, but now I realize that I didn’t. I mean—”
“Yeah, I get you. Don’t talk so much though. My head is killing me.”
“Oh yeah? My pancreas is killing me,” he says with a chuckle.
“Wait, what do you mean?”
“Remember when you said you had a rough day yesterday and I said I know the feeling? Well my feeling is that I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer yesterday.”
“Holy shit! I thought I had it bad,” I groan.
“Well what happened to you?”
I sigh. He’s trying to get close to me after a hookup. I didn’t sign up for this. Then again, who else am I going to talk to? “I’m working on a case for a woman who was raped by her husband and the jury is hung. If I don’t find the ample evidence, that rapist is going to walk free and his wife is going to have to walk with him.”
His hand strokes my hair. “I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry? You’re dying. I get paid no matter how this ends. My problems aren’t even about me. That man is sick and I feel bad for his wife, sure, but no matter what I get to walk away. I’m not trapped. You shouldn’t feel sorry for me,” I say as a tear escapes my eye.
Hayden sits up and rolls me to look at him. “Everyone’s problems deserve merit. If you’re in pain, you’re in pain. It doesn’t matter why.” He bends down and kisses my cheek.
“I know this was just a fling, but I wouldn’t like to die without ever having had a serious girlfriend. I know it’s a lot to ask from a lawyer, but would you date a dead man walking?”
My heart skips a beat. I’m not really looking for a man. My father left my mother and me for another woman, my brother is in jail for molesting women, and the defendant in my case raped his wife. I’ve never even thought of dating a man, so why am I so tempted to say yes to this one? Hayden is dying, which means I either lose him and it breaks my heart, or I lose him and it sets me free. I’m lost.
Hayden kisses me on the lips this time, and for a moment, the case isn’t real. I forget about the jury and the wife and the defendant; all I feel is Hayden’s lips against mine and something else I haven’t felt in a long time: joy.
“Hayden…” I say. I take a deep breath and sit up to look at him eye to eye. “I would like that.”
My eyes drift open and my vision flickers into focus, settling on the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen looking down on me. I wrap my arm around her and pull her closer. I wince in pain as she gives me a light squeeze.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Baby. Did I hurt you?” Janessa asks me.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s nothing I can’t handle,” I say half-heartedly.
“Maybe, but I don’t want you to be hurting. You don’t have much time left; it could be any day now.”
“I know, I know. I don’t want you feeling bad though. You’ve already given me more joy in this past ten months than I ever had. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” I kiss her forehead and stroke her long, blonde hair behind her pixie-like ears. I listen to her steady breaths. I look at the ring on her finger that sparkles in the morning light.
“I’m going to miss you.” Janessa kisses my chest and runs her hand around my abdomen. She groans and breaks apart to go to the bathroom. I see her remove a small white stick from her purse before she shuts the door quietly.
Through the door, I shout weakly to her, “I love you.”
Janessa pauses and opens the door back up. I look longingly at her as she stands there looking perfect. Every part of her I love. I never imagined cancer would lead me to the woman I love. I never believed that something so beautiful could come out of something so hideous, or that hope could grow out of despair. I love the way she snorts when she laughs, the way she walks like she owns the world, the way she sneezes like she’s a panzer tank firing at the Allies, the way she spreads peanut butter on her toast so there’s not a single spot uncovered. I love every curve to her body and every dimple, freckle, and blemish. Love isn’t strong enough a word, but I look at her in a way that she can’t possibly mistake for anything short of complete and total love and devotion.
“I love you too,” she says, quietly shutting the door. I lay in bed watching for shadows under the door that might signal she’s coming back. I listen for the sound of the sink, the toilet, anything that will tell me when she might come back out. I smell her scent from the chair beside the bed and I crave it. I remember the sound of her phone ringing all day as her boss called her about the case and demanded she get back to work. I feel the wrinkles in the sheets she left after hugging me every day for the past two weeks. I remember the taste of her lips that she uses to kiss me every day.
I take every memory I have of her with me. The day I met her plays through my head, before going to the day I proposed. Then the wedding, the honeymoon, and the day my hair went completely. The doctor visits and her watching me as I was wheeled into chemo and seeing her smiling as I was wheeled back out. I see the night we decided to try and make a baby, just in case this chemo worked. All I see is Janessa as my vision starts to fade. My heart starts to beat slower and slower until eventually coming to a stop. My breathing becomes more and more labored until I exhale for the final time.
Janessa walks out of the bathroom just moments later clutching the small, white, plastic stick. She notices the droning tone and runs to my side. She screams for the nurse, tears emerging in her eyes. She holds the stick out in front of her and points to the double lines in pink.
“I’m pregnant,” she weeps desperately, as though I might hear if she says it fast enough. I offer no reaction Several grief-wracked minutes pass before Janessa sits straight up and looks at my closed eyes. She reaches her hand out and runs it through my hair, down my cheek and settles it on my shoulder, squeezing it lightly; there is no flinching this time. She wipes the tears away with her other hand and attempts to gather herself.
“I’m pregnant, Hayden.”
The sun beams down on Janessa and Alex as they kneel in front of a headstone. She holds a little boy in her arms who looks around the cemetery curiously. He’s holding a small bouquet of roses in his petite hands, waving them up and down and giggling whenever a bird flies by.
“Look here, George,” Janessa says. The boy doesn’t respond. “George, look! This is where Daddy lives!”
George casually looks toward the gravestone where Hayden’s name is inscribed in large letters. He snickers at it and looks back towards his mother. With his left hand he reaches toward her mouth and feels her lips. She nibbles on his fingers, much to his delight. He retracts his hand and shrieks with joy.
“Daddy and I used to do that. I miss him every day, but he sure gave me the greatest gift he could before he left, didn’t he?” George looks innocently and confusedly into his mother’s eyes. “You know, you have his eyes. Beautiful blue eyes that looked straight into my heart and saw me for me. I loved him more than anything in the world. That is until you came along, Georgie. I know if Daddy were here right now, he’d feel the same way. Something tells me that he’s looking at you right now and smiling. He loves you.”
Janessa lowers George down to the ground. She helps him let go of the flowers at the base of the headstone. Tears well up in her eyes and George giggles at a passing bird. Janessa leans on Alex, who clutches her tightly.
“I think I’m ready,” she says. She looks down at her finger and touches the jewel there. With a sob, she pulls it off and places it in her pocket. Collecting George, Janessa and Alex walk away, leaving Hayden in peace.