“I don’t think the pigs smell me. I think they see me,” Ms. Griffin says, reenacting last night’s assigned reading from Lord of the Flies. She pretends to apply mud to her face and body like war paint and crouches down, ready for the hunt. Overweight in a way that reminds me pleasantly of my grandmother, with her frizzy, out-of-control hair flying in all directions, she scuttles in between the desks at the front of the room, a ruler raised high in the air as a spear.
In the fourth row, third chair back, I am using Lauren Madison’s hair as a shield to stay out of Ms. Griffin’s line of vision. I spend most English classes annoyed with Lauren’s blond, conditioned locks—the way they tumble beautifully across my desk and how they smell like expensive shampoo and roses. Today, however, her mane provides a convenient wall to hide behind while I study for my upcoming sixth-period chemistry test. I am feverishly attempting to memorize the molecular formula of a long list of compounds, most of which I have never heard of outside a chemistry textbook. Head bent forward, pencil streaming across the page, I am writing and rewriting the formula for glucose as I simultaneously whisper it to myself.
“Allison, what about you?”
I look up from my mound of notes, mouth agape. C6H12O6. C6H12O6.
“Allison, hi. Yes, join us, please. Put away whatever else it is you’re working on. What are your thoughts on the question?”
“I asked what you think about the mounting tension between Roger and Jack?”
I continue to look at her, openmouthed. My subconscious clanks and grunts, struggling to shift to a new train of thought. Lord of the Flies. Focus. My mind is silent, my stomach tightening more with each second. Ms. Griffin, sweating slightly from her pretend spear hunt, locks eyes with me from behind her podium at the front of the class. I can see that she is enjoying this.
I am the girl who other students don’t want in their classes. Brimming with anecdotes and opinions, I am the girl who raises her hand when the teacher asks, “Are there any questions?” I am the student, to the chorus of groans from my peers, who reminds the teacher when she forgot to pick up our homework assignment from the night before. The tense silence continues as I search my brain for anything that’s not an atomic symbol. I glance at her, a plea for mercy, but she doesn’t flinch. See if I rescue you next time no one is participating in your class discussion, I think moodily. Gradually, my classmates turn around to look at me. They’re torn from their bored stupor by the fact that somehow Allison, the girl who was voted Most Intellectual in the eighth-grade yearbook, didn’t do the previous night’s assigned reading.
“Well, I . . . think . . .”
My eyes dart around the room, looking desperately for
assistance. I make eye contact with Greg Sauers, and he just shrugs at me. How did she even see me behind Lauren’s hair?
“I think . . .”
“Okay, Samuelson High, it’s Thursday, and you know what that means!” My hesitant mumbling is interrupted by an announcement crackling through the school’s intercom system. A peppy female voice echoes against the whitewashed cinder-block walls. “Thursdays mean JV football, Bulldogs fans, and tonight we are facing none other than Hamilton High School.” A low-toned “Boooooo” lilts through the hallways. “Make sure you come out and support your JV boys tonight at eight p.m.! As always, go, Bulldogs!” With her last syllables, the bell rings, and the entire class lurches into action. Saved by the intercom, I quickly gather my disarrayed chemistry notes into my binder and dodge through the crowded classroom, launching myself into the hallway to avoid Ms. Griffin. I make a mental note to myself to catch up on Lord of the Flies tonight. After that performance, Ms. Griffin will likely target me again in the future, if only for her own entertainment.
“Allison, hey!” The familiar soprano voice of my best friend, Sara, lofts over the chaotic hallway scene. In my rush to escape, I completely forgot to wait for her outside class like I always do. In the strict social hierarchy of Samuelson, many unspoken guidelines govern the student body. One of the most important: Never walk anywhere by yourself. In between classes, on the way to lunch, after school in the parking lot, have enough pride to never be seen alone. Sara is my best friend, of course, but also a convenient built-in walking partner.
“Dude, Ms. Griffin totally called you out. It’s like she has some sort of radar or something. She only calls on me when I forget to do the reading,” Sara complains. “It’s as if she can see the guilt in our eyes.”
I let out an exasperated breath before she even finishes her sentence. Sara has been my closest friend since she sat next to me on the first day of summer camp when we were nine. She is pretty in a way that tells you she’s been told it her entire life. Her raucous auburn curls and winged eyeliner are the antithesis to my simple blond bob and light mascara. Her Rolling Stones T-shirt clashes with my pink cardigan and pearls.
“Okay, first of all, you never do the reading, and second, I didn’t forget to do the homework.” I cast her a sidelong glance with a slight headshake for good measure, acting more annoyed than I am. “I have a chemistry test this afternoon and I was up all night studying, so I didn’t have time to do the assignment. It’s called prioritizing. I’ll catch up on her reading after this test.”
“All night? Get a grip, girl!” Sara exclaims with concern in her eyes, an edge of judgment in her voice. Since childhood, she has proclaimed it her mission to get me to “take the stick out.” “Life is too short for this. You haven’t been to one JV football game this year.”
False. “Hello, I’ve been with you twice already! You know cross-country practice goes until seven and the football games start at eight. An hour isn’t enough time to get home, shower, change. It’s just not worth it. . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. And you do the long loop on
Thursdays.” Sara isn’t on the cross-country team, but by now she knows our workout schedule by heart.
“Exactly. We do the long loop on Thursdays. Seven miles. I’m so exhausted when I get home. Sweaty, sore. Making it to a football game afterwards is just a lot for one night. Not to mention having to do homework after we get back at almost midnight.” I’m trying to sound resolute, but it comes out more like a whine.
“Yeah, well . . .” She pauses and, glancing around to ensure secrecy, half whispers, “Let’s just say you’re not going to get anywhere with Sam with a social schedule like that.” We look at each other, and she shrugs. “Look, he asked you out for ice cream, y’all ate some delicious treats together and laughed a bit. Then he texted you two consecutive days in a row. Two!” She stares at me intently, her pointer and middle fingers in the air as a visual aid. “Now it’s been what, five days, including a weekend, since you’ve heard from him? You have to do something.” She is emphatic, energized. If we were standing still, I know she would have stomped her foot. “He always goes to the Thursday football games—the whole basketball team does. Tonight after practice, drive home, take the fastest shower of your life, and then come over to my house. I’ll do your hair and makeup and we’ll get his attention.”
Sara grabs my hand and beams at me, and suddenly, optimistically, I have changed my mind about the night ahead. I see myself sitting in front of a mirror, in a bathroom almost as familiar as my own, as she straightens my hair and gives me a lesson on bronzer. “Look”—she leans in and whispers
from the side of her mouth—“I know you’re nervous. I know it’s scary. So let me help.”
We make brief eye contact and she shows a small smile. My heart swells with gratitude for her and her genuine concern for my prom prospects. She doesn’t know that I check my phone multiple times a minute hoping to see Sam appear on the screen. She has no idea that I chewed all my fingernails off last night while playing our ice-cream-date conversation on a loop in my head. Only I can feel how much his sudden silence is gnawing at my insides, but she can tell, just from being beside me, just from being my closest friend, that I need a little help.
It seems so recently that we were eating ice cream. After we chose flavors, after he paid (he paid!), I looked out the window at the rainy, dreary day and made a comment about how sad and ugly the weather was. He put his arm around me, looked me in the eye, our faces four inches apart, and said, “That’s okay. You more than make up for it.” His breath smelled like Juicy Fruit.
And now he’s MIA.
For almost a week I have been placating myself with tales of broken cell phones or dead grandmas or any number of fluke accidents that might have prevented him from texting me. He is probably starting to grow fearful of just how much he cares about me, I’ve told myself. Our spark is too intense for his soft, sensitive skin.
But, as always, Sara speaks the truth: He is losing interest. It is time to act.
“Okay, yeah, fine. I’ll come to your house as fast as I can
after practice. We can just be a little late for the game.” I nudge her happily with my shoulder. “Gotta go to Civics,” I say as I pivot ninety degrees to enter the nearby brick building.
“Have a good day!” she throws over her shoulder as we part ways. “And make sure you keep all those chemistry notes. I’m going to need to use them next year.”
• • •
Nine hours later, I reach the top of the stairs and let my book bag fall onto the kitchen floor with a heavy thud. Every week we run that same seven-mile loop, and every week I question why I subject myself to a sport that feels like cruel and unusual punishment. Because it looks good on my résumé, I tell myself. Because it keeps me fit. Because that’s where most of my friends are.
It’s a relief to be home. I collapse into one of the chairs at my kitchen table. Our sprawling house is dark, lit only by the fading evening sun pushing weakly through the windows. My neighborhood, Blakely Farms, is one of the more affluent in town, and I wear our address like a badge of pride, despite my complete lack of involvement in our financial success. There is a swimming pool with a competitive swim team, a pond with an unnecessarily large fountain, playgrounds in every backyard.
Chemistry test and cross-country practice behind me, I am finally feeling the full burden of yesterday’s all-nighter. I know I need to put some effort into my social life, to see and be seen. But I’m just so exhausted.
“Well, hey, sweetheart!” my mom drawls, walking down the hallway toward me. Her hair is still perfectly coiffed
and sprayed from a day at the office, but she has changed into what she calls her comfy clothes and what the rest of the world calls a ten-year-old sweatpants set and fuzzy socks with grips on the bottom. A former army captain, she has yet to abandon both her regulation haircut and her strict attention to timeliness, rules, and regulations. As she walks across the kitchen, I almost hear her reciting to herself, Left, left, left, right, left. My mother is a corporate powerhouse, the family breadwinner. Sara calls her the Hillary Clinton of human resources. She is the VP of Everything and lives up to her reputation with an impressive collection of shoulder-padded pantsuits. She smiles at me and runs her hand under my chin as she passes. “You look tired—how late were you up last night?”
“Oh, thanks, Mom.” I act offended, adjusting my seat to face her as she moves across the kitchen. “I was up all night.”
“All night? Allison! You know that’s not good for you.” She is standing in front of the pantry, choosing tonight’s dinner. “I don’t like it when you do that. You need your rest.”
“Well, I had a test today—what else was I supposed to do? Just fail? Not really an option, Mother.”
I slump over loudly onto the kitchen table for effect. Cramming my face deep into my arm, I think about the enormous task that lies in my future: showering. It just seems like so much effort. All to drive to Sara’s and spend way too much time getting ready for a boy who no longer seems to notice me. With hours between me and the conversation with Sara in the hallway, this football game seems less and less appealing. Are we just going to walk up to the basketball
team in the stands like we’re part of the gang? Here I am with an hour’s worth of makeup and a very padded bra—ask me to prom!
My mom is humming as she pours spaghetti into a pot of boiling water on the stove. From the dark hideout inside my arms, I hear my cell phone vibrate deep within my overpacked book bag. A pang of annoyance, because I know it’s Sara badgering me to hurry up. Come on—there won’t be any seats left near the b-ball team! Or something mature like You’re so slooowww. I don’t move to check my phone, just to spite her, but then it buzzes again. Slowly, with individual, methodic, three-inch scoots, I move the chair across the linoleum toward my book bag while my mother casts annoyed looks at me from the other side of the kitchen. I dig around, moving aside binders and loose sheets of paper, and dislodge my cell phone from deep within a bottom corner.
Just heard boys bball team is out of town for tournament so Sam won’t be at JV game. Do u still want to go? Want to come over and watch a movie instead?
Don’t say ur tired.
Need to do homework and catch up on reading
We will do something fun tomorrow night, promise!! xox
A wave of relief sweeps over me, and I feel immediately guilty for being annoyed with her. She’s just trying to help. Within five seconds, there’s another buzz.
Typical Allison. Sleep tight little bookworm!
I look up from my phone with a deep sigh. When did we lose the concept of a school night, I wonder, dragging my loaded book bag behind me down the hallway and up the stairs to my room. (“Don’t take a long shower. I’m starting dinner!” my mom yells from the kitchen below.) I feel a quick blip of regret that I won’t have the chance to sweep my potential future prom date off his feet. What if he meets another girl before I can convince him that he is still infatuated with me? What if Sara gets asked to prom and I don’t?
After dropping my bag off in the den, I grab my own no-less-embarrassing version of comfy clothes from my room before heading down the hall to my bathroom. As I let the warm water rinse away the remnants of an arduous afternoon, I almost cry with the overwhelming relief that
has swept through me at this last-minute change of plans. Of course, in the safety of the hypothetical, I would love the opportunity to woo my way back into Sam’s good graces. In my daydreams, I walk toward him in the bleachers, chin high, chest out, and impress him with my wit, charm, and very well-straightened hair. Back in reality, however, I am a hesitant, wobbly colt. A girl who plans out our entire conversation before seeing him and still manages to get stuck on her words. The weirdo who has a list of brainstormed questions memorized and at the ready, in case I ever run into him and need to generate a conversation. (So, how about those Atlanta Braves, right?) I can’t be witty or cute or flippant. Not with him! I can’t even maintain eye contact for a complete sentence. Of course I want a date to prom, but entertaining a boy at a football game? In front of the whole basketball team? The thought makes me nauseous.
• • •
Loaded with a hearty spaghetti dinner and satiated after a few hours of homework, I settle into bed with my dog-eared copy of Lord of the Flies. I need to get to at least the end of chapter 5 to catch up with the class. Based on the thickness of the pages between my fingers, it should only take about thirty minutes. I picture Ms. Griffin’s smug face at the front of the class this morning. It’s like she has no idea that I have six other classes besides hers to deal with. And that intense Les Misérables assignment she had dumped on us a few weeks ago is only more proof of this. “Good night, big girl,” my dad whispers, popping his head around the corner of my bedroom door. He uses the term “big girl” endearingly,
like you would with a small child who is transitioning from a crib to a real bed. It has been his nickname for me my entire life. The way he says it sounds exactly like love. My dad is part hippie, part former army officer, and I know his biggest fear is that I might grow up to be a Republican. “Don’t read too late.”
“I won’t, Dad. Just a few chapters.” I smile at him in my doorway.
“Saw your light on late last night. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, just that chemistry test. No big deal. Glad it’s over.” The last words come out as the beginning of a long sigh.
He nods his head and gently taps the wooden door frame. “I sure am proud of you.” An army brat who grew up in every corner of Texas, he has a rich, deep drawl, which leaks through against his will. Especially when he’s trying to be serious.
We make eye contact but I look away quickly. Parent emotions. Dislike. I roll my eyes. “Yeah, thanks, Dad.” I vaguely raise an eyebrow in his direction
He pauses there for a few moments, looking at me with a half smile. “Good night, sweetie.”
“Good night,” I mumble, already a few sentences into the book.
Ten pages later, I am lying flat, arms sprawled and eyes closed. Through my open window I barely register the guttural croaks of bullfrogs from the pond at the base of our cul-de-sac, the occasional hum of a passing car, the silence of a Thursday night in the suburbs.
Slowly, over minutes or hours, the calls of the bullfrogs morph into the gravelly voice of a middle-aged, white-coated doctor. My bed becomes the examining table, my sheets the thin paper hospital gown. The doctor is standing uncomfortably close to me, hand on my knee, gesturing at the dark images and shadows on the computer screen: “You have brain cancer, Allison. And I’m afraid there is nothing we can do.” He points specifically at a golf-ball-shaped blur somewhere above one of my ears. I don’t breathe, can’t breathe, until my mother’s wails shatter the humming silence of the fluorescent lights. Dizzy, nauseous, I slump over, crumbling onto the cold tile floor. When I lift myself up, I am in the parking lot of my high school. Shapes whirl past. There is a siren, the sound of screeching tires. Stumbling, disoriented, I begin to tell my classmates, who have surrounded me, the fateful news of my sickness, my imminent death. Their screams of sadness erupt with the force of a bomb, and I am immediately, violently thrown backward.
A flash goes off and I’m vomiting. It flashes again: the pinch of a needle. Swaths of my hair fall in a pile on the floor. Flash. My mother crumpled at my bedside. Flash. A prom dress with an oxygen tank. An IV dripping poison into my veins. I am gasping, crying. Thick black surgical stitches stretching savagely across my bald head. My mother and father, a dark room, the ragged breaths. “It’s okay, sweetheart, you can let go now.”
I am torn from sleep with a sharp breath in. An autumn breeze filters gently through my window along with the gray light of the early morning. My body is still sluggish with
sleep, but my mind and heart are awake, vibrating, racing with fear. I am crying, real ragged sobs of sorrow that shake my entire body. I clutch my quilt and wrap myself around it, latching onto it like a small child to its mother. A cyclone of grief and terror rages within me, and I force my face deeper into the pillows. Terminal brain cancer. The words shatter through me, causing an explosion of emotions. After everything I’ve done for my future, after how hard I’ve worked? I’m only fifteen! I have so much left to do! Prom, college, sex, a real job, marriage. I can’t die yet. I haven’t even gotten started. With each reason I list for not wanting to die, I am smacked with a gruesome image from the dream. I’m too young! Shaved head. So much left to do! A thick-needled IV taped to the inside bend of my arm.
I know I wasn’t actually in the hospital or the parking lot, but that girl I saw was me. Is me. Somehow. I roll over onto my other side, leaving behind a soaked pillowcase. I’m here lying in bed. She’s there in a paper exam gown. I’m awake. She lives in my dreams. But we are the same person. I know her.
A car horn blares outside. I am jolted from my thoughts and hurtle into a slumped sitting position. I rub at one of my wet eyes and let my arm fall listlessly back onto the bed. I stare without seeing at the wall, breathing slowly as thoughts filter into my brain. What just happened? My mind is silent in response.
I hear my mom’s alarm go off down the hall. That means it’s five forty-five a.m., only five minutes before my own alarm would blast me out of bed. She is moving around her
room. She turns on lights, opens the windows, warms up the shower. The comfortable, muted sounds of her morning routine shock me with bolts of terror and misery. My crying turns to bawling as I remember her falling apart in the doctor’s office, the glaring shapes on the doomed MRI glinting off her tearstained chin. How is she supposed to continue after losing her only child? Imagining her pain and suffering is almost as bad as thinking about my own terrible destiny.
No dream has ever felt like this before. I’m choking violently on sobs. My tongue is clumsy and swollen, my mind at once panicked and groggy. Images from the dream pass like a slow-motion video reel through my head. My wailing friends in the parking lot, a prom night filled with nausea and needles, a new tombstone carved with 1989–2004. Gulping for air, fighting to breathe against a thick layer of mucus and tears, I burrow headfirst into my sheets, allowing my face to slide against the mattress and deep into a cocoon of blankets. Under the weight of multiple layers of cotton, my rapid breath begins to slow, and the small hideout quickly warms. In the darkness I am forced face-to-face with my thoughts, with the painful images that filter through the background of my mind. What happened last night looked like a dream and dressed like a dream, but from the knots in my stomach I know that it was much more than that. Something this powerful did not exist without purpose. This was not a dream. This was a message, a warning. I have brain cancer.
I lift my head a few inches off the mattress as this thought floats across my consciousness. I watch it move around
weightlessly, a jellyfish in an illuminated aquarium. I evaluate it from afar like a newly discovered species. Something about the idea’s sharp, ragged edges feels horribly right. An abandoned corner inside me is strangely fulfilled, as if it had been expecting something exactly this terrible to happen all along. As if it knew this life, this happiness, was all just too good to be true.
The truth of my brain cancer lies heavily on my inert body. I haven’t tried to move, but I doubt that I could. I am frozen in my cocoon, stunned.
• • •
“It’s all in my head. / I think about it over and over again.”
My alarm. It is 5:50 a.m., and Nelly and Tim McGraw’s current radio hit “Over and Over” knifes itself into my brain. I lurch to sit up but am forced back down by a taut layer of tangled blankets. I look around the darkness in confusion until I recognize the source of the noise and gradually relax back into the comfort of my bed, mindlessly following along with the radio. It’s one of those songs you just can’t escape. In the grocery store, in the car, in line at the pharmacy. I know every word. “?’Cause it’s all in my head / I think about it over and over again.” I take two or three breaths before the thought clicks into place. I feel it snap together like two Legos. My heart thuds as I slowly repeat the song’s chorus: It’s . . . all . . . in . . . my . . . head. . . .
It knows about my cancer. The radio knows about my dream. It’s warning me, about the illness all in my head. I dig my fingertips into my sheets. Overnight I was sent a premonition masquerading as a dream, and now I am being blasted
awake by a song that is clearly referencing the dark shadow on my brain. Clever. Very clever. This alarm is another barely veiled message (from who?) that there is something horribly wrong with me.
Smoothly, as if I had practice with this sort of maneuver, I slide myself out of the sheets, smack the top of my radio hard with my palm, and slide back through the small entry into my cave. In one fluid motion, my face is again covered in cotton, surrounded by a calm darkness, in less than three seconds. But the blast of outside air has shaken me a bit. As I get comfortable again, there’s a slightly different hue to my thoughts. I have never felt such strong emotions in a dream or, for that matter, in my entire life. It seemed so real. And then there was the message from the radio. But, wriggling for a fresh air pocket in my cocoon, fighting against the cloud of warm breath that has gathered from my collective exhales, I think that maybe it was just a coincidence? Maybe I had a terrible, terrifying nightmare and then just so happened to wake up to a song by two wildly popular music artists. It is a major radio hit, after all. It’s on all the time.
But that song? my brain screams in protest into the silence, with that chorus? What are the chances that it would be playing at the very moment my alarm is set to go off on the very morning I wake up from what I might go so far as to call a borderline paranormal experience? How much clearer do the messages need to be?
“Good morning, honey. Time to get up!” my mother coos as she pads down the hall toward my room. My entire body goes rigid. I can’t let her see me. I’m sure my eyes are swollen,
my face all red and blotchy. She will know immediately that I’ve been crying and swoop in close with a million questions. I stay buried deep under the blankets. There is a change in the air when she enters the room. “It’s almost six o’clock, sweetie! Up, up, up!” She tickles the bottom of my feet.
“Mooooom,” I moan, “I’m awake.” My voice cracks unintentionally.
“Oh, honey, you sound very stuffed up! I’ll make sure to put some allergy medicine out for you downstairs. Are you feeling okay? Do you need a tissue?” She pauses briefly, wiggling my calf through the thick comforter. With my extended silence, her tone changes. “You need to get up or you are going to be late. I’m not leaving this room until I see your smiling face out from under these covers.” She claps a few times. “Now. Up.” I continue to lie still, facedown in the sheets damp with my own tears. “Allison Marie. It’s time to get up now. Five . . . four . . . three . . .” There is nothing more infuriating than when my mother starts a countdown. It makes me feel like I’m six years old and getting bullied into cleaning up a mess of toys.
“Mooom. Okaayyy.” I mean to groan at her, but it comes out more like a snarling growl. “Go away. Please.” A few seconds pass in awkward silence. “I don’t need your step-by-step assistance, thank you.” I can feel her presence as she stands quietly above me for a few moments. I rarely talk to her like this, and I know she is debating whether to make this into a parenting moment. After about ten seconds, and with what I imagine to be a shake of her head, she walks away down the hall.