John's shoulders shook with laughter. He actually lowered his flashlight, closed his eyes, and let himself do nothing but laugh for a few seconds.
And I glowed, just from making John laugh.
I was such an idiot.
He let out one last small laugh and continued up the sidewalk. "That's where your claustrophobia came from," he called over his shoulder.
What happened was, I was running every day in PE, and I started to feel really tired. That's how they found out I had leukemia. They told me I needed treatment that would make me feel a lot worse than the disease. I told them where to go. My mom got mad and said I was vain and I didn't want my hair to fall out. Well, yeah, that was an issue. But the problem was more that I didn't feel like I was dying. I knew I was dying because they told me, but I didn't feel like I was dying. I just felt tired. And if I took chemo, I'd feel like I was dying. The doctor's eyes rolled back in his head, and he called in the hospital's child psychologist to convince me.
She wanted me to post to the supportive cancer blog online and sign up for summer cancer camp. Cancer can be fun! I told her what I thought of cancer camp. That's when I dyed my hair pink, before one of the psych appointments. It hasn't been my natural color since. Just my little way of saying screw you. Not that I had anything against this poor lady. She was doing her job. But I didn't want to be counseled. I wanted not to be dying. They switched me to a different psychologist, a man who used tough love, to no avail. I'd lived through thirteen years of tough love from my dad. I told Mr. Psychologist where he could put his tough love.
The first treatment day came and went. I refused to do it. They waited a few days and counseled me some more and wheedled and pleaded and almost had me convinced, but I backed out at the last minute. By that time my mom was all cried out, always sitting in a comfy chair and crocheting oceans of blue afghan like it would cushion her from reality, and my dad was fed up. He told me I was killing my mother. He said we would go to this third chemo appointment and I would let them put the IV in my arm and I would smile while they did it or there would be no more iPod, no more TV, no more friends, no more meeting boys at the movies, grounded for life. Fine. We got to the hospital in Birmingham a little early. I asked my parents if we could drive to Dreamland and grab some barbecue to go for my last meal before I started taking chemo and barfing. I asked nicely. They said sure. My dad left me and my mom in the car while he went in. I asked my mom if I could have a sweet tea with my barbecue. She said sure and went inside after my dad.
I bailed out of the car and took off running up Thirteenth Avenue, running for my life. I ran until I couldn't run anymore. I didn't get far. Birmingham is uphill both ways and, oh yeah, I had leukemia. I made it past ten houses and around a bend in the road before I collapsed in somebody's azaleas. It was about this time of year, chilly but everything was blooming. A cherry tree scattered delicate pink petals across me as I lay there. That's when I finally realized I was going to die. And what was I being so emo about? People died every day. I was nothing special. On the other hand, most girls my age, like Tiffany and Julie Meadows and LaShonda Smith, were sitting in algebra class at that very moment, humming pop songs and memorizing the Pythagorean theorem while I was expiring in a stranger's shrubbery. Why me? I had been just like them until a few weeks before. But I wasn't one of them anymore. Now I was a teenager who defied her parents and cussed at adults. Dying made more sense now that I deserved it.
A cop car came around the corner. I knew instantly my dad had called the heat on me. I tried to stand up and run, but I was still out of breath. They tackled me and handcuffed me and I struggled and cussed, beyond caring. They drove a few blocks and parked at the emergency room of the hospital. They tried to get me out of the car and I started kicking. They strapped my legs together and picked me up like a sheep going to slaughter. My dad pulled in right behind them. My mom was crying in the passenger seat. I could hear her, even with all the noise of the city I could hear her crying inside the car, and my dad told her to go park the f**king car and he followed us inside. The two cops carried me into the elevator with my dad. Somebody got on the elevator with us, some hapless secretary who had nothing to do with us, somebody you would normally nod to politely when she got on the elevator. Suddenly it struck me as hilarious that I would have this thought about propriety while hanging facedown from two policemen with my hands and feet bound. I giggled. The policemen asked if I could be a good girl and go nicely to my execution now. I started kicking again as best I could, bucking. For the first time in this whole ordeal, I wanted to hurt someone.
We got off on our floor. The cops put me on a stretcher, but they stayed to help hold me while they wheeled me down the hall. All the kids on the ward stopped short in their doorways, wearing their bright pajamas, and watched me pass by cussing. Nurses clumped around us and traveled down the hall with us, shielding the innocents from me. They whispered resistant and uncooperative and noncompliant, which are hospital terms for hysterical brat in room 86. I screamed anything I could think of to make them let me go. I don't really have cancer. My parents want to kill me. My dad is trying to get rid of me. The nurses hissed anything they could think of to shut me up. You 're acting like a three-year-old. You 're scaring the other children. We had an autistic kid in here last week who screamed less than you. Trailing after us, the doctor spoke with an Indian accent and a British clip on his words, so different from my dad's southern drawl, it was like they weren't even speaking the same language.
Doctor: She's the borderline age where we'd respect her wishes and counsel her longer, seeking her consent to treatment.
Dad: I know.
Doctor: It's also the borderline time when if we don't treat her, she'll be at high risk of treatment failure no matter what we do later.
Dad: I know.
Doctor: But her chart suggests she is likely to remain combative—
Dad: Look, Doc, I know. Just strap her down and give it to her.
We got to the room and the cops pressed me down on the bed until the nurses could get the tethers around my wrists and ankles. I strained against the bindings until my hands went numb. This wasn't happening, this couldn't possibly be the way it ended, but it was. I screamed so loud, I could hardly hear the nurse telling my dad he would need to fill out a form to consent to them restraining me and a form to consent to them sedating me, and maybe he would like to come to the nurse's station to do that. He left the room. Another nurse whispered calmly in my ear, Sweetie-pie, which hand do you want the IV in? She tried to fool me into thinking I had some choice as she gave me a shot of tranquilizer. Calm down, sweetie-pie, it'll all be over soon. I felt it right away. They took the restraints off. I thought, I'm free now, but I couldn't move. It was like the restraints were still there. I went to sleep, and later I woke up dying.
I went willingly to every chemo session after that, and every radiation session, because I didn't want to be strapped down again. Sometimes my hair would grow back in a sad little way between sessions, and my mom would tell me how pretty I looked, and I would dye my hair purple. And every time I had an adverse reaction and started to die again, I would turn to my dad and say, I told you so.
John and I were sitting on the hood of the police car. Actually John was leaning back against the hood with one boot on the pavement and one boot cocked behind him on the bumper. I balanced on the hood, curled into a ball with my knees to my chest, rubbing the back of my left hand where the IV had been. Now that I had blinked back to the present, I kept blinking to stop myself from crying. I did not cry.
John watched me, dark eyes inscrutable. His shoulders rose as he inhaled through his nose. He was about to say something like I am so sorry or I had no idea or even You are a terrible person. In which case I was going to lose it. There was a reason I did not talk about this.
He said, "I feel sorry for the officers on that call."
I laughed and laughed and laughed. This was a good excuse to cry just a little. I kept laughing and wiped the tears from my eyes. "Historically the fuzz loves to see me coming."
He laughed, too, and put one hand up to his eyes. But he looked down and away, and I looked down and away, so I could tell myself his tears were my imagination.
He sniffed. Because he'd turned away, his voice sounded muffled as he said, "Your dad loves you, and he was scared."
I leaned forward and took John's hand in both of mine. "John, this week, I know you've tried to show me I'm living on the edge and I'm not immortal. I get it. But I've had cancer, and nothing will ever seem dangerous to me after that. So I would appreciate it if you would just f**king quit." I patted his hand in a friendly way that turned into more of a slap before I let him go. "Anyway, it's over now."
He gazed down at his abused hand. "Is it?"
"Well, sure. It was worse than your garden-variety childhood leukemia because I was pretty old when I got it. It could come back. But probably not."
"I mean, it's not over in your mind. You're still on that table, strapped down, with an IV in your hand."
Watching the gold police badge glint as his chest rose and fell, I stroked my fingers down a lock of my hair. It surprised me, how long it had gotten. When I flipped it in front of my eyes to examine it, I was surprised again that it was blue.
"So, what happened after that in the hospital?" John asked. "You came to terms with it."
" I wouldn't go that far."
"You became a role model for the ward."
"But the other kids hung out in your room." I looked up at him. "Yes! It was like Grand Central freaking Station in there. How'd you know?" "And you survived."
"Yeah, and some other kids there didn't. My roommate died." As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn't. I'd stepped off the path I walked down every day and put one foot in crap. I had no intention of ruining my magical last night of incarceration with John remembering Lizzie Dark, who was ten years old. whose parents brought her golden retriever to visit her on the ward every Sunday afternoon, and who always beat me at gin.
God, Lizzie. I teetered on the cusp of crying for real. It hurt too much to hold it in.
"Meg," John said beside me. I turned to face more grilling from him. I knew why I was claustrophobic, all right. But knowing why didn't make it go away. I wondered what it would be like to see the dark blue sky above us not as heavy drapes of cloth, the top of a circus tent, but as an infinite expanse. As everybody else saw it.
John had more important things to worry about than my neuroses. Listening to Lois on the radio at his shoulder, he said, "The panic button was set off at the Shop Till You Drop. I'll bet that's our Aztek."
He was right. "Here you are." John told the Aztek, which was parked at the Shop Till You Drop convenience store. On the shoulder across the highway from the store, he coasted the cop car to a stop with the headlights off and cut the engine.
It wasn't often that we sat in the car without the radio. Or the heat. The cold silence closed in around us.
My body went even colder as I watched what was going on inside the convenience store. One man pointed a rifle at someone down behind the counter, where we couldn't see. A second man with a rifle stood in front of the counter, with his back to the plate glass windows. A third man over in the groceries propped his rifle against a shelf so he could open a pack of something I couldn't quite make out from this distance. Maybe Oreos.
John stared at the store, hardly blinking. He gripped the steering wheel with both hands. I could feel his tension in the air.
"You're waiting for backup, I guess." I hoped.
He nodded once, without taking his eyes from the store.
"Why are they conducting this crime in front of the window, where anyone could see them?" I asked, just to get him talking. To release some of his tension. Or mine. "I realize it's four thirty in the morning, but you never know when a cop is sitting across the highway, watching you."
He huffed a little laugh through his nose. "Same reason they're making the clerk open the safe under the counter, rather than taking the money from the cash register and running. They know the longer they stay, the more likely they are to get caught. But they're high. Poor judgment. Same reason they're riding around town committing crimes in an Aztek." He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and lowered his voice almost to a whisper. "When I go in, be sure to duck down."
My heart thumped uncomfortably in my chest. I wanted to ask, You mean they're really going to use those guns? I wasn't sure I'd ever seen a genuine gun in person, except John's. I had thought he'd been in danger previous nights, but it had all been distant and unreal until now.
What I ended up asking was, "Doesn't this car have bulletproof glass?" I leaned forward a little so I could see his face better.
Then wished I hadn't. The worry lines had appeared between his brows. "More like bullet-resistant."
I sat back in my seat and watched the men inside the store. Where was John's backup? If I sat here waiting much longer, I would panic. And I couldn't hear John breathing. It was so quiet in the car, my ears rang.
"Are you scared?" I whispered.
"I'm well trained."
Yes, he was well trained to enter a robbery in progress with three guns pointed at him. Or well trained to hide that he was scared.
His death-hold on the steering wheel gave him away.
"Do you want me to kiss you for luck?" I asked.
His eyes cut to me for a split second, then returned to the store. He waited so long that I thought he wasn't going to answer. He would ignore my inappropriate question.