Breathe in…Breathe Out…Breathe in…Breathe out…
Brown eyes reflected out of the mirror, red rimmed and with pain contorting the crinkles around the glistening orbs. A young girl struggling to keep herself under control. Trying to keep herself from breaking. She couldn’t afford to break. She needed to be strong.
And it seemed, to her at least, to be such a silly thing that was cracking her carefully constructed mask she had been building for months.
Ever since she saw the pain on her mother’s face when she received the phone call. The phone call that confirmed the fears that danced around, just out of reach. Not a single person daring to say such a thing out loud. Because surly, saying it aloud could make it happen.
“Cancer, are you absolutely sure?” Had come from her mother’s lips all those months ago.
The fear was suffocating.
More suffocating than the mass settled in her throat that was slowly but steadily killing her.
How could that be? This girl was so young, she’d barely even begun to live.
But now here she was. Trying so desperately to be strong.
She gripped her arms tightly, breathe in…breathe out…breathe in…
She looked down at what had brought the tears to her face.
A shiny bag that held a sweet looking teddy bear. On top of the shiny bag was a paper card with bright happy colors on it, a large drawn on smile looking sunnily up at her proclaiming “Get well soon!”
When she opened the card, she was surprised to see so many signatures on it. Names of people she hadn’t even met. Or if she had, she had not remembered them. The only one she really recognized was the one that was right under the “We’ll Miss You!” written on the inside. As though it were done by the person had written the bubbly letters proclaiming, “We’ll Miss You”.
“SEE YOU SOON! -CODY”
Olivia met Cody on her first day at this new school. She just moved to British Columbia from Ontario. Which meant that instead of going into the eighth grade in an elementary school, she was sent to a high school as a freshman.
It meant she wouldn’t get to do the things her older sisters got to. Graduate from elementary school for one, go on the largely celebrated grade 8 grad trip everyone awaited with bated breath. All that was gone, she wouldn’t get the chance.
This new school was scary. Huge, with lockers and several floors. No bells to let you know when you were to be at your next class. There were so many people and Olivia felt so very small and alone.
Until she went to her history class.
Walking timidly up to the door of the classroom she looked around at the class being called into session. Almost all the seats were full, and they were so close together. Olivia shrunk even further into herself.
“Oh god no! Will I even fit to get into my desk?” She thought, feeling the impending embarrassment flooding her body. The body that was thickly padded with extra flesh. As a chubby young girl this was a thought that haunted her steps.
Would she make it past that person? Could she get between those desks? Would that chair break under her if she sat down?
She hated these thoughts, but she couldn’t seem to help their intrusiveness.
The teacher, a thin woman with brown hair and thick eyeliner ushered her into the class.
“A new student, hello there, would you introduce yourself to the class?” She asked.
Olivia nodded, her heart in her throat she managed to raise her voice loud enough to be heard by the class. “My name is Olivia Hall, I just moved here from Ontario.”
The teacher nodded at Olivia and pointed to an empty seat on the far left, right in the middle. “You can sit right there Olivia, next to Cody.”
Olivia barely looked at the boy who she’d be sitting next to. She was too focused on getting to her seat in the least embarrassing way possible. She went around the front, shucked off her backpack to the front of her and subtly sucked in her belly to get to her seat. She sat down and immediately pulled out her books. Using the organization as a guise to not see if anyone was making fun of her as her cheeks continued to blaze bright red.
Mrs. Tate, as she introduced herself as, began to teach the lesson.
…Which immediately bored Olivia. Everything she was teaching in History, Olivia already knew. History had always fascinated her, and she had a knack for it. Which led to scenarios like this. A boring class because she already knew the history.
So, when Mrs. Tate made a comment about the Catholic Church and the revolution that made the other students become a little louder Olivia made a comment of her own.
“Ah, man, I learned this in Sunday school. Can we get to something a little more interesting?” Though she said it softly so that the
teacher would not hear, someone did in fact hear her.
Cody heard her.
And he laughed!
“You’re funny!” He stated looking delighted at the revelation.
Olivia blinked, a little surprised at the praise. Though she hadn’t meant it to be funny, Olivia had a way with sarcasm and tones that could turn just about anything into a joke if the occasion called.
“I’m Cody.” He said smiling at her.
“I’m Olivia, but you already knew that cause, intro thing at the beginning of class…” Olivia replied stumbling over her words as
they rambled out unthinkingly.
After that class they became friends. They talked about whatever seemed interesting at the time and Olivia confided in Cody that she was sick. Which wasn’t too hard to figure out really. She missed school a lot. Sometimes full weeks.
Her teacher, Mrs. Tate once reprimanded her in front of the class for her absences. Olivia had turned bright red and began to stumble over an explanation. The moment the word Cancer came out of her mouth the teacher’s eyes widened and she looked horrified.
Mrs. Tate began apologizing while looking quite uncomfortable. This only served to make Olivia feel even more embarrassed, ashamed even. Her academic advisors had said they’d be informing the teachers of her condition. So that her absences wouldn’t be questioned like it had just now.
“I thought you knew.” Was the last thing that Olivia managed to say to her teacher before Mrs. Tate anxiously started on the lesson plan for the day.
Cody reached over and patted Olivia’s shoulder gently as though trying to make her feel better. But Olivia could only hunker down in her seat and stare down at her textbook. She could not dare to look anyone in the face. There were no jokes between the two of them that class.
After that day the teacher went to great lengths to build Olivia up in class. As though paying penance for embarrassing “the Cancer kid”.
One memorable moment she held up Olivia’s assignment in class and said “Amazing! Olivia has a better grade than most of you and many of you are here daily!”
This remark made Olivia glow with pride and flush uncomfortably at the attention directed at her.
But the time was coming, and it was coming up fast.
Soon she’d have to go. Soon she’d have to face her mortality and hope she was able to make it out on top. All the doctors agreed. Surgery was the only option for her. They’d have to cut out the tumor that was steadily closing her throat. Hopefully they could get it all out. If they couldn’t…Well…that’d mean chemo treatment.
The last day before she had to leave school and travel to the city for her surgery, she was approached by another girl in the hallway outside the washrooms.
She had the gift bag and card in hand.
“Hi Olivia! Cody has class but he asked me to give this to you. Hope to see you back at school soon!” She said handing Olivia the gift and smiling brightly before continuing down the hallway. The hallway that was quickly emptying as people went to their last classes of the day.
Looking down at the package in her hands everything suddenly hit her like a tidal wave.
She turned, and instead of going to her math class she went directly into the bathroom and to the compartment at the end of the long row of stalls. She closed the door and turned her back against it. Tears fell in streams; she was blind to her surroundings as she cried.
There were no sobs, just tears. Breathing was so difficult at this point that she suppressed the urge to sob in hopes of keeping the pain at a minimum. To keep the coughs at bay, they hurt too much. The thought that this could be the last time she came to this school was alarming. Even worse that she hadn’t realized that her history class might be the last time she would see her friend. Her friend that cared enough about her to get everyone to sign a card for her and send her off with something sweet.
Slowly Olivia pulled herself together. She exited the compartment and approached the sinks across from the stalls. Setting the card and bag on a dry section of the counters she gripped the sink and forced herself to breathe. In…out…In…out…
“Deep breaths Olivia, you can do this!” She muttered to herself as she looked in her bathroom mirror. The new year was starting. It had been months since she’d been well enough to attend school. The pink, tender, puffed scar poked out from the collar of her white shirt with painted feathers on it. The only evidence left of the major surgery she had undergone just a week before her birthday almost six months ago.
She looked over at the smiling face on the handmade card that she’d set on the counter. Feeling bright at the prospect of seeing her friend Cody made her heart glow happily.
When she’d come home with the card all those months ago her mom and sister teased her saying that Cody must have a crush on her. “Why!” They proclaimed, “Would a boy get a girl a teddy bear if he didn’t have a crush on her?”
Olivia had blushed bright red and told them “He’s just my friend!”
The teasing had stayed despite Olivia’s embarrassment or because of it.
Whatever the case was, Cody was her friend.
She was excited to see him again.
Olivia spotted Cody in the hallway. He was walking past her with a few friends.
“Hi Cody!” Olivia greeted her friend waiting for him to see her and say Hello.
But Cody just walked by her, and he only glanced at her, then he kept on his way to class.
Olivia turned to watch him walk away with his friends. Her eyebrows furrowed. The halls were clearing, and she had to walk on to her next class. Once there she took her seat feeling confused. Did he not see her? Hear her? Surly he remembered her?
She looked for him during the weeks that came. Saw him pass her in the halls but it was like they had never met.
After a while Olivia went home after school and stared at the card. She had taken it out from the book it was tucked in. The sunny smile seemed to mock her now. The bubbly words were hollow.
Slowly Olivia gripped the paper card between her hands, pinching the center with her thumb and index fingers she ripped the paper in half. Now the smile was broken, the words disjointed. She took the torn pieces and crumpled them in her hands.
Cut up and cut off.
She went into the bathroom and pulled her shirt down a little so she could see the healed incision. She stared at the pink scar that had puffed up and stretched as she recovered.
She had written letters to her family before she went into her surgery. She wrote her goodbyes to each of them. She had tried to be funny and lighthearted. That way she could make them laugh even if…
Even if she didn’t see them again.
Olivia had died, technically speaking. She’d had her bones broken and her organs taken out. She had her anatomy shifted and changed to save her life. Now here she was. She lost the one friend she’d been able to make before the surgery. And now that she was back, now that she’d returned from the dead it was as though she had turned invisible.
Olivia stared at her scar in a wondering way. Her tears had long since dried up and she was left with a tired sort of knowledge. That she was different than she was before. That she didn’t quite fit in like she did before she got sick.
Now that feeling of not fitting in, of being out of place, was forever etched in her skin.