Annie practically threw herself through the hospital room door.
Leo was laying propped up, just slightly, in the bed, his golden curls matted to his forehead with sweat and blood. He turned to look at her and his face lit up in just that way that made him seem almost angelic. Blue eyes, golden curls, pale skin, and finely formed features. Sometimes she wondered if maybe he was an angel. Maybe that’s why his heart was constantly failing, he just didn’t belong to this world…
“What are you staring at?” He laughed shakily and moved to the far side of the bed “Get over here!”
She grinned back and sat beside him on the bed.
“The Doctor’s going to hate me. He said you weren’t supposed to move.” Annie said wrapping an arm around his shoulder.
They leaned back against the pillows and Leo sighed.
“I’m glad you’re here Anne, it was lonely without you.”
She snorted. “You saw me yesterday at school.”
He rested his head on her shoulder and didn’t reply.
“Leo…What happened?” Annie asked hesitantly.
“I was moving some stuff in my room and I started to feel dizzy and…that’s all I remember. My Dad said I must have hit my head on the corner of the nightstand when I passed out.” His tone was casual, so unbothered. As if he hadn’t almost died.
Annie suppressed a shudder at the thought and squeezed him closer.
“I’m never letting you out of my sight again.” She murmured.
He smiled and closed his eyes.
Leo sat at his desk watching as Annie hovered over Jacob Brinkman’s desk coyly flirting. She had been spending a lot of time with that guy lately and was completely reinventing herself to please him it seemed. Trying to lose weight, wearing bolder makeup, bolder clothes…
Leo shook his head as he watched her kinky black hair bounce on her shoulders. Annie was crazy if she thought she wasn’t good enough. Sure, she wasn’t the thinnest girl in school, but her curves were part of what made Annie Annie, and with her soft features set against her dark skin and her big amber eyes that practically glowed when she smiled…
“Crazy.” He muttered to himself.
He missed her. He missed when they would spend every moment together, laughing, eating, hanging out. They had spent more time in each other’s company over the past ten years than they had with anyone else combined. Inseparable. That’s what they used to be. And now…Annie was giggling at an insipid joke that that cretin Jacob had just made, and the sound made Leo a little sick to hear. Annie didn’t giggle she had a big laugh, a laugh that radiated charm and joy, not a forced giggle. He shuddered and chewed on the end of his pencil in frustration and tried to calm his rapidly beating heart; no sense in taking a trip to the hospital over a small bout of jealousy.
“It’ll pass. Just let it pass.” He muttered to himself from his desk across the room.
But then Leo would glance over at her as she leaned over Jacob and she smiled and her dimples showed and she practically glowed, and Leo could feel his heart clench in his chest and the sickening disappointment envelop him as it had every day for the past seven years, since that day when he was nine years old and he had realized that he loved her.
A sharp pain in his hand broke his reverie. He looked down to find he had broken his pencil in two and the split ends were stabbing into his palms. Blood trickled through his clenched fingers and the pain sharpened but he found himself unwilling to let go. Perhaps physical pain could distract him from his disappointment.
“Leo! You’re hand!”
He swallowed his jealousy and waved her away.
“I’m fine. It’s just a cut.”
This was all that they would ever be.
Life continued for them. They spent every free moment together. Which was becoming less and less as Annie became closer to Jacob, whom Leo had never much liked in the first place, due to his reputation as the ‘Bad boy’ in school. He had already dated most of the girls in their class and Leo wholeheartedly wished Annie would move on before the chump decided to dump her. But then, it was Annie, so maybe if Jacob wasn’t completely stupid, he would realize how lucky he was and hang on to her for dear life. The pain in Leo’s chest grew, and he continued to push it down.
Saturday night rolled around and like every other Saturday Leo and Annie met up at her house for a movie night which included babysitting Annie’s four-year old sister Clara, while her parents went out.
Leo showed up at 8:00 PM and let himself in through the front door.
“Leo!” Annie’s mother enveloped him in her arms and squeezed him tightly. “Sweetie I’ve missed you!” She smelled of lavender.
Leo grinned and politely disentangled himself.
“It’s nice to see you too.” He grabbed her coat from where it was hanging by the door and helped her into it. ‘I’m sorry I haven’t been over lately. My Mom gets paranoid about me being out too much. Thinks my hearts going to stop if I’m away from her too long or something.” He laughed and shook his head as he leaned in conspiratorially and whispered. “She still hasn’t figured out that you guys are basically walking pacemakers for me.”
“The girls are upstairs waiting for you and picking out a movie. You guys have fun, we should be back around eleven.”
“Take your time.” Leo waved as Annie’s parents walked out the door and then he raced up the stairs into the upstairs den.
“Clara!” He called on the last step.
A babyish gasp sounded from across the room and a small body crashed into his legs almost before he saw her.
“Ley! Ley!” She cried excitedly as she clung to his legs. “Annie! Ley here! Ley here, Annie!”
Leo laughed and scooped her up as Annie made her way through the mess of toys and pillows scattered over the floor.
“When will this betrayal end Clara?” Annie sighed.
“When will this jealousy end Annie? Leo retorted with a grin. “Clara’s always liked me better. Haven’t you Clara?”
Clara hid her face in Leo’s shoulder and nodded vigorously.
“HA!” Leo crowed.
Annie rolled her eyes.
“Fine. Whatever. Gang up on me, see if I care. Now.” She clapped her hands together and grinned mischievously. “Of course Clara’s going to want to watch the Princess movie…“
“Of course.” Leo replied with reverence as he turned to Clara. “The Princess movie is a time honored classic, how could we not?”
“Pwincess? Ley watch Pwincess wif me?” She grasped Leo’s face between her tiny, pudgy hands and kicked her excited feet against his hip.
“Always!” he replied.
“Anyways, as I was saying.” Annie continued, “We’ll watch the princess movie and then I thought we could watch something a little…hmm, shall we say…scarier?” She grinned at Leo and Clara pointed an accusing finger at Annie.
“No scawy! No!” She ordered as she hid her face again.
“Yeah, no scary! We don’t like scary!” Leo replied in as serious a tone as he could muster while nodding enthusiastically.
Annie didn’t even try to suppress her laugh.
“Cool. The Princess movie usually puts Someone,” She stressed the last word, “To sleep, so we won’t have to worry about that.”
“I’ll get the popcorn.”
Two hours later Leo and Annie lay huddled on the floor under a blanket watching an old horror movie. The lights were off and they had turned the volume down so as not to wake Clara who had passed out on the couch halfway through her movie as a result of much dancing and singing along with her so-called ‘Prince’ (Leo) and her ‘Maid’ (Annie).
“We’ve watched that movie with her so many times I can’t believe you don’t hate it already.” Annie commented shaking her head in disbelief.
Leo smiled at Clara’s sleeping figure.
“It’s worth it. Besides,” He turned to look at Annie. “None of my other friends like to dance to animated sing-alongs. Quite a basic lot actually.”
Annie snorted and shoved him playfully.
“Y’know your Mom wouldn’t be happy to know you’ve been exerting yourself so much…or watching horror movies...” Annie said.
“I just won’t tell her unless she specifically asks.” His smile turned grim. “Besides, these nights are the most excitement I get in my life. I mean it probably won’t be long until…anyways I just want to make the most of it before my heart gives out.” A lump settled in Annie’s throat.
“The Doctor said that your heart was getting stronger.” She murmured, refusing to meet his eyes.
“Anne, listen, we both know that’s not true.” His tone lightened. “But that’s okay. I know what I want to do for the climax of my life. I want to see the Palouse in Washington.”
Annie stared at him in disbelief.
“You want to go where? Washington? That’s it, seriously?”
“What?” He laughed, “I want to run in the fields there. It looks like the most open and free place in the world. And,” He grasped her hands between his. “I want you to come with me.”
She smiled at him nervously.
“Someday.” Leo said
“Someday.” She repeated.
The door opened downstairs and they rolled away from each other instinctively.
Annie flipped the TV off and Leo turned on the light. By the time Annie’s parents had made it up the stairs Leo and Annie were on opposite sides of the couch with a sleeping Clara between them as they argued over the open boardgame on the coffee table.
Leo jolted awake in the middle of the night. His heart felt like it was beating so hard it might burst and as soon as he sat up, he began to feel overwhelmingly dizzy. Pain filled his chest and he stumbled to the bathroom conjoined to his room and turned on the shower. He climbed into the tub pajamas and all. The water poured over him soothingly as he struggled to breath. Each breath seemed to catch more and more in his throat. He whimpered and then gasped as a cry escaped him. He pulled his knees up to his chest and sobbed into them, grateful for the water that masked the sound. His brain felt murky and confusion filled him. He was scared and in pain but he couldn’t remember why. His mind felt like it was shutting down.
He felt a familiar hand on his shoulder.
It was impossible to sleep that night. Annie couldn’t get what Leo had said to her out of her mind. Leo was her best friend in the entire world and, arguably, her favorite person ever. If she was going to lose him…if she was going- She forced the thought out of her mind and jumped out of bed.
If Her best friend wanted one final adventure, then he would have it.
She shoved a few outfits and her toothbrush into an old duffel bag along with the cash she had been saving from her part time job, hastily scribbled a note and stuck it to the fridge, and quietly let herself out the bag door.
Leo’s room was on the first floor and he always left his window unlocked. Annie snuck in and looked around the empty room. The shower was running in the bathroom, but the door was ajar. Without thinking she rushed into the room. Leo was sitting in the running shower wearing a t-shirt and a pair of plaid pajama pants as he sobbed into his knees.
She placed a hand on his shoulder, and he was in her arms before she knew what had happened. Her shock soon wore off and she held him tightly as he cried into her shoulder. His body shaking so hard she was afraid he would break.
“Leo.” She murmured in his ear. “Let’s go see the Palouse.”
He pulled away from her and studied her face in confusion for a moment. She nodded and smiled softly. And he let out a grief filled breath and returned the smile.
“What do you think?” Annie asked. The journey had taken six hours by bus, but neither seemed the least bit tired.
Leo stared at the wide-open prairies around him in wonder and entwined his fingers in Annie’s.
“This is what being alive feels like, Anne!” He exclaimed. Annie could feel the energy and excitement radiating through his body and through his hand and into hers. His smile was so real. So full of genuine joy just bubbling through him and she wondered suddenly how she had never noticed how forced his usual silly grins and cheeky laughter had been all these years. How had she not noticed how painful and monotonous his life had been thus far. Tears started in her eyes, but Leo turned to her before she could think too hard about it.
“C’mon Annie!” He whispered excitedly, “Let’s run!”
Grasping her hand tightly in his he took off down the gently rolling hill as the sun rose on the horizon.
Annie’s eyes snapped open and she sat up in a panic.
Oh. It was only a dream. She glanced out her window. Still dark. She leapt out of bed, her heart thundering in her chest.
Just like in her dream Leo was sitting in the shower when she found him, only this time, he was leaning against the back of the bathtub and breathing raggedly.
“Leo!” She gasped.
Annie dropped her bag and jumped into the tub, pulling Leo towards her. She turned the faucets off and hugged him to her chest as she tried to get him to respond.
“Leo! Leo please!” She cried as panic rose in her heart. “Help! Someone help!” She called as sobs began to wrack her body.
She heard footsteps down the hall.
Leo’s eyes opened for a moment and he smiled softly, truly, like a sleepier version of the Leo from her dream.
“Anne.” He murmured through blue lips. “I had a really great dream.” He drew her right hand shakily to his lips and kissed it softly. “Thanks.” He squeezed her hand and then went limp. His eyes remaining fixed on her, a smile still lingering on his lips.
Annie felt her world crumble.
The funeral was dark. Everyone was crying. Clara kept sobbing for ‘Ley” and Annie had to stop herself from throwing up every time someone mentioned his name. It felt like a punch to the gut every time. Towards the end Leo’s mother slipped a sealed envelope into her hand.
“Leo’s therapist had him write letters to manage his stress levels. Just thoughts he was struggling with and such.” She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath. “This was addressed to you. I didn’t read it, but I thought you might want it.”
Annie murmured a thank you and retreated to a bench behind the Church and away from the people inside it.
Slowly and carefully she opened the envelope and unfolded the letter. A half laugh, half sob escaped her when her eyes rested on the messy handwriting she knew so well.
It’s me Leo. You know? Your best friend? Closest confidante? Well, I have something I really want to tell you, but I can’t. I can’t tell you because you trust me, and you need me to always be your friend and I always want to be. We’re soul mates like that. But it’s killing me Anne, so I’ve got to say it. I Love You. There. That’s it. I’ve loved you since we were nine and I told myself I would wait till we were older to tell you but when that time rolled around, I realized, I’m dying. I’m dying and you’re not. That wouldn’t be fair to tell you that I love you when I couldn’t stick around to be there for you for as long as you would need me. I don’t want you to think you have to love me back just because I love you either, Because I know you couldn’t. I don’t want you to think I had ulterior motives to our friendship. So, I won’t tell you. Because I love you, not just as a girl, but as a person, as my friend. I love your smile, I love your adventurous spirit, I love how your nose crinkles when you laugh, I love spending time with you and Clara, and I never, ever, want you to feel like you’ve let me down in any way. Because I know you’ll tell yourself that you have, but you haven’t. Not once. You were perfect. And I feel like this whole letter is a bit of a lie, because I have told you I love you several times, just not in so many words.
Every time I smile at you, I’m saying I love you. Every time I watch a horror movie with you that scares me to death, I’m saying I love you. Every time I tell you you’re perfect just the way you are, I mean it, because I love you. People are always being creative with the ways we say, ‘I love you’ and this was mine.
So, Anne, I love you.
Yours Eternally, Leo
Annie read it again and again, even when the tears blurred her vision so badly she couldn’t make out the words, even when sobs shook her body so hard she could barely breath. What would it have been like to have loved him back the way he had loved her? What would it have been like to have loved and been loved when she had had the chance?