Rhiannon fought to hold her book open as the wind sent the pages fluttering. Ominous clouds overhead threatened to burst at any moment, and the sand that stretched in either direction blew into her face. She sighed. Not the best day for the beach.
A cacophony of laughs pulled her attention from the words of her favorite author. A group of surfers around her age trudged from the choppy waves, smiles beaming across their faces. With the weather this morning, they couldn’t have caught more than a couple waves. The three men and two women seemed to be the only ones on the beach willing to brave the thrashing ocean.
Rhiannon’s heart tugged in understanding. She resonated with their desperate need to plunge into the water, to hold a sliver of hope that a wave worth riding would emerge from the harsh seas. She knew what it was like to crave the ocean’s swaddle even in the midst of a storm.
One of the girls let her long blonde hair loose from its tie, and again Rhiannon’s heart sank as she remembered the feel of her tangled, salt-crusted hair weaving its way down her back after a surf session. Before she was forced to watch it fall out in clumps. Before cancer overtook her life.
When she looked into the mirror, a cancer patient stared back at her, but she couldn’t deny the beauty that still encompassed every feature of her face. The darkened circles beneath her eyes offset the hope that still sparkled in her cerulean eyes, and the charming planes of her face became prominent without the locks of golden hair to conceal her features.
She returned to her book, pretending to read as she glanced from the pages to the surfers. The group walked up the beach as one of the men ran to catch up, his retro yellow surfboard tucked under his arm. His drenched brown hair was slightly overgrown, and Rhiannon could tell that it would dry into loose waves. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-one, a couple years older than her.
She realized she was staring when he stopped mid-stride and turned his head toward her, as if he could feel her eyes watching his movements. Rhiannon could feel the heat rising to her cheeks as she offered a shy smile, embarrassed as all hell but too late to pretend he hadn’t caught her eye. He only flashed her an unrestrained grin before returning to his friends. And she to her book.
“Hi.” The voice startled Rhiannon, and she looked up to find that familiar smile. Every thought vanished from her head as she took in the jagged cheekbones, sea-green eyes, and peppered freckles that complemented his brunette locks.
Everything about him was striking.
But his unforgiving features were balanced by the kindness that softened his face.
“I’m Aaron,” he offered. When she didn’t answer immediately, he asked, “What’s yours?”
“Rhiannon,” she said. Confusion blanketed her face until she finally realized why he had approached. Oh, how obvious it was. Another stranger taking pity on her. And she felt like a complete fool for thinking he could have any other reason.
“Before you ask,” Rhiannon said, not unkindly but firmly, “no, I don’t have hair. Yes, the reason is cancer. And no, there is nothing you can do to help. But thank you.”
“Well I’m sorry to hear that,” Aaron said, “but it’s not why I came over.”
“Oh,” was all Rhiannon could think to say. She winced at the confidence she had just spoken with. How rude of her to assume the worst of him. When he offered no sign of pity at all. “I’m so sorry.”
He waved off her apology. “Don’t worry about it,” Aaron said, and meant it.
“Mind if I sit?”
“Go for it. I could use some company.” Talking to Aaron seemed like a better way to spend her time than wallowing in her misery as she stared witfully towards the waves.
He took the liberty of lying a towel beside her, far enough away to be respectful but close enough to imply that she hadn’t scared him off with her outburst.
Rhiannon pulled her knees to her chest and traced her finger through the sand in front of her as he sat.
“I remember you, ya know,” he admitted. She peered to the side and studied him as she dove deep into her memory, struggling to place him. He chuckled.
“It’s ok if you don’t,” Aaron said after reading the expression on her face. “I looked quite different. Super short brown hair. Chubby cheeks. And I was in a wetsuit. You talked me through my mom’s cancer treatment.”
Then it hit her. The boy from the lineup years ago. Never a name, never any way to contact him. They had bobbed on their surfboards for hours, exchanging stories. For weeks afterward, she couldn’t get him out of her head, but Rhiannon knew he lived far away, and finally accepted that she would never see him again. Or so she thought.
“Aaron,” she repeated, and a smile grew on her face. She embraced him, and he tensed beneath her grip before relaxing and throwing his arms around her as well. “How is your mom,” Rhiannon asked softly.
Aaron shook his head and dropped his eyes to the ground. Not well, then. Not well at all.
“I’m sorry,” Rhiannon breathed.
“She was done suffering.” And then he smiled up at her again, as if brushing off a moment of weakness. “So what’s your story?”
And so she told him, about the diagnosis, about the past year she had spent in and out of treatment, about how greatly and deepy she missed surfing and her old life.
“I’m going to change that for you,” he said. Rhiannon chuckled softly.
“No offense, but I doubt that you have some secret ability that the doctors have been hiding from me.”
“Smart-ass,” he replied. “Not the cancer part. You said you miss living. So let’s live.” The corner of Aaron’s mouth curled up, as if he somehow knew the secret to living with a life-threatening illness. She could have doubted him, but she chose to hope. And to give him a chance.
Aaron stood beside her now, on a platform overlooking a ravine that led to the ocean just west of them. A trail weaved its way along the edge of a cliff on the right side of the plunging drop, greenery and caramel soil illuminated by the setting sun.
“Hell no,” Rhiannon said, wide-eyed. “Absolutely no way.”
Over the past few weeks, he had led her to some of the most magnificent places she hadn’t known existed. Rhiannon tried to ignore the pestering question in the back of her mind that tainted every experience: why was he doing all this? Hanging around a cancer patient that could very well die? Did he feel bad? Maybe she reminded him of his mom that he missed so greatly.
Aaron never treated her anything short of capable. It didn’t stop him from making comments that she would’ve found insensitive coming from anyone else, but somehow, they had an understanding that she enjoyed it. Enjoyed having someone who didn’t walk on eggshells around her. In fact, he walked on the thickest, strongest steel ever made.
“Come on, the view at the end is worth it,” Aaron attempted to convince her.
"Is it worth dying?" she asked as she studied the drop that would leave her splattered on the ground if she lost her footing.
“You're impossible” Aaron chided. "I'll carry you if the wobbly chemo legs give out." Rhiannon gaped and hit him in the arm, but she couldn’t hide the smile that played across her lips.
Without another word, he started down the trail and beckoned for her to follow. With a growl, she stomped after him, willing her eyes to avoid the river that flowed forty feet below.
“Let’s walk a little faster so we get there before the sun sets,” he remarked from ahead. She picked up her pace, trailing his fearless gait with a nervous shuffle of her own.
Rhiannon gasped as her foot slid on a rock that tumbled helplessly to the ravine below. As she peered over the edge, she couldn’t help but imagine herself doing the same.
Aaron reached a hand behind him, offering her support that she desperately sought. As Rhiannon gripped his fingers in her own, he looked down at their interlocked hands and froze, then met her confused gaze.
“What?” she demanded.
“Nothing,” he said, snapping from the trance he stumbled into. “Just can’t believe how clammy your hands are.”
“Says you. If I were to fall, your hand’s too slippery to catch me anyway,” Rhiannon said, evoking one of those unrestrained smiles from Aaron’s lips.
He wasn’t exaggerating about the view. Golden rays played over the mountainous landscape, casting shadows where the foothills met the sand of the beach below. Towering rocks of all different sizes peaked from below the ocean’s surface as waves crashed against their jagged faces.
“Wow,” Rhiannon breathed, at a loss of any other words.
“I mean, I’ve been hiking through these mountains, but never have I known you could overlook everything from here.”
“That’s why this spot is special. And what makes the hike so worth it. The beach is completely inaccessible,” Aaron explained. She considered that.
“It’s untouched,” she observed. “Sometimes I think nature is better off that way. Admired, but not changed.”
Aaron watched her as Rhiannon gazed towards the horizon and swept her eyes over every detail of the landscape, completely unaware of his fixed attention on her. Sometimes Aaron wondered if she noticed the way he looked at her as if he beheld the world in his eyes. He doubted it, and a part of him was saddened at that fact. The girl he looked at so adoringly had shut out the looks of others, their pitying glances and assuming expressions so often that she couldn’t even see the longing in his eyes.
“You have a beautiful heart,” he said.
She scoffed. “Was that a compliment I just heard?”
“Maybe,” he replied, but there was no laughter on his face. She noticed that and realized he had abandoned his usual sarcasm.
“Well, thank you,” Rhiannon said, genuinely.
Happiness was short-lived. February 14th greeted Rhiannon with a blinding and unrelenting headache that sent her rushing to the hospital in a flurry of concerned questions from her mom as she blinked in and out of consciousness.
The last thing she remembered was the shouting of a doctor as they hauled her through the doors of the emergency room.
Now she lay staring at the familiar patterned ceiling as the beeping of machines taunted her ears. The sights and sounds that could not be mistaken as anything but those of a hospital room.
Rhiannon rubbed her eyes and sat up in perfect time to see the doctor crack open the door, his face giving away nothing. She hated the imperceptible expressions they always wore.
“Would you like the good news or the bad news first?” the doctor asked. Rhiannon had to fight the urge to roll her eyes. So he had chosen this way to deliver their consensus.
“Let’s start with good.”
“Ok, the good news is that we’re sending you home today. Bad news is that you’re returning tomorrow for surgery. We found a small tumor in your brainstem.”
Rhiannon’s heart sank. The first time she had surgery, she didn’t have much to lose. A life of chemotherapy that she had grown far too bored of. Nothing she would miss during her long recovery, or worse, she dared to think.
This time was different. Her eyes stung as she remembered the past few weeks, all the new reasons she had discovered to keep living. Her new friend being the most important of all. What would he make of this? A recovering cancer patient was one thing, but a friend in the thick of treatment was a completely different type of commitment. One she doubted he would want.
Before she knew it, Rhiannon was back in her own bed, in the comfort of her own room that she would miss so greatly over the next few weeks. She picked up her phone and began scrolling through the notifications, more of them from Aaron than she cared to admit.
The door burst open, and Aaron emerged wearing a pained expression. She threw the covers to the bottom of the bed and sat to face him as he closed the door softly and turned back to her.
“As soon as I heard you were home, I came to see you,” he said. Longing filled her chest as she realized he was probably soon to leave, just as everyone else had when her treatment became too grueling. A type of longing that only emerged once it was too late.
“But why,” Rhiannon asked sharply. Confusion fell over his face.
“Why?! What do you mean why?”
“Why do you insist on spending time with me? Do you think you’re some kind of savior for going out of your way to entertain a cancer patient?” The insult was no less painful than a punch to the gut.
“That’s what you think?”
“Yep,” she said and pursed her lips to contain her unyielding fury.
He just shook his head and broke her eye contact. “You’re ridiculous.”
“Am I? You could have any friend you want. Hell, you have every friend you could ever want. I’m replaceable. And my situation makes me incredibly easy to replace,” she snapped at him.
“I don’t want to replace you! Don’t you see?” Aaron pleaded. The tension building was almost too heavy to hold as their piercing stares bore into each other.
“See what?” she lashed.
“That I’m in love with you!” he shouted. Then more quietly, as the words released the tension like a knife, “I’m in love with you.”
She turned away from him to climb off the bed. Defeated, he made to leave the room and opened the door-
“Where do you think you’re going,” Rhiannon demanded, now stalking towards him.
He peered over his shoulder and opened his mouth to respond. Only to see her running towards him. She reached around him and shut the door, slamming him against it.
And then she kissed him.
The clunking of wheels and harsh lights of the hospital jangled Rhiannon on the way to the operating room. Her Valentine’s Day could not have been more memorable. Rhiannon couldn’t imagine any better way to end such a heart-wrenching day. Her gown and cap were, by far, the worst outfit Aaron had ever seen her in. But he didn’t seem to mind as he held her hand up to the double doors where they were to part ways.
“I hope you survive the next couple days without me,” she jabbed at him when they reached a stop. Aaron looked down at her and brushed a hand over her cheek.
“See you on the other side, smart-ass.” She smiled, and he planted a kiss on her forehead for good luck. Her chest filled with the warmth of hope that she would emerge from this surgery and return to life. And this time, she knew how to live.