It all started with a butterfly tattoo.
And I guess that started at O’Maleys. And that started with Jack, this guy I met on the hospital shuttle. He was dying. Had been dying his whole life. Just like me, I suppose, only he felt it more that day. I was meant to go to Ward 6, the Cardiology department, as I did every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. He was meant to go to Ward 11, the Oncology department, where he lived. Only, he meant to never go back.
He told me this as he pulled on the loose strings poking out of the seat in front of him. They wouldn’t come, no matter how many times he pinched at them, but he sure tried awfully hard.
“I’ve never sung in public before and I’ve never gone to a church. My family—they didn’t really believe in religion until I got sick and then I was too sick to go. I’ve been sick for so long, I’ve never done anything. I’ve never gotten a tattoo. I know they always say you’ll regret it, but how would I know?” He laugh shortly, before a cough stopped him. One hand insistently pulled on the short frayed strings in front of him while the other shakily covered his mouth. “I’ve never even listened to classical music. I know that one’s easy, but I always hoped I’d see it in a hall, one of those concert halls. That I’d be well and I’d wear a suit and I’d sit in a big hall and listen to classic music and like it and I’m not well yet. I don’t have a suit and I don’t even know where to start but I can’t die without hearing classical music once. You know, I’ve never eaten sushi. I’ve never even been to the ocean.”
At this, he began to cry.
“I don’t have time,” he grieved, grasping the sleeves of his baggy coat. “Even if I could do all those things, I don’t have time. How do you live a whole life in three months? My hair” his shaking hand went up to his knit cap, “it’s not even going to grow back. I’m going to die bald.”
The shuttle stopped at the hospital bay. I looked toward Ward 6, but saw his reflection in the window. The poor boy was trying to inconspicuously pull his hat down over his pale, bald head. Making the decision, I took his cold hand in mine and stood.
“Come on, Jack.” The poor boy tripped over himself, noisily drawing in shaky breaths.
“What? Why? I told you I’m not going back. Don’t make me.”
“We are dying, Jack.” With a nod, I pulled Jack past the slightly alarmed bus driver. “I’ve got a hole in my heart, and you—” I faltered. “You don’t have any hair.”
“I know.” He sounded so sad, I hesitated and looked back at him.
“We are not going to die before we live. Come on.”
First, we called a taxi. Well, Jack called for the taxi. He had never done it before and wanted to. The taxi driver was kind and told us about O’Maleys, and that’s how it began—with a butterfly tattoo. We both got one. Jack got a small one on his shoulder, while I got mine on my lower back.
"A tramp stamp," I whispered wickedly to Jack. He laughed, the first and only time I would ever hear him laugh.
“You’re going to regret this in about thirty years," my tattoo artist laughed over the noise of the whirring needle and thumping music.
“I hope so,” I replied quietly, watching Jack in the other room. He wasn’t even wincing.
After the tattoos, we found sushi. Jack picked apart one piece, ate a little rice from the roll, but nothing else. I told him that it counted. Classical music was next on the list. On my phone, I found a concert hall with an orchestra performing a matinee. I looked up to tell Jack, but he had fallen asleep.
I swallowed hard. He was dying.
After paying, I gently woke Jack and helped him stand. I tried to call another taxi, but Jack insisted that he was going to walk.
“Where?” I laughed absurdly, unsure how to handle this boy. Jack looked wildly up into the sky in all directions before roughly pointing.
“There. Help me get there.” One arm around his middle, I supported Jack as he continued searching the sky and giving directions. Once in sight of what he had seen, Jack wriggled away and staggered toward the looming stone structure.
He found a church.
“I need to go in,” Jack stated flatly, eyes fixed on the tall spires.
Just before I pushed open the door, Jack reached out his hand to stop me.
Without looking at me, he whispered, "Stay with me?" His cold hand found mine and my breath caught on the lump in my throat. I nodded.
No one else was inside the church. It was just us and a pale statue of Mary, bowing her head to pray toward the empty pews. Her pale blue dress was the same color as Jack's thin jeans and I wanted to tell him, but the whole world was dying—Jack was dying—and I don't think he cared so much about matching with Mary.
We sat down half a dozen rows from the front. Jack just sat still, staring at her for a long time. I think he had a lot to say but couldn’t make out the words. I think when you're dying, words mean absolutely everything and absolutely nothing all at the same time. Jack rubbed his hands up and down his light blue pant legs. After a very long time, he turned to me.
Eyes wet, Jack hoarsely whispered, “I think I need to go back.”
This time he let me call a taxi.
Once in the ward, the nurses wouldn’t let me go back with him. He was sicker than he let on, and apparently, he wasn’t supposed to be out of his room. I’m guessing he shouldn’t have gotten a tattoo either. I didn’t see his parents, or anyone who looked like his friend, but I think they would have understood.
Sometimes, if you can, you need to live before you die. Jack and I? That day was our life. And it all started with a butterfly tattoo.