School started that next Monday, and I was ready. I loved summers, but when summer was nearly over, I was always glad to get back to school. I was ready, earlier than usual, so went to Jeremy’s to wait for him. “Good morning,” I said when I walked into his room.
“Don’t start with all that sunshine and happiness crap,” he growled.
“It looks like you’re in your usual ‘first day of school’ mood,” I laughed.
“Shut up, Tony!” I laughed, sat down on his bed, and watched as he finished dressing. I was shocked at how he looked. I tried remembering when I’d last seen him shirtless. It couldn’t have been more than a couple weeks, but the change was staggering. Gone was the trim, well-defined body. It wasn’t that he was skeletal, but he was getting there. I could make out each of his ribs, and the abs that he’d been so proud of looked swollen and out of place on his gaunt frame. How had this happened? How had he changed so much without me noticing? We’d been around each other, at least for short times, nearly every day since I’d found out he was ill. I guess it was like our neighborhood. When you see something every day, you don’t notice all the small changes, but there comes a day when you suddenly realize how much things have changed, and are amazed that you never noticed it happening.
I suddenly realized he had stopped dressing. I looked up, and he was staring into the mirror, his gaze locked on my reflection. As we looked into each other’s eyes in the mirror, we shared a silent moment of grief for what had been. “Some hot body, huh?” He asked sadly. I had no answer. He shivered, as if suddenly cold, pulled his shirt on, grabbed his bag, and walked to his door. “If we have to do this, we might as well get it over with.”
We were both quiet on the way to school, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts. Of course, I’d been noticing the changes in his energy level and stamina. Some days, he just didn’t feel like doing anything but lie around the house. We’d watch television or maybe play a short video game, but even these seemed to tire him out. I felt guilty that I hadn’t noticed the physical changes in him and vowed to myself to pay more attention.
When I’d first learned that he was going to die, I was heartbroken. I thought I’d come to terms with it, but now, realized I hadn’t. Before, it was like something for the future, but this morning, I felt the impact of full acceptance. My best friend was dying and there was nothing I could do about it.
When we got to school, we checked the list on the bulletin board for our homeroom assignments and separated until lunch. We’d meet again in the lunchroom, eat together, and then separate again until school was out. This had been our routine last year, even though some of his eleventh grade friends didn’t much like having a freshman sitting with them. I hadn’t wanted to cause Jeremy trouble with his friends, so, one day, sat at another table. When Jeremy saw this, he picked up his tray and came and sat with me. He wanted to know what was up, and I told him I didn’t think some of his friends liked me sitting with them. This went on for a week, and gradually his friends started coming to sit at the table he and I shared. One day after school, he told me that now I wasn’t sitting at their table with them, they were sitting at our table with us, and it was their choice to be there. “So, no more stupid shit, okay?”
“Okay,” I laughed.
I found my homeroom, but when I entered, it looked like everyone else had gotten there before me. All the seats were taken, except the one next to Jennifer Holman. Jennifer was an untouchable, especially to me. I’d first seen her when I started seventh grade and had instantly fallen for her. No, I didn’t just fall for her, I worshiped her. She was my unknowing Goddess. Although I worshiped her, I had probably not said more than a dozen words to her in the three years since I first saw her. What could a mortal, let alone one like me, say to a Goddess? Besides, she was my TJ, someone to dream and fantasize about, just as TJ was for Jeremy. It would have been wrong to make small talk with someone you’d been having sex with, three or four times a week, without them even knowing it.
I looked around the room, double checking for an empty seat somewhere else, but there weren’t any. I walked over to the table where she was sitting and she looked up at me when I stopped next to her. “Hi, Tony,” she said.
“Hi, Jennifer. Uh, is this seat taken?” I asked, hoping it was but praying it wasn’t.
“No, no one’s sitting there. You can have it if you want it.”
“Thanks,” I said laying my pack on the table. Somehow, I managed to get my feet tangled with each other as I tried to sit down, and nearly fell.
“Are you okay?”
“Yea,” I said, feeling myself beginning to blush with embarrassment. She tried several times to get me talking during homeroom, but soon gave up when all she could get out of me were yeses and nos.
The twenty minutes of homeroom were the longest twenty minutes of my life. This was going to be a long year, sitting next to Jennifer every morning. When the bell rang, I made my way out as quickly as possible, barely murmuring a goodbye in response to Jennifer’s.
I usually enjoyed the first day of school. You got to see friends you haven’t seen since the end of school the previous spring and catch up with everyone’s summer. This year wasn’t the same. I made it through the rest of the morning and headed to the cafeteria to meet up with Jeremy. Before going through the lunch line, I stopped at the door and looked to see if he was at a table yet. He was sitting at the table we usually used with his back towards me. TJ, Paul, and a few of our other friends were sitting with him.
TJ looked up and saw me and our eyes locked. He looked nervous when he saw me. This was Jeremy’s time to catch up with friends, and I didn’t want to disrupt that by making things uncomfortable because of what was going on between TJ and I.
I walked up to the table and slapped Jeremy on the back of his head. He turned around to see who it was and smiled when he saw me. “Hey, Tony.” He noticed I wasn’t carrying a tray. “You’re not eating at the garbage dump today? You know something the rest of us don’t?” he asked, laughing and scooting over to make room for me to sit.
“Yeah, I heard a rumor they’re putting something in the food to try to make football players smarter. I’m already smart enough, so decided to skip lunch and just observe the experiment.” This was greeted with a chorus of boos and ‘you wish, dweeb!’ “I have to go to the office. They have my schedule all screwed up and I need to get it straightened out. I’ll catch back up with you when school’s out. Okay?”
“What did they do?” one of the guys asked.
“They gave me two study halls and dropped one of my electives,” I lied.
“So, you want to give up a free period and get another class?”
“Definitely a dweeb!” he laughed.
Jeremy laughed too and then said, “Meet at the bleachers after school, okay?”
“Sure,” I said. I could see relief washing across TJ’s face as I left the group.
The rest of the school day was uneventful. I saw Tommy and Duane, looking at their schedules like they were confused, and showed them where their next classroom was. I went directly to the bleachers, by the football field, when the last bell rang. Jeremy wasn’t there yet, so I climbed to the top and watched people walking by while I waited.
Silvy and Tommy walked by on their way to the side gate, surrounded by some of their friends. They made a cute couple. The school had a strict rule about the showing of affection by couples on school property and during school hours. It was obvious they were a couple, though. It showed in the way they looked at each other and occasionally bumped shoulders. I smiled to myself when, as soon as they walked through the gate, Silvy reached over and took his hand. It was just a totally natural thing to do and done without planning or thought. Even though I’d never admit it to her, I was extremely proud of my little sister. She’d become a really pretty teenager and was obviously one of the more popular freshmen. She’d, actually turned from being a little pest into a good friend to me.
I was startled and would have fallen off the back of the bleachers, if not for the railing, when a hand grabbed my shoulder. “Hey!”
I looked up into the laughing face of Jeremy. “Dammit! Don’t do that! You scared the crap out of me!”
He just laughed harder. “It’s a damn good thing you aren’t a wildebeest and me a lion. I’d be having you for dinner right now. What was so interesting?”
“I was watching Silvy and Tommy.”
He looked over to where they were walking hand in hand down the sidewalk. “Yeah,” he said. “Our little tag-a-long pain in the butt is all grown up now. When did that happen?”
“She’s only a year younger than me. Is that what I’ve been? A pain in the butt tag-a-long?”
“Never, Tony. You’ve always been my pain in the butt loyal companion.”
“Thanks...I think,” I said, smiling. “So, what’s up? Why are we here?”
“Why are we here? That’s a pretty deep philosophical question, Tony.”
“No, dumbass. Why are we here, sitting on the bleachers, when we could be on our way home?”
“I wanted to watch the team practice, while waiting for Mom.”
“Waiting for your mom?”
He looked at me and shrugged. “I called her before lunch and asked her to pick us up.”
“Why? Where’re we going?”
“Just home.” He turned away from me and looked out over the field where the players were just beginning to come out for practice. “I knew I couldn’t make it home, if we walked. I was okay, the first couple hours, but it got so bad I could hardly make it to each class. My legs would just start shaking and I was really afraid, a couple times, that I’d have to just flop down on the floor to rest enough to get the rest of the way to class. I don’t like what’s happening to me, Tony. It’s all happening so fast, I’m scared and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
His last words echoed my feelings from earlier this morning. I wasn’t able to come up with any words to comfort myself then, and couldn’t come up with any to comfort him now. I placed my hand on his shoulder and gave a squeeze. I wanted him to know that I was here with him and for him. I hoped he understood I had no other way to comfort him. He placed a hand over my hand that was on his shoulder and gave a little squeeze of his own. We looked at each other and each smiled. We both knew.
We sat in silence, watching his old teammates going through their drills for a long while, before he finally broke the silence. “So, when are you planning on telling me?”
“Telling you what?”
“What’s going on between you and TJ.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, stalling for time.
“What I’m talking about is how, when he’s around and you show up, he has to leave five minutes later or how, when you’re around and he shows up, you suddenly remember something you’re supposed to help your mom do. And then there’s always the bullshit story you came up with at lunch today and how relieved he was that you weren’t going to sit with us.”
“What makes you think it was a bullshit story?” I asked defensively.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because our class schedules for this year came in the mail the same day and you were all excited about getting all the classes you’d requested.”
“Yeah, ‘Oh.’ Come on, spill it. What’s going on?”
“Have you asked TJ?”
“Yeah, he came up with some crap about how busy he was and it’s all in my imagination, and it’s just coincidence when when he leaves after you show up.”
“And you don’t think that’s the truth?”
“No. Quit stalling, Tony.”
“Okay, Jeremy, you want the truth? Here it is. I don’t have the slightest, freakin’ idea what’s going on. All I know is, TJ doesn’t seem to want to talk to me or be around me any more. Maybe he’s never really wanted me around and just put up with me for your sake and now since...well since things are like they are, he’s just cutting me out.”
“I don’t believe it, Tony.”
I sighed in resignation, stood up, turned around, leaned on the rail at the top of the bleachers, and stared back towards the school building. I fought back a wave of anger, but wasn’t able to completely quell it. “I’m sorry you don’t believe me, but you asked for the truth and I told you the truth. At least the truth as I see it. There’s a lot going on in all our lives right now, and it’s not easy for any of us. I’m handling things as best I can, and right now, what TJ thinks about me, however he treats me, is the least of the things I have to worry about. I’m having too hard a time holding my own shit together to be worried about TJ’s shit too. I just can’t do it, Jeremy.”
Jeremy stood up and leaned on the rail beside me with our shoulders and upper arms touching. “You’re right and wrong, Tony. You’re wrong about me not believing you. I do. What I don’t believe is that TJ has never liked you. I know he does, but I don’t know what’s bothering him now. Maybe TJ’s having trouble handling all this too and he’s withdrawing to regroup and find his own way. You’re right that we all have a lot going on right now; maybe even more than any of us can handle, and I’m sorry I brought all this down on you guys.”
“Don’t say that!” I snapped. “Don’t even think it! You did nothing to deserve what’s happening to you. It’s not your fault.”
“Maybe not, but if this hadn’t happened to me, none of this would be going on right now.”
“Or, maybe it would but over something entirely different. Look, Jeremy, there’s nothing any of us can do to change things, we just all have to do the best we can. Right now, my focus is on you, to be there for you and to give you whatever support I’m able to give. There’ll be time to worry about these other things later and deal with them then. I leave when he comes around so you can have some time with him. I know he’s your friend too and you should get to spend time with him.”
“Don’t leave again.”
“I told you before, I wouldn’t. I’m going to be there for you all the way.”
“Thanks, but that’s not what I meant this time.” He turned to look at me and I could see a tear in his eye. “You and TJ are my best friends, but you’re also my brother.” He turned to stare at the school again and spoke with a softer voice now. “When you’re around and TJ shows up, don’t go coming up with an excuse to leave, stay there. If you start over and see TJ’s car, don’t turn around and go back home. I don’t have much time left, Tony. I want to spend as much of that time as possible around my best friends and family. You’re not just my best friend, but my family too. The same goes for Silvy and your parents. I don’t want to lose any time with any of you. If, for some reason, TJ can’t handle the situation, then he’ll have to deal with it.”
I couldn’t say anything, so I just nodded in agreement.
“Mom will be here soon,” he said. “Let’s move down to the bottom row, okay? I don’t want to be so tired that I won’t be able to walk to the car when mom gets here.”
“Is it that bad?” He just nodded as we made our way to the bottom, where he’d be able to rest up while we waited. “If you can’t walk, I’ll carry you.”
“I know, Tony, I know you would,” he said, looking at me and smiling.
The next morning, Jeremy’s mom gave us a ride to school and was going to pick us up again after, so Jeremy wouldn’t have to do so much walking.
Jennifer was sitting at the table we shared when I got to homeroom. I considered just hanging out in the hall until just before the bell rang, but a bunch of kids came in and kind of pushed me into the room. Jennifer looked up and saw me, so I couldn’t very well go back out into the hall until the bell. I had little choice, so walked over and sat down. “Hi, Tony.”
“You’re early this morning.”
“Yeah, I rode to school with a friend and his mom.”
I looked at her in surprise. “How did you know Jeremy and I were friends?”
“Tommy told me. He thinks you and Jeremy are Gods.”
“Tommy Danvers? My sister’s boyfriend?”
“Yeah. He’s my cousin. My aunt says he’d like to be adopted by your family, except that then, he couldn’t be Silvia’s boyfriend, because she’d be his sister.”
I laughed. “Tommy’s cool. He’s the first boyfriend Silvy’s had that we approve of.”
“He told me about your friend, Jeremy. How’s he doing?”
I couldn’t believe I was actually talking to Jennifer, and even more surprised when the bell rang for the end of homeroom. It seemed like we’d only been talking a few minutes, but it was actually over twenty. “Bye, Tony,” she said, with a smile, “See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow, Jennifer.” I said, smiling back.
“Tony! Wait up!” I was on my way to the cafeteria at lunchtime, when I heard Tommy yell at me. I stopped and waited for him, and when he caught up, he pulled me to one side and away from most of the people heading to lunch. “Silvia’s outside with Jeremy, he’s pretty sick and wanted me to find you and tell you he needed you.”
“Where are they?”
“Out front on the steps.”
“Thanks, Tommy,” I said, and headed for the front doors, closely followed by Tommy. Jeremy was sitting on the bottom step, leaning back against the brick wall that made up the railing along both sides of the steps. He had his eyes closed and looked ashen. Silvy was sitting on the step above him, holding his hand and looking concerned. I sat on the step next to him and took his hand from Silvy. “Hey, Jeremy. What’s wrong?”
He opened his eyes and looked at me. His eyes seemed bright but unfocused. “My legs won’t work, Tony. If I try standing, they start shaking and...and I just collapse.” He closed his eyes again and barely whispered, “I’m just so tired, Tony, so tired.”
“I know, Jeremy,” I said brushing the hair out of his eyes. I could feel the heat coming from him as my hand touched his forehead. “We have to call his mom,” I said, turning to Silvy.
“I’ve tried twice, but there’s no answer at their house.”
“Call Mom, she might know where she is.” Silvy dialed our house, on her cell phone, and I turned to Tommy. “We need the school nurse, Tommy.”
“Okay,” he said, hurrying back into the school.
“His mom was at our house,” Silvy said, putting her phone away. “They’re on their way now.”
“Good.” I pulled Jeremy against me and laid his head on my shoulder. “It’ll be okay, Jeremy, your mom’s on the way.”
Jeremy opened his eyes and looked into mine. “Tony? Thanks.” He looked away from me and was staring out across the school lawn. He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.
He looked back at me again and whispered, “I don’t want to die, Tony.”
“I know, Bro. I don’t want you to die, either.” We were sitting there with our foreheads touching, each crying silent tears when the nurse got there.
She asked me what had happened, and I told her what Jeremy had told me. She took his temperature and checked his pulse and other things. She turned to Tommy and had him go back to the office and tell them we needed an ambulance right away. “His mom is on the way,“ I told her. She nodded.
“Why do we need an ambulance?” I asked.
“He has a very high temperature. We need to get him somewhere where they can work on lowering it.”
Tommy returned and told her they were calling an ambulance from the office, and our moms pulled into the driveway at the same time. They stopped along the curb closest to the steps and hurried up to where we were. I got up and Jeremy’s mom took my place. Mom noticed my tears and put her arms around me. I buried my head in her shoulder and cried silently, as she rubbed my back and comforted me.
The nurse explained to Jeremy’s mom about the fever, and his mom agreed he needed to go to the hospital. When the ambulance arrived and the paramedics were working with Jeremy, she came over and also hugged and held onto me. Tommy and Silvy were holding each other too, and none of the teachers or the principal, who’d all gathered around now, said anything about no displays of affection between them.
I wanted to go to the hospital with them, but Mom said no. There wouldn’t be anything I could do there and it was best if I stayed in school. Jeremy’s mom rode in the ambulance with him and Mom followed them in her car. The bell had rung for class, and the nurse told us we needed to go to class now; that Jeremy was in good hands now.
“You coming, Tony?” Silvy asked, as she and Tommy headed off to class.
“In a minute, Sis.” I stood there looking around. I felt completely lost. It was almost like I was in a dream, watching the world go by in bits and pieces. I wanted to be at the hospital with Jeremy but couldn’t be. I knew going to class would be a waste of my time. I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on a dull lecture or even enough to make sense of anything I read in a textbook.
I needed something physical to do, so I did something I’d never done before. I just left school and went home. Jeremy had always cut classes, several times a year, and had even skipped whole days a few times. He always told me it gave him a feeling of freedom and a sense of getting away with something. He told me I should try it some time. “But you always get caught and end up in detention or in trouble with your mom and dad. How can that make you feel like you’re getting away with something?”
“Well, you feel like it when you’re doing it, but you have to be willing to pay the price later,” he’d say, laughing.
“Well, I’m doing it finally,” I thought to myself, as I walked home. The trouble was, I didn’t feel free or that I was getting away with something. All I felt was a sense of loss and dread.