By the time Mom came home from the hospital that afternoon, I’d completely cleaned my room, including washing the walls, and did not only mine, but all the other laundry piled in the laundry room. Silvy had come home after school and looked in at me scrubbing away. “Any word?” she’d asked. I shook my head no and went back to cleaning. I’d kept myself so busy, I didn’t have time to consciously think about things, but it was there, in the back of my mind, boiling and swirling around. I’d have to face it all some time, but this just wasn’t the time...not until I knew Jeremy was going to be okay. At least, okay this time.
Mom came in and sat on my bed, watching as I folded and put away the last of my laundry. “Are you okay, Honey?” she asked. I froze and took a deep breath. For some reason, her question had angered me. “Of course!” I wanted to scream. “I’m just freaking fine, never better in fact. My best friend is in the hospital, maybe dying, so what could make for a better day?” I didn’t say it, though. Instead, I didn’t answer her at all, I just let out the breath and asked her, “How’s Jeremy?”
“He’s doing better. He’s dehydrated and has an infection somewhere in his body that was causing a high fever. He’ll be staying in the hospital, at least for a while, so they can give him fluids and antibiotics.” She looked around my room. “When did you find the time to do all this?”
“I didn’t go back to class. I had to be doing something, so I came home. There was no way I could’ve sat in classes all afternoon, just thinking.”
She gave me a sad look and nodded. “Remind me to give you a note before school tomorrow, so you don’t get in trouble for leaving.”
“When can I see Jeremy?”
“Not until tomorrow after school. They’ll be working on getting the fever down and it, and the dehydration, has him weakened and tired out. He needs the rest.” She started to leave my room but stopped and turned around. “Tony? I know this is all hard for you. Your dad and I are really proud of you for the support you’re giving Jeremy. Don’t forget, that if you need a shoulder to cry on or just a hug, we’re here for you, just as much as you’re there for Jeremy.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, going over and giving her a hug.
“One other thing,” she said, holding me at arm’s length. “If you’re still in a cleaning mood, there’s always the basement.”
“I think I just got out of that mood, Mom.” I laughed.
“Your dad’s bringing chicken home, since I haven’t had time to cook tonight, so be ready to eat when he gets home.
“Okay, Mom.” I had one more thing I needed to do now though. I went to my computer, turned it on, waited for it to load, and then opened my email account.
I thought you’d want to know that Jeremy is in the hospital right now. I have no idea how long he’ll be in there.
TJ, I have no idea what’s going on between you and me right now, but truthfully, it doesn’t matter to me. The two of us are Jeremy’s best friends, and right now he needs both of us for support. As far as I’m concerned, when the end comes, we can go our separate ways, but while he’s still around, we have to play the game for him.
He knows there’s something wrong between us and it’s bothering him a lot. I hope you can set your feelings for me aside for now and at least pretend we’re still friends, for Jeremy’s sake. If not, at least tell me what I did, so I can try to make it right. He needs both of us, TJ.
I reread the message several times, changed it around a little, and then hit send.
During homeroom the next morning, I filled Jennifer in on what was going on. She really seemed concerned for Jeremy. I never saw TJ all day long. The guys, where we usually sat, said he’d told them he didn’t feel much like eating today. I sat with Tommy and Sylvia, and we made plans to meet at the hospital later to go see Jeremy.
I went directly to the hospital after school. I didn’t know what to expect, but I had to see for myself how Jeremy was doing. When I found his room and walked in, he was asleep and his mom was sitting there with him. He looked terrible, all pale and gaunt. I had to fight back tears at seeing him like that. “Tony, I’m glad to see you,” his mom said. “He’s only been asleep a few minutes, but he doesn’t sleep long at a time. I really need to stretch my legs and get a cup of coffee. Tony, can you stay here with him until I get back, so he won’t be alone when he wakes back up?”
She grabbed my cheeks as she passed and pulled my face to hers and gave me a kiss on the forehead. “Thank you, Tony,” she said. “For everything.”
“What was that all about?” I wondered when she left.
I sat down in the chair next to the bed that she’d been sitting in. I started on my homework while Jeremy was still sleeping. About fifteen minutes later, when I looked up to check on him, his eyes were open and he was staring at me. “Hey,” I said. “Why didn’t you say something, so I’d have known you were awake?”
“I’m not sure, yet, whether I’m even speaking to you or not. Hell, I’m not sure I’m allowed to speak to heroes or not, at any time.”
“Okay,” I said. “You have my interest. Why am I a hero and what did I do to piss you off?”
His voice softened, “You saved my life yesterday, Tony.” I was surprised and asked him how. “They said it was your quick thinking, in calling your mom when you couldn’t reach mine, and getting the school nurse to check me out, that probably saved my life. It was that close, Tony. However much time I have, between now and the end, is all a gift from you.”
“So, you’re pissed at me because I didn’t let you just sit there and die?”
“No, I’m grateful for that. It’s what they did to me later that makes me want to be pissed at someone and I figured I’d pick you, so the hero title wouldn’t go to your head.”
“What did they do?” I asked, smiling now that I knew he wasn’t really angry.
“They took off all my clothes, and I mean ALL my clothes, and put me in this big, cold room on a metal table with sides and a drain. Then they filled this big rubber bag up with ice water. The bag had a hose and a big plastic part on the end that was as big as a huge cucumber and had holes in the end of it. They smeared something all over the cucumber thing and shoved it up my ass, turned a little valve and filled me up, from the bottom, with all that ice water! I thought I was going to explode, but everyone was yelling at me to hold it in as long as possible. I finally couldn’t hold it in any longer and squirted it all over that damned cold table!”
“It sounds like they gave you an enema with cold water.”
“Twice?” I asked trying my hardest not to laugh.
“Yeah. After the first time, they hosed me and the table down and washed everything down the drain. I don’t even want to think about what all came out with the ice water!” He gave a huge fake shudder and I couldn’t hold in the laughter any more. He glared at me and then continued, “After hosing me down, they turned on this big fan. They said it was so the air would cause the water to evaporate and cool me down to help break the fever. Then, after about a half hour of wetting me down with the hose and letting the fan dry me off, they loaded up that damned bag and started all over. My dick had shrunk so small and my nuts had crawled so far back up into my belly, if anyone had walked in, they’d have thought I was a girl with no boobs laying there.”
By now, I was laughing almost uncontrollably. “But, it was for your own good, Bro.”
“That’s what they kept saying too, but none of them took me up on it when I offered to change places with them. You know? I was considering not speaking to you for a half hour but, since you think it’s so funny, I’m going to make that forty-five minutes!”
“Very interesting story, Jeremy.” We both jumped when we heard his mom’s voice from the doorway.
“MOM! How long have you been there?”
“Long enough to her a very...uh...colorful explanation of your experiences yesterday afternoon.”
Jeremy turned the brightest shade of red I’d ever seen and now I had an even better reason for laughing.
The three of us sat and talked for a while. Jeremy would tire out and fall asleep, and it’d get quiet in the room until he woke back up. It was during one of these quiet spells that TJ arrived. He said hi to me and then asked Jeremy’s mom how he was doing. While they were talking, Jeremy woke up. “Hey, TJ,” he said, breaking into a huge smile. “No practice today?”
“Practice is over. I stopped by to see you on my way home.”
“Oh, is it that late? Time’s all the same in here and I kind of lose track.”
“I don’t think it’s because you’re in here.” TJ laughed. “I’ve gotten in more trouble for being home late since we met than ever before. My parents finally solved the problem by lying about the time they wanted me home. If they wanted me home by ten, they’d say nine, knowing that if we were together, it’d be ten before we got home anyway. They called it, ‘living in the Jeremy time zone’.”
“Yeah,” I added. “I’ve spent a lot of time grounded over the years, because of that time zone.” We all were laughing at this and Jeremy’s complete disregard for time and deadlines, when his dad walked in, followed by Silvy and Tommy.
“It sounds like a party in here,” he said. “Is it okay for a few gate crashers to join in?” He walked over to the side of the bed and gave Jeremy a hug and kiss on the forehead. Silvy was right behind him and gave Jeremy a hug and kiss of her own.
Tommy walked over and said hi to Jeremy and started to move back to the foot of the bed, when Jeremy asked, “What? No kiss from you?”
Tommy got an evil grin on his face and asked, “You think your heart could stand it?”
“I’m tough. I can handle anything.”
“Why not, then?” and Tommy bent down and kissed him on the forehead too.
“That’s it?” Jeremy laughed. “You were worried about that stopping my heart?”
“Of course not. That was just a warm up, but first I have to invoke the prime rule. Hang on to your socks, big boy,” he laughed, bending back down and laying a big one on Jeremy...right on the lips! It was pretty obvious that mouths were kept closed and no tongues were involved, but Tommy’s kiss had caught us all off guard, including Jeremy. After just a few seconds, Jeremy was struggling to push Tommy away. The rest of us all were laughing by now. We all thought it was funny how Tommy had turned Jeremy’s teasing around so that he was the butt of it instead of Tommy. Tommy finally stood back up, looked thoughtful and said, “Hummm, not bad. Maybe I should climb over the fence once in a while to do some exploring.”
Silvy hit him hard on the arm. “If I catch you exploring on either side of the fence, you’ll lose those precious parts that give you the exploring urge!”
Jeremy was still in shock and speechless from the kiss, but the rest of us were really breaking up at his reaction, and the look of foreseen pain on Tommy’s face from Silvy’s threat. We were laughing so hard and loud that a nurse came to the door, looked around to make sure everything was okay, and then pulled the door shut.
“I think we just received a gentle hint to not be so rowdy,” Jeremy’s dad said.
Jeremy looked up at Tommy, “You kissed me!” Then he made a big show of wiping the kiss off like we did when we were kids.
Before Tommy could respond, Silvy spoke up. “Pathetic wasn’t it? I’ve been trying to teach him to do it right but he’s a slow learner.” This brought the house down again and this time Jeremy and Tommy were laughing too.
We spent the next hour in quiet talk among us. Jeremy followed each separate conversation, but he would get tired and close his eyes to rest for four or five minutes at a time. After about an hour, TJ said he needed to get home, so he could eat and get his homework done. He offered to give me, Tommy, and Silvy a ride home. Tommy and Silvy took him up on it, but I told him thanks, but I was going to stay and ride home with Jeremy’s parents. He told Jeremy he’d see him after practice tomorrow and the three of them left. Jeremy’s mom and dad asked us if we wanted anything from the cafeteria, but we were both okay, so they went down to get something to eat before the cafeteria closed for the evening.
After all the commotion for the last hour or so, the silence was deafening when we were finally alone. “This was fun, wasn’t it?” Jeremy asked.
“Listen. Do you hear that?” I listened but didn’t hear anything and told him so. “Yeah, sounds good doesn’t it?” We both laughed a little and then settled into a comfortable silence. “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to stay awake much longer, Tony.”
“That’s okay, Bro. If you’re not awake before visiting hours are over, I’ll be here right after school tomorrow.” Jeremy never woke up the rest of the night, so we spent the time just talking and watching him sleep.
The next morning, Jennifer thought it was really funny when I told her about Tommy kissing Jeremy. She told me his mom and dad were really glad that Tommy had met all of us. He used to be shy and introverted, and they were amazed at the change in him. The bell rang and as we left, she said, “I’ll see you this afternoon.”
It was raining that afternoon, so I decided to ride the bus to the hospital. It would have been much faster to walk with the screwed up schedules the local transit authority had, but I would have been soaked before I’d walked a block. I didn’t want to risk a cold, because I knew the hospital frowned on sick people coming to visit people already sick.
I could hear Jeremy laughing as I neared his room. I was surprised to see Jennifer sitting by his bed. “Hi,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“I work here two days a week. I told you this morning, I’d see you this afternoon.”
“I just figured you meant in the morning and misspoke.”
“Have a seat, Tony,” Jeremy said. “We were just talking about you.”
“You couldn’t have been. I heard you laughing when I was coming up the hallway and I know you wouldn’t be laughing at me behind my back.”
“Yeah, right,” he said. “Sit down, then, and we’ll laugh at you to your face.”
“The only thing funny about me is my choice of friends,” I laughed.
“I’d love to stay and laugh at you, Tony, but when you volunteer, they expect you to actually do something,” Jennifer said with a smile. “Maybe I can come back when my shift is over, and we can all laugh at you then? Oh, I almost forgot. What book did you want, Jeremy? I’ll look and if we have it downstairs, I’ll bring it back up to you on my lunch break.”
“Huck Finn, if you have it.”
“Okay, I’ll see you guys later.”
Jeremy’s mom came in as Jennifer was leaving. “Who was that?” she asked.
“Tony’s new girlfriend,” Jeremy said, looking at me with a smirk.
“She is not my girlfriend,” I said. “She’s just a friend.” Then, trying to change the subject, I asked, “Why do you want a book? You hate to read.”
“I don’t intend to read it.”
“Then why do you want it?”
“So I’ll have something to throw at you,” he laughed. I pretended to be shocked. “Really, it was just an excuse to get Jennifer to come back. I like her and she likes you. According to her, she has a hard time getting you to talk, so I figured if she was here, you’d be more comfortable talking if I was around.”
“So you’re playing cupid for me?”
“Somebody had better or you’ll be an eighty year old man and still afraid to talk to a girl you like,” he laughed.
“Don’t let him pressure you, Tony,” his mom interjected. “When the right person comes along for you, you’ll do just fine. She does look like a nice girl, though,” she added, with a twinkle in her eyes.
It was almost six when Jennifer brought the book back to Jeremy’s room. She started to hand it to him, when I said, “No! Give it to me. He’ll just throw it at me when he gets to a word he has to sound out. I might as well just read it to him or I’ll be spending all my time having to tell him what the words over two syllables are.”
“See?” Jeremy said to Jennifer. “I told you I could get him to read it to me without having to ask. Hang around and I’ll teach you all my tricks, Jennifer, they might come in handy some day.” Jeremy, his mom, and Jennifer all had a good laugh at my expense, and I just set there feeling like a dork for letting him trick me again.
“This is your dinner break, right, Jennifer?”
“Tony hasn’t had anything to eat yet either.” Turning to me, he continued, “Why don’t you go with her and get something to eat too, Tony. I feel like napping anyway.”
“That sounds good,” Jennifer said. “I hate eating alone and could use the company.”
“Are you sure?” I asked her.
“Yeah, maybe we could get to know each other better.”
“Okay,” I said smiling at her. We left for the cafeteria and I smiled to myself. I knew I’d just been manipulated again by Jeremy, but this time, I didn’t mind.
We met TJ coming down the hall. The two of us just nodded to each other as we passed.
This pretty much became our routine over the next couple of weeks. On the days she worked, I’d eat dinner with her and when she got off, she’d come back to Jeremy’s room and stay until visiting hours were over; then catch a ride home with Jeremy’s parents and I.
Even on the days she didn’t work, she would be there and we’d eat together, and then her mom or dad would come by to get her a couple of hours later. TJ and I would pass in the hallway nearly every day, but were seldom in Jeremy’s room together and never spoke at school.
I was beginning to feel a little guilty about my feelings. I was happy when Jennifer and I were together, but I didn’t think I had the right to be happy when Jeremy was dying. Jeremy asked me what was wrong, one day, and I told him how I was feeling. He called me a doofus and told me he wanted me to be happy, and he felt better knowing that I’d have Jennifer for support when he could no longer babysit me. “There’s something you have to do too,” he told me. “You have to talk to Jennifer and let her know how you’re feeling. If I noticed something wrong, you can bet she has too. She’s a keeper, Tony, don’t screw around and lose her, okay?”
She had started eating lunch with Tommy, Silvy, Duane, and I. I told her I needed to talk to her, and instead of eating lunch, we took a walk around the school grounds. I told her everything I’d told Jeremy and what he’d said to me. “I like you Jen, I like you a lot. I know I get moody but I want you to know, it’s not you. I hope you can have the patience with me that I’m going to need for a while.”
“I like you a lot too, Tony. I knew something was bothering you, and I’m glad you told me. Don’t worry, I’m going to be here, I don’t plan on going anywhere.” We hugged and she laid her head on my shoulder. We stood there a long time, just enjoying the closeness. We heard the first warning bell ring in the distance, and we reluctantly pulled apart. We were still facing each other when she reached over and took my face in her two hands and leaned over and kissed me. Neither of us said anything as we walked back towards the school, hand in hand.
That afternoon, when I got to the hospital, Jeremy was alone and crying. I was concerned. This was the first time I’d gotten there and his mom wasn’t in the room. He told me she was at the hospital office filling out some papers of some kind. Then he looked at me with the saddest expression I’d ever seen on him and said, “I need your help, Tony.”
“Anything, Bro. You know that.”
“I don’t want to die here, Tony.” I didn’t know what to say, so just waited for him to continue. “Just look around. There’s nothing here to show I was ever here, and when I die, they’ll clean it all up, but it’ll still look the same. I want to go home. I want to be around my family and friends. I want to see my stuff. I want to hear mom and dad talking downstairs and the sounds and smells of dinner cooking and dishes being washed. I want to die in my own bed, surrounded by the people and things I love...not in this place.”
He’d been in there a little over two weeks. He didn’t have the fever anymore, but he’d steadily gotten weaker, and now was spending more time asleep than awake. We all knew the time was getting really short. “What do you need me to do, Jeremy?”
“Help me convince Mom and Dad. Help me explain it all to them.”
“Okay, I’ll help you all I can.” By this time, we both had tears running down our cheeks. When his mom got back to the room, both our tears were stopped and I was reading him the last chapter of Huck Finn.
When it was almost time for Jennifer to get there, I told Jeremy I needed some fresh air and would be back shortly. I waited downstairs for Jennifer and told her what was going on. She asked what I wanted her to do, and I asked if she could watch for TJ, and when he got there to tell him there was a family meeting going on, and see if he’d wait to see Jeremy in the cafeteria with her until it was over. “I’ll come down and let you guys know when, so you can come up and see him.” I said. I went back to Jeremy’s room, and the three of us waited for his dad to get there.
When his dad got there, Jeremy told them he needed to talk to them, and asked his dad to tell the nurses we needed some time alone and shut the door. His mom and dad both looked concerned, but his dad did what he’d asked. The next hour and a half were the hardest I’d ever had. It was bad enough, knowing Jeremy was dying, but a lot harder to talk about it. I think the four of us shed more tears than we’d shed, combined, in our whole lives. His mom and dad were unsure, but agreed that they’d talk it over with the doctor tomorrow and, if there was a way, they’d bring him home.
I left the room, so Jeremy and his parents could have some private time, and went to the cafeteria. TJ and Jennifer were sitting at a table talking and drinking sodas. I sat at the table with them and Jennifer asked what had happened. I told them what had been decided. “Well, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” TJ asked. “I mean, if the doctors think he’s in good enough shape to go home?”
“It’s good for him because he’ll be where he wants to be.” I answered. “It’s not a good thing for the rest of us, though, because of the reason he’s going home. He’s going home to die.” I laid my head down on my crossed arms on the table and struggled to keep from breaking down. I heard TJ’s chair slide back and him getting up and walking away. Jennifer reached over, took one of my hands in hers, and gave it a little squeeze.
A few minutes later, I felt a heavier hand on my shoulder and heard something being set on the table near me. “I brought you a soda, Tony,” I heard TJ say. I thought he’d left, and looked up in surprise. TJ looked as bad as I felt. I could see that he, too, was fighting back tears. “Do you think it’d be okay if I went up to see him now?”
All I could do was nod, and he turned and walked away. He had taken only a few steps, when he turned and looked back at me. “Hang in there, Tony. Remember when you said we had to love him enough to do what he needed? He needs us to be strong for him now. You’re the strong one, Tony. If you can’t stay strong for him, the rest of us don’t stand a chance.” I watched in amazement as he walked away. For over a month, he’d barely spoken to me and never unless I’d said something to him first. He came through for me this time though. He was right. We all had to stay strong for Jeremy.