Silence. Deadly, earth-shattering silence. Emptiness so loud that it threatened to destroy me and spread my remnants to the four winds.
I sat there, staring at Bianca with my mouth hanging open.
“A tumor?” I said. “As in, cancer?”
“Yeah.” She pointed to the back of her neck. “It’s malignant and metastasized to my brain stem. It makes me get sick in weird ways, but the most common is intermittent aphasia. That’s what the doctors call my word swapping.”
“Cancer?” I said. “But you’re so young!”
“That makes cancer unlikely, not impossible.”
“Have they tried to fix it? Like, chemotherapy or surgery or something?”
Bianca shifted her shoulders. “They couldn’t get rid of the tumor without killing me too. The doctors said that, at best, they could keep the symptoms under control. They gave me six months to live. That was about a year ago.”
“My god,” I said, and my eyes welled up again. “And Cheryl knows about this.”
“She does, and it’s been hell for her. But, well.” Bianca gave a bittersweet smile. “You know her.”
“I don’t think I do,” I said, and then something clicked in my head. It was jumping to conclusions in the worst way, but it made sense. “Let me guess. Cheryl’s completely in love with you, isn’t she?”
Her smile turned sly. “Was it that obvious?”
“Not at first,” I said. “But she said a couple of things about you... and the way you two bicker like an old married couple, but still spend all your time together.”
“Very true. After our first couple of months in sixth grade, she said she had feelings for me. Knowing Cheryl, I expected her to forget about it in five minutes, but that didn’t happen. Months passed, she kept saying she loved me and wanted to marry me. That put me in a tough spot. How could I accept her feelings, knowing I was going to die soon? I didn’t want to hurt her like that, so I told her about my tumor. I told her we couldn’t be together, since I’m living on borrowed time.”
“And?” I said. “How did she respond?”
“Exactly the way you’d expect her to,” said Bianca. “She said, ‘I don’t care. I still love you, and I’ll defeat your tumor.’”
I let out a pffft noise, trying not to laugh. That did sound like Cheryl.
“And that’s how it is today,” she said. “She still pesters me sometimes, saying she wants to be girlfriends, and I keep telling her no. I don’t want to hurt her for no reason.”
“It seems like you’re hurting her anyway.”
I blurted that out before thinking about it. Bianca’s eyes narrowed, and she gave me an annoyed look.
I hesitated, but there was no turning back now. I just played the role of the nosy friend who gives advice where it’s not welcome. Go one inch in that direction, and you may as well go a mile.
“Well, look at yourself,” I said. “Cheryl is crazy about you, and her feelings won’t go away just because you tell her no. When you die, it’s still going to hurt her, even if you’re not officially a couple. You may as well enjoy the time you have together.”
Bianca folded her arms, looked away. “It’s not that easy.”
“It is too that easy!” I said, smacking a hand on the bed. “Look, we all die some day. Whether it’s tomorrow or sixty years from now, we all have to deal with death at some point. That shouldn’t keep us from loving each other right now. And you know what’s weird?” I pointed a finger at her. “I think you know that. You’re a smart girl. The problem isn’t whether you’re going to die soon. The real question is, do you love her back?”
Bianca still looked away from me, and now her eyes glistened. She sniffled once.
“Of course I do. I can’t help that. It’s just....” She pressed her palms into her eyes. “I don’t want to be the reason she suffers.”
“You won’t be,” I said. “It’s not your fault she’s in love with you, and it won’t be your fault that she’s heartbroken when you pass away. But if you really want to keep from hurting her, then you know what to do. Stand up, right now. Go find her, and tell her how much you care. Hug her, kiss her, and don’t let her go.”
She dropped her hands, looked at me with her eyes red and moist.
“Is that really how it works?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it sounds good, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it does.” She threw her tablet at me. “Here, hold this.”
I caught the tablet, though it hit me in the chest, forcing an oomph out of me. Bianca tossed the covers off and got out of bed. She stomped out of the nurse’s office and went down the hallway.
“Wait,” I said. “Why am I sitting here? I want to see this.”
I got up and followed her out, holding her tablet to my chest. The moment I was in the hallway, Lorelei appeared out of nowhere and fell into step with me.
“Oh, hi.” I kept walking, trying to keep Bianca in sight. “I guess you heard that whole conversation.”
She nodded, keeping pace with me.
“And what do you think?”
I smiled. It didn’t take a knowledge of French to understand that.
“Love you, too.” I grabbed her hand, interlocking fingers with her. “Come on. Bianca is about to do something awesome.”
Bianca marched out of the school building, and we followed a dozen steps behind her. She led us outside, across the school campus, toward the dining hall. As luck would have it, Cheryl was walking out of the dining hall just then. She saw Bianca charging up and stood there, looking confused.
“Um, hey?” She said. “Are you feeling be—”
Bianca talked over her. “Cheryl! I’m really sorry. I’ve been an idiot and I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“Idiot?” said Cheryl. “About what?”
Instead of answering, Bianca tackled her with a full-bodied hug, nearly knocking Cheryl off her feet.
“I love you,” she said. “I want you to be my girlfriend. I wasn’t brave enough to want that before, so I hope I’m not too late.”
Cheryl was stunned. She stood there, arms slack and dumbfounded, until she came to her senses and hugged Bianca back.
“About damned time,” she said, squeezing her eyes shut tight.
A few girls had been entering or leaving the dining hall as this spectacle happened. Bianca and Cheryl earned long passing stares. They made it worse by pulling apart to look lovingly into each other’s eyes, and then kissing in front of everyone.
Some girls gasped, staring agape. Others averted their eyes and hurried away. I was among the onlookers, but it didn’t feel right to stand here and stare. I tugged on Lorelei’s hand.
“We should give them some space,” I said.
Lorelei didn’t object. We headed past the public display of affection, heading into the dining hall. Bianca spoke up as we passed.
“I’m hungry,” she said. “Let’s go inside, and I’ll buy you lunch.”
“I already ate,” said Cheryl. “But I’ll keep you company.”
They followed us inside. We all got in line together, and became a group of four rather than two couples. I handed Bianca’s tablet back to her, but not before checking the time. Our lunch break wasn’t yet over. We had enough time to eat, so long as we were quick about it.
I regarded Cheryl and Bianca as we waited in line, watching how they behaved toward each other. They were holding hands, leaning on each other, talking about useless things. I tried to pick out anything different about them. Now that they were officially a couple, maybe I could learn what couples do together.
We moved up through the line, reached the front counter, and we all but Cheryl ordered something quick. By the time we sat down and started eating, I still hadn’t noticed anything different about those two. It was an embarrassing thing to ask about, but my brain burned with curiosity.
“So, guys,” I said. “Now that you two are, you know, together. What are you going to do?”
They looked up at me, both with confused looks on their faces.
“Do?” said Bianca. “What do you mean?”
“If you mean intimate things,” said Cheryl, “I plan on doing all of it. Being Bianca’s girlfriend basically means I can rape her whenever I want, so I—”
Bianca stabbed her elbow into Cheryl’s ribs, silencing her.
“You try that, and I’ll cut off what little you have down there.”
Cheryl grabbed her side, her face flushing. She was in pain, but she smiled.
“I’m fine! It’s just foreplay.” She put her forehead down on the table, waiting for the pain to pass.
“I did that too hard, sorry.” Bianca rubbed a hand on Cheryl’s back. “But I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t say such offensive things.”
Cheryl gave a weak thumbs-up. “It’s okay. It’s worth it.”
I sat there, watching this exchange, still trying to notice anything different about them.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “You two are acting like you always do.”
Bianca looked up at me. “Are we supposed to do something else?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “You two are a couple. So, what can you do now that you couldn’t do when you weren’t a couple?”
Bianca leaned in close, spoke just above a whisper. “Are you talking about sex?”
I shook my head. “No, no. People who aren’t in love can still have sex. I mean, it’s like— ugh. I don’t know what I mean.”
“I don’t either,” said Bianca. “I’m not going to start treating Cheryl differently. In fact, you helped me realize that I was already treating her like my girlfriend, so I’d better admit it.”
“But then.” I exhaled, and my shoulders dropped. “What makes a romance different than a friendship? What is it you do with a lover than you don’t do with a friend?”
Bianca and Cheryl exchanged glances, asking each other that question with just a look. They both seemed to come to the same answer.
Lorelei took it upon herself to demonstrate the point. Sitting beside me, she wrapped her arms around me and leaned me against her, then kissed the top of my head.
“This,” she said.
I closed my eyes, nuzzled into her. She had such power over me, making me melt every time we touched. I inhaled sharply when the realization hit me. I had asked the question, what is it lovers do? The answer was simple.
They love each other.
The lunch break wound down, and we first-year students went back to class. Everything seemed bright and beautiful, from the sun in the sky to the trees on campus, from the school buildings to the girl who held my hand. The world is a happy place when you’re in love.
The four of us walked down the hallway in the main school building, heading for classroom 110. Our teacher had returned before us, since her voice came echoing down the hallway. She was talking to someone, using an annoyed tone of voice I had never heard from her.
I stepped up to the entrance, peeked in to see Ericka sitting at her desk. She had a cell phone to her head. I withdrew and stood back flat against the wall, holding a finger to my lips. The other girls took my cue and kept quiet.
Let’s listen, I mouthed to them. I expected someone to complain that it was wrong to eavesdrop, but no one did. We’re a bunch of girls, and girls are interested in this kind of thing.
“...know what I want,” Ericka was saying. “You just don’t know what you want.”
Silence, letting the person on the other end of the phone speak.
“But we can’t, and that’s not our fault. Homewrecker’s screwed everyone over.”
“And that’s it? You don’t love me anymore just because I can’t get pregnant?”
“You say that, but the way you’re acting makes me think you never cared about me. You just wanted a functioning uterus.”
“I did! I still do. I just can’t believe you want out because we can’t. By that logic, every person on the planet should just become a hermit until humanity dies out.”
“Yeah, whatever. I’m not listening to your excuses anymore. You want this to be over? Fine. It’s over.”
We heard the snap and thump of Ericka slapping her phone shut and throwing it on the desk. I peeked past the door frame again, and saw her sitting with her face in her hands. I looked back at the other girls, confused. What were we supposed to do? Lunch break was over, but I didn’t want to approach Ericka right after that call.
Cheryl had the solution. She shouldered past me and marched into the classroom, holding up one hand in greeting.
“Hi! We’re back!” she said. “Were you just on the phone?”
I wanted to smack Cheryl upside the head, but then I realized she had done the smartest thing. Cheryl was acting like herself, which wouldn’t let on that we had overheard anything.
Ericka looked up, blushing. She looked embarrassed for a single second, but she composed herself quickly.
“Yeah,” she said. “Some personal thing. Did you girls have a good lunch?”
The rest of us came in, and we each sat at our desks. We didn’t have cheerful poker faces like Cheryl, but hers was good enough for all of us.
“I don’t know about them,” said Cheryl, “but my lunch was so loaded with flavor and nutrition that it actually hurt me, and now I’m suffering severe internal bleeding. I should probably be taken to the hospital.”
Ericka stood up, taking her light pen in hand. “Sorry, no. I’ve had enough of my class fall ill today. Speaking of which, how do you feel Bianca?”
“Better, thanks.” Bianca kept her answer short to avoid swapping a word at the worst possible time.
“Good to hear,” said Ericka. “Well, now that lunch is over, it’s time for afternoon study. If you girls will navigate to this folder, you’ll find a document with some word problems to work on.”
The next couple of hours passed uneventfully. We worked on word problems, and the teacher worked at her desk. The classroom was silent but for the thumping noises of people typing on tablets.
As the afternoon wore on, Ericka fell into a pattern. She would work on papers for a few minutes, but then a light would blink on her cell phone. She would flip her phone open, get an annoyed look on her face, type something out, then shut the phone and put it down. The process repeated. Ericka was setting a bad example, texting during class, but I was curious what was in those messages.
Judging by the conversation we had overheard, it sounded like Ericka’s boyfriend or husband wanted to break up because they couldn’t have kids. Though it must not be that simple, or they wouldn’t still be texting now.
This was none of my business. I shouldn’t care what my teacher did, so long as she handed out assignments and graded my papers. Even so, I identified with her. Ericka had relationship problems caused by Homewrecker’s, and that disease was my problem too. Would that be me, fifteen years from now? Texting loved ones over some frustration caused by the human race dying out?
Thinking about Homewrecker’s always made me feel depressed, so I tried to put it out of my mind. I had word problems to do. Then the bell rang.
“Looks like that’s all for today.” Ericka stood up, clicking a button that wiped the blackboard clean. “Email me your work, then you’re free for the rest of the day.”
We did so, thumping our tablets a few times before turning them off.
“One last thing before you go,” Ericka walked up to the front of the room, taking our attention. “You four seem like well-mannered girls, so I don’t have to remind you of the school’s behavioral rules. Just because you have free time doesn’t mean you can make mischief. I’m living on campus this year. If the dorms are covered in eggs and toilet paper, I’ll know about it, and I’ll be none too pleased. Understood?”
I wanted to laugh at her. Did she know who she was talking to? We were a bunch of bookworms, much more likely to spend an afternoon reading or playing on our tablets. Not to mention that I had a girlfriend, and would love to spend an afternoon nuzzling her.
“We understand!” said Cheryl. “Any of our youthful indiscretions will be directed solely at each other, not school property.”
“That’s not much better,” said Ericka. “Anyway, have a good evening, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.”
We told her goodbye, and began readying to return to the dorm ourselves. After Ericka had left the room, I saw a blinking light out the corner of my eye. A cell phone sat on the teacher’s desk, the external screen blinking with one new message.
“Oh! She left her phone.” I picked it up, resisting the urge to flip it open and read through her texts.
“Did she?” said Cheryl. “You should take it back to her. Like she said, she’s living on campus, so you can drop it off at her place.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll do that. I’ll just go drop my tablet off in my room first.”
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