Palo Alto Weekly 20th Annual Short Story
Second Place Teen
by Carolyn Rennels
We used to get up so early in the morning that it seemed more night than day and the stars, though fading, still shone from high above. Of course we never looked at the stars. Taking pleasure in such pretty things would have marked us as sissies. I was, however, aware of him stealing glances at the twinkling mass while he thought I wasn't looking, and surely he caught me looking too once in a while. We would walk side by side, shivering a little from the chill that hung in the Massachusetts air, to the very middle of our forest, soaking in the warmth that rose from the soil below us.
Most of the time we wouldn't notice when the sun rose, the mass of branches encircling us was so dense and we were so intent on talking about anything and everything. We felt uninhibited under the cover of night, as though whatever we said would be erased by the time day came.
It is hard to say how our friendship developed but I content myself with the explanation that things that are meant to be somehow find ways to be so, and that's all. We used to ride to the seventh grade together on our bikes, his a deep sea-blue and mine the soft pink that marked it as a hand-me-down from my sister. As I got older and more aware of the girls who walked by with ribbons in their hair this preowned bike became more and more of an embarrassment to me. We would take turns riding on his rusty handlebars instead, one of us pedaling, both of us whooping as we soared drunkenly along the dirt road. I have since found that gravel takes the magic out of roads, snatches away the feeling of a wide-open opportunity.
Time passed, full of trips to town in the splintery wooden backs of pickup trucks and adventures high in the branches of the best climbing trees I have ever known. Every father tells his children how innocent the time of his childhood was, and mine was a magical time, but instead I find myself telling my kids stories of Tom and me. Tom was his name, such a horribly ordinary name for someone who lit up my childhood years.
I heard the news the day after Christmas, when everybody is tired out from celebrating, lying around with their brand new, useless things. It it was 2:42 in the afternoon by the digital clock in the kitchen; I've found it hard to forget anything about that moment. My kids, Chloe and Jeff, were in their rooms and my wife Kate was gardening out back. I was all alone when I picked up our new phone and heard that Tom had cancer.
Forty some years had gone by since Tom and I were in middle school, and we kept in touch through e-mails and the occasional visit, making the commute between his home in San Diego and mine in Illinois. I made the journey again, using up the United Airlines miles that Kate and I had saved up from our family trips to Europe. On the plane I bought bubbly drinks, opened peanut packages and tried to distract myself from thoughts of Tom. The night before as I packed my old brown suitcase Kate had asked me why I needed to fly across the country to see somebody who I only visited once or twice a year. I couldn't give her a straight answer, but I knew that if she had grown up with someone like Tom she would do the same thing. Tom had wanted to meet me at the airport but couldn't miss his doctor's appointment so I met him in Jefferson Hospital instead. My shoes squeaked on the polished linoleum floors as I walked up to the blond-haired receptionist at the front desk. I asked for Tom Whiteford and was directed to room K-23 at the end of the hall.
Later Tom and I sat at a little café next to the public park. We had spent two hours together trying to understand the doctor's medical lingo as we stared at x-rays showing the white bones of Tom's chest being attacked by three tumors. I got Tom to smile as we talked about what the tumors looked like (I thought rabbits, he thought piranhas). The doctor told us what serious business this was, no laughing matter.
After we finished our dinner (we had both stuffed ourselves with bread rolls and only managed to eat half of our entrées), Tom and I walked to the park. We sat on the grass because the benches were filled with mothers watching their children play on the darkening structure. Even though there was no canopy of trees over our heads, it somehow reminded me of the nights Tom and I had spent together in the forest, with the ground radiating warmth. I wished that we could talk as openly with each other now as we had so many years ago in the forest. Tom especially was reluctant to share his feelings about his cancer, and I couldn't blame him for being scared, but I knew that if he had been a child he would have told me everything. Kids have a way of making things seem smaller and simpler than they are. Or maybe it's adults who complicate and dwell on things.
We sat there for a couple of minutes, than lay down with our faces to the stars and the dampness of the grass seeping into our shirts. I looked up at the stars and again remembered sitting in the warm forest. My memories were a cycle of old and new, of dirt roads and gravel, of times that I would never forget and the present. I didn't know what would happen to Tom. I hoped he would be Ok. Before I flew back home Tom and I scheduled a camping trip for the following weekend, in the days just before he went into chemo. I knew that Kate would be skeptical again, wondering why I was spending so much time with Tom.
I would just tell her that some people find it hard to let go.