What Fun it is
By: Emma Mustaca
There were no smiles on the hospital ward that day.
Mum came in, as usual, at precisely the same time the long, dark hand counting down my hours hit the ten. Even she did not smile. She looked as tired as the rest of the room felt. Last year, I remember her telling my sister who some much stress from school had given her “unsightly” dark circles under her eyes. Unsightly. As if showing signs of suffering under the broken human condition was unbearable to look at. Like being worn out from the sluggish hell of it all was an embarrassing weakness to be swept under the rug. I wondered if that’s what she thought when she looked in the mirror this morning. Unsightly dark circles punched into the hollow space beneath her eyes, exhaustion written into every line of her face like a well-crafted Shakespearian monologue, What did she think of me, then? Looking down at the bright yellow party bag, I wondered if this is how she thought she would be spending this day sixteen years ago still glowing with pregnancy before her waters broke.
She put a cool hand on the back of my bald head as she pressed a kiss to my similarly bare brow.
“Congratulations, sweetie,” she whispered, as if worried about waking the other terminals around me. Terminals. Like airports. As if they were ever going home. They were all dead to the world. At least she’d remembered not to say “happy birthday.”
Mum settled into an armchair she sat in so often, I figured to must have her butt print fossilized in it by now and unpacked my birthday bag for me; my knuckles were just too damn swollen.
“This one’s from your dad,” she said, laying down a yellow and white book lightly atop my thigh.
“‘The Learner’s Handbook’?” I questioned.
She gave a half-shrug before sweeping her grey hair over her shoulder. It had only the faintest touch of brown left. “He thought you might like to read it anyway. If there’s any chance.”
Any chance left of you living, she meant to add. But she didn’t. She didn’t say it, but she knew. We both did. It was practically written in bold between the lines on her forehead she tried to smooth out as my eyes skimmed over the front cover.
See, plenty of things happen when you turn sixteen. In pretty much all states, congratulations; you’re legal to bang! If your parents are crazy enough to let you, you can learn to drive the family car and pray to god you don’t get a scratch on it. But for all those good things, always remember that when you turn sixteen your chances of surviving cancer go down by half. Not that things were looking all that spectacular when I was fifteen and three hundred and sixty four days old either, but it certainly didn’t lift my spirits.
I set aside the book with a heavy sigh. I asked Mum, trying to force my croaky voice into sounding cheery, “What else?”
Mum made a show of rummaging around the bag. “Casey got you chocolates. She wanted to come this morning, but then she’d have to skip her history exam but her teachers have told me that she skips too much. God only knows where she goes,” she muttered as she placed the purple box on my bedside table alongside the get well cards.
Here, I wanted to say. Casey visited every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon during her English lessons. Brainy little shit doesn’t need them. I wanted to tell her how she should be spending more time and money on the daughter they had that was actually talented and was going to live at least a few more years. Who might become something other than worm food. What was the point for me anymore? It dawned on me then that if I didn’t do something, I was going to spend the rest of my life in this room. This one, hollow, soulless room. The clock on the walls ticked away, booming in the distance. Ending me one second at a time.
That’s when I realised Mum was still talking. Something mindless, no doubt.
“Mum?” I said.
She stopped immediately, her bloodshot blue eyes suddenly wide with panic. “Sweetie? What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”
I shook my head, though I was. You get used to it. “I’m dying, aren’t I?”
Mum hissed like it’d just called a nurse a bitch after a particularly painful needle. Though, following a few sniff and an awful lot of throat clearing, she said, “Yes, Jessica. Yes.”
I sighed. Thank god. “I don’t wanna die here,” I said. “There’s no chance of me living and this place…this place is the most depressing fucking thing ever. I’m sorry; it’s true.”
Mum could only look forlorn. “Are you saying you want to…pass at home?”
I nodded and nearly groaned at the effort. “I wanna go home. One last party before I shuffle off the mortal coil. Oh, Mum-Mum, don’t cry,” I said, alarmed at how quickly it came to her.
“I’m sorry,” she said, catching me in a tight hug. “I just don’t want lose you, Jess.”
Through all the cords and wire trying to tie me to the earth, I tried to hug her back. “I’ll be fine. Dying’s not a big deal, really. It’s just like I ’m having a really, really, really long nap upstairs. You’ll see me again eventually. Just…don’t leave me here. I hate it.”
I felt Mum’s chin bob on my shoulder. “Okay, sweetie. I’ll see what I can do. Just wait here, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, biting back the part of the sentence asking where she thought I might go.
That’s when I saw him in the corner of my eye, huge, hulking and dark. His black robes were tattered and frayed, the thousands of years of wear showing in every stitch. A skeletal hand curled around a scythe silver and curved beautifully, shining like a crescent moon.
“No,” I tried to protest as he walked toward me, black clouds floating in his wake. “No, I need to wait. She told me to wait. Just wait!”
He did not smile. He did not chuckle. Not a sound came from under the dark hood as he swung his black scythe, plunging me into the dark.