Between us and the sun
The outer planets don’t have phases. The moon has phases, and Venus and Mercury have phases, because they sometimes come between us and the sun. To us, they are sometimes made partially of shadows. But the outer planets are too far away. They could care less about us, let alone what lies between us and their sun. They don’t want our perspective of them. They’re immune to our labeling of phases and our view of shadows. It’s worked out for them so far.
That’s the thought that put me to sleep. I’d never thought of the planets much, but for some reason — maybe it was sleeping outside or the edibles we’d stacked on our s’mores — that night the planets were my new obsession. I closed my eyes on the stars, so many more than I’d ever seen in the city, and rolled onto some sharp twigs and let myself feel them for all they were worth through my sleeping bag. Ezra was already snoring, his fingers intertwined with Nicola’s, asleep beside him. Her beanie had slipped halfway off her bald head. I was tempted to pull it back on, but she’d been having insomnia lately and it would’ve been cruel to wake her. Chemo fatigued most people, but it’d just made Nicola nocturnal.
I woke up before the others, those twigs finding new spots on me to prod me in during my restless sleep until I had to give it up. My breath shone like the morning dew I had to shake off with my sleeping bag. Fog rose from the lake, or maybe it was steam, or maybe those two were the same thing, but, either way, I was pulling off my quarter zip and fleece pants and walking down to the water’s edge, naked but for a pair of spandex, the only thing that would dry afterward. I felt a twinge of guilt for disturbing the glassy surface of the water, but, damn, was it warm. Was it warm or was I cold? It didn’t seem to matter as I walked in up to my breasts, goosebumps adding to the imperfections of my skin, crawling across the surgical scars on my neck. I paused to consider the contrast of the temperature above and below the meniscus, the difference in the kind of soft the air was and the kind of soft the water was. As an experiment, I leaned forward and dipped one frozen nipple into the lake. It softened. The lake was warm.
You’d think all the good stories come out of freezing, stormy water that wrecks ships and destroys island nations, but there are stories about calm water, too. They just always involve the water getting disturbed in some way. Like, in Greek mythology, there was this guy called Tantalus who was an amazing cook, and the gods made him cook them a feast. Tantalus wanted to put all he could into the meal, so much so that he sacrificed his own son and made him the main course. The gods hated human sacrifice, which you’d think Tantalus would’ve known, and once they realized what they’d been served, they damned Tantalus never to be able to eat or drink again. Tantalus was forced to stand in a pool of fresh, clear water under a tree hanging with ripe fruit, but whenever he reached up or down to eat or drink, the fruit would shrivel and rot or the water would recede from his outstretched hand. Water is an agent of vengeance.
Another myth was about a god called Alpheus who fell in love with Artemis, the goddess of nighttime or something, and to hide from Alpheus, Artemis ran into a river and covered her face with mud so that he wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from the nymphs and dryads. Then Alpheus was turned into a river himself for being a creep and was used by Hercules to clean horseshit out of some stables. Water is a place of refuge (and nature’s poop scoop).
Lifting my knees to my chest, I slipped down under the water. It was murky, but not in a way that made it too dark, and I dug below the rocky bottom to where the sand began and pulled a handful up with me to the surface. I rubbed it into my face, just like Artemis, scrubbing away the oil that had accumulated overnight on my cheeks, my forehead and behind my ears. For how warm the water was, the sand was cool, and it felt as though it drew all the heat from my head.
I blinked open one eye and looked back to our campsite. Elio had woken up and he was standing over at the edge of our clearing, facing the woods, peeing. His nest of curly hair was all flopped over to one side and his scrawny back hunched forward. He finished and turned around. We blinked at each other for a few moments, and Elio raised a hand. I waved back, toward myself — join me. He pulled off his sweater and T-shirt, leaving just his boxers, and dubiously picked his way around the still-sleeping couple down to the water. He waded in slowly as I had, but once the water reached his knees, he dove under. I dipped my face in to wash off the scrub and opened my eyes underwater, watching him swim toward me until he had his hands on my hips and was kissing my waist.
We sat together around the breakfast campfire. Ezra and Nicola looked suspicious through their sleepy eyes but I didn’t address it. Better to let them make their own assumptions. I fried eggs in a little stone pan over the tiny flame while Elio sliced the tops off strawberries with his hunting knife. Ezra unscrewed his water bottle for Nicola while she counted out her pills and swallowed them one by one. Ezra had the types of hands that boys can have, the kind with impossibly long fingers that seem as though they could wrap around an entire basketball or reach across four octaves on a piano and the tiny orange pill canisters were lost in them like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. While the eggs fried, I laid back and rested my head on my rolled up pants.
Above us, pine needles danced in the morning wind and considered raining down on us, only to send flecks of sap in their place. The sky was gray, nothing but clouds, but the sun was all the brighter for it, diffracting across its entire domain, looking like the mouth of a tunnel that was already behind us.
Nicola scooted toward my side of the fire and rolled down next to me while Ezra took over my egg duty. She laid her head on my chest, facing me, the tip of her nose tickling my chin. I felt her warm breath on my neck, the breath that always seemed to smell like nothing at all. Sterile, like the hospital rooms she’d been in and out of for the past five years warding off a particularly stubborn bout of leukemia. I’d joked before that her breath was due to her never breathing fresh air anymore, and I’m sure she must have only invited me camping to make me watch her take deep breaths. I felt her blow on my neck, then laugh at herself. She reached up and slapped her hand to my forehead, let it slide down my face, pulling my lower lip down my chin. I licked her fingers and she snatched back her hand, wiping it on my sleeve. She rolled her head to face down to my feet. Nicola didn’t like to look up. I think she was afraid of the sky.
It rained during our hike. Like an idiot, I wore a fleece jacket and my fleece pants, and by the time we were halfway up the mountain breaking for lunch, I was soaked through. The others had spare clothing and were all smart enough to wear windbreakers, so I assembled a new outfit and wrapped a tarp from my pack around my shoulders as a sort of rain resistant cape. Elio picked me up by the waist, “Dirty Dancing” style, and ran a few paces while I kept my arms stretched out, the Superwoman of the Rockies.
We paused on an overlook, the lake visible a mile or so away from our vantage point. It was sunny over there, the cloudline breaking just over the beach. A strange sort of promised land in the direction whence we’d come. The stretch of damn forest and rock that separated us from that sunny oasis felt impassable, a horizontal expedition equivalent to trying to reach outer space, only with more obstacles standing in the way.
I tossed a rock experimentally off the cliff. It was lost in the fog and made no sound over the din of the rain drumming on the earth. Ezra came up behind me and handed me another rock the size of his fist. I lobbed that one, and we both tracked it with outstretched hands until it was lost in the trees. Ezra swore he heard a thud. I swore I heard my shoulder pop out as I’d thrown that one, but he didn’t believe me, either.
At the summit, the rain stopped. Or maybe we were above the clouds, but that seemed unlikely, given how easily even Nicola could breathe. The air hung with that post-storm tension, unsure whether it could relax, exhale. We padded across a composite of pine needles and dirt and pebbles all glued together with sap in a cross-stitch of browns and greens, absorbing the sound of our footsteps and leaving no tracks. I wondered if animals could still smell we’d been there, whether the damp ground trapped or masked our scent.
Would Nicola be detected at all? Riding on Elio’s back? I’d been hunched over for the past few miles, staring at her dangling ankles to keep on course, watching them swing limply, parentheses around Elio’s scrawny legs doing their best not to drag his feet. Ezra led our pack, walking stick in hand, a fallen branch he’d picked up at the base of the mountain. Ezra was easily the strongest of all of us, but was still getting used to balancing on the new leg, a gift from his sarcoma in exchange for the original leg, and he leaned heavily on the stick on his right side. It looked as if he was rowing a gondola. I told him that and he reached back to whack me with the stick.
Four kids (or, I guess, young adults), all who’d been closer to dying than to living lately, unsupervised in the middle of nature with absolutely no means to get help should it be needed, allowed to go off for a week and tempt their odds. Test nature. We were all climbing for a different reason. Ezra to prove he could do it, Nicola to find some sort of absolute silence to forget her world of beeping monitors and whirring generators, Elio because I’d asked him to, and I to shorten the distance between me and the sun. It wasn’t as romantic as it probably could’ve been, but we’d never had great luck with how things could be.
My own story had begun and ended within the course of nine months. I never really counted myself among the others, I hadn’t suffered for it, really. Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I’d felt the swelling in my neck and had a few months of treatments before the doctors went in and pulled out what hurt. Now, I just had gnarly scars that I planned to adorn with tattoos after college and an annual checkup.
It was weird being the lucky type of cancer patient. Everyone gives you sympathy and you have to go through most of the same stuff as the other kids with cancer, but it’s like getting a sample. I did intravenous treatments for three months. I stayed in the hospital for a total of about four weeks. I attended a depressing support group twice. My condition never got bad enough that I went to church or made right with my enemies. There were a few bad nights and one or two real scares when the cancer began to spread, but it was never anything that couldn’t be fixed within the next two or three rounds of treatment. I got to miss a bunch of school and was made prom queen, so all in all it wasn’t so bad. The shitty thing is saying all of that. Like, “Yeah, I had cancer, not too bad, actually.” I was the asshole in the World War I camp whose tummy was a little upset while everyone else around him was dying of dysentery. I was the princess in the castle complaining about a dry pastry at the ball while the peasants tried to outlive the plague. Try and complain that your suffering wasn’t bad enough. To anyone who hasn’t suffered, you’re still someone to be pitied. To anyone who has, you’re worse than you think you are.
I met Elio during those intravenous treatments. What a classic, sick kid love story. I think our medicine bags touched while we complained about the slow internet not letting our Twitter feeds load. Elio was in for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which means he won the “whose odds are worse” game we’ve all played a hundred times. He was in intensive chemo for a year, though now he’d been in remission for two. He got two checkups a year, and he was pre-med on track to graduate a year early.
The other two were from that support group Elio and I went to those two times. We hated them. Ezra and Nicola were so into it, they were spreading their positivity and making people weep with hope and they lead the prayer at the end and, wow, did Elio and I want to just punch them in their self-righteous faces. Unfortunately, outside of group, Ezra and Nicola were just as hilarious and cynical as the two of us, even if they were a sickeningly cute couple. I’d dared Elio to ask them to do a lunch date with us, assuming they’d say no because they had to go build a house for homeless kittens or something, but they said yes, so the four of us got hotdogs and Diet Cokes and bitched about bad hospital staff for an afternoon.
Nicola was the only one of us who still lived in the hospital. Nicola was also the only one of us with odds less than 40 percent and the only one of us who’d gotten a Wish from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She called it having a “time of departure,” meaning that at some point about three months ago some doctor who thought he knew everything said she had six months to live, which is a fucked up thing to say to somebody. She used her Wish on a cash donation to the hospital which had done hardly anything to extend her life, in exchange for four vacation days hiking with her friends. Enter Elio, Ezra, and Shannon. The hospital trusted Ezra, as did Nicola’s parents, and they collectively tolerated Elio and me, so here we were, with tracker bracelets around our wrists like a band of delinquents and a way-over-the-top mess of camping supplies, chasing sunsets and existential meaning.
Lunch on the summit was a bougie affair. We had peanut butter sandwiches, potato chips, baby carrots and miniature cheesecakes. Nicola chased the meal with her second round of pills, and I watched my feet while she did this, that feeling of guilt spreading in my stomach. Nicola then pulled a book out of her backpack and held it up. “Anyone mind spending an hour or two hanging out? Rest up for the way back?” We agreed. I grabbed a Coke from Ezra’s pack and strung up my hammock between two trees, then hopped in for a nap. A nap, however, I did not have, thanks to Ezra, who climbed into my hammock with me and began pontificating, in a way that only a man with half a metal leg can.
“Shannon, I am not an old man, I am not a young man, I’m am not evenly wholly a man at all.” He indicated his leg. “I do not pretend to be an expert in many things. I have never been to New York City or written a novel. I have not experienced great loss, though that one is coming. And until today, I had never even climbed a mountain. But, that is why we are still here, is it not? We still have too much to do, too many people to meet, and too many stories to tell.”
“Very good,” I told him. “The timing needs a little work.” He pressed on as if I’d said nothing.
“Take the four of us. We are the band of misfits to star in any teen movie for which they need us. We have it all: charm, wit, tragic backstories — one of us even has a pending time of death. Tell me that’s not a compelling group of protagonists.”
“Is there a point coming?”
“Is there ever? I’m just observing. Be an observer, Shan. Don’t think so hard about everything, alright? You’re stressing the rest of us out.”
“I am not.”
“You’re stressing me out.”
“That sounds like your problem.”
“Well, add it to the list.”
Ezra hopped out of my hammock and crossed the clearing to join Nicola. When he approached, Nicola began reading out loud so he could hear. She did that a lot, like she was trying to create a firm impression of what her voice sounded like while she could. I wondered if I would have the foresight to do things like that, were it me. Probably not. I just listened.