The fault in our stars (Chapter 3)
I stayed up pretty late that night reading The Price of Dawn. (Spoiler alert: The price of dawn is blood.) It wasn’t An Imperial Affliction, but the protagonist, Staff Sergeant Max Mayhem, was vaguely likable despite killing, by my count, no fewer than 118 individuals in 284 pages.
So I got up late the next morning, a Thursday. Mom’s policy was never to wake me up, because one of the job requirements of Professional Sick Person is sleeping a lot, so I was kind of confused at first when I jolted awake with her hands on my shoulders.
“It’s almost ten,” she said.
“Sleep fights cancer,” I said. “I was up late reading.”
“It must be some book,” she said as she knelt down next to the bed and unscrewed me from my large, rectangular oxygen concentrator, which I called Philip, because it just kind of looked like a Philip.
Mom hooked me up to a portable tank and then reminded me I had class. “Did that boy give it to you?” she asked out of nowhere.
“By it, do you mean herpes?”
“You are too much,” Mom said. “The book, Hazel. I mean the book.”
“Yeah, he gave me the book.”
“I can tell you like him,” she said, eyebrows raised, as if this observation required some uniquely maternal instinct. I shrugged. “I told you Support Group would be worth your while.”
“Did you just wait outside the entire time?”
“Yes. I brought some paperwork. Anyway, time to face the day, young lady.”
“Mom. Sleep. Cancer. Fighting.”
“I know, love, but there is class to attend. Also, today is… ” The glee in Mom’s voice was evident.
“Did you seriously forget?”
“It’s Thursday, March twenty-ninth!” she basically screamed, a demented smile plastered to her face.
“You are really excited about knowing the date!” I yelled back.
“HAZEL! IT’S YOUR THIRTY-THIRD HALF BIRTHDAY!”
“Ohhhhhh,” I said. My mom was really super into celebration maximization. IT’S ARBOR DAY! LET’S HUG TREES AND EAT CAKE! COLUMBUS BROUGHT SMALLPOX TO THE NATIVES; WE SHALL RECALL THE OCCASION WITH A PICNIC!, etc. “Well, Happy thirty-third Half Birthday to me,” I said.
“What do you want to do on your very special day?”
“Come home from class and set the world record for number of episodes of Top Chef watched consecutively?”
Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I’d had since I was, like, one—back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.
“You don’t want to go to a movie with Kaitlyn or Matt or someone?” who were my friends.
That was an idea. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll text Kaitlyn and see if she wants to go to the mall or something after school.”
Mom smiled, hugging the bear to her stomach. “Is it still cool to go to the mall?” she asked.
“I take quite a lot of pride in not knowing what’s cool,” I answered.
* * *
I texted Kaitlyn, took a shower, got dressed, and then Mom drove me to school. My class was American Literature, a lecture about Frederick Douglass in a mostly empty auditorium, and it was incredibly difficult to stay awake. Forty minutes into the ninety-minute class, Kaitlyn texted back.
Awesomesauce. Happy Half Birthday. Castleton at 3:32?
Kaitlyn had the kind of packed social life that needs to be scheduled down to the minute. I responded:
Sounds good. I’ll be at the food court.
Mom drove me directly from school to the bookstore attached to the mall, where I purchased both Midnight Dawns and Requiem for Mayhem, the first two sequels to The Price of Dawn, and then I walked over to the huge food court and bought a Diet Coke. It was 3:21.
I watched these kids playing in the pirate-ship indoor playground while I read. There was this tunnel that these two kids kept crawling through over and over and they never seemed to get tired, which made me think of Augustus Waters and the existentially fraught free throws.
Mom was also in the food court, alone, sitting in a corner where she thought I couldn’t see her, eating a cheesesteak sandwich and reading through some papers. Medical stuff, probably. The paperwork was endless.
At 3:32 precisely, I noticed Kaitlyn striding confidently past the Wok House. She saw me the moment I raised my hand, flashed her very white and newly straightened teeth at me, and headed over.
She wore a knee-length charcoal coat that fit perfectly and sunglasses that dominated her face. She pushed them up onto the top of her head as she leaned down to hug me.
“Darling,” she said, vaguely British. “How are you?” People didn’t find the accent odd or off-putting. Kaitlyn just happened to be an extremely sophisticated twenty-five-year-old British socialite stuck inside a sixteen-year-old body in Indianapolis. Everyone accepted it.
“I’m good. How are you?”
“I don’t even know anymore. Is that diet?” I nodded and handed it to her. She sipped through the straw. “I do wish you were at school these days. Some of the boys have become downright edible.”
“Oh, yeah? Like who?” I asked. She proceeded to name five guys we’d attended elementary and middle school with, but I couldn’t picture any of them.
“I’ve been dating Derek Wellington for a bit,” she said, “but I don’t think it will last. He’s such a boy. But enough about me. What is new in the Hazelverse?”
“Nothing, really,” I said.
“Health is good?”
“The same, I guess?”
“Phalanxifor!” she enthused, smiling. “So you could just live forever, right?”
“Probably not forever,” I said.
“But basically,” she said. “What else is new?”
I thought of telling her that I was seeing a boy, too, or at least that I’d watched a movie with one, just because I knew it would surprise and amaze her that anyone as disheveled and awkward and stunted as me could even briefly win the affections of a boy. But I didn’t really have much to brag about, so I just shrugged.
“What in heaven is that?” asked Kaitlyn, gesturing to the book.
“Oh, it’s sci-fi. I’ve gotten kinda into it. It’s a series.”
“I am alarmed. Shall we shop?”
We went to this shoe store. As we were shopping, Kaitlyn kept picking out all these open-toed flats for me and saying, “These would look cute on you,” which reminded me that Kaitlyn never wore open-toed shoes on account of how she hated her feet because she felt her second toes were too long, as if the second toe was a window into the soul or something. So when I pointed out a pair of sandals that would suit her skin tone, she was like, “Yeah, but…” the but being but they will expose my hideous second toes to the public, and I said, “Kaitlyn, you’re the only person I’ve ever known to have toe-specific dysmorphia,” and she said, “What is that?”
“You know, like when you look in the mirror and the thing you see is not the thing as it really is.”
“Oh. Oh,” she said. “Do you like these?” She held up a pair of cute but unspectacular Mary Janes, and I nodded, and she found her size and tried them on, pacing up and down the aisle, watching her feet in the knee-high angled mirrors. Then she grabbed a pair of strappy hooker shoes and said, “Is it even possible to walk in these? I mean, I would just die—” and then stopped short, looking at me as if to say I’m sorry, as if it were a crime to mention death to the dying. “You should try them on,” Kaitlyn continued, trying to paper over the awkwardness.
“I’d sooner die,” I assured her.
I ended up just picking out some flip-flops so that I could have something to buy, and then I sat down on one of the benches opposite a bank of shoes and watched Kaitlyn snake her way through the aisles, shopping with the kind of intensity and focus that one usually associates with professional chess. I kind of wanted to take out Midnight Dawns and read for a while, but I knew that’d be rude, so I just watched Kaitlyn. Occasionally she’d circle back to me clutching some closed-toe prey and say, “This?” and I would try to make an intelligent comment about the shoe, and then finally she bought three pairs and I bought my flip-flops and then as we exited she said, “Anthropologie?”
“I should head home actually,” I said. “I’m kinda tired.”
“Sure, of course,” she said. “I have to see you more often, darling.” She placed her hands on my shoulders, kissed me on both cheeks, and marched off, her narrow hips swishing.
I didn’t go home, though. I’d told Mom to pick me up at six, and while I figured she was either in the mall or in the parking lot, I still wanted the next two hours to myself.
I liked my mom, but her perpetual nearness sometimes made me feel weirdly nervous. And I liked Kaitlyn, too. I really did. But three years removed from proper full-time schoolic exposure to my peers, I felt a certain unbridgeable distance between us. I think my school friends wanted to help me through my cancer, but they eventually found out that they couldn’t. For one thing, there was no through.
So I excused myself on the grounds of pain and fatigue, as I often had over the years when seeing Kaitlyn or any of my other friends. In truth, it always hurt. It always hurt not to breathe like a normal person, incessantly reminding your lungs to be lungs, forcing yourself to accept as unsolvable the clawing scraping inside-out ache of underoxygenation. So I wasn’t lying, exactly. I was just choosing among truths.
I found a bench surrounded by an Irish Gifts store, the Fountain Pen Emporium, and a baseball-cap outlet—a corner of the mall even Kaitlyn would never shop, and started reading Midnight Dawns.
It featured a sentence-to-corpse ratio of nearly 1:1, and I tore through it without ever looking up. I liked Staff Sergeant Max Mayhem, even though he didn’t have much in the way of a technical personality, but mostly I liked that his adventures kept happening. There were always more bad guys to kill and more good guys to save. New wars started even before the old ones were won. I hadn’t read a real series like that since I was a kid, and it was exciting to live again in an infinite fiction.
Twenty pages from the end of Midnight Dawns, things started to look pretty bleak for Mayhem when he was shot seventeen times while attempting to rescue a (blond, American) hostage from the Enemy. But as a reader, I did not despair. The war effort would go on without him. There could—and would—be sequels starring his cohorts: Specialist Manny Loco and Private Jasper Jacks and the rest.
I was just about to the end when this little girl with barretted braids appeared in front of me and said, “What’s in your nose?”
And I said, “Um, it’s called a cannula. These tubes give me oxygen and help me breathe.” Her mother swooped in and said, “Jackie,” disapprovingly, but I said, “No no, it’s okay,” because it totally was, and then Jackie asked, “Would they help me breathe, too?”
“I dunno. Let’s try.” I took it off and let Jackie stick the cannula in her nose and breathe. “Tickles,” she said.
“I know, right?”
“I think I’m breathing better,” she said.
“Well,” I said, “I wish I could give you my cannula but I kind of really need the help.” I already felt the loss. I focused on my breathing as Jackie handed the tubes back to me. I gave them a quick swipe with my T-shirt, laced the tubes behind my ears, and put the nubbins back in place.
“Thanks for letting me try it,” she said.
“Jackie,” her mother said again, and this time I let her go.
I returned to the book, where Staff Sergeant Max Mayhem was regretting that he had but one life to give for his country, but I kept thinking about that little kid, and how much I liked her.
The other thing about Kaitlyn, I guess, was that it could never again feel natural to talk to her. Any attempts to feign normal social interactions were just depressing because it was so glaringly obvious that everyone I spoke to for the rest of my life would feel awkward and self-conscious around me, except maybe kids like Jackie who just didn’t know any better.
Anyway, I really did like being alone. I liked being alone with poor Staff Sergeant Max Mayhem, who—oh, come on, he’s not going to survive these seventeen bullet wounds, is he?
(Spoiler alert: He lives.)