The fault in our stars (Chapter 5)

CHAPTER FIVE
I did not speak to Augustus again for about a week. I had called him on the Night of the Broken Trophies, so per tradition it was his turn to call. But he didn’t. Now, it wasn’t as if I held my phone in my sweaty hand all day, staring at it while wearing my Special Yellow Dress, patiently waiting for my gentleman caller to live up to his sobriquet. I went about my life: I met Kaitlyn and her (cute but frankly not Augustinian) boyfriend for coffee one afternoon; I ingested my recommended daily allowance of Phalanxifor; I attended classes three mornings that week at MCC; and every night, I sat down to dinner with my mom and dad.
Sunday night, we had pizza with green peppers and broccoli. We were seated around our little circular table in the kitchen when my phone started singing, but I wasn’t allowed to check it because we have a strict no-phones-during-dinner rule.
So I ate a little while Mom and Dad talked about this earthquake that had just happened in Papua New Guinea. They met in the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea, and so whenever anything happened there, even something terrible, it was like all of a sudden they were not large sedentary creatures, but the young and idealistic and self-sufficient and rugged people they had once been, and their rapture was such that they didn’t even glance over at me as I ate faster than I’d ever eaten, transmitting items from my plate into my mouth with a speed and ferocity that left me quite out of breath, which of course made me worry that my lungs were again swimming in a rising pool of fluid. I banished the thought as best I could. I had a PET scan scheduled in a couple weeks. If something was wrong, I’d find out soon enough. Nothing to be gained by worrying between now and then.
And yet still I worried. I liked being a person. I wanted to keep at it. Worry is yet another side effect of dying.
Finally I finished and said, “Can I be excused?” and they hardly even paused from their conversation about the strengths and weaknesses of Guinean infrastructure. I grabbed my phone from my purse on the kitchen counter and checked my recent calls. Augustus Waters.
I went out the back door into the twilight. I could see the swing set, and I thought about walking out there and swinging while I talked to him, but it seemed pretty far away given that eating tired me.
Instead, I lay down in the grass on the patio’s edge, looked up at Orion, the only constellation I could recognize, and called him.
“Hazel Grace,” he said.
“Hi,” I said. “How are you?”
“Grand,” he said. “I have been wanting to call you on a nearly minutely basis, but I have been waiting until I could form a coherent thought in re An Imperial Affliction.” (He said “in re.” He really did. That boy.)
“And?” I said.
“I think it’s, like. Reading it, I just kept feeling like, like.”
“Like?” I asked, teasing him.
“Like it was a gift?” he said askingly. “Like you’d given me something important.”
“Oh,” I said quietly.
“That’s cheesy,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“No,” I said. “No. Don’t apologize.”
“But it doesn’t end.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Torture. I totally get it, like, I get that she died or whatever.”
“Right, I assume so,” I said.
“And okay, fair enough, but there is this unwritten contract between author and reader and I think not ending your book kind of violates that contract.”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling defensive of Peter Van Houten. “That’s part of what I like about the book in some ways. It portrays death truthfully. You die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence. But I do—God, I do really want to know what happens to everyone else. That’s what I asked him in my letters. But he, yeah, he never answers.”
“Right. You said he is a recluse?”
“Correct.”
“Impossible to track down.”
“Correct.”
“Utterly unreachable,” Augustus said.
“Unfortunately so,” I said.
“‘Dear Mr. Waters,’” he answered. “‘I am writing to thank you for your electronic correspondence, received via Ms. Vliegenthart this sixth of April, from the United States of America, insofar as geography can be said to exist in our triumphantly digitized contemporaneity.’”
“Augustus, what the hell?”
“He has an assistant,” Augustus said. “Lidewij Vliegenthart. I found her. I emailed her. She gave him the email. He responded via her email account.”
“Okay, okay. Keep reading.”
“‘My response is being written with ink and paper in the glorious tradition of our ancestors and then transcribed by Ms. Vliegenthart into a series of 1s and 0s to travel through the insipid web which has lately ensnared our species, so I apologize for any errors or omissions that may result.
“‘Given the entertainment bacchanalia at the disposal of young men and women of your generation, I am grateful to anyone anywhere who sets aside the hours necessary to read my little book. But I am particularly indebted to you, sir, both for your kind words about An Imperial Affliction and for taking the time to tell me that the book, and here I quote you directly, “meant a great deal” to you.
“‘This comment, however, leads me to wonder: What do you mean by meant? Given the final futility of our struggle, is the fleeting jolt of meaning that art gives us valuable? Or is the only value in passing the time as comfortably as possible? What should a story seek to emulate, Augustus? A ringing alarm? A call to arms? A morphine drip? Of course, like all interrogation of the universe, this line of inquiry inevitably reduces us to asking what it means to be human and whether—to borrow a phrase from the angst-encumbered sixteen-year-olds you no doubt revile—there is a point to it all.
“‘I fear there is not, my friend, and that you would receive scant encouragement from further encounters with my writing. But to answer your question: No, I have not written anything else, nor will I. I do not feel that continuing to share my thoughts with readers would benefit either them or me. Thank you again for your generous email.
“‘Yours most sincerely, Peter Van Houten, via Lidewij Vliegenthart.’”
“Wow,” I said. “Are you making this up?”
“Hazel Grace, could I, with my meager intellectual capacities, make up a letter from Peter Van Houten featuring phrases like ‘our triumphantly digitized contemporaneity’?”
“You could not,” I allowed. “Can I, can I have the email address?”
“Of course,” Augustus said, like it was not the best gift ever.
I spent the next two hours writing an email to Peter Van Houten. It seemed to get worse each time I rewrote it, but I couldn’t stop myself.
Dear Mr. Peter Van Houten
(c/o Lidewij Vliegenthart),
My name is Hazel Grace Lancaster. My friend Augustus Waters, who read An Imperial Affliction at my recommendation, just received an email from you at this address. I hope you will not mind that Augustus shared that email with me.
Mr. Van Houten, I understand from your email to Augustus that you are not planning to publish any more books. In a way, I am disappointed, but I’m also relieved: I never have to worry whether your next book will live up to the magnificent perfection of the original. As a three-year survivor of Stage IV cancer, I can tell you that you got everything right in An Imperial Affliction. Or at least you got me right. Your book has a way of telling me what I’m feeling before I even feel it, and I’ve reread it dozens of times.
I wonder, though, if you would mind answering a couple questions I have about what happens after the end of the novel. I understand the book ends because Anna dies or becomes too ill to continue writing it, but I would really like to know what happens to Anna’s mom—whether she married the Dutch Tulip Man, whether she ever has another child, and whether she stays at 917 W. Temple, etc. Also, is the Dutch Tulip Man a fraud or does he really love them? What happens to Anna’s friends—particularly Claire and Jake? Do they stay together? And lastly—I realize that this is the kind of deep and thoughtful question you always hoped your readers would ask—what becomes of Sisyphus the Hamster? These questions have haunted me for years—and I don’t know how long I have left to get answers to them.
I know these are not important literary questions and that your book is full of important literary questions, but I would just really like to know.
And of course, if you ever do decide to write anything else, even if you don’t want to publish it, I’d love to read it. Frankly, I’d read your grocery lists.
Yours with great admiration,
Hazel Grace Lancaster
(age 16)
After I sent it, I called Augustus back, and we stayed up late talking about An Imperial Affliction, and I read him the Emily Dickinson poem that Van Houten had used for the title, and he said I had a good voice for reading and didn’t pause too long for the line breaks, and then he told me that the sixth Price of Dawn book, The Blood Approves, begins with a quote from a poem. It took him a minute to find the book, but finally he read the quote to me. “‘Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / You had was years ago.’”
“Not bad,” I said. “Bit pretentious. I believe Max Mayhem would refer to that as ‘sissy shit.’”
“Yes, with his teeth gritted, no doubt. God, Mayhem grits his teeth a lot in these books. He’s definitely going to get TMJ, if he survives all this combat.” And then after a second, Gus asked, “When was the last good kiss you had?”
I thought about it. My kissing—all prediagnosis—had been uncomfortable and slobbery, and on some level it always felt like kids playing at being grown. But of course it had been a while. “Years ago,” I said finally. “You?”
“I had a few good kisses with my ex-girlfriend, Caroline Mathers.”
“Years ago?”
“The last one was just less than a year ago.”
“What happened?”
“During the kiss?”
“No, with you and Caroline.”
“Oh,” he said. And then after a second, “Caroline is no longer suffering from personhood.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I’d known plenty of dead people, of course. But I’d never dated one. I couldn’t even imagine it, really.
“Not your fault, Hazel Grace. We’re all just side effects, right?”
“‘Barnacles on the container ship of consciousness,’” I said, quoting AIA.
“Okay,” he said. “I gotta go to sleep. It’s almost one.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” he said.
I giggled and said, “Okay.” And then the line was quiet but not dead. I almost felt like he was there in my room with me, but in a way it was better, like I was not in my room and he was not in his, but instead we were together in some invisible and tenuous third space that could only be visited on the phone.
“Okay,” he said after forever. “Maybe okay will be our always.”
“Okay,” I said.
It was Augustus who finally hung up.
Peter Van Houten replied to Augustus’s email four hours after he sent it, but two days later, Van Houten still hadn’t replied to me. Augustus assured me it was because my email was better and required a more thoughtful response, that Van Houten was busy writing answers to my questions, and that brilliant prose took time. But still I worried.
On Wednesday during American Poetry for Dummies 101, I got a text from Augustus:
Isaac out of surgery. It went well. He’s officially NEC.
NEC meant “no evidence of cancer.” A second text came a few seconds later.
I mean, he’s blind. So that’s unfortunate.
That afternoon, Mom consented to loan me the car so I could drive down to Memorial to check in on Isaac.
I found my way to his room on the fifth floor, knocking even though the door was open, and a woman’s voice said, “Come in.” It was a nurse who was doing something to the bandages on Isaac’s eyes. “Hey, Isaac,” I said.
And he said, “Mon?”
“Oh, no. Sorry. No, it’s, um, Hazel. Um, Support Group Hazel? Night-of-the-broken-trophies Hazel?”
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah, people keep saying my other senses will improve to compensate, but CLEARLY NOT YET. Hi, Support Group Hazel. Come over here so I can examine your face with my hands and see deeper into your soul than a sighted person ever could.”
“He’s kidding,” the nurse said.
“Yes,” I said. “I realize.”
I took a few steps toward the bed. I pulled a chair up and sat down, took his hand. “Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he said back. Then nothing for a while.
“How you feeling?” I asked.
“Okay,” he said. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?” I asked. I looked at his hand because I didn’t want to look at his face blindfolded by bandages. Isaac bit his nails, and I could see some blood on the corners of a couple of his cuticles.
“She hasn’t even visited,” he said. “I mean, we were together fourteen months. Fourteen months is a long time. God, that hurts.” Isaac let go of my hand to fumble for his pain pump, which you hit to give yourself a wave of narcotics.
The nurse, having finished the bandage change, stepped back. “It’s only been a day, Isaac,” she said, vaguely condescending. “You’ve gotta give yourself time to heal. And fourteen months isn’t that long, not in the scheme of things. You’re just getting started, buddy. You’ll see.”
The nurse left. “Is she gone?”
I nodded, then realized he couldn’t see me nod. “Yeah,” I said.
“I’ll see? Really? Did she seriously say that?”
“Qualities of a Good Nurse: Go,” I said.
“1. Doesn’t pun on your disability,” Isaac said.
“2. Gets blood on the first try,” I said.
“Seriously, that is huge. I mean is this my freaking arm or a dartboard? 3. No condescending voice.”
“How are you doing, sweetie?” I asked, cloying. “I’m going to stick you with a needle now. There might be a little ouchie.”
“Is my wittle fuffywump sickywicky?” he answered. And then after a second, “Most of them are good, actually. I just want the hell out of this place.”
“This place as in the hospital?”
“That, too,” he said. His mouth tightened. I could see the pain. “Honestly, I think a hell of a lot more about Monica than my eye. Is that crazy? That’s crazy.”
“It’s a little crazy,” I allowed.
“But I believe in true love, you know? I don’t believe that everybody gets to keep their eyes or not get sick or whatever, but everybody should have true love, and it should last at least as long as your life does.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I just wish the whole thing hadn’t happened sometimes. The whole cancer thing.” His speech was slowing down. The medicine working.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Gus was here earlier. He was here when I woke up. Took off school. He…” His head turned to the side a little. “It’s better,” he said quietly.
“The pain?” I asked. He nodded a little.
“Good,” I said. And then, like the bitch I am: “You were saying something about Gus?” But he was gone.
I went downstairs to the tiny windowless gift shop and asked the decrepit volunteer sitting on a stool behind a cash register what kind of flowers smell the strongest.
“They all smell the same. They get sprayed with Super Scent,” she said.
“Really?”
“Yeah, they just squirt ’em with it.”
I opened the cooler to her left and sniffed at a dozen roses, and then leaned over some carnations. Same smell, and lots of it. The carnations were cheaper, so I grabbed a dozen yellow ones. They cost fourteen dollars. I went back into the room; his mom was there, holding his hand. She was young and really pretty.
“Are you a friend?” she asked, which struck me as one of those unintentionally broad and unanswerable questions.
“Um, yeah,” I said. “I’m from Support Group. These are for him.”
She took them and placed them in her lap. “Do you know Monica?” she asked.
I shook my head no.
“Well, he’s sleeping,” she said.
“Yeah. I talked to him a little before, when they were doing the bandages or whatever.”
“I hated leaving him for that but I had to pick up Graham at school,” she said.
“He did okay,” I told her. She nodded. “I should let him sleep.” She nodded again. I left.
The next morning I woke up early and checked my email first thing.
lidewij.vliegenthart@gmail.com had finally replied.
Dear Ms. Lancaster,
I fear your faith has been misplaced—but then, faith usually is. I cannot answer your questions, at least not in writing, because to write out such answers would constitute a sequel to An Imperial Affliction, which you might publish or otherwise share on the network that has replaced the brains of your generation. There is the telephone, but then you might record the conversation. Not that I don’t trust you, of course, but I don’t trust you. Alas, dear Hazel, I could never answer such questions except in person, and you are there, while I am here.
That noted, I must confess that the unexpected receipt of your correspondence via Ms. Vliegenthart has delighted me: What a wondrous thing to know that I made something useful to you—even if that book seems so distant from me that I feel it was written by a different man altogether. (The author of that novel was so thin, so frail, so comparatively optimistic!)
Should you find yourself in Amsterdam, however, please do pay a visit at your leisure. I am usually home. I would even allow you a peek at my grocery lists.
Yours most sincerely,
Peter Van Houten
c/o Lidewij Vliegenthart
“WHAT?!” I shouted aloud. “WHAT IS THIS LIFE?”
Mom ran in. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I assured her.
Still nervous, Mom knelt down to check on Philip to ensure he was condensing oxygen appropriately. I imagined sitting at a sun-drenched café with Peter Van Houten as he leaned across the table on his elbows, speaking in a soft voice so no one else would hear the truth of what happened to the characters I’d spent years thinking about. He’d said he couldn’t tell me except in person, and then invited me to Amsterdam. I explained this to Mom, and then said, “I have to go.”
“Hazel, I love you, and you know I’d do anything for you, but we don’t—we don’t have the money for international travel, and the expense of getting equipment over there—love, it’s just not—”
“Yeah,” I said, cutting her off. I realized I’d been silly even to consider it. “Don’t worry about it.” But she looked worried.
“It’s really important to you, yeah?” she asked, sitting down, a hand on my calf.
“It would be pretty amazing,” I said, “to be the only person who knows what happens besides him.”
“That would be amazing,” she said. “I’ll talk to your father.”
“No, don’t,” I said. “Just, seriously, don’t spend any money on it please. I’ll think of something.”
It occurred to me that the reason my parents had no money was me. I’d sapped the family savings with Phalanxifor copays, and Mom couldn’t work because she had taken on the full-time profession of Hovering Over Me. I didn’t want to put them even further into debt.
I told Mom I wanted to call Augustus to get her out of the room, because I couldn’t handle her I-can’t-make-my-daughter’s-dreams-come-true sad face.
Augustus Waters–style, I read him the letter in lieu of saying hello.
“Wow,” he said.
“I know, right?” I said. “How am I going to get to Amsterdam?”
“Do you have a Wish?” he asked, referring to this organization, The Genie Foundation, which is in the business of granting sick kids one wish.
“No,” I said. “I used my Wish pre-Miracle.”
“What’d you do?”
I sighed loudly. “I was thirteen,” I said.
“Not Disney,” he said.
I said nothing.
“You did not go to Disney World.”
I said nothing.
“Hazel GRACE!” he shouted. “You did not use your one dying Wish to go to Disney World with your parents.”
“Also Epcot Center,” I mumbled.
“Oh, my God,” Augustus said. “I can’t believe I have a crush on a girl with such cliché wishes.”
“I was thirteen,” I said again, although of course I was only thinking crush crush crush crush crush. I was flattered but changed the subject immediately. “Shouldn’t you be in school or something?”
“I’m playing hooky to hang out with Isaac, but he’s sleeping, so I’m in the atrium doing geometry.”
“How’s he doing?” I asked.
“I can’t tell if he’s just not ready to confront the seriousness of his disability or if he really does care more about getting dumped by Monica, but he won’t talk about anything else.”
“Yeah,” I said. “How long’s he gonna be in the hospital?”
“Few days. Then he goes to this rehab or something for a while, but he gets to sleep at home, I think.”
“Sucks,” I said.
“I see his mom. I gotta go.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay,” he answered. I could hear his crooked smile.
On Saturday, my parents and I went down to the farmers’ market in Broad Ripple. It was sunny, a rarity for Indiana in April, and everyone at the farmers’ market was wearing short sleeves even though the temperature didn’t quite justify it. We Hoosiers are excessively optimistic about summer. Mom and I sat next to each other on a bench across from a goat-soap maker, a man in overalls who had to explain to every single person who walked by that yes, they were his goats, and no, goat soap does not smell like goats.
My phone rang. “Who is it?” Mom asked before I could even check.
“I don’t know,” I said. It was Gus, though.
“Are you currently at your house?” he asked.
“Um, no,” I said.
“That was a trick question. I knew the answer, because I am currently at your house.”
“Oh. Um. Well, we are on our way, I guess?”
“Awesome. See you soon.”
Augustus Waters was sitting on the front step as we pulled into the driveway. He was holding a bouquet of bright orange tulips just beginning to bloom, and wearing an Indiana Pacers jersey under his fleece, a wardrobe choice that seemed utterly out of character, although it did look quite good on him. He pushed himself up off the stoop, handed me the tulips, and asked, “Wanna go on a picnic?” I nodded, taking the flowers.
My dad walked up behind me and shook Gus’s hand.
“Is that a Rik Smits jersey?” my dad asked.
“Indeed it is.”
“God, I loved that guy,” Dad said, and immediately they were engrossed in a basketball conversation I could not (and did not want to) join, so I took my tulips inside.
“Do you want me to put those in a vase?” Mom asked as I walked in, a huge smile on her face.
“No, it’s okay,” I told her. If we’d put them in a vase in the living room, they would have been everyone’s flowers. I wanted them to be my flowers.
I went to my room but didn’t change. I brushed my hair and teeth and put on some lip gloss and the smallest possible dab of perfume. I kept looking at the flowers. They were aggressively orange, almost too orange to be pretty. I didn’t have a vase or anything, so I took my toothbrush out of my toothbrush holder and filled it halfway with water and left the flowers there in the bathroom.
When I reentered my room, I could hear people talking, so I sat on the edge of my bed for a while and listened through my hollow bedroom door:
Dad: “So you met Hazel at Support Group.”
Augustus: “Yes, sir. This is a lovely house you’ve got. I like your artwork.”
Mom: “Thank you, Augustus.”
Dad: “You’re a survivor yourself, then?”
Augustus: “I am. I didn’t cut this fella off for the sheer unadulterated pleasure of it, although it is an excellent weight-loss strategy. Legs are heavy!”
Dad: “And how’s your health now?”
Augustus: “NEC for fourteen months.”
Mom: “That’s wonderful. The treatment options these days—it really is remarkable.”
Augustus: “I know. I’m lucky.”
Dad: “You have to understand that Hazel is still sick, Augustus, and will be for the rest of her life. She’ll want to keep up with you, but her lungs—”
At which point I emerged, silencing him.
“So where are you going?” asked Mom. Augustus stood up and leaned over to her, whispering the answer, and then held a finger to his lips. “Shh,” he told her. “It’s a secret.”
Mom smiled. “You’ve got your phone?” she asked me. I held it up as evidence, tilted my oxygen cart onto its front wheels, and started walking. Augustus hustled over, offering me his arm, which I took. My fingers wrapped around his biceps.
Unfortunately, he insisted upon driving, so the surprise could be a surprise. As we shuddered toward our destination, I said, “You nearly charmed the pants off my mom.”
“Yeah, and your dad is a Smits fan, which helps. You think they liked me?”
“Sure they did. Who cares, though? They’re just parents.”
“They’re your parents,” he said, glancing over at me. “Plus, I like being liked. Is that crazy?”
“Well, you don’t have to rush to hold doors open or smother me in compliments for me to like you.” He slammed the brakes, and I flew forward hard enough that my breathing felt weird and tight. I thought of the PET scan. Don’t worry. Worry is useless. I worried anyway.
We burned rubber, roaring away from a stop sign before turning left onto the misnomered Grandview (there’s a view of a golf course, I guess, but nothing grand). The only thing I could think of in this direction was the cemetery. Augustus reached into the center console, flipped open a full pack of cigarettes, and removed one.
“Do you ever throw them away?” I asked him.
“One of the many benefits of not smoking is that packs of cigarettes last forever,” he answered. “I’ve had this one for almost a year. A few of them are broken near the filters, but I think this pack could easily get me to my eighteenth birthday.” He held the filter between his fingers, then put it in his mouth. “So, okay,” he said. “Okay. Name some things that you never see in Indianapolis.”
“Um. Skinny adults,” I said.
He laughed. “Good. Keep going.”
“Mmm, beaches. Family-owned restaurants. Topography.”
“All excellent examples of things we lack. Also, culture.”
“Yeah, we are a bit short on culture,” I said, finally realizing where he was taking me. “Are we going to the museum?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Oh, are we going to that park or whatever?”
Gus looked a bit deflated. “Yes, we are going to that park or whatever,” he said. “You’ve figured it out, haven’t you?”
“Um, figured what out?”
“Nothing.”
There was this park behind the museum where a bunch of artists had made big sculptures. I’d heard about it but had never visited. We drove past the museum and parked right next to this basketball court filled with huge blue and red steel arcs that imagined the path of a bouncing ball.
We walked down what passes for a hill in Indianapolis to this clearing where kids were climbing all over this huge oversize skeleton sculpture. The bones were each about waist high, and the thighbone was longer than me. It looked like a child’s drawing of a skeleton rising up out of the ground.
My shoulder hurt. I worried the cancer had spread from my lungs. I imagined the tumor metastasizing into my own bones, boring holes into my skeleton, a slithering eel of insidious intent. “Funky Bones,” Augustus said. “Created by Joep Van Lieshout.”
“Sounds Dutch.”
“He is,” Gus said. “So is Rik Smits. So are tulips.” Gus stopped in the middle of the clearing with the bones right in front of us and slipped his backpack off one shoulder, then the other. He unzipped it, producing an orange blanket, a pint of orange juice, and some sandwiches wrapped in plastic wrap with the crusts cut off.
“What’s with all the orange?” I asked, still not wanting to let myself imagine that all this would lead to Amsterdam.
“National color of the Netherlands, of course. You remember William of Orange and everything?”
“He wasn’t on the GED test.” I smiled, trying to contain my excitement.
“Sandwich?” he asked.
“Let me guess,” I said.
“Dutch cheese. And tomato. The tomatoes are from Mexico. Sorry.”
“You’re always such a disappointment, Augustus. Couldn’t you have at least gotten orange tomatoes?”
He laughed, and we ate our sandwiches in silence, watching the kids play on the sculpture. I couldn’t very well ask him about it, so I just sat there surrounded by Dutchness, feeling awkward and hopeful.
In the distance, soaked in the unblemished sunlight so rare and precious in our hometown, a gaggle of kids made a skeleton into a playground, jumping back and forth among the prosthetic bones.
“Two things I love about this sculpture,” Augustus said. He was holding the unlit cigarette between his fingers, flicking at it as if to get rid of the ash. He placed it back in his mouth. “First, the bones are just far enough apart that if you’re a kid, you cannot resist the urge to jump between them. Like, you just have to jump from rib cage to skull. Which means that, second, the sculpture essentially forces children to play on bones. The symbolic resonances are endless, Hazel Grace.”
“You do love symbols,” I said, hoping to steer the conversation back toward the many symbols of the Netherlands at our picnic.
“Right, about that. You are probably wondering why you are eating a bad cheese sandwich and drinking orange juice and why I am wearing the jersey of a Dutchman who played a sport I have come to loathe.”
“It has crossed my mind,” I said.
“Hazel Grace, like so many children before you—and I say this with great affection—you spent your Wish hastily, with little care for the consequences. The Grim Reaper was staring you in the face and the fear of dying with your Wish still in your proverbial pocket, ungranted, led you to rush toward the first Wish you could think of, and you, like so many others, chose the cold and artificial pleasures of the theme park.”
“I actually had a great time on that trip. I met Goofy and Minn—”
“I am in the midst of a soliloquy! I wrote this out and memorized it and if you interrupt me I will completely screw it up,” Augustus interrupted. “Please to be eating your sandwich and listening.” (The sandwich was inedibly dry, but I smiled and took a bite anyway.) “Okay, where was I?”
“The artificial pleasures.”
He returned the cigarette to its pack. “Right, the cold and artificial pleasures of the theme park. But let me submit that the real heroes of the Wish Factory are the young men and women who wait like Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot and good Christian girls wait for marriage. These young heroes wait stoically and without complaint for their one true Wish to come along. Sure, it may never come along, but at least they can rest easily in the grave knowing that they’ve done their little part to preserve the integrity of the Wish as an idea.
“But then again, maybe it will come along: Maybe you’ll realize that your one true Wish is to visit the brilliant Peter Van Houten in his Amsterdamian exile, and you will be glad indeed to have saved your Wish.”
Augustus stopped speaking long enough that I figured the soliloquy was over. “But I didn’t save my Wish,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. And then, after what felt like a practiced pause, he added, “But I saved mine.”
“Really?” I was surprised that Augustus was Wish-eligible, what with being still in school and a year into remission. You had to be pretty sick for the Genies to hook you up with a Wish.
“I got it in exchange for the leg,” he explained. There was all this light on his face; he had to squint to look at me, which made his nose crinkle adorably. “Now, I’m not going to give you my Wish or anything. But I also have an interest in meeting Peter Van Houten, and it wouldn’t make sense to meet him without the girl who introduced me to his book.”
“It definitely wouldn’t,” I said.
“So I talked to the Genies, and they are in total agreement. They said Amsterdam is lovely in the beginning of May. They proposed leaving May third and returning May seventh.”
“Augustus, really?”
He reached over and touched my cheek and for a moment I thought he might kiss me. My body tensed, and I think he saw it, because he pulled his hand away.
“Augustus,” I said. “Really. You don’t have to do this.”
“Sure I do,” he said. “I found my Wish.”
“God, you’re the best,” I told him.
“I bet you say that to all the boys who finance your international travel,” he answered.

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