The fault in our stars (Chapter 9)
The day before we left for Amsterdam, I went back to Support Group for the first time since meeting Augustus. The cast had rotated a bit down there in the Literal Heart of Jesus. I arrived early, enough time for perennially strong appendiceal cancer survivor Lida to bring me up-to-date on everyone as I ate a grocery-store chocolate chip cookie while leaning against the dessert table.
Twelve-year-old leukemic Michael had passed away. He’d fought hard, Lida told me, as if there were another way to fight. Everyone else was still around. Ken was NEC after radiation. Lucas had relapsed, and she said it with a sad smile and a little shrug, the way you might say an alcoholic had relapsed.
A cute, chubby girl walked over to the table and said hi to Lida, then introduced herself to me as Susan. I didn’t know what was wrong with her, but she had a scar extending from the side of her nose down her lip and across her cheek. She had put makeup over the scar, which only served to emphasize it. I was feeling a little out of breath from all the standing, so I said, “I’m gonna go sit,” and then the elevator opened, revealing Isaac and his mom. He wore sunglasses and clung to his mom’s arm with one hand, a cane in the other.
“Support Group Hazel not Monica,” I said when he got close enough, and he smiled and said, “Hey, Hazel. How’s it going?”
“Good. I’ve gotten really hot since you went blind.”
“I bet,” he said. His mom led him to a chair, kissed the top of his head, and shuffled back toward the elevator. He felt around beneath him and then sat. I sat down in the chair next to him. “So how’s it going?”
“Okay. Glad to be home, I guess. Gus told me you were in the ICU?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Sucks,” he said.
“I’m a lot better now,” I said. “I’m going to Amsterdam tomorrow with Gus.”
“I know. I’m pretty well up-to-date on your life, because Gus never. Talks. About. Anything. Else.”
I smiled. Patrick cleared his throat and said, “If we could all take a seat?” He caught my eye. “Hazel!” he said. “I’m so glad to see you!”
Everyone sat and Patrick began his retelling of his ball-lessness, and I fell into the routine of Support Group: communicating through sighs with Isaac, feeling sorry for everyone in the room and also everyone outside of it, zoning out of the conversation to focus on my breathlessness and the aching. The world went on, as it does, without my full participation, and I only woke up from the reverie when someone said my name.
It was Lida the Strong. Lida in remission. Blond, healthy, stout Lida, who swam on her high school swim team. Lida, missing only her appendix, saying my name, saying, “Hazel is such an inspiration to me; she really is. She just keeps fighting the battle, waking up every morning and going to war without complaint. She’s so strong. She’s so much stronger than I am. I just wish I had her strength.”
“Hazel?” Patrick asked. “How does that make you feel?”
I shrugged and looked over at Lida. “I’ll give you my strength if I can have your remission.” I felt guilty as soon as I said it.
“I don’t think that’s what Lida meant,” Patrick said. “I think she…” But I’d stopped listening.
After the prayers for the living and the endless litany of the dead (with Michael tacked on to the end), we held hands and said, “Living our best life today!”
Lida immediately rushed up to me full of apology and explanation, and I said, “No, no, it’s really fine,” waving her off, and I said to Isaac, “Care to accompany me upstairs?”
He took my arm, and I walked with him to the elevator, grateful to have an excuse to avoid the stairs. I’d almost made it all the way to the elevator when I saw his mom standing in a corner of the Literal Heart. “I’m here,” she said to Isaac, and he switched from my arm to hers before asking, “You want to come over?”
“Sure,” I said. I felt bad for him. Even though I hated the sympathy people felt toward me, I couldn’t help but feel it toward him.
Isaac lived in a small ranch house in Meridian Hills next to this fancy private school. We sat down in the living room while his mom went off to the kitchen to make dinner, and then he asked if I wanted to play a game.
“Sure,” I said. So he asked for the remote. I gave it to him, and he turned on the TV and then a computer attached to it. The TV screen stayed black, but after a few seconds a deep voice spoke from it.
“Deception,” the voice said. “One player or two?”
“Two,” Isaac said. “Pause.” He turned to me. “I play this game with Gus all the time, but it’s infuriating because he is a completely suicidal video-game player. He’s, like, way too aggressive about saving civilians and whatnot.”
“Yeah,” I said, remembering the night of the broken trophies.
“Unpause,” Isaac said.
“Player one, identify yourself.”
“This is player one’s sexy sexy voice,” Isaac said.
“Player two, identify yourself.”
“I would be player two, I guess,” I said.
Staff Sergeant Max Mayhem and Private Jasper Jacks awake in a dark, empty room approximately twelve feet square.
Isaac pointed toward the TV, like I should talk to it or something. “Um,” I said. “Is there a light switch?”
“Is there a door?”
Private Jacks locates the door. It is locked.
Isaac jumped in. “There’s a key above the door frame.”
Yes, there is.
“Mayhem opens the door.”
The darkness is still complete.
“Take out knife,” Isaac said.
“Take out knife,” I added.
A kid—Isaac’s brother, I assume—darted out from the kitchen. He was maybe ten, wiry and overenergetic, and he kind of skipped across the living room before shouting in a really good imitation of Isaac’s voice, “KILL MYSELF.”
Sergeant Mayhem places his knife to his neck. Are you sure you—
“No,” Isaac said. “Pause. Graham, don’t make me kick your ass.” Graham laughed giddily and skipped off down a hallway.
As Mayhem and Jacks, Isaac and I felt our way forward in the cavern until we bumped into a guy whom we stabbed after getting him to tell us that we were in a Ukrainian prison cave, more than a mile beneath the ground. As we continued, sound effects—a raging underground river, voices speaking in Ukrainian and accented English—led you through the cave, but there was nothing to see in this game. After playing for an hour, we began to hear the cries of a desperate prisoner, pleading, “God, help me. God, help me.”
“Pause,” Isaac said. “This is when Gus always insists on finding the prisoner, even though that keeps you from winning the game, and the only way to actually free the prisoner is to win the game.”
“Yeah, he takes video games too seriously,” I said. “He’s a bit too enamored with metaphor.”
“Do you like him?” Isaac asked.
“Of course I like him. He’s great.”
“But you don’t want to hook up with him?”
I shrugged. “It’s complicated.”
“I know what you’re trying to do. You don’t want to give him something he can’t handle. You don’t want him to Monica you,” he said.
“Kinda,” I said. But it wasn’t that. The truth was, I didn’t want to Isaac him. “To be fair to Monica,” I said, “what you did to her wasn’t very nice either.”
“What’d I do to her?” he asked, defensive.
“You know, going blind and everything.”
“But that’s not my fault,” Isaac said.
“I’m not saying it was your fault. I’m saying it wasn’t nice.”