The fault in our stars (Chapter 14)
On the flight home, twenty thousand feet above clouds that were ten thousand feet above the ground, Gus said, “I used to think it would be fun to live on a cloud.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like it would be like one of those inflatable moonwalk machines, except for always.”
“But then in middle school science, Mr. Martinez asked who among us had ever fantasized about living in the clouds, and everyone raised their hand. Then Mr. Martinez told us that up in the clouds the wind blew one hundred and fifty miles an hour and the temperature was thirty below zero and there was no oxygen and we’d all die within seconds.”
“Sounds like a nice guy.”
“He specialized in the murder of dreams, Hazel Grace, let me tell you. You think volcanoes are awesome? Tell that to the ten thousand screaming corpses at Pompeii. You still secretly believe that there is an element of magic to this world? It’s all just soulless molecules bouncing against each other randomly. Do you worry about who will take care of you if your parents die? As well you should, because they will be worm food in the fullness of time.”
“Ignorance is bliss,” I said.
A flight attendant walked through the aisle with a beverage cart, half whispering, “Drinks? Drinks? Drinks? Drinks?” Gus leaned over me, raising his hand. “Could we have some champagne, please?”
“You’re twenty-one?” she asked dubiously. I conspicuously rearranged the nubbins in my nose. The stewardess smiled, then glanced down at my sleeping mother. “She won’t mind?” she asked of Mom.
“Nah,” I said.
So she poured champagne into two plastic cups. Cancer Perks.
Gus and I toasted. “To you,” he said.
“To you,” I said, touching my cup to his.
We sipped. Dimmer stars than we’d had at Oranjee, but still good enough to drink.
“You know,” Gus said to me, “everything Van Houten said was true.”
“Maybe, but he didn’t have to be such a douche about it. I can’t believe he imagined a future for Sisyphus the Hamster but not for Anna’s mom.”
Augustus shrugged. He seemed to zone out all of a sudden. “Okay?” I asked.
He shook his head microscopically. “Hurts,” he said.
He nodded. Fists clenched. Later, he would describe it as a one-legged fat man wearing a stiletto heel standing on the middle of his chest. I returned my seat-back tray to its upright and locked position and bent forward to dig pills out of his backpack. He swallowed one with champagne. “Okay?” I asked again.
Gus sat there, pumping his fist, waiting for the medicine to work, the medicine that did not kill the pain so much as distance him from it (and from me).
“It was like it was personal,” Gus said quietly. “Like he was mad at us for some reason. Van Houten, I mean.” He drank the rest of his champagne in a quick series of gulps and soon fell asleep.
My dad was waiting for us in baggage claim, standing amid all the limo drivers in suits holding signs printed with the last names of their passengers: JOHNSON, BARRINGTON, CARMICHAEL. Dad had a sign of his own. MY BEAUTIFUL FAMILY, it read, and then underneath that (AND GUS).
I hugged him, and he started crying (of course). As we drove home, Gus and I told Dad stories of Amsterdam, but it wasn’t until I was home and hooked up to Philip watching good ol’ American television with Dad and eating American pizza off napkins on our laps that I told him about Gus.
“Gus had a recurrence,” I said.
“I know,” he said. He scooted over toward me, and then added, “His mom told us before the trip. I’m sorry he kept it from you. I’m… I’m sorry, Hazel.” I didn’t say anything for a long time. The show we were watching was about people who are trying to pick which house they are going to buy. “So I read An Imperial Affliction while you guys were gone,” Dad said.
I turned my head up to him. “Oh, cool. What’d you think?”
“It was good. A little over my head. I was a biochemistry major, remember, not a literature guy. I do wish it had ended.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Common complaint.”
“Also, it was a bit hopeless,” he said. “A bit defeatist.”
“If by defeatist you mean honest, then I agree.”
“I don’t think defeatism is honest,” Dad answered. “I refuse to accept that.”
“So everything happens for a reason and we’ll all go live in the clouds and play harps and live in mansions?”
Dad smiled. He put a big arm around me and pulled me to him, kissing the side of my head. “I don’t know what I believe, Hazel. I thought being an adult meant knowing what you believe, but that has not been my experience.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay.”
He told me again that he was sorry about Gus, and then we went back to watching the show, and the people picked a house, and Dad still had his arm around me, and I was kinda starting to fall asleep, but I didn’t want to go to bed, and then Dad said, “You know what I believe? I remember in college I was taking this math class, this really great math class taught by this tiny old woman. She was talking about fast Fourier transforms and she stopped midsentence and said, ‘Sometimes it seems the universe wants to be noticed.’
“That’s what I believe. I believe the universe wants to be noticed. I think the universe is improbably biased toward consciousness, that it rewards intelligence in part because the universe enjoys its elegance being observed. And who am I, living in the middle of history, to tell the universe that it—or my observation of it—is temporary?”
“You are fairly smart,” I said after a while.
“You are fairly good at compliments,” he answered.
The next afternoon, I drove over to Gus’s house and ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with his parents and told them stories about Amsterdam while Gus napped on the living room couch, where we’d watched V for Vendetta. I could just see him from the kitchen: He lay on his back, head turned away from me, a PICC line already in. They were attacking the cancer with a new cocktail: two chemo drugs and a protein receptor that they hoped would turn off the oncogene in Gus’s cancer. He was lucky to get enrolled in the trial, they told me. Lucky. I knew one of the drugs. Hearing the sound of its name made me want to barf.
After a while, Isaac’s mom brought him over.
“Isaac, hi, it’s Hazel from Support Group, not your evil ex-girlfriend.” His mom walked him to me, and I pulled myself out of the dining room chair and hugged him, his body taking a moment to find me before he hugged me back, hard.
“How was Amsterdam?” he asked.
“Awesome,” I said.
“Waters,” he said. “Where are ya, bro?”
“He’s napping,” I said, and my voice caught. Isaac shook his head, everyone quiet.
“Sucks,” Isaac said after a second. His mom walked him to a chair she’d pulled out. He sat.
“I can still dominate your blind ass at Counterinsurgence,” Augustus said without turning toward us. The medicine slowed his speech a bit, but only to the speed of regular people.
“I’m pretty sure all asses are blind,” Isaac answered, reaching his hands into the air vaguely, looking for his mom. She grabbed him, pulled him up, and they walked over to the couch, where Gus and Isaac hugged awkwardly. “How are you feeling?” Isaac asked.
“Everything tastes like pennies. Aside from that, I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up, kid,” Gus answered. Isaac laughed. “How are the eyes?”
“Oh, excellent,” he said. “I mean, they’re not in my head is the only problem.”
“Awesome, yeah,” Gus said. “Not to one-up you or anything, but my body is made out of cancer.”
“So I heard,” Isaac said, trying not to let it get to him. He fumbled toward Gus’s hand and found only his thigh.
“I’m taken,” Gus said.
Isaac’s mom brought over two dining room chairs, and Isaac and I sat down next to Gus. I took Gus’s hand, stroking circles around the space between his thumb and forefinger.
The adults headed down to the basement to commiserate or whatever, leaving the three of us alone in the living room. After a while, Augustus turned his head to us, the waking up slow. “How’s Monica?” he asked.
“Haven’t heard from her once,” Isaac said. “No cards; no emails. I got this machine that reads me my emails. It’s awesome. I can change the voice’s gender or accent or whatever.”
“So I can like send you a porn story and you can have an old German man read it to you?”
“Exactly,” Isaac said. “Although Mom still has to help me with it, so maybe hold off on the German porno for a week or two.”
“She hasn’t even, like, texted you to ask how you’re doing?” I asked. This struck me as an unfathomable injustice.
“Total radio silence,” Isaac said.
“Ridiculous,” I said.
“I’ve stopped thinking about it. I don’t have time to have a girlfriend. I have like a full-time job Learning How to Be Blind.”
Gus turned his head back away from us, staring out the window at the patio in his backyard. His eyes closed.
Isaac asked how I was doing, and I said I was good, and he told me there was a new girl in Support Group with a really hot voice and he needed me to go to tell him if she was actually hot. Then out of nowhere Augustus said, “You can’t just not contact your former boyfriend after his eyes get cut out of his freaking head.”
“Just one of—” Isaac started.
“Hazel Grace, do you have four dollars?” asked Gus.
“Um,” I said. “Yes?”
“Excellent. You’ll find my leg under the coffee table,” he said. Gus pushed himself upright and scooted down to the edge of the couch. I handed him the prosthetic; he fastened it in slow motion.
I helped him to stand and then offered my arm to Isaac, guiding him past furniture that suddenly seemed intrusive, realizing that, for the first time in years, I was the healthiest person in the room.
I drove. Augustus rode shotgun. Isaac sat in the back. We stopped at a grocery store, where, per Augustus’s instruction, I bought a dozen eggs while he and Isaac waited in the car. And then Isaac guided us by his memory to Monica’s house, an aggressively sterile, two-story house near the JCC. Monica’s bright green 1990s Pontiac Firebird sat fat-wheeled in the driveway.
“Is it there?” Isaac asked when he felt me coming to a stop.
“Oh, it’s there,” Augustus said. “You know what it looks like, Isaac? It looks like all the hopes we were foolish to hope.”
“So she’s inside?”
Gus turned his head around slowly to look at Isaac. “Who cares where she is? This is not about her. This is about you.” Gus gripped the egg carton in his lap, then opened the door and pulled his legs out onto the street. He opened the door for Isaac, and I watched through the mirror as Gus helped Isaac out of the car, the two of them leaning on each other at the shoulder then tapering away, like praying hands that don’t quite meet at the palms.
I rolled down the windows and watched from the car, because vandalism made me nervous. They took a few steps toward the car, then Gus flipped open the egg carton and handed Isaac an egg. Isaac tossed it, missing the car by a solid forty feet.
“A little to the left,” Gus said.
“My throw was a little to the left or I need to aim a little to the left?”
“Aim left.” Isaac swiveled his shoulders. “Lefter,” Gus said. Isaac swiveled again. “Yes. Excellent. And throw hard.” Gus handed him another egg, and Isaac hurled it, the egg arcing over the car and smashing against the slow-sloping roof of the house. “Bull’s-eye!” Gus said.
“Really?” Isaac asked excitedly.
“No, you threw it like twenty feet over the car. Just, throw hard, but keep it low. And a little right of where you were last time.” Isaac reached over and found an egg himself from the carton Gus cradled. He tossed it, hitting a taillight. “Yes!” Gus said. “Yes! TAILLIGHT!”
Isaac reached for another egg, missed wide right, then another, missing low, then another, hitting the back windshield. He then nailed three in a row against the trunk. “Hazel Grace,” Gus shouted back to me. “Take a picture of this so Isaac can see it when they invent robot eyes.” I pulled myself up so I was sitting in the rolled-down window, my elbows on the roof of the car, and snapped a picture with my phone: Augustus, an unlit cigarette in his mouth, his smile deliciously crooked, holds the mostly empty pink egg carton above his head. His other hand is draped around Isaac’s shoulder, whose sunglasses are turned not quite toward the camera. Behind them, egg yolks drip down the windshield and bumper of the green Firebird. And behind that, a door is opening.
“What,” asked the middle-aged woman a moment after I’d snapped the picture, “in God’s name—” and then she stopped talking.
“Ma’am,” Augustus said, nodding toward her, “your daughter’s car has just been deservedly egged by a blind man. Please close the door and go back inside or we’ll be forced to call the police.” After wavering for a moment, Monica’s mom closed the door and disappeared. Isaac threw the last three eggs in quick succession and Gus then guided him back toward the car. “See, Isaac, if you just take—we’re coming to the curb now—the feeling of legitimacy away from them, if you turn it around so they feel like they are committing a crime by watching—a few more steps—their cars get egged, they’ll be confused and scared and worried and they’ll just return to their—you’ll find the door handle directly in front of you—quietly desperate lives.” Gus hurried around the front of the car and installed himself in the shotgun seat. The doors closed, and I roared off, driving for several hundred feet before I realized I was headed down a dead-end street. I circled the cul-de-sac and raced back past Monica’s house.
I never took another picture of him.