An Exaltation of Stars

TFIOS with a twist. To summarize would be to reveal too much so simply do a good deed, and read :)

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1. The Grassy Knoll

This was bound to happen; I've adored this book since its release and the film allowing me to put faces to names meant imagination overload. So with that, I give you this. Please be kind as this is way out of my comfort zone compared to my other stories! Read, enjoy, review, the usual :)

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There are so many ways to tell someone they're dying and by my seventeeth birthday, I had heard almost all of them. What irked me most is that all of them came with the same cliché precursor.

"I'm sorry."

I always wanted to ask why they were sorry; for all they knew I could be an up and coming serial killer and ultimately their inability to cure my cancer was a reason for celebration, certainly not something to be sorry about. They had spared the world my reign of terror and for that, they should be relieved. I had shared this thought just once with a doctor and between my mother's horrified gasps and my father's smothered sobbing, he had made a quiet suggestion of therapy.

Apparently, my cancer deprives those around me of humour in the same way it deprives my paper thin lungs of their usual, fleshy, oxygen loving ways.

"I'm so terribly sorry, Hazel,"

Fighting the urge to snort, I simply drew another line on the "Coping with Grief" leaflet that the doctor had fumbled with earlier, adding to my tally chart of apologies. Six, now. This guy was a pro.

"Don't be," I shook my head. "What if I was..."

I debated sharing my serial killer theory with him but seeing the genuine devastation in his eyes, I relented. Maybe I was his first. Here his poor guy was, fresh out of med school, channelling his inner Patch Adams and I'm about to ruin his career with one joke.

"What if I was...to try breaker therapy?" I finished quickly and tensed, knowing I was asking an unfair question.

"Hazel..."

He said my name in the voice people only ever use when they're telling you no. Not that I was in any way surprised, I had had this conversation so many times, I swore he could see me moving my lips along with his words.

"It may not seem like it but the Phalanxifor is working so well, so much better than we had ever expected..."

Ah, The Miracle. I had to give them applause for pulling that one out of the bag; granted so many people had told me that I was a fighter, that so much of it is to do with mentality. I often allowed people to buy into that notion because it was easier than explaining to them that no matter how hard you fight, no matter how determined you are, Cancer is always stronger and what's worse...its smarter. I was one of the lucky few whom had managed to outsmart and outrun the beast just for a little while via The Miracle of course.

"I know," I told him, clasping my hands together between my legs, willing them to warm up so I could flex my fingers agony free. "I feel...great. I just thought I would ask. My parents talk about it a lot,"

I nodded towards the door on the other side of which sat my parents amidst a sea of other parents, all of them wearing the same pained smile, trying their upmost to appear nonchalant about the whole "Our kids are dying" thing.

That thing. I hated it more than I hated the disease and no one could understand it. I wasn't angry at Cancer, there was no point. I was angry at myself, the precursor of said cancer for coming along at all and wreaking havoc on what should have been a happy, fun marriage. They built a life together and I brought them death.

"...as long as you're happy with that, I think its best we just stay the course,"

I blinked, recalling my surroundings and nodding slowly, doing my best to make Dr Apology think that I had been listening intently.

"Of course," I smiled, tight lipped and forced. "I completely understand,"

"And Dr Maria will be back next week," he continued. "So you can always talk to her if you have something on your mind."

Ah, Dr Maria. The one Founding Member of the Republic of Cancervania that I actually liked. She didn't sugar coat things, she didn't apologise and she certainly didn't speak to me like I was made of glass. She spoke to me like I was made of cancer and for that, I loved her.

"Sounds like a plan," I told him, reaching for my BiPAP, a sure sign that I was ready to leave. I fumbled with it for a moment, attempting to look awkward when really, I was buying my lungs time to catch up with the rest of my body.

I saw Dr Apology stand and fidget nervously with some papers on his desk, obviously having the age old internal argument of whether or not to offer me a hand getting up. I made the decision for him and quickly pushed myself to my feet, ignoring the dull sting that crept through my ribs and into what was left of my lungs.

Silently thanking the BiPAP for its support as I leaned on it, I waved and turned, yanking the door open and not in the least bit surprised to see my parents standing there watching my intently. I glanced at the door and then back at them, raising an eyebrow.

"Really?"

"So, how did it go?" My mom asked me, her voice rushed and just above a whisper.

Around us, the families of other patients looked up and glanced at me sadly knowing full well that being a patient of this room, in this ward, in this hospital meant there was never going to be a good answer to that question. I gave my mom the look and she held up her hands, a coy grin pulling at the corners of her mouth.

"Hey, I'm all for the private, independent appointments, but you know the drill, we need to know what goes on,"

"Kind of defeats the point of it being private," I replied with what I hoped was a teenager-esque sigh of annoyance but in reality it sounded more akin to someone opening a can of soda that had gone flat.

My dad scoffed, bending down for a second to check the oxygen level of my tank and then, seemingly pleased, rose back up and slung an arm around my shoulders as we walked down the hall, both of them keeping in time with me as they always did.

"So..." Mom nudged me gently and I smirked.

"Well...the cancer is still a thing but on the upside, the chlamydia is finally dying down,"

My dad turned his head but I could feel his body shaking as he laughed, my mother, ever the liberal, much more open as she threw her head back and cackled, rubbing the back of her neck as we turned the corner and made our way into the elevator.

"About damn time," she told me, her face straight enough to make me start laughing, the small space momentarily singing with normality.

Stepping out into the foyer, I felt my Dad's hand tighten on my shoulder and looked up at him, confused and a tad horrified as I watched the colour drain from his face.

"No," he whispered, shaking his head.

I followed his gaze and saw the McArthurs sitting on the worn chairs at the end of the hall, their bodies shaking as they clung to each other desperately. Small history lesson on the McArthur family: their son Elijah had adrenocortical carcinoma and was diagnosed at the same time as me. We had been friends as much as kids with cancer could be friends; we compared meds, doctors, treatments and even post chemo hairstyles but he had gotten sicker and sicker, the downward spiral coaxing him deeper. I think I saw it before he did and so did his parents whether they wanted to admit it or not.

The last time I had seen him, his lips had been bluey black, his fingernails had all but fallen off and he was wearing clothes designed for 10 year olds which still managed to hang off of his skeletal frame. He had known then as he nodded to me, offering me a yellow toothed smiled as the doors of the elevator closed. I wish now that I had said something, anything. Silence was so inevitable, it made sense to talk whilst we could.

And now as I stared at his parents, I knew his talking days were over. He had defied his body, his doctors, his faith and Dylan Thomas and gone quietly into the good night.

"Hazel," Mom pressed her lips to my temple and then stood directly in front of me as though trying to block my view, as though I hadn't already seen it. "Sweetie, go grab a coffee, ok? We'll be out in a sec,"

Behind her, I could see my dad walking over to the cowering couple and placing a hand on the man's shoulder, he sobbed hard and then flung himself at my father who embraced him tightly. I swallowed hard as it all became too much and met my Mom's eyes.

"Sure," I whispered. "Coffee."

If I could have run, I would have. Jesus, part of me was contemplating it anyway; stars burn your brightest, lungs do your worst.

"Such an asshole," I scolded myself for thinking about my lungs when upstairs somewhere Elijah McArthur was being bathed and scrubbed and de-tubed and made to look like a real boy again.

See, something I had realised all too quickly with Cancer is how romanticised it is. This whole notion that the good die young and even then, they fight until their last breath was a level of bullshit I had been unfamiliar with up until this point.

When people die, they don't fall asleep, they don't look out at the night sky and sigh happily. They gasp and grab at people, they panic and vomit and bleed until their body gives out. And even at that point, they're not grateful, they're petrified because no matter how much of a cynic or a realist you are, we all rally for the last minute miracle. And we all feel the same when we realise it's not coming.

"Is that all there is?"

I looked up, blinking at the young woman behind the counter as she nodded to my coffee and snapped her gum loudly. I stared at her for a long moment, watching as she breathed with ease, heart beating, skin warm and wondered if she knew how lucky she was.

"Yeah," I just about whispered. "That's all there is,"

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From the grassy knoll as I liked to call it, Children's didn't look nearly so depressing as grey walls, heavily adorned with glittery artwork circa 1996 made it seem. The sun shone almost aggressively and it bounced off of the tall sheets of glass that comprised the building, creating miniature rainbows above the fountain next to me.

In my hands, the coffee was still hot and I thought about how cold Elijah must be. My thoughts were dusty and irritating, crowding my already teeming brain. What the hell was I supposed to do? I was a walking spectre of things to come and I couldn't help but wonder if my parents were having the same thoughts as they comforted the McArthurs, wondering who would be hugging them some day.

Sighing, I pulled a wrinkled copy of An Imperial Affliction from my bag and skimmed through it, not particularly caring which page I landed on. I knew them all by heart and loved them as much as I had loved anything in my life. Peter Van Houten, I had decided, would be the unwitting love of my life.

Around me, people laughed, cried, ran and some even smoked though occasionally looking my direction with what I could swear was a guilty expression. I was so caught up in it all, my mind already coursing through the text of AIA before my eyes had cast down to the paper.

"Onward!"

The shout caused me and me alone to blink, looking up from my book and blinking through the sunlight.

"You don't make this easy,"

"Well say I made it hard, what damage could I possibly do? Should I get up and decide to run, your inability to catch me should and would quite rightly haunt you for life."

"Why do I do this?"

"It's almost a philosophical question. How does one catch the one legged man?"

I craned my neck, determined to catch a glimpse at the bodies to which the voices belonged and felt a smile tug at my lips and something foreign tug at my chest.

A boy say in a wheelchair, his legs stretched outwards, leaning forward on it as a small woman attempted to push him, the strain on her face more mental than physical. I knew that look, my mother had mastered that look.

As soon as they were clear of the entrance, the boy slammed his feet to the ground and stood, lifting his arms in a triumphant gesture that drew stares from the majority of the grassy knoll.

"You're supposed to stay in the chair until you're…"

"Clear of the hospital doors," the boy interrupted. His voice was dripping with mischief and smokiness and it was doing something to me. "Which I technically am and whilst we may be a foot or so away, if you'll excuse the pun, I beg of you. Challenge convention, fight the power…"

"I'll get the car," the woman shook her head but I could see her smiling, it grew bigger as the boy leaned down and kissed her head.

"I'll wait." He pointed to the ground, drawing an invisible line with his finger. "Outside the hospital doors."

I watched him for a long moment after the woman –his mother, I could only assume- left him alone. He was gorgeous. All jaw bone and lips, I could see him being a movie star in the silent era, suited and sipping a whiskey at the bar wearing a smirk that could melt hearts and make paper lungs fold.

Suddenly he glanced up at me and held my gaze; I panicked and reached for my book, shoving my face into it and wincing when I realised it was upside down.

Drawing in the deepest breath I could muster, I lowered the book just slightly and felt my heart leap when I realised he was still looking at me, although this time, the smirk was just for me. We were the only ones on the knoll, everything else –poor Elijah included- ceased to exist when his eyes met mine. I thought about waving and appalled myself. Instead reaching for my coffee, not caring that it was cold as I took a long sip, trying to distract myself from the fact I knew I looked like shit.

I wanted so badly in that one moment to be an ordinary girl; to have my hair curled, to have my lashes long and thick and black, my lips sporting some kind of gloss that would entice him in. But all I had was a cannula and a haircut that only looked cute on 8 year old boys.

But he was still looking. Was it pity? Or maybe I was sat in front of someone else he knew.

"Hazel!"

For the most minute and ridiculous moment, I thought he knew my name. But out of nowhere, my parents were stepping around him and starting towards me with that same look of panic they always sported when I was out of eyesight for more than 15 minutes. I felt a stab of guilt as I looked past them, still determined to catch a glance of him and frowning when I realised he had gone.

I was pulled to my feet and embraced tightly, returning the hug full force as I knew they needed it as much as I did in that moment; their thoughts were filled with Elijah and mine were filled with him.

I was huddled towards the car and amidst pecks on the cheek and forehead and tears being swiped at furiously as they attempted to make conversation, their voices too high pitched to be normal, I realised I had left my copy of AIA on the grass but didn't mention it. I had trashed the thing, a new one would be most welcome.

I would later find out that as my parents car had sailed through the lot, past the knoll, past the rainbows and past the corpse of Elijah McArthur, Augustus Waters had bent down and scooped up my copy of An Imperial Affliction, his lips curving into a grin as he held it tightly and watched me disappear into the sunlight. He would tell me some time later that he had made a vow to find me and would not give up until he did; that he would be the first one legged man to race the globe just to say hi to the girl with the hazel eyes sat amongst the rainbows.

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Be patient with it, I promise, the best is yet to come. Please review, it means the world. Love El x

 

 

 

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