My Affliction

My entry for the The Fault In Our Stars Movie Fanfiction Competition.

You’d think my life would be over when I was diagnosed. Well, I guess that’s true but somehow you learn to live with it. You have to. If I’d stopped and started sulking I’d still be hidden under my covers, seeing nothing. I want to see everything. I’m more alive than I’ve ever been. Ironic isn’t it? That when you’re dying you’ve never felt so alive.

2,993 words.

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1. My Affliction

You’d think my life would be over when I was diagnosed.  Well, I guess that’s true but somehow you learn to live with it.  You have to.  If I’d stopped and started sulking I’d still be hidden under my covers, seeing nothing.  I want to see everything.  I’m more alive than I’ve ever been.  Ironic isn’t it?  That when you’re dying you’ve never felt so alive.

Hustle and bustle.  I’m always shocked by the way people speed through their lives.  What are they all rushing around for?  I’ve been sitting in my favourite coffee shop for the best part of two hours and although my book is in my hands, I’m watching people. 

Take this girl shaking off the rain from her hair who’s just walked in.  I imagine a huge muscled boyfriend at home waiting for her return, flowers and chocolates in wait.  She will throw herself into his arms and they’ll tumble to bed.

No?  Too much.  Perhaps he’s forgotten to text her and she’s concerned.  He’ll apologise and she’ll forgive him, kissing his nose and giving him that smile he loves.

She orders a cappuccino and settles into her chair, sighing as she shrugs off her jacket and pulls out her mobile.  I wonder what she’s sighing about.  It could be anything.  The rain.  The sudden peace.  The moment itself.

Human beings are the most intricate, fascinating puzzles I’ve ever come across.  Weird how a year ago I would never have thought of such a thing.  Everything was beautiful now.

“Hey, hun.”  Hayley settles down beside me, checking her boss isn’t eyeing her.  Of course he isn’t.  I’m a special case.  “Good book?”

I look down at the pages in my hand.  “Not up to scratch.”

“Nothing ever is.”

I laugh and go to take a sip of my coffee.  Of course, it’s cold.

“Lemme refill that.”  Hayley jumps up in a second and darts behind the counter.

Now it was my turn to sigh.  That was my least favourite thing about my disease.  Everyone wants to do everything for me.  I have a brain tumour.  I’m not crippled.  I could go and get my goddamn coffee myself.

“Here, hun.”

I fumble around in my purse but she pushes my hand away and shakes her head.

“Hayles, I’m paying.”

“Nope, it’s on me.”

I slouch my shoulders and huff.  “You can’t keep doing that.”

“Yes I can.  I can do whatever I want.  I can’t help you in any other way.”

“That’s because I don’t need your help.”

“Can’t I help out a friend in need?”

“You know I hate that.”

“It makes me feel better.  I feel useless.”

“Just chill out, Hayley.  It’s fine.  Everything’s fine.”

“Are you allowed to say that?”

“Are you allowed to talk to me like that?”

She ignores this.  “I wish there was something I could do.”

“Well there isn’t anything.  And I don’t want your help anyway.  I don’t need it.”

She just looks at me.

“Why is that so hard to believe?”  I cross my arms.  “Don’t you understand that for now I’m as fit and healthy as I’m gonna get?  I wanna get my own coffee while I can.  I wanna act normal even after normality has left me forever.  Don’t you get that every time you do something nice for me I remember?  You never even talked to me before.”

“Alright,” she holds her hands up.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“You haven’t upset me.  I’m telling you it how it is.”

“Elle, you have to calm it.”

“I can’t talk to you when you’re being like this.”  I pick up my book and shoo her away.  “Come back when you want to treat me like an equal.”

From the corner of my eye it looks like she wants to say something more but of course she doesn’t.  She doesn’t want to upset me.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve upset her because I’m the priority.  Just for one moment I wish everything could just go back and I could be normal again. 

You’d think I’d be wishing for my life but I know that’s stupid.  I wish for simpler things.  I wish I was normal.  I wish people knew how to talk to me.  Sometimes all I want is to be left alone.

 

My wave goodbye was done with inflamed cheeks but I didn’t want to have to apologise for what I said.  I’d meant it.

Rain patters along the pavement and I stand for a second watching everyone rushing for cover.  I just close my eyes and inhale, enjoying the feel of rain of my face.  Before I can get halfway down the street, there’s Sean.

“Afternoon, sis.”  He tips his imaginary hat.

“What’re you doing here?”

“Picking you up.  It’s raining.”

“I can get home myself, I’ve done it a thousand times before and how did you know when I’d be done?”

“I’ve been waiting.  I had some stuff to do, it’s fine.”

I growl and stomp to the car.

“You’re so cute when you’re angry.  Like a baby tiger.”

“Just get me out of here.”

He jabbers on the whole way home.  I answer as appropriate, more interested with breathing onto the window and drawing patterns.  I don’t like to concentrate on the road anymore.  Not now I’m not allowed to drive.  What irritates me more than never being able to drive again is that everyone else still can.  Tiny, insignificant.  It’s stupid to think yesterday I broke down in tears when Sean drove to his mate’s house. 

“Elle!”  Mum singsongs from the kitchen as Sean unlocks the front door.  “I’ve made mac n’ cheese for tea!  Hungry?”

No.  “Yes,” I answer.  “I can’t wait, Mum.”

I can feel her optimism from here.  Sean rolls his eyes, gives me a playful punch on the arm and disappears into the land of boy I have no intention of figuring out.

I drop my bag by the front door and touch one foot to the stairs when Mum calls again.

“Did you have a lovely time at Costa?”

“Yeah thanks.”

“Was Hayley there?  What did you have?  Anything worth reporting?”

I grit my teeth and backpedal into the kitchen, having to reveal every little detail about my trip.  Including that I put too many sugars in my coffee but still enjoyed it.  I left out my little tiff with Hayley though.  She doesn’t need to know about that.

When I finally reach the sanctity of my bedroom, I open my laptop and scroll through Facebook.  That’s one of the things I didn’t think would change.  But it did. 

Everything did.

People friend me all the time.  I can’t help but think it’s because they’re thinking about what they want to write on my wall when I’m dead.  Fat lot of good that is to me now.  They don’t want to talk.  In fact, most of them don’t want to communicate with me at all.  Once I comment on a photo or something no one comments back.  Like I have the plague.  How ridiculous.  They’re only nineteen I guess, I’ll let them off.

I soon tire of their inane stories and slide one of my history books off the shelf.  It’s with my eyes glittering with Tudor gems that Dad finds me.

“Dinner, sweetie.  Hungry?”

“A little.”  I stretch my arms above my head and yawn before pulling myself up.

My plate, as every day, was too full.  Mum knows that.  She just can’t seem to change her portion sizes after so many years.  I’ve never said anything because I like that it’s the same.  It’s about the only thing.

We chatter about our days and then conversation falls back to the elephant in the room of course, me.

“What do you think about going back to school?”

This is so unexpected I almost choke on my mouthful.  The sheer terror in my parents’ eyes as I do so is heartbreaking.

“Excuse me?”

“Your doctor said it was fine.  You could take an A’ level.”

Sean tries to hide his snort in his drink.

I shoot him a glare.  “An A ‘level?  Am I incapable of doing more than one?”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“You don’t want to, Elle,” Sean was still smirking.  “They’re bloody hard.”

“I could do it.  I’ve got GCSE’s.”

Sean laughs again.  “I didn’t say you couldn’t.  I said you shouldn’t.  If I had the choice I wouldn’t have.”

“You did have a choice,” Mum retorts.

“Oh yeah, like you would’ve let me leave school at sixteen.”

“Well this is about what Elle wants.”

“Yippee,” I mutter to my plate.

“You can always try it,” Dad nudges my arm.  “Take a look.  See what takes your fancy.”

I take a deep breath before speaking what everyone’s thinking.  “An A’ level takes two years to complete.”

“It’s two different qualifications really,” Mum jumps in.  “An AS one year and carrying on turns it into an A2 which is an A’ level.”  She turns to Sean.  “Right?”

“Yep.  Two years wasted.”

My mouth turns up into a smile and his eyes catch mine.  I often wonder if I would’ve lost my mind if I’d had to live in this house without my big brother.  Out of everyone in the universe he was the only one who treated me like old times.  I wish more people could be like him.  But I know that’s asking too much.

“Mum,” I put my fork down.  “I don’t think making a two year commitment is a very smart move.”

Dad’s hand envelops mine.  “You have the choice, Elle.  It’s up to you.”

Now that there, that was a sentence I needed to hear more often.

 

So I find myself at a sixth form induction day.  I spend more time looking in the mirror than I have in a long time, trying to tame my wispy mouse brown hair into order.  It looks like I was going for a cute pixie rather than the I’ve-obviously-been-through-chemo look.  Excellent.  Perhaps this was a good idea.  There was still a huge chance something could mess it up though.  I’d become rather comfortable with my reading/Costa/thinking/dreaming routine.  I’d never thought about school once since leaving it after my second term at sixth form back when I was seventeen.

After the presentation we follow the head of sixth around the school, as though what the place looks like is of any interest to me, though I’m thrilled to see art work on almost every wall.  I can draw as well as a child but I’ve always found something in art.

I drift off when he begins speaking again.  How much information does he want to cram into these eager parents and prospective students?  Most of the students are looking around wide-eyed as though they’ve never seen anything so magical.  Then again, most of them are sixteen and deep into their GCSE’s.  They’re just pleased just to be out during school hours.

That is, except one boy.  I catch him lagging behind and I lean past people to take a look at him.  He’s resting one hand on his chin as he observes a painting.

I’m so busy watching him that I don’t notice the pack moving on until dad speaks.  “So what do you think?”  His eyes are glittering with possibility.

“Seems great.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back to your old school?”

“Definitely.”

I knew what it’d be like to return.  The corridors bustling with healthy faces going silent as I walk past, scooting to the furthest wall and creeping along so they don’t have to talk to me.  They would treat me like a china doll and think themselves bulls.  Here, or anywhere else, I could start again.  No one needed to know of my . . . affliction.

The head of sixth stops again outside a sports hall, everyone elbowing each other trying to look into the window.  I put my hand in front of my face to hide the huge grin there.  People didn’t realise they were just complicated animals.

“Not joining the rabble?”  I look up to see the painting boy beside me smirking at the zombies at the doors.

“No.  I don’t care much for the sporting facilities.  I’m pretty sure every sports hall is the same.”

He nods before turning to face me.  “So have you been to many of these things?”

“Yeah, a few.  This is my first one for this school year though.”

“A fellow dropout?”

“Excuse me,” I narrow my eyes.  “I am not a dropout.”

“Oh really?”  He crosses his arms.  “That’s what we all say.”

“Oh yeah?  What’s your excuse?”

He shrugs.  “I was at college but I couldn’t get on with it.  I need a variety of subjects to challenge me.”

“Really?  All my friends who went to college loved it.  Always going on about how much better it was than my old sixth form.”

“Maybe they were right considering you’re standing next to me now.”

I shake my head.  “It wasn’t the school’s fault I ‘dropped out’.”  I make quotation marks in the air.

He chuckles.  “That’s a first.  Everyone’s so quick to blame the school or the teachers.  I’m not judging you.  It’s refreshing.”

I smile not having anything to say to that.  We just stand next to each other watching the parents act wild and the students lose interest.  Well, that’s school for you.

The next place we stop is science.  The smell of the labs brings it all back from my GCSE days.  Stuffy air.  Old wood.  Sticky trays.  The darkness of the room squashes down on me.  What is it with science labs and gloom?  Dimness surrounds us, making the bright, beautiful morning sun turn to afternoon murkiness.

My dad wanders around the classroom pulling faces at the things he looks at.

The mystery painting boy speaks again.  “That your old man?”  He motions to Dad.

“Yeah.  We’re not really a science family.”

“Me neither but look at my mum.”  He points to a small blonde woman at the front, clutching a pamphlet.  “She’s listening to every word like it matters.”

“She’s just being polite.”

He rolls his eyes.  “To what end?  I would be your dad over there, exploring.”

“Exploring?”  I snicker.

“Gotta keep my brain active.  You know that your imagination is a muscle?  You have to exercise it to grow it.”

“I thought you weren’t a science guy.”

“I know some stuff.”

“Sounds fascinating.”

“You don’t believe me?  The universe is outstanding.  What are the chances that we all exist in the first place?  Think of everything that’s happened in human history to lead us to be having this conversation right now.”

I just watch him.  The light behind his eyes at the beauty of all things shines direct to my heart.  He’s so animated its infectious but I don’t want to break the spell of this moment.

“Don’t you find that fascinating?”

It takes me a moment to find my voice.  “Of course I do.  The most brilliant thing of all is the human mind.”  Ironic that the disease in my head is destroying my favourite part of myself. 

“I couldn’t agree with you more.”

We walk together as we’re directed to the art department.

“Do you reckon this guy’s new?”

I shrug.  “Is that based on the way this tour has no logical sequence?”

“Precisely.”

“Perhaps he’s so excited about the prospect of bringing in new students that he can’t contain himself.”

“If that’s the case I hope he’s a teacher.  I love it when they get all giddy.”

I laugh and look around for the first time.  Everyone else is in the front of the room, breathing in the weak paint fume smell like that alone will inspire them.  I glance around at the pictures, a little surprised I’m not more interested.  But the boy, the painting boy doesn’t seem interested either.

“Is art one of your subjects?”

He grins.  “What gave me away?”

“Earlier after the presentation, you were looking at a painting.”

“Well, there’s nothing more brilliant that the human mind.  I express my wonder through painting.  Can I tell you a secret?”

I lean closer.  “Of course.”  My words come out as a whisper.

“I actually hate science.”

“Me too.”  I can’t help but smile at him.  “If art’s your thing, why aren’t you listening to what Mr Eager is saying over there?”

“I prefer to make my own conclusions.”

“Smart.  Have you made up your mind about this school yet?”

“Almost.  Have you?”

I nod.  “I think I have.  I really like it here.”

“Then it’s settled.”

My eyebrows pull together in confusion.

“I like it here too.  The company is outstanding.”

I blush and stare at the ground.

“I’m Tommy by the way.”

“Eleanor Mills.”

“I didn’t realise we were doing full names, Eleanor Mills.  I’m Thomas Prescott, first of his name.”

“I’m just Elle to everyone I know.”

“Elle,” he speaks as though my name is an incantation.  “I look forward to getting to know you.”

 

I spend the rest of the tour with Tommy, only quiet when the head of sixth glares at us.  I return home with electric butterflies in my stomach, Tommy’s mobile number in my phone.

“How was it?”  Mum was already waiting for us in the hall when we opened the front door.

“Amazing,” I smile at her, throwing myself into her arms.  “I couldn’t be happier.”

It takes a few moments for her to answer, squeezing me back.  “I’m glad to hear it, sweetheart.”

“It’s not all doom and gloom, eh?”  Sean appears at the top of the stairs.

“Not anymore,” I reply, the buzz of my phone in my pocket sending tingles along my skin.

I kiss Mum on the cheek and race up to my bedroom, flinging myself down onto the bed, wrestling my phone out of my pocket.

Whattcha doing, Eleanor Mills?

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