the reason i am here in the first place
from look of the misnomered pleasantville apartments, one wouldn’t think that it was such a filthy place to inhabit. once one walks into the lobby, he/she would begin to have some suspicions, but mostly from the shady looking character working at the front desk. if one made it into the hallways, he/she definitely would be having some second thoughts, due to the mysterious stains and the lingering stench of mouse feces. yet here my mother and i are, in the hallways of the unpleasantville apartments, standing unflinching in front of the door to our new apartment, both of us worried about what we might encounter once the door is unlocked. neither of us move until we hear a door slam down the hall. my mother scrambles for the keys.
she swings the door open to reveal our new apartment, her face full of false excitement as she squeezes my forearm. “aren’t you so glad, james? finally, an apartment of our own; this is so great!” i hate to break it to her, since she seems so happy about us finally moving out of her ex-boyfriend’s apartment, but honestly, i would have preferred his hellhole over this one.
first of all, there were no leaks or peeling paint or mouse droppings at todd’s. secondly, at todd’s, we had real furniture. all my mother could afford on her own is a couple folding chairs and some surprisingly sturdy cardboard boxes to use as tables. (of course, this isn’t including food, clothes from goodwill, and the mattress and blankets that todd let us keep.)
my mother whispers my name again, and i realize i must not have answered her. i can’t tell her that, frankly, this place sucks, so i lie, “oh, yeah, mom, it’s nice.” sometimes, i’ve realized, it’s better to just lie to her to protect her feelings. she actually smiles.
courtesy of todd, all our furniture (or lack thereof) was brought over yesterday. to be honest, i think it’s because he wanted us out as soon as possible, but mom insists it’s because he’s a good person at heart. (maybe he is, although he lacks one, so. it’s a paradox.) this is how mom always is over her ex-boyfriend’s—she dumps them because they’re heartless, but then she tries to explain to me why they are “good people at heart”. i think she just doesn’t want me to go around assuming everyone’s a loser, which is what i do anyway, so she’s failing. though you got to give her brownie points for trying, i’ll say.
“are you excited for school tomorrow?” she asks. i want to ask her why a fifteen-year-old would be excited for school, but i don’t, because then she’ll feel bad for asking, so i just smile and nod. that always seems to work with her, because she looks relieved that i didn’t blow up with angry emotions. i know she’s upset about having me switch schools for the third time this year, even though i try to tell her that i don’t care because everyone at my old school sucks anyway and the people at this one probably will too. (she just laughs.)
she sits in a blue folding chair and gives me a way too cheerful smile. “see, james? comfy,”
i just smile and nod, and then she suggests we go to sleep, even though it’s not even six p.m. yet. but i can see she’s tired and worn out, so i just say okay, and pretend to be asleep until i can hear her breathing steady into the rhythm of sleep. i try to clean up the mouse droppings with a plastic spoon, which is disgusting and makes me want to vomit, but someone needs to clean it up and it certainly won’t be mom. (not that she doesn’t care; i’m sure she does. she just works almost all day and most nights. she has, like, five jobs, and all of them suck. i’d get a job, but she gets mad at me when i ask.) after that’s done, i leave her a note to tell her i’m going out and add the time.
i hurry out of the disaster called the pleasantville apartments and make my way down the street. the house keys jingle and jangle in my pocket; my ratty white reeboks slap the pavement. it’s late november, the cold air of december is beginning to creep in, and i’m glad i’m wearing a thin jacket. the elbows are worn out, but it helps keep most of the rest of my upper body warmish.
the town that we now live in is not unordinary. i can see the glowing sign of an acme in the distance, and there’s a couple family-owned shops lining the street on either side. there’s a bakery, a consignment shop, a café, the works. i jam my fists into the pockets of the jacket and look at the other shops. there’s a nice looking cd shop—it’s not exactly bustling with people, but most of the prices look reasonably low. really should get a new mp3 player; i didn’t see my old one at the apartment. i had all my cds in a cardboard box, and my prehistoric laptop, but no mp3 player. i bet todd stole it. (despite my mother’s protests, he’s really not good at heart.)
i spend a while wandering aimlessly around, and finally see a fluorescent bank sign announcing the time and temperature—it’s almost 8:30. i decide to head home. it’s not too far away, as i’m home within ten minutes. mom’s sitting up in “bed” with the lights on (all of them…), watching the door. when i walk in, she smiles and says, “oh, james, i was afraid you got hit by a car.”
i roll my eyes and then tell her i did and i’m the ghost of james delaney coming to seek revenge on her (for reasons unknown). she doesn’t like that.
then she holds up my note and asks me, “james, are you maybe developmentally disabled, or just lazy? because you don’t use capitals.” she always asks this, and frankly, it’s annoying. whenever i give her the answer, she always just shakes her head and says that she hopes this new school will finally fix that. that’s another thing about my mother. she doesn’t understand me.
“for the umpteenth time, mom, it’s unfair to lowercase letters. i find capitalization as confusing, aggravating, and just plain stupid as gay republicans.” i grumble and toss her the keys. she misses, but barely even flinches as it flies past her head and crashes into the wall. she just shakes her head and mumbles about how sorry she is for disrupting my mental development and such. to be honest, i don’t think she screwed up (too badly) because i turned out okay. just okay. i hope.
she suggests we actually go to bed this time and i nod, and we lie down on the mattress and fall asleep within seconds. it’s been an exhaustingly long week for us.
the day i meet shiloh
the following day, i am forced by law to attend the revolting social jail called “school.” don’t get me wrong: i am all for everyone gaining knowledge so we can survive as a human race and whatever, but you’ll have to agree with me that “school” has become more of a social gathering (for better or for worse) and less of a place to learn. not that we’re not learning—we are. just more about how much we all secretly hate each other than anything of actual importance, in my opinion. there are some classes that you do obtain knowledge in more than others, but mostly i just really hate school.
the bus stop is only a block away, near the cd store i passed the previous night. i think i’m the only one there at first, so i sigh happily and lean against the bus stop sign. maybe i’ll have some moments of blissful peace until the yellow hell on wheels arrives.
at my sigh, however, someone jumps up from a bench under a tree in a little grove behind me and walks over. it’s a girl, with a baggy t-shirt advertising a band that i like (so i know she has spectacular taste in music) and some gray-wash skinny jeans. she has worn-out reeboks, too, but they’re black and not white. she has her hair cut short, ending just below her chin, and it’s curly and red and frizzy. her eyes are big and brown, which i find really amazing since i’ve never met anyone with red hair and brown eyes before. she’s unusually short and pale and thin, and she has an oxygen tank on one of those little steel carts. she stops next to me and looks up at me. (i’m almost five ten, and i’m estimating she’s about four nine.)
she smiles and says, “hi, you’re new.” i don’t know what to say to her, so i just kind of jut my chin in her direction. she motions for us to sit down over on the bench, and we do. it takes her an extra moment, because she’s fiddling with her oxygen tank and the cannula tubes wrapped around her ears and the nubbins in her nose. she sees me watching and laughs, pointing a thumb at her oxygen tank. “cystic fibrosis,” she explains. “doctors says my life expectancy is 27.” and oddly, she laughs again, her eyes crinkling and her smile lighting up her face.
“oh,” i say, mostly because i feel like i have to say something. i feel dumb, and i bet i look dumb, too, but the girl with the oxygen tank doesn’t seem to mind. she just waves it off and cracks her knuckles.
“the name’s shiloh.”
“james,” i respond, and stare at the asphalt street. anything to keep my attention off her oxygen tank, because i think that’d be rude. usually i don’t care if i’m impolite, but something about shiloh makes me want to have her like me. i find my eyes wandering from the street to her oxygen tank. dammit.
“don’t be embarrassed about me, please,” she rolls her eyes. “i hate when people do that—try not to look at me. that includes the oxygen tank. that’s part of me, too. it’s my lungs. if humankinds’ lungs were exterior, would you purposely look away in fear that i’d be offended? no! just like you wouldn’t give a second thought to checking me out.” she pauses, and winks at me. “because i know you were. no one can resist thiiiis.” she gestures to herself. i find myself blushing. i thought i was being subtle. “don’t worry. i like you, james. you’re good at listening. or just hate talking, either way works, because i adore talking. have to talk before i die, you know?”
it strikes me odd how much she didn’t seem to care about dying, but i like it. she talks a little bit more, about how much school sucks and why all the people there are annoying in one way or the other. she’s sarcastic and witty, cracking jokes that make me laugh until my lungs ache and beg for air, and sometimes she gets rather dark, talking about death and how much she just doesn’t care, because what can she do about it? it’s death, and you shouldn’t fear the reaper and such. every once in a while, she breaks for a slight cough and says it’s just a tickle in her throat.
the school bus arrives too early (well, technically, it’s late, but i wish it would never arrive so i can keep talking to shiloh), and shiloh takes my wrist and pulls me into the closest empty seat on the bus. she talks almost the whole time, pausing to catch her breath and cough and wait for my awed responses. finally, she gets very quiet and looks up at me, eyes wide, and whispers, “now it’s your turn.”
i don’t say anything. she keeps looking at me expectantly, and finally i nod and tell her about my mother and the unpleasantville apartments and todd and capitalization and republicans and mp3 players. she listens the whole time, and when i’m done, she looks up at me and whistles, long and slow.
“well, then, james, looks like you need a dose of shiloh.”
then she jumps back into a monologue, full of sardonic statements and complaints and praises, and a thought begins to form in the back of my mind.
My second dose of shiloh
i meet shiloh at the cd store so we can walk to the bus stop together. yesterday, she told me her dad owns it and she lives in the little apartment above it. i told her that that is extremely cool and she agreed. she said her dad’s pretty cool, and even though it’s difficult going down all the stairs with her exterior, portable lungs, she can deal. (“at least i only have twelve more years to deal with it, haha!”)
she talks almost the whole way, telling me about free cds her dad gives her, and that’s how she became so obsessed with music. her favorite is nineties alternative rock, but she’ll listen to anything that’s alt rock. plus she likes heavy metal. she really does have good taste in music. we debate our favorite bands.
at the bus stop we discuss politics, and she tells me, “i just can’t wait to vote.”
“my mother isn’t into politics, but i make her vote and she’ll vote for whoever i tell her is the best candidate. so i can pretty much already vote.” i reply, smiling. shiloh scoffs in jealousy and says she wants to meet my mother. she tells me her own mother took off when she learned shiloh had c.f., but shiloh tells me it doesn’t matter. i tell her about how my dad is “out of the picture” and she shrugs and says, “that sucks, but your mom sounds awesome.” i kind of disagree, so she punches me feebly. (not on purpose. i think she wanted to hurt me.)
on the bus, we talk about food. she mentions her favorite food is green beans because nobody likes green beans. i tell her i hate green beans and she laughs and says, “see?” she’s beautiful when she laughs, and also when she coughs, which i notice she’s been doing a little more today. it’s a mucus-y cough, which she says is a result of c.f. she uses a napkin when she coughs.
we walk up to school together, and she says i have permission to continue the food conversation at lunch but we can’t talk anymore about food now due to the fact that she’s getting hungry. i give her the granola bar that’s half of my lunch. she hesitates, but i insist.
by lunch time, i’m positive i’m in love with shiloh. the thought molds in my mind.
the diagnosis party—eight days in
shiloh invites me to her diagnosis party tomorrow night, which is a saturday. i ask her what a diagnosis party is.
“a diagnosis party is the day i got diagnosed, obviously.” she laughs at me as though i’m stupid, but i know she’s joking. “i celebrate it.” i tell her that she’s weird, but i’ll come anyway. she hugs me and suggests i bring my mother and a present. (“no presents, no entry.”)
“okay,” i say.
at home i tell my mother that we have a party to go to tomorrow.
“what for?” she asks. the apartment smells like microwavable lean cuisine. she’s cooking one in the microwave. i tell her it’s for a girl’s diagnosis party and then i have to explain everything. i can feel my cheeks turning flaming red.
“so, shiloh, huh?” she smiles and adds, “your girlfriend?” i tell her i don’t know. (i don’t add that i really hope she is.) we eat dinner in silence.
the following day i ask my mom to borrow five bucks. some teenagers might not find this as horrible and selfish as i do, but considering our financial issues, i feel like satan himself. but she doesn’t even flinch and gives me ten extra dollars—fifteen bucks total! i’m impressed and she says she worked an extra shift at the diner last night to get some extra tips so i could get shiloh a nice gift. i hug her tightly and she seems very surprised. she smells like french fry grease and burgers. i can’t remember the last time i hugged her.
i spend the whole day wandering main street and gawking at stores, trying to figure out what to get shiloh. i want to get her a cd of a band i think she’ll like, but her father owns the aforementioned cd store and she’ll know ahead of time. she told me she works there on the weekends. i decide to buy her green beans. i don’t know why, but i hope it’ll be funny enough to make her laugh. i really want to see that smile again.
the local gas station convenience store is pretty well stocked on generic brand green beans. i get five cans for five dollars and some rhododendrons for my mother. i vaguely remember her saying she likes rhododendrons. or roses? i get some yellow roses as well. the clerk looks annoyed at my addition. i’m short one dollar and she just waves me off and says, “i already fixed up the bouquets.” i smile at her.
at the apartment, i present my mother the flowers and she cries. it’s a big cry of joy, with her shoulders racking back and forth and tears turning into wide rivers flowing down her tired cheeks. i feel happy that she’s happy.
soon it’s time to go to shiloh’s. my heart is pounding on my ribcage, screaming her name. my mother is excited, as well. (i think she thinks i was lying about shiloh not being my girlfriend.)
shiloh’s father—mr. reynolds—opens the door. he’s tall, unlike his daughter, even taller than me. from his clothes, i can derive that he is stuck in the nineties’ grunge period: beanie over his shaggy blonde hair, t-shirt not unlike the kind shiloh wears frequently, jeans with purposeful holes in the knees, and black vans. he greets us with a half-wave with his right hand and says, “’sup. i’m shiloh’s dad, jeremy.”
shiloh’s head pokes out from behind him. “daaaad, you’re embarrassing me in front of my boyfriend.” then she winks her chocolaty brown left eye at me. my mother shoots me a look that says, ‘so she is your girlfriend.’ i feel my cheeks turn a fiery red, and shiloh pushes her dad weakly (but he pretends it hurts and falls to the ground.)
“how about we go into the living room?” she offers and doesn’t wait for my reply. we sit on the overstuffed couch. her apartment is nice, especially when compared to mine. i wait for her to fix her oxygen tank so we can sit down together. like i said, don’t want to come off as rude even though she assured multiple times that it’s okay if i am.
“james,” my mom shoves the convenience store’s plastic bag in my hand. she smiles at shiloh and says, “hi, i’m miss delaney, but please call me anna.”
shiloh grins, “hi, anna, i’m miss reynolds, but call me shiloh.” my mother laughs, and then jeremy takes her into the kitchen for a beer and “adult chat time”. shiloh looks horrified, so i ask her why.
“james, do you not understand what this means? they’re probably going to coo about how cute we look.” i nudge her side gently and she shrugs. “what? wait! give me my present. i’m dying to know what your sorry ass got me.” she grabs the bag and pulls out the green beans. “yum. i will save these for the zombie apocalypse.”
i smirk at her and say there’s no such thing as zombies, and she rolls her cart over my foot. (now that hurts.) then she starts tugging on my shirt sleeve and gawking at me.
“oh! right. my dad wanted me to give you the talk.” this transports me to pre-adolescent times when you’re getting the actual talk, but then she nudges me and adds, “the fact i’m going to die in twelve years probably and we can’t grow old together and stuff.” she pauses to cough in a napkin and tosses it into a wastebasket next to the sofa. “sorry. still got that tickle. anyway, you’re going to be brokenhearted for the rest of your pitiful life.” i look at her, wide-eyed, and feel as though she’s rejecting me. she reads my mind. “my dad’s words, not mine.”
then she rolls her eyes back into her head and says in a raspy voice not unlike a possessed opossum: “but i do want to break your little heart. snap it in two. suck the life out of it. douse it in green beans.”
“screw you, nosetube girl.” i joke, and she smiles and gushes about how insensitive i am. i feel all jittery inside. the thought from the very first day is beginning to finish.
then she squeezes my forearm and whispers, “want to wear my cannula tubes for, like, thirty seconds?”
“what? won’t you, like, die?”
“no. and even if i will, don’t fear the reaper.”
“oh,” i purse my lips, then nod. “yes.”
so i do. it tickles. i laugh and watch her watching me. she’s taking giant, deep breaths, and smiling a big smile that shows off all of her teeth. finally i take them off and put them back on her. “that was cool. i’m glad you didn’t die.”
she closes her eyes and inhales deeply, then coughs a little. “mmm-hmm. i’m glad i didn’t die, too.” i hold her hand and it’s freezing cold. i try to warm it up with my own hands, but i’m cold-blooded so i think it’s making it worse.
suddenly her eyes snap open and she looks at me bug-eyed, like a deer caught in headlights, and very quickly she whispers, “iloveyoujames,” and leans in and kisses me. she tastes salty.
i’m pretty sure fireworks go off because it’s wonderful.
the last day—twenty days in
my body feels like static on a television, all tingly and warm and happy, even though it’s a school day. school seems to suck less, and shiloh holds my hand every second she can. i notice she’s coughing a lot, and she tells me not to worry, just a tickle in her throat. (i’m starting to think it isn’t.)
the thought has been sitting in a filing bin in the corner of my mind, almost complete, needing a little something more.
after school i walk her home, up to her door, and i work up the courage to kiss her goodbye. she still tastes salty. i like it. if only i had realized this would be our final goodbye, i would’ve kissed her for longer. a lot longer. i wouldn’t have let her go.
at home, my afternoon starts out ordinarily. pop a hot pocket in the microwave, lounge on the mattress, procrastinate, eat the hot pocket, hit the books. mom comes home smelling of french fry grease and burgers, i nuke her a hot pocket. she eats it and then she naps.
then the phone rings. i close my english notebook and answer it. “hello?”
“hey, it’s Jeremy, shiloh’s dad.” jeremy’s voice sounds not so much breaking as much as already broken. his voice is thick, like pudding, as though he’s been crying. a lot. “is this james?”
“yeah,” i reply, hesitate, and then add, “is something wrong?”
“yes, actually, shiloh’s in the hospital. she’s had a cold for a while now, and we’ve had to keep an eye on her. it wasn’t a bad cold… but… but, well, it’s really bad. we’re at the local hospital, and she’s sleeping now… but… i’d like you here.”
i tell him we’ll be right there. at least, i think i did, because i’m in a haze, and the air thickens and it feels like i need some portable lungs for myself. i mumble something to my mother, but she seems to know what i’m saying, and next thing i know we’re in shiloh’s hospital room. i’m so distressed i can’t even hear anything. my mom’s hugging me, and everything’s happening in slow motion.
somehow my hand hurts and i think i punched the wall.
it feels like someone punched my heart.
at 3:29 in the morning, shiloh reynolds meets the reaper, fearless.
it happened too quickly.
and then, the thought is complete.
what i figured out
sometimes, i decided, important things deserved capitals. kind of like Shiloh.
Hailey Mullen is in ninth grade and enjoys listening to music, reading, writing, and playing RPG video games (such as Skyrim). She also likes fencing and resides in Lansdale, Pennsylvania with her mom, dad, and younger sister and brother. Her current favorite book is Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.