Billy Lynch watched the flashing numbers on the machine that told the pediatric oncology doctors and nurses he was still alive. He forced himself to look away. Dr. Rice, the child psychologist assigned to the ward, explained to Billy that he needed to focus on wellness rather than illness. The psychologist had provided relaxation tapes, nature sounds, a white noise machine, and visual imagery to help him. Rice had encouraged Billy to use these tools as a launching pad for his imagination and what he called purposeful daydreaming.
"You've got your laptop," Dr. Rice had said. "Pick a sound or image and write me a story. We'll talk about it next time."
Ignoring the telemetry machine was a problem. The white noise was no match for the insistent beeping and whirring that reminded everyone in the room Billy Lynch was back for the fourth time in his nine years of living. If that weren't enough, the chemicals dripping through his IV port, the needles, the bedside toilet, the sanitary pads on the bed, all bore witness that Mr. Cancer was in control and Billy should forget about Little League baseball this summer, and maybe his tenth birthday.
Dr. Rice knocked and entered the room.
"So, what's the plan for today, Billy?"
Billy forced a smile. The psychologist was big on planning. The ward was small, the room was small, the world was small when you were fighting for your life. Rice prescribed a full day every day to help the children get on top of their illness, or at least put it aside for a while, and live the best life they could under the circumstances.
"Getting ready to write a story for you. Jamie's coming by later for a chess match and I've got some schoolwork to do."
"Sounds good," Rice said. "What do you want to do for the next fifty minutes?"
"The chess board is ready. I've got no chance against Jamie, but I think it would help my self-esteem if I could kick your ass."
Rice laughed. Thirty minutes later the match was over.
"You're good," the psychologist said. "You've got a strong, analytical mind. How do you feel?"
Billy stared at the chess set, looked through it into a future that was bleak and hazy, like January rain on an Appalachian ghost town. A dark shadow settled in his mind. He picked up the game board and threw it against the wall.
"Want to know how I feel? I'm goddamn sick and tired of being sick and tired. The tapes, the white noise, the images, none of that shit keeps me from throwing up or looking like a seventy year old man who'll never need a haircut. None of it will keep me safe from a disease no one can figure out. So, guess what, fuck your stupid story and my schoolwork because there's no point. I'm out."
A nurse poked her head in the room. The telemetry machine was screaming like a baby with a soiled diaper.
"Everything okay, Billy?"
He waited for her to leave before turning to Rice. The psychologist was gone.
Asshole. Shit gets a little too real and he disappears like a flash.
Billy glanced at the clock on the wall. Jamie would be coming down the hall in another couple of hours. He turned on the television and watched the enormous head of Dr. Phil McGraw fill the screen. Some guy was complaining that his wife, a stay-at-home mom, couldn't clean the house, watch the baby, and go to the store because she was too busy washing her hands a couple of hundred times a day. The camera zoomed in on the woman's raw hands. They looked like fresh meat from the supermarket, if prime cuts came with fingernails.
He flipped the channel to the Cartoon Network and muted the sound. His eyes closed. The sound of the food cart woke him from a light sleep.
"Hi Billy. Got your lunch here. I brought extra pudding."
He sampled the pudding. It tasted like chocolate flavored chemicals. The mashed potatoes were better. They had no taste at all.
Billy pushed the tray aside and watched the medicine drip through the tubes, into the IV port and into his body, trying to beat the enemy within by making him wish he were dead. He craned his neck. Almost time for a new bag. Yum.
The television remote beckoned. Billy ignored it and thought about writing the story. Rice would be pleased, but it wasn't his job to please Dr. Rice. Truth be told, Billy wished the psychologist would export most of his happy crappy kumbaya philosophy to some YMCA summer camp that was running low on bullshit. Positive thoughts were hard to come by on a children's cancer ward and they couldn't be forced by a psychologist or anyone else.
"Hey, what's up?"
Jamie stood in the doorway with her ever present IV pole.
"Nothing. Wondering what Karen Bass would look like naked."
"Who's Karen Bass?"
"Girl in my class. Sits in front of me."
Jamie noticed the chess board and game pieces scattered on the floor and began picking them up.
"If this girl is your age, she'll probably look a lot like a boy. You need an older woman, son."
There it is, positive thought for the day. Lightning in a bottle. Thank you Karen Bass and Jamie Ford.
"I'm going to beat you today."
Jamie looked at him.
"We've been over this, Billy. You're a good player for your age. I'm a prodigy, the third youngest Grand Master in chess history. You have no chance."
"If I can't beat you I'm going to marry you."
Jamie thought about it.
"I'll marry you when you're ten."
Billy started to laugh, and then stopped. She looked serious.
They talked as they played. Jamie worked the board with practiced ease while Billy struggled to understand her strategy and plan a counter-attack.
"Good session with Rice?"
"I kind of blew up at him. He's always so positive and upbeat. Sometimes I get fucking sick of it."
"It happens," Jamie said. "Rice will get over it. He's probably already trying to figure out what to do next."
Billy smiled. "Want to mess with him? He'll be back on Thursday, usual time. What if we're making out when he comes in the room?"
Jamie made a face.
"What, too gross?"
"Have you ever made out with a girl?"
"Of course ... I mean, no."
"Then I'll have to teach you. I'll be here on Thursday. Brush your teeth."
Billy watched her move a game piece.
Jamie packed the game away and put it on a shelf.
"Any word from the Make-A-Wish folks?"
"Nah. They said not to get my hopes up. Lots of kids ahead of me and the list is growing. Not many wishes being granted with the pandemic."
"What about your family?"
"I've asked them to stay away. This is hard enough. I don't want to make it harder."
Jamie placed a hand on his shoulder. Before Billy could react she kissed him, opening his mouth with her tongue. When it was over she stepped back.
Billy struggled to speak.
"I think we're engaged. What about you?"
"I think the mashed potatoes were okay, but the pudding was nasty. See you Thursday."
Jamie arrived fifteen minutes early for the date. Billy could smell perfume when she sat down on the bed. They waited until the sound of Dr. Rice's distinctive tread echoed down the hall. Jamie kissed him hard and this time Billy was ready. Any idea of a prank was forgotten. He wasn't sure what came after kissing, but his arms and body wound around the delectable form of Jamie Ford. The telemetry machine shrieked as the IV pole crashed to the floor, puncturing the bag of medicine and ripping the needle from Billy's arm. Three nurses burst into the room and shoved Dr. Rice aside. Ten minutes later the damage was repaired and Billy had a fresh IV.
Rice pulled a chair over to the bed.
"This is the most excitement I've had since our last session. Never a dull moment with you, Billy boy."
Billy tried and failed to suppress a smirk. The psychologist was playing it cool.
"What did you think of Jamie?"
"The girl I was kissing. Come on Dr. Rice, that's not funny."
The psychologist drew his chair closer to the bed.
"There was no girl, Billy."
* * *
Billy checked himself one last time in the mirror. It felt funny to be dressed and ready to go home, probably for the last time, one way or the other. The chemo had shrunk the cancer, but failed to put it into remission. He knew he would be more comfortable at home. The doctors had promised to give him whatever he needed.
Dr. Rice stuck his head in the room.
"Good luck Billy. Take care of yourself."
The psychologist had suggested that Billy continue to see a therapist when he got home.
Billy had wondered what the point in that was. For once, Rice had foregone his usual bromides and simply shrugged his shoulders.
Billy had done some research on Jamie Ford. The young prodigy had died ten years ago at the age of thirteen. She had the same cancer as Billy.
Ten years on the cancer ward. Waiting? For him? Impossible.
His family was waiting at the nurse's station. Billy's mother was crying. He wasn't sure if she was happy or sad. Maybe both. Dana was playing on her phone, probably texting her neanderthal boyfriend. Older sisters were the worst. Billy wondered if she remembered his name. His dad looked terrified, probably wondering what dystopian hellscape he had wandered into with a crying wife, dying son, and emotionally crippled daughter.
While his dad was reviewing some final paperwork Billy motioned to one of the oncology doctors.
"Dr. Rice wanted me to continue seeing a therapist when I get home. I know he doesn't have a private practice outside the hospital, but if I'm going to do this I'd rather see him than a stranger. Is that possible?"
The doctor frowned.
"Billy, we haven't had a psychologist on the floor in at least five years. Budget cutbacks. The only Rice I remember was Dr. Nathan Rice."
"Yeah, that's him. Can I keep seeing him for my sessions?"
"I'm afraid not, son. Dr. Rice died seven or eight years ago."
* * *
Billy walked down the hall for the last time. The ward was quiet except for the beeping and hissing sounds of machines at work.
He reached the exit and turned around. Jamie was standing outside his door. She waved and blew him a kiss.
Promises to keep. Miles (months?) to go before I sleep.
In three months he would turn ten years old. Meanwhile, he had a life to live and a wedding to plan. Billy walked out the door and into the sunshine.