Forget Me Not
by Nicole Bea
When Paisley Watts is diagnosed with terminal cancer, she soon realizes that she's going to likely be forced to miss out on the biggest experiences of her life—going to prom, getting a tattoo, having her first drink of alcohol—and she vows to fit as many of those things into one summer as she can.
Along with four of her friends, Paisley struggles to convince her parents to let her go on one last trip before she's too sick to travel—across provincial lines to Partridge Island, a place where so many of the things on her bucket list will be able to be completed. However, something happens that isn't on the agenda: Paisley realizes that she is falling in love with her best friend, Mitchell, and her time to let him know is quickly running out.
BUY THE BOOK
It’s seven o’clock in the morning, and I’m standing on the edge of the roof, looking across the street at Mitchell’s house. The window to his room is easy to spot, not from the location but because the daybreak hits his window at exactly the right position that it refracts the light and shines into my eyes. I’m temporarily blinded—the spotty black bits in my line of vision soon disappearing so that the brick-front house comes back into view again. The curtains in his room are still drawn, but the checkered pattern is clear through the glass.
There's something beautiful and nostalgic about the way the sunrise looks from the top of my house as the orange and yellow flames lick away at the cotton candy of the sky. The new day drops rays of lemony shade on the valley below Hollyberry Subdivision, twinkling crystals on the Sawyer River in its infinite blue. It's a peaceful moment, those seconds where the crows quiet and allows for the songbirds to call their melody of the morning. To be fair, I can use all the peaceful mornings I can get—the ones I have left are numbered now.
I’ll never forget the exact moment the doctor told my family there was nothing else he could do for me because the tumors had spread to my brain. The room had cheerful blue walls, while I was taped up and attached to machines that whirred next to me and counted a number of things from my heart rate to my medication levels. The words dripped over me like a leaking faucet—not fast enough to make you wet but at enough of a consistency to make you aware of a problem. I was waterproof at that moment, the trickles of terminology sliding off my skin and only being picked up my mother—in person—and my father, on the phone from his oil rig out in the middle of the ocean.
When Doctor Aker spoke those words, the ones meant to indicate that I wasn’t going to be around much longer, my mother cried her eyes out in the hospital room while a red splotchiness spread on her cheeks in the shape of butterfly wings. Hugging my numb body tight, she nearly pulled out the intravenous line to my arm, her sobs echoing along the mossy grey accent walls. Dad was probably crying too, although the last time I remember him doing such a thing was when Auntie Ella died when I was seven. She was in an unfortunate winter car accident where someone without snow tires slid into the back of her Ford F-150, smashing it right off a residential bridge into highway traffic below.
I'm glad that's not the way I'm going to go, staring face down at the terrified expressions of innocent people milliseconds before my vehicle crushes them to death. Though I guess there are some similarities in the circumstances, Auntie Ella's seems a lot more dramatic. My way of going out is going to be like so many others—slow and boring, with nothing to make the end of my life any more special than the others.
While the sun rose on my diagnosis, and the songbirds tweeted out a symphony like the ones easily heard from the rooftop today, Doctor Aker sat on the edge of the empty bed beside me, my double occupancy room cleared of anyone who could overhear my prognosis. His hands, red and wrought, folded on his lap in thoughtful contemplation as he apologized for something he could never have changed. I’m sure he had given the speech about a half a million times before, but that didn't seem to help make him any less nervous in presenting the circumstance. A thought rolled over in my mind—if it ever got any easier telling patients they're going to die. Part of me wanted to ask him, but it seemed like an out of place question seeing as I was supposed to be the one having all the feelings, not him.
Once Mom had her initial reaction, my own blank mind not letting me feel anything, Doctor Aker advised us that my medical team was going to send me home. For a moment the statement was freeing—I’d finally get out of this bed—then the truth of the matter hit, cold and hard and mortal. After two years of being in and out of Birch Valley Regional Hospital, I was being released to die a quiet death in the little pre-war house I had grown up in. The way Doctor Aker described it was as peaceful as this morning, lying in my own bed on my own terms, slipping away in my sleep as if I'm some little old lady who's had the fortune of existing an entire lifetime. Instead, I soon realized, I'm just getting screwed out of everything I’m supposed to have the opportunity to experience.
And so, now I have a plan.
Every once and awhile throughout the de-hospitalization process, an idea would pop into my head of something I was bound to miss—prom, graduation, falling in love, the legal drinking age, getting married—and I'd scribble it down in my little teal journal. The book was a gift from Dad when I first got sick, a gentle thought to write down my last hopes and wishes. Now the pages are wrinkled with ideas, doodles, and shower-thoughts where I yell at God and feel sorry for myself before putting on my strong façade and custom black mastectomy bra, so I almost feel normal.
I don’t have the bra on right now. The façade doesn’t come onto the rooftop with me. I can be my angry self here.
There's a little wisp of violet cloud that gets sucked into the tree line as my phone buzzes on the shingles. The sound knocks me out of my daydream if you could call it that, reminding me that I'm still very much alive.
Mitchell: Morning, Songbird.
Mitchell's been calling me that since the fifth grade when I tried out for the city choir. The whole situation was so embarrassing; I’ve never tried to relay the details to anyone else for fear of being constantly bombarded with reminders about my ridiculousness. I don’t know why Mitchell ended up knowing about it; he knows a lot more about me than most people do, from secrets to hopes and dreams, and everything is written in that little teal journal. Well, just about everything.
Paisley: Morning. Happy Tuesday.
Mitchell: You know, I see you sitting on the roof from my place.
Paisley: Don't ruin the allure of the position, Mitchell.
Mitchell: Hey now, you know that’s a benefit and not a deterrent.
Mitchell texts faster than I can think up a witty response, and there’s no doubt in my mind he’s sitting over there in his bed waiting for a message back. As I consider it, there’s a little wiggling feeling in the pit of my stomach. He’s probably not wearing a shirt. Or maybe not even pants.
Flipping the phone over abruptly, face down and away from the light, I place it back on the scratchy black rooftop. By the time our exchange ends, there’s already a little peek of the sun coming over the valley, and I'm reminded with a silent internal alarm that I need to get ready for school. Normally, someone in my position would be plagued with daily medications, visits from medical professionals, poked with needles and prodded with instruments. A week ago yesterday, I was sent back home with a boatload of drugs, the number of a personal healthcare nurse, and all of Doctor Aker’s well-wishes.
Mom's never called the number. I told her not to bother. The medication is negligible depending on the day. I don’t want to spend my last few weeks or months or whatever I have left feeling like garbage, and that’s all the medication seems to do is make me feel worse than I already do.
Like a lightbulb, a perfect text pops into my head, and I grab my phone to type it out. There’s something about my relationship with Mitchell that I can’t quite put my finger on. It might be the fact that I might be in love with him but maybe that’s just something that happens between girls and guys as they get older. Maybe everything has a way of changing.
Paisley: The only benefit is knowing that you’re over there thinking of me when you first wake up. That says something.
Mitchell: Yeah, it says that you live across the street and are standing on the roof in short shorts. Way to get a guy’s attention.
There's a knock on my bedroom door, and I scramble through the window frame with my phone in hand, interrupting the sleep of my golden lab, Ivy. Mom hates it when I sit out there. She's convinced I'm going to fall off the roof and die.
Joke's on her.
“Paisley, there's some magazines here with your name on them that came in with the bills yesterday. They look like travel catalogs?” The sound of mail being flipped through casually trickles under the door.
I haul myself off the wooden window sill and toss the phone on my quilt as I cross the room. Ivy’s eyes follow the trajectory of the device, and she lets out a single bark as it hits the bed. Padding my bare feet over the rug and then the laminate floor, I open my door to a puff of chilly air. Mom’s hands are sorting through the envelopes, and she flips the glossy magazines over to face me.
“Yeah, I went online and requested some. Figure I can at least pretend I'm going to get to do some things.” The red sand beaches of Partridge Island catch my eye, and I flip a pamphlet over and read the description of Keystone Beach on the back.
“Paisley, don't be so morbid. You've been doing better than the doctor expected.” My mother likes to remind me of this fact on a semi-regular basis as if I’m going to forget.
I learned long ago that it’s important to be thankful for every day because at any time you might get notice that you’re going to die. The unlucky people get no notice at all. I’m pretty sure I’d rather know than not know.
“Do you think I'll make it to prom?”
Mom drops the rest of the mail on the hallway table, not accepting my dramatic tone for anything other than what it is—an over-reaction.
“Honey, it’s only three days away. Unless you fall off that roof, I'm sure it's going to be no big deal.” Mom winks at me, and because of this, it’s clear that I’ve left the window gaping open, giving myself away. My face turns a bright pink, judging by the prickles of heat crawling up the back of my neck and over my face. “You need to keep a positive attitude. Doctor Aker said that’s important.”
“Yeah.” I drop the catalogs on my dresser, the surface piled high with clothes. A couple of magazines wobble precariously on the edge of a bundle of jeans, then slips off and slides to the floor with a little flop. As I reach down to grab them, there’s a pain behind my left eye that starts as a sensation of being stabbed and then begins to throb so painfully I am forced to feel for the door frame before the world turns entirely fuzzy all around the edges. Sliding my back against the wall and reaching out for Mom's hand to guide me, I drop the catalogs back to the floor with tiny slaps.
“Another one?” The scent of Mom’s shampoo reigns over everything else, the scent of coconuts and papayas ramming me in the face with pain. “Do you want me to call Doctor Aker?”
I shake my head, the movement making me feel as if I’m underwater.
“I'm fine, just dying. All part of the process.”
The quiet hum of the house serves as background noise while Mom and I wait for the pain to subside. She sits across from me against the hallway wall, her lithe runner’s frame bunched up with knees to the chest and one hand holding my own. It starts to wane in the same way it always does, but I don’t know if it takes ten seconds, ten minutes, or ten hours. There’s something infinite about hurt.
“You know you don't have to go to school, Ley.” Mom pushes her shoulders against the tanned hide color of the hallway and uses her free hand to scratch under her chignon.
“But it's almost over.”
To be fair, so is everything.
I don’t say that out loud though, because it would only depress my mother. My father and I are the ones with the dark and dry sense of humor.
“Why don't you text Georgia and Taryn and see if they want to do a little bit of shopping. Maybe you can find a dress this afternoon after school. I'll give you my card before you go.” Mom refers to two members of my five-person friend group—together since the days of preschool and partners in crime ever since.
“Great, I'll text them both once my vision comes back. If I don't make it to prom, you can always bury me in it,” I say with a groan.
Mom slaps my leg with an unopened white envelope.
“At least you still have your sense of humor, Paisley. Guess you're not quite ready to go yet.”
I might smile and can't tell because everything is upside down and painful. It’s unclear to me whether or not my facial muscles actually work, or if I’m actually making a strange expression that barely comes across as a grin.
“On second thought,” I mumble with my eyes closed, my head heavy and sore, “maybe I will stay home today.”
There’s a thump, and a staccato set of clicks as Ivy trots along the floor to place herself down next to me, her head in my lap. The shuffling of Mom reaching over to pat the dog before she lets go of my hand and stands up.
“Ivy, you stay here with Paisley until she’s ready to crawl back to bed. You’re a good girl.”
I close my eyes, place my hand on Ivy’s head, and wish to whatever God is up there to please just give me this one last summer to get everything marked off my bucket list. Then whoever takes people off the earth can have me. Not one second sooner.