News, Sneak Peaks

‘Just Breathe’ by Cammie McGovern Will Break Your Heart in Two

Archives

‘Just Breathe’ by Cammie McGovern Will Break Your Heart in Two

'Just Breathe' by Cammie McGovern Will Break Your Heart in Two

Just when we thought YA was done setting us up for heartbreak, Cammie McGovern is ready to destroy our emotions all over again.

Just Breathe follows Jamie and David’s unlikely friendship as they hide secrets of their own from each other. Jamie is a quiet sophomore struggling with depression, while David is the president of the senior class, fighting cystic fibrosis. With both teens battling illness, it’ll take more than just each other to find the healing they need. And can they bring themselves to reveal these secrets about themselves and become something more?

Just Breathe is perfect for fans of Five Feet Apart and The Fault in Our Stars and is guaranteed to devastate you in the best way possible. Are you ready to fall in love with Jamie and David? Read on for an exclusive sneak peek of Just Breathe!

 

CHAPTER ONE

JAMIE

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: Hello!

Dear David,

I just wanted to tell you that I can’t really do this idea of being pen pals or whatever you’re suggesting. I’m not very good at that kind of thing. I’m sorry. I hope you’re feeling better soon.

Signed, Jamie

 

I’ve already wasted way too much time thinking about this response. If he writes me again, I’ll probably lose the whole afternoon.

He does.

Write me again.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

Hi, Jamie, what are you talking about? You’re great at this! I especially like the “Signed, Jamie” part. That’s not strange at all.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

Ha ha. I warned you.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

Fine, we don’t have to be pen pals if you don’t want to. I wanted to write and thank you for what you did for me the other day. You pretty much saved my life, and I owe you.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

Hardly. I just went and got a nurse.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

I vaguely remember you laying a hand on my sweaty back, which couldn’t have been pleasant. I was in the worst pain I’ve ever experienced and I’m only grateful now that I hadn’t wet the bed. My embarrassment is still high, and my gratitude is bottomless.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

Don’t be embarrassed. Seriously. No one should be embarrassed for being sick.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

The embarrassing part isn’t being sick so much as being gross and smelling like roadkill. I’d thrown up a few hours earlier and I still hadn’t taken a shower. Aren’t you glad to know that now? Doesn’t that make you want to go and wash your hands? Like five times.

 

No, it doesn’t make me want to wash my hands. It makes me look at my hands and remember how he felt— warm and a little sweaty.

I keep expecting this email thread to stop, and then I turn on the computer that I now share with my mom and find another message from him. The computer sits in our new, tiny, not-private living room, and even though my mom is on the sofa a few feet away, looking over at me with a face that says, What are you doing over there? I’m not leaving. I’m staying here, writing these messages and waiting for another one.

This is the problem with sharing a computer and spending all our time together. My doing anything different seems strange.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

Maybe you’ve forgotten that I volunteer on the pediatric floor of the hospital. I’ve seen a lot of gross things.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Hello!

Oh, tell me the grossest! Please. It’ll make me feel better.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: Gross things

There was once a boy who threw up into a nebulizer mask. Those are machines that you use to breathe medicine if you have asthma. That was fairly unpleasant.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Gross things

I know what a nebulizer is (all too well) and I make a big point of only ever throwing up on myself and my own clothes. I just think there have to be some rules. By the way, when you said you’re bad at these things, what did you mean? Emailing? So far, I’d say you’re fine.

 

I didn’t mean emailing exactly. I meant talking casually and seeming normal over email. Even though I’m pretty sure my mom is still watching, I type and delete a few different answers as quickly as I can:

I have a bad track record with friends.

I had a few friendships last year that blew up spectacularly.

Right now I have no friends unless I count my mom, which I do, but I’m not going to tell you that because even I know how pathetic that makes me sound.

 

Finally, I give up and write:

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Gross things

I’m shy.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: It’s okay

Funny job to have if you’re shy. I thought all Smile Awhile volunteers were super friendly. I also thought they were mostly retired nurses. Or at least old.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: It’s okay

You’re right, I’m an exception, but how do you know so much about Smile Awhilers?

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: It’s okay

Alas, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. So why are you a Smile Awhiler if you’re so shy?

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: It’s okay

My mom works at the hospital. She pulled strings to get me the job. She thought it would be good for me to practice talking to strangers.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: Not okay

Covered in vomit.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Not okay

I guess that makes me feel less shy, surprisingly.

 

The  longer  this  conversation  goes  on,  the  more shocked I am. Partly that I’m being funny with a boy, and partly that I’m being funny with this boy: David Sheinman, senior class president, who makes microphone announcements in the cafeteria every week. I consider him a school celebrity, though it’s possible not everyone thinks of him in that way. This year, I’ve been eating lunch alone all fall, so I have no distractions and nowhere else to look. He isn’t good-looking  in  the  standard,  high-school-athlete  way (he’s very thin for one thing, and he also wears glasses, which I think are cute but would probably knock him down a point on Missy’s one-to-ten scale). Still, I could tell you the color of his eyes—hazel, with surprising yellow flecks—and a few other bits of trivia. Like this: he carries a cloth handkerchief that he sometimes coughs into before he starts his announcements. Then he folds it up and slides it into his pocket, like somebody’s grandfather would do. I’m not sure if noticing these things means I have a crush on him or if it means I’m a strange person who notices weird things. I don’t have much experience in this area.

When I first walked into his hospital room, I knew who he was right away. Even though his back was to the door and he was lying on the bed, clutching his stomach, I could tell by his thin arms and his hair, which is brown and curly and long enough that he sometimes tucks it behind his ears. He was obviously in pain, like maybe he’d been admitted for appendicitis and they hadn’t given him any pain medication yet.

In that moment, I surprised myself. It was like I forgot who I was—my shyness; my disastrously bad handling of friendships; my nonexistent experience with boys—and became my mom for a few minutes. Or at least a nurse- like person assessing a situation. His breathing sounded rattly, like maybe in addition to whatever was going on with his stomach, he was also having an asthma attack. I know those can be more dangerous than people think. When I said hello and he made a noise like he was starting to choke, I got really worried.

I put my hand on his back, something my mother would have done to check his breathing. I left it there long enough to make sure I was right: he was definitely having trouble breathing and he had a fever.

“Hang in there,” I whispered. “I’m going to get you help. I’ll be right back.”

It was well handled on my part.

Uncharacteristically so, I have to add. I only wish now that I’d left it at that and hadn’t gone back to check on him a few hours later after he’d been taken care of—cleaned up, wearing a new hospital gown, with an IV drip that must have included pain meds because his eyes were half-closed and he was smiling.

“Hi,” I said, surprised that he was still alone. Where were his countless friends from school? Or his family, who should obviously be there? “I’m just stopping by to see how you’re doing.”

“Are you my angel of salvation? I don’t know how I can ever thank you.”

He held out his hand like he wanted me to cross the room and hold it, which was crazy and not something I could  possibly  do.  We  weren’t  friends.  We  didn’t  even know each other. We happen to go to the same school, but so do fifteen hundred other kids, and that doesn’t mean you hold someone’s hand while they’re lying in bed with hardly anything on.

“Actually, I have to go,” I said awkwardly. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“I’m okay. I’m also David.”

I knew that of course. I also knew that his last name was Sheinman because every week when he stepped up to the cafeteria microphone, a few people yelled, “Shine on, man!” which I thought was some kind of rude slang until I heard his last name. I’m always guessing at these things because, for most of my life, I was homeschooled by my artist dad, who prioritized visiting museums and painting together in his basement studio over any activities involving other kids.

I stopped homeschooling two years ago, which means I should be savvier about things like hecklers and their slang by now, but I’m not.

Eventually, I figured out that people weren’t making fun of David; they liked him. Maybe he isn’t as popular as the football players and the cheerleaders, but that group always listens to his announcements and claps afterward. If he mentions someone by name because their club is having a meeting or a bake sale, that person usually stands up and waves. After they sit down, their friends all say, “You just got Shined on,” but not in a mean way. He is like a mas- cot to the pretty-girl/jock crowd, except he dates Sharon Dinow, one of the pretty girls, with blond hair that she styles every morning or else wears in a neat, bouncy pony- tail. Dating her means he’s not a mascot really, but more like a part of that crowd.

“Do you want to tell me your name?” he said. He was still smiling, but his eyes were almost closed. He must have been on a lot of pain meds.

“Jamie Turner,” I said, and then, in a fit of nervous confusion, I kept going. “We go to the same school. You don’t know me because I’m in tenth grade and I don’t belong to any clubs or anything. I don’t even have any friends really. I’m not that type.”

Instead of being horrified by all this, his smile spread. “What type are you?”

“I don’t know. Never mind. I hope you feel better,” I said, and left.

My face stayed red for about an hour afterward. Of course I didn’t expect him to get in touch.

I prayed he was so doped-up he’d forget the whole thing.

Then I couldn’t believe it. I got home and opened my computer to an email that sounded so casual I assumed he’d mistaken me for one of his friends: Hey. How’s it going?

I thought about it for a while and finally wrote back:

This is Jamie Turner. From the hospital.

He wrote: I know. I thought maybe we could be pen pals.

I didn’t understand. Hadn’t I already proved how bad at socializing I was? I might listen to his announcements every week at lunch, but that didn’t mean I went to any of the activities he suggested. I don’t like crowds or march- ing bands or girls getting drunk and falling down bleacher stairs, which happened at the only football game I’d ever been to.

For a whole day, I didn’t respond.

Maybe he was still giddy on pain medicine, or maybe he was playing a trick—popular older boy pretends to be nice to younger geeky girl. In the end, my response was an overworked attempt to not sound too paranoid. It was meant to say, essentially, Hi back, now let’s not worry about pretending we’re friends just because you’re in the hospital and we go to the same school.

I never expected the rest. That he’d respond every time within two minutes. That he’d be a good writer and funny, too. That even when I was honest and told him I’m shy, he didn’t seem to mind.

All of it was a surprise, but none more so than his final note at the end of this flurry of exchanges.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: Gotta go

I’ve got visitors right now, so I have to go, but it looks like I’ll be here for another week at least. When do you work again?

 

Most kids on the pediatric floor stay in the hospital for a night or maybe two at the most. Even kids with cancer don’t stay for a week unless they’re getting a bone mar- row transplant, and then they stay on the isolation unit of the oncology f loor. This whole time I’d assumed he had appendicitis or a kidney stone because he was in so much pain and was holding his stomach. But those things don’t put you in the hospital for a week.

I remember him coughing when I walked into his room and f lash on the memory of his cloth handkerchief at school.

I spin around to see my mom, who’s only pretending to read on the sofa behind me. I know she’s been watching me. “How long would someone with bad pneumonia stay in the hospital?” I ask her.

“Depends on how they respond to treatment.”

She hasn’t worked as a nurse on the pediatric floor in more than a year, but even if she did, I know she’d never tell me someone’s diagnosis.

Instead of leaving the computer, I tell her I have a little more research I need to do for homework and poke around online. I google symptoms and clues, including the fact that he knew I was a Smile Awhiler, which means he’s spent at least a little time in the hospital before. I type in labored breathing, fever, chest pain, gut pain, and then add recur- ring hospitalizations. A few possibilities come up, but nothing seems quite right until I remember him saying he knew about nebulizers (all too well), which means his lungs must be part of the problem, and I add chronic cough to my search.

A few minutes later, I’ve read enough to guess what he might have.

And now I wish I didn’t know.

 

DAVID

I don’t know why I’m writing this girl.

Actually, that’s a lie—I do know why. I’m writing her because it’s easier than writing my real friends, who I’ve been lying to for months, pretending I’m busy when really, I’ve been too sick to do anything or go anywhere. It’s a complicated business, having something like cystic fibrosis, which is a big deal, except you spend most of your life pretending it isn’t. You say, “It’s like asthma, only I cough a lot. I’m not contagious; my body just makes extra mucus,” which is gross but acceptable if you smile sheepishly. Or else you shrug and say, “It’s like diabetes. Incurable but manageable. You get used to it.”

Which you do. Sort of.

But how do I tell people, after years of pretending this is only like diabetes: Hey, with my pancreas crapping out, the doctor thinks I might have that, too?

Two weeks ago, I was okay. Or at least I could pretend. I was standing in the cafeteria, doing my lunch announcements, planning for homecoming. Then, one afternoon in AP Bio, I felt a new pain in my chest, like a tiny man with an ice pick was moving around my lungs, stabbing wildly. It was so bad I broke out in a sweat. I thought I might pass out in the middle of class. I held on to my desk and concentrated on not throwing up. And then . . . it passed.

By the end of class, I could stand up. In the hallway, Sharon asked why my shirt was wet and I laughed.

“Just running some wind sprints,” I said.

She raised her eyebrows in surprise. Sharon is the hard- est part of all this. We’ve been together for two years, and she knows how bad this might get, but neither one of us wants to be the first to say it.

That day, Sharon didn’t ask again about the shirt I’d sweated through even when we were alone in the car, driving home. I didn’t mention it, either, or the tiny new hissing sound in my chest, like one of my lungs had popped a hole. For the next two days, I didn’t say anything to anyone. The pain had shifted to a dull ache—new but not alarming. On Wednesday night, I went to sleep thinking, Maybe this is nothing. Maybe I’m okay. Then, in the morning, I woke up so sick I coughed blood into the sink and crawled back to bed, where I vomited on myself and thought, I can’t pretend anymore.

The first time Sharon visited, she came with our best friends, Ashwin and Hannah, which meant that—for another day, anyway—we weren’t going to talk about how sick I truly am. We kept it light, like this was one of my usual hospitalizations. A round of antibiotics. A “tune-up,” as we call them. I saw her eyes slide away from the drainage tube in my chest and the new machines I’m attached to. By the end, it was hard for her to figure out where to look.

We talked mostly about school issues and how I shouldn’t worry about anything while I’m in here. Ashwin will cover student council meetings and lunch announcements; Sharon will run the senior-class-committee activities.

“You just have to get well, that’s all,” Sharon said. There was a surprising firmness in her voice, though.

I have to get well. She believes she can will these things to happen.

And maybe she can. Telling her it will be harder for me to get well this time isn’t something I can do in front of other people. It will throw us both off. It might even make her angry. It’s hard to predict and better to avoid.

All of which means, I’m writing this girl Jamie be- cause it’s nice to talk to someone who isn’t horrified by the shape I’m in. I’ve never told her any lies or pretended to be fine around her. These machines I’m attached to and the tube snaking out of my chest aren’t scary to her. She’s seen puke in a nebulizer mask, which is at least slightly more unsettling than anything going on with my body right now, though not by much.

 

CHAPTER TWO

JAMIE

“What happens to kids with cystic fibrosis?” I ask my mom, trying to sound casual. We’ve been living in this apartment for only six months, but its tiny size means we’ve developed new habits, like eating breakfast together, which we do every morning now.

“Why? Have you got one on the peds floor?” “I don’t know. Maybe. I’m just curious.”

“It’s a tricky one. There’s a wide variation.” “But in your experience—”

“In my experience it’s pretty bad.”

“How bad?”

“It gets worse as they get older. Their mucus gets very thick, and their bodies can’t clear it, so they get chronic infections in their lungs. Usually, they’re okay when they’re young, and then, when they hit adolescence, the infections get worse and put them in the hospital more. They keep getting weaker until eventually their lungs wear out.”

“But the average life expectancy is older now, right? Because of new treatments?”

“Yes, some people live into their thirties, but we don’t see them as much. The ones I knew got sick in high school and were trying to make it to college.”

“Did they?”

“One did! Her name was Fiona—I remember her. She was lovely. Very smart.”

“And the others?”

She hesitates. “The ones I knew didn’t make it, no.”

I know my mom will probably ask around and find out who I’m talking about. She won’t tell me his story, but she’ll know it.

Rita, the psychiatrist I haven’t seen in almost a month, said the secret to going back to my old life was to start living it and, sooner or later, I’d feel like my old self. It was probably good advice, but the problem is: I don’t have my old life. Or I do, but it doesn’t look anything like the one we’re living now. We used to have a small but nice three-bedroom ranch house. We owned two cars, and no one had to share a computer.

Since my dad died a year and a half ago, we have none of these things, but we do have bills we’ll be paying off for years from credit cards he never told my mom about. When the bills first came, she asked me if I recognized the charges. It looked like art supplies and groceries, the usual things. It took me a while to understand he’d been buying more of everything. Spreading it out over different cards.

It didn’t make sense, but a lot of things didn’t make sense after he died.

My mom stopped talking about money (with me at least) and tried to focus on the positive. “It’s good to get a fresh start,” she said when we moved into this apartment complex next to the hospital, where the dumpster doesn’t get emptied until the trash spills over and takes up three parking spots. She works so hard to stay upbeat that I try to as well. I don’t talk about the other factors in my life that have also changed this year: the friends I no longer have, or the lunches I eat perched alone at the end of a table full of people I don’t know.

I don’t tell her that I sit in some classes with an open notebook in front of me and afterward I have a blank sheet and no memory of anything that was said.

I don’t say that it’s hard to remember my old straight As or why they once felt like little prizes when I mostly got them for neat homework and lab reports three pages longer than they needed to be. I don’t tell her the homework I turn in these days is scribbled illegibly ten minutes before class. It would break my mom’s heart more than it’s already broken, and I can’t do that to her. Which means I should concentrate and do a better job, but I can’t do that, either, so I’m not sure how all of this is going to end.

The odds are: not well.

For now, though, we’ve got a rhythm. Neither one of us spends too much time alone (unless you count school for me, where I’m alone for most of the day). After school, I come to the hospital most days, where I tell my mom some version of the same thing: my classes are going better than I expected, and yes, we were right to sign me up for a non-honors, lower-stress course load.

“I’m fine, Mom. I promise,” I say, because I am. Or at least fine enough that I don’t spend an hour (each way) traveling on a city bus to see Rita these days. Instead, I try to be like my mom and stay busy and cheerful. Saying that makes my mom sound superficial, which I used to think she was, but I don’t anymore. Now I understand it’s a survival strategy and she’s trying to survive. We both are.

Another thing Rita said before I left the hospital this summer was that I should trust my instincts. “You might not have a great deal of experience with friendships, but you’re smarter than you realize about other people.”

I’m  not  sure  where  she  got  this  idea,  because  she couldn’t be more wrong. If I’ve learned one thing this year, it’s that my instincts about other people are horrible. Worse than  horrible—they’re  catastrophically  bad.  That’s  why I spent my first month of school avoiding the girls who used to be my best friends and doing nothing with anyone after school. Usually, I do my homework at the hospital because, even if you don’t have a problem with depression, you might start to develop it if you spent too much time alone in our apartment. Two days a week, I volunteer. The other days, I meet my mom for dinner and make up stories about school so she won’t worry too much. If she asks how I’m doing “making new friends,” I tell her it’s slow but I know it’ll happen.

“Don’t worry about me,” I say. “Seriously. I’m really okay, and plus, worrying doesn’t help.”

Am I okay? It’s hard for me to judge. At lunch I watch my old friends sitting at a table by themselves in the corner. I think about the only conversation I’ve had with any of them this year, when Bethany found me at my locker the first day of school and seemed so friendly at first that I thought we were going to pretend we’d forgotten what happened at Missy’s sleepover last spring. She asked me how my summer was and what classes I was taking. I stud- ied her face for clues. Did she really  not know how my summer was? I couldn’t tell.

Then Bethany said, “I just wanted to tell you, Missy thinks it’s a bad idea for you to eat lunch with us. She’s still pretty mad, so I said I’d talk to you. Is that okay?”

Is what okay? I thought. I didn’t understand what she was trying to say.

Later I figured it out. She meant, Is it okay if you don’t eat lunch with us? Apparently, she also meant, Is it okay if we all ignore you and don’t say hi even though we were best friends last year? Because that’s what they did.

Rita was wrong about me having good instincts for people. I’ve got a long history of having no instincts about people. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I roll a cart full of games, books, and DVDs into rooms with sick kids. Usually, they ask why my movies are so old and my games are so bad. No one even looks at the books. Most kids aren’t here long enough for me to learn their names or get to know the parent sitting next to their beds. Bad DVDs can do only so much, I’ve learned. I might wear an apron with a happy face on it, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever cheered anyone up.

Until now.

I can’t stop thinking about this simple fact: helping David shifted something inside me. It made me feel stronger. For a few days now, I haven’t thought about myself or my own problems, which is such a relief it’s hard to describe.

I can’t tell my mother about this, though, because I’m sure it won’t last. I won’t really become friends with David or anything like that. He’s senior class president, with a lunch group of friends that sometimes spreads out over two or three tables. He’s popular in a way that I couldn’t even, in my wildest dreams, imagine being. I know how imbalanced this is. If I say anything to my mom, she’ll tell me to be careful and remind me that I’m fragile, which I already know. I also know that, for some reason, I don’t feel fragile when I’m emailing with David. I feel like a different person. Like some version of myself I imagined becoming when I first told my dad I wanted to go to real school with regular kids and stop spending all my days making art with him.

 

DAVID

I was right. The tests are back, and the news is bad. Dr. Chortkoff doesn’t look up as he recites the list from his tablet: I have a collapsed lung on one side and an infection on the other. My pulmonary-function tests are lower than they’ve ever been. I also have a blockage in my intestine that’s keeping my pancreas from doing its job and is the reason I’ve lost so much weight recently.

It’s a lot to take in. I feel my throat tighten.

“Is anything working?” I say to fill in the silence. “Your teeth look good,” he says. “But of course I’m

not a dentist.”

I like jokes like this, but my parents don’t. They’re furious. They want to know what he’s going to do about all this. It’s my senior year, they remind him.

“He can’t spend the next six months sick,” my dad says.

My dad has a hard time sitting down in the hospital. He spends most of his visits pacing around rooms, which he’s doing now.

Dr. Chortkoff keeps going. “In my experience, there’s never really a good time to get sick. It happens when it happens. There’s not much we can do to control it.” He looks at my mother as if he’s trying to measure her state of mind. “There’s one option I’d like to broach with you all. Given these numbers I’m looking at and the overall decline in David’s health since last spring, I think it’s time to talk about getting him on the organ donor list for a lung transplant.”

My mom gasps and puts her hand over her mouth. I’m shocked, too, and I’m the one who’s been sleeping twelve hours a day and feeling terrible. Does he really think I’m that sick?

He stares at his tablet screen, as if he can’t bear to see my mom’s eyes fill with tears. Even I have to look away.

My mom believes that having a positive attitude is 90 percent of staying healthy. When I was younger, she used to tell me I had a different kind of cystic fibrosis than the other, sicker kids I saw in the clinic, some of whom were already wheeling oxygen tanks beside them as they played with the toys in the waiting room.

“We’re lucky. Your CF is milder,” my mom would whisper when we got to the elevator.

For a long time, I believed her because mostly I was healthy. I was thirteen the first time I was hospitalized, which is later than most CF kids. After that, it was once or twice a year for a course of IV antibiotics when an infection hung around too long, but it never felt scary or even like a big deal. Dr. Chortkoff called them tune-ups, so we did, too.

“Four days of this, and you’ll be raring to go,” he’d say. Usually, I was.

But last spring, I spent a week in the hospital and came out with just as little energy as I crawled in with. “It’s your PFTs,” Dr. C said, meaning my pulmonary-function tests. “They’re not bouncing back yet, but they will. Give it time.”

They haven’t bounced back. This lung-transplant idea shouldn’t be such a shock, but it is.

I press the cannula against my lip, hard. I don’t want to cry in front of Dr. C.

“He’s too young for that,” my mom snaps. “He’s been healthy for seventeen years. He does his lung treatments religiously.  He  shouldn’t  be  a  transplant  candidate  for another ten years!” Her eyes have a wild fire behind them, as if she’ll do anything to make her nonsensical point: I’d rather have him die than admit he’s sick enough to need this.

My dad, pacing back from the window, tries to sound more reasonable. “What Linda’s trying to say is that this is David’s senior year in high school. He’s the president of his class, and he’s got so much on his plate—not just school- work  but  also  college  applications,  and  homecoming  is right around the corner. That might sound silly to you, but—” He stops for a second, as if he’s trying to decide what won’t sound silly. “This is his last year to have fun with his friends. Can’t we see how this collapsed lung heals and then wait until the end of the year before we make any big decisions?”

Dr. Chortkoff looks at me. “David, what do you think?”

The room starts to darken. I’m getting extra oxygen, but it’s never enough. My throat tightens more. I have to concentrate on breathing to get any air at all.

I know about lung transplants from CF chat rooms. I know it’s a big deal to go on the list. You have to wait a long time—sometimes a year—to find a match. After the surgery, recovery takes months and requires an arsenal of medications, including steroids that make you moody and fat and that covered one of my online friends in back acne that I wish I’d never seen a picture of.

I also know that for the last four months I haven’t felt right. At the beginning of the summer, I got a job at a grocery store, thinking it might boost my energy to stay busy, but standing up for so long made me dizzy. I’d scan a bag of lettuce and see spots in front of my eyes. I told everyone I was quitting to concentrate on a college-level online course I was taking, which I never signed up for and no one ever asked about.

For a while, I don’t say anything. And then I take the deepest breath I can.

“I don’t know if I really have a choice. I think Dr. C is right—I have to do it,” I say.

My mother gasps again.

My dad shakes his head and says, “You realize what you’re saying, don’t you? This will affect your whole year. Your work on student council, your college applications, everything. If lungs turn up in December, that’s it, you’ve got to take them. Forget the winter formal. If it happens in May, never mind prom.”

My parents spent my childhood shuffling me to activities so I wouldn’t feel like a sick kid and no one would treat me like one. I understand why he’s saying this, but I also see from Dr. C’s expression: he sounds a little crazy. I’ve heard about people who get on the organ transplant list too late and die waiting for lungs. I know if you’re serious, you don’t schedule your transplant around parties you don’t want to miss. You get on the list, and you wait for the call.

“I don’t want to die,” I say softly. “That’s all.”

Dr. C explains the process. His main point seems to be that it isn’t easy getting on the transplant list. You have to be sick enough to really need the lungs but healthy enough to survive the surgery. I suspect he’s building up to something else and I’m right: he’s concerned about my weight loss. If I’m serious about a lung transplant, I can’t be underweight. “I know you’ve resisted this in the past, but I’d like to recommend that we put in a G-tube. We can’t really move forward until you’ve regained the weight that you lost this year.”

He’s right; I have  resisted this one. Vain as it sounds, the idea of pouring cans of Ensure into a tube attached to a hole in my stomach has always sounded horrifying to me, like one step away from being on a ventilator. Maybe I get this prejudice from my parents, who’ve always hated the idea of medical devices attached to my body and have said no to Port-a-Caths every time I was offered one. But what if Dr. C is right? If I’m losing weight no matter how much I eat, what other options do I have?

Before I can say anything, my dad holds up a hand. “Look, this is a lot to take in, Doctor. Can we have some time to talk all this over?”

“Of course,” Dr. C says, but after he leaves, we don’t say very much.

In my family, we’re good at not talking about our problems. We soldier on and work hard and think about other things. We rise above like a phoenix, never once mention- ing the pile of ashes we live in. We talk about talking, but we never actually do.

Eventually,  they  have  to  leave—my  younger  sister, Eileen, is home alone, and she’s got her own problems we’re not talking about, either.

After they go, I text Sharon. Earlier, I asked her to come by alone today, without Hannah and Ashwin.

Okay. Why? she had texted.

Just not up for crowds, I wrote back.

Hannah and Ashwin aren’t a crowd, David. They love you.

Now I write her again. Just got some bad news. I’ll wait till you get here.

I’m so sorry! I’m in an emergency meeting for homecoming. I’ll call you once it’s over.

Okay, I write back, but I know if she’s in the meeting, she might not be here for an hour, if she comes at all. Homecoming is a week and a half away. They’re probably freaking out.

I don’t know what to do.

Sharon and I had a hard summer. We met in sixth grade taking ballroom dance lessons, which might sound absurd, but in our area, where lots of kids have Russian grandparents, it isn’t so crazy. In Russia, ballroom dance is considered an art form that every child should learn the basics of.

I used it as my alternative PE credit to escape the embarrassment of having coughing fits in front of my friends while we ran around the gym. For years, I pretended that was the only reason I kept taking classes, but the real reason was, I liked it.

I liked the formality of bowing to a girl when you asked her to dance. I liked escorting her onto the floor with her hand tucked inside my elbow. Most of all, I liked the breath-catching novelty of having a girl in my arms and being told what to do with her.

Sharon was one of the best dancers in our group. She’d moved here from Texas, where she’d already been taking lessons. It took me a few years to catch up with her, but when I finally did at the start of ninth grade and we’d danced enough waltzes without any gaffes on my part for her to ask me to enter a competition with her, I fell in love. With  dancing.  With  Sharon’s  ambition  and  her  sparkly dresses. With doing anything she asked me to do.

She got me to join student council at school. She talked me into running for president.

She believes we can do anything we set our minds to.

This year, she wants to raise enough money to bring prom prices down so all seniors can attend. The first week of school she launched her campaign with a T-shirt and bake sale that got her an article in our local paper with the quote: “I know every senior class says they’re the best, but I believe we really are.”

She does, too.

Sharon is like my mom this way: She believes staying positive will make good things happen.

It’s after seven when she finally calls back, too late to stop by. She has to get home and babysit her younger brothers while her mom does a house showing.

“What was your news?”

“Never mind. We can talk about it tomorrow.” “It’s okay. Tell me.”

I don’t want to now. She sounds tired. She’s worried about the things anyone our age should be worried about. Homecoming decorations. A test in calculus tomorrow. How can I tell her the scary-depressing thoughts that have filled my mind this whole afternoon? If  this  collapsed  lung doesn’t heal, I might not be back to school for a very long time. It might get so bad, I can’t come back at all.

For now, I can’t. It’s not in our vocabulary. I was a different person before I met Sharon: anxious and shy and scared of anyone finding out why my cough never went away. Sharon changed all that. I told her the truth one night at Starlight, and she helped me tell others in a way that made it seem like nothing. She was the first one to tell other kids it was like asthma, only rarer. She made it sound mysterious yet strangely appealing.

“He goes into the hospital occasionally, but mostly so the doctors can study his lungs.”

I don’t know where she got that idea, but I never contradicted her.

Now I’m not sure how to tell her the truth. Needing new lungs is the scariest news, but all of it is bad. If the tube draining yellow bile from my chest is hard for her to look at, it’s pretty hard to imagine what she’d say about a permanent hole in my stomach with a plastic screw-on cap. In the CF world, they’re pretty common. In the real world, they’re hard for anyone to hear about and not want to vomit.

I don’t want to drive her away, so I don’t say anything.

I tell Jamie instead.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: Question for you

What do you think when you see kids with G-tubes? Be honest: they’re pretty disgusting, right?

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

Not at all. You can’t see them under a shirt. And if you’re wearing a bathing suit, well—some people look at it as a novelty piece of body jewelry.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

If you’re in a coma.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

Definitely if you’re in a coma, but even if you’re not.

You can think of it as an atypical piercing. It’s not your earlobe, it’s your stomach, and the hole’s a little bigger, but still. You’d have to pick the right color, though. I wonder about the ones that are bright pink but are called “flesh-toned.” Like they’d be “flesh-toned” for a salmon but not really for a person.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

Does that mean you’re recommending sky blue?

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

It’s your call. You’d have to look at your wardrobe, see what you’ve got that matches.

 

It’s amazing how good Jamie is at her job. I didn’t tell her I needed one, but she figured it out and doesn’t seem particularly thrown off by the prospect.

For a while, neither one of us types anything. Then I refresh and see this:

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

Seriously, though, the important thing is they work. I’ve seen kids come into the hospital looking like skeletons. They get a G-tube put in, and a few weeks later they look like regular kids again.

 

I don’t want to ask her if I look like a skeleton. I don’t want her to think I’m stupid and vain, which I obviously am.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

It’s nice you’re saying this, because the doctor thinks I need one.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

Great! Take a before and after picture with a week in between. You’ll see what I mean. You’ll be transformed.

 

It’s strange. Now that she’s said this, I want to do it. I want to take a picture and see if I look different a week from now.

 

JAMIE

Is this flirting?

I assume it isn’t, but I have zero experience so I’ve got no idea. I don’t think it’s possible for someone who has a girlfriend and is semifamous in a school-wide context to flirt with someone who is mostly invisible like me.

As strange as it might sound, I think it’s the social-status imbalance between us that makes me surprisingly not nervous talking to him. I’m not fantasizing about impossible things happening, like him breaking up with Sharon. I’m not even fantasizing about being friends when he comes back to school. I know that won’t happen. I’ve looked through old yearbooks in my library study hall, and I’ve learned more about him.

As  class  president,  he  runs  student  council,  which includes every popular person who doesn’t play football or isn’t a cheerleader. He’s also president of Leaders for Tomorrow, a club where everyone wears business suits for the yearbook photo, including the girls, who look especially uncomfortable in tight skirts and jackets. I’ve found him in two other club photos and in a bunch of candids. He’s a pillar of this school in a way that I never will be, which means in any other setting, we wouldn’t have much in common. Or anything, really. But in this one, we do.

Once, I almost stopped by his room. I was at the hospital anyway, waiting to have dinner with my mom, and I walked up to the floor, just as I saw his girlfriend, Sharon, go inside. I couldn’t see David, but I heard his voice.

“There you are!” He sounded happy and relieved.

I know he’s been dating Sharon for a long time because there’s a picture of them holding hands in a yearbook from their sophomore year. Sharon is pretty in a way that’s hard for me to even wrap my mind around. She wears makeup so well that I can’t even imagine her leaning into mirrors and putting it on. It’s like her pretty blue eyes have eyeliner and shadow tattooed on, so it never smudges the way it does for me after ten minutes.

So, no, I don’t imagine taking Sharon’s place. Which means  we’re  not  flirting.  We’re  situational  friends.  Like bunkmates at a camp where the activities are bad and the food is even worse. I know (sort of) what he’s going through. I know what it’s like to be in the hospital and feel alone.

Of course I’m not going to tell him that, though, because we’re not that good of friends.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

When are they putting it in?

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

If I say yes, they’ll do it tomorrow.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

You should definitely say yes. Seriously. I could stop by tomorrow afternoon and take your picture. You’ll see what I mean. You’ll start gaining weight pretty quickly afterward.

 

I shouldn’t be saying any of this. We’re never supposed to talk with patients about anything medical. We’re not even supposed to ask how they’re feeling in case they tell us  something  important—a  new  symptom  maybe—and we don’t realize what it is. I’m definitely not meant to say a G-tube sounds great. But I’ve been thinking about his weight and reading all the reasons CF patients have trouble absorbing food. Their mucus gets too thick for their pan- creas to work. They need enzymes with every meal, and even then, they only absorb about half the calories they eat.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

Are you working tomorrow?

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

No, but I live nearby, and I usually come over to eat dinner with my mom.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

Where do you live?

 

This is the sort of question I lied about last year until I learned that lying only compounds whatever problems you’re hiding in the first place and eventually becomes your biggest problem, until you’re so stressed out from lying, you explode one night at a sleepover like a volcano vomiting truth all over a bunch of girls in sleeping bags.

This year, I’ve vowed not to do it again.

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

The Desert Paradise apartments.

 

He doesn’t answer for a while. Maybe he’s trying to think of a response that doesn’t mention the moldy bro- ken sofa that’s been sitting in our parking lot all summer. Maybe he’s so shocked, he doesn’t know what to say.

 

From: sheinmand@northwoods.edu To: turnerj@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

How’s that?

 

From: turnerj@northwoods.edu To: sheinmand@northwoods.edu Subject: RE: Question for you

Not as bad as you might think from the outside. You don’t need a hazmat suit or anything. We were a little worried before we moved in, but it turns out it’s okay. It’s what we can afford, and it’s close to the hospital.

 

I feel proud of myself typing all this. Everything I’m saying is true, and he’s not signing off or making excuses to end this chat. Of course, I also remind myself: he’s trapped in a hospital room, and I’m not telling him the whole story, which I never will, because no pledge to be honest would get all that out of me.

When I was in the hospital, no one was allowed internet access. No social media. No email. Those things weren’t helping us, the counselors said. We had to learn who we were, apart from social media, before we could start building healthy relationships with it. Apparently social media is a big reason why a lot of teenagers end up in psychiatric hospitals. The way Rita explained it, we Snapchat and Instagram so much of our lives that we can’t identify the difference between a post and a fact. For me, this wasn’t the problem, but it was interesting to hear other people talk  about  their  internet  addictions.  I  was  surprised  by how many kids raised their hands to the question “Have you ever trolled chat rooms posing as someone other than yourself?”

Out of twelve, four kids had.

Three kept their hands up when asked the question “Have you perpetuated the charade longer than you were comfortable with?”

“Have you put yourself in a dangerous situation because of your internet habits?”

Two hands for that one.

I wonder if what I’m doing now with David would qualify as a dangerous situation. I may not be using a fake name, but the person I am with him is different from any version I’ve ever known of myself in real life. I’m pretending to be things I can tell he likes—upbeat, down-to-earth, easygoing. Even if I like the person I’m pretending to be, it still feels dangerous. I’m not sure why exactly, but it does.


Must reads