Please Don't Die (14 page)

“Mandy hurts so bad. She’s so sick. She keeps begging the doctor to make her well. She wants to know when they’re going to stop torturing her.” Mrs. Burdick wrung her hands. “I can’t stand seeing her suffer like this. How do I know we’re doing the right thing? She’s in agony, and I feel like we’ve signed her over to some stupid experimental program that’s slowly killing her.” She bent her head and wept softly in her hands.

Jeff put his arms around her. “You’re doing the only thing you can, Mrs. Burdick. I remember when I was about thirteen, and I had a bad bleed. They thought I was dying. My parents had to make some hard choices, but in the end, it turned out they made the right ones.”

Katie saw a look of pure anguish on Lacey’s face as Jeff told his story.

“I guess there is no right or wrong in this.” Mrs. Burdick’s voice sounded muffled. “I mean, there really weren’t any alternatives.”

Katie and her friends returned to Jenny House that day without seeing Amanda. That evening, the night air turned chilly, and a fire was lit in the huge stone fireplace. Katie sat alone on the sofa and stared morosely into the flames.

“You all right?” Mr. Holloway asked, coming and sitting beside her.

She wiped moisture off her cheeks. “Not really.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“Can you make Amanda well?”

“ ’Fraid not.” He glanced up at the portrait of
Jenny. “No more than I could have helped way back when.”

His sadness was almost tangible, and Katie didn’t want him to dwell on it. “It’s August. You know what that means? We’ll all have to go home soon. I can’t stand to think about going off and leaving Amanda in that awful hospital.”

“Jenny House will remain open. We have others coming in, even through the school year. You can come back any time you want, even if it’s just for a weekend.”

Katie thought of her life back in Ann Arbor. In another month, school would start—her long lost senior year. And Josh was waiting for her. Although the rest of her life was waiting to happen, this summer and Jenny House would forever be a part of her. “I feel like someone’s put me on hold, like on the telephone. I keep waiting for them to come back on the line, but they don’t.”

Richard chuckled, deep in his throat. “Haven’t we all felt that way at one time or another? Look here, I have something for you and your roommates.” He reached into the breast pocket of his suit and pulled out an envelope.

“What’s this?”

“Copies of a photograph taken on the night of Chelsea’s birthday party.”

Katie pulled one out and held it up to catch the firelight. In it, she and Lacey, Chelsea, and Amanda were standing in front of the stone hearth. Amanda was mugging outrageously, Chelsea looked radiant, Lacey beautiful, and she happy. Behind them was the
birthday banner, and above them, Jenny gazed serenely down from her portrait. “I’d forgotten this was taken.” She smiled. “That sure was a great party.” It had also been the night Lacey had taught Amanda makeup tricks so that she could attract Jeff’s attention.

“I thought you could give copies to the others. I’ve already had one sent to the hospital. It’ll be sterilized properly and put in Amanda’s room,” Richard explained.

“You did?” His thoughtfulness touched her.

“I know what friends mean to one another. Jenny taught me that.”

“I’m going to give these to Chelsea and Lacey right now.” Katie jumped up from the sofa.

“I think Chelsea’s down in the game room.”

“Thanks. These are really special.” Katie hurried downstairs, and in the game room, she found Chelsea tethered to the virtual reality helmet. Katie interrupted the game to give her the photo.

“I love it,” Chelsea said, setting down the helmet and gazing at the picture. “We all look so happy.” Her smile faded. “Not like now.”

“Stop thinking bad thoughts,” Katie said. “This is going to end up all right.”

“Do you really think so?”

Katie was torn with anxiety, but she didn’t want to spread it to Chelsea. “So what adventure are you having?” She changed the subject.

“I’m off to the moon.”

“How is it?”

“It’s a nice place to visit, but …”

“…  but you wouldn’t want to live there,” Katie finished with a giggle.

Chelsea smiled. “Oh, Katie, I’m going to miss this game. Whenever I put on this helmet, I can go anyplace. My heart condition isn’t a problem. My health doesn’t matter. I’m going to miss Jenny House so much. And you.”

“Me too. But VR
is
only a game. When you get your new heart, you won’t need the game.”

Chelsea shook her head. “Every time I think about it, I get so scared.”

“I know. I was scared too. But it worked out for me, and I think it’ll work out for you also.”

“Did you know that the closest transplant center for me is the same one you went to?”

“It is?”

“I asked my mom when she called one time where I’d be sent, and she checked it out with my doctor. That’s what he told her. If I get approved for the transplant program, then I’ll be sent to Ann Arbor.”

Katie felt a peculiar sense of excitement about the news. “I know that place like the back of my hand. If you come, I’ll be able to be with you through the whole thing.”

“And you
would
stay with me, wouldn’t you?”

“You need to ask?”

Chelsea’s smile faded, and a look of apprehension crossed her face. “It’s so much to think about. An operation. A new heart. Being normal.” She gave Katie a shy glance. “So, tell me, will I get a guy like Josh in the deal?”

“I can’t guarantee that,” Katie said with a laugh.
“But I have lots of friends, and you’ll get to meet them all.”

“Except for you, Lacey, and Amanda, I’ve never had any real friends. I mean, I’ve always been sick, and I couldn’t go to school. So, how was I going to make any?”

The long and lonely life Chelsea had led bothered Katie. When she thought about the differences between their heart problems, she was glad that she’d had fifteen years of normal life before being struck by disaster. “Well, it’s like my One Last Wish letter said,” Katie told Chelsea. “Friends can’t make the pain go away, but it’s nice to know someone understands what we’re going through.”

“You mean misery loves company?”

Katie laughed. “Something like that.” She put her arm around Chelsea’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go find Lacey and give her her photograph. I want the three of us to be together tonight.”

“Me too,” Chelsea agreed. “And we’ll put the pictures on Amanda’s bed and pretend she’s with us also.”

“She will be,” Katie said. “We’ll wish her here. Just like in the movies. Just like in a dream.”

When they heard the news, everyone was upset. Amanda’s condition had worsened over the weekend. She had become septic as bacteria invaded her body in spite of all precautions. Katie learned that their friend’s heartbeat had grown irregular and that a crash cart had been placed in her room in case her heart stopped and she needed to be resuscitated. Katie
and her friends practically lived in the hospital waiting room. And then, a week before they were all to return home, Amanda’s parents made a startling announcement.

“We’re taking her off the experimental drug,” they said.

N
ineteen

“O
FF THE PROGRAM
?” Katie asked, dumbstruck.

Mrs. Burdick reached out and took her husband’s hand. “Amanda’s suffering horribly, and nothing is making her better. We discussed it with her doctors this morning, and we’re refusing further treatment.”

“But we thought it was her only hope,” Lacey blurted.

“As it turns out, this treatment isn’t as successful with Amanda’s type of cancer as it is with other types. We knew it was a long shot all along.”

This part was news to Katie, and it sent a cold, sinking sensation through her stomach.
A long shot all along
 … The words echoed in her head.

“She begged us to stop,” Mr. Burdick continued quietly. His face looked desolate. “She said, ‘It’s not helping, Daddy, and I hurt so bad. Please, please
make them stop.’ I can’t keep watching them do this to my little girl.”

“But—” Lacey began again.

Katie reached out and silenced her with a touch. “We want to go in and see her.”

“That’s what she wants too,” Mrs. Burdick replied. “She wants all of you to come at once.”

“All of us? Can we do that?” Chelsea’s voice quavered with her question.

“You’ll have to gown up, but yes, it’s all right now.” Mrs. Burdick’s expression was serious, but Katie thought she somehow looked peaceful. It was as if now that the decision was made to end the experimental treatments, she’d found new courage to face what lay ahead for her family.

Katie and the others dressed in the sterile gowns in the interlock, and except for the rustle of the paper coverings, there was silence. Just before they stepped into Amanda’s room, Katie said, “No crying. We have to be brave, and we can’t start blubbering and make her unhappy or scared. Agreed?”

The others nodded.

Katie led the way into the room. New pieces of equipment lined the walls, including what she recognized as a respirator. She wished she didn’t know so much about medical things. She crossed the room to Amanda’s bed. Amanda lay curled in a fetal position, so small and wan on the stark white sheets that it took Katie’s breath away. Her skin was bright yellow, jaundiced from a failing liver. Her thin hair looked stuck to her head, her cheeks were sunken, and her breath came in small gasps.

Jeff crouched down and picked up Amanda’s hand. “Hi,” he whispered. “How’s my girl?”

Amanda’s eyes opened slowly and focused on his face. “Not so good,” she whispered back.

“We’re here, Mandy,” Chelsea said. “The whole gang of us.”

Amanda rolled over and struggled to straighten out under the covers. Katie reached beneath the blankets and helped her. “Pillow,” Amanda said. Katie tucked an extra pillow under Amanda’s head to help prop her up. “Thank you.” Amanda glanced at each of them, stopping her gaze to take in every face. “I’ve sure missed you guys.”

Katie fought against the lump in her throat, and when she was certain she could control her voice, she said, “It’s just not the same at Jenny House without you.”

“I don’t think I’ll be going back, though.”

“I can’t see why,” Lacey announced crisply. “Take it from me, this place has nothing to recommend it.”

Amanda managed a smile. “I’m sorry I look so bad. You taught me better. And I’ll try and shape up for the next time I see you.” Her words sounded slurred, and Katie knew that the pain medication was affecting her speech. She recalled the sensation vividly. It had been like trying to talk with a mouthful of peanut butter. She only hoped that the medication was doing its job and that Amanda wasn’t hurting.

Jeff twined his fingers through Amanda’s. “You look fine to me.”

“Am I still your girlfriend?”

“Absolutely.” He flashed a cocky smile. “What a dumb question.”

“Then you’ll do me a favor?”

“Anything.”

Amanda slowly unlaced her fingers from his and held his hand toward Lacey. “I want you to take special care of my friend for me. Take her out for that hamburger you promised to me.”

Lacey recoiled, as if she’d been stung. “I can get my own dates,” she declared. “You don’t have to hand me your rejects.”

Katie winced and wished Lacey would hush up. Jeff reached out and seized Lacey’s hand, so that Amanda could see it. He shot Lacey a withering look, and she clamped her lips tightly.

Amanda turned her gaze toward Jeff. “She acts tough, but she’s not. You take care of her for me, all right?”

“It’s a deal.”

Lacey could no longer hold in her tears, and she began to shake with sobs. She threw her arms around Amanda. “I—I’m s-s-sorry—,…” Panic-stricken, she looked at Katie, backed away, and fled the room.

“Go on,” Amanda told Jeff.

He kissed her forehead and said, “I love you, Mandy.”

When he was gone, the room seemed hollow, and some of the light went out of Amanda’s eyes. She closed them, as if gathering her strength, and then reached out to Chelsea. “Don’t let what’s happening to me make you a coward.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“This dying stuff is hard work, Chelsea. If you have a chance to live, go for it.”

Katie recalled when she’d almost rejected her transplanted heart. When she’d lain in the hospital, unaware of the passage of time, occasionally thinking,
So this is what dying feels like
. Amanda was right, it was hard to let go of life. Katie had never been sure how she’d managed not to do it. Maybe it was having Josh with her. Maybe it was simply her pure Irish stubbornness, but somehow she had held on. “Don’t give up,” she urged Amanda.

Chelsea looked pale and her lips bluish, yet her voice was strong when she said, “I’m no quitter. And I’m not a coward, especially after this summer. I rode a horse to a picnic, for gosh sakes! Plus, I shared a bathroom with Lacey. Now, that’s bravery.”

Her joke made Amanda smile, but Katie could see that Chelsea was having trouble keeping herself together. She gave Katie an apologetic glance and added, “I think I need to sit down. I’ll meet you in the waiting room.”

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