The cancer would take its time killing Sasha Cade. I think we all knew that, in the beginning. Her lymphoma wouldn’t be like what happens to someone’s random uncle, where he finds a weird lump in his throat and it’s diagnosed as stage four, and bam, a month later he’s pushing up daisies. “If we’d only caught it sooner,” everyone would say.
Sasha and I knew it wouldn’t be like that.
Her cancer would take a slow journey, inflaming her lymph nodes one by one until she could connect the painful dots all over her body like tourist stops on a roadmap to death. The treatment would cost thousands—tens of thousands—draining Sasha’s adopted parents’ savings account. Luckily, they could afford it.
It was clear, from the moment Sasha returned from that fateful doctor visit, that cancer was the villain in the tragedy of my best friend’s life story. As we sat on the brick retainer wall in front of her house a week after the news, Sasha told me not to think of it like that. She didn’t want the cancer to be the bad guy here. She didn’t want to give it credit for anything, much less ruining her life, because she was still alive and she still had things to accomplish.
That morning, in Mrs. Rakowski’s English class, we’d all had to recite our villain narratives. The assignment was meant to challenge our creative thinking. We had to take a known villain, something or someone the general population hated, and write five hundred words from their perspective, convincing the audience that they weren’t actually villains at all. Mrs. Rakowski wanted us to make our villains relatable, maybe even characters worthy of pity.
I chose Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. My fingers shook as I read my narrative aloud in front of the classroom. Gaston was just a hard-working man in want of a loving, intelligent wife. There were too many airhead floozies in town fawning over him, but he wanted a woman with a brain. A woman like Belle. Was that so wrong of him, to crave someone as delightful as she? Was he really so bad?
Sasha winked at me, her surreal blue eyes sparkling with pride as I walked back to my desk, which was right behind hers.
“Told you you’d rock it,” she whispered as I slid back into my seat. “You’re so much stronger than you think you are.”
Sasha had been the first to read her narrative on pageant moms. The spotlight didn’t bother her—she didn’t exactly revel in it, but she wasn’t bothered. As someone who was pretty much universally loved in school, she was used to people noticing her.
Matt Phillips took small strides to the front of the class. He looked even more nervous than I had felt, his eyes carefully avoiding the middle of the room where Sasha and I sat.
“Cancer, by Matt Phillips,” he said, swallowing and then glancing briefly toward Sasha. Her shoulders lifted.
Matt was in a constant battle for valedictorian with Celeste Cho, so it goes without saying that his narrative was incredibly well written. He spoke in first person, as cancer.
Cancer simply wanted to grow and flourish, planting its children as cells and tumors so they could spread and have a happy family. It was just like any other living thing—it wanted to live. Just as humans take oxygen and fresh water, just as they eat the flesh of animals to survive, so did the cancer need flesh to thrive. Human flesh.
It didn’t mean any harm when it took over a human body, eventually strangling the body’s ability to live. In fact, it was sorry it had to come to this.
After all, cancer just wanted to feel the thrill of living, just like we all do.
The class was deadly silent during his reading—even the students busy on their cell phones had shifted their attention toward him. When he was finished, and everybody in the room had chills from head to toe, he looked directly at Sasha, his shoulders slumped, his teeth digging into his bottom lip.
“I’m sorry,” he choked out, one hand scratching his neck so hard it might start bleeding. “I wrote it before . . . well, you know. Before we knew.”
Sasha just smiled, her features just as soft and beautiful as before she learned of her sickness. She thanked him for his insightful new perspective on cancer, said she could understand why the disease would choose the fertile cells of her body as the home on which to raise its malignant children.
She just wished the lymphoma had asked her permission first.
Last night was a good night, one of the best Sasha has had in weeks. Her body was still frail, her cheeks sunken in, eyes rimmed with dark circles under a nearly bald head, but she had a ton of energy. Even though it was a school night, (for me at least) Sasha had declared it Best Friends Movie Night.
The thing about having a best friend dying of cancer? Your parents let you do almost anything you want, including spending days at a time away from home and letting your grades slip from A’s to C’s. I wouldn’t exactly call it a benefit, though. My best friend has to die to get these privileges.
We spent the night in the Cade’s home library, which has become Sasha’s temporary bedroom ever since the cancer weakened her body too much to walk upstairs. In the corner of the room, on top of the built-in desk, the television plays the DVD menu screen from Sixteen Candles on a loop. We must have fallen asleep watching it.
I sit up on the brown leather couch, my body aching to go back to sleep, but Sasha’s phone alarm is blaring throughout the small, book-filled room.
“I want to tell Daddy bye before he goes to work,” she said last night, setting her alarm for six-thirty. Her voice was frail and barely more than a gasp of air. “One of these mornings will be my last, and I don’t want to miss the chance to see him.”
I think my stomach knows before I do. An uneasiness swells up inside of me as I yawn and reach over Sasha’s hospital bed to grab her phone. Silencing her alarm, I notice the three dozen text messages that filtered in overnight. There are a hundred and twenty-four students at Peyton Colony High School, and every single one of them considers Sasha a friend. But I am her only best friend. We are attached at the hip. Left to my own devices, I probably would be more of a loner, just spending my time with Sasha. But she’s got a personality that attracts everyone, and through her, we are often invited to parties, school dances, and the popular lunch table.
There has been more than one rumor that we might be lesbians. We laugh them off. I have a boyfriend, after all, and Sasha would be way out of my league.
When Sasha’s cancer diagnosis hit the school, devastation rocked the entire senior class. Sasha had always been well-liked, but after that she was like royalty. Everyone wanted to sit with us at lunch and take pictures with Sasha as if they were old pals just standing near the lockers between classes. It didn’t matter what menial thing was going on, all of her new best friends wanted to document it all with pictures for their Instagram feeds. While I rolled my eyes and wondered where these girls were the time Sasha broke her leg and I had to carry her books from class to class, Sasha just smiled and treated everyone with kindness.
Once all the chemo and radiation was over and her diagnosis became the big T—terminal—all of her newfound friends became just as attached as the freaking tumors. A few weeks ago when she quit school all together, she was no doubt the most popular girl in our tiny Texas town. I was happy just hanging out in her shadow, although some of the tragic fame trickled onto me, too. I was the best friend after all, and everyone wants to know the dying girl.
Now I am in my pajamas, staring her in the face.
And I know it. I just know.
I don’t need to check for a pulse, or watch her faded Zombie Radio T-shirt to see if it moves with the rise and fall of someone alive and breathing. There is something in her face that tells me. She looks peaceful, at rest.
I stand here for a long moment, Sasha’s phone in my hand, my feet cold on the wooden floor. I even think about going back to sleep, like that time I saw Dad putting Santa’s presents under the tree, forever shattering the illusion that magic was real. Pretend it never happened and maybe it never did.
“Sasha,” I whisper, then bite down hard on my lip. A desperate act in futility. Wake up.
I even hold my breath in anticipation, stupid as it is.
At the foot of her bed, Sasha’s golden lab is also awake. His head rests on top of her foot, and his eyes slide over to mine, holding my gaze for the longest moment. Dogs are intuitive. He’s known longer than I have. Probably from the second it happened. He’d fallen asleep on the floor because Sasha was in too much pain to cuddle with him last night, but now he’s up here on her bed.
I sit on the edge of her bed and touch her hand with my shaking fingers. It is cold as ice—no, colder. The lump in my throat sinks to my stomach and scorching hot tears of anger flood to my eyes. The back of my throat burns acidic and, though my heart pounds, I swear I can’t breathe.
We all knew this was coming. For months now we’ve known the lymphoma would kill her. Sasha and I had planned her funeral down to the minute. The six hottest guys in school are her pallbearers and her white glittered casket is already custom ordered and in stock at Hayes Funeral Home. I’ve written a beautiful eulogy that references not one, but three of our favorite movies. We have known the outcome of this journey for months and knew it would happen soon.
So why do I feel so blindsided?
I pull my feet up on the bed and curl into myself, my hand still on top of Sasha’s frigid lifeless flesh. Sunny lifts up and makes his way across the blankets, settling himself between his human and me. I rest my head on top of his fur and close my eyes. It hurts so bad, so much, and for so long.
Movement in the hallway startles me out of my nearly catatonic state. I glance at the phone in my hand to see that only eleven minutes have passed since I woke up on the worst day of my life.
“Mrs. Cade?” That’s really all I have to say. There is no misinterpreting the tone of my voice.
The shuffling of her house shoes stops, turns, and then stops again. “Raquel?”
All she says is my name, but I know she knows. The world suddenly feels so small. We are two people who loved this dead girl, and at this moment, we are the only two people on earth with this pain.
Mrs. Cade calls for her husband, and I hear her sobs before they walk into the library. Sunny rests his head on top of Sasha’s chest. I hold onto Sasha’s hand, somehow still seeking comfort from my best friend. I can’t face her parents alone. I don’t want to see their faces when they learn for certain what I already know to be true.
Sasha Cade has died, and no matter how much we prepared for it, the pain might kill us too.
It was a couple weeks ago, on one of Sasha’s bad days. Her parents had just moved in the hospital bed so that she could live out her remaining days at home with family and not in some sterile-smelling hospital with pitying nurses and doctors who all have frown lines on their upper lips from delivering bad news all day long.
I was eating a bag of pizza flavored Combos and had just sucked all the filling out of one of them. That memory seems trivial at first, but after I recall it, every little detail comes back almost like it just happened. I can practically feel the empty pizza Combo in my fingers, Sunny sitting at my feet, eagerly hoping I’ll drop some on the floor.
Sasha grimaced at my snacking choice. Food was her enemy now since she felt sick all the time and only occasionally sipped on chocolate milk. “I wonder what they’ll do with my dead body,” she said, looking at the sparkles in her nail polish.
“What?” I nearly choked on my pretzel shell. “They’ll bury it, Sash. We’ve kind of spent the last few weeks planning the whole ordeal.”
She shook her head. “No, not that. Like, when Mom and Dad walk in and find me dead in here, surrounded by all these old law books and stuff—” She motioned toward the dark wood bookshelves of Mr. Cade’s library. “What happens to my body? Do they just pick it up and dump it in a bag or something?”
I crumpled up the Combos, now no longer hungry, and gave her a look. “You’re really morbid.”
She shrugged and tugged the blanket up to her shoulders, the fabric outlining the thin contours of her body. Before, she was curvy and dark-skinned and beautiful. Now she was, well, dying.
“Your parents will call 9-1-1 probably,” I said, looking toward the high ceiling as I considered it. I’d never found anyone dead before so it wasn’t like I had prior experience. “The paramedics will come and they’ll put you on a stretcher and roll you into the ambulance. Then I guess you’ll go to the morgue, or something.”
“And then you’ll get started on making my funeral awesome,” she said, her chapped lips stretching into a grin. Her bony finger pointed at me. “Don’t let Mom talk you into roses or carnations or some shit, okay? I want wildflowers and sunflowers. Lots of ‘em.”
“I got you,” I said, glancing over at the binder on the nearby table. It had all of our funeral plans laid out with sticky notes and color-coded instructions. Sasha had even written her own obituary for the newspaper, but I hadn’t seen it yet. I stiffened my shoulders and pointed my nose up. “I’ll say, ‘Mrs. Cade, I know your daughter is dead but I’m in charge here. No fucking roses!’”
Sasha choked out a laugh. “See? You’re morbid too.”
Now that Sasha is dead and we did wake up to find her body, I’m not sure if the 9-1-1, call an ambulance thing actually happened in that order. I don’t know how they plan to move her body.
I don’t stick around long enough to find out.
When I pull into my driveway, it’s almost as if everything is normal. I sit in my car, staring at the white bricks of our old ranch-style house; a world apart from the lake front mansions in Sasha’s neighborhood. My hands shake on the steering wheel. Mom’s Corolla sits next to my car, meaning she hasn’t left for work yet. Dad is gone, like always. Truckers have weird schedules and I never know when I’ll see his semi parked in the gravel driveway off to the side of our garage.
If I sit here long enough, the engine idling, radio DJs rambling their morning show routine, I can almost pretend this is any other morning. I’m sitting here because I’m about to back out of the driveway and head to school. I’m just Raquel Clearwater, a senior at Peyton Colony High, and it’s the middle of August on a typical Monday.
I blink, and the vision fades away. That momentary absence of emotion breaks through my heart, and I am raw again. I don’t know what I expected to happen the day Sasha died. I guess I knew there would be tears, but part of me thought maybe I’d be a little optimistic about it all. Death would mean she wasn’t suffering anymore. She could be at peace. I guess I thought it wouldn’t hurt this bad.
I cut the engine and grip my keys so hard they dig painfully into my palms. The sun is rising and school bus brakes screech to a stop in the distance. People are heading off to work and the planet is spinning just like it always does. Funny how your soul can be ripped in half and yet the world still looks exactly the same.
The front door opens before I get to it, and Mom steps out in a navy pencil skirt and a white blouse that’s not very good at hiding the stomach pudge she hates so much.
“Oh honey,” she says, and I walk right into her open arms. She’s shorter than I am now, since I got Dad’s tall genes and she got Grandma’s miniature ones, but her hug is just as comforting as when I was a little girl.
I lean into her embrace, burying my face in her hair, inhaling the scent of her summery body wash. For the first time since I woke up this morning, something other than sorrow wiggles its way into my soul.
“How did you know?” I whisper.
She pulls back, holding my shoulders. Tears fill her eyes, threatening to ruin her makeup. “Sue just called me. She wanted to make sure you would be taken care of today, so don’t worry honey, I’m not going to work.”
I make this half snort, half sobbing noise somewhere deep in my throat. Mrs. Cade’s daughter is dead and she’s worried about me. Mom leads me into the living room and allows me to cry on her shoulder for I don’t know how long. The ache in my chest is deep, hollow, and somehow powered with a fuel that never seems to run dry. I cry, and cry, and it doesn’t go away. Nothing makes this easier.
Deep down I feel shame for wanting it to be easier. I keep thinking if I cry a little longer, maybe I’ll cry myself out and I’ll feel better. When my eyelids are so heavy they’re nearly swollen shut, I sit up and brush my choppy hair out of my eyes. Mom’s work shirt is soaked, the entire shoulder wet and clinging to her skin. I can see the anchor tattoo on her shoulder, visible through the white fabric. Little details like this seem to matter to me. They are all pieces of life that Sasha will never ever get to experience again.
“God, I’m sorry,” I mutter, wiping at my eyes. “You want to go and change?”
Mom’s hands slide to her knees and she peers at me with red eyes, tear lines of mascara dripping down her cheeks. “Don’t worry about me, Raquel.”
Each breath hurts. As much as I tell my brain to stop, it keeps drudging up some random memory of Sasha and me: playing Queens of the Playground at recess, flirting our way into free tokens at the arcade, the time some creepy guy wouldn’t stop hitting on me at the Fourth of July parade and she slapped him right across the face. Each new memory brings forth a tidal wave of tears and a pain in my chest that feels as though the Grim Reaper has shoved his staff right into me and is dragging it down, breaking each rib just for the thrill of it.
By noon, Mom feels comfortable enough to leave me alone while she makes lunch, not like I want to eat any of it. But when she sets a bowl of her famous tomato soup in front of me, along with a grilled cheese sandwich, suddenly I’m starving. Eating feels wrong, given that Sasha can’t eat anymore, but I can practically hear her sarcastic laugh, telling me stop being stupid.
Rocki, Rocki, Rocki. Don’t be a drama queen—that’s my job.
“How are you doing?” Mom asks softly as she dips her spoon into her soup.
I shrug. “I thought I had prepared for dealing with this. I thought—” The bite of grilled cheese now feels like cardboard in my mouth. “I thought it wouldn’t hurt as bad if I planned ahead.”
“That’s not how death works, honey.” Mom’s lips form a flat line, then they curve upward. “I remember your fourth grade field day,” she says with a little laugh. “Remember when you and Sasha won the three-legged race? You’ve pretty much been inseparable since then.”
I smile as the knot in my stomach twists in on itself, making one more loop that it tugs into place just above my belly button.
After lunch, I tell mom I need some alone time and she reluctantly stays on the couch while I walk away. I can hear my phone blowing up from my backpack, but I ignore it. By now, surely the whole school knows.
I wander outside, curling my toes over the edge of our pool. My reflection peers up at me, and I sit on the ledge. The concrete is hot from the Texas heat and it burns my butt, even through my leggings. My feet dunk into the water, soaking my leggings up to the knees. Too late, I bend down and scrunch up the fabric, revealing my pale knees. We didn’t spend much time outside this summer, so I am woefully lacking in the tan department.
Sasha had said on more than one occasion that when she’s gone she’ll try to reach out to me in this spiritual, metaphysical way. “Keep an eye out,” she had said. “And I don’t mean like a cold draft in the room or some dumb butterfly landing on your shoulder. When I reach out to you from beyond the grave, you’re gonna know it’s me.”
“What, like you’ll appear as a ghost?” I said, snorting.
“Maybe,” she mused. “But when I visit you, you’ll know it. You’ll be able to hold onto it.”
“Should we have some kind of sign?”
She thought it over for a moment. “No. I’ll make it so obvious that you won’t need a sign. You’ll just know it’s me, saying hi to you from the afterlife.”
“You have a lot of faith in me,” I said.
She grinned. “Maybe I just have faith in my own abilities.”
I close my eyes and listen to the gentle swish of the pool water, the soft hum of the creepy pool suction thing as it makes its way across the bottom, cleaning off all the dirt. I take deep breaths and exhale slowly, trying to yoga my way into being peaceful and open to the spiritual realm. If Sasha tries to reach out to me from her afterlife, I want to be able to feel it.
Several moments pass and nothing happens.
I keep my eyes closed, grateful that for once since I woke up today, I’m not crying. I picture Sasha as an angel, her long dark hair back and flowing in waves around her shoulders. I get all theatrical with it, picturing her smiling at me from atop her heavenly cloud, her bright new angel wings enormous and perfect.
Then my mind wanders into more practical daydreams. Maybe she’s not an angel yet because she’s stuck in some queue of dead people waiting to get inside the pearly gates of Heaven. There’s no doubt that’s where she’s going. Sasha was pure and good and didn’t have an evil bone in her body.
The backdoor swings open, and the sound of flip flops patters across the concrete. I smell his cologne before he says anything, and force my eyes to open for the first time in probably hours.
He sits next to me, kicking off his flip flops and dunking his feet in the water.
Zack is the very definition of an on-again, off-again boyfriend. I had a huge crush on him in junior high and even though we had a few classes together, he never seemed to notice me. Finally, freshman year, while standing in the pizza line in the cafeteria, I pulled off the ballsy-est move in my life and handed him a note that said I thought he was cute. We’ve kind of been a thing ever since then.
The breaking up and getting back together drama started way before Sasha got sick, but lately we’ve been off, off, and off. There’s no time for a boyfriend when your best friend is dying.
“Hey, babe.” His arm wraps around me, tugs me into his shoulder. He’s wearing board shorts and a t-shirt which, on anyone else, would make me wonder if he even went to school today, but Zack dresses like this all the time. His short blonde hair and full body tan make him seem more like a surfer guy than a video game addict — the former is what made me like him all those years ago, and the latter is what he actually is.
I look over at him, taking in the concern on his face. It’s so much nicer than the scowls and annoyance he showed the last few times I saw him. “I’m sorry about Sasha.”
“Thanks.” The word is out of my mouth before I really think it over. Are you supposed to thank someone in this kind of situation?
I’m so sorry to hear that your friend is dead.
Why thank you for the acknowledgement, good sir.
“So I guess everyone knows?” I ask, looking back at the water. The creepy pool brush is now in the deep end.
“Yeah,” he says, kicking at the water with his toes. “The principal made an announcement this morning. ‘Sasha Cade has lost her battle with cancer.’ Pretty much everyone was crying all day. Once I heard that, I knew you’d be staying home.”
I shake my head. “I don’t think I’ll go to school for the rest of this week. I’m not in the mood for being pitied by a bunch of idiots who only liked me because I was friends with Sasha.”
“Don’t be bitter, babe.” Zack takes my face in his hands and kisses my forehead. Once, that was a gesture that would make my heart swoon, but I’m not sure I’ll ever feel that way again. About anyone. Or anything. “You should try to look on the bright side.”
Since he’s holding each side of my head, I’m kind of forced to look at him. I lift an eyebrow. Then my teeth grit together as anger rockets through me and I shove his hands away. “Where the hell can you find a bright side to my best friend dying?”
My outburst doesn’t startle him. He runs his hands through my short hair, making it stick up at the ends. “Well, for starters, you can let your hair grow out again.”
He wiggles his eyebrows and I pull away, my chest tight. He can’t seem to go one day without mentioning how much he hates my hair. How he fell in love with the girl who had light brown locks going down her back and that when I shaved it all off, I should have consulted him first. It’s been four months since I handed Sasha the razor and told her to make me bald. I don’t regret it, not for a second.
She’d lost all of her hair from the chemo, and it was the right thing for me to do. Plus, it was kind of fun. A few years ago, I would have balked at the idea, but once you realize that people all over the world are dying and you’re still alive, several inches of hair doesn’t mean much.
“You shave your head all the time,” I say, flicking my hand over his super short hair. “Why can’t I?”
He rolls his eyes. “Because you’re a girl. You’re supposed to be my princess, not look like you’re about to go on the front lines of war.”
“I’m not some princess, Zachary. I’m tough. I’ve delivered five baby calves and I stitched up that lady’s Chihuahua, remember?” And I survived my best friend’s death.
He laughs and pats my back. “Yeah, yeah, okay. You’re tough. Still, I’m ready for your hair to be back. And now you can work at the animal clinic again, right?”
I swallow. Zack always made it seem like I was making some epic sacrifice in cancelling all my plans for Sasha. When it’s done out of love, it’s not a sacrifice. The animal clinic, and the small scholarships I’ve won, will still be there next year. Sasha won’t.
“Zack.” I take a deep breath. “I appreciate that you came here to see me, but…you’re not even acting sad. You just want things to go back to normal, but I’m grieving. Can’t you just—” Every breath I take is a fight to hold back tears. Not only am I missing her, I want everyone else to miss her, too. “Aren’t you even a little sad?”
“I mean, yeah.” He shrugs. I focus on the pool water reflecting in his eyes since he won’t actually look at me.
“Why didn’t you like her?” My voice feels raw, and each word hurts. “Everyone liked Sasha.”
“I liked her,” he says too quickly, too defensively. “She didn’t like me. She always looked at me like—” He blows out a heavy breath of air, and if I didn’t know any better I might say he’s ashamed. “Like I wasn’t good enough for you.”
The truth in his words hit me hard, and despite being pissed off at my sort-of boyfriend, here I am crying again.
“Babe,” he says, drawing out the word with his southern accent. He bumps me with his shoulder. “Don’t cry. Sasha wouldn’t want you to.”
I love how he suddenly thinks he can channel her spirit or something.
“It’s just hard.” I wish a hug from him was as comforting as one from my mom. “It hurts so much.”
“I know babe, but think of it this way,” he says, wrapping a heavy arm around my shoulders. “You’re free now.”
The sound of our feet splashing in the pool, the hum of the pool cleaner—every single sound is drowned out is the pounding of my own heart. “What the hell did you just say?”
He holds up his hands, an innocent look on his face. “Rocki, you know what I meant. Your life has been halted lately because of Sasha but now that she’s gone, you’re free. Free to be yourself and live your life.”
I scramble and stand up fast, water flopping off my feet and onto his dry clothes. “You need to leave.”
Zack frowns. “Stop being like this.”
I point toward the gate in the fence. My jaw clenches. “Please go.”
I shake my head and march into my house, slamming the back door behind me and twisting the deadbolt into place. I head into my room and open my backpack, pulling out the white binder that’s been adorned with glitter pens and decorative duct tape. The time for moping is over. I have a funeral to plan.
The Last Wish of Sasha Cade by Cheyanne Young
©2018 Cheyanne Young. All Rights Reserved.
Releasing October 2, 2018 by KCP Loft.
Pre-order and receive free gifts!
Find out more here: https://cheyanneyoung.com/sasha-preorder/