Chapter 10: Cato
As I step off the ladder, I clear away my emotions from my face. As Astrid steps on the last rung, I grip her waist and help her off the ladder. A gasp escapes from her lips as my fingers come in contact with the bare skin where her shirt was lifted. When she’s grounded, I pull away and step back. I can’t get close to her. It isn’t safe. Whenever I’m around her, she makes me forget about all the important things I’ve done and what I need to hide from her.
“You wanna do something fun?” I ask before I can keep my mouth from saying anything.
“Like what?” she asks.
“It’s a surprise. Come on. It’ll be fun.” I take her by her hand and lead her to the classroom that has a trap door underneath a desk. The feel of her hand in mine helps me relax. I help her down the ladder and through the narrow passageway. I’ve only come down here once, but didn’t stay to hang around. It was too quiet by myself. I see a blue light in the distance and know that we are getting close. I lead her into the open concrete room with a huge pool sparkling blue. She gasps and starts saying something, but her words get lost. I watch her face in amazement. She’s beautiful when she smiles and looks happy. I’ve only seen her happy once, but after last night, I never want her to be sad again. She takes off her boots, shirt and shorts before slipping her big toe in the water. I laugh when she springs back and the cool feel of the water. I slip out of my jeans and t-shirt and run up behind her. I pick her up around the waist and throw us in. When I resurface, she splutters about how the water is cold and how she’s going to get me back. I laugh with delight at seeing a new side of her. She scowls at me and ducks underneath the water. She resurfaces a couple feet away. I swim towards her, but she swims away before I can reach her. For a while, I chase her around the pool, until we both get tired and lay in the shallow portion.
“What did you think about what they said? How Peter’s going to have everyone schedule a time and someone’s going to write down how much time they have left. That’s terrible. Like...I don’t even have words for it.” she says.
“I know. We shouldn’t be handing over our numbers like candy. It’s private.” I say. We lapse into silence again. Thinking about the day’s events. I can’t help my thoughts turn from the peaceful silence to my memories.
I’m standing in our living room as my mom’s friend takes pictures of my family in our Sunday best. I stand with a proud smile on my face. I still have the small holes in my mouth from the braces that I had to wear for three years and yesterday, I finally got them off. My teeth are smooth and straight. My mother was so happy for me. She knew I hated my braces, but told me that one day I’d be happy for my straight teeth. My dad told me that after church we were going to go get ice cream as a celebration. The only problem was that we never made it to church. My dad receives a call from the hospital telling him to come in ASAP. We race through the traffic to the hospital. We aren’t sure what could possibly be wrong with dad. When we walk in through the doors, they doctors take us to a room and sit dad down. They do blood work on him and talk quietly in the corner. When we’ve been sitting in the patient room for 2 hours, the doctors come in with sad expressions.
“Mr. Gwain. We’ve got some news for you. We have reason to believe you have cancer in your lungs. It’s called Mesothelioma. We’ll need to do some more tests, but if you do have it we’ll need to start chemo immediately.”
“I understand. Do what you need.” he says, bravely. He gives my mother a small smile before walking out of the room.
“What’s that mean?” my little sister asks.
“It means that daddy’s going to be in the hospital more often. Not to worry. We’ll come visit as much as possible.”
“Is daddy sick?” she asks.
“Yes, sweety. Daddy’s sick, but he’ll be much better with the doctor’s help.” momma says. After that we stay quiet, until dad comes back into the room with a helpless look on his face. I can tell he’s trying to cover his emotions, but at the sight of my mother, a couple tears fall. She stands up and gives him a hug. We stand in a hug for a long while, taking in each other’s strength.
Not 10 months later, Dad passes away from mesothelioma. My mother is destroyed and stays inside her room most of the time. When an ad in the mail arrives for my mother about a program that could help people with cancer in the future. She calls immediately and sets up an appointment. We walk into a huge white building with men and women walking around in suits. We sit with a doctor and discuss what they do here. My mother gives them permission to use me as a test subject and we head back home. I go to the funeral the next day and then go to the building to start my tests.
I get splashed in the face with water. I wipe my eyes and look over at Astrid grinning at me.
“I think we should start drying off.” Astrid repeats.
“That’s a good idea. I forgot to bring towels. We’ll have to air dry.” I tell her as I make my way to the stairs. We lay down on the concrete floor and stare up at the ceiling that moves with the pool water. I put my hand behind my head and listen to her breath.
When my boxers are damp, I pull on my jeans and throw on my t-shirt. Astrid watches me with lazy eyes. I smile at her and hold out her t-shirt. She pulls it on along with her shorts. She laces up her boots while I slip mine on. When we’re ready to go, I take her hand and lead her out of the room. When we’re back at the entrance of the gym, she steps up closer to me. My breath catches at her closeness. I flick my eyes down to her lips and lean down. I get a fracture away from her lips before she turns her head and kisses my cheek instead.
“Night, Chris.” she says. A bucket of ice water falls on my head and I remember who I am. I step back and whisper a goodnight. She turns away from me and begins down the hall. I take a step away from her, but decide to make sure she gets into her room safely. I follow her through the hallways without a sound. She turns towards the locker with the flower room behind it and I realize this is where she’s staying. I walk up to her and ask her what she’s doing.
“Were you following me?”
“So what? What are you doing?”
“I’m going to bed. I have no where to stay, but the gym and I don’t want to see Peter. It’s not the best, but it’s something.” she says.
“You’re serious.” When I realize she is, I take her by the hand and lead her to the basement. “You can stay with me until we figure out somewhere you can stay.” I tell her.
“What? No. You...uh. You don’t have to.” she says.
“Yes. I do. Come on.”
“Umm, now might be a good time to tell you that the rest of your group told me not to come down there again. They don’t want me near you.”
“What?” I ask. They told her she wasn’t allowed near me. Anger spikes my veins. “Why?”
“I don’t know. They think you will be influenced by me. It’s not smart for me to be by you.” she says.
“Don’t listen to them. You’re fine. Let’s go. If they have a problem with it, they can talk to me.” I say. When we get down to the basement, I take her to my room that I share with Zach. Zach springs off the bed when he sees Astrid. “Don’t.” I say. I lead Astrid to my mattress and tell her to sleep here. She gives me a look. “Don’t worry. I’m going to sleep on the floor.”
“What? No way. I’m not taking this from you. This is yours.”
“If you don’t sleep on it. No one will.” I tell her. I settle down on the floor. After much arguing with herself, she finally settles down on the mattress and falls fast asleep. I watch her sleep until my eyelids droop and I fall into a restless sleep.