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Roses Are Red

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Chapter 1

I have cancer.

These three words have gotten me out of four speeding tickets, three tests I never bothered to study for, two papers on the anatomy of the human body, and one entire empty lunchroom table to myself. Not to mention three dozen frozen lasagnas from next door neighbors and store clerks that hardly even know who I am.

I have cancer.

It’s impossible to say these words with enthusiasm. I’ve tried but it just sounds silly. I’m going to die. Before I’m ready. Without ever knowing when or how or by who or by what. So, if you think about it, we all have a type of cancer. We’re all dying. We’re all dying and we have no way of knowing when or how or by who or by what. What we have is terminal. Incurable.

I guess maybe that’s why I’ve never really cared that I’m sick. Because the three strongest words that rule my life are equal to the ones that rule over everyone else’s.

I have cancer = I am dying.

I’ve never met a person on this earth who wasn’t dying. So we all have cancer. We’re all heading down a fatal road as unpredictable as the world beyond a blind man’s eyes. It can be dark and it is scary, far scarier than anything I’ve ever known, but it’s not something that should be seen as anything but black and white. I’m going to die. Everyone else is going to die. Black. White.

Today I have cancer. Yesterday I had cancer. Tomorrow I could be dead.

Tomorrow is the monster hiding underneath my bed. But it wasn’t there yesterday and it wasn’t there the day before. So I dare this world to give me a reason to be afraid of tomorrow.

| | |

There are three reasons I haven’t escaped this lonesome town. One: I have nowhere else to go. Two: I’m afraid of being on my own. And three: River Bloome. Oh, and four: cancer. Four reasons. There are four reasons why my hands are chained down at my sides and I’m pretending to be happy in this ramshackle abode built by the clumsy hands of my long since deceased father. Supposedly.

River Bloome is my only saving grace in a mess of disaster.

They call it love but I call it comfort. Complacency. It’s possible I could do better; much better, actually, but why try when I’m content? When you wake up chasing fate the way the clouds chase the sky, there isn’t any room for love.

So let’s get this straight.

I’m seventeen. My name is Rosie Bryar. My father is dead. I have cancer. I’m not afraid. And I’m dating River Bloome.

Got it? Good.

| | |

The air smells of meat. Again.

Regardless, it’s a hundred times better than its alternative.

In the summer our dreadful next door neighbors, the Passerines take pity on us by loaning Mother their horse and pay her to give horse-drawn carriage rides to the locals and their families. It’s easy money, Mother has assured me, but each night she comes home smelling of horse and hay and sweat, and each night she falls asleep muttering to herself beyond the slim walls of her bedroom about the life she should have had.

Mother says she was cursed. That’s why we have no money. That’s why I don’t have a father. That’s why we’re forced to live in this town. I call it an excuse. Another reason not to go back and finish high school so she can get a job that pays more than $7.25 an hour. Another reason not to admit to herself that she’s the problem. She’s the antagonist in our lives, our story.

The rest of the year Mother works over at the place we like to call “The Restaurant,” or “the home of the meat pies”, where she serves up the regional delicacy of North Louisiana, each night returning to our home smelling of meat. After a while everything smells of meat. Even the vegetables. So it’s a good thing I’m not a vegetarian or else I might literally explode—but then again, I’d be a vegetarian, and I might explode for different reasons.

“So what do you think?” asks River, drawing me from the semi-inescapable reverie I keep finding myself lost in, day in and day out. This is the third time today. We’re sitting before the strait of stone that runs directly into the glittering water on the damp, grassy embankment of Cane River, three feet away from a metal bench warm and dry in the sunlight. But I’m lazy and the bench feels like it’s a million miles away so I try to make lemonade out of oranges.

It doesn’t work.

Bosco, River’s soaking wet, ugly, sloppy, flat-faced Bulldog snores happily in his lap, basking in the wintery sunlight streaming down through the trees of the garden at our backs. After a while a cold gust of wind presses me to stand, wipe the frigid wetness from my knees and move to the bench, where I slump down with a tired harrumph.

“I don’t know,” I finally admit, my voice no more than a whisper. I shake the cold from my fingers and pull my coat tightly around myself, staring up. Clouds coalesce darkly the way weeds grow around flowers, moving before the sun and hiding all its heat and glory, sending a shiver down my spine.

In the absence of warmth, cold and collected, River takes a seat beside me on the bench and stares into my eyes. The way he always does. It’s really quite annoying sometimes. Bosco, now awake, indignantly eyes me from where he sits on the cold grass, and it’s funny how I’m better able to hold his gaze than River’s.

Ha. Funny.

“It’ll just be a few weeks,” River says as if that makes things easier, his arm moving to wrap around my shoulder; I can see it in his face that even though he says it like he’s excited to leave Natchitoches behind for a little while, such a trip might actually be his downfall.

Several weeks alone with his father? It might be.

He squeezes me tight. I don’t shrug off his arm but make it near impossible for him to meet my eyes. I’m really good at hiding my face when I don’t want to be seen by the world. He persists. “The winter isn’t that long,” he tells me. “And I’ll be back at Christmas—”

“And by New Year’s you’ll be gone again,” I say, tired, crossing my arms over my chest for warmth. I stare down Bosco and after a moment or two he rolls onto his side and paws at the sky like he’s a vampire being burned to death.

A part of me would like to see that happen.

River doesn’t say anything. But he takes my hand which is weird because his skin is on my skin and his fingers are in my fingers and cancer is the only one who ever makes my heart beat the way that it is now.

My breath catches in my throat when he kisses me, soft and swiftly, leaving me to swim in utter disbelief. And then he does it again. And again. And I love every second of it.

Time is a hammer pounding away at the walls I’ve built around myself. And I hate this—the fact that something as simple as a kiss is all it takes to distract me long enough to shatter my walls.

“It won’t be forever,” River whispers against my lips, and I hate the taste of such heavy, heavy words.

And then cancer presses on my lungs.

I stand up so fast I feel light headed and dazed, the world swirling out of place before sucker punching me in the gut. It often does that.

“Rosie—”

“Go hunting,” I say, not turning to face him. I stare down at my rheumy reflection in the running water of the river, wondering exactly when I started looking so much like my mother; my red hair curls around my head kind of like flowers growing out of sync with the rest of the world, and freckles dot my face the way dead bugs speckle your car windshield in the summer time. My blue eyes are all right but they’re too big. And speaking of too big, my teeth don’t fit in my mouth and my lips are shaped weirdly so that it always looks like I’m scowling even when I try to grin. Though, to be fair, I do scowl a lot more than the average human being.

I’m not pretty. If pretty were a scale, I would probably trip and fall and break it because I break everything. And I’m fat—I think.

“I think your father would really like that—”

“But I don’t care what he likes,” River says, reaching forward to take my arm. “I care about you. I always have.” His words sound rehearsed but I know they’re not. After all he was the first person in the entire world other than Mother to know I was sick. And, if I know cancer the way I think I do, I’ve learned that, though it’s killing me, it’s also drawn me closer to River and the truth about this world: we’re all dying.

“I think it would be good for you,” I say, looking away. “You and your dad—” I stop myself. I start again. “It just hasn’t been the same between you since your mom died. I think it would be good for you two to reconnect.”

“We’re just going to argue the entire time,” River assures me.

“I know. But at least you’ll be speaking.”

River sighs. “Yeah, I guess. It’s not like it’s forever.”

And if you knew me at all you would know I think life is precious and hunting is stupid and leaving me here on my own in a town that exists like two hands suffocating the life from my lungs is going to destroy me. But I’m dramatic. And I’m afraid more than anything that I’m going to be dead by the time you return.

“And I think you should go,” I murmur, zipping my coat up to my chin, trembling in the cold. I like the cold. I prefer the cold. Sweater weather over sweating weather. But today is bitter. “I’ll be fine.” I don’t mean it, but who the hell ever means it when they say it, so I flash him a tight smile and try to meet his eyes without coming undone. “You’re right,” I mutter through my teeth. “It won’t be forever.”

I slowly spin away, holding my breath and counting back from ten like I do when the sheets of my bed are suffocating me and the walls are crushing me and gravity takes me by the hands and invites me to dance. It’s easy to hold your breath when you don’t have a choice. And then you just count back, ten . . . nine . . . eight . . . seven . . .

“Your butt is wet,” River says with a smile. “But you still look cute.”

“Oh yeah?” I pull out my phone and pretend to scroll through it to keep myself from meeting his eyes.

“What are you doing?” he asks me.

“I’m just searching through my schedule for a time that’s good for me to care what you think.” I shake my head and put my phone back into my pocket. “Damn. Booked all week.”

I can be the biggest bitch. Even I know that.

“Where are you going?” River asks me as I turn away, and I stop, astonished to find a twinge of fear in his voice. I look back at him and, though I tell myself I’m not going to die, I’m going to see him again, and everything’s going to be okay, I drink him in like I’m dying of thirst.

River has short blond hair that, despite how much product he puts into it to help flatten it down, always curls up toward the sky by the end of the day. Streaks of brown weave over his scalp in places, pronouncing his yellowy hair far more than the brown, causing him to appear as if he were kissed by the sun in his early years. But what gets me—what always gets me—is the underlying sharpness to those sea-green eyes of his. It’s like staring at the sunset at the end of a hard day to find the sky alive with streaks of heat lightning.

I don’t respond right away and River looks anxious, a single eyebrow skyrocketing beneath the puffy shade of his golden hair. He scratches at his cheek, where tufts of hair run down with the direction of his withering smile, moving along the strait of his jawline.

“Mother’s getting off work early today so we’re going to go have dinner,” I lie. I’m a good liar.

River nods, though it’s evident he doesn’t believe me. As well of a liar as I am, he’s twice as good at seeing through me. “All right. But I’m going to make it up to you, you know. Tomorrow, before I leave. I’ll plan a special day and remind you exactly why these weeks apart will be worth it.”

I smile and laugh, though I don’t mean it. Any of it. I just want to go to sleep. I always just want to go to sleep. It’s the cancer in me pushing all my other wants and needs out of my heart and into the shadows of my mind. “Okay,” I whisper. “But there better be waffles.”

I like waffles.

River pulls me in for one last kiss and I try to memorize the map of his lips and the places they’ve taken me before.

“And hot sauce. Just like you like it.”

| | |

River didn’t go home after Rosie left.

Natchitoches was pretty popular during the winter time. Cars lined the streets and filled the parking lots outside of restaurants, and unfamiliar faces pranced through the snowless prairies in a town that was anything but unfamiliar.

Natchitoches was swollen from the increase of out-of-towners who came to see the Christmas festivities which took place that week. The parade. The fireworks. The tours of pretty homes exuding Christmas spirit.

River wasn’t a huge fan. Of any of it.

Christmas was supposed to be a time of joy. And it had been for many years, up until his mother passed away a few years before. Now winter was just a cold reminder that River didn’t have a mother.

He only had a father. A father who despised him.

That was why River spent most of his time either with Rosie or walking Bosco. Because home wasn’t a home without either of them, and his father made sure of that.

“Hey, buddy,” River said, picking Bosco off the ground and setting him down in his lap despite his dog’s cold, wet, and muddy paws. “What do you want to do today?” he said in a baby-voice that always sparked the dog’s interest. “Want to go take a walk in the woods?”

Bosco heard the words “the woods” and his ears perked up.

“The woods it is,” said River. Bosco, now anxiously sitting up on his lap, his tail wagging away, licked River’s face from top to bottom as if he’d mistakenly shaved his face that morning with peanut butter instead of shaving cream.

“See, this is why everyone needs a dog,” he laughed.

River leaned in to plant a kiss on the roof of his dog’s head when Bosco reeled back and sent a big, juicy burp straight into River’s mouth, smiling gleefully back at him like nothing ever happened.

“Gross,” he coughed, spitting into the grass at his feet and wondering when he’d finally get it in his head that he had the gassiest dog in all of Natchitoches. Heck, all of Louisiana, for that matter.

River never really had many friends growing up.

He used to blame others for being too stupid not to hang out with him because he always thought himself pretty cool. But looking back on his life, River just never really held any interest when it came to other people, nor did he have the strength to hold onto anyone other than Rosie, and that was only because she wasn’t afraid to show who she really was—who cancer turned her into. If people wanted to come and sit with him in silence while he did what he wanted and they watched, they were free to. Only now, almost halfway through his senior year of high school did River finally understand that what he wanted wasn’t friendship at all. He just wanted something to convince himself he wasn’t as alone as he knew was.

But River had Rosie, and the two shared a bond that not even the laws of nature could disentangle. Rosie was everything to him, the sun in the sky and the shadows in the dark, and neither cancer, nor death could take that away. But other than Rosie and Bosco, all River had in the world was his best friend, Sunny Galen, the smartest person in Natchitoches. In Louisiana. In America. Though, as Sunny got smarter and River got more love-struck, he couldn’t help but feel like he didn’t really have any friends at all.

Rosie and Bosco and Sunny. That was it.

Maybe he didn’t need anymore. He supposed not.

When exactly did quality over quantity become quantity over quality?

Bosco nudged at his face, and River smiled down at his dog.

If River Bloome had one wish in the entire world, he would wish for things to rewind and start over; maybe, in another life, River wouldn’t choose Rosie—maybe they’d never even meet; maybe in another life River would care more about school and people, and maybe he wouldn’t pretend like he was perfectly all right when he closed his eyes at night, making friends with the shadows in the halls.

Maybe everything would be different. Save for Bosco. River never ever wanted Bosco to change.

“All right, you pain in my ass,” River joked, “Let’s go.”

With that, he chased Bosco back to the car and drove to the forest, far, far away from his home, his father, and the din of Christmas spirit that echoed all throughout the town of Natchitoches.

There were days where River wished he could trip and fall and get amnesia and forget everything about Natchitoches. Everything but Bosco. Sometimes he just longed to wash it all away and start anew.

But reality was never so kind as to take his demands into consideration. So, just like everyone else still tied to this town, River spent most of his days living inside his own head, dreaming.

Dreaming somewhere his father couldn’t reach him.

Dreaming somewhere he could get lost.

Dreaming somewhere he didn’t have to be found.

River spent the rest of the evening in the woods, dreading when he would have to return home. A part of him, similar to that in which held Rosie in the highest regard, wanted nothing more than to take her hand and run far away from this town. Far, far away. To a place no one would ever find them.

But, then again, running away from the problem was apparently a big character trait in the Bloome family.

| | |

I don’t think I’m pretty. Maybe I am. I don’t try to be, I guess.

Unless comfortable can be considered pretty, then I must be beautiful. My hair is red; scarlet really, which is funny because my name is Rosie. I lied, it’s actually not funny at all. I like to tie my hair back in a messy bun so that a few loose strands tumble down the side of my face, and I’m not skinny and I’m not fat, but I wear clothes two sizes too big because when I’m bored I like knowing I can fold up on myself and hide in the soft fabric of my clothing.

I feel content because I never have to struggle to look beautiful or exceptional. I’ve never even worn makeup before. Or a dress. Or anything you could possibly relate to looking beautiful. I’m just me. And I like to be comfortable. That’s why sometimes I wear a bathrobe to cooking class and slippers to gym. Having cancer has its perks, I suppose. Like never being asked to change who I am because life and my lack of health is doing enough of that already.

I like feeling happy. But I always take a beating every time I walk by the Passerine’s place, where the Mrs. watches me the entire time it takes me to leave my car or the bus and walk to our front door, eyeing me through the ugly green tinted windows of their house. Toilet paper still streams from the trees shading their front lawn from the last time somebody teepeed their home, and their ugly purple shudders appear glued to the house simply by dried egg. It happens quite often, sometimes by me—if I think about it, every single egg stain was supplied by me.

We need to plant a hedge. Or put up a fence. Or sell our house, move into an R.V. and park it on the Passerine’s lawn. That would scare them out of town for sure. Or we could just set their house on fire but that would be considered a felony.

Before entering our poorresidence, I turn to the side and stare long and hard at Mrs. Passerine, willing the clouds to gather and for lightning to strike like the words from my mind, from my lips, and from my heart.

Mother’s still at work so I grab a bag of animal crackers from our pantry and go to my room and shut out the world because life is exhausting and animal crackers feed the child in me. I flip on the air conditioner because even in winter the coolness calms me down, and I slump down onto my bed, my face mashed against the pillow as I prepare to binge watch meaningless TV that will only get canceled within the next few months. All the good shows die too soon—though, if I had it my way shows would have at least eleven seasons before getting canceled or completed. And that just isn’t how this world turns.

Cancer is like TV. Fans root for you to win, to fight and succeed. Fans tune in each week and jump into your life and bake you food that starts to taste like mulch after so many episodes. And then life swoops in and says “No, no, no, your time is up. Your ratings are down. No one cares about you anymore.” Or sometimes it says, “Woops, we have to pull the plug because we’re tired and life is life and everyone will suffer but oh well.”

Cancer is my life. But if my life was a TV show it would never launch. Just like if it were a novel it would never sell.

There’s no one out there rooting for me. No one hoping I survive. There’s Mother who’s praying for it all to be over so the medical bills will stop their flood. And then there are the neighbors—neighbors other than the Passerines who feel bad for my working mother and send us dinner after dinner.

People don’t know that I know how to cook; that our lives aren’t that hard; that my life isn’t so bad that I have to grovel for my next meal.

Cancer is cancer. I am who I am. But there’s a difference between me and fear.

I try to decide what to watch while I stare at my backpack filled to the brim with take-home homework and grin to myself, suddenly imbued with an idea. Cancer likes to take me for walks down to the hospital every once in a while so I miss a lot of school. And when I’m there I usually just sit on the bathroom counter by the sink and play games on the phone that I stole from the lost and found a while back because I can’t afford my own.

I accidentally fall asleep for about three hours, waking up to a mess of crushed crackers and marks all over my skin from sleeping on my face. And on the TV remote. But after a few minutes of groggily wondering where the hell I am, I push myself up onto my shaking feet and I call River.

“Hey,” I say the moment I hear him pick up the phone. “Grab some firewood and meet me at my house. If I have to say goodbye I want to say goodbye right.”

I hang-up the phone and trudge from the room, my backpack slung over my shoulder; before heading out to the backyard, I pull six frozen lasagnas and two casseroles from the fridge, each stacked on top of each other, and I throw them into the empty fire pit just outside the house.

| | |

I don’t trust anyone.

You could be nice. You could be smiling. You could hold up your hands in surrender and I’ll still be searching for the knife I expect you to use to stab me in the back. Maybe it’s a sick-girl thing. Maybe I was just born closed-off, guarded, self-reliant. Stupid. Afraid for absolutely no reason.

I’ve never trusted anyone I’ve ever met. Not even Mother, especially in such a weary state as she is these days. The one person I’ve ever let in even the slightest bit is leaving me tomorrow.

I guess I’ll have to learn to drown on my own.

But he’s here with me now and I hold onto every single second running down my body like the ash from the fire.

Flames crackle in the darkness of the night. Beautiful, crisp, crackling flames. The smell of melted cheese and week old lasagna fills the air, ten times better than the usual smell of meat pies—even though meat pies taste a billion times better.

We sit in threadbare lawn chairs with holes in the cup holders and rips in the seats, but with River’s fingers twined through mine, his flesh warmer than the fire, I can finally breathe peacefully. For now.

“Your mother’s going to kill you,” River assures me, unable to speak without a smile.

“I have no doubts about that,” I say, passing him over a beer from our cooler. I raise one to my own lips and take a small sip, wincing at the bitter taste. I never did like beer—I’m more of a soda girl, or, on occasion, I’ll happily accept some fruit punch from a juice pouch. But drinking beer seems to be the biggest teenage act of rebellion, saying “F*#$ you, society,” when really all I mean to say is “F*#$ you, cancer and life and everything threatening to pull me apart”.

“You know if I had it my way I’d just drop out,” I say, glaring daggers down at the fire; I watch with hungry eyes as the flames take every piece of paper that supposedly determines who I am and who I am meant to be and I watch it all turn to dust. “Or get my GED.”

River shakes his blond head of hair, setting his beer down beside his chair, untouched. “You have been labeled as an over achiever ever since first grade when you brought your own box of crayons to school every day with the little sharpener attached to the pack. Ever since, Rosie, there hasn’t been a day where I haven’t seen you without a book in your hands.”

I smile at the thought of my crayon sharpener.

“That’s because reading is the only way I can really block people out,” I whisper, thinking back to the words that stir deep within the shadows of my soul; the same words that would spill from my body if someone were to cut me open. “School is . . .” I sigh, taking a long swig of beer and fighting the urge not to spit it back out, speaking with it still in my mouth. “School is like a rumble.”

“A rumble?” River asks, his easy smile quirked to perfection. “This coming from the girl who used to think a rumble was the same thing as a flash mob—”

“That was an honest mistake,” I laugh, shaking my head from side to side. “But really, River, you enter knowing that no matter what happens you’re screwed in the end. You can try to escape it, to walk away and surrender into silence, but God, we weren’t given voices to be silent.” I sit still, silent, contemplating this. Then, “I totally just sounded like a stupid gothic band fangirl, bitching about reality again, didn’t I?”

“Don’t fret. Fangirls run the world.” River can’t help but laugh, his oceanic gaze seizing me up and holding me tight. “And no, Rosie, we were given voices to scream our heads off in instances such as when your mother comes home to see that you’ve burned all of your food and all the schoolwork you need to complete in order to graduate.” He pops open his beer and sips it slowly, sighing in both relief and displeasure at the astringent taste.

I shake my head, downing my disgruntle with my beer, flinching at the taste of both. “So long as I’ve got my Fanmanto get me through it, I’ll survive,” I say. “And Mother will get over it. I know I have.” Another swig of beer. Another grimace. Another headache. Another reason to close my eyes and go to sleep. “I’ve tried every single day of my life. But now—now trying is just something in the distance and I’m here and I’m not moving. I’m not moving and I don’t care.”

I hate how feeble my voice sounds. How shaky it is.

“Because if trying didn’t get you where you wanted, maybe letting go might?”

“I let go a long time ago,” I murmur mostly to myself, thinking back to the moment I first found out I had Leukemia. Almost a decade ago. “Now I’m just learning to accept that tomorrow I could be dead. Tomorrow I could be dust.” I close my eyes and blink back the fury in my eyes. “I just want to be comfortable.” I want to feel complacent with this life. “Why waste my time shooting for first place when I can be happy with second or third?”

River squeezes my hand, and when I expect him to let me go, he doesn’t. He doesn’t even think of it. “Then tell me to stay,” he breathes. Every word that leaves his lips is a different crack that breaks the surface of my skin. “Tell me not to go.”

Don’t go.

Don’t.

DON’T GO!

“I want to be comfortable,” I say again, closing my eyes against the weight of my own words. “Which means I have to learn to be comfortable on my own.”

River laughs, squeezing my hand tighter—the way that he always does when he thinks he’s losing me. “You think you’re alone?” He shakes his head and smiles. “A flower as pretty as yourself grows brighter than all the rest, that I know for sure,” River says. “But where there is a rose there is a garden.”

And here I am, wilting.

His words are my sunlight, my heartbeat, and the absence of air in my lungs. But I can’t find it in me to convince myself not to search for the blade of betrayal in his grasp, and trust that simply because he’s only now decided to take a full sip of his beer, doesn’t mean that his words aren’t true.

River’s words are pretty.

But even some of the best lies are beautiful.

Mother’s words come back to me now: ‘A proper girl should learn first to see through the letters of deceit in the voice of an angel before excelling in the art of beauty, music, knowledge and acceptance. I know I would have been better off had someone told me such a thing at an early age.’

“I’m not afraid of being on my own,” I say, not completely sure that it’s true. “I’m afraid of dying knowing that I was.”

“And you’re not,” River tells me, kissing me and stealing every broken word from every broken sentence that has ever left my shattered smile. “You’re never alone.”

I just wish I could believe him the way I believe cancer when it assures me that I’m going to die.

I don’t trust anyone. But I trust cancer.

And that scares me more than anything.

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