Spencer was quiet throughout my tale of where it all started and she had been for several minutes now.
I decided to just be quiet with her until she was ready to start screaming at me.
I mean, it was a lot to take in.
But then, she was never supposed to have to, and she needs to understand that.
“I’m sorry, Spencer,” I break the silence. “This is why I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to have to lay all of this on you. I didn’t want to hurt you.”
Oh man, that really set her off, but she isn’t screaming.
You know how sometimes you tell someone something that you know is going to get you screamed at, but instead, when you tell them, the anger is so intense that it’s quiet and ten times more terrifying?
Yeah, that’s what she’s doing right now.
“You didn’t want to hurt me,” she seethes.
I nod, not really sure where this is going.
“You really think that by dumping me and running off somewhere to die, you were saving me from pain?”
Oh, okay. I should have seen that coming. I mean, Kyla’s been saying the same thing since she found me.
“Well,” I choke. “I guess I thought that it would be easier for you if you could just hate me and move on…”
Angry tears are spilling down her cheeks as she pins me in a cold stare.
“Did it ever once cross your mind that maybe it would hurt worse to know that you didn’t love me and left me voluntarily, than to know that you did love me and had no choice but to leave?”
Her words start to sink in heavily and congeal in the bottom of my skull. I hadn’t even considered that at all.
Is it better to lose someone you love to death or abandonment?
I mean, that’s an absurd question really. They both really fucking suck…
But yeah, I think I’d rather be loved and lose them than to wonder what’s so wrong with me that they don’t want me.
Fuck… I knew that I’d messed this up before, but now…
Angry tears are rolling down my cheeks this time.
I can’t even say I’m sorry. It’s so not good enough.
There’s no way for me to make this right. I was such a… dick, a supremely stupid, selfish, unthinking dick.
“What happened when you left,” she interrupts my self-loathing.
Her eyes are so broken, so shattered. Why’d I do that to her?
How could I have done that to her?
I stand. “You know what, I shouldn’t have done this. It’s not enough, but all I can say is I’m sorry. I’ll… I’ll leave you alone now.”
I move to make my way to the door but her loud voice stops me in my tracks.
“Oh no you fucking don’t!”
Apparently I spoke too soon. The screaming was just sort of building, I guess.
She grabs my arm and pulls me around to face her.
“You don’t get to show up here after four fucking years, tell me that you’re dying, and just run away again!”
Now, you’d think that I’d have learned by now not to tempt the fates, but I can’t help but think that it can’t get any worse.
And then, of course, it does.
The sea-witch comes striding into the room, her hair a matted mess about her head, her eyes disoriented and crazy as she takes in the situation.
“What the fuck is going on,” she asks.
Her eyes track to the hand Spencer has on my arm.
“Get your hands off of her,” she nearly shrieks.
Why is she shrieking at me? I’m not touching Spencer…
She steps right up to me and shoves me hard, and I stumble back into the wall near the entryway with an, “Ooph.”
Oh, that was so a wrong move.
Spencer grabs for Carmen but she’s already moving towards me, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let her get another freebie in.
I’m off the wall, my instincts kicking in, and my fist swinging at her face. It lands solidly against her left eye and crumples her to her knees.
“ASHLEY, WHAT THE FUCK!?”
I flex and shake my hand while Spencer crouches next to her.
“Are you okay,” she asks and tries to move Carmen’s hair out of the way to check the damage, but Carmen shoves Spencer off of her.
“Get off me,” she says irritably as Spencer stumbles into the coffee table. “Do you see what you’ve done!?”
That was another wrong move, the worst possible move.
I step up close to Carmen as she tries to pull herself up and shove her with my foot to send her back to her ass.
She braces herself with her elbows and looks up at me with surprised pique. “If you ever touch Spencer like that again, next time I’ll put you in the hospital.”
She pulls herself up, her eyes never leaving mine.
“Get out of my house,” she growls.
“Gladly,” I say, straightening my jacket.
I go over to Spencer and try to help her up but she shoves me away.
What’s with all the fucking shoving?
“How dare you,” she says brokenly. “Just… leave me alone.”
I watch dumbfounded as she pushes her way past Carmen and disappears into the hallway.
“Get out,” Carmen says again.
I look into the depths of the house and realize that it’s all just too fucked up to get better.
What happened to Spencer? Why would she let anyone treat her that way? Why would she be pissed that I stood up for her?
So much has obviously changed.
I walk to the door and step out, the stairs still mocking me as run down them, jog across the street, and throw myself into my Humvee with an angry slam of the door.
My hands are trembling, and fail several times in getting my keys from my jacket pocket to the ignition. I wind up dropping them into the floorboard, and that’s all I need to break down and start slamming my palms into the steering wheel while I shout random curse words.
I don’t even know what I’m saying.
There may have been a Justin Bieber in there somewhere. I mean, he’s a douche. But there’s not a pause and I’m sure that mother Theresa is crossing herself in heaven.
Finally, the ire dissipates and I rest my forehead against the wheel, breathing heavily.
I close my eyes.
It was never supposed to be this way. How did everything get so fucked up? I should have just stayed away…
I hear a door slam and my head snaps up to see Spencer dressed rather sloppily and making her way towards her car with a bag in her hand. Carmen comes careening out a moment later, still in her robe and bare feet.
“Spencer, I said I was sorry.”
Spencer pops the trunk on her car and throws the bag inside, speaking calmly. “You shoved me, and I’m sorry, but I won’t put up with that. Ashley had no right to hit you like she did, but there’s just no excuse for your behavior tonight.”
“Spence, come on, I was just confused and angry! She was touching you…”
Spencer shuts the trunk and makes her way to the driver’s side door. “I was touching her arm, but that still wasn’t a good enough reason to shove either of us. I told you that I’d handle the situation with her, but you just couldn’t let me.”
“I tried to tell you earlier tonight that this would happen, but you wouldn’t listen.”
She stops before entering the car and shakes her head. “This has been a long time coming, Carmen. You always have to have control of everything, the house, my family, the finances, all of it. I just, I need some time away from you to think.”
And with that, Spencer gets in and backs out of her driveway, Carmen stubbing her toe on those laughing steps as she tries to re-enter the house in a huff.
I may have misjudged those steps…
I was too busy cheering Spencer and the steps on to realize that I was about to lose her. I had a choice to make: let her leave or be the creepy stalker she said I am and follow her.
Guess which one I choose?
I nearly knock myself out on the steering wheel as I bend for the keys and peel off after her. Once she’s back in my sights, I flip my iPod to Radiohead while I follow the little Toyota.
I mean, it just seems fitting.
After a while I realize that Spencer is driving in aimless circles, as if she doesn’t know where to go. But then, maybe that’s the point. I always take a drive when I need to clear my head.
God, this night has turned out even worse than I’d anticipated, and I’d already assumed that it would be bad.
This is just…
Well, the words Jerry and Springer come to mind.
But I’m not going to dwell on that thought. Right now I need to figure out what I’m going to say to her when she does finally stop.
And just like that, she pulls into the parking lot of The Starlite Motel, or The Tarte Motel, if you go by the broken bulbs on the sign.
I must say the name is apt. Every door is accessible from the outside, and each is a study in pasty, neon colors straight from the seventies. The outer metal walls are yellowed and dingy from time and tobacco, and they obviously rent rooms by the hour if the whores on the corner are any indication.
I park in the back of the lot closest to the street, not sure how to proceed. I mean, I can’t let her go into that place alone, even if that’s not my real reason for being here.
She still hasn’t gotten out of her car and I hope that she decides better of it.
There’s a knock at my window and I turn to see an older, dirty blonde with stringy hair, dark roots, and wearing dental floss as she smacks her gum.
I crack the window. “I’m not interested.”
“Oh, come on, baby. You looked stressed,” she grins and her yellow teeth have clods of lipstick stuck to them.
God, it’s revolting.
“I said I’m not interested.”
What I really mean is that I’m not nearly drunk or desperate enough.
“Whatevs,” she shrugs. “Your loss.”
She turns to walk away, pulling her jacket tighter around her and I sigh. She’ll probably smoke it all, but I have plenty to spare.
I roll the window down a little further and call out to her. “Hey!”
She turns and saunters back, trying to be sexy.
“I knew you’d change your mind, lover,” she purrs.
“Here,” is all I say as I pass a Benjamin through the window.
Her eyes seem to size me up with trepidation. “You into kinky shit, or somethin’?”
I chuckle and waggle the bill at her. “I’m still not interested, but I’m feeling generous.”
She takes the bill apprehensively, puts a hand on her hip, and holds it in front of her. “You really don’t want nothin’?”
I shake my head, fairly certain all she has to give me is venereal disease. “Nope.”
She smiles again. “Hey, you’re alright, lady. I mean, ma’am…”
I chortle. “Thanks.”
“How come you’re doin’ this?”
That’s a good question. “Um… well, I know what it’s like to live on the streets.”
“Huh,” she says before tucking the bill in her loose cleavage. “Alright, well, have a good night, doll.”
“You too,” I say as she walks away.
I notice movement out of the corner of my eye and see that Spencer hasn’t changed her mind. She grabs her bag from the trunk and squeezes past some letch with a hooker on his arm to enter the lobby.
I watch her through the murky glass doors as she pays for a room, retrieves a key, and comes back outside. She heads straight up the stairs and to the third yellowish-green door on the left, and disappears inside.
I get out of my Humvee and click the lock on the keychain, trying to decide what I’m going to say when she realizes that I’m here, and that I must have followed her.
How do I really explain that?
Before I know it, I’m standing in front of that door with no idea what to say as I knock lightly.
There’s no response.
I lean into the door a bit to listen inside, but I can’t make out any sounds.
I knock again, and still no response.
I sigh. “Spencer, it’s me…”
She still isn’t answering so I knock again.
“Spence, come on, open the door…”
“Go away, Ashley.”
God, she’s crying.
“Spence…,” I fumble a little bit. “Look, I know you’re upset and you’re hurting, and I’m sorry that I decked your girlfriend. I shouldn’t have. Just please, open the door so I can talk to you.”
“I don’t want to talk right now.”
She wants space. I should respect that. I know it, but isn’t four years long enough?
“Spence, I don’t want to leave things this way…”
I can’t. Who knows if I’ll ever see her again?
With that she opens the door, glares at me, and perches on the far chair by the window. The smell of stale cigarettes and sex is thick on the air inside and I almost gag. I can’t let her stay here.
I shut the door and lock it behind me before taking the seat opposite from her. The ashtray on the lopsided table between us is full, and someone etched a penis on the surface next to it.
Silence descends and I want to slap myself. I just can’t seem to get it together tonight.
“Well,” she starts. “How do you want to leave this, because I really think you should.”
I pull in some air and let it out to try and calm myself.
“First,” I say. “I’m sorry.” She glances at me incredulously. “I know, but that’s all I can say.” I shrug. “I’m just sorry for everything, for leaving the way I did, for hurting you, for tonight, for just everything.”
“Second, no matter what happens from here on out, please don’t expect me to leave you here.” I gesture to the room. “As it stands, we’re both probably going to need antibiotics, and I just don’t know if I can handle something else to feel guilty for.”
She chuckles a little bit and I smile at the sound of it.
But then that sound is gone. “Why do you care now?”
“Come on, Spencer, haven’t you been listening?” I meet her eyes and soften my voice. “I’ve always cared. I just didn’t do it the right way, and if I have to choose between being right and protecting you, I’ll be wrong every time.”
She exhales heavily and smiles a little bit. “I get it. I really do. I just… I was so in love with you, Ash.”
“You broke my heart, Ash.”
“I broke mine too, Spence.”
“And that’s the worst part of this, Ashley.” She’s picking up steam again. “You were alone and hurting and dying, and I had no idea. You could be dead, and I’d have never known. How could you do that me, to Christine and Kyla, to yourself? It’s just…”
She shakes her head at a loss for words so I finish it for her. “Scary.”
She scoffs. “It’s fucking terrifying.”
An idle thought strikes me. “You curse a lot more now…”
She laughs again and shakes her head. “I think I’ve used the f-word more times tonight than in the last four years.”
I laugh with her and for a moment, I feel like things might still be salvageable.
“What happened in those four years, Ash?”
LA was a massive city, so much bigger than any I’d ever seen. It would have been intimidating, but that’s the strange thing about knowing that you’re going to die, you don’t really care what happens to you.
Part of me figured that being in a city this large alone and with nothing to lose might just speed the process along, and so I decided to use that to my advantage.
I slept wherever and ate whatever, playing my guitar for tips and siphoning electricity and wi-fi from any place that didn’t know to kick me out immediately so that I could tool around on my laptop.
But mostly, I just waited for it all to end and I could tell that it was starting to work. This disease sapped my immune system and so living in the elements only exasperated my condition. Within two months, I had a cold that wouldn’t go away; I was constantly running a fever, I couldn’t breathe very well, and I slept a lot.
But I just kept moving as much as I could, wandering the streets aimlessly and avoiding people. I would sometimes go to the LGBT crisis center for a shower and a bed for the night, and so one night, feeling particularly sick, I decided to take shelter there.
I fell asleep immediately but when I woke up, I was in a hospital with tubes in my arm and nose. I knew that I had to get out of there before they figured out who I was. I mean, I was of age so Christine had no rights, but I didn’t want them to call her.
I tried to sneak out but just as I was stumbling around my room for my clothes, a woman I’d seen at the shelter came in with a cup of coffee.
She was older, her face a little stern but her gray eyes were kind behind her floating frame glasses. Her silver hair was short and a little spiky, and her style of dress reminded me of Ellen DeGeneres.
We stared at each other for a moment before she put the coffee down and crossed her arms over her chest. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
I laughed at the irony, finally spotting my bag in the corner of the room. I was so weak that I could barely walk, but I found my way over to it.
“What’s it to you,” I asked as I slumped next to the bag and started to rummage through it.
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess I’m just doomed to care for people who don’t care for themselves.”
“Then stop caring,” I said simply, pulling out a pair of underwear and socks.
About this time a nurse entered the room freaking out about the flat-line on my monitor. “What’s going on?” She finally spotted me on the floor. “You need to get back in bed.”
She came at me like she was going to grab me but then stopped when my eyes reached hers. She must have seen the warning there.
“You can’t hold me here.”
“We can’t release you either. You’re not well enough.”
I laughed at her. “And I’m not going to be. So, back off.”
“Look,” she said. “I’m just trying to help you…”
“Well I don’t want your help,” I snapped back, my head swimming, my breath catching, my stomach churning, and my body desperate for unconsciousness.
“There is no help. Not for me…” I finished breathlessly.
I unfolded the socks and tried to slip them on, but it was a struggle. I barely had the strength to pull them up.
“I’m going to get the doctor,” I heard the nurse say before exiting the room.
Great, just another pushy prick to deal with.
The woman from the crisis center came forward and started to help me but I pushed her hands away. “I don’t need your pity.”
She laughed, full and hardy, and I scowled at her.
“Oh, I don’t pity you,” she started. “I just figured I’d help you get dressed so that we can both be on our way.”
Wow, she so shouldn’t have been working at a crisis center. “I hope they don’t have you working the suicide lines, lady, because you’re cold.”
She laughed again. “No, I’m just not going to placate your little tantrums. If you don’t want help, fine.” She shrugged. “I’m not going to waste my time.”
Where did she get off? “You think I just don’t want help? There is no help. I’m dying.”
She sat back on her haunches and stared at me for a moment, but I was losing motor functions quickly. I lurched to my feet, trying to make it to the bathroom, but I just couldn’t. She caught me around the waist and held me as I lost my meager stomach contents all over the floor.
When I finally slumped into her arms, my body unwilling to listen to my demands to move, she finally asked. “What do you have?”
“Aplastic… anemia,” I choked out. “I only have about… three more, months, maybe…”
She rubbed soothing circles on my back and somewhere in the back of my addled mind, I knew that someone else had entered the room and I was being lifted back onto the bed. I heard them talking, but I couldn’t make out the words as the world went dark.
When I came to, the light in the window was a deep golden yellow, signaling the end of another day.
I was one step closer…
I didn’t want to die in a hospital, but I was too weak to even consider moving. I felt some pressure on my hand and found the strength to turn my head. The woman from the crisis center was still here.
She smiled at me.
“Why are you still here,” I rasped out.
“Because I can help you, if you want it.”
I felt tears sting the back of my eyes. Hadn’t she been listening? There just wasn’t any help. “I already told you…”
“I know what you told me, but I’m telling you that I spoke with the doctor about your disease and there are treatment options.”
“Did he tell you that I’d have to take pills that will make me even sicker and my hair would fall out?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Did he tell you that the only known cure requires a bone marrow transplant?”
“Yes, and she…” She paused to emphasize the correct sex. “Also said that, at your age and advanced stage, your chances would be very good with a blood related donor.”
“And without a blood related donor?”
“Fifty-fifty,” she said.
She nodded again.
“So you want me to lose my hair, get worse, and undergo surgery that I can’t afford for a fifty-fifty chance?”
She seemed to think about it for a moment before she nodded. “We should go for a relative first, but yes, I want you to try.”
“Okay, so did she…,” I paused to let her know that I’d been listening. “Also tell you that I don’t have any relatives but a thirteen-year-old half-sister and a meth addict mother who’s been in jail since I was eleven?”
She sighed and didn’t answer, so I pressed on.
“How about the fact that I’d be dead by the time they got to my name on that very long list of people already waiting for donors?”
Her eyes became glossy and I reminded her. “I don’t want your pity.”
She brushed the hair from my overheated forehead. “I don’t pity you, but I am worried for you.”
“Don’t be,” I said. “It’ll be over soon.”
We sat in silence for a little while before she spoke. “Listen, I know you don’t know me, and you don’t want my pity, but will you accept my help anyway?”
“God, you just don’t give up, do you,” I groaned.
She laughed. “Nope, and you shouldn’t either.”
I thought about it for a minute. The whole point of not trying the treatments was to spare my family the pain of losing me. This woman was a stranger. It wouldn’t kill her when I died. If she wanted to waste her time, who was I to stop her?
Besides, I was already in pretty bad shape. It couldn’t really get any worse.
“Fine,” I said. “I don’t have any money, and you can do whatever you want. It’s futile, but…”
I just shrugged.
“Thank you,” she said.
It was quiet for a moment longer. “My name’s Shirley McDaniels.”
She looked at me expectantly and I realized that giving her my name could be disastrous. What if she called Christine?
I decided then that there would be one stipulation.
“There’s something you have to agree to, Ms. McDaniels, without question.”
She frowned and I continued. “Under no circumstances are you to contact my family. They aren’t to know anything.”
She sighed. “I thought you said that you don’t have any family.”
“I have an adoptive mother. That’s where my sister is, and neither of them can know. Do you understand?”
She mulled it over for a moment. “Are you a runaway?”
I nodded. “Yes, but I’m also eighteen.”
She was smart; I had to give her that. “Okay, she said.”
“Can I get that in writing,” I asked and she chuckled.
“No need. I promise you that I won’t contact your sister or adoptive mother.” She raised her hand and lifted two fingers. “Girl scouts honor.”
A flashback of Spencer doing the same thing slammed into my skull and I felt the tears come unbidden, but I ignored them.
“So, what’s your name,” she asked.
“Ashley Davies,” I said.