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“I love you, Dad,” I called, walking out the front door with my backpack swung over my shoulder. Four simple words, often taken for granted. Four simple words that I had said to my Dad every day since kindergarten—but four simple words that now meant more to me than anything else in the world.
“I love you, too, Addie.” Dad stood on the porch of our small house in Jackson, Georgia, watching me walk down the dirt path towards the bus stop where I stood with my friends every day, waiting for the same old rickety yellow school bus to come rumbling down the winding dirt road. Sandy. Delaney. Isabella. They would never say anything to me about what I was going through, but I knew that they thought about it and that they knew, probably even more than I did, what it would mean to them.
And then there was Carter. It hurt to think of him, to remember us attempting to play golf on the nearby green, to relish the feel of him holding my hand during midnight walks through his family’s farm, or riding his two horses, Gypsy and Hazel. Dad didn’t know about me and Carter. I had never found the heart to tell him.
But I had little time left, and everyone knew it—even Dad had begun to accept that I couldn’t last much longer like this. They had said I’d have a year. Maybe two. But now I knew that the chances of anything were slim. My legs were unreasonably thin and shaky and I had found that it was becoming even harder to run or dance like I used to. I had been a star majorette at my school back when I was well, back when I could smile and when I was not so sickly thin or ghastly pale. Now, there were gray rings under my eyes, proof of another restless night of tossing and turning in my bedroom. My makeup was smeared from where I tried to cover up my hollow, sunken cheeks and attempted to make the pencil line where my eyebrows used to be look realistic. My scalp itched terribly from where the hair was beginning to grow back in and was rubbing against the revolting blonde wig Dad had bought for me and encouraged me to wear to keep people from staring. It made` me look better I guess, but it still didn’t keep anyone from staring at me.
I was a freak. The strange girl. The one who lost tufts of hair. The one who would vomit from eating anything. The one who had missed so much school that she now had a private tutor to catch her up on all of her late assignments and homework. The one who people whispered about behind my back, spreading rumors about me and my...condition.
“People won’t be able to tell,” Dad had told me so many months before. “You’ll fit right in. You’ll be normal.”
Normal? I was anything but normal. People did stare. People did talk about me.
I was dying. I was the girl everyone knew had only months or even weeks left to live. Cancer had taken everything from me. It had taken my childhood, my education, my health, and even my mother. I was ten when Mom was diagnosed and I had followed close behind. Now she was gone, just like Grandma and I knew that cancer would be taking me away from Dad, too.
“I’ll call you later, Dad,” I called, not looking back as I reached the street where my friends stood waiting for me. Sandy, Delaney and Isabella all smiled wan smiles at me and stopped their murmured conversations as I hugged each of them in turn, turning at last to Carter.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi, Addie.” He kept his hands in his jean pockets and only barely glanced at me, keeping his eyes averted on the ground. I stared at him for a few seconds, not caring that the girls were intently watching me.
“Today’s my last day at school,” I croaked, my voice cracking. “Dad’s pulling me out for some one on one time before…” My voice trailed off, but we each silently added in what we knew was coming in the very near future. “But I’ll miss all of you.”
“Not as much as we’ll miss you,” whispered Sandy, pulling a strand of her bleach blonde hair behind her ear. “We’ll come visit you every day, I promise.”
“And we’ll still bring you ice cream cones from Bruster’s,” Delaney chipped in. “Mango. That’s your favorite.”
“Or we’ll pick up books for you from the library so that you can read when you’re at the hospital, or when you’re just at home resting,” said Isabella. “And we can come over every day after school to bake oatmeal cookies or to watch the animated Disney movies.”
“Don’t forget to bring lots of bubble-wrap,” I said, smiling a real smile for the first time in a long while. “If I’m still strong enough to pop it. And bring crayons.”
“And we’ll watch Harry Potter reruns. Or I Love Lucy,” said Delaney happily, her red curls bouncing up and down on her white shoulders. “It’ll be just like it always has been. Nothing is going to change.”
But she was wrong.
I knew something was going to change. Something terrible. Something drastic. My four friends never admitted it and hated to even talk about my cancer in front me, but I knew that they worried. And there was reason to worry. I looked longingly at Carson, who was staring off in the distance at the steely blue sky that was covered in wispy white clouds like paintbrush strokes. The sun was just peeking over the treetops and the blue was a great mixture of gold and pink and crimson, as always is at sunrise in Jackson, Georgia. I always loved sunrises. Maybe this was one of my last ones.
Inside, I knew I was right. I didn’t have many sunrises left—only just enough to get me to my last Christmas. Now that things had changed, each new morning was all the more precious to me and I kept track of every single one in my scrapbook. But even then, even with two hundred images of the beautiful dawn, I knew that night was coming. Dad was there with me. And Delaney, Sandy, Isabella...and even Carter. They stood over me, struggling not to cry, but I whispered in a ghostly voice that hardly sounded my own that everything was fine. That they would make it through the day, even if I wasn’t there.
“I love you, Dad,” I murmured, beginning to feel the endless bridge close the gap between me and whatever lay ahead. My eyelids slowly closed over my eyes. But I heard him. Carter and Dad whispered in unison, “I love you, too, Addie.”