Brayden, honey, wake up. It’s Christmas.”
Brayden, 8, opened his eyes to see his mom, Brenda, leaning over him. The sun was up, and Brayden could hear 3-year-old Brynnan warbling along to Christmas music in the living room.
“This is a first,” joked Bob, Brayden’s dad. He was holding 3-month-old Blair in his arms. “Usually you’re the one waking us up Christmas morning.”
Brayden tried to blink away grogginess. Man, I feel funny, he thought. I must be getting sick.
“Where’s that lazybones?” demanded Grandpa Jerry as he entered the bedroom. He and Brayden’s grandma lived across the street, so it was easy to visit. “I heard you asked Santa for a laser tag game. You better get into the living room before Brynnan opens all the presents without you.”
Everyone expected this would send Brayden bounding out of bed. Instead he just said, “OK,” and pushed back his covers. Watching Brayden wander slowly down the hall, Brenda’s brow furrowed with concern.
“This is so unlike Brayden,” she murmured. “He was so quiet at your parents’ last night, too,” she added to her husband.
Bob placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I’ll bet laser tag will do the trick.”
Brayden, your father and I have something to tell you.” Dear God, please help me to do this. Brenda’s face was even paler than it had been a few hours ago that New Year’s morning, when Brayden had awakened, his skin covered in broken blood vessels. His parents had just finished talking with the doctor at the hospital.
“Am I sick?”
Brenda seemed unable to speak.
“What —” Brayden’s mouth had gone dry. “What is it?”
“Leukemia.” The word finally came, halting and ragged. There was a terrible pause.
“But …” Brayden’s eyes opened wide. “Isn’t that cancer?” He had read a book about a kid with cancer once. Brayden’s parents nodded.
“But that can’t be right! I just have the flu or something, right? I mean, don’t they have to do any more tests?” He looked hopefully from one parent to the other.
Brayden’s mother’s face crumpled. “Oh, Brayden, I’m so sorry!”
I’m gonna clean the floor with you.” Brayden, now 11, was boasting from his perch on the couch, where he was reclining half-covered with a blanket. Brayden waggled the video game control at his best friend. Spring sunshine fell across the living room floor.
Stanley cocked his head to the side in amused defiance. “Wanna bet?”
The two boys played until 6-year-old Brynnan came in with a glass of juice for Brayden, which she was holding with both hands. Three-year-old Blair toddled behind.
“Hi BooBoos. Hi Blair Bear.” Brayden gave his sisters an affectionate kiss.
“Kiss for Bubba!” Blair shrieked, giving him a loud, wet smack. Stanley gave a half-snort,half-laugh.
“Haven’t you got over that yet?” Brayden asked, amused.
“Nah, it’s too funny. I think I’ll start calling you that at school. Bubba.”
Brayden threw a pillow at Stanley’s head. The girls ran giggling back into the kitchen, and Brayden fell back against his pillow, looking suddenly weary. Stanley cast him a furtive glance.
“So, uh, on Monday you’ve gotta go back to live at the hospital, right? For a while?”
“Yeah.” Brayden turned his half-drunk glass of juice in slow circles.
“That stinks. No more soccer again.”
“Yeah,” Brayden said again.
“But I don’t get it,” Stanley said, frustrated. “Why do you have to go back?”
“I told you. Because the tests didn’t come out good.”
“Yeah, but I mean, you were great. You got that bone marrow transplant from Blair and you were back in school, and playing soccer, and —”
“I know.” Brayden bit his lip. It was hard enough knowing that his baby sister had already gone through one operation for him. Now she might have to do it again.
Brayden drained his glass and peered through it at the soccer jersey he was wearing. The sight cheered him a little. It was a present from Dr. Ribeiro, Brayden’s doctor at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Brayden had been sent. Every time Dr. Ribeiro went on a trip, he brought Brayden a jersey from the country he’d visited. Aside from the fact that it was a hospital, St. Jude was pretty cool. The people were really nice, and because the hospital didn’t make anyone pay beyond what was covered by insurance, his parents hadn’t had to shell out big bucks for his treatment. There weren’t many good things about being sick, but St. Jude was right up there with missing math class.
“Do you realize the date I go back is April 1?” Brayden said suddenly. “I asked my mom if maybe they’ll tell me that the cancer’s not back; that it’s all an April Fool’s joke and I can go home.”
Stanley looked down. “I don’t know how you can joke about it.”
Brayden shrugged. “I don’t wanna mope. Besides,” he added, the right corner of his mouth twitching, “I don’t think Grandpa Jerry would put up with any whining.” Grandpa, a veteran, could be uptight, but he was awesome. He’d come to visit for hours when Brayden was sick. And he didn’t act funny — all shy and nervous and whispering, like Brayden was going to die any minute or something. He made Brayden feel like he wasn’t sick. Brayden loved his grandpa.
Stanley stared at the monitor. It was flashing:
DO YOU WANT TO QUIT OR RESUME THE GAME?
“Come on,” said Brayden, picking up his control. “I’m gonna kick your butt.”
Brayden leaned his face out the window of Grandpa Jerry’s red Ford 2500 and let the breeze wreak havoc with his hair. It was two years after the second transplant, and Brayden was doing well. He was back in school, back in soccer, back doing one of his favorite things in the world — driving with his grandpa. It was a beautiful day.
Grandpa Jerry reached over and squeezed Brayden’s shoulder. “How ya doing?”
“I think 13 is going to be a great age,” Brayden mused.
Grandpa Jerry laughed. “Oh yeah?”
“I feel great.”
Grandpa’s smile suddenly broke into consternation. “What the —”
A car was driving perilously close to them, not seeming to care where it was going or how fast. Crunch. The car shattered a side mirror on the truck, and then sped off. Brayden’s heart was pounding. “What’s the matter with that guy?” he asked. Grandpa Jerry slowed down, pulled over, and got out of the truck.
“Didn’t even stop,” he growled in the direction the offending vehicle had zoomed off.
Brayden breathed a sigh of relief. The mirror was broken, but he and Grandpa Jerry were okay. He leaned out of the window to watch Grandpa, who was muttering under his breath as he examined the mirror.
“Guess you’re gonna have seven years’ back luck,” Brayden joked.
“That’s an old wives’ tale,” Grandpa Jerry scoffed.
Brayden grinned. “You know, you’re right,” he said. “I’ve broken a mirror before and I’ve never had bad luck.” CD
*Based on the story of Brayden Rydell