The week after our sleep over at Adriel's house, he didn't come to school. I went to his house every day after school that week to check on him, but neither he nor his father was there. I called Adriel's cell phone numerous times only to reach his voicemail. And so I waited, as patiently as possible. After school I would sit in the big bay window in our dorm and do my homework, searching the grounds for Adriel's return, but it never came.
It was Friday afternoon and our Geography teacher, Mr Lahiri, was just finishing up his class on map work when Rhys handed me a folded up piece of paper under the desk. I opened it and read "I saw Principal Atwood leaving the staff room today". I looked up and a sigh of relief escaped me. At least I knew that some kind of contact to Adriel still existed. As soon as the bell rang for the end of the day, I quickly threw my books and pencil case into my satchel and hurried out of the classroom, only to be almost completely knocked off me feet by Principal Atwood himself.
"I'm so sorry Sir," I said apologetically.
"Are you okay? Where are you off to in such a hurry?" he asked.
"I was actually coming to see you Sir," I said.
"Well, I'm here what did you want to talk to me about?"
"I just wanted to know where Adriel was. I've been to the house and have been calling his cell phone but I couldn't seem to get hold of him."
Principal Atwood seemed deep in thought, his frown deepened and he took a while before answering. The hallway was full of students now, full of chatter and the noisy opening and shutting of lockers.
"Yes, I am sorry about that. Why don't you wait outside Mr Lahiri's class while I get Adriel's homework, and then we can walk up to the house together?"
I nodded. By the sound of it Adriel was back home and well enough to do homework it seemed. I wondered if I could kiss him when I saw him or if he had some kind of contagious illness like chicken pox or the flu. Either way, I didn't mind, I would kiss him anyway. Principal Atwood emerged from the classroom with a small stack of papers. He continued past me and I followed him out of the building across the parking lot and on to one of the pathways that led to his house across the grounds. Principal Atwood was a tall man, with long legs and hence long strides. I had to practically jog to keep up with him. I had no idea how Adriel could not have inherited this man's very dominant genes. We finally reached the gate in the hedge when Principle Atwood stopped, and I had to save myself from walking straight into him once again. He turned around and looked down at me for a second and looked up again searching the surroundings for the right words to say.
"Tyler, Adriel hasn't been well lately. He's been in the hospital for the last week and that is why you haven't been able to contact him." He said, my heart slowly getting heavier.
"Is he better now?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"No, he's not better, yet anyway."
"Well, what is wrong with him," I asked, running through a list of illnesses in my head.
"As you know Tyler, Adriel's mom died of cancer a few years ago. It was leukemia, blood cancer, and it seems as though Adriel has developed something similar."
I couldn't speak. My throat was lead, too heavy to produce any form of sound. The heaviness spread to the rest of my body and I couldn't move. My legs were part of the ground, my arms weighed a ton and I couldn't lift my head to look up at Principal Atwood. My mind felt fuzzy and my vision blurred, only to realize it was the tears welling up in my eyes.
"Tyler?" said Principal Atwood, his hands on my shoulders.
I snapped out of my trance and wiped the tears from my eyes before they could fall.
"You okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine, can I go see him now?" I asked, wanting to move, to regain control over my body.
Principal Atwood swung open the gate and motioned me into the yard. We walked up to the house and entered through the backdoor, simply because it was the closest entrance to the house. The house seemed warm and healthy like it always was and nobody would ever say a deadly illness lay lurking in the wings. The walk up the stairs and down the corridor to Adriel's bedroom took an eternity. Perhaps I was just trying to delay the agony of seeing him in pain or in a decrepit condition. Needless to say I was expecting the worst. The closer I got to the bedroom, the louder the voices from inside it became. I stood in the doorway and looked around. The bed was unmade, there was a staggering pile of photos on the floor and Centre Stage was playing on the television, something that hadn't been there before. Adriel though, was nowhere to be found.
I walked into the room. I heard a toilet flush and Adriel walked out of the ensuite bathroom. I rushed over to him and pulled him into a huge hug.
"Tyler, you're going to squeeze the air right out of me," gasped Adriel.
I let go immediately but still held his arms, which felt thinner in my hands than before. He pulled himself away ever so slightly and went to sit on the floor by the heap of photos. I joined him. The pictures were all of his mother. Some of them were professional photographs taken of her dancing on stage or in a studio, other were of her growing up, but most were of her and Adriel, from when he was a baby up until her final days. For about an hour we looked through all of them. Adriel picked up a photo and looked at it intently. I watched him. He looked up at me and handed me the photo. It was his mother: thin, gaunt and with a headscarf covering her bald head. I looked at Adriel.
"This is what I'm going to look like, probably soon," he said, tears starting to stream down his face.
"No, don't say that Adriel. You are going to be fine." I pleaded, jumping across the mess of pictures to sit next to him.
"I'm going to lose all of my hair," he said still crying.
"And you have such good hair," I said nuzzling my nose into his dark, luscious locks.
He stopped crying and looked up at me and smiled.
"I'm glad you are here," he said and kissed my cheek. In turn I kissed his lips; gently, longingly and lingering.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in his bed, cuddling and watching movies. After dinner I greeted him goodnight and Principal Atwood walked me to the gate in the hedge.
"He seems well still," I said.
"We'll try to keep him that way for as long as possible. It's still early but these types of cancer move swiftly."
Suddenly I couldn't hold back the dam of tears I had filling behind my eyes. Principal Atwood hesitantly took me into his arms and held me close to him as I cried into his chest. He was strong and warm and I began to long for my own father. I wished I could have been at home, crying into my own parents' arms. The sobbing lasted for a short while and before long I had greeted Principal Atwood and left for the dorms once again.
The following week was even harder. Word of Adriel's condition spread around the school as teachers were informed of it by the principal and the students by the teachers. Classes were quieter than normal, teachers less abrasive, and the air was bitter, parched and lifeless. Adriel's now empty seat was like a black hole, consuming everyone's gaze, as though staring at the spot would make him magically appear there. Rhys, Kerry and I sat under a tree nearest the house during every break, with just the comfort of being closer to him. Other students, as though in turns, would come and sit and tenderly commiserate with us, his closest friends. Every day after school the three of us would take turns to deliver Adriel's homework to him. I always stayed so that we could do our homework together.
His first chemotherapy session was torture. The chemicals burned his skin as they coursed through his veins and he couldn't keep any food down for a while after. It seemed to make him more ill than the cancer.
After a few weeks, he began to lose weight. His bones gained a greater propensity for protruding and the weight fell off of him. He was slowly becoming the image of his mother he had shown me a month or so ago.
"When's your next chemo session?" I asked one evening, as we were sitting in the lounge, doing our homework together.
"Thursday," he said.
"What time?" I asked.
"You don't have to come with me every time," he said, looking at his books and not at me.
"But I want..."
"Tyler, I don't want you to come this time," he said shortly.
I pondered for a minute before speaking.
"Are you sure?" I asked. I didn't want to upset him, but I wanted to make sure that he truly didn't want me to be there.
"I'm sure. I need some time alone, to think."
"What do you need to think about?"
"About dying, about leaving things behind, about my mother," he said, each word hitting me like a bullet to the chest.
"No Adriel, No!" I said loudly, "You don't have to think about those things. You're getting better. I can see it."
"I'm dying Ty, it's going to happen. I need to come to terms with it."
By the end of his sentence I was out of my chair and on my knees at his feet.
"Please don't talk like that Adriel. You'll get stronger. You'll get the chemo and you'll get stronger. Sometimes things just get worse before they get better, and this is one of those times. You are not going to die Adriel. You just aren't," I said, the tears pouring over both our cheeks.
"You don't know that Ty," he said through the tears.
"And you don't know that you are going to die,"
"But I do know that my body is weak, even though my spirit is strong, my body is still failing. Everything inside me burns and to wake up every day knowing that I won't be able to eat anything, drink anything, walk a few hundred meters without feeling like death, is death itself. I need to think about dying as much as about beating this thing. I need to be at peace either way, whatever happens."
We spoke no more after that. We just sat there, with my head on his lap and his hands in my hair. After a while I got up and packed up my books.
"I'll see you on Thursday, after your chemo," I said.
"Come on Friday, after school. I won't be well after chemo."
I nodded, despite my own beliefs and wants I would respect his wishes. I loved him.
That Friday it stormed. The wind howled and ran like a wolf across the mountain side and the rain pelted us from all directions. Adriel had gone for his chemo the previous day and had told me to meet him later in the afternoon. School took extra long that day, or so it felt. All I wanted to do was pack up my books run across the grounds to the principal's house.
"Are you okay?" asked Rhys during Maths, our last period for the day. "You've been jittery the whole day. Look, you can't even keep your legs still."
I looked at my legs. They were bouncing up and down by the heels.
"I'm fine. Adriel had his chemo yesterday. I'm going to his house to meet him after class."
"Oh," said Rhys, not needing to ask anymore more questions.
Once class was over, I quickly packed up my things, hurried to dispose of them at the dorms, gobbled down some lunch and jogged to Adriel's house.
I rang the bell at the front door. Maria greeted me at the door and let me inside.
"Is Adriel upstairs?" I asked, my legs automatically walking in that direction.
"No, he is not here. But he said there is something for you upstairs." She said and disappeared back into the kitchen area.
I walked normally up the stairs, instead of lunging up them, since he wasn't there at the moment and strolled into his room. It was the neatest I had seen it in a long while. Even the walls looked slightly barer. I stepped into the middle of the room and noticed an envelope at the foot of his bed. It lay there ominously in its pure white innocence and had my name written on it in Adriel's flowing cursive. I picked it up and sat on the edge of the bed where it had been. I opened it and extracted the piece of folio paper. I unfolded it and read:
As you can see, my room seems a bit bare. The reason for this is that I have left Cape Town indefinitely. For all the time that I have known you, you have shown me great kindness, and by leaving I hope to return that kindness. I know you may not understand my decision but I hope that in time you can respect it.
My grandparents have kindly invited me to Durban, where my mother first went into remission, to live with them. I have accepted, and by the time you read this letter I will probably be settled in to my temporary home. And I mean temporary in the least morbid manner possible.
The past one and a half years have been the most memorable of my life. I met you, hated you, befriended you, and fell in love with you – a testament to the power and beauty of your character. The love I have for you is incomparable to any other. And that, in part, is why I have decided to leave.
Ty, I am literally falling apart at the seams and I realized, that night you cried on my lap, that I was affecting you in the same way. We are young but you are healthy, and I cannot let you tie your entire life to mine, which hangs by merely a thread.
If in fact these are my final days, I want your memory of me to exist happily, without cancer. You have seen me in my health and my sickness, enough to remember how glorious it was and how painful it was, and I cannot let you bare anymore of it.
Ty, be kind to yourself. I want you to live and love, and in time, let me go.
I love you.
I read the letter ten times before putting it back in the envelope. I stood up and rushed to the closet. I opened them and found them empty. The draws in the desk were void of stationery or school books. I felt sick. I hurried to the bathroom, flipped the lid of the toilet and threw up.