By Austin Gilmore
Most healthy kids my age don’t want anything to do with a Cancer Girl. They don’t want the constant reminder of death looming over what they’ve been told is the best years of their lives. I mean, I get it. I wouldn’t want to hang out with me either.
Even on the third floor of St. Luke’s, at Camp Chemo, a name I tried desperately to make happen (I even made little merit badges for everyone which, of course, bombed), everyone ignores each other. Even though we’re all relatively the same age, going through the same horrible, awful, no good thing.
It’s a lonely life, dying.
When another kid walks in I always say hi, say their first name, and reference something I overheard them talking about in a past session. Which, you know, always creeps them out. “How’d you remember that?,” they ask with the same expression as the grimacing face emoji.
“Oh, that’s a funny story…,” I respond, thinking this could be the start of a wonderful friendship. “I remember everything. My mom says I’m a Memory Collector.”
They nod back totally weirded-out, then they shove their AirPods in as fast as they can, desperately trying to end the conversation with The Weird Cancer Girl. A name I didn’t coin, but have heard used many times here at Camp Chemo.
But then I met Sedgewick, waking me from as deep of a sleep as one can have with lethal chemicals pumping through their veins.
“What are you in for? Dyin’?” Sedgewick asked as she slid into the seat next to me, her blonde bob bouncing up and down. Ah I remember those days, having hair.
“They say I have until Christmas,” I replied, half asleep, half woozy, shocked someone was actually talking to me. “I’m Carol. But I always wanted my friends to call me Rollie.”
“Rollie, Sedgwick. Wonderful to meet you. I’m checking out the place. Start tomorrow. Will you be here?”
“Yeah, I’ll be at Camp Chemo all week,” I said back.
“Camp Chemo! That’s delightful! Okay, save me a seat if you get here before me.”
“That be great!,” I said, trying to stay cool, but in no way staying cool.
“My friends Reese and Lia start this week too. You can’t miss ‘em. Reese is like a huge pillow, someone you just want to squeeze and snuggle. And Lia, you know Lurch from The Addams Family? Yeah, she’s like that but quieter. She’s a gothic peach, that one.”
“Awesome! Reese. Walking pillow. Lia. Gothic Peach. I’ll remember!”
“Of course you will, you’re a Memory Collector.”
Talking to Sedgwick was like living – living! – in a different dimension where I was just a normal girl hanging out with a friend. The key word there is “normal.” No, actually the key word there is “friend.” I couldn’t wait to see her again and meet Reese and Lia. I couldn’t wait until my next Chemo session, which, like, no one has ever said before in the history of everything.
I got to Camp Chemo early the next day (with three freshly made merit badges), but Sedgwick never showed. Nor was there any girl who would properly be described as a walking pillow or a gothic peach. I quickly lost all hope as the session dragged on. Hope is an easy thing to lose when you’re told you may not make it past Christmas.
“Sedgewick says you have a good memory?” a laughing voice said, waking me up from my Chemo haze. This had to be Reese. Sedgewick was right, she was a living, breathing pillow I just wanted to snuggle, with curly red hair and the most contagious laugh.
“How did she know that?” I asked, sitting up.
“Nurses told her, I guess.”
“Ask me anything, see if you can stump me,” I said sitting up, excited to talk to someone who actually wanted to talk to me, while desperately trying to ignore how awful I felt.
“When did the movie Twister come out?”
“Was that before or after Ross and Rachel kissed for the first time?”
“What day of the week did you do your book report on The Westing Game in sixth grade?”
“It was a Tuesday.”
“Memory Collector, indeed,” she laughed. “You know, Rollie, I have a similar skill. Wanna try and stump me?”
“How’d you know my name?”
“Sedgewick told me.”
“Where is Sedgwick? She alright?”
“Of course. She’s just not starting quite yet. Neither is Lia. But soon. So, okay, my power. I can tell you what anyone is doing right now, this very moment, anywhere in the world.”
“Okay…umm…let’s see. Alright, what’s my mom doing right now?”
“Grinding coffee at Trader Joes. See! Isn’t that crazy!”
“That’s very specific. But how do we know if you’re right or wrong?”
“Simple. Call her.”
“This is fun,” I said way too enthusiastically as I pulled out my phone, sounding like a middle schooler on her first sleepover. It rang twice and when my Mom answered I could barely hear her over the chaotic chorus of sounds behind her. “Mom, where are you? What are you doing?”
“Just errands. Swung by Trader Joes before I came to pick you up. We were out of coffee. Everything okay?”
Reese and I talked nonstop the rest of the hour, annoying the other Cancer Kids around us. I asked how she did that trick, but instead of answering she asked me how I did mine. “It’s not really a trick, “ I said, “Memories are the past, which is all I really have so I remember as much as I can.”
“You’re wonderful, Rollie. Sedgwick was right, you’ll do great.”
None of the girls were there the next day. My heart sank thinking I had to sit in one of those pleather chairs alone, with only a crummy Netflix show to binge, after two great days with two great girls. So I forced myself to sleep, hoping someone would again wake me u—
A soft elbow nudge woke me up. The girl, even sitting down, towered over me, wearing a flowing, black shawl and the most mascara I’d ever seen used on a human face.
A gothic peach.
This had to be Lia. She waved at me and I waved back. Not much of a talker. Like a Lurch.
“Welcome to Camp Chemo, I’m Rollie.”
She waved back again, never opening her mouth to speak. There are many horrible side effects to chemotherapy and to the cancer inside of us. It’s not the first time I met someone who lost their ability to speak, or was too exhausted to talk. But even without talking it was nice to sit next to someone. The room was empty. She could’ve sat anywhere, but she wanted to sit next to me.
She pulled out her phone as I rummaged through my backpack to find a book I’d been reading on and off for months. I couldn’t help myself though, and I looked over and snuck a peek at what she was doing. On her phone I saw a selfie of herself, Reese, Sedgewick…
Before I could ask one of the hundreds of questions swirling around in my head, a bubbly voice whispered in my ear, “can you keep a secret?”
It was Sedgewick, appearing out of thin air next to me. And next to her a bubbly Reese, ready to burst like she’s at a surprise birthday party.
“Let me guess. None of you are real?” I asked. “The Weird Chemo Girl desperately made up the friends she always dreamt of having, is that it?”
“Oh sweetie, we’re very much real,” Sedgwick said. “We don’t have cancer, but we’re very real.”
“Alive, though? Not so much,” chuckled Reese. “Oh, just tell her already. Please!”
“Rollie, what are your plans for after you die?” Sedgwick asked in her very best Human Resources voice.
“Because we have a job for you!” Reese blurted out, unable to control her excitement.
I didn’t start right away, they let me die first. I started a week after Christmas, after collapsing in the parking lot of St. Luke’s. Death wasn’t a surprise, I’d known when it was going to happen, thanks to Lia’s ability to see the Future.
Like Reese’s ability to see the Present.
And my ability to see the Past.
Dickens took some liberties with what we do, which, like, is totally understandable. He was just writing a little story, what do you expect? But we don’t only appear on Christmas. Santa Claus can get away with working one day a year, but we can’t. There’s too many lives to help. We’re booked solid, as Lia put it, “for the foreseeable.” Most interventions need a host, to warn you that three ghosts are on their way. Not everyone has their own Jacob Marley, you know? That’s Sedgewick, she prepares you like she did me that first day.
They tell me these positions have hardly ever become available. It’s rare to give up such a job, but my predecessor grew tired of the other three and yearned to be left alone.
I yearned for the opposite, and I got my wish.
I’ve already made merit badges.
Austin Gilmore is an Art Director and Gallery Artist based in Kansas City. Before that, he co-ran Kevin Costner’s production for 7 years. His stories can be found in The Bluebird Word, Tangled Lock Journal, and Fauxmoir. He is passionate about donuts.