“Welcome to Raphaela House,” the sour-faced kid in the wheelchair said to Jonas. “I’m Simon. What’re ya in for?” He didn’t extend his hand to shake; in fact, he was playing with some small firecracker-type contraband in his lap, and when he noticed Jonas looking, he covered whatever-it-was with his hands and glared at him. “Never mind. I can guess. Bald as a cue ball. Swollen face. Port under your t-shirt. Some kind of blood cancer.”
Jonas was a little stunned, though he tried not to show it. “Leukemia,” he muttered without looking up at his new roommate.
(He had never once assumed he’d have a roommate here, what with the sensitive nature of his condition—of all their conditions. But Dr. Jones had rushed through some explanation of state funding and cutbacks and hard times and what-can-you-do that resulted in this unpleasant greeting.)
“How long have ya got?” Simon asked from where his wheelchair sat in the corner of the small, square room, over near the window, which was closed even though it was summer. The stale air in this space was gummy with the sickly-sweet scent of illness.
This time Jonas looked up.
He didn’t like this kid, who couldn’t be older than fifteen, and though Jonas was a couple years older than that, Simon maintained a sneer of superiority. His mouth was like the slash of a razor blade, and his eyes had a hard, jaded look. But then again, Jonas thought, my eyes might look the same way.
“What?” Simon asked, a menacing grin twisting on his face. “You’ll get used to the question. The place is like a fucking terrorist zone. All full of ticking time-bombs, me included. It’s fucking ironic, since Raphaela means ‘God has healed’ or some shit like that. What happened to your family?”
Now, there was a question Jonas could answer. A stock response he’d given through years and years of foster care: “Never knew my dad. Mom was a basehead.”
“Coke. Spoon. Flame.” Strangely, he thought of Abby, the ten-year-old foster sister he’d had once upon a time. But she wouldn’t be ten anymore. How old—
“Oh.” Simon was quiet for a moment. “Jonesy and The Chap tell you everything when you got here?”
“The food’s not too bad. They mostly let us do what we want. One of the nurses—Lisette—is hot as fuck with these incredible tits … you don’t talk much, do ya?”
“Not much.” Jonas wished that Simon would stop talking long enough for him to nap.
Simon held up his hands, revealing his firecrackers. “I’m a fucking pyro. Tell anyone, I’ll set these off in your bed.”
“They’re fucking loud. They’d destroy you.”
Simon slid them safely into a plastic bag, which he then hid behind a painting on the otherwise-empty wall of their small room. The painting was of poppies—red, yellow, pink, indigo. “Want me to show you around?” he asked.
Jonas followed Simon’s motorized wheelchair out the door of their room. He just wanted to sleep; that’s pretty much all he ever wanted even before and through all the chemo. Being awake in this place meant acknowledging that this was it, and he wasn’t ready for that—he felt no different from the days before they’d used the word terminal: apathetic, pissed off, and exhausted, but still strong.
He felt stronger still as he walked the corridor with Simon, glancing briefly into rooms full of young people who would probably never leave them, even for a short walk like this one. It woke him up a little. He wanted to lift weights like he used to when he lived with Abby and the rest of the Andersons, though he knew that was foolish. She’d yammer out poetry stanzas while he’d bench press till he felt like a god.
“This is the rec room,” Simon said, as he rolled down the hall, gesturing toward an empty room completely void of recreation. “Cafeteria.” An open area full of tables that looked a lot like the lunchroom at his last high school, only much smaller. “Meds station.” This time a gesture toward a corner of the cafeteria. “This whole fucking place is filled with meds. One guy I know takes thirteen at a time! Thirteen fucking pills and no water.”
“Impressive,” said Jonas, unimpressed. They walked past another room. A smaller one, with lilac walls and a row of small windows that faced the lake outside. In the middle of the room was a round table, and at the table was a group of three kids—a boy and a girl around Jonas’s age and one kinda young-looking guy in a wheelchair. The boys were leaning in to hear what the girl was reading from a sheet of loose-leaf paper.
They were laughing.
Jonas hadn’t seen anyone laugh yet at Raphaela House, though, granted, he’d just arrived that morning. Dr. Jones (“Jonesy,” he supposed) and Reverend Sevan (“The Chap”?) had been friendly enough, had even smiled at him, but Raphaela House held an ugly heaviness in its halls, in its rooms. It felt like a place where … well, where teenaged wards of the state went to die.
But this room was laughing. It was like the light was different, even though Jonas knew it couldn’t be. Maybe they weren’t all residents. “Do people get a lot of visitors?” he asked, staring into the room at the group of three. The girl had hair such a deep, dark shade of purple that it was almost black.
Simon wheeled back to where Jonas had stopped to look. “Shit, no! This is the Raphaela House. No one here’s got anyone to come visit them. Duh.”
Jonas still stared. The purple-haired girl had the whitest skin he’d ever seen and the tiniest wrists. And maybe the loudest laugh.
“The motherfucking Triumvirate,” Simon said, looking into the room and flashing his middle fingers at the group, which didn’t notice. “They have the goddamn guts to act like they run the place. Well,” he reconsidered, “Mack kinda does.”
Jonas wondered which one was Mack. Maybe the other teenager, the tough guy. Well, tough for being in a hospice. He looked like Matt Dillon in The Outsiders—if, you know, he were dying.
“Let’s go; I have meds in ten minutes,” Simon said, and when Jonas didn’t follow him, he sneered, “Triumvirate means three, if you didn’t know.”
Jonas was drawn to them, the Triumvirate or whatever-the-hell. The girl with the long purple hair. The greaser with the big grin. The kid in the wheelchair. He saw the three of them together all the time: they ate their meals together, at their own table, separate from the rest. They often were huddled together at the table in that tiny lilac room, laughing over whatever that girl was always reading aloud. They weren’t in any of the support groups offered; Simon said they refused to go.
“Look at him,” Simon sneered one afternoon in the cafeteria, nodding his head in the direction of the grinning Outsiders kid sitting at his separate table with the rest of his crew. “I’d be smiling too if I were getting some in here.”
Jonas monitored his surprise, settling his face into a frown, eyebrows furrowed if he’d still had any. “You think they’re sleeping together? That can’t be allowed.”
“Of course they are,” Simon said. “What did I tell you? Mack runs the goddamn place.”
“What makes you think that? Are people afraid of him or something?”
“Him?” Simon looked at Jonas like he was an idiot. “Mack is the girl, dumbfuck. Macaulay Kennedy. And Ty Johnson is totally boning her. Look at the way he worships the ground she walks on. Everyone does.” Simon looked over at the table, and though his scowl remained painted on his face, it softened.
“Do you?” Jonas asked.
Simon, for once, stuttered a little bit, which almost made Jonas want to laugh. “I mean … I’m not saying I wouldn’t bang her. She’s—”
But at that moment, Macaulay “Mack” Kennedy stood up and faced the rest of the cafeteria. And even though she was in the corner with Ty Johnson and the wheelchair kid, the rest of the cafeteria stopped. It only took about nine seconds before it was silent. The girl with the purple hair announced, “Let’s have a talent show.”
And so, because Mack Kennedy apparently ran the goddamn place, they did so the following evening.
Simon didn’t attend. He said he wasn’t breathing well and wanted to be connected to his ventilator early that night, but Jonas figured he was just horny and pissed.
It wasn’t well organized. Jonesy and some of the nurses had set up a makeshift stage, and people, in no exact order, stood up and shared. Someone did stand-up comedy that wasn’t particularly funny, and another played the piano—well, a keyboard that Jonesy had brought in from the rec room. Ty Johnson strummed a guitar while Mack sang a song, and her voice was sweet and light and breathy, like you’d imagine a bird would sing if it only had words. It made Jonas’s throat hurt in a strange, greedy way.
“Who else?” Mack said afterward. “We need a closing act, and it’s got to be good. You. New guy. Got anything?” She pointed to Jonas and then curled her finger back toward herself, beckoning him onto the stage. She had a tiny grin on her face, and it pulled him in like magic. It had to be magic, because there was no other way in hell that he would be getting out of his seat and moving to the front of the room without it. Only magic could explain the way he locked eyes with the purple-haired girl for one second, and in that moment remembered an Emily Dickinson poem that his former foster sister Abby had memorized aloud while he lifted weights. It had been three—maybe four—years ago, and he hadn’t thought of it since, but as he stepped onto the tiny stage, he knew the words were in him.
I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, — the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.
He spoke the last line breathlessly to a room quiet and thoughtful. Then Macaulay Kennedy started to clap and the rest of the room followed, and the silence was broken. A twelve-year-old in the corner of the room started to cry, hardly knowing why, and Jonas felt guilty. The talent show was clearly over.
“Hey,” said Mack as he started to leave the stage. “That was good. Poetry. We needed a little poetry tonight. Dickinson?”
He nodded and began to walk away, thinking of Abby and the Andersons and of Mack’s feather-light song that made him ache tonight.
“What’s your name?” Mack asked his back.
Jonas turned around. “Jonas,” he said. Don’t invest, his bones told him. Don’t even think about it. And again, Abby flitted through his mind, the little sister he’d always wanted. The hurt flashed in his throat again, though it was different this time.
“I’m Mack,” she said.
“I know.” He turned away.
He was exhausted. It felt like the poem had been a globe of energy burning in his chest, though he hadn’t even known or remembered it was there, and now that he had removed that ball and tossed it to the crowd, he felt empty.
The meds station was in the corner of the cafeteria, and Jonas stopped by to get something to help him sleep well that night. “Thanks Lisette,” he said, knocking the pills to the back of his throat and swallowing them down with a Dixie cup of water. “Appreciate it.”
“Nice work tonight, Shakespeare,” she said, and he didn’t correct her.
As he made his way down the corridor to the room he shared with Simon, Jonas saw Mack hugging the young girl who had cried at the poem, and he wondered what could heal whatever wound a poem would make.
The next day, when Jonas made his daily trip past the Triumvirate’s lilac room, Mack looked up and saw him, then motioned for him to come inside. He hesitated for a moment, but Mack gestured wildly, and he entered the room.
“This is the poetry guy,” she said to Ty and the wheelchair kid. “From last night.”
“I’m not really a ‘poetry guy,’” admitted Jonas, making the quotations with his fingers. “I don’t even know how I remembered that one actually. Sorry.” He wondered stupidly if being a “poetry guy” was the only reason he’d been invited into the room and if he’d foolishly just snuffed out that candle. Was it foolish though? He felt drawn to these three, especially to the girl with purple hair, but it was just so hard … and he didn’t know how much capacity he had left for connection. Not in a hospice.
But Mack said, “Doesn’t matter. What was your name again?”
“Jonas,” he repeated.
“I’m Mack,” she said.
“I know,” he said again.
“This is Ty, and this is Caleb,” she said, gesturing respectively.
“Hey,” said Ty, half-amused and half-suspicious. His dark hair was buzzed short with a tiny patch missing on one side. The whites of his eyes were tinged with yellow, giving him a hardened, feral look. Liver problems, Jonas thought. Sucks.
But the kid in the wheelchair said, “Nice to meet you!” as if he belonged anywhere but here in Raphaela House. He was probably thirteen or so, but he had babyish features and a voice that hadn’t yet dropped.
“Hi,” said Jonas, then moved to run his fingers nervously through his (non-existent) hair. He didn’t know if he should stay or go.
“Want to hear a story?” Mack asked. She raised her eyebrows, expectant.
“Um, sure. Yeah.”
“Grab a seat.”
Jonas pulled a folding chair out from the table and set it down a tiny bit out of the circle. Mack picked up a piece of paper from the table. “It’s a continuation,” she said. “You’ll have to just catch yourself up.”
It was finally the night of the midnight swimming race, and Tyler and Caleb stood together on the dock, staring out across the lake, a dark mirror reflecting the stars.
“It’s pretty far to the other side,” said Ty. “Sure you’ve got this?”
“Wuss,” Caleb replied. “I’ll be there and back before your ass has time to sink to the bottom.”
Ty shoved him playfully into the water. Caleb came up spluttering but laughing. “Holy shit! It’s freezing in here!” he said through chattering teeth.
“Did you think it was a hot tub?” Tyler asked and dove in himself, graceful as a swan.
“When do we start?” Caleb asked, treading water like a pro.
“Now,” said Tyler, and they were off.
Mack put the paper down. “That’s it.”
“That’s it?” Caleb complained. “That was like nothing!”
Mack laughed. “I’ve only had since last night, Caleb. What’d you expect?”
“Next page I’d better have kicked his ass,” he said, giggling as he shouldered gently into Tyler’s side.
“Dream on, little shit!” said Tyler, but his eyes were happy, twinkling. It was obvious that Mack and Ty thought the world of Caleb. Like Jonas had thought of Abby.
“Is this what you do every day?” Jonas asked, a little surprised to learn the daily meetings were a story hour.
Ty narrowed his eyes at him. “Have a problem with it?”
“No,” said Jonas quickly. “No, not—I was just wondering.”
“Mack’s writing a book,” Caleb explained. “And I’m the main character.”
“I repeat: dream on, little shit!” said Ty, with that same grin only reserved for the Triumvirate.
“I like it,” Jonas said quietly. “I want to hear more.” What was he really saying?
“Okay,” said Mack, while Ty and Caleb wrestled—or wrestled as much as two dying kids could when one is in a wheelchair and—Jonas noticed for the first time—a double-amputee. “After dinner. Meet back here.”
Simon slept all afternoon, connected to his ventilator, while Jonas rested on his own bed on the opposite side of the room, bored but tolerant while Darth Vader noisily drank his fill of clean oxygen. Every so often, a small alarm would go off, startling Jonas, who wondered if he should be going to find a nurse, though he figured they were monitoring it all remotely.
Raphaela House, thought Jonas. God has healed.
It did feel ironic.
He didn’t like the quiet afternoons in this place. He’d been transferred here from Children’s, where there were a million activities going on all the time. Visitors, therapy dogs, even the clown care unit that he found a little creepy—they were all signs of life. The silence, perforated only by the breathing ventilator and its occasional beeping, felt just the opposite: a sign of death.
He didn’t like to think about it.
Simon was still asleep at dinner time, so Jonas, who usually ate with his roommate in the cafeteria, sat there alone, until Mack called out, “Jonas! Come sit with us!” and gestured him over to the Triumvirate’s table. The rest of the cafeteria seemed to pause for a moment—Jonas thought he could almost hear a jealous intake of breath, but he had to have been imagining that.
“Hey Mack. Caleb. Tyler.” He nodded at each as he sat down, bringing over his tray.
“Ty,” corrected Ty, an eyebrow raised.
“Oh be nice,” said Mack. “I call you Tyler all the time.”
“Well, sometimes it slips out during—”
“Ty! The child is here!” she admonished, her eyes alight.
Wow, thought Jonas, and for a second his mind marveled at the complicated orchestration that would make sex even possible in a house with almost no privacy and lots of rules. The complexity of it impressed him. Loneliness licked all over his body like a quick flame.
Taking a hint from Simon, Jonas asked, “So, what’re ya all in for?”
“Osteosarcoma,” said Caleb, then flipped his thumb back and forth between him and Ty. “The both of us.” Ty just looked tired.
“Pulmonary fibrosis,” said Mack, “but …”
“She’ll get a lung transplant any day now,” said Ty and Caleb in unison.
“Exactly,” she said, grinning, and her grin was like a gold medal.
Jonas couldn’t bring himself to ask Simon’s second question—How long have ya got?—so he changed it a little. “How long have you guys been at Raphaela House?”
“Ty was here first,” said Mack. “He got here—what—last winter?”
“December, yeah,” Ty agreed. “Worst two months of my life till Mack showed up.”
She made kissy-lips at him.
“And I came in March,” added Caleb.
“They’re my boys,” Mack said, throwing an arm around each of them. She leaned in conspiratorially toward Jonas. “I don’t know if you’ve realized this yet, but people around here can be a bit … morbid.”
He laughed at the understated sarcasm, and spit out a little of the milk he’d been drinking, which made Mack laugh too.
“We try to keep things a little lighter,” she said, stealing something off of Ty’s tray and then eating it while making a flirty face at him, all scrunched-up nose and squinty eyes. He looked at her like she was his god.
I wonder if I look at her the same way, Jonas thought. Then, for just a second, he thought of Abby Anderson, ten years old and the only good thing foster care had ever brought his way. While it had lasted. She’s fourteen now, he realized. He wondered if she still liked poetry.
“It’s my job to write the stories and theirs to enjoy them,” Mack continued. “Which you do,” she added pointedly toward Ty, changing her face to an “I-dare-you-to-disagree” expression, eyebrows raised. Caleb giggled again, and Mack looked at him, affection emanating from her like the beam from a halo. Jonas used to look at Abby the same way.
He hoped she still liked poetry.
“So what’s up with you?” Ty asked.
“Leukemia,” Jonas answered. “They gave me five or six months.”
The admission shocked him; it was the first time he had vocalized his prognosis. Jonas thought his heart had stopped; his ears plugged up, and for a moment, the cafeteria sounded like it was underwater.
And yet, none of the three were reacting as if he’d said anything especially important, so Jonas swallowed hard and tried to slow his breathing.
“I’ve already outlived my sentence,” Ty said, and it wasn’t bragging, just a fact, a statement spoken in the same tone as “I need to buy toothpaste.”
Caleb added, “When Mack’s new lungs come, she’s gonna live forever.”
“Forever,” she repeated and poked his nose as if it were a button.
After dinner, they retreated to the lilac room with the lake-facing windows. Caleb maneuvered his motorized wheelchair down the corridor, and Ty and Jonas followed. Mack went to her room to get the new scene she had written.
“I mean, you realize we’re together, right? Me and Mack,” Ty said to Jonas. “I just don’t want you to get any ideas.”
“Oh.” He’d never encountered so much bluntness in his life. “Oh, yeah. Totally, man.”
It was a little uncomfortable until Mack reappeared with a page in her hand. She waved it around as if it were her golden ticket to the chocolate factory. “Okay, listen up,” she said, and read:
Ty was strong and buff and hot as hell—
She winked at him.
—but it was hard for anyone to match Caleb as a swimmer, who had been, after all, the number one swimmer in his age division for all of junior high.
“That’s true,” Caleb remarked to Jonas.
Caleb’s legs were strong, and he moved like a dolphin through the dark waters, neck and neck with Tyler as they made their way across the lake.
The story continued on, keeping the two competitors evenly matched, and for those few minutes, Jonas believed in a world where these two had never heard of osteosarcoma, believed that when he looked up, he’d see Caleb’s legs where they ought to be, see him get up and walk out the door and jump into the lake they could see through the windows.
“I want to go swimming,” Caleb whined when the story was over, still without declaring a victor. “Like, so bad.”
“There’s a therapy pool, right?” Jonas asked.
Caleb rolled his eyes. “Yeah, not the same.”
“How come that’s all the further you got, Mack?” Ty asked. “What were you doing all afternoon?”
Jonas was intrigued. He’d been imagining that the three of them—or at least Mack and Ty—spent all their time together.
“I was around,” she said airily.
“Were you with The Chap again?” Ty asked.
“Doing what? Getting religion?” he teased.
“Yes, me,” she snapped back, although there was no anger in her voice, though it did sound a little displaced, as if her thoughts were in Reverend Sevan’s office and not this room.
“Well, fine, if you don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
She laughed. It was the loveliest laugh Jonas had ever heard; no one, least of all Ty, could be upset after hearing that laugh. Since his diagnosis, Jonas had scoffed at the silly phrase “laughter is the best medicine,” but when he heard Macaulay Kennedy’s, he wanted to believe that.
“I need to go to bed early tonight,” she said. “Sorry guys. I lost two more pounds, and I feel tired as shit. Oxygen therapy tonight for this gal.” She kissed Caleb on the top of his head and Tyler on his lips and was gone as quickly as that, squeezing Jonas’s arm on her way out the door.
“She’s hurting,” Ty remarked to Caleb when she had left the room.
“How can you tell?” Jonas asked, and as soon as he did, he wondered if he was being too nosy. For all he knew, he wasn’t even welcome in this room when Mack wasn’t in it.
“Her cough has sounded really dry all day,” Caleb answered. “And she doesn’t go to bed this early unless she’s really zonked and needs oxygen.”
“Scar tissue on the lungs,” Ty said to Jonas’s unasked question. “I’ll wake her up in the morning. Homegirl sleeps naked.”
“Isn’t that against the rules?” Jonas asked. “And how would you even know?”
“Mack makes her own rules. And how the hell do you think I know?”
Caleb giggled. Again.
Jonas chewed on the inside of his lip, awkward and uncomfortable and wondering if he should leave.
“You don’t have to go,” Caleb said, a smile tugging at his lips. “If that’s what you were thinking.”
Jonas gave the kid a funny little look. “Thanks, man.”
Jonas couldn’t sleep that night. Simon’s breathing made a gurgling sound that make Jonas sick to his stomach. Nurses were in and out of his room all night, changing Simon’s position, elevating the head of the bed, administering patches of some sort behind his ears and then changing the IV bags. “Sorry about this,” Lisette said to Jonas when she saw him lying in his bed, eyes wide. “We’ll switch you into another room tomorrow, sweetie.”
“It’s fine,” said Jonas. “Is he okay?”
Lisette gave him a sad smile and said, “Get some rest, sweetie.”
Jonas realized what a dumb question it had been.
Mack didn’t show up to breakfast, but Jonas went to sit with Caleb and Ty anyway. “Where’s Mack?” he asked.
“Still sleeping,” said Ty.
“I’m getting switched out of my room today, I guess,” said Jonas. “Simon’s not breathing well. It sounds terrible.”
Caleb and Tyler looked at each other knowingly. “Rattle,” said Ty.
“Death rattle. When it gets close, sometimes you can’t swallow and saliva accumulates—”
“—okay, enough,” said Jonas. “I get it.”
“It’s probably going to happen to most of us,” Ty persisted, stabbing at his food with his fork. “I mean, you do realize this is hospice care, right?”
Jonas frowned and rolled his eyes.
“Just saying,” Tyler said, leaning back in his seat.
“I get it,” Jonas repeated, quieter this time.
Caleb was watching the two boys and finally decided to break in. “I like being here,” he said suddenly. “I actually like it here.”
Jonas looked at him in surprise, but Ty agreed, “Raphaela House is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“How … how can you say that?” Jonas asked.
“Listen,” said Ty. “I’ve been dying my whole life. Not just since my diagnosis, understand? When Mack came, I finally started to live.”
He got up and left the table while Jonas and Caleb stared after him.
When Jonas went to return to his room after breakfast, The Chap was just leaving his room and intercepted him. “Jonas!” said Reverend Sevan, gently redirecting his shoulders. “Could I have a word with you? A little walk maybe?”
Jonas tried to peer into the room, but Reverend Sevan redirected him.
“How has your first week with us been, Jonas?” he asked, seeming genuine enough. The Chap wore an outfit similar to the one he’d worn when Jonas had first moved into Raphaela House, khaki slacks and a Mr. Rogers cardigan. He had gray hair, glasses, dark skin stretched over a kind and honest face.
“It’s been … fine. I mean … yeah.”
“I guess. Macaulay Kennedy. And Ty Johnson, sorta. And Caleb … I don’t know Caleb’s full name.”
“Ahhh! Wonderful!” said The Chap. “That Mack Kennedy is a special, special girl.”
Jonas now remembered what Ty had said about Mack spending time with The Chap, “getting religion.” He had a strong suspicion that The Chap wouldn’t talk about it, even if he asked. Besides, he thought, why would I ask?
Jonas thought of Mack, her gold medal smile and her laughter like a prescription he craved, and then pictured her on a respirator just like Simon. He shuddered. It seemed wrong for a girl so alive to be in a place like this.
The Chap sighed as they walked down the corridor together; though Jonas hadn’t spoken, The Chap seemed to know what he was thinking. “The important thing is to find meaning in life and death. You know, Jonas, if you ever have any spiritual needs, I’d be happy to talk with you more.”
Do I have spiritual needs? Jonas wondered. “Okay,” he said. “Do … do a lot of kids in here have spiritual needs?”
“I meet with a fair amount of residents as they sort through their thoughts about the end of this life and the possible start of a new one, making peace with God, that sort of thing.” The Chap waved to the receptionist at the front door and held the door open for Jonas. “Have a few minutes? Want to walk to the lake? It’s a beautiful day. Lisette won’t yell at me, will she?”
“Sure, no,” said Jonas, his mind split between the absences at breakfast: Simon, Mack. How much did they think about an afterlife?
Jonas and The Chap took a slow stroll over the short lawn to the lake, the same lake that featured in Mack’s stories. It was navy and full of summer sunlight, still and silent. “I suppose a lot of the kids in Raphaela House need to make peace with God, huh? I think most of us have pretty shitty stories.” Even as he said it, he thought of Abby. Just a kid when he last saw her, the closest thing he’d ever had to a little sister. “Sorry,” he said as an afterthought, in reference to his swearing.
The Chap didn’t say anything, only picked up a rock from the shore, drew it back, released it, and let it skip across the waters. He grinned at Jonas. “Just two. Not my best,” he said.
Jonas picked up a rock himself and tossed it toward the lake. Three skips. He looked at Reverend Sevan, who was grinning. “Nice one!” said The Chap. “I saw that you’ve been in foster care since you were seven, is that right? That had to be hard, hmmm?”
Jonas skipped another rock. Three again. He shrugged. “I guess. Mostly it’s been a hassle—for me, for my foster parents. And with the cancer, just a mess. In some ways, it’s good to be here.” He thought how he’d reacted to Ty’s nearly identical statement just a half an hour earlier. “I don’t know,” he said again. He wished he could just get a message to Abby. But how do you find a specific 14-year-old with the last name Anderson?
The Chap was looking hard at him, and it made him uncomfortable.
“So what happens after we die?” he asked The Chap. He tried to make it sound like a joke, but he found he was really interested to hear the answer. “Heaven? Hell?”
“I believe in both,” Reverend Sevan said. “How about you?”
“Haven’t thought about it much.”
The Chap released a short burst of laughter. Jonas looked at him.
“You will,” he said. “And then we’ll talk. What else can I do for you, Jonas?” He put a hand on Jonas’s shoulder.
And the request was there in an instant: “I need to find someone.”
When Jonas returned to his room later that morning, Simon was gone.
Jonas knew. He knew, but he asked anyway: “Where’s Simon?”
Lisette gave him that same sad smile as she had before and said, “Simon passed away earlier this morning.” She waited for a little while, then asked, “How are you? Do you want to talk to Reverend Sevan?”
“No,” Jonas grumped. “I was just with him.”
“There’s a grief group meeting after lunch; you should go,” she insisted gently. “My shift is almost over, but you really should go after lunch, okay?”
“Maybe,” he said, then crawled into his bed to doze till lunch, though it was hard to fall asleep with the empty bed beside him like a stark, spare prophecy.
But finally, he did nod off, even sleeping through lunch, and though someone brought lunch to his room, he ignored it. When a nurse reminded him about the grief counseling going on afterward, he snapped, “I didn’t even like him.”
The third knock at his door, he barked out, “Leave me alone, dammit!”
The door pushed open regardless of his yelling, and Macaulay Kennedy peeked into the room. “That’s not very friendly, Jonas,” she teased lightly.
He softened at seeing her. “Hey,” he whispered and sat up in bed. “How are you feeling?”
She stepped into his room and sat down on his bed. “Okay. Sort of. Not really.” She was facing Simon’s empty bed. Her shoulders were so small and angular beneath that cascade of deep purple. “I heard about your roommate. I’m sorry.”
Jonas shrugged. “It’s okay. I barely knew him. He was kind of a prick.”
They were quiet for a little bit, and then Mack said, “I heard you talked to The Chap this morning.”
She didn’t ask what they talked about. Instead she said, “I like him, The Chap. He does a lot of listening and not a lot of preaching, you know? Like, he’s not super pushy with his own beliefs, but he’ll answer questions if I ask.”
“What do you ask about?” Jonas asked quietly, as if a louder volume would repel an answer.
She sighed. “The Bible. Communion. Baptism.”
She shrugged again. For a second it looked as if she was going to say more, but then she reached out and squeezed Jonas’s arm and said, “Come on. Let’s go read.”
Caleb and Tyler were already assembled in the tiny room that looked out on the lake. In fact, Caleb had wheeled himself up to the row of windows and was staring down at water just past the shore Jonas and The Chap had visited that morning. “It’s not that far,” he said to Ty as Jonas and Mack joined them. “I could have kicked your ass if I still had my legs. I was fast, man.”
“I believe it,” Ty said.
“Do you miss it?” Mack asked, coming up behind Caleb and putting her hands on his shoulders while he gazed out at the lake. “Being in the water?”
“Every day,” he said. “Every single day.”
Mack rubbed her hands along Caleb’s back. “Next best thing,” she said and nodded toward the table. When they had all gathered around, she read:
Caleb and Tyler raced across the lake with a furious energy; the distance to the opposite shore seemed farther than it ever had looked from land. And yet, they powered across. The waters were dark, and there was no moon tonight. Heads down, strong strokes, wild legs, Caleb started to lose his sense of direction.
“Hey!” he complained.
“Shhh,” said Mack and read on:
It was a strange feeling, especially for someone who was so comfortable in the water. He could hear Tyler next to him in the dark, could hear his sharp intakes of breath, and Caleb knew he was disoriented too.
The disillusion spread across the black waters like fog. Without seeing the opposite shore, Caleb’s arms and legs started to feel tired. Forget winning the race, he thought. I just need land.
And then, there she was. A girl swam up behind them; she had purple hair and a face so pale that she looked like a ghost or an angel. “I’ve got this,” she whispered to the boys, and then—quite suddenly!—in the sky there were flashes of all colors.
Fireworks, thought Caleb. They streaked across the sky, lighting it in a way that he could see the further shore. He powered on.
“Is the race ever going to end?” Caleb asked, not so much whining as intrigued.
“Does anything end?” Mack asked.
Mack went to bed early again that night, and Jonas was worried. That was what Simon had done before … well, before.
But Caleb and Tyler assured him she’d be fine. “It’s Mack,” Ty said. “All she needs is her new set of lungs—”
“Which are coming any day,” added Caleb.
“—which are coming any day,” agreed Tyler. “She just needs rest and some O2.”
“She told me today that she’s been talking to The Chap about communion and baptism,” Jonas told them.
“When did she tell you that?” Ty asked, suspicion in his voice.
“When she came and got me before she read.”
“Do they do baptisms here at Raphaela House?” Jonas asked. “Maybe in the … therapy pool?”
“I’m Lutheran,” Caleb said with a shrug. “Sort of. Lutherans don’t need a pool. They sprinkle.”
Tyler was deep in thought; over what, Jonas didn’t know.
At breakfast, Mack seemed to be breathing well and was, in fact, thrilled about her newest idea. “Okay, two parts,” she said. “Part one. The fireworks.”
“The fireworks?” asked Jonas.
“From the story, duh!” she said. “Keep up.” But she winked. “I looked some stuff up online, and the Perseids Meteor Shower is happening now, with the best night for observation next Tuesday. So, we watch,” she said, then lowered her voice. “From the lake. At midnight. That’s part two.”
“What?” all three of the boys asked in various volumes of hushed whispers.
“Caleb wants to swim,” she said simply.
“Caleb is also legless and in a motorized wheelchair and not allowed out of the building without a Raphaela House chaperone,” hissed Ty.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said. “My gosh, it’s not Alcatraz.”
Caleb giggled. “I’m in,” he said. Mack winked at him, beaming.
“It’s not safe,” said Ty. “For any of us.”
“It’s warm out,” Mack said, “so we won’t catch colds. It’s the lake—not chlorine, so I’ll be fine. We’ll carry Caleb and help him in the water.”
Tyler looked skeptical. In the short time Jonas had known them, he’d never seen Ty not in wholehearted agreement with Mack.
“I’m in too,” said Jonas, trying hard to not make it sound like a competition with Ty for Mack’s favor. It didn’t work.
Ty sighed. “Okay, fine. If it’s not dangerous—like you say—then why don’t we just ask for permission?”
Mack stood up, and from behind him, put her arms around his neck, and whispered lustily into his ear, “Do I ever do that?”
She stood there with her hands on Ty’s shoulders, piquing that envious sting in Jonas’s throat. “Listen,” she said, “when I went to see The Chap the other day, he and Jonesy were talking in Jonesy’s office, and he was saying how upset he was because the back door—you know, the one by the nurses’ breakroom—had a broken alarm system, and he was pissed because the company wasn’t coming out until next Wednesday to fix it. ‘What are we supposed to do in the meantime?’ Jonesy asked, and The Chap—God bless the dear man—said, ‘It’ll be fine, Arthur. You worry too much. It’s only a week.’”
“So, we’re sneaking out the back door, past the nurses’ breakroom?” said Ty. “There are stairs outside of that. Caleb can’t take his chair.”
“We’ll carry him,” she said. “We just need something to distract them.”
Mack, Caleb, and Ty all fell silent in thought.
Jonas cleared his throat. “I can help with that,” he said.
They used Simon’s homemade firecrackers, which were still hidden in their plastic bag behind the painting in Jonas’s room. Jonas watched the whole “escape” happen with a foggy detachment. He heard the mediocre explosion down the hall as if he had earplugs, scrambled past the breakroom as if he were in a dream.
But outside—outside everything became sharp. Sharp as a razor or a winter icicle.
The air was crisp but not cold, and they all realized, as they stared down the five steps that led toward the lake, that it was going to be a bigger effort to carry Caleb than they had thought.
“Mack, you can’t,” said Ty. “Your lungs have been shit lately.”
“Well, I hardly think someone with bone cancer is the better option,” she argued back in a whisper.
“We should have thought of this beforehand,” Ty hissed. “Maybe we can …”
“I can do it,” Jonas volunteered. “Here, help him climb onto my back.”
And so the four of them stole through the dark grounds, Mack and Ty holding hands like absconding lovers leading the way—Mack a little ahead of Ty, tugging on his hand in excitement—and Jonas behind them, with Caleb on his back. It was exhausting, and he never would have imagined he’d have the strength to do it, except that Caleb weighed about eighty-five pounds, and Jonas was high from rule-breaking and night air. He felt strong—the way he’d always felt while Abby would recite poetry while watching him work out.
He hoped she’d gotten the letter.
Mack’s eyes were electric when they reached the shore; there was a light in them Jonas had never seen before. She peeled her shirt and shorts off, wearing nothing but bra and panties, utterly unashamed. Her dark purple hair fell down her small white shoulders. She was terribly thin.
She waded into the water up to her ankles, and then threw her arms into the air in a victorious pose. Tyler smiled at his girlfriend with a soft, sensitive love that made Jonas feel as if he should look away from him. So he looked at Mack, a white swan on black waters.
“Help me, Ty,” Jonas said, and the two of them carried Caleb into the lake. The boy giggled as he started to tread water furiously with his hands.
“You got it, man?” Tyler asked Caleb.
Mack waded back over to where the boys stood and put out her hands. Caleb took them, and she was his buoy. “How does it feel to be back in the water?” she whispered.
“Incredible,” he said, grinning at her.
“Look!” Jonas said, pointing up at the sky. A streak of light had shot across it like a shooting star. “You were right!” he said to Mack.
She laughed. “Of course I was right. Look, there’s another one!” She pointed. “There can be up to sixty an hour at the peak.” She looked around. “Tyler?” He took a step closer to her in the water. “Help Caleb for a second. I have to do something.”
“Shhh,” she said, then she moved away from them, into deeper and deeper waters.
“What’s she doing?” Jonas asked.
Ty shrugged. Caleb said, “Let me float, Ty,” and Tyler helped Caleb turn onto his back. “Wow. Wow!” he said as he stared straight up into the black night. “You could get lost out here, just like in the story. Lay on your back. Look.”
Ty glanced again at Macaulay, who was in water up to her shoulders now.
“Ty!” Caleb said, and Ty did as Caleb requested, lying on his back beside his young friend.
Jonas watched them for a second, but then he looked back toward Mack. Even though Caleb was chattering on about another meteor and the night air, Jonas could hear Mack saying something. He strained to hear the words but couldn’t catch them.
And then she went under.
“Mack!” he shouted, startling Caleb and Ty—and even himself. “Mack!” He started toward her, though the water slowed him down. He wasn’t sure what he was so afraid of, but the fear lasted only for another second. She came up out of the water, laughing and grinning, and her smile was brighter than the moon.
She passed Jonas as she waded back to where the boys were, lay down on her back between Caleb and Ty, then locked elbows with them. The water on her face glistened as her hair floated behind her like a flag.
Jonas stared. The Triumvirate. He had a strange feeling in his stomach, as if maybe this had all been a terrible idea, but then—
“Jonas,” Mack called softly from where they rested on the waves. “You too.”
And he padded over to join them where they waited for the heavens to fall.
She was gone four days later.
Jonas thought she must have known it was almost time, wanted one last story before the end, wanted to celebrate with her friends.
Caleb was a wreck, wondering if his swimming wishes had cost Mack her life. “No,” Jonas said, the voice of reason. “No, Caleb. She was dying long before that.”
“She just needed new lungs …” the boy wept.
Tyler was destroyed. It was as if all his reason to fight had been drained from him overnight. He looked lost, disconsolate, wouldn’t speak to anyone except Caleb.
Somehow, it had the opposite effect on Jonas. He became stronger.
And he hated himself for it.
“Lisette?” Jonas asked the nurse one day. “Did Macaulay Kennedy leave anything behind?”
“She came to Raphaela House without much,” Lisette admitted, “so no, I don’t think so. I can ask Jonesy and Reverend Sevan though. Were you thinking of anything in particular?”
“Yes,” he said airily, staring at the ceiling. “She was writing a story.”
The Chap brought it to Jonas’s room that afternoon, setting the papers down on Jonas’s bed and then sitting down on the edge of Simon’s empty mattress. “She was a special, special girl,” he said. “Always liked Mack Kennedy. She had great questions, the mark of a good life.” He thought for a second and added, “Mark of a good death too.”
“Was she ready to go?” Jonas asked. “Had she made peace with God, like what you say?”
“Oh, I think so,” The Chap responded. “There were things that she wanted though, things she never got around to doing. She was planning a house-wide communion service. We’d been talking about baptism.”
“You mentioned that,” Jonas said, then sighed. “Thanks for the story.” He held up the hand with the loose-leaf papers in it.
When The Chap had left his room, Jonas started to organize everything on his bed. There were parts of the story from before he’d come to Raphaela House. Then there was the race across the lake, which she’d read to them in the tiny room with the lilac walls.
And there was another page—a newer one, written in her tiny scrawling handwriting.
When Tyler and Caleb reached the other side of the lake, guided by the fireworks in the sky, they argued over which boy had won the race.
But then they noticed the girl with the purple hair; she was sitting on the shore with her knees pulled up to her chest. Her long hair dripped down her back. “I win,” she said, and they couldn’t tell if she was happy or sad.
Then he understood.
The Chap poked his head back into the room. “Sorry, Jonas, I forgot,” he said, and tossed a letter onto his bed.
Finely shaded and beautifully characterized, Covered Up Our Names is a story that doesn’t lean too hard on its dramatic turns, a story unafraid of its own heart.
—Rebecca Stead, 2013 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge