Chapter Nineteen

Now that I had lost the two people I loved most in the ward, I began to really think there was no chance for me.

I looked at things differently. The pictures on the walls, the crayon pictures kids had drawn, the play table, the refrigerator in the kitchen. The cars and telephone poles and trees outside the windows.

It was all temporary. One day it would all be gone. And we would all be gone.

One by one we kids were dying. Every couple of weeks there was an empty bed. We couldn’t help speculating on who would be next. We even gossiped about it. There were the obvious signs, the pallor, the emaciation. And there were subtler signs, such as a certain dull look in the eyes.

There was a sign on the wall at the front of the ward that I had noticed the first day I came here.


And underneath it another sign:


I remembered seeing these signs the first day and attaching my hopes to them. There was a way through this, I thought. The disease could be defeated. The statistics showed an ever-increasing survival rate.

But the kids who had died took the luster off those signs. They seemed like empty slogans. You gotta want it — no one had ever wanted to live more than Bart. And Bart was dead.

Now I saw the mythical tree in the forest in a final, tragic light. The tree fell without anyone seeing it because there was no one left. Everybody was dead. The human race had not lasted as long as the tree.

They never showed the news on our TV, only kids’ programs that had been assembled by the staff. But I knew enough about the adult world to know that adults were killing each other by the millions. The world was overcrowded and filled with violence. Those who weren’t being killed were being starved to death by their corrupt rulers. The United States and a few European countries seemed to be exceptions to this, but they were outnumbered by the cruel dictatorships in the rest of the world.

If my common sense told me to be optimistic, not to dwell on the dark side, the leukemia reminded me that sometimes death wins. I was pale, I was emaciated, I felt sick all the time. My previous life was recent enough that I could remember playing happily, running all over the place, feeling good and taking my health for granted.

Like Melanie, I now thought of death as a familiar, a dark companion who would one day take my hand and lead me away.

The comfort I took in this was that where I was going, Bethany already was. Melanie was there too. A whole world of victims would welcome me with open arms when I crossed over. I was almost relieved at the prospect.


One day we had a visit from a leukemia survivor who had grown up, finished high school, and become famous on American Idol. Her name was Courtney Flood. She was was all over the show business tabloids, she had appeared on talk shows. She had made a CD. She wasn’t yet a household name, but she was on her way to stardom.

She arrived with some musicians, a small group of people I took to be her agents or managers, and about twenty people from the press.

I was surprised at how small she was. She couldn’t be more than five feet one. She looked like she came from a mixed marriage, perhaps Hispanic and white. She had a lot of make-up on, and a glittery outfit that made me think of both the rodeo and the circus.

One of the reporters was doing an introduction to Courtney’s performance.

“Courtney Flood,” she said, “was a patient in this very ward. She had acute AML, which means myelogenous leukemia. When she was diagnosed she was given eighteen months to live. But thanks to some heroic efforts on the part of the doctors here, and her own fierce will to live, Courtney survived. She is a freshman at Ohio State, and a celebrity performer.”

The reporter had a brief conversation with Courtney, in tones I couldn’t hear. I looked around me. All the kids were very excited.

“OK, kids,” Courtney said, “I’m going to sing a song for you. But before I do that, I want to meet all of you.”

She went from kid to kid, shaking our hands, asking a question or two about us, and saying, “If you try hard enough, you’ll get well.” There was a photographer who walked beside her, taking a picture of her with each kid.

When it came my turn I noticed that she didn’t look me in the eye. Her handshake had a generic quality. “If you keep trying, you’ll get well,” she said.

The musicians were tuning up during this period. Courtney returned to the microphone, and with the cameras running, sang a pop song about winning, coming out on top, something like that. I looked around me. Some of the kids were raptly attentive, hanging on her every syllable. Some kids had their mouths open. But others were watching her with a certain skepticism.

I was one of these. Courtney Flood was being paraded in front of us as proof that leukemia could be beaten. But I had lost two friends to the disease in the last month. Of the kids on the ward since I had been here, six had died. There was something hollow about Courtney’s upbeat performance. It seemed staged and fake.

She swept out of the ward with the reporters in tow. One of the sicker girls came up to me and asked, “What did you think, Max?”

I pointed a thumb down.

“You said it,” she agreed. “We make a great photo op, don’t we, Max? That is, while we’re still here.”