Chapter Seventeen

I wasn’t allowed back on the ward until two days later. I was none the worse for wear. As a matter of fact, I felt much better. Getting away had energized me. I could hardly wait to see Bart and listen to him brag about our adventure.

But Bart wasn’t on the ward.

I was about to ask about him when Dr. Grace came over.

“Max, can I talk to you?”

She took me into her office.

“Max, you’re a good boy, you’re a brave boy, so I’m going to tell you this straight out. Bart is dead.”

I thought I had heard wrong. I looked at her as though she was crazy.

“Bart died the night you two came back from your trip,” she said. “He was sicker than you knew, Max.”

She was watching me closely. I thought of how vibrant Bart was, how irrepressible, but also of how pale he had looked getting off the roller coaster.

Then I began to think that what happened was my fault. If I hadn’t agreed to go with him, things might have been different.

Dr. Grace, despite her dumpy appearance, was very intelligent. She saw what I was feeling.

“Don’t blame yourself, Max. Bart knew he was going. He knew his numbers were very bad. I think he wanted your trip to be his last fun on earth. And I know you did have fun.”

My eyes were full of tears. She got up and came to my side. She put her arms around me.

“It’s always hard to lose a friend, Max. It’s a terrible wound. It will probably take you a long time to recover. But remember, he chose you to go with him because he loved you. As you loved him.”

I remained shell-shocked as I went back to the ward. All the kids could see me crying. Surprisingly, I noticed several of them crying too. They must have been holding it back until I got the news.

I couldn’t think. Bart was the heart and soul of our little community. With him gone, we would go back to our boring routine. He was an emblem of courage and hope. The rest of us were cowards compared to him.

But then I thought of Bart himself, and what he must have felt when he knew it was over for him. Perhaps he was such an optimist that he saw Death as yet another thing he could master, another predicament he could find his way around. Another easy challenge.

But what if he didn’t feel that way? What if he was scared and helpless, and couldn’t tell anyone about it? Not even me.

I began to cry harder. There was no way to take the sting out of this. In a very short time Bart had become like a brother to me. The brother I never had. I had come to depend on him for his arrogance, his aggressiveness, and above all his refusal to be intimidated by his own disease. All those things were slipping through my fingers now, like water going down a drain.