Halfway to Ann Arbor, we stopped to eat in Lansing. The car ride so far had been strangely quiet. Dad and Lauren took turns driving while Nick and I sat in the backseat of Lauren's minivan. All of the things I had haphazardly gathered during our quick stop home had been thrown into the back of the van. When Dad wasn't driving he was absently fiddling with the radio stations, which became pretty annoying after he wouldn't settle on a song long enough to reach the chorus. And Lauren would stay quiet while grading her papers in the passenger seat. Meanwhile, Nick had plugged up his ears with headphones but I noticed he stayed as close to me as he possibly could, as if he were a scared little five-year-old again.
We sat down at a busy burger place that looked as greasy as its entrees probably were-mine and Nick's favorite type of place and definitely not Lauren's. But there was no doubt in my mind that she wouldn't be complaining once today. Everyone seemed to be doing their best to make me happy which is a weird sentiment after being the middle child for so many years.
"Too much green around here," I grumbled to my family as I looked around the diner, crowded with college students wearing fraternity sweatshirts and Michigan State Spartans hats. "I'll be so glad when I'm surrounded by maize and blue again. It's such good luck that U of M is the one with the hospital."
Lauren smiled at me weakly and Dad just nodded. I looked sideways at Nick who seemed too involved with his phone for anything else. I had never felt uncomfortable with my family before now.
"Dad," Lauren said as she stood up. "I think I left my wallet in the car. Would you come help me find it?"
"Don't worry about it, Lauren. I'll pay," Dad said cluelessly, when even I could see that Lauren just wanted to speak with him privately.
"I have a lot of money that I don't want just laying around in the car out there," Lauren said with more force, giving Dad a look that reminded me of my mom. He finally seemed to get the message and stood.
"If they come to take my order, I just want a burger and a Coke," he told us before following Lauren out.
I sighed and looked at Nick, still concentrated on his phone. "What are you doing?"
He shrugged. "Nothing."
I looked at him for a few long moments, waiting for him to somehow prove to me that he was still my clever, annoying, but completely awesome little brother. But he just kept his eyes on his phone.
"Jeez," I said, slouching in my seat dramatically. "You think that I'd get a little more attention now that I have cancer and all." Nick looked up at me in surprise, but then just frowned.
"I just can't believe it," he said quietly.
"That you have cancer. You don't look like you have cancer," he whispered, his eyes trained on mine.
"Well, that's good to hear," I said lightly, twisting one of my curls around my finger. Nick's eyes wandered to it.
"Are you going to lose your hair, Mimi?" he asked seriously, looking every bit of what heartbreak feels like.
I sighed and pushed my hair behind my shoulders. "I'm not getting chemo, Nick. Not right now anyway. And I promise that I'm going to be fine. I'm seventeen. I'm not going to die of cancer." I messed with his short, dark hair. "You want to go play in the arcade? I bet I could still beat your butt in shooting hoops even with cancer."
"You wish!" he exclaimed, a smile breaking across his face.
I laughed. "Okay. Stay here and I'll take some money out of the ATM." I slid out of the booth and walked toward the front of the diner where an ATM machine was fixed right next to the door. As I punched in my PIN number, I could make out the faint sound of some familiar voices.
"All she does is joke around and talk as if this is a wisdom teeth removal, not cancer. She acts like she's fine. She's not fine, Dad." From the other side of the door, I could make out what Nick had called Lauren's "Bossy Lady" voice, the one she used to use whenever he was making too much noise or creating a mess.
"I know she's not fine, Lauren. She has cancer. And her transition into this is going to be a whole lot harder than ours. We have to let her deal with it her own way."
"But letting her keep herself in denial isn't the way to do it! If she keeps on in this way, she's going to have a breakdown. And then who will be there to help her through it? Not you, working your three jobs. Not me, with a baby and a household and a job. And who knows how she and Nick will cope when they're separated from each other!"
"We made it through when your mom left and we can make it through this, Lauren. It'll just take some work."
"Dad..." Lauren sighed. "You're half of the problem. If Miranda learned how to hide from her emotions, she definitely learned it from you. She's dying. She has a parasite in her that's going to eat her from the inside out, starting with what she loves the most. She has to come to terms with that sooner or later. And then either she'll fight it or she'll give in. And I don't know which it's going to be."
An annoying ringing came from my pocket as my phone started to go off. Quickly hurrying away before Dad and Lauren knew I had been listening, I answered my phone. "Hello?"
"Miranda? Oh, thank God you're alive!" Nicole screeched.
"Alive?" I laughed as I sat back down at the booth with Nick. "What are you talking about? I'm fine. I'm sitting here eating a burger with Nick, nothing out of the ordinary."
"Well why aren't you at the hospital? And why did you leave without telling us? Josh and I came here after school and ran up to your room just to find it empty with the bed all made up and the room nice and neat. That always happens in the movies after the person in the hospital dies!"
"I can assure you that I'm not dead," I laughed. "It just turns out I'm getting moved to another hospital. We're on our way now."
"And you didn't think to let us know? Where are you going?"
"University of Michigan," I told her. "Ironic, huh?"
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. "Ann Arbor? So...I guess this tumor thing is a little more serious than we thought."
I considered telling her right then, blurting it all out to the person who had been my closest friend my entire life. But even by the sound of her voice I could tell that she was scared and that she wasn't ready to hear it, at least not over the phone.
"Yeah. Yeah, it is. But they just want to look more into it at a better hospital than the one in Lafayette, you know?" Nick gave me a look of disapproval for lying, but I elbowed him to keep him quiet. "I'll be back before you know it. Try to collect my homework for me, would you?"
"Definitely. Can we come and visit you this weekend?"
"Let me just get settled in first and then you'll be my first priority. I promise." I spotted Lauren and Dad walking back into the diner, Lauren's wallet nowhere in sight, but a frown across her face. She must have lost the argument. "I gotta go, Nicole. I'll talk to you later."
I hung up just as they were sliding into the booth. "So," I said brightly, folding my hands. "Who's up for dessert after this?"
So far cancer hadn't been too bad. It had been the reason for a road trip with some of my favorite people. I had gotten to smash a perfect, greasy burger and strawberry milkshake. And when I told Lauren that I liked her headband, she had taken it off and just given it to me. Things didn't seem bad at all.
Even though I knew they would be. But I could think about all of that later, when I was alone, after everyone had left me and gone back to Lafayette. There was no point in spending my time terrified while I was with the people I loved most.
"I think that's about it," Lauren said as she laid a stack of folded t-shirts into a drawer and shut it. She tucked her wispy blonde hair behind her ear and I suddenly was struck with the realization of how different we were in every aspect. It was amazing to me that someone who had my same DNA had been a mechanical engineering major in college while I could barely understand pre-calc; how she had been president of her sorority and I didn't even want to run for student council; how she had met her husband at a bar and I couldn't bear the taste of alcohol in the smallest amount. I had grown up always wanting to be like her and fearing that I never would be...but maybe that was a good thing. Maybe we were meant to be entirely different. And that could be fine.
I just hoped I would get the chance to find out.
"Oh! Here, Mimi," Nick said, throwing his backpack on the bed and unzipping it. "I forgot I brought this for you." He pulled a scruffy, old stuffed cat from his bag and set it gently on the bed. And for the first time since I had found out, I felt tears spring up in my eyes.
"Oh, Nick," I whispered, touching the cat. "I can't keep Chip. He was your most prized possession ever since you were born."
"Only because you gave him to me!" Nick said. "But I haven't slept with him in ages. I really don't have much use for him anymore-all he does is stay up on that shelf in my closet-but I figured you might be able to take care of him now."
I smiled at my not-so-little brother. "Thanks, Nick."
Dad slid my suitcase under the bed. "That should about do it. You need anything else, Meems?"
"Maybe a bubble tea?" I asked Lauren with a bribing smile on my face. "You always used to take me for some when I visited you here at school." Lauren looked sideways at Dad and I knew it wasn't happening. "Or Dad, do you want to drive by the Big House? Remember when we would always go see Michigan play Central because Uncle Dan was a Chippewa?"
"Mimi," Lauren said quietly but solidly. "We really have to be going."
"Oh," I said, a note of surprise in my voice. "I didn't realize you'd be leaving so soon."
"It's almost nine." Lauren looked at her watch. "I have to teach tomorrow morning. And Dad's already going to be late for his shift. Plus you need to get your rest. You start treatment in a few days."
"Oh," I repeated, feeling all the sudden very empty. "Okay."
"I can stay with Meems tonight," Nick volunteered. "I don't have a test or anything tomorrow."
"Nick, just because Miranda is missing school doesn't mean you should miss yours. Especially with the grade you got on that last biology exam," Lauren told him sternly.
"Who gives a crap about biology when Miranda is in the hospital and she has cancer," Nick argued, his face turning red. It was a tell-tale sign that a tantrum could come at any minute, like they used to when he was little.
"Nick," Lauren tried to calm him, "Miranda is going to be fine. She just gets a few days off before her treatment starts. It's going to be so relaxing for her, without all the homework and college stress..."
"No," Nick told her stubbornly. "I'm not leaving."
"Nick, you're coming home now," Dad said with a stony face. "You are the kid. You don't get to tell me what you're doing. Get your stuff together."
"No," Nick stated with more forcefulness than I would have imagined.
I hated this. I hated that they were all fighting because of me. I hated how my brother had to grow up so fast in order to do what he thought would protect me. I curled up on the bed gathering my knees to my chest.
"Nick, Miranda is not going to be like one of those cancer patients you see in the movies. She's just going through radiation. She won't lose her hair or look any different from how she does now. She's going to be fine."
I couldn't hold it back, it just slipped past my teeth and I couldn't stop it.
"Am I really going to be fine, Lauren?" I spat out, anger coming forth that I didn't know I had in me. "Then it must have been a little birdie earlier at the diner who said I was dying."
Lauren looked at Dad helplessly.
"Dying?" Nick repeated. "Did you say that, Lauren?"
Lauren looked at me with tears in her eyes. "I didn't mean it, Miranda."
I clenched my teeth. "Listen. I know I have cancer. I know that people who were a lot healthier than I am died of it. And I know that it's going to be shitty, it's going to be really, really hard. But I also know I'm not in denial. And I know that I'm not going to have a crazy breakdown or crack under the pressure. Because that would just be giving in to it, and that's exactly what I will not do. I don't care if you think differently. But you don't have to say it behind my back, behind closed doors. I'm sick, not dead. And I don't intend to be."
Everyone stood silently, not quite knowing what to say. I didn't blame them. I didn't even know what to say.
Finally I cleared my throat. "I think you guys should go home now. You too, Nick. You can come visit with Josh and Nicole this weekend." He looked obviously upset but he hugged me tightly. I let myself into it, relishing a second stolen hug from my future. How many would there be? I didn't know, and he didn't. So every moment was a moment to savor.
"Bye, Dad," I said, hugging him. He didn't seem so big like he always had when I was younger. In fact, he seemed broken, timid. "Love you."
"To infinity and beyond," he whispered back. "I'll be back."
I nodded. I looked over to Lauren, but I couldn't will myself to say goodbye. Not this time. Not with her cheeks all wet from tears and her eyes red. Instead, I told Nick, "Don't be afraid to text me whenever. I'll have nothing else to do."
"Will do," he agreed. "Watch all the Netflix you want, I won't mind if you clog up the feed."
I laughed. "Thanks. I'll see you soon."
I'll see you soon. Not goodbye, I decided. But as my family walked out, my strong facade cracked and I threw myself on the bed, clenching the sheets and using all my strength to hold back tears, until I had no strength left and I fell asleep to the sound of my racing thoughts.