The windows are plastered with paper skulls. Black crepe streamers drape across the ceiling fans. The poured alcohol awaits — Reservoir Dog’s Grim Reaper, although you’d wanted absinthe. By any account, it’s going to be a killer party.
Bethany pads onto the front porch and plops down on the chair beside you. The screen door swings shut behind her. More a formality than anything, that screen door. Ten years of rotating grad students and the chicken wire had long since dislodged from the frame. It was possible to slip ghost-like under the middle wooden bar without ever touching the doorknob.
“Are you sure you should be drinking that?” Bethany raises an eyebrow.
“I rang the bell.” Like that means anything anymore. You take a defensive swig of beer. The bitter liquid swills around your mouth, leaving the inside of your cheeks puckered and dry. You never liked beer, not really.
Bethany stares you down.
“I’ll be off steroids in a month if the taper goes well,” you tell her.
She shrugs and clinks the rim of her Coke against your tallboy. Bethany doesn’t drink. Someone else might have resorted to guilting or shaming, but Bethany knows to choose her battles.
By the time the first guest arrives, your university T-shirt has plastered itself to your back in the spring heat. Black, obviously, with black skinny jeans. No one will ever accuse you of not sticking to a theme.
You’re wondering how many of your colleagues in the graduate biology department will show when Shari from Research Methods ambles up the sagging porch steps. She swats at a horde of gnats. The sun has already slunk below the horizon, the humid evening like the inside of a mouth. She’s alone, but you’re optimistic. It’s late April. The tail end of finals week. By this point, most grad students are begging for a party like a dog rolling over for a belly rub.
Shari’s eyes flit around the porch, unsure of the protocol. She looks at you expectantly. You rush to swallow your mouthful of beer and end up choking.
“Welcome to Andie’s undead party!” Bethany saves the day. She spreads her arms wide and grins. Just a party. Just a bit of ironic fun, her smile says.
Bethany reaches over to pound your back. “Andie,” she says. It’s the undead party. Let’s keep it that way!”
Bethany leads Shari into the house. She points out the tombstone cake with your name iced across the front. She waves a hand at the paper skeletons dancing from the fireplace mantle — her idea, and the single daisies sprouting from empty prescription bottles — yours. Over the past few weeks, you’ve tried to outdo each other, your heads popping up from texts or research analysis to call out decor or game ideas. There had been plans for pin-the-remission-sticker-on-the-grim-reaper, even a white blood cell piñata. Some friends roll with the punches. And then there’s the friend that outswings you, that could beat you at your own game. That’s Bethany.
After Shari, there’s Brandon, Cora, Lucas, Katrina. Linda walks up in a skeleton shirt like a champ.
A few bring gifts. You hadn’t expected that.
Dylan from Behavior and Ethnology plunks a bottle of wine on the counter, sending a few red cups clattering into the sink. He gestures to the label, pleased with himself. The Walking Dead in block letters, superimposed over a black and white sketch of a zombie. You smile and nod your approval.
Casey — who spells her name with a lowercase “c” now — hands you a copy of the Egyptian book of the dead. casey’s your age, twenty-two, although she seems younger. She’s an art history major — one of the few undergrads here. Undergrads: a species identifiable by their bright smiles and adorable lack of cynicism. Although truthfully, that’s never really been you.
Not everyone comes, though you think you’re the only party on campus tonight. There are the people you never invited — your parents, for obvious reasons. There are the people who lowered their eyes in discomfort or gawked at you, like the cancer had stolen your brain. Like you’d already passed over. You think of Nancy Edinburgh, that big-eyed girl from Immunology.
“You know, the counseling center here is really very good,” she’d said when you passed out invitations. Big brown eyes behind round glasses. It was the year of the oversized glasses trend, when young women everywhere donned ugly optical devices. As if to prove that not even a hunk of plastic right in the center of their faces could impede their innate beauty. But no one looks better in glasses. No one.
You can still see Nancy’s sappy-assed face. That look, like only she could see your secret pain. My secret pain is that I hate cheap sugar, and I wish they’d spring for Godiva at grad assistant staff meetings, you wanted to tell her.
“I’m so glad it’s helped you,” you’d smiled, sliding the invitation back into your backpack.
The living room with its dusty bookshelves and overstuffed patched chairs radiates with heat. Red solo cups peer at you from every flat surface. Fifteen, twenty, thirty people, you’ve lost track. The crowd shifts enough for you to see Amat from Genetics gesturing as he talks with Danny. Your hand flies to your head — an ancient reflex from your healthy days.
You think of heading over, then catch sight of yourself in the mirror. Steroid moon face. Chipmunk cheeks and a double chin on a size four frame. You’re undead, but technically not that far removed.
It’s been a month and a half since the last round of chemo. Tufts of hair poke up from your scalp. Too much for a wig, too little to wear nothing up there. You compromised with a pretty headband with a little veil you’d found at the local Goodwill. You’d hesitated, putting something that had touched a stranger’s hair on your head. But at this point, what do you have to lose?
The Grateful Dead blares from the speakers. Not your jam, but you concede it fits tonight’s aesthetic and you lose yourself in it anyway. It feels good to move your body, to feel the rush of air from the ceiling fan against your skin. How grateful are the Grateful Dead really? you wonder. Have they ever felt death hovering above them at night, alone and hooked up to a catheter? If they’re so grateful for it, why don’t they just die already? You shake your head. No one loves to talk death more than healthy people. Romance it. Swipe their fingers through it like it’s a candle flame. As any sick girl can tell you, you don’t know death until you’ve run from it wearing cement shoes.
“What are you shaking your head about?” Bethany asks. She’s always there. Like an IV pole, but full of good stuff.
“Wishing there’s more Jell-O,” you wink. She smiles at your inside joke. Your parents love her, of course.
“Like a daughter to us,” your mother had whispered and pulled her close. Good. You can have her if I kick it, you’d thought.
Bethany had tensed at first at your mother’s touch, then ducked so only you could see the panic in her eyes. Children of alcoholic parents — and you’ve met a few besides Bethany — remind you of the stray cat your family had taken in once. Skittish. Never trusting that the food in the bowl wasn’t poisoned.
In the hospital, Bethany would lounge in the chair beside you, reading your biology texts and switching over to jokes when your eyelids began to droop.
“A perfectionist walked into a bar.” Dramatic pause. “Apparently, the bar wasn’t high enough.”
“What’s the difference between a bum on a unicycle or man in a suit on a bicycle? Attire.”
You’d snorted at that one.
“Can you believe the most shoplifted book of all time is the Bible? No really, that’s not a joke.”
“Don’t you have to be somewhere?” you’d asked her, dreading the answer, but dreading her sympathy even more.
Inpatient time felt different than real time. Each hospital day felt like three days on the outside. How long had you been there? Long enough to miss the scent of rain. On the outside, it had never occurred to you that rain had a smell. Long enough to learn that touch on your arm at 2 am isn’t the Grim Reaper tugging at your sleeve. Just the night nurse for another goddamn blood draw.
“I’m here for the free Jell-O,” Bethany had answered straight-faced, stabbing a plastic spork into the watery green lump on your tray.
That’s when you understood. A hospital is a panacea for all types of pain.
Halfway through your second Pabst, the thumping bass fades to the background. Heads swivel towards the man by the speakers balanced precariously on a footstool.
“A toast!” Dr. Shaw grabs the mantle for balance and lifts his plastic cup into the air. Your favorite professor and the only faculty member to show up, although that doesn’t surprise you. He’s someone who never quite nailed the transition from student to prof, if you subtract the wife and new baby. Face still clean-shaven, suit jackets still layered over T-shirts. You bet he still uses his old college ID for discounts at the donut shop.
“To Andie,” Dr. Shaw says. “The hardest worker and the most driven young woman I’ve ever met. And I couldn’t be happier she’s in remission, because I’m damned sick of doing all the research on my own.”
A cheer rises from every corner of the living room. A lightness fills your chest, and you can’t help but smile. Plastic cups clink as much as plastic cups can. Beer sloshes over rims. Any trace of discomfort with the idea of an undead party has long since been drowned in alcohol.
“Any words from our dearly undeparted?”
Ah. The part where this night differs from an actual funeral. If your voice drifted up from your coffin for real, there’d be pandemonium. A lot less chugging and a lot more running for the exit.
As Dr. Shaw relinquishes his place on the footstool for you, it occurs to you that you have nothing to say. Rather, you have a lot, but nothing that’s not been said before. Everyone thinks they’re so original, so profound. It’s hard not to, in the moment, when it finally hits you how close you came. All that shit about white lights and dead grandmothers. God. Take me before that crap ever leaves my mouth, you think.
You clear your throat to stall for time. The thing everyone gets wrong about death is that it isn’t a black hole that sucks you in. Death is the world’s biggest trampoline. One epic bounce and you’re tossed off of the earth’s orbit. It’s the way back down to humanity that’s the real ride. The rest of the world is all tiny ants, scurrying about their day miles below you. High in the stratosphere, you’re swimming in gratitude. Smiling at your reflection in the mirror with a shit- eating grin, and the whole world’s a miracle. The flower petals of that hideous bouquet your aunt sent. The blood pumping through your veins. The color blue. Plummet further downward and that’s when things start to get hazy. It strikes you how long eternity is. How improbable it is that any one single human has any lasting impact. How chances are, three hundred years from now no one will know your name. Unless you’re Aristotle. Galileo. Mozart. The rare lights brilliant enough to cut through an otherwise bleak landscape.
“Andie! Andie! Andie!” The chant rises from the living room.
You think of the other patients in the cancer ward, grinning like circus clowns as they slammed that mallet into the remission bell. Of course, some of them will never ring the bell. This knowledge should fill you with gratitude laced with terror, but it doesn’t. You’d just as soon not ring the bell. But what could you say, all those nurses in their masks and scrubs smiling at you? Not to mention your parents, your mom all moist-eyed. It would have been disrespectful not to. So you tapped the side. Lightly. The way one pets a dog they’ve never met before.
After your first remission, your parents took you to Disneyland. You’d wanted tickets to a Metallica concert for your Make-A-Wish, but one look at your mother’s eyes and you’d blurted out “Mickey Mouse.” They’d pulled you out of school for a week. You can still see their faces, naive round orbs far below you as the teacups whipped you through the air. Seventeen was a bit old for Minnie Mouse and Cinderella, but you all pretended it wasn’t. After the remission from the first reoccurrence halfway through undergrad, they’d baked a cake, invited your aunts and uncles over to the house. Nothing too showy this time. But it’s now round three. You’ve learned to whisper your victories, not shout them.
You’d been an average student before the first bout with cancer, but you studied like crazy once the doctors cleared your return to school. Time to get serious. To make up for lost time. You caught up — not enough to make valedictorian, but enough to slide into the top ten. Even with all the absences. You wrote your college essays on the power of determination, citing your experience on the debate team, even though the school counselor urged you to write about the cancer. You got in anyway, with a scholarship.
The doctors say terminal doesn’t have to mean terminal anymore. That someday cancer can be managed like a chronic illness. You imagine endless hospital visits, fistfuls of steroids. The things people will do to stay on the light side of that thin dark line.
“Andie! Andie! Andie!” They’re not letting you off the hook, these partiers.
You clear your throat again, then raise your beer. You wish there was some precedent for this. But you’ve never heard of anyone throwing an undead party. Mentally, you kick yourself. The perils of originality.
“Thank you all for being here. I’m glad to be here, too!” you start. It doesn’t get much better after that. You cobble together sentences for an appropriate amount of time, then climb down from the footstool. There’s more cheering, more wanna-be clinking.
“Why can’t we be friends with normal people?” Bethany asked you once. You knew what she meant. Former little leaguers who came home to homemade meatloaf and stepped out of the carpool lane with sandwiches sans crust. Not ten-year-olds who mopped their mother’s vomit off the floor and held wet washcloths to their foreheads. Not teenagers with chemo-induced opportunistic infections who dragged their parents to the ER on Christmas Eve.
“They’re boring,” you say. In reality, you’ve tried. Both of you. But it’s like speaking a language you don’t know and can never learn.
After your second round with cancer, the whispered prognosis and your father’s tears, you’d started googling images of corpses when your parents weren’t watching. Not Hollywood shit with fake blood and zombie mouths. The real deal. Victorian era black and whites of children in formal dress, their eyes closed. The part of Mt. Everest they call Rainbow Valley, with neon green boots and puffy red jackets half buried in snow. A tribe halfway across the world who keeps deceased relatives for weeks before burying them, and sometimes digs them up for a second funeral. One day they stopped being scary, just like that.
Time to lace up your cement shoes and wait, you told yourself. But that was before the treatment turned things around.
It’s nearly one in the morning before the ranks start to thin. casey staggers out with Dylan. You shoot her a thumbs up, and she flashes a grin. You’ll have to tell Bethany. You’d suspected something was up with those two, but she’d shaken her head. Dr. Shaw slurs his goodbye, his eyes already bloodshot. Sugar and alcohol duke it out in your bloodstream. From the tired eyes and slurred speech of your classmates, you’re not the only one.
“Turn off the lights already,” Bethany mumbles once the last guest has disappeared through the screen door. She’s passed out on the couch, for once more exhausted than you.
“I have to clean.” You scoop cups into a black garbage bag. Someone’s left their phone. It buzzes from under the coffee table.
“Do it tomorrow then,” Bethany says.
She so rarely misses the mark, Bethany, that this comment hits you square in the chest. She’s come closer than anyone to understanding, but it’s one of those moments when you’re starkly aware that the rest of the world vibrates at a different frequency. All that time in the hospital, the one-liners, the games of Risk over chemo. Sometimes you forget Bethany’s feet are firmly planted on the other side of that thin dark line.
Tomorrow. The word itself is preposterous, extravagant, like “opportunity” or “hope.” Your breath catches in your throat. And you realize you’re a bit like Bethany that way. Covering your eyes and peering through your hands at the white-hot glare of all that the word “tomorrow” entails. Tomorrow, screaming through time and about to crash into you, so beautiful it hurts. It’s like staring into burning magnesium or a solar eclipse.
You don’t remember slipping through the screen door, padding barefoot down the creaky steps, but here you are. Blades of grass push up between your toes as your feet squish into the soft earth. You take a moment to contemplate “tomorrow,” that tricky bastard, sneaking up on you after you’ve already given up on it. And all of a sudden you’re in freefall again, that giant trampoline rushing to catch you. In all likelihood, you will spend tomorrow here on Earth, with its oxygen and dirt and beer and half-eaten tombstone cakes and your best friend asleep on the couch. Tomorrow. It’s like a comet flashing through the night. Rare. Precious. Only for those brave enough to keep their eyes wide open.
MEGHAN BEAUDRY began writing as part of her rehabilitation from brain trauma in 2014 and simply never stopped. Her work has been published in Hippocampus, Ravishly, Folks at Pillpack, Al Jazeera, and the Huffington Post. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. In 2020, she was selected as winner of the Pen 2 Paper Creative Writing Contest in fiction. Twitter: @meghanbeaudry1