Under

Jack lay on the hospital bed, his skin ivory against the off-white sheets. His eyes traced the patterns on the wall; he had them memorized, but he’d forgotten the color of the kitchen in his own home.

Jack buried himself into the duvet, inhaling the scent of laundry soap and bleach that he had become so accustom to. It a scent without passion, a scent so boring it stung. He decided that he would count his heartbeats until someone came to visit him. Jack eyed the door in anticipation, and then whipped around to watch the clock. Any moment now, his family would be arriving.

Jack caught a glimpse of the hallway as the door opened and light poured in. His mother entered slowly, unstable on her heels. Jack abandoned his counting at once and smiled. I knew they would come.

“Jack,” she gasped, tripping over her heels in her rush to reach him. Her arms, like broken twigs, embraced him and squeezed.

She kissed his cheek, leaving a mark, her orange lipstick tinting the purity of his skin. “How is my baby boy?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “I’m not a baby,” he corrected. “I’m eight.”

“You’re my baby,” she insisted. “How do you feel?”

“Fine.”

Unsatisfied, his mother gave him a scrutinizing once-over. Jack knew that she was frightened of his appearance, worried for him. He also knew that the only way to restore his health was surgery; surgery that would take place within minutes.

Jack winced at her touch, the sharpened nails grazing his body, searching for life that did not exist. He resembled an old rag doll, broken and limp, torn from where they had tried to fix him. She reached out to caress his cheek, and her eyes were empty, unfeeling. He bit back a shriek. Don’t look past me, he ached to say. Look at me.

“It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“No,” his mother agreed dully, “it’s probably worse.”

Jack ignored her melodramatic statement; he wasn’t sure how to react. This was often the way it was with his mother, awkward and uncomfortable. They were so unalike, she with her materialistic views about life and her theatrics, she who found a way to direct every conversation back to her. And then there was Jack, who found beauty in simplicity, who valued every breath because he knew it might be his last. He loved her regardless. He always would.

Jack glanced around the room, seeking another set of comforting arms to fall into, the only other person who truly loved him. “Where,” Jack questioned, “is Opal?”

His mother whipped a napkin out of her purse and dabbed at her melting face, unable to meet his gaze. They set the air on fire between them. “Opal should be here soon.”

As if on cue, Opal burst into the room, bringing in a rush of cold air with her. She slammed the door behind her with one tattered sneaker and crossed the room with a few quick strides, shoes squeaking. Opal crouched beside the bed, hovering over his frail body.

“Jack,” she exclaimed, and she clasped his hands in her own, turning them over like pancakes in a frying pan. “You’re so pale,” Opal breathed. “So skinny.” She traced the veins in his arms.

Jack was at ease. Opals’ rough fingertips felt like home. He could taste the story of the scars on her hands; he knew them each by heart. “I’m scared,” he murmured.

“Don’t be.”

Jack felt wetness on his cheek and swiped at his tears. They tasted like pennies. “Why is this even happening?”

“The leukemia spread to your spleen,” explained his mother absent-mindedly. “Splenectomy.”

Jack narrowed his eyes. “I know.” He heard it daily, from the doctors, the nurses, and the cruel voice in his head. He was sick of hearing what was wrong with him. Jack added more softly, “I wasn’t asking for real. I didn’t want an answer.”

A scrawny figure poked his head into the room, interrupting the conversation. Jack recognized him to be Dr. Friday, the man assigned to oversee Jack’s operation. “We’re going to have to ask visitors to leave; surgery will begin in minutes. We’ll get someone to retrieve you if necessary.”

Jack’s mother tucked him into her shoulder for a hug, and he relaxed against her body. He felt safe and protected in her arms. He felt as if she could make his hurt go away although she could barely cope with her own. “I love you,” she whispered as she pressed her lips to his cheek, kissing away the tears. This time she wiped away the stain she left with a tissue pulled from her purse, staring at him. Jack echoed her and smiled, lifting his crooked fingers to wave. Wordlessly, his mother stood. She walked out of the room, legs trembling all the while. Opal kissed two of her fingers and brushed them on Jack’s forehead, releasing his hands.

“See you soon, buddy,” Opal followed their mother out, whistling a tune. Jack wet his dry lips.

“See you,” he called back, and the door slammed shut.


The anesthesiologist entered the room and sang while she put the needle into his arm. Jack pretended it didn’t hurt and listened, losing himself in her voice.

While she sang of love lost, he slipped out of consciousness.

It was scorching when Jack woke up, and darker than a nightmare. Jack tried to open his mouth to scream, but he felt like there was a hand pressing down on his lips, smothering his vocal cords. He tried to open his eyes to glance at his surroundings, but his eyelids would not obey him. He couldn’t even comprehend where he was.

“Error.”

Jack registered the voice as Dr. Friday, and all at once, he recalled his location. He was at the hospital. He was supposed to be undergoing surgery.

It didn’t take much longer for Jack to realize that he was undergoing surgery. He had woken up right in the middle of the procedure.

A rush of desperation surged through him, and his heart faltered with fear. He could scarcely form a coherent thought; his body wasn’t cooperating. Terror seized his judgment; Jack was clueless as to how to get their attention. He wished desperately for them to notice that he’d awoken. Please. Please.

“Pulse is weak, alert the family and get them in here.” Jack heard the muffled voice of a female, and a set of pounding feet rushing away.

“We may have to pull the plug,” whispered someone from above him, and multiple voices rumbled in discontent agreement.

Jack listened in horror before he heard the familiar creak of the door swinging opened.

“Jack,” his mother whimpered his name as she entered the room, weeping. The sound of her cries broke his heart. He could almost see her shoulders shaking and her make-up washing away. I’m right here, he longed to say. I’m here.

“Stay calm, Mary,” Dr. Friday ordered.

“What’s happening?” the words were spoken in hysteria.

“Jack’s dying,” murmured Dr. Friday.

Jack heard the sound of his mother scream like a gunshot. He felt her grief in his marrow.

“Time of death…” a female voice began saying.

Jack could only hear the tick of the clock; he was surprised that he hadn’t yet faded into oblivion. The pain was indescribable. It was a whirlwind of commotion as Jack struggled to survive.

“Time of death, 3:23pm,” said the nurse finally. He heard the beeping grow silent, yet his heart continued beating. He gave way to the inviting darkness and fell prey to death moments later. It was rather like falling. He simply let go.

Jack died two minutes after he was unplugged.

Jack lives on in his family’s hearts forever. `

Khadia Okai-Koi, Age 13 Grade 8, MS 245 The Computer School,Silver Key

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