When Mahmud and Sam arrive at Aaron’s hospital room, the door is closed.
“I texted him this morning. He said he’d be awake when we got here,” Sam turns to Mahmud.
“Let’s check with the floor nurse,” Mahmud is already heading down the hallway. Outside Aaron’s room, Sam hesitates, the greasy bag from Reckless Burgers warming his hands. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea. Last visit Aaron could barely hide his pain.
Mahmud strides back, “We can go in.”
Pushing open the door, he calls out, “Special Delivery for Aaron Rosenthal. Get it while it’s hot.”
Sam shakes his head and trails Mahmud into Aaron’s dimly lit room. The sharp smell of disinfectant doesn’t quite mask the tang of stale sweat. For a second Sam is back with his mother in hospice.
“Man,” Mahmud stands by the window. “this view is wasted on you,” as he tugs on the blinds to reveal a cloudless vista of Mount Rainier.
Aaron raises his upper body with his elbows.
“Who let the riffraff in?” he growls with exaggerated alarm. “Talk about a rude awakening.”
“Wait til you see what we brought,” Mahmud laughs by the window. “Sam, show the man what he’s won.”
Sam places the Reckless Burger bag on the tray by the bed. “Today we have burgers, an assortment of shakes, and a surprise… ” pulling out a jumbo-sized pouch of golden brown onion rings. He places the bag next to the book he’d brought Aaron two days ago. The bookmark still lies on top.
“Chocolate, strawberry, and mocha. Boys, are we going to fight over the mocha?” Mahmud puts on his serious professor voice.
“You two duke it out,” Aaron laughs, his stomach churning at the sight of the rich food.
A strict vegetarian, Aaron allows himself one hamburger a year. Since his diagnosis, he’s eaten more burgers and fries than he has his whole life, thanks to Mahmud and Sam. The first week they brought satsumas and grapes. When Aaron admitted he was craving meat, his friends brought ribs, fried chicken, steak and potatoes. Aaron loved breaking his own rules, but now even the juiciest burgers have lost their flavor. He has to tell them he can’t eat their food anymore.
“I’ll take the mocha,” Sam winks at Aaron, “I’ve got a stack of papers to grade tonight. You know how that goes.”
Mahmud sets the strawberry shake on the tray, then sits in the chair closest to the window. Holding a shake of his own, he interrupts every other word to suck up the creamy frozen chocolate. Mahmud spent most of third grade in the hospital and came close to dying, though his parents and the nurses kept that possibility from him. All Mahmud knew at the time was he was there to get better.
But now he sees a hospital as a no-man’s land between life and death that few people cross more than once. Each time he visits Aaron, Mahmud slips through a minefield armed with humor and the memory of previous detonations.
Aaron’s shake remains on the table by his bed, lid on. Removing a burger from the bag, Sam considers helping his friend punch the straw through the slot.
“Hey Aaron,” Mahmud looks for a place to put his almost empty shake, “we really need to talk about getting that syllabus together. It’s almost Labor Day. Fall Quarter starts in four short weeks.”
Aaron knows he isn’t going back. Most days are a fog of pain and sleep. His body is a stranger, weighed down by new knowledge.
“You get started. I’ll fill in the dates later,” Aaron nibbles a warm onion ring, the crumbs dusting his lips.
Mouth full of gooey cheese and greasy patty, Sam puts down his burger and studies his friend’s pale face. Eyes like Sam’s mother’s before she was transferred to hospice. Distant. Resolved.
Aaron catches Sam’s gaze and smiles. He’ll tell them. Next time. He bites through the ring’s crust, teeth slicing the onion in half.
Phebe Jewell’s recent work appears in Literary Heist, The Blue Lake Review, Maudlin House, Nunum, and MoonPark Review. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for women in prison.