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The Other Side of Tomorrow by Micalea Smeltzer (1)

I blink up at the sky. It’s bright—too bright—and I shouldn’t be staring at it, but it reminds me that I’m alive.

I’m still here.

I’m still breathing.

Nothing will knock me down.

I am strong. I am resilient. I will make it through this.

I’ve repeated this mantra several times a day since I was fourteen.

I remember the day so clearly that everything changed. I’d been sick for weeks, longer, really, but only then did everything come crashing down. The weakness was overwhelming. I could barely place one foot on the floor. My mom had been worried, I knew, but I kept making excuses—I’d been practicing dance too hard, school was exhausting; on and on, I blamed everything else. It was easier that way.

Until it wasn’t.

I was at the bowling alley with my friends when I collapsed.

One minute I was upright, forcing a smile, trying not to think about how tired I felt, and the next I was on the ground. I didn’t open my eyes until I was being loaded into an ambulance.

The horrified gazes of my friends are something I’ll never forget.

The ten-minute ride to the hospital seemed endless.

“What’s wrong with me?” I asked over and over, but no one could tell me anything.

“Keep that on,” one paramedic scolded, putting the oxygen mask back on my face. I hadn’t even realized I’d removed it.

We arrived at the emergency room and they wheeled me back into a room.

My parents were already at the hospital waiting, one of my friends having called them, and they followed the paramedics as I was wheeled back, hospital visitor badges clipped to their shirts.

“Oh, Willa,” my mom cried, trying to hug me as the paramedics wheeled me down the hall.

I was put into a room and helped into a gown and ugly blue socks—which was mighty embarrassing as I insisted I could change myself, but since I fainted they wouldn’t let me.

When the doctor came to see me, I immediately blurted, “I’m not sick. I don’t know why I’m here. I’m tired, that’s all.”

The doctor paused, raised a brow, his lips twitching with the threat of a smile. “How about you let me determine that, okay?”

I sighed but nodded. My mom and dad huddled in the corner, her with her hands clasped at her chin, with him rubbing her shoulders.

“You look awfully pale,” the doctor remarked. “Stick out your tongue.”

I did.

“Mhmm.”

“What? What does that mean?” my mom burst out.

“Nothing yet,” the doctor waved away her concern. “I need to listen to your heart and lungs; can you sit up a bit?” he asked me.

I did as he asked, feeling like this was all completely stupid.

He continued to cluck his tongue as he checked my ankles. Finally, he said he was ordering blood work and left.

It didn’t take long for someone to come to take my blood, and after that, we sat waiting.

This all felt so silly to me.

I was fine, my blood work would be fine, and then they’d send me home.

But that’s not what happened.

The doctor appeared in the doorway of the room. There was something different in his eyes, not quite sad but almost. Maybe he looked a little surprised too.

He cleared his throat and walked over to the stool, sitting down.

My parents stood at my side, waiting for what he had to say.

He didn’t look at them. He looked at me. Straight in my eyes as he delivered the news.

“Willa, I have some bad news.” My heart stopped. “Your kidneys have failed. Based on your numbers, you have chronic end-stage kidney disease. We will have to get you started on dialysis immediately.” My eyes widened in fear. “Don’t worry, dialysis isn’t scary. You’re going to be fine. This isn’t a death sentence.”

I stopped.

Everything stopped.

Not a death sentence?

I hadn’t even considered the fact I could be dying—that this could kill me.

He was right, of course, it wasn’t a death sentence, not since it was caught in time. Dialysis also wasn’t scary, but that didn’t mean it was easy. It sucked. It was exhausting, and most days all I wanted to do was sleep. It made going to school impossible. I was home schooled after that. If it wasn’t for my best friend Meredith, I would’ve completely fallen out of touch with the “real” world. It was easy to shut myself away, but she forced me to get out. Sometimes, for a little while, I could pretend I wasn’t sick.

That was another thing. I didn’t look sick, not at all, but I was.

The dark shadows beneath my eyes from restless sleep were the only way to tell that something was going on with me.

Other than that, I looked like any other spritely seventeen-year-old now.

I felt more like I was seventy, though. Going through this had aged me—I understood more than most kids my age, and I’d come to terms with my mortality.

Everybody dies, you might as well live while you can.

I’d noticed a lot of people “died” before they actually died. They went through the motions, unhappy, and that wasn’t what I’d call living at all.

You could live without being alive, and that was one of the saddest truths I’d learned.

I spread my arms wide, like I’m making snow angels, but it’s sand instead.

It’s always sand in sunny Santa Monica, California. I love it, though, the warmth, the ocean, the pier. It’s magic, and no one can convince me otherwise.

The telltale grinding of the sliding glass door on our deck puts me on alert. But I don’t move.

I close my eyes and pretend to be invisible.

“What are you doing out here? You’re turning red.” There’s a shift in the sand beside me as my fifteen-year-old sister, Harlow, drops down next to me.

I crack an eye open and twist my head to face her. I sigh, envious of how effortlessly beautiful she looks. Her blonde hair hangs halfway down her back, way longer than mine, and is stick straight opposed to my slightly wavy hair that doesn’t want to be straight but doesn’t want to be curly either. She wears a pair of shorts and a loose gray sweater with sneakers. It’s a simple outfit but somehow, she makes it work. It looks effortless next to my ripped jeans and baggy as hell T-shirt to hide the tube in my stomach. However, I must admit the belt I wear to hold the catheter does a good job of concealing it as well as securing it. It’s not like you want something dangling out of your body to get tugged on something. I practically shudder at the thought.

“Hiding,” I answer her.

She glances down at me, stifling a laugh. “From who? Mom? What’s she doing? Trying to get you to take those weird vitamins some shaman gave her?”

I snort. “She knows I can’t have any of her weird health stuff. And I’m not hiding from anyone.”

“Then what?” She blinks against the sun.

I sit up and dust the sand off my back. “Life, I guess. It’s hard sometimes. Overwhelming.”

She frowns. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” I force a smile, but it doesn’t take away the pain in her eyes.

As hard as my diagnosis is on me, I know it’s hard on my family too. No one in my family was a match, not my mom or dad, not my extended family, and my sister is too young to donate. Instead, the last few years I’ve been waiting for a donor. A deceased donor. I’m literally sitting around waiting for someone to die, and there’s something morbid about that. As much as I want and need a kidney, I hate the fact somebody has to die for me to get it.

It’s been three years since my diagnosis, and most days I’m happy. In fact, a lot of the time I feel relatively normal. But some days it catches up to me, the reality of it all, and I can’t help but go to a dark place in my head. Today, unfortunately, is one of those days. I don’t like having these days, but I know it’s not healthy to not have them, either. But most of the time, I’m able to choose being happy because while my disease has taken a lot from me, I refuse to let it take my happiness too. It won’t beat me. I’m stronger than that.

Harlow reaches for my hand. “I low you.” She gives it a squeeze. My hand is pale underneath hers. She spends way more time on the beach than I do, and her skin is tanned to a bronze color.

“I low you too,” I reply.

When Harlow was little, she couldn’t say V, so love always sounded like low, and ever since we’ve always said it that way to each other. Born two years apart, I can’t remember a time without my spunky little sister. I love her to pieces, she’s my best friend, besides Meredith, of course, and she’s made all this easier. She’s always here when I need to cry or scream or vent or whatever it is I need to do at that moment.

People on the outside tend to close themselves off when they see something like this happening to someone. They think, “oh, that’s not bad,” or “it could be worse.”

When, really, I think it’s best to acknowledge the fact that it freaking blows.

So does cancer.

And Alzheimer’s.

Every disease out there, whatever it may be, sucks.

Why sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist?

Just because it’s not happening to you, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

And yeah, it could be worse, I tell myself that all the time, but that doesn’t mean it should be brushed under the rug, either.

I feel like we should support our fellow human beings instead of turning a blind eye. Why do people find it easier to turn away from the old lady struggling to reach for something on a high shelf in the grocery store than to take a few seconds to help?

I don’t understand this notion many people have of pretending things don’t exist.

They do. Stop being a pussy and face the facts.

Harlow pokes her finger into my cheek. “You’re thinking too much. Snap out of it.”

“Sorry.” I shake my head and flash her a smile.

I’ve always lived in my head way too much. It’s easier there, less scary.

“Are you going to sit out here all day?” she asks.

I shrug and pick up some sand, watching it fall through my fingers. “Maybe.”

She shakes her head. “Come on, we’re going somewhere.” She stands up and offers me her hand.

“You can’t drive,” I remind her.

She rolls her eyes. “You can.”

“Where are we going?” I reluctantly take her hand and let her lift me up. I shake the sand off my body, but, of course, I can’t get rid of all of it. Sand is as dangerous to be around as glitter.

“To get ice cream, of course. Ice cream makes everything better.”

“You know I’m not supposed to have ice cream.”

Since I do peritoneal dialysis, my diet isn’t quite as restricted as it was in the early stages of my diagnosis when I was on hemodialysis. But that doesn’t mean I can go crazy and eat whatever I want.

Our kidneys do a lot for our bodies.

My fourteen-year-old self thought all they were good for was gathering urine and sending it to my bladder.

Wrong.

Your kidneys clean all the blood in your body—when they fail, toxins build up in your bloodstream and can ultimately kill you. Your kidneys do more than that too. They also tell your body to absorb vitamin D. Therefore, when your kidneys don’t work, you could stand in the sun all day and not get any vitamin D.

Honestly, I’m a full-blown kidney expert at this point. It’s amazing the things you learn after you get sick.

Harlow groans and tilts her head to the sky for a moment before facing me. Sometimes it’s jarring looking at her with her one blue and one green eye. It’s almost like looking at two people at once.

“Willa, one teensy-tiny cup of ice cream isn’t going to kill you.”

I give her a look.

“Bad joke, I know.” She takes my hand. “But come on, let’s get out for a while. Mom and Dad won’t be home for a while yet, and I hate seeing you sad.”

“Why are you home?” I ask, suddenly realizing it’s the middle of the afternoon and she should be at school. It’s May, and her school doesn’t end until June.

I finished up my home schooling back in December and graduated. It was nice being done nearly a year and a half early, but it also made me that much more confused.

I wanted to go to college, right? But how did I do that with all the extra baggage I had? It wouldn’t exactly be easy, or sanitary, to dialyze in a dorm room. The thought alone made me want to shudder.

It was possible I could enroll at the community college and continue to live at home, but … I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted.

Lost, that’s the only way I could describe myself at the moment.

It seemed like my whole life was on pause, waiting for the day I got a kidney. For the day when I could really start living again and didn’t have to think about dialyzing or anything that goes with it.

There wasn’t a day in the last three years where I didn’t have to think about something regarding my illness. There was no escaping it. It was there all the time.

While at times, like today, it was hard, most of the time it was such a part of my routine I didn’t even think about it.

But for the moment, I was having a major case of the poor me’s.

“We got out early today,” she supplies. “Parent-teacher conferences are tonight, the teachers need time to prepare. I’m sure they have to give a lot of bad news.” She claps her hands together and tilts her head to the side. “I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Jones, but it looks like little Tommy is going to fail,” she mocks in a high-pitched voice.

“Is it that bad?” I ask, picking up my flip-flops and heading up the deck steps and into the house.

“You have no idea,” she groans. “Half the kids there don’t do anything. They expect a free ride or Mommy and Daddy to pay their way. All they talk about is partying, drinking, and sex.”

“Sounds like I haven’t missed much.”

“Eh.” She shrugs, sliding onto one of the barstools. “It can be entertaining at times, but it’s mostly annoying.”

“Let me go change, and then we’ll go,” I tell her.

There’s no way I’m going anywhere with sand in my crotch. I don’t know how it always manages to find its way inside my clothes, but it does.

“I’ll be here.” She kicks her legs up on the counter.

I bound up the steps and push the door open to my room.

It’s a mess, like always. My mattress lies on the floor, covered in a million pillows and blankets. String lights hang across an entire wall, making my room glow with a warm golden hue. Pinned to the string of the lights are Polaroid photos. I still have aways to go to fill it all up, it’s a work in progress, but it brings me joy to see all the different happy moments I’ve captured. There are some not happy ones there as well, but I like to be reminded of how far I’ve come. How no matter what’s been thrown at me, I’m still standing tall.

I change quickly into another pair of shorts and a loose tank top, then check my appearance in the floor-length mirror behind my door.

My hair’s a wild mess and looks like it hasn’t been brushed—even though it has. My eyes are wide, and my cheeks flushed, making my freckles even more prominent. I have a love/hate relationship with my freckles. Some days I love them and think they’re cute, other days I think they look like mud streaked across my face.

“Willa! Are you done yet?” Harlow yells up the steps.

“Yeah, yeah,” I chant, grabbing my purse and slinging the strap across my body before reaching for my car keys on my dresser.

I stumble down the steps and find Harlow waiting by the front door.

“I’m starving now,” she whines. “Let’s grab a bite to eat and then get ice cream.”

I open my mouth to argue, but then my stomach decides to rumble.

“Yeah,” I agree. “Food first.”

As if conjured by our words, our giant golden retriever Perry bounds into the foyer.

“No, Perry, no food for you. Stay here.”

“We could take him with us,” Harlow suggests.

“The last time we did that he tried to eat a bird.”

“He’s a puppy. He doesn’t know any better.”

“Sometimes you make me sound like such an annoying, boring mother.”

“Uh … because that’s what you act like.” She laughs and runs down the hall for Perry’s leash.

The nice thing about living in Santa Monica is you can take your dog pretty much anywhere.

She returns with the leash and Perry sits, tongue hanging out, waiting for her to put it on him.

Once it’s clasped I unlock the door and we head to my car—a mint colored Chevrolet Spark. It’s small, the perfect size for me, and a gift from my parents. I didn’t want them to spend their hard-earned money on a brand-new car for me, but they insisted so it became my birthday and graduation present.

It’s come in handy having my own car; I definitely get out more than before.

Perry climbs in the back, leaning between the two front seats, panting like he’s been outside for an hour already. He’s barely a year old and gets overly excited about everything.

“Would you want to go to Monsterwiches?” I ask Harlow.

The sandwich shop a couple of miles away is a favorite for locals. Not many tourists know about it, which makes it a nice place to hang out. When tourists start clogging up a place the locals usually clear out.

“Yeah, that’s good with me.” She clicks her seatbelt into place then proceeds to place her feet on the dashboard and turn the volume on the radio up to a deafening level. I turn it down to a more sensible level and she scoffs. “You’re such a fun sucker.”

“Yep, that’s me. Willa the fun sucker. Tell Mom and Dad to put that on my tombstone for me, m’kay?” I start to back out of the driveway.

“Willa,” she gasps, genuinely offended. “Don’t even joke about that kind of thing.”

I put the car into drive, heading down the street. “I’m sorry.”

Sometimes, I forget that I’m weirdly comfortable with my inevitable death. When you come close to dying it’s not that scary anymore, it seems easier, more peaceful than this living part. But I’m sure for my sister, who was twelve at the time, the experience was traumatizing.

“I don’t want to think about a world in which you don’t exist. You’re my sister. My best friend.” She reaches for my hand and squeezes it.

I glance at her quickly with a smile. “I’m not going anywhere, not for a long time,” I vow. “This may have tried to knock me down, but I’m stronger than it.”

I’m stronger because of it.

She smiles softly, emotion flooding her eyes. “You’re the strongest person I know.”

Her words squeeze my heart. It’s nice to hear them.

She turns the radio up again, and this time I don’t change it.

The music quiets the chaos of my mind, as backward as that sounds.

We reach the sandwich shop and I park in the tiny side lot—seriously, there are only three parking spaces, which are frequently fought over since this place is popular.

“I’ll go get our food—you take care of Perry.”

Before I can protest, my sister is gone, and I’m left with the demon dog.

Not that he’s mean, he’s … a little nuts.

Perry looks at me, tongue hanging out, with this doofus look like he’s saying, “What are you talking about? I’m adorable. I’m a good boy. Me so cute.”

“All right, Perry,” I sigh. “Let’s do this thing.”

I get out of the car, tucking the keys in my pocket and slinging my purse across my body so I don’t have to worry about it falling off my shoulder while trying to wrangle the dog.

I close the door and quickly open the back door. Perry tries to dart out, but I quickly grab his collar and then the leash. Bumping the door shut with my butt, I lock it and return the keys to my pocket.

“Come on, Pear.”

We start through the small parking lot and onto the sidewalk. Monsterwiches has around ten tables set up outside, with the majority of them taken. It looks like everyone in Santa Monica has decided to come here and eat outside at the exact same time.

Perry jerks on his leash, and I tighten my grip.

“No, Perry!” I scold.

But Perry doesn’t give a flying shit what I have to say to him.

He jerks again. This time, his leash goes flying out of my hand, and Perry goes running down the street.

“Perry!” I scream, running after the dog, disaster scenarios of him being run over playing out in my mind—as well as my sister’s eventual murder when I kill her for leaving me with the dog.

People watch me run after him but do nothing to help—I can’t help but think there’s probably someone sitting back videotaping this to post on social media instead of helping me.

Perry,” I shout after the dog.

He doesn’t care. He’s doing what he wants.

He turns the corner and I run faster, nearly tripping as I turn after him.

“Oompf.”

I skid to a halt, wincing as I see Perry collide with a guy walking out of Cool Beans coffee shop. The guy’s iced coffee drops to the ground, splattering all over his worn sneakers, legs, and the sidewalk.

“I am so, so, so sorry.” I hesitantly approach him. Perry licks at the coffee on the ground like this was his plan all along.

The guy looks down at the coffee, my dog, and finally, me.

I stop in front of him and suddenly feel very small. He towers over me, at least a foot taller. He’s big, too, wide shoulders but a narrow waist, and the way his shirt hugs his chest I can see every indent of his abs. Around here, fit people are the norm, but there’s something about this guy that I can’t take my eyes off of. It’s not just his looks, it’s this aura he has. He hasn’t even opened his mouth and I’m enraptured.

“It’s not a big deal,” he finally speaks, shielding his eyes from the sun. I notice they’re a startling green color, bright against his tanned skin. His brown hair is cut short and there’s a light dusting of stubble on his chin like he forgot to shave this morning. “I didn’t really want the coffee much anyway.” He smiles, and I suddenly understand why girls my age lose their minds over guys. My stomach flips and I can’t seem to tell what’s right side up anymore.

“He’s still a puppy,” I explain, not wanting to stand there staring at this guy like a creep. He looks older than me, probably twenty, I’m sure to him I look like a little kid.

He grabs the leash and holds it out to me. “Might want to grab him before you lose him again.”

Color floods my cheeks as I reach for the leash. My fingers brush his and my heart skips the beat. It’s like all my years of lack of hormones have combusted to this one moment and now I’m drowning in them.

“Right, thank you.” I wrap the leash around my hand. “I’m really sorry—can I buy you another coffee?” I offer, feeling bad that Perry has destroyed his drink.

He shakes his head. “I really shouldn’t be having one anyway. If I drink that now” —he nods down at the mess— “I won’t go to sleep until five in the morning.”

I laugh, but it sounds forced and not at all like my natural laugh. I’m nervous, and I’m being weird.

Get it together, Willa. He’s only a guy.

“Well, um, thanks for … catching my dog.”

He throws his head back and laughs, and that’s when I notice one of his ears is pierced. A slender silver hoop rests in his left ear. I’ve always been irked by guys with pierced ears, but this guy pulls it off.

“I don’t know, I think maybe he caught me,” he says when he stops laughing.

I blush again. “Right …,” I pause. “Well, thanks again.” I wave awkwardly and start back down the street.

When I reach the end, I can’t help but turn and look behind me.

The guy is still watching me, and when he sees me looking he smiles wide, not at all bothered by me catching him.

I wish I had his confidence. If it’d been the other way around I would’ve quickly averted my gaze.

“There you are!” Harlow’s voice startles me. She’s holding two wrapped sandwiches with two water bottles dangling precariously between her fingers. “What happened to you?”

“Perry got loose,” I explain, walking up to her.

She sighs and glares down at the dog. “Bad Perry.”

Perry wags his tail and sticks his tongue out. “He looks really torn up about his bad behavior,” I joke.

We grab a table and I tie Perry’s leash to my chair—if he runs this time, he’s taking me with him.

“He needs to go to obedience school,” I grumble as Harlow hands me my sandwich. I unwrap it and my mouth waters.

“Aw.” She pets his head. “He’s not that bad. Plus, he’s still a baby.”

“You’re going to be saying he’s a baby when he’s ten.”

She giggles. “Probably.”

My phone vibrates in my bag, and I quickly grab it in case it’s my mom telling me something important.

Instead, it’s a text from Meredith.

Merebitch: Hoe r u home?

Me: Out with H.

Merebitch: Rly? Where?

Me: Monsterwiches.

Merebitch: I’m 2 blocks away. I’m coming over. Don’t fucking leave before I get there.

Me: Wouldn’t dream of it.

“Who’s that?” Harlow asks. “It’s not Mom complaining about me forgetting to do the laundry again, right? I mean, she knows I forget it on purpose all the time, so why does she keep bitching about it? She tells me to do it. I tell her I forgot. Wash, rinse, repeat—without the actual washing part, of course.”

I snort. “No, it was Mere.”

“Should I go get her something?” she asks, wiping her hands on a napkin.

“Yeah probably, or else she’ll steal our food.”

Harlow snaps her fingers. “I’ll be back then. Just make sure Perry doesn’t try to eat my food.”

“I should let him,” I call after her as she heads into Monsterwiches.

I take a bite of my sandwich while Perry looks at me with pleading eyes. I steal a piece of overhanging turkey from Harlow’s sandwich and give it to him. What she doesn’t know won’t kill her.

After another bite, I pull my binders from my purse. In the beginning it was weird having to take medicine every time I ate, but now it’s second nature.

“Heeeeey,” Meredith calls, running down the street with shopping bags flopping in her hands. She honestly looks like she’s trying to use them to take flight.

She reaches me and collapses into the chair beside me. Her bags drop to the ground and she lets out a breath that stirs her vibrant red bangs. “Shopping with my mom should be an Olympic sport. I was in school until noon, but from then until now we’ve managed to hit up ten different stores, and you know how long my mom takes in each of them. The good news is, I have five new pairs of shoes and an entirely new wardrobe. I swear my mom sits around thinks to herself what can I spend money on today that I don’t need? Like, seriously. She’s got a problem. Hey, can I have some of that?” She ends her breathless tirade to point to my water. I hand it over and she uncaps it, drinking it down like she hasn’t had any water all day.

Harlow comes out with Mere’s sandwich and a new water. She sees Meredith with my water and hands me the new one without question.

“Hungry?” she asks Meredith.

“Not really, but I’ll take it anyway.” She tucks a piece of hair behind her ear and Harlow places the wrapped sandwich on the table, the two of us exchanging a look.

Meredith is super tall and super thin to boot but the girl eats like a college football player preparing to hibernate for the winter. She hates her knobby knees and long legs, but they’re her so I think they’re perfect.

I take a bite of my sandwich and notice Meredith has already devoured almost half of hers. I’m not even shocked anymore. I’ve learned over the many years of knowing her that she can eat more in one sitting than an entire football team combined.

“Are you guys going home after this?” she asks.

I shake my head. “This one wants ice cream.” I point at Harlow, who shrugs unapologetically.

“What can I say? Ice cream is my friend—it’s always there for me.”

“I wish I could go.” Meredith frowns. “But I have to get back to my mom. I told her I was going to the bathroom.”

I snort. “You told her you were going to the bathroom but you came here instead?”

“Well, when I texted you I was going to see if we could hang out tonight but since you were close I was like, why don’t I head over there, so that’s what I did. Don’t worry, my mom won’t notice I’m still gone for another thirty minutes.”

Harlow giggles. “I love your mom.”

“She’s one of a kind,” Meredith agrees. “You guys wanna go to the beach this weekend?” she asks.

“We go to the beach every weekend,” I remind her with a laugh.

“Well, I can’t help it. The beach has hot guys, and that’s where I gravitate. Hot guys feed my soul. I can look but I can’t touch—because you know my dad would chop my hands off and feed them to the sharks. He acts like I’m still four years old.”

I snort. “Mere, you do act like a four-year-old most of the time, I can’t blame him.”

She sighs. “You right,” she exaggerates, stuffing the last of her sandwich into her mouth. “See you this weekend.” She wipes her mouth on a napkin, grabs up her bags, and is gone with a swish of her red hair.

“Sometimes I think Meredith is a species of her own,” Harlow chortles. “I mean, seriously, I don’t know anyone else like her.”

“Me either … you know, considering she’s the only friend I have left.”

It doesn’t bother me much anymore, how my friends shied away from me after my diagnosis, but there are moments where it threatens to overwhelm me.

The reality of it all, that is.

“Fuck them,” Harlow spits.

Harlow,” I scold. “Don’t talk like that, you’re fifteen.”

She tilts her head. “Exactly, I’m fifteen. I’ve heard worse than the word fuck. And seriously fuck them. They showed their true colors. If someone can’t acknowledge your illness, or be there for you, or for Christ’s sake even say hi, then they don’t deserve to stay in your life. They don’t.”

I smile. Harlow makes my heart happy. I hear horror stories about siblings, but mine couldn’t be more perfect. Yeah, we fight and disagree at times, but she’s always there for me and I’m always there for her.

“When did you get so smart?” I ask her.

She cracks a grin. “I’ve always been this smart—you’re finally starting to notice.”

I shake my head. “Nah, I’ve always noticed, I just can’t go out handing you praise all the time or your head will get even bigger.”

“Ha-ha,” she intones sarcastically, throwing a piece of cucumber at me.

I finish my sandwich and roll up the paper wrapper. Perry harrumphs at my feet, clearly showing his displeasure at not being slipped a treat from my food.

“Do you ever get bored?” Harlow asks me suddenly.

“Bored?” I repeat, my eyes squished together in obvious confusion.

“Yeah, you know—you’re home alone a lot, you don’t have school anymore or a job. Don’t you get bored?”

I play with a corner of the paper wrapper sticking out from the rolled-up ball I’d turned it into. “Yeah, at times. But I have my books and the computer.”

She shakes her head. “That’s not a life, Willa. You need to be out here living.” She sweeps a hand.

“It’s not that simple.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful every day to still be here, but I know my disease holds me back. I see people doing things and being adventurous, but then I think about how tired I can get and I talk myself into staying in the house.

It’s a vicious cycle.

I want to be more present. I want to live and have fun. I want to learn to surf and go to a bonfire. I want to make more friends.

I want to do things I’ve always been afraid of, because coming close to death has taught me they’re not to be feared. A life unlived is what we should all fear.

And yet, I haven’t done any of the things I want to.

I’m grateful that dialysis allows me the ability to live, and there are lots of things I can still do while on it, I won’t deny that. What holds me back is my own fear.

But one day … One day I’m finally going to get a transplant and that kidney will not only save my life, it’ll transform it.

“It’s more simple than you think,” Harlow says. “I know how you are. You sit around and overthink everything. Sometimes you have to just do it. Just. Do. It.”

I tilt my head. “Are you quoting Shia LaBeouf to me?” I crack a smile and she laughs.

“I mean, he is my future husband.” She winks and takes a sip of water.

“I’m pretty sure he’s like double your age.”

She stands up with her trash and grabs mine too. “Age is just a number.” She swishes her hair over her shoulder and saunters off to throw away the trash.

I stand up and grab Perry’s leash. He looks up at me with his lolling tongue, trying to act cute and innocent.

“You’re not fooling me,” I tell him. I swear he grins.

My mind drifts back to the guy Perry practically mauled and my stomach stirs once more. This giddy feeling bubbling inside me is foreign and slightly strange, but I think I like it.

Harlow returns and takes Perry’s leash from me—probably not trusting me not to lose him again—and we head back to my car.

The drive to the ice cream shop is short. It’s a small little shack right on the beach. Guilt floods me, knowing ice cream is a no-no with my diet, but it’s not like it’s something I do every day, or even once a week, therefore I tell my guilt to take a hike. I can indulge now and then.

“You stay with Perry. I’ll order this time,” I tell Harlow.

She laughs, her blonde hair stirring against her shoulders in a slight breeze coming off the ocean. “I want a banana split with extra chocolate syrup.”

I nod and head over to the stand. There’s a long line of about ten people. I don’t think I’ve ever come to get ice cream here and there’s not a line. Being right on the beach gives it access to a plethora of tourists, but this is one place locals refuse to avoid because the ice cream is that good.

The line moves slowly, and I shift my feet back and forth restlessly. I glance over my shoulder and squint, spotting Harlow and Perry in the distance. Perry licks her cheek and she laughs, ruffling the fur at his neck.

I turn back and find that the line has moved forward. I take a step and open my purse, grabbing a wad of cash that’s loose. I’m terrible about putting money back in my purse. It drives my mom crazy because she finds money in the laundry all the time since so much of it ends up stuffed in my pockets.

When I finally make it the front, I’ve been in line for fifteen minutes.

“Um, a banana split with extra chocolate syrup and a small cup of strawberry, please.”

The girl working the register gives me the total, and I pay before stepping to the side to wait.

It doesn’t take nearly as long to get my order. I grab it, getting chocolate syrup on my finger, and make my way over to where Harlow sits in the sand, all the while praying I don’t drop our ice cream.

“Here you go,” I tell her, and hold out her dessert.

She takes it, Perry making an immediate dive for it.

“Perry, no,” she scolds him, turning her back to him.

I sit down on her other side, digging my feet into the sand. The sun is beginning to show signs of setting. I didn’t even realize how much time had passed. For once, I’d been enjoying myself. I guess when I got out of my head time didn’t seem to drag so much.

“This is freaking good,” she says, digging her spoon in for another bite.

I take a small bite. “Thanks for wanting to get out.”

She smiles. “Is that your way of saying you’re having fun?”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess it is.” I take another bite, savoring it.

Harlow bumps my shoulder with hers. “I low you.”

“I low you more.” I lay my head on her shoulder, glancing out at the ocean as it beats against the sand.

It amazes me that something so perfect can exist on Earth when there’s so much ugliness in the world.

I believe there’s more good, if you take a second to look—the problem is people are constantly going a hundred miles an hour. Everything becomes a blur and nothing seems to matter.

And that’s every human’s biggest mistake—thinking nothing matters.

But every moment is important.

After all, you never know which one will be your last.

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