It had been exactly two weeks since Augustus died. In terms of anniversaries, two weeks was normally not considered to be a big deal, but there was something about Augustus being gone for two full weeks that really changed things. At one week, I was still in denial. But now that another week had passed, his death seemed to be solidified. He wasn't on vacation on some remote island. He was gone. He would still be gone two more weeks from now, two months from now, two years from now, two decades from now. He was never going to graduate, or go to college, or get married, or have miniature versions of himself with the woman he loved. He was gone and he was never coming back and there was nothing I could do about it. My best friend had died two weeks ago, and I was at my breaking point, but I hadn't broken yet.
I thought playing some Deception would help me ignore the depressing thoughts that were flooding me. So I turned on the computer and set it to one player. I was going through the mission as normal, but I kept getting distracted by the hostages who were screaming for help. I had played that level countless times, and thanks to Gus's heroics, I knew there was no way to save those hostages. There were too many Insurgents for my squad and me. We were supposed to get to the rendezvous point, gather more troops, and save another, larger group of hostages. That was the mission. But I couldn't stop thinking about how that was the exact opposite of what Augustus would've done.
"Stop moving," I told the computer.
"You stand still," it said in return.
"Go to the left."
"You run west." The screams from the hostages grew louder with each step. "The rendezvous point is to the north. Do you wish to continue west?"
"I have to save the hostages!" I yelled.
"I do not understand," the computer said. "Do you wish to continue west?"
"Your mission is to head north to the rendezvous point to gather more troops."
"I know that," I said. "Continue west."
"You continue west." There was the sound of footsteps running for several minutes. The computer continued to ask if I would rather head north and to remind me of the mission I had been given, but I continued to head west. Eventually the computer said, "You have been spotted by the Insurgents."
"Take cover and fire on the Insurgents," I said.
Guns shots rang out in what seemed like every direction.
"You are taking heavy fire," the computer said. "You need support to fight the Insurgents. Head north to the rendezvous point."
I never headed north. I continued my attempt to free the hostages that couldn't be freed. And when the computer told me I had failed, I restarted the mission and attempted to save the hostages again. Over and over, I tried to do what I knew was impossible, but that never stopped me. I had to keep trying because that's what Augustus would've done, and it suddenly felt wrong to play a video game any other way.
This went on for several hours. It got to the point where the footsteps and the screams and the gunfire all seemed to blend into a continuous hum that kept growing louder and louder. And the computer kept telling me what I was doing wrong, what I should have been doing. But I couldn't do what I was supposed to be doing because trying to save those who weren't meant to be saved somehow made me feel connected to Gus.
Eventually, no matter who much I tried, I could no longer ignore my stomach's cries of hunger, so I paused the game and left my room. I was emerging from the hallway into the living room when I rammed my foot into something that shouldn't have been there. That's when I finally broke.
"What the hell? Mom?! MOM?!"
I could hear her running down the hall. "Isaac, what is it? Are you all right?!"
"No, I'm not all right. I just ran my foot in this…" I gestured toward the area of the object.
"That's all?" my mom asked. "Good grief, Isaac."
"That's all? That's all? This isn't supposed to be here, Mom!" Since my surgery, I had carefully taken the time to learn the placement of every item in the house.
"You need to calm down," she said sternly.
"What is it?! Why is it here?! It's not supposed to be here!" My foot didn't actually hurt, but my chest did. For a moment I was afraid the cancer was back, but this was different. It wasn't tumor pain. It was losing-your-best-friend pain.
"It's an end table. I thought it would be more useful next to the recliner."
"You can't just move things, Mom!" It felt like all the air in the room had escaped.
"Isaac, I am your mother. You cannot tell me what I can and can't do. I didn't think moving an end table would be a problem."
"Not a problem? Mom, did you happen to forget that I'm BLIND. In case you hadn't noticed, I don't have eyes in my head! Don't you think it might be a problem that I can't see a repositioned end table?!"
"What on earth is wrong with you?" she asked, beginning to sound frightened. "You stubbed your toe. You're okay!"
"Okay? Okay?!" I laughed, but it wasn't a normal laugh. It was filled with pain and a bit of hysteria. "I'm the exact opposite of okay! Everything is different!" My breaths were shallow. I wasn't collecting enough oxygen, but that didn't stop my breakdown. "Monica's gone. My eyes are gone. Gus is gone. Now I can't even walk down the hall without something being different."
"Oh, Isaac…" My mom put her hand on my shoulder and everything inside me fell apart. I dropped to my knees right there next to the end table and started sobbing. I had been trying to numb myself to the pain, but I should've known that was a mistake. Augustus once said that pain demands to be felt, and I was definitely feeling the pain now. I couldn't breathe. My chest was on fire. I was heaving. My mom was leaning next to me, attempting to console me, but I was inconsolable. The pain would have to run its course.
The tears kept coming. An impossible amount of tears. I tried to apologize to my mom for being so rude, but she told me I didn't have to, that she understood. Eventually she whispered, "I hate to leave you, but I have to go pick up your brother. I'll be back soon." And she left me there next to the end table.
While she was gone, I managed to force myself back to my bedroom. I didn't want my brother to see me like that. Like the broken human being I was. So I shut the door and crawled into bed. I didn't even bother to cover myself. I lied there in the fetal position, clutching my stomach, wishing I could draw more air into my burning lungs, crying myself to sleep.
I woke up to my phone telling me that Hazel Lancaster was calling me. The pain was still crushing my chest. I couldn't convince my oxygen deprived muscles to move. Finally my phone said, "You have sixteen new messages."
After a few minutes, I rolled over and grabbed my phone. I wasn't sure I could actually manage to talk to Hazel at that moment, but I wanted to make sure she was all right, so I decided to listen to her message.
With the exception of one message from Hazel, the first nine messages were from my mom, my dad, or my grandma. The messages were so old that I thought it couldn't possibly matter what they said, so I was deleting them without listening to them, but then came message number ten. "…from Augustus Waters." My heart nearly stopped. "Hey, Isaac. It's Gus." His voice was quiet, and he sounded like he was in pain, but it was his voice. "Just wanted to see how you were doing. Call my back when you can. – He coughed.— Bye, Dude." That was all there was, but it was his voice.
When asked what I wanted to do with the message, and I told my phone to replay it. All this time, there had been a voicemail from Augustus waiting for me. Thinking back, I remembered when he left it. I had left my phone in my room, and I heard it telling me that Augustus was calling, but by the time I got to it, he had already left a message. Instead of listening to it, I called him back and forgot about the message.
I replayed it again. This time I listened not just to his voice but to what he said, and the sentence, "Just wanted to see how you were doing," stuck with me.
He was obviously in pain. He knew he was dying. But he wanted to know how I was doing. And yet he still never considered himself to be a hero. He couldn't have been more wrong.
Finally, I saved the message and listened to the others in case there were any more from Augustus. There weren't, but the last one was Hazel asking me to call her as soon as possible. She sounded like she had been crying, but she also sounded excited.
I was about to call Hazel back when I realized that breathing had become easier. The pain wasn't collapsing my lungs anymore. It still hurt, and I knew it would hurt for a long time, maybe forever. But something had changed. His words, "Bye, Dude," kept repeating in my head. I knew that he hadn't intended it to be his final goodbye. He had no way of knowing that I would discover that message two weeks after his death, but still his last words to me, the last words I would ever hear from him, were, "Bye, Dude."
When I called Hazel back, she asked if she could come over. She was at my house within half an hour. My mom started acting weird and told me to leave the door open when I asked Hazel to come to my room with me, as if she'd had the sudden realization that Augustus was gone so I might try something with Hazel. I wanted to tell her that she'd lost her mind. That I would never betray Augustus like that and neither would Hazel. But I kept quiet because I figured I had already put my mom through enough that day. So we went to my room and left the door open as she had asked.
We hadn't even sat down before Hazel said, "I found it."
I didn't have to ask what she meant. I knew she was talking about the letter she had been searching for. "So he really did write something for you?" I asked.
"He did," she said. "I was talking to Kaitlyn on the phone—"
"Kaitlyn?" I asked.
"She's one of my friends from high school. I was talking to her on the phone and she said something made me realize exactly what he had done. He sent the letter to Van Houten."
"The author of An Imperial Affliction? Why on earth would he send it to him? I thought he despised that guy."
"Why don't I just read you the letter?" Hazel asked.
"Okay," I said.
"Lidewij is sending me the actual copy, but I can pull up the scans on my phone."
I didn't know who Lidewij was, but I was glad she was sending the letter to Hazel. She deserved to have it.
"Here it is," she said. "It says, 'Van Houten, I'm a good person but a shitty writer. You're a shitty person but a good writer. We'd make a good team. I don't want to ask you any favors, but if you have time – and from what I saw, you have plenty – I was wondering if you could write a eulogy for Hazel. I've got notes and everything, but if you could just make it into a coherent whole or whatever? Or even just tell me what I should say differently.
Here's the thing about Hazel: Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered. I do, too. That's what bothers me most, is being another unremembered casualty in the ancient and inglorious war against disease.
I want to leave a mark.
But Van Houten: The marks humans leave are too often scars. You build a hideous minimall or start a coup or try to become a rock star and you think, "They'll remember me now," but (a) they don't remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars. Your coup becomes a dictatorship. Your minimall becomes a lesion.
(Okay, maybe I'm not such a shitty writer. But I can't pull my ideas together, Van Houten. My thoughts are stars I can't fathom into constellations.)
We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths. I can't stop pissing on fire hydrants. I know it's silly and useless – epically useless in my current state – but I am an animal like any other.
Hazel is different. She walks lightly, old man. She walks lightly upon the earth. Hazel knows the truth: We're as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it, and we're not likely to do either.
People will say it's sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely. But it's not sad, Van Houten. It's triumphant. It's heroic. Isn't that the real heroism? Like the doctors say: First, do no harm.
The real heroes anyway aren't the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention. The guy who invented the smallpox vaccine didn't actually invented anything. He just noticed that people with cowpox didn't get smallpox.
After my PET scan lit up, I snuck into the ICU and saw her while she was unconscious. I just walked in behind a nurse with a badge and I got to sit next to her for like ten minutes before I got caught. I really thought she was going to die, too. It was brutal: the incessant mechanized haranguing of intensive care. She had this dark cancer water dripping out of her chest. Eyes closed. Intubated. But her hand was still her hand, still warm and the nails painted this almost black dark blue and I just held her hand and tried to imagine the world without us and for about one second I was a good enough person to hope she died so she would never know that I was going, too. But then I wanted more time so we could fall in love. I got my wish, I suppose. I left my scar.
A nurse guy came in and told me I had to leave, that visitors weren't allowed, and I asked if she was doing okay, and the guy said, "She's still taking on water." A desert blessing, an ocean curse.
What else? She is so beautiful. You don't get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don't get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.'"
By the time she finished, she was in tears, but I could tell that they weren't tears of sadness. She was happy to have read this letter from Augustus.
"Wow," I said, amazed by what he had written for her.
"Yeah," she said.
We both sat in silence for a long moment before I finally said, "What would you tell him if you could respond?"
She sniffled and said, "I would tell him that the mark he left on me was not a scar."