Snow clothed the landscape in freezing white, laying across the earth like a blanket of death for those ill-prepared. Fortunately for the kids, their parents had bundled them up with more layers than they could count.
“You can go first if you want, Adira,” the young boy said while gesturing to the wooden swing on the hill overlooking his house. The swing’s supports were wound tightly around the thick branch of an oak tree, which could easily support the weight of an eight-year-old.
“It’s alright, Liam. It’s your swing anyways,” the young girl responded. Her face was hidden beneath a snow mask, and a thick pink coat made her body stiff. All that could be seen were her green eyes.
Though weighed down by the heavy blue jacket he wore, Liam managed to shrug his shoulders before hopping onto the seat of the swing. With his cumbersome black mittens keeping him warm, he grabbed ahold of the metal chains that secured the seat to the tree. He sat there for a moment, waiting to be pushed, when a dreaded thought stumbled into his young mind, causing him to groan outwardly at his foolishness.
“What’s wrong?” Adira asked, her voice containing a pitch one could only associate with concern.
“My dad told me women always mean the opposite of what they say.”
Adira laughed. “Maybe some do, but not me.” With that, she pushed Liam as hard as she could, sending him high over the branch of the tree.
For a moment, Liam felt as if he was flying. He could see the rolling clouds on the horizon, and piercing through their midst came the warm rays of the sun. The light burned across his face, enough to make him instantly warm. The world was at a standstill when the swing reached its peak, and had there not been snow on the ground, Liam would never have guessed it was cold. Then, he felt his body fall backward as the swing returned him to the earth, where he was promptly caught by the ready-and-waiting Adira.
“You went really high!” the girl exclaimed.
“It was awesome!” Liam replied, throwing his arms up in the air for emphasis. “I could see everything from up there.”
He was quick to hop off and give Adira a try; joy such as that needed to be shared. Liam pushed her several times, laughter erupting from Adira’s throat with each pass she made. They played outside for what felt to Liam like an hour, but the setting sun said otherwise. As he watched evening come, he turned to his friend with a worried look on his face.
“Something wrong?” Adira asked in her typical, curious tone.
“You think we’ll always be friends?”
Adira nearly punched him. “Of course we will! Why would you ever say that?!”
Liam’s gaze went to the dim sun. “Things change, and time passes. I just wanted to make sure.”
For a long time to come, Liam was sure. From elementary to middle school, the pair was inseparable. They met each other after every class, and worked together on homework each day after school. When a sporting event occurred, others were sure to find them sitting together with a box of popcorn between them. The occasional joke was made by Liam’s friends about their situation, but he never understood them. It was not until freshman year that he finally opened his eyes. Classes had ended for the day, and he was quick to drop his books in his bag before going to find Adira; with their homes being so close, they always walked together. He found her in the usual spot, by her locker with her bag draped over her shoulder. She was dressed casually with jeans and a leather jacket over a gray top. Her blonde hair curled down to the back of her neck, and her green eyes appeared ever curious, though not for Liam but rather the guy standing over her.
“Oh,” Liam remarked quietly to himself. “That’s what they meant.”
Yet, despite the attention Adira drew, her free time was often spent with Liam. When she wasn’t with him, she was at home studying a very large book that always sent Liam’s head spinning. Whenever he asked her about it, he left with more questions than answers, and so stopped trying to uncover its secrets. When they were around each other, laughter could be heard for miles. They always knew how to make one another smile, and when Liam made a comment about the attention his friend drew, Adira simply shook her head as a faint smile grew at the edge of her lips.
She ran her fingers through Liam’s waving, shaggy black hair before looking into his deep, brown eyes. “Me drawing attention? Are you really that blind?” she laughed in response. She proceeded to rattle off the names of several girls who had been eying Liam for the past month, causing him to playfully shove her away as embarrassment seeped into him.
“You know I’ve never thought of them that way,” Liam stated.
“And you know I’ve never thought of any boys that way either,” Adira said.
Liam raised an eyebrow, to which Adira cocked her head. “Really?” he said. “Not even one?”
“Well… there is one, but he’s rather oblivious,” she admitted, smirking while her gaze narrowed on Liam.
The boy felt his heart skip a beat, and wrapped his arm around her. Instead of embracing her in a hug, however, he grinded the knuckle of his right hand against the roof of her head. She retaliated by jabbing him in the side, and by the end of the ordeal, they were rolling on the ground in laughter. For a long time, Liam was sure nothing would change, and then the news came.
“I’m moving away,” Adira said through tears. Her mother had found better employment in Iowa. Her family would be leaving by the end of her sophomore year.
Liam just stood there, jaw agape as his eyes widened. There was nothing to say. A lifetime of friendship brought to a halt by the distance of two states. Yes they had phones, but a phone could not convey the warmth of a person’s energy nor the embrace of a true friend comforting another. The news nearly split Liam in two, but there was nothing he could do except wish her the best of luck. The final day of sophomore year he held her tighter than ever, and on the day she moved out, he never wanted to let her go. Then it was over. Adira and her family disappeared down the scorching road in early summer, and Liam was alone. Yet, despite the sorrow of his predicament, Liam wanted more than anything to stay in touch. During junior year he chatted with her most days, and on others he sat around wishing she were available. Perhaps that was his folly: his life was not his, but another’s. Even so, he enjoyed it. He loved receiving messages from Adira, and he loved seeing her face on their video calls. Though his friends recommended he spend more time with them, he would have none of it. He loved his life, until the beginning of senior year when Adira’s messages suddenly became infrequent. Liam grew increasingly concerned, and in an effort to improve their situation, he suggested they try video-calling again. She refused.
Then the depression set in. Liam’s mental health began to deteriorate, and his friends slowly seeped out of his life. Colors turned gray, and school became walls of busy work. He felt incomplete, like a part of him had been lost when Adira stopped communicating. Liam was lost in his own head, until a seemingly brilliant idea came to mind one day. Adira had given him her new address at the end of sophomore year, and while leaning up against his locker that cool day of fall, he decided he would visit her when the school year came to an end.
And so it was. When finals were finished, Liam pulled his stuff together and prepared to visit her. He messaged her beforehand, hoping she would be excited by the news. Yet the response he received was unexpected. Nothing. She had seen the message, and three dots appeared at the bottom of Liam’s screen, only for no reply to come. A part of Liam did not want to go. What was the point? His mind played a virtual tug-of-war with the decision to go, but by Friday evening, his mind was made up. When Saturday morning came around, he packed his stuff in the back of his car and drove off.
It was late evening when he arrived in Des Moines, and around seven he finally pulled into the driveway of Adira’s home. His body tensed with anxiety as he stepped out of his car, nervous of what would happen when he finally knocked on the door. His palms became sweaty, beads of liquid forming on his brow as he approached the threshold of the home and, in a burst of courage, banged against the door. He heard footsteps from within, and a moment later the door swung open to reveal Adira’s mom.
Stephanie was taller than most, her blonde hair put up in a bun as if she had just begun to get ready for something. She wore glasses over her green eyes, and initially looked to Liam in surprise, only to sigh with a hint of relief. “Oh, Liam, I forgot she told me you were coming.”
The strange response caused Liam to raise an eyebrow. “What?”
Stephanie tilted her head and squinted her eyes a bit, as if she was trying to read the boy in front of her. After a moment, her mouth contorted to reveal a frown, and her eyes grew emotional. “She never told you, did she?”
“Told me what?”
“Adira’s not here right now. In fact, we were getting ready to go see her,” Stephanie said.
Liam scratched his head, no longer nervous but confused. “I’m sorry ma’am, but I don’t think I understand what’s going on. Where’s Adira?”
The woman had an expression one could only describe as a sadness that had grown tired. “She’s at the hospital, Liam. She’s in a very bad way, but perhaps you should hear more from her.” She then offered Liam to ride along with her and her husband, to which he accepted.
The ride over to the hospital held little thrill. The whole while, Liam’s mind was a haze of worry and fear at what could have happened to his friend, but his train of thought was constantly interrupted by Adira’s parents, who tried to keep the mood lighthearted by asking him how high school had been. It was hard for Liam to be genuine in his responses while his mind focused on his childhood friend. Fortunately, the drive was not long, and Liam was the first to climb out of the car when they arrived. A nurse led them back to where Adira was being kept, and Liam braced himself for what he might see. Upon stepping inside the room, his eyes grew wide.
A girl, ravaged by over a year of suffering, laid quietly on a hospital bed with IVs in her arms. Not a strand of her once beautiful hair remained on her scalp, and her eyes appeared weak. At least, they were until she caught sight of Liam, and her lips began to shake. Liquid formed at the edges of her eyes, and a tear slid down her cheek. Stage four liver cancer. The battle had already been lost; her life was drawing to its conclusion.
Liam had to leave the room; he couldn’t bear to see her like that. A husk of what was once a lively girl full of potential. His sobs filled the hallway, and though nurses looked to him with sympathy in their eyes, they could not stop his tears from falling. All Liam felt he could do was curse the world for handing him such despair, for shattering his world and giving him no means by which to pick up the pieces.
Eventually Adira’s parents stepped out into the hall with him, and urged Liam to go in. A part of him did not want to, as he feared his pain would only grow, but he knew it had to be done. He had to see the person he loved. He entered her room and took a seat by her bed, but his lips remained sealed. Words had not yet come.
Seeing his demeanor, Adira’s arm stirred slightly as she tried to reach out to him. “Liam, I—”
“Why didn’t you tell me?!” the boy spat out, his face ravaged by emotion.
Adira’s eyes closed, and she shook her head. “Look at me,” she said, sniffling as she tried to keep more tears from falling. “I never wanted you to see me like this.”
“You were going to keep this a secret?! For how long? Until you—”
“I don’t know!” she snapped. “I just didn’t want you to remember me like this. Like a broken person whose body had destroyed itself.”
It was then Liam’s overreaction subsided, and he hung his head in shame for yelling at her. His emotions were too unstable, and it made him realize how much of himself had been given to her. Maybe too much. He leaned closer to her, as if to say everything would be alright despite the circumstances, and apologized.
From there, they tried to start over. Adira asked about Liam’s high school life, and he repeated his answers like a broken record, only this time he told how miserable he had been without her. Adira simply rolled her eyes, almost smiling at how much he had missed her. Then, the hard questions came, and Adira explained it was the summer before their senior year that she learned about the cancer. Despite the best efforts of her doctors, they could not stop its spread. Finally, the ugly truth struck Liam like a freight train.
“I have maybe a few weeks left,” Adira uttered, her eyes empty, as if the light had already gone out of them.
“I…” Liam tried to say, when he felt himself gag. The shock and turmoil of everything was enough to make his stomach churn, and its contents nearly spilled onto the room’s floor. He managed to regain composure long enough to look Adira in her eyes. “I don’t want to lose you.”
Adira tilted her head like a mother about to console a child. “You won’t have to. Not forever, anyway.”
“What are you talking about?” Liam asked, bewildered by her strange response.
Adira sighed, as if she knew the following conversation would be unpleasant. “You remember that book I always read at home?”
“The Bible? Sure.”
“I believe it,” Adira confessed. “Every word of it, and I know I’m going home soon.”
Liam cocked his head. For the briefest of moments, his heart filled with hope, only to be silenced by what he knew was reality knocking at the door. There was no god, and there could never be a god. Even so, he hadn’t the heart to tell Adira to her face. “What do you think it’ll be like?”
Adira smiled as she looked to the ceiling. “Like nothing we’ve seen before. I’m afraid, sure, but a part of me cannot wait to see his face.”
Liam’s eyes narrowed, and though he could not explain it, jealousy welled up in his chest. “Whose?”
Liam sighed. “It’d be nice if that story was true.”
Adira looked to him again, this time with sympathy in her eyes. “You just haven’t experienced him yet, that’s all.” Her head pressed against her pillow as she looked back to the ceiling, her smile brimming at the thought of what she had seen. “The past few nights, though I can’t explain well, I’ve seen something. Maybe not heaven, but close to it.” Her eyes looked out on the room, and it was then Liam noticed something else in her expression. Hope.
It was that hope that chilled him to the bone. It was like she had looked past him during their whole conversation at someone else, and he was just the afterthought. It was another hour before he left with Adira’s parents, but during the whole ride back his mind filled with a strange sense of jealousy. Jesus wasn’t standing with Adira as she lay dying, it was him. Him, her best friend who wanted nothing but to spend the rest of his life with her. For eighteen years he thought his commitment had meant something, only to find Adira’s heart swept away in a tide of false hope in a deity that never showed his face. That evening, as Liam crawled into the family’s guest bed, he found this jealousy inside him could not be quenched, and decided he would do something about it the next day.
From the moment he entered the room, Adira could tell something was off. Liam was not his bright, happy self who could always make her smile, but neither did he appear saddened by the effects of cancer on her body. His face was empty, lifeless, yet his eyes were searching for something.
“What’s wrong?” Adira asked.
“Why do you believe in this guy? This Jesus?”
“Because I see him every day.”
Liam shook his head. “No, you don’t. You think you see him, but you don’t.”
Adira’s eyes narrowed. “A blind person cannot tell a seeing person the color of the grass, nor can they tell the beauty of the sky.”
Liam knew what she was doing, and crossed his arms as he leaned against the wall. He grimaced at her unflinching faith in something that could not be seen, that could not be felt and could not comfort, even if she believed it could. “I don’t believe in God.”
Adira had a pained look on her face, though it was not from her afflictions. “I know.”
Liam saw how calm she was, how unyielding she was in her ideology, and it enraged him. In a moment of frustration, he pushed away from the wall. “Yet you love a person you can’t see?!”
“I do,” Adira nodded.
Liam looked away from her, his eyes wide as his jaw fell agape. Her demeanor was something he could not understand. She was dying, and yet she was relaxed, fearless. His jealousy for love blotted out the compassion he should have felt for her condition, a dying girl of eighteen, and he turned back to her with eyes of fire. “Do you love him more than—”
Liam nearly collapsed. “You didn’t even let me finish.”
“I didn’t have to. I love him more than anything, and you should too.”
It was then Adira sat up, her expression stern as her polite demeanor evaporated. “And you’re willing to sit there as I lay dying just to tell me I’m wrong? If that’s how you feel, then you never loved me to begin with.”
That was the last conversation they ever shared. Two days later, she passed away with her family by her side. Liam kept to himself on a bench just outside the building as his eyes leaked. He knew what his selfishness had wrought, and it was then, after his actions could not be undone, that he cried. He hated the world for taking her, and he hated himself even more for his actions toward her. There was little comfort to be had in the darkest moments of life, but a glimmer of light existed for Liam in the form of a hand that placed itself on his shoulder. It was Adira’s father.
“Sir,” Liam half-heartedly said, trying desperately to wipe the tears from his eyes as he looked up at the man.
Adira’s father gave him a pat on the shoulder before grabbing a seat beside him. The man’s hair had grayed, his face wrinkled from the stress of life, and his thick glasses told the world he was too stubborn for contacts. “It’s alright to cry, son. These times are always the most difficult.”
“You don’t understand,” Liam said between breaths, trying to keep himself under control despite his sorrow. “The last conversation we shared… what I said was—”
The father closed his eyes before nodding, “I know.” He put an arm around Liam, and looked the young man in his eyes. “But she never stopped praying for you.” His eyes went off into the distance, his smile shaking as he remembered the final moments with his daughter. “I remember watching her fade, her eyes closed, when I told her heaven must sure look beautiful right about now.” The man broke, and liquid drained from his eyes.
Liam was left to himself a minute later when the father gave him some space. Feeling uneasy, like he was about to throw up, the young man cupped his hands together as he thought about what Adira’s father had said. Liam found himself looking up at the cloudy sky, his eyes searching for some sign that he wasn’t crazy. “She loved you more than anything, you know,” he spoke up at the clouds. He shoulders sank, and his head fell near to his lap. “Perhaps I should too.”