The first thing that Shelby realized as she regained consciousness was the action of someone wiping a towel over her face, possibly to clean away the remnants of her dried, sticky tears. She could hear the towel being dipped into a bowl of water before being squeezed dry and the sound of footsteps walking away from her. Her eyes were strewn shut that it was taking an effort to force it open.
"Rested well?" Jerry smiled as he entered the living room with a glass of orange juice. "You might need this to regain your energy. How are you feeling?"
"Thanks." Shelby took the glass from his hands into hers, sipped. "Emotionally better, but physically terrible. My eyes are swollen and tender, and I feel like all of my energy has been sucked from me."
"You'll be fine after catching a shower."
"I hope so."
"Any plans for tonight, Shelby?"
"Um, no. Why?"
"Assuming that you're bushed to prepare dinner, I'd like to bring you somewhere to catch a meal. Not our usual hangout, though. Or, we could stay inside and I'll cook something from your pantry. Anything to give you the evening off."
"Thanks for the offer, Jerry, but I don't want to impose. I don't have enough in the pantry to whip up a meal for two, as you may've already noticed."
"It's alright, Shelby. You're not imposing on me whatsoever, plus you deserve a treat too."
"You're not giving me a chance to say no, are you?"
"Guilty as charged. I'll pick you up at seven? That should give you enough time to freshen yourself."
Shelby rolled her eyes. "Yes, Dad."
"Don't bother sending me out. Promise me you won't do anything silly and I'll see the happy Shelby that I know from university."
"I can't guarantee, but I'll try."
Jerry leaned against his Ford Focus with folded arms to shield himself from the wintry evening when he saw Shelby exiting the house. She wore a grey fleece turtleneck and blue jeans with a pair of beige suede boots. Folded over her left forearm was a coat of the same color as her shoes. He noticed from her demeanor that her confidence was slowly coating her face with color, a stark difference for what she was a mere couple of hours ago.
"Hey." Jerry called out. "Did you bake your face in makeup? Don't you think you should wear your coat now?"
"Idiot. It's the work of eyeshadow." A now-bespectacled Shelby playfully punched his shoulder. "I don't want people at the cafe to think that you bullied me into tears. Otherwise, why in the world am I in spectacles when I could've easily worn contacts? It's only seven p.m. The coat's for later, assuming that there is something else on your sleeve."
"I'm just joking." He raised both hands in mock defeat. "Like, going out for drinks at the pub on a Saturday night?"
Shelby nodded, sliding into the coat.
"Damn. You got me. Let's get going then."
He opened the car door for her to enter before making his way to the driver's seat."
"But instead of the pub, can you accompany me to somewhere after dinner? Seeing that you're my good friend, there's something I feel you should know."
He swallowed his throat. "Okay."
Jerry saw the change in Shelby’s behavior when they exited the newly-opened French restaurant three hours later. He knew that it wasn’t the cuisine that bothered her because if it was, she’d have raised fury on it by now. She wouldn’t have remained reticent as they walked together to his car that was not too far away.
“Are you alright, Shelby?” He couldn’t help but ask. “Is something bothering you?”
“I’m alright.” Shelby lied through her teeth. “I’m just thinking on work.”
While it was partially true that she was deep in thought, it wasn’t about her career that she was pondering on. It was something else that she wanted to wait until the right time to shed light on.
The remaining distance was filled with silence.
Although she insisted that there was nothing wrong, he knew, from all their years of friendship, that she was hiding something from him. Being the gentleman that he was, he opened the door and ensured that Shelby was comfortable in the passenger seat before making his way to the driver’s seat.
“So, where’s the place that you mentioned?”
Shelby wore her seat belt. “I’ll guide you there.”
Jerry brought the car engine to life and sped off.
“Why this place, Shelby?”
“Don’t you remember? This was the place that we first met, Jerry.”
“I obviously do, but I mean, why did you choose to bring me here?”
Standing in the middle of the brightly-lit park, it was the place where they first met at their university’s orientation activity almost seven years ago. It was a barbecue session for the students - from undergraduate and postgraduate to international and domestic - to acquaint themselves with each other, and hopefully form lasting friendships. Although Shelby registered her participation for it, she was hesitant on going for it because her college friend unexpectedly bailed out at the eleventh hour. Yet, she figured that there was no harm done if she showed up.
As it was getting crowded with the thousands of students, finding a free spot to herself was becoming harder. She knew that she’d have to squeeze and share a space with someone if she wanted to eat in comfort. She thought that she saw an empty space near Jerry and took a deep breath before asking if she could join him and his group of friends, to which they agreed.
By the time they left for their separate ways at the end of the activity, they had each other’s cell numbers stored on their phones.
Bringing herself back to the present moment, Shelby breathed the fresh air and turned to face Jerry. “I wanted the night to end on a memorable note. There’s something I have to give you.” She dug deep into her purse and handed him an envelope. “This would explain the reason why we’re here.”
“What is this?” Jerry took it from her.
“You’ll know when you open it.”
He tore it open and was greeted by the sight of two printed documents: her latest medical report and a legal document with his name on it. His eyes bulged with horror as he scanned the contents of the report. The level of her white blood cells was higher than average while her red blood cells were dangerously low to the point of anemia. He was not a doctor, but he immediately knew that this was indicative of a blood cell disorder.
Crap, he silently cursed, as he remembered asking Shelby about her sudden and unexplained weight loss. She had instead attributed it to academic and work stress. Why didn’t she tell me that she was experiencing a grave health issue?
Breathing harder, he switched his attention to the legal document. It was a will and a fixed trust, to be exact. It was written with such clarity that the final destination of her properties and the beneficiaries were clearly identified. She was bequeathing one of her prized possessions - her collection of keychains from her travels interstate and abroad - to him.
He looked up at Shelby, speechless.
“This has brought me down for the last couple of days. My time is running out, and I’ve to make sure that I’ve settled everything before my departure.”
“Do your parents know?”
“They knew it not too long after I was born, but only told me in my teenage years when I was first hospitalized. My illness has been in a stable condition until now.”
“You could’ve kept me in on the loop, Shelby.”
“I wanted to live a normal life where I can experience the full blooms of life. I wanted to experience the four seasons. Spring leaves its magical blossom on the flowers while summer, with its radiant glare, brings the best out of us. Autumn gently sweeping the remnants of the precedent season. Winter replaced happiness with intense sadness that you can burst into tears watching the rain. I know I could’ve told you, but I didn’t want you to worry for me.”
Gazing into Shelby’s glistened eyes, his own pair shone with tears at the prospect of losing his good friend to the Angel of Death. It was traumatic enough having to deal with the breakdown of his relationship, but that was Kate’s choice to walk out, although she could’ve chosen a better method of resolving it. Shelby’s case was different because she wasn’t given a choice to decide on what she wanted in life.
He felt like he had received thousands of stab wounds and it silently suffocated him to the point where he wanted to break down in tears at the Fate’s cruel stroke. He clutched the documents as if it was his life on the line here.
“We could seek for a second opinion. You could consult your doctor to see if there are other better treatment options. Or, we could find you a world-renowned specialist in the field to help you out.”
Shelby shook her head with a sad smile.
“I just want out, Jerry. I’m tired of exploring the numerous options to regain a perfect bill of health. It’s exhausting, knowing that there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. The truth is I’ll be gone at anytime, and me continuously forcing myself to undergo treatment is just a way of denying it.”
Her words were the final stab to his heart. The tears uncontrollably swam down his cheeks, rendering him at a loss for words.
“Oh, God.” Shelby wiped the tears off his cheeks. “It’s only going to get worse, Jerry, and I really want you to have a better memory of our friendship. I don’t want you to remember me at my weakest in the hospital. Please don’t cry.”
“But I’ve promised that I’ll be there for you as a friend, through the good and bad times. Let me honor my promise.”
“My Mom’s flying in to take care of me.”
“That’s good of your Mom.” Jerry sighed. “I really wished that I knew about this earlier, Shelby.”
“You see, I’m considered lucky that God has allowed me to experience adulthood, although it has come at a price. I’ll never be able to experience marriage and motherhood, but it’s alright. I’ve heard wonderful stories about it to form my opinion on it. Meeting you as a good friend was actually one of the best things to happen in my life, Jerry.”
“And it’s my pleasure to have met you at the barbecue activity too, Shelby.” Jerry laid an arm over Shelby’s shoulder. “Let’s get you home. After what you’ve just told me, you need to exercise more care into maintaining your health.”