Clarence didn’t answer questions, anymore.
No teachers called on him for certain solutions in viscous silences and no students leaned over for secondary explanations or even the occasional, quick confirmation. Nobody asked, because Clarence had stopped answering. How long ago was that, again? One semester? Two? Clarence didn’t like counting backwards. He only counted down to graduation: 46 school days left.
Those were the words flying around his head like moths made of mantra. He sat in every class and considered only his great escape, rushing through whatever assignments floated back to him with flawless efficiency. 46 days until he stepped foot on his scholarship rocket ship. Everyone knew that. Except his mom, of course. Though her knowledge was limited to last year. And he was different, then.
People liked to settle his character with the saints—he did no wrong and performed academic miracles. It was an easy mask to wear at first; let him slip by and smile big and skip a grade. The problem was that nobody let him take it off. Heavy and stilted, humid and stifling. Once he was out of here, then he could refashion his persona into something less nauseating.
He never wanted to be a doctor.
He knew that before he had to sit through consultations with people wearing white coats and open palms, telling them that their hands were tied. His mother’s check-up when everything didn’t check-out.
Zoe still wanted it for him; it made a certain kind of sense. Smart kid goes on to be gifted researcher who discovers ingenious cure for cancer. Her narrative for his life was played out on the faces of the faculty when he requested to skip a year. They wanted him to take it easy. He had just suffered a major loss.
Clarence knew what cards to play, though, how to strum their sympathies to the tune of his choosing. Urgency was key. So they let him go.
Off he went.
Zoe had visited one of those last days that blended together like melted crayons. Intensive care, where irony went to overdose. He remembered his mother light up for the last time, body encased by blinking bulbs and soft beeps.
Zoe, she had said. I know you’ll take good care of my boy. He’s too smart to know anything.
He sure is, Ms. Kendra, she had replied. But I don’t think he’s too smart to learn.
Well, I hope you have more luck than I did, she’d laughed, gently.
Then she sank back into her pillow, energy expended for the day.
Zoe perched on the bed and slipped her hand into his mother’s.
Clarence sat in his chair let them have their moment. He didn’t have any more time for tears.
He read textbooks next to his mother’s bed between sessions with doctors who told them what they already knew for money they didn’t have in time they couldn’t spare. The way he figured, it was actually all very simple—a pre-existing condition would preclude his mother’s existence. A conclusion as stark as black text on white leaf.
Page after page ran through his fingers like textured silk. Every once in a while a nurse would come to change IVs, see him with his books, and flash a pitying grin. He would recognize the same look on everyone’s face from that day until he graduated, and it made him sick. That future was now too facile to fathom.
“Cure for cancer.” Words that would have made him laugh were he anywhere else except slumped in a tired chair next to his mother’s misery. Because they already had a fucking cure.
No. There was another reason he had to sit here and witness his mother’s chest heave slowing breaths under white sheets crisp as crackers, her eyes already closed, resigned. The truth gnawed behind his ears and clogged his throat with cotton while he waited for the sweet robbery.
And there she went.
The nurses rushed in, but didn’t dare attempt to resuscitate. The doctor followed, pen in hand, filling out a certificate with a glance at the clock. Then he looked at Clarence, textbook clasped closed, cemented to his seat, eyes swimming.
There it was again. That same face—an ignorant hope he could no longer claim.
Clarence bit his lip. His stomach turned and jumped and shrank and soured. Because he knew that if they had really cared then his mother would have been cared for.
The nurses switched off the bulbs and silenced the incessant beeps before helping him out of his seat, one scrub under each arm, dragging him to the hallway.
They already had a fucking cure.
He just couldn’t afford it.