I want to run from the back exit of the nursing home to the car park, but all Evelyn can manage is a crab-like shuffle. Her wheezing giggles don’t help.
“We’ll be seen for sure,” I tell her.
“No, we won’t,” she says, her voice muffled by the mask connected to the portable oxygen tank hidden in her backpack. “Staff take their tea break during visiting hours.”
I don’t know why I worry. Evelyn knows the daily routine better than I do. I guess I want to make sure today, of all days, is perfect. I planned for everything – except for Nurse Nora refusing to give Evelyn a day pass. Not that it mattered. Weren’t we the experts at absconding from school? Evading a nurse was no different than hiding from a teacher.
When we reach my car, I slip the backpack from Evelyn’s shoulders and help her into the passenger seat.
“Stay down until we get out of here,” I say.
Evelyn leans her head back against the seat. “Any exertion could exacerbate her condition,” she says, mimicking Nurse Nora. She sucks in a gasp of oxygen before continuing. “She won’t check on me for hours, if at all.” She pauses. “Mr. Andrews died last night. She’ll be busy.”
“Wasn’t he nearly one hundred?” I liked Mr. Andrews with his grandfatherly wisdom.
“Yeah. Lucky bastard.”
Lucky he died or lucky he lived the full term of his life? I sigh. I hate seeing Evelyn in this nursing home, but where else can she go? There’s no palliative care facility for a twenty-six-year-old stricken with cancer. Instead, she’s been shoved in with the elderly who discuss the latest death or talk about long lives Evelyn will never experience. With Evelyn’s deteriorating condition, she could be next in line to die, but if that’s the case, who has the right to deny her a day out in fresh air and sunshine? But when Evelyn takes another gasp of oxygen, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing in sneaking her out.
“Are you sure you can do this?” I ask as I slide into the driver’s seat.
She nods. “Just drive.”
It takes an hour to get to my planned destination. When I reach a dirt road, I roll down the windows. Evelyn has been quiet for the entire trip, but her eyes brighten when she smells the fresh air. “Where are we going?”
I smile. “You’ll see.”
My secret is revealed when we crest a hill. In front of us, the ocean stretches to the horizon. White-capped waves roll with the incoming tide.
The road winds down the other side of the hill to a beach at the bottom. I pull over near a sandy track. The path isn’t long, but after wasting energy escaping the nurse, I wonder if Evelyn has the strength to make it.
But she’s already getting out of the car – the scent of the sea has renewed her strength. I hurry to help her.
She smiles at me. “You remembered.”
“Of course I did. I’m not your best friend for nothing, you know.”
She stares toward the ocean. “I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to see it again.”
I collect a picnic basket and a blanket from the back seat. “Think you can make it to the end?”
“I’ll die trying.”
My heart tugs. One day, she will die. But not today. Today the northerly breeze will warm her face and sand will polish her feet. And if she can’t sleep tonight, she’ll be able to numb her pain by breathing in time to the memory of the rise and fall of the ocean.
When we reach the beach, I spread out the blanket and help Evelyn sit before she collapses. Her pinched expression shows the effort of walking through sand. Hearing her short breaths, I raise the oxygen mask to her mouth, but she pushes my hand away.
“It’s been so long since I’ve tasted the salt of the sea,” she says.
I sit down next to her. This is her moment, the moment I defied authority to give her. I want her to experience the sense of peace that can only be found on an isolated beach.
When the wind changes to the east, Evelyn places her hand over mine. “Thank you.” She starts to rise, but I grab her hand.
“Wait. I’ve got one more thing before we go.” Reaching into the basket, I pull out a cupcake complete with white frosted icing and a single candle. Pulling out a lighter from my pocket, I light the candle and hold out the cupcake. “Happy birthday. Make a wish.”
Evelyn laughs. “You know wishes don’t work.” But she leans forward and blows. She wheezes through another laugh. I think the wind helped snuff the flame. She coughs. Then closes her eyes at what I know is a stab of pain in her chest.
“I wish I could die right here,” she says, her voice breaking, “with the sea in my ears and the sand in my toes and my best friend by my side.”
Placing the cupcake on the blanket, I hug her to me. What else can I do to ease her pain? Even if it means losing my best friend, I repeat her wish in my mind. But deep down, I know she’s right. Birthday wishes don’t come true. If they did, the cancer in her ovaries wouldn’t have spread to her lungs, and she wouldn’t be in any line waiting for death to call her number. A tear rolls down my cheek. Ignoring it, I sit with Evelyn in a silence only best friends know how to share and watch the waves roll onto the beach.
When the tide turns, I remember the time. “We should get back. Nurse Nora will have me arrested.”
Evelyn doesn’t move.
“Evelyn?” I shake her shoulder. The oxygen mask falls from her hand.
I hug her to me tighter than ever. I didn’t plan for this.