By Hillarie Marie
Martha Thompson is the girl I always wanted to be. It seemed like she owned every outfit
I ever wanted, aced every test I had to study for, dated every guy I ever liked and succeeded at everything I ever tried.
Plus, she never had to unlock her door.
She only lived a few houses down from me, and we
were on the same bus, so every day after school I would watch her go up to her front door, twist the knob, and walk right
in. Sometimes her mom would even wait for her outside.
That was one of the things I was
always jealous of , because since Dad lived in New Jersey now and Mom worked really late, I was always home alone for a long
time after school. So I always had to set all my stuff down and dig through my purse until I found my keys, and then jam them
into the lock which was old and had to be twisted really hard. And Mom never waited for me.
It’s not like I despised her or anything. She was my neighbor, and in a lot of my classes at school. I wouldn’t
necessarily call us friends, but I certainly didn’t have anything against her. It’s just that she always seemed
so perfect. But I didn’t hate her for that. Instead, sometimes I hated myself for not being more like her.
And it wasn’t like I stalked her or anything. I didn’t obsess over the differences between us. But I saw them.
And there were a lot.
She was pretty and smart and kind and said hi to me when we were at
the bus stop. I would smile and say hi back and sometimes we’d talk but not usually.
People liked Martha Thompson.
People didn’t usually like me.
One day, she didn’t come to school. I was alone
at the bus stop. We had the same homeroom and when I got there I heard people asking, “Have you seen Martha?”
and I wondered, If I was gone, would anyone notice?
The bell rang and everyone scurried to their seats, me in the
back. Mrs. Sands, our homeroom teacher, stood up in front of the blackboard like she was going to make an announcement. She
“You may have noticed that your classmate Martha isn’t here today.”
There was a genera buzz of agreement. People looked nervous and exchanged fidgety glances. Everyone had the sense something
bad was coming.
“That is because at a doctor’s appointment yesterday, it was
discovered that she has melanoma...skin cancer. A very…dangerous form of skin cancer.”
It was very, very silent. Then, in a voice so quiet it wouldn’t have been heard had anyone else been talking, someone
moaned, “Oh my God.” It was. Vicky, Martha’s
People started asking questions. Is she in the hospital? Yes, she’s undergoing
chemo. Will she be able to come to school soon? It depends on how well she responds to treatment. Can we all make cards for
her, and send them to her? Yes, I think she’d like that. Will she be okay? To this, Mrs. Sands had no answer.
We made cards. Mrs. Sands asked, “Who lives by Martha? They can give the cards to her parents, so they can be delivered
“April does,” someone chirped, before I had a chance to raise
my hand. A few people twisted around in their seats and glared at me, as if I had been deliberately avoiding the question.
“Yeah,” I said. “She lives a few houses down…I can drop off the cards today, after school.”
“Good,” she said, and then the bell rang.
Some people burst out into the hallway,
as if the tense atmosphere would choke them, and a few wandered out slowly, looking dazed. Most moved in packs of 3 or 4,
discussing among themselves. I walked out, alone, with my books clasped in one hand and a Ziplock bag full of ‘Get Well’
and ‘We Miss You’ cards in the other.
It seemed that by third period every single
person knew about Martha - about popular, pretty, poor, poor Martha. Again I wondered, And if I had cancer?
Martha…the girl I had envied for so long. With cancer. Deadly cancer. I had heard about melanoma before. The most lethal
form of skin cancer by far. And yet…I found my envy of her had scarcely dissipated. I’ve never heard one person’s
name in the hallway so many times in a single day! As if she wasn’t well-known around the school already!
Even as I thought the words I hated myself for it.
Martha doesn’t hate herself.
That’s another reason why she’s better than me.
This was all I could seem
to think about throughout the day.
I tried to actually concentrate on what the teacher was
saying, but it was hard because all I seemed to hear was whispered conversations about Martha. Poor, poor Martha.
Science, history, algebra, lunch, Spanish,
gym, bus, home.
I had forgotten about the cards until Mom got home that night. As I hurriedly
threw on my jacket and shoes, Mom asked where I was going, and I had to explain the whole story.
“Oh!” she squeaked. “That’s awful. Poor Martha. We’ll go to the hospital tomorrow, and you can
deliver them yourself.”
“Oh. Okay.” Jacket and shoes were replaced.
The next day, the teachers started to pick up on the fact that they were being completely tuned out, and they didn’t
like it. The whispered conversations ceased and I found it much easier to focus on the way to distinguish an animal cell from
a plant cell.
Mom left work a little early so we could get to the hospital before visiting
hours ended. Ziploc bag in tow, we went up to the little desk on the floor and asked for “Thompson, Martha”.
“Room 216, third floor.” The girl at the desk appeared bored. She blew a pink bubble from the wad of gum in her
mouth and it popped across her heavily lipsticked lips.
We walked into the elevator, hit
3 and felt it begin to ascend. We were in the only ones there.
She was propped up on a bunch
of pillows, various tubes sticking into her arms. She looked tired but perked up right away when she saw us.
“Oh, April! You didn’t have to come!” Despite saying this she looked extremely pleased to have company other
than her parents, whom, I noticed, were sitting in chairs by the corner, her father leaning back heavily and her mother obviously
just having taken her head out of her hands. She smiled wanly at us.
I held up the bag.
“Everyone in homeroom made cards for you.”
“You know what - Deborah and
I are going to go down to the cafeteria and get a bite to eat, and you can talk to your friend, okay? How’s that, Martha,
sweetie?” Martha’s father stood up and her mother followed suit.
Martha nodded energetically. “Okay,”
she said, brightly. They smiled at her as they left.
My own mother said, “I think
I’ll wait outside too. Okay?”
Now I nodded, though, ironically, not as enthusiastically
as Martha. “Okay,” I said.
“Feel better, Martha.” And she left.
With the room now empty except for the two of us, I saw, to my utter shock, the smile slip away from Martha’s face and
leave it a sorrowful mass of gray. Tears began to spill onto the sheets.
sorry,” she sniffed, miserably wiping at her eyes. “I just…I can’t get like this in front of my parents.
I have to hold it together for them…they can barely hold it together themselves…they were getting a divorce right
before this - literally, they were going to the lawyer’s office after my doctor’s appointment…”
She peered up at me from a tear-streaked face. “I’m sorry, I’ve probably scared you away now.”
I had never seen anyone like this. Hopeless and woeful and just scared. She was scared. Suddenly so was I.
“No…” I sat on the edge of her bed. “You haven’t. It’s okay. You’ve been through
a lot.” More than I can imagine. “Martha…” I looked into her still-misty eyes. “How bad
More tears spilled down her cheeks. “I’m not going to get better,
April,” she said, so quietly I barely heard her. “I caught it too late. God…” she looked away, out
the window. “Why didn’t I catch it sooner?”
“You?” I said.
“You didn’t catch anything too late. This isn’t your fault - you can’t possibly blame yourself
She looked back at me, looking levelly into my eyes. “But I knew
about the tumor. I knew it was there, and I just - I thought it was - a zit or - or something…I’m so, so stupid…”
“Martha!” I exclaimed softly. “Anyone would have thought the same thing. I know I would have thought
the same thing. Who expects someone our age to have cancer?”
A moment of silence.
“You really don’t think this is my fault?”
This was the girl I had envied?
This girl? This girl who sat in a hospital with innumerable tubes sticking out of her arm, whose colorless face nearly
blended in with the white pillow behind her? Who sought the assurance of a girl she barely spoke to except for a single word
of greeting at the bus stop in the mornings? This girl?
Yes. This girl.
“This is no one’s fault, Martha,” I said gently. “Least of all yours.”
“You’re sweet, April,” she smiled a watery smile at me and patted my hand. Her fingers were cold.
A moment passed.
“I was so jealous of you,” I said, with my own eyes now fixed
on the window. “So jealous.”
I expected her to laugh, but instead she
cocked her head and looked quizzically at me. “Why?”
you always got good grades and had a lot of friends and teachers liked you and everybody liked you and I just always seemed
to be…somewhere in the background. And your door was always unlocked.”
Now she did laugh, a laugh that turned
into a deep hacking cough, that caused a nurse in the hallway to turn and glare at me. “My door was unlocked?
That’s why you were jealous me?”
So I explained about the doors.
Just as I finished, Martha’s parents reappeared. I saw the sadness slip from Martha’s feature as easily as the
smile had slid away before and was silently amazed at her acting skills.
I cleared my throat
and said, “Let’s look at the cards.”
We spread out the contents of the
bag and her parents joined us as we looked over them. Martha and I started out as simply commenting on the people who had
made them, but it very quickly descended into an all-out gossip-fest. Even for a few brief minutes, it was nice to forget
we were in a hospital room, for Martha as well as the rest of us.
Soon, though, too soon,
a nurse came over and informed us that visiting hours were over, and that we had to leave. No, actually, I had to leave.
Her parents stayed. I felt a flash of pity for Martha. Another night of make-believe cheerfulness.
“Bye,” I said, waving to her from the door, and she waved back, a few tubes trailing from her wrist.
Mom and I drove home in silence.
A few times after that Mom convinced me to go visit Martha.
Soon, though, I started going of my own accord. After a while it occurred to me that it was kind of stupid to start making
friends with a dying girl. I continued to go anyway.
At school, I noticed, there was less
and less talk of Martha and more and more talk of the upcoming dance. Within a few weeks she seemed all but forgotten.
8 months after that first visit, Martha slipped into a coma. I continued to visit her, even after I lost track of the number
of times doctors told me she couldn’t hear me. I stubbornly appeared at her bedside nearly every day, informing her
of the latest gossip.
The doctors insisted she couldn’t hear me, but I could’ve
sworn she almost smiled a few times.
A few weeks after that, Martha Thompson died.
When I went to school that next day, there were exactly three of us with red eyes: me, Vicky, and Mrs. Sands. We saw each
other and, I think, immediately understood why the others’ eyes were so damn swollen. I wondered if anyone else even
A few days later, Martha’s mother appeared at my door, she too with very red
eyes. I could not imagine why she would be there, and therefore had no idea what to say to her as she stood in my doorway,
but before I could speak she held out her hand. In it was a single piece of paper, folded once and again. “Martha wrote
this. She said to give it to you.” I took it.
She turned on her heel and left.
I closed the door behind her and sunk down in the nearest available chair. Mom wasn’t home yet. Dad was still in Jersey.
I ran my fingers over the paper.
Slowly, cautiously, as if expecting her voice to suddenly
begin speaking from the paper, I unfolded it. The first thing I noticed was that it was dated a few days before she went into
of all, thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without you. Because you convinced me that I wasn’t
to blame for my own death, I don’t have to spend my last days beating myself up. I can enjoy it.
of all, you told me that you were once very jealous of me. You might not even remember it. And I want to tell you- I didn’t
have the guts to say it at the time but it’s true - I was always more than a little jealous of you. You were always
so independent, and never seemed to care what anyone else thought of you and I really admired that. Sometimes I think if I
hadn’t spent so much time worrying about what everyone else thought of me I might have lived a better life.
hate that I became friends with you so late. If things had been different I think we could’ve been really, really good
you, again. For everything. For being my friend when others turned and ran, for being strong when I couldn’t be, for
making me see what I couldn’t see myself. Thank you.
I’m sorry your door was never unlocked.
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