On our first day back from Summer Break, my best friend Jimmy fell out of his chair clutching his knee, screaming. I laughed, believing this to be an out-of-place practical joke I was usually in on. Jimmy kept saying his kneecap blew up under his skin. Everyone in the room looked at Jimmy in confusion, but watching his eyes dart around the room, I saw the same look of pain from when he fell off his bike and ripped his leg up in middle school. I crawled over my desk and sat next to Jimmy. I tried to calm him down and ask him what was happening, but he babbled and moaned. Soon, everyone was shouting: shouting at me, shouting at Jimmy, shouting at our US History teacher, Mr. Birch. Soon this was all too much for him to handle, so Mr. Birch told everyone you’ve got to get out of the room, you’ve got to. That was his catchphrase: you’ve got to! Whether that be homework, not cheating on a test, or registering to vote, he used his phrase for everything, holding the emphasis on “got”.
Out in the hall, it hit me: that was the knee Jimmy hurt during a catering gig over the summer. A doctor said it was a strained ACL. Jimmy was told to ice it every night for a few days. But now, his moans didn’t sound right. The nurse shot past us. Seconds stretched on as Jimmy’s moans echoed down the hallway. Before we knew it, we heard sirens outside. Then, paramedics shot past us. Then we were sent to the gym. A girl from class turned to me and said, I can’t believe this is happening.
A few minutes later, Mr. Birch walked into the gym and told us the situation. Something is very wrong with his knee. We don’t know yet. Jimmy’s moans seemed to be out of fear and not pain. Right now, we’ve got to get back to class. It will take our minds off what happened. Mr. Birch sounded like he didn’t believe a word he said.
When we got back into the classroom, the nurse hadn’t grabbed Jimmy’s stuff yet. A notebook sat open on his desk. Between notes for class, there were some doodles and lines of poetry. The Haiku consumed Jimmy. Sometimes he talked in 5-7-5. I stuffed the notebook into my binder. I don’t know why. Mr. Birch went back to his lesson on William Jennings Bryan. He concluded by telling us all you’ve got to have a good rest of your day. You’ve got to.
I visited Jimmy in the hospital a few days later. We joked around like nothing had happened and listened to his favorite band, Pink Floyd. Our hangouts were listening parties. I’m a medical mystery, Jimmy said. I got a bump the size of Pluto inside my knee and they can’t figure out how no one noticed until it blew out my kneecap. Then his parents walked into the room with a few doctors. They asked me to leave. When I got home, my parents were at the dinner table in silence.
They broke the news to me. An odd form of bone cancer. Aggressive. Unpredictable. You need to stay strong, you’ve got to, Mom said. Is he gonna die? Mom and Dad said nothing.
In a few days, it metastasized. A few days after, Jimmy’s little brother got taken out of school. Jimmy died when a rapidly growing tumor blocked his esophagus. School was canceled. The funeral was held. The only thing I remember is someone saying, Cancer in his knee? And nobody noticed? His dad told funny stories about Jimmy, but I didn’t feel like laughing.
And things went back to normal. Back in US History, Mr. Birch redid the seating chart and that seemed to make everyone forget. Find your new seat, you’ve got to! And I convinced myself Jimmy was on vacation, but some thought I was going to pull a similar prank. I hope no one falls out of their seat today, some guy said, laughing. I didn’t say anything and I asked to go home. The nurse nodded and wrote a note.
Back at home, I looked through my stuff, and I found Jimmy’s notebook. It was brand new. Jimmy always had twice as many notebooks for his poetry than for school. I still couldn’t believe it. I flipped the notebook to the first page and there was Jimmy’s last Haiku:
I think I got it:
Happiness and everything.
Look around, it’s here.
I stared at it for a few minutes. Jimmy always had everything figured out. At least, he thought he did, and that’s all that mattered. I tore out the page and shoved it into my wallet.
And high school went by. My parents made me go to therapy. Years went by. Graduation day, I walked on a crappy stage and got a piece of paper. Jimmy’s parents stopped by and gave me a rose, in memory of Jimmy, they said. After the ceremony, I put the rose in a vase with water. It lasted about a week, and after I threw it out, I thought about Jimmy less and less.
Later, during college, I was in an English class and my professor asked the class about a devastating moment in our lives. Without thinking, I raised my hand and told Jimmy’s story. After a short silence, my professor said, Winston, I don’t want to sound like a dick, but can cancer act that fast? I laughed. My friend’s death didn’t seem believable. A joke, and I was the only one laughing. I hadn’t laughed that hard in a long time. I wiped a tear from my eye and looked through my wallet. I took out Jimmy’s Haiku, now worn and wrinkled. I passed it around the room. So why are you telling us this? my professor said. Because it did happen, I said.
Jakob Westpfahl is from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area. He writes from Omaha, Nebraska.