Author's Note: Hello, readers. Like some of you may have guessed from the title, this is going to be a "spinoff" of a story I wrote for the times a few months ago, "Solve For X". This story takes place two years before "Solve For X" began, and is from the point of view of Adam. If you did not read "Solve For X", you can read it by searching for Article ID 12768. If you do not wish to read S4X, you should be able to understand this story just fine. Thanks for reading.
"I-I'm sorry," I whispered while looking at my best friend and her tear-stained, pain-stricken face.
Kayla's eyes looked away from me painfully. "Adam, I know it's a lot to ask . . . but would you be willing to come?"
Christmas was supposed to be a time about happiness and gift-giving, Santa Claus, anything but this. I ran my hands through my hair and looked behind her at the mirror against the wall. I stared at my grief-ridden reflection and felt ashamed of myself. How could I be falling apart when she wasn't?
"If you don't want to come see him, I get it, I jus-"
"I'll be there. Promise."
Kayla gave me a weak smile and rubbed her smudged eye make up. "Th-thanks. Merry Christmas."
With that, she opened the front door and closed it behind me. "Merry Christmas," I murmured as I headed upstairs.
The next morning, the first thing I remember hearing was my sister's loud voice rattling through my room. "Addy, get up! It's Christmas! C'mon!"
Groaning, I rolled over on my side and faced the wall. It had to be no later than seven AM, and this was ridiculous. We weren't kids anymore; we didn't need to wake at the crack of dawn to see what "Santa" had gotten us.
"Seriously. It's already noon. And Grandma's here already." I could feel my bare chest be exposed to the chilly air as my sister ripped my blanket off of me and threw it to the floor. "You're so lazy. I'm going to take all your presents if you're not down in ten."
Christmas at my house was always the same. MiKell and I would wake up early that morning, scream for our parents to join us around the tree, then we would open all our gifts. Mom and Dad would go last opening their presents, and we would all spend the morning playing with them. Around noon, my Dad's sister's family and my grandmother would come over and eat Christmas dinner with us. We would open a few presents from each other that evening, and all the adults would get drunk on eggnog, us kids occasionally sneaking a glass or two and gaping at how disgusting it was, and how crazy it was that the adults could drink it easily.
Last year, my seventeen-year-old cousin Sarah skipped out on our Christmas get-to-gather, and it wasn't really the same. Sarah was my only cousin on my dad's side anywhere near my age. My sister, MiKell, was three years younger than me and five years younger than Sarah, and after countless Christmases of attempting to tag along with us older cousins, MiKell finally agreed to play with Colton and Mitchell. My Aunt Judy and Uncle Roger were blessed with the easiest, most perfect child a parent could ever ask for when it came to Sarah, but their eight-year-old twins were quite the opposite. Sometimes, an entire Christmas afternoon consisted of trying to find a place to escape MiKell and the terrible two.
Without Sarah around, Christmas had been horrible. I was forced to look after the twins while MiKell talked with the adults about who knows what. This year, things would be different.
After throwing on a clean red shirt and a pair of black jeans, I headed downstairs and to the kitchen. I spotted my mother crouched over the stove, her perfectly done hair frizzing from the steam sizzling out of a large pot.
"Hey, Mom," I began while sitting in a bar stool overlooking the counter and fiddling with an apple.
"Merry Christmas, sweetie," her blue eyes gleamed into mine for a few moments and redirected their attention to a gurgling pot on the stove. "I put your presents on my bed. You can open them later when Grandma and the rest of them leave. I still wish you would have opened them earlier with the rest of us. . . "
I stared at the apple in between my fingers and sighed. "About that. Is there any way I can leave at like, four?"
I heard a spoon clank in the pot. "Adam! Christmas is important. It's about spending time with family. Why exactly are you wanting to leave?"
I rammed my nails into the apple's skin. "Kayla's dad is back in the hospital. They said that the cancer is back and it's unlikely they can stop it this time."
There was a long silence between the two of us. I looked up at my mother and saw her eyes glisten with moisture. "That'd be fine. Is Kayla's mother picking you up?"
I didn't feeling like telling my mother Kayla was going to be the one driving. She had her permit, so it wasn't like she didn't know how to drive, but I didn't want to get a lecture on safety and being a "law-abiding citizen" right now.
"Uh, yeah. Thanks." I stood up from the stool and gave my mother a hug. "Merry Christmas, Mom."
It wasn't long before the rest of my family came and my house was filled with commotion. Aunt Judy's loud, high voice bounced off every item in the room, the twins' bickering echoed through the walls, and the Christmas carols my mother insisted on playing in the background added to the head-ache inducing atmosphere.
I may have gone insane if it wasn't for Sarah. I was so thankful when she showed up and looked the same as I remembered two years ago.
"You're so old now. It makes me feel ancient, you know," she said to me as we chilled in my room away from the loudness below.
I laughed and grabbed my vibrating phone. "That's what happens when you skip out a year!"
I read a text from my long-time friend, Jordyn, wishing me a Merry Christmas as Sarah went on about having a Christmas dance recital she couldn't have missed for the world. "Word around here has it you're skipping out later on a hot date. What's that about? Hmm?"
I rolled my eyes. "No. I'm going to visit my friend's dad with her. He's dying of cancer."
Sarah's smile sank as she looked away. "Oh. Wow- I feel like a complete jerk now."
I let out an exasperated sigh. "No, you're fine. I just kind of wish it wasn't happening and I could just stay here. I don't want to let her down, though."
Sarah sat up against my bed and looked across the room at me. "I think it's great you're doing that for your friend. You said it's a her?"
I felt some heat enter my cheeks. "Um, yeah. We're known each other for like, ever though so it isn't like that."
"Childhood friends? That's cute."
"Yeah . . ." I searched my brain frantically for a topic-changer. "I just a text from my other childhood friend, Jordyn, just now."
"Oo my little cousin is best friends with two girls? Aren't you a ladies man . . ."
I laughed. "Not at all. I'm so gross."
Sarah scoffed. "Shut up, you're hot in a non-awkward, cousinly way. Get over yourself!"
"Well you're hot in a non-awkward, cousinly way then too!"
"You're just saying that because I said that!"
I laughed and fired back the wittiest remark I could think of. We continued talking and catching up on each others' lives until Kayla texted me saying she was in my driveway.
"Hey, she's here now," I said while getting up and grabbing a jacket off the floor.
Sarah looked out my window. "She drove herself? Are you friends with an older woman or a bad girl?"
I thought about the three weeks between Kayla's and my birthdays and laughed. "Both. Bye Sarah!"
With that, I raced downstairs and slipped out the door before my father could spot me and drag me into a conversation.
As I stepped inside Kayla's mom's car, I couldn't help but nearly die of second-hand smoke.
Kayla started up the engine and cleared her throat. "Sorry- I know it's really bad. She's been going through a pack-and-a-half a day since Dad got readmitted into the hospital."
I tried to control coughing as I responded as best I could. "I gotcha."
I felt really dull ending the conversation like that, but I saw Kayla smile faintly.
The silence between us was killing me, but I didn't know if I should ask her how her father was doing and make her upset, or talk about something else and risk seeming insensitive.
"So, did you wake up at like, four AM and open presents with MiKell like usual?" Kayla grinned and grabbed a tissue from the glove compartment.
"Sorry- cold," she whispered as she blew her nose heavily.
"Well, no. I woke up at noon actually. My Grandma was already here and everything."
Kayla threw the tissue on the seat behind her and cleared her throat. "Oh. Well I woke up later, too. Mom just gave Jacob his presents last night so she wouldn't have to get up early today."
Kayla's dad was great, but if there was one thing I never understood, it was how he somehow saw good in her mother- twice- and fathered her kids. They were complete opposites for one, and while he made a solid attempt to be a part of his kids' lives, she hardly paid attention to them. I wish that whoever decides where the kids go when the parents split up could see situations like this and put the kids where they would be better off, not where the mother is.
The rest of the ride was mostly silent, but the hospital wasn't very far away. In about ten minutes we were pulling into the parking lot and exiting the car. Kayla and I walked to the front of the hospital quickly, hands in pockets, clouds of breath running into each other. We passed by several fake Santas ringing bells, though none of them seemed too eager to take our loose change. Something about seeing two kids walking into a hospital on Christmas Day made them back off and let us do our own thing.
Kayla spoke quietly to the woman at the front desk as I looked around the hospital lobby. Dozens of humongous trees were decorated with gold and silver while other various Christmas decorations filled the room.
As I stared up at a giant wreath above us, Kayla came over to me. "The elevators are over here."
I followed my short, dark-haired friend as she lead me to a set of silver elevators. Kayla and I rode silently up to the third floor and entered room 339. I had known Kayla's father all my life, but I had never seen him the way he looked now. His wavy brown hair was gone, and all that was left was a thin sheet of stubble. His fair skin was an unnatural shade of gray, and his brown eyes seemed darker and duller than usual.
"Baby," he whispered as Kayla let out a sob and grabbed his hand. I stood near the doorway and watched the two of them embrace and cry together. There was nothing more I could do other than observe the two of them and wish cancer didn't exist. I checked my phone several times for no reason other than to appear busier than I was. I thought about Christmas dinner and Sarah and everything I was missing back home. I felt guilty for wishing I was there instead of here with Kayla and her father, but something about being in a hospital on Christmas made me want to scream.
After two painfully slow hours, Kayla came over to me and told me it was time for us to go. Her father seemed to be falling asleep, and outside the hospital was pitch black.
Once again, our elevator ride was silent, but once we made it to the bottom floor Kayla began to speak.
"Thank you so much, Adam. You don't understand how much this means to me."
Suddenly, the last few hours seemed like nothing. All I wanted was to be here with her, making her happy.
We exited the front doors and made our way to the car. As Kayla fumbled with her mother's key ring, it slipped out of her hands and fell onto the snowy ground. I heard her curse loudly and bend down. I waited a few moments for her to come back up, but when I didn't, I went around the car and felt my heart crumble.
"I feel so pathetic," she whispered as she leaned her face against the car door and sobbed.
I grabbed the keys from under her car and used my hand to pull her up. I wrapped my arms around her small body and let her tears burn on my cold neck.
"It's alright." I muttered, not fully believing myself.
"No, it really isn't," she replied as she squeezed me tighter.