Before he had quit, lung cancer had seemed a little like starvation; it happened every day to someone, somewhere, but those people were so far removed from his universe that the idea of it happening to him was almost laughable. Besides, he didn't smoke enough to get lung cancer. And he was too talented, too successful; for crying out loud, he owned a Porsche! (Even if it was used, even if drug cartels kept tracking him down because the fucking cokehead he'd bought the car from didn't see fit to pay for his habit). He had a million reasons he couldn't possibly get lung cancer: too nice, too pretty, called his mother every Friday, sent his brother a check once a month to help him with his band. Had a daughter who needed a daddy to go to Girl Scout Daddies & Daughters dances with. They weren't exactly logical reasons and deep down, he figured a tumor probably wouldn't care if he was the blue-collar sole breadwinner for a family of nineteen, let alone a New York Times bestselling horror novelist. Still, he'd been confident he would be the last man on the planet to end up with the Ultimate Smoker's Cough.
He'd been wrong. Turned out lung cancer didn't know the difference between Gerard and any other unlucky bastard.
The chest X-ray had been for what he had thought was a particularly nasty case of pneumonia. He'd been wheezing and coughing a lot more than usual, his chest hurt like hell, and on the day he'd finally scheduled a doctor's appointment, he'd hacked blood into the bathroom sink while brushing his teeth. That, he figured, wasn't a good sign. When they had decided he needed X-rays, that had been even worse, and a few days later, when they sent him to the oncology department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he decided that he was most likely hosed.
A nurse in the central station had ushered him all the down a long hallway and into the tiny, windowless exam room at the very end. He was instructed to have a seat on the table, not move, and wait for a Dr. Hale to come by with his results, and then the nurse left and closed the door behind her. Twenty minutes passed. To kill time, Gerard ripped open every cuticle with teeth and fingernails. By the time the door finally opened again, he was coming dangerously close to losing his mind, and he sat determinedly on his bleeding hands as a petite, gray-haired woman carrying charts strode into the room. She introduced herself as Dr. Hale, briefly, and then launched into his X-rays with what Gerard felt was a complete lack of preparation for what was to come.
"We're not sure that it's malignant," she had said of the tumor. Tumor. Jesus. Her pen kept tapping and circling the dark pea-looking thing nestled near the curved bottom of Gerard's right lung. "Not yet, anyway. We'll have to watch it for awhile."
Gerard hadn't been listening. He was fixated on the X-ray. It made his insides look more like blueprints than solid flesh and bone, like Gerard was only half-built sketches, and if he poked himself in the chest, his hand would pass right through. It was eerie and depersonalizing, and he didn't like it. He looked at the pen instead.
The pen had stopped tapping. Gerard glanced at the doctor, took in the somewhat impatient look on her face. She was probably late to tell a bunch of other unlucky bastards that their nicotine days were over.
"I asked you a question," she continued, pushing her boxy glasses up her nose. "I understand this is a lot to process, but I need you to listen to me. Are you familiar with the bronchoscopy procedure?"
Gerard shook his head and shifted his body on the exam table, bracing the heels of his hands against the stiff, vinyl-covered foam. The paper crinkled harshly beneath him. He stared at the X-ray again, focusing on the knot of maybe-cancer instead of the ghostly lung around it.
"It's a non-invasive procedure we can use to collect a sample of the tumor for testing. We go into the lung through the mouth with a tiny, flexible fiber optic camera. It's an uncomfortable experience, so you'll be sedated as well as locally anesthetized..."
The rest of the appointment had passed in a murky way, full of medical jargon and disconnected trains of thought. Most of what the oncologist said went right over Gerard's head and faded into background droning, but two things stood out; that she was scheduling him to come back in a month for the broncho-whatever she had tried to tell him about, and that he was being recommended to quit smoking. Immediately. Gerard, still shell-shocked, had accepted the prescription she'd given him for some anti-smoking drug called varenicline, stumbled down the hall, into the elevator, through the lobby, and out into the bright L.A. sunshine.
Cancer. He had fucking cancer.
And now, thanks to this development, he also had nicotine withdrawal. Fuck, life was clearly not worth living. Every terrible thing he'd heard would happen to him was happening, and all he could do was lay his head down on top of his desk and moan about the inhumanity of it all. Sadly, no one was there to listen to him. Bandit was at Lindsey's, and he hadn't told anyone about the tumor yet because Mikey would panic, his mother would demand to move in, and Lindsey would start setting up life insurance policies before the phone call was even over. He would suffer in solitude. But hell if he would suffer quietly.
He sat up and slumped back in his office chair, his eyes shut against the glare of the lamp and his laptop screen. Fuck, his head hurt. Everything hurt; every bone in his body and all of his muscles were screaming in protest of the new anti-nicotine regime. His fingers itched for a smoke. He had tried writing a little, but that had been over before it started, because apparently his creative brain didn't know how to function without a cigarette in hand. Which sucked. According to the Internet, his symptoms weren't going to go away for another three days at least. He had a deadline in two. Looked like his publisher was going to have to wait, for-fucking-once. Gerard was beginning to think publishers were creative parasites; the instant he stuck the period onto the last sentence of one book, they wanted him to start on the next one. They wanted the first chapter of his next book before the end of the week, and the last one had been published not even two months ago.
"Assholes," he declared aloud, and opened his eyes. The coffee maker in the corner chimed as he glanced at the wall clock. 1:07 A.M. In another three minutes, he'd have been awake for thirty-six hours straight. It was a miracle his kidneys hadn't failed, because he'd also been drinking a full pot of coffee each one of those hours. He supposed they were used to the abuse. How old was he? Thirty-seven years? He'd been drinking coffee for twenty-five, although he hadn't really started drinking it until he'd become a full time writer at twenty-two. So, fifteen years of probable caffeine overdose on a virtually daily basis. That he hadn't killed himself yet had to be some kind of accomplishment.
Maybe it's cancer-causing, he mused, as he got up to fill his Lord of the Rings mug. Maybe instead of boring old renal failure, it waited awhile and went straight for the jugular. He gave the coffee pot a suspicious glare. It beeped cheerfully in response and flashed a blue 'COFFEE READY' message at him. If it really was cancer-causing, he decided he didn't care. Slurping his piping-hot potential doom, he walked over to the glass balcony doors, and heaved one open to shuffle into the balmy night air.
For a man who hated the outdoors, Gerard really loved his balcony. It was high up and had a glass bottom that gave you the rad feeling that you were suspended in midair. He felt like he could see the whole of Los Angeles while standing on it, and it was breathtaking, especially at night. What was a hazy, orange-ish mess of traffic and anorexic palm trees during the day turned into a twinkling carpet after sundown, an endless grid of candle flames against deep black velvet. He clutched his mug, and gazed out, all of his senses on high alert thanks to the metric ton of caffeine coursing through his veins. The breeze felt good against his cheeks. Smog and smoke and something exotic and fruity filled his nose. He took a deep breath, and grinned.
"I GUESS SOME KIDS ARE JUST BORN WITH TRAGEDY IN THEIR BLOOD"
Gerard came pretty fucking close to witnessing his own heart leaping out of his throat as he made a strangled sound of sheer panic and flailed so hard he fell over. Coffee sloshed out of his mug and onto his t-shirt on the way down, adding injury to terror, and he had a few bad seconds of "I am going to keel the fuck over" before he squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to take deep breaths. Heart palpitations mostly over, he slammed his now empty coffee mug down onto the balcony floor and dug his phone out of his pocket, which had been the source of the hell-screech. He suspected Mikey's hand in this.
Whoever was calling, he didn't have their number. Why the hell would a stranger be calling him at a quarter past one in the morning? Especially a stranger that apparently lived in Bumfuck, Egypt, according to the long string of numbers that he was pretty sure meant an international call. He frowned down at the screen for a few rings before he answered, curiosity piqued. "Gerard here."
More static, and then a thin, high voice. " - dy? Are you - "
Gerard pulled the phone away from his head for a few seconds to check his bars, and then said, louder, "I can't hear you very well, um, you've reached Gerard? Way? Hello?"
What sounded like thunder crackled over the line. He winced, and listened hard through the buzzing static to pick out a voice. Finally, after a long few seconds: "Daddy, are you okay?"
"Bandit?" He sat up straighter in disbelief. "Bandit, honey, is that you? Where are you?"
The static faded a little. He caught a few more words from what was definitely Bandit's voice. She sounded more worried. "Daddy? You're scaring me. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," he replied, bewildered. "Sweetheart, can you hear me? Are you with Mommy? What's going on?"
More static, another burst of thunder, and then his phone beeped to tell him the call had cut off. Gerard stared at the screen with his mouth hanging open. What was Bandit doing outside of Los Angeles? And why did she sound so worried about him? She couldn't possibly have known about the tumor. What the hell was going on? He unlocked his phone again, and went straight to the number he dreaded most: Lindsey's. While it rang, he pushed himself back to his feet and leaned against the balcony railing. A slower version of the panic from before had returned and settled heavily in the pit of his stomach; four-year-olds did not call their fathers at all hours of the night for anything other than something horrible.
The line clicked, and then Lindsey's sleep-caked voice was demanding, "Why the fuck are you calling me this late, asshole?"
He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "You tell me, Lindsey. Bandit just called. Apparently from the North Forty? Why the hell aren't you in L.A.?"
There was a pause. "What are you talking about? We are in L.A. Bandit didn't call you, she's asleep."
"What? No, she definitely called. She wanted to know if I was okay, and she sounded scared."
Lindsey heaved a trademark "you-are-too-stupid-to-function" sigh that hissed down the line. "Are you drunk?"
"No! Look, will you just - would you check on her, or something?"
"Fine." Another sigh, a long pause, a door creaking open, Lindsey whispering "Bandit?" Another pause. A thud, another long pause, and then Lindsey was back and whispering furiously, "She hasn't fucking moved since I put her to bed six and a half hours ago. You are such a dick, Gerard, you know that? I was up late sorting through all of your goddamn paperwork, and now you wake me up over something that you made the fuck up - "
Gerard shook his head, baffled. Bandit hadn't called him? What had the "Daddy" thing been about, then? He let Lindsey rant for a few more seconds before he interrupted in the middle of something about how he'd "better not be doing drugs again, because I'm sure the judge will have a few words about that, Mr. Perfect Father" to apologize and then hung up, rubbing his temples with his free hand. It must have been a wrong number. He was never answering calls from unknown numbers ever again. Nothing was worth Lindsey, especially not mis-dials. His headache had returned with a vengeance.
He shoved his phone back into his pocket and stooped to pick up his coffee mug. The smell of smoke had gotten stronger over the course of his weird phone calls. Someone was having a bonfire. Or maybe a funeral pyre. Shit, he needed to stop with the coffee; clearly, it and the lack of sleep were turning him into a lunatic. He went back inside, but not before giving a longing look at the ashtray sitting on the railing. If there was ever a time he both needed and deserved a cigarette, it was now. He bypassed his desk and dropped the mug onto the table with the coffee maker, then walked out of his writing office and down the hall to the bedroom. Sleep suddenly sounded like the best idea in the whole world. He shucked off his jeans and yanked his shirt over his head before promptly collapsing on top of the bed and dropping straight into unconsciousness.