Twenty-four-year-old Summer Johnson knows two things. The first is that due to a quickly worsening medical condition, she faces a risky surgery in three months’ time that may very well end in her death. The second is that she would like to fall in love before then.
As spring sinks into her namesake season on the Florida coastline, Summer plays the odds and downloads a new dating app – and after one intriguing message from a beautiful surfer named Cooper Nichols, it becomes clear that the story of what may be her last few months under the sun is about to be completely revised. All she has to do now is write something worth reading.
Tender, honest, devastating and triumphant, The Summer Remains explores a very human battle being waged in a very digital age: the search for a love that will outlast this temporary borrowing of bones. In an era when many feel compelled to share and re-share anything about everything, prepare to feel a love so special, you will want to hug it close and make it yours forever.
On a sunny Tuesday morning towards the end of March, a white-haired man walked into a cold room and told me I might die soon.
I fidgeted on the hospital bed as Dr. Steinberg entered, the late-spring sunlight mocking me as smiled onto the industrial tile floors. I’d known Steinberg since I was four. He’d handled almost all of my throat problems, and I trusted him. He was like a second father to me, and I knew he would always tell me the truth.
That’s why the look on his face scared the living shit out of me.
I listened for the next ten minutes as he gave me the gist of the story. It was all so surreal that my mind could only catch certain phrases before the sentence would run away from me again:
Your esophagus has ruptured again, for good this time…
Your stomach is leaking more and more…
Toxicity levels are through the roof…
Your body just isn’t getting the nutrients it needs from your feeding tube any longer…
And finally, terminal.
“Terminal?” I heard myself squeak, my throat filling up with that weird, shivery feeling you get when you know your life has just changed. Steinberg suddenly became very interested in a fraying string on the sleeve of his jacket.
“T-terminal,” he stuttered. “Summer, the thing is…I’m afraid this is a…well, nobody has ever…”
He finally cleared his throat and met my gaze, tears pooling in the corners of his cerulean eyes. “Sweetheart, I am so sorry to tell you this, but this mountain may be unclimbable for you.”
My mother let out a small, sharp sob in the corner and then clapped her hands over her mouth.
“Okay, unclimbable,” I swallowed, staring down at the floor as I tried to grasp just what that word now meant to me and my family and this weird little life I had created for myself. “Okay. Unclimbable. Okay.”
But Steinberg wasn’t done yet.
“Hold on. I said it may be unclimbable, not that it definitely will be. I want to prepare you, and I don’t want to give you any false hope, but there may be something we can do, Summer. It’s a small chance, but still, it’s a chance. A Hail Mary, if you will.”
I reached up to rub my temples. “Okay, well, survival sounds good. Better than death, I suppose. What is this Hail Mary?”
Steinberg crossed his arms, studied me for a moment, and then took out a chart and launched into a spiel about something called the Porter-Collins Procedure, an extremely major surgery that would perhaps be saving my life in three months’ time.
“Nobody has ever survived this particular operation,” he concluded a few minutes later, skipping all the medical jargon to keep from boring you to death, pardon my pun. “Nobody. It’s been attempted three times, but none of those were ultimately successful. One person survived for three months in intensive care, but she was fifty-one, and in frail health in general. We think you’re a much more viable candidate, but then again, there is no way to be sure. We can do it in two, maybe three months, after I assemble the specialists and create a game plan – considering your health doesn’t take another nosedive before then, that is. If we’re going to try this, we need you in tip-top shape – or as close to that as we can get you, anyway.”
“Okay,” I said again, sitting a little taller. “And what are the chances that this Hail Mary will even work, and that I won’t just die a few days later, anyway?”
He peered down at me from over his glasses. “I’m afraid to say that it would be stretching things to even tell you eighty/twenty.”
I steeled myself and took a breath. “Okay, well, that’s better than a hundred to zero. Let’s go out with a bang, then, Steinberg. Let’s do this.”
He threw up a fist, triumphant, but I could see the fear in his eyes. “It’s settled, then. Hail Mary it is.”
My mom rushed over to sit beside me and kind of hang onto my shoulder as some counselor woman came in who helped families handle these types of situations – “transitions,” she called them, and just hearing that word threatened to pull me under. Dr. Steinberg watched, an apology on his face, as she said things like “preparations” and “options” and “arrangements.” I tried to be polite and pay attention, but truthfully I didn’t give a damn about what she was saying. It was go time, and things were looking grim. I already knew that. The wet, metallic panic erupting in my stomach was due to an entirely different subject.
“And finally,” the counselor, Angie, said in a hushed, clipped, polite voice that spoke of years of having impossible conversations with worried families huddled in chilly waiting rooms, “I work very closely with Last Great Hope, a wonderful organization that specializes in situations like this, and if there is anything you want before the surgery, Summer – a trip to Tahiti, a cabin in the mountains, whatever – we can do it. Or if-”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said, making her stop short.
“Wh – excuse me?”
“Save the Disney trips for the twelve-year-olds,” I told her. “Spend all that money on a cancer kid or something; I know the truth about those fairy tales now. Make someone else happy – I’ve got everything I need. Or almost everything.” I paused as everyone leaned in. “I do have one request, actually. First of all, all of you are forgetting something vital.”
“Oh no, did we forget your milk?” my mom asked as she reached for her purse. “I thought I put some-”
“No, Shelly, we did not forget the baby milk I pump into my stomach tube every day to keep myself alive because my throat doesn’t work, but that does have something to do with it.”
As she pouted in my general direction I realized what a complete bitch I was being, and then I realized just as quickly that I probably wouldn’t be able to stop myself anyway.
“What is it, then?” my mom asked, stung, and I took a breath and then pushed it back out.
“Frankly, I need all of you to chill the fuck out.”
My mom dropped her purse onto her lap. Dr. Steinberg looked at me like I’d just tried to jump out of the third story window. Angie held her pen in midair and stared at me, the sun turning her brownish eyes ocher.
“Excuse me, young lady?” my mother asked. “We need to what?”
“Chill the eff out,” I said, editing my language the second time around. “Sorry, but all this emotion and drama and doom and gloom crap is already making me freak out. You’re all forgetting I’ve had a broken throat and a tube in my abdomen since I was in diapers, and that I can handle this. I’ve dealt with health scares before, and I will do it again, no matter how much scarier this Scare is than all the other Scares. Like, I know you’re trying to help and stuff, and I love you, but having meltdowns in front of me is not going to help me deal with all this, so please, I beg you, everyone take a deep breath, close your eyes, and get your panties out of a bunch.”
“We’re sorry,” my mom said after an impossibly long and awkward moment. “It’s just that we need to prepare you for…for what will happen, and-”
“Prepare me to die?” I asked. “Guess what, Shelly, I’m going to die one day, be it in three months or sixty years, and wasting all my time crying over it isn’t going to help. Here’s what I want, my one last wish – or my maybe-not-last wish, or whatever the hell this is.” A tear appeared in my mom’s eye, and I softened my voice as I reached up to wipe her cheek. “Okay. Before the surgery, I want to have a normal summer by the beach,” I began as I cleared her eye and shook the water from my finger. “I want to go to the sea and go to work and read my books and go about my business like usual without everyone breathing down my neck and treating me like A Broken Person, because if I am treated like A Broken Person for one more month of my life I will break some faces, no offense. Shelly, if you so much as make one special meal – I mean, not that I can eat or anything, because I can’t – anyway, I’m burning down the house. There will literally be a pile of smoldering ashes where your kitchen used to be, I promise.” Shelly pouted again, but I trudged through. “I’m serious, no special treatment. No Christmases in July, no excessive hugging, not even a midnight run to Target for some trinkets from the dollar section. And most of all…”
I looked around and, seeing sympathy in everyone’s eyes and knowing this request would be completely futile, said – “No sympathy. Please. The sympathy is what breaks me and makes me feel broken. If this is gonna be my last chance to live and have fun and be normal, then I’m going to need to feel as normal as possible, and that means absolutely no pity, because that separates me from everyone else and makes me Different with a capital D. And if I don’t stay in a good headspace I’m gonna spend the next three months in a fetal position in my closet having an endless anxiety attack about the surgery, so please work with me here and keep the pity locked up.”
A sigh and a smile. Shelly put her hand on mine. “I would never pity you, Summer. You’re the strongest person I know, and you always have been. You know that. We all know that. That’s not what this is about.”
I tried to smile back. “Thanks, Shelly.”
“Anytime. And can you please call me Mom, like a normal twenty-four-year-old?”
“Not a chance, Shelly.”
“Okay, fine. So, then…a Jax Beach summer? Is that really all you want?”
I paused as her words hung in the overly sanitized air. It wasn’t all, and I knew it. As I sat there I thought of the one thing I didn’t have, the one thing I’d never had, the one thing that screamed at me from the silence and jumped out at me from the shadows – and now that this upcoming summer had perhaps just become Summer’s Last Stand, my desire was suddenly more urgent than ever. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop the longing from rising to my face, and as I felt the blood burn my cheeks I caught Steinberg’s eyes again, which just embarrassed me even more.
“Well, I mean, since you’re asking, there is one thing…”
“Anything!” Shelly and Dr. Steinberg said at exactly the same time, and I stared out of the window as my eyes got all weird and watery.
“Okay, well, I know something so sentimental is going to sound crazy coming from someone so…well, you know how I am…”
“Honest?” Steinberg offered, trying to be polite.
“Opinionated?” Shelly said.
“Brash?” Angie asked, even though she’d just met me ten minutes ago and it was literally beyond embarrassing that she already held that opinion of me.
“Headstrong and stubborn and annoying,” I finally said, shoving it out of the way, and they all nodded. “Anyway, here goes. Since you’re asking, the thing is…well, I’d like to fall in love.”
I looked down at the ground again as everyone in the room broke my most important rule already: I could feel their pity descending on me, smothering me just like it had my entire life, snuffing out any chance I had at being treated like a normal, living, breathing human, who deserved to love and be loved just like anyone else, as they say in the Hallmark cards.
“Oh, honey…” Steinberg sighed.
“It just wouldn’t be fair to someone…” my mother chimed in, just as Angie the counselor lady threw in her two cents, too.
“Sweetie, you have to understand, your situation is very serious. People get irrational during times like these, and if you get involved with someone and the worst happened, well-”
I crossed my fingers behind my back and shook my head. I’d known they’d react like this – why had I even tried in the first place? Some things, I knew, were just better left unshared.
“Yeah,” I said. “Okay, yeah, you guys are right. I’ll try to…put that off, I guess. For now. God knows I have tons of time to think about it – it’s not like I’m dying or anything.”
Everyone forced quick, fake laughs and then got back to business. Unbeknownst to them, however, my mind was quickly leaving the room, flying past the barren oak branches outside the window and soaring above the clouds to someplace only I knew. My desires could not be contained by the circumstances in this room, or by sickness, or even by reality in general, really. I wanted love more than anything – this was true, as much as it humiliated me to admit it. I’d wanted love ever since I was a cookie-cutter little girl being brainwashed by cookie-cutter Disney movies about cookie-cutter princes and princesses falling into cookie-cutter love and then prancing off to their cookie-cutter castles to live out their cookie-cutter lives. And strangely enough, this desire had only deepened after the fairy tale fantasies faded away and melted into a more grown up, real-world entity known as relationship FOMO, when my condition had rendered me an observer from the social media sidelines as everyone my age paired up and got engaged and married and pregnant and then shouted about it from the Facebook treetops as loud as their keyboards would let them while I sat there single as a nun with the flu. But I didn’t want that cookie cutter love from the Disney movies and my social media feeds. I didn’t want some run of the mill summer romance that would fizzle out as soon as the sunrays slanted in the fall and the Facebook Official status went to shit.
Because I, Summer Johnson, Purveyor of Pragmatism, Lover of Logic, Ultimate Believer in the Rational, and Person Who Was Maybe Going To Die Soon, wanted to drown in someone.
Seth King is a twenty-five-year-old author and artist.