Chris held the phone with trembling hands. He tried to dial the number he'd known since his childhood, but his fingers fumbled over the buttons.
"Here, let me." He let James take the phone from him, dial it, and hold it up to Chris's ear. The blonde tentatively took it.
One ring, two. "Maybe she's – hi Mom!" he said as cheerfully as possible.
"Chris, honey! It's so nice to hear from you. How are you, dear?"
"I'm, I'm alright," he said. "Actually," he continued after a beat. "I need to talk to you about something."
"Of course! What about?"
"Mom," he began, and James noticed his voice was an octave higher than its natural tone. He took his free hand, and Chris continued. "Mom, I was in the hospital a few days ago."
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line, before, "Is everything alright, Chris?"
James rubbed his thumb over Chris's knuckles. "Well, I was, uh, kind of sick for a while, so James got worried and took me in and…" His voice broke, and his eyes welled up a bit. James wrapped an arm around his shoulders to ease his trembling.
"What happened, honey?"
He couldn't bear to hear the dull, defeated tone his usually joyous mother's voice had taken on. It was as if she already knew what he was about to tell her. That was too much – he felt overwhelmed and scared and if his mother couldn't be strong, how was he supposed to be strong? He opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a choked sob.
James gently eased the phone out of Chris's hand and held it to his own ear. "Mrs. Thomas?"
"James, what's going on?"
"Well," he began, trying to keep his voice strong while simultaneously trying to soothe Chris. "Chris started developing cold symptoms, and losing weight, and getting these fevers on and off."
"What are you saying?" It wasn't exactly a question. Those ailments were disturbingly familiar to her.
James bit his lip. "You see, I came home one day and found him… Collapsed on the floor." He paused for a moment, waiting for her reaction, but she was silent. "So I took him to the hospital, and they ran some tests and did some checks…"
"Just tell her!" Chris blurted out through his tears. James could tell Mrs. Thomas had heard him as well, as he heard her take a sharp breath.
"Chris has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He's starting chemotherapy in a few days," he said quickly, opting to just say it and get it over with.
There was silence on the other end again. James's heart was pounding, waiting for someone to say something, anything.
He heard Mrs. Thomas take a slow, deep breath. "I want you to take care of my son. Chris is all I have left and I can't lose him. I know you care for him very much, and I have to know I can rely on you to make sure he's okay." She spoke slowly and softly, her voice almost robotic.
"Of course, anything he needs, Mrs. Thomas. I love your son and would do anything in my power to keep him happy and healthy."
"I trust you, James. Can I speak to Chris?"
"Sure, hold on," he said. He covered the receiver with his hand and looked to the other man. "She wants to talk to you. Are you alright?"
Chris took a few hiccupy breaths before he got it under control. He nodded, taking the phone from James. "Mom?"
"Sweetie, I love you very much, let me know if I can do anything for you, okay?"
"I love you too, Mom."
Then they were both silent, both unsure of what there was to say. "Chris, honey, I have some things I need to do right now, but call me any time you need anything. Alright, sweetie?"
"Thank you, Mom. I love you."
"I love you too, Christopher."
And with that, they both hung up. Chris stared at the phone for a few moments; James rested his hand on Chris's shoulder. "She seemed to take it well," James said.
"She's a strong woman," Chris replied, wiping his eyes. "I've always admired that about her."
"I can see that," James said with a smile. He leaned down and kissed Chris softly, brushing some hair out of his face. "I think she'll be okay."
But they didn't know.
They didn't know that as soon as she'd hung up the phone, Mrs. Thomas had collapsed to the ground, letting out the heart-wrenching sobs that she'd so expertly hidden from her son. They didn't know that there was an unsightly red stain on the nice white carpet from when she dropped the glass of juice she'd been drinking. They didn't know that she'd cried herself to sleep that night, sobbing into her husband's chest, feeling his small tears fall onto her hair. They didn't know that she had a hell dream that night, where cold, clawed hands ripped her children away from her before her very eyes. They didn't know that she sat in the pew that Sunday for three hours after services were over, silently pleading for her son's health and questioning why Heavenly Father would do this to their family. They didn't know that on the drive home, she had a flashback to Emma's casket being lowered into the ground, causing her to swerve and nearly hit a telephone pole. They didn't know what it felt like to bury your own child.
They thought she would be okay. They just didn't know.