To Be or Not to Be
by Pam McWilliams
Benjy got the news on the 26th, so it wasn’t exactly a Christmas present. The green walls of the doctor’s office turned dark as a forest during a thunderstorm. His mother screamed and fell to her knees in prayer. His dad didn’t say a word, but his Adam’s apple shook like a fist. The doctor stared at the papers on his desk. “There’s no denying it’s a very aggressive form of cancer. But with chemo, who knows?”
Benjy knew. His family practiced Christian Science. They believed in the power of prayer, not man-made drugs that guaranteed zilch, nothing, nada. Benjy knew he had six months to live. Maybe more if God heard their prayers this time. What he hadn’t realized before now was that in his heart of hearts, he was an optimist. Once he recovered from the shock, he felt liberated by the thought of his impending death. The endless years of bullying would finally screech to a halt. Not only that, he figured eighteen was the perfect age to start acting like a man. And what this man wanted most was Nicole, the prettiest most interesting girl at Thornton High. But first, he had to get through Christmas break.
The following weekend he and his parents went to Sunday service in the Kinnicks’ finished basement. The nearest church was four hours away, and the three Christian Science families in town took turns hosting services, except for major holy days when they all made the long trek to Fulcum City. While Mr. Kinnick stood at the lectern reading scripture, Benjy’s gaze drifted to the pictures on the wall. The poster of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead filled him with hope. He tried to focus on that, but most of the other pictures were family photos and they made him want to cry. The three Kinnick kids were all grown up and healthy, with jobs and families of their own. He thought of his sister, dear sweet Amy. Maybe if she’d lived, he would have felt like less of an outcast. But this town was all Benjy knew or would probably ever know. They stayed because his mom visited Amy’s grave every week and his dad had a good job managing the local paint store.
At the end of the service, Benjy’s mom shared the news about his cancer diagnosis. Everyone held hands and cried. Then they got down to the serious business of praying. Benjy shut his eyes tight and prayed harder than he ever had before.
The rest of the Christmas break dragged by, and praying didn’t seem to help. He felt lousy, and he was ten pounds lighter by the time school started up in January. But that was the good news! He’d always been a little pudgy. Now he wasn’t.
That first morning back he was hanging up his coat in his school locker when he heard somebody say, “Hey dork face, did the Die-Scies make you fast over Christmas?”
It was Denny. “Die-Sci” was everyday bully-speak. He was used to it. But now he was a man with short-term prospects and a prayer.
“Christian Scientists don’t fast. We pray—like other people. And I lost the weight myself. I want a shot at the lead in the school play.”
Denny laughed in his face. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’ve been smoking weed. You as Romeo? That’s just plain nuts.”
It’s not like Benjy had ever thought about trying out for a school play before, not even for a minor part. But Nicole was the object of his desire, and she was a talented thespian who’d just won a full ride to drama school at the state university. Every kid at Thornton High expected her to play Juliet—and her boyfriend Jeremy to play Romeo. The Homecoming Queen and King in starring roles as Shakespeare’s greatest lovers? It was perfect, and the whole town would turn out to see them shine.
Except that Benjy, not Jeremy, got the part! And it wasn’t because his mom played the sympathy card. Nobody in town knew about his cancer except the doctor and the other Christian Science families. When he told his mother he was going to play Romeo, she hugged him tight. “It’s only the beginning, love,” she said. “Prayer saved me, Benjy, and it’s going to save you.” It hadn’t saved Amy, but his mom had nearly died from insecticide poisoning that she’d ingested at work by accident. Miracles did happen with prayer.
Benjy could quote Shakespeare better than anyone at school, maybe even better than Nicole. He wasn’t exactly sure why. He guessed it was a side benefit of being unpopular and spending most of his free time studying. And now, with the cancer diagnosis hanging over his head like a guillotine, he felt more pumped than a young Leo DiCaprio. At the rehearsals, dreamy-eyed girls watched his impassioned performance and cried out his name. “Benjy, oh Benjy, where have thou been all my life?”
The girls weren’t the only smoldering presence. Jeremy hung out in the wings as part of the stage crew, radiating hate in Benjy’s direction.
As the weeks wore on, Nicole started to confide in Benjy. She told him she was burnt-out on theater and was only doing it to please her mom, who’d seen her own acting career crash and burn after she got married. “Plus, I don’t even like my boyfriend,” she confessed. “So why am I still dating him?”
Why indeed. Benjy didn’t tell her about his cancer, but he did tell her about his dream of becoming a botanist and that he felt more at peace with plants than with people. She looked at him with such longing that he wasn’t entirely sure it was only because he seemed to know what he wanted to do with his life and she didn’t. Getting to know Nicole made him deliriously happy, but his body felt horrible. He was in almost constant pain. His dad took him back to the doctor, even though his mother begged him to trust in God instead.
The cancer was spreading fast, impervious to all their prayers. A relationship with Nicole was never going to happen. They’d never ever be together. Even worse, she’d be stuck here on earth and miserable with her life. That’s when an idea began to form. He knew the plot of Romeo and Juliet backwards and forwards. What if Juliet drank the sleeping potion to make herself appear dead, but something in it made her die for real? Then Romeo, seeing that she was dead, would drink some real poison to join her in Heaven—just like it happened in the play. It was genius! Happiness on earth was transient at best. Wasn’t that what scripture taught?
The play was a big hit. It was supposed to run for two weeks but was extended to three. Benjy had been saving his “We’ll Meet Again in Heaven” plan for the last performance, but something unexpected happened at the start of the run. The doctor had called about a new wonder drug. Benjy’s dad insisted he try it, and a blood test suggested it was working. The side effects weren’t all that bad, and Benjy soldiered through them.
The last night of the performance was packed. Standing room only. Throughout the evening, Nicole, as Juliet, gazed at him lovingly. It was more than just a performance. Of that he was sure. Then it was time for the final scene. Juliet lay in the crypt. She was so still. Benjy shuddered, thinking how close he’d come to killing them both. He was grateful for the cancer that had led him to Nicole and grateful, too, that his father’s prayers had been answered by God: let Benjy try to heal with the new drug.
Now it was time for Romeo to drink the poison so he could be with his beloved Juliet in death. He reached for the cup. It wasn’t there, but Romeo wouldn’t be denied. His passion runneth over. The fake dagger was sheathed on the belt at his hip. He grabbed the weapon and plunged it into his chest as he imagined the pain of losing Nicole forever.
The pain was unimaginable. Blood on Juliet? His blood. He tried to speak. He couldn’t breathe. He saw Jeremy laughing in the wings; saw Nicole open her eyes wide. Just before he fell, he heard her scream. “Nooooooooooo.”