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My Emma

A year of cancer, lies, and the FBI...

I measured my year in linoleum floors. In fluorescent lights, in the smell of rubber and artificial lemon air freshener; in narrow hallways silent except for the faint buzz of the heater. I measured my year by counting the beds occupied and the pairs of sheets needing to be changed over once morning came. I counted the clipboards thrust into my hands, tearful retreats to the stark, institutional public restrooms; in pitying eyes staring at my 2 AM, mascara-streaked, dark- circled face while I slumped over in the near-empty waiting room.

“You’ll always get in less trouble for doing something bad but telling the truth about it than doing something bad and lying.” Those words still echo, decades past my childhood, from the occasion I heard them for the first time. I’d snatched a plastic tea kettle out of my sister’s hands and ran to my room to play with it as she sat crying. The stairs creaked. My dad’s footsteps thumped. I stashed the pot beneath my bed and opened a book, thinking my flawless acting would displace any blame for my sister’s tears. And I told a big fat lie to my father’s face, though the evidence was not properly disposed of and peeked out from under the bed skirt. I was not punished that time; it was a warning. But the next time, and the time after that, and any subsequent occurrence, I would be, because the truth always has a way of seeping out. Due to a Catholic upbringing, my own conscience kept me from trying to hide plastic teapots as I aged, so my parents need not have worried. I confessed to everything, no matter how small. My poor mother and father were woken up several nights at 1:00 AM to a tearful child needing to apologize for accidentally breaking a glass at dinnertime or saying “the C word” (crap) to myself to see how it felt rolling off my tongue.

I measured my year in lies.

Emma was beautiful. She was a survivor with unmatched resilience. After 13 years of sexual abuse, she escaped her father, travelled from state to state with nothing but a backpack, settled in Texas, legally changed her name, and took steps to establish a new life. She spent a year in treatment for PTSD and depression before applying to college and was accepted at a prestigious private university. The school provided her with health insurance, which enabled her to get a comprehensive physical examination for the first time in years. The examination uncovered a spot. A follow-up confirmed the spot. A specialist diagnosed the spot as ovarian cancer, presumably due to hormonal deficiencies from pre-pubescent sexual abuse.

She was my best friend in the world and my closest friend at our university. We ate together, walked to class together, arrived at parties together, got dressed up for events together, shopped together, laughed together, cried together, mourned together, screamed together, and fought together. Our friendship was the most intimate relationship I’d ever been in. She was intoxicating and drew me in from our first introduction. 

We were like-minded and in tune with one another’s rhythms and pleasures. Our first week of classes, we walked down the center of a busy street at 3:00 AM while sipping on 7-11 milkshakes and enjoying the desertedness of the roads and shops that usually bustled with activity. My intense infatuation with her prompted both my parents and myself to briefly question my sexuality. 

Ultimately, the deep love I felt for her was platonic and my attachment was due to her remarkable empathy. I had never quite been in sync with anyone my own age. Socially immature, I connected better with those a touch younger; however, intellectually years beyond my age, I conversed better and found more interest in those older. Emma thwarted that previous pattern and bathed me in understanding and light unlike anyone else I’d encountered. So I loved her desperately. I loved her pre-cancer, and found my love grew even deeper yet more painful post-diagnosis. Our relationship quickly became symbiotic. 

What ailed and pained her sickened me; I deteriorated alongside her in spite of my best efforts otherwise. Emma’s first chunk of hair fell out when I was over at her apartment, and she started laughing and crying at the same time. I picked up a pair of scissors and chopped off a section at the nape of my neck. I stood there in front of her with both chunks of hair and my hand, now also laughing and crying, a mirror image of her. We slipped our strands into a Ziploc baggie and finished off an entire bottle of cheap Barefoot chardonnay before falling asleep on her floor.

I measured my year in wine corks strewn on the carpet from nights I wish I didn’t remember.

The weight of Emma’s illness was compounded by my inability to tell my parents. Though I was not delusional enough to believe that I, at 18 years old, could properly provide for a dying girl, Emma begged and pleaded that I not tell my mom and dad. She knew that if I confided in them, they would ensure that she was pulled out of school to get full-time treatment. 

I supported that commitment to medical care. However, she would rather have died. Her experiences in college were the only happy memories of her life, she said, and she preferred to be sick but still at school than recovering but lying in a hospital bed. So I stayed quiet, fabricating stories that could answer my parents’ questions about undeniable symptoms of disease.

“She donated her hair to Saint Baldrick’s,” I’d explain. “She’s got a picture of the little girl whose wig was made out of her contribution!”

I would weave those tales, then shortly thereafter dash to the bathroom and vomit as though my anatomy itself was purging itself of the guilt and lies.

I measured my year in the number of nights plagued by insomnia.

Finals came and went, winter break plans were made, and my parents agreed to let Emma stay in our guest bedroom. While excited to have my favorite person with me through the holidays, the prospect of maintaining this ruse became an unbearable prospect. Emma was rapidly dropping weight; her cheeks were sallow, her eyes were bleak, and she looked sick. 

I too was near my breaking point. The shame, anxiety, and panic surrounding my circumstances had become too much and I resolved to seek help. Our first night settling in at my house, I came downstairs and sat on the foot of Emma’s bed. My mom and dad were at a holiday party so the house was entirely empty, almost uncomfortably so, and eerily silent. 

I timidly told her that I was no longer capable of lying to my parents but that I would offer her the opportunity to tell them if she’d prefer. Horror flashed across her eyes. She cried, pleaded, and begged that I wait but, for the first time in the span of our friendship, I was uncompromising. Defeated and dejected, Emma accepted my choice and agreed to confess her sickness to my parents.

The rumbling of the garage door drew me to the living room where I perched myself on the sofa. Emma reluctantly followed me with her arms folded across her chest, sinking into the large plush armchair in the corner of the room. The keys clinked, the lock clicked, and my parents’ footsteps echoed on the hardwood floors.

“Kaylyn?” my dad called.

I responded with a shaky “here,” which drew my parents towards me with the trajectory of a torpedo, as though sucked into the room. The air was heavy with anxiety and tension, thickening when I saw the identical expressions on my mom and dad’s faces. Worry lines creased their foreheads but their brows were furrowed and eyes burned into mine. They knew. All four of us were on the brink of speaking but none of us did. After several minutes, my dad broke the silence, turning away from me.

“One of your friends was at this holiday party we were at,” he began, eyes fixed on Emma. “They expressed concern that we wouldn’t be able to help you during this break while you’re staying here because we were- under informed.”

Emma’s face was completely neutral. Her gaze was directed at the floor, arms still crossed, lips completely sealed.

“First and foremost, girls, please don’t get angry with the person who told us. They were trying to help and were worried about you both. I don’t want to dwell on that part. But we need to talk about how we’re moving forward.”

The conversation was painstaking, but even more unsettling was the version of Emma seated before me. In stressful situations, she’d historically managed to maintain a lightness and sweetness. This girl seated in my living room was cold and unfeeling, a complete stranger. 

Attempt after attempt to engage her failed as she remained virtually silent and, if she spoke, would mutter one or two words before retreating again. One full, torturous hour later, my mom put us all out of our misery with a simple “let’s pick this up again after a good night’s sleep.” 

Emma quickly escaped to her bedroom, brushing past me, then slammed and locked her door. My parents and I stayed seated for another hour as I filled them in on the semester’s events. The weekly visits to the hospital after Emma collapsing in class. Waking up at 1:00 AM to go comfort her as she cried in the dark, afraid of dying. My own tears in the privacy of my room that I hid for her sake. Driving her to and picking her up from chemo. And once the summary concluded, the apologies started spouting. For the lies, for the deception, for the omission of information. 

Frightened of their response, I sat there once finished in anticipation of the verbal scolding I was about to receive. Instead, I got hugs from the both of them. They comforted me, briefly reprimanded me for not telling them, but expressed the utmost sympathy. With my conscience cleansed, I made my way to my bedroom, slid into my sheets, curled up in my soft, warm comforter, and drifted off into a more restful slumber than I’d experienced in months.

I measured my year in hours on the phone with the FBI.

I awoke the next morning from the sort of dreamless sleep that feels like the blink of an eye. One moment I’m flipping the lights off and the next, sunlight is streaming in through the cracks in the blinds. I emerged from my room and the sound of my parents’ muted conversation drifted up the stairs along with the scent of freshly brewed coffee. Following the sound and smell, I joined my mom and dad in the kitchen and poured myself a full cup. Perhaps agitated by the caffeine, the three of us grew antsy sitting at the kitchen table and eagerness to continue our previous night’s conversation took over. 

I rushed down the hallway and knocked on Emma’s door. No response. I called her name. No response. I knocked a second time. A third time. With grotesque worst-case-scenarios flooding my brain, I threw the door open to a sight perhaps more disturbing than my imaginings. 

Her bed was pristinely made, untouched and unslept in; her phone charger and computer were nowhere to be seen. Though she’d unpacked her suitcase the day prior and had clothing strewn about the room, none of her belongings were there now. Her pill bottles were gone, brushes and combs missing, wallet absent, but the smell of her perfume still lingered in the air.

A Millennial to the core, I instinctually whipped out my phone and texted her. “Where are you?”

She responded almost immediately.

“Hi! I woke up early. I’m out for a little bit, clearing my head. I’ll be back this afternoon.”

Perhaps naively, I chose to believe her and proceed with my day as usual. I finished my coffee, made my bed, wasted some time on the computer, and went to the gym. After twenty minutes on the elliptical, though, my gut began to churn. From the pit of my stomach, a feeling of dread and horror gnawed at me, tightening my chest and preventing me from breathing. Something was very, very wrong. 

I hopped off of the machine and raced out of the gym while dialing my phone. Ringing. Ringing. No answer. Ringing. Ringing. No answer. Ringing. Ringing. No answer. Five calls turned to six turned to seven, and Emma was not picking up. I called again. No answer. I called again, digging my fingernails into my palm with my unoccupied hand. But just before the now-memorized voicemail message, Emma’s familiar voice answered.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” was all she said.

“What’s going-“

“This all happened so fast. I wasn’t ready for your parents to know. I wasn’t ready to face that conversation. It’s gotten out of my control. I’m sorry to do this but...”

As she trailed off, an automated voice in the background boomed, “Last bus leaving for...”

Click. She was gone.

I measured my year in obvious signs I overlooked.

Dallas is a deceptively large city. It’s easy to disappear within the masses that rush along sidewalks that frame a matrix of one-way streets. But Dallas fortunately only has one Greyhound bus station. Perhaps disregarding a few traffic laws, I shuttled past the high-rises and restaurants, sped past bars and fast-food restaurants, until I spotted the small bus terminal downtown where an unmistakable girl sat just outside the sliding glass doors. 

She had a backpack on her, nothing else, and wore an oversized grey sweatshirt and headscarf. Her face was buried in her hands and her shoulders were heaving. Hopping out of the car, I approached her with a mixture of both relief and caution, the way one would advance towards a skittish puppy who’d run away from home. 

Emma looked up as she heard the footsteps coming and confusion colored her face, which quickly transformed into sheer panic. She took off in a mad sprint and left me no option but to dash after her. I pursued her for about three blocks before, overcome with shortness of breath, she came to a halt outside of The Iron Cactus. 

The neon sign blaring the restaurant’s name cast a green light on her face which, much as it had the night before, left me flustered. Though wheezing and physically weakened, she clearly was furious; she was angrier than I’d ever seen her. I ushered us inside the door of this hokey Tex-Mex joint in spite of her unnerving expression. 

The hostess was gathering menus when Emma changed courses and bee-lined for the bar. She grabbed a single stool at the far end, turned her back to me, and sat in silence. I took a seat a few feet away but strategically positioned between her and the door. After about ten minutes of this stalemate, she brushed past me and muttered something about going to the bathroom. 

Trailing a safe distance behind, I followed her and watched her pass through the swinging door. After mere moments though, I grew impatient and pushed my way in after her. She was standing at the counter, hunched over the sink, breathing shakily with tears trailing down her cheeks. We locked eyes and I saw before me a naked, afraid, vulnerable little girl.

“Kaylyn.” Her voice was that which I can only imagine comes from the lips of a prisoner of war seconds before they’re sentenced to death at the hands of their captor. “Kaylyn, I need you to let me go. I have to go back to Chicago. I have to see my family. I need you to do this for me.” 

I uttered a slew of profanities, which less colorfully was something along the lines of “there’s no way I’m letting you go back to your violent rapist father.” But she shook her head and grabbed my hand. “You don’t understand. I’ve already called him.” 

My stomach lurched and my heart stopped. I was drowning, gasping for air, trapped in my body. She continued, “I’ve called him Kaylyn. He knows where I am, he knows who you are, and he’ll ruin your life and mine if I don’t go back.” 

Completely paralyzed by that information, I stood unmoving as Emma sloppily shoved past me and hurtled out the door. Perhaps selfishly, I was torn between running after her and running in the opposite direction. A tug of war began between my moral compass and my survival instincts, as my gut told me to hurry after Emma before she got too far but the terror of this criminal finding me kept me planted motionless in the women’s bathroom. 

A good three or four minutes later, my ethics prevailed and sheer adrenaline took over. Slipping through aisles, stumbling past waiters, and running out onto the dimly lit street, I scanned both directions before seeing Emma’s figure jogging away from the Iron Cactus about a block ahead of me.

The next hour was a blur of running, begging, crying, shouting, and shivering. It was cold and, having spent all day on the run, I was still clothed in workout pants, a sleeveless top, and thin sweatshirt. Emma and I wove through alleyways and side streets as she continually tried to push past me and towards the bus station, and I continually countered her. 

As midnight drew closer and closer and the shadows of figures cast by the streetlamps grew more and more foreboding, Emma finally came to a halt. “You’re not going to be able to keep me from leaving. I’ve made up my mind to go, and you’re slowing me down now, but whether it’s tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after, I will be leaving.” 

That sickening reality took hold. I sunk down with my back pressed to the building behind me, and Emma sat next to me. “I’m sorry,” was all that she said. We sat in silence for what might have been 10 minutes, might have been an hour, or might have only been a few seconds. And then, eventually, we stood up. We took a deep breath. And we finished the walk to the Greyhound station together.

I measured my year in tokens of truth.

The station was shockingly full for such early morning hours. One clerk sat behind the counter and, murmuring as few words as possible, sold Emma a ticket for the 9:00 AM bus to Chicago. The two of us grabbed empty seats in between the old women with knit scarves and men with scraggly beards and ill-fitting coats sprawled out on the benches around us. In spite of her pleas for me to go home, I promised Emma that I would stay with her until her ride left. 

We talked all night with momentary lapses in which one of us would nod off for a few minutes. She told me stories about the sister I didn’t knew she had and disclosed details about her previous life that I’d never heard. Just as the sun began to glimmer on the horizon, she confessed her real name to me. Jessica. The morning sped by, and as the clock ticked, hands drawing closer and closer to 9:00, panic and despair pricked my heart, my face, my stomach; emotion drained any remaining energy from my libs and reduced me to sobbing with my head buried in my arms. 

I begged one last time for her to stay, snot dripping down my face. I was a pitiful sight. Emma, now crying too, yet again told me that she couldn’t. A line soon started forming for the Chicago departure. She picked up her bag and threw her arms around my neck. Breaking our final embrace was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. She joined the queue while I stood nearby, insistent on waiting until the bus left; however, at 9:02, Emma reappeared. 

“The woman sold me a ticket for the wrong bus,” she said as she held back tears. “Mine doesn’t leave till noon. But please, Kaylyn, I need you to go. I can’t do that goodbye again. It will kill me.” 

Selfishly, the events of the past twenty-four hours had beaten me into a sniveling mess. I acquiesced and, exhausted from a sleepless night and hours of running through Dallas, I found my car and went home. Once showered and fed, I collapsed into bed and did not wake up until the following morning.

All communication with Emma stopped when I left her at the bus station, and she became utterly unreachable via text and phone call. Three torturous days passed. There was not a single word, not a single sign indicating that she was still alive. On Christmas, absolutely crippled with fear, my parents and I resolved to call the police. I spent four hours on the phone with the FBI on December 25th. 

Sitting beside the Christmas tree with my presents unopened beneath it, I conversed with a kind agent named Laurie, first summarizing Emma’s family background and her history of abuse; next, detailing her fight with cancer; finally, begging Laurie to find her and make sure she was alive. 

She in return talked me through my semester and asked me to write out a timeline of events from the day I met Emma to three days earlier. We pinpointed exact dates and times of hospital visits and chemo sessions. Once we had a comprehensive summary of our relationship and the progression of Emma’s disease, Laurie gingerly asked me, “Are you sure she has cancer?” 

I quite nearly hung up the phone; of course she had cancer. I’d spent dozens of nights in the emergency room after she’d collapsed at a party or left class to vomit. I held her hand when she got blood drawn and dropped her off at the Simmons Cancer Center several times a month. I had a photo of her with her “Round 1: Done!” poster taken in the lobby just before Christmas. But Laurie continued to probe. 

“Did you ever speak with one of her doctors? Ever check her in for chemo?” My seemingly rock-solid evidence began to waiver and, for the first time, doubt seeped in. I remembered the late night ER visit when her white blood cell count came back normal, and the time she jumped out of my car before I could park so she could “hurry up and rip the Band-Aid off.” 

And yes, she did still have eyebrows. Immediately after I confessed these details, I felt disgustingly guilty. How could I possibly be doubting my dying friend’s cancer? But Laurie pressed on. Once I had satisfied all of her inquiries, she promised me that she would be in touch with more information after her team investigated further.

A full five days passed with no additional information, and I was growing stir crazy. My parents continually reminded me to trust the professionals and let them do their job, so in spite of my insane desire to call Laurie, I refrained. I was incapable of leaving my bed, though, and was plagued with images of Emma lying beaten and battered on the floor of her family home in Chicago or screaming in pain as her cancer overtook her. 

Both my mom and dad attempted to draw me out of bed for outings or social occasions, but I was more fragile than I’d ever been in my life. As New Year’s Eve approached, my parents’ exasperation with my debilitation reached a peak and they planned a party for my close friends and me. 

They garnished the house with streamers and noise-makers, laid out snacks and sodas, put on music, and forced me to reemerge into the world beyond my bedroom. As I was putting on makeup an hour before guests were to arrive, I received a text from the person I was sure I’d never hear from again.

“I know I’ve hurt you but I don’t want you to think I’m a liar. I’ll explain it all soon. I’m sorry.”

Sprinting down the stairs, I showed my mom and dad, and the three of us stood in silence with a mix of shock, relief, and confusion. I typed, deleted, and retyped at least 10 responses before my phone vibrated with an incoming call. “Kaylyn, it’s Laurie here. I’ve got an update.” 

An update, the two words I’d waited to hear since Christmas, was the understatement of the millennium. Switching my phone to speaker, my family sat down and learned of what had transpired in the last five days. Emma never made it to Chicago; she never even made it out of Texas. In fact, she did not even get onto the bus after I left the station. 

She was discovered in her apartment, completely delusional, attempting to drink herself into a coma. When Laurie and her team walked through the door that morning, she started screaming, telling them that she’d been raped last night, and then began seizing. 

Her eyes rolled back into her head and she writhed on the floor, until Laurie snapped her fingers in front of her face and said “Stop that. Now.” She immediately composed herself. In what I can only imagine was a ruthless interrogation, Emma confessed that she was not and had never been sick with cancer. 

Ultimately, she admitted that she had never experienced sexual or physical abuse, and that she would like to go back home to Chicago to see her family. Her parents and sister had arrived in Dallas earlier that day to collect her, and they were on a flight back to Illinois as we were speaking. Dumbfounded, I sat at the kitchen table, reeling, until the doorbell rang and the first guest arrived. We had no shortage of conversation topics and news to catch up on at that party.

I have no idea what’s since become of Emma. I know I should refer to her as Jessica, because Emma is not a real person. Emma does not exist. But I never knew Jessica; I knew the character she embodied. 

Weeks after the truth was exposed, I stumbled upon her journal after being given a large box of belongings as the rest of her possessions were getting thrown away. Some of the contents were mine, others were not. Her notebook was buried among these items. It was a well-worn composition book with a soft spine, one that I’d seen slid between textbooks in her backpack before. I hesitantly cracked it open and discovered pages upon pages of character development. 

She had detailed Emma’s likes and dislikes, her favorite foods, colors, movies, songs, she wrote out the full stories of her abuse and what her father did to her, she composed a list of cancer symptoms, chemo side-effects, and endless pages of research. 

My best friend was, for all intensive purposes, completely imaginary. I tried to search for some meaning as to why Emma chose me to latch onto and manipulate, but there did not seem to be any logic to it. The closest thing I would ever have to an explanation was this one notebook, and it barely shed any light onto the situation except for the fact that I had indeed been dealing with a very sick girl all semester, just not in the way I thought.

Six years have passed since these events transpired, and I will admit that this experience has lingered with me. I still refer to her on occasion, when every once in while someone will come to me with a large pocket of free time and looking for a story. 

While an interesting tale to confess in hindsight, my following months back at school were profoundly impacted in ways that I wasn’t even conscious of at the time. I was frequently complimented on how well I was dealing with everything, thus leading me to believe that I was doing remarkably well. I didn’t cry about it, I didn’t get angry, my grades were flawless, and I didn’t retreat from my other friends; however, it took the clarity of time to illuminate the twisted coping mechanisms I employed. 

Years of self-reflection have allowed me to connect my reckless and destructive behaviors to the inciting incident that prompted them. Sometime mid-February, I did something stupid with a boy who I didn’t know (but more importantly, didn’t know me), when all he did was look at me without the pitying, “poor you” expression I’d grown both accustomed to and sick of. 

I displaced buckets of shame, sadness, guilt, and self-hatred onto that event, meanwhile pushing Emma further and further out of sight. On a day-to-day basis, once class would finish, I’d either spend hours at the gym or go drink inexpensive liquor with my roommate. I frequently picked fights with my parents over the phone. And then one day, I started to heal. 

I wish I could say that there was an illuminating experience or life-altering moment that put me on the right path, but my emotional recovery was imperceptible when I didn’t know that I had actually been broken. I didn’t make a conscious decision to work towards happiness. But when I compare Kaylyn today to Kaylyn in 2013-14, the former is content with life and the latter was miserable. 

Frankly, I attribute much of that to simply growing up. I’ve come to believe that sometimes, there’s nothing you can do but forge onward and allow the gift of time to wrap its bandages and close open wounds.

I measured my year in linoleum floors. I measured my year in lies. I measured my year in wine corks strewn on the carpet. I measured my year in nights plagued by insomnia. I measured my year in hours on the phone with the FBI. 

I measured my year in obvious signs I overlooked. I measured my year in tokens of truth. I needed those measurements to anchor myself during a year during which I didn’t feel as though I could rely on or trust anything, including the passage of time. Though each of those units are significant, none of them define me or the broader spectrum of my life experiences. 

And ever since Emma was put to rest, I’ve become capable of orienting myself based off of seconds, minutes, hours, and days, as their passage has mended the damage those lies and FBI calls and insomnia inflicted. Time has brought my life and myself back to feeling entirely average, incredibly typical, and unremarkably normal. And after the most atypical year I could ever have dreamt of, normal has felt completely alright.

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