Su Ertekin-Taner

Turtles sunning on Benjamin Pond

Game On

My dad and I used to play a game. 

We would sit on our back lawn and watch the local turtles grazing and lying in the sun, counting and predicting how many turtles would enter the water by nightfall. 

And sometimes we would take popcorn out there because mom didn’t let us eat it inside. I never saw a single other lawn chair on those afternoons. The turtles performed for us and only us.

Lawn chair to lawn chair, my dad and I were connected in those moments.

But that was when I was six.


I, Marne Williams, pledged that I would not give up on fulfilling old memories.

Now, here I am: a fourteen-year-old girl condemned to the gray walls of her own room, unable to go outside. 

The only game I play is counting and predicting how many pills will enter my mouth by nightfall.

I do not remember what a outdoor breeze feels like because I’m chained to one IV machine or other.

I’m on some sort of non-criminal house arrest it seems, unable to breathe two breaths of “outside oxygen” as my doctor calls it. His ensemble of nurses uses the same term like some sort of copy/pasted version of Dr. Schentz. Whatever they were, there were too many of them.

I reminisce on the times when two people lived in my house, not two dozen.

Yes, I was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago. Yes, I’m going through targeted therapy. Yes, I have chemicals in my throat. I hate answering questions I know the new blue-scrub nurses could get answers to. And the new nurses come in floods.

The only game I play is counting and predicting how many pills will enter my mouth by nightfall.

A new pair of scrubs appears every day. When I squeezed my eyes together, I imagine a large body of water, maybe the ocean or maybe our lake. Waves of blue fabric advance and recede and advance and recede. 

One particular shade of blue was advancing too quickly towards me today.

“Marne, are you sleeping?” the nurse said.

My eyes went from a squeezed to a relaxed state. No one had to know I was awake, especially this pesky nurse. Came to feed me a pill or two, I suppose.

“Marne, wake up. I have to give you your Alecensa.”

Alecensa. To me, it was a jumble of letters, a who-can-make-the-most-complicated-prescription-name game. But to the nurse, Alecensa was why I could fake sleep today, why I was still breathing today no matter how raspy or how heavily or how forcefully.

I still felt what everyone but astronauts and I take for granted: air.


I breathe religiously. I pledge my breath to the only gods I know: the intertwining, interconnecting tissue of my lungs. Now, when I speak, I say a little prayer for them.

A couple years ago when the forest fire across the lake started by god knows what temperature, I knew that the only thing protecting me from arms full of third-degree burns were the turtles. It was the lake that protected my family, but not the neighbors, from a scalding fate.

Now, I suffer the fire’s aftereffects. The medicine-each-day-or-you-don’t-survive effects. At least no one had to go through the daily pain of keeping my neighbors alive like they do for me.

At least they don’t live in Montana’s 100-degree weather every day, all year. That’s what not listening to drastic climate reports does to you.

So, I perk up my ears and tell myself to listen to the only conversation I hear in the vicinity …

Today my doctor and dad are talking with nervous glances towards me. I know it is important, but I refrain from listening or peering too closely for fear that they might approach me next.

Too late.

Dad and Dr. Schentz walk towards me, and I squeeze my eyes again. They morph into one person, rippling over to me.

“Would you mind holding her hand?” Dr. Schentz asks Dad.

He tactfully nods and does so, but I know that with what Dr. Schentz is about to say, there’s no other option.

“Marne, your targeted therapy hasn’t been working. The cancer is spreading despite our attempts to quell it with Alecensa.”

I open my eyes, knowing that he knows I’m awake.

“What do we do now?” I ask.

“We’re going to start with some trial drugs. Now, I talked to your father about the risks, but we want you to approve too.”

My dad nods as if he thinks my head will shake up and down along with his. Somehow, it does. 

I realize that some new, large, pink pills are going to become my friend in the next few months. Very close friends: the only thing saving my lungs. 

As my dad squeezes my hand tighter and tighter, I fight back the urge to yelp. If I squint, the tears in his eyes look so blue, blue like the lake of turtles. 

I know they are gone, but I imagine myself back in the lawn chair that I can’t use anymore.  My dad looks at me and smiles. I know he is telling me something with his deep lake-blue eyes: “Game on,” they say.

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