Dan hunched down in front of the snack machine and tried to grasp the chocolate bar that hung limply inside. The machine continued to play tricks on him despite the relationship they'd developed during his numerous visits to the hospital in the last month. It had all been going so well, he'd inserted the required amount of coins and punched in the code that would magically grant him that sweet slab of milk chocolate. The machine had whirred for a handful of seconds as the proper corkscrew arm winded its way out to drop the bar into the open slot. Then it had stopped and the chocolate bar, his chocolate bar, the one he had JUST paid for, had hung there. It was teasing him with the promise of tasty goodness. The way the gold foil caught the light made it look like the bar was smirking at him. Taunting him.
Dan had been around for eleven years now and he knew this to be true: he was experiencing the greatest injustice visited on any member of the human race ever. Life wasn't fair. Dan grabbed the sides of the machine in anger and tried to shake it. It didn't work. He lacked the upper body strength to achieve revenge on this soulless piece of machinery. He decided that he would give it a solid kick instead. He played soccer every evening; he'd show that robotic chocolate keeper what was what.
He took a step back and wound up to unleash a volley on its glass face and swung. His right foot impacted on the snack food dispenser and it shook.
"Hey! What are you doing?" roared an adult.
Dan turned towards the source of the shout and saw the ward nurse approaching like a thunderstorm.
"Get over here." She shouted.
Dan turned on his heels and ran towards the children’s ward. He'd easily outpace her and find somewhere to hide until the heat died down. He'd make his way back to his mum later; she wouldn't notice he was gone for ages yet.
He expertly rounded a corner and ducked behind an unoccupied stretcher. He listened carefully and could hear the nurse’s pounding footsteps coming closer. Terrified, Dan scouted out alternate hiding locations and noticed that the door to one of the rooms further down the hall was ajar. He crouched down and silently slipped towards the door. He entered the room and soundlessly closed the door over. He hunched down onto the floor, hoping that she wouldn’t notice him.
The nurse walked by outside and didn't see him.
"Who's there?" asked a voice from the other side of the room.
Dan looked to where the voice had come from and took note of his surroundings for the first time. He was in a small private room. The occupant of the bed was hidden from view by a curtain that reached from the ceiling to the floor. Dan crept forward and looked through a gap in the curtain. A small boy lay underneath the sheets of the bed. He was wearing Spider-man pyjamas and had a tube running into his arm from a nearby drip.
"Sorry." said Dan "I didn't think there was anyone in here."
"What are you doing?" responded the boy.
"Hiding out from a clip around the ear."
"What did you do?" asked the boy, his eyes widening in a mixture of shock and excitement.
"Attacked a vending machine." replied Dan.
"Why did you do that?"
"It stole my chocolate money."
"Ahhh!" the boy replied knowingly, as if that answer had explained everything.
"I'm not crazy." said Dan, leaping to his own defence.
"Never said you were."
"So, what's your name?"
"I'm Mark." said the boy in the bed.
"Nice to meet you."
"So, what are you in for?"
"It's a hospital and you have a tube in your arm, that's kind of a given."
"Leukaemia." said Mark.
"Oh" Dan didn't know much about it but he knew it was bad. "Sorry."
Dan looked for an excuse to change the topic; he noticed a pile of comics on the chair beside the bed.
"You must really like Spider-man, Mark."
"Yeah, he's awesome! Do you like him?"
"I guess. I saw that movie they made."
"Yeah it was OK I suppose."
"Not a fan?"
"The comics are better."
"I've never read any." said Dan.
"What? Never?" asked a disbelieving Mark.
"My parents don't like that kind of thing in the house. They think I have AD...AH..HD or something. I don't get to watch cartoons or play video games and they try to keep me away from shiny objects."
"That sounds terrible; I wouldn't have anything if I wasn't able to read comics."
"Is that all you do all day? Read stuff?"
"Yeah, I don't get out much or have many visitors."
"What about your friends? Or your parents?"
"Mum stops by every day after work but all she wants to do is talk about her day. She's a lawyer and works like crazy."
"Yeah, my parents don't have much time for me either. My mum gave birth a few weeks ago to my new sister."
"Is that why you're hanging around the hospital?"
"My sister was born early; they have her in one of those oven things all the time."
"Ovens?" queried Mark. "Do you mean an incubator?"
"Is that what they're called? Anyway I should get back. I'll drop by and see you again; it beats hanging around in the corridors."
Mark brightened up considerably: "That's great! We can read some comics together."
"Sure." Dan said and turned to leave: "See you tomorrow."
Next day, Dan returned and sat down on the chair next to Mark's bed. Mark was engrossed in a comic book. Two neat piles of books lay within arms reach.
"What's with all the books?" asked Dan.
"The pile beside you is ones that I’ve read; the one over there on the locker is ones I haven't. Pick some from the ones I’ve read, but keep them in order." He warned.
"Sorry, I just like to keep things neat."
"I was just joking Mark."
Just then, the door opened and a smartly dressed woman entered, carrying a plastic bag.
"Mark darling..." she began to say, but she noticed that there was another person in the room and paused.”... Oh... Who are you?"
"This is Dan mother. He's keeping me company."
Dan stood up and offered his hand to Mark's mother. She took one look at the grubby appendage being offered and shook it with a barely noticeable look of disgust.
"Nice to meet you." said Dan.
"Hello Dan." Mark's mother said as she reached into the plastic bag and pulled out a small stack of comics. "I stopped by the comic shop and bought you some new ones. I have to meet your doctor now but I’ll stop in later tonight."
"Ok, mother." said Mark. "Leave them on the..."
"Bottom of the pile, I know. See you later, don't do too much. You tire easily."
"I know. I'll see you tonight." after another short glance at Dan, Marks mother left.
"She seems....nice." said Dan.
"The word you're looking for is "distant". That's what everyone says about her." responded Mark.
"I didn't say that. Listen..." said Dan, trying to change the subject, “I need to go poop. Mum's making me eat stuff with fibre for breakfast because she says that the cereal I used to eat is too sugary. I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Ok" said Mark. "You don't need to give me the whole explanation next time."
Dan left the room and followed Mark's mother to the doctor’s office. He trailed her slowly and used the trolleys and other people in the corridor as cover. He wanted to hear what the doctor said about his new friend.
Dan reached the office without being seen and pretended to tie his shoelaces as he listened:
"The prognosis isn't good Miss Walsh." said the Doctor. "Mark isn't responding as well as we had hoped to the drug treatment. We may need to consider a bone marrow transplant."
Dan had heard enough and walked back to Mark's room.
"How was your poop?" asked Mark as Dan entered.
"Pretty good. Not in my top ten of all time though."
"Do me a favour: never tell me the details of that top ten."
"Ok. But you're missing out. The best was the time I pooped in Disneyland."
"Here." said Mark pushing a paperback across the bed. "This is the first appearance of Doctor Octopus in Ultimate Spider-man. Read it and stop disturbing me."
Dan picked up the book; a flyer fell out from the back page. Dan reached down to pick it up.
"Hey!" Dan said. "This says that there's a comic convention on in the city in a few days! Spider-man's going to be there! Look!"
Dan pointed to the picture of Spider-man on the flyer. "Are you going?"
"No." said Mark. "My mother says I’m not well enough yet. I'm going to miss it."
"That's lame." said Dan; an idea was beginning to form in his head.
Early on Saturday morning, Dan walked into Mark's room; Mark was halfway through a bowl of coco-pops.
"What are you doing here?" asked Mark when he had finished slurping down the remaining mouthfuls of chocolatey milk.
"We're going to the comic convention, the nurse will be here in five minutes to take your breakfast tray, she’s down the hall. Put these on." Dan thrust a plastic bag containing a tracksuit bottom and jumper at Mark.
Mark grinned: "That's awesome!"
"If we sneak out now we can be at the convention when the doors open at 10 o'clock, we'll meet Spider-man and be back here in time for lunch, you won't be missed. We can put some pillows in the bed and pull the curtains. That always works on TV."
Mark pulled on the clothes over his pyjamas and got back under the sheets, Dan hid under the bed. The nurse entered and collected the tray.
"Are you feeling OK?" she asked Mark. "You look a little flushed."
"I'm fine, but I didn't sleep well last night, I think I might go to sleep for a while."
"OK, I'll pull the curtains and you rest." said the nurse. She closed the curtains and left the room. Dan crawled out from under the bed.
"I'm going to borrow a wheelchair and we'll go into town. The number 84 bus will get us there in 10 minutes."
Dan left the room and returned thirty seconds later with a wheel chair. Mark slowly got out of the bed and sat in the chair. Dan opened the wardrobe and took out a spare blanket, he spread it over Mark.
"That should keep you warm; it's not too cold outside."
Dan and Mark left the room and slowly moved down the corridor. They exited the hospital without any problems, nobody paid attention to what kids did.
Within two minutes they had reached a bus stop on the main road outside the hospital. A bus was slowly making its way towards them. It pulled up to the kerb beside them and the Driver lowered the access ramp to allow the wheelchair on.
"Where are you two lads off to?" asked the driver.
"We have a note from the Doctor saying it's OK." said Dan, as he quickly waved a piece of headed notepaper in the air.
The Driver waved them on and Dan paid the fare.
"Where did you get a note from the doctor?" asked Mark in a whisper.
"He left his office unlocked. I took some of his notepaper and wrote a note, nobody will know."
"No, I'm street-smart."
The bus lurched slowly into town, stopping occasionally to let people on and off. The boys disembarked at a stop a few minutes from the hotel where the convention was being held.
"What do we do if someone asks us why you're pushing a boy in a wheelchair into a comic convention?" asked Mark.
"We tell them you're dressed up as that guy from X-men. The Professor. Practice looking seriously constipated, it'll make them think you're pretending to have mental powers."
"That won't work."
"Sure it will, people who read comics will totally fall for it."
They joined the queue for the convention just as the doors opened. The small crowd entered the hall and dispersed to the various tables to buy comics, talk to writers and artists and complain loudly about what happened in this week’s issue of Amazing Spider-man.
They saw Spider-man at the other end of the hall; he was posing for pictures with some attendees and doing backflips and handstands to a small, attentive audience.
Dan pushed the chair forward: "There he is, let's go talk to him!"
Mark stammered nervously: “T-t-talk to Spider-man?"
"I can't...I don't know what to say."
"Hey! Spider-man! Hey! Over here!" shouted Dan.
"Quiet down, shhhh!" cried Mark, clutching at Dan’s arm in sheer terror.
Spider-man turned to look at them and walked over.
"What can I do for you boys?" he asked.
"My friend is your biggest fan." said Dan. "He has every comic you're in. He's not feeling well at the moment so he's not really talkative."
"I'm sorry to hear that. What are your names?"
"I'm Dan and he's Mark."
"Nice to meet both of you. I hope you get well soon Mark." said Spidey.
“Can we get a picture with you Spider-man?” asked Dan.
“Sure thing.” Spidey said as he crouched down beside Mark and posed.
Dan snapped a picture with the camera on his phone.
"I have to meet some more people.” said Spidey. “Have a nice day at the convention."
Spider-man shook both their hands and went to talk to some more kids who had just entered the room.
"Dude! We just shook hands with Spider-man!" exclaimed Dan.
Mark stared at his hand, speechless. “Merp…” was all he eventually managed to say.
"Do you want to see anything else? There's a guy that draws Transformers over there!"
Mark was still staring at his hand in shock.
"I think you've seen enough for today. Let's get back to the hospital before we're missed."
Dan pushed Mark from the building and they walked back to where the bus stop was.
"That was pretty cool." said Dan.
"Still in shock?"
"Yes. Thank you."
The bus arrived and they returned to the hospital. They entered through a side entrance and managed to make it to Mark's room without being seen. Dan helped Mark up from the chair and Mark clambered into the bed.
"When is the next convention on?" asked Mark.
"I overheard someone say there's another one in three months’ time. Will you be better by then?"
"Yes." Mark said firmly. "Yes I will."
"Cool. I'd better get home. Mum thinks I'm at soccer practice. I'll bring the chair back to where I found it."
"Are you going to be at the hospital next week?"
Dan thought for a second: His little sister had come home last night after the doctors had given her a clean bill of health. It would be difficult to keep sneaking off to visit Mark now that his parents weren't coming here all the time.
"Sure." Dan said. "I'll see you on Monday."
Mark smiled. "Great. See you Monday."