Authors: Kate Larkindale
he city bus creaked to a stop outside the hospital. I stepped off and listened to the doors wheeze shut behind me. The main building loomed above, blocking out the sunlight. I stood in its shadow and breathed for a few minutes, wanting to keep a taste of the outdoors, of summer and sun, in my mouth before I walked through the door.
When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I stepped up to the entrance and waited for the glass doors to glide open with their odd whisper-hiss. The smell hit me before I even walked inside, a sharp bleach scent that did little to cover the underlying stench of bodies failing their owners. I hated that smell. It dragged me back in time, made me feel like a little kid again, frightened, lonely, and hurting.
My sandals slapped against the beige linoleum. Great color scheme. The sour taste of vomit coated my tongue, and I had to fight to keep it from being real. I focused on something else, on the cotton candy sound of the elevator’s chime announcing its arrival on the ground floor. Jules was on Six, Mom said, so I headed in that direction.
I wished I didn’t know my way around the hospital so well. It only took me a couple of minutes to find Jules’s room, and going in was something I wanted to put off. I lingered in the corridor as long as I could without arousing suspicion before taking a deep breath of medicinal-flavored air and pushed open the door.
Jules was sitting up in bed, her face about the same shade of white as the sheets, her long dark hair matted to her head. She’d put on make-up, but over her pale skin, it was more like a mask.
“Hey,” I said, unable to think of anything else.
Her head turned slowly in my direction, her blue eyes dull and watery as they met mine. “Hi, Livvie.” Her voice had none of the yellow in it I was used to hearing. It rang brown and faded in my ears.
“How’re you feeling?” It was a dumb thing to say. How did I expect her to feel? This must’ve been her worst nightmare, the one she dreaded above all others, the one that had her lying awake in the middle of the night, her gut knotting and unknotting in terror.
“Okay.” She shrugged. “How was school?”
“It was school. Jenna asked about you. She’s all in a flap over cheerleader tryouts.”
“I should call her…” Jules glanced over at her phone, but made no move to touch it. “I guess she’ll find out soon enough. I told Zach.”
“Oh—” Zach. Her boyfriend. Gorgeous, athletic, popular Zach. “And?” I perched on the very edge of the bed, studying the narrow shape of my sister’s body under the blanket.
“He’s coming down after practice. Or, he said he was.”
So that was the reason for the make-up. I was about to ask her something else, but the words never made it out of my mouth. The door swung open, and Mom walked in, her skirt wrinkled, her eyes sunken with exhaustion. She looked even more worn than she had yesterday.
“Oh, Livvie. You’re here.” Mom lifted a Styrofoam cup to her lips and took a sip. I could smell the coffee from the other side of the room.
She sank into the chair next to Jules’s bed and started to shred the top of the cup. Tiny pieces of Styrofoam snowed across her knees and drifted to the floor.
I wrapped my shirt around my fingers, threading the slippery pink fabric through them over and over. The silence in the room weighed a ton. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to ask the questions that pounded the inside of my skull.
“When are you coming home?” I asked. I hated the way I sounded. Like a needy little kid.
“I’ll try to come home tonight, Liv. I need to change clothes if nothing else. The oncologist is coming around five, and we should all hear what he has to say.”
I glanced at Jules. Her jaw tightened just a little, but basically her expression remained the same. Only her eyes betrayed her. They seethed with a mixture of emotions I couldn’t begin to interpret.
A light tap on the door made me jump. Zach stuck his head into the room and smiled when he saw us.
“Hey, Mrs. Quinn. Hey, Livvie.” The smile wavered for a second before he caught it and pasted it back on his face. His eyes fixed on Jules and didn’t move.
“I should go,” I said, my words a florescent yellow blaze across the room. “I need a coffee. Mom, you look like you need another one. Why don’t you come with me?”
Mom didn’t move, eyes drawn to Jules. I took Mom’s arm and almost dragged her from the chair. Jules didn’t need her there. Not now.
The oncologist’s visit was short and to the point. I leaned against the wall on the far side of Jules’s bed and listened to the crisp green sound bouncing off the walls and floor. He had a low, soothing voice, and his words blurred into one another.
“Can’t she just have another transplant?” I asked. My cells had bought her almost ten years. Why put her through torture again first?
The oncologist smiled at me as if I were a small child who needed indulging. “The leukemia has presented in a different form than the last time. While a transplant is an option that we will consider, at this stage, we believe chemotherapy is the first priority. And we’d like to get her started on it as soon as possible.”
Jules groaned. I turned away from the doctor and watched her hands fly up to her head, fingers combing through her hair. She was proud of her hair, took such good care of it. Being bald for so long made her appreciate it much more than other people.
Nausea roiled in my belly. It wasn’t fair. Jules did everything right. She didn’t deserve this. Not Jules.
“Whatever is going to get her well,” Mom murmured.
“Yeah.” My voice was rough as I tried to hide the quiver in it. “If you need me to, I’ll donate again.” I shivered despite the heat, remembering the pain and the almost unbearable isolation.
“Thank you, Livvie.” Mom rose from the chair and hugged me, her arms awkward and unfamiliar around me. “I hope it won’t come to that, but I’m grateful that you’re offering.”
“Me too.” Jules offered me a wan smile. “Here we go again, huh?”
“We’ll be okay.” I crossed the room gave her hand a gentle squeeze. I wished it were true. Maybe if I wished hard enough it would be. I couldn’t let go. My fingers stayed wrapped around hers. She had to get through this. She was a part of me—or I was a part of her. Dad died when I was four. Jules and Mom were all I had. I thought about the cells I gave Jules all those years ago, how they’d thrived and multiplied in her. Were those cells still mine, or had she absorbed them into herself and made them her own?
The phone was ringing as I ran through the back door. “Got it!” I called over my shoulder at Mom who was still locking the car.
“Hello?” I panted into the receiver.
“Livvie? You okay?” Hannah’s voice came to me tinged with scarlet.
“Yeah. But I just got home. I had to run to get the phone.”
“Oh. Okay. Where’ve you been? I’ve been calling your cell for hours.”
“With Jules.” I pulled my cell from my pocket and checked the screen. Dead. I never remembered to charge it.
The silence that followed was oppressive. I kicked my sandals off and let the chill of the kitchen floor rise through my feet.
“So… What’s the news?” Hannah’s words were heavy and waterlogged.
“Not great. The cancer’s back. They’re starting chemo. Then we’ll see. She might need another transplant.”
Hannah’s long exhale crackled through the speaker. “I’m so sorry, Livvie.”
“Yeah. Me too. So, what were you calling for?” I changed the subject, not wanting to think any more about what was happening to Jules.
“Oh… It’s probably not important now.” Hannah sounded uncertain.
“No, it is. Go on, tell me.” I needed a distraction if nothing else. I didn’t have much homework to bury myself in, since I’d done most of it in study hall. Well, some of it. A little, anyway. My fingers played over the rough edges of the scab on my hip. It itched. I hadn’t put any ointment on it, and I made a mental note to do that as soon as I got off the phone.
“Well.” She paused, then the words crashed out of her in a torrent. “Sam Taylor asked me to the movies on Friday, but I don’t know if I should say yes because I know Mel really likes him.”
Oh, shit. I pictured Mel’s face in the hallway that morning, the way she went all huffy when Sam called Hannah by name. Poor Mel. “Oh, Hannah!” I blurted the words before I had a chance to think what to say. “Do you like him?”
“Well, duh… It’s Sam Taylor! But do you think Mel will kill me if I go?”
“Um…” I thought Mel would rip her limb from limb. Either that or lock herself in her room for the rest of the year. But no, that would mean staying at home, so probably limb from limb. “I think maybe you should say no. I mean, Sam’s just a guy. Mel’s been our best friend for years.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” The despondent tone in her voice made the words shine blue. “But, Sam Taylor! I bet no one that good looking will ever ask me out again.”
“It’s up to you.” I knew Hannah would do what she wanted to do. That’s just who she‘d always been.
“Thanks, Livvie. I gotta go now. I have a ton of homework.”
“See you tomorrow.” I hung up and fell into a chair. A heavy feeling of dread layered the pit of my stomach, and it wasn’t just to do with my sister. Everything seemed to be falling apart. Mel and Hannah argued all the time, but it had never been serious. This though—this felt like it could ruin everything. Could a boy destroy a friendship that had lasted eight years? And if it could, would I have to take sides? I rubbed the scabby tattoo again. The three didn’t seem to have much sway when it came to boys. I wished Jules was home. She’d have some advice for me. Jules would know exactly what to do.
Jules. Just weeks ago she was whipping around here, showing off the new crimson bikini that so scandalized Mom. I pictured Jules’s smile, the way the tiny pieces of fabric clung to her lithe body. I remembered the way she’d strutted, her long slender legs slicing across the floor. We’d laughed so hard at Mom’s embarrassment, the way she couldn’t let her eyes rest on Jules for more than a second or two, face the same color as the bikini.
Mom stumbled through the kitchen door, looking even more exhausted and shattered than she had that afternoon. Even her hair looked tired, limp and plastered against her scalp.
“Are you okay?” I stood up and met her as she crossed the room. “You look horrible.”
“It’s been a long couple of days. Put the kettle on, Livvie. I’d like a cup of tea.”
“Sure, Mom. What kind?” I filled the kettle and flicked the switch. The sharp sound shot rose-colored sparks across the floor.
“I don’t care.” She collapsed into the chair I’d been sitting in. “Something herbal. I think I’ve had about twelve coffees today. Any more caffeine’s going to tip me right off the edge.”
I never thought I’d hear her say that. Mom loved coffee like no one I’d ever come across. Without it, she could barely function. One way to get on her good side was to bring her a cup, black and strong, very hot.
I opened the pantry and studied the labels on the packets. “Sleepytime? Tension Tamer? Lemon Zinger? Peppermint?” There were more. Boxes and boxes of herbal promises. Jules never touched coffee or black tea. She drank green teas she made with real leaves, flavoring them with sprigs of mint she grew in the garden or squeezes of fresh lemon juice. She was the only one who ever drank these colorful concoctions with their cheerful labels.
“I’ll try the Sleepytime,” Mom said as the kettle began to shrill. “I wonder if it will help.”
I poured the water over the tea-leaves, breathing in the mint-flavored steam. It smelled amazing, so I pulled a second mug from the cabinet and fixed one for myself.
“Here.” I slid the mug to Mom then sat across the table from her.
“Just what I need.” She tried to smile, but it looked ghastly, a mere stretching of the skin while her bloodshot, swollen eyes betrayed her anguish.
I blew on my tea, watching the steam swirl around the rim of the mug.
“They want to start the chemo tomorrow.” Mom cradled her tea in her hands, eyes focused somewhere above my head. “Jules is being a little…well, resistant.”
Resistant. Yeah, that would be right. Chemo was poison, and putting something like that into her body would go against everything Jules stood for. Yet this poison might save her life. After all the effort she made with her health foods and magic teas. She should’ve just given into the cheese like the rest of us.
“You want me to talk to her?” My first sip of tea scalded my tongue, the pain darting bright and sharp through my mouth.
“You?” Mom focused her weary eyes on me, and I wondered what she saw. Jules’s light was so bright, I don’t think Mom had ever looked at me without that dazzle across her vision. She yawned again and stood up, the cup still clamped in her hands. “I think I’ll go take a bath.”
I dropped my head to the table and listened to her footsteps thudding dully up the stairs away from me.