“How strange to think that your sun was setting as mine rose that day.”
From the private correspondence of the Duke of Caid, on the 8th of Ladlugger, 1851 DSC
It’s not the first time I find myself racing through Toronto in the back of an ambulance, but the fear always carries a new, different tang. There’s no getting used to it, no controlling the frantic drum of my heart as I watch Sage’s listless form on the stretcher. I can barely make out her doll-like features under the mask covering her mouth and nose. One of the EMTs is rechecking her pulse while his partner resumes squeezing the silicone bag that’s forcing oxygen into her airways.
Sage’s lungs are giving up.
We knew it would happen eventually, that her breath would fail her like everything else. Like her digestive system that can no longer assimilate nutrients without a feeding tube connected to a stoma in her belly; like her bones, too brittle; her heart, never strong enough. This time it was bronchitis, back in October, that turned into pneumonia. Within a month, Sage’s already dwindling lung capacity plummeted below 40 percent. Now we have an oxygen concentrator humming twenty-four seven in the living room, connected to a seventy-foot tube snaking around our house. It funnels the air Sage desperately needs directly into her nostrils through a cannula.
But it’s not enough. It never is. She needs new lungs; she needs a whole new, healthy body that no one will give her because no one knows what she has. Most of the doctors told us it could be an atypical form of progeria; a few believe otherwise, since all genetic tests returned negative. One douchenozzle even accused my dad of having Munchausen by proxy.
“Stick with me,” I murmur, trailing shy fingers along the edge of the silver thermal blanket covering her. I’m afraid the slightest touch might bruise her.
I’m only four years older, but she’s always been so small, with her elfin limbs, jade-colored irises that we both inherited from Mom, and baby-soft hair that turned a stark white early in her childhood, when mine grew black as ink. I desperately want to believe she’ll fight and push through once more, but tonight there’s barely any fog on the underside of her oxygen mask. She won’t open her eyes, and her legs are so emaciated that her moose-print leggings no longer cling to her thighs.
I’m not ready. Sage’s clock is ticking too fast, and I don’t think I can live without the pain and joy of being together. I can’t accept that there will be no more discussions of trash-lit and astrophysics, no more walks along Woodbine Beach when it’s a good day and she feels strong enough to go out.
I don’t realize my eyes have grown hot until a gruff male voice spears through the haze of my grief.
I blink to focus through the blare of the siren and the lights flashing all around us. We’re speeding up Eastern Avenue toward downtown.
“Miss, you’ve got a call. Could be your father.”
My gaze cuts from Sage to the phone buzzing in my hand. I texted Dad ten minutes ago because he wouldn’t pick up—late afternoon is the busiest time of the day at his shop. I swipe to take the call. The warm grit of his voice envelops me and quiets my fear. “Don’t worry, Possum. I’ll be there in twenty. Any change?”
“No. I found her passed out on the couch when I got home. She still had her cannula.” Small blessings. If Sage’s tube had slipped off while she was out . . . I don’t want to think about it. Not now.
Dad is on the same wavelength. He knows better than most how to make the best of a crap hand. “Okay, her cannula stayed on, she had oxygen: that’s all that matters,” he reasons. There’s some honking in the background; he mutters something about “fucking traffic cones” before he returns his attention to me. “You stay with her, and you wait for me. We’re gonna get through this, Possum.”
“We’re almost there,” the paramedic says as I end the call and we round the corner of Shuter and Victoria to pull into St. Mike’s ER drop-off, a gaping maw at the back of a looming, austere brick building. I jump off the second the ambulance doors open and follow Sage’s stretcher on autopilot, barely aware of the gusts of snow chilling me through my hoodie and jeans. I forgot my parka, my gloves, everything—it doesn’t matter.
Wheels clatter across the cold concrete. Glass doors hiss open and close shut, leading to a bright and warm lobby where a pair of nurses in purple scrubs hurry toward us to take over. The handoff is expedited in two minutes. The female EMT, barely older than me, drones through Sage’s symptoms while the triage nurse examines her.
They have questions for me too. My voice sounds brittle, robotic, as I rehash the same brief I’ve given a hundred times to a hundred doctors. Yes, she has a record here at St. Mike’s. Yes, she’s had syncopes before. Am I her primary caretaker? No, but yes. Officially it’s Dad, but I’m the one trying to major in biology at U of T and angling for med school, so I’ve pretty much been running that show since I was sixteen. I list all the meds she takes—so many of them, organized with military precision in the pink plastic crate we keep on the kitchen counter. An entire life spent fighting, summed up in three dry words: unidentified progeroid syndrome.
When they start carting her away, I instinctively move to follow, but a voice stops me.
A male nurse, one I hadn’t noticed popping up behind me as Sage disappeared down a hallway. He tips his head to the admission booth behind us where a bored clerk has just motioned for me to come over. “They’ll call you when you can see your sister, but for now, we need you to register her.”
I manage a stiff nod. “Yeah, I—I have her OHIP card with me.”
“Excellent.” A smile that reeks of canned sympathy pinches dimples in his cheeks. The syrupy kindness in his voice doesn’t reach his eyes; they are a frosty gray, like the ice on the lake on a cloudy morning.
On a different day, I might have wondered about his crisp British accent. My gaze might have lingered on his slim but powerful build or the sandy-blond waves framing his almost-too-handsome features. Tonight, however, he’s just a rando keeping me away from my sister. I force the annoyance out of my voice. I’m going to need all the help I can get. “Do you know where they’re taking her? The ICU?”
He’s about to reply when Dad’s voice booms across the lobby. “Possum!”
I don’t care that the dozen people waiting are watching me as I run toward a craggy biker with a silvery braid and Hagrid’s beard. “Dad!” I hug him hard, gripping his leather with both hands. You can take the biker three thousand miles away from his MC club, but you can’t really take the club out of the member. With his bouncer build and tattoos, Dad tends to draw stares wherever he goes.
And yet he’s one book you shouldn’t judge by its cover. He gravitated away from his club for good after we moved to Toronto over a decade ago. Dad had spent his entire adult life in California—Sage and I were born there—but after Grandma died and left him her house, he decided it was time for the Greers to reconnect with their Canadian roots . . . because free health care and cheap college tuitions. So he drove back home with us and his Harley in tow, opened a small tattoo parlor, and he’s been a model citizen ever since—if you overlook the shrooms he sometimes sells under the counter to a select clientele.
He made everything better for us. He always does. “They took Sage away,” I mumble into his Mötley Crüe shirt. “She was still breathing, but she was cyanosed, and she won’t wake up.”
He squeezes me tight and strokes my braid. “Did they say how long before we can see her?”
“No. I was about to finish with her registration; they still need to swipe her card.”
“Okay, you do that, and I’ll go ask around.”
I let go reluctantly and watch him stalk toward the blond guy who talked to me earlier. He’s still here; doesn’t he have stuff to do? I can’t help but spy on the two of them from the corner of my eye while I fill in the admissions form. Name: Greer, Sage. Address in Ontario: 1905 Queen Street East, phone number . . . hold on. The blond guy just motioned to a door down the hallway. Dad rushes back to me just as the clerk confirms that we’re done for now.
“He says they’re taking her to imaging, but they won’t let more than one family member in there.”
I bite back a sigh of frustration. “I’ll wait here, but text me if you can?”
He presses a gruff kiss to my hair. “Will do.” I think he meant to be reassuring, but the words came out strangled. I reach to stroke his cheek, skimming deep grooves and old sunspots. He doesn’t speak much about the past, about himself. But tonight, sorrow weighs on his features. His jaw works in silence for a few seconds before he rasps, “I can’t, Possum . . . I can’t lose one of my girls again.”
We never talk about it. We keep old pics on our sideboard, pics where there’s five of us, not three. But Dad isn’t great with words, and I’m not either, so the past remains buried. We never talk about that morning, seventeen years ago, when Mom went out with Floe to the grocery store and they never returned. Dad looked for them for months, then years. His brothers even helped, but it was as if Mom and Floe had vanished off the face of the earth. There was never any lead, no remains to help him grieve and understand. Only sudden, unbearable silence.
I barely remember the two of them. Even Floe, the mirrored half of me, is little more than a foggy outline in my memories. But that old wound won’t scar over even after all this time. I squeeze Dad’s chest. “Go. Sage needs you.”
“I won’t be long.” He lets go and walks away, but not without one last brush of his fingers along my braid, as if it were his good luck charm.
Then it’s just me, hugging myself in that lobby full of strangers, under the artificial glare of tube lights. I eye the seats closest to me. I’m drained, shivering all over, but I’m almost afraid to sit down. I need the energy, the momentum that keeps dark thoughts at bay. I hate waiting.
“Miss Greer.” My head snaps up. A broad-shouldered, mustached guy stands before me. White coat, badge—this one’s a doctor. Like the blond nurse, his husky voice bears the staccato of a British accent. “Would you like to see her?”
My body revs back into action. “Yes!”
“Then follow me, please.” He turns on his heel without another look or a single word of reassurance.
I let him lead me down an empty hallway, every step we take echoing too loudly in the sterile space. Behind each numbered door we pass, I wonder if Sage awaits, if she’s still breathing. When I can’t stand the silence any longer, I ask him, “How’s my sister?”
He stops in front of the steel doors of an elevator. “I’m taking you to her.”
“Is that all you can tell me?” I say as the elevator doors open and we step inside. I try to snuff out my rising temper as we find ourselves facing each other in this cramped space that reeks of detergent and rubbing alcohol. Nothing will be accomplished by biting off this douche’s head.
Great. It’s when I glance at the numbers rolling on the elevator screen that a genuine sense of unease sets in my bones. Sublevel 1. “Why are we going down? Imaging is upstairs.”
But the morgue isn’t.
A surge of panic squeezes my lungs as the elevator bounces to a stop and the doors hiss open. A silent and dim hallway whose walls shiver from the erratic pulse of a busted tube light. A group of four men in dark three-piece suits awaits, surrounding an empty stretcher. My eyes scan their bowler hats, the chains of pocket watches fastened to their waistcoats. Something doesn’t compute. What is this, Peaky Blinders?
Battling a shiver of unease, I make to turn and leave. “Okay, look—” The doctor grabs my forearm and pain registers, first from his crushing hold, then from the stab of a needle in my neck. Heat and numbness spill into my veins, carrying the terrifying realization that the stretcher is for me.