If heaven and hell decide
That they both are satisfied
Illuminate the ‘No’s
On their vacancy signs
If there’s no-one beside you
When your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark
Death Cab For Cutie – I Will Follow You Into The Dark
I hate hospitals.
I always have. Granted, most of my experience with them has been as a patient, but I’ve also spent my fair share of time in waiting rooms. The waiting is always the worst part.
I looked up at my study of my shoelaces at Mark’s voice. My twin looked about as worried and stressed out as I felt, his tone weary. It had been a long day for all of us.
“Hey,” I mumbled in response, dropping my gaze again. “Why is this taking so long?”
He sat down in the empty seat next to me, the plastic creaking a little under his weight, and stretched his long legs out before him. “You know what doctors are like, Tay. Or at least you should by now, going on the number of times you’ve been in hospital.”
“I know what they’re like,” I snapped at him. “I don’t need a reminder.”
Mercifully, Mark let my tone slide, choosing instead to make an attempt at reassurance. “She’ll be all right, Tay. I know she will.”
“You’d better be right, Marcus,” I said. That I didn’t call him Mark, as I normally did, was an indicator of how worried I truly was.
“Have I ever been wrong?” he asked me. “Don’t answer that question,” he appended hurriedly when I opened my mouth to answer him. “Whatever it is that’s made her this unwell, you’ll both get through it. I’m positive that you will.”
I wanted to believe him. I truly did. And I would have, if not for the tiny dissenting voice in the back of my head that said my brother was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Footsteps sounded to my left, and I looked over to see Jack walking into the waiting area. He had his hands in his pockets, head bowed. “Jack,” I called out, and he raised his head to look at me. “Did you call your parents?”
He nodded. “Yeah.” He let out a sharp bark of laughter. “I’m not looking forward to seeing my phone bill after that particular call.”
“What did they say?” I prompted.
“Well…” Jack sat down on my other side. “They’re both worried, as you can probably guess. Both of them were with Bella the first time she was sick, and they’re well aware it could happen again. Not that I’m saying she’s that sick,” he added, “but we all know the possibility’s there.”
“I don’t even want to think about it, Jack,” I said tiredly. It had been a long day, and I was utterly exhausted. All I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed with Isobel, but I had the distinct feeling I wasn’t going to get even that.
“Which one?” I muttered, and copped an elbow to the ribs courtesy of Mark. “Yeah, that’s me,” I replied, and looked up to see someone I assumed was a doctor.
“I’m Dr. Saville,” the doctor said in introduction. “May I sit?” she asked.
“Yeah, of course,” I said, and Dr. Saville seated herself in the row of seats opposite Mark, Jack and I. “Is Isobel okay?”
“Yes, she’s fine. However, there were a few things I wanted to discuss with you about the circumstances of her admission here to RPA.” For the first time I noted the clipboard that the doctor held. “Would it be possible for us to speak in private?”
“Whatever you have to say to me, you can say in front of these two,” I informed her. “They’re family.”
“All right then.” Dr. Saville’s tone then turned clinical and serious. “How long has she been feeling unwell?”
I counted back to when Isobel had started to feel under the weather. “It’s been around six weeks or so,” I replied once I was sure I had the dates right in my head. “At first we wrote it off as being stress – at least that’s what the doctor she saw in Perth told her – but then a few days later I noticed a rash all over her back after she’d taken a shower. It just escalated from there – her energy levels were all over the place for a few weeks, but I put that down to being on tour and not getting much sleep.”
“On tour?” Dr. Saville questioned.
“Her band and my brothers’ band just finished a two-month-long tour of Australia,” I clarified.
“Ah, I see. Please continue.”
I nodded sharply before taking up my thread again. “And then…it would have been a week and a half ago now, one rehearsal almost completely drained her. She only made it through the concert that night because she napped for a few hours beforehand and sat down the whole time she was onstage. A few days later she woke up at something like three in the morning with a nosebleed and a high fever – I don’t know how high it was, we didn’t have a thermometer handy, but it didn’t break until she’d taken some Panadol at mid-morning.” I ran my hands through my hair, my fingers catching on snarls and tangles. “The rash had come back as well, the evening before, and she told me her bones were hurting. She couldn’t perform that evening, she just slept most of the day.
“Everything was fine for the week after that, up until this afternoon. She had her old energy back, no aches and pains, no more nosebleeds, even that rash was gone. When we got to Sydney earlier today, though, we got off the train at St. James station, and she got out of breath climbing the stairs – that’s never happened before, not since I’ve known her anyway.”
“But she was fine until tonight, though,” Mark interjected. “Right after the concert, while the rest of us were celebrating, one of our sisters said she felt really dizzy and light-headed. And then she just passed out.”
“Has she seen her doctor recently?” Dr. Saville asked.
I nodded. “Last Wednesday. She had a bunch of tests done – blood tests mostly – and her doctor got the results back this morning. She was due to go back for an appointment tomorrow morning.”
Dr. Saville seemed to make a note of this on her clipboard. “Is there anything else you could tell me? Every detail helps, no matter how inconsequential you think it might be.”
In that moment, I knew I had to tell Isobel’s secret. Her health depended on it, otherwise I would never have breached her trust.
“The afternoon the tour started, back in April, she told me that when she was four years old she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. She spent two-and-a-half years in treatment before she made remission.”
“I see,” Dr. Saville said, frowning. “Did she give you any dates in relation to her diagnosis?”
“Just after her fourth birthday was when she was initially diagnosed. Her birthday’s April 17 1984,” I added, and saw Dr. Saville write this down. “She made remission on the thirty-first of October 1990.” I leaned forward a little. “Would that possibly have any relation to all of this?”
“It’s quite likely,” Dr. Saville replied. “Many cancer patients are at risk of developing what we call a secondary malignancy many years after they make remission. One of those secondary malignancies is acute myeloid leukaemia. I am not going to say that this is what her diagnosis will be, because there is a chance it’s something relatively minor, but you need to be prepared for the possibility.”
“Do you need her doctor’s name?” I asked.
“It would be a huge help, yes.”
“Her doctor’s name is Dr. Olivia Talbot, at the Wollongong Medical Centre – I don’t know the name of the oncologist that treated her when she was little, you’ll have to ask Isobel.” I picked at the left knee of my jeans. “Is there anything else you need to know?”
“No, that should be all for now.” Dr. Saville rose to her feet. “You should go home and get some rest. There is nothing more you can do here tonight.”
I nodded. “Could I see her before I go?” I asked, and received a nod in reply.
Isobel was sitting up in her hospital bed, knees drawn up under her chin and arms wrapped around her legs. She looked over from staring at the wall when I entered her room.
“Hey you,” I said as I drew up a chair to the side of her bed and sat down. She gave me a shaky smile. “Are you feeling any better?”
“A little,” Isobel replied. “I’m not dizzy anymore at least. But I still feel like shit.” She studied me briefly. “Are you going to stay here in Sydney tonight?” she asked.
“Probably. It’s a little too late for me to be going all the way home. I’ll crash on the couch in my brothers’ suite or something.”
“You got your meds with you?”
I nodded. “They’re in my backpack. And the neighbours are keeping an eye on Ratchet for us tonight.”
“Good,” Isobel murmured. Her eyes dropped closed for the briefest of moments, and I knew she was just as exhausted as I was. I stood up and put the index and middle fingers of my right hand under Isobel’s chin, lifting her head upward so I could see into her eyes.
“You get some sleep,” I told her, and she nodded a little. “I’ll be back as soon as I can tomorrow.”
“I love you, Taylor,” she whispered as she uncurled herself and lay down, settling into sleep.
“I love you too, Isobel.”
Mark and Jack were waiting in the corridor outside for me. “How is she?” Jack asked as the two of them fell into step beside me.
“She’s pretty tired,” I replied.
“Reckon she would be,” my brother-in-law agreed. “You holding up okay?”
I shrugged. “I’ll be all right. Besides, I’m not the one everyone should be worried about.”
“Where are you going to stay tonight?” Mark asked me as we headed down the corridor.
“I was hoping I could crash with you guys,” I replied. “It’s far too late to be going all the way home – I won’t get enough sleep, and I’ll probably just have to turn straight around again to come back here.”
“That’s probably the best idea you’ve had in ages,” Mark said snarkily, and I cuffed him half-heartedly across the back of his head.
From the hospital, we walked to Macdonaldtown train station and caught the train through to the middle of the Sydney CBD. By the time the three of us disembarked at Wynyard station, it was twenty-five to ten at night and I was just about falling asleep on my feet. I figured Mark had to have texted our mother between leaving the hospital and getting off the train, for when we arrived at the hotel our mother was sitting there in the lobby. Schuyler wasn’t too far away. She rose from her seat when she saw me walking in behind Mark and Jack, and took me into an embrace once I was within reach. For once, I didn’t resist – I knew I needed this.
“How is she?” Mom asked me.
“She’s exhausted,” I replied. “A little scared, too, I think – I couldn’t get much out of her, she went to sleep just before I left the hospital.” I didn’t even bother to bite back a yawn, knowing that Mom could tell I was sleepy just by looking at me.
“Let’s get you upstairs to bed,” my mother suggested, and I nodded. Schuyler got up from her seat and came up to my left side, slinging an arm around my shoulders.
“I’m going to want the full story from you later on,” she told me in a low voice as she guided me toward the bank of lifts that lined a nearby wall. “There’s something neither of you are telling me.” She let out a quiet sigh. “I hate secrets.”
“You and me both,” I mumbled.
One of the lifts opened its doors right as Schuyler jabbed the UP arrow, and we stepped inside. Jack, Mark and Mom weren’t too far behind, and Mark pressed the button for the ninth floor.
I stayed quiet as the lift rose upwards, unsure if I could even speak – I was too worried, too scared. There was an ache deep inside me, one that I knew would only ease when I knew Isobel would be okay. She had to be okay…because I wasn’t sure I could survive without her.
I was woken the next morning by a very insistent finger poking me in the ribs, and opened my eyes to find a slightly fuzzy-around-the-edges Zoë knelt on the floor and staring at me. My night had been spent crashed on the couch in my brothers’ hotel suite – it adjoined the one occupied by the rest of my family, with Jack and Schuyler having taken a room a couple of floors down.
“Zo?” I asked in a whisper, unsure if everyone else was awake yet or not. “What’re you doin’?”
“Waking you up,” she replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. She seemed to anticipate my next question even before I opened my mouth to ask it, adding, “It’s eight-thirty.”
“Thanks, Zo,” I mumbled as I shifted onto my back and stretched. I was already beginning to feel the effects of my night curled up on the narrow, slightly uncomfortable piece of furniture – my back and shoulders were aching, and my knees and wrists were stiff and sore. Were it not for the winter sunlight streaming in through the windows, I would have thought it was raining outside. “Can you grab my backpack for me?” I asked as I hunted blindly for my glasses.
I was soon sitting up and pawing through the main pocket of my backpack in search of my medication, turfing out various bits and pieces I had brought to Sydney with me the day before. I tossed my hoodie, a spare long-sleeved shirt, my cell phone, house and car keys, my iPod and earphones, a half-full bottle of water and a ziplock bag full of peanut butter M&M’s out onto the floor, before finally unearthing a second ziplock bag containing two pill packets.
“Zoë, leave your brother alone,” I heard Mom say as I crammed all but the shirt, hoodie, bottle of water, my M&M’s and my medication back into my backpack and zipped it back up. “He’s still sleeping.”
“I’m up, Mom,” I told her. I unscrewed the lid from my water bottle and stuck the bottle between my knees, opening the ziplock bag with my medication inside and tipping both packets out onto the coffee table.
“How are you feeling?” she asked as she sat down next to me on the couch.
“Sore,” I answered. “Tired, too.” As if to emphasise this last point, I rubbed at my left eye with the heel of my left hand. I wasn’t lying – I was tired right down to my bones, and I knew exactly why. Most of it was from all the excitement of the day before, but a good deal of my exhaustion was worry about Isobel. I knew that the only reason I had slept the night before was because of my CFS – were it not for that, I would have stayed up all night.
I took my medication and painkillers, washing each pill down with water, and chased them with a handful of M&M’s. It wasn’t the best breakfast in the world, but I wasn’t exactly hungry or in the mood for anything more substantial, even though I knew full well that it would come back to bite me later on.
“When were you planning to go out to the hospital?” Mom asked me once I had finished my M&M’s. Around me were the sounds of the morning after a concert – my brothers banging around their rooms trying to wake up, Zoë watching cartoons on TV, my father next door marshalling Jessica, Avery and Mackenzie together in readiness for heading downstairs, or so I assumed.
“Around ten or so,” I answered. “I need to have a shower before I go over there, and Schuyler wanted to talk to me as well.” That was a conversation I wasn’t looking forward to.
I heard a door open behind me, and I looked back over my shoulder to see Mark wandering out into the main room. He had a towel draped over his head and was scrubbing at his hair with one hand. “Good morning,” he said as he walked over to the armchair, a twin for the couch Mom and I sat on. He dropped down into it and put his bare feet up on the coffee table.
“Feet off the furniture, Mark,” Mom chided.
“Sorry, Mom,” Mark said, and put his feet down on the carpet. He looked at me from beneath his towel. “You’re up early.”
I shrugged and stood up. “I’m going to go and hop in the shower,” I said, and bent down to snag my spare shirt from off of the floor on my way to the bathroom.
After my shower, I headed downstairs to Schuyler and Jack’s hotel room. I really wasn’t looking forward to what Schuyler had to say – her tone the night before had been rather ominous. Part of me hoped that Jack had already told her the full story. Knowing my luck, though, it would be left to me to do so.
The door for room 822 opened a few seconds after I had knocked. Jack stood there in the doorway with one eyebrow raised. “You’re up early,” he commented, unconsciously echoing Mark’s own words from earlier.
“Are you channelling my twin?” I asked. “That was the first thing he said to me this morning.”
“More like it’s common knowledge in your family that you like to sleep in,” Jack said with a shrug.
“It’s not because I like to sleep in. It’s because I can’t help it most of the time.” At Jack’s look of puzzlement, I elaborated, “I’ve got chronic fatigue syndrome, Jack. Can I talk to Schuyler?”
“Yeah, of course,” Jack replied, and stepped aside to allow me to enter the room.
Schuyler was sitting cross-legged on her bed, watching TV with one hand on the remote control. She looked away from the TV as I sat down near the end of the bed. “You said last night that you wanted to talk to me,” I said, bracing myself for a lecture.
“I did, yeah.” She set the remote control aside and shifted closer to me. “Is there something Isobel has been keeping a secret?” she asked.
“You don’t beat around the bush, do you?” I asked rhetorically.
“Just answer the question.”
I drew in a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh. “Yes. Yes, there is something that Isobel has been keeping a secret. She didn’t tell me until two months ago, so I’ve been in the dark almost as much as you have.”
From there, I proceeded to tell Schuyler everything that Isobel had told me the first afternoon of the tour. To her credit, Schuyler didn’t interrupt me once, instead listening intently the whole time I was speaking. Once I was done, she didn’t speak for a few moments.
“I’ve always wondered why she needed a tutor for History,” Schuyler said at last. “I’m sure you’ve picked up on how smart she is.” I nodded, and she continued, “I’m guessing all of that was why she felt she had to be tutored.”
“She was held back a grade as well,” I reminded her. “That was probably a contributing factor.”
“When are you going to see her?” Schuyler asked.
“Very soon. D’you want to come with? I could use the company on the train ride out there.”
“I think I might. I didn’t get to see her last night.”
I glanced at Schuyler’s watch. “So meet up in front in about ten minutes?” I suggested, and Schuyler nodded.
Exactly ten minutes later I stepped out of the hotel onto the footpath outside, bundled up against the winter chill in my hoodie and one of Mark’s many scarves, hands jammed into my pockets. Schuyler joined me half a minute later and gave me a small smile before leading the way to the train station.
“Something on your mind?” she asked as we walked up the street.
“I’m just worried,” I replied. Inside my pockets my fingers were crossed.
“Uh huh,” Schuyler said sceptically. It was as if she could see my hands through the thick fleece of my hoodie. “Remind me why I don’t believe you for a second?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but Schuyler put up a hand to forestall any protest. “How long have we known each other for, Taylor?” she asked.
“Seven years,” I replied quietly.
“Seven years,” she repeated. “And in those seven years, you’d think I would be able to pick up on more than a few things about you. Right?”
“I suppose so.”
And here she pushed me back against the rough brick wall of a nearby building. “You’re more than worried. You are fucking terrified. Now spit it out.”
“I can’t live without her, Sky!” I almost shouted.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Schuyler said, sounding very pleased with herself.
“I just…” I dragged my hands out of my pockets, uncrossing my fingers before exposing them to the cold June air, and raked them through my hair. “She makes me whole, Sky. She makes my world brighter and less lonely just by being in it. And if I lose her like this…” My eyes dropped closed. “That would be the end for me. I know it would be.”
Schuyler didn’t respond to this verbally. Instead her hand went to my shoulder, and I felt her squeeze it gently. And just from that one small gesture, I knew she understood.
Visiting hours at the hospital didn’t begin until ten o’clock, so the two of us caught the train to Newtown station rather than Macdonaldtown and spent a fair bit of time in a café in Enmore. As soon as Schuyler’s watch ticked over to nine forty-five, we got up from our table and headed through to the hospital.
“Do you want me to come in with you?” Schuyler asked as we reached Isobel’s hospital room. The walk from Enmore to Camperdown hadn’t taken us very long at all, and we had arrived at the hospital right as visiting hours began.
I considered Schuyler’s question briefly. “I think I’ll be okay,” I replied. “Thanks, though.”
Isobel was sitting up in her bed and watching TV when I slipped into her room. She looked away from the screen as I closed the door behind me and gave me a small smile. “Hey,” she said, her voice barely audible over the TV.
“How’re you feeling?” I asked as I pulled a chair up to her bedside.
She shrugged and switched the TV off. “A little better. Not much though. I just want to get out of here.”
“Can’t blame you for that,” I said sympathetically. “I hate hospitals as much as you do.”
“Do you now? Never would have guessed,” she said dryly.
The door opened again not even a minute later, this time to admit Dr. Saville. “Good morning,” she said cheerfully as the door closed again behind her. “How are we doing today?”
Isobel shrugged. “I can’t complain.”
“Good, good.” Dr. Saville pulled up a chair of her own on Isobel’s other side and seated herself. “Your GP faxed me your test results earlier this morning,” she said, getting right to the point. “Did she give you any indication as to what they pointed to?”
Isobel shook her head. “All she told me was that she wanted to discuss them with me,” she answered. “I mean, obviously she wasn’t going to tell me over the phone.” She fidgeted a little, twisting her bedclothes up in her fingers. “Is it bad news?” she asked, her voice small and scared.
“I’m sorry,” Dr. Saville said quietly.
That was all it took. The second those two words left Dr. Saville’s mouth, Isobel broke down into silent, trembling sobbing. I didn’t hesitate for a second in getting up from my chair and sitting down on the bed next to her, and drawing her close. She immediately buried her face in my shoulder and cried her heart out. I knew she was absolutely devastated by the news, and I could hardly blame her for that.
“What are we dealing with?” I asked shortly after Isobel’s crying tapered off. I had meant what I’d told Isobel the day she had confessed her secret to me – I would be with her every step of the way through this ordeal, and so I needed to know everything about it that I possibly could.
“The diagnosis is of biphenotypic acute leukaemia,” Dr. Saville said, consulting her notes. “It’s an extremely rare form of the disease that exhibits characteristics of both myeloid and lymphocytic leukaemias.”
The next words that left her mouth were some of the most frightening I had ever heard.
“The median, or average survival time for this form of leukaemia is ten months.”
Ten months. “You…you’re kidding, right?” I asked. Schuyler was right – I wasn’t scared or worried any longer. Now I was fucking terrified.
“I only wish I were kidding. Isobel will need to start treatment immediately – we cannot afford to waste one moment.” Dr. Saville put her clipboard aside. “You have a shot at beating this, Isobel,” she said, her tone gentle and soothing. “I promise you that. Not everyone dies from this – it’s extremely aggressive, yes, but it can be beaten.”
“And I want to try,” Isobel said softly, her voice tear-choked. “I refuse to give up without a fight.”
Dr. Saville nodded. “Excellent. I’ll have one of our oncologists drop around to speak with you once you’re admitted – she will be able to give you the full details of what you’re facing and your treatment options.”
“So I can’t go home?”
“Not yet, I’m afraid.” Here Dr. Saville looked to me. “I would suggest that you go home and pack up a few things to make Isobel’s stay a little more comfortable while she’s here. It’s likely to be quite some time before she’s able to be discharged.”
I gave a sharp nod, and Dr. Saville took her leave.
“I can’t believe it,” Isobel whispered once the door was closed and we were alone. “I-I mean I guessed what it could be, but I never expected I’d be right…” She took in a deep, shuddering breath. “Why am I always right?”
“Shh,” I whispered in her ear. “Don’t think about that, all right?”
“What am I supposed to think about?”
“How you’re going to kick this thing’s ass.” Isobel let out a snort of disbelief at this. “You will beat it, Issie. I have complete faith in you. That ten months Dr. Saville mentioned? It’s fucking frightening, yeah, but it’s just an average. And you, my love, have never been average.”
This seemed to cheer Isobel up a little. “You really think I can beat it?”
“I really do.” I kissed her quickly on her forehead. “And I will be with you every step of the way. You won’t be alone in this.”
“Do you promise?”
I nodded. “I promise.”