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Braving Darker Days

Chapter Text

Slow motion sickness
Why should I fix this
Shaken by the sight of me
The painted babies
And run late ladies
Brought out a different side of me

Slow Motion Sickness – Dave Navarro


Prologue

Sophie

Just got home from parkes. I am so freaking tired. Mum said you can come over later if you want to.

“Hey Mum?”

I wandered into the kitchen, bare feet almost silent on the polished floorboards underfoot, and hopped up onto one of the bar stools that lived beneath the overhang of the kitchen bench. Mum was standing at the kitchen sink with her back to me, almost elbow deep in soapy water.

“Yes, Sophie?”

“I got a text message from Taylor just now – the Hansons just got back from Parkes. Can I go over after lunch?”

Mum lifted a frying pan out of the sink by its handle with one hand, grabbed the scourer with the other, and started scrubbing at what looked like a particularly stubborn bit of burnt-on bacon from last night’s dinner. “Did Mrs. Hanson say you could?”

“Yeah, that’s what Taylor said. So can I?”

“I don’t know Sophie, can you?”

I rolled my eyes. “May I go over to the Hansons’ after lunch?”

“If you like.” Mum looked back over her shoulder at me. “Sophie, you know you don’t have to ask if you can go somewhere,” she reminded me with a smile. “You are eighteen after all.”

“You make Sam ask if he can go places,” I pointed out.

“And you know full well that Sam doesn’t have the sense that God gave a goose,” Mum replied as she went back to scrubbing the frying pan. “Did you hear anything about university yet?”

“I got a letter from Wollongong Uni,” I admitted, knowing I couldn’t keep it quiet for much longer. My mother was an expert at weaselling information out of people – a skill that my youngest sister had inherited. “Promised Taylor we’d open our letters together, though.”

“That’s fair enough.” Mum gave me another smile. “But you make sure you tell your dad and I what your letter says when you get home, all right?”

“Yeah, okay,” I agreed, and snagged a peach out of the fruit bowl before sliding down off my stool and wandering over to the back door. I could have gone back into my room, seeing as my sisters were still at our grandparents’ in Melbourne until the end of the week, but I felt like getting a bit of fresh air.

I had known Taylor (and by extension, the rest of the Hanson family) since primary school, after his family had moved to Newcastle from Western Australia midway through 1990. He’d been scared of his own shadow back then, though I knew he would never admit it to anyone but me or his own mother. To this day I still don’t know what it was that made him creep out of his little shell during the summer between Year 1 and Year 2, only that he’d sneaked off on his bike and ridden all the way from Broadmeadow to my place in Islington – a distance of two and a half kilometres. It didn’t seem like a particularly insurmountable distance nowadays, but when you’re two months away from your eighth birthday it’s practically a marathon. Especially in the middle of summer.

Long story short – Taylor got in a hell of a lot of trouble from his parents for sneaking off, and I was so impressed that I immediately claimed him as my best friend. We’re still best friends eleven years later.

A few hours later, I hopped off the bus at the stop on Lexington Parade in Adamstown Heights and began the walk toward Taylor’s place. It was a route I knew well and could pretty much walk with my eyes closed – bit more than a hundred metres from the bus stop to the turnoff into Rachael Avenue, hang a right and walk uphill until I reached the telegraph pole on the corner of Toohey Crescent, then hang another right and walk a quarter of a kilometre until I spotted the green and white Volkswagen Kombi van owned by Taylor’s parents. It was kind of funny, really – the Hanson family were well-off, to put it lightly, and yet whenever they went away for Christmas they all piled into the Kombi for the trip out to wherever it was they were headed. I gave the Kombi an affectionate pat on its back window as I walked past.

Taylor’s mother was sitting at the dining table sorting through a pile of mail when I walked into the house, trailing behind a very sunburned-looking Jessica. “Hey Mrs. Hanson.”

“There you are Sophie,” Mrs. Hanson said, looking up at me with a smile that lit up her warm brown eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you to call me Diana?”

“My mother would belt me if I did that,” I replied. “Not to mention you taught me for six years – I’m too used to it.”

“Oh, I suppose you’re right.” She sifted through the pile in front of her and slid a white envelope over to me – an envelope with the University of Wollongong emblem and postal address in the upper left corner, and Taylor’s name and address typed on the front in black. I swallowed hard when I saw it – I’d received a nearly identical envelope in the mail on the Friday just gone. Between the two of us we must have applied to every single university in New South Wales, not to mention even a few interstate that I knew damn well my mother would never agree to me going to, but the University of Wollongong had been the first choice for both of us. The moment of truth, it seemed, had finally arrived. “Taylor’s in the practice space,” she said. “Take that with you?”

“On it,” I said with a small salute, and picked up the envelope on my way out of the dining room.

The practice space that belonged to Taylor and his brothers had long been one of my favourite places. It was home to Zac’s well-used drum kit, Isaac’s collection of guitars, and Taylor’s prized upright piano, the white plaster and painted-brick walls decorated with framed articles from The Newcastle Herald, Rolling Stone and Australian Musician. Anyone with half a brain could tell that the three of them were intensely passionate about their music.

But it had its personal touches too – little things here and there that gave clues to each brother’s individual personalities. The collection of sketchbooks on an upturned milk crate near Zac’s drums. The scale model of a Volkswagen Kombi van with a tiny surfboard strapped to its roof racks that sat atop Taylor’s piano, with one of his cameras alongside. A clean glass jar that was full to the brim with guitar picks in all colours of the rainbow, stored on a low shelf right next to the rack that held Isaac’s guitars. And against the far wall, next to the sliding glass door that led to the backyard, the comfortable futon lounge that had played home to many a songwriting session.

It was on the futon lounge that I found Taylor. He was stretched out along its full length, eyes closed and his bare right foot propped up on the futon’s left armrest. His left foot was hanging off the edge of the lounge, toes barely touching the white tiles underfoot. I nudged his dangling foot with my right sandal. “Oi blondie. Wake up already.”

“‘m not asleep,” he mumbled, and cracked an eye open. They were always a bit of a shock to the system – while he shared his eye colour with his dad and two of his sisters, their particular shade of blue was somewhat muted. Taylor’s eyes, on the other hand, were the same shade as the sky above – a bright blue that reminded me of summer. “Hey Soph.”

“You were so asleep,” I objected. “Your eyes were closed.” I pushed at his right knee. “Sit up and budge over. Got something for you.”

“You get me chocolate?” he asked hopefully. “Josh ate all the chocolate on the way home from Parkes,” he added as he sat himself up. “Dad had to pull the Kombi over on the side of the road just before we got to Lithgow so he could throw up.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Ew.”

“Yeah.” He looked at me expectantly. “Come on, what’d you get me?”

“Impatient much?” I sat down next to him. “It’s from Wollongong Uni – I brought mine over as well. And anyway, how old are you again?”

“Nineteen in two months,” he replied promptly. “I’m a month and a day older than you, remember?”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” I held out the envelope to him, waiting until he’d taken it off me before digging around in my messenger bag for my own envelope. “What was your UAI again?”

“76.80,” Taylor replied. “You got 74 or something, right?”

“75.35,” I corrected. “Just enough to get me into Wollongong Uni.” I slid a finger under the seal of my envelope, watching out of the corner of my eye as Taylor did the same. “Okay, ready?”

“Ready,” Taylor replied with a nod.

We tore our envelopes open, our movements synchronised in a way borne out of our many years of friendship, and pulled out the letters inside. I was suddenly nervous – what if I didn’t get into university after all? What if all of my hard work all the way through senior secondary and the Higher School Certificate exams hadn’t been enough?

It didn’t take me long to realise that my fears were all for naught. Right there in that letter were the words I had waited two months to read. Dear Miss Harrison, on behalf of the University Admissions Office I am pleased to welcome you as a student of the University of Wollongong…

“I got in,” I whispered. “Holy shit I got in!” These last five words were said at a level barely below a shout.

“I did too,” Taylor said. He sounded almost stunned. “Soph…I got into uni…”

And with those words he was up off the lounge and running out of the room, yelling out at the top of his voice, “Mum! Mum I got into uni!” I grinned at this, knowing that he hadn’t had a thing to worry about, and followed him upstairs.

“Didn’t I tell you that you would?” Mrs. Hanson was saying as I emerged into the dining room, a few paces after Taylor. She looked over Taylor’s shoulder at me. “What about you, Sophie?”

I held up my letter. “Bachelor of Creative Arts in Performance, here I come,” I said with a grin.

“Oh, well done!” Mrs. Hanson said. She sounded proud, and I couldn’t help the grin that erupted onto my face. “Have either of you heard from Matthew or Katie yet?”

“Yeah, they got into the same uni as us,” Taylor answered. He was extracting himself from his mother’s embrace as he spoke. “Kat’s doing teaching, and Matt got into history. Can I ask them over so we can have a bit of a party?”

“If you like.” Mrs. Hanson reached up and ruffled Taylor’s messy blonde hair, and he tried to bat her hand away. “I’m very proud of you both,” she said, giving us a smile.

“Thanks, Mrs. Hanson.”

“Yeah, thanks Mum,” Taylor added, and he ducked away from his mother before she could mess up his hair more than it was already. He grabbed one of my hands. “Come on Soph.”

Out on the back verandah, I watched from behind the high white security fence as Taylor stripped down to his boardshorts. He tossed his T-shirt up onto the fence with his beach towel so that it didn’t get wet, and squinted up at me against the bright January sun. “You coming in?” he asked.

Rather than answering straight away, I glanced at the thermometer that hung on the wall next to the back door. It was shaped like a sunflower, its dial reading just over twenty-one degrees. “It’s not exactly warm, Tay,” I informed him.

“You’re wearing your swimmers anyway,” Taylor retorted.

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, okay smartarse. Only reason I’m wearing is them because I knew you or those other two idiots would try dragging me in there.” I nodded down at the swimming pool. “And I didn’t feel like getting my bra and knickers wet.”

I had soon followed Taylor’s lead in stripping out of my clothes, pulling my boardshorts on over my bikini bottoms before joining him next to the pool. “Watch this,” he said, and he headed over to stand at the rear of the house. He braced himself before breaking into a run, pelting across the wooden decking toward the side of the pool. Right before he tripped on the edge of the pool he jumped into the air, tucked his knees up and cannonballed into the water. I shut my eyes just before the splash produced by one hundred and eighty-eight centimetres of Jordan Taylor Hanson hit me, soaking me from head to foot.

“You see what I mean?” I shouted at him once his head had broken the surface of the water. His immediate response was the cheeky grin he flashed me through the wet hair that covered most of his face.

“You know you love it,” he said, and he shook his hair out of his face. “Come on, you’re wet now so you may as well come in.”

I did my best to scowl at him. “Remind me again why we’re still best mates?”

“Well, let’s see.” He ducked back underwater for a couple of seconds. “First off,” he started once his head was back out of the water, “you’re pretty much the only person who I’d sneak out after dark for, and vice versa. Second, we can-”

“Finish each other’s sentences,” I interrupted.

“Third,” he continued, as if I hadn’t even said a word, “I can get you cheap tickets to our shows. As if you’re going to moan about that. Four, how else are you going to get our music early?”

“If someone leaks it and I download it off Limewire?” I hazarded, and he raised an eyebrow at me before continuing his little list.

“Five, I don’t know anyone else who’s as addicted to jelly beans as I am. You’re literally the only person who can handle me when I’m on a sugar high because let’s face it, you get exactly the same way. And six…” Here he flung his arms wide open, spraying water everywhere. “I’m Taylor fucking Hanson. Why wouldn’t you be best mates with me?”

“Tickets on yourself much?” I said as I sat down on the edge of the decking and eased my feet into the water. I could feel my toes curling as the cold water hit them.

“Okay, maybe scratch the last one. I’m not that far up myself. You’d pull me down a few notches if I ever did get like that.”

“Damn straight I would.” I lowered myself into the water, resisting the temptation to shiver, and pushed away from the side of the pool. “Speaking of music, when are you guys planning on hitting the studio?”

Taylor shrugged. “No idea, but probably sometime around Easter. We’ve got a couple of years before Liberation is going to expect anything out of us, seeing as Zac’s about to start Year 11 and he’s doing his HSC next October and November, and I’ve got uni for the next few years. We sorted all of that out before I applied to UAC.” He eyed me for a little while. “You reckon we can manage it?”

“If you guys were any other band, I’d say no,” I admitted. “But when you look at how much you’ve managed to do since you got signed, especially when all three of you have had school to deal with at the same time…yeah, I reckon you can do it easy.”

This earned me another grin from Taylor, one I immediately mirrored. One of the many things I liked about him was that he could always find something to smile about. He was easily the most optimistic person I knew – almost nothing could bring him down.

“So, uni,” I said after the two of us had been quiet for a little while – Taylor was floating on his back with his eyes closed against the sun, and I was treading water. He lazily opened one eye at me. “Bit more than a month until the insanity begins. You reckon you’re ready?”

He seemed to consider this for a little while. “Yeah,” he replied at last. “Yeah, I reckon I’m ready. What about you?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “I’m more than ready.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 1

Taylor

I squinted tiredly at the page of sheet music in front of me, the staves, clefs and neatly-pencilled notes swimming before my eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so worn out. My long nights of study before the Higher School Certificate exams had nothing on this, and neither did our long weeks of touring during the first few years after we’d been signed. During our touring cycles and before exams, all it usually took was a good night’s sleep and I was back to normal the next morning. Right now, not only was I not sleeping well, but the weariness I felt was almost bone-deep. Feeling almost frozen, even despite how much I was rugged up, wasn’t helping matters.

“Taylor?”

I glanced up from my music at the door of the practice space. Mum stood on the bottom step in her dressing gown and slippers, a mug clasped in both of her hands. “It’s late sweetheart, and you look exhausted. You should be in bed by now.”

“I know,” I said with a sigh, and rubbed my left eye with the heel of my left hand. “There’s not much point though. I’m not going to be able to sleep.”

I almost thought Mum was going to order me to bed anyway, like she would have done when I was much younger. Instead, she came and sat down on the lounge next to me. “Is everything all right?” she asked. “Everything going okay with uni?”

I nodded. “Yeah, uni’s good. Pulled a bunch of credits last session.”

“Well done,” Mum said, sounding pleased, and I managed a small smile. Out of the corner of my eye I could see her studying me. “Are you feeling okay?”

For half a second I almost wanted to lie to her. In all truth, I hadn’t been feeling well for more than a month now. I’d caught a cold at the end of May, and six weeks later I still hadn’t been able to shake it off. So rather than tell the mother of all white lies, I shook my head.

“Taylor,” Mum chided. “Why didn’t you tell me this before now?”

“Didn’t want to worry you,” I mumbled. Right as I said this I started shivering again, and I instinctively pulled my hoodie closer around myself.

“You’re my son, of course I’m going to worry about you,” Mum reminded me, and she went to put a hand on my forehead. “Good Lord Taylor, you’re burning up,” she said, sounding shocked.

“You’re not even touching me.”

“I don’t need to touch you to feel how warm you are right now,” Mum said. She carefully eased me onto my feet, taking my composition book out of my hands as we moved. “Come on, upstairs with you. I’ll check your temperature before you go to bed.”

Upstairs in the kitchen, the first thing Mum did was fill a glass with water and set it down on the table in front of me. It was joined in short order by the packet of Panadol that I knew lived in the cupboard above the microwave, and the thermometer from the first aid kit. Without even missing a beat I picked up the thermometer, gave it a couple of quick shakes and stuck it in my mouth.

“There’s been a cold going around uni,” I said around the thermometer, once I’d decided it had been quiet for long enough. “Almost everyone in the Village caught it. I just haven’t been able to shake it yet.”

“I think this is more than just a cold, Tay,” Mum said. “It sounds more like the flu to me.” She reached over and smoothed my hair down. “I want you to spend the rest of your break resting, okay? No writing anything that resembles music, no piano, and no guitar. Be a lazy teenager for once in your life.”

“What do you think I do at uni?”

Mum raised an eyebrow at me. “I would hope you’re spending your time productively.”

“Mum, I’m nineteen years old. Of course I’m not.” I managed a grin at my mother. “Except for when we all have assignments due. You should see the flat when that happens. It’s dead quiet because none of us wants to piss each other off by making a crapload of noise.”

“Well, I would hope you’d all be quiet during assignments and exams.” Mum held out her hand, and I took the thermometer out of my mouth so she could check my temperature. “No wonder you’re burning up,” she said in what sounded like shock. “You’re running a pretty high fever right now.” She showed me the thermometer, and I blinked – it read thirty-nine degrees.

“Bloody hell,” I whispered. That at least explained why I felt so cold. Mum nodded and nudged the Panadol packet closer to me.

“Take a couple of those – they’ll help with the fever. I’ll make you some chamomile tea, then I want you to go straight to bed.”

“I hate chamomile tea,” I grumbled, half a second before I popped a tablet into my mouth and washed it down with a mouthful of water. It was followed in short order by a second, and I quickly drained the rest of the water out of my glass.

“I know, Tay. I don’t much like it either.” I heard the electric kettle click as Mum switched it on, and the cupboard above the stove opening. “But it will help you sleep. And hopefully your fever will have broken by morning.”

“What if it hasn’t?”

“We’ll give it a few more days. If it still hasn’t gone down by Thursday, I’ll make you an appointment to see Dr. Kendrick. All right?”

“All right,” I agreed, trying not to sound reluctant. I hated doctor’s appointments, something I knew Mum was well aware of, but if it meant potentially finding out why I was still sick weeks after I should have gotten over my cold then I wasn’t going to complain.

The next morning, what woke me wasn’t my alarm clock or even the alarm on my phone. It was a text message from Sophie. Going down to the foreshore after brekky to terrorise the normals. Want to come with? Matt and kat will be there too ;)

I cracked a small smile at Sophie wanting to ‘terrorise the normals’. To the four of us, terrorising the normals meant getting a few dollars’ of hot chips from the takeaway place on Wharf Road once it opened, and sitting on the Foreshore wall eating said hot chips and throwing any endy bits at passing seagulls. It wasn’t something we’d had a chance to do lately, and nor was it something that was going to happen today. Not with me in the picture at least.

Can’t, I typed in reply, thumbs tapping away at my phone’s keypad like they were possessed. Still sick so mum wants me to stay home.

A quiet knock sounded at my bedroom door just as I sent the message to Sophie. “Yeah, come in,” I said, setting my phone aside as I spoke.

The door opened a little way, and Mum poked her head through the gap between the door and the jamb. She gave me a smile. “Feeling any better?” she asked.

“A bit, yeah,” I replied, and worked to sit up. “Sophie just texted me.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Wanted to know if I wanted to go out to the Foreshore but I said no.”

“Good.” Mum came in and held out the thermometer to me, and I stuck it in my mouth. “Sophie can come over here if she wants to,” she said. She was sitting down on my bed as she spoke. “I know you hate being cooped up, but until you’re better it’s best that you stay home.”

I sighed. “I know.”

My phone’s text message tone sounded off again just as Mum took the thermometer back. “Still pretty high,” she said. I could quite clearly hear worry in her voice.

“How high is high?” I asked as I opened the text message that had just landed in my phone’s inbox.

“Thirty-eight and a half,” Mum replied. She eyed me for a little while. “I’ll call Dr. Kendrick now,” she decided. “It’s gone down a little bit but not enough for my liking.” She gave my left shoulder a quick squeeze. “Get dressed. Hopefully she’ll be able to fit you in at some point this morning.”

“Okay,” I said quietly, managing a smile I wasn’t really feeling. Once Mum had left my room I read Sophie’s reply to my text message.

Well that sucks :( i’ll come over later on if you’re up for some company.

Tomorrow maybe, I replied. Mum’s taking me to see dr. kendrick this morning.

Sophie’s response, from what I could tell, was a little perplexed. You have a cold, taylor – a pretty bad one, yeah, but it’s still just a cold. Wtf do you need to see dr. kendrick for?

I didn’t get around to answering Sophie’s newest text until after I’d gotten dressed. Normally getting dressed didn’t take me longer than five minutes, but that morning it took me closer to twenty. Having to stop every few minutes to let a coughing fit pass wasn’t helping matters. By the time I was finally dressed, sneakers and all, I was so dizzy and out of breath that I had to sit back down on my bed so that my head would stop spinning.

I need to see dr. kendrick b/c i’ve had this fucking cold for six bloody weeks now and mum thinks it might be the flu, I typed out, my hands shaking a little. Plus i’m running a stupidly high fever and it’s got mum worried.

Mum came back into my room just as I sent the message to Sophie. “Dr. Kendrick wants to see you straight away,” she said, and took my navy blue Year 12 hoodie down from the hook on the back of my bedroom door. I took it from her and pulled it on over my head, leaving the hood up, and brushed my fingers across the Merewether High School emblem that had Year 12 2001 and Taylor Hanson in white underneath.

Fair enough. Hope you feel better soon, was Sophie’s final text message, received as I was following Mum out to her Astra. Text me later, okay? :)

Dr. Kendrick practiced at the Hunter Street Medical Centre, over in Newcastle West, and had been my family’s doctor since before I was born. She ushered Mum and I into her office as soon as Mum had checked in at the reception desk.

“What brings you here this morning?” she asked once Mum and I were seated before her desk. I’d always liked her, as much as I hated having to go to the doctor even when I needed to – she was a little older than Mum and wore her light brown hair up in a no-nonsense knot at the back of her head, and peered out at the world from behind a pair of round, rimless spectacles. “I got the impression when your mother called that this is a fairly urgent matter. Is everything okay?”

I looked over at Mum, and she nodded – this was my story to tell, it seemed. “Not really,” I admitted. “There was this really nasty cold going around Wollongong Uni a couple of months ago. I caught it around the end of May and I haven’t been able to shake it yet – Mum thinks it might be the flu instead.” As I finished speaking I pushed the left sleeve of my hoodie up to my elbow and scratched at the underside of my wrist.

“That’s quite possible,” Dr. Kendrick agreed. “Are there any other symptoms that are concerning you?”

“I’ve been running a high fever for the last couple of days,” I replied. “It was thirty-nine degrees last night, and this morning it’d dropped by half a degree. And it took me twenty minutes to get dressed this morning-” I broke off as a coughing fit overtook me.

“That doesn’t sound good,” Dr. Kendrick said. She sounded a little concerned.

No shit, I wanted to say, but I held back. “That’s why it took me so long to get dressed,” I continued once I’d finished coughing. “I’d have to cough or take a couple of breaths every few seconds or so. I was dizzy as hell by the time I was finished.”

Dr. Kendrick didn’t say anything for a little while, and I figured she was thinking. “There isn’t a lot I can do for a cold or the flu, unfortunately,” she said at last, sounding apologetic. “It’s a virus, and antibiotics don’t work on viruses. All I can really tell you to do is get some rest. When are you due back at university?”

I quickly glanced at my watch to check the date – July ninth 2002. “This Saturday,” I replied.

“Do you have a GP in Wollongong that you see regularly?”

I shook my head. “Haven’t really needed to until now. There’s a medical centre in Wollongong that takes walk-ins, though.”

“All right. When you go back to university, I want you to keep an eye on your temperature and your other symptoms – if they get worse, I want you to promise me that you’ll see a doctor about them. If your temperature rises even half a degree above forty-one degrees, however, get one of your housemates – you do have housemates?” she asked, and I nodded. “Ask one of them to drive you to the hospital. All right? The same goes for the rest of the time you’re here. I’m sure either of your parents will remind you about that.”

“That we will,” Mum agreed, and Dr. Kendrick smiled.

“Before you go I’d just like to give you a quick check-up, just to make sure there’s nothing else I should be concerned about. All right?”

“Yeah, okay,” I agreed, trying not to sound too reluctant – this was my least favourite part of doctor’s visits. I took off my hoodie and toed off my sneakers, giving my hoodie to Mum so she could look after it, and got up from my seat.

The first thing that Dr. Kendrick did was check my height. “You’re a tall one, aren’t you?” she commented with a chuckle as I stood against the height chart on her office wall.

“Yep,” I replied, a hint of pride creeping its way into my tone. “Take after my dad. Isaac and Zac are both nearly as tall as me.”

“You should be playing basketball, not music,” Dr. Kendrick said, and I grinned.

“I’m a bit too unco for that, unfortunately,” I said with a shrug, and stepped over to Dr. Kendrick’s scales. The last time I’d been here, a few years earlier, she’d had mechanical scales complete with a set of small moveable weights along the top. This time her scales were digital and looked very high-tech, which explained the eyeful of bright green digits I got when I looked down at their display – a display that read 61.5 kilograms. “Okay, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that the last time,” I commented, frowning. “Sophie, she’s one of my flatmates, the scales she has in the bathroom of our flat at uni said I was something like seventy-five the last time I hopped on them.”

“And when was that?” Dr. Kendrick asked.

I thought about this for a little while. “About two months ago?” I hazarded. “Maybe two and a half. I’m not sure exactly but it was definitely before I came home last month.”

“I take it you haven’t deliberately been trying to lose weight?”

I shook my head. “No way.”

“I see.” She motioned for me to step off the scales, and unhooked her stethoscope from around her neck. I pulled my T-shirt up and braced myself, knowing from prior experience how cold stethoscopes were.

I wasn’t disappointed.

“Jesus effing Christ that’s cold!” I yelped as the cold steel made contact with my chest, earning myself a stern look from Mum. “It is!”

“There’s no need for that language,” Mum scolded me. “I didn’t raise you to talk like you were born in a gutter.”

I just barely held back from rolling my eyes. “Sorry.”

Dr. Kendrick smiled. “That’s quite all right, Taylor. You’d be surprised how often I get that sort of reaction.” She didn’t say anything for a minute or so. “Heart sounds good,” she said, before moving the stethoscope to my back. “Deep breath for me?” she requested, and I took the deepest breath that I could – which wasn’t really all that deep at all.

“I can’t breathe any deeper than that,” I explained once I could talk again. “Been that way for a little while now.”

“Since you caught your cold?”

I shook my head. “Longer, like maybe a few weeks. It didn’t seem like it was anything to worry about – I just thought I was a bit out of shape. Most exercise I get is walking from my flat to class and back.”

“Hmm.” She kept listening to my breathing for a little while longer, finally lifting the stethoscope away from my back. I pulled my T-shirt back down to where it belonged and brushed my hands over the front to get rid of any wrinkles. “Have a seat, Taylor.”

“Is everything okay, Dr. Kendrick?” Mum asked as Dr. Kendrick sat back down at her desk.

“I can’t say for certain, but that being said I do have my suspicions.” She studied the two of us for a little while. “I don’t want to alarm either of you, but…is there a history of cancer in the family?”

“C-cancer?” I asked, my voice a little higher-pitched than normal. At the same time, Mum nodded.

“My mother,” Mum replied, her voice a little tight. “Leukaemia – she passed in 1994. My paternal grandfather before that.”

“And Aunt Robin on Mum’s side,” I added. “But none in our immediate family.” Don’t you dare say it, I thought fiercely. Don’t you fucking dare

“There is a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” Dr. Kendrick said. “I can’t say for certain that this is what we are dealing with here, and I wouldn’t be able to unless tests were conducted, but all the symptoms you’re presenting with, Taylor – the high fever, unintentional weight loss, shortness of breath, coughing and having trouble shaking off the cold you caught – they’re all indicative of this particular type of cancer.”

I sucked in a breath, and my hands tightened on the armrests of my chair. Not in a million years had I ever expected to hear something like that.

“What sort of tests?” Mum asked. She sounded worried now, and I couldn’t blame her one bit.

“At the moment, probably just a chest X-ray and blood tests. There are other tests that can be performed – I would also want to do a bone marrow biopsy and a lumbar puncture, for example – but I wouldn’t order them to be done unless there’s a high degree of probability that Taylor does in fact have lymphoma. They can be a little traumatic to say the very least.”

“I’d rather not have to go through them at all,” I muttered. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mum reach for my hand.

“I know, Taylor, which is why you wouldn’t have to unless I was absolutely certain they were necessary,” Dr. Kendrick assured me. “Right now they aren’t, but I want you to be prepared for the possibility just in case.” She turned to the computer that sat at one end of her desk and started typing away at its keyboard. “Normally I’d arrange for your X-ray and blood tests to be done here in Newcastle, but taking into consideration that you’ll be back in Wollongong on Saturday I think it would be better if you had them done there. There would be less disruption of your normal routine that way.”

Dr. Kendrick soon had what she was typing printed off and sealed into an envelope. “As soon as you can after you get back to Wollongong, go and see a doctor and give this letter to them,” she said, and handed the envelope to me. “I would prefer it if you saw a doctor on Sunday, but if that isn’t possible then Monday at the absolute latest. All right?”

I nodded mutely and passed the envelope to Mum, and she slipped it into her handbag. I had a tendency to lose things if I only had my pocket to keep them in (as I did right now – it was a wonder I hadn’t lost my phone yet), so giving it to Mum for safekeeping was really the best option.

“Thank you, Dr. Kendrick,” Mum said once the appointment was over and the two of us were leaving the office.

“It’s no trouble at all,” Dr. Kendrick said with a smile. “Taylor, keep in mind what I said – it’s entirely likely that you don’t have lymphoma after all, but I want you to be prepared for the possibility nevertheless. The sooner you have those tests done, the sooner we can find out what’s happening, and the sooner we can decide how to approach it.”

Somewhat to my surprise, waiting for us when Mum and I got home were Katie, Sophie and Matthew. Matthew and Katie were hanging out on the front steps, while Sophie was lying on her back on the patch of grass between the front path and the driveway. “Hey guys,” I said as I got within their collective earshot. “What’re you doing here? I thought you were going to the Foreshore today.”

“It’s not as fun if you’re not there with us,” Katie replied as she rose gracefully to her feet. She yanked on Matthew’s collar as she stood up so that he got up as well. “So we figured we’d come keep you company while you’re laid up.”

“You know I’m probably still contagious, right?”

Sophie waved me off without sitting up. “My arse you are. And anyway, we all had it already. It’s no big deal if we catch it again.” She finally sat up, picking bits of grass out of her hair once she was upright, and flashed me a grin – one that I made a half-hearted attempt at returning. “Wow, you really must be sick if you can’t give me a smile…”

“I’ll tell you about it inside,” I said. “It…I’d rather the whole neighbourhood not hear about it yet.”

I didn’t say another word on the matter until all four of us were inside and hanging around in the practice space. One of the first things Isaac, Zac and I had done after we had claimed the flat beneath the house as ours was soundproof it, so that we could practice as loudly as we wanted until all hours without pissing off our parents or the neighbours. With the door leading upstairs closed, no sound could leak into the rest of the house and vice versa – which made it the perfect place for me to tell my friends what was going on.

“I might have cancer,” I said, deciding to get straight to the point. There was no point in beating around the bush on this particular matter.

“You what?” Katie asked, sounding shocked. The reactions from Matthew and Sophie were non-verbal – Matthew’s eyes had gone wide, while Sophie had gone very pale. “You…you’re kidding, right?”

“I wish I was. Mum took me to see Dr. Kendrick this morning – I still haven’t managed to shake that bloody cold, and I’ve been running a seriously high fever since Saturday. And, well…” I shrugged. “She can’t say for sure, because I need to have some blood tests and a chest X-ray done when I get back to Wollongong, but all the symptoms I’ve got right now are the same as the ones for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.” I took a shaky breath. “And I’m freaking out.”

“I don’t blame you,” Matthew said, evidently having found his voice by now. “That…that’s freaking scary. You’re nineteen for crying out loud.”

“It doesn’t mean he’s going to kick the bucket, Matt,” Katie muttered.

“I am here, you know,” I pointed out, unable to keep the irritation I was beginning to feel out of my tone.

“Sorry, Tay.” Katie gave me an apologetic smile. “When will you know for sure?”

“I’m supposed to see a doctor after we get back to Wollongong,” I replied. “Have those tests done and all that. I honestly don’t know when I’d get the results back, but hopefully it won’t take too long.”

None of us said a word for what seemed like an eternity. “You’ll be okay, Tay,” Katie said at last. “I know you will be, cancer or not.”

“Yeah,” Matthew agreed with a nod. “You’re tough and stubborn as all get out. You’ve got that in your favour at least.”

I managed a smile. “Thanks you guys. Appreciate it,” I said, before studying Sophie – my oldest and my best friend, and one of the only people outside of my own family who I knew I could trust with my own life. “Hey Soph, you okay?”

Sophie shook her head. Her bright green eyes had started to fill with tears, and I knew right now that no matter how scared I was about the possibility that I might be seriously ill, Sophie was more than scared. She was utterly terrified. And I knew that there was no way I could blame her for that.

“Hey…” I went over to the lounge and sat down next to Sophie. “I’ll be okay, Soph. All right? I swear to you, I will be okay.”

“You’d better not be lying to me, Jordan Taylor Hanson,” Sophie said. Her voice trembled as she spoke, but underneath the shakiness I could hear the fire that was one of the many things I loved about her. “Because if you are and you die, I’ll march straight after you and kill you again myself!”

I let out a quiet chuckle and wrapped an arm around Sophie. “I don’t doubt that for a second, Soph.”

The rest of the week was more or less uneventful. I spent time with my brothers and sisters, worked on songs for the new album with Isaac and Zac, and even managed to convince Mum to let me leave the house once or twice. My fever finally broke the day after going to see Dr. Kendrick, which helped a great deal in convincing my mother that some time out of the house would do me a world of good. I made it back to Wollongong in one piece, as did Matthew, Katie and Sophie, and as I had promised Dr. Kendrick I saw a doctor as soon as I could after getting back to the Village. Everything was just about back to normal.

It wasn’t until the second Tuesday back at university that everything went to hell. Sophie and I had Performance Skills class every Tuesday morning during the spring session, in a room of the Creative Arts building with roughly twenty other first-year students.

“Tay?” Sophie whispered to me while our instructor was going over what we would be doing that morning. Most of us were sitting on tables in a wide ring around the room, with a few sitting on the hardwood floor. “You okay? You’re looking a bit pale.”

“Is there something you would like to share with the class, Miss Harrison?” Warren asked, his tone steely.

Sophie shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Well then, if you would please pay attention to the lesson?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” Sophie apologised, before leaning in close to me. “Seriously, Tay, if you want to get out of here we’ll go,” she continued, her voice quieter but still loud enough that I could hear it. “You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine,” I mumbled, lying through my teeth. “Really, Soph, I’m fine.” In all honesty I wasn’t fine, to the point where I was currently sitting on my hands so that nobody could see them shaking. Something was very wrong with me – there was no denying it now. There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that this was far worse than a cold or even the flu.

“No, you’re not,” Sophie decided. “You’re seeing a doctor right now – I’m not going to argue with you about it,” she added when I tried to protest. And with that she slid down off her table, helping me down once she was on her feet. “Warren, I’m really sorry but Taylor and I need to leave,” she said, her voice louder now.

I didn’t hear much of what Sophie or anyone else said after that. A muted sort of buzzing had filled my ears, making it very difficult for me to hear anything, and I felt very light-headed. I shook my head to try and get rid of the buzzing in my ears, which only made my head feel even worse, half a second before my knees gave out on me and I went crashing to the floor.

The very last thing I heard right before I blacked out, unable to stay conscious any longer, was Sophie’s panicked voice screaming out my name.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Sophie

Taylor!

Hands grabbed at the sleeves of my T-shirt as I tried to get closer to where Taylor lay crumpled on the floor, bleeding from a gash right on his hairline. His hair was already stained copper, a thin line of blood trickling its way down his face, and he had gone from looking a bit pale to almost completely white. “Let go of me!” I shouted.

“Sophie, calm down!” my friend Lissa said. She had wrapped her arms around me from behind, keeping my own arms locked down at my sides. “This isn’t helping him!”

“Lissa-” I tried to protest, just as a shrill whistle silenced all noise in the room. Warren was lowering a silver referee’s whistle from his mouth right as we all looked over at him.

“Thank you. I need someone who has a mobile phone to dial triple-zero and ask for an ambulance,” Warren ordered. One of the boys raised their hand. “Thank you Ryan. They will need to come to building 25, room G-18 – the nearest access is via the western entrance on Northfields Avenue opposite the botanic gardens. Tell the dispatcher that a student has collapsed in class and hit their head.” Ryan nodded, pulled out his mobile phone and started dialling. “I also need a volunteer to find the nearest security officer and ask them to come here immediately.” One of the girls ran out of the room, presumably to do as Warren had asked. “Everyone else, class is dismissed.”

“I’m not leaving,” I said stubbornly, shaking my head. “I’m not leaving and you can’t make me. I’m the only one here who knows how sick he’s been.”

“Sophie, nobody in this room right now is going to make you leave,” Warren assured me. He was standing in front of me, partly obscuring my view of where Taylor lay on the floor. “I don’t know if the paramedics will ask you to leave, but I won’t. I can promise you that much.”

“How sick has he been anyway?” Lissa asked as Warren stepped aside. As soon as Lissa let go of me I fairly bolted over to Taylor and dropped to my knees at his side. Over the sound of my classmates leaving the room I could hear him breathing, and I relaxed just a fraction.

“I’m not sure how much I should tell you,” I replied quietly. I picked Taylor’s right hand up and held it in both of mine, tracing his Hanson ring with one of my thumbs. “When he told me and a few of our friends, we were in his band’s practice space. And they’ve soundproofed it so…” I trailed off and shrugged.

“You’re going to have to tell the ambos at the very least,” Lissa said. She’d joined me on the floor by now, and I could feel one of her hands rubbing in small circles on my back. “They’ll need to know just why he passed out.”

“I know that, Lissa.” I looked over at her, and she gave me a small smile. “You swear this stays between us?”

“Cross my heart.” She drew an X over her chest as she spoke.

“He…” I closed my eyes for the briefest of moments. “He’s had a cold or the flu, either one of the two, for the last two months. Hasn’t been able to shake it for some reason. He saw a doctor while we were all back at home in Newcastle over break, and-” I broke off and took a shaky breath. “His doctor thinks he might have cancer.”

“Jesus Christ,” Lissa breathed, and I nodded.

“Yeah. He had tests done just after we got back from Newcastle, but he doesn’t know how long it’s going to take to get the results back. I’m guessing they’re probably going to get them back really quickly now.”

“I reckon.”

“Is everything all right?”

An unfamiliar voice caused me to look up. One of the university’s security officers had just entered the classroom, the student who had gone to fetch them close behind.

“One of my students collapsed and hit his head approximately five minutes ago,” Warren replied. “An ambulance has been called” he glanced over at Ryan, who held up his mobile phone “and will most likely be coming onto the campus via the western entrance.”

The security officer nodded. “All right,” he said. “Have his parents been notified yet?”

“Not yet,” I said. “I can do it though. I know their number.”

“Thank you, Sophie,” Warren said. “Do you need to borrow someone’s phone?”

“No, I’ve got one,” I replied, fervently hoping that I actually had enough credit to make this particular phone call. For the first time, I was thankful that my parents had insisted on me having my own mobile phone as soon as I turned eighteen.

After a bit of digging around in my backpack I found my phone, managing to locate Mrs. Hanson’s mobile number after a bit of a search through its phone directory. It was my habit to call the Hansons’ landline before I tried to call any of their mobiles, but I knew this was too important to risk there not being anyone at home. So even though I knew I would hit Mrs. Hanson’s voicemail, being as she was probably in the middle of teaching class, I dialled her number.

“Hi Mrs. Hanson, it’s Sophie – can you call me back as soon as you get this? It’s kind of an emergency,” I said once I was able to leave a message. “I…I don’t know what to do.” I scrubbed a hand over my face. “Please call me as soon as you can.”

Once I had finished my call, reciting my mobile number before hanging up, I locked my phone and slipped it into one of my pockets. I drew my knees up under my chin and wrapped my arms around my legs. And that was how I stayed until I heard sirens and saw a team of paramedics coming into the classroom.

“Up you get,” Lissa said in my ear. She helped me to uncurl myself and stand up. As I got to my feet I could see a couple of the paramedics knelt on the floor next to Taylor. “They want to talk to you, okay?” She gently turned me to face one of the paramedics, a tall dark-haired woman. A badge pinned to her white shirt gave her name as Emily Jackson.

“What’s your name?” Emily asked me. She gave me a smile that I took to be encouraging.

“S-Sophie,” I replied. I swallowed hard. “Sophie Harrison.”

“Okay Sophie, can you tell me what happened?”

I nodded jerkily and wrapped my arms around myself. “Taylor’s been sick for a little while now. He caught a cold a couple of months ago and he hasn’t been able to shake it yet. He had some tests done a couple of weeks ago to try and work out why he’s still sick. We were in the middle of class and I was about to go and take him to see the doctor again, because he wasn’t looking too good, but he just” a breath caught in my throat “he passed out and hit his head on his desk as we were going to pack up and leave.” I let go of myself just long enough to click my fingers. “Just like that. It…it was the scariest thing I’ve seen in my life.”

“I can imagine,” Emily said, her tone sympathetic. “Would you be able to tell me what the tests he had done were for? It might help the doctors at the hospital narrow down why he collapsed.”

“Lymphoma,” I answered, hating myself for telling Taylor’s secret. That was exactly what it was, as far as I was concerned – a secret until he decided otherwise. “He’s going to kick my arse when he finds out I told you that.”

“Well, he shouldn’t,” Lissa said. “He’s not a very good friend if he does.”

“And besides which, you may well have saved his life by telling me that,” Emily said. “I’ll make sure the doctors at Wollongong Hospital know what the situation is.” She studied me for a little while. “He’ll be okay, Sophie. We’ll take good care of him.”

“Thank you,” I whispered.

It wasn’t until the ambulance had left that I finally realised exactly what had happened, everything clicking into place at last, and I let out a quiet sob. Lissa pulled me into a hug and stroked my back as I broke down. “It’s okay Sophie,” she said softly. “He’s going to be okay.” I shook my head. “Sophie, he will be all right. Just because he passed out doesn’t mean that he has…” She trailed off, and I figured she was trying to work out how to put what she wanted to say.

“You don’t have to tiptoe around me,” I mumbled. “Just say the bloody word already.”

“Sophie, it doesn’t mean he has cancer,” Lissa said. “It could be anything. You said he hasn’t been well, right?” I nodded at this. “So it might just be because of that cold or flu he’s got.”

“I know,” I admitted. Lissa let go of me and she dug around in one of her pockets, producing a tissue. I took it off her and blew my nose. “Thanks.”

Lissa gave me a smile. “Let’s get out of here,” she suggested, and began leading me toward the nearest door. “I’ll drive you over to the hospital – you shouldn’t be alone right now.”

“I need to tell my flatmates where I’m going,” I said. “Can you take me back to my flat first so I can leave them a note?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Back at the flat in the Village that I shared with Taylor, Katie and Matthew, along with a Marine Science student from Eden called Luke, I dropped off mine and Taylor’s backpacks, dug Taylor’s phone from his backpack, and grabbed my handbag off the hook on the side of my wardrobe. My next destination, after digging my wallet and keys out of my backpack and depositing them in my handbag with both phones, was the whiteboard on our lounge room wall. It didn’t take me long to figure out what to write.

Went to W’gong Hospital with Taylor – he passed out in class. I’ll call Matt’s mobile as soon as I find out anything.

– Sophie

From there, it was just a matter of making sure I had everything I needed before leaving the flat and locking up behind myself, and heading back out to Lissa’s car.

It didn’t take Lissa and I long to drive over to Wollongong Hospital, even despite the mid-morning traffic. She parked her car on Loftus Street, across the street and down a bit from the entrance to Elouera House, and cut the engine.

“I hope they tell me what’s going on,” I said, trying my hardest not to fret.

“Not to upset you or anything, but they probably won’t,” Lissa said. Her tone was sympathetic though, which softened the impact of her words somewhat. “But you left his mum a voicemail, right?”

“Yeah,” I replied, wondering what that had to do with anything.

“So when she gets back to you, if nobody will tell you what’s going on she should be able to tell them off.” Lissa gave me a smile that I tried my best to echo. “Come on. Bit of a walk ahead of us.”

“You’re such a cheapskate,” I teased her.

Lissa shrugged. “Guilty as charged.” She undid her seatbelt and popped the driver’s side door open, actions I mirrored once I had checked that there wasn’t anyone coming up the footpath behind the car.

The Emergency department was almost deserted that morning. I counted exactly five people as Lissa and I walked in through the automatic doors – a young man and woman with a baby sitting in the waiting area, a nurse crouched on the floor in front of them, and a second nurse manning the triage desk. Lissa led me up to the triage desk and – somewhat unnecessarily, I thought – tapped the little silver call bell to get the nurse’s attention.

“Can I help you?” the nurse asked, looking up at us, and I immediately felt like I was in high school all over again. She reminded me somewhat uncomfortably of my Year 10 English teacher, who everyone in my year had nicknamed (behind her back of course) the Dragon.

“A friend of ours was brought here a little while ago,” Lissa said. “Would you be able to tell us if there’s any news about him?”

“Are you family members?”

I shook my head. “Just friends.”

“I can only release patient information to family members or to the patient themselves.” She gave us a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry, but those are the rules.”

“You couldn’t let us in to see him, could you?” Lissa asked, and the nurse shook her head. “Oh well, it was worth a shot. He doesn’t have any family around here, that’s all – they’re all up in Newcastle. Can we wait here anyway?”

The nurse nodded. “That’s quite all right.”

“But don’t expect to be told anything, got it,” Lissa said, and snapped off a small salute. “Come on Sophie.”

Just as Lissa and I were about to head over to sit down, though, my phone rang. I started digging through my handbag for it, shoving aside tissues, random lip glosses and my sunglasses, and answered it before the call could go to voicemail. “Hello?”

“Sophie, is that you?” Mrs. Hanson said, and I almost sobbed out of relief. “Is everything all right? I just got your message, and you sounded upset.”

“He’s in hospital,” I almost shouted. “He passed out in class and hit his head on his desk, and they won’t tell me what’s going on-” I broke off, realising I was talking a little too fast.

“Sophie, calm down,” Mrs. Hanson said. “It’s okay, just tell me what’s happened. Who’s in hospital?”

“Taylor,” I said, hating the way my voice was beginning to shake.

“Oh good Lord,” Mrs. Hanson said. “Is he all right?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “We were heading off to see the doctor he saw a couple of weeks ago – he didn’t look too good when we got to uni this morning and I just wanted to make sure he was okay. And he…” I took a shaky breath. “He passed out right in the middle of class and hit his head on his desk. I just got to Emergency at the hospital a few minutes ago and I have no idea what the hell’s going on – they won’t tell me anything or let me in to see him. I didn’t think they would but I kind of hoped, you know?” I squeezed my eyes shut in an effort to hold back the tears that wanted to fall. “I’m scared, Diana,” I said, using her first name for the first time in my life. At the same time I was fervently hoping it didn’t get back to my mother. It didn’t matter that I was nineteen years old and an adult, just the idea of her punishments still scared the daylights out of me. “No, scratch that – I’m fucking terrified right now.”

“Shh,” was Mrs. Hanson’s response. “Sophie, it’s all right. He’s in Wollongong Hospital?”

“Yeah,” I replied quietly.

“All right. I’m going to leave here as soon as I can, okay? I’ll be there in a few hours. You just sit tight.”

“Okay. I’ll see you when you get here.” I hung up and slid my phone into my pocket. “His mum’s going to be here in a few hours,” I told Lissa. “Let’s go sit down somewhere – I don’t feel like standing up for much longer.”

I had just managed to get comfortable – no mean feat considering that the waiting area’s seating was made out of very hard and unforgiving plastic – and was playing Snake on my phone when I heard running footsteps coming in my direction.

“Isn’t that Taylor’s brother?” Lissa whispered to me, and I paused my game so that I could look up. Sure enough, standing a couple of metres away was Isaac, hands in his pockets and looking uncharacteristically uncertain.

“Isaac?” I asked. “What are you doing here?”

“Mum asked me to come down,” he replied. “Said Taylor was in hospital?”

“Yeah, he is,” I said. “Passed out in the middle of class, hit his head on his desk on the way down.” I traced a line along my hairline. “He’ll have a wicked scar for sure.”

Isaac winced. “Ouch,” he commented, before eyeing me. “And they won’t let you in to see him, is that right?”

“Pretty much,” Lissa replied. “I’m Melissa Condon,” she added helpfully. “One of Sophie’s uni friends.”

“Oh, right.” Isaac nodded back toward the triage desk. “Want me to get the dragon over there to let you two in?”

“Would you?” I asked gratefully. “That’d be great.”

“Give me a couple of minutes.” He flashed me a grin and headed over to the triage desk.

“So that’s Isaac Hanson,” Lissa said once Isaac was well out of earshot.

“Yep,” I replied. “That’s Isaac.”

“Hmm.” Lissa seemed to consider this. “He’s hot. I’d climb that like a tree, if you get my meaning.” She cracked a grin at me.

“Down girl!” I scolded her. “Thanks for not freaking out on him, by the way.”

“No worries. Figured he cops enough of that bullshit already.”

Isaac returned from the triage desk a few minutes later. “You two can go in,” he said. “Cleared it with Nurse Ratched over there.”

“Since when did you read One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest?” I asked as I stood up.

“English in Year 11,” Isaac replied. “That’s when.”

“Actually, I might head off,” Lissa said. I looked over at her, and she gave me a smile. “Need to head back to uni anyway. You gonna be okay?”

I considered this for a few moments. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Let me know how things go, yeah?”

I nodded and accepted a hug from Lissa. “I will. Thanks for waiting with me.”

Once Lissa had headed off out of the hospital, I followed Isaac through the nearby set of swinging doors. “So what exactly happened?” he asked me as we walked. “All I know is what Mum told me.”

“You know he’s been sick, right?” Here Isaac nodded, and I continued, “He started looking a bit better a few days before we left Newcastle to come back down here. Couple of weeks ago he went and saw a doctor to have a few tests done. When we got to class this morning he wasn’t looking too good, and I was going to take him back to the doctor just to make sure everything was okay when he just…” I closed my eyes for a moment. “He just passed out, right in front of everyone. Scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

We found Taylor near the middle of the emergency department. He was sitting up in bed and glaring at the ceiling, his arms crossed over his chest. In place of the clothes he had worn to class that morning, which had been folded neatly and placed with his sneakers on a nearby chair, he wore a plain white hospital gown and had a bright red wristband around his left wrist. A white bandage had been taped down over the spot where he’d hit his head, and as I got closer I could see that he had an IV in the back of his left hand. “What did you do to yourself this time?” Isaac asked him.

“Nice to see you too, Isaac,” Taylor retorted without looking away from the ceiling. “I passed out in class and hit my head – that’s all. For some reason they want to keep me in overnight.” He uncrossed his arms and raised his left hand to display his wristband in full view. “I’m fine.”

“Would you stop being so stubborn for once in your life? They obviously have a reason for keeping you in overnight – they don’t do it for the hell of it.”

Taylor looked away from the ceiling, transferring his glare to his brother. “Would you stop being so fucking reasonable all the time? I’m trying to sulk here.” His glare disappeared entirely when he looked at me. “Hey Soph.”

“You scared the shit out of me,” I told him in lieu of a hello. “What the fuck did you do that for?”

He raised both of his hands in seeming self-defence. “Jeez Soph, you don’t need to attack me. Okay, yeah, I passed out, but that’s no reason to bite my head off.”

“You wouldn’t have passed out in the middle of class at all if you’d stayed home!” I shouted at him.

Taylor winced. “Jesus Christ Soph, could you turn the volume down? I’ve got a killer headache right now.”

“Serves you right for whacking your head on your desk,” Isaac said, though not without sympathy, earning himself another glare from Taylor.

“I called your mum,” I said. “She’ll be here in a few hours. And before you say anything, what the fuck was I supposed to do?” I nodded over at Isaac. “Wouldn’t even be in here if it wasn’t for Isaac telling the nurse in Emergency off – your mum called him.”

“Why would I start moaning about you calling my mum?” Taylor asked. The look he fixed me with was somewhat perplexed. “More like I’m wondering how you called her – you always forget to top up the credit on your phone, and you never have enough change on you for a payphone.”

In response, I dug my phone out of my pocket and held it up. “I actually had credit for once. Brought your phone too.” I tossed Taylor’s phone to him, and he automatically raised his right hand to catch it.

“Thanks, Soph,” Taylor said, and gave me a small smile that disappeared almost as fast as it appeared.

The three of us were quiet for a little while, the sounds of the Emergency department drifting around us – doctors being paged over a crackling and distorted PA, a steady high-pitched beeping somewhere in the background, shoes squeaking on linoleum floors, and the sound of a baby crying angrily. I saw Taylor flinch as he heard that last sound, and I snickered. He snapped his gaze to me. “What the fuck are you laughing at?” he asked.

“You,” I replied. “You have five younger siblings. I’d have thought you’d be used to that sound by now.”

“Five younger siblings who aren’t babies any longer,” Taylor retorted. “I haven’t heard that sound in years and I’d be perfectly happy if I never had to hear it again.” He gave an almost theatrical shudder.

“So I take it I shouldn’t expect any nieces or nephews, then?” Isaac said.

Taylor shrugged. “Don’t know, to be honest. I think I’m a bit too young to be thinking about that anyway.”

“And anyway, your mum would probably belt you one if you knocked some girl up before you finished uni,” I added. “I heard what she said to you before our Year 12 Formal.”

“Dad would too,” Isaac said. “I’d repeat what he said to both of us before our Formals but Taylor would hit me.”

“Damn fuckin’ straight I would. That was embarrassing.” Taylor was slowly going bright red as he said this. “Almost as embarrassing as me forgetting what I was supposed to call Mum in Music class.”

Conversation tapered off again after this. It was almost as if none of us really knew what to say. Aside from when he had broken his arm badly enough that it had required surgery, and when he’d needed to have his tonsils out, as far as I could remember Taylor had never had to spend more than a few hours or so in hospital. This really was uncharted territory for the three of us.

“I might leave you two to talk,” Isaac said, and both Taylor and I looked over at him. “I need coffee anyway and I don’t think I’m going to find anything decent around here. Text me when Mum gets here, okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Taylor agreed.

Before too long, Taylor and I had been left to our own devices. I climbed up on the end of Taylor’s bed, toeing my sneakers off before sitting down cross-legged with my back against the footboard. “So what happens now?” I asked.

Taylor shrugged. “I don’t know, to be honest. I guess some doctor here will get my X-rays and blood test results from the doctor I saw a couple of weeks ago and take it from there.”

“Do you think it’s anything to worry about?” I asked, dreading his answer and willing him to shake his head. Instead he nodded.

“As much as I don’t want to admit it, yeah,” he said. “I think it is – I realised that this morning. It wasn’t even that bad of a cold that I caught. Everyone else got over it after a week or two, but I still haven’t shaken the damn thing off. I just hope it isn’t as bad as what Dr. Kendrick said it might be.”

It was almost one-thirty when the curtain around Taylor’s bed opened and a familiar face peered in at us – Taylor’s mother.

“Hi Mum,” Taylor said with a small smile.

“Thank goodness you’re all right,” Mrs. Hanson said as she went over to the head of Taylor’s bed. “How did you do this to yourself?”

“Didn’t Sophie tell you?” Taylor asked, sounding confused.

“Yes, but I want to hear it from you, young man,” Mrs. Hanson said. I bit back a smile at the last two words. “Now out with it.”

“Passed out in class and whacked my head on my desk on my way down,” Taylor replied. He touched the bandage on his head as he said this. “Gashed my head open. Sophie was just about to take me back to the doctor’s when it happened. I was feeling okay before I got to uni, honest. They’re keeping me in overnight for observation. I don’t know why, though – I feel all right now. My head just hurts.”

“If they’re keeping you in overnight, they obviously have a good reason for it. A head injury is enough of a reason for that.” When Taylor opened his mouth, presumably to protest, Mrs. Hanson continued, “It is a head injury, Taylor, and you’re very lucky it wasn’t any worse. Has anyone seen you since you were brought here?”

Taylor nodded. “Yeah, one of the nurses came and checked on me about half an hour ago.”

Deciding that Taylor was in good hands now that his mother had arrived, and wanting something to eat, I uncrossed my legs and climbed down from Taylor’s bed. “I’m going to head off,” I said, and picked up my sneakers. “Want to get something to eat and I’m probably going to have to walk into town if I want anything halfway decent for my lunch. I’ll probably drop in again before I go back to uni.”

“I can give you a ride back to uni if you like, Sophie,” Mrs. Hanson offered.

“You don’t mind?” I asked.

“Not at all.”

“Awesome, thanks.” I gave Mrs. Hanson a smile. “See ya later, Tay.”

I ended up walking all the way down to the McDonald’s on Burelli Street in my search for something for lunch. It wasn’t the healthiest thing I could have picked for my lunch – there were quite a few cafés in Crown Central, Crown Street Mall and elsewhere in the CBD that I could have gone to for that – but McDonald’s was cheap and it was relatively quick. Once I had my lunch – a cheeseburger, small fries and a small strawberry thickshake – I found a table and sat down to eat.

My best friend was sick. I knew that much for sure. What I didn’t know was how sick he was, and I wasn’t entirely certain that I wanted to know. Just the thought that he could have cancer, that he could be that sick, terrified the hell out of me. But as much as I didn’t want to know if he was indeed that sick, I knew I would find out eventually. It was the nature of our friendship – I was the first person outside of his own family who he told about anything, and vice versa. I’d been the first person outside the Hanson family who had found out that Hanson had been signed all the way back in 1996, the first to find out his marks in the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate exams, and the first to find out that he’d got into university. It seemed only natural that he’d tell me about this as well.

I let out a quiet sigh and played with my fries. Whatever was going to happen, it was going to happen and I couldn’t stop it. Even though I badly wanted to. I would just have to batten down the hatches and do my best to weather the oncoming storm.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Taylor

I didn’t get much sleep that night.

I had just two memories of having to spend longer than a few hours in hospital – having my tonsils out when I was nine, and a broken arm when I was thirteen that had needed surgery for it to set properly. Neither of those hospital stays, as far as I could remember, had been spent in Emergency beyond the first hour or so.

Until now, I’d never known how noisy hospitals truly were. Even in the middle of the night.

“This is ridiculous,” I grumbled, and sent another glare up at the ceiling. “I don’t even know why they’re making me stay here.”

“I know you’re frustrated,” Mum said, and I looked over at her. “Believe me, I know. But this really is the best place for you to be right now. Head injuries are no laughing matter.”

“Do I look like I’m laughing right now? I know how serious head injuries are – I know I’m lucky it wasn’t any worse than it is. I just don’t see why I have to stay here overnight, that’s all.”

“They probably want to look at your test results as well,” Mum said. “It’s better that they go over them while you’re here than make you come back later on.”

“I hate it when you’re being reasonable.” I said this without a lot of heat, knowing that Mum was right.

Mum gave me a smile and reached over to tuck my hair behind my left ear. “Why don’t you try and get some sleep? I know it doesn’t seem like you’ll be able to-”

“No shit,” I interjected. “It’s too bloody noisy in here.”

“Just try anyway. All right?”

As much as I did try to sleep, though, I kept waking up during the night – nurses checking on me, the occasional ambulance siren from outside, even my headache from hitting my head the morning before. By the time the next morning rolled around, I was tired and irritable – something I didn’t see changing until I could leave hospital and crawl into my own bed.

“Taylor Hanson?”

I looked up from picking at my blankets to see a doctor pulling my curtains open. “Yeah, that’s me,” I said, and looked over at Mum. She gave me a smile and put one of her hands over mine to still my fingers’ movement. A sneaky glance at my watch revealed the time to be just after eight o’clock.

“I’m Dr. Cochran,” the doctor said. “I have your test results – your GP sent them over yesterday afternoon.” She was pulling a chair up as she spoke, and set a manila folder on her lap once she was seated. The folder was marked with my full name in thick black letters. “Normally I would advise that you see your usual GP to discuss your results, but it was decided that it was better to do that while you were here in hospital. Do you know exactly what it was that you were being tested for?”

“Non-Hodgkin lymphoma,” I replied. “I don’t know the specific type, though. My doctor up in Newcastle didn’t say anything other than that.”

“Oh, you’re not a local then?”

I shook my head. “Just here for uni. I’m doing Creative Arts over at UOW.” I fidgeted a little bit with my free hand. “So what’s going on? Do I get to go home anytime soon?”

“I’m afraid not, Taylor.”

And with those words, I felt like my entire world had stopped.

Cancer. I had cancer. This was rapidly shaping up to be the worst day of my life. I bit down hard on my bottom lip to try and distract myself from the news. Beside me I could hear Mum speaking to Dr. Cochran, and I forced myself to listen to what she was saying.

“What type…” Mum trailed off, pausing for the briefest of moments. “What type of cancer is it?”

Dr. Cochran opened the folder and started shuffling through the papers inside. “The preliminary diagnosis is of lymphoblastic lymphoma – I say preliminary because there is another cancer it could be, depending on the level of bone marrow involvement.”

“What other cancer?” I asked, dreading her response.

“It could also be acute lymphocytic leukaemia – the two forms of cancer are almost identical. A formal diagnosis won’t be possible until further tests are conducted.”

“Do I have to?” I asked. I was well aware that I sounded like a petulant child, but right at that moment I didn’t really care. As far as I was concerned, I had every right to.

“Unfortunately, yes.” Dr. Cochran sounded sympathetic as she said this, though. “I completely understand your apprehension, Taylor – a lot of patients feel that way prior to testing. You aren’t alone in that regard, not by any means.”

Right, like that makes me feel better about the whole thing, I grumbled silently. “So I guess that means I’m stuck here,” I said. “Great.”

Dr. Cochran gave me a smile. “For the moment, I’m going to arrange for you to be transferred to the Cancer Care Centre here at the hospital. One of their oncologists will come and speak with you once you’re settled in. It’s entirely likely they will want to begin testing right away.”

“That soon?” Mum asked. She sounded a little shocked, and I couldn’t blame her.

“Mrs. Hanson, I realise that this is very sudden – believe me, I do,” Dr. Cochran said. “But both types of cancer, the leukaemia and the lymphoma, they are highly aggressive. It’s absolutely imperative that treatment begins as early as possible. And that can’t happen until testing is complete.” She gave us another smile and rose to her feet. “I’ll be back as soon as your transfer has been finalised.”

The second that Dr. Cochran was out of sight, I got out of bed and went over to the nearby window, bracing my entire weight on the windowsill. For a few moments I didn’t say a word, choosing instead to stare down at the footpath with my forehead against the glass. “Fuck!” I screamed, not giving a damn who heard me.

“Taylor,” I heard Mum say from behind me. I let go of the windowsill and whirled around, and for the first time in my life I glared at my mother.

“How the fuck do you expect me to react, Mum?” I asked her, half expecting her to smack me for swearing at her. “Do you really expect me to just sit there in that fucking bed” I jabbed a finger at the bed I had just spent the last twenty or so hours in “and cop it sweet? For fuck’s sake, I’m nineteen years old and I’m about to start fighting for my life!” As I said this, the reality of what I was facing slammed into me. I was nineteen years old – twenty in seven and a half months – and I was about to face the hardest battle of my life. “I’m nineteen, Mum,” I whispered, feeling the first of what I suspected would be many tears begin to trickle its way down my face. “Why is this happening to me?”

“Come here,” Mum said softly, and opened her arms to me. I stepped forward and allowed her to embrace me. “I know it’s hard, love,” she said. “I know. I wish this wasn’t happening to you.” One of her hands started rubbing in small circles on my back. “But you’re strong, Taylor – if I know anything about you, I know that much. You will get through this. It’ll be hard, I won’t lie to you, but you won’t be alone in it.”

“I know,” I said. “I know I won’t.” But in a way I knew I would be – nobody else in my immediate family and none of my friends had ever gone through what I was about to. In that sense, I really was alone.

It wasn’t long before I was moved to my home for the foreseeable future, a private room on the first floor of the hospital’s Cancer Care Centre. That in itself drove home how serious this truly was.

“I’m sure your friends will bring some of your things over from university,” Mum said as I surveyed my new surroundings. My hospital room looked very bare, with white walls, dark grey linoleum on the floor, and a set of blinds the same colour as the floor hanging at the window opposite the door. There was very little furniture – a hospital bed positioned halfway along the wall to my left that had a bedside table on its right-hand side and a recliner to its left, a tray table on wheels that sat over the bed, a couple of visitors’ chairs in a corner, and a small TV that hung from a ceiling bracket. A whiteboard had been mounted above the head of the bed, and a door set into the left-hand wall was open wide enough for me to see that I had my own bathroom. “I’ll go over to your flat later on and pick up some of your clothes. And I should be able to talk Isaac into bringing a few of your things from home.” She smoothed my hair down over my head. “It’s never going to look much like home, but we’ll do our best to make it feel a little like it is.”

I looked over at her and tried to give her a smile. “Thanks, Mum,” I said, before the sound of footsteps made me turn around. Sophie stood there in the doorway, hands in the pockets of her jeans. “Hey Soph.”

Sophie’s only response was a nod. It didn’t take me long to work out why she wasn’t saying anything – she was biting down hard on her bottom lip, and I could see tears beginning to form in her eyes. Instead of pushing her to talk, I went over and wrapped my arms around her. She buried her face in my right shoulder and started crying, her shoulders shaking.

“Soph, I’m okay,” I whispered in her ear, stroking her hair. “I’m okay, I promise.”

“No you’re not,” Sophie mumbled. She raised her face up off my shoulder and looked at me, her green meeting my blue. “You have cancer, Taylor. That’s as far from okay as it’s possible to be right now.”

“Hey, I’m still here aren’t I? And if I have anything to do with it, I’ll be here for a long while yet. I’m not about to give up without one hell of a fight.”

“I’m going to hold you to that,” Sophie said. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I know.” I tucked a stray lock of hair behind her right ear. “So how did you know where I was?”

“I had some change leftover yesterday after I bought my lunch,” Sophie replied. “So I found a payphone at uni a little while ago and I called your mum – she told me where to find you.” She swiped at her eyes with her right hand. “So what happens now? I mean, are you starting chemotherapy or what?”

“Not yet. I have to have more tests done first. They don’t know exactly what it is – it could be lymphoma or leukaemia. I don’t really want to get them done, but…” I shrugged. “Sooner I get them done, the sooner I’ll know exactly what it is I’m dealing with and the sooner I can start working on getting rid of it.”

“That’s the spirit,” an unfamiliar voice said, and I looked over Sophie’s shoulder. Standing there in the doorway was a doctor I didn’t recognise – she was around Sophie’s height, with flaming red hair that was pulled back into a ponytail and a name badge pinned to her shirt, and carried a clipboard folder in her hands. She gave me a smile. “I’m Dr. Andrews, but you can call me Karen if you like. I’m one of the oncologists here – you’d be Taylor Hanson?”

“Yeah,” I replied, and carefully pulled away from Sophie.

“May I come in? I’d like to discuss the tests you’re due to undergo today.”

“Sure, I guess,” I said, the apprehension I’d felt in Dr. Kendrick’s office returning in full measure. “I’d ask if I had to but that’s probably a stupid question.”

“No such thing as a stupid question,” Dr. Andrews said, giving me another smile. “But yes, you do have to – I have a pretty good idea of what your diagnosis will be, but your test results over the next few days will help me to pinpoint it. I’ll be able to determine your treatment regimen once I know exactly what it is you’re facing.”

It didn’t take me long to find out just what Dr. Kendrick had meant by traumatic during my last appointment with her. With each word that Dr. Andrews spoke, the temptation to run for the hills increased until I felt like I was facing imminent execution.

“The first test I’ll be conducting is called a lumbar puncture – it’s also known as a spinal tap,” Dr. Andrews said. “I’ll be drawing some of your spinal fluid to test for cancerous cells – it’s entirely possible that it has already spread that far, and if that is the case then your treatment regimen will need to take that into account.”

“I’ve heard of those,” Sophie said from her perch next to me on my hospital bed. “You use a big needle for that, right?” As she said the words ‘big needle’ I was almost certain I could hear her voice crack just a little bit.

“Thanks for that, Soph,” I mumbled. “You know how I feel about needles.”

“You won’t have to see the needle, if that’s what you’re concerned about,” Dr. Andrews said. “It’ll be behind your back the whole time, and you’ll be given a local anaesthetic beforehand. Other than the injection of the anaesthesia, aside from a small amount of pressure you shouldn’t feel a thing.”

“I still don’t like needles,” I said. “They creep me out.”

“What about the second test, Dr. Andrews?” Mum asked.

“That test is called a bone marrow biopsy, and I’ll be doing that this afternoon. If there is more of the cancer in your bone marrow than in your lymph nodes, then I can safely say that we are dealing with leukaemia and not lymphoma. The opposite applies if there is more lymph node involvement. I’ll be looking at those either tomorrow or on Friday. I’d also like to do an MRI if I feel it’s necessary. Either way, I’ll do my best to have a formal diagnosis for you by the end of this week.”

“Can Sophie and my mum stay with me during both tests?” I asked, half-hoping Dr. Andrews would say no – Sophie was even more freaked out about needles than I was, and I didn’t want to scare her more than I knew she was already.

“If you like. It can be a little confronting, though, so it’s entirely up to them if they stick around or not.”

“I’ll stay,” Sophie piped up.

“I’ll stay as well,” Mum added.

“Excellent,” Dr. Andrews said. She sounded pleased that I would have some support for this. “I’ll be back in a few minutes with everything I need – you just sit tight.”

Dr. Andrews came back roughly ten minutes later with a nurse in tow. I was so apprehensive about what was about to happen to me that I was gripping the mattress of my bed so tightly my knuckles had turned white. “All ready to go?” Dr. Andrews asked.

“No?” I replied, my voice cracking a bit. From beside me I felt either Sophie or Mum put a hand on my shoulder.

“It won’t take very long. What I need you to do for me is to lie down on your right side, right on the edge of the bed,” Dr. Andrews said. “Bring your knees up to your chest and bow your head forward as far you can, and wrap your arms around your calves. We’ll get started once you’re settled.”

“I’m not sure I like this,” I mumbled as I did as I was told, trying not to tense up too much. A sheet was draped over me from my shoulders down, and a small hand snaked its way beneath the sheet and clasped one of my hands – Sophie. She gave me a smile, one I did my best to return.

It wasn’t long before I felt it – the tell-tale, extremely unpleasant and painful sting of a sharp needle being pushed through the skin of my back. I let out a hiss of pain and tried to arch my back away from it.

“Easy, Taylor, easy,” Dr. Andrews said. From behind I felt hands gripping my left shoulder to keep me still. “I need you to relax as much as possible for me, okay?”

“Get it the fuck away from me!” I shouted, not even bothering to tone down my language. “I don’t want to do this, get it out

“Okay, all done,” Dr. Andrews said. “This won’t take much longer, Taylor – you’ll be able to lie down once I’m finished.”

The anaesthetic didn’t take long to kick in, much to my relief – I knew I couldn’t have handled feeling the second needle going in. “Okay, that’s kind of freaky,” Sophie said.

“What’s kind of freaky?” I asked. I didn’t much feel like talking, but if it kept my mind off what was currently happening behind my back then so much the better.

“It’s like they’re tapping you,” Sophie replied, her voice sounding awed, and I tried to raise my head so I could look back over my shoulder. The nurse who had accompanied Dr. Andrews gently moved my head back down again. “It’s kind of cool actually. I’m just glad I’m not the one going through it.”

“Yeah, speak for yourself,” I muttered.

“All done,” Dr. Andrews said what felt like hours later, and I resisted the temptation to let out a cheer as the sheet was lifted off me. “I want you to lie down flat on your back for the next thirty minutes, all right? We’ll do the bone marrow biopsy this afternoon.” As I shifted onto my back, she took off her surgical mask and gave me a smile. “You did very well.”

“Thank Christ that’s over,” I said the second Dr. Andrews and the nurse had left my room. “I never want to do that ever again.”

“Why don’t you have a nap?” Mum suggested. “I’m going to call your father to let him know how things are going. Is there anything you want me to tell your brothers?”

I considered Mum’s question briefly. Zac would be at school (and in the middle of Maths class, if his timetable was anything like mine had been – and I knew it was), so there was no point in disturbing him right now. I wasn’t totally sure where Isaac was, but Sydney was a pretty good bet – our manager was based there, and Joel was usually the first port of call whenever a crisis decided to rear its ugly head. With me laid up in hospital for at least the next few months, and Zac not turning eighteen for more than a year, right now everything that needed to be talked over with our manager and our record label fell to Isaac by default.

“Not yet,” I said. “Wait until I know exactly what it is I’m dealing with – there’s no point in worrying either of them yet.”

“All right, if you’re sure,” Mum said, and I nodded.

“I’ll come with you Mrs. Hanson,” Sophie volunteered. “Want to go to the canteen and get something to eat – I haven’t had my breakfast yet.”

“Twit,” I teased her, and she swiped at my head.

“If you need me, send me a text,” Mum said.

“I will, don’t worry,” I assured her.

My long, almost sleepless night seemed to have caught up with me at last, because by the time I woke up after my nap it was almost three o’clock in the afternoon. Neither Mum nor Sophie were anywhere in sight, a note in Mum’s handwriting slipped under my mobile phone explaining their absence.

 

Sophie and I are over at your flat at university packing up some of your things. If there’s anything in particular you want, send me a text and let me know. We’ll see you when we get back.

Love Mum

I picked up my phone and unlocked it, and tapped out a new text message to Mum. If you’re still there, can you grab my yr 12 hoodie, my discman and headphones and my cd case please? Thanks :)

My message sent, I set my phone down on the mattress right near my head, fixed my gaze on the ceiling and started counting cracks.

Mum and Sophie came back roughly fifteen minutes later, with Sophie carrying an overfilled and heavy-looking cardboard box in her arms. The box looked like it had been swiped from the loading dock of the UniBar, with one side advertising Stolichnaya Lemon Ruski. At the top of the box sat my Year 12 hoodie.

“Matt and Kat said they’ll clean your room out if you want them to,” Sophie said as I sat myself up and started digging through the box. My hoodie went straight on as soon as I took it out of the box, and I pushed its hood back over my head before resuming my excavation. “Unless you’re going to be coming back to uni?” She sounded almost hopeful as she said this.

I shook my head. “Probably not, Soph,” I replied, before digging out something I’d forgotten I’d even brought from Newcastle with me. “Aha!” I said in triumph, holding up last year’s CanTeen bandanna. I’d built up a collection of bandannas over the years, adding to it on Bandanna Day every October. This particular bandanna was dark blue with white stars all over it and the CanTeen emblem in the middle. I folded it into a triangle and tied it over my hair. “I still plan on staying enrolled, at least for the time being, but I’m probably going to have to stay here.”

Dr. Andrews came back roughly half an hour after Mum and Sophie did, a different nurse from before in tow. I didn’t hear them come into my room, owing to having Silverchair blasting through my headphones from my Discman. It took a poke at my right shoulder courtesy of Mum to make me hit the pause button and take my headphones off. “Yeah?”

“Dr. Andrews is back,” Mum said. I immediately felt myself start going red.

“Sorry, Dr. Andrews,” I apologised.

“That’s quite all right, Taylor. I take it you’re a Silverchair fan?”

I nodded. “Yeah. I’m from Newcastle like they are – reckon it might be a bit weird if I didn’t like them.”

“Loath as I am to interrupt you, I need to perform the bone marrow biopsy – this will be the final test for today. Depending on how well you tolerate it, I may decide to perform the lymph node biopsy tomorrow or I might leave it for another day. It’s entirely up to you.”

“What do you need me to do?” I asked.

“Take off your hoodie and lie down on your stomach,” Dr. Andrews replied. “I will not lie to you – this particular test will hurt, but you’ll be given a local anaesthetic and I’ll do my best to minimise any additional pain as much as I possibly can.”

“Okay,” I said, hating the way my voice shook. The spinal tap had been bad enough – how could this be any worse?

I soon found out just how much worse it could be.

The first thing that Dr. Andrews did once I was lying on my stomach with my forehead resting on my crossed arms was start poking around my lower back. “I’m going to extract some of your bone marrow from around here,” she explained as she prodded at my right hip. “There are a number of other places it could be taken from, but I believe this spot is the most suitable one.” I lifted my head up and looked over at her, and she gave me a smile. “All ready to go?”

“Not really,” I admitted. “But the sooner you get started then the sooner it’s over.” I put my head back down and braced myself, willing the biopsy to be over quickly.

The needle for the local anaesthetic wasn’t all that bad compared to the one from earlier. As soon as the spot that Dr. Andrews had picked was completely numb, I lifted my head again just in time to see her take from its packaging the biggest needle I had seen in my life.

“Holy fuck,” I heard Sophie whisper. “You…you’re sticking that into him?”

“I am, yes,” Dr. Andrews replied. “It needs to go through his hipbone and into his bone marrow, which is why it’s as big as it is.” She traced the needle’s crosspiece, which sat at the base of the barrel of the syringe, with a gloved finger. The needle itself was long and hollow, with little holes spaced along it, and looked wickedly sharp. I swallowed hard as I realised that it was going into me. More than that, it was going to hurt.

Dr. Andrews’ warning that the biopsy would be painful wasn’t nearly enough to prepare me for how much it truly hurt. The sheer level of pain as the needle went into my right hipbone took my breath away, and I let out a completely involuntary whimper that I quickly stifled. On my left side I felt the mattress shift a bit, and a warm hand on my back – Mum.

“It hurts,” I whispered, unable to speak any louder. It was a measure of how much pain I was truly in. “Mum it really hurts

“I know, sweetheart,” Mum said softly. “I know it hurts. It’ll be over soon, I promise.” I felt her smooth my bandanna over my hair, and I closed my eyes. Mum never lied to me if she could help it – if this was going to be over soon, then I believed her.

Dr. Andrews finally finished the biopsy what felt to me like an eternity later, and I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. “I’m all done, Taylor,” she said. “That was the worst of it for now, I promise.” I raised my head just in time to see her give me a smile, one I tried my best to return. “Get some rest, and I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

“Thank you Dr. Andrews,” Mum said.

“No trouble at all, Mrs. Hanson.”

After Dr. Andrews and the nurse left, closing the door of my hospital room behind them, for a while the only audible sound in the room was my ragged breathing. Sophie was the first to speak.

“Jesus Christ,” she said quietly. “How” I looked up at her, and wasn’t shocked to see that she had gone almost white. “How did you get through that without passing out?”

“I don’t know, Soph,” I admitted. Dr. Kendrick hadn’t been lying during my last appointment with her – the two tests I’d just gone through today were truly traumatic, and I still had two more to go. Though I hoped the next test – what Dr. Andrews had called a lymph node biopsy – wouldn’t be as hard to go through. “Dodo you guys mind if I get some more sleep? I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night, and that test wore me right out.”

“Of course not,” Mum said, and Sophie nodded. “You get some rest – I’ll be back later on, all right?”

Once Mum and Sophie had left, I dug through the box they had brought with them for my pyjamas. I resisted the temptation to poke at the sore spot on my right hip through the bandage that covered it – it hurt enough already without me prodding it – and instead ducked into my bathroom to get changed.

Ten minutes later I crawled back into bed and shifted onto my left side, unwilling to lie on my right side until my hip stopped hurting, and closed my eyes. It was a long time until I finally fell asleep, a haze of pain and exhaustion dragging me down into oblivion.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

Sophie

The train on platform number nine goes to Wyong via Strathfield. First stop Strathfield, then Eastwood, Epping, Hornsby, Berowra, and then all stations to Wyong. Passengers, please contact the guard if you wish to leave the train at Wondabyne.

The recording that announced the next train north jolted me out of a doze. It had been a long day already, and it was only twenty minutes to eleven. I still had three hours and two trains to go before I reached my final destination.

“I wish I had a car,” I mumbled as the silver double-decker train glided to a stop alongside platform nine. It wasn’t the first time I’d said that, and it definitely wouldn’t be the last. I rose to my feet as the train doors opened and passengers spilled out onto the platform. As soon as the final passengers had disembarked I bolted onto the nearest carriage in search of a half-decent seat before anyone else could steal it out from under my nose, finding one on the lower deck next to a window.

Not only had it been a long day already, but it had been a very long week – one I didn’t feel like reliving anytime soon. Having to catch three trains just to get back to Newcastle was making it feel even longer. Normally I wouldn’t have gone back home so soon after leaving, but I needed to be somewhere other than Wollongong. More than that, I needed my mother right now.

The train departed Central just before ten to eleven, a minute or so behind schedule, and I settled in for the long trip north. Thankfully once I got to Wyong, at least according to my very battered copy of the current Central Coast and Newcastle Line timetable, I would only have a twenty-minute wait until my train to Hamilton station – enough time to find a payphone and let my mother know I was dropping in for a visit.

The trip up to Wyong was mostly uneventful. The book I had slipped into my backpack just before leaving the Village kept me busy almost the whole way, as did the cassette tape I’d nicked out of Matthew’s collection on my way out the front door that morning. By the time my Walkman stopped playing and I’d read the final word of Harry Potter’s adventures, the train was pulling into Niagara Park – my cue to start getting my bits and pieces tidied away. There was nothing worse than trying to gather all of my things as the train was rolling into the station I intended to get off at, especially if the train didn’t terminate there. Luckily my current train did terminate at Wyong, which wouldn’t make things as rushed as they might be otherwise. My final train for my journey north, on the other hand, would be a different matter entirely – travelling the entire way to Newcastle station was a bit of a stupid idea when home wasn’t even a kilometre’s walk from Hamilton.

As soon as I was off the train in Wyong I made a beeline for the payphone on platform three, digging forty cents out of my pocket as I walked. I could only hope Mum or Dad were home right now – I wasn’t entirely sure I had enough phone credit on my mobile to call either of them, and I definitely didn’t have enough change on me for another payphone call.

“Hello?”

I let out a silent sigh of relief when I heard Mum’s voice on the other end of the phone line. “Hi Mum,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice steady. Evidently I didn’t keep it steady enough, because the next words out of Mum’s mouth were full of concern.

“Sophie? Is everything all right?”

I let out a shaky breath and closed my eyes. “No, it’s not. I really need to talk to you – I’m in Wyong right now.” I deliberately left out the fact that I’d skipped class for the day – Mum knew my timetable almost better than I did, so there was really no point in telling her. “Can you meet me at Hamilton when I get there?”

“Of course I can. What time does your train get in?”

I didn’t answer straight away. Instead I found the train I planned to catch on the nearby wall-mounted timetable and traced down its column until I found my stop. “Just before a quarter to two,” I replied. “That’s if it’s running on time though, my train from Central wasn’t.”

“Okay. I should be there when your train gets in – if I’m not, I won’t be too far away. We’ll go out to lunch and you can tell me what’s going on.”

“Okay. Thanks Mum.”

I managed to hold it together the whole way to Hamilton, and even for a moment or two after I stepped off the train. As soon as I spotted my mother, though, my composure crumbled completely and I burst into tears.

“Sophie, what’s wrong?” Mum asked as soon as she was within earshot. I shook my head, knowing that if I tried to talk I would start sobbing. Thankfully Mum seemed to realise this, because she immediately led me out of the station and over to her car. It took every last bit of self-control I possessed to keep myself from collapsing into the front passenger seat and curling up in a ball.

Rather than take me out to lunch, Mum drove us home and put the kettle on. She didn’t prompt or push me to talk, even after setting a mug of tea down on the table in front of me, something I appreciated more than I had words to express. It wasn’t until I’d finished half of my tea that I was calm enough to talk.

“He’s sick,” I said finally, and swallowed hard. “Taylor’s sick. He…he’s got either non-Hodgkin lymphoma or leukaemia, they don’t know which one yet.”

“Oh no,” Mum said softly. “How’s he holding up?”

“He’s coping,” I replied. “All he can really do right now – he had a couple of tests done yesterday, and he’s supposed to get the results back sometime in the next few days.” I let out a quiet hiccup. “I’m scared, Mum – what if he doesn’t make it through this?”

Mum took my half-empty mug away from me and clasped both of my hands in hers. “Sophie, if there is anything I know about Taylor, it’s this – he’s a fighter. Not to mention stubborn. He’ll need both to get through this, as well of all of you.” I knew that by saying ‘all of you’, she was referring to Katie, Matthew and I – names weren’t necessary. Katie, Matthew, Taylor and I had been running around together for long enough that our respective sets of parents tended to refer to us not by name, but as one cohesive whole. And if I was being honest with myself, I liked it that way.

“It’s just…he’s nineteen, Mum. He’s got his entire life ahead of him.”

“Sophie, just because he has cancer doesn’t mean it’s a death sentence,” Mum said. “It can end up that way, yes, but not everyone dies from it.” She let go of one of my hands and stroked my hair. “I know you’re scared, Soph,” she said, using Taylor’s nickname for me. “To be honest I’d be worried if you weren’t even just a bit. It’s a frightening thing to go through.”

“I shouldn’t be scared,” I mumbled. “Taylor’s the only one who has any right to be.”

“All of you have every right to be scared,” Mum said. “You’re Taylor’s friends – if anyone has that right, it’s the three of you. Just promise me you won’t get so scared you abandon him, okay?”

“I would never abandon him,” I said, taken aback. “Why would you even say something like that?”

“Because I’m not kidding about cancer and chemotherapy being frightening, Sophie. There will be days when he will yell at you and call you every horrible name he can think of, and there will be days when he won’t want anyone near him – not his family, and not even his friends. Are you prepared for all of that?”

I didn’t even need to think about my answer.

“Yes,” I said, feeling more sure of myself than I had in a while. “I’ll be there for him every step of the way.”

Mum gave me a smile. “I’m very glad to hear that.”

The cordless phone rang then, and Mum picked it up off the table so that she could answer it. “Hello?…oh, hi Diana. I heard about Taylor, how’s he holding up?”

I tuned her conversation with Mrs. Hanson out after that. I didn’t particularly want to hear any of it – not because I didn’t care about Taylor and the hell he would soon be going through (because I did, more than almost anything), but because I had heard enough about tests and all that they entailed during the last week to last me a lifetime.

“Sophie?” Mum said, breaking me out of my daydreaming, and I looked over at her. “Taylor wants to talk to you,” she added, and I held out my hand for the cordless.

“Hey Tay,” I said once I had the phone in hand.

“Hey Soph,” he said, sounding weary. “Where are you?”

“My parents’,” I replied. “Needed to see my mum. How’re you holding up?”

“I’m okay. Had a lymph node biopsy done this morning – I didn’t feel anything while they were doing it ‘cause they put me under for it, but it hurts like a bitch now.” I could hear the wince in his voice as he spoke – it sounded almost strained. “Dr. Andrews is going to do an MRI this arvo.”

“I bet you’re exhausted,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic.

“You have no idea.” I heard him take a shaky breath. “It’s already started spreading – Dr. Andrews found some of it after my spinal tap, and she’s worried it’s spread even further than that. Wouldn’t be having an MRI otherwise.”

“Bloody hell,” I whispered.

“Yeah.” I could almost see him pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. “I was scared before, but now I’m fucking terrified. I…I don’t want to die, Soph.”

I almost wanted to tell him he wasn’t going to die, that he would win this battle, but I held back – it was the last thing he needed to hear right now. “I know, Tay,” I said. “I’m scared too.”

I passed the phone back to Mum a few minutes later, though not before Taylor had extracted a promise that I would drop in to see him once I got back to Wollongong, whenever it was that ended up being, and she spoke with Mrs. Hanson for a minute or so before hanging up. “How long were you planning on staying, Sophie?” Mum asked.

“I wanted to try and get back to Wollongong by tomorrow afternoon at the latest. Taylor’s supposed to get his test results tomorrow and I kind of want to be there for moral support afterward. No way they’ll let me in to see him while they’re talking about his results – that should be a family thing anyway.”

“Do you feel up to going shopping for a little while? I want to start buying your Christmas presents, and it’ll be easier if you’re there while I’m doing it.”

“New clothes?” I asked hopefully.

“Perhaps,” Mum said, sounding secretive, and I bit back a smile.

The next morning, armed with a takeaway container full of Mum’s homemade choc-mint fudge, I caught the 8:33am train from Hamilton to Central. It was all-stops as far as Tuggerah, after that only stopping at Gosford, Woy Woy, Hornsby, Eastwood and Strathfield before dropping me off at Central, and would see me arriving back in Sydney just before ten past eleven. The one saving grace of catching this particular train was that it would take me the whole way to Sydney, instead of making me change at Wyong.

As soon as I was settled in for the long trip south I fished my phone from the depths of my backpack and sent a text message to Taylor. Hey tay, just checking in :) on my way back to wollongong now, should get back around five past one. I’ll come and see you when i get there.

I didn’t hear back from Taylor until my train was leaving Dora Creek, just before a quarter past nine. Ok. :) you won’t be able to see me until after 3pm, they kick visitors out between 1 & 3. Isaac might be able to sneak you in though. ;)

Awesome, I typed back. How are you?

Tired, sore, nervous, Taylor replied. Wish i could get out of here and go home. This already sucks and i haven’t even started chemo yet.

I bit my bottom lip as I read Taylor’s newest message. Already I was wishing I could take on some of what he was about to go through. He had his entire life and his musical career ahead of him – this was far from fair. I wasn’t even sure I believed in a higher power, but if there was one out there then basically they were a mean little kid with a magnifying glass.

My train from Central rolled into Wollongong station right on schedule at four minutes past one that afternoon. As soon as I had texted Mum to let her know I had made it back in one piece, I set off up the stairs outside that led to the path up to Crown Street. I still had two hours to kill until I could drop in and visit Taylor, and I knew exactly how I planned to spend part of it.

Rebel Sport was my first destination once I arrived at the mall, to be specific their NRL section. Unlike most of his family and almost all of our friends, Taylor didn’t support the Newcastle Knights. He had been a die-hard supporter of the Sydney Roosters for almost as long as we’d been friends, and I knew exactly what I was going to get for him – something that would not only show off his team allegiance to the world, but that I had a feeling would come in very useful before too long. I quickly found what I was looking for, paid for it and headed upstairs to Grace Bros.’ toy department.

Two hours later, once I had spent a bit of time wandering around the markets that took up the lower half of Crown Street Mall and ducking in and out of the shops that lined either side of the mall, I headed up to the hospital. It was a walk that on a good day took me roughly twenty minutes, less if I crossed Keira Street against the lights before I headed up Crown Street. I texted Taylor to let him know I was on my way just as I stepped up onto the kerb on the other side of Keira Street, not waiting for a response before locking my phone and slipping it into my pocket.

Somewhat to my surprise, waiting in the corridor outside Taylor’s hospital room with Isaac was Zac. He was playing with the end of his ponytail, long legs stretched out in front of him, and looked up at me as I approached. The look in his dark brown eyes, so different to Taylor’s bright blue, was one of shock and even a bit of misery.

“I guess he told you,” I said quietly as I took a seat next to him. Zac didn’t say a word, just nodded. “Your mum let you wag did she?”

“Yeah,” Zac said finally. “She didn’t want me finding out over the phone.”

“That was part of it,” Mrs. Hanson said as she walked out of Taylor’s room. “But also because your dad and I both agreed that this was more important than sitting in class. You can catch up on that over the weekend.” She gave me a weary-looking smile. “Hello Sophie.”

“Hi Mrs. Hanson,” I replied. “How’s he doing?”

“I think I’ll let him talk to you about that.” She glanced at her watch. “Can I trust you two not to be stupid around him?” she asked Isaac and Zac. “He’s very sore right now and I doubt he’s in the mood for dealing with either of you if you’re going to act like idiots.” She cast a glance down at the black case that was sitting on the floor between Isaac’s feet. “And what exactly are you planning on doing, Isaac?”

“Nothing,” Isaac replied, sounding so innocent that I almost burst out laughing. If there was something that all three of them were incapable of, it was sounding and acting innocent. A raised eyebrow from his mother was all it took for the truth to come out. “He asked me to, well…” Here he mimed cutting with a pair of scissors. “Doesn’t want to go through his hair falling out.”

“Well, just be careful. I’ll be back in an hour or so, all right?”

The three of us waited until we were alone in the corridor before venturing into Taylor’s room. I dropped my backpack next to the door on my way in. He was sitting up in his hospital bed, propped up by a bunch of pillows, and now had four thin, clear plastic tubes snaking their way out of the collar of his T-shirt. Another IV had been taped down on the back of his left arm, just above his wrist, and he had a white bandage just beneath the right side of his jaw. Above his head, I could see that the whiteboard mounted on the wall now had writing on it – his name, his admission date, and the name of his doctor. The patch of sky that I could see through the window was a dull grey, with branches on the trees in the near distance moving around in the stiff breeze that had been blowing all afternoon.

“See something you like?” Taylor asked, his tone sarcastic, and I realised I’d been staring.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, and immediately sat down in the recliner next to the head of his bed. Zac climbed up on the end of the bed, settling himself against the footboard, and Isaac sat down in one of the room’s other chairs. “What the hell is that?” I asked, referring to what was hanging out of his shirt.

“Dr. Andrews called it a central line,” Taylor answered. “I’ll be getting my chemo through it.” I watched him swallow hard. “She’s starting me on it tomorrow – the sooner the better, she said. I’d rather not have to do it at all, but…” He shrugged. “I don’t want to kick the bucket anytime soon, so I don’t really have a choice.”

“Do you still want me to shave it all off?” Isaac asked.

“Yeah,” Taylor replied. “I know it might not fall out at all, at least that’s what Dr. Andrews said, but at least if it does…” He trailed off, and I finished off his sentence.

“It won’t be as much of a shock,” I supplied.

Taylor nodded. “If there’s hardly any of it left, then there won’t be as much of it to lose. I’ll already have lost it. At least this way it’s on my terms.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Isaac said. “Bathroom?”

“Yeah,” Taylor said. “Soph, can you do something for us first?”

“Yeah, of course I can.”

“Take a photo of us together?” As Taylor said this, he was tucking his central line inside his T-shirt so it wasn’t visible. “Just to remind me what I’m fighting for.”

“So long as I can get a photo with you too,” I said, and Taylor nodded.

After Isaac had given me a quick lesson in how to use his digital camera, I snapped a couple of photos of the three of them. They turned out pretty well, especially considering I’d never used a digital camera before – Taylor in the middle, flanked by Isaac on his right and Zac on his left. Just like old times. I got my photo with Taylor as soon as the three of them had picked a photo they were all happy with. Isaac and Taylor vanished into the bathroom shortly after that, and I soon heard the unmistakable buzzing of hair clippers drifting out from behind the closed door. I did my best to tune it out, instead focusing on what I had bought during my wanderings around the mall – the two presents for Taylor, and a few bits and pieces I had gathered from the market stalls, Redback Music and Riot.

“How’re you holding up, Zac?” I asked, and he started a little. “Sorry.”

“I forgot you were here, you’ve been so quiet,” Zac said, before shrugging. “I’m okay. Worried about Tay, though.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear that.” I reached over and gave Zac’s shoulder a pat. “If you need to talk, you know where to find me. Okay?”

Whatever Zac might have said in response was interrupted by Isaac and Taylor leaving the bathroom. Taylor was running a hand over his head as he walked, looking a bit shell-shocked, and it was easy to see why – all of his hair was gone, with just a faint dusting of light brown remaining.

“It feels weird,” he said. “But thanks, Isaac – I appreciate it.” He gave his brother a small smile before turning his focus to me. “What do you think, Soph?”

“You look like you’re in the army,” I replied. “It looks good though – suits you.” I earned a grin for this comment. “Here, sit down and close your eyes. I have a couple of things for you.”

Taylor complied without a word, perching on the edge of his bed and closing his eyes. I started with what I had bought from Rebel Sport – a red, white and dark blue striped beanie with a Sydney Roosters emblem on the front – before placing the teddy bear I had bought from Grace Bros. in his lap. A dig around in my backpack produced my little hand mirror, which I held up in front of Taylor’s face. “Okay, you can open your eyes now.”

“Sophie…” He reached up to touch the beanie that now covered his bare head – I had pulled it down as close to his ears as I could without covering them entirely, and positioned the team emblem right in the middle of his forehead. “You got this for me?”

“Yep,” I replied. “I had a feeling you were going to need it.” I nudged the teddy bear in his lap. “And I figured you might want a bit of company whenever you don’t have anyone to visit for whatever reason. That way you won’t be alone.”

“I…thank you Sophie,” he said, sounding a bit overwhelmed, and I quickly sat down next to him. This time it was me embracing him rather than the other way around – I knew he needed it, so I didn’t even hesitate. One of my thumbs stroked his shoulder through his T-shirt, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Zac and Isaac both leave the room. They closed the door behind them, and I let out a silent sigh of relief.

“You okay?” I asked after we’d both been quiet for a little while, and Taylor nodded before wiping his eyes on the sleeves of his T-shirt. “Your mum said you had something to tell me – you up for talking about it?”

“Not really,” he admitted, sounding very reluctant. I wasn’t sure I blamed him for that. “But I’d rather you heard about it from me. It…” He took a shuddering breath. “It’s definitely lymphoma. Dr. Andrews said it’s called stage II-B precursor T-lymphoblastic lymphoma.”

“Never heard of it.”

He shrugged a little. “Not surprised. I hadn’t heard of it either before all of this. It’s really rare and really fucking aggressive. Which is why I’m starting chemo first thing tomorrow morning.” He put a hand on his chest. “I’ve got a tumour in here, near my heart – it’s the whole reason I’m out of breath all the time and keep having coughing fits. But Dr. Andrews said chemotherapy and a bit of radiation should shrink it.” He managed a smile. “I have a really good chance at beating this, Soph. It’s not in my bone marrow, just in my lymph nodes and my spinal cord. If it was in my bone marrow, things probably wouldn’t be looking so good.”

“Thank goodness for that,” I said, feeling relieved.

“Yeah. I mean, okay, this sucks, and I’m dreading going through chemo and radiotherapy. There’s no point beating around the bush there. But if it means I can kick this thing’s arse then I can deal with it. Besides, I probably won’t be stuck here forever. A few months at the most. I’ll be back in Newy before you know it.”

The two of us were quiet again for a little while. “How do you think your fans are going to take this?” I asked suddenly.

“Shit. I forgot about them.” He let out a sigh. “I honestly don’t know. I probably won’t until we make an announcement, whenever that ends up being. I just hope that’s soon.”

“Me too, Tay.” I put my left hand over his right and interlocked our fingers. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

Taylor

Mum left to take Sophie back to university an hour or so before dinner, leaving me mostly to my own devices. Almost as soon as the door of my room closed behind them, it opened again and my brothers poked their heads in.

“Mum’s taking Soph back to uni,” I said without looking up from my journal, having spotted the two of them out of the corner of my eye. “Said she’d be back in about half an hour.”

“Yeah, we know,” Isaac said, before aiming a paper aeroplane at my head. I caught it without really thinking and unfolded it. “Read that – us two already read it and signed off on it.”

“Zac can’t sign off on anything, he’s not eighteen yet,” I said, doing my best not to accidentally rip it in case it was important. Though considering what either of them had already done to it, I figured it couldn’t really be that important.

“Dad said it was all right,” Zac said with a shrug. “Reckoned I’m close enough for it not to matter.”

“Yeah, nearly a year and a half off it,” I muttered. “What is it anyway?” I asked, around half a second before I saw the three words typed at the very top of the page – For Immediate Release. “Oh hell.”

“Press release from Liberation and Joel,” Isaac said. “Goes out tonight, it’ll be in the papers tomorrow morning.”

“That’s quick,” I said.

Isaac shrugged. “Yeah, well, everyone thought the sooner the better. This way nobody’s in the dark.”

“Hmm,” I said noncommittally, and without waiting for an answer I started reading what would be in newspapers all over Australia in approximately twelve hours.

Newcastle trio Hanson have announced an indefinite hiatus, effective immediately. The band’s management, Liberty Entertainment Group, has revealed that pianist and de facto lead singer, Taylor, has been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“This is a difficult time for the three of them and for the Hanson family, as I’m sure everyone can appreciate,” a representative of the band’s management said. “They have decided that taking a break is for the best right now, so that Isaac and Zac are able to give their brother the support he needs and to allow Taylor to focus wholly on treatment. It’s not known at this stage how long their break will be. They are committed to keeping in touch with their fans, however, and they will make an announcement on their official website when they are ready to return from their break.”

Hanson’s debut album, Middle Of Nowhere, was released in June 1997 on Mushroom Records, with their most recent album, This Time Around, released through Liberation Music in April 2000. They are currently recording their third album. The trio remain the youngest group to be nominated at the ARIA Music Awards, earning four nominations in 1997 (Album of the Year, Breakthrough Artist – Album, Best New Talent and Best Pop Release).

“You posted something on the site yet?” I asked once I’d finished reading. I dug around in the top drawer of my bedside table for a pen just as an undamaged copy of the press release landed on my tray table, this one with my brothers’ full names and signatures at the bottom. There was a space between the two sets of names and signatures, and it was here that I carefully printed Jordan Taylor Hanson before signing and dating it. It was official now – for the foreseeable future, we were on a break. And it’s all my fault, I thought, feeling a little guilty.

“Actually, we were thinking of making a video,” Isaac replied. “Dad’s on his way down here with Zoë and he’s bringing his video camera with him. We don’t have to,” he added when he saw the look I knew I had on my face. “It’s up to you – we can write something instead if you’d rather not talk about it. Either way works for us two.”

“We do it in one take,” I said, my tone brooking no argument. “I’m not talking about it more than I absolutely have to.” Both of my brothers nodded at this. “Thank you.”

None of us said a word until after Isaac’s phone rang. He went out into the corridor to answer it, leaving Zac and I by ourselves. “What was it like?” Zac asked, startling me a little.

“What was what like?”

“Getting it put in.” Zac tapped his own right collarbone, in a rough approximation of where I’d had my central line put in.

“Oh.” I untucked it from inside my T-shirt and fanned it out in my right hand. Dr. Andrews had called the four clear, thin tubes that branched off it from a spot just above my right collarbone lumens, and the whole thing a central venous catheter. “I got knocked out before they put it in, but after I came round again it felt really weird. Started hurting a bit too, but that’s mostly stopped now.”

“Do you have to get it taken out anytime soon?”

I shook my head. “I’m stuck with it until I finish chemo, whenever that ends up being.” I wound one of the lumens around a finger. “It beats being jabbed with needles though.”

“What beats getting jabbed with needles?” Isaac asked as he came back in.

“This does,” I replied, and held up my central line so that Isaac could see it. “Pain in the arse but if it means I don’t have to get poked all the time I’ll put up with it.” I eyed him for a little while. “So who were you talking to just now?”

“Dad – he’s just hit Waterfall. Should be here soon. Said Zoë’s getting pretty antsy.”

“She’s four years old, can you blame her?” Zac said. He stood up and stretched. “I’m going for a walk – text me when Dad gets here if I’m not back before then.”

As soon as the door of my room had closed behind Zac, I said the first thing that came into my head.

“I’m sorry.”

“What the hell do you have to be sorry for?” Isaac asked.

“Just…all of this shit. Us having to take off however long it’ll take me to get through the chemo and radiotherapy.” I looked down at my lap. “I already screwed things up with going to uni. This is just making it worse.”

“It’s not your fault, Tay,” Isaac said. “None of this is your fault.” When I shrugged, he clicked his fingers at me to get my attention, and I looked over at him. “We had to take the next couple of years off anyway so that Zac can get the HSC out of the way. Mum and Dad put their foot down over that, remember? Same as they did with you. And Zac and I were completely behind you going to uni, don’t forget. As for you being sick…that’s just really bad luck. It could have happened to any of us. Nobody blames you for it.”

“I’m still sorry. This is just…” I tipped my head back and looked up at the ceiling. “It’s a major clusterfuck.”

Isaac didn’t say a word, but a sidelong glance at him told me that he completely agreed with me.

Zac returned from his walk about half an hour later. Following close behind were two of the people I had missed the most since coming back to Wollongong after my mid-session break, and I smiled for what felt like the first time in days.

“Hi Dad,” I said as Dad walked into my room. He had Zoë clinging to his back like a little monkey, and the case that held his video camera and tripod carried by its strap over one shoulder. “Hey Zo!”

Zoë’s head popped up over Dad’s shoulder, her blonde pigtails bouncing as she moved. “Tay!” she squealed. “Daddy can I get down?”

“How are you feeling, Tay?” Dad asked as he let Zoë down onto my bed. Zoë immediately crawled up to sit in my lap, and I put my arms around her to keep her steady.

“I’m okay,” I answered. “For now anyway. I doubt I’ll feel the same tomorrow night.”

“Tay?”

“Yeah Zo?”

Zoë twisted around in my lap so that she could see me. “Why are you in here?”

I didn’t answer Zoë’s question straight away. “I…I’m sick, Zo,” I said at last. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Dad putting a hand on my right shoulder, and I closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened my eyes again I could see that Zoë was on the verge of tears. “Zo-bee, it’s okay,” I said softly, using my nickname for her. “I’m okay. Don’t cry, please?”

“I don’t want you to be sick,” Zoë said, her bottom lip quivering a little. “I want you to get better.” She sniffled. “I want you to come home.”

“That’s why I’m here, Zo. My doctor is going to give me some special medicine that will help me get better.” I smoothed a hand over Zoë’s head. “I’ll get better Zo, and I’ll come home. I promise.”

“Am I gonna get sick too?”

That was the one question I honestly didn’t have an answer for. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “But probably not. This is…I just got really unlucky, Zo. That’s all this is – really bad luck. Okay?”

“Okay,” Zoë whispered, before leaning forward and putting her arms around my shoulders. I hugged her back, being careful not to jostle either my central line or the IV in my left hand. “I love you Tay.”

“I love you too, Zo.” I pressed a kiss to the crown of Zoë’s head. “Always will.” When I looked up it was to see Mum standing in the doorway. “Hey Mum,” I said as Zoë disengaged herself.

“Hello Taylor,” Mum said, giving me a smile. She came up to my bed and crouched down so she was more or less at Zoë’s eye level. “How about we go and get you some dinner?” she suggested, and Zoë nodded. “We’ll come back soon, okay?”

“I didn’t tell her everything,” I said as Zoë climbed down off my bed. “Just general bits and pieces. She probably won’t understand a whole lot until she’s older. Hell, I barely understand it myself.”

“It’s okay, Taylor – you did the right thing. She deserves to know. It wouldn’t be fair keeping her in the dark.” She picked Zoë up. “I’ll take Zoë over to the canteen for a little while.”

Dad seemed to take this as his cue to get his camera and tripod set up. “Where do you want us?” I asked as I got out of bed, grabbing onto the headboard to steady myself. Once I was sure I could move without falling over I grabbed my IV stand in my left hand.

“Where you are is fine, Tay,” Dad replied. “Don’t want you falling over and cracking your head open again.” My response to this was very immature – I stuck my tongue out.

Soon, Isaac, Zac and I were all sitting on the edge of my bed, our backs to the closed door of my room – Isaac at my right, and Zac at my left. I had my IV stand pressed against my left knee, its cold steel raising goosebumps through my pyjamas all the way down my leg. As soon as the red light on Dad’s video camera blinked on, Isaac spoke.

“Hi everyone. This is, as you can see, something of a deviation from our usual messages and announcements,” he said to begin our video. “There’s a very good reason for it, as it happens.”

I swallowed hard, knowing it was now my turn to speak – to break the news that I could barely believe myself. “A couple of days ago, on Wednesday morning, I was given some pretty devastating news.” I looked down at my hands, wishing fervently that the teddy bear that Sophie had given me earlier that day was within reach. “Basically…” I took in a very shaky breath and closed my eyes for a moment. “I’m sick. I’ve been diagnosed with a highly aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and I’m going to need to take time out to receive treatment.”

“All three of us will be taking time out,” Zac continued. “For now the recording of our third album is being put on hold-”

“It’d be a bit hard to get recording done if I’m bolting off every few seconds to throw up,” I interjected with a smirk.

“Thank you Taylor,” Zac said, completely deadpan. “We’re putting recording on hold so that Taylor can get well, however long that ends up taking. We honestly don’t know when we will be back from our break – that will be up to Taylor’s doctors, and of course up to Taylor himself. When we know for sure that Taylor has the all clear and is ready to return to work, we’ll let you all know.”

“And of course, while we’re on break we’ll keep you all updated on how things are going,” Isaac said, and I knew our video was almost finished. “Please keep us, but particularly Taylor, in your thoughts during this difficult time.”

“And if you can, please consider making a donation to CanTeen, or to the Cancer Council in your state or territory,” Zac added. “Even if it’s just a few dollars.”

“Thank you so much for all of your support over the last five years,” I said to finish up. “The three of us, we appreciate it more than you know.” I managed a smile that I didn’t quite feel. “Until next time, this is Hanson signing off.”

The red light on the video camera blinked off a few seconds after I finished speaking, and I let out a sigh of relief. It was done – for good or ill, it was done. “I’ll get the tape off to Vanessa in the morning,” Isaac said as Dad popped the tape out of the video camera. “She’ll take things from there.”

“How about you two head off to the hotel?” Dad suggested, though his tone of voice implied otherwise. “Your brother needs his rest – he has a long few months ahead of him.”

“No kidding,” I mumbled. I leaned forward, pressing my forehead against my IV stand, and closed my eyes. A hand on my shoulder made me open my eyes again and look up at Isaac.

“We’ll be back tomorrow,” he said, and I nodded. “Hang in there, all right?”

“I’m hangin’,” I said with a small smile.

Mum returned with Zoë in tow just as Zac and Isaac were heading off, with Mum handing my sister off to Isaac. “Make sure she goes straight to bed,” Mum said.

“I’m not tired,” Zoë protested around a yawn.

“Uh-huh,” Isaac said with a chuckle. “Come on you.”

“We should head off as well,” Mum said just after the door of my room closed behind my brothers. “You need to get some rest.” She came over to my bed and sat down on the edge of the mattress. “I’m very proud of you, Taylor. We both are.”

“What for?”

“Because this is pretty scary, Tay,” Dad said. He’d finished packing away the video camera and tripod, and came over to stand behind Mum. “Your mother filled me in on what your doctor told you this morning. That you’re going ahead with this, even though we both know you’re absolutely terrified, it’s incredibly brave of you.”

“I don’t want to die,” I said quietly. I didn’t look at either of my parents as I spoke. “There’s nothing brave about wanting to live.”

“There is,” Mum said, and I looked up. “You could have decided not to go ahead with this, and nobody would have blamed you for a second.” She slipped my beanie off my head and studied me, her gaze flicking momentarily to the neat line of stitches that ran along my hairline on the right side of my head. “It’s going to be hard, Tay. I won’t lie to you. But you have us, you have your brothers and sisters, and you have your friends. We’ll all be here for as long as you need us to be.” She gave me a smile and handed me my beanie, and I put it back on my head. “Get some sleep, all right? We’ll come and see you tomorrow morning.”

Later on that evening, after dinner and just before lights out, I spent a little bit of time watching TV and thinking. The two activities were usually mutually exclusive, at least for me, but for once I was managing to mostly tune the TV out. Considering that one of my favourite movies was on tonight, that was a feat in itself.

This was it. In roughly twelve hours, I would be beginning the long road toward recovery – the long road to getting myself back. I had no illusions whatsoever about what I would be going through – it was going to be the hardest battle of my life. I knew that much at least. And not for the first time, I wished that it didn’t have to happen now. I would have put all of it off for the rest of my life if I could have afforded to, but I couldn’t. Not if I wanted to survive this – and I did. More than anything, I wanted to survive. And if that was brave of me, then so be it.

Not for the first time that day, my right hand crept up to the spot where my central line sat, just above my right collarbone. More than anything else, even more than my shaved head, it was a highly visible reminder of how sick I truly was – a reminder of how sick I would be for some time to come. As much as I wanted to grab hold of it and just yank it out, I knew I had to leave it be. It was either that or get poked with needles for every dose of chemotherapy. Given a choice between my central line and a whole lot of needles, my central line won out every time.

With only the smallest bit of regret at missing the rest of the movie, I turned my TV off and let the sounds of the ward surround me. If I was going to be ready for what lay before me, I needed all the rest I could get. As early as it was, I was already exhausted.

Before I settled down to sleep, I dug my journal and a pen out of my bedside table’s top drawer. I wasn’t going to be able to sleep until I got most of what was bouncing around in my head written down on paper. Rather than pull my tray table over so that I had a level surface to write on, I propped my journal on my knees and opened it to the next empty page, and uncapped my pen.

Friday, August 2, 2002

Well, this is it. I start chemotherapy tomorrow. I had a central line placed this morning – I’ll be getting just about all of my medication through it. It looks kind of weird, and I wish I didn’t need it but I don’t want to be poked with needles all the time. I hate needles enough as it is.

I would give anything to be out of here. I should be at uni right now and working on the next Hanson album in my free time, but I’m not. I’m stuck in hospital. The worst part of it isn’t the chemo, though – it’s that I’m going to be alone. My family’s in Newcastle just about all of the time, and that’s a stupidly long way away. Mum, Dad, Isaac, Zac and Zoë are down here at the moment, but they’re probably going to be heading home on Sunday. My friends are here, but they’ve got uni most of the time and they’re going back to Newcastle in November. I can’t expect them to put their lives on hold for me, even though I know they would if I asked them to, and I’m not going to. It wouldn’t be fair on them.

Honestly? I’m terrified. Everything I’m about to go through terrifies me. I know that my chances of beating this are good, but it’s not making me worry any less. There is still a chance I won’t survive it, and that scares the hell out of me. Dying scares me.

This is going to sound childish of me, but it’s not fair. None of this is fair. I’m nineteen years old, for crying out loud. I turn twenty in seven and a half months. I should be at uni or at home, not in hospital about to start fighting for my life. Right now, there is nothing more I want than to be at home in Newcastle, listening to the waves crashing on Merewether Beach and trains rattling past, and tormenting all the fans at Hansonline, but I can’t. If I want to survive this, then hospital is where I have to be. And I want to survive this. I don’t give up that easily. Mum and Dad reckon it’s brave of me, but I honestly don’t think it is – I don’t see wanting to live as something particularly brave. I’m human, that’s all. Of course I want to live.

I want to prove one thing in particular with all of this – that I, Jordan Taylor Hanson, am not going to go down without one hell of a fight. I’m fighting for my life here – for survival. And I’m damn well going to make this fight count.

Just as I finished writing in my journal, a knock sounded at the door and one of the nurses poked her head in. “Everything okay?” she asked with a smile. For about half a second I couldn’t remember her name, but a sneaky glance at her name badge reminded me – Jennie.

“Yeah,” I replied. I closed my journal, clipped my pen to its cover and slipped it back into its drawer. “For now anyway. Tomorrow’s going to suck.”

Jennie gave me a sympathetic smile. “You wouldn’t be the first person to feel that way,” she said. She walked up to the end of my bed and took my chart out of its holder. “Love the beanie.”

I grinned. “Thanks. My best mate got it for me.”

“Just need you to take it off for me for a bit – I need to check your stitches. Okay?”

“How much longer until I can get the stitches taken out?” I asked as I slipped my beanie off my head. Jennie took a pair of gloves out of a box that sat on a shelf near my head and put them on before checking the line of stitches that marched its way from a spot on my hairline above my right eyebrow down to my ear.

“Next week, most likely,” Jennie replied. “They don’t hurt?”

“Nope.”

“Any more headaches?”

I shrugged. “A couple this morning, but they didn’t last long. Half an hour if that.”

Jennie seemed to be satisfied with this answer, and she took her stethoscope from a pocket of her uniform. I pulled my T-shirt off over my head, leaving my arms in the sleeves, and braced myself against what was coming. And as usual, I wasn’t disappointed.

“Why is that always so bloody cold?” I asked as the stethoscope’s cold steel was pressed against my chest, sending shivers racing down my back.

“I’ll try and warm it up next time,” Jennie promised, before moving the stethoscope to my back. “So, that girl who comes and visits you – is that your girlfriend?”

“Who, Sophie?”

“Oh, she does have a name.” Jennie gave me a smirk. “So, girlfriend?”

I shook my head. “Nah. She wouldn’t go out with me even if I asked her to.”

“She’s already got a boyfriend?”

“Nope. She…well, she bats for the other team.”

Oh,” Jennie said, understanding. “That’s a pity. You two look sweet together.”

I shrugged again. “She’s my best mate though. We’ve known each other since we were seven. I honestly don’t know what I would do without her.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear that you’ll have some support while you’re going through this.” Jennie gave me a smile. “If you need anything at night though, like if you can’t sleep or if you just want someone to talk to, you know how to get hold of me.” She nudged my call button. “If I’m not working though, I’m sure one of the other nurses won’t mind taking a bit of time to chat. Okay?”

“Okay.” I pulled my T-shirt back on over my head and put my beanie back on. “Thanks Jennie.”

“Anytime, Taylor. Sleep well.” She gave me another smile and left my room, switching the overhead light off on her way out.

There was just one last thing I wanted to do before I tried to get some sleep. I switched my lamp on and fished my mobile phone out from under my pillow, and dialled Sophie’s number.

“Hello?”

“Hey Soph.”

“Hey you!” Sophie said – I could hear the smile in her voice. “What’s up?”

“Just wanted to say goodnight. I…” I closed my eyes. “I miss you. I miss everyone right now.” And I did – I did miss everyone. I didn’t even care that I’d seen Sophie and my family that afternoon. It was lonely being in hospital.

“I miss you too. It’s too quiet here right now – everyone else is busy studying and they get narky if I make any noise.”

“Oh you poor baby,” I teased.

“Shut up Hanson.”

“Make me Harrison.”

Sophie let out a quiet laugh. “How are you feeling?” she asked. “And don’t lie to me, you know I can tell when you’re fibbing.”

“Nervous,” I admitted. “A bit scared too. This…it’s a big deal, Soph. Part of me wants to just chuck it all in now and walk away.” I let out a shaky breath. “But that’s when I remind myself that I’ll lose so much if I don’t fight this. I have to do this, Soph. Even if it’s just for myself. I have far too much to live for.”

“I’m going to smack you tomorrow for making me cry,” Sophie said, and I heard her sniffle quietly.

“Sorry,” I apologised, feeling just a little guilty.

“I’m glad you’re doing this, though. Really. I know you’re scared, and I don’t blame you, but it’s going to be worth it in the end. I know it will be.”

“I hope you’re right, Soph.” My eyes drifted closed. “I need to get some sleep – I’m pretty wiped.”

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”

“Tomorrow,” I agreed. “‘Night Soph.”

I could almost see Sophie smiling. “G’night Tay.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Sophie

“Sophie?”

I looked up from my breakfast at my flatmates. Katie, Matthew and Luke were clustered around the end of the kitchen bench, heads bent over what looked like the weekend edition of the Illawarra Mercury. Just as I went to answer, Katie held up the newspaper so I could see it.

“When were you going to tell us about this?”

Anything I might have had to say died away when I saw the page that Katie was holding up. Half of it was taken up with an article about the upcoming retirement of the director of Theatre South. The other half, though, had one of Hanson’s promotional photos from the This Time Around tour above an article that could only be about one thing. As Katie began to read the article, my heart sank.

“Newcastle trio Hanson have announced an indefinite hiatus, effective immediately,” Katie read out. “The band’s management, Liberty Entertainment Group, has revealed that pianist and de facto lead singer, Taylor, has been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.” She dropped the newspaper on the bench. “How long have you known?”

“A few days,” I admitted. “Found out the sketchy details on Wednesday. I’ve only known exactly what it is he’s got since yesterday, though.” I pushed my half-eaten bowl of Rice Bubbles away, no longer hungry. “I’m gonna go hop in the shower.”

“Hang on a tick,” Matthew said. “Why didn’t you tell us when you got home yesterday?”

“Think about it for a second Matt,” I said, doing my best not to get fired up. I didn’t particularly want our neighbours in the next flat to make a noise complaint. “How would you feel if it was your best mate this was happening to? Because unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last eleven years, you know that Taylor is my best mate!” Tears started running down my face as I said these last few words. “For Chrissakes Matt, Tay’s my best mate! I didn’t tell you lot yet because it’s taken me this fucking long to get my head around the fact that Taylor is about to face the hardest battle of his life, and it scares the living crap out of me!”

“He’s our friend too,” Katie reminded me. “But…” She sighed. “I can understand why you didn’t tell us straight away. It’s a lot to take in.”

“No kidding,” I mumbled, and wiped my face with the sleeve of my pyjama top.

“When were you planning on going to see him next?” Luke asked.

“‘Sarvo. His mum and dad will probably go and see him this morning, and I don’t want to intrude on that.” I pushed my chair back and stood up. “I’ll be in the shower if you need me.”

That afternoon, the four of us piled into Matthew’s beat-up Datsun for the drive out to Wollongong Hospital. As Matthew drove out onto Northfields Avenue, I texted Taylor. Matt, kat, luke and i are coming for a visit :) just left uni, we should be there in ten mins or so.

Ok, was Taylor’s response. See you soon :)

“So what should we expect when we get there?” Katie asked as Matthew drove around the roundabout outside the university’s eastern entrance, on the corner of Northfields Avenue and Irvine Street. “Like, is it going to make Matt squeal like a little girl?”

“Oi!” Matthew objected, and the rest of us burst out laughing.

“Nah, not really,” I replied once I’d got the giggles out of my system. “He started chemo this morning, so he might be hooked up to that.” I shrugged. “Or maybe not. It’ll depend on how his doctor worked things out.”

The door of Taylor’s hospital room was closed when we arrived. His mother and his doctor were talking out in the corridor, both of them looking over at us as we stopped walking.

“Hello everyone,” Mrs. Hanson said with a smile. “You can go in soon, Dr. Andrews just wants to talk to you all first. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Matthew said, and the rest of us nodded.

“I just have a few rules I want the four of you to keep in mind,” Dr. Andrews said. “It’s important that you all follow them – I know that you’re Taylor’s friends, which I am very glad for, but at the end of the day Taylor is my patient. If any of you are found to be hampering his treatment or breaking any of the hospital rules in any way, I will not hesitate to ban you from visiting him for the remainder of his time here. Understood?”

“Understood,” Katie said.

“Excellent. First – and this is the most important rule – I can’t have any of you visiting if you’re sick in any way. Even if it’s just a cold. For someone like Taylor, it could be fatal – his immunity will soon be somewhat compromised, and what might be just a cold to us may well turn into pneumonia for him. If you wake up one morning feeling less than great, stay home. Okay?”

“Okay,” the four of us chorused.

“Second, you’ll all need to wash and disinfect your hands before you go into his room.” Dr. Andrews indicated a bottle full of a bright pink liquid on the corridor wall next to the door of Taylor’s room. “There’s another bottle in his room near his bed. Anytime you wash your hands, disinfect them right away.

“Third, Taylor is allowed to leave the ward for short periods of time, but you must ask one of the nurses on duty before doing so. They will have the final say on whether he can leave or not – if they say he can’t leave, he stays here. The only times he won’t be able to leave are during the first four days of each chemotherapy cycle, but other than that the nursing staff shouldn’t have any objections. If they say yes, you’ll need to be back within half an hour. So no road trips, okay?”

We all laughed at this. “Yeah, okay,” Matthew said. “That’s fair.”

“And lastly, Taylor has the ultimate say on when he has visitors. If he doesn’t want any visitors, then that’s his decision and I won’t try to override it. He will let you know if that’s the case. That will probably be very rare, but all the same I’d like you all to respect any decisions he makes regarding having you visit.”

“Yeah, of course,” Luke said. “We’re his friends, of course we’ll respect what he wants.”

The scene inside Taylor’s hospital room was a little different from the day before. The IV stand that had been sitting on his left side was gone, with a new IV stand at the right-hand side of his bed that had a machine attached to it, itself hooked up to Taylor’s central line. Hanging off the IV stand and running through the machine was a clear plastic bag about half-full of a red liquid. Taylor, for his part, was sitting cross-legged on his bed against his pillows, Zac at the end of his bed, with a pile of playing cards between them. The teddy bear I’d given him yesterday sat in his lap, one of his bandannas tied around its neck like a scarf, and he wore his Roosters beanie on his head.

“So is this a private party, or can anyone join in?” Matthew said to get Taylor’s attention. Taylor’s hand froze just above the pile of cards, and he looked over at us. Even from where I stood at the door, craning my neck over Luke’s shoulder so I could see, I saw Taylor’s eyes light right up.

“Hey you guys,” he said with a smile. “Zac, go find Mum, okay?”

Somewhat surprisingly, Zac didn’t protest at being told to clear out. He packed up the cards and climbed down off the bed, leaving the deck on Taylor’s bedside table next to a green plastic basin. “See ya later Tay,” he said as he left.

“So how’re you doing?” Matthew asked as we took up positions around the room. Matthew took Zac’s previous spot, Katie and Luke sat themselves in the visitor’s chairs, and I settled myself into the recliner that sat next to Taylor’s bed. He pointed at the new IV stand. “And what the fuck is that?

That is my chemo,” Taylor replied. “Part of it anyway. There’s…hang on” he paused and counted off on his fingers “six different drugs I have to take.”

“Bloody hell,” Luke said.

“You said it.” Taylor shifted back against his pillows a little more. “I get to be on chemo for the next four days – I’ll find out in three weeks if it’s worked.” He pulled a face. “Lucky me.”

“It’ll be worth it though,” Katie said. “Right?”

Taylor didn’t say anything for a few minutes. “I think it will be,” he said finally. “It’s just…two and a half years is a long time to be stuck on chemo, that’s all.”

“Two and a half years?” Matthew asked, sounding shocked, and Taylor nodded. “Why so long?”

“Because there’s-” He broke off suddenly, squeezing his eyes closed, and took a deep breath. “Three different stages of treatment,” he continued after a few moments.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Yeah, just the side effects kicking in,” he replied. He started counting off on his fingers again. “First stage is called induction. That lasts for one round of chemo, so basically for the next three weeks. If that works, and Dr. Andrews doesn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t, I get to move onto consolidation – making sure the induction sticks, basically. Another six months of chemo with the same drugs as what she’s got me on right now. Once that’s finished, I start maintenance. That lasts two years.”

Across the room I could see Katie counting off on her own fingers and muttering away to herself. “March 2005,” she said finally, and we all looked over at her. “That’s when you’ll be done. Bloody hell

“Just in time for my birthday, yep.” He fiddled with the knot in his teddy bear’s bandanna. “I don’t want to think that far forward yet, though. It’s too daunting. And as much as I’m confident that I’ll get through it…” He fell silent and picked at his blankets.

There’s so much that could go wrong, I finished silently, Dr. Andrews’ warning of how disastrous a cold could be for Taylor ringing in my head. For the first time, I was acutely aware of how vulnerable he was right now – and it scared the hell out of me.

“Hey.” Taylor’s long fingers tapped me on the shoulder. “You look like someone died,” he said when I looked up at him. “You okay?”

“There’s so much that could go wrong,” I said, repeating out loud what I’d said in my head. “And it scares the daylights out of me.”

“You and me both, Soph,” he said with a sigh.

“It scares all of us,” Katie piped up. “But you’ll get through it, Tay. You’ll be all right.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Kat,” Taylor said with a small smile.

Matthew, Katie and Luke left to go back to university just before four-thirty, leaving Taylor and I alone. Almost as soon as the door swung closed behind them, I toed off my runners and climbed up on the end of Taylor’s bed. He tossed me one of his pillows and I nestled it behind my back, giving him a smile as I settled myself against the footboard. “So you really have to do this for two and a half years?” I asked as Taylor shuffled his deck of cards.

“Yep.” He finished shuffling the cards and started dealing. It didn’t take me long to work out what we were going to play, and once he had dealt out the cards I picked mine up and fanned them out in my hands. “Got any nines?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Go fish.”

“Damn it,” he muttered, and fished a card out of the pond between us.

“What exactly is it that Dr. Andrews has you on?” I asked during a lull in our game. I’d collected three books of cards already, and was doing my best to catch up to Taylor’s six. He put his hand of cards down on the bed next to him and leaned back into his pillows again, looking up at the ceiling. I figured he was thinking about his answer to my question.

“Well, the chemo regimen she has me on is called CHOP,” he said. “C-H-O-P. Stands for cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine and prednisone. I have to take two other drugs as well – methotrexate because of it spreading to my spine, to stop the cancer getting anywhere near my brain, and leucovorin to make the side effects of the methotrexate a bit easier to deal with.” He tapped his central line. “I get everything except the methotrexate and the prednisone through this. Prednisone’s a tablet with breakfast every morning, and the methotrexate…” He swallowed hard. “It’s like the spinal tap. I am not looking forward to that.”

“When is Dr. Andrews doing that?”

“Tomorrow morning.” He glanced at me. “And before you ask, no you can’t watch. She’s doing it before visiting hours.”

Our game finished an hour or so later, with Taylor winning easily. He collected the cards and gathered them up into a pile, neatening them up before stowing them away in the drawer of his bedside table. “So how are you feeling about all of this?” I asked as Taylor slid the drawer shut.

“Honestly?”

“Yeah.”

He didn’t say anything for a little while, working instead at a hole in the left knee of his pyjama pants. “I’m terrified,” he said at last. “It’s like you said – there is so much that could go wrong.” He shrugged. “Mum and Dad said yesterday that I’m brave for doing this, even though I’m scared half to death. That’s not bravery. I want to survive this, that’s all. Just means I’m human.”

“It kinda is bravery,” I said, earning myself a raised eyebrow. “Well, it is. You’re scared shitless of what could happen to you while you’re in treatment, but you’re doing it anyway. Of course wanting to survive this means you’re human, but it’s brave too. Very Gryffindor of you.”

“I’m a Ravenclaw, thank you very much.”

I snickered. “You, a Ravenclaw? That’ll be the day,” I teased him, earning myself a scowl.

I left my spot at the end of Taylor’s bed, shifting myself up so I could sit next to him. He moved over to his right so I didn’t have to balance on the edge of the mattress, and put an arm around my shoulders once I was settled. “Thanks, Soph.”

I didn’t ask what Taylor was thanking me for – I didn’t need to.

“You’re welcome, Tay.”


“Hey Zac.”

Zac looked up at me from his Chemistry textbook and gave me a small smile. “Hey Sophie.”

“How’re you holding up?” I asked as I sat down at the table next to him.

“Okay, I guess,” Zac replied with a half-shrug. “School’s kicking my arse, and I’m worried as hell about Tay.” He tore a strip of paper out of his notebook, marked his place in his textbook and closed it. “His doctor’s starting him on radiotherapy tomorrow morning.”

“When do you think you’re going to visit him next?”

“Mum said I can get the train down after school on Friday if I want to.” He pulled a face at this. “I can’t wait until I’m on my P-plates so I can drive down by myself. I hate catching the train.”

“You and me both.” I pushed my chair back and stood up. “Come on. You need a break.”

“Where’re we going?”

“One of my favourite places.”

Twenty minutes later, Zac and I were sitting on the Foreshore wall, a paper parcel of potato scallops and pineapple fritters from the takeaway place on Wharf Road set between us. “It’s okay to be scared, you know,” I said as I unwrapped our lunch.

“I’m not scared.”

“Not saying you are.” I picked up a fritter and bit into it, pineapple juice and cinnamon sugar exploding into my mouth. “But what Taylor’s going through right now…it’s terrifying. I wouldn’t blame you in the least if you were scared.” I cast a sidelong look at Zac, and bit down on my bottom lip at what I saw. His posture and the look on his face just screamed abject misery. I nudged him gently. “Not hungry?”

Zac’s response was to pick up a scallop and break it in half. “I guess I am a bit scared,” he admitted once he’d eaten half of the scallop, his voice so quiet I could barely hear it over the sounds that surrounded us – the waters of the Hunter River lapping against Queens Wharf, seagulls squawking, and kids riding bikes, skateboards and scooters down the Foreshore. “You swear this stays between us?”

“Cross my heart.”

“Thank you.”

“So what exactly scares you about it?” I asked.

“Just…everything.” He popped the other half of his scallop into his mouth. “But what scares me the most is that he…” He trailed off and looked down at his feet.

“He might die,” I finished, and Zac nodded.

“Yeah.”

“That scares me too.” I licked the cinnamon sugar from my fritter off my fingers. “And I’m not about to lie to you and say he won’t die, because you and I both know he might. Cancer’s a bastard like that.” I gave Zac a small smile. “We have to believe he’ll get through it, Zac. Bit of positive thinking never hurt anyone.”

We were quiet for a little while. Zac broke our silence right as I bit into another fritter.

“We’re thinking of making a doco.”

“Yeah?”

Zac nodded. “Yeah. It was going to be about the new album, like the recording process and all that, but now it’d probably mostly be about…you know.” He picked at the left knee of his jeans. “Still have to talk to Tay about it, see what he says.”

“Hopefully he’ll be okay with it.” I held up a hand to show that I’d crossed my fingers. “I reckon it’d be interesting.”

We had just started walking back to where I’d parked my mum’s car when Zac’s phone rang, the Imperial March sounding off from his pocket. He fished it out and answered it. “Hey Mum…yeah I’m okay. Sophie took me out for lunch just now.” He gave me a smile as he said this. “When d’you think you’ll be home?”

I had just flicked on the right blinker so I could turn into Rachael Avenue when Zac finished his phone call. “Everything okay?” I asked as I made the turn, and Zac shook his head. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“Taylor…” Zac squeezed his eyes shut. “He had a seizure this morning. Right after he got dosed with one of the chemo drugs he’s on.”

I didn’t even hesitate in pulling over. “Did your mum say why that happened?”

“Yeah, Mum said it’s something that happens sometimes. Side effect or something like that.” He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his hoodie. “And he has to keep taking it so it’s probably going to happen again.”

“It might just be because it’s the first time he’s taken it,” I said, trying to sound reasonable.

“I hope so.”

“Yeah, me too.” I flicked the right blinker on again and eased the car back out into the street. “Come on. I’d better get you home.”

Isaac was sitting on the front steps with his acoustic guitar when I pulled Mum’s car in behind the Kombi and cut the engine. He looked up as Zac and I got out of the car. “Did Mum call you?” he asked, and Zac nodded. “Feel like wagging school tomorrow? I’m heading down in half an hour, Mum said you can come as well if you want to.”

“I probably shouldn’t,” Zac said. “I’ve got that test for Chemistry tomorrow.”

“I’m sure your teacher would let you make it up later,” I said. “You have better reason than most to be wagging school right now.”

“I’ll let you drive,” Isaac added, and held up his car keys.

“Mum doesn’t want me driving on the highway yet,” Zac replied. “But thanks anyway.” He managed a small smile for Isaac, before turning to me. “Thanks for lunch, Sophie.”

I stepped forward and drew Zac into a hug. “Anytime, Zac. You have my mobile number?” Zac nodded against my shoulder. “Good. Anytime you need to chat, or if you’re desperate to get out of the house for a little while and you don’t want to get the bus anywhere, I want you to call me.” I drew back so I could see his face. “And I do mean anytime. Even if it’s the middle of the night. Okay?”

Zac nodded again. “Okay.”

Once Zac had disappeared inside, I dropped down onto the grass and put my head in my hands. “Jesus Christ, what a clusterfuck,” I mumbled.

“Pardon?”

I looked over at Isaac. He’d left his spot on the front steps and sat down next to me. “Did your mum tell you what happened with Tay this morning?” I asked.

“Yeah. Horrible isn’t it?”

“That’s an understatement.” I lay down on my back and stared up at the cloudless August sky, tracking the path of a plane as it headed south. “Can I get a lift down to Wollongong? I can’t be arsed spending the next few hours on the Shitkansen.”

“Yeah, of course. I’ll pick you up from your place in half an hour.”

“Thanks, Isaac.” I sat up and ran my fingers through my ponytail to get rid of any stray blades of grass. “See you in a little bit.”

I had just started cramming my things back into my backpack when my phone rang, its caller ID reading Taylor. I didn’t even hesitate in answering. “Hey you.”

“Hey Soph.” There was no smile in his voice this time. “What’re you doing?”

“Getting ready to come back down there. Isaac’s giving me a lift. Can’t be arsed getting the train.” I paused for maybe half a minute. “I heard off Zac what happened this morning. You okay?”

“Yeah.” I could almost see him rubbing his eyes while he said this. “Better than I was at least. I don’t remember any of it but it knocked me out for about half an hour afterward. Woke up with a hell of a headache.”

“Doesn’t sound like much fun.”

“Nope. Wasn’t much fun at all.” He let out a sigh. “Hopefully it won’t happen again but I’m not getting my hopes up.”

“Is there anything Dr. Andrews can do to stop it happening?”

“Probably, yeah. She hasn’t talked to me about it yet though. Knowing my luck she’ll stick me on even more medication than I already have to be on.”

“Well, if it works…”

“Yeah, I know.”

Neither of us spoke for a little while. I took advantage of the break in conversation to zip my backpack up and toss it over near my bedroom door.

“So when d’you reckon you’ll be getting back?” Taylor asked.

“Well…” I quickly calculated in my head how long it would take Isaac and I to get down to Wollongong. “I’m getting picked up in a little bit. It’s, what, one-thirty now, and it takes just over three hours to drive down…let’s say a quarter to five. Sound good?”

“Yeah, that sounds great.” It might have been my ears playing tricks on me, but I could have sworn Taylor sounded almost relieved. “I’ll see you when you get here.”

“See you soon Tay.”

It wasn’t long after Taylor and I had finished our phone call that Isaac came to pick me up for the long drive back to Wollongong. Neither of us said much until we hit the Hunter Expressway, about sixteen kilometres from my parents’ house in Islington.

“Zac told me you might be making a doco.”

“Yeah, we’re thinking about it.” Isaac turned left into the exit that led onto the Pacific Highway. “Was going to be wholly about getting the new album recorded and released, but…” He shrugged. “I’m going to talk to Tay about it this afternoon. It’ll be up to him if we go ahead with it or not, because if we do end up making the doco it’s going to be about…you know. I don’t like my chances of convincing him. I mean” he flicked on the right blinker and merged onto the highway “we got him to do that video last week, but that was only because we got it done in one take. If it’d taken more than that, he’d have clammed up entirely.”

“Well if you can’t talk him into it, I’ll give it a go. He usually listens to me.” I tapped on the centre console with my right hand. “So what music have you got with you?”

“Glove box. Got a few CDs in there – put on what you want.”

“Sweet!” I popped open the glove box and grabbed the first CD I came across – Billy Joel’s The River Of Dreams. “I knew there was a reason we were mates,” I said happily as I loaded the CD into the car’s CD player.

“Sophie?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks. For being there for Tay this last week, I mean. We…we all really appreciate it.”

I shrugged. “He’s my best mate. Of course I was going to be there for him.” Our eyes met in the rearview mirror, and I gave Isaac a smile. “But you’re very welcome.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

Taylor

Just before visiting hours resumed that afternoon, Dr. Andrews and one of the other doctors came to see me. I had been lying flat on my back in bed, my beanie pulled down over my eyes to keep the sunlight coming in through the window from making my headache worse than it already was, when I heard the door of my room open and footsteps head toward me. I carefully lifted my beanie away from my right eye just in time to see the two of them coming up to the side of my bed.

“Good afternoon Taylor,” Dr. Andrews said, her voice soft but cheerful. “How are you feeling?”

“Head still hurts,” I said. “But aside from that I feel okay.”

“Good to hear.” She gave me a smile. “I’ll organise some painkillers for you in a little while. First of all, though, I wanted to talk to you about what happened this morning. Dr. Chisholm also wants to have a chat about tomorrow. Would that be all right?”

“Yeah, no worries.”

“Excellent.” The two of them seated themselves – Dr. Andrews in my recliner, and Dr. Chisholm in one of the visitor’s chairs. “Now, this morning, with your seizure – what I believe happened is something called acute chemical arachnoiditis. Essentially it’s an inflammation of the membrane around the brain and the spinal column, and it can happen whenever methotrexate is given intrathecally. Via spinal injection,” she clarified.

“Is there any way you can stop me from having another seizure?” I asked.

“I can start you on a medication called clonazepam. It’s part of the class of drugs known as benzodiazepines – they’re essentially tranquillisers. This particular benzodiazepine is a broad-spectrum anti-seizure medication used to treat epilepsy.”

“And it would stop the seizures?”

“I believe it would, yes. Were it up to me I would have you taking the leucovorin a lot sooner than you already will be, but unfortunately that isn’t an option – we need to give the methotrexate time to do its job.” She gave me a smile. “So are you willing to try the clonazepam? I know you probably aren’t very keen on adding more medication to your treatment regimen, but if it means you stop having seizures after the methotrexate then I’d say it’s worth it.”

I didn’t even have to think about it. “I’ll give it a go.”

“Excellent! If you have another seizure after your next dose of methotrexate, then I’ll start you on the clonazepam straight away. Sound good?” she asked, and I nodded. “I’m very glad to hear that.” She stood up. “I’ll let Dr. Chisholm have a chat with you now. One of the nurses should be in soon to give you some painkillers for that headache.”

I had met Dr. Chisholm once already, during an appointment on Friday to get everything set up for my radiotherapy sessions, and I’d liked him immediately. He reminded me a lot of my father. “Good to see you again, Taylor,” he said with a smile, one that I did my best to mirror. “Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, you’ll be starting radiation therapy tomorrow morning. Would you like me to go through what’ll be happening again?”

“If you’re sure you don’t mind.”

“Don’t mind a bit. It’s why I’m here, after all.” He gave me another smile. “Basically, you’ll be brought upstairs to see me tomorrow morning at around ten o’clock. I’ll double check that the radiotherapy markings are where they’re supposed to be, then you’ll be taken into the treatment room. Treatment itself only takes around ten minutes, but there’ll be a bit of setting up to be done so all up it’ll take around three-quarters of an hour. You’ll be able to come back to your room after it’s done.”

“And that’s every day, right?”

“Right. In your case, it’ll be five days a week, Monday through until Friday, for at least the next five weeks.”

I nodded. “Okay. And it doesn’t hurt?”

“Not a bit. It’ll be a lot like having an x-ray done. There are side effects, though – you may end up with something like a sunburn on your chest where the radiation is aimed, and you might get a little breathless later on. It can also be pretty tiring, and unfortunately it may end up making the side effects you’re already experiencing from the chemotherapy a lot more intense. I can’t do anything about the latter, and I do apologise for that.” He gave me a smile. “I’ll do my best to minimise the impact of the radiation on your heart and your lungs, though. All right?”

“All right.” I picked at my blankets. “So I guess I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

“Indeed. Until tomorrow, then.”

And that was how, the next morning, I found myself lying on a hard stretcher under one of the hospital’s linear accelerators with my shirt off, my back already aching. My knees were raised up on a few pillows and I had my head tipped back a little. One of the radiation therapists, a young dark-haired woman who had told me to call her Annie, gave me a smile as she finished setting everything up.

“I just need you to raise your arms above your head for me,” Annie said, and I moved my arms into position, clasping my hands together on the stretcher behind my head. “That’s the way. I’ll come and get you when Dr. Chisholm is done, okay?”

No sooner had Annie left the room, the door closing tightly behind her, that Dr. Chisholm’s voice sounded somewhere above my head, and I nearly jumped a foot in the air in shock. “We’re just about to start, Taylor,” he said. “Take a deep breath and hold it for as long as you can.”

Ten minutes isn’t really a long time when you think about it. But lying there under the linear accelerator, nausea from the chemotherapy rolling through me and my chest aching from the sheer effort of holding my breath, it felt like an eternity. I counted out the seconds in my head, twitching a finger every time I hit sixty to help myself keep track of where I was up to, and made it to three and a half minutes before I couldn’t take holding my breath any longer. I let my breath out slowly so that I didn’t get yelled at for moving around too much, and took in another breath just as slowly before starting my counting over again.

I managed to get in one more breath before the door reopened and Annie came back in. I took this as my cue to let out the breath I’d been holding for the last couple of minutes in a sigh of relief. “You did brilliantly,” she said as she helped me sit up, and gave me a bright smile before easing me down off the stretcher and onto my feet. My shoulders were aching from having to hold my arms in the one position for the last ten minutes, and I rolled them a little before following Annie out of the room to where a nurse waited for me with a wheelchair and my IV stand with its infusion pump. “We’ll see you again tomorrow,” Annie said as the nurse hooked my central line back up to the chemotherapy, once I was sitting in the wheelchair again. “Get some rest.”

“See you,” I said, and raised a hand in farewell as the nurse wheeled me back to my room.

My routine, for the next few weeks at least, was set in stone from that morning forward. I started every day with breakfast and my daily dose of prednisone – it made me feel sick and irritable, and on the second Saturday of my first cycle I stayed in bed, curled up around one of my pillows because I just felt too weak to do anything other than sleep. I completed my first course of doxorubicin on Monday night, rounding out my very first chemotherapy cycle the next morning with a dose of vincristine that landed me with the one side effect I had been dreading the most, even more than all the throwing up, and especially more than the seizure and the conjunctivitis that the methotrexate had slammed me with – peripheral neuropathy. I had just started to learn the guitar before I’d gotten sick, and had been planning to talk Isaac into giving me a couple of lessons the next time he visited, but now it seemed that anything like that would have to wait.

It wasn’t all chemotherapy and waiting around for the side effects to hit, though. Five mornings a week I was taken upstairs to Radiation Oncology for my radiotherapy sessions, which was a nice change from the monotony of seeing the same four walls and ceiling during my waking hours. And every afternoon, as soon as visiting hours resumed, I could be guaranteed of having Sophie along with a couple of my other friends visit. On occasion Sophie even brought along her class notes, so that even though I couldn’t go to class I could at least study. It kept my mind busy and off what was happening to me at the very least. The third week of my first cycle saw me undergoing all of the same tests as I’d had done during diagnosis and staging – a bunch of X-rays and MRIs, another lymph node biopsy, and (much to my dismay) a lumbar puncture and a bone marrow biopsy. I knew why – to see if the chemotherapy and radiotherapy had done what they were supposed to – but it didn’t make it any less annoying.

On the twenty-third of August, nearly three weeks after I’d started chemotherapy, I came back to my room after radiotherapy to find not only Dr. Andrews waiting for me, but also Mum, Dad and Zoë. “Tay!” Zoë squealed as soon as she saw me, and the nurse who had brought me back to my room stopped pushing my wheelchair just in time for my little sister to launch herself at me. “I missed you,” she said as she hugged me. I managed to hug her back one-armed and pressed a kiss to the crown of her head.

“I missed you too Zo-bee,” I said. “Hold onto me for a little bit, okay? Just until I’m back in bed.”

“How are you feeling, Tay?” Dad asked once I was settled back in bed. As soon as I was out of the wheelchair and back under my blankets Zoë had immediately settled herself next to me, and I played with one of her plaits as I considered my answer to Dad’s question.

“All things considered, I feel good,” I replied at last. And really, I did. Even despite the high dose of chemotherapy that Dr. Andrews had me on, and the way that the radiotherapy had intensified the side effects I’d been hit with, I felt good. I’d got off comparatively lightly with the side effects, at least according to Dr. Andrews, which was a relief in itself. “Hopefully the chemo and radiotherapy have done what they’re supposed to.” I held up my right hand to show that I’d crossed my fingers.

“Well, that’s what we’re here to talk about,” Dr. Andrews said as she pulled up a chair and placed a manila folder in her lap that had HANSON, JORDAN TAYLOR written on the front in thick black texta. “And I have some good and some bad news.” I felt my heart sink at those last three words. “Which would you like to hear first?”

“The good news,” I said immediately. There was no way I wanted to hear the bad news first. Were it up to me I would have put off hearing it for the rest of my life.

“The good news, then.” Dr. Andrews opened her folder, which I now realised was a record of my treatment to date. “Things look good so far. The chemotherapy regimen I have Taylor taking, coupled with the two extra drugs to treat the metastasis to his spinal column, is doing its job. I found around half of the cancerous cells that were present pre-treatment. The tumour has also shrunk considerably, though I don’t think you needed me to tell you that, Taylor.” She said this with a smile, and I nodded. I was already finding it a lot easier to breathe, something I was incredibly thankful for. “I daresay you’ll only need another three weeks of radiotherapy, which should make you happy.”

“You said you had some bad news,” Mum said, and I braced myself.

“I did, yes. Unfortunately, the first induction cycle hasn’t been enough to send the cancer into remission.” She sounded apologetic as she said this. “This does happen sometimes, and I’m sorry it had to happen to you, Taylor. I truly am.”

“So what happens now?” Dad asked.

“We continue as we have for the last three weeks,” Dr. Andrews replied. “I’ll start Taylor on a second induction cycle tomorrow morning, but with slight increases in dosage to make sure the induction takes this time. With any luck, after this next induction cycle we’ll be able to move onto the next phase of treatment.” She studied me for a little while. “I know how disappointed you must be, Taylor,” she said, her tone sympathetic. “But this is only a small setback. You’re doing very well so far, and I am very hopeful that you’ll be able to begin consolidation in three weeks’ time.” She closed her folder and stood up. “Get some rest, and I’ll see you again tomorrow.”

The second the door had closed behind Dr. Andrews, I let my head fall back against my pillows and squeezed my eyes shut. Disappointed didn’t even begin to describe how I felt right now.

“Tay?”

Zoë’s voice was very tentative, and I opened my eyes to see her looking up at me. “Yeah, Zo?”

“Why are you sad?”

I didn’t answer right away, choosing instead to focus on calming myself down. “I…the medicine I’m taking isn’t working properly yet,” I said at last. “I’m going to be stuck here for a little while longer.”

This seemed to be all it took to set Zoë off. She buried her face in my T-shirt and started crying, her small shoulders shaking. I gently rubbed her back to try and soothe her, at the same time looking at Mum and Dad for help. Dad seemed to take the hint, and he came to crouch down at my bedside. “Zoë,” he said softly. My sister pulled her face away from me and looked at Dad. “He’s going to be okay, Zo. I promise.” He stroked Zoë’s plaits a couple of times. “How about you and me go and get some ice cream? We’ll come back in a little while. Okay?”

“Okay,” Zoë whispered, before turning back to me and giving me another hug. “I love you Tay.”

“I love you too, Zo-bee,” I said, returning her hug.

No sooner had Dad and Zoë left that my own tears threatened to fall, and I sucked in a sharp breath to try and stave it off for a little while. Mum left her seat next to my right side and sat down on the bed next to me, beckoning me closer. I shifted forward and let her embrace me, putting my head down on her shoulder and closing my eyes. “My baby,” she said softly as she rubbed my back a little. “I’m sorry this is happening to you, Tay. I really am.”

“It’s a stubborn fucker isn’t it,” I mumbled against Mum’s shoulder.

“I wish you wouldn’t swear,” Mum said with a sigh. “But yes, it is.” She slipped my beanie off my head, and I felt her run a hand over my bare scalp. All of the hair that had been left after Isaac had shaved my head had fallen out a couple of days earlier, leaving me feeling more than a little vulnerable without anything to keep my head covered. “Give it time, sweetheart. You heard what Dr. Andrews said – you’re doing wonderfully so far. I know it’s hard, but you’ll get better. It’s just going to take a little longer than we thought it might.” I raised my head so that I could see Mum’s face, and she gave me a smile. “How about you try and get some sleep? Even if it’s only until your dad and Zoë get back.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

“Do you want me to tell your friends not to visit today?”

“You don’t mind?”

“Of course not. I’m sure they won’t mind either.” She released me from her embrace and slipped my beanie back onto my head, and I settled back against my pillows and closed my eyes.

The last thing I heard as I drifted off to sleep was Mum singing one of the songs I’d grown up with, her voice quiet.

“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…it’s not warm when she’s away…ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone…and she’s always gone too long…anytime she goes away…”


“What’re you reading?”

I looked up from my book to see Sophie sitting in my recliner. She’d shifted it around so that she could lean forward and prop her elbows up on my mattress, chin in her hands.

Artemis Fowl,” I replied, showing Sophie the cover. “Zac borrowed it from the library at school for me. It’s pretty good so far.”

“I might have to see if the uni library’s got it. It looks like a good read.” She gave me a smile. “How have you been?”

With Sophie still at uni and almost halfway through her spring session classes, she hadn’t been able to visit as often as either of us might have liked. Her tutors were starting to pile the work on, and so much of the time she might have otherwise spent visiting me had been spent holed up in the university library or in one of the performing arts practice rooms. Today, nearly a week after I’d started my second cycle of induction chemotherapy, was the first time we had seen one another in almost two weeks.

“I’ve been better,” I admitted as I closed my book. “The chemo’s really kicking my arse this cycle.”

“How come the first lot of induction didn’t work?”

I had just opened my mouth to answer when yet another stomach cramp ripped through me, and I squeezed my eyes shut for a few seconds. “Oh bloody hell,” I groaned. I gritted my teeth against the pain, willing it to be over quickly.

“You okay?”

Sophie’s voice sounded concerned, and I could hardly blame her for that. “Y-yeah,” I replied, my voice catching a little. “J-just a stomach cramp, had a f-few of those the last c-couple of days. S-side effect of one of my meds.”

Much to my relief, the pain subsided almost as quickly as it had come on, and I drew in a shaky breath. “Dr. Andrews put me on a pretty high dose last cycle,” I said, deciding to finally answer Sophie’s original question. “But I guess it wasn’t high enough, so this time she upped the dose of all my meds a bit. It…it’s hell, if I’m being honest. I got lucky with the side effects last cycle, but now they’re all hitting me.” I closed my eyes again, this time feeling a tear slide its way down my face. I hadn’t wanted to cry in front of Sophie, but it seemed that it was happening anyway.

“It’ll get better,” Sophie said, sounding more positive than I knew she probably felt. “Right?”

“I really hope so,” I said.

I opened my eyes again to see Sophie studying me, her gaze focused mostly on my chest. “Radiation burn?” she asked, and I knew she was talking about the patch of bright red, angry-looking skin just above my heart. I didn’t have a shirt on today, mostly because having anything close to that patch of skin hurt like hell. Painkillers could only do so much to dull it, so I was taking the easy way out and just going shirtless.

“Yep. Feels a lot like a sunburn. Same kind of thing, really.”

“Should have worn sunscreen,” she joked, and I stuck my tongue out at her. “Oh, and I have to ask – what’s with your feet?”

“I was wondering when you’d notice,” I said with a sigh. I’d had my legs raised up on a couple of pillows for the last few days to keep any sort of weight off my feet, with the cuffs of my pyjama pants pushed up around my shins so that the fabric didn’t accidentally brush against my ankles. I’d made that mistake exactly once since Tuesday night, and the sheer amount of pain had taken my breath away. It had felt like all my nerves were on fire.

“Oh, I noticed as soon as I walked in,” Sophie said, and she smirked. “I just thought you’d done both your ankles again.”

“Funny. I wish that was all it was. One of my meds is causing some nerve damage. Chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, to use its proper name. It’s a pain in the arse to put it lightly. I can’t have anything on or near my feet right now – it hurts too much.”

“Is there anything Dr. Andrews can do about that? Like she’s done with your seizures?”

I rubbed at my eyes briefly while I considered how to answer Sophie’s question. “Yeah, she wants to start me on an antidepressant – says it’ll help with the pain. Though I don’t see how something like that would help.”

“If it’s what I think she’s talking about, my Auntie Jo takes it for nerve pain,” Sophie offered. “I think it’s called amitriptyline.”

“Yeah, that’s the one.” I eyed Sophie. “And it helps?”

Sophie shrugged. “Auntie Jo reckons it does. It can’t hurt to try.”

“I guess not.” I let out a sigh. “I was hoping I could get away without taking more medication, that’s all. Seven meds is enough as it is.”

We were both quiet for a little while. One of the great things about being friends with Sophie was that a lot of the time, neither of us really needed to talk around one another – we were just content to be together. Right now, that was what I needed the most.

“Did Isaac and Zac talk to you about that doco they want to make?” Sophie asked, breaking our comfortable silence.

“Yeah, they did. And…” I trailed off, thinking. “I like the idea. I’m just not sure I want the whole world to see the hell I’m putting myself through.” I played with my central line, coiling one of its lumens around my fingers. “What do you think I should do?”

Sophie was quiet for a few minutes, and I figured she was thinking. “I think you should do it. And before you say anything, just hear me out. Okay?” I nodded, and she continued, “I know there is nothing more you would like right now than to just hide from the world until you’re better. Believe me, I know.” She motioned for me to shift over, and once I had moved a little closer to the right side of my bed she hopped up next to me, planting her bare feet on the seat of my recliner. “You don’t have to show them everything. There’s some things the world doesn’t need to see. But everything else…” She looked at me, her green meeting my blue. “You have the best fans in the world, Tay. You really do. I’ve gone onto Hansonline a couple of times over the last month, even though that place scares the living crap out of me, and there’s this great long thread in the forums that is full of get well messages. They care about you so much. And I know you care about them too. Would it really hurt all that much to show them a little bit of this?”

I let out a soft groan. “I hate it when you’re right.”

“So you’re going to do it?”

I tipped my head back against my pillows and sighed. “Yes, I’m going to do it.” I saw her grin at this. “Isaac and Zac have been filming little bits here and there anyway. I guess I should let them know that they can use those bits of footage for our doco.”

“Atta boy. I knew I could talk you into it. You always listen to me, see?” She tweaked my nose a little. “Any idea what you’re going to call it yet?”

“Nope. We’ll come up with something though. We always do.”

That evening, an hour or so before visiting hours ended, I had a couple more visitors – Isaac and Zac. “Trying to set it on fire?” Isaac asked when he saw me glaring at my tray table. Hospital catering had come around with supper about ten minutes earlier, which this evening was a mug of chicken noodle soup, a piece of wholemeal toast with margarine, and a glass of water. I normally loved chicken noodle soup, but right now just the thought of trying to eat it was making me feel even worse than I did already.

“Something like that,” I replied, and pushed my tray table away. “Hey you two.”

“Sophie said you decided to do the doco,” Zac said as he perched on the end of my bed. I winced as he brushed against the toes on my right foot, sending pain rocketing up my leg. “Oh shit, sorry Tay,” he apologised, and shifted down near the footboard.

“S’all right,” I said. “And yeah, I’m in. I do have a few conditions, though.”

“Shoot, then,” Isaac said. He’d pulled out his notebook and a pen while I’d been speaking.

I started counting off on my fingers. “One, I have the final say on whatever footage of me gets included. There are some things I don’t want the world to see. If you manage to record me getting my chemo or whatever, fine. I’m okay with that, and I know you’ve got video of that anyway. But no way in hell are you taping me whenever I’m throwing up.”

“That’s fair,” Isaac agreed.

“Second, if I ask you to stop recording, you stop recording and you don’t ask why. Same goes for if Mum, Dad or Dr. Andrews asks you to stop.” I shrugged a little. “With the doc it’s probably more a case of when, but we might get lucky. And third…if I have any really bad days, which I will probably have at some point, it’s wholly up to Mum or Dad whether or not filming goes ahead. I might be all for it, but seeing as I’m not likely to be in the right frame of mind to be making any decisions I’ll be leaving it completely up to them. If they’re okay with it, then I am.”

“That sounds pretty fair to me,” Zac said, and Isaac nodded. “So are we making a doco then?”

“We are definitely making a doco,” I said, and held my right hand out palm down. Isaac’s right hand joined mine, with Zac rounding out with his left. It was something we had done for as long as we’d been a band, our little agreement that we made when words weren’t necessary. It said one thing that all three of us held sacred – no matter what, we were all in it together. And right now, knowing that my brothers had my back no matter what, it meant the world.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

Sophie

In the middle of September, the first bit of light started to break through the darkness we had found ourselves in. Since Taylor had started his second cycle of induction chemotherapy, he’d been having a particularly rough time of it. I hadn’t been able to visit as often as I might have liked, partly because of university but also because sometimes he hadn’t been up to having visitors. We talked on the phone or texted as much as we could, though, and he always tried to put a brave face on for me whenever I visited – one that I could always see straight through. When it all came down to it, especially to those who knew him best, Taylor was an open book.

I had just finished rehearsing for a group performance assignment that was due in a few weeks when my phone’s text message tone sounded off from one of the pockets of my backpack. The end of my first year of university was swiftly approaching, with my mid-session break coming up in one week – my last day of classes for the year was on the thirty-first of October, after which I would have a nail-biting four week wait for my spring session results. I was confident of passing my spring session classes, so I wasn’t terribly worried, but all the same the wait to find out for sure was going to be pretty nerve-wracking.

Aside from being a week away from my mid-session break, today was also the day that Taylor would be finding out if his second cycle of induction chemotherapy had worked. I knew he was worried, and I didn’t blame him in the least. None of us did. We were all worried too.

I was halfway between the Performing Arts building and the Village before I remembered to look at my phone, and sat down on the steps outside the McKinnon Building with my legs stretched out in front of me. There was one new text message in my inbox from Taylor, and I found myself crossing my toes inside my sneakers as I opened it. His message was very short and to the point.

IT WORKED!

“Holy shit,” I whispered as I stared at my phone, my hands shaking and relief coursing through me. “Holy shit…”

YES! I texted back, wishing I was a lot closer so I could celebrate with Taylor then and there. I just finished at uni, gimme like 15 mins to get home and changed. I’ll see you soon. :)

Katie, Matthew and Luke were sitting in front of the TV in our flat’s lounge room playing Super Smash Bros. Melee on Matthew’s GameCube when I barged in through the front door. “Oi!” Matthew complained when I planted myself in front of the TV and crossed my arms.

“Have any of you checked your phones in, oh, the last hour or so?” I asked, one eyebrow raised at the three of them. “Because I just got a message from Taylor.”

That was all it took for the three of them to go scrambling for their phones. The temptation to throw my own phone at them was extremely strong, but I managed to hold back and just watch them open their inboxes. One by one they checked their text messages, with Katie the first to react.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. “It worked.” She looked up at me. “It worked!

“I’m heading over to the hospital as soon as I’ve gotten changed,” I said. “You all have ten minutes, then I’m leaving whether you’re ready or not.”

“Like we’d be anything but ready,” Matthew said as he turned the console and TV off. “Last one out to the Datsun’s a rotten egg!”

When we arrived at the hospital not even twenty minutes later, we split up. Katie and Luke stopped at the nurses’ station and spoke to the nurses on duty, while Matthew and I continued down the corridor to Taylor’s room. His door was partly open, and I peered through the gap before knocking. He was sitting on his bed with his right leg stretched out straight in front of him, working on something on his tray table, his central line tossed back over his right shoulder.

“Yeah, come in,” Taylor said once I’d knocked. He didn’t look up from what he was working on as Matthew and I slipped into his room. I sat myself down at the end of his bed, with Matthew commandeering the recliner, and waited for him to notice us.

It didn’t take him long. He paused in writing in what I recognised as his journal about ten minutes after Matthew and I arrived, and looked up at me. I gave him a grin and watched as his eyes lit right up. “Soph!”

“Hey you,” I said. He pushed his tray table aside right in time for me to dive at him, knocking him backward onto his pillows, and proceeded to do my best to squeeze the life out of him. Beside us I could hear Matthew trying his hardest not to laugh out loud, and I kicked out at him with my right foot.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Taylor said, tensing beneath me, and I let go of him. “Radiation burn, remember?”

“Fuck, sorry,” I apologised. “It still hurts?”

“Yeah, a bit. Dr. Chisholm said it should start healing in a few weeks.”

“So you’re done,” Matthew said as Taylor and I settled down before a nurse could come in and tell us off. “Induction at least, anyway.”

“Yeah, and about damn time too. Dr. Andrews told me this morning that she couldn’t find any of the lymphoma whatsoever – none in my lymph nodes, none in my spine, and that fucking tumour is finally gone. Well, I knew about the tumour being gone because I can actually breathe properly now, but whatever.” Taylor let out a quiet laugh. “You have no idea how good that feels.”

“When do you get to come home?” I asked.

Taylor held up a finger at me, indicating that he wanted me to wait, and he grabbed his notebook. “I got Dr. Andrews to write it down for me, because I’m never going to remember all of it.” He opened his notebook and started flipping through it. “Here it is. I’ve got nine rounds of consolidation to look forward to, starting tomorrow. Discharge date is set as the twenty-second of March next year. Eight days after my birthday, in other words.”

“That’ll be a good late birthday present,” Matthew said, and Taylor nodded. “You’ll be coming back to Newy, right?”

“That’s the plan, yeah. Dr. Andrews said that next year, when my discharge date gets closer, she’ll start looking into getting me referred to another oncologist closer to home. Right now, though, she wants me to focus on getting through consolidation. Which is fair enough, no point in crossing that bridge before I get to it.”

“You are excited about going home though,” I said. “I can tell. It’s written all over your face.”

“I really am,” Taylor said. “I don’t give a damn that it’s still six months off.”

Matthew got up from his seat, and both Taylor and I looked at him. “I’m going to go and see what’s keeping Luke and Katie,” he said. “It shouldn’t take that long to find a chip machine for crying out loud…” He kept on muttering to himself as he went back out into the corridor, causing me to hide a grin.

“I’m thinking about dropping out of uni,” Taylor said almost as soon as Matthew had left. He was biting his bottom lip as he worried at his blankets, as if he was anxious about how I’d react.

“Yeah?”

He nodded. “I…I don’t think I can keep working on my degree and get through chemo at the same time. The chemo is hard enough on its own without adding school to it. I’m surprised I’ve managed it this long.” He was quiet for a couple of minutes. “I’ll probably decide for sure just before Christmas. Don’t want to rush into it. Who knows, I might be able to defer the rest of my degree for a few years and pick it up again later.”

“Yeah, I don’t see why they wouldn’t let you defer it. You’ve got enough reason for it.” There was a quiet knock at the door, and I glanced over to see Matthew standing there with one of the nurses, a wheelchair between them. “Hey, you feel up to getting out of here for a little while?” I asked. “Staring at the same four walls all the time can’t be all that interesting.”

“It really isn’t. I don’t even have the ride up to radiotherapy as a distraction anymore. I finished that this morning.” He studied me for a little while. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, first things first…” I nodded for Matthew and the nurse to come in. “You need to put your hoodie or something on, it’s a bit nippy out there.” The nurse, who wore a nametag on her uniform that gave her name as Felicity, went up to the shelves on the wall near Taylor’s bed and took a surgical mask out of a box. “And I think you’re supposed to put a mask on as well.”

Taylor soon had his Year 12 hoodie on, and he straightened his beanie a little before putting the mask on. “It’s a good thing I’m not claustrophobic,” he commented as he looped the mask’s elastic bands around his ears.

“You need to be back by a quarter to five,” Felicity said once Taylor was settled in the wheelchair, before winking at me. I returned her wink with a smile. “Check in with us when you get back, all right?”

Right in the middle of the hospital complex was a small open-air garden. I had gone there a couple of times over the last six weeks, usually on my way out after visiting Taylor – it was peaceful there, but what I liked most about it was that it didn’t feel like part of the hospital. It felt far removed from the clinical, sterile ward that had been Taylor’s home since August.

“Close your eyes,” I said to Taylor as the three of us neared the door that opened onto the garden. I raised an eyebrow at him. “Or am I going to have to go back and get one of your bandannas so I can blindfold you?”

“I hate you sometimes,” Taylor grumbled as he closed his eyes.

“Nah, you love me.” I opened the door and stepped aside so that Matthew could push Taylor out into the garden, letting it swing close behind me as I followed them. Sitting on a picnic rug waiting for us were Luke and Katie. Spread out on the rug in front of them were a bunch of takeaway containers full of Indian food, a stack of paper plates and a few sets of plastic cutlery. “Okay, you can open your eyes now,” I said once Matthew had brought the wheelchair to a stop.

The look on Taylor’s face once he registered what was in front of him would be one of my favourite memories for quite a while. “You guys are so good to me,” he said, sounding happier than he had in many weeks. “Help me out here Matt, please?”

“So how long have we got out here?” Matthew asked as he helped Taylor out of the wheelchair. “One of the nurses winked when she said we had to be back by a quarter to five, so I’m guessing it’s a bit longer than half an hour.”

“Hour and a half,” Katie said as she dished out butter chicken and rice onto a plate and handed it over to Taylor. “They must really like you here, Tay.”

Taylor took his mask off and gave Katie a smile. “Yep,” he replied, and started eating. “Okay, this is amazing,” he said, sounding content. “Food here isn’t bad considering what it is, but I’ve been craving Indian for weeks. Haven’t been able to convince Isaac to go out and get me some.”

“We figured,” I said with a smile of my own as I dug into my plate of mango chicken curry. “We borrowed your credit card, by the way. Hope you don’t mind.”

Taylor waved me off. “Nah, you’re good. If it’s to get me Indian, Italian or Chinese food, then you can max it out for all I care.” He pointed his fork at me. “Not that you should, but I wouldn’t really mind if you did. Just saying.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

For the hour and a half that the five of us had together that afternoon, eating Indian food and catching Taylor up on everything that had been happening in the world outside of his hospital room, I was able to forget everything that had happened to Taylor during the last month and a half. I was able to forget for a little while that my best friend in the universe was still very sick, and that he would be sick for a long time to come. There was a light at the end of the tunnel now, though – in six months, providing that everything went well with his next stage of treatment, Taylor would be coming home. I decided right then and there to use that light as a beacon, to remind myself that no matter how bad things would end up getting, they would eventually get better.

And as it turned out, my little beacon would end up coming in useful a lot sooner than I hoped I would need it to.

I knocked on the door of Taylor’s hospital room on the afternoon of the twenty-third of September. Today was the first day of my mid-session break, and I was taking full advantage of not having to be back in class for two whole weeks by first going shopping, then paying Taylor a visit. I planned to visit Taylor as often as I could until classes went back, or at least until he got sick of the sight of me and told me to bugger off. Being as he hadn’t told me to go away just yet, the latter wasn’t something I thought likely to happen.

“Come in, Sophie,” Mrs. Hanson said from her seat in Taylor’s recliner. She gave me a smile as I slipped into the room and closed the door partway behind me. It was a lot darker in the room than it usually was – the blinds at the window had been drawn shut, the ceiling light was off, and the lamp on Taylor’s bedside table had one of his bandannas covering it. As I got closer and my eyes adjusted to the low level of light I could see that Taylor was curled up on his left side under his blankets with his eyes closed, though I could tell he wasn’t asleep.

“How’s he feeling?” I asked as I pulled one of the visitor’s chairs up to the right side of Taylor’s bed.

“Not so good,” Mrs. Hanson replied. She reached over and ran a hand over Taylor’s head, covered today with one of his bandannas rather than his beanie. Just under the bandanna’s edge I could see the spot where he had hit his head almost two months earlier. It had healed now, leaving a scar that hadn’t quite faded just yet. “The side effects are hitting him pretty hard today.”

“I can go,” I offered, starting to feel a little guilty for disturbing Taylor. “I-I didn’t know he wasn’t up to visitors today. I should have checked before I came, I know-”

“You’re always welcome to visit, Sophie,” Mrs. Hanson assured me, cutting me off. “Even when he’s having a bad day.”

“‘m not havin’ a bad day,” Taylor mumbled without opening his eyes.

“Uh-huh, right,” Mrs. Hanson teased him. “Who was it that couldn’t keep his breakfast or his lunch down today?”

“M’ evil twin,” Taylor replied, and finally opened one of his eyes. It was bright red, making the blue of his iris stand out even more than it usually did. I recoiled a little in shock.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” I said, earning myself a scowl. “What the hell happened?”

“Conjunctivitis,” Taylor replied. “Again. It’s so fucking annoying.”

“That why you’ve got the lights off?”

“Y-yeah,” Taylor replied, his voice catching a little. “I’ve got a real b-bastard of a headache too.” Seconds later he squeezed his eye shut again and curled in on himself even more. “Oh bloody hell, not again,” he moaned.

“Easy, Tay,” Mrs. Hanson said softly. She pulled his blankets down a little and started rubbing his shoulder.

“I think I’m gonna throw up,” Taylor mumbled. He uncurled himself and sat up, keeping his eyes closed the whole time, and leaned forward so that his forehead rested on his knees. “I hate this…”

Hearing Taylor say those three words, and sounding so sad at the same time, was all it took for me to do what I did next. I toed off my sneakers, climbed up on the bed and settled myself behind him. “I know,” I said, trying my best to sound sympathetic, and started working at his shoulders to ease away the tension I could feel just beneath his skin. “I know you hate it.”

“That feels really good.” He raised his head off his knees and looked back at me, eyes fully open for the first time since I’d got there. “Thanks.”

“No problem. Still feel like you’re gonna hurl?”

“Little bit.” He put his head back down on his knees. “Not as much as I did though.”

“Good.” I paused for a few moments. “Hey, I got you another present. Want to see?” I asked, and he nodded. “Okay, give me a minute.” I finished working at his shoulders and climbed down off the bed so I could grab my handbag from its spot on the floor next to the recliner. Inside it was a bag from Surf Dive & Ski, its opening folded over. I opened it, took out the receipt and shoved it into one of my pockets, and went back over to the bed with the bag and my hand mirror. “You have to sit up for this. Think you can manage that?”

It took him a little while, but he managed to straighten up. I sat back down on the bed, this time facing him, and gave him a smile. “Close your eyes and take your bandanna off for me, yeah?”

“I hate surprises,” he grumbled, but did as I asked.

“Oh, you’ll like this one.”

My present for Taylor was another beanie. This one was a bit slouchier than his Roosters beanie, and had blue and white stripes on the outside. Inside it was a solid, dark blue – Taylor’s favourite colour. I got it settled on his head and held my mirror up in front of his face. “You can open your eyes now,” I said.

Taylor didn’t say anything at first, and nor did I try to make him talk – I knew he’d open his mouth when he was ready, and not a second before. Finally, after he had been silent for what seemed like an eternity, he gave me a very tentative smile. “I love it. Thanks, Soph.”

I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding. “Oh, thank goodness,” I said. “I was worried you’d hate it.”

“Are you kidding me?” He slipped his new beanie off his head and held it up. “One, it’s a beanie. I don’t have nearly enough of those. I am never going to say no to you giving me beanies as presents. And two, it’s blue. Best colour ever.” He gave me another smile as he put his beanie back on, his smile disappearing as he yawned. “I think I need to have a nap or something. I’m pretty wiped.”

That seemed to be the cue for both Mrs. Hanson and I to head off. “I’ll come back once I’ve dropped Sophie back at uni,” Mrs. Hanson said as I gathered up my bits and pieces.

“Yeah, okay. Dr. Andrews said she wanted to talk to you anyway,” Taylor said as he got back under his blankets. He shifted onto his right side again so that he could see us and gave me a small, sleepy smile. “See ya later, Soph.”

Somewhat to my surprise, instead of heading north along New Dapto Street toward the university, Mrs. Hanson instead drove us into town. “I thought you might like to get lunch before I drop you back at uni,” she said as she drove down Crown Street.

“That sounds fantastic,” I said. I had eaten breakfast and morning tea already, but there was no way in hell a bowl of Rice Bubbles and a blueberry muffin would keep me going the rest of the day. “I can pay for mine,” I offered, knowing I still had around ten dollars left from that morning’s shopping in my wallet.

Mrs. Hanson shook her head. “Nonsense. It’s my treat.”

“Oh…well, thanks.”

Our destination that lunch time was the Illawarra Leagues Club, right across Church Street from McCabe Park. I had to admit that it felt strange having lunch with Taylor’s mother, though I would never dare say it out loud. This was even despite having known her since I was seven years old. It stemmed primarily from having studied Music for all of my six years as a student at Merewether High School, and by some stroke of luck having had her as my teacher for that subject every year. So even though I was now an adult, the fact remained that I was still a tiny bit worried that she would give me detention if I put even a toe out of line.

“I wanted to thank you first of all,” Mrs. Hanson said once we had placed our lunch orders. “For being there for Taylor. I know he appreciates it, even though he might not say it sometimes.”

I shrugged, and played with the salt cellar that sat on our table. “He’s my best mate. I’d never even consider not being there for him.” I was quiet as I gathered my thoughts. “All of this does scare me sometimes, though. I…I know there’s a chance he might not make it, even though it’s probably a small one, and it terrifies me. I couldn’t imagine not having him around.” I tipped the salt cellar to one side with my right index finger, catching it before it could fall onto the table and spill its contents across the tablecloth. “I keep telling myself that I don’t have any right to be scared. There’s this little voice in the back of my head that raps me across the knuckles and tells me that it’s only Taylor that has any right to it, seeing as he’s the one going through this.”

“I know the feeling, unfortunately. It is terrifying.” Mrs. Hanson gave me a smile that I tried my best to echo. “And you need to stop listening to that voice. You have every right in the world to be scared. I’d be worried if you weren’t.”

I let out a quiet laugh. “You sound like my mother. She told me the same thing just after I found out about Tay.”

“Well, Laura is a very wise woman. I’m not one bit surprised she would say something like that.”

It wasn’t long before our lunches arrived, and I gave mine a quick once-over before digging in. “Now tell me, Sophie, how’s uni been going?” Mrs. Hanson asked, and I swallowed my mouthful of chicken parmagiana before answering.

“It’s going really well. Got a group performance assignment first week back after break – we’re doing a dramatic reading of The Raven.”

“Are you looking forward to it?”

I shrugged. “I’d be looking forward to it more if one of the other girls in my group didn’t keep trying to talk us into ripping off the first Simpsons’ Treehouse Of Horror episode. I’m pretty sure our tutor would fail us if we did that.”

“Well, you never know unless you ask – they might like the idea. Do you have anything else due soon?”

“Yeah, an essay about the early Australian film industry. I’m going to get started on that one tomorrow.” I speared a chip with my fork, ran it through some of the sauce from my chicken and popped it into my mouth. “I’ll probably write about The Story Of The Kelly Gang in it.”

“I think Isaac has some books about that – I’ll get him to bring them down for you on the weekend.”

“You don’t have to do that,” I tried to protest, and Mrs. Hanson raised an eyebrow at me. That was all it took for me to back off. “Thank you,” I said, doing my best to sound grateful. It would definitely beat spending hours on end in the university library.

Mrs. Hanson dropped me off at the Village just before one-thirty. “Thanks for lunch, Mrs. Hanson,” I said just before I climbed out of the car. “And tell Isaac thanks for lending me his books. I…I really appreciate it.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Sophie.” She patted my right hand. “Anything for one of my favourite students. I’ll say hello to Taylor for you.”

I managed a small smile at this. “Thanks.”

Nobody was home, I discovered as I let myself into the flat. A note on our whiteboard told me where everyone was – Luke was at the library, Matthew was over at the campus aquatic centre, and Katie had gone into town to do some grocery shopping. I had the place to myself for at least the next couple of hours, and I had a decent idea of how I wanted to spend at least some of it.

I went into my room and opened my wardrobe. Hidden among all of my clothes was a dark grey, hard guitar case with silver latches – the acoustic guitar that Taylor had got for his nineteenth birthday from his brothers. It had sat idle for nearly two months, since we’d arrived back at university after winter break. I carefully lifted it out of my wardrobe and set the case down on the floor so that I could open it.

In all honesty, I wasn’t all that great at playing guitar. Dad had tried to teach me, but I’d never really had much patience for it. That wasn’t going to stop me from trying anyway. I sat down crosslegged on the floor against my bed, balanced Taylor’s guitar on my knees and fished around one-handed in the case for a pick, finally finding one not in the case but wedged under the strings at the very top of the fretboard. Tucked away in the pocket in the case’s lid was a notebook that, I saw when I opened it to its first page, was full of lessons penned in Isaac’s handwriting.

Well, no time like the present, I decided. I set the notebook on the floor in front of me, propped up on one of my textbooks so I didn’t have to crane my neck to see it, and got to work.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

Taylor

If someone had asked me to describe in detail any specific day during my first two months in hospital, I couldn’t have done it. The only real difference between days was that some were good and others were bad, with the bad days seeming to outnumber the good ones. Most of the time I couldn’t do much more than watch TV or listen to music, and even then I could only manage that whenever I didn’t have a headache. Whenever that happened, all I could really do was was lie in bed with one of my beanies pulled down over my eyes to keep the light out. It was beyond frustrating, and I hated every second of it, but if it meant I would eventually get better then it was worth it. Or so I liked reminding myself, anyway.

The middle of October saw me hit with a long string of bad days. On one of those days, I drifted into wakefulness that afternoon to find Sophie at my bedside in my recliner. She wasn’t sitting in it so much as she was lying across it, feet propped up on the right armrest and her head on the left, one of her textbooks opened against her knees. On her feet were a pair of pink and purple striped socks that had a hole in the left sock her big toe was sticking out of, and over the sounds of the ward outside my room I could hear her humming tunelessly.

“Hey,” I said quietly. She stopped humming and sat up so she could see me.

“Hey you,” she said cheerfully, and I winced. “Oh shit, sorry…” She closed her book and set it down on the floor next to her backpack. “Headache again?”

“Yeah,” I said tightly, the headache in question already starting to build behind my eyes. I closed my eyes and willed it to settle down. “Throat hurts too.”

“D’you want something for it? I think I have some Nurofen in my bag.”

“Can’t. I’m allergic – makes me break out in a rash.” I risked opening an eye so I could see Sophie. “Thought you knew that.”

“I guess I forgot. Sorry, Tay.” Sophie gave me an apologetic smile. “Some best friend I am.”

“You are a fantastic best friend,” I told her. “Trust me on that.”

“I don’t feel that way sometimes.” She seemed to grow smaller as she said this. “I barely see you these days and I feel awful for it.”

“Soph…” I pushed a button on my bed’s remote to make the head of my bed raise up. “Just because you don’t come and visit very often doesn’t make you a bad friend. Uni’s important to you – I know that. I’d never ask or expect you to drop it all just for me. I mean-” I broke off suddenly as nausea started to roll through me, and I swallowed hard.

“You okay?” Sophie asked.

I didn’t answer at first, too focused on breathing through the nausea to talk. “No, I’m not,” I replied after a few minutes, having realised it wasn’t going to ease off anytime soon. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to throw up.”

“Okay, budge up,” she said, motioning for me to shift forward, and she climbed up on the bed behind me, snagging the basin that had a permanent home on my bedside table on her way. She dropped the basin in my lap and started rubbing my back, just in time for me to start throwing up. “I wish you didn’t have to go through this,” she said. I could have sworn her voice sounded a little sad. “I’d swap places with you if I could.”

“No you wouldn’t,” I managed to choke out.

I finally managed to stop throwing up after what felt like an eternity. Sophie climbed down off the bed and took the basin into my bathroom, and I let myself fall back onto my pillows and closed my eyes. For a little while the only sounds I could hear were the toilet flushing, and the tap running in the sink.

“Why do you think I wouldn’t want to swap places with you?” Sophie asked, and I opened my eyes again just in time to see Sophie coming back out of the bathroom. She dropped the basin back on my bedside table and sat back down in the recliner, and started digging around in her backpack. “Of course I would. If it meant that you didn’t have to spend the next few years going through all this bullshit, then I’d swap places with you in a heartbeat.”

I let out a quiet laugh. “And you call yourself a terrible friend. What you said just now…that’s proof of how amazing you are. I couldn’t ask for a better best friend than you, Soph.”

Sophie gave me a small smile and took a bottle of water out of her backpack. She twisted the lid off before handing it to me. I rinsed my mouth out a few times, spitting each mouthful of water out into the basin once Sophie had grabbed it for me. “That’s better,” I said, my eyes starting to slide closed. Throwing up always wore me out. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Sophie said with another smile, and went back to her book.

When I woke up again, it was to a dark room lit mostly by a wide strip of pale light under my door from the corridor outside. As my eyes adjusted to the low level of light, I saw it sitting on my bedside table next to a bottle of water.

An origami crane.

I picked the crane up with my right hand, my left having decided it wasn’t going to co-operate tonight, and settled it in my lap. It had been folded out of notebook paper with writing on it, handwriting that even in the half-dark I recognised instantly. Unfolding the crane and smoothing the paper out revealed a letter.

Dear Tay,

I mean what I said earlier. If I found a magic lamp somewhere, and a genie popped out and said I could have three wishes, that’s what I’d wish for. To swap places with you, so you didn’t have to be sick anymore. I’d wish for a never-ending packet of Tim Tams and unlimited phone credit too, but swapping places with you would be first on my list. Because honestly? This isn’t fair. I know it’s probably really childish of me to say that, but I don’t give a shit and I know you agree with me anyway. IT’S NOT FUCKING FAIR. You should be at uni working on your degree, or up at Byron with Isaac and Zac working on your new album, but you can’t because Fate is a bitch who decided to paint a bullseye on your back and use you for target practice.

You have to fight this. I’m serious. You have far too much to live for to just give up when it gets too hard. I’m not just talking about your music here. I’m talking about your family – your mum and dad, your brothers and sisters. Your friends. Us. I need you more than I’ve ever needed anyone. I’d be lost without you – I can tell you that much right now. And I know you need me just as much.

I’ll be back tomorrow arvo, once I get done at uni – might even drag Kat, Matt and Luke with me. Text me if you need anything.

Love Soph

Just as I folded Sophie’s letter in half and slipped it into my journal, it hit – a trembling that didn’t come from my chemotherapy, or from my pain and anti-seizure meds. It started in my right hand and travelled up my arm until it got to my shoulder, and from there started spreading throughout my entire body. My ears started ringing, blocking out any other noise, and a sharp, stabbing pain above my left collarbone made me wince. Seconds later I felt as if all of the air had been sucked out of the room, and I tried desperately to breathe as I fumbled for my call button.

“Hey, hey, are you all right?” I distantly heard one of the nurses ask, and I shook my head. “I’m going to touch you, is that okay?”

“Yeah,” I managed to choke out. A hand landed on my back, and I tensed up a little. “I can’t breathe,” I gasped, just as my head started spinning and the world went dark.

I woke up again an indeterminate amount of time later not to darkness but to sunlight so bright it hurt my eyes. I had an oxygen mask on over my nose and mouth, I figured to help me breathe a little easier, and my head was aching like it was being beaten on with a jackhammer. The bright light wasn’t helping matters. My eyes slammed themselves closed again, but not before I noticed who was sitting at my bedside.

“Thank goodness you’re all right,” Mum said. One of her hands ran itself over my head. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I’ve been hit by a truck,” I replied, my voice muffled a little, and eased one eye open again so I could see my mother. “I had an anxiety attack, didn’t I?”

Mum nodded. “It gave everyone quite a scare. Dr. Andrews called us a little while ago – one of the nurses said she went to check on you just after midnight and found you right in the middle of an attack. You passed out on her not long afterward.”

“I thought I outgrew those,” I mumbled, feeling my face start to go red from embarrassment.

“I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I wish it was. They’re not fun, are they?”

I shook my head. “They’re horrible.”

“Good morning everyone,” Dr. Andrews said as she walked into my room. “How are you feeling, Taylor?”

“Tired, aching all over,” I replied, deciding to elaborate on the ‘hit by a truck’ metaphor I’d used with Mum. “Got another headache too. And my throat hurts.”

Dr. Andrews seemed to be processing my answer as she pulled up a chair. “I see. What sort of pain is it?”

“Like someone’s gone over it with a cheese grater – it feels all rough-” I broke off and squeezed my eyes closed as a sharp, stabbing pain started up in the very back of my throat. “Ow,” I whispered.

“May I have a look?” Dr. Andrews asked. She took a little penlight torch out of a pocket, and I took my mask off and opened my mouth so she could aim the torch beam at my throat. “Ooh, that does look painful,” she said with a wince. “You’ve had your tonsils removed, correct?”

“When he was nine, yes,” Mum replied.

“Definitely not tonsillitis then…ah, there we are. That’s what I was looking for.” She turned her torch off, and I closed my mouth and put my mask back on. “I can say without very much doubt that you have a nice, nasty case of strep throat.” Her torch went back into her pocket, and she took out a prescription pad and a pen. “Seeing as your chart says that you have an allergy to penicillin” she glanced at me, and I nodded “I’m going to start you on a course of roxithromycin right away. That should clear it up nice and quickly.”

“Ugh, more medicine,” I grumbled. “Just my freaking luck.”

“It’s not very much fun being sick, I know,” Dr. Andrews said as she wrote down the addition to my regimen of medication. “But you’ll only be taking the roxithromycin for a week, maybe a week and a half, and you’ll feel much better for it.”

“When you put it like that…” I sighed. “Okay.”

“Good lad.” She gave me a smile. “Now, onto another matter – that of your anxiety attack during the night. How long have you had anxiety for?”

“It was never officially diagnosed,” I said. “But I had my first anxiety attack when I was fourteen. It was a lot like the one I just had, really. Most of them haven’t been that bad, thank goodness.”

“How many would you say you’ve had?”

I closed my eyes and tried to count up all of the anxiety attacks I’d ever had. “Well, um…” I trailed off as I realised there was no way I could count all of them. “I couldn’t tell you,” I admitted as I opened my eyes again. “Way too many to count.”

“And all in the last five years?”

I nodded. “First one was just before mid-year exams in Year 8. Last one before now was right before my final HSC exam last November. They’ve mostly been before exams or performing with my brothers.”

“That can’t have been much fun,” Dr. Andrews said, sounding sympathetic, and I shook my head. “I think we’ll keep an eye on things for now. If you have another anxiety attack, though, and if you’re open to it, I may consider asking one of our mental health workers to come and speak with you. It sounds very much like you have something called social anxiety disorder.” She pocketed her prescription pad and stood up. “I’ll leave you to get some rest. One of the nurses should be in at some point with your antibiotics.”

“Thank you, Dr. Andrews,” Mum said, and I echoed her quietly a second or two later. “Try and get some sleep,” Mum added once Dr. Andrews had left. “I can tell you’re still tired.”

“All I ever do in this place is sleep,” I grumbled, but I let my eyes drift closed. The last thing I was aware of was Mum’s hand holding mine, her thumb stroking in small circles as I fell asleep.


Ten days of antibiotics and a lot of rest later, I was over my throat infection and pretty much back to normal, or as normal as it was possible to be when I was the sickest I could ever remember being. And I honestly thought that was the end of it.

I couldn’t have been further off the mark. Things were about to go badly, even disastrously wrong, in almost the worst way possible.

“Hey…”

I dragged an eye open to see Sophie crouched on the floor at my bedside, arms folded on the edge of my mattress. “Hey,” I rasped out, right as a spike of pain lanced through me. “Ow.”

“You okay?” she asked.

“Honestly?”

Sophie raised an eyebrow at me. “Of course I want you to be honest. I’d know if you were lying to me anyway.”

“Good point.” I rubbed my eyes as I tried to think about how to word how I was feeling without worrying Sophie more than she probably was already. “I feel pretty awful,” I admitted. “About twice as bad as I felt when I caught that bastard of a cold back in May.”

‘Pretty awful’ was, to be honest, a massive understatement. Whatever it was that I had somehow come down with, it was making me feel worse than the chemotherapy ever could. I was running another high fever, my chest ached constantly, every time I coughed I felt like I’d been stabbed in the side, I couldn’t stop shaking, and I’d almost passed out again the night before because I couldn’t get enough air. One of the night nurses had solved that last problem by giving me something she’d called a cannula – it was a thin tube that hooked over my ears and under my nose. It was uncomfortable, but it meant I could breathe a lot more easily. Not to mention it beat having to wear a mask all the time.

Sophie went pale as I admitted I was feeling less than great. “That can’t be good.”

“No shit Sherlock,” I snarked.

Sophie reached up and poked me in the ribs, and I pushed her hand away. “Your doctor knows about it, right?” she asked, her tone almost dangerous and practically daring me to say that Dr. Andrews knew nothing about how I was feeling.

“Yeah, I told her yesterday,” I replied. “She thinks it’s probably the flu, but I’m supposed to be having a chest X-ray this afternoon to find out for sure.”

When next Sophie spoke, her voice was very small and scared.

“What if it’s worse than the flu?”

“Don’t even say it,” I warned her. “There’s no way in hell I’m that sick.”

“What if it is, though?”

Any response I might have wanted to make was abruptly interrupted by a coughing fit so violent that it left me feeling dizzy and my chest aching even more than it already was. “Ow,” I whispered as soon as it was over.

“That didn’t sound good,” one of the morning shift nurses said as she came into the room. “Hello Sophie,” she added.

“Hi Fiona,” Sophie replied. She was getting to her feet as she spoke. “Um, Tay?”

“Yeah?”

“Is that meant to be there?” she asked, pointing down at my lap. When I saw what she was pointing at, her hand shaking, I swallowed hard and felt a chill shoot down my spine.

Spread across my blankets in a wide arc were what seemed like hundreds of bright red pinpricks. Only they weren’t pinpricks – they were tiny drops of blood that I had somehow managed to cough up.

“No, it most certainly is not,” Fiona said as she came up beside me, taking her stethoscope out of a pocket of her uniform just in time for me to take my T-shirt off. I didn’t even flinch as she pressed it to my back. “I do not like the sound of that,” she said as she listened to my breathing.

“It’s not good?” I asked.

“Definitely not good.” She gave me a sympathetic smile. “I’m going to call Radiology and see if they can fit you in for that X-ray now. I don’t think it can wait much longer.”

“And I need to head off to uni,” Sophie said. “Promised Lissa we’d study together after lunch.” She gave me a smile. “If I get done before seven I’ll see you tonight.”

“See you tonight,” I echoed, doing my best to return Sophie’s smile.

Fiona came back around ten minutes after Sophie left, a wheelchair in tow. “You’re in luck,” she said as she steered the wheelchair up to the side of my bed. “They can fit you in if we leave right now. Dr. Andrews will meet us there.”

It felt a little strange to be leaving my hospital room for something other than going out to the hospital garden with Mum or Sophie for a bit of sun. I took in everything I could during the journey across the hospital grounds to Block A, and even during the trip through the corridors to Radiology, not caring a bit that I most likely looked like an idiot.

Dr. Andrews was waiting for Fiona and I in the corridor outside Radiology, seated on an uncomfortable-looking hard plastic chair and leafing through the folder that contained my medical records. “Hey Dr. Andrews,” I said as we drew level.

“Good morning Taylor,” Dr. Andrews replied, and she closed the folder. “How are you feeling today?”

“Not too good,” I admitted. “I, um…I had a really bad coughing fit a little while ago, and it made me cough up some blood. Scared the crap out of me.”

“I can imagine it would have.” She rose from her seat and led the way into Radiology, tucking the folder under her arm as she walked. “I’ll take things from here, Fiona,” she added. “Thank you for your help.”

“Anytime, Dr. Andrews,” Fiona replied, and gave me a smile before leaving.

Like my last couple of chest X-rays, that morning’s was over quickly, though I had to admit that having to hold my breath was more than a bit uncomfortable. I was more than a bit relieved when it was over and I could sit down again. “So what happens now?” I asked. “I mean, do I get to go back to bed yet?”

“Not quite yet, unfortunately.” She sounded rather apologetic as she said this. “One of the doctors from the respiratory medicine department has agreed to look over your X-rays – it’s likely to be up to her what happens next. I am hopeful that you will be able to return to your room tonight, but I won’t promise anything either way.”

“Yeah, fair enough,” I said, and closed my eyes. Another headache was starting to build, this time in a tight band across my forehead. The sooner I could get some paracetamol into me or even just something to eat, the better.

“Taylor Hanson?”

The unfamiliar voice calling my name caused me to open my eyes. Sitting next to Dr. Andrews was a doctor I didn’t recognise. “That’s me,” I said, and bit back a yawn. I was beyond tired and couldn’t wait to go back to my room, and back to my bed.

“My name is Dr. Collins,” she said, and gave me a smile. “Dr. Andrews asked me to examine your X-rays. May I talk to you?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Excellent.” Dr. Collins leaned forward in her seat a little and studied me. “I can pretty confidently say that you have a rather nasty case of pneumonia,” she said, and I groaned silently. Just my luck. “What I’m going to do is write you a script for some antibiotics – I can see from your chart that you’re allergic to penicillin, so I’m going to start you on a course of azithromycin instead. That should clear it up nice and quickly.” She flipped through a notebook she had in her lap. “Dr. Andrews also mentioned to me that you’ve been coughing up blood. It might have just been because of your coughing fit, but at the same time it could have a far more serious cause. I don’t feel entirely comfortable releasing you back into Dr. Andrews’ care until I know why it happened.”

“How would you do that?” I asked, half-dreading Dr. Collins’ response.

“The procedure is called a bronchoscopy – I’d use an instrument called a bronchoscope to examine your airway and your lungs. It’s pretty uncomfortable, so I’m happy to sedate you while it’s being done if that’s what you would prefer. It’s entirely up to you.”

I was quiet as I processed this. “Okay, I’ll do it. Best case scenario I’m guessing is that you don’t find anything wrong other than the pneumonia, and you send me back to my room with more meds. Which I’m really hoping is what’s going on. What would be the worst case scenario?”

“Worst case scenario would be that you’d spend a few days in Intensive Care. I am hopeful it won’t go quite that far, but I want you to be prepared for the possibility just in case. All right?”

“All right.”

“Excellent. I will see you upstairs in Day Surgery in a little while – Dr. Andrews, I will leave your patient in your capable hands.”

The trip between Radiology and the Day Surgery Unit was a mercifully short one, but with each minute that passed I felt as if I were being sent to the gallows. The prospect of having to spend even just a few days in Intensive Care, if that was even the result of the bronchoscopy, was a daunting one. Surely I couldn’t be that sick.

Soon, I was lying on an operating table, looking up at the ceiling and squinting against the bright lights that shone down on me. I had been hooked up to a couple of different machines and monitors by a nurse almost as soon as I’d arrived – one to monitor my blood pressure, another to monitor my heartbeat, and another cannula under my nose to help me breathe. An IV had also been placed in the back of my left hand. “I’m going to administer the sedative now,” Dr. Collins said. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that she held a needle in one of her hands. I swallowed hard and closed my eyes so I didn’t have to look at it longer than was necessary. “Are you all right?” she asked, sounding a little concerned.

“Yeah,” I replied, cracking an eye open again. “I just don’t like needles very much.”

“That’s understandable.” She gave me a sympathetic smile, and I felt gloved fingers brush against my shoulder. “Try to relax for me, okay? It’ll be over before you know it.”

And sure enough, it was. I managed to stay awake just long enough to watch Dr. Collins begin threading the bronchoscope down my throat. The next thing I was aware of was a nurse helping me to sit up, steadying me with a hand on my back. “That should about do it,” Dr. Collins was saying as I opened my eyes and shook my head a little. “Do you feel all right?”

Any response I might have given was lost when another coughing fit hit me, one that felt a lot worse than the one I’d been slammed with earlier. “Ow,” I whispered once it was over and I was able to speak again.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Dr. Collins said. She grabbed a stethoscope and pressed it against my back. “Deep breath for me?” she requested, and I took the deepest breath I could. It almost felt like bubbles were forming deep inside my chest as I inhaled. “That isn’t good,” she said softly as she lifted the stethoscope away again. She came back around in front of me and crouched down a little. “Taylor, I need you to listen to me very carefully. All right?”

“Okay,” I whispered.

“In a couple of minutes I’m going to call in a couple of other doctors so that we can get you ready to go into Intensive Care. You need to be intubated and put on a ventilator as soon as possible. Do you understand me?”

I didn’t answer her verbally – not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t. I couldn’t breathe – every breath I tried to take was making my head spin, and dark spots were forming in my vision. “I can’t breathe,” I mouthed to her, hoping that she understood me.

She did. Her eyes widened as she realised exactly what I’d tried to say. “Code blue!” she shouted. “We have a code blue!”

I’m sorry, Soph, was my final coherent thought as I closed my eyes, unable to stay conscious any longer, and allowed the darkness to take me.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

Sophie

I finished off the last sentence in my final essay for my Australian Fiction and Film class and dropped my pen on the table, resisting the temptation to let out a cheer. Beside me, Lissa was stretching her arms out above her head. Our gazes met and we grinned at each other. Our first year of university was almost over – we just had one more week of classes to contend with, and that would be it. Ahead of us was possibly one of my favourite things about being a university student – four uninterrupted months of summer break. It was something I’d never had the luxury of before, and I planned to enjoy every last second of it.

“All done, yeah?” she asked.

“All done,” I replied. “About time too.” I shook my hands out to ease the ache in my fingers. “I am so glad uni finishes next week. Summer break can’t get here fast enough.”

“What are you planning to do over break?” Lissa asked as we started packing up our things. The university library was quiet this afternoon, which had made it the perfect environment for Lissa and I to finish off our assignments.

“Not sure yet,” I replied. I closed my textbook and crammed it into my backpack. “I’ll probably be going down to Melbourne for Christmas, and I’m going to be coming back down here a fair bit to visit Taylor, but aside from that…” I shrugged. “I’ll probably decide once I’ve got all the uni stress out of my system.”

“Speaking of, how’s he doing these days? You haven’t talked about it much.”

I didn’t answer right away, choosing instead to focus on getting all of my things squared away. “He’s doing okay,” I said at last. “He has good days and bad days, but he’s getting better. He’ll be able to go home in March.”

“I’m really glad to hear that.” Lissa gave me a smile and got up from her seat. “I’d better head home. See you on Tuesday, yeah?”

“See you then,” I replied.

Somewhat to my surprise, sitting on the front steps of my block of flats in the Village when I got back from the library was Isaac. He had his head down and his hands clasped at the back of his neck, and as I got closer I could see that he was shaking a little. I crouched down in front of him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, what’s up? You don’t look too happy.”

“Oh thank God,” Isaac said as he looked up at me. He looked and sounded utterly relieved. “I’ve been trying to get hold of you all afternoon. We all have.”

“I’ve been in the library since just after lunch,” I explained. “Phone was on silent and in my bag – didn’t want to be distracted by it.” I stood up. “Come on in. I don’t think anyone else will be home – I’ll make you a cup of tea and you can tell me what’s going on.”

The first thing I did as soon as I had let us inside my flat was fill the kettle, set it back on its base and switch it on. I checked my phone while I waited for the kettle to boil and found eight missed calls, the most my phone was able to keep a record of – two each from Isaac’s parents, Zac and Isaac. Considering that Isaac had been relieved I’d turned up when I did, I figured it had to be many more than that.

“All right, spill,” I said once I’d made us each a cup of tea. I didn’t push Isaac to talk beyond that – like Taylor, he would talk when he was ready and not a moment before.

“Tay’s in ICU,” Isaac finally said. “He…he’s got a severe case of pneumonia, and-” He broke off, taking in a shaky breath. “He stopped breathing this afternoon.”

“Oh God no,” I whispered, and Isaac nodded. “He’s okay though, right?”

“I wish. They had to put him on a ventilator because he can’t breathe on his own right now. His doctor in the ICU said he’s got something else called acute respiratory distress syndrome – it made his lungs fill up with fluid, and…”

“He drowned,” I finished, and Isaac nodded. “Jesus Christ

“Yeah.” He was quiet for a little while, and I drank my tea while I waited for him to talk again. “That isn’t even the worst of it, Sophie. He…”

“Don’t rush it, Isaac,” I said, trying to be gentle.

“He’s so sick right now that Dr. Montgomery only gave him a fifty percent chance of surviving the next seventy-two hours,” Isaac finally said.

The second those words left Isaac’s mouth, I felt like all of the air had been sucked out of the room, and a sinking feeling formed in the pit of my stomach. “Please tell me you’re joking,” I pleaded, even though I knew that Isaac would never joke about something this serious.

“I really wish I was, Sophie. If he wasn’t already sick his chances would probably be better, but as it is…” He rubbed his eyes. “He’s allowed visitors, but it’s limited to immediate family – Mum and Dad are the only ones who can visit him until Monday evening. They’re going to let Zac and I see him once he’s made it through the next few days.” If he makes it that far, the little voice that lived in the back of my mind supplied, and I hit it over the head. “Dr. Andrews is going to ask if you can be let in as well – if Dr. Montgomery says no, I’ll find some way of sneaking you in.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Really. I appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome. It’s like you said – you’re Tay’s best mate. Plus you’re practically family at this point anyway. If anyone should be allowed to see him, it’s you.”

Somehow, I managed to hold it together until after Isaac left. I headed into Taylor’s old room once I’d closed and locked the flat’s front door. It had been mostly cleared out, with just the furniture that the university had provided remaining – just about everything else had been packed away, ready to be taken back to Newcastle in a few weeks’ time. I went to the bed and lay down, curled up on my right side and stared at the wall.

Taylor had nearly died that afternoon. I had almost lost my best friend – a realisation that left me feeling cold and empty. I’d never contemplated what my life would be like without him in it, but now it seemed that I might have to do just that. The thought alone gave me chills.

“Anyone home?” I heard Katie call out, and I started a little in surprise. I hadn’t even heard the front door open. A minute or so later I saw her stick her head through the doorway. “There you are. You okay?”

I shook my head. “Something happened to Taylor,” I said, trying but failing to keep my voice steady.

“What happened?” She came and sat down on the bed next to my knees, and reached over to tuck my hair behind my left ear. “Is he okay?”

“He…he nearly died this afternoon.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Katie’s face go white. “Oh God. You’re kidding, right?”

“Wish I was.” I sniffled, feeling the first of what I knew would be many tears over the days to come sting at my eyes. “Isaac told me everything a little while ago. He’s come down with pneumonia and something else called acute respiratory distress syndrome. It-” I broke off and started sobbing, curling in on myself.

“Shh,” Katie said softly. I felt one of her hands start stroking my shoulder. “Take your time.”

“He stopped breathing,” I finally managed to get out, those three words making me feel cold all over.

Katie covered her mouth with one of her hands. “Oh Jesus Christ,” she said, her voice breaking. “Please tell me he’s all right.”

“He’s alive. That’s the main thing right now.” I took a shuddering breath. “He’s in ICU. They’ve got him hooked up to a ventilator because he can’t breathe on his own. Isaac told me he’s got a fifty percent chance of making it through the next few days.” I sat up and wiped my eyes on the sleeves of my T-shirt. “He can’t have any visitors except for immediate family, but Dr. Andrews is going to ask if I can visit him too. Isaac’s going to sneak me in if Tay’s other doctor says no.”

Katie drew me close and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “I’m glad you’ll get to see him. You deserve it more than any of us.”

“You’re not mad?”

Katie frowned. “Of course not. Why would I be?”

“He’s your friend too. You should get to see him as well.”

“Sophie…” Katie wiped a stray tear from my face. “Yes, he’s my friend. But he isn’t my best friend. I’m not as close to him as you are. Plus you’re practically a Hanson anyway.” I smiled at this. “Do you want me to tell Matt and Luke when they get back?”

I nodded. “I couldn’t handle doing it. I barely managed telling you.”

“Okay.” She gave me a small smile and stood up. “I’m going to get dinner started. Give me a yell if you need anything.”

“I will.”

I didn’t go straight to bed that night. Instead, I walked back over to the university and sat on the stage near the duck pond, dangling my bare feet over the water. It wasn’t exactly quiet tonight – music from a concert at the UniBar drifted across the lawn, and traffic was making its way along Northfields Avenue and the nearby freeway – but I didn’t mind. I usually thought best when it wasn’t completely silent. And right now I had a lot of thinking to do, with the primary thought on my mind being the prospect of a life without Taylor.

No more midnight sneak-outs to go skip pebbles across the lake in the park next to the Foreshore, or to go wade barefoot in Throsby Creek. No more sitting on the Foreshore wall on Sundays eating hot chips and throwing the endy bits at seagulls. No more watching him surf at Merewether Beach and laughing whenever he managed to wipe out. No more climbing onto the roof of his parents’ place so we could stargaze on clear nights. No more Star Wars movie marathons on New Year’s Eve instead of watching the Sydney Harbour fireworks on NBN. No more late night chats on MSN Messenger when both of us should have been sleeping. No more music.

That last thought was the one that hit me the hardest. Losing Taylor wouldn’t just have an effect on our friends and families. It would send shockwaves throughout the Australian music industry, but the greatest impact beyond the circle that consisted of the Hanson, Harrison, Clements and Rhodes families would be on Hanson’s fans. I hadn’t been lying to Taylor when I’d been trying to talk him into making a documentary with his brothers – as much as they scared the hell out of me, Hanson really did have the best fans in the world. If Taylor didn’t survive this, it would devastate them.

My phone vibrated in my pocket as I scooted backward from the edge of the stage. I chose to ignore it until I was on my feet and heading back to the Village.

Are you ok? Katie’s text message said.

Yeah, i’m ok, I typed as I started my walk back. Went out to the duck pond so i could think. Be back soon.

Katie was sitting in the lounge room nursing a cup of tea when I got back. She looked up as I let myself inside. “Long way to go to think,” she said with a smile, one I tried to return but failed miserably. Tears started stinging at my eyes, and I reached up to wipe them away. “Oh, hey…”

I soon found myself on the receiving end of one of Katie’s hugs. She held me close and stroked my back gently as I broke down, soaking the shoulder of her T-shirt with my tears. “He’s going to be okay, Sophie,” she said softly. “We have to believe that. He’s got this far, right?”

“He didn’t have pneumonia before now,” I mumbled.

“Fair point,” Katie conceded. “Look, I know you’re not religious, but do you want to pray with me? It might make you feel a little better.”

I considered it for a few moments. “Yeah, okay. Can’t hurt to give it a go.” I managed a watery smile. “Nothing ventured nothing gained, right?”

“That’s the spirit. Come on.”

Katie led me over to the kitchen table and sat me down at its head, before going into her bedroom. She returned with a half-melted pillar candle and a box of matches, setting the candle down on the table in front of me. “Take as long as you need,” she said as she struck a match and lit the candle’s wick.

“Thanks, Kat.”

For so long, I didn’t say a word. I just watched the candle’s flame flickering as I gathered my thoughts, trying to figure out what I wanted to say.

“My best friend got sick a few months ago,” I said at last, mostly directing my words at the candle’s flame. “And today he almost died. He…” I took in a shaky breath. “He’s in Intensive Care right now because he’s got pneumonia and he can’t breathe on his own. I just…I just want him to make it through the next few days. That’s all.” I dug at my eyes with the heel of my right hand. “I miss him and I just want him to get well. Please.”

Katie took her turn next, whispering a prayer of her own and crossing herself before blowing the flame out. “I’m going to bed,” she said. “Will you be okay?”

“I think so,” I replied. “Thank you.”

Katie gave me a smile. “Anytime, Sophie.”


My final day of classes as a first-year student was on the thirty-first of October. At any other time I might have been elated that I’d survived my first year of tertiary education, but right now I was anything but. More than anything else, I was tired and anxious. Taylor had survived his first six days in Intensive Care, but I was no less worried. There was still so much that could go wrong, and I wasn’t prepared to let myself relax until I knew for sure that he was going to be okay.

As I walked back to the Village after my final Australian Film and Fiction tutorial, I had just one thought on my mind – my plans for that afternoon, which consisted solely of a long shower and a nap. Of course, once I saw Isaac sitting on the front steps of my building, those plans went straight out the window.

“Hey Isaac,” I said as I sat down next to him.

“Hey Sophie,” he replied, giving me a small smile – the first I’d seen from anyone in the Hanson family in nearly a week.

“How’s Tay doing?”

Isaac ran a hand back through his hair, making his curls stand up all over his head. “Hanging in there. He’s not better just yet, but he’s not any worse.”

“He’ll get there,” I said, trying to sound positive. “Hasn’t even been a week yet.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s just hard, that’s all. Never thought he’d ever get this sick.” He was quiet for a little while. “I talked to Dr. Andrews this morning.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. She got permission for you to visit.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, barely daring to believe what I was hearing.

“Completely serious. She thinks it would help a lot, and apparently Dr. Montgomery agrees with her – he’s pretty heavily sedated right now, but he can hear us when we talk to him.”

“And she thinks that hearing my voice would be good for him,” I guessed.

“She’s seen how close the two of you are, so yeah.”

I shrugged the straps of my backpack off my shoulders and threw my arms around Isaac. “Thank you,” I breathed.

“You’re welcome, Sophie,” Isaac said, hugging me back. “You go and get changed or whatever, and I’ll meet you over in the carpark.”

It took me less than five minutes to get myself inside and changed, and I shoved my wallet, keys and my phone into my pockets before hightailing it back outside to Isaac’s Landcruiser. The engine fired up as soon as I got within arm’s length, and I popped the front passenger door open and climbed in, putting my seatbelt on as soon as I’d closed the door behind me. “You won’t be able to go in straight away,” Isaac said as he reversed out of his parking space and drove up to the driveway that led out of the carpark. “Dr. Andrews and one of the ICU nurses are going to want to talk to you first.” He flicked on the left blinker and waited for the 53 bus to go past before making the turn into Northfields Avenue.

“What’s it like in there?”

“It…it’s really confronting. Especially if you’ve never been inside an ICU before. Zac got the shock of his life on Tuesday afternoon. Almost ran straight back out.”

The mental image I got of Zac running out of Intensive Care as fast as his feet would carry him almost made me laugh, but I held back. This wasn’t really the time to be laughing at that.

Dr. Andrews and a nurse were waiting for Isaac and I when we arrived at the Intensive Care Unit around twenty minutes after leaving the Village. “Hello Sophie,” Dr. Andrews said, giving me a smile.

“Hi Dr. Andrews. Thanks so much for this – I really appreciate it.”

“It’s no trouble at all, Sophie.” She indicated the nurse that stood beside her, a young woman wearing half-rim glasses and with black hair she’d pulled back into a ponytail. “This is Yvette – she’s been taking care of Taylor the last few days.”

“Hi Sophie,” Yvette said, giving me a smile. “I just want to have a quick chat with you before I let you in to see Taylor, okay? I’m also going to take your photo to add it to our visitor register, so that we know you’re allowed to visit.”

“Okay, sure.”

“I really only have one rule that I need you to follow – you must be accompanied by one of Taylor’s family members whenever you visit. They don’t have to stay with you the whole time you’re here, but they must be with you when you arrive and when you leave. You will be turned away if you try to visit by yourself. Okay?”

I swallowed. “Okay,” I said quietly.

Yvette gave me a smile that I took to be sympathetic. “I know you must be scared, Sophie,” she said gently, and I nodded. “You don’t have to go in right away if you don’t want to.”

“No, I want to. It’s just…he’s never been this sick before. That’s all.” I gave Yvette a shaky smile. “I’m ready.”

Once Yvette had taken my photo with a Polaroid camera and written my name on the snapshot in black texta, Isaac guided me through to Taylor’s bed. I kept my eyes trained on my sneakers as I walked, not looking up until I was sitting down at his bedside.

Isaac hadn’t been joking when he’d said the Intensive Care Unit was a confronting place. As I took in everything before me, I understood exactly why Zac had almost bolted.

He almost looked like he was sleeping. Which, I supposed, in a way he was. He had a breathing tube down his throat that was taped down to a corner of his mouth and connected to a ventilator, his chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm with each breath. Another tube, this one similar to the lumens of his central line, was up his nose and taped down to his face just under his left cheekbone. Snaking out of the collar of his hospital gown were a bunch of wires that led up to a monitor above his head that was beeping softly – an ECG, my mental voice supplied – and a blood pressure cuff had been wrapped around his left arm. Hooked up to his central line was a machine a lot like the one he got his chemotherapy through, and he wore the second beanie I’d bought him on his head.

“He’s on some serious antibiotics right now,” Isaac said quietly. “Doc reckons he’ll be over the pneumonia in another week’s time – they’re going to try waking him up after that.” He gave me a smile before speaking to Taylor. “Hey mate,” he said, and I jumped a bit when the beeping from the ECG sped up a little. Isaac hadn’t been lying earlier – Taylor really could hear us. “Sophie’s here. Managed to sneak her in.” In my mind’s eye I could see Taylor laughing at this.

“Hi Tay,” I said, my voice shaking a little. A tear trickled out of my right eye, and I wiped it away with the sleeve of my shirt. “I…” More tears joined the first, and I put my head down on Taylor’s bed and just cried. This was almost too much to take in, and for half a heartbeat I considered just getting up and leaving. But I knew I had to stick this out – I had to be strong for Taylor’s sake. The tears finally tapered off after what felt like forever, and I dug in my pockets for a tissue so I could dry my eyes.

“I miss you,” I said once I felt like I could talk without crying. “We…we all do.” I reached out and took his left hand into my right, interlocking our fingers. “I miss your smile, I miss hearing you trying to crack really bad jokes…I miss being called Soph. You’re the only person who ever calls me that.

“I finished uni today. I should be glad that I survived my first year of uni, and I really am, but at the same time…” I sighed. “I’m not glad. You should have been there with me today. This…none of this is fair, Tay. I don’t care if that makes me sound like some whinging brat, because it’s true. You should be with me and our classmates at the North Gong celebrating the end of our first year of uni, but you’re not because Fate decided that you were perfect for a bit of target practice.” I hiccupped and swiped at my eyes. “You have to get better, Tay. Okay?”

I raised my head and looked at him, halfway hoping he’d open his eyes. Even if it was just for a little while. “You have to get better,” I repeated. “I mean it. You’re the sort of person who should go out in a blaze of glory. Not like this. And I know you can get better. You’re a fighter, Taylor Hanson. It’s what you’re best at, really – fighting until there’s nothing left to fight for.”

I kissed my right index and middle fingertips and pressed them to Taylor’s forehead. “I’ll be back soon,” I said. “I promise.”

By some miracle, I managed to get through the next week and a half without completely losing my mind. Now that I had finished university for the year, it was time to start packing up the flat in readiness for the long trek back up to Newcastle. If nothing else, helping Luke, Katie and Matthew pack up would help keep my mind off everything that was happening with Taylor.

“When are you getting picked up?” Katie asked as we worked at giving the bathroom a deep clean. She was in the shower cleaning the glass with a spray bottle of glass cleaner and a squeegee, and I was on my knees in front of the toilet with the bleach and the scrubbing brush. Luke and Matthew, for their part, were hard at work cleaning the kitchen and the lounge room.

“Just after lunch on Thursday,” I replied as I worked at scrubbing a particularly stubborn spot on the toilet’s rim. I swiped at my forehead with the back of my right wrist. “I feel a bit guilty for going back to Newy and leaving Taylor here, though. Doesn’t sit right with me.”

“I know the feeling,” Katie agreed with a sigh. “Maybe you can talk your dad into hanging around a bit longer.”

“Maybe. Don’t like my chances of that, though.”

Katie shrugged. “Never know unless you ask.”

Matthew stuck his head into the bathroom before I could say anything else. “Luke and I are going out to get fish and chips for lunch,” he said. “We’ll be back in about half an hour.”

“Yeah, no worries,” I said, and went back to scrubbing the toilet.

My phone rang just as I started helping Katie butter the loaf of bread one of us had bought from the bakery in Gywnneville that morning, a tinny instrumental rendition of Waltzing Matilda sounding from the back pocket of my shorts. We usually had chip sandwiches whenever one of us went out and got fish and chips for lunch or dinner, and it looked like today would be no exception. Matthew and Luke were due back any minute, so the sooner we got the bread buttered the better. I put my butter knife down on the bread board and yanked my phone out of my pocket.

“If that’s Matt or Luke tell them to get some Coke as well,” Katie said without looking up from buttering her half of the bread.

“It’s Isaac,” I said once I’d checked the caller ID, and answered it. “Hey Isaac.”

“He’s awake,” Isaac said.

I almost dropped my phone. “What?” I asked, my voice shaking. Katie mouthed “What’s going on?” at me, and I waved her off. “Isaac, what did you just say?”

“He’s awake,” Isaac repeated. “About ten minutes ago now.”

“Oh thank God,” I whispered. “Would I be able to see him later on?”

“You free tomorrow arvo?”

“Definitely,” I replied. For a fleeting second I was tempted to ask why I couldn’t visit now, but I figured there had to be a reason why I had to wait another day so I didn’t even consider it. “I’ll see you then.”

Katie was staring at me when I finished my phone call. “Well? What did he say?” she asked.

“Impatient much?” I retorted, before dropping into a crouch with my head in my hands. A shaky breath escaped me, and I closed my eyes. “Kat, he’s awake.” I let out an almost hysterical laugh of sheer relief. “Taylor’s awake.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Taylor

I was drowning.

Fell off your board again. Good work genius, the little voice that lived in the back of my head taunted me. I wanted so badly to haul off and give it a good hard clip around the ear, but I had more important things to be worried about right now. Namely, getting back to the surface so I could breathe.

Only that seemed to be easier said than done. Whenever I got within reach of the surface, something would grab me by the ankles and drag me down again. The first time it had happened, I’d inhaled a whole lot of water out of nothing more than surprise. Which, in retrospect, hadn’t been the smartest idea in the world. I didn’t even know how far below the surface I was, but considering that the end of my surfboard’s leash was barely a shadow above my head and the sunlight that filtered down through the water had all but dissipated, I could guess that I was a fair way down.

Okay, let’s try this again, I told myself, and struck out for the surface once more. Maybe I won’t get yanked back down this time But once again, right as I got within a hair’s breadth of grabbing onto my surfboard’s leash unseen hands latched onto my ankles and dragged me back down again. “Oh come on!” I yelled silently.

If not for the fact that I wanted to live – I was human, of course I wanted to live – I would have given up right then and there. It was getting increasingly difficult to keep going – I was utterly exhausted, my head was pounding, I was aching all over, and I could feel welts rising on my ankles from the sheer force of being continually grabbed and yanked away from the surface. But most disconcerting, I felt, was that I could hear my own heartbeat – and it was slowly weakening.

I can do this, I told myself. I have to do this.

Almost as soon as these thoughts entered my head, I heard a new sound – a distant voice calling my name.

Taylor? Taylor, can you hear me?

I almost wanted to yell out that yes, I could hear them, but not being able to breathe right now made that a little difficult. Instead I settled for making one last push toward the surface. I didn’t have enough energy left for anything more than that.

This time, nothing grabbed me by the ankles as I got closer to the surface. As soon as it was within reach I grabbed hold of my surfboard’s leash and used it to pull myself up, my head breaking through the water seconds later. I held onto my surfboard as I coughed up what felt like torrents of water, the pounding in my head starting anew, until finally I was able to breathe again.

It took my last few shreds of strength to drag myself up onto my surfboard, and I lay down along it and closed my eyes. I just needed a few moments…

It was dark when I opened my eyes again. The sun and the endless ocean that had surrounded me and my surfboard had disappeared, leaving me lying on what felt like a wooden floor. My wetsuit was gone too, and instead I wore my favourite jeans and T-shirt, my feet bare. Rain hammered on the roof, the sound almost but not quite drowning out a quiet, steady beeping that I could hear close to my ears, and through a skylight in the ceiling I could see the occasional flash of lightning. With each new lightning strike I was able to gradually build up a picture of my surroundings.

I was in a small room, probably no more than ten paces across. Two of the walls had doors set into them, both of them with old-fashioned doorknobs. Light streamed out from beneath both doors – a warm, golden light from beneath the door directly in front of me, and a colder light from beneath the door at my right. To my left was a bare mattress with a scratchy-looking blanket folded on one end, with a polished wooden antique radio sitting on what looked like a hall table against the wall at the mattress’ other end. The radio looked a lot like the one that my grandmother had brought to Australia from the United States decades earlier, and that held pride of place in my grandparents’ lounge room. Dangling from the ceiling on a long cord was a solitary bare lightbulb, with a shorter cord swinging in a non-existent breeze from the light fitting. None of the walls that I could see had windows, which meant that as far as I could tell, the skylight in the ceiling was my only way of seeing the world outside.

I probably could have stayed on the floor all night, but it wasn’t doing my back any favours. With only a small amount of regret I pushed myself upright, that one movement making my head spin and nausea start rolling its way through me. I closed my eyes and waited for it to pass, breathing through the nausea as best I could. Which was a lot harder than it should have been – my throat felt constricted, and I felt like I couldn’t get enough air. It wasn’t a feeling I liked. Nobody in their right mind would like it.

As soon as I felt that I could move without throwing up, I slowly rose to my feet and reached up to turn the light on. The light that flooded the room wasn’t all that bright, but it was enough to see by and a whole lot better than waiting for the next lightning strike. Now that I could see what I was doing, my next goal was finding a way out.

I started with the door right in front of me, the one with the warm light streaming out from beneath it. As I got closer to the door I could hear voices and music drifting out from behind it, but at the same time I was becoming steadily uneasy with each step I took. The second I touched the doorknob, I realised why I felt so uneasy.

The doorknob was so cold that it burned, sending tendrils of pain shooting up my arm. I jerked my hand off the doorknob almost right away, but not before a vision of a gravestone popped into my head – a gravestone that had my full name, my birthdate and the date 25 October 2002 engraved on it. I knew without a doubt that if I opened that door and walked through it, I would die. There was no way I was letting that happen. I backed away from the door as fast as I could without falling over, resolving to stay as far away from it as possible.

I tried the other door next. This door was a little different – I could hear voices coming from behind it, but instead of the music I’d been able to hear before I could hear the sounds of a hospital, and unlike the other door its doorknob didn’t burn me as soon as I touched it. Rather, it was locked, the doorknob rattling a little as I tried to turn it. I let go of the doorknob, my hand falling to my side, and retreated to the opposite wall and the mattress that lay on the floor alongside. As soon as I was sitting down on the mattress with my back pressed against the wall, I pulled my knees up against my chest, folded my arms on top and rested my forehead on my wrists.

I was trapped. That was really the only way to describe the predicament I’d found myself in. It was a bit hard to get out of a room that had no windows, one locked door that I wasn’t sure I could break down without hurting myself, another door that was unlocked but guaranteed my death if I went through it, and a skylight that was so high up that even I couldn’t reach it. The thought of being stuck here alone for the rest of my life, with no way out, was almost enough to make me feel like the walls were starting to close in on me.

I stayed sitting like that for what felt like hours, every breath I took catching somewhere deep inside and tears slowly trickling down my face – whether they were from fear or sheer exhaustion, I couldn’t tell for sure – until I felt myself starting to fall asleep. Only then did I uncurl myself and ease myself back to my feet so that I could turn the light off. That done, I unfolded the blanket and lay down on the mattress, pulled the blanket over myself and closed my eyes.

“Mr. Hanson, Mrs. Hanson, please sit down. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

The corridor I found myself in was cold and unfamiliar. I rubbed my arms in an attempt to warm up, wishing I’d thought to put my hoodie and a pair of socks on so I didn’t freeze. What was I doing here anyway? Ahead of me just down the corridor were Mum, Dad, Dr. Andrews and another doctor I didn’t recognise. Mum and Dad had just sat down on a couple of the uncomfortable-looking chairs that lined the corridor, and I headed up to sit with them. Now that I was closer, I could see the nametag the other doctor wore – it gave his name as Dr. Montgomery. Just as I sat down next to Mum I saw the sign on the wall next to a set of doors, its words making my blood run cold. Intensive Care Unit.

“Is Taylor all right?” Mum asked. She sounded worried, and I wasn’t sure I blamed her for it.

Dr. Andrews didn’t say a word for the longest time. “Taylor has a severe case of pneumonia,” she said at last. “Normally this would not be a major issue, but coupled with the treatment he’s been undergoing for the lymphoma, it’s really quite serious. It She trailed off, and I guessed that she was trying to figure out how to break whatever news she had to give to my parents.

Dr. Montgomery took up the thread. “The pneumonia has resulted in a complication called acute respiratory distress syndrome,” he said. “Among other things, he’s developed pulmonary oedema, which itself caused him to go into respiratory arrest little over two hours ago. He’s been stabilised, but his condition is critical – the next seventy-two hours are absolutely crucial if he’s going to have any chance at surviving this.”

The next words that left Dr. Montgomery’s mouth were among the most terrifying I had ever heard.

“At this stage, I can only give Taylor a fifty percent chance of surviving the next seventy-two hours.”

I jerked awake as the dream finished playing itself out. At least I thought it was a dream. It had felt more like a nightmare – one that I was fervently hoping would never come true.

Right as I tried to go back to sleep, the radio turned on by itself. Static and distorted voices buzzed out of its speaker – with one of those voices sounding very familiar.

“Mum?” I whispered.

I wrapped the blanket around my shoulders as I edged closer to the radio. One of my hands reached out and tweaked the tuning knob on the radio’s front, just under a receiver dial that looked like a compass rose, until the voices grew more distinct and I could hear what was being said.

Will he be able to hear me?” Mum was asking, and I sucked in a breath. She sounded so worried and scared, and it was all I could do not to break down.

I honestly couldn’t tell you,” another voice said, sounding apologetic. “It really depends on the person. But we always advise our patients’ families to talk as if they can hear what you’re saying, just in case.” I could almost see the voice’s owner giving Mum a smile. “My name is Yvette, by the way. If you need anything at all, just let me know.

The radio was silent after this for what felt like an eternity. I was just about to give up and turn the radio off when I heard Mum’s voice again. My eyes dropped closed for just a few seconds as she began to speak.

Dr. Andrews told us what happened,” she said. In my mind’s eye I could see Mum sitting at a hospital bedside – my bedside, I was now realising. “She” More silence, I guessed so that Mum could gather her thoughts. I was the same whenever I needed to think. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you, sweetheart. It’s not fair, I know. But you’re strong, Taylor – you can fight this.

“I’m trying,” I whispered, trying not to look at the door at the front of the room. The door that would end my life if I walked through it. “I’m trying Mum, I swear.”

They’re going to let you sleep for a little while, so you can rest and get better.” As Mum said these words I could almost feel a hand brushing over my hair, and I closed my eyes again. “Your dad and I will be here every day until you come back to us. Your brothers as well, as soon as they’re allowed to visit. I promise that will be very soon.

The radio switched itself off after Mum finished speaking, leaving me with just the sound of the rain on the roof for company.

I had no way of telling for sure how long I was trapped in that room. It could have been hours, days or even weeks. It never stopped raining, and the little patch of sky I could see through the skylight never lightened from its uniform black. The only real way I had of telling that time was even passing was that every so often, the radio would switch itself on and someone would start talking.

Hey mate.

I dragged my eyes open when I heard Isaac’s voice. The longer I was trapped, the harder I was finding it to stay awake for any real length of time, and so I spent a lot of my time sleeping. There weren’t enough words in the English language to describe how frustrating it was. I eased myself upright and rubbed my eyes a little, and forced myself to pay attention.

Sophie’s here. Managed to sneak her in,” Isaac continued, and I snickered quietly. As if you did that, I snarked in my head.

The next voice I heard belonged to the one person I was missing the most right now.

Hi Tay,” Sophie said softly. Her voice shook a little. “I” Here she broke off, and I heard her start crying. I blinked back tears of my own, wanting nothing more at that moment to crawl through the radio’s speaker to be with her. I didn’t know what it was that was keeping me here, but if Sophie was crying – something that happened very rarely – then I knew it couldn’t be anything good.

I miss you,” Sophie continued, her voice a little stronger now. “We…we all do. I miss your smile, I miss hearing you trying to crack really bad jokes…I miss being called Soph. You’re the only person who ever calls me that.

“I miss you too Soph,” I whispered.

I finished uni today. I should be glad that I survived my first year of uni, and I really am, but at the same time” Sophie let out a quiet, almost sad sigh. “I’m not glad. You should have been there with me today. Thisnone of this is fair, Tay. I dont care if that makes me sound like some whinging brat, because its true. You should be with me and our classmates at the North Gong celebrating the end of our first year of uni, but you’re not because Fate decided that you were perfect for a bit of target practice.

Sophie let out a hiccup as she finished saying this, and I could almost see her scrubbing at her eyes. “You have to get better, Tay. Okay? You have to get better. I mean it. You’re the sort of person who should go out in a blaze of glory. Not like this. And I know you can get better. You’re a fighter, Taylor Hanson. It’s what you’re best at, really – fighting until there’s nothing left to fight for.

“I’m trying, Soph,” I promised as the radio shut itself off again. “I’m trying, I swear.”

An indeterminate length of time after Sophie had spoken to me, I had just about resigned myself to being trapped forever. With one door seemingly locked permanently, and the other not being a viable means of escape if I wanted to live – and I did, more than almost anything – it was a bit hard not to feel that way. I was lying on the floor staring up at the skylight when the radio switched itself on. What I heard gave me something I had sorely needed ever since I’d woken up here.

Hope.

So he’ll wake up soon?” I could hear Zac asking, sounding hopeful, and I raised my head up off the floor so I could hear better.

I believe so,” Dr. Montgomery was saying. “Not right away, but probably sometime in the next few days. Waking someone up after a coma can be a little unpredictable, unfortunately, so I can’t make any promises beyond that.

That was all I really needed to hear, and I slowly eased myself to my feet. As soon as I’d switched the radio off, I went over to the door that had been locked the entire time I’d been in this room and tried the doorknob again.

I could have started crying out of sheer relief when I felt the doorknob turn in my hand. This was it. The door was finally opening, and I was finally getting out of here. The door’s hinges screeched as I pushed it open and stepped through the doorway, not letting myself look back as I closed the door behind me.

The light that I’d seen coming from beneath the door had been from what looked like a hospital corridor. Ahead of me was a set of double doors painted bright red – unless I missed my guess, those doors were my way out.

“Well, here goes nothing,” I said quietly to myself.

The corridor seemed almost endless. Spaced at even intervals along both walls were doors that opened into hospital rooms, all of them identical – an empty bed made up neatly with sheets, blankets and a pillow, a tray table on wheels, and a couple of chairs. If I hadn’t been so determined to get to the end of the corridor, just the sight of those identical rooms one after the other would have completely discouraged me. But I knew I had to keep going. I knew that the only way I would reach the doors at the end of the corridor was to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

When I finally reached the doors, I didn’t go through them straight away. I put an ear to one of the doors and closed my eyes, and listened to the world that lay beyond them. What I heard was enough to send relief coursing through me. I could hear the unmistakable sounds of a hospital ward, but I could also hear quiet and familiar voices. Mum and Dad, I realised. That’s Mum and Dad.

I’d slept long enough. The waking world waited for me beyond the doors, and all I had to do was step through them. I straightened up and took the deepest breath I was capable of, pushed down on the steel bars that were across the doors, and eased them open. And without even one glance back over my shoulder at what lay behind me, I stepped out into the light.


Everything hurt.

My joints, my back and my chest were aching. My throat felt sore and horribly constricted, with every time I tried to breathe causing a wave of dizziness to wash over me. My head was killing me. Underlying all of my aches and pains was exhaustion, not to mention that I felt like I’d just had an anxiety attack. It wasn’t a feeling I liked. I could hear something beeping quietly just above my head, with a sort of raspy hissing noise coming from somewhere off to my right.

Intensive Care. That was where I was. Oh great, what’s happened to me now, I grumbled silently.

“Taylor?” an unfamiliar voice asked. “Taylor, can you open your eyes for me?”

As much as I badly wanted to keep my eyes closed and slip back into unconsciousness, I knew that I couldn’t escape the world forever. Nor did I want to, so I did as I’d been asked and slowly worked my eyes open. Everything was out of focus and barely brighter than it had been while I’d still had my eyes closed. Even though the light was hurting my eyes and making my headache worse, I made myself keep my eyes open. It wasn’t long until the world finally snapped back into focus.

“There we go.” The voice belonged to a nurse, one I didn’t recognise – she had black hair pulled back into a ponytail, and a pair of half-rim glasses perched on her nose. She gave me a smile. “Welcome back.”

I tried to speak, to say thank you and ask where I was, but my voice wasn’t working. It didn’t take me long to figure out why.

“Easy Taylor, easy!” the nurse said as I pulled on the tube in my throat, trying not to choke on it but failing miserably. She gently uncurled my fingers from around it. “That needs to stay in for now, okay? I know it feels horrible, and I’m really sorry about that, but it’s helping you breathe.” She studied me for a few moments. “If you think you would be able to breathe on your own, then I’ll see about getting it pulled. But you have to be honest with me, all right?”

I didn’t really have to think about it. Every last scrap of energy I could muster right now was being spent on just keeping my eyes open. I wasn’t entirely sure if trying to breathe on my own beyond my earlier attempts would tire me out even more than I was already. So rather than risking it, I shook my head.

“I thought that might be the case. We’ll leave things as they are for now, okay?” She gave me another smile. “I’m going to call your parents and let them know that you’re awake. I’m sure they’re not too far away.”

The next thing I was aware of after that was someone holding my left hand. I opened my eyes to find Mum and Dad sitting at my bedside. Mum gave me a very shaky smile, one that I did my best to return. “Hello sweetheart,” she said.

What happened to me? I wanted to ask. There were plenty of questions I wanted to know the answers to, but finding out what had happened to me was the most important one right now. Dad seemed to pick up on my thoughts, much to my relief.

“You caught a pretty severe dose of pneumonia,” Dad explained. “And there was…there was a complication that one of your doctors called acute respiratory distress syndrome.” I watched as Dad smoothed out a non-existent crease in the right knee of his jeans. “They needed to sedate you until it was completely under control.”

“Which it now is,” I heard Dr. Andrews saying as she walked up to my bedside. “It’s good to see you back in the waking world, Taylor.” She gave me a smile before pulling up a chair. “Our next course of action is getting Taylor out of here and back onto the ward. I’ve been talking with Dr. Montgomery – he’s one of the doctors here in Intensive Care – and we both agree that leaving here at the very least should happen by the end of this week. With that being said, I would like to leave the ultimate decision of how quickly it happens up to Taylor. We can have you off the ventilator and transferred to the High Dependency Unit within a week, or we can take things a bit more slowly. It’s completely up to you.”

“I’m guessing there may be a catch here,” Dad said, and Dr. Andrews nodded.

“There is a catch, yes. Here, they usually aim to have their patients extubated within two weeks, three at a stretch. As things stand it’s already been two and a half weeks. If we take things slowly, it will mean surgery to insert a tracheotomy tube and a longer recovery period. It would be a lot more comfortable for Taylor, but it is invasive and both Dr. Montgomery and I would rather avoid that if at all possible.”

The moment that the word ‘surgery’ left Dr. Andrews mouth, I knew it wasn’t a road I wanted to go down. It would mean more unconsciousness, more pain, and more time spent in Intensive Care – and I’d already had enough of all three. Not to mention that I already had enough scars.

Thankfully, Mum at the very least had picked up on my thoughts. “No surgery,” she said, and gave my hand a squeeze. “I know my son, and I know that’s not something he wants to happen.”

“All right,” Dr. Andrews said. “I’ll let Dr. Montgomery know. It’s quite likely that he will want to get started first thing tomorrow morning.” She glanced at her watch and gave me a smile. “In the meantime, I’ll leave you to get some rest.”

Almost as soon as Dr. Andrews had left, I let my eyes drop closed. I hated to admit it, even in my own head, but I was exhausted.

“Get some sleep,” Mum said, and I opened one eye so I could see her. “I know it’s probably the last thing you want to do right now – believe me, I know. But it’s what you need most.” She leaned in close and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “We love you, and we’ll be back tomorrow morning.”

For once, I didn’t protest at being told to go to sleep. Mum was right – I didn’t really want to, but I knew I needed it. I nodded a little and closed my eye again, and settled down to sleep.

When I drifted back into awareness, I could feel someone’s hand on top of mine and the smallest of weights right on the edge of my bed. I eased an eye open to see Sophie at my bedside, fast asleep – she’d folded her arms on the mattress and put her head down on them. I carefully drew my hand out from under hers and started stroking her hair, tucking a few stray locks behind her left ear.

That was all it took for her to wake up. Her eyes popped open and she stared at me, as if she wasn’t quite sure she could believe what she was seeing. I waved a little and tried to give her a smile.

“Oh my God,” she whispered. A tear escaped from her left eye and started running down her face, and she closed her eyes again and started crying. I rubbed her closest shoulder a little, trying to comfort her in the only way I could right now. Her crying tapered off after a few minutes, and she straightened up. “Sorry,” she said quietly. She let out a hiccup and wiped her eyes off on her T-shirt. “How’re you feeling?”

I held out one of my hands, splayed out my fingers and rocked it from side to side a couple of times, before shrugging. Being as I couldn’t speak right now and didn’t have anything to write with, it was the best way I had of describing how I felt.

“Oh, right, you can’t talk,” Sophie realised. “I’m an idiot. Hang on a tick.” She ducked down below the edge of my bed, coming back up with a notepad and a pen. “Your hands still work though, right?”

I scowled a little at Sophie, and felt around for the control that would raise the head of my bed up a bit. She raised her hands in seeming defence. “Okay, okay, jeez. I was just asking.” She set the notepad and pen in my lap once I was a bit more upright.

I feel okay, I wrote, my hand shaking a little. Better than I did after I woke up. I tapped on the end of the tube in my throat. Doc reckons I can get this taken out on Sunday. Almost as an afterthought, I added, How did you manage to get them to let you visit?

“It was Dr. Andrews’ idea,” Sophie replied. “She thought…well, she thought you might be able to hear what was going on around you while you were under. And she knows how close us two are.” She gestured between us. “So she asked your other doctor here if I could have permission to visit, and they said yes.”

Knew Isaac didn’t sneak you in, I scribbled out.

“You heard that?” Sophie asked, and I nodded a little.

I heard bits and pieces of everything. Mostly Mum and Dad, some of Isaac and Zac too. Some of you as well here and there. I frowned a little as I tried to figure out what I wanted to say next. I don’t really remember much of what anyone said though. It’s all really fuzzy right now. It’ll come back to me, I just need to give it a bit of time.

Neither of us said – or wrote, in my case – much for a little while after that. I picked Sophie’s pen up again once I’d decided it had been quiet for long enough.

I’m sorry if I scared you, I wrote.

“Wasn’t your fault,” Sophie said. She gave me a small smile. “Just…please don’t scare me like that again, all right?” She fidgeted a little. “That was…it was the worst two and a half weeks of my life, Tay. Of all our lives, really. When…” She sniffled quietly. “When Isaac told me what had happened to you, and that your chances weren’t good, it was like the sun went out. I’m honestly shocked that I managed to get through my last few classes for the year.”

How bad was it? I asked. When I saw that Sophie looked hesitant, I added, Please, Soph. I need to know.

“It was pretty bad, Tay. You only had a fifty percent chance of surviving at first – you were that sick.” She picked at my blankets a little. “Isaac said that you drowned,” she said, her voice very small.

I remember that, I wrote slowly so that my shaking hand didn’t make the words run together. One of the doctors was trying to figure out why I was coughing up all that blood. Happened just after they were finishing up. As I finished writing, my old nightmare popped into my head – the one where I dreamed of falling off my surfboard, and where something would grab me by the ankles and keep dragging me back under whenever I tried to surface so I could breathe. I dropped the pen in my lap and squeezed my eyes shut, willing that memory – sitting there in the operating theatre, trying desperately to breathe as I slowly drowned – to get out of my head. I knew without a doubt it would be one of my worst memories for a very long time to come.

“Tay?” Sophie asked, sounding very tentative. I didn’t answer at first, focusing instead on calming myself down. “Are you all right?”

I’m okay, I finally managed to get out. Bad memory, that’s all. I reached out and gave Sophie’s hand a squeeze I meant to be reassuring. A bad memory that’s going to cause the mother of all nightmares tonight, I thought in resignation.

“Okay, if you’re sure,” Sophie said, and I nodded. I saw her glance at her watch. “Crap, I need to get going. Dad said he was going to pick me up at half past twelve and it’s nearly that now. I’ll see you in a few days, all right?”

See you then, I replied. She picked her notepad and pen up and shoved them into her handbag, and gave me a smile before practically bolting off out of sight. Right as her footsteps faded away, overtaken by the ever present sounds of the Intensive Care Unit, I felt weariness creep up on me all over again, and I pushed the button on my bed’s remote that would lower my head back down. My eyes drifted closed, and I allowed sleep to overtake me once more.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Sophie

Mum was waiting on the front verandah at home when Dad pulled his car into the driveway late on Friday afternoon. The drive between Wollongong and Newcastle had felt a lot longer than it usually did – I normally spent the trip texting or talking on the phone with Taylor, aside from a few spots along the highway where the signal dropped out. But I hadn’t been able to do that today. Entirely aside from still not being able to talk, he wasn’t allowed his phone in Intensive Care.

The first thing I did as soon as I was out of the car was let Mum draw me into a hug. “Shh,” she whispered as I broke down, one of her hands stroking my back gently. “Let’s get you inside, all right?” I nodded against her shoulder, and allowed myself to be led inside the house. As Mum closed the front screen door I heard the boot of Dad’s car creak open.

“Hi Sophie,” Taylor’s sister Jessica said as Mum and I came into the kitchen. She and my youngest sister Lindsay were sitting at the kitchen bench, the two of them doing what looked like their homework. Just as Taylor and I had been best friends for most of our lives, so too had Jessica and Lindsay.

“Hey Jess,” I said quietly, trying to give Jessica a smile.

“Girls, why don’t you go out on the back verandah for a bit,” Mum said. She’d phrased it as a suggestion, but her tone of voice implied it was anything but. Lindsay nodded and started packing up her books and her pencil case.

“C’mon Jess,” my sister said as she slid off her stool and gathered up her school things. Jessica had soon followed Lindsay’s lead, and the two of them went out onto the back verandah. Almost as soon as the back door had swung closed behind them, I climbed up on one of the stools and dropped my head into my hands. Footsteps sounded behind me, and I soon felt a hand gently rubbing my back.

“I talked to Taylor’s mum and dad on the phone this morning,” Mum said. “They said he’s doing well.”

I nodded without looking up. “Yeah, he is. Woke up on Monday arvo – his doctor reckons he’ll be out of ICU next week.” I swiped at my eyes. “It was like the sun went out, Mum. When he nearly died I mean. I…” I swallowed dryly. “It was the worst two and a half weeks of my life. I never want to feel like that again.”

“Do you want to go down for a few days next week?” Mum asked. “Just you and me – I’m sure he’d like to see you.” I looked back over my shoulder, and Mum gave me a smile that I tried my best to return. “What do you think?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

“All right. I’ll give Diana a call tomorrow morning and ask her when it would be okay for us to come and visit.” I felt Mum squeeze my shoulder a little. “He’ll be all right, love.”

“Hope so.” I slid down off my stool. “I’m going out the back for a bit.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Lindsay and Jessica look up from their books as I walked out the back door. “Sophie?” Lindsay asked right before I went to hop down off the verandah onto the grass of our tiny backyard.

“Yeah Linds?”

“Why are you sad?”

Somewhat to my relief, Jessica answered before I could. “My brother’s really sick,” she said, sounding almost matter of fact. I could hear the tremble in her voice as she spoke, though.

I almost wanted to laugh at what Lindsay said next. “Which one?” she asked.

“Taylor.” Jessica dug around in her pencil case, coming up with a pink gel pen. “He…he’s got cancer. It sucks.” She uncapped her pen and stabbed almost viciously at a page of her notebook with its nib. “It sucks and it’s not fair.”

In that moment I abandoned my plan of going to sit in the shade against Mum’s little raised garden bed, next to the back fence. Instead, I sat down at the table next to Jessica. “I know what you mean, Jess,” I said, trying to sound sympathetic. “It really does suck.”

“The reverend at church reckons there’s a reason for everything,” Jessica said, “and that Taylor had to have done something wrong for him to get sick like this.” She was starting to sound angry now, and I couldn’t blame her a bit for it. “Scripture teacher at school said the same thing. I think that’s a load of crap. I reckon Mum and Dad agree with me because they said I don’t have to go to church or Scripture anymore if I don’t want to.” She swiped at her eyes with her other hand. “Why’d it have to be him? He never did anything wrong.”

“I know he didn’t Jess,” I said. “But it’s just something that happens sometimes. Taylor just lucked out this time, that’s all.” I gave Jessica a one-armed hug. “When did your mum say you can visit him next?”

“I have to wait until he’s out of ICU. Mum said next weekend, probably.” She was quiet for a little while. “I wish we didn’t live so far away. I hate not being able to visit him as much as everyone else gets to.”

“He’ll be home next year,” I offered.

“Yeah, I know,” Jessica said. “Wish he was home now though.”

“Jessica, your dad’s here!” Mum called out from inside.

“Thanks Mrs. Harrison!” Jessica called back, and started packing up her things. I caught her by the sleeve of her school uniform just as she went to stand up.

“I said this to Zac a little while ago,” I said when she eyed me quizzically. “Anytime you need to talk to someone or you need to get out of the house for a little while, give me a call. Doesn’t matter what time it is. Zac’s got my mobile number. Okay?”

Jessica nodded, and I pulled her into a hug. “Okay. Thanks Sophie.”

Mum was as good as her word. I wandered out to the kitchen late the next morning, covering a massive yawn with one of my hands, to find Mum sitting at the bench with the base for the cordless phone and her address book in front of her. “Good morning sleepyhead,” Mum said cheerfully.

“‘Morning,” I said through my yawn. I climbed up on one of the other barstools next to Mum and watched as she pressed the speaker button on the cordless’ base and dialled Mrs. Hanson’s mobile number. “Can I listen?” I asked.

“If you like,” Mum replied. The ringback tone started echoing around the kitchen just after Mum finished dialling, and it wasn’t long at all before Mrs. Hanson picked up on the other end of the line. I ended up only half-listening to their conversation, taking in just a few things here and there, until finally Mum got to the bit I’d been waiting for.

“Would it be possible for Sophie and I to visit Taylor sometime next week?” Mum asked. “I’m sure he’d like to see Sophie in particular.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Mrs. Hanson said. “He’s scheduled to be moved to the High Dependency Unit on Monday afternoon. You’re welcome to visit anytime after that.”

Mum looked at me. “What do you think Sophie?” she asked.

“Wednesday afternoon,” I replied after some thought. Mum and I would have plenty of time to travel down to Wollongong, and it would give Taylor a chance to settle in for his stay in the High Dependency Unit. I was fervently hoping he wouldn’t have to stay there for long, but even I had to admit it would be better than visiting him in Intensive Care again. Almost anything would be better than that.

“Wednesday afternoon sounds good. Do you want me to tell Taylor that you’re coming for a visit?”

Part of me wanted to say yes straight away. Taylor had had precious little to look forward to during the last few months – knowing that I was coming to visit would cheer him up immensely. At the same time, there was a slightly more devious part of me that didn’t want him to know. I quickly flipped a mental coin to decide what I wanted to do – heads for yes, tails for no.

“Don’t tell him,” I said at last. “I want it to be a surprise.” Almost as an afterthought, I added, “But tell him I said hi.”

Mrs. Hanson chuckled quietly. “I’ll tell him, Sophie.” Her tone turned almost conspiratorial. “And you coming for a visit will be our little secret. If he does somehow find out, it won’t be from me.”

On Wednesday afternoon, after an almost non-stop drive south from Newcastle, Isaac met me at the Crown Street entrance of Wollongong Hospital. Mum had dropped me off there on the way to check into the hotel we would be staying in for the next few days. “How’s he doing?” I asked as the two of us headed inside.

“A lot better now that he’s out of ICU,” Isaac replied. “Still not talking much though.” By this time we had reached the lift that would take us upstairs, and Isaac jabbed the up button.

“He has no idea I’m coming, right?” I asked as the lift doors slid open and we stepped inside. The doors closed again after Isaac hit the button for the second floor.

“Not a clue. Mum threatened the lot of us with a week’s worth of dishwashing duty the next time all of us are home if we didn’t keep quiet about it.”

I sucked in a breath at this. Dishwashing duty, I knew, was Mrs. Hanson’s favourite punishment. It also happened to be the most effective – with nine people all told in the Hanson family and no dishwasher in the kitchen, doing the dishes took absolutely ages if they didn’t work in teams to get it all done. Whenever solo dishwashing duty was threatened, every single one of Taylor’s brothers and sisters knew that their mother meant business. “Ouch,” I commented.

“Yep.” Isaac studied me for a few moments. “I’m surprised you wanted to keep it a secret, though. I’d have thought you’d want him to have something to look forward to.”

“I did consider not keeping it a secret,” I admitted. “And yeah, it would have been good to give him something to look forward to. He hasn’t had much of that lately.” I shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I’d just like to see the look on his face when he realises I’ve come to visit him.”

Mrs. Hanson met the two of us just outside the High Dependency Unit’s doors, a little way down from the Intensive Care Unit, giving me a smile as soon as she spotted me. “It’s good to see you again, Sophie,” she said as she gave me a hug. “Your mother’s not here?”

“She’s gone to check us in at the hotel,” I explained. “She’ll be here once she’s got that out of the way. Shouldn’t take her long.” I took my phone out of my messenger bag, unlocked it and quickly tapped out a new text message to Mum so she knew where I was, before following Mrs. Hanson and Isaac into the ward. I felt a lot less intimidated and scared this time, a far cry from how I’d felt the first time I’d walked into the Intensive Care Unit.

It wasn’t long until we arrived at Taylor’s bed. It was close to the back of the ward, near a window that had bright November sunshine spilling through it. I could tell straight away that he was asleep – he lay on his right side in bed with one hand under his pillow and the other on top of his blankets at his waist, his eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply and evenly. In place of the tube he’d had down his throat for three long weeks was a cannula that had been hooked under his nose and over his ears. I stayed behind Isaac as we got closer, not wanting Taylor to see me just yet, and peered over Isaac’s shoulder just in time to see Taylor’s eyes open.

“Hey mate,” Isaac said.

“Hey,” Taylor rasped out. He managed a tired smile. The sound of his voice, something that until now I hadn’t heard for close to a month, was like music to my ears. I almost wanted to start crying out of sheer relief.

“How are you feeling?” Mrs. Hanson asked as she sat down in a chair next to Taylor’s bedside.

Taylor’s initial response was a shrug. “Tired mostly,” he replied finally. “M’head hurts too.” He rubbed his forehead a little, just above his left eye. Said eye had dulled from its usual bright blue nearly to grey, something that only ever happened when he was particularly unwell or utterly exhausted.

“Do you want me to ask one of the nurses to get you some painkillers?” Mrs. Hanson asked.

Taylor shook his head. “Think I just need to eat something.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.”

“Got a surprise for you,” Isaac said, and Taylor scowled at him. “Oh come on, you’ll like this one. Close your eyes.”

Taylor muttered something that I couldn’t quite make out before closing his eyes. That was my cue to step out from behind Isaac and climb up on Taylor’s bed. I reached out with one of my hands and straightened his beanie a little. His eyes flew open again and fixed themselves on me, and his mouth dropped open in what could only be shock.

“Soph?” he whispered, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.

I gave him a smile and a little wave. “Hey you.”

That was all it took for him to sit up, and he shifted forward in bed until he was close enough to pull me into a hug. I could feel his heart hammering in his chest through the thin fabric of his hospital gown, and his ragged breaths against my neck. “I missed you,” he whispered, almost sounding like he was about to start crying.

“I missed you too Tay,” I said, and patted his back a little. “You okay?”

He nodded a little against my shoulder before drawing back and swiping at his eyes. “I am now,” he replied, and gave me a small smile. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”

“I wanted to surprise you,” I said with a shrug.

He let out a quiet, rough-sounding laugh at this. “Well, you definitely surprised me. Did everyone else know about this except for me?”

“Yep. Mum threatened us all with dishwashing duty for a week if we told you,” Isaac said, and Taylor winced.

“That is seriously evil, Mum,” Taylor commented.

“I know,” Mrs. Hanson said with a smile. “But it works though, doesn’t it?”

Footsteps sounded just then, intermingling with the soft chorus of beeping I could hear in the background, and I looked over to my left to see Mum walking through the ward. “Hey Mum,” I said when I figured she was close enough to hear me.

“Hello Sophie,” Mum said, giving me a smile, before turning her attention to Taylor. “I’m glad to see you’re feeling better, Taylor.”

“Thanks Mrs. Harrison,” Taylor said, and gave Mum a small smile – one I could tell right away was slightly forced. It seemed that I wasn’t the only one who had picked up on it, for almost as soon as Taylor had finished speaking Mrs. Hanson stood up.

“I’m going to pop up to the canteen,” she said when Taylor gave her a slightly puzzled look. “I’ll be back in a little while, okay?”

“I’ll come with you,” Isaac volunteered. He held up three fingers at Taylor, earning a thumbs-up in response, and followed Mrs. Hanson out of the ward. As soon as the two of them were out of sight, Taylor let out a sigh of what was unmistakably relief.

“Half an hour,” he said, and held up three fingers of his own. “Ten, twenty, thirty,” he added, counting off on each finger. He let his hand drop back onto his blankets and closed his eyes.

“How’re you feeling, really?” I asked. “And be honest, okay?”

He didn’t answer straight away, and nor did I push him to do so. “I’ve been better,” he admitted at last. “Better than I was a week and a half ago, though.” He opened an eye at me. “Has to count for something, right?”

“It definitely counts,” I said. He’d still been unconscious a week and a half ago – for him to be awake and talking to me counted for more than almost anything right now. “Hey, if you want to get some sleep we can go – I don’t want to keep you up if you’re tired.”

“You don’t have to go just because I’m tired,” he said, his tone almost scolding. “I do need to get some sleep but you can hang around if you want.” He shrugged. “I dunno, it might help me sleep a bit better if I know you’re here.”

“Okay, if you’re sure,” I said, and Taylor nodded. He shifted back against his pillows and lay down, rolling over onto his side again. I slid back down off the bed and sat down in the chair that Mrs. Hanson had just recently vacated, reached for his left hand and interlocked our fingers. At the same time I felt one of Mum’s hands settle on my left shoulder and give it a gentle squeeze. “I’ll try and be here when you wake up.”

“Thanks, Soph,” Taylor whispered as he closed his eyes.

“Anytime, Tay.”


I knocked quietly on the door of Taylor’s hospital room, not bothering to wait for a reply before slipping inside and closing the door partway behind me. Today was my first time visiting him since he’d been turned loose from the High Dependency Unit, which had happened a couple of days earlier. As I got closer to his bed I could hear the now-familiar quiet whirring and chiming of his chemotherapy machine as it pumped his medication into his veins.

“Trying to set it on fire?” I asked when I spotted him staring at something that was sitting on his tray table. Or rather, a lot of somethings – origami cranes, to be exact. There were twenty of them, all of them folded from brightly coloured paper.

“One of our fans sent them to me,” Taylor replied. He picked up one of the cranes and held it out to me. I took it and turned it over in my hands, being careful not to damage it. “Supposed to be good luck or something.”

“Well, they can be for good luck,” I said as I sat down on the end of Taylor’s bed. “The version I know is a little different. There’s this Japanese legend – I remember reading about it when I was a kid. It says that if you fold a thousand origami cranes and make a wish when you’re done, your wish will come true.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” I held up the crane that I still had in my hand. “Maybe that’s why they made all these and sent them to you.”

“Maybe,” Taylor echoed. He went quiet for a little while, and I knew he was thinking. “Can you teach me to make them?” he asked at last.

“How do you know I can make them?” I asked him with one eyebrow raised.

“You made one for me just after I started my second lot of induction,” Taylor replied. “That’s how I know.”

“Yeah, okay smartarse,” I snarked. “Yes, I know how to make them. And I was going to teach you how anyway, even if you hadn’t been sent all of these. Hopefully it’ll keep your mind off things.” I hopped back down off the bed and picked up my messenger bag. “Went to Riot before I came here and bought you lots of origami paper,” I said as I unbuckled my bag and took out the packets of paper I’d bought earlier that afternoon. “You’ve got twenty already, so you only need another nine hundred or so.” I opened one of the packets of paper and took out one of the sheets. It was mostly blue with silver swirls all over it. “Are you still going home in March?”

Taylor shook his head. “Nope. Dr. Andrews is looking at April now. She doesn’t have an exact date yet.”

“That sucks.”

He let out a quiet, humourless laugh. “No kidding.” He pushed his tray table aside and leaned forward over his knees, his gaze fixed on my hands as I started to fold an origami bird base. I started with a square base – basically just a square of paper folded so it was a quarter of its original size – and folded the corners of the top of the square inwards a couple of times, making sure each of the creases were nicely defined before moving onto the next step. “That looks complicated,” he commented as I finished folding the top corner of the base and moved onto the petal fold – folding the bottom corner up and creasing it flat so that the top half of the base looked like a diamond.

“Only at first.” I finished the petal fold and flipped the base over so I could do the same on the other side. “It didn’t take me long to pick it up. I reckon you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.”

“If my fingers behave themselves, maybe,” Taylor said. He sounded doubtful, and I bit down on my bottom lip. I knew that the nerve damage one of the chemotherapy drugs he was on had caused was something of a sore point for him, so I didn’t say anything. Instead, I focused on finishing the bird base, making sure both sides were even before I continued with the rest of the crane. I had to make a conscious effort at slowing my hands down as I worked – normally I wouldn’t have bothered, but I wanted to make sure that Taylor could keep up with each step as I finished it. His gaze never once shifted away from my hands, not until I pulled the wings of the finished crane apart to flatten out the middle.

“And there we go,” I said, holding it up. The silver swirls on the crane’s wings glimmered in the harsh light from the fluorescent light strips in the ceiling. “Your turn now,” I added, and set my crane down on the bed between us.

Taylor didn’t say a word. He carefully flexed his fingers, almost as if he were making sure they were going to work properly, and took another sheet of paper from the open packet. This sheet was red and patterned with tiny white stars. I followed his lead, taking out another sheet of my own – one that was a bright, shimmery purple – and began folding a new square base. The movements of Taylor’s hands mirrored mine, albeit a little hesitantly, and I paused whenever he was unsure of the next step until he figured it out. Were this anyone else I was teaching origami to – one of my sisters or my brother, maybe – I probably would have been frustrated with how long it was taking, but I didn’t mind a bit right now.

By the time my watch ticked over to five o’clock, between the two of us we had folded ten cranes. “You all right?” I asked as Taylor set the crane he had just finished down with his others.

“Yeah,” he replied as he shook his hands out a little. “Hands are just hurting a bit, that’s all. Need to give them a break.”

A knock sounded at the door, and the two of us looked over to see one of the catering staff peering in through the open door. “Dinner time,” she said, sounding cheerful.

“What I wouldn’t give for some Chinese right now,” I heard Taylor mumble as I picked up our cranes and moved them onto the seat of the recliner next to his bed.

“I’ll bring you some next time I visit,” I promised. This earned me a smile from Taylor, something I didn’t see often enough lately. “You like sweet and sour chicken, right?”

“Yep,” Taylor replied. He pulled his tray table back into place over his lap just in time for his dinner tray to be set into place. “You want some?” he asked me as he took the cover off his dinner.

I wrinkled my nose a little. “It’s hospital food. I think I’ll pass.”

“Soph, really, it’s not that bad.” He speared a bit of carrot with his fork and popped it into his mouth. “I’m eating it aren’t I?”

“You’re practically a bottomless pit, Tay. You’d eat anything.”

He grinned. “Yeah, okay, you got me there.” I saw him glare at the broccoli that sat almost innocently on his dinner plate, next to a couple of potatoes. “Except that.”

“Ugh, you and me both…” I slipped down off the bed and picked my messenger bag up off the floor, taking out my phone and my wallet. “I’m going to duck over to the canteen and see what I can find for my dinner. I’ll be back in a little while, okay?”

Around fifteen minutes later, I stepped out of the lift onto the first floor of the Cancer Care Centre with a ham, cheese and tomato sandwich and a carton of strawberry milk from the hospital canteen in hand, and wandered back to Taylor’s room. What I saw when I reached his room nearly made me drop my dinner on the floor.

He was sitting almost hunched over in bed, arms wrapped around himself and head bowed, rocking back and forth so fast that I could hear the frame of his bed creaking. His tray table had been pushed aside, with his dinner plate’s cover and the knife and fork lying scattered on the floor next to his bed. As I got closer I could see tears trickling down his face and hear him almost gasping for air. I set my wallet and my dinner down on my messenger bag, climbed back up on the bed and settled myself on my knees right in front of him.

“Hey,” I said quietly so that I didn’t startle him. He stopped rocking just long enough for me to grab him by the arms. “Tay, it’s me. It’s Sophie. You’re having an anxiety attack, okay?” I started stroking in small circles with my thumbs. “Look at me, please?”

I knew that looking up at me had to take a massive amount of effort. He managed it anyway, terrified blue eyes meeting my green. “Breathe with me, okay?” I said. I took in a breath, waiting for Taylor to take a ragged breath of his own before letting it out. Our breathing soon fell into sync, and it wasn’t long before his anxiety attack tapered off.

“Thanks, Soph,” he said finally. I drew him into a hug and felt him bury his face into my right shoulder. He took in a shuddering breath, letting it out in a sigh. I rubbed his back gently with my right hand, letting go of him just long enough to press his call button with my left thumb.

“Is everything okay?” I heard one of the nurses ask a couple of minutes later, and I looked over to my left to see Felicity standing in the doorway.

“He had an anxiety attack,” I explained, keeping my voice quiet.

“Oh dear,” Felicity said. She came into the room and up beside Taylor and I, crouching on the floor next to the bed. “Taylor, love, can you look at me please?”

“It’s okay Tay, it’s just Felicity,” I said.

This seemed to catch Taylor’s attention, and he looked up and over at Felicity. She gave him a smile. “There we go,” she said. “I’m going to give Dr. Andrews a call and let her know what’s happened, okay?” She looked at me. “Do you have any idea what triggered it?” she asked.

“Nope,” I said. “I went off to the canteen to get myself something for dinner, and when I came back he was right in the middle of it.” I carefully ran a hand over Taylor’s head, covered today not with one of his beanies but with his Australian flag bandanna. “You okay?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he replied, sounding tired, and I hid a small smile. He rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his right hand. “Tired though.”

“Time for bed I think,” Felicity said as she straightened up. She gave Taylor and I a smile that we both returned, though Taylor’s smile was a little more hesitant than mine, and headed back out into the corridor.

In almost no time at all Taylor had fallen asleep, finally looking relaxed for the first time all afternoon. I packed up my things, leaving the origami paper on his bedside table, and ghosted one of my hands over his head before leaving the room, closing the door quietly behind me.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

Taylor

“Good morning Taylor,” Dr. Andrews said as she came into my room one morning in early December. She gave me a smile as she sat down at my bedside, one I returned as I finished my newest crane. I hadn’t been keeping track, but I was fairly sure I was up to at least seventy by now.

“‘Morning,” I replied as I finished the crane and set it on my tray table with the others I’d made so far that morning. I pushed the table aside and shook my hands out a little, easing the ache that had built up over the last few hours.

“Good to see that you’ve been keeping busy,” Dr. Andrews commented with another smile. She opened the folder she had brought with her. “Now, I heard that you had another anxiety attack a few days ago.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly.

“I spoke with the Mental Health Unit here at the hospital yesterday. If you’re open to it, a couple of their mental health workers would like to come and talk to you tomorrow afternoon.”

“I’m not crazy,” I said automatically. I regretted those words almost as soon as they left my mouth.

“Nobody is saying that,” Dr. Andrews said, her tone soothing. “Having a mental health assessment done is an important step in getting a formal diagnosis, though. It will help pinpoint what kind of anxiety disorder you have, if that is what is causing your anxiety attacks.”

I considered this for a little while, twisting my blankets around in my fingers as I thought it over. “Okay, I’ll talk to them,” I agreed.

“All right. I’ll give them a call in a little while and let them know where to find you.” She started leafing through the folder. “I also have some good news for you regarding your discharge from here.”

“You do?”

Dr. Andrews nodded. “Barring anything unforeseen, I think we should aim for you to go home in April.”

“Really?” I asked, trying not to get my hopes up too high.

“Really.” She gave me another smile. “As things currently stand, you have six cycles of consolidation remaining. According to your revised chemotherapy schedule, you’ll begin your ninth and final consolidation cycle on April second.” She studied me for a little while. “How does April twenty-third sound?”

It took every last shred of self-control I could muster to stop myself from cheering. “That sounds fantastic,” I said.

“I thought it might. I’ve been talking with the oncology team at Mater Misericordiae in Newcastle, and one of their doctors has expressed an interest in taking over your treatment after you leave here. She’ll be getting back to me with a final decision either way in the New Year. All right?”

“Yeah, all right.” I gave Dr. Andrews a smile that she returned. “Thanks Dr. Andrews.”

Almost as soon as Dr. Andrews had left, the door of my room swinging closed behind her, I dug my phone out of the drawer of my bedside table and found Mum’s mobile number in its phone book. “Please pick up, please pick up,” I said to myself as I hit dial.

“Good morning Taylor,” were the first words that Mum said when she answered her phone not even a minute later.

“Hi Mum,” I said, trying my best to keep my voice from shaking. “I, um…I got some good news just now.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” I swallowed hard. “Dr. Andrews said I can go home in April. If everything goes to plan, I’ll be getting out of here on April twenty-third.”

When Mum next spoke, I could hear the smile in her voice clear as day. “That’s wonderful, Tay.”

“Yeah, it is,” I agreed. “I won’t know anything for sure until after New Year’s, but Dr. Andrews has been talking things over with one of the doctors at Mater Misericordiae. I think it’s in Waratah.”

“Near the university,” Mum said, seeming to confirm what I was thinking. “Did she tell you anything else?”

“Yeah, but not about getting out of here or anything like that.” I fidgeted a little, picking at my blankets. “I’m having a mental health assessment done tomorrow afternoon. I had another anxiety attack a few days ago, so Dr. Andrews is getting a couple of mental health workers to come and talk to me.”

“Do you want me to come down for it?”

For around half a second I wanted to say no, that I’d be fine, but I thought better of it. “Yeah, I do,” I replied. “You don’t mind?”

“Of course not.” I could almost see Mum smile as she said this. “As soon as you find out exactly when it’ll be happening, let me know. All right?”

“Yeah, all right.”

Before too long, one of the nurses had told me what time my assessment would be done the next afternoon – around three-fifteen, just after visiting hours resumed – and I’d texted Mum to let her know. Even though I knew I would have some support as I went through it, I was still nervous – my grandmother on Dad’s side of the family would have said I was as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. The anxiety was a lot more noticeable than it normally was, lurking just beneath the surface and threatening to jump out at me at the smallest provocation, almost as if it was alive. Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night.

The anxiety still hadn’t eased off by the time afternoon visiting hours started the next day. Mum had arrived around half an hour earlier, and was sitting in my recliner leafing through some of her marking. If anything, the anxiety was a lot worse now. I was completely on edge, my nerves feeling frazzled in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with the damage from my chemotherapy. When a knock sounded at my door just after three-fifteen, I nearly jumped half a foot in the air.

“Just me,” Felicity said cheerfully as she walked into my room, two people I didn’t recognise – a man and a woman – trailing behind her. “Hello Mrs. Hanson.”

“Good afternoon Felicity,” Mum replied with a smile as she put her marking away.

Felicity returned Mum’s smile. “Dr. Andrews mentioned this morning that you were having a mental health assessment done today,” she said to me, and I nodded. “I’ll leave you all to it then.” She gave me a smile and headed back out into the corridor, leaving the door open as she went.

I watched a little warily as the pair that had followed Felicity set themselves up in the two visitor’s chairs that had a permanent home in my room. “Easy, Tay,” Mum said softly. Her right hand found my left and gave it a small squeeze. “It’s all right.”

“All right, I think we’re ready to begin,” the unfamiliar woman said. “My name is Samantha,” she said in introduction, “and my companion is Chris.” Chris gave me a small wave. “You’re Jordan, right?”

“Taylor,” I corrected her, doing my best to keep the irritation out of my voice. I hated being called by my first name. “I prefer to be called by my middle name.”

“Never mind that he only gets called Jordan when he’s in a lot of trouble,” Mum said, sounding a little amused. I threw her a scowl at this. “And he’s very rarely in trouble.”

“Ah, gotcha. Taylor it is, then.” Samantha gave me a smile and wrote something down on the notepad she had clipped onto her clipboard. “This is your mum, yeah?”

I nodded. “Yeah.”

“Excellent.” Samantha seemed to be pleased about this. “Since you’re fairly young, relatively speaking anyhow, this won’t be a typical assessment. What we’re mostly going to do is just have a bit of a chat. Chris will be on hand for taking notes and asking any questions that you and I don’t end up covering. Sound good?”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Lovely.” Samantha gave me another smile. “Just so we’re clear, anything we talk about today will be kept between the four of us. Chris and I will only break confidentiality if you give us permission, or if we think it’s something that Dr. Andrews needs to know about. An example of the latter might be if we believe you to be a self-harm risk.”

“Would you tell her what my diagnosis is?” I asked.

“We’d have to, yes. We would also discuss it with one of the psychiatrists here, as they’re likely to be the one writing your prescriptions if you need to start taking medication. Would that be all right?”

“Yeah,” I replied with a nod.

“All right. Let’s begin then, shall we?”

Considering I’d never had a mental health assessment done before, it seemed to be pretty straightforward. Samantha asked me about family and friends, the subjects I’d taken at school and university, what I’d liked doing in my free time before I’d ended up in hospital, even about what had happened over the last four months. As Samantha and I talked, Mum making the occasional comment or interjection, Chris’ pen scratched almost non-stop as he wrote on the pages of the assessment form that would form part of my medical records.

That is, it was straightforward until we arrived at the topic that had been the catalyst for today’s little chat.

“Now, as Dr. Andrews explained to us” Samantha gestured between herself and Chris “you’ve had a couple of anxiety attacks since you’ve been admitted here,” she said, and I nodded. “Has this happened before?”

I swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

“Could you give me a rough estimate of when it first happened?”

“I was fourteen. Happened around the middle of 1997.”

“And you’re now…” She glanced over to Chris, who turned his form back to its first page. “Nineteen, nearly twenty?”

“In the middle of March,” I confirmed. “First one was…” I trailed off as I tried to think of when exactly I’d had my first anxiety attack. “A day or so before I sat my first mid-year exams. I’m not sure why it was those exams specifically that set it off, I sat exams at the end of Year 7 so…” I shrugged.

“And it’s mostly been before exams?”

“Well, that and before every live performance with my brothers since our first album came out. I couldn’t tell you how many I’ve had over the last five years, but it’s probably somewhere in the low hundreds.”

“That can’t have been a lot of fun,” Samantha said, sounding sympathetic, and I shook my head. “Would you be able to describe for me what happens when you have an anxiety attack?”

In all truth, I didn’t really want to describe my anxiety attacks. It felt too much like tempting fate. But even so, I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.

“I shake a lot,” I said to begin with. My voice had started to shake a little. Mum found my hand again, and I squeezed as hard as I could. “And I can’t talk without stuttering, if I can even talk at all. My ears start ringing, I get a sharp pain right about here” I touched a spot just above my left collarbone “and I can’t breathe. Sometimes I pass out after that, sometimes I don’t.” I didn’t say anything for a little while. “They’re not always like that though. Sometimes I’ll feel all hot or cold all over too. But nine times out of ten, that’s what happens. It…it’s horrible. I’d do anything to make them stop. I can’t take it much longer.”

Quiet followed my words, and I figured that Samantha was considering what I’d just said.

“I think Dr. Andrews has the right of it,” Chris said, and I opened my eyes. “What you’ve just described to us is a textbook example of social anxiety disorder.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t even realised I’d been holding, relief coursing through me. I finally had a name for what I’d been struggling with for five and a half long years. It was as if a weight had been lifted right off my shoulders.

“So what happens now?” Mum asked.

“That’s up to his treating psychiatrist,” Samantha replied. “Cognitive behavioural therapy is the usual frontline treatment for social anxiety disorder, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Medication is another option – the most common medication is an antidepressant called paroxetine, but sertraline is often used instead. It’ll depend entirely on what works best for Taylor.” She and Chris stood up. “We’ll go and have a chat with Dr. Hawthorne right now, and relay his recommendations to Dr. Andrews. He’ll probably pop up for a chat sometime in the next couple of days.”

“Thank you,” Mum said. “It’s a relief to finally be able to put a name to what Taylor’s been going through.”

“I can imagine,” Samantha said. To me she said, “Best of luck, Taylor. If you need to have another chat, let Dr. Andrews know. All right?”

“I will.”

The second that Samantha and Chris had left, the door swinging closed behind them, I pushed my covers back and swung my feet over the side of the mattress. “Are you all right?” Mum asked me.

I shook my head. “Not really. I just…” I felt tears pricking at my eyes, and I scrubbed at them with my knuckles. “It’s just one thing after another, isn’t it? First I find out that I’ve got fucking cancer” I spat this word out, as if it were something distasteful “then the medication that’s keeping me alive damages my fucking nerves and makes me have seizures, and now I find out that I have a fucking mental illness. If this is one huge cosmic joke to someone I’m not fucking laughing.”

To my surprise, Mum didn’t rouse on me for swearing. Instead she sat down on my bed next to me and slipped an arm around my shoulders. “I know it’s hard, Tay,” she said, her voice soothing. “But at least now you know why you keep having anxiety attacks. Yes, it’s another thing you have to deal with, but you have a name for it now. That’s a good thing.” She stroked my shoulder a little. “You’ll get through it, love.”

I didn’t say anything for a little while. “I don’t want to be on more medication, Mum,” I said quietly. “I’m taking enough already.” A horrible thought occurred to me, one that left me cold. “And what if taking medication stops me being able to write music? I don’t want that to happen!”

“If that happens, which I honestly doubt, then we will deal with it. Just like we always do.” I felt Mum kiss the top of my head. “I’m sure you’re probably sick of hearing this, but I’m very proud of you.”

I smiled a little. “Thanks, Mum.”


I eyed the little clear plastic cup sitting on my tray table with a fair bit of suspicion. Lying almost innocently inside was a little white tablet – the first dose of my new medication. It looked more like a fragment of a tablet than anything else, like someone had broken it in half a couple of times. It was a couple of days after Samantha and Chris had come for a chat with Mum and I, and a new doctor had come to see me. He’d introduced himself as Dr. Hawthorne.

“So that’s it, is it?” I asked as I poked the cup a little, making the tablet fragment rattle around inside. My gaze drifted across to Dr. Hawthorne. He was sitting at my bedside, a folder that had been labelled with my name resting in his lap. “It doesn’t seem like much.”

“That’s it,” Dr. Hawthorne confirmed. “Paroxetine is a very potent medication, though – what you have there is only a quarter of the full dosage. Eventually I’d like you to be taking the full twenty milligrams, but I want to ease you into it slowly so you have a chance to get used to it.”

“How long do you think that will take?”

“Around four weeks. You should be able to move up to the full dosage shortly after Christmas.”

Christmas. I couldn’t help but feel a little empty inside when Dr. Hawthorne said that word. For the first time in my life, I wouldn’t be home for Christmas. I knew that Mum and Dad would probably bring all of my brothers and sisters down to visit, but it wouldn’t be the same.

“This is probably going to sound like a bit of a stupid question, but how long would I need to keep taking it?”

“Not a stupid question at all.” Here Dr. Hawthorne studied me for a little while. “At least for the next six months,” he replied. “But taking into consideration how severe your anxiety is, it’s entirely likely that you’ll need to continue taking it indefinitely.” He opened his folder and paged through it. “Your oncologist has indicated to me that you have an eventual discharge date of April twenty-third 2003,” he said, and I nodded. “So I propose that we revisit your treatment a few days before that. If you’re tolerating it well, I’ll hand over treatment to your usual GP – they’ll be able to continue writing your prescriptions until such a time as you no longer need to take it, or until your circumstances change and you need to change medications entirely. Does that sound all right?”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“Excellent. I’ll advise Dr. Andrews of the addition to your treatment regimen and the dosage schedule shortly.”

“Sounds good.” I eyed my first dose of paroxetine again. “Well, no time like the present, I guess.” And with those words I picked up the cup, tipped the tablet into my mouth and swallowed it down with a mouthful of water. One down…and hundreds more to go.

“Good lad,” Dr. Hawthorne said. He gave me a smile, one that I did my best to return, and stood up. “Let Dr. Andrews know if there’s anything you’re concerned about – she’ll pass it along to me.”

As soon as I was alone once again, I pulled my journal and pen out of the drawer of my bedside table. Without even so much as glancing over any of my old entries, I flipped to the first empty page and uncapped my pen.

Thursday, December 5, 2002

Well it’s official. I am now essentially a walking pharmacy.

I am now taking – not even kidding here – a total of nine different medications. NINE. And that isn’t even taking into account the occasional Panadol or Panadeine I take for headaches and shit like that.

I’m taking six different chemotherapy drugs. My chemo regimen – cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine and prednisone. Two other drugs on top of that called methotrexate and leucovorin, because by the time anyone even found out I was sick, the fucking cancer had already spread to my spine. An epilepsy medication called clonazepam for the seizures one of my chemo drugs makes me have. An antidepressant called amitriptyline for nerve pain. And now a second antidepressant I just started taking called paroxetine because as it turns out, my brain likes melting down on occasion due to this bastard of a thing called social anxiety disorder, and that just happens to be the best medication for getting it under control.

The worst thing about all of the different medications I have to take isn’t the medications themselves, to be honest. It’s all the bloody side effects. All but one of my chemo drugs make me feel sick, and three of them make me throw up. Three of them cause hair loss, which I was mostly spared because Isaac shaved all of mine off the afternoon before I started chemo. The vincristine makes me have stomach cramps and damaged the nerves in my hands and feet. The methotrexate causes conjunctivitis and seizures. I get horrific headaches thanks to the prednisone. And even worse, I’m at risk of leukaemia later on because of the cyclophosphamide. I’m just thankful that the clonazepam and the amitriptyline don’t have horrendous side effects because I don’t think I could handle taking them otherwise. I can only hope I have the same luck with my new medication.

All of this would probably be a lot easier to deal with if I wasn’t so far away from home. Mum comes down as often as she can, and I’ll get to see everyone at Christmas, but it isn’t the same. Not by a long shot. At least I know for sure when I get to go back to Newcastle – unless I end up with pneumonia and get landed in ICU again, which I’m hoping like hell doesn’t happen, I’m being discharged on April 23rd next year. Of course, that means new chemo to deal with, because it’ll mean I’ll be starting maintenance treatment, but I honestly don’t care. Going back to Newcastle means going home to my family, and to me that’s the most important thing of all.

I scrubbed at my eyes as I finished writing in my journal. Getting my thoughts out on paper had always been something I found particularly cathartic, but for some reason writing this particular entry had been a lot more cathartic than usual – something that didn’t go unnoticed.

“Everything okay?”

I looked over at the door of my room. Fiona stood in the doorway, looking concerned, and I nodded.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I replied. “I just realised that I won’t be able to go home for Christmas, that’s all.”

“Ah.” Fiona came in and sat down in my recliner. “You’re from Newcastle, yeah?”

“Yeah.” I picked at a corner of my journal’s cover. “Dr. Andrews probably wouldn’t want me going so far from hospital just to spend Christmas at home. My parents will probably bring my brothers and sisters down for the day, but…” I trailed off.

“It’s not the same.”

I shook my head. “Nowhere near the same.”

“Yeah, I can see how that might be a bit upsetting.” She gave me a smile, one I tried to return. “I might be able to help here, though.”

“Oh?”

“Yep. Sometimes patients are able to take a short leave of absence from hospital – you’ll need to have a chat with Dr. Andrews and see what she says, but if your mum and dad can figure something out then you might be able to get out of here for Christmas.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.” She gave me another smile. “But like I said, it’s something you’ll need to ask Dr. Andrews about. I don’t think she’d have much of a problem with it, though.”

As it turned out, though, I didn’t need to raise the possibility of leaving hospital for Christmas with Dr. Andrews.

“How would you like to go home for Christmas?”

My hands froze midway through folding my newest crane, and I slowly looked over to my left. Sitting at my bedside was Dr. Andrews, somewhat to my surprise – I’d been so focused on what I was doing that I hadn’t even heard her come in.

“Home, as in Newcastle?” I asked, not even daring to hope that was what she meant.

“As in Newcastle,” Dr. Andrews replied with a smile. “Your parents raised the possibility of it with me a couple of days ago. Your mother said they were prepared to relocate here for a week or two so you could spend Christmas with them, but I think you would be more comfortable in familiar surroundings. What do you say?”

“Yes,” I replied straight away, hardly believing what Dr. Andrews was offering me. “Oh my God, yes!

“I thought that might cheer you up a bit. It’s only for a week – I can’t give you any longer than that, as much as I would love to. I know it’s been hard for you being so far from home.”

“I’d be happy with even just a day,” I said. “This is…” I let out a slightly-hysterical laugh. “This is incredible. Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Taylor. There are a few forms that you will need to fill out and sign off on before I can release you. And of course you’ll need to decide what day you’d like to go out on leave. I’ll make sure to get those forms to you by tomorrow afternoon at the latest.”

The first thing I did as soon as Dr. Andrews had left was go digging in the drawer of my bedside table for my phone. There were so many people I wanted to tell about this, so many people I wanted to know I was getting to go home for Christmas, but I knew I had to be realistic. As much as I wanted to tell the entire world, I couldn’t do that. Instead I settled for one of the first names in my phone book.

“Hey Tay,” Isaac said once he’d answered his phone. “What’s up little bro?”

“I’m hardly little,” I said. “Taller than you last time I looked.”

I could practically see Isaac scowling down the phone at me. “You’re hilarious.”

I grinned to myself. “You busy on, say…” I thought quickly – my next chemotherapy cycle was due to start on the eighteenth, and I knew couldn’t leave the hospital between then and the twenty-second. “December twenty-third?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“Reckon you can pick me up around ten that morning?”

“Yeah, sure I can, but-” Isaac broke off suddenly. “You’re getting out?” he asked, sounding almost hopeful.

“Just for a week over Christmas. Dr. Andrews can’t give me any longer than that. It’s a lot more than I was hoping for though.”

“Mum and Dad know yet?”

“Nope. I’m going to call them later. Just wanted to make sure I had a ride home first. I can’t drive for another few months, and I don’t trust myself on the highway right now anyway.”

“Fair enough. Anything in particular you want me to bring down with me?”

“Change of clothes would be nice.”

“Got it. See you in a couple of weeks, then.”

“See ya.”

I ended the call and locked my phone again, setting it down on my bedside table, and I settled back against my pillows. For the first time since I’d ended up in hospital, I felt hopeful. Not only was I getting the best Christmas present I could ever have hoped for, but I was just a few months away from getting to go home for good. That tiny spark I’d been able to see at the end of the proverbial tunnel for a little while was now a flame, almost close enough for me to reach out and touch it. It was a good feeling.

“I’m going home,” I said softly to myself. I didn’t even care that it would only be for a week. I was still going home – home to Newcastle, and home to my family. And right now, that was what mattered the most to me.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

Sophie

“How’s Taylor doing?”

I paused halfway through polishing the cutlery that Mum planned to use for Christmas dinner and looked over at Sam. He was hard at work scrubbing the inside of Dad’s kettle barbecue so that it was ready for cooking Christmas lunch. With less than twenty-four hours remaining until the big day, everyone in my family – even my sisters – had been tasked with getting the house looking halfway presentable.

“He’s fine,” I replied. I poured more silver polish onto my rag before going back to work. “And anyway, since when did you give a crap about him? I didn’t think you liked him.”

“Why the hell would you think that?” Sam asked. He dropped his scrubbing brush into the barbecue, making a ringing sound, and came over to where I sat on the edge of the verandah. He moved the cutlery I’d polished out of the way before sitting down next to me. “Of course I like him.”

“You used to call him a girl. He hated being called that, by the way.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t like him. He’s your best mate Sophie, why would I hate him?”

I set my rag and the fork I’d been polishing aside and looked at Sam. He was studying me, green eyes identical to my own fixed on my face. “You really don’t hate him?”

“Nope. I really don’t.” He gave me a smile, one I echoed a little hesitantly. “Come on, how’s he doing? You haven’t talked about it much.”

“He…” I kicked at a patch of bindies with the heel of my left thong. “He’s doing a lot better than he was a couple of months ago. No idea when he’s coming home yet though. He was supposed to be coming home just after his birthday, but that was before he caught pneumonia and ended up in ICU for nearly a month. Last I heard he was getting out of hospital sometime in April.”

Just as I finished speaking the doorbell rang, its chime echoing through the house. “I’ll get it,” Sam volunteered, and he headed inside. Deciding that whoever was at the door was nothing to do with me, I picked up my rag again and went back to polishing cutlery. A few moments later, just as I’d almost finished polishing a particularly tarnished fork, Sam called out to me.

“Sophie, you might want to come in here!”

“What for?” I called back. I squinted a bit at the tines of the fork I was polishing, and scrubbed a bit harder with my rag to make sure I got the last speck of tarnish off.

“Just get in here!”

“Oh for-” I closed my eyes for a second or two before putting my rag and the fork down again. “Let me wash my hands first!”

As soon as I’d washed the silver polish off my hands I went inside the house, wiping my hands dry on my shorts as I went. “Okay Sam, what is so damn important that you had to drag me-” I broke off and stopped mid-stride a few paces inside the back door, my mouth dropping open.

Standing there in the middle of the kitchen, battered Ray-Bans sitting on his head atop a bright red bandanna and with his hands in his pockets, was Taylor. He gave me a smile.

“Holy shit,” I said a little faintly, hardly daring to believe what I was seeing. “Tay?”

“Hey Soph,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

That was all it took. Taylor opened his arms right in time for me to collapse against him and bury my face in his left shoulder. I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears that threatened to spill forth. “I missed you so much,” I whispered.

“I know,” I heard him whisper back as he wrapped his arms around me. He rubbed my back a little. “I missed you too.”

“Soph?” Sam said from behind me, and I looked back over my shoulder. “I’ll finish the polishing. You two should go hang out.”

“Thanks Sam,” I said. “You’re the best brother ever.”

“Your only brother, you mean.”

“Still the best brother.”

Sam let out a chuckle. “Go on, get. I’ll let Mum and Dad know where you’ve gone.”

Our destination once I’d gathered up a few bits and pieces was one of Taylor’s favourite surfing haunts. “Doc still not letting you drive?” I asked once Isaac had dropped us off in the carpark next to Nobbys Beach.

“Nope,” Taylor replied. “Have to be seizure-free for at least six months before she’ll give me the okay. And it’s only been, what” he quickly counted off on his fingers “four months since the last one. So it’ll be February at the earliest before I can get behind the wheel again.” He shrugged a little. “I’m not sure I trust myself to drive right now anyway.”

“So how long are you out for?” I asked as we headed up to the narrow trail that led through to Horseshoe Beach. “I mean, considering you’ve still got this on, I’m guessing it’s not long.” I reached down to Taylor’s left wrist and brushed my fingers across his hospital wristband. It was still so strange seeing him wearing it.

“Dr. Andrews turned me loose for a week. I have to go back to hospital next Monday.”

“At least you got to come home for Christmas.”

“Yeah. I thought I’d still be cooped up, but Dr. Andrews told me I could come home for a little while. I think she’s looking at it as a test, as well as giving me a break from everything.” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “See if I can handle being on medication at home.”

“What, she’s still got you taking all of it while you’re out?”

“Not all of it.” His feet found the first of the narrow wooden sleepers that marked the trail to the beach and served as a sort of walkway through the shrubs that had been planted on the dunes. “Most of it I still have to be in hospital for. But my anxiety and pain meds, I can take all of that at home. If I can prove to her that I can stay on track with those, then I think that’ll work in my favour for when I get to come home for good.”

Neither of us said anything as we headed up the trail. I figured Taylor was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other and making sure he didn’t trip over, while I was just content that the two of us were together. It had been a while since we’d had that opportunity – one I’d missed with every fibre of my being.

Before too long, we were stepping out onto the beach, the sand squeaking under our feet as we walked down to the shore. Here and there were kids running in the shallows, dogs chasing Frisbees, tennis balls or sticks, and the occasional surfer riding the waves. Taylor stopped walking a few metres from the water, dropped his messenger bag on the ground and lowered himself to the sand. He stretched his arms out behind his back so he stayed upright, bracing himself against the ground with his hands, and tipped his head back. “I’ve missed this,” he said as I joined him.

“Missed what?”

“Just…all of this.” He gestured out at the scene before us. “The sun, the surf…everything. Spending time with you.” He looked over at me and gave me a small smile. “It’s going to be really bloody hard going back to hospital next week.”

“I bet. But at least it won’t be long until you get to come home for good.”

“True.” He lay back on the sand with his hands clasped under his head, and propped his feet up on his bag. “Four months yesterday. That’s when I’m coming home.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really.” Almost as what seemed like an afterthought, he added, “As long as I don’t come down with freaking pneumonia again. That was not fun.”

“Can you not tempt fate, please?”

He cracked another smile. “I’ll do my best not to.”

“I’m going to hold you to that.” Here I changed the subject. “How’s your project going?”

“It’s getting there. I’m not as far along as I’d have liked.” He raised his sunglasses a little. “Who the fuck knew folding a thousand fucking cranes was so much work?”

I let out a chuckle. “Do you know what you’re going to wish for yet?” I asked.

Taylor didn’t answer me for a little while, though I didn’t push him to talk – I knew he was thinking. “Yeah, I do,” he replied at last. “I even know when I want it all to be finished.”

“Yeah?”

He nodded a little bit. “Yeah. If everything goes to plan over the next few months, I’ll be starting maintenance sometime in late April. Probably around the twenty-fourth. Which means that around that time in just under two and a half years, I’ll be completely finished with chemo.”

“And you want to be finished your cranes by then?”

“Yep.”

It didn’t take a genius to work out what Taylor would be wishing for when he finished his cranes. I didn’t say a word, though – I figured he considered it to be the same as a birthday wish. And if I was right, then he badly wanted this particular wish to come true. If I was being honest, he wasn’t the only one.

“You don’t have to tell me what you’re going to wish for,” I said. “Just tell me one thing, though. Okay?”

“Yeah, okay,” Taylor replied, sounding a little wary.

“Is it a good wish?”

The smile Taylor gave me could have lit up a dark room. “Yeah, it is.”

“I’m really glad to hear that.” This earned me another smile. “You feel like heading back? We can get some ice cream if you want – my treat.”

Taylor seemed to consider this for a little while. “Ice cream sounds really good.”

“Thought it might.” I got back to my feet, dusted myself off, and extended a hand down to help Taylor up. He grabbed hold of my hand and used it to haul himself up, and I steadied him with a hand on his shoulder as he nearly overbalanced. “Come on.”

Half an hour later, after a long, slow walk down to the Foreshore from Horseshoe Beach, we’d bought our ice creams from the little shop on Wharf Road – strawberry as usual for me, while Taylor had gone for peppermint chocolate chip – and had found a shady spot on Queens Wharf to sit down. All around us people were in a mad rush to get everything done before the shops closed for Christmas, while in the distance I could see the Stockton ferry making a crossing of the river. “What are you guys doing tomorrow?” I asked.

“Not much, really,” he replied, punctuating his response with a shrug. “I think Mum and Dad just want it to be immediate family and my grandparents tomorrow. Keep things relatively quiet.” He smirked. “‘Relatively’ being the operative word here. We couldn’t be quiet if we tried.” I snickered at this, and he gave me a smile before licking a bit of melted ice cream off his hand. “But they said you can come over for Boxing Day if you like. I mean, if you’re not going to Melbourne.”

“We’re not going there this year, no. Mum and Dad had the same idea as yours. What with everything that’s happened in the last few months…”

“Yeah.” I watched him scuff the toe of his left sneaker along the concrete beneath our feet. “I didn’t ask for anything this year.”

“How come?”

He shrugged again. “There’s only two things I wanted, and I already got one of them six weeks ago. Have to wait a bit longer for the other one.” He gave me a slightly crooked smile. “I’m still here. Still kicking this thing’s arse. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.”

“That’s true. Though I hope you get something anyway.” As I spoke I thought of the project that Katie, Matthew, Luke and I had been working on for the last month together with Isaac, Zac and their parents, and I bit back a smile. “I’ll ask my mum and dad if I can come over on Thursday when I get home. They’ll probably say yes, though.”

“I’ll save you some of Mum’s trifle if you can’t.”

I smiled and shifted a little closer to Taylor so I could put my head down on his shoulder, and he snaked an arm around my back. “Thanks, Tay.”

As I thought, Mum and Dad had no problem with me going over to the Hansons’ for Boxing Day. Right after a very late breakfast, and once I’d showered and dressed in some of my new clothes, I snagged Mum’s car keys off the hook by the front door. “I’m going over to the Hansons’!” I called out as I headed out into the front garden, swinging my bag onto my shoulder as I went. “I’ll be back tonight!”

“Be careful!” Mum called back.

The first person I saw when I pulled Mum’s car into the driveway at Taylor’s house behind the Hansons’ Kombi was Avery. She was sitting up on the front balcony, perched on the long wooden bench that usually sat under the dining room windows with her knees drawn up beneath her chin. As I climbed the front stairs I could see that she looked absolutely miserable.

“Hey Ave,” I said as I joined her.

“Hey Sophie,” Avery replied, sounding almost listless.

“You okay?”

She didn’t answer me at first. I didn’t push her to talk, though – like Taylor, she was very introspective and wouldn’t say a word until she was ready. “It’s not fair,” she finally said.

“What’s not fair?”

“It’s Christmas. Taylor shouldn’t be sick.”

“Yeah, I know.” I twirled the end of Avery’s long plait around a finger. “But at least he got to come home for a little while. That’s something, right?”

“I guess.” She uncurled herself a little and stretched. “Just wish he wasn’t sick, that’s all.”

“Me too.” I gave her a smile that she echoed a few seconds later. “Speaking of, how’s he doing today?”

“He’s having a bit of a sleep-in. Mum said he was up half of last night.”

“So not too good then,” I said, and stood up. “I might go look in on him for a bit.”

Taylor’s bedroom door was halfway open, I saw as I rounded the side of the stairs that led to the second floor, and when I peered in through the gap between the door and the jamb I could see he was awake. He was lying on his bed with his hands clasped under his head, staring up at his bedroom ceiling. I knocked quietly on the door to get his attention. “Hey,” I said when he looked over at me. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah, ‘course you can,” he replied. “You don’t have to ask.” He was easing himself upright as he said this. I waited until he was sitting up before slipping into his room and climbing up onto his bed, settling myself so I was facing him.

“Ave said you were having a bit of a sleep-in, that’s all.” I shrugged a little. “Thought you might want a bit of time to yourself. I know how mad it gets around here.” He smiled a little at this. “How was Christmas?”

“It was a bit weird.”

“Weird how?”

“It’s like…” He trailed off, and I watched as he twisted his watch around his right wrist. “Everything runs to a schedule in hospital. I have to wake up and go to bed at a specific time, I get nurses poking and prodding me every eight hours, and I can basically set my watch by the times catering comes around. Here, though, as long as I’m up in plenty of time to take my medication of a morning, and so long as I don’t leave taking my medication too late at night, I don’t have anyone telling me how to spend my time.” He gave me a small smile. “I guess I’m just used to being in hospital. Never thought I’d ever say that.”

“Not for too much longer, though.”

“Touch wood.” He reached back and knocked on one of his bedposts with the knuckles of his right hand after he said this.

“Aside from the weirdness, it was good?”

“Yeah. It was really good.” He climbed down off his bed, and I looked back over my shoulder just in time to see him sliding open his wardrobe. “Check out what Mum and Dad got me,” he said. He took out a long black case with silver latches, and I turned around so he could lift it up onto the bed without hitting me in the back of the head. “Go on, open it.”

I reached out and flicked the latches open, and lifted the case’s lid. Inside was an electric guitar, one almost the same shade as my Doc Marten boots – a deep, cherry red. “Oh, wow,” I breathed. I ran my fingers down its strings. “It’s beautiful.”

“I can’t play it yet,” Taylor said. “Still learning how to play my acoustic. But I want to be able to play it on the new album.”

“I reckon you’ll manage that easy. How’re your hands lately?”

As I asked this, Taylor’s entire mood changed. “I had a flare-up last night,” he replied. He was latching his guitar’s case shut as he spoke. “Just after two. It woke me up, that’s how bad it was. My hands were fucking caning.”

“I’m guessing that’s why Ave said you were having a sleep-in.”

“Pretty much. I didn’t manage to fall asleep again until about four this morning. Dr. Andrews wrote me a script for Panadeine just in case something like that happened, but I didn’t think I’d actually need it.” He stowed his guitar back in his wardrobe. “Mum woke me up so I could take my tablets this morning, then I went back to sleep until just before you got here.”

“You’re okay now, though?”

“Yeah. Still aching a bit but it’s nothing I can’t deal with.” He sat back down on his bed. “What did you get for Christmas?”

“Clothes and CDs mostly.” Here I went digging around in my bag until I found something that had come in the mail a few days earlier – an envelope bearing the emblem of the University of Wollongong, and with my name and address typed in black on the front. “I also got this,” I added, holding it out to Taylor. “Open it.”

“What is it?” he asked as he unsealed the envelope.

“My spring session results.” I didn’t say anything more on the subject, choosing instead to wait until Taylor had finished reading.

It didn’t take him long. “Holy shit, Soph…” He looked up at me. “Three Distinctions and a High Distinction?”

I grinned. “Yep.”

He put my results letter aside and drew me into a hug. “I am so proud of you,” he said.

“Thanks, Tay,” I said as I hugged him back. “Come on, I want to show your mum.”

We found Taylor’s parents in the kitchen, almost at the other end of the house from his bedroom. “Hey Mum? Dad?” Taylor said as we wandered through the doorway between the kitchen and the foyer.

“Oh, you’re up,” Mrs. Hanson said from behind the kitchen bench, where she was mixing something in one of her mixing bowls. Even from where I stood near the doorway I could tell she was making gingerbread. She gave Taylor and I a smile. “Are you feeling any better?”

“Yeah,” Taylor replied. He gave my hand a squeeze and went over to join his father at the kitchen table. “‘Morning Dad.”

“It awakes,” Mr. Hanson teased, and Taylor stuck his tongue out. “Hello Sophie.”

“Hi Mr. Hanson.” I ran a thumbnail along the seal of the envelope that held my university results. “Merry Christmas.” I gave him a smile before heading over to the bench. “I wanted to show you something,” I said as I climbed up on one of the barstools.

Mrs. Hanson paused in mixing the gingerbread and looked up at me. “Oh?”

“Yeah.” I unsealed the envelope again and took my results letter back out. “I got my spring session results a few days ago.”

“Well, let’s see them then,” Mrs. Hanson said, and she wiped her hands off on a teatowel before taking my letter from me. It didn’t take her long to read through it. When she looked up at me again, I could clearly see pride in her eyes. “Well done,” she said with a smile, one that I returned.

“Thanks.”

“You’re very welcome, Sophie.” To Taylor she said, “When did you say Katie and Matthew were coming over?”

“Um…” I turned around on my barstool just in time to see Taylor close his eyes and frown a little. “Ten, I think.” He opened his eyes again and glanced down at his watch. “I’d better go have a shower, they’ll be here soon.”

“Be careful.”

Taylor nodded as he eased himself back to his feet. “I will,” he replied, and he left the kitchen, pulling his T-shirt off over his head as he wandered out into the foyer.

Around twenty minutes later, just as I heard the water shut off in the bathroom, the doorbell rang. “I’ll get it!” Jessica yelled from upstairs, and soon I heard thumping footsteps coming down the stairs.

“Inside voice, young lady,” Mrs. Hanson scolded as Jessica ran past the dining room doorway. “And don’t run in the house!”

“Sorry Mum!” she called back, and I heard the front door open. “Hi Katie!”

“Hey Jess!” Katie said back, and I hid a grin before heading out into the foyer. As soon as she spotted me I saw her eyes light right up. “Hey Sophie,” she said with a grin of her own.

“I missed you,” I said as we hugged. “How was it in Maitland?”

“Missed you too. And Maitland’s still boring as batshit. I have to go back in the morning – Mum and Dad only let me come today because I promised I’d go see Nan and Pop tomorrow.”

“Oh, you poor baby,” I teased her. “Do you know if Matt’s too far away or anything?” Just as I asked this, I saw Matthew’s Datsun turning into the driveway. “Oh, speak of the devil.”

“Speak of the what now?” Taylor said, and I turned around just in time to see him coming up behind me. He was tying a bandanna onto his head as he walked, knotting it into place at the back of his neck. “Hey Kat,” he added with a small smile.

“Hey yourself,” Katie said, and I stepped aside so that she could go and give Taylor a hug. “When did you come home?”

“Monday afternoon. Have to go back on Monday – doc only gave me a week out. Better than nothing, and it’s only a few months until I get to come home for good.”

“You’ll be home in April?” Katie asked – I could hear the hope in her voice as she spoke. When Taylor nodded, she hugged him tighter. “I’m really glad to hear that. Just make sure you don’t end up with pneumonia again, yeah?”

He cracked another smile. “I’ll try not to.”

It wasn’t long until the four of us had gathered in the practice space downstairs. I found myself biting down hard on my bottom lip as I remembered the last time we’d all been here, on what I knew had to be one of the worst days of Taylor’s life. I could only hope that today eclipsed that bad memory – it was definitely one I would have liked to forget.

“We all got you something,” Katie said once we’d all exchanged gifts. In her lap was the last of those gifts – she had volunteered to put the final, finishing touches on it, and to bring it back to Newcastle with her. “Your brothers and your mum and dad helped with it too.” She got up from where she sat on Taylor’s piano bench and came over to the lounge, where Taylor and I were both sitting. “Merry Christmas, Tay.”

“Thanks, Kat,” Taylor said as Katie handed the gift to him. He flexed his fingers a little before carefully peeling the wrapping paper off the gift. Under the wrapping paper was a box that he lifted the lid of to reveal a blue and silver MP3 player and a set of headphones. “Holy shit,” he whispered. “You didn’t…

“It was your mum and dad’s idea,” Matthew said. “There’s already music on it – around a thousand or so songs, I think. We all went through our CDs and picked out a bunch of songs that we thought you might want to listen to. Still plenty of room left for you to add your own as well.”

“And this way you won’t have to drag all your CDs and your Discman with you all the time if you don’t want to,” I piped up.

“You guys…” Taylor set the box aside and got to his feet, and we all crowded in for a group hug. “This is amazing.” He took a shaky breath, and I realised he was trying not to cry. “Thank you.”

“You okay?” I asked him as we all broke apart, and he nodded.

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s just…this is the best Christmas I’ve had in a while.” He swiped at his eyes. “I’m still here and kicking this bastard’s arse, for one. And then you guys go and do this.” He gave us all a smile. “I have the best friends in the world, seriously.”

“I’m glad you’re still here with us, Tay,” Katie said.

Taylor managed another smile. “Me too, Katie. Me too.”