Just Like Fate
There are exactly sixteen minutes left in math class when there’s a faint double knock on the classroom door, and we all perk up. Through the window I can see the office assistant with the frizzy hair standing timidly, like she’s afraid of even herself.
We watch curiously as Mr. Pip lumbers over, wiping his perpetually sweaty forehead as he goes. He opens the door two feet at best, and I almost expect him to ask the woman in the hall for a secret password. She whispers something, then hands over a tiny piece of pink paper. I know that pink: It’s a hall pass.
Someone’s getting out of here early.
“Caroline Cabot, please report to the office,” Mr. Pip says in his nasally voice. At the sound of my name, I drop the piece of strawberry-blond hair I’m twirling and, eyebrows furrowed, look across the aisle at Simone.
“What’d you do now, Linus?” she asks with a twinkle
in her dark eyes. The guy one row over wakes up when she speaks. Simone’s like a half Asian Marilyn Monroe with Angelina Jolie lips—guys are constantly checking her out.
“You should talk,” I say, reaching down to grab the backpack stuffed into the basket beneath my seat. “You’re the one with the monogrammed chair in the principal’s office.” Simone’s had detention three times this year already, but as far as the office is concerned, I’m a good girl.
On my way out, I look back at Simone and waggle my phone in her direction. She makes a face to acknowledge that texting me later is obvious just before I slip out of sight.
I think of detouring through the science wing for a glimpse of Joel, but the rule follower in me takes over and I head straight to see the principal. On my way there, I picture Joel and Lauren breaking up—maybe she has a fling with a guy her own age at the community college—and him falling madly in love with me. I laugh at myself as I push through the doors of the main office.
Then I see the look on Principal Jones’s face.
Immediately I feel it: Something’s wrong.
“Caroline,” he says, his deep vibrato at odds with his soft expression. “Your mother called.” He stops, motioning at the chair near the window. “Here, sit.”
My stomach twists. Principal Jones is nothing short of intimidating, and this unprovoked kindness is like a flashing
neon sign that reads BRACE YOURSELF. I slowly lower into the chair, even more alarmed when my principal turns to face me.
“Your grandmother’s in the hospital,” he says. “She had a stroke and your mother—”
I don’t hear the rest because I lean forward, my head between my knees like there’s an impending plane crash. My throat seizes, and I make a sound halfway between a moan and a whimper. I was just with my grandmother this morning, rolling my eyes when she told me to put my cereal bowl in the sink. Why did I roll my eyes?
“Is she okay?” I ask, tears coming faster than I can blink them away.
“I’m not clear on the details. But your mom said your brother would be here to pick you up and then—”
“I can’t wait for him.” I stand, pulling my backpack over my shoulders. “Which hospital?” Panic has my heart racing, my skin prickling. Principal Jones is stumbling over his words, but I don’t have time for this. I have to see Gram. “St. Mark’s?” I ask impatiently.
When he nods, I dash out of the office, not stopping even when the assistant calls after me from the front desk. I’m a bundle of fear loosely held together by purpose. As I jog through the empty halls, I take out my phone and text my brother.
DRIVING MYSELF. SEE YOU THERE.
• • •
The hospital is a massive maze, and at the very moment that I wonder how I’m ever going to find Gram, Natalie appears out of nowhere.
“Where’s Teddy?” she says, grabbing my arm from behind like a mugger. My sister’s wearing jeans, a black turtleneck sweater, and her dark-framed glasses. As usual, she looks more forty than almost twenty.
“I drove myself.”
“You were supposed to wait for him,” she snaps.
“Well, I didn’t,” I snap back. It’d be nice if our animosity were a result of the tension of the moment, but unfortunately this is our brand of sisterly love. Teddy is the older sibling who took me to R-rated movies before I turned seventeen; Natalie’s the one who told on me for sneaking out. In a nutshell, she sucks.
“Where are we going?” I ask, looking around.
“Gram’s on the third floor,” Natalie says through permanently pursed lips. “Come on.”
We ride the elevator in silence. When the doors open, my sister walks purposefully down one long corridor, around a corner, and down another. My stomach clenches tighter and tighter with each room we pass. I try not to look at the people inside—to wonder how many of them are dying.
I try not to wonder whether Gram’s dying.
She was already weak from the chemo treatments she finished a few months ago. But she was better. The doctors assured all of us that she was better.
As warm tears run down my cheeks, I’m suddenly twelve years old again. I’m on my grandmother’s front porch with a suitcase, asking if I can live with her. My parents’ divorce is getting uglier by the day, and I don’t want to be their pawn to hurt each other. I’ve opted out. And when Gram agrees, I am struck with relief and gratitude. She’s always been my rock; I can’t lose her.
“Here,” Natalie says, gesturing toward a door open a crack. I nod and take a deep breath of antiseptic air, then follow her in. I can’t help it: I gasp. Seeing Gram in a hospital bed is like a punch in the gut.
“Hi,” I say, desperately trying to keep the despair out of my voice, the tears from my eyes. But when Gram raises a skinny, veiny arm and waves, I can’t hold back. I rush to her bedside, crying the kind of tears that don’t care if they make you look ugly.
“Stop that now, Caroline,” Gram says, reaching out to hold my hand with the arm that’s free from the IV. Her hand is the same one that makes me breakfast, but it feels alien. Cold. Frail. Even worse, her words are coming out funny—slurred somehow. She sounds like she’s drunk. “I’m going to be fine,” she says, but “fine” sounds like “fline.”
“Yes,” I say, knowing if I say more, I’ll start blubbering again.
I’m still holding Gram’s hand when Mom walks in with my little sister, Judith.
“Where’s Teddy?” Mom asks when she sees me. Apparently, whether or not my brother is inconvenienced is what’s really important here. The funny thing is that Teddy won’t care—he’s the most laid-back one of all of us.
“She didn’t wait for him,” Natalie mutters to Mom in that annoyingly soft voice she uses when she’s only pretending to be discreet.
“Well, you’re here now,” Mom says, sighing at me.
“Coco!” Judith says, dropping Mom’s hand and rushing toward me. She hugs my leg, and I squeeze her as best I can without letting go of Gram. I run my palm over her baby blond hair and smile.
“Hi, Juju,” I say. “How are you?”
“Mama gived me juice,” she says proudly. At two and a half, she’s all belly and bum; she stands like an adorable troll doll, beaming at me. Then she looks at Gram. “We bringed you juice, too, Gamma!”
Judith runs over and grabs a juice box from Mom’s gigantic purse, then returns to the bedside and tosses it up onto Gram’s lap. Gram beams back at her. “How thoughtful of you,” she says. “Thank you, Judith.”
I look away from Gram’s face when I realize that one side is sagging lower than the other. Thankfully, a nurse comes in right then and says he needs to check her vitals.
“Let’s all step out for a minute,” Mom says, giving me a look that tells me I’m coming with her, whether I like it or not. “We’ll go get a snack and be back in a few minutes, Mom.”
“All right, then,” Gram says, releasing my hand. It feels like I’ve just taken off my coat in a blizzard. I want to grab hold again, but the nurse has already moved in with his pushcart full of tools. “See you.”
I swallow down the lump in my throat and follow Mom, Judith, and Natalie out of the room. Teddy is walking toward us from the elevator, and when he joins our group, he’s the only one on the face of the planet who manages not to give me crap about driving myself. Instead he nudges me with his elbow and whispers, “She’ll be fine, Coco.”
And that makes me cry all over again.
When Judith is preoccupied, hopping from tile to tile in the hallway, my mother talks in a detached voice. “I didn’t want to say this in front of her, but they did a scan.” Natalie’s eyes are round as saucers and Teddy crosses his arms over his chest, listening intently. I feel light-headed.
Mom sighs heavily. “The cancer has spread. It’s throughout her abdomen, her lungs. Her brain.”
“Oh my God.” It’s all I can manage. Natalie reaches for my mother immediately. I look at Teddy as he shakes his head slowly.
“She’s weak from the stroke, and the cancer is everywhere,” Mom continues, letting go of Natalie. “The oncologist says she’s too far gone—that there’s nothing they can do but make her comfortable.” My mother takes a deep breath and meets my eyes. “She doesn’t have long.”
I want to ask specifically how long that means. I want to ask why the chemo worked but then didn’t. I want to ask a million things, but everything stills—even my vocal cords. In that quiet, my thoughts are noisy: I’m losing my confidant. I’m losing my best friend.
“Coco?” Teddy asks, like he said something before but I didn’t hear him. It pulls me out. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I say. My ears are ringing.
“Do you want to sit down?” he asks, nodding to the chairs near the wall.
Natalie huffs, wiping the tears under her glasses. “It’s always about you, isn’t it,” she murmurs.
The anger in my sister’s voice lights a fire in me. I’m so sick of her telling me what to do, acting like I’m some inconvenience to the family. She’s been like this ever since the divorce. I spin toward her, ready to strike back.
Teddy steps in before I tear into her. “Please,” he says
to both of us. “I can’t referee right now.” His shoulders are hunched, and I realize that even my always-steady older brother is crumbling too. We fall silent and wait until the nurse leaves before crossing the hall. My mother pauses outside the doorway and turns to face us.
“Not a word about what I told you,” she whispers. She grabs Judith’s hand and walks back inside the room.