Four years ago
It’s my birthday. I’m at my favorite bar with a giant group of friends, and my favorite local country band just played the first chords to my favorite old-school country song, so right now—in this exact moment—my life is perfect. My younger sister, Dixie, lets out a loud whoop. And my older sister, Winnie, grabs her boyfriend, Ty, and immediately pulls him onto the dance floor. I jump up and down in my cowboy boots, with the twenty or so friends who came tonight, and raise my beer in the air.
“Before we start belting this out,” says the lead singer, “I hear it’s one of our favorite local’s birthday. Sadie Braddock, get yer butt up here!”
Dixie whoops again and shoves me toward the stage. I’m not a total extrovert like her, but I’m four beers in, and it’s my motherfucking birthday so, yeah, I’m going to get up there and sing “Jolene” so hard Dolly Parton would be proud. I dance my way to the front of the crowd, and the singer pulls me up on stage. My twenty-third year is starting out perfectly.
When it’s over, a pair of big, strong hands reaches up to help me off the stage. They wrap around my waist the way they would wrap around a burrito, they’re that big. I assume it’s the bouncer, Kevin, or one of my friends, but when our eyes connect, I realize it’s not. It’s a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. Just when I thought the night could not get better.
“Happy birthday,” he says as he dips his head so I can hear him over the band.
“Thank you,” I reply with a big, bold grin. “But birthday wishes are always more heartfelt when they come with a beverage.”
He laughs at that. It’s a deep, nice sound. A man’s laugh is essential for me. It’s got to be deep, strong, and sexy, because the right guy for me is someone who will do it a lot. “I was going to offer to buy you another beer, but yours looked full.”
I eye the bottle in my hand, which is only half full, then put it to my lips and down it. When I finish and look up at him, he’s grinning like he just watched porn. “Looks are deceiving.”
He laughs again and takes my hand and leads me to the bar.
Two hours later I’ve hugged and kissed my friends goodbye and now I’m doing the same to my tall, dark stranger—only with a lot tongue. It’s a decent kiss. Not ovary-flipping, though, which is why I’m letting Dixie tug me away from him on the street outside Bourbon and Boots.
“Call me,” he demands huskily.
“Of course,” I call back as Dixie keeps pulling me down the street.
We walk arm in arm toward the subway, with Winnie and Ty trailing behind, stopping every now and then to make out. Dixie makes me tell her everything about him. “List his pros,” Dixie demands. “Besides the obvious hotness.”
“Pro—he’s a digital producer in the film industry, which sounds all techy and smart. And he owns his own condo, so he doesn’t live in his parents’ basement,” I explain, and she laughs but nods her head emphatically.
“Not bad.” Dixie nods. Her blue eyes look up at me inquisitively. “Cons?”
“Con—he’s only a year older than me,” I explain, and she frowns, but I tug on her arm. “You know I like them older. And con—the blond hair. I feel like when I date blonds it looks like I’m dating my brother. No offense, Ty and Winnie.”
I call that last thing over my shoulder to my older sister and her very blond boyfriend, but they’re too busy sucking face again to listen. I roll my eyes and turn back to Dixie. “And he loves hockey. When he asked if I was related to Jude, he was all excited.”
“Always lie and pretend you’ve never heard of Jude,” Dixie says sternly about our older brother, who plays professional hockey for the San Francisco Thunder. “That’s what I’m going to do for my internship with the team. No one is going to know I’m related to him.”
“How you going to manage that?” I ask. Dixie just finished up her degree and snagged an internship with the Thunder in their PR department.
“Same way I got the job. Using my middle name as a last name,” Dixie replies with a bright smile. “Dixie Wynn sounds way better than Braddock anyway. You should lie to people too and use your middle name.”
“Sadie Rae sounds ridiculous to me,” I reply. “Anyway, back to the dude. The kiss was okay but not OMG, which is the only reason I let you drag me away from him.”
“So the fact that I flew home from school just for your stupid birthday isn’t reason enough from keeping you from going home with a stranger?” Dixie asks in mock annoyance. “Wow. You’re such a Jude.”
I laugh so hard I snort. Our older brother is known just as much for being a giant player off the ice as he is for being a talented one on the ice. It’s actually kind of embarrassing for all of us, and we spend as much time as we can teasing him about it.
“I’m honored you came home for my birthday.” I smile at her and give her arm a squeeze. “But I’m not stupid. I think it was a little bit me and a lot about eating Mom’s food, sleeping in my comfy guest room, and using a washing machine for free.”
“That is just icing on the cake.” Dixie grins. She’s been spending the summer at school in New York taking classes so she can graduate earlier. I honestly don’t care why she came home, whether it was my birthday or the free food and laundry. I’m just happy she’s back. My siblings and I are all pretty close, no matter where any of us are living.
“Uh-huh.” I roll my eyes, but I’m smiling. I might not be willing to say it aloud, but I really miss having my whole family in the same city. Jude has been gone since he was eighteen, only coming back in the summer, and even then, he’s usually off doing his own thing, like tonight. He didn’t want to come to the bar with us. And Winnie is madly in love with Ty and spends all her free time with him. I mean, not that I have a lot of free time because I’m an ER nurse in the biggest hospital here in Toronto, but still, I wish we had more time together, so I love when we have weekends like this.
We reach the subway entrance and come to a stop. Winnie is now being carried by Ty piggyback-style, and they look stupidly happy and in love. It makes me smile, because Winnie is such a fantastic human, and before Ty she struggled a lot with self-image and realizing her worth. She jumps off his back, and he turns and grabs her in another romantic kiss, dipping her back like they’re a couple in a 1940s photo.
“Why did you agree to stay at Sadie’s tonight?” Ty groans.
“Because it’s my birthday. You can have sex tomorrow night,” I reply for her. “Or tomorrow afternoon after the family brunch. Just not at the family brunch.”
“That sounds like a challenge,” Winnie jokes back. “Accepted.”
Ty laughs. He kisses her again and then waves goodbye to all of us as he heads down into the subway and we head down the street toward the condo that I just bought.
I’m excited for tomorrow, when Jude and our parents will come over too. Then Dixie, Winnie, and I are going to the spa. It’s the perfect weekend and totally makes up for the doubles I had to pull last week to get three days off in a row. Not that I minded all that much. I love my job. Even the most grueling shift is filled with a feeling of accomplishment. All I’ve ever wanted to do was help people.
We turn the corner onto my street, and Dixie is telling us about some disastrous hookup she had back at school with some guy who made weird noises when they kissed, when I see a shadow pacing in front of my building. I instantly recognize the broad shoulders, blond hair, and the distinct gait. It’s our brother.
“What the hell are you doing here at almost one in the morning?’ I call out, halting Dixie’s story as her eyes turn to see Jude as well.
“Hey! Are you alone?” Dixie asks. “I didn’t think it was humanly possible for you to be out past midnight without some poor, deluded girl pressing her double D’s against your…”
The horrifying realization that Jude is crying hits all of us at the exact same time. It’s like having your heart sucked into the turning engine of a jet plane. Quick, terrifying, and eviscerating.
“What’s wrong?” I demand.
“I need to talk to you,” Jude says. “He’s going to tell you tomorrow, but I found out tonight and I…I can’t.”
“What happened?” Winnie asks, her face contorted in confusion just like Dixie’s and I’m sure mine is.
“I went to see Mom and Dad tonight.” He wipes angrily at his damp cheeks with the back of his hand. I’m confused again. “He went to the doctor.”
“Okay, you mean Dad went to the doctor? So?” I’m beginning to piece things together, and dread fills my chest.
He looks at each of us, slowly, intensely, and I realize he is trying to capture this moment—our soft expressions, our naïveté—because it’s going to leave. We’re never going look so unaffected again. I know this moment, I’ve seen this moment happen before a doctor diagnoses a patient or a patient reveals a diagnosis to a loved one.
I feel my whole body turn to stone and yet every fiber of my being wants to move—to flee. To run away before Jude can open his mouth. I have no idea what he’s about to say, but I know it’s going to change everything. I can feel it.
“The doctor says he has something called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Or ALS.”
Dixie grabs my hand. I hear Winnie’s sharp inhale and then nothing.
“What is that?” Dixie asks.
“What’s the cure? There’s a cure, right? Or a treatment?” Winnie demands.
“It’s not serious, right? I mean it’s manageable?” Dixie questions.
Dixie and Winnie assault him with questions, but he’s ignoring them and looking only at me. He knows I know. He’s looking at my face in desperation, wanting to see something that contradicts his own pained expression. He’s hoping I know some medical information he hasn’t found on Google. Something that will change the outcome he already knows is coming. He’s looking for hope—even a glimmer.
But I don’t have a glimmer of hope. I don’t know any miracle drug or cure or anything. I can’t say anything, can’t do anything. My father is going to die from this. It’s only a matter of when. Tears fall from Jude’s eyes again, and he starts to turn away, but I grab him and pull him into a hug.
“No,” Dixie whimpers, covering her face with her hands, so I reach out and pull her to me as well. Winnie is standing silently, shaking her head repeatedly, as her trembling hands start to dial her phone. She needs Ty. I’m so happy she has him.
Hours later, as the sun rises, we’re all sitting silently in my living room, puffy-eyed, exhausted, and devastated. We’ve scoured every website on the disease, we’ve cursed the universe, we’ve had a colossal pity party, and lastly, we’ve made a pact. We will be there for one another—and for our parents—and do whatever it takes to make his time left on this planet as painless and stress-free and filled with love as humanly possible.
As Jude and Dixie start to doze off on the couch and Winnie disappears into the guest room, I head into my bedroom and change into sweats. Pulling my phone out of the pocket of the dress I was wearing and putting it on the dresser, I notice I have a message from the guy from the bar. It feels like a lifetime ago.
He doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing matters anymore but getting the people I love, and myself, through this. I was born to help people, and now I have to help my family.
It’s the only thing I care about.