John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport
PENNY HAD SEEN A NUMBER OF AIRPORTS THAT YEAR, but Hamilton was by far her favourite, despite its lack of meal options. Heathrow was a particular blight. You would turn a corner from the waiting area and be ambushed by a capitalist hell of bright colours and blinking signs: MCDONALDS DONUTS UK EXCLUSIVE. She had walked through that valley of the shadow of death with a sense of hell beyond hell.
Family had never been her strong suit, her brother least of all. The last time her family got together in Burlington, the capitalist/ Marxist debate had ended with Patrick’s copy of Atlas Shrugged in the pudding. Their last Thanksgiving as a complete family of proper colonials, and the pumpkin tart came with soggy prose. Patrick had moved to London after that, met his partner and put his Canadian passport in a drawer.
Still, Penny understood her duty. She followed Patrick and Marcus halfway around the world and back again that summer from one clinical trial to the next. Perth one week, Mumbai the next, she saw it all while dragging Patrick’s air purifier down the runway, through subway trams, into town cars and, once, onto a bike taxi. Marcus had to mortgage his family’s castle to pay for all the treatments. In Perth, he threatened, without irony, to send Penny “back to the bloody colonies” but she none too politely reminded him he’d have to pay someone else to be there. There was no mention of sending her back to Canada after that.
Patrick was dead now.
Penny picked the square black bag off the floor and set it on the chair beside her. By now Marcus the widower would be at Pearson. He refused to fly with anyone but British Airways or their affiliates. If he hadn’t been so stubborn about his airline, Penny would have tricked him into booking a flight to London, Ontario. She knew she was supposed to feel bad for him. The man’s partner had just died, but the way he had dragged Patrick from trial to trial during his last few months enraged her. She knew Patrick would rather have lived the remainder of his life quietly. God, he hated travelling.
Mummy! Mummy! MUM ME!
Patrick’s pitchy screams seeped around the edges of the door. Penny, six, was already packed and sitting on her suitcase, waiting outside their council house. She wore her white knee-high socks, shorts and a golliwog T-shirt. She did not understand what that meant. Penny drew a smiling face on the dirt with her foot, only slightly aware of her father pulling the screaming Patrick out of his room by his ankles. Patrick’s fists gripped his bed frame, dragging it along the floor. Wider than the door, the bed was tearfully abandoned. Their father tucked the little wet ball of her brother to his chest, wrapping a towel around the sobbing boy and rocking him. Mum appeared, nonplussed, carrying the large basket of sandwiches that Richard had made.
“I DON’T. WANT. tuh. GO!” Patrick screamed into his knees. His mother offered some comforting words, rubbing his back, but she took Penny’s hand and led her downstairs to the car. Richard followed, carrying his son. Patrick shrieked on every third step. When Richard buckled Patrick into his seat, he gave Penny a small wink and a biscuit.
Patrick calmed down after that, received his jammy dodger and the trip to Clacton was almost quiet.
Five years after she burned the racist T-shirt, a town car picked Penny up outside Heathrow to drive her to Marcus’s London residence. As the driver shut the door behind her, fear stabbed her. Marcus was always polite but terse, never sharing more than a brief exchange
about the weather, his flight or her studies. Any mention of her specific interests in politics, he would change the subject or ask Sylvia, her mum, about her snapdragons. Marcus probably knew assassins, or had a man who dealt with such matters.
Penny’s claustrophobia wasn’t quite as bad as her brother’s, but it made her slightly irrational in unknown situations.
She arrived at Marcus’s place unscathed: however, the driver was not so lucky. Marcus had cleared the residence of staff that afternoon to cut costs. The driver was fired after he brought Penny’s bags in. The castle too was at half staff, but most of the employees maintained the building instead of its residents.
Patrick rose from the armchair, one willowy arm on his cane. He hobbled over to his frozen sister. His eyes sunk under heavy bags, his ponytail limp and patchy. Penny noticed the evidence of a bruise creeping above his collar. He was twenty-five.
They stood in silence for a few moments. Patrick prided himself on self-sufficiency. It pained him to need his little sister, she knew. Every second, a decade long, amplified the whirr of the clock.
“Good to have you, Pamela,” said Marcus, appearing in the doorway.
“It’s Penny, darling,” Patrick croaked. He coughed, but didn’t cover his mouth.
“You haven’t been tarting it up, have you?” she said before she could stop herself. A giggle escaped her. One hand flew to her mouth. Marcus glowered. Patrick laughed so hard he had to sit down.
“Best keep mum,” he said with an amused glance at Marcus, “or you might not be one.”
Even leukaemia couldn’t keep them from taking the piss out of each other.
1987 Clacton, UK
Penny swam four lengths back and forth, and on the fourth she stopped and looked to see if her mummy and daddy were watching. She saw Patrick first, dipping his fingers in blood left on Mum’s chair. He sniffed his wet fingers and drew two lines on his cheek. The tip of the mark dripped.
Richard yelled from the back of a lorry at Patrick to stop. Two paramedics loaded Sylvia into the back. Penny stood, letting the water lap around her neck, watching the ambulance drive off the
beach, back through the newly cleared path between towels and spades, dashing a corner of a sandcastle. Auntie Caroline called her out of the water. She wrapped the children in their father’s towel, hugging them tight. Patrick rubbed his red cheek on Penny’s nose, staining her.
Katy wasn’t born for another three years.
Penny’s phone sang from within her carry-on. Are you landed yet? Is he okay? How does he look? —Katy
At her parents’ house in Burlington, above the chest of drawers in the entrance, were three sets of portraits. The first set was of only Penny and Patrick, in their school uniforms from their parish school in England. These were not school photos, but Sylvia found their uniforms rather sharp. Their photos in the second set included Katy. The elder two had primary school photos, but Katy’s framed plump baby face photo came from the studio. The third set was from much later, their first school photos in Canada. Patrick wore a cap and gown, and his mother’s wry smile. Penny sat in front of a fake library backdrop, making the same face her father did when she gave him snark. Katy beamed like it was Christmas. She had been sent to school in Penny’s old golliwog T-shirt, but Richard had been called in to bring her freshly washed favourite shirt with a puppy on it. Penny burned the offensive shirt that weekend at a bush party where Patrick hooked up with a girl for the last time.
As the loudspeaker announced some garble about the baggage claim, Penny realized, tracing a heart on her palm, that the reason she had pursued a career in human rights stemmed from her original intolerance of her brother’s orientation. Katy, who was six when he came out, who had never gone to the parish school, grasped the concept on instinct. What did it matter to her who her tall, gangly brother held hands with?
Patrick came out to his family on their third Thanksgiving in Canada, when they were landed immigrants. Stony as a tomb, Richard rose from the table but said nothing. His chin twitched with unsaid declarations. Penny stewed in her chair, unsure of who she was or
what she believed. If Patrick was gay, what did that make her? The gay kid’s sister? He wasn’t even a fun gay. He still looked, sounded and smelled like every other punter in their school. Why declare your difference if you weren’t going to be different? Teenage Penny thought you could choose who you were, as if life was a vending machine. You were supposed to pick the Dairy Milk, not the Fruit & Nut.
Over some years, their ideologies switched. Patrick decided he was not a “free-loader”; he would make his own fortune, his own path. While he worked part-time at the bank, Penny volunteered with a gay rights advocacy group in town. She couldn’t believe gay people couldn’t use their partner’s health insurance or take time off if their partner died, let alone their inability to get married. The work assuaged some of her guilt, but every statistic she read, every slight to their rights, held the face of her brother, but never Marcus. She always assumed he could buy his way out of any slight.
Marcus and his credit card carted Patrick from London to Perth, from Mumbai to Tucson. Patrick seemed to make marginal improvements in India with the stem cell treatment, but after a brief reprieve where he was even well enough to do a little sight-seeing, the cancer reasserted itself over Patrick’s blood cells. The doctors refused him further treatment, no matter how much Marcus gave them.
Patrick didn’t want to move on to Tucson. He and Marcus had it out in the middle of a market in central Mumbai, yelling, screaming and throwing handfuls of garam masala at each other. Then they made out. Even Penny, who stayed at the market to help clean up while the boys went back to the hotel, had to admit it was rather romantic. When she returned to the hotel, however, Patrick sulked on an armchair, while Marcus created a replica of Stonehenge out of the empty mini-fridge bottles.
On the bed were three tickets to Tucson. The television, playing The Tyra Banks Show, soaked up the sounds of the city. In the distance, the Rajabai clock tower chimed half past. Patrick took his partner to have a quiet conversation on the balcony. Penny laid out the night’s antibiotic cocktail while Tyra donned a costume to go undercover as a fat person. Marcus came in to make tea after Tyra revealed her transformation. Penny brought Patrick his medication with a glass of ice water.
“When was the last time you showered?” he said, sipping the water.
“The last time you thanked your fuckin’ awesome sister,” she said, handing him a painkiller.
“What did Katy do?” Patrick dodged the swat of her hand. He chuckled wanly, taunting her with his wicked smile, and used the rail of the balcony to help him stand.
The clock struck quarter to the hour.
St. Alban’s School
Penny sat on the curb, waiting for her mum.
Patrick snuck up from behind and wiped his snotty nose on her crisp shirt. Penny flicked his nose. He hit back, his watch catching her nostril. She bled on his sleeve.
The digital clocks at St. Mary’s Private Hospital clicked from green to red and when the time changed from 24:00 to 00:01, five clocks beeped, causing a slight echo down the hall. It was quiet enough not to disturb the dreamers, loud enough to remind the night guardians how much sleep they weren’t having. Penny dozed in a plastic chair by the window, while Marcus played solitaire on his phone. Patrick hadn’t taken to the treatment as quickly as the other study patients and while his dreamy breaths had dusted his blanket an hour before, they now became shallow and ragged. She’d been half awake, half dreaming about the nurse with deep brown eyes and a disarming smile. Hot nurse had just pulled down her trousers when Marcus woke her from this utopia.
He was humming “Under Pressure,” Patrick’s favourite song, while Patrick huffed quietly in his sleep. Marcus ran his hand through Patrick’s hair, moving it off his cheek, Pressure! Pushing down— Marcus asked just as one of Patrick’s machines went off, drowning out the polite beep of the clock on the hour. Nurses filed in. The hot one escorted Marcus and Penny out into the waiting room. A doctor sped around the corner, her lab coat splayed out like a cape behind her, and ran into the room. Hot nurse shut the door. Marcus stared at the door, unmoving, until Penny guided him to a chair. She paced the square section of the ward. Marcus held his head in his hands.
The alarms were turned off about twenty minutes later, but no one came out to explain or to reassure them. Marcus had gone to relieve himself.
Penny sat, her left foot tapping, her eyes never leaving the door. Two nurses departed. Then another. Dr Wilson came out and left the door open. Only one nurse remained. Were there only three?
“Are you Mr Clarke’s sister?” Dr Wilson asked. Marcus appeared from around the corner.
“Is there news?” Marcus asked.
“You’re the sister?” Dr Wilson asked her.
Penny nodded, her foot still.
The doctor gave her a thorough explanation of Patrick’s condition, but all the science flew out of Penny’s head. Patrick was dying.
“Now we can administer the last dose of the drug and pray it restores some function to blood flow, or we can give him a good dose of pain meds and let him say goodbye.”
Penny felt as if a lorry had landed on her chest. It was impossible to decide.
“We’ll take the chance, madam, please,” Marcus said, nodding his head up and down, over and over.
“That’s not your decision, sir. Only family.” Dr Wilson turned to face Penny. Marcus turned pink. Tears welled up in his fuming eyes. The doctor focused on Penny. “We only have a small window.”
It was Penny’s instinct to give Patrick a little mercy, let him have some less painful moments before—but just as she opened her mouth to say so, she saw Marcus twitch under the instinct to cry. It cut into her.
1997 Kitchener, ON
Katy sat between them. She wore a blue dress with white lace for the occasion. Penny rubbed the lace between her fingers, sloughing off dead skin. The callus irritated her, but not as much as her new braces. She would have the permanently displeased look of a brace-face on her citizenship card, forever. This would later be a charming story to tell attractive men in bars, but in the moment, red blossomed on her cheeks like a teenage crush. Despite, or perhaps because of, the pomp of the occasion, Penny started to doze off, but any movement, even a slouch to relax, accompanied by any movement in her mouth,
shredded the inside of her cheek and set off another twinge in her gums. Penny had been unable to sleep the night before, and something about the government official’s voice sent her into the soft realm of doze-town. It took Patrick’s sharp jab to the shoulder to wake her up. Her family was gathering around them for a group photo to mark the occasion. Katy plopped down to sit on the floor in front. Patrick shuffled over beside Penny. She still hadn’t forgiven him for the jab, but he seemed to register something in her face, either the annoyance or the pain.
Every time their friend Paul tried to take the photo, Patrick ducked in front of her. Paul yelled, Penny jabbed him back, before returning to massaging her jaw, doomed to looking uncomfortable for the next two years, and beyond, if this photo got framed and put in the dining room. It wasn’t until they got the photos back that Penny realized Patrick hadn’t blocked her face every time—just her mouth.
Remembering the taste of metal and blood, Penny said, “He’s his partner. You listen to him,” with a steely edge in her voice.
Dr Wilson shook her head.
“With all due respect to Mr Clarke’s special friend, the protocol is clear. Only family gets to make decisions as to a patient’s medical needs,” said the doctor. “You have to make the decision.”
This was the reason. This was why Penny left Amnesty International to travel the world, airport to airport, hospital to hospital, to carry the air purifier, give medications and join three’s company. Marcus’s fears had come true. Penny felt briefly vindicated, and then the rock of shame sank to the pit of her stomach, scraping the lining.
All the moisture in her dried up. She was a raisin in a hemp dress, redolent with sweat and fear. Somehow her body managed to conjure a well of hot tears. She’d not cried at any point in the journey, except while laughing with Patrick at a Candid Camera rerun in Perth. He’d wet himself.
She didn’t want to make this choice. She wanted to complain about carrying the stupid air purifier or tease Patrick about some shirt he was wearing; she wanted to flirt and possibly hook up with Hot Nurse without repercussion, because she would be leaving town in two weeks with Patrick and Marcus, looking for the next miracle cure.
Or would she be leaving alone?
Penny told the doctor, with Marcus by her side, refusing to bar him from any part of the process. Her second batch of tears burned with the sting of selfishness, of Patrick’s peace over Marcus’s choice.
She wanted a chance to say goodbye, cry on his pillow, call Mum, Dad and Katy. He had written them all letters, but there were none for her and Marcus. He wasn’t ready to say goodbye either.
The clock struck the hour.
2005 London, UK
“You haven’t been tarting, have you?” asked Penny.
“Of course not, you cunt,” Patrick said, smiling. He took her arm and forced her to help him to the guest bedroom. They stayed up all night and Penny told him all about post-graduation depression and unemployment leading to an offer from Amnesty International. He dished on blue blood gossip and on dining at Windsor castle. Patrick insisted Prince Harry was at least a little bit gay.
“You wish,” Penny laughed. They talked so long they fell asleep on the lounger.
Marcus came in close to three to find Patrick asleep on Penny’s breast. He coughed five or six times before the siblings woke. Patrick, upon realizing where he was resting, pushed himself away with such force he fell off the lounger. Marcus bent to cushion the fall, but he was too slow. Patrick hit his tail bone. Marcus offered to carry him out. Penny was sure Marcus had never carried another human being in his life. She was wrong. He had played rugby at Cambridge.
“Upsidaisy,” Marcus cooed, tucking his manicured fingers under Patrick’s thin legs and slipping his lover’s arm around his neck. The way he looked at her brother undermined her proletarian resentment. Such tenderness. Such fear. As if he had been a tick away from perfect happiness.
The clock struck the hour. Marcus grunted as he stood, carrying Patrick out of the room.
No, only the bit about talking all night happened the day she arrived in the UK. The episode where he fell asleep on her breast happened when she was sixteen on a bus to Thunder Bay. Marcus carrying Patrick out of her room was the day before the curry fight. They’d fought and Patrick had tried to leave in a huff but was too weak. Her brother had wept, brushing the tears away as fast as they came, the blush of anger turned inward.
An announcement came over the loudspeaker, reminding anyone remaining at the gate that their luggage was ready. Penny was the only one left. She had gotten off the plane and sat with the passengers waiting to board the flight to Winnipeg instead of meeting her family at the carousel, where the air purifier went unclaimed.
Almost an hour after she had landed, Penny opened the small black case and pulled out the urn, wrapped in a towel to keep it safe. She closed her arms around her brother and pulled him and the towel to her chest.
Penny wanted some game show host to run in and tell her it was all a joke. Candid Camera. Tyra Banks. Penny wanted to fix everything and be nothing. She wanted a cure. She wanted more time. She wanted to take Patrick’s hand, dipped in the blood of their miscarried sibling and smush it into her cheek, leaving his handprint on her face forever. She wanted one chance at a perfect moment in their relationship, a perfect memory, unblemished.
One second could be enough.