THE SAMPLING: Catch Me When You Fall

January 10, 2018

A moving novel about learning to find happiness in the face of uncertainty and discovering a love that transcends the boundary between life and death. Seventeen-year-old Alex Byrd is about to have the worst day of her life, and the best. A routine blood test that will reveal her leukaemia has returned, but she also meets Jamie Orange. Both teenagers have big dreams, but also big obstacles to overcome.


'Promise me you won't try to die,' I said. 'Ever.'


'Promise me you won't either,' he countered.


'It's not really something I can control.'

 

Reproduced with permission from Catch Me When You Fall by Eileen Merriman.

Published by Penguin Random House NZ. RRP $19.99. Text © Eileen Merriman, 2018.

 

  

Full Moon

 

The day after the new worst day of my life (the news of my relapse, coupled with breaking up with my first boyfriend, was no contest for any bad day I’d had to live through so far), I ended up back in Doctor McIntyre’s office.

 

It was mid-afternoon, just after three. I could have easily made it to school, but I hadn’t bothered. What was the point, when I was going to spend the next few months in hospital? Mum had left a generic message on the school answer phone that morning, merely saying I was sick. That was because I’d begged her to wait until next week before dropping the L-bomb on the school. The last thing I wanted was everyone knowing I had cancer again. I wasn’t ready.

 

I’ll never be ready.

 

 

. . . I’d begged her to wait until next week before dropping the L-bomb on the school. The last thing I wanted was everyone knowing I had cancer again. I wasn’t ready.

 

 

‘Your blood test this morning shows your white cell count has dropped further,’ Doctor McIntyre said. ‘Your neutrophils aren’t terribly low, but perhaps try to stay away from sick people and crowded places over the weekend.’

 

‘What level are they?’ I asked. At the age of thirteen, I’d learnt a whole new language. Neutrophils were the most important cells, as far as I was concerned. They were the white cells I needed to fight infection, the cells that determined when it was safe for me to go home between cycles of chemotherapy.

 

His eyes met mine. ‘Zero point seven,’ he said. He went on to detail my haemoglobin and platelet levels, which would have sounded like Swahili to most teenagers, but made perfect sense to me. I didn’t need a blood transfusion yet, but give it a week and I probably would.

 

Mum fiddled with her necklace. ‘Do you think Alex needs to be admitted sooner than Monday? It seems like a very long time away.’

 

‘I don’t think a few days will make much difference,’ Doctor McIntyre said, his eyes still on mine. ‘We can get the Hickman line, which is the tube we’ll deliver the chemo through, inserted first thing on Monday morning. Alex can start her chemo on the same day.’

 

I slumped into my chair. ‘Fantastic.’ The thought of having a catheter tunnelled beneath the skin in my chest, into a major vein, made me want to puke. ‘Do you still have singing clowns coming around CHOC?’

 

There was a yell from next door, followed by hysterical screaming. I knew just how the kid felt.

 

‘Well, that’s the thing.’ Doctor McIntyre set his pen down on the desk, which was covered in folders and screwed-up pieces of paper, along with two half-empty coffee cups. It made me wonder if he’d mixed up my results with someone else’s. ‘I’ve been talking to the adult haematologists and I — we — think it’d be best if you were treated on the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit.’

 

‘Oh.’ I blinked. ‘OK.’ The screaming continued. I wanted to scream, too. What do you mean, the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit? No one knows me there.

 

My father leaned forward. ‘Are you sure that’s wise? Everyone knows Alex in CHOC — surely that’s to her advantage?’

 

‘Sometimes we do treat seventeen-year-olds, especially if we already know them,’ Doctor McIntyre said. ‘But Alex is going to have a bone marrow transplant, which would take place in the adult unit anyway. It’d make more sense if she were treated in the BMTU from day one.’

 

‘But what if Hannah’s bone marrow doesn’t match mine?’ I asked.

 

Doctor McIntyre ran a finger down the side of his nose. ‘There’s a twenty-five per cent chance Hannah will be a match for you.

 

If she’s not, then we’ll do a search of the international bone marrow registry for a matched unrelated donor, otherwise known as a MUD donor.’

 

MUD donor? It sounded like a creature out of Game of Thrones.

 

 

MUD donor? It sounded like a creature out of Game of Thrones.

 

 

‘Look,’ the man formerly known as my paediatrician — now AKA traitor — said. ‘I suggest you go home and make the most of your long weekend. But please come in immediately if you have any fevers, or—’

 

‘Bleeding, or you just don’t feel right,’ I interrupted. ‘I know, I know.’ I stood up. ‘Well, thanks for diagnosing me, I suppose.’

 

‘Take care, Alex,’ Doctor McIntyre said, his mouth twisting a little. It made me wonder if he was going to do something weird, like hug me, so I left. 

 

***

 

Back home and in my room, I finally summoned up the courage to turn my phone back on. I hadn’t touched it since the day before, after my final text to Jamie.

 

My phone dinged immediately. It was a text from Nicole.

 

Are you OK? Did you get that gastro bug?

 

I sighed. Telling my friends was going to be fun. Not. Delaying the inevitable, I texted back: Am OK. Will call you this weekend.

 

I kept staring at my phone display, waiting for the inevitable string of messages from Jamie. But there weren’t any.

 

The inside of my stomach felt like a vacuum. Was Jamie not even going to bother to ask me what was wrong? Maybe he’d had enough of my weird behaviour, and was off to find a normal girlfriend.

 

Perhaps I should have been happy that he hadn’t made it any harder by asking me for an explanation. But I wasn’t. I felt rejected, used, unwanted. Which was completely unreasonable, since I was the one who’d pushed him away.

 

Then there was my camera. How was I going to get that back without having to face him? Maybe I could send Dad to pick it up.

 

I groaned and lay back on my bed. The doorbell rang. Probably it was one of Hannah’s vacuous friends, coming over so they could play with their phones and see how many likes they could get for their Facebook posts. I rolled onto my stomach and pressed my pillow over my ears.

 

There was a knock on my door, and it swung open.

 

‘Alex?’

 

‘The answer is no,’ I said, still lying face down. ‘To nail polish, my sparkly top and my make-up, in that order.’

 

‘Oh,’ Hannah said, her voice thick with faux-innocence. ‘So you want me to tell him to go away then?’

 

 

‘Oh,’ Hannah said, her voice thick with faux-innocence. ‘So you want me to tell him to go away then?’

 

 

I sat up. ‘Tell who to go away?’ Hannah bounced on the balls of her feet, her pigtails swinging from side to side.

 

‘There’s a guy called Jamie at the door. I can tell him you’re feeling s—’

 

‘Get out of my way,’ I growled, springing off the bed and elbowing past her. Oh God, Jamie was here? I slowed to smooth my hand over my tangled hair. Great, I hadn’t washed it for two days.

 

‘Is that your boyfriend?’ Hannah asked.

 

‘Shut up.’ I ducked into the bathroom to squirt toothpaste in my mouth and spat ‘go away’ to Hannah once back in the hallway. She rolled her eyes and melted back into the lounge.

 

The front door was open. I couldn’t see Jamie at first. My heart sped up. What if he’d left already? Then I saw that he was sitting on the bottom step, facing the street.

 

‘How did you know where I live?’ I closed the front door behind me, so Hannah couldn’t listen in.

 

Jamie glanced up. ‘It’s written in here — remember?’ He held up the camera case.

 

‘Oh. Yeah.’ I sat beside him and took the camera. ‘Thanks for bringing it back.’

 

‘No problem,’ he said, and we both fell silent. It was the longest time I’d ever heard Jamie go without talking. Except for when we were kissing in the gardens, when all I’d heard was his breathing and my heart beating. Oh no, I was going to miss that. And we’d barely even started.

 

 

Except for when we were kissing in the gardens, when all I’d heard was his breathing and my heart beating. Oh no, I was going to miss that. And we’d barely even started.

 

 

‘I’m sorry about yesterday,’ I said, digging my fingers into the tops of my thighs.

 

Jamie turned his head. ‘So you never want to see me again, is that it?’

 

‘No, I really—’ I bent my head, hiding my face in my hair. ‘This is not a good time. It’s not your fault.’

 

‘Is it to do with the hospital?’ he asked.

 

I nodded, trying to breathe past the constriction in my chest. ‘Uh-huh.’

 

‘Oh.’ Jamie moved a little closer, his shoulder brushing against mine. ‘I have doctor issues, too.’

 

I didn’t move away. ‘Is that why you were having a blood test?’

 

‘Uh-huh.’

 

‘Oh,’ I said. Hannah was peering through the lounge windows at us, the little leech. Jamie followed my gaze, then glanced back at me. ‘Do you want to go for a walk?’

 

‘Yeah,’ I said, slinging my camera strap over my shoulder. ‘Let’s do that.’

 

***

 

We headed towards the beach. Jamie didn’t try to hold my hand. I did and didn’t want him to.

 

Oh hell, what did I want? I wished someone would tell me what to do.

 

‘So, what was your blood test for?’ I asked, as we crossed the street.

 

‘To test my lithium level.’

 

I glanced at him. His head was lowered, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his shorts. He’d loosened his school tie, and his shirt-tail was hanging out. When I looked at him my heart felt as if it were spinning.

 

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Is it low?’

 

‘You could say that.’ Jamie faced me. ‘Actually, it was low, but that’s my fault.’ He seemed completely different from the laughing, smiling Jamie I’d met three days earlier.

 

Serious Jamie, meet L-bomb Alex.

 

‘I take lithium,’ he said. ‘Well, I’m meant to, but it’s pretty horrible, so most of the time I prefer not to.’

 

‘What for?’ Maybe he had lithium deficiency, like some people had iron deficiency.

 

We’d reached the promenade. Jamie slowed and I said, ‘This way.’ I walked onto the sand below, to the left of Cave Rock. The tide was coming in.

 

Full tide, I thought, and then, FM.

 

FM. April 15. Today is April 15. Of course!

 

‘Bipolar,’ Jamie said, at the same time as I said, ‘Full moon.’

 

 

‘Bipolar,’ Jamie said, at the same time as I said, ‘Full moon.’

 

 

We stopped walking and looked at each other.     

 

‘Generally the full moon doesn’t affect me,’ he said, and he smiled, and so did I.

 

‘You have bipolar? Is that like schizophrenia?’ Maybe I should have been scared; he’d basically just told me he was crazy. Except, he didn’t seem that crazy, apart from in a good, fun kind of way.

 

‘Yes and no. It’s otherwise known as manic depression. Like what Robin Williams had.’

 

‘The actor who killed himself a couple of years back?’ I turned, and started walking again. Jamie fell in beside me.

 

‘That’s the one.’

 

‘Well,’ I said, with a lightness I didn’t feel, ‘I hope you’re not going to kill yourself.’

 

Jamie took off his tie and slung it over his shoulder. ‘Ah, not today. Especially not if it’s full moon.’

 

‘I wrote FM in my calendar a few weeks ago,’ I said.

 

‘But I couldn’t remember why, until just now.’ I turned and pointed at Cave Rock, its craggy outlines sharp in the eggshell-crisp air. ‘We’ll get a good view from up there.’

 

‘Sounds like a plan.’ He caught my eye. ‘As long as I’m not gate-crashing your photo sesh, that is.’

 

‘Gate-crashers are welcome.’ And still I didn’t tell him why I’d been in the waiting room that day. I liked that he hadn’t asked yet.

 

When we got to the top of Cave Rock, the sun was slipping below the horizon, and the sea was glowing red orange, like the redwood tree in the gardens. We sat in front of the mast and I took a few photos, playing around with the exposure and the focus. I used a fast shutter speed, because I’d read that underexposing a sunset makes the colours stand out more.

 

 

. . . the sun was slipping below the horizon, and the sea was glowing red orange, like the redwood tree in the gardens
. . . ‘That’s awesome. Like a painting.’

 

 

‘Wow,’ Jamie said, peering over my shoulder at the camera display. ‘That’s awesome. Like a painting.’

 

‘Nature’s awesome,’ I agreed, closing my eyes for a second, so I could concentrate on his breath percolating into my ear. I moved my hand towards him, brushing my fingers against his. Jamie turned his head and pressed his lips to my ear, just as he’d done at the bus stop two nights ago. I was so happy and relieved I wanted to cry.

 

‘Oh, that’s beautiful,’ said a woman’s voice behind us, and I opened my eyes. We weren’t alone. There were at least four other sunset-appreciators buzzing around Cave Rock. But it was kind of nice, because it meant we weren’t alone enough for me to tell Jamie my secret, not yet.

 

But still, I wanted this time with Jamie to last forever, sitting with our thighs pressed together and his breath on my cheek. Every now and then he would whisper something into my ear, his lips pressed against my earlobe, and my heart would spin like a top.

 

Gradually, the fiery sea began to fade. A cool breeze stirred across the rock, and I shivered.

 

‘Cold?’ Jamie asked.

 

‘Not too bad,’ I lied, another shiver running through me.

 

‘Snuggle up, SC,’ he said, moving behind me, so I was sitting between his legs. He draped his arms around me and rubbed his cheek against mine.

 

‘Not cramping your style, am I?’

 

‘Not yet,’ I said, momentarily distracted by the musky scent of his aftershave. Spin, heart, spin. I looked up, and a huge golden moon was nudging over the horizon. Wow, wow, wow.

 

. . . momentarily distracted by the musky scent of his aftershave. Spin, heart, spin. I looked up, and a huge golden moon was nudging over the horizon. Wow, wow, wow.

 

 

Jamie started singing a song about flying to the moon. I grinned but didn’t turn around. I was in photographer’s heaven. Reaching into my camera case, I took out my zoom lens so I could capture the essence of the moon, over and over, as it turned from gold to white to silver, until it rode high above us.

 

Eventually, I stopped taking pictures. The other people on the rock departed, leaving the two of us.

 

On a rock, with only the moon to hear our secrets.

 

‘That was spectacular, SC,’ Jamie said, and I turned so he could kiss my lips. Then he held my face in his hands and kissed me, open-mouthed. I pressed my hand against his chest, feeling his heart beat beneath my hands, until I felt as if I were falling.

 

I won’t let you fall.

 

Oh, but I’m falling, I’m falling, and it’s just like heaven.

 

‘I could kiss you forever,’ Jamie said.

 

‘Me, too,’ I said, but I knew our time was nearly up. My parents were probably ready to send out a search party. It was time to face the inevitable.

 

I inhaled. ‘So, have you ever had to go to hospital with your bipolar?’

 

Jamie hesitated but nodded. ‘Twice. The first time for three weeks, and last year for a month.’

 

My chest tightened — partly because it struck me, then, that his bipolar must be pretty serious, but mostly because it was my turn. I pivoted, and leaned back against him.

 

‘I spent four months in hospital, when I was thirteen,’ I said. ‘With leukaemia.’

 

Jamie’s chest rose and fell against my back. ‘That sucks.’

 

‘Yeah.’ My breathing sped up. ‘It did.’

 

‘So—’

 

‘So, it’s back.’ The moon had turned into a silver blur and my face felt all hot. Jamie hugged me tight and kissed the wet surface of my cheek.

 

‘Can they fix it?’

 

‘I hope so,’ I whispered, but I couldn’t talk any further because my voice had gone all wobbly.

 

‘You’re not alone, puss-cat,’ Jamie whispered back, his large hands slipping beneath my jersey, so they were resting on the bare skin of my belly. ‘I promise.’

 

Some people believe in love at first sight, and some don’t.

 

I believe in love in four days.

 

I believe in falling.

 

 

Some people believe in love at first sight, and some don’t. I believe in love in four days. I believe in falling.

Catch me When you Fall

by Eileen Merriman

Published by Penguin Random House

RRP $20.00

 

 

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