Home > The Last Letter(6)

The Last Letter(6)
Rebecca Yarros

“Do it.” My name scrawled across the paper as my hand moved, but it wasn’t a conscious effort. Nothing felt like a choice at the moment.

Two hours later Dr. Hughes appeared in the doorway, and I stepped out, leaving Colt and Maisie wrapped around each other in front of Harry Potter.

“What did you find?”

“It’s neuroblastoma.”

Ada followed in my car, Colt strapped into his car seat behind her as we made our way through the curves and bends of I-70 toward Denver. I’d never been in the back of an ambulance, not even when I went into labor with the twins. Now my first trip in one lasted five hours.

They took us immediately to the pediatric cancer floor at the Children’s Hospital. There was no amount of festive cartoon murals on the walls that could have possibly lightened my mood.

Colt walked beside me, his hand in mine, as they wheeled Maisie down the wide hallway. Little heads peeked out of the doors or raced by, some bald, others not. There were kids dressed as superheroes and princesses, and one very charming Charlie Chaplin. A mother with a cup of coffee gave me a tentative, understanding smile as we passed where she sat.

It was Halloween. How had I forgotten? The kids loved Halloween, and they hadn’t said a single word. No costumes, no trick-or-treating, just tests and hospitals, and a mom who couldn’t remember what day it was.

I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want this to be happening.

But it was.

The nurse who checked Maisie into her room made sure we had everything we needed, including a pullout bed that she said both Colt and I were welcome to sleep on.

“Do you have costumes?” she asked, too chipper to like and too kind to dislike.

“I…I forgot it was Halloween.” Was that my voice? So small and wounded? “I’m so sorry, guys,” I said to the twins as they looked up at me with a mix of excitement and disappointment. “I forgot your costumes at home.”

Just another way I’d let them down.

“I’ve got them, no worries,” Ada said, plopping a duffel bag onto the couch. “Wasn’t sure how long we’d be away, so I grabbed what I could think of. Colt, you’re our resident soldier, right?” She handed Colt the plastic-wrapped costume I’d purchased a few weeks ago.

“Yes! Just like Uncle Ryan.”

“And Maisie, our little angel. Want to put these on now, or wait?” Ada asked.

“They’re welcome to get dressed. We actually do a little trick-or-treat around five, so they’ll be all set,” the nurse said. I couldn’t remember her name. I barely remembered my name.

I nodded my thanks as the kids opened their costumes. Such an ordinary thing in extraordinary circumstances.

Ada wrapped her arm around my shoulders, pulling me in tight.

“It feels more trick than treat,” I said quietly so the kids didn’t hear me. They giggled and changed, trading pieces so Maisie wore Ryan’s Kevlar helmet and Colt had a sparkly, silver halo.

“These are rough days we have coming,” Ada agreed. “But you’ve raised a pair of fighters right there. Maisie won’t give up, and Colt sure won’t let her.”

“Thank you for the costumes. I can’t believe I forgot. And everything with Solitude, and gearing up for the season—”

“Stop right there, missy. I’ve been raising you since you came to Solitude. It’s always been you and Ryan, and Ruth, Larry, and me. Ruth was strong, but she knew it would take all of us to pull you kids through after you lost both your parents. Don’t you worry about a thing back home. Larry has it under control. And as for the costumes, you have bigger things in that beautiful head of yours. Just let me feel useful and remember the little ones.”

So many scans. CT. PET. The letters ran amok in my head while she was in surgery. They called it minor. The tumor they found on her left adrenal gland and kidney was anything but.

Another conference room, but I wasn’t sitting down. I was taking whatever news they had for me standing up. Period.

“Ms. MacKenzie,” Dr. Hughes addressed me as she walked in with a team of doctors. I was grateful for whatever arrangement she had with Montrose that allowed her to be here, to have the same face, the same voice with me.


“We performed the biopsy and tested both the tumor and the bone marrow.”

“Okay.” My arms were crossed tightly, doing their best to hold the rest of me together.

“I’m so sorry, but your daughter’s case is very aggressive and advanced. In most neuroblastoma cases, the symptoms present much sooner than this. But Maisie’s condition has been progressing without any outward signs. It’s likely been advancing undetected for years.”

Years. A monster had been growing inside my child for years.

“What are you trying to tell me?”

Dr. Hughes walked around the table to take my hand where I stood rocking back and forth like the twins were still babies in my arms in need of soothing.

“Maisie has stage four neuroblastoma. It’s taken over 90 percent of her bone marrow.”

I kept my eyes locked on her dark brown ones, knowing the moment I lost that contact, I’d be drowning again. Already the walls felt like they were closing in, the other doctors fading from my peripheral vision.

“90 percent?” My voice was barely a whisper.

“I’m afraid so.”

I swallowed and focused on bringing air in and out of my lungs, trying to find the courage to ask the obvious question. The one I couldn’t force past my lips, because the minute it came out and she answered, everything would change.

“Ella?” Doctor Hughes prompted.

“What’s her outlook? Her prognosis? What do we do?”

“We attack it immediately and without mercy. We start with chemo, and we move forward. We fight. She fights. And when she’s too tired to fight, then you do what you can to fight for her, because this is an all-out war.”

“What are her chances?”

“Ella, I’m not sure you want—”

“What are her chances?” I shouted with the last of my energy.

Dr. Hughes paused, then squeezed my hand.

“She has a 10 percent chance of surviving.”

That roaring returned to my ears, but I shoved it away, concentrating on every word Dr. Hughes said. I needed every ounce of information.

“She has a 10 percent chance of surviving this?” I echoed, needing her to tell me that I’d heard wrong.

“No. She has a 10 percent chance of surviving the year.”

My knees gave out as my back hit the wall. I slid, paper crumpling behind me as my weight took down whatever had been there. I landed on the floor, unable to do anything but breathe. Voices spoke, and I heard but didn’t understand what they said.

In my mind, they repeated one thing over and over. “10 percent chance.”

My daughter had a 10 percent chance of living through this year.

Which meant she had a 90 percent chance of dying, of those angel wings she refused to take off becoming very real.

Focus on the ten. Ten was better than nine.

Ten was…everything.

I pulled myself together. Chemo. PICC Line. Appointments in Montrose and Denver. Aggressive cancer meant an aggressive plan. Binders full of information, notebooks with scribbles. Planners and apps and research studies became my every waking moment. My life changed in those first few days.

I changed.

As if my soul had caught fire, I felt a burning in my chest, a driving purpose that eclipsed all else. My daughter would not die.

Colt would not lose his sister.

This would not break me, or my family. Holding it together was my second priority only to Maisie’s survival.

I didn’t cry. Not when I wrote the letters to Ryan and to Chaos. Not when I told Colt and Maisie how sick she was. Not when she started vomiting after that first session of chemo, and not when a month later, during her second week-long session, her beautiful blond hair fell out in clumps the day before her sixth birthday. I nearly lost it when Colt showed up from the barber with Larry—his head as shiny and bald as his sister’s—but I just smiled. He’d refused to be separated during their birthday, and as much as I didn’t want him to see what she went through during chemo, I was incredibly thankful to be with both of them, not to be in a constant state of worry about one while I was caring for the other.

I didn’t break down.

Not until New Year’s Eve.

That’s when the uniforms came to the door and ripped my strong facade to shreds with a simple sentence: We regret to inform you that your brother, SSG Ryan MacKenzie, has been killed in action. Due to the nature of their unit, that was all I could know. The details—where he’d been, what had happened, who he’d been with—that was all classified.

When there were no more letters from Chaos, I had at least one of those answers.

They were both gone.

I broke.

Four Months Later

Chapter Five



If you’re reading this, blah, blah. You know the last-letter drill. You made it. I didn’t. Get off the guilt train, because I know you, and if there were any chance you could have saved me, you would have. If there were any way you could have changed the outcome, you would have. So whatever deep, dark hole of guilt you’re wallowing in, stop.

I need one thing from you: Get your ass to Telluride. I know your ETS date is right with mine. Take it.

Ella’s all alone. Not in the alone way that she has been, but really, truly alone. Our grandmother, our parents, and now me. It’s too much to ask her to endure. It’s not fair.

But here’s the kicker: Maisie is sick. She’s only six, Beck, and my niece might die.

So if I’m gone, that means I can’t get home in January like we’d planned. I can’t be there for her. I can’t help Ella through this, or play soccer with my nephew, or hold my niece. But you can. So I’m begging you, as my best friend, go take care of my sister, my family. Do whatever you can to save my little Maisie.

It’s not fair to ask; I know that. It’s against your nature to care, to not accomplish a mission and move on, but I need this. Maisie and Colt need it. Ella needs it—needs you, though she’ll fight you tooth and nail before she ever admits it. Help her even when she swears she’s fine.

Don’t make her go through it alone.

I’ll save you a seat on the other side, brother, but take your time. Take every single second you can. You are the only brother I would have wished for, and my very best friend. And just in case no one ever told you—you’re worthy. Of love. Of family. Of home.

So while you’re searching for those things, please make sure Telluride is where you look. At least for a little while.

~ Ryan

The mountains rose up above me, impossibly tall considering I was already at almost nine thousand feet. Sure, the air felt thinner, but it was also somehow easier to breathe.

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