Christina Cooke

January 25, 2024 
The following is from Christina Cooke's Broughtupsy. Cooke's writing has appeared in The Caribbean Writer, Prairie Schooner, PRISM international, Epiphany: A Literary Journal, and elsewhere. A MacDowell Fellow, Journey Prize winner, and Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award winner, she holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of New Brunswick and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born in Jamaica, she is a Canadian citizen who lives in NYC.


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Sara and I walk through the hospital doors, up and around the large staircase as I recite the nurse’s directions in my head. Take the hallway on the left, then another on the right, straight through the waiting room to a row of patient rooms, then turn, first door on the right—there he’ll be. And there he is. My brother’s hospital room smells like air-conditioning and antiseptic and the musty stench of something decayed. I glance up at the far corner, afraid I’ll see a muted TV showing black smoke gathering above green trees like I saw the last time I was in a hospital, when I was nine and my mother was declared dead.

“Hey,” my baby brother Bryson says, smiling up at me from his bed. He’s already been here a week.

“Hi,” I whisper.

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He coughs—heavy, threatening, on the brink of something nasty. My girlfriend Sara hands him a tissue while my father watches from the hallway.

“Here y’are,” Sara says.

Bryson’s face spreads into a wide grin. Y’are, y-are, long drawl rolling easy in a familiar caress. He was two when we moved to Texas, only six when we left for Canada. He knows he’s Jamaican. He knows what it says on his birth certificate, but there’s something about slow-smoked brisket and fruit paletas and screaming Hook ’em! from football bleachers that makes him feel like he’s where he belongs.

“How y’all doin’?” he says then coughs again, his small body convulsing.

“Akúa,” my father calls from the doorway, gesturing for me to join him in the hallway.

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But I don’t move. I can’t stop staring at my brother, watching the slow blink of his eyes and the way he squirms under the stiff sheets, IV lines pulsing red in and out of his sallow skin. He shouldn’t be here. He’s only twelve years old.

“We’ll be right back, champ,” Sara says, ushering me out of the room.

Out in the hallway, the doctor extends his hand to me, his head cocked at just the right angle to exude concern. “I’m sorry about all this,” he says.

I stare at the gray hairs on his knuckles, my own hands limp at my sides. Daddy shakes the doctor’s hand as Sara heads down the hall to give us space.

“Now that we’re all here,” the doctor says, looking from my father to me. “Bryson’s sickness, it’s hereditary. Passed down from parent to child just like eye shape and skin color.”

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Daddy looks at his knees.

“Is there a history of sickle cell in your family?” the doctor says. “Any extreme anemias? Blood-borne illnesses?”

I watch my brother through the small window as he coughs, his body retching with our mother’s disease. Daddy buries his head in his hands.

“My assistant will be with you shortly,” the doctor says. “She’ll explain all the information we need to help you through this difficult time.”

Sara looks at me longingly from the other end of the hall. She heard enough. She knows. I stay where I am, heavy as lead. 

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I flip the quarter between my forefinger and thumb, forefinger and thumb, as I stare at the gray pay phone hanging on its hook. Behind me, I hear machines beeping and nurses shuffling in and out of patient rooms. I have to do it. I have to call. Sliding the coin into the machine, I dial my older sister’s number.

“I know,” my sister Tamika says as she picks up. “Daddy called me this morning.”

“When does your flight get in?” I rest my forehead against the booth’s cool wall.

She says nothing, her breath coming quick like she’s struggling for air.


“Daddy didn’t tell you?” she says.

“Tell me what?” I squeeze the phone. “Are you sick too?” I go dizzy for a moment, knees threatening to give.

“No!” she says. “Praise be, I’m fine.”

I exhale, relieved. “Then what?”

She goes quiet again, scratching sounds filling the receiver like she’s fiddling with the cord. “I’m not coming,” she says. “I can’t come.”

“What?” I wrap the phone cord around my wrist. A nurse rushes past me, a clipboard under his arm. “I’m sorry, what?” I say again.

Tamika stays silent as the nurse knocks on a door then lets himself in.

“He’s sick, Tamika,” I exclaim. “Yuh hearin’ me? He’s sick.”

“I know,” she says. “Can I talk to him?”

“Why can’t you come?”

She goes quiet again, static filling the phone pop pop pop then clearing.



“Tamika, yuh cyaa be serious.”

The phone line remains silent. She has nothing more to say. I unwrap the phone cord then stare at the crisscrosses of pulsing red on my skin.

“Are you serious right now?” I yell.

She sighs. “Why are you always like this?”

I don’t know why, but I laugh. Our brother’s in the hospital and she isn’t coming, so I laugh and laugh and then I hang the phone up. I pick up the receiver, dial tone beeping, and I hang up again, and again, laughter rolling up my throat like fizz from a shaken soda. And I hang up again, and again, smashing the receiver against the metal clip harder, and again, and again, until Sara wrenches the phone out of my hand then pulls me away.

“Shhhh,” she says as she wraps her arms around me, but I will not cry, I will not be soothed.

“Akúa!” she hisses as I push her away and march down the hall to my brother’s room.

Slamming the door behind me, I pull a chair over to Bryson’s bed. He looks up. I am here. He smiles. I am where I should be. I will not leave. I will not be known to my brother only as a voice through the phone. Running my hands over my braids, I force my face into a smile. I want to grab his lunch tray. I want to watch it smash against the far wall. Our sister isn’t coming. “Eat your Jell-O,” I mumble, pushing the tray closer to him.

“The food here sucks,” he says. “Don’t they have any enchiladas? Or taquitos?” He curls his hand into an O, then stares at the empty space between fingers and palm.

I know what he’s thinking: scrambled eggs and melted cheese seeping through toasted tortilla, fresh and steaming as it wafts around the school courtyard.

“You remember Dave?” he says, wiggling his fingers as they bunch and grasp at nothing at all. “This one time,” Bryson says, “me and Dave, we bought too many taquitos at recess. Daddy had just given me my allowance, so we bought too many and I saved some for lunch.” He closes his hand into a fist. “Cold taquitos are gross.”

“Should’ve made Dave pay for them.” I sit on the edge of his bed. “Then they would’ve been his problem.”

“But that’s mean,” Bryson says.

“But you would’ve had hot and free taquitos.”

He chuckles as he picks up the plastic cup from his lunch tray, watching the green square jiggle in his hand.

“Eat,” I urge him.

He slips a chunk in his mouth, chewing slowly then swallowing.

“See?” I squeeze his knee. “Not so bad.”

He makes a face, pretending to puke, as Daddy comes into the room.

“Tamika should be here soon,” Daddy says.

“She’s coming?” I exclaim.

Daddy looks at Bryson and says to his son, “Her flight’s been delayed, but don’t worry, she’ll be here.”

Bryson puts his Jell-O down with a soft smile. He hasn’t seen our sister since when we first got to Texas, when he was two.

I grab my father’s arm. “Is she really coming?”

“What are you going to say to your big sister,” he says to Bryson, “when she arrives?”

Bryson thinks for a moment, fiddling with his gown. “I’m going to say, ‘Sister, if you were in a burning car, who would you call: Batman or Superman?’”

Daddy laughs. I dig my nails into the cotton of his sleeve. Is she really coming?

“Such a smart bwoy mi have,” Daddy says.

Bryson tries to laugh but his laugh turns into a cough. Closing his eyes, he sinks deeper into his pillow. He’s breathing harder than before, air gurgling slow through his open mouth. I let my father’s arm go.

“She’ll be so glad to see you,” I mumble to Bryson.

Daddy looks at me. “Yes,” he says. “She will.”

“Will she cook with us?” Bryson says, trying to sit up. “Does she like to eat?” Bryson loves to eat. He marks his days in meals, memories cataloged by the sensations on his tongue.

“Of course she loves to eat,” I exclaim, leaning over Bryson and giving him a big big smile. “As soon as we get home, we’re gonna whip up nuff cheeseburga and enchiladas.”

“Enchiladas!” Bryson exclaims as Daddy chuckles. “And brisket! And rice and peas! And curry chicken but without the potatoes. I hate potatoes.”

“Lawd, bwoy,” Daddy says, pulling the blanket down over his toes, “yuh goi’ eat yuhself sick.”

Bryson smiles, closing his eyes. “I think I need a nap,” he says, having worn himself out from saying so much.

“You do that, little chef.” I lean over and kiss his forehead, his skin sweaty yet cold.

Daddy fixes his pillow as I tuck the sheets under his hips.

Bryson touches my arm. “You’ll be here when I wake up?”

I smile at him. “I’ll fight anyone who tries to make me leave.”

The doctor knocks lightly on the door. “A word?” he says.

Daddy and I follow him out of the room. From her seat down the hall, Sara throws me a small smile then a wave. Blinking fast, I look away.

“It’s a long shot,” the doctor says, rubbing his chin and handing over the forms, “but we’re running out of options. The illness is progressing quickly. It’s worth taking a look.”

Daddy nods, signing the forms then handing them to me. He doesn’t read them—doesn’t need to read them. He’s been signing forms and sending Bryson and me for tests in hospitals since I was ten. The tests should’ve caught this. I flip through the pages and pages of fine print, trying to take it all in.

“Just sign,” Daddy says, sounding tired.

Through the shut door I can hear Bryson coughing, fever getting worse.

“Are you all of Bryson’s next of kin?” the doctor says. “If there are other family members, it’d be ideal if we could test them too.”

I can’t come, Tamika had said. She could and she should but she won’t. Because why?

Because ten years ago, my father packed up my family and flew us over the sea. My sister and brother and me, Daddy flew us first to Texas before finally making home here, in Vancouver. I was ten when we first left. Bryson was two and Tamika was sixteen. In my head, Tamika’s still sixteen.Soon after we moved, Tamika left us abroad and went back home. All I know is that years passed with her in Kingston and us in Texas then Canada and Daddy calling her on the phone yelling—back then, he was always yelling—calling her wah eediat chile for leaving. “What about Mummy?” Tamika would sometimes say. “Who is here to tend to her?” Every time the line would fall into hard silence, just heavy sighs echoing until someone hung up. Our mother is dead so Tamika stayed behind, shaking her head in a never-ending no.

But now our brother is dying. And there’s me, wanting my big sister. What a eediat chile. Signing the form, I press the pen against the paper so hard that it starts to rip. Our sister is in

Kingston, delayed by a plane that will never land. I watch my brother through the small room window, his breathing shallow as he tosses in his sleep. I hope he’s dreaming of his sister sprinting through the airport, of her waving down the plane with her voice rising and arms flailing as she throws her handbag, her suitcase, throws her whole body, doing whatever it takes to stop the plane so she can climb on and come to him.

“Great,” the doctor says, watching me sign. “My assistant will walk you to the lab to get the blood work started. Who knows, one of you might be carrying just the thing we need.”

A nurse enters Bryson’s room, introducing herself with a curt smile as she replaces one of the pouches hanging over his bed. Inserting the new needle into his IV line, she squeezes the pouch to start the flow—dripdrip Bryson’s blood goes, dripdrip like counting seconds, losing time. 


Water rushes through the tap, hot and unrelenting. Stepping into the shower at my father’s house, I reach for the body wash next to shampoo next to two types of conditioner next to olive oil hair treatment next to face wash next to Bryson’s body wash in a bottle shaped like lightning. Before, in Jamaica, I only knew castile soap. You need face wash? Shampoo? Grab the castile soap.

I wonder about her in moments like these. I wonder what Mummy would think of this house, of Daddy directing trucks of gray dirt to silos caked in soot. Would she be relieved, happy to see us with trimmed nails and moisturized skin as we walk down roads where the asphalt never burns? Or would she be annoyed, wrapping her belt around her fist to discipline us for indulging in excess? I wish I could stop myself from wondering. My brother is in the hospital and my mother is dead. The exhaust fan whirs on, sucking the room cold.

“Call me if anything changes?” Sara says. “Good or bad?”

Stepping into the bedroom, I tie my robe around my waist. Sara’s missed three days of class. This is my emergency, not hers. If she misses any more, she might fail. I look at her cowlicked hair and milk-smooth face, her three brown moles beneath thin pink lips. She twirls one of my braids around her thumb then leans in close, the soft point of her nose pressing against the broad swell of mine. We are in love. We are twenty years old.

Sara stuffs her socks and toothbrush into her small backpack. She’s leaving the suitcase we came with from our apartment for me. “Everything will be okay.”

I glare at her. “Will it?”

She flinches then rolls her pants into a tight log, tucking them into the small crevice between her books on anatomy and biochem. She tells me she wants to stay, how she feels so awful, but it’s all right if she leaves because my brother will be just fine. She smiles, cheery and bright. He’ll pull through and I’ll be back in class in no time.

I watch her as she shoves her sticky notes next to her deodorant and bag of dirty laundry and I can see it, she won’t say it, the truth hiding behind the whites of her eyes. She’s thinking about her test next week. She’s thinking about keeping her grades up to flip her med school admission from conditional to guaranteed. Med school means going back to foil-wrapped taquitos and dark beers in cool bottles named after her great state. It means cicadas buzzing in fields of swaying hay and long dips in cool rivers feeding into the Rio Grande in her beloved Texas. I don’t want that home. I say the word that’s been lingering like sour meat on my tongue.

“No what?” Sara says.


“No, you won’t call?” she says.

Standing back, I take her all in. “Take the suitcase,” I tell her. “It’s yours anyway.”


The lab results come back. My father and I, we don’t have what Bryson needs. We watch through the window as a nurse wipes his brow.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor says. He’s looking right at us this time. He’s being sincere. “This is one of those things we can’t predict—what may trigger the anemia, how deep it may go.”

A bag expands, contracts, making Bryson breathe. A small machine registers his heartbeat, black monitor showing a white line rising and falling in sharp peaks.

“He showed signs of improvement,” the doctor says, “then his blood pressure dropped overnight and internal organs began to fail. He was clotting faster than we realized.”

My brother’s lying unconscious, thin and shriveled like a rind of old fruit. The nurse puts the rag away then reaches around him, slow and careful, and turns him over. My brother does not blink. He does not scream in protest against this stranger’s touch. Expand. Contract. The machine beeps.

“Do we have your consent to take him off life support?” the doctor says.

“Jesus,” I exhale. I was talking to Bryson just yesterday, and now we’re taking him off life support?

The doctor looks at me. “Don’t worry,” he says, “your brother won’t feel a thing. Brain activity slowed to dormant around five this morning.”

“I wish you hadn’t told me that,” I mumble. I want to think of him as my Bryson, my brother, asleep but still here.

“Sorry,” the doctor whispers.

Daddy flips through the pages on the clipboard, his hands starting to shake. He’s done this before, tucked my mother away safe beneath red Kingston dirt. I watch him uncap the pen as he stands next to me in the hospital, doing it again. Flip flip, he barely breathes as he finds where he needs to sign.

“If you’d like,” the doctor says, glancing at me, “if this is too painful, we can retrieve you once—”

“No,” Daddy says, signing the form. “We’re staying right where we are.”

The doctor takes the clipboard. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

A nurse follows him into Bryson’s room as I rest my forehead against the small window. The tube running from Bryson’s mouth gurgles, sucking his spit through the clear coil then into a port in the wall. My brother cannot speak. He cannot swallow.

Hey Bryson, I murmur to my brother in my head. I watch the doctor silence the alarm on a beeping machine. Hey baby brother, remember your first day at school here in Canada? I close my eyes. Remember how upset you were?

“I just don’t get it,” you’d said. You were standing in the hall in our new house, still wearing your backpack. You were crying. “This one girl, she kept asking me, ‘Do people in Texas ride horses to school?’” you said. “I told her no, we drive cars, duh. But she kept asking, ‘Do you ride horses? Do you have to scoop poop every time you reach a stop sign?’ And I said no, but everyone kept laughing. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t think it was funny.”

I bent down until my head was level with yours. “You should’ve said yes,” I told you. “You rode a horse to school and John Wayne was your gym teacher.”

“What?” you said.

“Why not?” I shrugged. “If they want to ask stupid questions, give them stupid answers.”

You wiped your damp cheeks. “Yeah,” you said. “Yeah, okay. Yeah! Like, um, we use tumbleweed for floss.”

I grinned. “And we turn cow poop into electricity for our houses.”

“And, and,” you said, thinking hard, “we make sushi out of snake meat!”

I laughed. “Every evening, we hunt wild cougars with our bare hands.”

“Rawr!” you growled, crouching down on all fours as I spewed lie after lie to make my brother grin.

Now you’re not laughing. I’m not sure if you’re even still here. In the hospital room, the doctor signs something then moves to the end of the bed, sliding a thick tube between my brother’s hips. Bryson doesn’t speak, can’t scream as the doctor tapes the tube to his knee then attaches the other end to a large clear pouch. The doctor pushes on his stomach, brown gunk seeping into the pouch as both nurses move to the head of the bed and start pressing buttons, turning things off.

“Daddy?” I murmur, my breath fogging the glass.

He lifts my head off the window, resting it on his shoulder as he wraps his arms around my waist. With a slight groan, he tries to lift me up like he used to, when I was a kid in Jamaica. Following his movements, I stand on my tiptoes just to make him feel like he can still do it, that nothing’s changed.

Beepbeep the monitor goes, line climbing slowly. Beep beep the machine sings, line already beginning to fall, beep then I wait, I want to hear it but there’s no more. Daddy buries his head in my shirt collar then lets out a long wail.

Our mother and brother, who art in heaven, hallowed be their names.


From Broughtupsy by Christina Cooke. Used with permission of the publisher, Catapult. Copyright © 2024 by Christina Cooke.

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