Maggie held the receiver down with both hands for what seemed like a long time. "If you want to see Emma, you'll have to come at once," Paul had said. She heard herself whimper; she couldn't face this, not on Christmas Eve. And yet, there could be no more denial: thousands of miles away in Canada, her sister was about to die.

She made some coffee and stared through the kitchen window while she sipped it, French-style, from a bowl. The white blanket of snow glowed eerily against the blackness of the Alps beyond the village. She remembered other, long-ago Christmases with their presents of books for her and dolls for Emma. They were so different, she and Emma. "Like chalk and cheese," Maman used to say. She poured some more coffee.

Only eighteen months had passed since the day Emma called to announce the diagnosis. Maggie had never heard of the condition. "What's that?" she asked. "Something bronchial? Like emphysema?"

"They thought so at first, but no. I've got pulmonary fibrosis," Emma said. "The alveoli in my lungs are closing down and I can't take in oxygen."

For a second, Maggie had a vision of white clouds passing over ragged rocks in the high Alps, their shadows dark on the glistening snow. She shook herself. "But, you'll get treatment." She hesitated. "I mean ... you're going to be all right, aren't you, Emma?" The tension down the wire told her that she wouldn't like the answer.

"No, Mag. There's no cure. It's very advanced, and it's terminal." She must have gasped because Emma continued quickly, "But don't you worry, hey? I'm a good candidate for a transplant. They'll be putting me on the waiting list soon."

Maggie grappled, was still grappling, with the meaning of this. A transplant was something you read about, not something your sister might need.

Several things happened then in quick succession: Emma began carrying a tank of oxygen to help her breathe, met with the transplant team, and followed a program to learn the implications of living with someone else's lungs. Finally, they put her name on the waiting list and gave her a beeper; they would look for a donor.

"Do they have any idea how long you'll have to wait?" Maggie asked.

"Anything from two months to two years. A bit vague, isn't it?" Emma punctuated her phrases with short, dry coughs. "But it's good to know that they're on my case." The new confidence in her voice left no room for doubt: the beeper gave her hope.

As weeks became months, Maggie allowed herself to be deluded by Emma's cheerful chatter, until the next batch of tests proved that both lungs had deteriorated still further. Emma deflected any attempt at a discussion of her condition with, "I'm fine, still on the list. These things take time." Their conversations always ended in laughter, but Maggie hung up and wept silently. Or howled in furious anguish.

On the subject of a visit, Em said, "Of course, you can come, Maggie, but there's a chance the beeper will go off, that I won't be in Montreal when you get here. Let's talk about this after the summer." And in the autumn, when Emma said, "I might not be here, Mag, and the Canadian winter will be too cold for you. Better wait till spring," she didn't analyze her sister's reasons; she just knew she felt relief.

Now, Maggie put her coffee bowl in the sink, swallowed two aspirins and padded across the hall to her bedroom. The roads would be foul, but it was too late to call her travel agent; she'd have to go directly to the airport in Geneva and try to get on a flight there. Forty-five minutes later, she was blocked in the Christmas Eve traffic jam. It started snowing again, so she switched the windscreen wipers on full and let them run until they squeaked. The knowledge of Emma's existence somewhere in this world was like the gravity that kept her safely grounded, she thought. Without Emma, she would feel she had been cut adrift, alone in the vastness of the universe.

Tears blurred her vision. Hope. She wanted to hope. Maybe someone would die tonight; someone with the right blood group and tissue, whose grieving family would donate two healthy lungs that would fit in her sister's tiny body. Did she believe in miracles? No. No, she didn't. At this late hour, the transplant operation itself would be lethal.

As the airport lights came into view, Maggie knew that, this Christmas more than any other, she needed to be with her children. She managed to swerve onto a side road. The snow was deeper here, but there was little traffic and her winter tires made driving easy. By eight o'clock, she was back home. Paul had taken some time off work; better let him know at once that she wasn't going.

Listening to the phone ringing, Maggie peered at the luminous dials of her watch and frowned. It was lunchtime in Montreal; someone should be there. She was about to hang up when Paul answered. "We're waiting for the ambulance, Maggie." His voice was barely recognizable. "I'll call when we have news."

Maggie lay on the sofa in the dark and stared at the ceiling. Canada. It would have been nice to have Em show her around. She failed to strangle a sob. Emma was much too young to die. She closed her eyes and felt the tears trickle into her ears. In the distance, the church clock struck the hour.

Twilight sleep!

Now, where did that come from? And then she remembered the scene. Maman knitting baby clothes for their new cousins. She and Emma were sitting on the floor by her knee, taking it in turns to hold the skeins while their mother rolled the wool into balls. They couldn't have been more than nine and seven at the time.

"Does it hurt when babies come into the world, Maman?" Maggie asked.

"Non, non," their mother said with the authority of one who knows. "When it starts to hurt, or if you're afraid, they give you something called twilight sleep; they put a mask over your nose, and you breathe in, and then you don't feel anything at all."

Emma wore a mask these days, instead of the tubes in her nose. Would they give her twilight sleep to make the pain go away?

Bundled into a thick woolen jacket, Maggie stepped out onto the terrace. The cold air felt soothing on her face. To her left, the peaceful alpine village nestled against the mountain. Decorated with thousands of twinkling lights, it looked like fairyland.

Five days ago, Paul had called. "Emma wants to talk to you, Maggie. Hold on." She heard him moving and then Emma spoke.

"They've started me on steroids, Mag, and I'm feeling a lot better."

"Are you sure, Em? Please —" Fear, so long held at bay, engulfed her; but she mustn't cry. Instead, she coughed, and began again. "Please, Emma, you really shouldn't be talking. You need to save your breath." The thought, that day, was unbearable. Suddenly frantic, she blurted, "I love you, Em." In all her life, she had never said that before.

"I know you do, Mag, and I love you, too. So, you don't worry about me now; I'm going to be all right," Emma said, in the same strong voice she'd always had.

Maggie widened her eyes. "G'bye, Em," she whispered. Paul was talking, but her throat hurt into her ears, so she hung up.

Emma had said goodbye. That had been her sister's last gift, she realized; now, it was her turn to accept. Hot tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks until, eventually, she was calm.

The night was very cold, but the sky had cleared to reveal the stars. Maggie watched the beautiful white puffballs of her breath for a long time. When the phone rang, she went back inside and closed the door against the freezing night.

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