David's Summer (Paperback)
David's Summer (Paperback)
A family in crisis. An impossible choice. A race against time.
An unplanned pregnancy turns the lives of Deanna, her husband Max, and her teenage son upside down. But there’s something else wrong...
After baby David receives a cancer diagnosis, Deanna drops everything to focus on finding a cure. Max has other ideas.
Based on his own troubled past, Max challenges Deanna to consider quality of life versus quantity. Their opposing opinions throw their marriage into chaos and Deanna seeks treatment options alone.
Caught in the middle, Alex must navigate this family crisis on his own. An unexpected friendship with a cancer survivor may offer the perspective he needs.
With the clock ticking, Deanna stops at nothing to save baby David’s life... but will her relationship with her family survive the process?
Book Data (for book nerds like you and me)
Book Data (for book nerds like you and me)
Publisher: Frankenscript Press
Audience: Trade/General (Adult)
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Look Inside David's Summer
Deanna perched on the top row of bleachers, undeterred by the weight of nine months of child. Things were rumbling below in her belly. She could feel it.
“I’ll have the better view,” she had said to Alex when they arrived at Victory Heights Playfield over an hour earlier. Deanna needed Alex’s help to get to the unobstructed view of top row, the perfect vantage point over the baseball diamond even with a bleacher full of spectators below her. Her photographer’s eye always sought interesting angles. Plus she hadn’t needed to pee yet. That was a bonus.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Alex asked, once Deanna was seated.
Earnest and sweet as the day is long, Deanna thought as she shook her head, enjoying the moment. She rubbed her taut belly underneath her favorite denim shirtdress, worn smooth from repeated washings.
Alex’s brow was locked in a furrow, like he was working on a problem. She gave him a playful nudge on the shoulder with her knuckles. “No worries here, hot shot. I’m fine. How about you? You okay?”
Cleats to glove to ball cap, not a thread was out of place on Alex’s uniform. He had been playing baseball since joining a tee-ball league at five, and the last couple of years saw him nominated to captain of his team. He took the title very seriously.
The concern Deanna had just seen in Alex’s face melted away. He looked at her and grinned. She wished she had brought her Nikon DSLR, but any additional weight would have put her at odds with her belly. In an instant, she saw her husband Max in Alex’s face, how his lips curled into a smile, giving way to dimples that framed his face, the way he wore his ball cap with the brim straight on, but just a bit tilted to the side. It was almost enough to make her fall in love with her husband all over again. Almost.
“I’m fine, Mom,” Alex said.
Just as quickly, the image of Max faded away, leaving her firstborn smiling back at her. He tossed a baseball into his glove, not for practice but to relax and warm the leather pocket.
“Are we going to win today?”
“It’s only an exhibition game, you know.” Alex threw the baseball into his glove, releasing a floaty dirt puff.
“Take every chance you get.” Deanna locked eyes with Alex. “Right?”
“I know.” Alex could only maintain eye contact with Deanna for a moment. Sometimes he found her gaze too much to take all at once.
“So how about it?” Deanna said. “Are we going to win?”
Deanna held up her right hand, palm open. Alex reached over and high-fived her, then finished up with their secret handshake, a ritual they had shared since Alex had begun playing baseball eight years ago. Even Max didn’t know how to do it, and Alex wanted to keep it that way.
“You’re going to break some hearts, you know that?” Deanna leaned over to give him a shoulder squeeze. “You and those girl traps of yours.”
Alex blushed as he pulled away. “Girl traps” were what Deanna called his dimples. He didn’t understand the full meaning of why his dimples would be called “girl traps,” but she reassured him that he would find out soon enough.
“Just play the crap out of this game, okay?”
“You got it.” Alex stepped down off the bleachers, careful to avoid the other seated spectators, and ran to his dugout to join his teammates.
Deanna pulled out her phone and looked at the blank display. Where are you, Max? she thought and contemplated texting or calling him, but decided to tuck her phone back in her purse and stay in the moment.
It was a perfect April day. Barely a cloud in the sky and a very comfortable seventy-five degrees. The practice game between the Fireflies and the Verminators was well under way. The Fireflies were up, with runners leading off on second and third base.
“Come on, Fireflies.” Deanna clapped, surrounded by other like-minded spectating parents. “You got this!”
The announcer crackled over the loud speaker: “Next at bat, number thirteen, Alex Sheridan.”
Alex sat in the dugout next to Peter Murphy, his best bud. They were lucky enough to go to the same school together and they made a good match. As the team’s captain, Alex’s professionalism and sense of fairness balanced Peter’s cocky confidence. Alex was Bing Crosby to Peter’s Bob Hope.
Peter nudged Alex in the shoulder. “You’re up, dude. Send our boys home.”
Alex bumped fists with Peter as he exited the dugout. He donned his team’s black batting helmet and grabbed his favorite bat, an Easton Redline ZCore.
As Alex strutted to the plate, the Fireflies' coach, Clint Donovan, stopped him en route. “Alex, we need to win this.”
Clint was a career Little League coach. He wasn’t in top physical condition, but he didn’t need to be. He sported a beer belly over pants that both Alex and Peter swore defied gravity. He had a brain for baseball that was unrivaled and he had helped kids follow their dreams of playing in the major leagues for over twenty years. A few of those kids even made it to the big show. When he talked, the kids listened.
“No one’s keeping score, Coach,” Alex said.
“I am, and so’s the crowd.” Clint cocked his head toward the bleachers. “You never know when there’s going to be a scout in the stands.”
“I got it.” Alex was a kid of few words, and sometimes that came off as arrogance.
Clint gave him a once-over, sizing him up, and nodded. “Alright.” He turned and walked to the dugout where the rest of the Fireflies stood and watched the game.
Alex looked up at Deanna sitting in the bleachers. She shook her head and shrugged. Alex tried to refocus his attention to home plate, but he was consumed by anger towards his dad.
Deanna had disobeyed her doctor’s orders by leaving the house, but she was going stir crazy and needed to distract herself. The baby inside her was practicing soccer moves instead of her preferred sport of baseball. She had promised Alex she’d accompany him to his game and breaking promises wasn’t something she was in the habit of doing. It had been a snap decision, and during the bus ride to Victory Heights she had found her mind wandering.
How many things in the world happen during the heat of the moment? Deanna thought. The second kiss? The third? Angry words unleashed without thinking? Perhaps wars?
Deanna welcomed becoming pregnant again. She had wanted another child for years, but her professional photography career had taken center stage. She loved capturing people in their natural habitat, and likened herself after Annie Leibovitz, but without all the fame and fortune. Now, with the advent of digital cameras, everyone saw themselves as a photographer. Her professional income had begun to dwindle despite her well-respected skills behind the camera. It was the perfect time to have another child. It was anyone’s guess what Max had really wanted. When she had raised the idea with him, he either responded evasively or changed the subject.
Being nine months pregnant had its down-side. Walking was a chore at the best of times, but Deanna insisted on making her way to the back of the bus anyway since she could see so much more from the back. Her photographer’s eye ruled.
Max had suggested she sit closer to the driver should anything happen to her or the baby, but Deanna had her stubborn habits. The sights and sounds, and sometimes the smells, were too much of a draw.
Her only concession was to leave her digital SLR camera at home. Lugging her Lowepro camera bag around, loaded with the camera, lenses and accessories, proved to be too much, especially in the final months of her pregnancy. Even just the camera and a good lens was too much. She had to strike a delicate balance, so photos from her phone would have to suffice for now, despite their annoying lack of image control and selective focus. Instead, Deanna grew more accustomed to taking mental snapshots and filing them away. The next time she picked up her camera, she’d be a mother again.
From the city bus window, Deanna watched nature pass by in all its splendor. She took in the freshness of cedar and fir from the open bus window, filtered through her shoulder-length auburn hair. New leaves budded out from their oak and maple branches. All this new life surrounded her, and even though her pregnancy wasn’t planned, it was perfectly timed with the seasons. Springtime and babies smelled so good.
Alex sat next to her in the back of the bus and tossed a baseball into his glove.
“Hello? Anybody home?” Deanna’s phone announced an arriving text message from Max in the voice of Biff Tannen from Back to the Future. The text alert sound had began as a joke, but stuck as a result of Alex’s convincing. Max tolerated the alert sound but it was clear that it annoyed him, and that pleased Alex.
Deanna dug the phone from her purse. On the screen, the text message from Max read: “On my way.”
Alex observed Deanna with her phone and scrunched his brow. “Let me guess. He’s got a deadline and can’t make it.”
“Actually, it looks like Dad might make it after all.” Deanna slid the phone back into her purse without responding to Max’s text. She didn’t want to build up any kind of expectation.
Alex stopped throwing his baseball, huffed and crossed his arms. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The Sheridans were a one-car family. On most weekdays Max took the bus in the morning, but he’d taken the car today so he could “get to Alex’s practice game on time.” A twenty minute car trip from the Seattle Post Intelligencer to Alex’s practice field would take over an hour in a bus, and even longer if the bus got stuck in rush hour traffic. Max could get more done at work and still make the game. It had made sense in the morning, but as Max would be reminded of later, the world had a habit of getting in his way.
When Max slipped into “the flow,” nothing else existed, especially not time. He may as well have been writing in solitary confinement rather than in an office on the third floor, looking out over Elliot Bay.
Max wrote articles for the local section of the Seattle Post Intelligencer’s online newspaper and had the good fortune to have written for the P.I. for several years before it went entirely digital in 2009. At the time, Max thought his career was over, even though his articles were considered by many to be well researched and written. Leading up to the P.I.’s switch, Seattle’s other paper, The Times, experienced heavy layoffs. Max was expecting the same at the P.I., but it hadn’t happened. Instead, the P.I. began a slow demise due to attrition, like a tree without fertilizer. First went the leaves and eventually, entire branches would die and fall with no new growth to replace them.
Max’s tunnel-vision often caused him to be late for story meetings and interviews, dates with Deanna and Alex’s baseball games. He would make promises, but time would get away from him and slip right through the cracks in his keyboard. Even setting alarms didn’t work. The snooze button was a constant companion.
For their fifteenth wedding anniversary, Deanna had given Max a watch, a high-end Citizen Skyhawk, in hopes that it would help him track time better. It worked for a while, but he soon fell back into his old habits.
He was in the middle of responding to an email when Max realized what time it was. “Shit!”
He could hear Deanna in his head: “Ask yourself if finishing is more important than where you need to be.” Max looked at his watch again, then confirmed the time on his computer screen. I can finish and still make it on time, he thought as he settled back into his email.
When he pulled out of the underground garage of the P.I., he noted the time on the digital clock on the dash, and confirmed it with his Skyhawk. He’d make it.
Traffic wasn’t as heavy as he expected it to be, due to leaving work a half hour before rush hour. Max navigated onto Aurora Avenue North and turned on KISW 99.9 FM. The Men’s Room was in already in progress, their question of the day: “What is the dumbest thing you’ve ever been busted for doing?” Max thought of a few things as he switched into driving mode, like when he threw an apple core out the car window only to hit a passing police car. But today, the only infraction he could possibly be busted for would be speeding.
It was smooth sailing until he was halfway across the George Washington Memorial Bridge. Vehicles slowed to a crawl, then to a stop. The obstruction seemed to only affect northbound traffic. After flipping over to KIRO 97.3 FM, Max learned a semi-trailer truck loaded with fresh produce had flipped and was blocking northbound lanes as well as the off ramp at Bridge Way. Max was already on the bridge and couldn’t do anything except wait.
He pulled out his phone and sent Deanna a text: “Accident on Aurora. Be there ASAP.” It felt like a cop out, and with his unreliable track record, Alex was sure to see it that way. Alex didn’t care why he would be late, only that he would be late.
All Max could do was wait for the accident to be cleared. He slid down into his seat and switched the radio back to KISW to try and distract himself. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult had begun with its iconic guitar riff. Max half expected Christopher Walken to break into the song and request “more cowbell.” He smiled at the thought and turned the radio up, passing the time by singing along with the lyrics he remembered and humming the rest.
Deanna dug out her phone. Apart from Max’s first text earlier in the evening, there had been no new messages. She was certain he was going to miss the entire game, but she spotted his car pull into the parking lot. It was like she had willed him into existence. Better late than never.
Davy Quan had stationed himself at the stairs leading into the dugout. “What are you smiling at, buddy boy?” Clint said. “You’re up next.”
Davy was the youngest and shortest member of the team and didn’t speak a lick of English as far as anybody knew. But he spoke baseball and that’s all that anyone cared about. He made up for his lack of stature with a grin a mile wide and laughed when everyone else laughed. The rest of the Fireflies nicknamed him “Smiles.”
Davy flashed Clint a big toothy grin and nodded, before returning his attention to home plate.
Alex stood at home plate and tapped his cleats with his bat to knock out anything trapped in their treads. Cheers erupted from the bleachers.
“Alright, Alex!” Deanna clapped with pride. “Knock it out of the park!”
Hearing Deanna’s words of encouragement reminded Alex of how little encouragement he received from Max. His anger rose higher, pushing normal thoughts of the game out of the way.
Max leaped up the steps of the bleachers, skirting around other spectators and planted himself next to Deanna. “Did you get my text? A semi flipped on Aurora.”
Deanna focused on the game.
“What’s the score?”
“They’re down by two, bottom of the sixth.” Deanna tried to let go of her aggravation, but she was too riled up. “The game is practically over. Why did you even bother?”
“I said I’d be here,” Max said.
“That’s never stopped you from bailing before.”
“Come on, Dee. That’s not fair. I didn’t plan that accident.”
“What accident?” Deanna returned her gaze back to Alex. “And don’t talk to me about fair.”
Max pulled out his phone and saw the familiar red exclamation point and message “Not Delivered” written underneath his last text. He sighed and tucked his phone back in his pocket.
Alex lined up his bat over home plate and tried to picture the trajectory that the pitcher’s baseball would take. His anger remained a distraction.
The umpire settled in behind the catcher for the Verminators. “Play ball!”
The catcher flashed a hand signal to the pitcher. “You’re going down, bro.”
Alex shrugged him off, but his thoughts weren’t on the game. He pictured Max sitting at his desk, typing on his keyboard without a care in the world. And Max was smiling. Alex gritted his teeth. “Asshole.”
The first pitch flew past Alex and landed with a thud, ejecting a small cloud of dirt from the catcher’s glove. He wouldn’t have known had it not been for the umpire yelling out “Strike one!”
“Come on!” Clint stepped forward towards the dugout entrance. “What was that?”
The catcher threw the baseball back to the pitcher and glanced at Clint. “Your coach got a problem with ace pitches?”
Alex ignored him and stepped back to home plate. He dug his cleats into the dirt and lined up his bat again.
The pitcher waited for the catcher’s signal, wound up and fired the ball across home plate. On a different day, in a different game, Alex would have knocked the ball deep into the outfield and sent one or maybe two runners home. But today, the pitcher’s throw sailed past home plate untouched.
The umpire jutted out his arm. “Strike two!” The crowd booed the call.
“I told you, bro.” The catcher threw the baseball back to the pitcher on the mound. “The captain’s gonna go down with his ship.”
“Shut up, will yah?” Alex narrowed his eyes on the pitcher.
“Zip it, you two,” the umpire said.
“Come on, Alex!” The familiar sound of Deanna’s voice helped wash away Alex’s anger. He could always rely on his mom to help bring out his best. “You can do it!”
“Alex! Focus!” This time it was Clint yelling at him from the dugout. Alex shot him a defiant look, then settled into his ready stance.
The pitcher and Alex locked gazes, trying to read each other’s minds.
Alex noticed the pitcher shift his eyeline, then nod: catcher’s signal received. The pitcher wound up and let loose a blazing curveball.
Alex swung and connected square with the ball—crack—sending it deep into center field. If he had hit it just a little harder, it would have been a home run. Everything in Alex’s mind fell away as he threw his bat to the side and bolted towards first base.
Cheers erupted from the Fireflies bleachers. Everyone except Deanna stood and clapped. She struggled to her feet to join Max and the other parents.
Alex cleared first base and closed in on second. The center fielder grabbed, fumbled and recovered the baseball before throwing toward second.
To Alex, everything felt like it was moving in slow motion. The wind in his hair, his feet digging divots in the dirt propelling him forward, each breath bringing him closer to second base.
“Run, damn it. RUN!” Clint stepped out of the dugout toward the third base coach. He kept the dugout within arm’s reach and gripped the chain-link fencing with white knuckles.
Alex blew past second, just as the second baseman snatched the throw from center field. The game now tied, Alex knew he had no choice but to continue on to third base.
The second baseman spun on one foot and drilled the ball to third. Sensing a close call, the third base umpire squatted to eye the play.
Alex dropped to the ground and slid into third just as the baseman caught the ball. Clouds of dirt and gravel flew into the air as Alex felt the weight of the baseman’s glove brush against his leg.
In reality, the moment of impact lasted less than a second, but it felt so much longer. The crowd hushed as the dust settled, and Alex knew the umpire’s call before the words left his mouth.
“You’re…out!” The third base umpire pumped his fist back and forth.
“What?” Clint lost his mind and threw his hat on the ground in protest. “He was safe!”
Boos rang out from the Fireflies bleachers, competing with cheers from fans of the Verminators.
Deanna cupped both sides of her mouth with her hands. “Bad call! He was safe!” She leaned toward Max. “He was safe, wasn’t he?” If Deanna had brought her Nikon, rapid-fire images would have told the truth.
“Well, I don’t know,” Max said. “It did look—”
Deanna felt something pop within her belly, almost like passing a gas bubble, but less localized. The feeling of being pregnant shifted inside her body and everything seemed a little less secure. She wrapped her right arm under her belly to give it support and stroked it in circles with her left hand. She raised the hem of her shirt dress just enough to see rivulets of fluid traveling down her leg and collecting on the concrete beneath the bleachers. Deanna grabbed Max’s arm with her left hand.
“What?” Max’s eyes were still locked on the third base action.
“My water broke.” Deanna spoke in a calm, normal voice, and it took all her strength to stop herself from breaking out in maniacal laughter. Her pregnancy was over.
Any other words would have gone in Max’s ears and out the other side, but these words exploded in his head like an airbag. He looked at Deanna with eyes big as saucers. “It’s time?”
Deanna felt the first contraction and took in a sharp breath. She looked at Max and nodded, not quite sure if he was surprised or jubilant.
Clint paced the third baseline muttering to himself. The third baseman extended his hand to Alex and helped him to his feet.
“Thanks,” Alex said.
“No prob.” The third baseman adjusted his ball cap. “Close call.”
The third baseman nodded towards the Fireflies bleachers. “What’s going on up there?”
Alex looked towards the bleachers and saw Max helping Deanna down from the top row of seats. “Mom?” He ran around the dugout and through the gate to the spectator area. “Mom?”
“Hey!” Clint followed Alex. “Where do you think you’re going?”
The third baseman thumbed toward the bleachers. “It’s his mom.”
“Shit.” Clint saw the commotion and clued in immediately. For the past couple of weeks, Alex had talked with Peter and a few other teammates about becoming a big brother. That time had come.
Max and Alex helped Deanna to the parking lot, taking slow, ginger steps. A circle of onlookers trailed behind the trio, as if they were following a brawl in progress. Some had their phones out and were taking photos and video. Clint followed along beside Alex within the circle.
“Break it up folks.” Clint pushed through the front of the circle of onlookers and cleared a path for Max, Deanna and Alex. “Let the lady through.”
Clint pulled Alex aside and handed him his equipment bag. “Don’t worry about the game. Go with your mom.”
“Thanks, Coach,” Alex said.
Deanna was within earshot. “It’s alright, honey. I’ll be fine. Stay and finish the game.”
“No, I’m going with you.”
“You sure you don’t want to stay?” Max tried to look Alex in the eyes, but Alex remained focused on Deanna.
“I said I’m going with Mom.” Alex’s words filtered through gritted teeth.
Max exchanged a look with Clint.
“No problem.” Clint nodded. “The game’s almost over anyway.”
Deanna gasped as a contraction took hold of her. “Help me into the car.”
“Are you okay, Mom?”
“Just help me into the car,” Deanna said between breaths.
“Northwest Hospital is closest,” Clint said.
“Thanks.” Max nodded as he laid Deanna down in the back seat. He tried to buckle her in but Deanna waved him off.
“Just drive,” she said.
Deanna lay on her back with her knees raised, taking up the entire back seat. She recalled her prenatal classes and began her breathing exercises. Only sounds of air rushing in Deanna’s nose and out her mouth filled the car.
Max was first to break the palpable silence. “Alex? You okay?”
Alex stared out the window, watching the suburbs of Victory Heights fly by the passenger window.
“Looked like a good game,” Max said. “I’m sorry I missed most of it.”
On the outside, Alex remained stoic, but inside his stomach was tied in knots and his head swirled with both anger at Max and concern for Deanna.
“I tried, you know,” Max said.
“Really?” Alex glared at Max. “Well, maybe you should try harder.”
“What do you want me to do?” Max tried to engage Alex, while still keeping his eyes on the road. “I can’t drive through gridlock.”
“Okay, enough testosterone,” Deanna said between breaths.
“I can’t win with you, can I?” Max managed a short glance at Alex, but Alex had returned his gaze to the passenger window.
Alex shook his head. “Dad, you don’t have a clue.” Trying to shake off his anger, he turned in his seat to face Deanna in the back. “What’s it feel like?”
“The contractions?” Deanna said.
Max spied Deanna in the rear view mirror. “Leave your mother to rest.”
“It’s okay, Max.” Deanna breathed in and out. “Imagine getting a really tight hug, then add pain that starts in your back and moves to your tummy.”
“Sounds uncomfortable.” Alex rested his chin on his seat back.
“It is,” Deanna said. “But you know something? When I had you, it felt totally different, like my whole body tensed up and I couldn’t move at all.”
“Is it easier this time?”
“It’s different.” Deanna compared the two experiences in her head. “It still hurts, but yeah, I think it’s a bit easier.”
“Good.” Alex smiled.
Deanna’s smile was cut short by a contraction.
Max kept his focus on the road ahead, feeling left out of the conversation.
When Max arrived at Northwest Hospital just after six thirty, the parking lot was packed. Cars floated around the lot like sharks on the hunt. Finding a parking spot close to the building would be next to impossible.
Max pulled up to the sliding doors of the entrance. “Alex, help Mom in and get her admitted. I’ll find a parking space.” Without a word, Alex unbuckled his seat belt and hopped out of the car. He opened the rear passenger door and reached out to Deanna.
“Can you walk?” Alex eyed Deanna with concern. They had gone over their hospital procedure numerous times just in case Max couldn’t make it. But talking about it was so much different than the real thing. Alex fought against his nerves and the knots in his stomach. The last thing he wanted to show his mom was weakness.
Deanna nodded. “I think so.”
“Grab my shoulders.”
Deanna eased herself out of the car and slung her arm around Alex’s shoulders. She marveled at how broad they had become. Her first-born had turned into a man right under her nose.
Alex closed the car door and placed one arm around Deanna’s waist. With her free hand, she cradled her belly.
Max rolled down his window. “I’ll park and catch up.”
“Whatever,” Alex said, under his breath.
“You think I can’t hear your grumbles,” Deanna said, “but I do. He’s your father. Even though his track record isn’t that great—”
“His track record is zero.”
“He still deserves your respect.”
“I can’t wait to be old enough to get respect for doing nothing.”
Deanna stopped just as the double doors to the hospital opened. “Alex, look at me.” He faced Deanna but evaded her gaze. “At least he’s trying. You need to try too. Can you do that? For me?”
Alex finally connected with Deanna’s eyes, and nodded. That was his weakness, the way Deanna looked at him like she saw into his soul. He couldn’t imagine anyone else being able to do that.
As soon as the nurse at the reception desk saw Alex and Deanna, she knew what they were here for. She called another nurse to get Deanna a wheelchair.
“It looks like your special day has arrived,” the reception nurse said. “Name?”
Deanna began the process of checking in.
The parking spot that Max found was about as far as one could get from the front entrance. The parking permit machine was located in the center of the lot, and there was a lineup, at least half a dozen people ahead of him. Minutes melted by as Max stood in line for a permit.
“Hey!” Max dug out his wallet. “Whoever’s first in line, I’ll give you a twenty to switch spots with me.” Max held up the cash to silence. “How about second?”
To Max’s amazement, there were no takers. “Seriously?”
“Family’s more important than cash,” the person third in line said.
“My wife’s having a baby,” Max said.
The third person turned and looked at Max. His eyes were tired and red-rimmed. “My wife’s dying of cancer,” he said. “We all got our emergencies.”
“Damn straight,” another person in line said.
They had a point. Max put his money away and waited his turn.
He hurried to the car, placed his permit on the dash, and ran to the entrance of the hospital.
“My wife was just in,” Max said, out of breath. “She’s having a baby.”
“Name?” The reception nurse waited at her keyboard.
“Sheridan,” Max said. “Deanna Sheridan.”
“Oh yes, she was with her son.”
“Third floor, Mother-Babe wing.”
“Thank you!” Max yelled back, as he took off down the hallway to the elevators. He pressed the call button to go up, but the elevator was already going up.
“Forget that.” Max burst into the stairwell and galloped up the steps, two at a time. He emerged on the third floor, winded and nearly knocking down an orderly. He saw Alex pacing in the waiting room, which was more of an alcove off the main hallway and across from the nurses’ station.
“Where’s Mom?” Max said, sweaty and out of breath.
Alex looked up dismissively. “They’re helping her get changed. Delivery room 3.”
“Stay here, okay?”
What a dumb thing to say, Alex thought. He shrugged at Max. “Where else am I going to go?”
Max ran to delivery room 3. Deanna sat on the edge of the bed in a hospital gown. She took slow, measured breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth.
His brain flashed back thirteen years to when Alex was born. Deanna looked just as beautiful now as she did then, and a flood of guilt washed over him.
“What can I do?” Max vibrated with nervous energy.
“Just sit with me,” Deanna said and patted the mattress beside her with her hand. “And relax. I’m four centimeters. It’s going to be a while.”
Max sat next to Deanna and his hand went to her back instinctively. He had never forgotten what to do when Deanna was in labor, but in the years since their first go around Max had lost sight of how important his touch and his presence were.
“Yes. Massaging my back would be good too.” Deanna closed her eyes. “Apparently, I’ve been in early labor for the past nine hours already. I thought I was feeling kicking all day. It was really contractions.”
“It was news to me, too.”
Alex sat in a chair in the waiting room, bored out of his mind. There were only so many collections of Family Circle he could read before he wanted to scratch his eyes out.
Why couldn’t they have some graphic novels or even an Archie comic? Alex thought as he tossed the Family Circle back onto the pile stacked next to the chair.
The clock on the wall read 9:18 p.m. His stomach growled at him, but there was nothing he could do about it. He had no money for the vending machine that sat in the corner, taunting him with its salty and chocolaty offerings.
Alex stood up to stretch his legs. He walked down to delivery room 3 and peeked around the door frame. Max was helping Deanna walk around the room. She had a white band wrapped around her belly which was connected to a machine beside the bed. He saw the discomfort and pain Deanna was in and wanted to help somehow, but didn’t want to be anywhere near Max.
He thinks he’s such a hero, Alex thought.
A nurse checked Deanna’s contractions on the monitoring machine as she wrote notes on Deanna’s chart. Alex watched the nurse work. There wasn’t a hard edge about her. She had a soothing softness that surrounded everything she did. Alex had no doubt she was exceptional at her job, but he’d soon find out just how good at it she was.
The nurse looked up and caught Alex spying from the side of the door. Alex ducked back around the door frame and against the wall. He wasn’t sure what he was hiding from, but he felt like he had done something wrong.
“You must be Alex.” The nurse stood beside the doorway. “You can come in if you like. I’m sure your parents would like to see you. Would you like me to let them know you’re here?”
“No.” Alex shook his head. “I’ll go back to the waiting area.” His stomach growled loud enough for both of them to hear.
“Wow, what you got in there?” the nurse said. “A mountain lion?”
“I'm Cassidy, Cass for short.” She touched her name badge, which read “Cassie”.
“But the name on your uniform is Cassie,” Alex said.
“It’s Cass to the cool people.” She headed back towards the waiting area. “Come with me.”
Alex remained at the door to delivery room 3 and watched Cassidy walk back down the hallway.
Cassidy turned and beckoned. “Come on.”
Alex followed her to the waiting area. She stopped in front of the vending machine.
“What would you like?” Cassidy said. “Pick a couple of things.”
“I don’t have any money,” Alex said.
“Don’t worry about it.” Cassidy smiled and tapped her front right pocket. Change jangled in it. “I got you covered.”
It was a Sheridan family rule to never accept gifts from strangers, but Alex thought this was a fair exception. His raging stomach agreed. He chose a bag of Doritos and an Oh Henry! bar.
“Good choices.” Cassidy dug into her pocket and retrieved a handful of coins, plugging the vending machine with exact change. She grabbed the snacks from the tray at the bottom of the machine and handed them to Alex. “This’ll chase away the growlies.”
“Thanks.” Alex sat down to eat.
Cassidy sat down beside him. “So you’re going to be a big brother. Pretty exciting, huh?”
Alex ripped into the Doritos. “I guess so.” He grabbed a chip and placed it into his mouth whole. His taste buds exploded with every crunch. Cool Ranch was Alex’s favorite.
“Being a big brother is a huge responsibility.” Cassidy watched Alex eat, pleased that she was able to help. “Your parents are going to need your help too, now more than ever.”
Alex crunched another chip. “My dad’s never around, so it won’t be that much of a change for me. I’m used to helping my mom.”
“From what I saw, your dad’s doing all the right things.”
Alex scoffed. “That’s all show.”
Cassidy nodded. She had touched a nerve and knew it. “Well, Alex, the future’s unwritten.”
“I doubt it.” Alex looked at the clock on the wall. 9:32 p.m. “How long does it take to deliver a baby?”
“Your mom is in the active labor phase now,” Cassidy said. “It could go on for another four to six hours.”
“Lucky it’s Friday.”
“I’ve been helping bring babies into the world longer than you’ve been alive. Every delivery is different.” Cassidy tapped Alex’s knee. “But it’s going to be a while. You might want to get some sleep at some point. If you need a pillow, or more snacks, just let me know. I’m here all night.”
Alex nodded and dug into his Doritos. “Thanks.”
Cassidy stood and walked back to the nurse’s station. “No worries, Alex.”
The remaining Doritos disappeared. Alex licked his fingers and tore into the Oh Henry! bar. It vanished just as quickly as the chips. It wasn’t a lot of food, but it was enough to silence his stomach and induce the sleepies. Alex closed his eyes and within minutes fell into a fitful sleep.
Max stood over Alex in the waiting area. He was sprawled over two chairs, his knees supported by the arm rests of two side-by-side chairs. There was a pillow supporting his head. Max gave Alex a gentle shake.
Alex jolted awake. He saw Max dressed in blue scrubs, the kind that surgeons wore on some of his favorite television shows.
Surgeons, Alex thought. “What? What’s wrong?” Alex looked at the clock above his head. 6:13 a.m. “Why are you dressed like that? Where’s Mom?”
Max knelt down to Alex’s eye level. “Everything’s fine. Mom’s recovering from surgery.”
“The doctors had to do an emergency caesarean.”
Panic flashed in Alex’s eyes. “Is Mom okay?” Medical shows replayed in his head and his imagination tried to run away with him.
Max placed his hands on Alex’s shoulders. “Don’t worry. Mom’s okay.” Alex saw tears filling Max’s eyelids. “So’s your little brother…David.”
Little brother. Alex’s eyes cleared a little and a hint of a smile crossed his lips.
Max stood up, wiping his eyes. “Come with me. Mom would love to see you.”
Alex followed Max down the hallway. He saw Cassidy at the nurse’s station. She smiled and gave him a thumbs up. Alex returned her gesture with a thumbs up of his own.
They passed delivery room 3 and followed the hallway around the corner, arriving at room 313.
Alex peeked into the room. Deanna lay in an inclined bed, holding baby David, who was sleeping and swaddled in her arms. Alex stepped through the doorway and into the room, wiping sleep grit from his eyes. Max remained at the doorway to give Alex some space before following.
Deanna smiled with tired eyes, caught up with emotion. Thoughts swirled in her head. Her number one son had a brother. It was something she had wanted for so long. She knew a new baby wasn’t a Band-Aid for the issues she was having with Max. If anything, the birth of David had removed the false protection of sameness and inaction.
She found herself wondering what David would look like at Alex’s age, if they’d be interested in the same things. “Hey, hot shot.”
“Sorry I missed it,” Alex said. “I fell asleep.”
“I’m glad someone around here slept.” Deanna motioned with her head. “Come meet your little brother, David Anthony.”
Alex approached the bed, planting his steps in careful and quiet procession. He leaned in close to get a better view of his new baby brother. Max kept his distance and gave Alex space. He moved to the opposite side of the bed in order to watch Alex’s reaction.
Alex pulled a little of the swaddling aside to look at David’s face. “For a baby, he sure looks like an old man.”
“He looks like you,” Deanna said. “When you were a baby.”
“Yeah. He definitely has your eyes.” Deanna watched Alex watch David. “Do you want to hold him?”
Alex looked back and forth between Deanna and Max, all at once a jumbled rush of insecurity. “I don’t know how.”
Deanna looked at Max and smiled. “Dad will show you how.”
Max walked around the bed and stood beside Alex. “Just cradle your arms, like this.” Max positioned his arms across his chest. “Hold most of his weight with one arm, and support his head with the other.”
Max lifted David up and presented him to Alex. David, swaddled in his blue blanket, fit into Alex’s arms like he was made to be there. Pride beamed from Alex’s face, a grin spreading from ear to ear.
Click. A simulated shutter sounded from Max’s phone. Max looked at the picture on display, of Alex in the moment, transfixed by his new brother. “That’s a keeper.”
Alex looked up at Max and Deanna. “He’s so warm.”
Deanna smiled and closed her eyes. “He’s a little furnace, just like you were.”
Doctor Sam Greenwood, the Sheridan’s family physician, entered the room. Tall, wiry and full of boundless energy, Deanna was convinced that Sam never slept. She felt even more tired watching him bounce from appointment to appointment. Efficiency was Sam’s middle name.
“Hey, folks,” Sam said.
Max stepped away from the bed. “Doc.”
“How’s the mother?” Sam grinned beneath a thin mustache that made him look a little like John Waters.
Deanna could hear Max in her head: “Either commit to the mustache or shave it off. That line of hair just looks weird.” Mustache or not, Sam was a good doctor.
Deanna patted the bandage over her sensitive incision line. “My body’s seen better days.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” Sam looked at Alex holding David. “That‘s a good look for you, Alex. How’s it feel to be the big brother?”
“It’s great,” Alex said, without looking away from David in his arms.
Sam directed his attention to Deanna’s abdomen. “Are you comfortable? How’s the pain?”
Deanna prided herself on her stoicism, but allowed herself this moment of truth. “It hurts.”
“Let’s take a quick look at that incision.” Sam rolled Deanna’s bed sheet down slightly and raised her hospital shirt to expose her belly and the bandage across it.
Max’s phone rang. He took it out, looked at the display, and caught a knowing glance from Deanna. He turned the phone off and returned it to his pocket.
Sam continued his examination, peeling back the bandage to take a peek. “Everything’s looking good here. Take advantage of the morphine while you can.” Sam picked up Deanna’s chart and jotted some notes on it. “If you need anything, just buzz me, day or night.”
“Thanks, Sam.” Deanna reached out and gave Sam’s hand a quick squeeze. “For everything.”
Sam nodded. “Alex, your mom and your new brother need sleep, so don’t stay too late.”
“But it’s practically morning,” Alex said.
Sam looked out the window. Shades of orange, pink and blue mixed in the brightening sky. “So it is. Maybe you should think about getting some breakfast, then.”
Sam flew out the door, his white coat flapping behind him like the cape of a superhero.
Alex touched David’s cheek, enamored by the warm life he held in his arms. Deanna looked on, with Max by her side. She squeezed Max’s hand, and he reciprocated. But his other hand was in his pocket, his fingers on his phone, waiting for the next available moment to return his earlier call. Max was there in body, but not in spirit, a state that would have to change if he wanted his marriage to survive.
Deanna awoke with a start at five thirty in the morning. Her heart raced and she felt an overwhelming sense of dread wash over her. Remnants of a dream were scattered about in her head, but they evaporated faster than she could grab hold of them.
She rolled to her side and looked at David in his crib. In the weeks after delivery, Max had removed one side of the crib and butted it up against their bed to make night feedings easier. It had been one of Max’s good ideas.
David lay on his back, staring at Deanna with his big blue eyes. Deanna stared back and smiled. The red swelling she had noticed on David’s upper lip a week ago seemed to be less pronounced.
Maybe it’s the morning light tricking me, Deanna thought.
Whatever it was, David didn’t seem to mind it. He kicked in his astronaut-themed Grobag and waved his arms up and down.
“My sweet boy.” Deanna spoke in a calm, quiet voice. The fragments of her morning dreams floated away like lint in the sunshine. “Want some mama-milk?”
David paused and listened to Deanna’s voice, his eyes flitting between her mouth and her eyes, then gurgled and cooed at her. This sounded like a “yes” to Deanna. She unbuttoned her nursing night shirt, reached over and pulled David close to her side. He latched onto her breast in an instant. Deanna had heard too many breastfeeding horror stories, and was thankful every day that David took to it naturally.
She stroked his whispery brown hair and smelled his head, taking in the unmistakable essence of baby that she had missed for thirteen years. It had been too long. Deanna began to wonder if the price to get here had been too high, then pushed the thought away. Instead, she watched David feed until he drifted off to sleep again. She slid him back into his crib.
“My sweet, sweet boy.” Deanna closed her eyes and sleep found her again. This time it came with happiness and comfort.
When Deanna woke again, Max was already showered and dressed. She could smell coffee brewing, with overtones of burnt toast wafting through the house. If it was possible to burn water, Max would find a way. David remained asleep in his crib.
She got out of bed and hopped into the shower. Since David was born, she had refined showering to an exact science. In and out in five minutes or less. Usually less. In the early weeks, Deanna would hear crying everywhere, even when she showered. The white noise of water drops falling played tricks on her ears. Her awareness of David’s distress, which was sometimes all in her head, was finally quieting. When Deanna stopped the water, she heard crying. This time it was real. She wrapped a towel around herself and went to her bedroom.
Alex was sitting on the edge of the bed, still in his pajamas and cradling David in his arms, trying his best to calm him down. David wasn’t happy about it.
“Why did you wake him?” Deanna said.
“I didn’t. He woke me up. I’m just trying to cheer him up.”
“He’s hungry, hon.” Deanna pulled a nursing dress out of her closet. “Please take him for a walk while I get dressed. Dad’s in the kitchen.”
Alex lifted David into his cradled arms. “Let’s see what Dad’s doing.”
Max sat at the kitchen table with his laptop open to the employee portal of the P.I. A partially written article displayed on the screen. He munched on well-done toast slathered with peanut butter, and washed it down with coffee.
“Hey you two,” Max said between bites of toast. “How are my boys?”
“David’s hungry or cranky…or something.” Nothing Alex did seemed to calm David down. “Can you try holding him?”
Max closed his laptop and slid it into his leather messenger bag. He took David from Alex, cradled him against his shoulder and gave a meager effort to rock him.
“I think you’re right about the hungry part.” Max handed David back to Alex. “I got to get an early start. I got court today.” He took one last gulp of coffee. “Let Mom know I’ll be late tonight.”
“You’re always late.”
“Got to pay the bills,” Max said, pouring more coffee into a travel mug.
Got to pay the bills. Alex mimicked Max’s words to himself with a grimace. David continued to wail, his face reddened, warm and tear-streaked.
“See you tonight.” Max planted a quick peck on the top of Alex’s head, then David’s, and was out the side door.
Deanna entered the kitchen. “Dad gone already?”
“He’s got court,” Alex said.
Deanna nodded and took David from Alex’s arms. “Is he going to make it to your practice game today?”
Alex gave Deanna a sideways look. “Mom, he’s got court.”
“Aw, hon, I’m sorry.” Deanna took Alex in her free arm, gave him a hug and kissed him. “I won’t be able to make it today, either. David has a doctor’s appointment.”
“Is he okay?”
“Of course he is.” A flicker of worry shot through Deanna’s head. She hoped it hadn’t been obvious. “Want some bacon and eggs?”
“I can make them.”
“Consider it a peace offering, for missing your game today.”
Alex grinned. His stomach growled at the thought.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Deanna said. “Let me get David settled, and I’ll get right on it.”
Alex left the kitchen to go get dressed. Deanna sat at the kitchen table and held David to her breast. He wasn’t as receptive as he’d been earlier in the morning.
Deanna’s worry returned. It had never really left. It had remained floating in the background of her mind. “What’s going on with you, little man?”
David cried, and sometimes screamed, all the way to Sam’s office. Deanna could feel the other bus riders cursing at her without words, judging her with their eyes. Deanna tried everything she could think of, but David was inconsolable.
Deanna decided to get off the bus early. She was a couple stops away from the medical building, but the bus’s aggravated and oppressive atmosphere became too much to bear. The walk would do her good. When she stepped from the bus and the doors closed behind her, Deanna thought she heard clapping and cheering.
They can all go to hell, she thought. I’m a good mother.
The immediate change in environment didn’t calm David down, but the walk to the medical building proved to be a success. Deanna swung the baby carrier back and forth as she walked, and after four blocks, David was asleep.
Sam Greenwood’s office was located on the third floor of the Bayview Public Health Center. Deanna pushed open the frosted glass door to the waiting room. Elaine, Sam’s receptionist, looked up from her phone call and acknowledged Deanna and David with an excited wave. Deanna managed a smile and waved back.
The impressive, south-facing view from Sam’s waiting room offered a glimpse of Seattle’s sprawling downtown core. On any other day, Deanna would have stared out the window and gotten lost in the city’s intricate details. But today, she paid no attention, and instead paced back and forth in Sam’s waiting room. David lay in his carrier, still asleep.
One other patient, an older woman, sat waiting. She looked to be in her seventies. The older woman looked up from her issue of Reader’s Digest and over her reading glasses without moving her head.
“You’re going to wear a path in that carpet, dear,” the older woman said. She held up an issue of People Magazine. “Take a load off.”
“What?” Deanna hadn’t heard a word.
“Sit,” the older woman said. “You’re making me nervous.”
“Oh.” Deanna hesitated, then sat in a nearby chair. She took the magazine from the old woman but didn’t open it.
Sam opened the reception door leading to his examination rooms. “Deanna! You’re looking great. Come on in. And bring that handsome son of yours, too.”
Deanna stood and dropped her magazine on the end table next to the old woman.
“I was here first,” the older woman said.
Elaine covered the mouthpiece of her phone. “Now, Greta. Your appointment is at eleven.” Elaine nodded at Deanna to proceed. “It’s only ten fifteen.”
“But I was here first.” The older woman scowled at Deanna as she grabbed David’s carrier.
“Mrs. Chapman, you’re next.” Sam flashed a wide toothy smile. “I promise.”
Mrs. Chapman slapped the Reader’s Digest on the end table and crossed her arms in protest.
Sam escorted Deanna down an inner hallway to one of the office’s examination rooms. “Deanna, what’s your son’s name again?”
“Ah yes. David,” Sam said. “A strong, biblical name. I like it.”
Sam closed the door to the examination room. “Let’s take a look at you. Unbutton your shirt and hop up onto the table for me, please. You can leave your bra on.”
Sam went through his usual examination routine, noting Deanna’s blood pressure, pulse and breathing sounds. “Have you noticed any new moles or skin blemishes?” He scanned Deanna’s arms, neck and back.
“Good.” Sam grabbed his otoscope from its charging station on the wall and turned on its light. “You can never be too careful when it comes to skin cancer.” He looked into Deanna’s ears, then her nose, before placing the otoscope back on the wall.
Sam grabbed a wooden tongue depressor from a jar in the corner. “Open and say ah.”
Sam flashed a penlight into Deanna’s mouth and used the wooden depressor to get a good look. She hated the bitter antiseptic taste and it almost made her gag.
He snapped the depressor in half and threw it in the garbage. “Lay back for me, please.”
Deanna lay back on the examination table, the sanitary paper crinkling underneath her.
Sam palpated Deanna’s abdomen and examined her caesarean incision. “Any tenderness or pain?”
Deanna stared at the ceiling and shook her head.
“OK, we’re done,” Sam said. “You can throw on your shirt.” Sam jotted notes into Deanna’s medical history. “You’ve healed really well. Minimal scarring.”
Deanna buttoned up her shirt. “I must’ve had a good surgeon.”
Sam smiled and took a slight bow. “Why thank you, Madame. Now let’s take a look at little David.”
Deanna unbuckled David in his carrier, waking him. As if on cue, he began to fuss. “Alright, little man. Up we come.” She lifted David up and cradled him in her arms. “I’ve noticed a swelling on his upper lip the past few days.”
Sam took a close look, examining David’s lip as gently as he could manage. David let loose a loud wail.
“Wow,” Sam said. “What a set of lungs.” He examined David’s face and neck, despite David’s vocal protests. “Any colds or flu recently?”
“No.” Deanna rocked David in an attempt to calm him down.
Sam donned his stethoscope and listened to David’s heart and breathing. David ramped up his crying.
Deanna shhh’d in David’s ear. “Sorry about this.”
“No, this reaction is normal,” Sam said. “If there wasn’t crying, I’d be worried. Are his shots up to date?”
“Yes. So far.”
Sam hung his stethoscope around his neck. His normal, jovial manner dropped a notch, enough for Deanna to notice.
“I’m at a loss, Deanna.” Sam transcribed his observations into David’s history. “It could be a lot of things. An allergic reaction or a cyst could cause swelling like this.”
Deanna looked at Sam directly. “Should I be worried? Because I feel like I should be.”
Sam couldn’t hold Deanna’s gaze. He grabbed a pad of blank lab requisitions and began selecting various tests. “At this point, no, but we’ll start with some blood tests, and a needle biopsy to be sure. Get these done as soon as possible.”
Biopsy, Deanna thought. Oh God. ”I don’t know about you, but when I hear biopsy, I think serious.”
Sam placed a hand on Deanna’s shoulder. “Biopsies are extremely common. And these tests will help rule out anything out of the ordinary. Okay? Try not to worry.”
Deanna forced a smile. “I’ll do my best.”
But it was a lie. Deanna’s thoughts had already begun swirling worst case scenarios. She placed David back into his carrier and buckled him in.
“We’ll keep in touch.” Sam opened the door to the examination room. “Thanks for dropping by, Deanna. Elaine will see you out.”
When Deanna was out of sight, Sam returned to the examination room to collect Deanna and David’s medical histories. He opened David’s history and looked at the notes he had taken. The page was almost blank, as it should be for a child six weeks old. But a suspicion nagged him. He grabbed his pen from his breast pocket and engaged the ballpoint with a click.
Sam didn’t want to write his suspicion down, because that would make it part of David’s permanent medical history. That would make it a real possibility. But as a doctor, he couldn’t disregard any possibilities.
So he wrote down his suspicion, one word, an educated guess, and closed David’s history.
I hope to God I’m wrong, Sam thought, as he returned his pen to his pocket.
Two floors above Sam’s office, the King County Cancer Care Alliance occupied almost the entire fifth floor. The reclining chairs were the best thing about Kristen’s trips there. The recliners were positioned in a row in one of the treatment rooms, designed for administering chemotherapy intravenously.
Kristen knew the chairs weren’t leather. Her crazy Aunt Libby had a leather couch. It was much softer than the chairs in the “chemo-cave” (a nickname Kristen came up with during her first bout with cancer), but they were well padded which allowed her to zone out in comfort. Sometimes she stared at the ceiling, but most days Kristen directed her gaze out the bank of windows next to the row of recliners.
Her chemotherapy sessions lasted at least three hours, sometimes four. On a good day, she could see across Puget Sound towards Port Madison. If she was even luckier, she could watch the Clipper travel to or from Victoria in Canada.
Kristen knew from geography class that beyond Port Madison and obscured by the Olympic range sat Mount Olympus. Same name as the mountain in Greece with all the gods. Sometimes Kristen would pray to the Greek God Apollo to come down and heal her for good, or at least give her medicine that didn’t make her throw up all the time. But it didn’t work. Her cancer had come back, which meant more chemotherapy and more feeling like shit.
One nurse worked today, an older woman that Kristen thought she recognized, but couldn’t be sure. The nursing staff all blended together. She rattled around the vacant recliners, preparing for the afternoon appointments.
“Slow day at the chemo-cave, huh?” Kristen glanced at the nurse with tired eyes. Dark circles hung under her eye sockets like windless sails. It was one thirty in the afternoon and she was the only patient there.
“Kristen, you know we don’t like that nickname of yours.” The nurse pulled over an IV pole. “It’s got a negative vibe.”
Screw them, Kristen thought. They didn’t have to live with the side-effects of the strange chemicals they pumped into her bloodstream.
Kristen adjusted her well worn Los Angeles Angels baseball cap. The brim was dog-eared and was one of her prized possessions since being diagnosed. She loved the halo over the “A.” Kristen needed a guardian angel looking over her shoulder, now more than ever.
Wisps of thinning auburn hair escaped the cap despite her attempt to contain it all. She traced the path of the IV line filled with liquid Day-Glo red drugs, emerging from under her shirt and up to the bag on the pole.
“It’d be so much cooler if it glowed like a neon sign.” Kristen stared at the constant drip-drip-drip of the chemo drug entering the IV’s drip chamber. “That’s what it feels like in my veins.”
The nurse looked up from her duties. “What’s that, dear?”
“You’re almost done.” The nurse checked Kristen’s IV and noted the time on her treatment history.
“I wish I could believe you.”
“Hey, I’ve seen lots of kids come through here.” The nurse placed a hand on Kristen’s shoulder. “Most go on to live completely normal lives.”
“Most of them,” Kristen said. “And you know what’s really screwed up about that?”
The nurse looked at her, feigning interest. “What?”
“No kid should have to come through here…no kid should be pumped full of that…red death.”
“That red death is keeping you alive, young lady.”
These nurses will never understand. Kristen returned her gaze to the window, at the sky, trees, and ocean. It was an image of what normal used to look like and it gave her some hope.
“Hey, kiddo.” A familiar voice spoke from behind.
Kristen closed her eyes, sighed, and braced herself as best she could for what was to come next. “Hi, Dad.”
Joss Walters pulled up a chair, flipped it around, and sat in it backwards. He did it to look cool, because for some reason he thought Kristen cared about those kinds of things. She was long past caring about looking cool. The chemo had seen to that by destroying her hair and making her vomit unpredictably.
“How’s my cancer fighter doing today?” Joss flashed his pearl-white smile.
There it was. Joss’s stock opener. “Don’t call me that. I’m not five anymore.”
“You look tired.” Joss reached out and caressed Kristen’s cheek. “These new drugs must be pretty strong. Good thing you’ll be finished before you know it.”
“What if I get sick again?”
“We’ll beat it again.”
Kristen felt a low wave of nausea. “I’m not so sure.”
“Trust the doctors.” Joss squeezed Kristen’s hand. “They’re doing their best.”
Joss didn’t leave room for sadness and discomfort. Everything had to be positive. Win the fight. But the chemotherapy didn’t leave much room for positive. Its Day-Glo red lens cast an uneasy and unnatural light on everything it touched. Kristen managed to stay positive most days, but on days like this one, she couldn’t do it, despite Joss’s insistence.
“I miss my friends, Dad.” Even with the toxic chemicals now coursing through her veins, her tears were pure. “I’m in here and they’re out there, having fun.” She looked at Joss just as the tears breached her eyelids. “I’m getting left behind.”
“You’re my girl.” Joss reached out and took Kristen into his arms. One of the side effects of chemotherapy was a loss of appetite, and in addition to her hair, Kristen had lost a lot of weight. Joss could feel her pronounced ribs and shoulder blades through her shirt. A healthy thirteen year old girl would be developing curves and breasts, but Kristen was rail thin. The latest round of chemo had taken a lot out of her. “You’re going to beat this.”
He just doesn’t get it, Kristen thought. Her tears came easily now and she broke down in Joss’s arms. After almost four hours of chemotherapy, she had no energy for anything, particularly being strong for her father.
Deanna consumed herself with worry for the entire bus trip home from Sam’s office. That nagging feeling was back. She knew something was wrong, even though Sam hadn’t come straight out and said it. Thankfully, David slept through the return trip. The mild sedative they gave him before taking a biopsy of his upper lip had knocked him out. His crying, on top of her worry, and being surrounded by strangers would have been too much to handle. Today, her small prayer was answered.
When Deanna arrived home, she tried calling Max, but the call went straight to voice mail. Her next stop was her laptop.
She could hear Sam in her head scolding her: “Don’t use the Internet to self-diagnose.” But she couldn’t help herself.
When Sam mentioned biopsy, Deanna’s mind went to cancer. When a third of the world’s population knows of someone who’s had cancer, it’s easy to jump to conclusions.
How was that possible? she thought. How can a baby get cancer?
She found herself googling babies with cancer. The results contained articles and images she could barely bring herself to read or look at. Apparently, babies with cancer wasn’t so rare, if the thousands of results were any indication. She kicked herself for thinking the Internet could help.
When Alex arrived home from practice, he found Deanna in the living room rocking chair, facing the window that looked out onto the back yard. She held David to her breast, where he fed hungrily. At least he hadn’t lost his appetite. She tipped the rocking chair in a gentle back and forth motion.
“Hi Mom.” Normally, Deanna greeted Alex as soon as he arrived home. When he was met with silence, Alex’s alarm bells went off. “Is everything okay?”
Deanna nodded and raised a small privacy screen over David’s head and her exposed breast. She kept her gaze on nothing in particular in the back yard.
“How’s David’s lip?”
“He’s doing fine.”
Alex knelt and looked at Deanna. “Are you okay, Mom?”
Deanna smiled, her eyes red-rimmed. “Just enjoying my David time. He’s hungry today.” She thought Alex would have more questions, but his stomach was driving his brain.
“Speaking of hungry, what’s for dinner?” Alex disappeared down the hallway to drop his backpack and baseball equipment in his room.
“Left-overs, I’m afraid,” Deanna said. “I wasn’t feeling inspired. I know there’s some pizza in the fridge you can heat up.”
Alex poked his head back into the living room. “What about you?”
“Not hungry right now.” Images of cancerous tumors from her Internet search flashed through her head, chasing away any chance of an appetite. “I’ll fix something later.”
Deanna listened to the sounds of food preparation by a thirteen year old. It was just reheating food, so there wouldn’t be too much of a mess left behind. She smiled, reassured by Alex’s independence.
She carried David to the bedroom and left another voice mail message for Max, before putting David into his crib. With a full stomach, David slept soundly. Deanna sat on the bed beside him and placed her laptop on her outstretched legs.
“Mom?” Alex appeared at the door to the bedroom. “I’ve done all my homework. Can I watch some TV?”
“Sure. It goes off at nine, okay?”
“Okay.” Alex headed back down the hallway to the living room. A minute later, sounds of ESPN floated back to the bedroom.
Deanna flipped open the laptop and was met with her past Internet search on cancer. She deleted the history, closed the browser window, and closed the laptop again. She rolled to her side and looked at David sleeping. In the dimming light, she could still see the redness on his upper lip, aggravated by the biopsy. Deanna closed her eyes. She was ready for this day to be done.
When Deanna awoke, it was past ten o’clock. Max’s side of the bed was untouched. She sat and slid to the edge of the bed. David stirred but remained asleep. She walked down the hallway and peeked into Alex’s room. He was in bed and to Deanna, he appeared to be asleep.
She walked to the living room, turned on an end table lamp and sat on the couch. Beside the lamp sat a family portrait, taken when David was three weeks old.
She remembered setting up the tripod and framing the picture. She sat holding David, with Max kneeling behind, and trusted the remote shutter control to Alex. Everyone except David was laughing and having fun, and it took several tries to get David to cooperate. Deanna was thankful that digital cameras could store thousands of photos and not be limited by a roll of film like the older cameras.
Three weeks ago, everything was perfectly normal. But now, Deanna would always recognize the subtle redness developing near David’s upper lip in the photo.
Why couldn’t I see it then? Deanna thought. The doctors could’ve had a head start. She drew her knees up close with her arms and rocked back and forth. The gentle movement calmed her and served as a trusted coping mechanism. She had used it as far back as she could remember.
Deanna saw a flash of headlights and heard the sedan pull into the driveway. Soon, sounds of keys unlocking the back door and footsteps echoed down the hallway and through the living room.
Max paused at the atrium off the living room. “Dee?” He walked to the couch and sat next to her. “What’s up?” One thing Deanna appreciated about Max was his attentiveness, but it was unpredictable and only appeared when it suited him. Tonight it was to make up for being late.
Deanna rested her head on her knees and looked at the family portrait. “I’ve been trying to call you all day.”
Alex was in bed, but wasn’t asleep. He couldn’t settle. Something bothered him about his conversation with his mom earlier. When he heard Max’s keys in the back door lock, he sprang from bed and tip-toed to his door, opening it a crack. The conversation was muffled from where he stood, so he eased himself through his bedroom door and padded barefoot down the hallway towards the living room.
Alex was as close to the conversation as he could be without being discovered. What he overheard scared him to his core.
“Sorry,” Max said. “I was in court all day, then had to write about the case for tomorrow, so I went into lock down. What’s wrong?”
Lock down. Deanna hated lock down. That meant Max was unavailable for any reason, even if it was an emergency. She believed it showed a lack of self-discipline, plus it was just plain stupid. There would always be occasions where the rule had to be broken. But there was no convincing Max. Maybe something dire had to happen to change his ways.
“It’s David.” Even after crying until her eyes were dry earlier in the afternoon, Deanna still found tears rushing up within her to form watery echoes of everything she looked at. The family portrait danced in blurs.
“What about him?” Max caressed her arm. “What’s wrong, Dee?”
Deanna raised her head off her knees and faced Max. He saw her tears making new tracks down her cheeks and he sensed a deep foreboding build in his gut.
“That swelling on his lip I told you about?” Deanna’s lips trembled with every word. Just like David’s medical history, saying it out loud made it real. “We had blood tests done today.”
Color drained from Max’s face. “And…?”
“They won’t know for a couple of days.” Deanna choked back a sob. “They took a biopsy, too.”
“Oh no…” Max felt like he was in a bad dream. “A biopsy? For what?”
“I don’t know.”
Deanna and Max locked gazes. It was a look that carried words behind it that neither of them wanted to voice. And telling Max that she had spent the day scouring the Internet for cancer information wouldn’t have helped.
“I’m scared, Max.”
Max took Deanna into his arms and hugged her, rocking gently side to side. “It’s going to be okay.” Max’s resolve melted to worry and he hoped it hadn’t come through in his voice.
Sounds of David crying filtered into the living room. Alex hustled on the balls of his feet back to his bed.
“I’ll get him.” Max put on a brave face and stood up.
Deanna grabbed his hand. “No, I got him. He’s probably hungry. You go eat. If you’re lucky, there might be some pizza left.”
She stood up, and planted a kiss on Max’s mouth. Deanna’s tear tracks left prints on his cheeks. He could taste their saltiness on her lips.
“I love you,” Deanna said, before leaving the room to attend to David. Max watched her go, not knowing what to say or do. He felt lost and his sense of dread remained like a hot ball of tar in his belly. Max hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself.
It was Friday and four days had passed since David’s tests. It was hard to say which was worse: waiting all week without word from Sam, or seeing Sam’s office number show up on call display. Deanna wanted to know David’s results, but didn’t want to hear them. She stared at the phone’s display and tried to decide whether to let the call go to voice mail.
If I don’t answer, David will be okay and our lives will go back to normal, Deanna thought. But she knew denial when she heard it, even in herself.
Deanna answered on the third ring. Sam’s affable voice piped up on the other end.
“Deanna! Sorry about the delay, but I have David’s test results.” Deanna sensed some surprise in his voice, as if Sam was expecting his call to go straight to voice mail. “I’d like you to drop by the office to discuss them. Can you make it in on Monday?”
“Just tell me the results now,” Deanna said.
“You know I have a policy of not sharing any test results over the phone,” Sam said. “The chance of miscommunication is too great a risk.”
“So I have to wait another two days, fearing God know what?” Deanna fumed.
“This is common practice among doctors.”
“You’ll be treating the whole family for ulcers soon.”
“I’m sorry.” Sam remained firm. “Let Elaine set something up for Monday.”
“Looks like I have no choice,” Deanna said. “You’re holding all the cards.”
“Please, Deanna. Make an appointment. I’ll put you through.” The phone clicked and Elaine’s sing-song voice came through on the other end.
How can she be so cheerful, knowing what she knows? Deanna wanted to reach in through the receiver and strangle her. Instead, she took a deep breath and set up a follow up appointment for Monday morning.
The weekend was torture. Max dealt with the stress of not knowing by disappearing to the P.I. and immersing himself with work. Deanna made a point to stay away from her laptop.
Instead, to distract herself she dug out her digital SLR camera and wandered through the back yard, looking for interesting photo opportunities. Before getting pregnant with David, Deanna had become obsessed with closeup photography. She had a considerable collection of macro lenses. Getting so close to the world and its minute details offered a beautiful and intimate view of how the world worked. It was a hidden utopia, unseen by most. But the feeling of claustrophobia was never far behind.
Alex sensed something was up. His eavesdropping session had only scratched the surface of what was going on. The heavy hang of worry angered and annoyed him. His own parents wouldn’t tell him anything.
Alex had a general baseball practice on Saturday, and a practice game on Sunday, but he may as well have been drinking and smoking pot all weekend long. His parents were unavailable, physically and emotionally.
By the time Monday rolled around, Deanna couldn’t remember seeing or talking to Alex for the entire weekend. She was consumed by David, his needs, and the red, angry source of worry on his upper lip.
Alex woke with Deanna sitting next to him on his bed. “Hey, hot shot.”
Alex rolled over, positioning his back to Deanna.
“I don’t blame you for being angry.” Deanna placed her hand on his shoulder. Alex didn’t flinch. That was positive at least. “I’m sorry.”
Alex remained silent.
“And your father and I should have gone to your games on the weekend.”
“It was a practice and a game.”
“We still should have gone.”
Alex rolled back to face Deanna. “I know something’s wrong.”
“Honey, we don’t know anything yet,” Deanna said. “We just didn’t want to worry you needlessly.”
“Well, I’m part of this family, too, you know.”
Deanna looked down at her hands and felt shame and guilt wash over her. “Yes, you are. You’re a very important part of this family.” She returned to hold Alex’s gaze. “David has a doctor’s appointment this morning. I’ll tell you everything tonight at dinner. Deal?”
Deanna held up a fist. Alex matched her fist and completed their secret hand shake. She leaned over and gave Alex a hug, then a peck on his cheek. “You better get up. You don’t want to be late for school.”
Deanna’s appointment on Monday was as early as she could get. This time, there was no one else in the waiting room to criticize her as she paced back and forth, just as she had done a week previous. The pacing had become her regular response to the stress. Thankfully, David’s response was sleep.
Elaine had acknowledged Deanna’s arrival but afterward avoided eye contact. She kept busy with patient files behind the reception desk.
Sam opened the reception door. “Deanna, right this way.” Sam was always professional, but today his demeanor also held a serious tone. He couldn’t hold bad news very well.
Sam led Deanna to his inner office. “Please have a seat.” He closed the door, walked to his desk and sat to face her.
Deanna had a feeling all along that the news was bad, no matter how often or how hard she tried to convince herself otherwise.
“This isn’t easy, so I’ll cut to the chase.” Sam glanced at David’s medical history. The word he had written a week ago, sarcoma, stared back at him with red double underlines. “David has rhabdomyosarcoma. It’s an aggressive and highly malignant cancer.”
All Deanna heard was “cancer.” Her worst fear was out in the open. She paled and crumpled in her chair, the wind knocked out of her. She looked down at the baby carrier to see David asleep, peaceful.
How can this be? Deanna felt it impossible to reconcile David’s sweet face with the ugly words she had just heard.
“It’s commonly diagnosed in children and teens, but is rarely seen in newborns.” Sam continued mechanically, and Deanna could sense his struggle. “I can’t say for sure without a CAT scan, but judging from the tumor’s size and location, surgery is probably not an option.”
Deanna swallowed hard. She managed to hold onto her composure by a thread, but could feel the strands unraveling.
“Take your time.” Of all the bad news he had to deliver, Sam disliked unexpected terminal illness the most. It was a cruel guessing game. There were so many unknowns. “It’s a lot to take in all at once.”
“Why is this happening?” Deanna shook her head slow, trying to understand. “I’m healthy. So are Max and Alex.”
“I don’t know what to tell you.” Sam clasped his hands on the desk. “Nature works in strange ways. Most of the time it boils down to abnormal genetic material or a mutation. It’s like a light switch is turned on and we don’t know how to turn it off yet. There’s no definite reason why.”
Subdued, Deanna shook her head. “This can’t be happening.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Deanna took a deep breath and mentally brushed herself off, readying herself for the fight of her life. “What do I do now?”
“It’d be better to talk to a cancer specialist,” Sam said, “but usually treatment of children with cancer starts with chemotherapy, followed by targeted radiation, if needed. However…” Sam shifted his gaze between Deanna and the word sarcoma and its two angry underlines in David’s medical history. “With radiation there’s increased risk of adversely affecting the cognitive development of a child.”
“So on top of fighting cancer, he’d have learning disabilities?”
“That’s one of many possibilities.”
“Would it be permanent?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Oh God.” Again, Deanna looked down at David asleep in his carrier, not an ugly thought in his head. Even though she could already see David’s future laid out before her in her mind, seeing him in peace helped Deanna find calm. David wasn’t just her son but also her touchstone.
“I recommend treatment begin immediately. I’ll put you in touch with a specialist.” Sam grabbed his desk pen and his scrip pad and jotted notes onto it.
“A few more things.” Sam laid his pen down. “The drugs used in chemotherapy are extremely toxic, and some are even carcinogenic. You treat one cancer and end up causing another.”
“Jesus, it doesn’t sound like there’s any good treatment options.”
“I’m making sure you’re completely informed.”
Deanna shook her head and tried to absorb it all.
“Just so you’re aware,“ Sam continued, “the treatment and associated services, there’s going to be a price tag to it.”
“It’s the associated services you need to pay attention to.” Sam’s manner shifted to a more serious tone. “I’ve seen medical bills totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Deanna was expecting increased cost, but Sam’s estimate took the wind out of her sails. Her previous words “we’re covered” echoed in the back of her mind and became an unknown.
“Deanna.” Sam extended an open hand over his desk. She placed her hand in his warm palm and Sam placed his other hand on top. “Every cancer is different. There’s no way to predict the outcome. I’ll do everything I can, and I know you and Max will, too. Stay positive and have faith. Cancer treatment continues to evolve and new methods and medications are being discovered all the time.”
Deanna nodded, forcing a half-smile, and wiped a tear from her eye with her free hand. “Thank you.”
Sam tried to reassure Deanna with a smile, but only managed half of one as well.
Deanna found herself in the elevator on the way down to the first floor without realizing how she got there. With the baby carrier by her side, she occupied the real estate of two people.
A woman from behind leaned over to get a look at David. “He’s adorable. What’s his name?”
“What?” Deanna looked at the woman, but looked through her. “Oh. His name is—”
The double doors slid open to the building’s main concourse. The woman who asked David’s name didn’t wait for an answer.
“Cute as a button,” the woman said and pushed past Deanna before she could respond. Others in the elevator followed suit, rushing to the next stop in their busy lives. The crowd’s exodus forced Deanna’s exit from the elevator. She stepped out, visibly shaken and on autopilot, barely keeping herself together.
“His name is David.” Deanna spoke to no one in particular. She found a seat in the lobby and broke down, burying her face in her hands. Passers by either didn’t sense her distress, didn’t care or didn’t have time to spare. David slept through it all.
Joss rounded the corner next to the elevators, on his way to the stairwell. He never used the elevator. His trained eye spotted Deanna immediately. He approached her with mindful steps.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” Joss said. “Are you alright?” He sat down a short distance from her, not too close but close enough for him to recognize Sam’s personalized scrip sticking out of the top of Deanna’s purse.
“Sam Greenwood. He’s a great doctor.”
Deanna looked up, red-faced and trying to place this new voice. “How do you know…”
“The scrip. In your purse.” Joss pointed to the top of Deanna’s purse, where the scrip poked out. “I assure you, I’m not a stalker or weird or anything.” He extended his hand. “My name is Joss Walters. I’m a grief counsellor.”
Deanna returned a weak handshake.
Joss dug out a phone from his inside jacket pocket and dialed. “Elaine? Joss Walters. There’s a patient of Sam’s down here in the lobby. She’s quite upset.” Joss paused to listen. “Deanna? Deanna Sheridan?”
Deanna looked up and nodded. Her makeup was smeared and her mascara ran in dark tracks down her face.
“Yeah, it’s her. We’re going to have a chat. Let Sam know, okay?”
Deanna dug into her purse for tissue to wipe her face with.
“Thanks.” Joss returned the phone to his jacket pocket. “I know we’ve just met, but can I interest you in a coffee?”
“Okay.” Deanna was grateful for one caring face within the hustling nexus of the lobby.
Joss offered his hand. “Want a break from the carrier?”
Even though Sam and Elaine knew Joss, he was still a perfect stranger to Deanna. She shook her head. “I need him close to me.”
“Okay.” Joss led Deanna out onto the sidewalk.
Java Junkies Coffee Shop was less than a block away from Bayview Public Health Center. It was Joss’s port of call for coffee. He held the door for Deanna and David and signaled the staff behind the counter. They gave him the okay. Joss escorted Deanna to a more private booth at the back of the coffee shop. Deanna placed David and his carrier beside her, then sat, facing Joss across the table.
“I have an office, but sometimes talking over a good cup of joe works a lot better.” Joss raised two fingers to the staff behind the counter, then stopped himself. “High-test or no?”
Joss raised his index finger on both hands. The staff behind the counter busied themselves with Joss’s order.
Deanna inhaled the warmth and aroma of the coffee shop. She felt a little better with each breath. “Did you ever have one of those days?”
“Where everything went to shit?” Joss nodded. “Far too many, I’m afraid.”
A barista appeared, somehow holding two insulated carafes of coffee and two mugs in her hands. She looked at Deanna and past to David beside her. “I’ll assume you’re the decaf?”
A smile formed on Deanna’s lips a little easier now. “Guilty as charged.”
The barista set the mugs on the table and poured coffee from each carafe. “That’s a handsome boy you got there.”
“Thanks, Sheila.” Joss pulled his mug across the table and looked at Deanna. “Let me guess. You have cancer and you don’t know how you’re going to tell your family.”
Deanna warmed her hands on her mug. “Close. It’s my son, actually.”
“I’m sorry,” Joss said. “How old is he?”
Deanna looked at David, asleep in his carrier. “Seven weeks.”
“Oh! You mean…” Joss had ignored the obvious and tried to backpedal. He felt the heat of embarrassment rise on the back of his neck. “I’m really sorry. I just assumed you had another child, an older child. You don’t see many newborns with…” Joss forced himself to stop his self-conscious rambling.
“It’s okay.” Deanna sipped her coffee. “Actually, I do have another son. His name is Alex and he’s thirteen. He’s fine. David here…” Deanna placed her hand on David’s carrier. Joss noticed a subtle tremble in her hand. “He’s got cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” Joss said. “It’s just that an infant with cancer is rare. Do you know what kind?”
Deanna tried to remember, but her brain wouldn’t cooperate. “Abdo…something. I’ve got it written down.” She dug into her purse looking for Sam’s scrip.
“It’s probably rhabdomyosarcoma.”
Deanna looked up, surprised. “Yeah, that’s it. You know a lot about this stuff?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” Joss gulped from his mug. “Cancer is my specialty. I have a daughter, thirteen too, first diagnosed with leukemia five years ago. It looked like we had it beat, but two months ago it came back.”
“Thanks. It can get complicated so fast.” Joss leaned forward across the table and clasped his hands. “Do you have support?”
“My husband works a lot, but I can count on him.” It was a lie. Deanna had no confidence in Max, and she knew that had to change, but she didn’t want to air her dirty laundry in front of a complete stranger.
“Good,” Joss said. “Remember, your husband is going to need support, too.” He reached into his jacket and pulled out a metal business card holder, removed a card, and slid it across the table. “If you ever need another person to talk to, or a different point of view, you have my number. Any time. Same goes for your husband.”
“Thank you.” As Deanna took Joss’s card, her hand brushed against his hand. His skin was warm and smooth and for the briefest of moments, Deanna imagined holding his hand, if only to feel the warmth a little longer. She slipped the business card into her purse.
Joss retracted his hand, aware of the contact but not wanting to draw attention to it. He liked Deanna, right from the start, and he was quick to remind himself of his professional boundaries.
Deanna placed her hands back on her coffee mug and closed her eyes, enjoying the mug’s warmth.
The benches outside the Bayview Public Health Center were occupied mostly by older people waiting for rides home, their walkers and canes propped up bedside them. Kristen had been lucky enough to get a spot while she waited for Joss to bring the SUV around.
What have I missed today, she thought. Four hours of chemotherapy isn’t like a dentist’s appointment. She lost another entire school day.
I’m going to have to repeat Grade Eight.
An elderly woman made her way over to Kristen’s bench. The polite thing to do would have been to give up her spot on the bench for the older woman, but Kristen was exhausted. Standing wasn’t an option today. The older woman gave her a dirty look and mumbled something about respecting elders under her breath.
The nausea Kristen felt from her chemotherapy treatments was a full body experience. It didn’t discriminate. She closed her eyes and fought wave after wave of nausea rolling through her head, her arms, stomach and legs. No one she told, including Joss, believed that she could feel nausea in her arms and legs, but she did. It was a cold, unnatural deadness, like her limbs were rotting from the inside out. When she opened her eyes, she half expected to find her arms and legs on the ground, blackened and withering away.
In her mind, Kristen pictured throwing up in that old lady’s handbag. That would teach you for cussing me out, she thought. It would overflow, for sure. The image made her smile and ironically chased away the urge to vomit for a while.
Joss arrived, pulled the SUV to the curb, and gave the horn a little honk. It had seemed like he’d been gone for hours. Kristen found the energy and balance to stand, but fast movement after treatment brought the woozy feelings back in full force. She took a step, and steadied herself, then took another. The old woman standing next to Kristen almost knocked her down to get her spot on the bench.
Joss forced his brain to turn off the sessions of the day, specifically his meeting with Deanna. He found his thoughts revisiting their coffee meeting a little too often ever since they parted ways earlier in the day.
Kristen struggled to get to the SUV. Joss was out of the car like a shot, but not fast enough for some of the spectators out front. They watched with disapproval as he trotted over to Kristen to help her. He wrapped his arm under her and walked her to the SUV.
Joss opened the passenger door. “Hop in, my little cancer fighter,” he said as he helped Kristen inside.
“Quit it, Dad.” Kristen fumbled with the seat belt.
“The little cancer fighter crap.”
Joss looked at Kristen like this was the first time she had brought it up. “Sorry.” He jogged around the SUV and got in the driver side. “How’d it go?”
“Same as always.” Kristen breathed a heavy sigh. “The next cycle starts in three weeks.”
Celebrate? Celebrate what? Why is my dad so dense sometimes? Kristen thought. “Can we just go home? I’m really tired and kinda pukey.”
“How about ice cream?” Joss looked at Kristen with a wide smile and excited eyes. Kristen returned his gaze with one of exhaustion and apathy, but he either didn’t get the message or chose to ignore it. “Sundaes with the works?”
Kristen knew the look. Joss had his mind set and there would be no changing it. They would go get sundaes, then he would eat hers after she told him that she felt like throwing up.
“Alright,” Kristen said, defeated. It could be worse, she thought. I could have a dad that doesn’t care at all.
“That’s my girl.” Joss started the SUV’s engine and pulled away from the curb, Bayview Public Heath Center receding behind them.
Kristen slunk down in the passenger seat, pulled the brim of her baseball cap over her eyes, and wondered if she would ever feel normal again.
Deanna looked at the digital clock on the stove. It was already after six. She had been keeping the lasagna warm for Max, but dinner time was a deadline he missed consistently. Alex could have waited longer, but her hunger won out.
“Time to eat!” Deanna removed the lasagna from the oven and began plating servings for Alex and herself.
Alex was immersed in ESPN’s coverage of the day's Major League Baseball scores, but the smells from the kitchen chipped away at his desire for the latest news. He leapt off the couch and headed to the kitchen.
“Boy, that didn’t take long,” Deanna said, handing Alex his plate of lasagna.
Alex placed his plate on the table and sat down. “This smells great, Mom. Did you make it?”
Deanna laughed. “Not today, hot shot. I didn’t have time. It’s Fratelli’s Best.”
Alex cut up his lasagna into smaller pieces. “Yours is better.”
“How do you know?” Deanna sat down across the dinner table from Alex. “You haven’t even tasted it.”
“I just know.”
“You’ll make an excellent husband…some day.” Her words reminded her of Max’s absence. She placed a bite of lasagna in her mouth. “You’re right. Not as good as mine.”
“Told you,” Alex said between shoveling in mouthfuls of lasagna.
“You do anything interesting at school today?”
Alex paused his voracious consumption, remembering Deanna’s morning promise. “You know, the usual. There was no practice today…How was David’s trip to the doctor?”
“Boy, you really cut to the chase, huh?”
“The deal was you’d tell me at dinner.” Alex took another bite. “It’s dinner.”
“That it is, Captain Obvious.” Deanna had hoped she’d have a bit more time to get through her meal, but she could see this was important to Alex. She set her cutlery down and looked at him squarely. “Finish your mouthful, first.”
Alex chewed and swallowed, then set his fork down. The lighthearted look on Deanna’s face was replaced by one gravely serious. Alex felt the pit of his stomach drop out. “It’s not good news, is it?”
“Alex…” Deanna spoke in slow, measured words. The last thing she wanted to do was fall apart in front of him. “David has cancer.”
Alex felt his throat want to close up. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” Deanna nodded.
“Can we get rid of it?”
“The doctors don’t know yet.” Deanna felt her resolve begin to crumble. “He needs to start chemotherapy. That’s when they—”
“I know what it is. Jake Curtis got cancer last year, remember? He did chemotherapy…but he died.”
“I remember.” Deanna swallowed hard.
Alex and Deanna looked at each other across the table, both sensing each other’s rising mix of confusion, fear and sorrow. Alex’s tears were first to fall.
“Mom? Is David going to die?”
Deanna pushed away from the table and knelt before Alex. She pulled him close and hugged him where he sat. “I don’t know, honey.” She couldn’t hold her tears back either. “I hope not.”
Deanna held Alex and rocked him until most of their tears had dried up.
“Can I be excused?” Alex pulled away. “I’m not hungry anymore.”
Alex stood, and headed towards the entrance of the kitchen, but stopped and looked back at Deanna, still kneeling on the floor.
“Why, Mom? Why is this happening?”
Deanna shrugged half heartedly and shook her head.
“It’s not fair.” Alex said, before disappearing down the hallway. She heard his bedroom door close.
No, it’s not fair, Deanna thought as she placed her arms around her knees and rested her head on them.
Max returned home from the office after nine o’clock. Alex had managed to fall asleep early, but it was a restless and fitful slumber. Deanna had moved to the bedroom to be more comfortable and to tend to David.
The house was silent and dark when Max entered through the back door. “Hello?” There was no answer.
He passed the kitchen on his way down the main hallway. The smell of lasagna still hung in the air. He saw dishes from dinner piled in the sink instead of in the dishwasher.
“I’m always the one to clean up,” Max said, grumbling under his breath. He collected the plates and utensils from the sink and organized them row by row in the dishwasher.
He passed Alex’s door, surprised that he was in bed already. Max turned the corner of the hallway and entered the master bedroom. His annoyance at the mess in the kitchen dissolved as soon as he saw Deanna on the bed.
She wore one of her comfortable nightshirts and sat with her knees pulled up tight to her chest, holding a large stuffed bear. A laptop sat next to her on the bed, casting her face and her red-rimmed eyes in a pale glow. David slept next to her in the bedside crib.
“Hey, you.” Max kissed her knee and headed to the closet to begin undressing. “Alex’s in bed already?”
“Lasagna’s in the fridge.” Deanna’s head remained still, her eyes focussed on a point far beyond the walls of the bedroom.
“What would I do without you?” Max hung up his sport coat and removed his tie. “Starve, probably. I’m so glad to be home. Work was a bitch today. What you been—”
Deanna’s voice was calm, but it carried a serious overtone that Max recognized all at once. He had almost convinced himself that if he could maintain a positive attitude, everything would be okay. David’s doctor’s appointment would be a non issue, even though it derailed his concentration all day. The news wasn’t good. He could sense it in Deanna’s voice.
“The biopsy results came back.” Deanna looked at Max, who was standing at the closet with his back to her. “It’s cancer.”
The words sucker punched him. Max’s knees went watery and he stumbled backward to the edge of the bed. He sat, robbed of any reply of substance. His hand brushed against the laptop on the bed, knocking its display out of screen saver mode. On the screen was a page entitled “Treating Childhood Rhabdomyosarcoma.”
“Are they sure?” Max knew the answer before he asked the question.
“Does Alex know?”
“Yeah. I told him at dinner.”
“You should have called me.” Max balled his hands into white fists, digging nail grooves into his palms. “I should have been here.”
Deanna felt a spark of anger. Would Max have dropped everything and been here if I had called him? she thought. Or would he have found some other excuse to stay away? She heard the guilt in his voice and gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“I didn’t want to tell you over the phone.”
Max slumped forward, elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. He felt as empty as the clothes that now hung in the closet.
“Chemo starts next week,” Deanna said. “I had to get things going. I hope you’re not mad.”
Max raised his head and looked at Deanna. His eyes and cheeks were flushed red. He always looked that way when he was holding back tears, which wasn’t often. “Mad? Why?”
“That I started the process without talking to you first.”
“No, I’m not mad.” Max returned his head to his hands. “I’m just not looking forward to this.”
Deanna set her stuffed bear aside and slid over the bed next to Max. He looked like a broken man. She nudged under his arm and wrapped her arms around Max’s middle.
“It’s going to be okay. Those were your words, remember?” Deanna looked up at Max, pulled his face to hers and kissed him full on the mouth. “We’ll get through this together.”
Max nodded, but it was a nod infused with worry. Deanna saw it in his eyes.
Don’t bail on me now, Max, Deanna thought. I need you now more than ever.
But Deanna didn’t know the whole story, and Max didn’t know if he had the strength or courage to share it.
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