It was agreed between the two of them that Jars would be Nikki’s guest for the evening. Now that she clearly understood the terrifying implications of what came to pass each morning at seven Nikki insisted, against Jars’ strong objection, that he scuttle any idea of an overnight stay in a hotel room. “Not on your life,” she’d declared, before realizing her choice of words, tears welling up and threatening to flow once more. Jars had reacted quickly, tossing off the faux pas and suggesting that, while the situation was on the bad side of serious, allowing themselves leeway for levity could only help. They had a lot of work to do in a short amount of time. Fear only got in the way, draining a person’s energy and messing with their concentration. In the end Jars had relented, in part because Nikki had said she’d needed until morning to decide about joining him in his pursuit of a cure for cancer. He wanted to seize the opportunity to convince her to go back to Synapzius with him where, on the wall of every lab in the facility was Jars’ favorite Einstein quote: If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it. The saying had been a constant source of inspiration, to both Jars and the various research teams he led. And if the idea that he could somehow come up with a cure for Nikki’s cancer before a nano-bullet shot him in the heart wasn’t absurd, nothing was.
Having earlier emptied her refrigerator before heading to Cooperstown for what she had thought would be a two week vacation, Nikki suggested they swing by a grocery store on the way home. Although her stomach was in knots she thought food would do them both good. Even if they passed on dinner they’d need a few things for breakfast. Jars had countered with the idea of grabbing some Mexican, another favorite of Sten’s that was on Jars’ bucket list of exploratory cuisine. Nikki’s questioning look had necessitated his filling her in on Stan’s dual status as both attorney and best friend. As far as breakfast went, Jars promised they would dine on power oatmeal as they flew to Synapzius.
Nikki had feigned disbelief. “You want me to go with you badly enough to trade your Eggs Benedict for my power oatmeal? You’re pulling my leg!”
“Cross my heart,” Jars had said with a mischievous grin and a swish of his finger across his chest.
While Jars and Nikki had been meeting with Audrey, Rory had flown on to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, picked up Nikki’s Acura out of the long term parking lot and driven it back to the medical center where they found him huddled over his laptop in the lobby working on his latest novel. After dropping him at a nearby hotel, the two headed to the only Mexican restaurant Nikki knew. La Michoacana served up some of the best authentic south-of-the-border food in town. Jars ordered Parrillada, a combination of grilled chicken, steak, chorizo, and shrimp topped with grilled green jalapeños, onion, tomato and guacamole while Nikki opted for Ensalada De Aguacate, an avocado salad with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and queso fresco.
Nikki lived in a quiet neighborhood, her California style bungalow with its generous porch, sloping roof, charming dormers and exposed rafters signaling a warm welcome as they turned in the drive. Dusk was falling, but there was still enough light for Jars to appreciate the setting. The house was surrounded by a profusion of greenery with occasional splashes of color from crape myrtle, its delicate elusive scent mingling in the warm evening air with the robust bouquet of cascading waves of patio roses.
“Let’s eat out on the porch,” Nikki suggested. She pointed to the staircase. “You can set our bags down over there. I’ll grab what we need from the kitchen and join you in just a few minutes.”
Back out on the porch, redwood furniture on one side and wicker on the other vied for Jars’ attention. He chose the wicker, drawn to the ample cushions they offered. Nikki joined him, bringing out place settings and beverages. The two spent the next hour decompressing, enjoying the Mexican take-out and avoiding all references to health issues, the light of lamps inside the house peering out the many windows, enfolding them in a mystical glow. When the air grew chilly they moved inside, Nikki turning on the gas fireplace before snuggling beside Jars on the sofa. They took turns sharing with each other episodes from their lives that had shaped who they had become. Nikki’s story included the agony she’d endured when Todd had been killed and how she had blamed God, which had led to her deep friendship with Mac, the head of their surgical team and, in her opinion, one of the most talented surgeons in America. Abiding by the unspoken rules of the evening, she left unsaid the fact that it was Mac who had implanted the device in Jars’ chest now threatening his life.
Jars part of the conversation alternated between tales of scientific achievement, leading up to the the enviable position Synapzius now enjoyed as a potential beau of Wall Street, and the relational disasters that littered his past like trash along an otherwise scenic roadway.
[Intentional blank line]
Patience wasn’t Katie’s long suit and she found it nearly impossible to keep in check her increasing irritation with Beth’s parents. She’d agreed to accompany her friend on a quick trip back to New York for a round of interviews with four investment firms, all managed by friends of her parents’ inner circle. Prospective employers looking for interns willing to burn themselves to a crisp for the good of the firm. Young guns eager to hang their newly acquired MBA degrees on an office wall, panting for a taste of the good life. Not the sort of career that remotely interested Katie. Beth either for that matter. But it was a key page straight out of her folk’s playbook. Beth seemed resigned to her fate, frustrating Katie all the more. But she’d kept herself in check. After all, she needed Beth’s support as much as Beth needed hers.
The deal struck between the two was one born of mutual need. Beth was terrified at the prospect of dealing with the interviews on her own. Although of course Katie couldn’t be in the interviews with her, just knowing that she was somewhere nearby and would join her the moment she escaped from corporate clutches helped take the edge off Beth’s panic. Besides, she appreciated Katie’s intuition. Beth would have to intern with one of the four firms. She and Katie debriefed after each interview over a Cafe Breve. Double shots of espresso would be reserved for the finale.
For all her apparent strength and independence, Katie found the prospect of seeing her father under such vulnerable conditions daunting. She’d never quite been able to live up to the facade she’d constructed, the one that claimed her only need for a father had been satisfied with the fertilization of her mother’s egg. The thought that Jars was dying served as a crowbar forcing up what had previously been securely fastened planks in the flooring of her philosophy. Katie and Beth had swapped parental war stories often enough for Beth to catch glimpses of Katie’s wounded little girl heart seeping through small cracks in her otherwise formidable armor. She’d even gone so far as challenging Katie to consider going to see her father and giving the guy a second chance. As tempted as she sometimes was to take her friend’s advice, Katie hadn’t acted on it. She didn’t know if her reluctance was out of fear of disappointment and getting hurt all over again, or a curious form of apathy that concluded the status quo had been around so long that it seemed too comfortable to disturb. Only now the status quo was refusing to stay still. Taking Beth along with her might give her the encouragement and courage she so desperately needed.
[Intentional blank line]
Jars woke with the sense that something was wrong. A glance at the clock on the mantle revealed that morning was in full progress. The 7am crisis hour had come and gone and he was still alive. If it wasn’t for the pain, strong enough to pull him awake after only a few short hours of sleep, he would have thought that he’d literally dodged the bullet for the third time.
Nikki lay curled in a ball in an oversized chair a few feet away, having given Jars lanky frame sole possession of the sofa on which they had talked away the night until, overcome with fatigue, the couple had yielded to sleep’s rejuvenating entreaty. Reluctant to part company, they had opted to sleep in the living room where they could stay within reassuring sight of each other, their weary forms illuminated and warmed by the flickering flames of the fire.
The burning sensation in his chest yanked Jars fully awake, serving up images to his mind of raw heart muscle slowly being turned to organic mush by an ever growing army of microscopic nanobots. He sat up, his right hand instinctively moving to his chest, massaging sympathetic orbits around his heart as he forced his mind to stave off the growing panic. Think! Think it through. If this is it you need to get away from here while you still can.
Dying on Nikki’s sofa was unacceptable. She’d lost her husband while living in the house. But Todd had died overseas leaving the house a refuge for his grieving wife. Jars was determined to see to it that the memory of his and Nikki’s time together in her home was unspoiled by something so gruesome as what might be taking place in his chest cavity.
He rose quietly, leaving Nikki a note saying that he’d borrowed her car to run an errand and should be back around noon. He didn’t want to put her in a panic by explaining that he’d woken with chest pain. She’d likely figure that, as it was after seven, he had been granted another day’s reprieve.
Jars weighed his options. He could park the car and wait it out somewhere to see if the pain would go away, or, he could go back to the Medical Center and get checked out by a doctor in case there was something else going on with his heart. After all, the implant was a one-of-a-kind prototype. He’d done some extensive testing of the device in his lab but there was a big difference between such a controlled environment and a human body.
He decided against waiting it out in the car. Being found dead in Nikki’s Acura was out of the question. As long as he was on Nikki’s home turf the only place he could imagine dying where his body would be out of sight and taken care of by others would be a hospital.
If he sought out a doctor, who would he go to? A traditional emergency room was no good. Too much paperwork with attendant opportunity for the sort of publicity he wanted no part of. He thought about Audrey Myers and put her on his mental list of candidates. Better someone he had at least met than a total stranger. But Dr. Myers was a pulmonologist. Sure, she probably knew a smattering of cardiology but he would likely have to fill her in on his experiment, especially if he began to deteriorate right in her office. He could put in a call to Sue Barrows and the administrator would, no doubt, be happy to oblige him pull some strings. But, again, the fewer the number of people involved the better.
It suddenly struck him that the obvious choice would be the surgeon who implanted the pacemaker in his chest to begin with. The guy that headed up Nikki’s team. She’d spoken of him last night with high praise. Jars searched his memory until he found the name: Mac.
Nikki had pointed out the building she worked in as they were leaving Audrey’s office and Jars had little difficulty pinpointing his destination from the lobby’s directory. Gabriel MacDonald, the University of Virginia Medical Center’s head of cardiology must be the Mac he was looking for. Hopefully, he was either in his office or around somewhere where he could be reached. It was Monday morning and the building was buzzing with life. Jars didn’t know if Mac scheduled any surgeries for Mondays or not. If he did, Jars would have to go with Audrey as his fall-back. His hand shot instinctively to his chest. The pain was still there. No worse and no better. If the bullet had fired, replication would take time. It would build slowly but, once it got going, the exponential growth would be rapid. Jars found himself breathing a silent prayer. God, if you’re real, please let me live long enough to see my daughter and take care of Nikki.
He didn’t even know how such a prayer got formed. He hadn’t prayed in years. Even then, his prayers hadn’t had any real meaning to them. This prayer was different. Sincere. He didn’t know if there was anyone on the other end who called himself God, but if there was, Jars was reaching out to him. Death had always been the expected end of his experiment and he had no right to ask for a reprieve. But things had changed more than he could ever have imagined! Death could have him but he desperately wanted to see Katie again and, somehow, fix it so Nikki could live a long and cancer free life. He hadn’t managed to make any inroads with Kyle but maybe, just maybe, Katie would turn out differently.
[Intentional blank line