The frown on Mac’s face was the sole evidence to be seen of the surgeon’s reaction to Jars’ story. Sensing there was no time to waste Jars had opted to shoot straight with the man who had implanted the device in his chest that, for all he knew, was even now replicating nanobots at ever increasing speed. Biological robots that would use his heart as their fuel until there wasn’t a molecule of its tissue left.
To his great relief, Jars had found Mac in his office. A few minutes more would have found the physician heading out to make morning rounds, an event his patients looked forward to. The man’s manner was different from what each expected. Doctor Mac, as he was fondly called, spent time listening to them. Really listening. He cared about the whole person and seldom seemed in a hurry. Mac was convinced that true health involves more than repairing damaged organs or transplanting body parts. For Gabriel MacDonald, healing was something God did. Mac’s job was to assist in whatever way God impressed upon him, which included listening for subtle clues that came from his patient’s lips in expressions as varied as there were people. Even to those to whom Mac brought unwelcome news the sight of the gray-haired surgeon with twinkling eyes and lyrical accent, a holdover from a childhood spent in his native Scotland, seldom failed to infuse them with fresh hope.
“So,” Mac said slowly, “what you’re telling me is that if the device I implanted in your chest has chosen to fire some sort of molecular bullet into your heart this morning you’re a dead man walking and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Do I understand you right?”
“That’s right,” Jars replied.
“Then why are you here?”
On the surface Mac’s words sounded uncaring yet Jars could sense compassion streaming from the blue eyes that had locked onto his own as if drilling into his soul in an attempt to fathom the rationale behind the bizarre experiment Jars had concocted.
“I didn’t want Nikki to wake up and find me dead on her living room sofa.” The words came out almost in a whisper.
“Nikki?” The uptick in Mac’s voice signaled his surprise.
“Yes, Nicole Clark.”
A slightly raised eyebrow greeted the news. Jars continued. “We met a few days ago and have become…” Jars hesitated. He’d told Mac the truth about the pacemaker in the first few minutes of their meeting. But he hadn’t yet shared how Nikki had re-entered his life after the implant and what had transpired between them in the six days since.
A thought sped its way through Jars’ mind, a recollection of the biblical account of the creation of the universe. A creation that, if taken at face value, had been accomplished in just six days. His own universe had dramatically changed in just six days as well. Maybe it wasn’t so far fetched a tale after all. A lot could happen in a short amount of time.
Jars sketched the outline of his relationship with Nikki for Mac’s benefit, culminating with their flight back to Charlottesville on his helicopter and their meeting with Audrey.
“The two of you spoke with Dr. Myers together?” Mac asked.
“Then you know that Nikki has cancer.”
Mac leaned back in his chair, his large frame relaxed, his mind working to absorb all that Jars had shared. From the day he had first laid eyes on the mysterious Mr. Smith Mac had suspected there was more to the matter than a simple pacemaker implantation. The sophisticated box that held the device conveyed as much. But that in the span of a single week the man he’d operated on would be sitting across from him relating such an incredible tale was bewildering to say the least. Mac harnessed the horde of questions aching to be asked. He needed to focus on the immediate, what was happening right now.
From what Jars had related, the biological bullet being fired and beginning to do its work was a plausible explanation. Mac had already ruled out a heart attack. True, Jars was experiencing pain, but the way he’d described it didn’t line up with a heart attack. There was no shortness of breath, no lightheadedness, and not a drop of perspiration to be seen on either his face or arms. Besides, Mac had seen the guy’s heart with his own eyes. It had been a picture of health. The heart of someone whose personal habits of diet and exercise were grounded in a long-term perspective of life. Someone who exercised and ate the right sort of…
“What did you eat last night?” Mac knew he was grasping at straws but it was the only straw that offered hope.
“Come again?” Jars wasn’t sure he’d heard right. What did last night’s dinner have to do with the runaway replication taking place in his chest?
“I asked what you had for dinner last night,” Mac repeated.
“Nikki and I stopped at a Mexican restaurant for some takeout on the way to her place. I think it was called Machocana’s or something like that.”
“You mean La Michoacana over on High Street?” Mac sensed that his hunch was about to pay off.
“Yeah, I think so. It sounds like the place anyway.”
“I know it pretty well,” Mac said. “My wife and I go there at least a couple of times a month. Great food. What did you get?”
“Parrillada. I’m not very familiar with Mexican cuisine. But I’ve got a close friend that loves the stuff and I thought I’d give it a try.” Jars was confused. Had his story been too much for Mac’s brain and the guy had slipped into an alternate stream of consciousness? What did last night’s dinner have to do with anything?
“Parillada,” Mac echoed. “Spicy stuff isn’t it? Delicious, but pretty spicy with all those jalapeños—not to mention the chorizo!” He opened a drawer in his desk, took something out and tossed it to Jars. “Tums,” Mac grinned. “Welcome to heartburn. Mexican style.”
Over the next hour Jars did his best to fill in the many blanks left by his initial hurried sketch of his situation when he had first walked into Mac’s office. That morning rounds would be delayed by an hour or so wouldn’t raise any particular concerns. As a cardiologist, Mac’s schedule was hardly one that lent itself to uncompromising rigidity. Mac always plotted the day’s course but left himself wide open to God’s priorities as sometimes revealed with little or no advance warning. It made each day an adventure that he had learned to both appreciate and look forward to, doing his best to model his approach to life after the One he considered his Master, Jesus, whose delight it was to do his Father’s will. Mac knew that if he listened with all the spiritual senses he had sought to develop and mature over the years that God would show him what to do. Sometimes the leading seemed explicit, clearly defined. At other times more of an inkling, a gentle influence that got Mac going a step or two in the right direction. Mac’s joy was to follow. And, at the moment, Mac strongly sensed that Jars being in his office was no whimsical fluke but part of God’s plan for the fellow.
Mac listened patiently, interrupting only rarely with a question or two in an effort to gain insight. The revelation that Jars was none other than the CEO and brains behind Synapzius came as only a mild surprise. He was familiar enough with the biotechnology firm. After all, hadn’t Mac been given a heads up by the hospital’s chief administrator, Sue Barrows, that the man was a VIP, a key benefactor of the university? Mac mentally chided himself. Given the odd markings they’d found on the so-called pacemaker he should have put two and two together and guessed the true identity of the mysterious Mr. Smith. But of greatest interest to the noted physician was the story of Jars’ life, the tale of how a man rises to the height of success as the world defines it only to find the definition wanting. It was as if Jars had spent the bulk of his life figuring out how to land on the moon only to learn that he’d set down on a flimsy cardboard cutout of the orb, a phony moon bearing no resemblance to what he’d imagined the real thing to be.
The Tums had done the trick, calming Jars’ heartburn. It was really amazing, Mac reflected, how calm the man had remained during the morning’s ordeal. It must have been unnerving for all Jars’ apparent composure. For all they guy knew before popping the antacids his heart was being turned into mush by a growing swarm of biological assassins. Yet there he was, focused and doggedly pursuing what seemed to him the best he could do under the circumstances: die where it wouldn’t make his death worse for the woman he loved.
That Jars was in love with Nikki Mac had no doubt. The part of Jars’ story leading up to the implant, that portion of his life that had taken years to slowly unfold, had led to ever increasing despair culminating in an experiment the likes of which science fiction was made. Jars had taken Russian Roulette, a game of chance which reduced life to a meaningless absurdity, into the advanced science of the modern age. But didn’t Russian Roulette play out throughout society in countless forms? Mac had seen it for himself. Despair paraded in many guises, suicide being its most naked form. But there were others. What were addictions—be they to alcohol, drugs, sex, or even food or work—other than reactions to some level of despair?
Mac breathed a silent prayer of gratitude: But God!
The first stirrings of Nikki’s waking found her wrapped in a sense of warm belonging, a sensation she hadn’t experienced in some time. It was as if she were being caressed by a kindly South Pacific breeze whose intent it was to gently blow away every care. Fragments of the evening with Jars fell, like the soft petals of a rose, from the mysterious realm of her dreams into her growing consciousness. But in the midst of her paradise there suddenly emerged a stinging nettle; a reminder that the coming of morning brought with it the chance of both the start, or end, of a new day for Jars.
Nikki’s furtive glance at the sofa where Jars had slept showed it to be empty, the clock on the mantle claiming the morning well under way. Two hours had gone by the board since the 7am daily reckoning. She chastised herself for having slept so soundly for so long. The tempo of her heart was accelerating. Only the sight of a smiling Jars would serve to quiet her growing panic.
God let him be alive!
Nikki was in full motion now. Wide awake, every sense commanded to bring her news of their slightest detection of Jars’ presence somewhere in the house.
She heard the tremor in her voice as she called out his name. “Jars! Where are you?”
And then she saw it. A scribbled note on the coffee table.
It’s after seven. I’ve gone out to run a couple of errands and should be back by noon. You looked so peaceful and beautiful while you were sleeping I didn’t have the heart to wake you. I borrowed your car. Hope you don’t mind. I love you Nikki. In fact, I’m crazy about you… Jars
“After seven.” That was a good sign Nikki told herself. But it only helped a little. Perhaps the awful bullet had fired and Jars had taken off before he died right there on her living room sofa. She didn’t know everything about the man but she knew enough to know that he would do everything in his power to avoid hurting her. She grabbed her phone and listened to the sound of ringing until her call was redirected into Jars’ voicemail. Nikki left a brief message saying that she was awake and about to brew some tea and make some of her famous power oatmeal and that, likely, it was the thought of having to eat some of the stuff that had made him take off! She did her best to sound lighthearted but knew she’d fallen short.
After an anxious shower Nikki took a cup of tea out to the porch, sitting in the same wicker chair she’d occupied as she and Jars had leisurely eaten their Mexican takeout. It was a memory she would never forget. One she hoped might form the beginning of a chain of memories, one long enough to bind up the sorrows of the past, overwhelming them with the loveliness of the present and dreams of all the tomorrows she hoped they would have together.
It was amazing how fast you could fall in love! After Todd died she couldn’t imagine ever falling in love with another man. In fact, she’d had no such intention. Jars had come out of nowhere. But his appearing had been at the perfect time. Nikki cringed at the thought of going a second round with lung cancer on her own. Mac and Marleah were always there of course. Yet the connection with friends, even close friends, could only reach so deep. There was something mystical, magical in the intimacy between a man and a woman. She and Jars were only on the fringes of that intimacy yet each felt its promise and were stronger and happier for it.
Part of Nikki wanted to let go and fantasize about their future together. A more rational part sharply cautioned her to stay in the moment, that the combination of her cancer and his deadly experiment precluded such folly. It was all well and good that Jars thought himself capable of coming up with a cure for her cancer but even if he did manage the impossible what about his own life? How was he going to disarm the weapon in his chest that he’d made impervious to assault? Jars had shared with her that he’d wanted to create an absolute certainty in his mind that death was imminent. Any second thoughts that acknowledged the presence of a back door out of his self-imposed dilemma might ruin the effect he was looking to create, he’d explained. According to Jars, even the slightest tampering with the device would set it off.
Her musings were interrupted by the sound of a car pulling into the drive. She looked up to find a smiling Jars beaming at her from behind the steering wheel. Nikki flew off the porch and was opening his door almost before the Acura had come to a stop.
“Jarius Mason, don’t you ever take off like that again!” Nikki scolded, throwing her arms around his neck the moment he stood. “I was scared to death!”
“Such words don’t stick this fine morning,” Jars quipped. “Turns out that my foray into the spicy world of Mexican cuisine elicits a gastronomical reaction akin to that of a nano-bullet!”
Nikki’s face took on a look of bewildered concern.
“No need to worry,” Jars quickly added. “I’ll tell you all about it after we’ve had something to eat. I’m starved!” He reached back into the car. “I picked up some breakfast. Nothing fancy to be sure. But Mac assured me—”
“—Mac!” Nikki interrupted, surprised. “One of your errands was to go and see Mac? Why didn’t you say anything about it last night?”
“Because, at the time, I had no idea that I was going to see him.”
The two of them ate breakfast out on the porch, each occupying the place they’d taken the evening before making it feel as though they had laid down a layer of precious memory in the strong laminate they sought to create between them. Each knew that not a single day past the present was promised. Each yearned for it anyway but knew better than to waste the gift of the present anxiously awaiting its arrival.
Jars had brought along some of the best the medical center’s cafeteria had to offer as far as bagels went. Nikki chose an everything bagel with cream cheese, Jars opting for a cinnamon raisin that Nikki toasted for him and slathered with butter, golden melting drops of it tasting wonderfully to Jars as he shared his morning adventure. Having never had heartburn before he confessed he had jumped to the conclusion that the Colt 45 program had perhaps chosen the morning to be his last. If so, he couldn’t bear the thought of his death being forever tied to her home and the wonderful evening they’d shared. Once he’d left, he found himself faced with the same dilemma with her car. He’d taken a chance on Mac and it had paid off, although he’d felt pretty sheepish once the real culprit had been identified.
“So you told him about your implant? Your experiment?” Nikki asked.
Nikki kept silent. If Jars wanted to share more she would give him the opportunity to do so at his own pace, throttling her curiosity as to Mac’s reaction, strong as it was.
“He’s coming with us,” Jars said softly, as if reading Nikki’s mind.
“Sorry?” Nikki wasn’t sure she’d heard right. She couldn’t imagine Jars meant Mac. His surgical calendar alone constantly clamored for attention.
“Yes, it’s true. Mac is coming with us. Marleah too. Mac suggested she come along as well. I haven’t met her yet but if she’s anything like her husband we’re lucky to have them both.”
Mac didn’t have to work hard to convince his wife, after relating the strange events of the morning, to come with him. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d dropped everything at a moment’s notice to do what they felt God asking them to do. Walking with God had taught them the wisdom of arranging the affairs of their life so that they could be available to him whenever called upon for just such assignments. Careful with money, they had managed their finances well, avoiding debt and laying up savings that would cover their needs for months. This was done without ignoring the ongoing opportunities that came their way to help others. Their gifts of money were mostly handled anonymously with groceries being bought, bills paid, and rent brought up to date on behalf of those God brought into the sphere of Mac and Marleah’s life. Mac had arrangements in place to fill in for his surgery obligations as well for those whose conditions couldn’t wait for his return.
Although it didn’t surprise him, it never ceased to amaze Mac how God could choreograph the affairs of the human race. That God had brought Jars and Nikki together as part of what he was doing in their lives seemed evident enough. True, he and Marleah hadn’t yet spoken with Nikki but his time with Jars was enough to convince Mac the man was on the level.
Although he appeared remarkably upbeat now, Mac knew that the man’s despair must have reached a terrible low to move him to devise such a dreadful and deadly experiment. And, although it looked hopeless for rescuing Jars from his own folly, Mac knew that God wasn’t in the hopeless business. On the contrary, hadn’t Saint Paul declared hope to be everlasting? And there was Nikki to think about. Her danger might not be as imminent as Jars’ but became more real with each passing day all the same. Mac joined his wife in heartfelt prayer:
Lord, thank you for bringing Jars into our life. You’ve done so twice now. And it sure seems as though he and Nikki have more in common than disease and death. May life prevail! Your life! May the life Jesus spoke about come alive in Jars’ soul. Help Jars defeat the cancer in Nikki’s lung. And give us wisdom to help him in ways both practical and spiritual.
Kyle fired up the Mustang, the throaty sound of the high-performance engine seeming to underscore his resolve. His future, and the seductive wealth he imagined it might hold if only he played his cards right, dangled alluringly in his mind. At first, Kyle had met with Katie’s news of their father’s impending death only with disdain. But the more he’d thought about it the less he wanted to chance an outcome that didn’t find him holding bags of money. Money his father owed him.
He’d never been the one to initiate contact with Jars. Why should he? He left that to dear old dad. Showing up on his father’s doorstep would be quite a surprise! Maybe enough of one to put him on more sure footing as regards his father’s will. There was little doubt Jars had been looking to forge an inroad with his son and had arranged their recent dinner outing in pursuit of just such an objective. It had met with a proud rebuff. Kyle had gone his whole life without a father. He sure didn’t need one now. Not Jars anyway.
But all that had taken place while Kyle was yet ignorant of Jars’ condition. Things were different now.
[Intentional blank line]