The conversation with Mac lasted less than three minutes, most of which was time spent together in prayer. Audrey Meyers wanted Nikki to come into her office as soon as possible. Nikki had given Dr. Meyers permission to contact Mac while she was away on vacation knowing that Mac would filter out the urgent stuff from the routine that could wait until she returned. Apparently, whatever Audrey wanted fell into the urgent category. So much so that the pulmonologist hadn’t even shared the particulars with Mac, opting to wait until she could talk with Nikki face to face.
Nikki fought against speculating as to what, specifically, was wrong. Audrey had already told her there were signs the cancer in her left lung was staging a comeback. The unwelcome news had been enough to set her vacation plans in motion—plans made some time ago and placed on a shelf for just such an occasion. But as much as she tried to keep the voices of dread at bay she found herself yielding to temptation’s prodding to imagine the worst.
Given her age, it was unusual that she even had lung cancer. She’d never even smoked. But she had been around plenty of people who had, some heavily, turning her into one of their ranks by proxy. The discovery of radon in her basement hadn’t helped. She and Todd had picked up a test kit before he’d left for Afghanistan just to be on the safe side expecting reassuring results, surprised when the test came back at 4.3 pCi/L. Mitigation had been expensive. Both had counted on being unaffected. But as Nikki later learned from Dr. Meyers, the combination of cigarette smoke and radon gas likely proved a deadly combination. Lung cancer was now the most common cause of cancer-related deaths in women. More prevalent than breast cancer.
Mac’s prayer over the phone had helped steady her, his words reassuring: Father, we turn to you for both wisdom and courage. Nikki is your daughter. May she take refuge in your love knowing that You will make right all that is amiss in Your own way and time. Help her to lay her head on your Son’s breast just as the disciple John did, drawing deep and abiding comfort from his ever present Spirit within her.
[Intentional blank line.]
Jars found himself awaiting fate’s morning decision with an unsettling mix of emotions. The night’s sleep had come in sporadic installments, his mind visiting one matter after another like a bee buzzing from blossom to blossom. Twenty minutes and the cylinder of the invisible six gun in his chest would spin once more giving him either another twenty-four hours of existence or firing the deadly nano-bullet into his heart.
If anything, dinner with Kyle had only thrown into sharp relief the distance between father and son, the biologic strands linking them together apparent only in a handful of physical features and shared last name. Kyle seemed hell-bent on wiping religion off the face of the planet, starting with Christianity. And as much as Jars had tried to steer their conversation onto different avenues he’d found there was always some handhold in the ensuing exchange where Kyle could latch on and turn it into another example of Christianity’s having polluted society. According to his son, the next great step in human evolution was the rejection of religion and Kyle was determined to be in the vanguard. Jars had begun to wonder why Kyle had even accepted his invitation to meet. Over dessert, the young man had dispelled all mystery: he was simply observing what he supposed was the necessary protocol. Jars was the source of the financial waters that flowed into Kyle’s bank account and the boy sought to widen and deepen the stream. He wanted a firm commitment from his father that Jars would fund his law pursuit. He’d also hinted at appreciating enough money to be seen as a prominent source of support for certain private interest groups whose social agendas coincided with his own. In a last ditch effort to turn the conversation towards the relationship between the two of them, Kyle had been quick with his rebuff. They’d lived separate lives for a long time. No reason he could see to make a change. Thanks for dinner and maybe we’ll get together again to celebrate my passing the Bar. End of story.
There was also an email from Sten. Jars had picked it up in his room after watching the tail lights of Kyle’s Mustang Cobra disappear around the corner. At least this time his son hadn’t left him standing in a haze of exhaust and burning rubber. But he’d still left leaving Jars feeling as if his whole body had been given a gigantic shot of Novocain. However small he had allowed his expectations to grow, reality had leveled them.
Sten’s email hadn’t helped.
Sten was the only personal link Jars had with his daughter, Katie. She even called him Uncle Sten. The two had formed a bond shortly after Katie was born. As Jars’ attorney, Sten had often come to the house, working deep into the night and sometimes staying over a day or so if the project’s demands warranted. Having no kids of his own the rotund attorney had even played the part of Santa for Katie’s first Christmas. Whenever he’d had a chance, Sten had taken time out to talk and play with the little girl. It wasn’t much but it was more than Jars had done and Katie had rewarded Sten’s investment with thoughtful cards complete with handwritten notes that never once missed the guy’s birthday. She’d even called Sten a handful of times over the years and would send him an email now and then from whatever place in the world she happened to be. Jars never pressed his friend for Katie’s phone number or email address and Sten never volunteered the information. The unspoken understanding between them was clear and neither sought to violate the confidence. If they had, it would likely have ended with Katie breaking off all communications—something neither man wanted.
Old habits die hard and Sten had counted on Jars’ rhythmic practice of checking his emails before turning in for the night. Not even his supposed “illness” had changed that part of his life. It was too ingrained. Jars read for the fourth time the email from Katie that Sten had forwarded.
Hi Uncle Sten! Please let Jars know that I got his letter. Yes, I’ll come… but it won’t be for a couple of days as I have something to take care of here first. BTW… I picked up some native tea for you during my trip to India. Darjeeling of course. Now don’t go making faces! I know you’re a coffee addict but give it a try. You just might like it! – Hugs, Katie…
Jars couldn’t help but note the warmth in Katie’s message. Warmth not meant for him. He wasn’t jealous but he did find himself envious and wondered what a hug from Katie would feel like. He closed his eyes prodding his memory, backtracking time’s corridors, searching for the place where Katie’s arms were once around his own neck until, at length, he found it.
With long, slow breaths he replayed the sunless afternoon he had walked out of his little girl’s life. Not quite four, Jars had carried Katie into her bedroom for her afternoon nap. His plan had been to slip away quietly while she was sleeping, leaving it to his soon-to-be-divorced wife to break the news of his departure to their daughter. It was a chilly afternoon in early fall and Jars had surrounded Katie with her closest friends, a collection of stuffed animals to snuggle with as he covered the little girl with a rose colored down comforter. He had bent low to kiss her forehead and she had responded by wrapping her small arms around his neck. Her sleepily whispered, I love you Daddy, the unrecognized farewell of an innocent child to her abandoning father.
Tears were streaking down Jar’s face, the scent his daughter’s fresh, baby-like skin and the touch of her fingers on his neck as real as that moment twenty some years ago. Einstein was right, time is an illusion. He had traded away his children in pursuit of his own search for happiness. The realization hit him with such force it startled him out of his reverie, his mind reeling leaving Jars momentarily wondering if the deadly nano-bullet had found its mark.
His experiment was producing results to say the least, serving up novel combinations of emotional highs and lows, prompting Jars to think about things he’d long given up thinking about. And after back-to-back lows he was ready to reconnect with Nikki, the lone high he’d encountered since arming the device in his chest.
A glance at the time told him that nearly an hour had slipped by. Instinctively, he put his hand to his chest, pressing his palm flat. From within, his heart radiated faint, pulsing ripples of life. It seemed that fate had decided to defer his departure from this world. At least for now. He was glad to be alive.
After paying his bill for the night’s stay Jars opted for breakfast, sitting at a table only a few feet away from the booth he and Kyle had shared the evening before. He wished their time together had served to lessen the distance between them and wondered if he would ever get another chance to say or do something that might make a difference. As he tackled a stack of blueberry pancakes covered in maple syrup Jars noted how little his mind devoted itself lately to the scientific and entrepreneurial challenges that had made up the greater part of his adult existence. Since the implant, it were as if he had stepped out of one life into another. One devoid of all things business, substituting in their place a world where relationships stood at the pyramid’s pinnacle with all other matters subservient.
It wasn’t as if he had gone through life disregarding the welfare of others. Not at all! Jars was keenly appreciative of the value of every individual. Synapzius had risen to glory on shared shoulders and he had always been grateful to those involved, carefully acknowledging their shared accomplishments through generous gifts, both financial and personal. But the relationships had been built and was dependent on their common scientific passion. It seemed almost a happy coincidence that the products Synapzius created saved lives. They were like some firefighters who fought fires not for the saving of property and lives but for love of the flames and their ability to control them. Beyond the boundaries of business, Jars knew little of the personal lives of those he had worked alongside of.
“More coffee?” Janet, the same server that had waited on he and Kyle the night before stood with a steaming pot in each hand. The wonderful aroma spilling into the surrounding air. “Decaf, right?” Jars nodded and watched her pour the dark brown liquid into his waiting mug.
“Tell me, Janet. Do you enjoy your work?” He paused for a moment. “I’m curious. Here you are this morning hard at it after what must have been an exhausting night. Does it ever feel to you like you’re on a never ending treadmill?”
Janet held up one of the pots. “See this? It isn’t just coffee. No sir! It’s a magic elixir for greeting for old friends and making new ones.” She grinned. “Where else could I get paid for passing the time of day with folks and taking care of them by listening to their troubles and celebrating their triumphs. I’m not only feeding their bodies I’m part of their lives.” She winked before leaning over and adding in a whisper, “And they’re part of mine.”
[Intentional blank line.]
Jars pointed the Land Rover back in the direction he’d come. Even if he took his time he’d be back in Cooperstown well before noon. It was a small village and it shouldn’t take long to find Nikki. She’d be surprised to see him, but then again, maybe not. He’d been granted at least a day’s reprieve from drawing his last breath and, like Janet, he wanted to be part of someone’s life. Kyle hadn’t wanted him to be part of his and Katie might not show up until it was too late. Nikki alone had shown a genuine interest in him. An interest that had nothing to do with money or fame and it drew him like gravity.
It was late morning when Jars pulled into the hotel’s looping drive, the tall columns of the portico standing familiar guard as he walked into the lobby. A quick look at the handful of people scattered about confirmed that the object of his search wasn’t among them. A check of the dining room ended with the same result.
He took the stairway to the second floor. Nikki’s room was 134. She’d told him the room was special as it combined the retired numbers of three famous Yankees. The 1 was for Billy Martin, the player who later became manager, piloting his team to their 1977 World Series title. The unforgettable home run king, Babe Ruth, had worn the number 3. Nikki’s beloved, six-foot-one Lou Gehrig’s pinstriped uniform had been number 4. Put them all together she’d said, and you couldn’t help but be sleeping in the best room in the place, room 134.
A sprinkling of carts littered the hall as the housekeeping staff made their rounds. As Jars drew near Nikki’s room he noticed the door was open. Nikki’s bed lay stripped, sheets and blankets in a heap on the carpeted floor. He rapped his knuckles gently against the doorjamb. “Anybody home?”
A plump woman with short brown hair appeared with an armful of towels. “Can I help you?” she asked, depositing her load into a waiting bag on the side of her cart. She had a friendly look about her and seemed in no hurry, content to go about her duties at an even pace.
“I’m looking for a friend of mine. Nicole Brown. This is her room.”
The woman hesitated before answering, her eyes studying Jars as if she were trying to make up her mind about him.
“Have you tried the front desk?”
She was obviously being careful. No doubt, the hotel had trained their staff in the matter of protecting their guests’ privacy. “Not yet. But I will. I just thought I’d try her room first.” There was no need to press the woman. He didn’t want to make her uncomfortable or draw attention to himself. He’d just stroll around the village and see if he could find Nikki. If he hadn’t any luck he’d come back to the hotel and see if she was in the grill where they’d first met. If not, he’d break down and call her mobile. But he really wanted to surprise her, to read what he might see in Nikki’s face when she first caught sight of him again.
Jars noted the maid’s name tag. “Thanks, Meg.” The thought of catching up with Nikki brought a smile to his face. “I’ll see if I can find Nikki in the village. I’d really like to surprise her.” He turned and had already taken a few steps back down the hall when he heard Meg’s voice calling out.
“Just a moment, sir!”
Jars turned. “Yes?”
“If it’s the pretty brunette you’re looking for that’s been in this room for the past few days you aren’t going to find her in the village.”
Meg’s eyes softened. The good-looking fellow had a certain look about him that tugged at her heart. “I don’t see how it can hurt anybody by my telling you and I’d hate to see you walking all around the village on a fool’s errand.” She paused long enough to check a chart attached by a slender chain to her cart before continuing. “Yes, it says right here that I’m to make the room ready for the next guest. It would appear that your Ms. Brown has checked out.”