The news caught Jars off guard. He didn’t know quite what to make of it. That Nikki could be impulsive was clear to him even from the handful of hours they’d spent together. But her impulsiveness seemed to spring from a rational, clear-thinking mind. For a moment he wondered if this was her way of giving him the slip. He hadn’t shared many of the details of his life with her but from what little he had it was clear that he’d had more than a few bumps along the way. Maybe he’d come across exactly like the man he was, a guy approaching middle age who had squandered the bulk of his time absorbed in his work leaving his wife and kids to fend for themselves until there wasn’t anything left to call family.
He shook his head. No, that couldn’t be it. Nikki’s character wasn’t that thin. If she wanted to brush him off she was the kind that would tell him so straight up. She was strong and wasn’t the type to run into the shadows when his back was turned. Not that she owed him anything. After all, their relationship had barely enough momentum to move the needle on the getting-to-know-you meter. But that it had, even at this early stage, moved the needle towards the positive was undeniable. Why else would he be so concerned with her absence? Jars let out a sigh. His experiment was producing results all right. It was as if the story of his life up to the time he’d met Nikki had been written by an author who had grown tired of the sterile, repetitive storyline and had handed the woeful tale over to someone else to see what they could do with it. And whoever this new guy was, he wasn’t settling for the same-old, same-old. Whoever held the pen now seemed to know that time was a luxury Jars didn’t have. They’d exchanged phone numbers too, another fact that argued against the dumping theory. You didn’t do that at their age unless you were pretty comfortable with each other.
Jars walked outside dropping his tall frame into one of the white wicker chairs thoughtfully positioned about the veranda, choosing one of a pair that were somewhat off on their own. He found Nikki’s contact record on his cell and was soon listening to the sound of Nikki’s own phone ringing in his ear.
“Jars?” Nikki’s warm voice brought with it both reassurance and concern. With a single word she had confirmed what his heart understood all along. That there was something about the woman that he both desired and needed. “I’m so glad to hear your voice! How are you this morning?”
Jars marveled at how she managed to allay his fears with her simple words of pleasure at hearing his voice, while at the same time giving him space to tell about his dinner with Kyle as he saw fit, free of having to answer pointed questions on the topic. It was typical Nikki. She gave him breathing room, the freedom to travel in conversation at a pace he was comfortable with.
“I’m okay. I guess you can’t undo with a single meal what years of neglect have brought about.”
“I’m sorry Jars. For you both.” Her compassion was genuine. She couldn’t imagine what it felt like to try and bridge what must seem to both father and son an insurmountable gap.
A few seconds went by before he spoke again. “I’m actually back in Cooperstown. I thought I’d surprise you and tell you all about my evening with Kyle in person.”
“Then I guess you already know I’m not there.”
Jars feigned seriousness. “I just figured the Yankees were struggling and had called you into action as a special consultant to help get them out of their slump!”
“Actually they did,” Nikki joked. “But I had to disappoint them. It seems I’m needed back at the hospital.”
Jars flipped back to the previous morning’s breakfast together when Nikki had mentioned having to eat hurried meals in surgical scrubs. “You mean they’re calling you in off your vacation to work?” It was incredulous.
“Nnnooo,” she said slowly, “It isn’t someone else that’s getting operated on. I think this time around it’s going to be me.”
The news took him by surprise. “You? Nikki, what’s wrong?”
“I’ve got cancer Jars, she said softly. “It’s in my left lung. It’s not the sort of thing you blurt out after you’ve just met someone,” she went on, anticipating his next question. “I wanted whatever was to become of our meeting to happen without all the drama involved with cancer.”
The next few minutes were spent with Nikki catching Jars up on the basics of her fight against the disease and how it had gone from a state of remission to what appeared to be a renewed rampage, triggering her dormant vacation plans that found the two of them meeting again.
“Again?” He wasn’t sure he’d heard her right. “You mean to say we’ve met before?”
“I’m sorry. That just slipped out.” The moment the words had escaped she’d hoped he hadn’t noticed, what with the road noise in the car as she travelled west on Interstate 90. “I’m heading to the airport in Syracuse. There’s a flight at three that will take me home. I’ve got a consult with my pulmonologist later this evening. Being in the medical profession has its advantages,” she went on, “Audrey is a sweetheart and will see me whenever I can make it in.”
Jars’ brain was working hard, trying to keep up with the details while all the time searching to discover where the two had met before. But he’d learned long ago the advantage of focusing his attention on one part of a problem at a time. For now, whatever was going on with Nikki’s health held sway.
“Where’s home?” he asked.
His pacemaker operation had been at the University of Virginia Medical Center. A coincidence? Nikki’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
“I hate to say this Jars, but I need some time to regroup and think this through. I’ll call you in the morning and fill you in. In the meantime, keep me in your prayers. I’d really appreciate it.”
Sliding the phone back into his pocket, Jars began sorting through the information he’d just been given. As far as prayer went, he wouldn’t know how to begin or who to pray to for that matter. Religion hadn’t been a topic on their conversational menu but he supposed Nikki mentioned prayer as a reflex response to the current crisis. A cultural expression used when the chips were down.
It wasn’t yet noon. A quick check on his phone showed the Syracuse airport to be just shy of a two hour drive. Just enough time for what he had in mind.
Nikki fought to get a handle on her emotions, her years of being part of Mac’s surgical team serving her well. Detaching her mind from her emotions went with the job. Still, it was never a complete divorce. After all, these were people they were operating on. Most had family and every one a story all their own. In Nikki’s way of thinking, each person was a living thought of Almighty God, His thought come to life, made in His own image, and destined to become all that He intended for them.
The team had once operated on a five year old girl whose chest had been crushed underneath the family van when her older brother had decided to practice his motoring skills in the driveway while their parents were away for the afternoon. The fifteen year old boy had promised to keep his eye on his little sister only to loose sight of her at a critical time. The sight of the wounded child on the operating table had torn at Nikki’s heart, surfacing fierce mother instincts she had once hoped to lavish on her and Todd’s own children. But the situation had demanded detachment so that her skills could be brought to bear on saving the child’s life unhampered by emotional distraction. Even when the little girl lay near the point of death at two separate intervals during the procedure, Nikki had forced herself to focus on the task at hand. It had paid off. Little Emily was now a robust eight year old who sent the team a card every Christmas, together with a picture of herself and her dog, Calvin, a feisty looking little terrier cradled lovingly in her arms. But the difference this time was that she was now in Emily’s place as the person fighting for her life. Complete emotional detachment was an impossibility.
She wondered what Jars was thinking. The news probably shocked him nearly as much as it had her. At least she had already known she had cancer. It was fresh news to him. True, their relationship was in the earliest stages. That Jars enjoyed her company and was attracted to her was obvious. But to what depth was unknown.
For that matter, what about her own attraction for him? She’d started out simply being open-minded about meeting the man her team had operated on only a few short days ago. It was crazy stuff seeing Jars again, this time a few hundred miles from where she’d first laid eyes on him. But God was crazy about all his children and such “chance” encounters were well within his modus operandi. Distance was nothing to God. In fact, he was pretty adept at closing distances. Nikki’s own relationship with him was proof of that. Was she falling in love with the man? She wouldn’t go that far. Yet she had to admit that Jars wasn’t just another pretty face, either, to coin a phrase.
But why would God bring the two of them together again only to send her winging her way south to Virginia before her vacation was even up?
One of the perks of owning a company like Synapzius was that it gave you unlimited access to the company helicopter, an aircraft Jars much preferred over jets. Having your own jet might sound impressive but, from a practical standpoint, the places you could get to were limited. A helicopter, on the other hand, was another story. If you could fit, you could land. And nowadays, with a helicopter, you didn’t have to set comfort aside either.
Rory, his pilot, was former Navy and had flown countless missions including inserting Seal teams into the oil rich deserts of Kuwait prior to the onset of Desert Storm. He was only too glad to fire up the twin Pratt & Whitney engines of the AugustaWestland AW139 and head to Syracuse where he’d fuel up and stand by to take Jars and a guest on board for a flight to Charlottesville, Virginia. Rory considered himself a budding novelist and used the down time between flights to good purpose. He’d already published his first novel and was hard at work on a sequel. In Rory’s way of thinking, working for Jars was the perfect fit.
Jars pulled into the long term parking of Syracuse’s Hancock International Airport shortly before two. Enough time to find Nikki, he figured. Of course, he would have to buy a ticket himself just to get through security. He’d thought about calling her to say he was there and had a chopper waiting to whisk her home but he preferred to tell her in person. He wanted to both comfort her and override any objections she might have. After all, he hadn’t filled her in on exactly who he was and how it came to be that he had his own chopper and could do pretty much whatever he wanted. Jars could only hope that he’d built up enough credibility points to allay whatever apprehension Nikki might feel towards his proposal. For now, all Jars wanted was to be with her and help her.
There were two airlines flying to Charlottesville: US Airways and American Airlines. Pretty grand and patriotic names, Jars mused. Both had an intermediate stop in North Carolina and both departed at the exact same time. For seven hundred bucks and change he could have one of the few remaining seats. He picked American Airlines and hustled through security appreciating even more, after having to take off his shoes and empty his pockets, the convenience of having his own air transportation. The only time he flew commercial was the occasional international flight or something that took him coast to coast. Rory, with his 9mm Sig Sauer P226 with engraved anchor on the slide, a gift from a grateful Seal team, served as both pilot and one man security force.
From what he knew of Nikki he guessed that she would likely while away her waiting time drinking tea somewhere away from crowds. Somewhere where she could sit and see the cloud littered sky and sort through the many thoughts and emotions he could only imagine were battering her psyche. But given his own experiment, he suspected he had a better handle on what she was dealing with than the average happy-go-lucky individual.
As airports go, Syracuse wasn’t that big and, after a few minutes of looking at out of the way places, he caught sight of her. She was curled up in one of the facility’s more comfortable chairs, staring out the window, cup in hand, her dark hair in a pigtail peeking out the backside of her Yankee baseball cap. Jars stood quietly drinking in the sight of her before walking over and placing his hand lightly on her shoulder.
“Now, isn’t this a whole lot better than waiting around in a crowded airport just to stuff yourself into an uncomfortable seat breathing the same recirculated air that has already passed through the lungs of a hundred other fellow passengers?” Jars handed her a fresh cup of hot green tea with just a touch of honey.
Nikki looked up at him, a wan smile on her pretty but now pensive face. “It’s certainly far nicer.” Her eyes wandered about the spacious cabin, noting the rich wood trim and fine leather appointments. “But I suspect that it would have been the other passengers that would have been concerned with the air that had passed through my lungs—or at least my left one.” She gave him a reassuring smile as she caught the concern etched in his face.
Her mind was a swirl of tangled thoughts. Life was so unpredictable! One moment she’d been going about her daily routine as a surgical nurse working with a team of incredibly talented medical professionals and feeling as though she’d finally caught her second wind after the death of her husband and a fight with cancer she thought she’d won. Then, in what felt like the blink of an eye, she’d found herself in an executive helicopter owned by a guy who, a few days earlier, was lying on her operating table only to pop up where she’d gone for vacation after learning the cancer was staging a comeback.
She closed her eyes and took in a deep, slow breath exhaling slowly before opening them again and fixing her gaze on Jars. Whoever this man was he was fast becoming her knight in shining armor.
“Okay buddy,” she quipped. “Spill your guts. You’re either a spy for the Boston Red Sox or someone with way too much time and money on their hands.”
“I plead guilty to the latter.” Jars paused before adding, “But with extenuating circumstances.”
“Then I guess it’s confession time—on both our parts,” Nikki said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean there’s obviously more to both our stories than what we’ve already shared. We’ve known each other for less than forty-eight hours and within that short span of time an awfully lot has taken place.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Jars nodded in agreement but dreaded what might come of the disclosure they were contemplating. “Who goes first?”
Nikki answered by diving into her pocketbook and pulling out a small gold coin. “Derek Jeter’s final season coin,” she explained. “His Number 2 jersey number will be heads with the signature side tails. “Call it!” she announced as she settled the coin into position atop her thumb. “Whoever wins gets to go last.”
They watched as the coin did somersaults in the air before greeting the top of the table between them with a rattling climax, the number 2 staring up at them from the shiny surface of the commemorative coin.
“I was afraid of that,” Jars muttered.
The next thirty minutes passed with Jars sharing his story in as much detail as he felt helpful, leaving nothing out that might embarrass him or show him in a poor light. Married twice and with a daughter to go along with the son she already knew about. He talked about his role as founder and CEO of Synapzius and its breakthrough on the nano-technology front and Nikki could sense his passion for the wonders of science. He spoke of his penchant for all things healthy with a fondness for exercise and eating well, excusing some of his recent menu choices as being an exception, part of an experiment he was conducting.
“An experiment?” Nikki’s raised eyebrow invited further explanation.
“I had a pacemaker put into my chest,” he said. “A few days ago. Tuesday to be exact. Just a few days before we met in Cooperstown.” Jars searched Nikki’s brown eyes for reassurance. How would she react to his telling her about the deadly device with its daily tempting of fate? The experiment sounded absurd even to him now. A crazy, insane scheme dreamed up by some mad scientist only a half-step away from the looney bin.
“I know,” Nikki said. “I was there.”