Read an Excerpt
"Hey, Mom, Rick Howard hit another home run. I bet he breaks his record."
Mallory Brenner stepped into the family room, where her ten-year-old son sprawled on the couch, remote in hand, watching a New York Yankees baseball game. She ruffled his chestnut-brown hair. "Hey, son, I bet Nicholas Brenner breaks his record for the most home runs in Little League."
He grinned, showing a mouthful of braces. "Bet you're right."
Then he scowled as she leaned over him, thermometer in hand, and ordered, "Open."
He did. As his hero rounded third though, he mumbled, "If we lived in New York instead of Valerosa, Texas, we could see Rick Howard play."
Mallory removed the thermometer, set it again and stuck it back in Nick's mouth. "Haven't you noticed?You are seeing him play, right here in our living room, through the modern miracle of television." Nick muttered disgustedly and she held up a hand. "Now zip your lip and watch the game, or I'll have to start over again."
Nick turned his attention to the TV and kept quiet. The thermometer beeped and Mallory checked the reading. "Normal. Second day in a row."
"Cool. Think Dr. Sanders will let me play ball now? It's been a year."
"A month," she corrected, then added, "I'm sure he will, as soon as he gets the results of your blood test."
The last week of April, Nick had come down with the flu.
Usually quick to shake off any illness, he hadn't been able to recover from this one. Their family doctor had been at a loss to explain the lingering fever and weakness and had ordered a complete blood count.
"When's he gonna find out?" A whiny note appeared in Nick's voice. "I'm tired of laying around here."
"We should hear today. Tomorrow at the latest." Seeing Nick's lower lip inching toward a pout, she quickly suggested, "How about some ice cream? I picked up a quart of Baseball Nut."
Nick pushed a pillow onto the floor. "No." Mallory sighed and prayed for patience. "Come on, Nick, it's your favorite. And you hardly ate any lunch."
He glared at her. "I'm not hungry."
"Why don't I set up the chess set and we'll have a game before I go to work?
"It's your day off."
"Lauri's kids are in a swim meet this afternoon. I promised I'd come in around four and relieve her." Her partner, Lauri Gold, had put in plenty of extra time at Buds and Blossoms, their florist shop, since Nick had been ill. Mallory was glad to do a favor in return. She'd already made arrangements to drop Nick off at her parents' for the couple of hours she'd be gone. She patted Nick's shoulder. "How about that game?"
"You're not very good," Nick grumbled. "I beat you the last four times we played."
Patience, she told herself. "Hey, nobody beats Mallory Brenner five times in a row."
Deciding to interpret his grimace as a smile, Mallory got the chess set. They were setting up the pieces when the phone rang. "Be right back." She went into the kitchen and picked up the receiver.
"Mrs. Brenner, this is Kelly from Dr. Sanders's office. He'd like you to stop by to discuss Nicholas's blood test."
Stop by? To discuss the results of a routine blood test? Alarm bells went off in Mallory's mind, and she grasped the edge of the kitchen counter. "I have to be at work soon. Can't we do this on the phone?"
"I, um, don't know. He asked me to have you come into the office. He said if you get here in half an hour, he'll work you in."
"All right." Her hand trembled as she put the phone down. Something must be seriously wrong for Dr. Sanders to insist that she come in.
Or maybe not, she reassured herself. Maybe Nick had a vitamin deficiency or needed iron. Something like that. This could be just another instance of Dr. Sanders's personal interest in his patients. He always took extra time with kids. When Nick had suffered nightmares after Dean's death three years ago, Dr. Sanders had seen the boy several times just to listen to his fears and his sadness over the loss of his father. And last week the doctor had spent a good ten minutes with Nick, discussing the Yankees' chances of winning the pennant this year.
"Nothing to worry about," she told herself firmly as she started back to the living room. But her upbeat statement didn't banish the queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
She found Nick absorbed in moving pieces around the chess board. She didn't want to alarm him, too, so she hid her nerves behind a bright smile. "Change in plans, pal. I have to leave early. Pack up the chess set and you can play with Grandpa. I'm sure he'll appreciate your company." Her father was laid up after a knee replacement and was as bored as his grandson.
A sullen look that was becoming all too familiar settled on Nick's face. "I don't want to go to Grandma and Grandpa's. They don't let me watch South Park."
"And neither do I, Mr. Brenner."
"Yeah, but—" He muttered "Oops" under his breath and looked away.
Mallory wondered if he got to watch the show she'd banned at one of his friends' homes, but she'd explore that later. "Hurry up, Nick. We need to get going."
"Why can't I stay home?"
"I guess I could call Angela and see if she can sit with you."
Nick threw another pillow to the floor. "I don't need a babysitter." His voice rose. "I'm big enough to stay by myself."
"Not for three hours."
"If Dad was still alive, he'd let me."
That hurt. Mallory swallowed a tear and counted to ten. Since Nick had been ill, he'd tested limits and tried her patience constantly. "Don't go pushing my buttons, young man. Dad isn't here anymore and you're not to second-guess what he might've said. Now get your chessboard and let's go."
Scowling, Nick got to his feet and shuffled after her to the door. She dropped him off at her parents' with the admonition to "be nice," then drove to Dr. Sanders's office.
The waiting room was crowded, but Helena, Dr. Sanders's nurse, called her right in. A mother with two cranky preschoolers muttered something unpleasant as Mallory walked past, but Mallory ignored her. The knot of anxiety tightened in her chest. What could the doctor have to say that necessitated calling her in ahead of everyone else?
Helena pointed the way to the doctor's private office, but Mallory didn't need directions. She'd been coming here since she was a child herself. She went in, and he rose to take her hand and lead her to a small sofa. As she sat, the odor of cherry lollipops, a smell she always associated with this room, rose from the dish on the coffee table.
Dr. Sanders sat down beside her. Instead of beginning their conversation with a joke as he often did, today the doctor was silent and somber. The knot in Mallory's chest wrenched tighter as he picked up a sheet of paper from the coffee table. "We have the lab report from Nick's blood test," he said.
Though her mouth had gone dry, she swallowed. "Is something wrong?"
He set the paper down and leaned forward.Voice softer now, he said, "Nick's white blood count is extremely high."
"Does...that mean he has an infection? Or..."
Dr. Sanders covered her icy hand with his warm one.
"I don't know an easy way to tell you this, Mallory. Nicholas has leukemia. Acute myelogenous leukemia."
The first two words of the diagnosis meant nothing to Mallory, but leukemia. She'd heard that word and from what she recalled, it meant...death.
She felt herself falling, sliding into a deep, dark hole. Though she still sat beside Dr. Sanders, still felt air moving in and out of her lungs, nothing around her seemed the same. Nothing seemed real. The sounds from the hallway faded, the hum of the air-conditioning stilled. Even her own body seemed alien. She saw that Dr. Sanders still held her hand, but she couldn't feel it. Her nerve endings had frozen.
"Leukemia," she muttered. "Cancer." She gritted her teeth. She had to hold herself together or she'd shatter into pieces like a broken glass. "Nick's going to... Is...is he going to die?"
Dr. Sanders shook his head and patted her hand. "No, leukemia isn't a death sentence anymore. The majority of children survive. But he needs treatment, and we'll see that he gets it."
She nodded. The thought of treatment gave her something tangible to concentrate on. "When can you start?"
"I don't have the training or the facilities here. He needs a cancer center, a specialist. Gaines Memorial in Houston is the closest and, fortunately, it's one of the top three in the country. I've already called to check on their admission procedures."
Houston. Away from her family, her friends. But that was inconsequential if the clinic there could help Nick. "How...how soon will we need to be there?"
"They want you there in three days."
So soon. "Is Nick..." Her voice faded, but she managed to whisper, "Is he in danger?"
"No immediate danger, but they do need to start as soon as possible."
His voice was reassuring. But, three days. And so much to get done. Her mind swam with fragments of a to-do list. Call Lauri...arrange for someone to help out at the shop...airline tickets...check her insurance policy... Thoughts jumped into her mind, flitted away.
She rose, sat down again. "I...I don't know anything about leukemia or how it's treated. I should check the Internet." She wondered if she'd have time.
Dr. Sanders nodded. "That's just what I expected you to say, and you're right. You need to be informed. This will give you an introduction." He handed her a pamphlet. "There's a list of books and Web sites, too."
"What about a doctor?" Mallory asked. "Who will we see?"
"The hospital gave me names of doctors on staff there. I can check them out and recommend one if you like."
"I'll trust you to pick the best."
"Would you like me to tell Nicholas?" he asked gently. She hadn't even thought of that. "No, I'll tell him," she decided. "He's at my parents' now. They'll help. And afterward—tomorrow maybe—then you can talk to him, explain the...the illness."
Dr. Sanders nodded. "You're a strong woman, Mallory. You've had to be, losing Dean, raising Nicholas on your own and running a business. Your son is strong, too, and brave. What the two of you have to face won't be easy, but I have every confidence you'll get through it."
"Thank you." Though she could barely feel her legs, they apparently worked, because she crossed the room to the door. Dr. Sanders opened it for her, but she stopped, grasping at a last shred of hope. "Could there be a mistake? Could the lab report be wrong? Maybe Nick should have another blood test."
The doctor shook his head. "You'd just be wasting time."
Time. It could be Nick's ally...or his enemy. She wouldn't waste a minute. She hurried to the parking lot.
Her damp hands clutched the steering wheel as she drove toward her parents'home. They'd help. Her father, rabbi of Beth Jacob,Valerosa's only synagogue, had sustained his congregants through times of trouble, and he and her mother had been her chief support through the dark days after Dean's death. She'd lean on them now, and with their faith and courage to supplement hers, she prayed Nick would battle this illness and conquer it.