Read an Excerpt
"And for those of you just joining us after the commercial break, fighting for the checkered flag are Kyle Doolittle in the Manifest Ford and Hart Hampton in the Number 413 Elementals Chevy."
"Those two have dominated the track today, Gus. Between them, they've led all but sixteen laps and have swapped the lead ten times."
"It's been a tight race, Malcolm. Both have had superb restarts. But this has always been Hart's track. He won here in 2003, 2004 and 2006. Hampton's hungry; he's been dry on wins since Daytona."
"And Hampton's Number 413 car starts to make its move, passing low inside as Doolittle goes high on Turn Three."
"Doolittle's car's loose! If Hampton can hold the low groove, he's going to take home his second win this season. Wait! Doolittle's scraped the wall. Sparks are flying! Doolittle's offand directly into Hampton. They're giving each other donuts."
"They seem to be locked. Doolittle's managed to get an edge. He's pulling ahead, but his back panel just clipped Hampton's nose. Now Hampton's loose! He's backward and into the wall!"
"He's catching car 510, Ronnie McDougal, on the rebound. They're now spinning into the infield grass. Wait! Hampton's caught McDougal wrong. He's airborne and has landed on McDougal's hood. He's rolling off! Whoa, he's landed upside down."
"A vicious tumble. The caution flag waves at Richmond, freezing the drivers in place with two laps to go."
"Definitely not Hart Hampton's day."
"Well, that ends that," Anita Wertz said with a resigned sigh. She reached over and ruffled her fifteen-year-old grandson's thin tufts of brown hair. Both had been watching the stock car race on television for thepast several hours.
"Sorry, sport," Anita told Charlie, her own disappointment evident as her favorite driver found himself knocked out of the race. "Looks like Hart's not going to win this one and break his streak of bad luck."
"Hart was so close," Charlie Thompson said wistfully as cameras focused on Hart Hampton's wrecked car. Hampton waved once to show he was all right. "I'd even worn my lucky shirt."
Charlie glanced down at the green T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of Hart and a huge 413. When she'd moved in with her daughter,Anita had gotten Charlie hooked on the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series and Hart was his favorite stock car driver.
"Hart needed this win, Grandma. He's already too far behind in point standings if he's going to have a chance to make the Chase. This might send him down to twentieth."
"I know," Anita said. She rolled her shoulders, her own racing attire moving as she shifted her sixty-three-year-old body. "But fate's like that sometimes. Maybe it's not Hart's year. The race winner will probably be Kyle Doolittle if he doesn't run out of fuel."
"I know," Charlie replied. He frowned for a brief moment, then brightened. "I guess there's always next week."
"That's the spirit," Anita said. Back from a commercial break, the newscasters were discussing the crash. Behind them, cars still raced under the caution as officials cleared the debris from the track. "You shouldn't worry. It's still early enough in the season for Hart to make a spectacular comeback."
"It's not over yet?" Kellie Thompson asked as she entered the living room and glanced at the twenty-seven-inch TV. The only view she had was of race cars going around single file as they waited for the restart. "Hey, what's wrong? Why the long faces?"
"Hart crashed and is out of the race," Charlie told his mother as he retrieved the glass of water and cancer medication she'd brought in. His attention remained glued to the events unfolding on the screen, the movement of taking his medicine rote. "He climbed out of the car on his own, but they're putting him in the ambulance now."
The television was now showing repeat footage of the accident. Kellie cringed, unable to imagine how anyone could have walked out of the crashthe car had done a complete roll onto its roof. She credited Hart's survival to his car's strong roll cage and NASCAR's safety standards, including requiring the track's soft wallsall explained in great detail by Charlie.
Still, just the force of watching what looked like a movie stunt had her shuddering. Unlike Anita and Charlie, Kellie wasn't impressed with the challenges the drivers endured every week. In fact, NASCAR wasn't really her sport.
But, ever since the new season had started in February, watching stock car races had become a sit-down ritual in the Thompson household every weekend, no matter what day or time the race occurred. Kellie hadn't minded, for if Charlie was well enough to watch racing that meant it was a good day, better than most.
Kellie shoved her son's medical prognosis into the far recesses of her mind. The unspoken rule was that any long-term thoughts of her son's mortality and other depressing topics related to his leukemia were banned on race days. Race time was respite time.
"That looked like a nasty crash," Kellie said, attempting to join the conversation.
"They've just announced that he'll be okay," Charlie replied, pale blue eyes so like her own remaining fixed on the television screen as he spread the news. All remained silent while they watched the caution lift. Kyle Doolittle crossed the finish line first, followed by Mike Turnfield, who came in second instead of fourth because Hart and Ronnie's crash had opened up the field.
The cameras followed Doolittle's victory lap as he carried the checkered flag, fist raised triumphantly through the driver's side window. Kellie used the moment to assess her son.
While "officially forbidden" to worry today, she still couldn't help but notice that Charlie seemed a little paler than usual. The last round of chemotherapy treatments had been particularly harsh on his body; Charlie had needed several weeks in the hospital to recover. Of course, she could pretend to be optimistic and pretend that perhaps his skin color was just an odd reflection of the incandescent light. It was after eleven p.m.
But as much as she'd like to say that Charlie's skin color was from staying up late or from a lack of Myrtle Beach sun, Kellie was a realist. She knew the truth, no matter how much she wanted to deny those facts or wish that her reality were different.
While survival rates for blood disorder cancers had more than tripled because of modern medicine, Charlie would never be like other boys. He'd been diagnosed at age seven with an acute myelogenous leukemia. He'd never played sports, played a musical instrument, or enjoyed other things boys his age did. He'd never attended school with much regularity, instead receiving homebound instruction for the past two years. He'd suffered through chemotherapy treatments, remissions that didn't last and bone marrow transplants and platelet transfusions that helped, for a little while.
In the past six months, her son had dropped much-needed weight and the result was that he'd turned pencil thin. His wire-framed glasses appeared too big for his face. His brown hair, often absent from chemotherapy, had returned thin and downy, but the strands were weak and broke easily. The evidence covered his pillow every morning.
"So are you both excited about next weekend?" Anita asked suddenly, as if sensing her daughter's inner turmoil and stress. Kelly gave her mother a small, sad smile that Charlie, still focused on the TV, missed.
Anita had moved into Kellie's small bungalow three months ago, just in time for the season's start at Daytona. That had been about the time when things with Charlie had taken a turn for the worse.
Although, right now, you'd never know his condition from the large smile crossing his face.
"You bet I'm ready for next weekend," Charlie said. He gazed over at his mom, his smile suddenly wavering. His blue eyes flickered once as he assessed her.
Kellie knew what he saw. She was thirty-five; her blond hair was twisted up unglamorously in a hairclip; and she wore a faded sweatshirt and blue jeans. "How about you, Mom? You excited?" Charlie asked.
"Yes," Kellie said, determined not to rob her son of any of his current joy. She'd been against the idea of going to the weekend camp for chronically ill children, but now that the date had nearly arrived, she gave Charlie a wide, reassuring grin. As he smiled back at her, her conscience eased slightly.
At this time, making Charlie happy and keeping him healthy were her main goals. Anita had finally convinced Kellie to apply to the camp for a family weekend. The camp, founded in memory of a deceased stock car driver, was race car-themed and specialized in kids with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. Race fan Charlie had been thrilled, even more so when the acceptance letter had arrived.
"We'll have a great time," Kellie said.
"I went to the Web site and I can't wait," Charlie said. "Do you know that a lot of the buildings look like you're at a race track? I even printed out some directions. It should take us about four hours to get there."
"Impressive," Anita said with an approving nod. "I thought you only used that laptop I gave you to play video games."
Charlie made a face. "Funny, Grandma. You know I also use it for my schoolwork. Hey, I just thought of something. Maybe we'll meet some of the drivers. They do drop by. I saw the pictures on the camp's Web site."
"They'll be racing at Darlington next Saturday," Anita pointed out.
"Oh that's right." Charlie's expression soured slightly.
"You know, if I were going to be there for a week-long camp, there'd be one NASCAR-themed night and I'd learn how to change a tire."
"I'm sure there will be plenty of other things to do," Anita said.
"Yeah, but I'll miss the race. You'll have to tape it. I hope Hart wins. One minor accident won't keep him from driving next weekend."
"That's for sure," Anita replied. "Those guys drive under all sorts of conditions. Pulled muscles, injured shoulders "
"We're going to have fun," Kellie inserted, not wanting to hear about how heroic the drivers were. "Besides, with it being a family weekend, this way I get to go to camp, too."
"True," Charlie said. "And we haven't had a vacation in forever."
"Exactly." Kellie nodded. Vacations had been pretty sparse as she had to make her late husband's assets and insurance stretch to pay Charlie's medical bills. Since Charlie had another treatment scheduled during the camp's cancer week later that summer, a weekend trip had been their only option. Charlie also turned sixteen in few weeks, making him too old for the regular sessions. The great thing was that, once accepted, attending the camp was free. "What activities were showcased on the Web site?" Kellie asked.
"Archery. Horseback riding. Fishing," Charlie said.
"So there you go. Plenty of things to keep us very busy," Kellie stated. She sat down in the armchair. The television cameras were now focused on Victory Lane and a reporter was busy interviewing a wet Kyle Doolittle. His team had showered him in soda pop once he'd climbed out of the car.
"They should interview Hart at some point," Charlie announced. The group continued to watch, until the programming ended and a movie came on. However, no word had come forth from Hart's camp about his status.
"I'll check the Web sites later," Charlie continued. "Don't worry, Mom. Your future husband's fine. The reporters would have said something if he wasn't. You won't need to go looking for anyone else."
"That's good because I'd be way too upset," Kellie replied with a heavenward glance of her blue eyes. Trust Charlie to bring up the family joke he had created last fall when some well-meaning person had asked Kellie when she was going to start dating again. Charlie had observed his mother's discomfort and announced that his mother was holding out for Hart Hampton. Although she could have handled the charged situation herself, Kellie had always appreciated her son's "rescue" as his answer had defused the tense situation.
"I think Dusty Burke is pretty cute," Anita observed, naming a rookie driver.
Charlie laughed. "Yeah, but he's too young and married. Mom's better off with Hart. He's more her type."
Right, Kelly thought. The type that didn't know she existed. "I'm sure he'll show up at my door someday," Kellie said, completing the family joke, even though this time it slightly pained her to do so.
No one liked being a widow. Occasionally Kellie felt a little freakish. Widows aged thirty-five were something of an oddity. Add to that Charlie's illness, and dating was simply not an option at this time in her life. And where was it written that a woman had to have a man to be complete? Her first go-round hadn't exactly been a picnic in the park.
Of course, how could she worry about her own needs when she had her ill son to care for?"
As for Hart Hampton, Charlie couldn't have picked someone farther from Kellie's type when he'd said she was holding out for Hart Hampton. She was a homebodyHart was well, everywhere. His face and that famous smile of his graced everything from slow cookers to acetaminophen boxes.
Television and print advertising showed him wearing boxers, and little else but a tight T-shirt and his famous smile. Race fans adored him, having voted Hart most popular driver last year, despite Hart's failure to make it into the top ten in points. Hart's supporters were rabidif Hart was going to be at an event, organizers were assured a success, if not a complete media circus, as fans clamored for autographs and waited in line for hours.
The press played Hart Hampton as a "down-home" boy, a second-generation race car driver trying to live up to his dad. Although Hart wasn't ever photographed out partying, he'd admitted jet-setting in interviewsKellie had peeked at all those racing-related publications her mother devoured. In the race of life, Hart was known for changing women like tires, usually swapping them every two to three months when the newness wore off. So Kellie didn't believe the media hype. Hart Hampton made too much money and suffered too much adoration for her to believe he was a "simple" Southern man.
Of course, letting herself dream about Hart Hampton sweeping her away was occasionally fun, especially after a particularly hard day. Although she was quite capable of saving herself, sometimes she needed to pretend a hero would someday carry her off and solve all her financial and medical worries. Like waiting for Charlie's full remission, a girl should never give up hope or stop allowing herself to fantasize.
Her short break from reality over, Kellie stood and headed into the kitchen. With his immune system weakened, Kellie kept the house spotless and she needed to finish cleaning the kitchen before turning in for the night. As she passed by the hallway mirror she paused. Once, long ago she'd been slim and stylish, even after Charlie's birth. Now, beneath the sweatshirt she wore, she had mother's hips, tiny stretch marks and the extra five pounds that every average American female carried. She'd aged and accepted that she wouldn't pass for a cover model again, not that she ever had.
Nowadays, she chose one-piece bathing suits, not string bikinis. Her makeup, when she wore it, came from the pink case of the beauty consultant down the street. The last time Kellie'd had a pedicure? She glanced at her naked toes and knew she could never compete with media images of beauty. Not that it mattered. Whenever a man did find her attractive, once he learned about Charlie, he hit the road.
As for Hart Hampton, he was handsome. Fascinating. But his lifestyle was as far from hers as the planet Mars was from Earth. He was also probably an egotistical person who only thought of himself. Well, that and racing. She'd bet the man didn't even do his own dishes. And hers were calling.
Reality won and Kellie banished Hart Hampton to where he belongedin her mind as a silly fantasy and family gag.