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Twenty-two years later
CLAY DILLON COVERED his sister Darcy's much smaller hand with his, hoping the dread flowing through his veins like icy river water hadn't chilled his skin.
She glanced at him with wide blue eyes, and he tried to convey with his expression that they'd get through this crisis no matter what the news.
Their mother Margo sat rigidly on the opposite side of Darcy, her pink lipstick standing out starkly on a face that had gone pale despite her expertly applied makeup.
If the patient consultation room hadn't been rather richly redecorated and the slim, somber man behind the gleaming mahogany desk hadn't lost three-quarters of his hair, time would seem as if it had rewound.
Dr. Phillip McIntyre tapped his chin, a habitual gesture Clay recognized from the last time the family had dealt with him. It meant the doctor was having difficulty putting his thoughts into exactly the right words.
"I'm sorry to have to inform you of this, but the biopsy confirmed our suspicions." His somber voice contrasted vividly with the Memphis sun streaming through the blinds. "The kidney is indeed failing."
Clay's stomach plunged like a skydiver realizing that his parachute wouldn't open. The diagnosis, though, came as no surprise. The creatinine levels in Darcy's blood had been rising, an early indication her kidney wasn't filtering out waste products the way it was supposed to.
The doctor's compassionate gaze zeroed in on Darcy, who'd inherited their mother's heart-shaped face and blond good looks. Except now Clay let himself notice that her complexion appeared sallow and her skin puffy. Clay tightened his hand on hers. Blood seemed to rush tohis head, clogging his ears, making it seem like Dr. McIntrye's voice came from a distance.
"Darcy, we need to put you back on the transplant list." A voice in Clay's mind screamed at the injustice, but he schooled his features and said nothing. Neither did Darcy, whose right hand sheltered the spot where the doctor had extracted a sample of tissue from her kidney to be biopsied.
"But she was doing so well." The anguished protest erupted from their mother. "And you said the kidney could last for decades."
Dr. McIntyre pushed the glasses up his nose and tapped his chin some more. The sunlight shone on him through the skinny slats of the blinds, casting his face in both light and shadow. "I said that although there have been cases of cadaver kidneys lasting for decades, those instances were isolated. We hoped the kidney Darcy received would last longer than five years, but that isn't a terrible result for a cadaver organ."
Had it really been five years?
The ordeal actually began even longer ago than that. Darcy had been only ten or eleven when the family's new pediatrician discovered that a previously undiagnosed strep infection had damaged Darcy's kidneys. Still, it had come as a shock to learn that Darcy had end-stage organ failure at age sixteen.
The shock precipitated a nightmare that Clay remembered as vividly as if it had happened yesterday.
Four-hour dialysis sessions three times a week that purified his sister's blood but drained her of energy. The dawning realization that she needed a transplant. The agonizing wait for a cadaver organ. Then the anxiety-filled predawn trip to the transplant center when a matching kidney finally became available.
The transplant had been successful, and the nightmare ended. Until today, when it started again.
"You'll have to go back on dialysis until a donor organ becomes available. The sooner, the better," Dr. McIntyre told Darcy. "Let's see. Monday's Memorial Day. So I'd suggest you start the treatments Tuesday."
Today was Friday. A muscle in Darcy's jaw tensed, but other than that she exhibited no outward sign of the disappointment that must be raging inside her. Her silence worried Clay more than an outburst would have done. Even at her sickest, Darcy was the most unremittingly cheerful person Clay knew.
"How long do you think it will be before my daughter can have another transplant?" Their mother's voice shook, and Clay wished he'd sat between the two females so he could hold both of their hands.
The doctor gazed at the open file on his desk and shuffled papers before raising his eyes and peering over the top of his rimless glasses. "I can't seem to find the information here, so refresh my memory on how long the wait was last time." "Nine months," their mother answered immediately. Nine interminable months, Clay thought.
Darcy had barely recovered from one dialysis session when it came time for another. She'd fallen hopelessly behind in her classes, eventually being forced to repeat her junior year of high school.
"Ah, yes," Dr. McIntyre said. "I remember Darcy was extremely lucky to get that kidney. Unfortunately, we can't count on something like that happening this time. You do recall the problems associated with the blood type. Type-O blood means she can only receive a donated organ from another individual with type-O blood. But since type-O is the universal donor, those cadaver kidneys can and do go to sicker patients of other blood types. Added to that, Darcy has an uncommon tissue type that makes it even tougher to find a match."
"Give us a ballpark estimate of the wait time," Clay said.
"Ballpark, I'd say two to four years if we're lucky, but it could be even longer."
Clay fought to keep himself from recoiling, which wouldn't help his silent sister. Even two to four months on dialysis was too long.
"You do know, of course, that matching kidneys from living donors tend to last significantly longer and function better than cadaver kidneys," Dr. McIntyre said. "But I recall that several members of your family have already been tested."
Clay had volunteered first, armed with the knowledge that blood relatives presented the best chance for a match. He'd quickly learned about the importance of tissue typing, the blood tests comparing six specific antigens between the potential donor and recipient. None of Clay's mirrored Darcy's, and further testing determined him to be a poor match.
their mother replied.
"Then we have no choice than to proceed with the plan of action I've outlined." The doctor began to explain about the transplant team being assembled to work on Darcy's case, but Clay no longer listened.
In Clay's experience, there was always a choice.
When the bar he owned in downtown Memphis had come up for sale, the first loan officer he visited had informed him no bank would lend him the money for a down payment. So he'd traded in his new Mustang for an old clunker, sold his condo to cash in what little equity he'd accrued and visited every bank in the city until one put together a loan package.
That simply wasn't true.
family had been tested. Clay could think of two notable exceptions, although Clay himself was no relation to either Jenna or Jeff Wright.
He was surprised he even remembered the names of his stepfather's children from his first wife. His mother had married Donald Wright when Clay was eight years old, making Darcy his half sister. It had always troubled him that Darcy's two other half siblings, who were around his age, had never bothered to meet her.
Clay had strongly suggested those half siblings be tested the last time Darcy needed a transplant, but his stepfather shot down the notion after discovering a cadaver kidney was an option. Donald claimed his first wife, and her children by extension, harbored a grudge the size of the state of Tennessee.
Donald couldn't veto the idea anymore: He'd died two years ago after a sudden heart attack.
Clay knew little about his late stepfather's oldest two children except that they'd been so far estranged from their father they hadn't bothered to attend his funeral. That wouldn't stop Clay.
Clay would see about that.
JUST SAY NO.
Great advice, if you could bring yourself to say it.
Jenna Wright hadn't managed it, which was why on Friday night she found herself passing under the larger-than-life bird painted over the entrance to the Blue Mockingbird Saloon in downtown Little Rock.
She could have legitimately claimed she didn't have the time. For the past nine years she'd worked for Morgan and Roe, a full-service public accounting firm specializing in assisting private corporations and high net-worth individuals.
If not for her job and the personal financial statement it had been imperative she finish for an important client, she wouldn't be arriving with only—she glanced at her watch—two minutes to spare.
Yes, she should have said no.
Even though she hadn't really wanted to.
She consciously slowed her pace once inside the bar, as though she hadn't just dashed from the third floor of a nearby parking garage after fighting heavy Friday-night traffic.
Customers filled the Blue Mockingbird, the happy hour crowd having not yet headed for the door. Some of them milled about, drinks in hand, laughing and talking. Others, like the raucous group of men with two half-full pitchers of beer, jammed tables.
tention to her entrance except the petite woman who met her at the foot of the stage clutching an acoustic guitar. She was dressed in a clinging ebony pant outfit that accentuated her long, black hair.
"I've never been so happy to see someone in my entire life." Only Corrine Sweetland could make over-the-top relief seem charming.
Jenna and Corrine had instantly hit it off as University of Arkansas freshmen when they'd both been members of the Jazz Club. Although Jenna dropped out of the club to concentrate on her accounting classes and Corrine left college before her sophomore year, they'd remained friends.
Corrine had waged a constant struggle to eke out a living throughout the ensuing decade, playing the guitar and singing backup vocals for a succession of rhythm-and-blues and jazz bands that never hit it big.
Jenna enjoyed attending Corinne's gigs whenever her busy schedule permitted, but had never gone back on stage herself, keeping to her long-ago decision to give up singing.
Jenna still wasn't exactly sure how Corrine had talked her into performing at the Blue Mockingbird. At first Jenna had listened sympathetically as a panicked Corrine relayed how she'd made arrangements for the gig before her latest band had splintered. Jenna had agreed that Corrine, as band manager, ran the risk of getting a reputation for not fulfilling commitments if she couldn't figure out a solution this time.
Before Jenna knew it, she was the lead singer for a temporary rhythm-and-blues duo called Two Gals. Corrine was the guitarist and back-up vocalist.
"You might not be glad I'm here after I start singing," Jenna told Corrine, glancing over her shoulder at the noisy happy-hour crowd. She felt her heart speed up, like the sticks of a drummer playing eighth notes. "The audience might not be, either."
Corrine pinned her with the huge hazel eyes that stood out against her pale skin even when she wasn't accentuating her lashes with coal-black mascara. "I've heard you sing. Trust me, they'll love you." She made a face. "As long as you don't croak the first song," Corinne teased.
"I warmed up my voice in the car on the drive over." Jenna nodded at a nearby wall clock, which showed the time as seven o'clock. The owner of the Blue Mockingbird had insisted on an early start time to provide the happy-hour crowd a reason to stick around once the prices went up. "So we can start anytime."
"Anytime after you lose the jacket." Jenna tugged the lapels of the cream-colored fitted blazer she wore with chocolate-hued slacks. "What's wrong with my jacket?"
"You look like you're heading to the office."
"I just came from there," Jenna said even as she shrugged out of the jacket and laid it on a nearby table. "How's this?"
"Undo the top two buttons of your shirt and roll up your sleeves." Corrine surveyed her critically. "Not bad. But before our next performance, girlfriend, we're going shopping. You got it, so we should flaunt it."
"I'd rather leave the flaunting to you."
"I've got no problem with that. We're performers, Jenna. We're supposed to flaunt it." Corrine executed a shimmy with her shoulders, then smiled encouragingly. "Let's do this."
The time of reckoning upon her, Jenna positioned herself behind one of two microphones on the stage. She grabbed it and gazed out into the maze of people. The sprawling bar featured dozens of tables, banks of big-screen televisions on two of the walls, a circular bar in the center of the main room and a billiards room off to her right. The stage seemed almost like an afterthought.
"Good evening and welcome to the Blue Mockingbird. I'm Jenna Wright, and this is Corrine Sweetland. Together, we're Two Gals."
Nothing. None of the patrons indicated they'd heard her. Panic seized Jenna, causing her lungs to feel like something was sitting on them. How could she have let Corrine talk her into this? She hadn't sung in public since college. A spot under her eye twitched, the way it did when she was nervous.
Her gaze darted to Corrine. Her friend nodded, her expression encouraging. You can do this, she mouthed. Jenna inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly and faced the disinterested crowd. She'd intended to explain their repertoire included blues, jazz and soul and that most of the songs were new renditions of
"Our first song," she spoke into the microphone, "is "Today I Sing the Blues."
Corrine strummed her guitar, and the bluesy beat seemed to penetrate Jenna's skin and sink into her. Singing had come easily to Jenna from the time she was a small child and the church choir director noticed her big voice.
Others had noticed, too, eventually leading to invitations from various bands to join them. She'd been confident enough in her voice back in high school that she'd been a natural performer, but doubts crept up on her now.
She drew in another deep breath to guard against the shaky, uncontrolled sounds nerves caused, then determinedly launched into the song, a mournful ballad about the loser in a love affair.