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Mid-January, Columbus, Ohio…
As the light white flakes fell steadily outside the window Liz studied the chessboard carefully, fully aware of the skill of her opponent. If she did not make the right move, he could easily have her queen in two. She glanced up at his serious face wondering what he was thinking. His thin, black brows crinkled in concentration. She knew he would show no mercy if she made a bad decision. She shifted her body, trying to get a look at the board from his direction, trying to think like him.
Her opponent released a heavy sigh of frustration.
She simply frowned at him, refusing to be pushed into the proverbial corner. She lifted her hand to move her pawn and thought better of it. She glanced at the king sitting on the side table by the hospital bed. He already had her king. She couldn't let him get her queen, as well.
Lord knows, he'd never let me live it down.
"Sometime today would be good," he grumbled.
"Don't rush me," she mumbled back. After a few seconds of consideration she slid her pawn one space to the left, and knew it was the wrong move as soon as a beautiful smile lit his face followed by the musical laughter she loved more than life.
"I can't believe you fell for that, Mom." He shifted his bishop to the right and swooped up her queen. What she thought he would do in two, he did in one. "Checkmate! I win—again."
Nine-year-old Marc North bounced in the bed oblivious to the tubes running from his arms and chest to the nearby machines. "I win! You lose! I'm a winner! You're a looossseeerrr!" He laughed loudly.
Liz simple watched the antics, trying to suppress her own grin. "And such a graceful winner at that." She knew in her heart that she would gladly lose a million chess games for that laughter. Although, there was no need to try to lose. Marc was exceptionally good at the game.
Ignoring her words, he poked his thumbs at his chest. "Winner." Then pointed both index fingers at his mother sitting across the board from him. "Loser!"
"You shouldn't call your mother a loser, Marc." A gravelly voice came from across the room.
"Hi, Aunt Dee," Marc was still grinning as his great-aunt came to the bed and wrapped him in a hug. "Mom lost—again. You'd think she would've learned by now."
"Learned what exactly?" Liz asked folding her arms across her chest, and accepting a light kiss on the cheek from her aunt.
"I'm the master! You'll never beat me."
"Marc." Delia frowned down at her nephew. "Your tone is disrespectful."
"That's okay, Aunt Dee." Liz smiled deviously. "There's more than one way to skin a cat—or a chess master."
Marc's playful smile disappeared. "Meaning?"
"Meaning, if your Xbox 360 ever goes missing—" Liz widened her eyes in a poor attempt to look innocent "—I don't know what happened to it."
He looked so stricken Liz reached across the board and hugged him. "Of course not, I just wanted to bring you down a peg or two." She leaned back and looked at him. "Did it work?"
"Good." She stood up beside the bed. "You need to know that in the chess game of life… Mom always wins."
"That's because she cheats."
Just then a nurse appeared in the doorway. "Okay, Marc, the doctor's released you. See you Thursday," she said as she removed the needle from his arm and pushed the dialysis machine aside.
"Thanks!"With a leap Marc was out ofbed and headed across the room to the chair that held his shoes and coat.
"Slow down, tiger." Liz rushed over to help him into his coat, ever mindful of his thin arms that she knew were sore where the needles for his dialysis were inserted twice a week, leaving them visibly bruised.
Marc crawled into the chair and waited patiently while his mother tied his sneakers. "Can we play in the snow when we get home?"
Liz's eyes widened as she glanced up at her aunt who only shook her head in response. Given the draining procedure he'd just endured Liz could not imagine where he got the energy to want to play in the snow.
"Not today, sweetie." She stood and pulled on her heavy winter coat. "How about we rent a movie on the way home, instead?"
"No way," he called over his shoulder already headed for the doorway. "Tonight's wrestling night, right, Aunt Dee?"
"You got that right," Dee agreed, as the trio headed for the elevators.
"Alright, Aunt Dee, I'll meet you downstairs." Liz glanced down an adjoining hall.
She turned and headed down the hall, pulling on her winter knit cap as she spoke to the nurses she passed in the hall, realizing she knew them all by name. And why wouldn't she, considering how much time Marc spent in this ward?
Her bright, beautiful boy had spent over half his short life in and out of hospitals, and yet he managed to remain upbeat and optimistic. Most of the time. Sometimes the pain from the dialysis needles was so intense, even the most spirited people were brought to their knees. And Liz spent every treatment holding his hand and praying that God would somehow transfer the pain into her body instead of his.
As she approached the end of the hall she passed through a set of double doors leading to the intensive care unit. She paused at the last room and lifted her hand to knock on the open door announcing herself, but the scene that greeted her caused her to pause.
In the bed lay a girl not much older than Marc whose kidney's had completely failed. The only thing standing between the child and death were the various machines that did the work her failing body could not. The mother sat in a chair, her head resting on the side of the bed, and across the room the father and older sister stood looking out the window. No one noticed her standing in the door. They were all distracted by their own fears and concern. They were on a death watch.
Liz turned and quietly walked away without them ever knowing she'd been there. She had met the family through her juvenile diabetes support group, and knew of their daughter's recent change in condition. She'd wanted to offer some words of encouragement. To tell them it would be all right. But she knew in her heart it would not be. Their child was dying and there was nothing they could do about it.
There but for the grace of God go I. Liz felt a chill run down her spine as she approached the elevators once more. So far the dialysis treatments were working for Marc, but she knew all too well how quickly that could change.
Of course he was on the waiting list for a match, but so were thousands of others, many of whom had more common blood types than Marc's rare AB negative. They really only had one hope, one prayer and no idea of how or even if it would be answered.
As she stepped off the elevators on the ground level there were Marc and Dee on the other side of the large open entry in front of the glass revolving doors talking to Pete the security guard.
Even from across the lobby Liz could see Marc's wide smile as he chatted happily and knew he was bragging about his recent chess win against her.
She smiled to herself, remembering Marc's laughter when he realized he'd won. Her only child was spoiled rotten, a poor loser, and she adored every inch of him. He was the sun in the sky, the axis of her world—and he knew it.
In her most ridiculous moments she wondered if maybe she loved him too much. She could not even imagine a world in which he did not exist and yet, thanks to his disease, such a world was a real possibility. She shook her head to remove the morbid thoughts.
"Hey, sexy lady," Pete said as she approached, and grinned, revealing several gaping holes between his teeth. He has as many teeth missing as he has in his mouth, Liz thought, but she would never say it aloud.
For all his useless flirting, Pete Daniels was a good guy and she would never intentionally hurt his feelings. Which is why she put up with his insistent come ons. They both knew he didn't stand a chance in hell, and yet he didn't let reality slow him down a bit.
"Hey, Pete, how are you?"
"Better now that I've seen you." He winked.
"I was just telling Pete about our game," Marc said with a smug smile.
"I bet you were," Liz answered.
Pete chuckled. "I'm surprised I didn't hear his crowing all the way down here."
She smiled, remembering she wasn't the only one who'd lost more than one game of chess to Marc. She and Marc had been forced to spend the Fourth of July weekend in the hospital, and Pete and his girlfriend Sal had smuggled in a holiday feast.
They'd spent the afternoon tearing through ribs, potato salad and corn on the cob, followed up by one of the best peach cobblers she'd ever tasted. The couple claimed it was their planned dinner and they were just sharing it with them. But the bland taste of the food immediately told Liz that Sal had cooked the meal just for Marc using very little salt and seasoning.
Realizing the time, Liz asked, "You're here kinda late, aren't you?"
Pete shrugged. "Yeah, pulling a double. My old lady is on the warpath about my spending habits, so I thought it best to stay out of sight until she cools down. Know what I mean?"
Dee tilted her head to the side with a frown. "What did you do this time?"
"What?" He shrugged again. "A man's gotta have his fun."
Liz knew from experience that Pete's idea of fun was spending half his check on lottery tickets. "How much, Pete?"
His eyes widened. "Damn. We've known each other too long."
He shrugged again. "Three-fifty."
Now Liz's eyes widened. "Three hundred and fifty dollars?!"
His lips twisted in a smirk. "Three fifty-four if you want to be exact."
She shook her head, and in a rash moment of generosity made an offer. "I'll lend you the money so you can go home, but this will have to be the last time."
Dee shot her a strange look, but said nothing.
He held up his hands. "No, no, I can't take any money from you." He shook his head insistently.
"It's just a loan."
"No way." He leaned across and placed his hand on Marc's shoulder. "Look, you got real problems—and you need your money. No way could I take money from you. I wouldn't even be able to sleep at night."
Liz wanted to tell him that no amount of money could express her gratitude for his friendship and support over the years. Because of her frugal spending habits, the help from Aunt Dee and the medical benefits of her long-term substitute teaching job, Marc's medical expenses were mostly taken care of. But how did she say thank you for all the times Pete used his breaks to make special trips to the floor to tease and entertain the sick children there? Or the comic books he provided the unit faithfully from his own small paycheck? Those were just a few of the small things this man had done for them with no expectation of return and for that much kindness she would pay anything.
But Liz could tell by the determined glint of his eyes that this particular discussion was closed. And secretly she was glad for it. Although she would've given him the money, she really had none to spare.
Still she asked, "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. Sal will cool off after a day or two."
"Or three," Dee said with a smirk.
Pete grinned, exposing his gaps. "Whenever, and then I'll be back in like Flynn. You'll see."
With a shake of her head, Liz turned to her family. "Did you guys forget it's wrestling night?" That reminder was all it took to get their little group headed toward the glass doors.
"See ya next time, Pete!" Marc waved as he headed out the door.
"All right, little man, and next time I want a rematch."
As Liz approached the valet station and offered the ticket, her cell phone rang. With the city noises surrounding them, Liz covered one ear to better hear the caller. "Hello?"
"Ms. Donovan? This is Scott Banton."
Liz felt her heart skip a beat, and moved a few feet away from Dee and Marc. She swallowed hard. "Any news?"
Liz watched the driver pull her small sedan to the door, but even as her family climbed inside she stood frozen to her spot while soft white flakes fell around her. She was totally oblivious to the snow, as well as to the people moving around her as they entered and exited the hospital, going about their lives. She stood motionless as the winter cold filtered its way into her down coat.
She was waiting for the world to change. Waiting for a miracle to be offered. Waiting for the private detective she'd hired to give her the lifeline she so needed.
Finally the male voice on the other end of the phone spoke the words she desperately wanted to hear. "Yes. I found him."
The Hawaiki Inn Tairua, New Zealand
Darius pasted on his best professional smile. "Congratulations." He handed the room key to the new groom. "I hope you both enjoy your stay."
The blushing bride was practically beaming with happiness and she gazed up at her new husband. "How can we not? This place is beautiful."
Just over the couples' shoulder was a floor-to-ceiling picture window that overlooked the Tairua Harbor. The turquoise-blue water almost matched the color of the cloudless blue sky exactly. In the distance the lush green mountainside of Paku volcano stood high in the middle of the perfect skyline. The palm trees swayed only slightly as a soft breeze rolled by and the bright sunlight warmed the hot-pink, soft lavender and bright-red tropical flowers indigenous to the area. Tairua was as close to paradise on earth as one could hope to get and yet Darius was certain the newlywed couple before him would probably never leave their room over the next two weeks.
As they turned from the counter heading up the stairs to their room, Darius returned to his task of entering invoices into the computer system when the phone rang. He answered on the second ring. "Hawaiki Inn—a little touch of paradise on the Coromandel Peninsula. How can I help you?"
A woman cleared her voice softly. "May I speak to Darius North."
There was such a long pause, Darius wondered if the caller had disconnected. "Hello?"
"Darius…this is Liz. Elizabeth."
His heart stopped for a moment, and then he realized it couldn't possibly be his Elizabeth. He struggled to find his voice. "Hello, Elizabeth, how can I help you?"