“About five more pounds, but it looks like ten on her already frail frame.”

“Is that from the radiation?”


“Mostly the aftermath of the blood infection, but she says she’s too tired to eat. I think it’s depression. We can talk more while she’s in treatment, but I want to get a counselor to talk to her. We need to convince her it’s a good idea.”

“I’ll convince her,” I say forcefully, not about to let my mother stop fighting. She’s always been my unbreakable rock. I’ll be hers now. “Whatever she needs, we’ll make happen.”

“I know you will. I’ll be back in five minutes.” She motions to the wheelchair. “Maybe you can coax her into this?”

“Consider it done.” My fingers curl around the chair’s handles. She opens the door a crack again, then walks away. Steeling myself for what might wait for me inside, I nudge the door open a bit more and pause.

“If I skip this week then I’ll be stronger next week,” I hear my mother say, and even her voice is frail.

“Dana,” my father starts, his voice a reprimand usually reserved for the game of baseball.

“I need to be stronger this week, Steven,” she argues. “Mark just learned about Rebecca. He’s going to need the support you’ll have to give him. You can’t do that if I’m this weak.”

“Eat and you’ll be stronger,” he says.

My mother is actually worrying about me when she’s fighting for her life, and it triggers two words in my mind: “Control” and “Master.” That’s what my family needs me to be now. I have to be their pillar.

I find the mental armor I’ve put on at will for ten years now and roll the chair forward, calling, “I hear you need a driver.” And as I take in the sight before me, I’ve never been as thankful for that armor as I am now.

In this mode I’m able to slow down my mind, processing what I see in a controlled fashion despite only seconds passing. My father hovers beside my mother’s greenish blue hospital chair, his gaze fixed on her, his normally muscular body looking gaunt, the streaks of gray in his light brown hair more predominant than just two weeks before.

My mother in the chair, her blond hair now thin and cut to her chin, her face gaunt, her body no more than a hundred pounds under her hospital robe. A wave of pure fear overcomes me and says the control I’d shackled is faltering, as it has often these past two weeks. I’m going to lose her, too. I’m going to lose my mother as I did Rebecca, and I swear I feel the darkness of hell begin to swallow me right there in that room.

I tear my gaze from my mother to give myself a moment to breathe, and my gaze lands on Ms. Smith, kneeling on the floor beside my mother, her hand covering my mother’s thinner one.

Her long blond hair is a striking contrast to her red silk blouse, which I know she wore for the same “good luck” reason I wore my tie. Our eyes collide and our combative conversation from last night fades away. Effortlessly, she is in every crack I haven’t sealed in the armor, her strength supporting mine.

“Mark!” my mother exclaims. Her expression is pure happiness; the light in her eyes washes away the darkness of hell. She tries to stand, and my father grabs her arm at the same time that Ms. Smith grabs her knees, holding her in place.

“Dana, no,” Ms. Smith warns at the same time my father says, “Wait.” He gives me a look, appealing for help, the steel once in his gray eyes terrifyingly absent. The man I’ve known as a quiet strength is nowhere to be found. He’s terrified.

And I get it.

“Stay put, Mother,” I order, abandoning the wheelchair to squat down beside her. My knee touches Ms. Smith’s, and the tension that rockets through my body is as unwelcome as the way she sees too much. I take my mother’s hand and tease, “Still trying to run races, I see.”

She doesn’t laugh. She presses her free hand to my cheek and studies me. “I haven’t seen that look in your eyes in over a decade. You were closer to her than I realized.” Her lips tighten, the way they do when she’s fighting an emotional response to something. “I never wanted to see it again.”

Swallowing the knot in my throat, I am amazed that she still sees me this clearly. I draw her hand into my lap. “I’m one hundred times better being here, I promise you,” I say, not offering a denial she rightfully wouldn’t believe. “But I won’t be if you’re not here. I need you here. I need you well, and skipping treatments won’t do that.”

“I need a break. And—”

“The façade of feeling better is dangerous,” I warn, firming my voice. “Take the hits and be done with it.”

“That’s what I keep telling her,” my father inserts.

She glowers over her shoulder at him. “I was worried about both of you,” she tells him, then turns to me again. “How long will you be here? What’s happening with the police?”

“I’ll be here indefinitely—so we have plenty of time to catch up.”

Surprise registers on her face. “Indefinitely? But what about Allure?”

“I’m not worried about Allure. I made arrangements to be away as long as needed.”

She doesn’t look convinced. “You’re sure?”

“Positive enough to have a realtor finding me an apartment.”

“You can stay with us,” she says. “Our place is huge. We won’t even know you’re there.”

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